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Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Up, up and away from America

One year away from the upside-down world my country has found itself in? An inverted unreality held hostage by gun-sucking terrorcrats where racism is normalized, healthcare is sold out, freedom only means acquiescence? One year away from the bloody froth of the media, the detached apathy of the white middle class, bathroom laws, surveillance states, Russian probes, walls, the hypocrisy of the far left, erosion of workers’ rights, fake news, legalized murder by police, celebrity idolatry and its systematized distraction, environmental corruption, and the white-eyed worship of Capitalism?

Not a hard choice. Not by a long shot.

In August 2017, we moved to Munich, Germany. Call it a hiatus, call it sabbatical, call it a Ross/Rachel break.

We all have our Election Stories. Like 9/11, I’ll never forget where I was, whom I was with, the shock, the looks, the bile and nausea. The vertigo of tipping into the bottomless and lightless hole of the future, the suddenly clear and receding view of what could have been. The ultimate moment of tangency.

Days later, we got a dog; he is the literal definition of “trauma pet”. I swore off Twitter, accepting the unresolvable conflict at its core. My wife marched in Washington. We drank too much.

The administration is worse than anyone imagined. Headline after headline, waves of disbelief, watching the fabric of a delicate democracy stretched until the core frays. Dystopia, unfolding in real-time. You see it too. Maybe you have that same nausea.

Leaving the country was not a hard choice. Now we are in the curious position of looking into the windows of our own home.

Appropriately, friends and family ask the most obvious question first: what’s it like living in Munich? (It’s important to be specific. Germany is big and living in Germany and living in Munich is the difference between the East Coast and New York City.)

In summary: Munich is what America could be — before it’s too late.

There’s a lot of nuance there, of course. But here are the two things I start with that every American can understand: imagine not worrying about guns and imagine not worrying about healthcare. Consider how much those two fears distort, distract and debilitate life in America. Consider how much of America’s core cultural context would change if guns and healthcare ceased being daily mortal threats. It’s literally almost impossible to imagine.

That’s the start, but guns and healthcare change so, so much. There are other differences, not all of them as serious. For instance:

  • My kids can walk home by themselves and I don’t worry. Thousands of kids ride the subway every day, without parents. Independent mobility at a young age is encouraged.
  • Capitalism is real but regulated to squelch predatory practices and protect both the consumer and the worker. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.
  • Germans dress better than you; conversely, they’re terrible interior designers. They’re better engineers; conversely, they’re less successful in industrial design.
  • Income inequality is a problem, as it is in the U.S. Home ownership in Germany is the lowest in the EU because real estate is stratospherically expensive. Income inequality is a global cancer.
  • Five main political parties, not two.
  • Foreign terrorism is not an abstract threat and security is tight as a tick’s asshole in public spaces and airports. (And I mean real security, not TSA security.) This is true for all of western Europe.
  • The cultural and economic pressure of refugees and immigrants is real, not merely a political scapegoat, and is central to almost every election and leadership coalition in Europe for the past two years. Not always with positive results.
  • Travel across borders is an everyday thing. 13 countries border Germany. Vacation in Italy, Spain, Croatia, Morocco, and other points across Europe, Asia and Africa is the normal. Isolationist nationalism is political rhetoric but does not reflect the reality that Europeans move about all the time.
  • Labor is value, not expense. Work-life balance is equal. Long vacations aren’t just encouraged, they’re expected. At the same time, healthcare, pension and other systems ensure deep safety nets for citizens, and losing a job does not put your entire life at risk.
  • It’s important to say this again: losing a job does not put your life at risk.
  • Most people speak more than German. English is common. Many people speak three languages. Education prioritizes this early on. This goes a long way in dissolving nationalistic tendencies because literal understanding creates paths toward empathy. Imagine if most of the U.S. were fluent in Spanish. Imagine if more of the Western world understood Arabic.

No guns, universal healthcare, fair labor laws, deep social safety nets. The U.S. could have these! But our country has succumbed to the oppression of runaway capitalism, disproportionate and irrational defense budgets, and the insane, no-win, bullshit posturing of a two-party political system.

It’s not too late for America. The happiness index of Europe is all the evidence my fellow citizens need to see that there is path out of the darkness.

Until then, we vote, we march, we add our voices to the fray. No matter where we live, home is still home.

Originally published on Medium.

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My Favorite Albums of 2017

Favorite albums of 2017 - covers

Kauf – Regrowth

Probably my album of the year, but that bias comes from the salivatingly long wait for its arrival. Kauf’s music occupies a certain nexus of unconventional pop, sophisticated dance, and provocative lyrics that blend into a package of resonant, meditative, danceable, mix-tape-worthy tracks. Sophisticated, yes, but more importantly: addictingly repeatable.

If you only listen to one thing, make it “Through the Yard”.

Tender – Modern Addiction

Fine-boned synth pop that layers persuasive vocals onto melodramatic arrangments and boxes it all into well-tread pop structures. There are few bold statements, but plenty of color, textures and emotion that suggests this debut album is only a hint of the potential.

Com Truise – Iteration

If your heart is warmed by the synthwave trend, you know Com Truise, perhaps the most musically articulate artist dwelling in the neon-diode-joystick vibe. Where his last album was the soundtrack to every memory ever made in 1983, Iteration is a more refined outing with far sharper details; a soundtrack to the movie about the nostalgia of 1983. But the core of Com Truise remains: expressive humanism through a purely electronic medium.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – async

This difficult ambient-experimental album plows a glowing path through a field of darkness, effortlessly weaving bright organic notes with dissonant layers of noise and off-tone electronics. Melodramatic, yes, but immaculately conceived.

Here’s the opening track, “Andata”.

Nick Hoppner – Work

House music done right. Nothing innovative, but every beat, synth stab and sample locks into eminently addictive grooves. Worthy of both headphones and club systems.

Hugh – Love, Hugh

Straight-up British pop whose hooks bend around a savory and sweet blend of male and female vocals. Every song is a character until itself, with little sonic plot twists and tension that illuminate the depth of thinking (and, perhaps, bittersweet stories) behind the songwriting. It’s danceable, but also thinkable.

Here’s “Go”, the lead single, which captures the emotional groove this record locks into.

Various – Magnatron 2.0

Speaking of synthwave, this is pretty much the apex. You either get on the train and dance til dawn or run away as fast as possible. This comp just kills it. Here’s just one sample:

Daniel Pemberton – King Author: Legend of the Sword (soundtrack)

Daniel Permberton has created an utterly unique folk-tribal-industrial onslaught that pounds and dodges across a spectrum of grit, shadow, hope and revenge. The surgical sound design, innovative sampling and layers of percussion as dense as the atmospheres of Jupiter are so shockingly fresh that it’s almost impossible not to listen with jaws dropped. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the most interesting soundtracked soundtrack since Tron: Legacy.

Spend three minutes on “Growing Up in Londinium” and grok it.

Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse

Jazz is, almost by definition, a process of invention and iteration. The most memorable performances and performers are never capable of rehashing — it’s always a drive to fill a sonic hole only they can hear. Yazz Ahmed has created a near-perfect articulation of her vision: a blend of her elegant trumpet work, layers of Middle Eastern percussion, touches of electronics as delicate as saffron, and an unrepentant boldness in melody. It is fresh, persistent and as relevant as ever.

Anticipated albums that fell short

The National – Sleep Well Beast. Technically accomplished with beautiful moments but not nearly the tour de force of the previous three records. My biggest let-down.

Shigeto – The New Monday. Interesting, even slightly innovative house/hip-hop, but light years short of the hype.

Slowdive – Slowdive. Boring.

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2016 Reading Recap

Fiction

The Expanse Series, S.A. Corey, 2014

  • Leviathan Wakes
  • Caliban’s War
  • Abbodon’s Gate

If Dan Brown wrote off-planet science fiction, this would be it. At the core of each book is a dark mystery perpetrated by shadowy organizations, and the only hope for mankind is a ragtag but unusually clever group of folks. The narrative bounces between characters, and cliffhangers loom at the end of each chapter, literally forcing you to turn the page because can’t put it down. Not sprawling enough to qualify as “space opera”, but totally immersive in its own right.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series, Douglas Adams

No editorial necessary. Third time through, and it just gets better.

The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons, 2015

At first, this is a straight-forward mystery story with an unlikely hero pair: an actual historical figure (Henry James) and a fictional historical character (Sherlock Holmes). But the mystery on the surface gives way to velvet-rich character studies of late 19th Century politicians and writers (Theodore Roosevelt, Clarence King and Samuel Clemens appear). A subtle, disquieting thread is Holmes’ struggle to understand whether he is an actual person or a fictional character, which unwinds into some seriously existential dialogue. While tame for a Simmons novel, the time spent unfolding the psychology of the characters, and describing the technology and culture of the turn of the century, is a true pleasure. If you liked the gentle pacing and crafted scene-setting of The Crook Factory, this is for you.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, 2006

A long, plodding novel about two magicians quest to return magic to England, which sounds exactly like my kind of story. I tried hard as hell to find the appeal of this book, but it took me a year to finish because it’s just. that. boring.

The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud 2015

An absolutely brilliant complement to Albert Camus’ The Stranger, where an investigation, carried out decades after the crime, leads us to the brother of the murdered Arab. The brother, mad from grief and the suffocating presence of his mother, unravels a winding tale of suffering, war, murder, mystery, love, and so much more. The translation from French is exquisite, a true gem of literature where the subtlest turns of phrase trap you in wonderment. If you love language, unconventional storytelling, and mystery served with the delicacy of a croissant, do not pass this by.

Rise of Endymion, Dan Simmons, 1998

Final installment to the Hyperion series. Excellent space opera and a gripping conclusion. If you’ve read the other books in the series, this ties it all together.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson, 2015

Quite the hyped science fiction book of last year, it lives up to 90% of the good reviews. The first two-thirds describes mankind’s quest to escape an Earth doomed to boil under the rain of fragments from a shattered moon, and is absolute classic near-future fiction along the lines of The Martian. The personalities, hard science, and portrait of a global society on the precipice of annihilation is gripping. The last third, picking up the story 5,000 years into the future, sacrifices a punchy storyline for extended passages of scene-setting that describe just how humans were able to survive without Mother Earth. Without question, in my top 10 sci-fi books of all time.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, 2015

A novel that weaves a delicious story of people surviving the near extinction of the human race and then learning to come back together as a new kind of civilization. Stringing character stories back and forth between “Before” and “After” the end enables Emily St. John Mandel to explore vivid passages of everything we have to lose, from the little things like turning on a light to the inability to communicate with anyone beyond a few hundred feet. While set in the near-future (like the tomorrow near future), its introspection is beyond science fiction.

Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs

In retrospect, not a particularly good book. You know the story. The original narrative is underscored by shocking racism; the idea that a white man could ever not be the king of the jungle, over “apes” and native tribes, is not even on the radar. Combined with the plotless violence and stilted writing, it all just kind of sucks.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough, 1977

Not much to be said about this that hasn’t already been written. A winding tale following a complex Australian family through three generations of love and loss, birth and death. While cloyingly melodramatic and shockingly cruel, it was hard to put down.

The Twenty-One Balloons, William Pene du Bois, 1948

A tale of one ex-schoolteacher who builds a balloon with the intention of sailing around the world without landing for one year. Rather abruptly, he’s wrecked on the island of Krakatoa days before its explosion where he discovers a fantastic community of twenty families rich from diamond mines on the island. Of course the island does explode, forcing them to evacuate by, you guessed it, balloons. Written for kids, but fun for adults.

Nonfiction

A Sense of Style, Steven Pinker, 2014

Billed as “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century”, this is Mr Pinker’s argument for writing with classic style. Without hesitation, he lays contemporary writing on the table and picks it apart with defenses against confusing syntax, zombie nouns, ambiguous phrasing and more. He demonstrates how to “tree” sentences for clarity, a useful trick, and openly challenges conventions from The Elements of Style (and other style books) that inhibit clarity. While his writing is clear, some passages are as dense as clay and require several read-throughs. If linguistics and the mechanics of writing excite you, this is worth every penny.

A Walk In the Woods, Bill Bryson, 2006

Mr Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail is a humble, deadpan, genuinely funny narrative of the trail itself, the personalities that populate it, the scenery and history it touches across its 13 states, and the social and political pressures it faces on a yearly basis. While a literal walk in the woods seems scarcely interesting on the surface, his punitive detail and sardonic, journalistic objectivity make this book hard to put down.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, Simon Winchester, 2005

An unbelievably thorough narrative describing not just the 1883 explosion of the island itself, but the historical science of plate tectonics, the geo-political trade climate at the time, and of course the long, unfortunate fall-out of the cataclysm. Equal parts history, science, and personal narrative, Krakatoa is a treat in understanding how single moments of unimaginable change from over a century ago shape today’s religion and politics.

My favorite albums of 2016

Covers of favorite albums of 2016

Bill Evans, Some Other Time

Weird to be writing about a new Bill Evans record, but 2016 saw the first release of this fantastic session. The recording, pressing and packaging are immaculate, and the liner notes delve into the discovery and production of this instant classic. Released on Record Store Day but a level above most of the swill that turns up in that event.

Christian Löffler, Mare

Meditative techno that keeps one foot on the dancefloor and another in the living room. The earthy synths, breathless vocals and sublime beats play beautifully across crystalline production. Fans of Jon Hopkins, take note.

The Boxer Rebellion, Ocean by Ocean

A quality follow-up to 2013’s Promises, this finds the band further shedding the angsty guitars and manic pace of early albums into something quite beautiful. The songwriting continues to adhere to stringent pop structures but the melancholy harmonies transcend beyond radio trash.

Covenant, The Blinding Dark

After a series of totally forgettable albums, Covenant recapture their 90s EBM glam with a release that demonstrates both the band and the genre still have something to say. Their best album since 2002’s Northern Light.

GoGo Penguin, Man Made Object

This contemporary jazz trio redefines “jazz” in ways that haven’t been done since Ninja Tune birthed acid jazz in the 90s. Blending impeccable playing across songs that are almost organic drum’n‘bass, the shifting rhythms propel gorgeous piano into something almost beyond genre pigeonholing. So. Frigging. Good.

Coil, The New Backwards and The Ape of Naples

Originally recorded over a decade ago in Trent Reznor’s studio, these gorgeous re-issues and remasters breathe new life into Coil’s last proper recordings before the core band members passed away. While other segments of Coil’s discography receive most of the critics’ breathless hyperbole, these are crucial recordings that capture a musical flame on the brink of its last light.

Savages, Adore Life

On one hand, it’s easy to forget that this January-released LP arrived in 2016; on the other hand, it’s impossible to forget this LP, period. This singular post-punk statement crashes and sways across ten tracks of feminist empowerment, subversive tenderness, and aggressive compassion, throttling ears and hearts with a grip as fierce as barbed wire.

Warhaus, We Fucked a Flame into Being

Smashing together National-like vocals, half-drunk horns, bombastic drums and Euro-hip swagger, Warhaus capture a sound, a moment, a feeling, that is instantly familiar but totally fresh. Nihilistic but affectionate, maybe?

Leisure, Leisure

This shit blew up my playlists in 2016. A volatile, addictive cocktail of funk, pop and glam, every song is a hit of butt-shaking sing-along audio crack.

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I Am Done With Twitter

Over the past year, my time invested in Twitter has become increasingly devalued. The once-inspiring exchange of ideas has been displaced by numbed scrolling, overreactive retweets, political echo chambers, and vomit-inducing abuse.

An utter vacuum of critical thought or thoughtful criticism. So I’m done. For a long time.

Specifically:

  • For reasons I have yet to articulate, but probably has roots in apathy toward a follower base I suspect is mostly bots, I fail to share links and insights relevant to my professional life: branding, design, content strategy, copywriting, marketing. Because of this lack of contribution into my social ecosystem, my colleagues and professional birds of a feather get nothing from me. That sucks, because the premise of social media is the democratization of exchanging ideas. I am clearly part of the problem, yet I no longer give a shit, and that is a bigger problem.
  • The political environment is Fukushima-grade poison, and Twitter acerbates all that’s wrong with modern “debate”. Over and over, I found myself amplifying knee-jerk reactions without thinking, fueling dumpster fires of unhelpful, unconvincing, divisive rhetoric. Again: I was part of the problem.
  • More often than not, I use Twitter as an excuse to avoid thinking critically, an activity in scarce supply these days. By glazing over a feed for 30 minutes, I tap into productivity dopamine, but come down from the bender with zero insights or inspiration and a big blob of empty in my brain. Civilization requires critical thought. Twitter, almost by any definition, impedes it.
  • And, crucially, the level of unchecked abuse toward women, minorities, religions, and the LGBTQ community is literally insane. I can’t support a platform that refuses to fix a system that destroys people who deserve nothing less than total rights equality and love from the community.

Bottom line: my time is better spent elsewhere. Call it boycott, call it abandonment, call it a giant middle finger. I’m out.

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