On the record – Both familiar and brand new at the same time (Weeks 41 to 45)

We’re mid-way through November now, and I’m starting to think about how this album adventure challenge will end. It was intended to be a year-long mission to expand my album horizons, but gradually, as the year has gone on I have learnt two things. 1) I love it and 2) There are a lot of albums out there!

So the answer is, it’s not ending any time soon. I’m going to keep listening to albums into 2017 and goodness knows how long. But I’ve also made plans for how to wrap up the year. I’m going to 50 weeks, rather than the full 52, leaving the final two weeks to review what I’ve listened to over the previous 11 and a half months, and evaluate the good, the bad and everything in between.

I’m even tasked with creating a proper, definitive, top ten list of the albums I’ve indulged in so far. Now I understand what pains Mr C goes through every single year for his top fives.

Anyway, on with the latest update – as there are just ten weeks left to cover, I’ll make it two posts of five each, rather than the four you’ve seen previously.

Title Artist Year Notes
Week 41
Oh My My OneRepublic 2016 Love this album. It’s maybe not got quite so many instant classics as the previous album, but it’s stacked full of good songs, and they span quite a variety – from looping Bieber-style pop, to more gospel choir piano tunes, plus bonus Peter Gabriel! And if you don’t like that stuff, there’s enough OneRepublic anthems to get you through. Quality.
Club Classics, Vol 1 Soul II Soul 1989 They must have been really confident that these were a) classics and b) just the first volume. Luckily, it is a great album, and so although the title makes it look like a compilation, it is actually a solid body of work by one group. It makes for some relaxing listening, especially starting with Keep on Moving, and ending up with Back for Life.
Week 42
WALLS Kings of Leon 2016 This was a pleasant surprise for me. I thought I perhaps didn’t like KOL because they were overplayed or something like that. However, this album was brilliant! Some of the guitar riffs felt familiar but then the songs developed in a completely different way so it was fun to listen to something that felt both familiar and brand new at the same time. Great stuff!
Taylor Swift Taylor Swift 2006 Mr C is obsessed with Taylor so he’s planning for me to work my way through all the albums, starting at the beginning with baby Taylor. This is a cute album, so very country in places, but with good heart and good songs and just a nice start to what has become an incredible career. Particularly enjoy how very country Our Song is.
Week 43
Version of Me Melanie C 2016 Enjoyed this more than I thought I would, it’s not like Mel C was ever my favourite Spice Girl but I quite like what she’s done here. It really feels like grown up pop, like a Spice Girl album that has gone through puberty and now has actual problems to deal with. Pop but with just a bit of an edge, I like it.
The Joshua Tree U2 1987 Good album, from start to finish, but the problem I have with it is that it starts with Where the Streets, Still Haven’t Found, and With or Without You, so you have to ask yourself, what is the point of the rest of the album? Those three songs are incredible, and whilst the rest is fine, they are overshadowed by such an amazing start.
Week 44
The Wave Tom Chaplin 2016 In places, you can hear the Keane-ness of the album shining through, but it’s not as close to the band’s music as I expected. There’s more production to it, more instruments and actually more upbeat songs as well. That isn’t always a good thing, it’s missing that wistful edge of Keane music. Some of this you can tell is influenced by Tom’s personal struggles but it’s an overall positive experience.
Jagged Little Pill Alanis Morrisette 1995 I love Alanis so I sort of can’t believe I haven’t listened to this one all the way through before. It’s so good, full of angst and rage but a real sense of self belief. Some great songs, even if you can’t take Ironic seriously anymore. But You Learn gets stuck in my head in the best possible way. Great job, definitely one I’ll listen to over and again.
Week 45
HERE Alicia Keys 2016 Alicia’s debut album was one of the first and few that I bought and listened to in full over and over. This one is stacked full of wonderful songs, feel good music that is inspirational and uplifting – desperately needed this year! I wasn’t too bothered about the interludes but the songs themselves are great.
The Script The Script 2008 Great album, I like The Script. Good songs, fresh perspective, slightly Irish lilt and (more than) a hint of U2 in places. I feel like it’s not their best work, but half the songs on the album were singles so it can’t have been too bad a start for their career!

Whose first line is it anyway?

Now, you know I love James Corden and his antics, but combine them with the fabulous Hailee Steinfeld and you’re on to a winner. This game, though, it is something mindbending.

Taking the first line of every song and repeating it for every line is so hard, have you tried it? Try it! A lot of fun though, and far more hilarious than it has any right to be. I’m worried I will never be able to sing songs normally, now that I know they should all just be the first line repeated over and over.

“Life is a mystery, life is a mystery, life is a mystery, life is a mystery.”

One star wars

You know that meme where celebrities read mean tweets about themselves? Well, app developers have picked up on this and started reading one star reviews of their products. The end result is brilliant, if you’re slightly geeky like me.

Love the people that are confused and say really nice things but then award one star. And poor Marco who gets all the personal comments and nothing about the actual app in question. Hope there’s more of these in the future, although of course I don’t actually hope that developers keep getting one star reviews!

Rise and shine

Up until this year, when a certain motorsport game came out that replicates the 2016 F1 season, I called our Playstation 4 “the Tomb Raider box” because that’s pretty much all it was good for. I’m not a big console gamer but Tomb Raider has always been a huge love of both mine and Mr C’s, so it was only natural we grabbed the new Rise of the Tomb Raider game as soon as it became available (which was a year later than on the Xbox, thanks peeps).

rise-of-the-tomb-raider

I remember struggling with the increased realism in the previous game because whilst on the one hand there were incredible views and staggering graphics, there were also some pretty grisly areas on the map and some horrific death scenes to give you nightmares. Thankfully, Rise of the Tomb Raider seems to have dialled some of that down.

We’ve been playing for a good few nights now and have completed about a quarter of the game, so firstly, a big thumbs up for value for money. What Square Enix seem to have done with this outing is (at least so far) reduce the sheer volume of enemies that need to be dispatched and instead focus on running, jumping, scavenging and of course, completing those all important puzzles. That’s more like the Lara adventures we know and love.

That’s not to say there aren’t bad guys to shoot in this game, because there are and some of them are very hard. And there are things that could go the route of the nightmare – that swimming scene out of the ice, or whatever the heck those zombie wolves are. But it feels like (again, so far) that the developers have gone back to the core of Lara, those tombs and puzzle rooms that involve pulling levers and completing jumps in a certain amount of time to get to your destination. It feels like they’ve got a good balance and know what story it is they’re trying to tell without resorting to gore.

Plus, you can tell they’ve gone back to their roots a little with the reintroduction of Croft Manor, with all its little hidey holes and Easter Eggs, it’s a lot of fun.

So yea, the graphics are even more beautiful than ever before, they’ve got a better balance of gameplay, and we’ve been playing for hours and have just cracked 25%. I guess I’ll be productive again in 2017.

French, powered by artificial intelligence

I can’t believe it was three long years ago that I first wrote about the magic of the Duolingo language learning app. Three years of free French lessons (with a few hiatuses here and there) and I definitely feel like I know more of the language than I ever have before. What’s also amazing is looking back at my initial post, to see how the app has developed.

It has a fresh and much cleaner look now, the lesson style has changed slightly from a “three strikes and you’re out” approach to a more “keep trying and you’ll get there” system. There are also a lot more languages out there to choose from, I’ve already experimented with a spot of German and Dutch, but always come back to the more familiar French.

duolingo-chatbotsWhat’s great about the app, though, is that they’re always trying to innovate and develop, introducing new concepts and dropping those that don’t work. Recently, they’ve introduced a new Chatbot feature, in which you are tasked with indulging in a text message style conversation in French.

From grabbing a slice of pizza to hailing a taxi, Bots prepare you for real-life conversations — minus the awkwardness and anxiety. The hardest part of learning a new language just became easy.

Duolingo Bots are powered by artificial intelligence and react differently to thousands of possible answers. Feeling stuck? Hit “help me reply” and they’ll come up with suggestions. Best of all — the more you practice, the smarter they get.

At first, I was superbly excited by the idea – having a go at piecing together full conversations is a great idea, even if it is with artificial intelligence rather than a real life French person. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t quite live up to my expectations, as the conversations are more structured than I’d imagined. You have a variety of options you can say, and as you start typing an auto-correct style feature will help you if you’re stuck. But if you type something that the app isn’t expecting, then you can’t submit it, even if it still fits within the conversation.

It’s still a fun experience though, feeling as though you are participating in a conversation, and it’s always a good feeling when a question is asked and you know exactly what is being said. It’s not quite what I imagined it would be, but it’s still a really good development – and one that is stacked full of potential for future updates.

On the record – Quirky, dancey, French (Weeks 37 to 40)

Here, in this bunch of albums, you can see the direct result of this year’s Apple Music Festival. I’d always planned to listen to Bastille and their new album, but their appearance at the Roundhouse only spurred me on to move it up the list. Christine and the Queens and Passenger also both came from that fortnight of music, as I wouldn’t have known to pick those albums up without it.

Mr C’s choices, meanwhile, offer a distinct range of songs, and I’ve noticed that we’ve started trying to pick different genres to each other. If I’m listening to alternative guitar bands, he picks 1980s solo female superstars. If I’ve gone for European dance music, he picks an evergreen male star with a rich history of songs (and drama)!

Title Artist Year Notes
Week 37
Wild World Bastille 2016 Listened to an older Bastille album just two weeks ago, and it’s interesting to hear the differences. Still a good album, still full of the drums and drama, but with more of an edge to it. Found the radio inserts a bit odd, but enjoyed the album from start to finish.
Heaven on Earth Belinda Carlisle 1987 I know the three main singles from this album but I’ve never really indulged in any extra-curricular Belinda tracks, and I thought it was a really solid album. It’s intensely eighties, obviously, but she has a great voice and it’s got some really catchy stuff in there.
Week 38
Hard II Love Usher 2016 I was sort of dreading this one because I’m still conscious of disliking Drake’s album. However, this was a really solid R&B/hip-hop outing, very relaxing and brilliant to drive home to of an early autumn evening.
Body Talk Robyn 2010 I only knew one song going into this album and it was a bit of a surprise, as the songs were all far more dancey than I had anticipated. I loved it though, really great songs, sort of quirky like Gwen Stefani, with some odd but brilliant lyrics.
Week 39
Chaleur Humane Christine and the Queens 2016 Saw Christine appear on the Elton John Apple Music Festival evening and was instantly obsessed. Watched her on her support act evening too, and then quickly downloaded the album. Amazing, love it all. Quirky, dancey, French, and Tilted gets right inside my head.
Faith George Michael 1987 It’s exactly what you expect from late 80s George, the songs sound mostly similar except for a couple of slightly out of place ballads – at one point he goes very Sinatra swing. However, very entertaining, if a bit “I’m so sexy” in places.
Week 40
Young as the Morning Old as the Sea Passenger 2016 Brilliant album. After embarrassing myself watching Passenger on AMF10, I figured I should listen to the new album, and I’m glad I did! Distinctive voice, great guitar riffs and lovely tunes – ranging from easy listening, to the more slow and depressing sort, it’s a relaxed album perfect for chilling out to.
Kick INXS 1987 Ah, I really enjoyed this album. These are one of those bands where I think I don’t know any of their songs but I knew at least three of them and they’re all good ones. It’s beautifully eighties, with those keyboards and drum kicks, but at the same time it hasn’t aged horribly, there are some proper classics on there. Also like how the songs lead into each other nicely, proper album work.

The soundtrack to your studies

The BBC recently published a short video that explained why some people respond better to having music playing when they’re studying and others work better in silence.

This is a topic that has been on my radar for a long time, because Mr C and I differ radically on our approaches to concentration. He can listen to music as he works and learns, whereas I don’t favour silence but certainly prefer a white noise that requires no additional concentration.

We knew there must be some kind of hardwiring in our brains that differs on this subject (as on so many other topics too), but it’s brilliant to hear about the actual science and reasoning behind the different ways to go about learning.

Music’s effect on our attention can be two-fold. So if someone is very bored with a task, not really engaging with it then having something like music in the background that does excite the person, and raises their level of attention to their environment, can help focus them on the task in hand.

One of the classic psychological theories of performance describes the way we behave on an upside down u-shaped curve. The two points at the bottom are the non-optimal places to be, down here is boredom, mind-wandering, low in attention. Over here is stress, over-stimulation and panic.

Just in case you find that hard to picture, I have taken the liberty of producing a top-notch, well-researched and carefully crafted graph to illustrate:

science-of-music-and-studying

Music is a stimulus that can move us along this u-shaped curve. So if you’re down here, bored low-attention, low energy, music can bring you up the curve towards your optimum. The other side of it, of course, is if you’re already at your optimum, or worse slightly over then too much music in your environment can push you towards feeling stressed, anxiety and panic.

Basically, it comes down to energy. So people who are more introverted have a higher level of internal energy within them, so they don’t seek a lot of stimulation from the environment because they are already close to their optimum for performance. Whereas extroverts, they are seeking external stimulation, they’re seeking things from their environment, because their internal battery is lower. So that is why extroverts have often been found to perform better when music is in the background, as opposed to people who are more introverted.

Incredible.