Spotify and Google Play Music (All Access or no) have made it more of a chore to listen to whole albums. With infinite resources at my disposal (should I relisten to Black Sabbath’s 13? Is the new Weekend album as good as non-Huey Lewis Sports?), paralysis sets in. And Play Music’s card system isn’t helpful – give me a list, or give me death, I say. Don’t make me scroll thru endless boxes with laughing pictures of Aaliyah and the wrong B12.
There’s a certain anonymizing effect that streaming music services have on every note that passes through them. The listener doesn’t own it, and the artist receives peanuts for it, and in theory it could be just one of a never-ending string of songs played from that same account on a given day; Spotify has no run-out groove or optical laser. Jaron Lanier commented:
“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.”
It’s bad enough for individual songs, but what about full-length albums? Conventional wisdom says that infinite plays and custom playlists on streaming music services mean that traditional albums, with their meticulously crafted running orders, segues, reprises, and lyrical or thematic concepts, are DOA. But you could have made the same case when the first CD player with track shuffle was released.
The album was built for vinyl in the 1960s and, to a lesser extent, the 1970s. Vinyl is the anti-Internet: it discourages dilettantism and track skipping, and by being so damn large and requiring a huge apparatus just to be played-back even at low quality, it takes up the whole room. There were no multiscreen living rooms during vinyl’s heyday, but I don’t think there could have been any, so all-encompassing is vinyl.
Vinyl is to music as Lisp is to programming languages. Per James Gosling:
“Lisp is a Black Hole: if you try to design something that’s not Lisp, but like Lisp, you’ll find that the gravitational forces on the design will suck it into the Black Hole, and it will become Lisp“.
An album made during the heyday of LP records conformed to the physical details of the medium: continuous, uninterrupted playback for 15-30 minutes, split into at least 2 sides. Full user attention was required. And vinyl had unique artistic possibilities, explored to their fullest by classics like Abbey Road (side 2 is a medley ; furthermore, the jarring “She’s So Heavy/Here Comes the Sun” break required the listener to actually get up and switch the record in order to be relieved of the deafening, sudden ending to the former song) and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free (side 1 is all about vegetables; side 2 is about high school nostalgia and Lolita), but even knew albums like The Knife’s instantly legendary Shaking the Habitual (any album whose title references Foucault gets a thumbs-up from me), on which the epic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” has an entire side, all to its lonesome, to stretch and unwind its spacious rumination.
In light of how long (a millennium, I think) the codex book form has been with us (and will continue to be with us – get on any CTA train in Chicago and compare the number of paperbacks to the number of people reading on Kindles/iPads, and you’ll probably be shocked at how many more are in the former category), it’s worth investigating why music only achieved similar status between roughly the mid 1960s and the present day. Meaning, music was fitted to a discrete unit that had to be consumed sequentially: you listened to an album like you read a book, start to finish, with full mindshare dedicated to the artist and their specific vision at a specific moment in time.
For years, I’ve kept an obsessive “Top 10 favorite albums” list, updating it with new choices, often impulsively after digesting some album du jour (I try to listen to at least one new album per day – one of the blessings Spotify provides), but some have remained there for a long time. I’ve noticed that many of my true favorites – the early work of Aphex Twin, the 1960s Mothers albums – are items that I own on vinyl and am willing to consume only with devoted attention. I think that part of vinyl’s ongoing appeal, which is significant enough even to buoy podunk record shops, is that is immune to nonsense about “disruption” – it offers a literally analog experience that has no digital equivalent, since it, in a way, assumes isolation and dedication, not fragmentation and iteration (Latinate roots abound in these high minded “tech” discussions).
So I wanted to look briefly at one of the albums that has always been at the top of my list: We’re Only in it for the Money by The Mothers of Invention.
I picked the 1995 CD remaster up at a Ear X-Tacy in Louisville, KY (since closed: the shop, not the city) in the summer of 2005, after my first year of college. I had just gotten my first iPod in the winter of ’04 but still carried a CD player around for cases like this one, when I didn’t have iTunes for Windows (during the dark days, before I migrated to Chrome OS and OS X). So I gave it a listen on the way home, 90 minutes from Louisville to Lebanon, and I have since given it probably 500 additional listens, more than any album I own.
The album is a snapshot of the era, but it transcends the hippie, freak, and psychedelic movements that inform it. Mothers mastermind Frank Zappa originally intended for it to be a mashup of Mothers music and Lenny Bruce comedy, a concept mercifully scrapped in favor of a melange of psychedelia, melodic surf rock, collage, and comedy. Much of its change can be attributed to the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles, which blazed new trails and created almost every album cliché in the book, from seamless transitions between songs to “epic” avant-garde closing songs.
We’re Only in it… crams 19 songs into under 40 minutes, and the last song takes up nearly 7 minutes of that. It’s a master course in rich, detailed economy. Those first 18 songs breeze past in what seems like seconds.
Eric Clapton shows up on both “Are you Hung Up?” and “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” to shout and/or stonily reminisce against a strangely affecting sonic collage background. The latter song samples (in 1968!) a surf rock that Zappa produced.
“Who Needs the Peace Corps?” is a history lesson about LSD, the Grateful Dead, and Haight-Asbury, set to a nifty vocal melody and squawking sax. The other two songs in its suite – “Concentration Moon” and “Mom & Dad” – foreshadowed the Kent St. shootings with masterful songwriting. The latter may be the most moving song in the Zappa canon, set to a 2/2 beat elevated by mallet-played drums and an endlessly catchy guitar figure. I used to hum it while working in a Subaru factory during that endless, oppressive 2005 coma summer. “May be,” since “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” despite its silly title, can nearly induce tears from me, for its high-minded idealism set to a parody doo-wop melody. It’s so good that a merely instrumental version of it salvaged the otherwise drab Lumpy Gravy album that Zappa issued in 1967.
“Mother People” pays homage to “sleeping in a phone booth” (what’s that, you’ll probably ask) and incorporates an orchestral section: all in under 3 minutes. “Lonely Little Girl” has a riff and a vocal that would make Led Zeppelin blush: it shifts so many gears and unveils so many motifs in its sub-2 minute running time that you wonder why anyone else tries.
There are so many details to go into, especially about the album’s tortured version history. And of course there’s the multi-layered beautiful guitars of “The Idiot Bastard Son” and the sick humor of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black.” But I’ll stop for now. Next time, I’ll look at another one of my favorite albums.
Now that Falcon Pro is in a tailspin induced by the perfect storm of Twitter’s harsh API policy and the app’s own shady token “resets,” there’s room at the top for high-end Twitter clients on Android. And of course, there’s the official Twitter app, which is serviceable if unremarkable.
Carbon is free, ad-free, and beautiful. True to its name (“carbon” is derived from “carbo,” the Latin word for coal), it has a pitch-colored interface that scrolls as fluidly as any Android app outside of the Robin client for App.net (ADN). The timeline can be tilted to refresh it. Settings and menus (lists, trends, etc.) are nested at the right. Your Twitter profile can be edited at the left.
- beautiful design
- great responsiveness
- ability to edit Twitter profile
- widget, in-app browser
- No DashClock support
- Google Play reports that it has been downloaded 100k-500k times, meaning that it could hit the Twitter API ceiling soon.
Talk about a true-blue Holo app: Robird looks a lot like the Nexus Android dialer, with three black-and-blue columns. Robird utilizes a minimalist aesthetic that focuses just on your timeline, interactions, and DMs. Its scrolling is nothing to write home about, but it has useful tap-and-hold gestures that will be familiar to any Falcon Pro pro.
- Simple, unobtrusive, and intuitive design
- DashClock support
- Configurable refresh interval (15-45 minutes)
- Useful gestures
- Not that popular, meaning it still has a long life ahead of it.
- $1.99 price (this isn’t a con to me, but it will be to many)
- No widget
- Not much support for lists or trends
Plume is an old-school Twitter client from the same developers behind Beautiful Widgets. It is available in both free and paid versions. The latter is pricey at $5, but the app has some perks in the form of an internal browser and a lockscreen widget.
- free (if you can put up with the ads)
- immune to token limit since it’s an older app
- lockscreen widget
- scrollable widget
- familiar slide-out UI on the left
- Facebook integration
- paid version is relatively expensive
- no DashClock support except via 3rd-party extension
- older-looking design/aesthetic
It’s the official Twitter app: what’s there to say? You’ll never have to worry about it running out of tokens. It has exclusive features like photo filters which aren’t much to right home about; iOS 7 and Android Jellybean and later both ahve native photo filters, to say nothing of Instagram.
- not subject to restrictions placed on clients
- photo filters
- casual, familiar feel that will appeal to some
- unimaginative design
- promoted Tweets in your stream
- battery drainer
- mostly for casual users, meaning it won’t work as well for heavier users
My in-depth review here.
Vine has been available for Android for a couple of weeks, and my verdict is that it just does not provide a good experience at this time. Sadly, Vine’s shortcomings are not only indicative of the age-old, ongoing quality gap between apps with versions on both iOS and Android, but it explains them, too. Its simultaneous failures of design and massive popularity are a good microcosm for Android itself and its characteristics. To wit, Vine for Android:
- has no limit on caching and as such can occupy 100s of MB of on-device storage
- doesn’t have a push notification system: it notifies you via rich Jelly Bean notification that your video is being uploaded (good), but is mum if someone likes or comments on your post (bad).
- is full of spam and fakes (I guess this is to be expected; even Instagram is overrun by follower-mills and spammers now)
- doesn’t yet support front-facing camera or tags.
- feels gummy and unresponsive when navigating to some users’ profiles, to the extent that it won’t even show their posts sometimes.
Many of these issues, like front-facing camera support, are likely to be addressed in updates. However, the overall sloppiness of the design makes Vine’s arrival on Android a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Yes, we got a hot app, but its developers treat us as if we don’t respect quality or good design. They treat Android users this way because for now a unified, huge, design-conscious Android audience sadly doesn’t really exist.
The best Android apps, other than the ones Google makes, are often either exclusive to the platform, like Falcon Pro, Eye in Sky, or Friday, or they exploit something unique about Android, like UCCW, Dashclock, or other widgets, or they capitalize upon some odd platform disparity between iOS and Android, like Pocket Casts, which takes advantage of less competition on Android and lack of a Google-made podcasting client. Whether they achieved success via exclusivity, astute platform exploitation, luck, or all of the above, Android’s best apps (a category that includes all of the apps listed above, sans Vine) are often targeted at such a niche audience that they aren’t so much “Android apps” as “Nexus/power-user apps.” They often require at least ICS or even Jelly Bean to even run, but more importantly, they require a user who cares about Android and who didn’t just pick up her/his device because AT&T said so or because it was so cheap.
Accordingly, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about “Android” as a monolithic platform. Many Android users are on an older OS version or don’t even know that they’re running Android: their phone is just a phone that can do email and Facebook and maybe a few other things. Android’s fragmentation certainly exists, but it’s fragmentation of intent more so that fragmentation of OS version, the latter of which I think is just a product of the former, since not enough users care enough (or need) to seek the latest version of Android. Android isn’t “good” yet (if by “good” we mean “characterized by predominantly active, non-incidental, Android-first users) because of this disparity.
A year and a half ago, someone told me that Android was “the new Mac,” that is, that it was a trendy alternative to iOS, which had become so widespread that it could be regarded as the OS for normals. This struck me as an odd statement at the time: how could Android, with its huge user numbers, possibly be compared to the Mac back when it struggled to keep up with the PC? Isn’t Android the PC equivalent in the smartphone wars, the equivalent of a commoditized beige box? Well, no, depending on what specific “Android” demographic you’re talking about, and she did seem to be talking about the niche Nexus user demographic.
First of all, the best Android hardware and the latest Android software both have an elegance and sophistication – likely driven by Google’s own design chops – that Windows has never had. But more to the point: the number of users who actually know that they are “Android users” and not “Droid users” (i.e., users who only have a superficial connection to the brand via Verizon’s massively successful 2009 campaign) or “Samsung users” or “phone-that-emails-and-Facebooks users,” is almost certainly small. There have been roughly 3 million Nexus 4s sold all-time, next to nothing compared to even the Galaxy S4’s haul for May alone: and that’s considered a blockbuster by “stock Android” standards!
Nexus users like me comprise a hugely active and outspoken (especially on Google+) part of what the world sees as the “Android community.” We are just the tip of the iceberg, and interpreting their power-user, anti-Apple, customization-crazy intents as the modus operandi for the hundreds of millions of incidental and accidental Android users is misguided. Like the unseen part of an iceberg, those users elevate the power-users to greater visibility, since the media cares about Android seemingly because: 1) it’s not iOS; 2) it’s popular. Those users are perhaps like 1990s PC users, but the ones on the tip, the Nexus types, are perhaps more like Mac users: outnumbered (by their very different “Android” brethren and, if one grants this differentiation of populations within “Android,” then by iOS users, too) and outspoken.
So the Nexus users will complain about Vine’s shortcomings, while everyone else on Android – the incidental customers or users on older versions – won’t care and will download and use it anyway. The latter group is the reason why Vine for Android even exists (you don’t see Vine for Windows Phone, do you?) but also the reason why its design isn’t on par with the iOS design. “Android” doesn’t have just one addressable demographic, since its different user groups may as well be using (and being conscious of) different platforms altogether, and because of this, we get the only-on-Android odd scenario of a massively popular app that, given the chance to do so much, does only the bare minimum and gets away with it, despite protests from the minority.
Google Play Books has received numerous updates in the last few months, including one that added PDF/ePub reading and markup support. This is a welcome change. The default QuickOffice viewer in Chrome for Android isn’t the friendliest or richest way to read PDFs/ePubs, so users who are serious about PDF/ePub reading on Android have probably downloaded a 3rd-party alternative like the free Adobe Reader or the more expansive ezPDF Reader Pro. While the latter app is still good for easy annotation and heavy document manipulation, Play Books is now a nice way to simply read documents on Android, and maybe add some notes and bookmarks as you go (these items are then synced to your Google account, so that they appear on the Web viewer, too).
To get PDFs or ePubs into Play Books, you must use the Google Play desktop site (http://play.google.com). Select “My Books” at the top, and then select “Upload” – it’s that simple. You can pick documents from your local machine or from your Drive.
On your Android device, you can find the books in your library, alongside any purchased or freely downloaded books from Google Play. The interface is similar to reading a book from the Google Play Store – there’s a page slider at the bottom, along with some display options and settings near the top.
The same display filters (like Sepia) for books can also be applied to PDFs and ePubs.
For PDFs that are “flowing text mode” rather than “scanned pages” mode, you can add annotations and notes. Not all PDFs support this feature out of the box, so you may need to do a PDF reflow on them in an app like the aforementioned ezPDF Reader Pro.
I hope that Google eventually makes it easier to open PDFs/ePubs from Gmail or Chrome on Android directly into Play Books. Better reflow and annotation options could also help to simplify the PDF/ePub workflow on Android, even if it would represent yet another incursion by Google upon territory essential to many 3rd-party developers.
You can also use the Android app to pin your uploaded documents for offline reading. Simply tap the 3-dot column on a given document and then tap “Keep on Device.” It works in similar fashion to Google Play Music.