Monday, December 27, 2010

The Best Songs from 2010

by Conroy

With only days left in 2010, it's time for my annual Top 10 Songs list. As with the previous versions, this list will count down what I consider to be the ten best songs from this year. There are a couple of ground rules for songs to be eligible to make the list:
  • If at all possible, I try to include only one song per artist. For instance, I could have included multiple songs from the album The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, but adhering to my rule, and because I wasn't overawed by the additional tracks, I've included just one song from the album. However, if we turned back time and I was writing about my Top 10 songs from say 1996, I would have included multiple songs from Weezer's spectacular album Pinkerton (after all, three songs from this album are included in my Top 100 Songs).  
  • All songs must be released in this calendar year (i.e. 2010). For instance, Vampire Weekend released an album, Contra, this year. The wonderful track "Horchata" leads off the album, and it would certainly have made the Top 10 for 2010 except that the song was released as a single near the end of last year (2009). Since it was released separate from the rest of the album and gained widespread airplay, I must disqualify it from consideration for songs from 2010. Alas, the late release last year meant that it missed making the list for a musically loaded 2009.
Also, as you read through this list I offer a caution. As with all annual lists, my Top 10 Songs is based on impressions from this year with only a limited amount of time to have heard and internalized each of these songs. Often it takes years or more for the significance of a song, album, or any other artistic creation to become clear. I publish these lists because I think it's fun, generates discussion, and identifies some of the outstanding songs from the past year. However, it could be that I look back years from now with different opinions of what really was best from 2010.  

Okay that's enough background, the list:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Special Place - Supplement

by Conroy

One of my favorite writers, Gregg Easterbrook, included a discussion of the size and composition of the universe in his most recent Tuesday Morning Quaterback column. It's under the "A Cosmic Thought" header at the end of the column. I'm highlighting it here because Easterbrook provides (an unintentionally timely) different take on how we may view the vastness and age of the universe, one that may give readers an interesting counterpoint.

I quote:
"To us, the universe seems immensely old; compared to itself, the cosmos glistens with the dew of morning. The present universe might exist hundreds of billions of years, if not forever. Creation contains at least 100 billion galaxies and far more stars than there are grains of sand. Don't let this make you feel small. Quite the contrary; it should make you feel important. Life is what grants the immensity of the universe meaning. Who can say what the purpose of the cosmic enterprise might be?"

I agree that merely being able to ponder the fact of existence and the reality of the universe speaks to the remarkable intelligence and curiosity of mankind. As Easterbrook eloquently notes, we cannot know the "purpose of the cosmic enterprise". However, is it too much to admit our apparent minuteness in the scheme of existence, and does that have to be a source of disappointment?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Post Number 3: A Special Place

by Conroy

This is my final post of three that outlines my personal philosophy, or as I've noted in both previous posts, my non-philosophy on man and the universe we inhabit. This post outlines my views about nature and the universe. Links to the first two posts on the nature of man and the purpose of society are provided here:

Post Number 1: The Start
Post Number 2: Smoothed Edges

The greatest achievement of humanity has certainly been our remarkable ability to (1) continually explore and better understand how the universe is composed and how it works, and (2) utilize that knowledge to facilitate the breathtaking explosion of technology. It is the continuous (and accelerating) improvements in technology more than any other human activity that has improved the lives of individual people and buttresses the belief that the future will be even better. Evolving technology, like all other human activities comes with negatives, think pollution or the ability to destroy our society through nuclear apocalypse, but all-in-all, technological development is the great success story of history.

However, what our scientific exploration and higher technology has not been able to solve - and does not seem destined to solve - is the answer to some fundamental questions; including these, which most intrigue me:
  • Where did the universe and everything in it come from?
  • How is the universe evolving and what is its "ultimate" fate?
  • Why is the universe composed of the "stuff" in it?
  • Why is the universe governed by the few physical laws that we've observed?
  • Why did life develop out of this universe?
  • Why are we mortal?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cliches - Part 2

by Conroy

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

I love cliches. I love speaking them as commentary on daily life, using them to communicate common but powerful truths, relying on them to simplify the complex thoughts I yearn to articulate. Does this mean that my writing, and by extension my thinking, is hackneyed and limited? By failing to explore new metaphors or unconventional word syntax does my writing lack the dynamism and inventiveness of a truly accomplished writer? I say emphatically - NO!

No, cliches are not unoriginal and stale drivel to be discarded and derided, but a valuable tool in any writer's (or speaker's) repertoire. Is there a better way to reduce complicated ideas into digestible and easily understood components? Is there a better way to communicate quickly and clearly? Doesn't a cliche used well, or dare I write - originally, add to the enjoyment of reading?

What better way to to explain the unique burdens of a life then, 'everyone has their cross to bear'? Are there another six words that can encapsulate this part of the human condition? How about a better five words to summarize the responsibilities and bonds of family then, 'blood is thicker than water'? Or a central and perhaps unsettling reality of this universe, 'better to be lucky than good'?

Much of the contempt for cliches may come from confusion with cliched writing. Writing that is derivative, regurgitates tired ideas, over-simplifies the complex, or states the obvious. Cliched writing is lazy, it fails to inform, it insults the reader's intelligence. It's fiction instead of literature.

Cliched writing is waste. Cliches are value. Let's not get the two confused.


Here are some of my favorite cliches (not counting the ones cited above):
  • 'Nothing lasts forever' and 'Everyone has to lose sometime'. I especially like to keep these in mind when it comes to sports.
  • 'The grass is always greener on the other side' and 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'. Readers of my first post will already know of my belief that the lure of what we may have can overpower the reality of what we do have.
  • 'Hope springs eternal'. Also in my first post, there are few things more human than our innate resiliency.
  • 'The perfect is the enemy of the good'. Perfection is impossible, and in seeking it we can lose all of the good results that are possible.
  • 'All's well that ends well'. Always liked the sound and sentiment of this expression. When times get stressful things can be done and said that cause resentment, but if things work out in the end, most slights can be forgiven.
  • 'Once in a blue moon'. For some reason I think the occurrence of a blue moon is really fascinating. I'm in the annoying habit of explaining what a blue moon is whenever this expression is uttered (even by me) or when I have Blue Moon beer.
  • 'Road to ruin is paved with good intentions'. So often intentions are immaterial to results - sometimes disastrous results.
  • 'Black as pitch', 'Down in the mouth''Missed the boat', 'Once bitten, twice shy', 'Shuffle off this mortal coil', and 'Whistle past the graveyard'. Just like the way these sound, read, and the ideas they express.

What cliches do you love to use?

Cliches - Part 1

[written by The Man and posted on his behalf by Conroy]

I Come to Praise Clichés, Not to Bury Them

Although style mavens deprecate clichés, it's important to know them—whether or not they make for fine writing, and whether or not you actually use them.  That's because clichés save time and often enhance communication: they provide ready-made formulations of common ideas, and are likely to be understood immediately by just about any listener.  In fact, most clichés were once successful, vivid metaphors, and so provide a model of what a superlative metaphor might look like.  Moreover, many clichés are rich with meaning, interesting history, and even uncommonly known facts about the world.  They are a treasure trove of rhetorical technique.  And if you don't want to use them as they are, you can always give them a surprising twist.  

So why do style experts deplore clichés with such utter contempt?  Because they are boring?  Perhaps.  But I would suggest that the primary motivation is snobbery—the snobbery of a literary elite.  After all, anybody can scribble a simple-minded cliché.  Avoiding clichés, on the other hand, means having to generate different ways of expressing ideas, which is difficult to do.  This gives those who can, something to crow about.  But perhaps sometimes it's not worth taking the extra time and effort that "being original" requires.  Sometimes it's better just to use the nearest cliché that does the job.  Style isn't everything; substance matters too.  And isn't it always a good idea to be cost-effective, even if that means falling back on a few tried-and-true clichés, every now and again, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel all the time?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Top 250 - Update

by Conroy

I have added youtube links to all (or all but two) of my Top 250 songs. You can now watch the associated videos, live performances, or just listen to the songs.

As I was adding these links, which required listening to the songs, I was struck by an emotional response to the music that I failed to emphasize in my post debuting the list. It makes sense that songs that would rank among my very favorite would have an emotional connection, after all music is the most emotional of arts. But I was also struck by how the music evoked memories of the period in my life in which I first heard or took a strong liking to each song. I mean, I've listened to each of these songs dozens of times (at a minimum), so I know them by heart.

You might think that familiarity would lessen the impact over time, especially as I mature, and my tastes and perspectives evolve. Certainly the list has seen songs come and go through it's many versions, but I had an insight when adding these links. I realized that I may have reached the point where my music tastes are what they are. Sure, there will be some modifications, but at this point I like what I like and this current list of 250 songs says a lot about not only my musical tastes, but more importantly about my emotional attitude towards my past experiences and towards the world.

Music affects people in ways that are not easy to articulate - and quite frankly in ways that I don't want to articulate. However, this lack of non-linguistic communication doesn't make it any less important, and the songs in my Top 250 list are vitally important to me.