Rent Control

Rent control seems like a good idea from a renter’s perspective, especially if you’ve never lived in a rent-controlled city.  However, it has serious complications, and even an anti-market person like me is deeply opposed to it.  Allow me to explain.

Rent control purports to protect residents from being priced out of their homes when the cost of living rises faster than their wages, usually framed as an effect of gentrification.  Also, Americans have a strong attachment to the “I was here first” mentality, except when applied to indigenous people.

However, with something complex like a housing market, controlling one aspect of it has massive effects in other ways, some predictable, some less so.  The main problem with it, that researchers have studied, is that it greatly restricts the housing supply.  Tenants have an incentive to not move, one that tends to grow over time.  This means that a city like S.F. has approximately one percent of its units available at any time.  Try finding an apartment in that situation.

In addition, here are the actual effects of rent control that I see:

  • A couple wants to take six months off of work to travel and their lease forbids subletting, so they give up their apartment.  When they come back, they have to move into a much smaller apartment because they are shopping in the aforementioned artificially restricted supply
  • Wealthy long-term residents can be paying as little as 25% of market rent
  • Landlords can make little money off long-term tenants so they have no incentive to make improvements. In fact, the more uncomfortable they make you (within the law), the more likely you’ll leave and allow them to make a lot more rent
  • In SF, new construction is exempt from rent control so there is a massive push for investors to try to build new buildings to serve an elite clientele
  • More of your income goes towards rent and less is available to spend in the local economy.  Most property owners are not local in any sense of the word.  They are corporations that may not even be in the same state.

Now, a place like San Francisco has lots of housing problems and is one of the most economically unequal cities in the U.S.  However, rent control actually makes the effects of the inequality worse, not better.

And the worse part about rent control? Like the military-industrial complex, it is self-perpetuating.  Once in place, it’s extremely difficult to dismantle.  After all, why would those people paying 25% of market rents want to start paying more just so some new arrival can pay a more fair amount?

Parent’s Record Collection

In 2012, an episode of All Songs Considered, the theme was songs from your parents’ record collection that influenced you.  While in general my parents did not listen to much music overall, they did both provide me with excellent choices.  And their ignorance of contemporary pop music was, in retrospect, a blessing.

The Beach Boys

My father is a huge fan of music from the 50s and 60s.  The “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance would be his ideal mix.  Judging by a sharp cutoff in his listening tastes as the sixties get underway, in his mind the drugs and experimentation that came later ruined a perfectly good sound.

As a young child, I listened to the “Oldies” station (3WS) with him for hours, especially on long car trips to Ocean City, Maryland.  There is a staggering amount of timeless music from that era.

Few bands combined all of those elements so well as the Beach Boys.  From catchy hits to the more serious Pet Sounds, they certainly captured that era.  Although I stopped listening to that style of music for years, starting from when I heard “Get Around” featured in the film Three Kings, I have a renewed appreciation for the four part harmonies and simple lyrics that make the Beach Boys legends.


Janis Joplin

My mother is significantly younger than my father and it shows in her musical taste.  As my father shut off the radio dial after the Longhairs destroyed his beloved pop music, my mother was tuning in to the drugs and rebellion that was embodied in the mid- to late-sixties.

I don’t really listen to Janis Joplin.  I’ve said elsewhere that that era of music has no personal connection to me. However, I remember my mother playing a cassette tape of her greatest hits over and over again while she worked from home re-upholstering rich people’s couches while we ran wild around the house and yard.  Like punk that came much later, Janis Joplin’s unconventional singing voice and thematic choices connect deeply with me.  As far as that aspect of personality, I am far more of my mother’s mind than my father’s.

What about you?  What musical tastes did your parent’s pass down to you?


Review: Tenth of December

In the Halloween 2011 issue of The New Yorker, with its cover of a vampire and his cat sitting down to dinner bowls of blood and cream, respectively, I read one of the most incredible short stories I have read in years: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders.

Probably you should read it before you continue, probably more than once.

From the fifty odd issues in my subscription, I retained only a handful. This one was set aside as a keeper right after I read this story. I came back to the story again and again. I couldn’t get it out of my head.  I would read it through and then start again at the beginning.  And after I had viscerally enjoyed it, holding back tears on the bus to work at the uplifting final scene, the English major in me sat down to dissect what it was that made it so perfectly constructed.  From this I came up with four essential elements for a story I will love:

Humor. Sanders is known for his satirical wit and it is showcased well here, especially on Robin’s side.  Like life itself, a story is not worth much without humor.  Even in stories set in bleak dystopia or certain doom, an author must find the sparks to smile at, even if only in absurdity.  It was hard to choose even a handful of quotes.  Robin’s damsel in distress, Suzanne, announces, “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug.”  Eber, in a half-conscious fog, watching Robin fall through the ice: “Kid was a bad swimmer.  Real thrashfest down there.”  Robin, after Eber pulls him from the pond and running halfway home, “He wasn’t going to lose his legs.  They didn’t even hurt.  He couldn’t even feel them.”

Image.  A vivid moment that you cannot shake from your head.  One that reminds you of images in your own life, or the life you wished you had.  For me, this was his recollection of making up after fighting with his then-new wife Molly.  

Afterward, sometimes there would be tears.  Tears in bed? And then they would–Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face.  They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you…

Risk. I need to hear something new.  In this story, it’s the dual narratives.  Even though Eber is the ultimate protagonist, this story would not be as memorable without Robin’s side.  He wants to be a hero, and he gets his chance – while at the same time forcing Eber to be a hero and save him, and so on and so on in a delightful hall of mirrors.

Voice. Any writing workshop will drill into you techniques for characterization, plot, etc.  But as my favorite writing teacher, Steve Watkins, was fond of saying, “A strong voice will go a long way.”  Eber and Robin both have remarkable and likable voices: Robin’s pseudo-NASA commentary on his mission, Eber’s fully realized stream of consciousness (even down to the eggcorns caused by his failing brain).


Many of these also apply to music (in as unlikely places as Blink 182’s “M+Ms”), film (Los Abrazos Rotos), and longer fiction (Catch 22).  In summary, make me laugh and have a character with a unique and engaging voice reveal to me something I have never heard before.  Simple as that.

When it was later published, I read Saunder’s most recent collection, of which “Tenth of December” is the eponymous finale.  I still think this story is the best in it, but Sanders repeats the above formula multiple times, especially in “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” It’s the best set of stories I’ve read since Unaccustomed Earth.  But that’s a review for another time.

Resisting urban growth in my own backyard

The NYC real estate company that owns my building has been trying to construct another building on the lot since I moved in five years ago.  However, with certain sectors of the economy starting to thaw after the global recession, they are now back on track pursuing the plan more aggressively.

When people ask where I live, for convenience I tell them Japantown, but really I live on Cathedral Hill, a small neighborhood at the intersection of Lower Pacific Heights, Western Addition, and Japantown named after St. Mary’s Cathderal.  Aside from the beautiful cathedral, it’s mostly an eyesore of “Urban Renewal,” namely 1960s International Style high rises surrounding the nauseating Geary Expressway, a car-centric artery running all the way to Ocean Beach.  Earthquakes have given SF unusual chances to reform neighborhoods, as they have knocked down highway overpasses.  I don’t know if they will eventually topple any of the high rises, but I would glad if they did, with more modest buildings replacing them.

Instead, the owners of my building want to add a 416 feet tall building, 20 feet taller than The Sequoias, which is already so tall to be out of place, even among the tall, ugly buildings that dominate the area.  The building would be built in the open space between The Sequoias on the left and my building on the right.

As you might expect in SF, there is organized opposition to this construction on a variety of issues.  I read the very detailed Initial Study document and submitted a public comment reprinted below.  It was interesting to hear about all the various ballot referendums and other policies and plan documents that weigh in on a project in SF.  For example, did you know that showers are limited to one head for water conservation?  I didn’t.  I learned about these and many other tidbits.

I’ll keep you posted on the next steps.  The company has to prepare an Environmental Impact Report and I think that can take quite awhile.


Comment RE: 2005.0679E 1333 Gough St / 1481 Post St Project


I am a resident of 1333 Gough St. and have lived there for the past five years.  After reviewing the Initial Study, I have a few comments about the proposed project that I wanted to share with the Planning Department.


  • Parking. As you know, parking is a challenge in San Francisco. I choose to not own a car but all the other residents I know in 1333 Gough do own cars.  Given the high rent in San Francisco, one bedroom apartments are frequently rented by couples.  In spite of the challenge of parking, the majority of the couples I know who live in the building each own a car.  Since 1333 Gough only has one space per unit, they are forced to park their second car on the street which reduces the available street parking for others.  I recently read a study that projected that Bay Area car ownership rates will remain unchanged over the next 30 years.  Therefore, I can only conclude that the garage parking will be inadequate for the number of cars that will actually exist in 1481 Post and this will put an undue strain on existing street parking.  Personally, I also feel that a large new building should provide not only enough parking for its tenants using realistic ownership rates but also leasable spaces for non-residents to use to provide a net positive effect on the local parking situation.

  • Public Transit.  When I first moved into 1333 Gough, there were four bus routes along it.  However, budget cuts caused one of these lines to be closed.  When I ride any of these buses during peak commute times (8:00-9:30am), it is extremely crowded.  I am worried that the influx of passengers from the 1481 Post building will make this situation worse and will result in more people opting instead to drive to work.  It will also make the situation more uncomfortable for those who choose to not drive, even when public transit is not a pleasant experience.  If this is true, it runs counter to the City’s Transit First policy.  Two buildings of this size owned by one company should be capable of offering shuttle service to take commuters to popular destinations (e.g. BART station).  This would alleviate the added strain on public transit this building’s 597 new residents will bring without encouraging use of private automobiles.

  • Car Sharing.  Because I choose not to have my own car, I often use the ZipCar car sharing service. Currently, the closest available vehicles are at Corillon Tower, two blocks south of 1333 Gough.  There are five cars and one cargo van for use here.  On weekends, they are frequently rented out during normal hours (except the van).  Based on this observation, the current car sharing supply is too low for the existing community.  Adding 597 residents and only four additional car sharing spaces would make this problem worse, not better.  I would suggest talking with City Car Share and ZipCar to get market information to see how many spaces they feel the new building would use.  This would be an effective way to discourage excessive car ownership and help with the aforementioned parking issues.

  • Alternatives.  Although there a few aspects of the project that I feel would greatly benefit the neighborhood, such as the commercial space, landscaped gardens, and pedestrian access, I still would personally prefer a no project option.  However, if a project must be built, the project sponsors should consider changing their plan to include some of the following:

    • Japanese stylistic elements, to fit with the Japantown neighborhood

    • LEED certified construction, to help reduce its environmental impact

    • A height lower than surrounding structures to signify a return to less dense housing

    • BMR units in the building to encourage a diverse population

    • Not just adequate but plentiful Car sharing spots with the majority of these mandated to be plug-in electric vehicles, to make it easier to live without a personal vehicle

    • Garage spaces for 1.5 cars per unit (or a realistic ratio) including plug-in electric vehicle spots

    • Commuter shuttle service to BART station, the Financial District during peak times

Thank you for reading my comments and allowing me to provide additional information to this ongoing proposal process.  You can contact me using the information above if you have any questions about any of these comments.






Fela! The Musical: Review

Fela! the Musical is more a concert than a typical musical.  It transports the viewer back to 1970s Funky Lagos, educates you on the origins of Afrobeat, and tells a small part of the life story of Fela Anukulapo Kuti, a Nigerian superstar.  Before Barack Obama, Fela was The Black President.

The musical is framed as Fela’s last concert at the Shrine, his own private club, before he and his band/cult flee political persecution in Nigeria.  During this night, Fela tells us a bit of his biography, in a voice that rang completely true for me.  He is particularly troubled by the recent death of his mother, who was thrown from a window by Nigerian police/army as they stormed and destroyed his commune, the Kalakuta Republic.

The first act is a visual and auditory smorgasbord, covering the different musical styles that went into the melting pot of Afrobeat, best described by Joe Tangari as “the cinematic, polyrhythmic, symphonic funk sound that Fela developed with superhuman drummer Tony Allen.”  News clippings and video clips appear on the beautiful corrugated metal set, which create a multi-sensory montage (band playing, Fela narrating, clips reinforcing with visual words).  A live band, consisting of members of the Brooklyn Afrobeat-revival group Antibalas, does an amazing job of providing the soundtrack and the sound effects (sudden crack of drums are used as gunshots/exclamation points/etc).

The second act is much more like the typical musical and, like the latter part of Fela’s life, gets a lot heavier and darker as the realities of going from troublemaker to, in the eyes of the political apparatus, a dangerous radical, eventually leads to the infamous raid on his republic chronicled in the song “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood.”  At this point, Fela calls on traditional spiritualism to go on a spirit quest to meet his late mother to get her blessing to leave Nigeria for the safety of himself and his family.  She, of course, refuses to be used as an excuse for him to run away and instead helps him renew his resolve to fight for the country he loves.  He ends the show, and the musical, by saying he and his band will be back at the shrine tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.  It was powerful, to say the least.  Knowing the reality of his life, he did stay and fight for ten more years, but, growing increasingly paranoid and suffering from AIDS, finally died in 1997.

Adesola Osalakumi, the star, embodies the rage, satirical wit, and gregariousness of the real man.  During the show I attended, he improvised a joke about passing the giant joint he smoked from.

The only fault I found is the casting of Michelle Williams (ex-Destiny’s Child, and thus ex-group mate of producer Jay-Z’s wife Beyonce Knowles) as Sandra, the Black Panther, who, during Fela’s extended stay in LA, opened up the more apolitical Fela to black consciousness and the need for art to serve as inspiration for a revolution.  I think the character was well-sketched but Williams sings precisely like you’d expect: a polished pop star.  If you’ve heard the real Sandra on Upside Down, the contrast is even more startling.  But even ignoring the need to match source material, Williams’ speech, mannerisms, and even costume look completely out of place.  I didn’t buy her as Black Panther for a second.  Among a cast who seemed to completely embody their roles and really understand and revere the history they are telling us, Williams seems even more mismatched.  Her top billing (above the title) may suggest that she was added mostly for drawing power.

Even in spite of Williams, I highly recommend you see this musical if it comes to your city, even if you haven’t yet discovered Fela’s wonderful music.

Note: I went through a big collection of Fela’s albums and kept notes and ratings for each one as I went through over a year’s time.  From this, I extracted the top-rated (3/3) songs in a spreadsheet if you’re interested in where to begin listening.  The short version would be to get a copy of Zombie and put it on loop.

The Shakira Effect

I have at times noticed a pattern where pop music artists, after having achieved fame and fortune, at some point attempt to record an album that is, at least in their minds, more driven by artistic rather than commercial concerns.  Many times the reaction of their fans is less than positive (with a notable exception being, of course, The Beatles).    However, I have also noticed the reverse trend in a few artists where upon achieving stardom with more honest and artistic work, go on to release increasingly market-driven and less innovative albums.

In this article I’m calling it the Shakira Effect, named after the Colombian pop singer who was famous in South America in her late teens when she released a number of popular albums.  Her first release in the international market was 1995’s Pies Descalzos (English: Barefoot) which, as its title suggests, was largely subdued and minimalist, mainly relying on her strong voice to carry it.  Next came 1998’s ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones? (English: Where are the thieves?) which had everything a great album should have: heartfelt lyrics, likable music, and a meaningful point of view.  Then came her highly polished entry in the crossover market, 2001’s Laundry Service.  Before listening to a single note, the buyer of the album was greeted by an entirely different Shakira, one who was seemingly shirtless with a tattoo of the album’s title and, most noticeable, was now blond.  Her many albums since have been increasingly commercial and the videos and promotion of them have been more sexualized.  While I still enjoy this music for the shallow enjoyment it creates, it is much more polished, artificial, and ultimately disposable: words that would never be used for her earlier work.

I used to reason that this trend was just a fluke and perhaps Shakira just wanted to make more “fun” music after having made more serious music for years. Then I saw the same pattern occur with Canadian artist Nelly Furtado, whose debut Whoa Nelly! led to several radio hits in the U.S. in 2000.  She had a similarly-styled follow-up in 2003 called Folklore.  Then, in an even more abrupt change than Shakira, Furtado released a mostly club album called Loose in 2006.  At the time, I was puzzled by the album.  It seemed to have been recorded by a totally different person than her earlier work.  Songs like “Promiscuous Girl” featured misogynist lyrics and included collaborations with the rappers du jour of that era.  I refused to even give it a chance for years, after having been turned off by its entire aesthetic.

Even with another example, I still viewed this pattern as almost character flaws in the artist rather than something more systemic.  It wasn’t until I recently read Living Dolls: The New Sexism by Natasha Walter that I began to realize Nelly Furtado and Shakira were merely reflective of a cultural shift rather than something isolated to their respective careers.  The fact that their early work was from the nineties and the more popular/less artistic work from the 2000s is thus not a coincidence.

In Living Dolls, Walker charts the pornographication of the public sphere (driven by the internet’s ubiquity), connecting it to the rise of so-called Glamour Modeling and the normalization of sex work like lap dance clubs.  Unlike in the past, all of this is now draped by a flag of liberated women exercising “free choice” to pursue these endeavors.  In the same way, as successful artists, Shakira and Furtado were free to record any type of music they wanted, but it seems as if the world had changed around them in the years since their first releases, and the phrase “sex sells” has taken on a more monstrous meaning today than at any time in the memory of my generation.  The triple platinum-selling Laundry Service and her subsequent belly dancing-infused videos were tremendously popular.  And even when artistic videos for introspective songs like “No” were produced, they were overshadowed by more flashy content.  The message was clear: the market wants a sexy woman doing splits in a cage, not weeping in black and white.  It should be no surprise that artists well-entrenched in the recording industry should do anything less than give their fans what they want.

At the end of the day, you might wonder why any of this matters.  Is it really fair to look toward pop music as the bringer of social change? Perhaps not.  Then again, even Michelle Obama seems to call stars like Beyonce “role models.”  But where are the genuine role models on the radio?  In the 90s, the idea of an independent female artist like Alannis Morisette was revered and rewarded.  It would hard to imagine her, or the many other artists like her, even making it on the radio these days.

Reflecting on this has been a sobering reminder for me that the idea that social progress is a linear process, ratcheting toward ideal equality in a constant way, is a fallacy.  Without willful and dedicated effort, progress is easily rewinded, or in this case co-opted and given different names like “free choice” so that its negative effects are made even more subtle and invisible.

Facebook marriage announcements have already told me what research has confirmed: women today are far more likely to take their husband’s last name than in the past.  The trend peaked in the 1990s when 23% of women kept their own name.  So it seems that progress is indeed regressing and it’s high time the ship is turned the right way round again.

Walker spends the second half of Living Dolls discussing how the popular press has over-reported on the existence of genetic reasons for observed gender differences.  Just when we are at a time when it’s critically important to raise girls to re-challenge the confining gender roles that have again become common, instead the culture at large seems to be becoming increasingly accepting of the fact that things are just the way they are, written in our chromosomes, and not the cumulative result of hundreds of tiny social interactions each day since birth.  If you have mostly been exposed to deterministic viewpoint of the popular press, it might be interesting to flip back through the history books and note that babies of both sexes used to wear white and even when sex-signified colors were introduced, it was boys who wore pink.  Baby girls wearing pink is a relatively recent “rule,” coming about during World War II.  And, like too many social realities in the U.S., was driven by the companies making the products more than anything else.

There may be hope yet.  Nelly Furtado released an album in 2012 that was more like her original work than anything I’ve heard in awhile.  Let’s hope we’re raising the next generation to appreciate it.

My Favorite Albums 1977-2007

I recently listened to a large sampling of the albums on the well-known Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. When it was first published, a vocal minority of critics, especially younger ones skeptical of the 60s/70s bias evident in the selections, claimed that it did not adequately capture the truly influential music from the broad spectrum of popular music. Instead of picking apart other lists, I thought I would create my own. These are my criteria:

First, the album must have been issued between 1977 and 2007. The beginning year is point of reference for my listening experience; everything prior to this was B.P. (before punk). While I enjoy listening to some of the groundbreaking music such as those featured on the Rolling Stone list, without the personal connection to them that comes from coming of age in those times, to me they will never be anything more than museum exhibits. The 2007 endpoint is both to make it an even thirty years and also to get some distance from new releases.

Second, the album is in its original form as intended by the artist. No Best Of’s, no posthumous compilations of EPs, etc.

Third, I informally weighted the prospects by their popularity on previous lists. If an album is a regular on these lists, it had to be twice as good to make it on mine as a lesser-known album.

Fourth, I tried my best to avoid repeat artists. The only exceptions were albums that I simply could not fairly leave off the list.


25) Audioslave – Audioslave (2002). Shortly after the breakup of Rage Against the Machine, former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell and the guitarist, bassist, and drummer from Rage formed what seemed like a side project, Audioslave. However, their debut album held the same explosive intensity that made Rage popular, along with intelligent lyrics and passionate vocals by Cornell.

24) Culture – Two Sevens Clash (1977) I’m not sure if this album is better than the more well-known Exodus by Bob Marley (the original holder of this spot), but it certainly is one of the best reggae albums ever made. A concept album centered around the idea that the world would end on 7/7/77, it remains the best showcase of this very talented band.

23) AFI – The Art of Drowning (2000). Before AFI became a darling goth rock band on a major label, they were another bunch of East Bay punks. Their final album on their original label, The Art of Drowning is a tightly produced showcase of the band’s brooding, introspective lyrics, and punishing sound. Rarely has such intensity been so well-documented.

22) Fugazi – The Argument (2001). Indie gods Fugazi have always made groundbreaking music that defies genre conventions. They released The Argument as their last album before going on indefinite hiatus. It is by far their most coherent and accessible work and if it turns out to be their final release, it was a fitting swan song.

21) Bad Religion – Suffer (1988). Southern California punk band Bad Religion crafted a masterpiece with their trademark hyper-literate lyrics and 80s hardcore sound. In later years, they never advanced beyond the formula they perfected on Suffer, and who could blame them; it has few equals.

20) Operation Ivy – Energy (1989) Like Minor Threat before them, East Bay ska punk legends Operation Ivy produced a scene-rattling new sound that led to too much success too fast for four young men. The band broke up after only two years, almost coincidental with the release of their debut LP, Energy. But their influence is still felt in contemporary music. Their groundbreaking style fused ska, 80s minimalist hardcore, and a positive attitude sorely lacking in the scene, and the country, at the time. Two of the members went on to form the hugely successful pop punk band Rancid, but they could never match the energy captured on Energy.

19) Frou Frou – Details (2003). Early in her career, Imogen Heap was a relatively unknown British singer-songwriter in the vein of Alanis Morissette. Her breathy voice was a standout on her inconsistent debut, i Megaphone (a clever anagram of her name). In 2001, she teamed up with writer and producer Guy Sigsworth to create an unique electro-pop album featuring her signature octave-leaping vocal style on top of lush melodies. The album was not a commercial success, but the inclusion of one of its tracks in Garden State made Frou Frou famous. Mishandling of the album by the record company had soured the chances of another album. Heap released a second solo album in 2005 and a third in 2009 but both fell far short of Details. Here’s hoping for a reunion.

18) Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material (1979). This blistering debut album by Belfast punk rockers smartly walked a fine line by making an overtly political album that didn’t get dragged down by its message. True to punk’s early days, it wasn’t afraid to experiment, such as the finale “Closed Groove.”

17) Idlewild – 100 Broken Windows (2000). Idlewild began as a indie band from Edinburgh. Their debut, Hope is Important, showed a large punk influence. However, their follow up was a true pop gem that combined their ear for catchy hooks with Roddy Woomble’s distinctive voice.

16) Tool – Lateralus (2001). Early in their career, L.A. headbangers, Tool, hinted that they were smarter than their own genre. Their 79-minute magnum opus, Lateralus, proved this without a doubt. Full of challenging time signatures and lengthy running times, the album was the antithesis of its radio-friendly peers. Like a dark symphony, the theme builds to its peak in the unforgettable three song cycle Disposition / Reflection / Triad.

15) Bouncing Souls – How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2001). Jersey punk rockers The Bouncing Souls paid their dues for years before achieving success. As chronicled in the entertaining documentary Do You Remember? the band faced a tough choice in having to fire their best friend and drummer Shal Khichi. The band considered calling it quits but instead found a new drummer and learned how to be a band again and have fun. The result of this creative energy is their best album to date, featuring the band’s trademark anthemic singalongs with lyrics from the heart.

14) Minor Threat – Minor Threat (1981). Clocking in at just 9 minutes and 20 seconds, this debut EP from Washington, D.C. exploded onto the early 80s scene and cast an immense shadow over the next decade of underground music. Espousing a lifestyle of no alcohol and drugs with a conviction that could only come from nineteen-year-olds, Ian Mackaye and company changed music and youth culture forever and left a lasting manifesto.

13) Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles (1999). Revolutionary rap-rockers RATM developed a loyal fan base of disillusioned youth starting with their inspired debut album in 1992 featuring as its cover the Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a monk setting himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War. But it wasn’t until 1999’s Battle of Los Angeles that Rage truly demonstrated the brilliance of their thought-provoking lyrics and inventive style led by the mind-bending guitar arrangements of Tom Morello. Producing numerous radio hits and cementing their reputation, it was fitting this was their last original release before disbanding only a year later.

12) Dinosaur Jr. – You’re Living All Over Me (1987). Tremendously influential to the later grunge era, Dinosaur Jr. juxtaposed a heavy, distorted guitar sound with accessible melodies and soft-edged vocals. Never achieving mainstream success, this remains their strongest release.

11) Le Tigre – Le Tigre (1999). Riot Grrl pioneer Kathleen Hannah of the groundbreaking Northwest punk band Bikini Kill teamed up with friends to create a vehicle for feminist performance art and music. The group recorded their brilliant self-titled debut in 1999, which featured catchy lo-fi electropunk and quirky humorous lyrics.

10) Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003). Consisting only of guitar and drums behind the screechy vocals of Karen O, the band made the old new again with their catchy garage rock style. Two tracks in particular, Maps and Y Control, showed there was a lot of depth behind the seemingly spare formula and they remain artists to watch as their sound has matured on subsequent releases.

9) Weezer – Weezer (1994). There is not a wasted second on this wonderfully catchy debut from Southern California nerd rockers, Weezer, led by
Rivers Cuomo. It was tempting to eliminate this from the list because of their inability to know when to quit (and subsequent release of two self-titled albums) but it’s both impossible to dislike this album and to discuss 90s music without referencing it in some way.

8) Shakira – ¿Dondé Están Los Ladrones? (1998). Forget the airbrushed blonde on 2001’s international megahit Laundry Service; Shakira’s second album cover features the singer/songwriter with her natural hair color and her hands covered in dirt. Building on the strengths of her quiet debut album, Shakira wrote an accessible pop album that touches on the personal and the political, belted out in her distinctive bleating voice. Diverse influences including Western rock music, Lebanese styles, as well as immersion in the cheerful pop of Latin America, combine in this ambitious work that breaks predictable boundaries. There’s a reason it still remains one of the top Spanish-language sellers in the U.S. In any language, Shakira rocks.

7) Pixies – Doolittle (1989). Like Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies were tremendously influential over the movement that would eventually be called alternative rock and grunge. Widely regarded as the band’s most consistent and accessible album, Doolittle becomes only more relevant as it ages. In 2009, for the 20th anniversary of its release, the Pixies went on a limited tour where they performed the album in its entirety.

6) Catch 22 – Keasbey Nights (1998) Suburban Jersey ska punks Catch 22 parleyed their demo Rules of the Game into a brilliant full length album that many consider the pinnacle of the genre. Written while the singer, Tomas Kalnoky, was still in high school, it is coming-of-age concept album with darker subject matter lurking behind its caffeinated horn melodies.

5) Radiohead – OK Computer (1997). Following the success of the straight ahead rock formula on The Bends, Radiohead showed a glimmer of the experimentation to come on the accessible and much-praised OK Computer. Repeat listenings to most of the songs is a necessity, since Radiohead pack about as much into each song as other artists, if their lucky, manage to fit into entire albums.

4) Smashing Pumpkins – Gish (1991). Before the runaway success, the breakups, the reformations, and all the other baggage that hounded the band, the Smashing Pumpkins were four unknown alternative rockers recording four-track demos in 1989. Their debut album was a minor hit and hinted at brilliance yet to come. It combined the indie influence of grunge with the production and expanse of stadium rock, a formula Corgan would perfect on the band’s follow-up. Oveshadowed by later albums, Gish remains an unpretentious powerhouse that remains some of the band’s best, and certainly most honest, work.

3) Radiohead – Kid A (2000) A critic once remarked that it’s hard to believe Kid A is from the same band that released OK Computer, let alone from the same planet. Rejecting the mega stardom and all the expectations of another hit following OK Computer, Radiohead reinvented themselves as soundscape sculptors with one of the most interesting (and disliked) albums of the era.

2) The Clash – London Calling (1979). This is the magnum opus from The Only Band That Mattered. Although they suffered from inconsistency, especially on their later releases, everything on London Calling is spot on and this double album remains in a league of its own.

1) Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993). Hailed as the next Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins had a enormous amount of pressure on them to deliver a hit with their second album. The process nearly destroyed the band with songwriter Billy Corgan suffering from a nervous breakdown and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin struggling with alcoholism. In spite of this, Siamese Dream exploded as a megahit on the early 90s alternative rock scene.

The album continued to expand their signature style of droning overdubbed guitars that, unlike most of their peers, was influenced more by shoegaze than punk. Above all, the tracks are expertly arranged. The album builds intensity during the opening five tracks, then mellows out with the radio hit Disarm. You can almost imagine flipping over the vinyl for Side B when this transition occurs, even though the format was dead by the time the band released any material. This alternating build-up and release of tension is evident both within and between songs, and was one of the things that made (the original) Smashing Pumpkins such a great band, and it is executed flawlessly on Siamese Dream.

Well, that’s that. Let me know what you think. In case you’re wondering, I started this list about two years ago in 2009. I made some minor changes, but resisted the temptation to change it to reflect my current listening habits. I am curious to see which of the albums I’m listening to today will end up on the next list…

P.S. If you want to know what I really listen to on a daily basis, check out my profile at


31 July 2011 – Following my own Rule #3 of this list, I replaced Bob Marley’s Exodus with Culture’s Two Sevens Clash (see #24). Originally, I mistakenly thought Two Sevens Clash came out in 76, so I’m glad it made it on here.

My Favorite Albums of 2010

Originally I intended this as a Top 10. Then as I crawled my stats, I realized I really don’t listen to a whole lot of new music. For me, 2010 actually featured a lot of releases from artists I love that turned out to be disappointments (Shakira’s wildly inconsistent Sale el Sol and Star’s yawnfest The Five Ghosts were the biggest). Adding to that, I discovered that a few of my preliminary picks actually came out in late 2009. With this limitations in mind, I humbly present my Top 3 Favorite Albums of 2010.

1. Julieta Venegas – Otra Cosa. Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas made headlines this year for having her first child and for releasing her sixth album. On this album, Venegas, known for her “accordian rock,” showcases her ability to construct likable pop songs on top of traditional styles that utilize a wide range of instruments. I especially appreciate that in an age of singles, this is a well-constructed album that deserves attention in its entirety, so you can appreciate the progression from the whimsical opening track to the more serious, but catchy, closing track, “Eterno.” Perhaps this cohesion may be due to Venegas trying her hand at being a producer this time around. It may be too early to tell, but I think this may be her best album yet.

2. Phantogram – Eyelid Movies. This intriguing debut album from an upstate NY electronic duo layers brooding lyrics over fresh beats. While it’s difficult to pin down their sound — they have referred to it as “street beat pysche pop” — the recognizable influences, from ambient acts like Air, to trip hop and dubstep, are decidedly contemporary. Unlike other artists who alternate female/male vocals and tend to overuse the male, I think the ratio is about right here. While the second half of the album lacks some of the strength of the first half, Phantogram demonstrates their potential and remain artists to watch.
3. Robyn – Body Talk Part 1. Released in early summer, this album from Swedish recording artist Robyn spent a lot of time in my playlists, especially on my drive down the California coast in August. However, at the time I assumed it was throwaway pop and would be forgotten by the dreary winter. However, I was mistaken. For 2010, Robyn set out on the ambitious plan to release three E.P.s as a prelude to an album containing material from each. While the second and third parts (not to mention the resulting LP consolidation) were worthwhile releases, the true gem remains Part 1. It begins with an unexpectedly edgy opener, then features catchy pop hits like “Dancing on My Own,” then shifts gears and becomes more introspective, including an acoustic version of “Hang with Me.” Even as an E.P., it achieves more than most albums and, for me at least, outlived the summer to remain one of the best of the year.
My honorable mention goes to Mexican synth-pop trio Belanova’s Sueño Electro I (2010 was apparently the year to release albums in parts). While still likable, it was a bit of a disappointment compared to their last album. However, I still found it to be full of catchy and likable tracks. I also enjoyed that it had a darker undertone than their recent work.
My disqualified honorable mention (in that it was actually released in 2009) was the self-titled debut LP by Fool’s Gold. This LA band blends African and Israeli influences to create an interesting mix. I’m a sucker for African electric guitar and it shines on the brilliant opening track, Surprise Hotel. On my list, it would have been #2.
This year, I’ll try to listen to more new music and I’ll be looking forward to what 2011 has to offer.

Femi Kuti at The Fillmore

July in San Francisco means the sunny skies and warmth give way to chilly fog as the difference between the inland and ocean temperatures increases. It also means that Femi Kuti comes to town as part of the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I had the privilege of seeing him last year as well, in what I can say was probably the best concert I’ve ever been to. This year did not disappoint either.

For those of you unfamiliar:

“No one knows who first used the word [Afrobeat], but as far as history is concerned, it belongs to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Nigerian giant through whom any understanding of the sound of 1970s Africa must pass. In the most limited sense, you could say that Afrobeat is the cinematic, polyrhythmic, symphonic funk sound that Fela developed with superhuman drummer Tony Allen” (From the Africa 100 Liner Notes)

Femi Kuti is one of Fela’s many sons and he has carried the torch of Authentic Afrobeat. Even as he approaches 50, his stage presence is dynamic and engaging. To set the scene: his band, the aptly named Positive Force, consists of four horns, guitarist, bassist, drummer, and keyboardist. Femi himself plays sax, keyboard, and occasionally other instruments. And then he has his chorus of three dancers/backup singers. The energy and vibe was immediately infectious and remains so for the two hour set (no breaks for these tireless performers). This was then followed by a 30 minute encore.
Femi played his usual hits and like all great jam bands, used the arrangements on the studio albums as starting points to build up improvised and extended versions on stage. Each musician got a few chances to show off with some solo improvisations. He even left with promises of a new studio album in 2011.
As luck would have it, I attended an Antibalas show at the Great American Music Hall in The Loin a few weeks later. While I really enjoyed the music, and the more modern interpretation and Latin influences in their sound, I left feeling even luckier to have seen the Real Thing. I can’t wait until next summer.