December 31, 2012

Staff Picks: 2012

Remember my Staff Picks entry from back in November? Well, lest you think I only occasionally fantasize about working at libraries and bookstores and all the exquisite privileges that come with such a dreamjob, let me set the record straight with another Staff Picks shelf, this time for my favorites of 2012. 

I have looked at a few "Best of 2012" lists for the albums released this year and have been mostly disappointed. Does anyone actually listen to the Japandroids? And who is Miguel? Or Frank Ocean? It seems as though a lot of these lists have a vested interest in looking really eclectic and cultured (if sub-cultured), so they throw in garage bands and amateurish R&B to round things out. I was really surprised at the absence of certain really good releases I've heard this year. But this isn't a Best Of list, it's just my personal favorites from the year. So without further ado:

Adventures In Your Own Backyard by Patrick Watson

This is probably my favorite discovery of the year. Patrick Watson and his crew know how to deliver sweet little songs that are creative and layered. Favorite tracks: "Lighthouse," "Into Giants," "Quiet Crowd," and the title track, "Adventures In Your Own Backyard." I spent many hours grading this semester with this album as my soundtrack. I'm looking forward to listening to it under more pleasant conditions in 2013.

Loveblood by King Charles

King Charles may also weigh in as my biggest crush of the whole year. His persona is so bizarre (one critic referred to his look as a cross between a French duke and a root vegetable), yet it makes so much sense. He is like a crude Roi Soleil come to haunt us in the 21st century. The general reception of this album is mixed, so I'll just tell you what I think: it's a lot of fun. In fact, it's the album I wish Mika would have released this year. A lot of people want to pigeonhole King Charles into that painfully boring category of "indie pop," but I think the music is way too catchy for that. Favorite tracks: "Mississippi Isabel," "Ivory Road," "The Brightest Lights."

Break It Yourself by Andrew Bird

This is Andrew Bird we're talking about here. Trust me. Trust him. Favorites: "Danse Caribe," "Lazy Projector," "Near Death Experience Experience," "Lusitania" (love him most when he's whistling), "Belles."

Radio Music Society by Esperanza Spalding

I have yet to love any of her albums as much as I did her debut, Esperanza, but girl keeps making good music. Tracks like "Radio Song" and "Black Gold" set this album apart as being slightly more radio-friendly or generally palatable than previous releases. All the same, she hasn't lost my attention yet. Favorite tracks: "Crowned & Kissed," "I Can't Help It," and "City of Roses."

Love is a Four-Letter Word by Jason Mraz

It wouldn't even be fair to call Jason Mraz my guilty pleasure; I sincerely believe that he's talented and that, when he isn't trying too hard to impress the fan-base he created with the release of "I'm Yours" ca. 2008, he's a creative songwriter and an almost unmatched performer in terms of his energy and improvisational abilities. This album is not consistently brilliant, but it has so many moments that shine like little revelations. The whole tenor of the album has to do with the art of living abundantly, which we come to learn is almost indistinguishable from the gift of loving abundantly. Favorites: "93 Million Miles" (I seriously listened to that about a dozen times on the evening I purchased the album), "Be Honest," "The World As I See It," and "5/6." (Read my more extensive review of the album on Amazon.)

Born & Raised by John Mayer

To follow 2012's running theme of "Not my favorite by this artist," Born & Raised is far from John Mayer at his finest. But I'd be lying if I said anything other than that I fell in love with this album while driving by myself eastbound down I-80 through the fields of Iowa. John Mayer is one of those musicians I love all the more for his story. He was in a rocky place as he started working on this album, but you can tell that he sort of found his footing in the process of laying down these tracks. And somehow, as a result, I had an awakening of my own when I finally let this blasted little country album grow on me. Favorites: "Queen of California," "Something Like Olivia" (mmm, some blues), "Born and Raised," "If I Ever Get Around to Living" (this one reminds me of "83" from Room for Squares), "A Face to Call Home" (tears, okay?). 

Notable Mentions Because I Love These Guys and Want Their Music to Keep Being Wonderful:
The Absence by Melody Gardot 

The Origin of Love by Mika (c'mon dude, pull it together)

My favorite theatrical releases from the year.

Moonrise Kingdom
(Saw it with: darling Rebekah Allred)

Sweet little film from Wes Anderson. The children-and-birds-and-wilderness-and-Boy-Scouts-in-the-60s aesthetic really did it for me, and I loved Alexandre Desplat and Benjamin Britten on the soundtrack.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
(Saw it with: the venerable Patrick and Philip)

I wouldn't recommend it to just anyone. It had a sort of awful sorrow to it, but it was beautiful in its ugliness and I was moved.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
(Saw it with: Emily, the perfect friend for the occasion)

This book was wonderful and haunting to me as a teenager. Who knows what I'd think of it now, but I was a sucker for this movie all the same.

Wreck-It Ralph
(Saw it with: my amazing siblings Bradford, Sarah, and Dan)

So cute. I just loved this one because it was lovable. Also, it might be worth it to go see it just for the incredible Disney short that premieres before the film.

The Words
(Saw it: on its DVD release day with my family)

I'm a sucker for plagiarism as a metaphor. This is a smart film, and literary.

Les Misérables
(Saw it: on Christmas day with my family)

I love this story. What more can I say?

Notable Mention Because I Saw Only Half of this Film But Really Enjoyed it:
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Who are we kidding? I don't read. 

But actually, it's true that I probably didn't read anything published in 2012. So instead, I will leave you with my favorite book (which is also my favorite favorite) of the year in the hopes that you'll read it and be changed as I was:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I'll undoubtedly write about this time and time again on the blog, so suffice it to say for now that my year wouldn't have been the same without it.

Let me know if you heard, saw, or read anything this year that I should know about. May you all have the most wonderful ringing-in of the New Year with the loveliest people you know this evening. That's what I'll be doing.

December 24, 2012

O Magnum Mysterium

Having been raised in a Church that largely favors conceptualizing a loving and even familiar God and a Savior who is truly our friend, I have always been able to find personal peace and comfort even in times of the deepest and bitterest heartache. Sometimes it feels as though the holidays are when I most need to plead for that reassurance from on high that broken things will be mended, that all which is lost will be restored, that I was created to praise and to have joy (which might end up being more or less the same thing, when I think about it). 

But one thing that I perhaps haven't spent enough time doing is showing my reverence for something like the birth of Christ simply by acknowledging its incomprehensibilityits mystery. There are moments when I truly do awe at the miracle that is a falling snowflake, a warm embrace, a word tenderly spoken, or the irresistible magic of the lit-up Christmas tree in my childhood living room. My sense of wonder should be a hundredfold and eternity for the gift, genuine and sweet and everlasting, of a Savior who came to this earth to love and heal in ways that transcend my understanding.

This setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" has a way of, well, making me cry. And also reminding me that it really is a great mystery, this thing we call Christmas.

May you all enjoy as many beautiful things possible on this Christmas Eve.

December 21, 2012

Every once in a while, an amazing person decides to be my friend & stuff

Meet Philip. Actually, you already have if you read my last blog post. He makes delicious bread and figgy pudding and he writes poetry and plays bells of all kinds and actually has a favorite font and looks like this more often than should be allowed:

That hair. Right? 

If you can believe it, he also writes music. You should probably spend the rest of your day reveling in something (or seven things) he's created at his gloriously designed personal website.

In addition to the supernal privilege of knowing someone so full and genuine and lovely, I have the added bonus of taking meager part in awesome artistic collaborations with him.

You'll probably hear more about our post-classical minimalist indie-folk Americana world music duo in future posts, but know for now that we may or may not have come up with the concept for our band (Ampers&) and its first three album releases (to say nothing of our EP, of course) in the dead of night when I should have been writing a Swedish paper. Don't worry, this photo of me and Philip from ca. 2000 will definitely be included in the liner notes or as the cover of our collector's edition vinyl.

All of this is to say that you should probably listen to this song, Ampers&'s first demo, and think about what you're resolving to do in 2013 now that we know the world is most certainly not finished not even close because not every person has a home yet and not every star a song.

December 20, 2012

The Most Glorious

The Most Glorious Merry Wonderful Charming Perfect Heartwarming Christmas Party Ever is an event that took place on Saturday the fifteenth December in the year of our Lord 2012 in East Lansing, Michigan and/or our every-yearning, ever-brimming hearts.

First of all, a little fun holiday fact: if you ever want to, say, roast a goose for a glorious Christmas gathering of your own, be prepared to shell out $60-$100. (A message board poster sums it up nicely in her thread title: "Price of Goose - What Happened???" Each of those three question marks is necessary.) Also, if you must purchase said goose frozen because even the most specialized poultry shops don't sell fresh goose until the week before Christmas, prepare to wait three days for your goose to thaw.

Given that no butcher in East Lansing sees the value of carrying fresh duck or boar's head (I know, right?), Philip and I settled on chicken and hoped that we wouldn't lose any holiday brownie points for doing away with the traditional English main courses that would surely make our Old World-themed party a success.

Groceries purchased and Costas (sous-chef extraordinaire, come to find) in tow, we rolled up our sleeves and set to work. The cooks all enjoyed Angie's dark chocolate and sea salt kettle corn with no regard for our waistlines or the fact that a sumptuous repast was immediately forthcoming. Really, there was no proper response but to finish off the whole bag in ca. thirty minutes when its ingredients were (and I quote): Joy. Love. Exaltation.

Our night was off to a good start.

The menu for the evening ultimately included the following:

+ two roasted chickens, one dressed à la Barefoot Contessa with lemons, garlic, and thyme and the other stuffed with apples and currants and basted with a butter and apple cider glaze
+ roasted carrots and fennel
+ mashed sweet potatoes with a hint of honey and cinnamon

+ apple and currant stuffing (and who knew this would become the most indispensable dish of the night?)
+ green beans sauteed with bacon, onions, and red pepper flakes
+ figgy pudding (no, really)

This is to say nothing of our appetizers: the brie and baguettes, the vegetables, rolls, and dips brought by other partygoers, and the gougères prepared by none other than Allison (from whom we've come to expect nothing less than food that requires the rest of us to do some Wikipedia research beforehand). Also, Christmas isn't Christmas without sugar: chocolate cupcakes and apple and cranberry pie baked by dear, sweet Philip (the latter of which was sadly neglected all evening because the figgy pudding was just that good).

After dinner, we caroled at the spinet. Few things in life are sweeter to me than singing with these voices I know and love so well: Sarah, Dan, Philip, Costas, Allison, Victoria. We laughed. We cried. (No, really.) I read poetry aloud from the beautiful book Philip gave me: Christmas in Art & Song from 1879. He and I both did our best Linus van Pelt imitations in reciting the Christmas story from Luke, wrapped in a bright blue Snuggie so as to look like shepherds mild.

The Most Glorious Merry Wonderful Charming Perfect Heartwarming Christmas Party Ever somehow lived up to its name, and it reminded me that this season really is meant to be magical.

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

December 11, 2012

Little ones

In T-minus twenty-four hours, I am leaving for Michigan to spend three and a half blissful weeks with nothing but Yuletide cheer in my heart and loved ones gathered 'round. My little brother is going home, too, only he'll be staying there next semester and leaving me all by my lonesome here in Utah. So, in honor of his departure and Christmas and all things that are wonderful and ridiculous about being siblings, here is an old photo I dug up over Thanksgiving weekend.

Me and Bradford, ca. 1997

Only in the carefree bliss that is childhood can white copy paper transform into a beard, and I guess it's okay to waltz around in your underwear no matter what the occasion. More and more, I'm coming to believe that Christmas has everything to do with children, even the silly ones and the trouble-makers and those who wonder if there is still a place for them in this world. A child was born in a stable in Bethlehem long ago to show us that miracles can be found in the tiniest, most fragile of bodies and in the humblest places. For that I am grateful.

I'm also feeling extremely blessed to know that I will reunite with my siblings (those dear partners-in-crime, those sharers in all tomfoolery) this holiday season. One of my brothers, Josh, is soon to be a dad for the first time. What better way to celebrate the joys of Christmas than to welcome another little child into this big, humble, messy thing we call our family? And hopefully someday he'll have brothers and sisters willing to sit in his lap and fully believe (maybe for just a moment) that he's Santa.

Yeah, that's what it's all about.

December 7, 2012

Instructions for living a life

"Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it."

―Mary Oliver

Said like a true poet.

To be honest, that's why I decided to start updating this blog again. There is so much beauty in the world. I imagine I see only a fraction of it, yet it's more than enough to amaze me. Sometimes to the point of tears or prayers or poems or whatever praise I can muster. What I write here is just my way of sharing, of expressing my gratitude, of saying "Look, here, the world has a sweetness and a loveliness; partake with me."

Yesterday I paid attention.

It was the last day of classes. Our little band of humanities students were charged with doing their end-of-semester creative presentations. One by one (or sometimes in smiling little groups) they would make their way to the front and, without any pomp and circumstance, share with us.

And I was astonished.

One girl read aloud an original beat poem and owned it. Another showed a gorgeous video of a dance she'd choreographed. Three of the students decided to make Jackson Pollock-inspired baked goods. (Who knew abstract expressionism could be so tasty?) Many others, humbled by the experience, sheepishly showed their paint-splattered efforts to imitate Pollock on a canvas. A peppy little quartet in ties sang us to Coney Island. One boy, normally so quiet and unassuming, played a really stunning rendition of "Norwegian Wood." His best friend in the class sang the Beatles, too, in a gorgeous and assured baritone that I think surprised everyone. A sweet girl who normally sits in the back came forward to play a song on the banjo―an instrument she just started learning over Thanksgiving break.

The sense of camaraderie in the room was palpable, at least to me. I felt a love and a warmth that I wouldn't have expected to feel for this motley little crew with their cramped penmanship and their endless barrage of questions about points and grades and all like that. When we got the numbers out of the way, though, and we just started sharing and singing and clapping and being, we could see the beauty in each other. And what a glorious thing to behold. 

So here I am, telling about that irresistible salt shaker beat and those prickly banjo fingers and all the globs upon globs of paint and wondering if it's even possible for the universe to run out of poems.