Podcast recommendation: The New York Times' 10-part dive into ISIS, 'Caliphate'

Podcast recommendation: The New York Times' 10-part dive into ISIS, 'Caliphate'

The New York Times has just concluded its 10-part narrative podcast, Caliphate (Apple Podcasts / Overcast), which follows reporter Rukmini Callimachi as she investigates and reports on the Islamic State. Callimachi is the primary reporter here, and along with reporter and producer Andy Mills, they tell a story that begins by trying to answer the question of, "Who are we really fighting?"

While the series begins with that mission statement, it's easy to think while listening that Callimachi and Mills veer off-script at some point. The first part of the series is driven by an ISIS source that the pair travel to Canada to interview; this conversation then gives way to a trip to Iraq, during which they cover the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. They find a briefcase with documents that reveal how self-sufficient ISIS has become, and learn about the insanely real extent to which ISIS is capable of actually governing people. They interview an ISIS official who was captured in the prison where he's held, and interview a girl who is returned to her family after years spent in captivity of ISIS.

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Spanish Love Songs - 'Schmaltz'

Spanish Love Songs - 'Schmaltz'

I dove into my first listen of Spanish Love Songs' Schmaltz with a suspicion that I was predisposed to enjoy it. The going comparisons for the album were to The Menzingers, Hot Water Music, and other bands of that gruff pop-punk ilk. Right up my alley, in terms of music I've enjoyed for the last decade-ish.

But many bands putting out music that has been up my historical alley have failed with more regularity lately, in terms of my own enjoyment. Rarely does a pop-punk record come around that really impresses me, or has significant lasting value, let alone a debut. To boot, what was I going to gain from a band trying to reboot Chamberlain Waits when I've been latched onto The Menzingers' After the Party for the past year? It's not that I've moved on from double-time punk songs, but that as I'm getting older, I'm keeping up with the bands who grow with me.

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Year-end 2017 stuff: The Menzingers and other bands I listened to in 2017

Year-end 2017 stuff: The Menzingers and other bands I listened to in 2017

It is now February 15, and despite that being the date, I still have not put a 2017 year-end list on my blog. I will note that no one asked me for this list, so it must not be all that important, and my lateness to the party must not have been noticed. Primarily, I am putting this online so I can refer to it in the future. I've enjoyed having lists from past years to look back on, so that's why I'm bothering with it at all.

This year I mainly listened to The Menzingers, but managed to squeeze in time to listen to other bands as well. 

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Just read: 'On Tyranny' by Timothy Snyder

Just read: 'On Tyranny' by Timothy Snyder

This will be a pretty short blog for a pretty short book.

Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny is a look at the current state of American politics and how it compares to political moments in various countries at various times in the past. Snyder is a Holocaust historian and is especially expert in the history of Eastern and Central Europe, so his knowledge of the rise and power of anti-democratic states in Germany, Russia and Czechoslovakia is encompassing.

At only 125 pages, this book is small enough to fit in a back pocket, and some of its lessons feel important enough to keep them that close at all times -- and it only costs between $4 and $6 on Amazon, depending on whether you prefer Kindle or paperback. On Tyranny promises "20 lessons from the 20th century" on its cover, but I prefer to think of each of these 20 chapters as a full-on, dual-purpose crash-course in How To Not Accidentally Stand Idly By As Your Country Becomes A Fascist State. The first task of each chapter is to introduce a way in which you can visibly see and predict the dissolution of democracy based on how democracies of the past have failed. Each chapter's second job is to tell you what you can do to help prevent that from happening. The book's bite-sized presentation is handy for its brevity; On Tyranny is a quick-paced read, so it serves as a good introduction to historical reading or to critical reading of current American politics (which is an introduction I certainly needed myself).

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Year-end 2017 stuff: A reminder that I'm not yet good at reading books

Year-end 2017 stuff: A reminder that I'm not yet good at reading books

Last year was the first I made an effort to start reading more, and I was semi-impressed with my ability to get through 14 books and 25 trade paperbacks. I know this isn't a lot in the grand scheme of things ... I know plenty of people who try to read a book a week. But this year provided a reminder that I'm kinda bad at reading stuff, and some reflection will prompt me to make some changes in the way I read next year.

It wasn't an infrequent event for me to pick up a book, make good headway through it, then ignore it for a week or two in favor of listening to music or podcasts on my commute. This didn't have anything to do with how much I was enjoying the book, either -- and truthfully I don't have any good reasoning behind this other than I often didn't feel like having a book in my hands if I was standing up on the train? It's a lame excuse when it's typed out.

In any case, I bought a Kindle toward the end of the year so that I could stop adding onto our already-very-full bookshelf with more books that I may or may not finish. Throughout 2017, I ultimately wound up getting through four books and four trade paperbacks -- awful numbers. I am happy to report that I already finished the last half of Stephen King's The Shining in the first four days of 2018, so maybe there will be improvement for me yet.

Here's the full (behold! in its glory!) list of everything I read in 2017. This year, I'm really looking forward to continuing my way through Stephen King's works, taking the next step in the Batman trade paperbacks, and catching up on Marvel's run of Star Wars as well.

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Year-end 2017 stuff: 'Baby Driver,' 'Baywatch' and fun at the dang movies

Year-end 2017 stuff: 'Baby Driver,' 'Baywatch' and fun at the dang movies

Gaining an Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Brooklyn made going to the movies a lot more enjoyable this year. I've always liked going to the movies, but the Alamo won me over instantly for a few reasons:

  • The screen looks better and the sound is louder and more impressive than at most of the Regal / AMC locations that are conveniently located in the parts of the city I frequent.
  • Seats as comfortable or more comfortable than even the fancy new recliner chairs at a lot of those other franchises -- the Alamo seats don't recline but are generally comfy leather chairs.
  • There's beer there and the service system is great, with really nice waiters and waitresses.
  • Most importantly, I think the Alamo is the quietest theater I've ever been to -- they tell you not to talk or text, threaten to kick you out if you do, and it actually works. The end result is less groups of teenagers and more singles / couples / small groups who want to see their movie without a bunch of noise. We went to see The Last Jedi at a non-Alamo location and the entire movie was loud as heck with people talking, clapping, etc. The Alamo really spoiled us to the point where I didn't think clapping as A Thing people did anymore.

So since that Alamo Drafthouse opened, I've only seen like two showings of any movies at other theaters. It's been great. 

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Year-end 2017 stuff: 'Riverdale' is my favorite new TV show in a long while

Year-end 2017 stuff: 'Riverdale' is my favorite new TV show in a long while

Riverdale came back to the CW for its second season on October 11, exactly five months after its first-season run of thirteen episodes concluded in May. The second season is running for nine straight weeks with nine new episodes through next week (Dec. 13), then there's a tenth episode scheduled for mid-January; another five episodes have titles on Wikipedia, but no dates on those just yet. So either way, it's very easy for me to say the ten episodes scheduled for release in 2017 were my most anticipated episodes of television for all of 2017 heading into October.

The first season of Riverdale was awesome. It's very highly overdramatic in a fun way that captures the nostalgia of mid-2000s teen dramas like Gossip Girl, SmallvilleThe O.C., One Tree Hill, 90210, Gilmore Girls, shows like that. This type of high-stakes, semi-artificial-feeling drama translates surprisingly well into the world of Archie Comics. There's a layer of heavily applied, thick mystery and intrigue and #darkness on top of the over-dramatization of the Riverdale world, meaning that of course nearly every episode ends on a cliff-hanger and of course the "next week on" teaser at the end of each airing leaves you breathless.

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My favorite albums of 2017, so far

My favorite albums of 2017, so far

Each of the previous three years has come with a certain disclaimer -- that I'm listening to less music than I pretty much ever have in the past. Not the case this year! My music listening has picked up quite a bit this year, though it stills tends to come in waves. I'm spending more time listening to music on the train than I used to, and while my commute time is still mostly devoted to a book, a comic book or a podcast, this alone has increased the amount of new albums gracing my ears. Additionally, I'm spending more time in the gym this year than in years past, which is proving to be the main source of my music listening so far in 2017.

Here's the dang list.

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Two short, binge-worthy podcasts

Two short, binge-worthy podcasts

Two weeks ago I started listening to podcasts somewhere between 1.1x speed and 1.4x speed. Depending on the host, the music, and the style of the show, listening on enhanced playback makes surprisingly little difference compared to "normal"-paced playback. It takes you a while to get used to some mostly infrequent, semi-chipmunk voices -- then you're used to it.

One thing that isn't the same? The amount of time it takes to get through your podcast queue, obviously. Playing a 60-minute episode at only 1.1x speed saves you more than five minutes and will almost certainly not bother you while listening. If you're listening to something with slow talkers, and you're playing closer to 1.4x speed, you can fit two 30-minute episodes into your 45-minute, door-to-door commute. Playing John and Merlin at 1.3x speed on Reconcilable Differences saves you 30 minutes in a two-hour episode. This leaves a lot more room for activities. I recommend Overcast, per usual, as a podcast player.

Since I more or less cleared through my queue for the first time in a while, I finally got around to downloading the two branded podcasts that Gimlet Creative has put together. One is called Open For Business, which is for eBay, and the other is called DTR, branded by Tinder. I haven't paid any attention to these shows despite the fact that I listen to almost every Gimlet podcast without fail -- despite my own knowledge that I greatly enjoy Gimlet's style and trust their output.

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Listen while you work: 'Narcos (A Netflix Original Series Soundtrack)'

Listen while you work: 'Narcos (A Netflix Original Series Soundtrack)'

A personal characteristic that bothers me regularly is my inability to listen to normal music while I'm doing any type of work that requires reading comprehension or writing. This didn't always used to be the case, but at some point in the last three years, it became impossible for me to have most music on via headphones while I was writing anything, and more recently, I don't like having music on when I'm reading, either.

Some quick tasks are exceptions to this rule, and I can definitely have music on when I'm doing more "drone-ish" work, like updating spreadsheets or the more technical parts of my job. But the general rule is that I'm not listening to any music with vocals while I'm working. This obviously rules out most of the music I like, and it also rules out listening to podcasts while I'm working.

This was my impetus behind getting more into instrumental post-metal recently (I'll probably have another blog about that at some point). But my recommendation for today is the Narcos original series soundtrack, which I will credit my friend Andy (who tweets once a year, about football) with turning me onto indirectly. If you haven't seen Narcos yet, it's a Netflix show about Pablo Escobar and his drug empire in Colombia. The first season was awesome, highlighted for me by the acting performances, and I'm planning on starting the second season soon.

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Everything I read in 2016

Everything I read in 2016

At the beginning of the year I made a goal to read more than I had in the past. Since graduating college in December 2012, I had barely read any books at all -- choosing instead to spend my time listening to music, listening to podcasts or reading Twitter / articles / etc. So I used a conscious effort to seek out authors I had an interest in, and started down that road.

Ultimately I wound up reading 14 books in 2016, which isn't a ton, but that number probably represents the most books I've read in a single year since high school. Amongst the books I read was work by Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King -- the top three authors I had on my list when I started this effort in January. I know I'll read more by them next year, even as I expand into different things.

I also picked up reading comic books, which I couldn't leave out of this post. Focusing on trade paperbacks for the sake of collectability and ease of reading, I read titles mainly with the Batman and Star Wars realms, coming to a total of 25 trade paperbacks.

A full list of all the books and trades I read this year is below. I made the effort of writing about everything I read this year as a way to keep myself engaged on my goal, so I've linked to all the blogs I wrote as well.

And, if you're so inclined, tweet me the best things you read this year and I'll start compiling a list of titles to look into.

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AOTY Contender Series: Modern Baseball - 'Holy Ghost'

AOTY Contender Series: Modern Baseball - 'Holy Ghost'

Duh! Modern Baseball's Holy Ghost took the top spot on my mid-year albums of the year list, and has as good a shot as anything else of being #1 come EOTY time. Also -- side note -- oddly enough, I haven't really sat down and figured out my list yet, even though I've been writing these blogs for a few weeks. I plan on doing that Tuesday in preparation for recording an episode of Chorus with Jason about our favorite albums.

Holy Ghost (Apple Music / iTunesSpotify, YouTube embedded below, Bandcampvinyl) continues to stand head and shoulders above many of the albums I've heard this year. It has a great emotional range complemented by a big leap in songwriting from MoBo on an instrumental level. And though it has very focused inspirations, it manages to appeal broadly to a wide audience, whatever the listener is going through.

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AOTY Contender Series: The Hotelier - 'Goodness'

AOTY Contender Series: The Hotelier - 'Goodness'

This piece serves as a bit of a spiritual follow-up to my notes on Against Me!'s Shape Shift With Me, and a follow-up to something I talked about with Jason on Encore back in March. The podcast topic was all about the first listen you dive into of a new album that you're very highly anticipating, and how that first listen is often filled with a sense of self-imposed "worry" or "anxiety." I use air quotes here because the worries and anxieties caused by this are certainly not as dramatic as...like...real-life issues, but it's a sense that I've become familiar with over the years and I think it's a sense that all music lovers get from time to time.

My thesis statement in regards to this topic (the podcast convo starts around the 51-minute mark of this episode) revolves around the mind games you can start to play with yourself after taking your first listen. In fact, those mind games can start even before the end of your first listen depending on how loopy you're being. All of this was presented in the context of my first time listening to The Hotelier's third album, this year's Goodness (Apple Music / iTunesSpotify, YouTube embedded below, Bandcampvinyl). I wound up totally psyching myself out before diving in for the first time, and by midway through the record I was convinced that it would never hold a candle to Home, Like NoPlace Is There, an album that I loved dearly when it was released in 2014 and still love dearly.

Truth is, rarely will any album be able to live up to the lofty expectations that you burden it with when those expectations come via the lens of an album you've been in love with for any amount of months or years. Home, Like NoPlace Is There was not a record that blew me off my feet the first time I listened to it; it's an album that slowly latched onto me until I became familiar with every crevice of it. I listened to it endlessly, which expands your love for an album -- you come to know every downstroke of a guitar or snare hit, and those moments come to mean more to you when you've sat with a record for dozens of listens. A new album that you're listening to for the first time will never match up to the emotion you retroactively place into an album that you fell in love with however long ago.

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AOTY Contender Series: Against Me! - 'Shape Shift With Me'

AOTY Contender Series: Against Me! - 'Shape Shift With Me'

There were two albums that I was quite anxious to listen to this year. This happens from time to time, where you're just so excited for an album that there's a bit of trepidation before you dive in for the first time. One of those albums was The Hotelier's Goodness, and in my AOTY Contender Series entry for that album I will be diving deeper into this idea about too-great expectations, and the other of those albums was Shape Shift With Me

I didn't write too much about Against Me!'s Transgender Dysphoria Blues when it came out, but that album topped my AOTY list in 2014 (with, incidentally, The Hotelier's Home, Like NoPlace Is There right behind it). I did write a small amount about Blues this year, in the context of reading and writing about AM! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace's new book, TRANNY. The blurb I put in there is the most important thing I can say about Blues -- it was an album that taught me to think about things I'd never thought about before. You can read more into that here, if you'd like.

It's also a straightforwardly killer rock album. Diverse in its tempos, great musicianship, emotional and cathartic storytelling. Getting that and Home in the same year feels, in retrospect, like even more of a blessing than it felt like at the time. But diving into Shape Shift With Me (iTunes / Apple MusicSpotify, YouTube embedded below, vinyl), after its predecessor had such an effect on me, made me get that small anxious feeling when I started my first listen. 

As I'll write again in my Hotelier blog, this small anxious feeling can start to cause issues with your evaluation of an album when your first listen doesn't live up to the hype. I don't think I managed to make it all the way through Shape Shift on my first attempt at it -- the odd beginning with "ProVision L-3" and the new production style just didn't sit with me well at first. But the album clicked for me after continued listens, and stands up now as a worth follow-up to Blues, and the must-listen next chapter in Grace's story.

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AOTY Contender Series: PUP - 'The Dream Is Over'

AOTY Contender Series: PUP - 'The Dream Is Over'

I wrote about the PUP album in semi-decent length back when it came out in May, and my thoughts on it largely haven't changed much since then. The Dream Is Over (Apple Music/iTunesSpotify, YouTube below, Bandcampvinyl) is a very impressive effort to me for many reasons, and it's been one of my most-played albums throughout the year (it somehow fits really well in both the summer heat and the fall/winter wind). 

Chief among this sophomore effort's impressive attributes is, as I wrote in May, the apparent development and progression of this young band. They seem to be extremely comfortable in their art right now, something that has gone on display recently in the form of this great music video for "Sleep In The Heat." The Dream Is Over saw PUP extending their range from a go-to sound of loud and noisy punk rock to slower, more methodic songs full of emotion

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AOTY Contender Series: Pinegrove - 'Cardinal'

AOTY Contender Series: Pinegrove - 'Cardinal'

A big theme of my 2015 AOTY list was records that surprised me and took high-ranking spots on my final list. This was the case for Foxing's Dealer, Turnover's Peripheral Vision and The World Is...'s Harmlessness, which ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively. These stuck out because they were bands I had actually listened to before but whose new albums didn't interest me when they were initially released. That I liked them so much was a surprise, and that surprise is amplified when the same thing happens three times in one year.

I can't truly toss Pinegrove's Cardinal (Apple Music / iTunesSpotifyBandcamp, YouTube below, Amazon) into the same bucket. I hadn't heard this band before this year, so their first LP for Run For Cover Records wasn't a surprise in the same way. It came out of nowhere because this was a new band for me, not because I had any pre-existing thoughts about whether Cardinal would be any good.

But Cardinal became my first AOTY contender of 2016. It was released in February, and while it's silly to call anything an "AOTY contender" in February, it was still pretty clear to me at the time that this would make my eventual short list. I fell for it quickly and without much hesitation. The album's vibe is indie-rock mixed with alt-country/Americana: It's Limbeck's Hi, Everything's Great for 2016 emo/punk listeners, an album that isn't afraid to draw inspiration from a bunch of stuff between modern indie-rock and Springsteen's Nebraska

Cardinal is largely more subdued than Hi, Everything's Great. Vocalist Evan Hall at times drawls, murmurs or even slurs his lyrics, content to stay in the relative background of a swelling and dynamic instrumental effort. It's tempting to say his drawl sounds Southern, but Pinegrove and Hall are from New Jersey, so the end result of his vocals and his band's rock songs winds up claiming no geographic (sonic) home. It feels oddly familiar on first listen for this reason -- something you think you've heard before but cannot place.

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AOTY Contender Series: Every Time I Die - 'Low Teens'

AOTY Contender Series: Every Time I Die - 'Low Teens'

The degree to which I enjoyed Every Time I Die's From Parts Unknown was largely unexpected because I haven't been a huge fan of this band in the past. Since then, I've gone back and listened to most of the group's back catalog, but nothing stuck with me as much as that 2014 LP. From Parts Unknown has a really intriguing mix of ETID's usual Southern-tinged hardcore and a variety of other sounds, like the creepy crawl of "Moor" and the relatively poppier "Old Light," which features Brian Fallon.

Something that still really sticks out to me about that record is Kurt Ballou's production, as the Converge guitarist elected to let ETID's fury speak for itself. It's raw and the guitars are like barbed wire, and that choice enabled the instruments to rip through harder than on past ETID albums, for my money.

This year's Low Teens (Apple MusicSpotify, YouTube embedded here, Amazon) marks the second straight Every Time I Die record that has fully engrossed me. The production here, this time courtesy of Will Putney, brings a different aesthetic to the table. Putney has worked with bands that fit more into the current-age definition of "metalcore," and his fingerprints help identify a louder and more polished Every Time I Die.

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AOTY Contender Series: Kevin Devine - 'Instigator'

AOTY Contender Series: Kevin Devine - 'Instigator'

First, a sidebar: The idea here is to post about one or two albums each week that are album of the year contenders for me this year. I already have a semi-formed idea of which albums are really in the final running to be #1, so this series is more meant to highlight albums that I've loved to a great enough extent that they gave me that type of feeling.

I'm going in no particular order here, and first highlighting Kevin Devine's just-released ninth studio albumInstigator (Apple MusicSpotify, YouTube above, Amazon). When Bad Timing Records started working with Kevin in late 2014, we linked up due to Zack's pre-existing relationship with KD, as they'd known each other for several years. I was familiar with Kevin's music, but not extremely well-versed; I knew the "hits" and in particular loved a live album called Matter of Time, which we later re-issued in one of my favorite BTR releases to date.

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Five months into Blue Apron

Five months into Blue Apron

Katie and I signed up for Blue Apron in February, when it was cold as heck toward the "end" of winter in Brooklyn and we got tired of the pretty limited produce supply at our local spots. You can only make chili so many times before you become annoyed by the lack of ready-to-eat avocados.

Blue Apron costs $60 per week, and for that price you get three meals big enough to feed two people. So, $30 per person, for three dinners. More physically, what you get for that price is a large box delivered to your door that contains all the ingredients you're going to be putting too much salt on that week (seriously, if you used as much salt as Blue Apron tells you to use, you'd mainly be eating salt). It also comes with directions for each recipe printed out on a piece of paper, and two ice packs which you now have to be annoyed about throwing away every 7 days.

This is a great deal for us. Sometimes I think it's an unfathomably good deal and I have to remind myself that it isn't this good of a deal for everyone. Most Blue Apron ingredients are organic or locally grown, and that stuff costs a lot of money in New York City. It's especially difficult to find decently priced organic beef, chicken and pork where we live, and fish is also quite expensive here. The regularity with which a Blue Apron meal contains some type of meat or fish is very high; at least two of the three meals will normally have a meat/fish component unless Katie has selected all-veggie options for us (we do this every few weeks). Being forced to eat three dinners at home also obviously cuts down on the likelihood that you'll get lazy and either order Seamless or eat out, which saves some cash.

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