the undocumented favorite albums of 2013

Better late than never, right?

Everyone has already put out their Best of 2013 lists, and while I’m not doing that exactly, I did want to mention a few albums that I didn’t write about in 2013.

In no particular order:

London Grammar – If You Wait 

The synth-pop extraordinaires. I was a little late to this album, but am totally in love with it. I unashamedly love pop music, but top forty pop is so lacking lately, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, “Wrecking Ball” is actually a really good pop song, but because the video is now seared into my brain, I just can’t vibe with it. Anyway, for the past few years I’ve found myself moving further toward the synth end of pop. London Grammar is a British trio made of Hannah Reid, Dot Major, and Dan Rothman. If we lived in England we could call them a trip hop group, but sadly we don’t and I don’t think anyone in America uses that term.

London Grammar creates this powerful ambient sound that grows incredibly with Hannah Reid’s raspy, brooding voice. The biggest thing this album has for me is balance. It has the slow build and quietness of the xx, but the strength and complexity of Reid’s voice lifts the whole album to another level. A few favorite tracks (though I love the whole album):

  • “Strong” showcases LG’s balancing act, especially as the lyrics mention the tensions of being caught in the middle.
  • Sights” is a perfect soundtrack for winter as Reid sings, “keeping your strength when it gets dark at night”.
  • “Wasting My Young Years” is the kind of song where you go, Damn, I’m glad no one wrote this about me.
  • “Metal and Dust” does a great job exhibiting this group’s instrumentation.

And finally, Hannah Reid crushing this cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”.

Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone 

The country soulstress. I realize this isn’t a country album, strictly speaking, but it’s pretty country for me. That said, I am a big Valerie June fan. There are some parts where the album gets too country for me (“Tennessee Time”) but overall I really enjoy the whole thing. Dan Auerbach co-produced the record and co-wrote some of the songs. (Sidebar: are The Black Keys over? I wouldn’t mind if Dan Auerbach just keeps producing solid records.)

Valerie June does a great job at blending many genres: blues, folk, jazz, rock, it’s all in there. And it works. It’s gonna be hard to choose only a few tracks to highlight, but here we go:

  • “Workin’ Woman Blues” is the opening track and one of my favorites. It might be because June’s lyrics feel familiar (as a working woman), but it could also just be that I fucking love when those horns come in. (Sorry for swearing. Watching Weeds and The Wire simultaneously makes me feel like a badass combination drug dealer/gangster/self destructive cop who says fuck a lot.) The music video is kinda lame, in my opinion, but don’t fault the song.
  • “Somebody To Love” is a beautiful song to break your heart.
  • “You Can’t Be Told” shows off June’s gritty, deep-down-in-your-soul sound.
  • “Pushin’ Against A Stone” is the title track, and opens with this in-your-face guitar reverb.
  • “Shotgun” is a haunting ballad that features June slaying on slide guitar. That live version isn’t great quality, but I think it’s worth seeing her perform this one.

In the year of Yeezus, I say this album has real swagger.

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

The indie rock band has proven its worth. Not only did I have fun listening to this album, I was impressed by it. Ezra Koenig showed us he could write lyrics with depth that were littered with spiritual questions. Plus he wrote that hilarious review of Drake. Some favorites:

  • “Everlasting Arms” – This song is deceptive. It’s packaged in upbeat, poppy sounds, but the subject matter is a serious consideration of serving a master (God) and that master’s benevolence. The chorus, “Hold me in your everlasting arms” is a pretty obvious play on the hymn “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”. Then there’s the line, “I hummed the Dies Irae as you played the Hallelujah”. The Dies Irae is a centuries old hymn about Judgment Day. Make of that what you will.
  • “Finger Back” is sort of a throwback track to me; it has that old VW sound a la “A-Punk”. And yet it still features the new contemplative Ezra Koenig as he recounts a story of an Orthodox girl who falls in love with a falafel shop employee, who we assume is not Orthodox. The Internet will suggest the employee is of Arab descent, and this song is actually about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (because, you know, the first two stanzas are obviously about torture and fighting) buuuuuut I’m not signing my name on that yet.

Overall, really enjoyed this album and applaud this band’s growth.

Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady

I was playing this album at my Halloween party and some of my friends were all, “This is weird, what is this.” So I was all, “IT’S JANELLE MONÁE, AND IT IS WEIRD AND AWESOME.” Janelle Monáe is a post-modern pop, R&B, soul sensation. My favorite track:

  • “Dance Apocalyptic” is a great example of why Monáe succeeds at being both weird and awesome. I often lament the fact that I live in a time when dancing = grinding and dance music = badly remixed pop songs. Even though the tempo is fast when compared to Motown, “Dance Apocalyptic” brings a Motown feel to the 21st Century, especially when Monáe sings, “Smash smash, bang bang / Don’t stop / Chalangalangalang”. The album version doesn’t have the apocalypse news break that the video features, but there’s an extra dose of weird for you.

My one complaint about this album is the interludes. Never been a big fan of them, and this album is already pretty long without adding three interludes. But overall, what a fun album.

Here’s hoping 2014 can be an even better year in music.

music mondays: inside llewyn davis

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Poster

The Coen brothers’ new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, isn’t out yet, but the soundtrack is currently streaming online. I’ve been excited for both the film and soundtrack for a few months now, so am happy to finally have one. Maybe it’s poor film etiquette to listen to the soundtrack so thoroughly before actually watching the movie, but. I don’t care.

I’m sure it doesn’t count for much to call myself a Coen fan, and I admit I haven’t seen all their films, but I’ve seen enough to expect good things. And as a folk music (and JT) lover, the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis had me hooked immediately.

Some great things about the album:

  • Multiple features of the Punch Brothers (I’ve loved Chris Thile since I was 14)
  • It reminds me that I once liked Marcus Mumford
  • JT singing like a man with a beard and falsetto would sing
  • Adam Driver (AKA Hannah Horvath‘s crazy bf) “singing” about outer space with JT and Oscar Isaac

It speaks so loudly of the Coen brothers’ talent that they can make films in which the soundtrack and score act as another character (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and others in which the absence of any soundtrack or score (No Country For Old Men) serves as a vital plot device. Obviously T-Bone Burnett plays a huge role in the musical side of these films, but the Coens have to create the initial idea and environment in which music can grow to feature so largely in a film.

Another reason to love this soundtrack: Oscar Isaac is just such a treat. He sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, the album opener, with this folksy earnestness that I love. Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, a singer-songwriter making his way through the 60s NYC folk music scene. I doubt the Coens would have, but thank God they didn’t cast a lead actor without any singing talent. (Despite not seeing the movie yet, I know it would be less enjoyable with lip-syncing.) Isaac went to Juilliard and was the lead guitarist (and sang vocals) for the band The Blinking Underdogs.

Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t out until December 20. For now, I’ll settle for the soundtrack.

good eats and the fight against daylight savings.

The November day when daylight savings starts is my least favorite day of the year. This is my thirteenth year in Ohio, and I still get sort of blindsided by the shorter days and early sunsets. Not that daylight savings doesn’t happen in the rest of the country, but I feel its effect more here.

This year, in an effort to both battle against and brace myself for the encroaching 5PM darkness, I cranked up the volume on The Soul Album and made a huge pot of soup. (Also because I welcome any opportunity to use my Le Creuset stock pot.)

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So I had a rather large zucchini squash and knew my mom had this recipe for an Italian soup with tortellini and zucchini. I changed her recipe a bit, so we will call this:

Fight Daylight Savings Soup

Here’s what you need:

  • 1 large zucchini squash, diced
  • 1 large yellow squash, diced
  • 3/4 ish c. onion, diced
  • 3/4 ish c. carrot, diced
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28 oz can crushed/diced tomatoes (just don’t buy the can of whole tomatoes, unless you have an immersion blender)
  • 1 lb Italian or hot sausage (apparently Italian sausage was a hot commodity when I went to the grocery, so I settled with Bob Evan’s Zesty Hot sausage, which actually gave the soup a nice kick)
  • 3 c. tortellini
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • fresh parsley, chopped
  • grated parmesan
  • desire to show daylight savings who’s boss

IMG_6213Obviously the Reese’s cups weren’t part of the soup, but hurray for discounted Halloween candy (a major help in the fight against dark days)!

Simmer the onion, carrots, garlic, and broth for 30 minutes. I said “3/4 ish cup” for the onions and carrots because I don’t measure too strictly (or at all) unless I’m baking. My mom’s recipe uses a half cup of each, but I like a heartier soup (sidebar: is “hearty” the most-used adjective to describe soups?) so I chopped a little more. Boo is always very curious what’s happening in the kitchen.

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While that simmers, sauté the sausage until cooked through. When your thirty minutes are up, add the diced squash, sausage, can of tomatoes (and juice), basil, oregano, salt, and pepper. So when I said I don’t really measure, that also applied to the spices. I didn’t measure those, I just added as I tasted, but would estimate I put about a teaspoon of basil and oregano each.

I diced the squash up fairly small, because while I do like to have a full soup, I don’t like having huge chunks of veggies and other ingredients. I also added some water, as the soup was getting pretty thick.

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Simmer for another hour and a half, or longer. I let mine simmer for quite a few hours because I just wasn’t ready for dinner after an hour and a half. When you’re ready to eat, add the tortellini and let it cook for another 10 minutes or so. They like to stay floating up at the top.

IMG_6212And finally, garnish with fresh, chopped parsley and/or grated parmesan and an “F you daylight savings!”

IMG_6210I’ve found that the tortellini really thickens up the soup a lot after storing the leftovers. Next time, I may just add the tortellini for each meal. Enjoy!

music mondays: allyse huey, aka adubz

This week’s Music Monday is a shameless plug for my friend, songwriter and musician Allyse Huey (formerly known as ADubz).

Allyse and I were roommates for a long time until she decided she’d rather live with a boy. Lame. But I’ve been able to see her growth as a musician firsthand and am so proud of her. The rest of our roommates and I have teased Allyse for having so many hobbies over the years, but music has always been the one that sticks. She used to scoff at my musical tastes, but I think after making her a mixtape of mostly folk music a few years back, she saw the light. And now’s she’s a songwriter in her own right.

Allyse has become very involved with the Columbus Songwriters Association and has been playing open mics and other local shows for the last year or two (I need a fact checker). In college, we used to beg Allyse to play some songs for us, but she typically did not oblige us. I love to see her get up on a stage now, fearlessly performing songs that she has written. I’m so impressed by her gift to write both lyrics and music.

Take a look at her website, facebook page, and soundcloud to hear some songs. My favorites are “Stay” and “Vultures Will Circle”, but also check out “The Vineyard” and “Pool of Dreams” for Allyse’s killer whistling skills, of which I’ve always been jealous. She’s recorded everything herself so far, but will be recording with a sound engineer this week, yay!

Allyse will be playing this Wednesday night at The Tree Bar.

so I asked Stephen Thompson a question.

Stephen Thompson (of NPR Music and the AV Club) runs this column on NPR called The Good Listener. In the column, he answers questions that people send in, ranging from How do I name my band? to How do I learn to love country music?

So I recently sent in a question about set lengths for live shows. And Stephen answered! My email was a little long, so they shortened it on the blog site (and made some edits, what’s the deal guys?). Here’s what I originally asked:

I’ve got a two-parter question for Stephen Thompson’s The Good Listener column. 1. How long do you think a set should be for a headlining band on tour? 2. Should a band always play their “hits” at a live show?
I go to a decent amount of shows, and lately have been surprised by the shortness of sets. This week I saw Franz Ferdinand, and they were awesome. Their set started around 9 and was over by 10:30. I know it takes a lot of energy to rock out, but it surprised me that they were done so early. They also didn’t play “Right Action”. I wasn’t too bugged by that because I like other tracks more (which they played), but did think it was strange for a band to skip their current single.
Recently I won tickets to see Ani DiFranco. She also put on a great show, but played an even shorter set, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. Since I got my tickets for free, I couldn’t be too upset about the length. But, I did think if I’d paid $30 plus Ticketmaster fees and was a long-standing fan, I might have been a little ticked she didn’t play longer. Especially since she has such a huge discography to work with.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how long a band should play, but is there a magic set length? Should you get a longer set if the show is more expensive? I’ll keep going to live shows, and will always pay to see a band I really like, but I hope shorter sets don’t become commonplace.

Stephen pretty much said, “It depends.” I knew I was asking a question that likely wouldn’t receive a definitive answer, but it’s nice to hear perspective from someone who’s been writing about music for awhile. And I was mostly just excited to get a response. Here’s the link to the post.

The thing about the two shows I listed in my email is, I actually won both those tickets. I’m really not complaining about the length of either because I’m not a crazy big-time fan of FF or Ani, but was more just surprised by what seemed to be a trend in shorter sets. I wrote about Ani’s show a few weeks ago.

So what do you guys think? Have you dropped a lot of money for a show and been disappointed with the length and/or song selection? Can a concert be too long or too short? (I say yes to both.) Do you have an ideal length?

music mondays: thao and neko

I need another weekday that starts with M.

Okay, maybe I just need better time management. Sorry I kind of suck at actually doing this on the designated day. On Mondays, I go straight from work to volunteer teaching ESL (because I am incredibly altruistic by nature, high-five!) and now that it’s dark out by the time I get home, I mostly just want to eat a block of cheese and watch the most recent episode of Bones on some sketchy Euro website. I promise to do better.

Anyway, this week’s Music Monday (Wednesday) is brought to you by GIRL POWER. On Saturday, I saw Neko Case at the Newport with opener Thao and The Get Down Stay Down. I got to see Thao earlier in the year at Summerfest, and was really excited to see she was coming back with Neko. I have to say, I liked her set at Summerfest better, but it really had to do with the venue and the crowd. Summerfest was outside with a bunch of people who had been day-drinking, and even though they didn’t know the songs, they were still fun. Saturday’s crowd was essentially all Neko fans who were like, “Ugh, we’re just here for Neko, someone quiet this girl down. I wish I was the moon, etc.” But, Thao rocks out no matter what, and it’s awesome. She plays guitar, banjo, AND the lap steel, for which I am always a sucker.

thao

ICYMI, her single this summer was We the Common (For Valerie Bolden), and not only is it a fun song, it’s actually about something real. In interviews, Thao has explained that the song was inspired by Valerie Bolden, a woman serving a life sentence in California. Thao spent time volunteering with a women’s prison and became an advocate for the rights of prisoners. It’s a great song, but my favorite track from We the Common is City. She’s so good at mixing the hard and soft.

She also has a letter at the beginning of the most recent McSweeney’s Quarterly (about an uncomfortable trip to the doctor), so that adds to her likability.

Alright, I’ll talk about Neko now. Overall, I like her new album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. (Sidebar, if you think that’s a long album name, go have a chat with Fiona.) In interviews for the album, Neko has spoken a lot about how she’d been depressed after the deaths of her parents and grandmother. I appreciate how literal she got (there’s a track called “Where Did I Leave That Fire”) but it’s not just an album of downer songs.

So I didn’t really know what to expect from her live show, and had to transition myself a bit after rocking with Thao. Plus, during her first song, she told someone to put their phone away.

Later, she kinda apologized and backpedaled a bit, but still didn’t want anyone snapping pics. She gave some explanation about camera phones having lasers that focus on her face, causing her to lose her place and forget lyrics. Look, I’ve taken enough selfies to call bullshit on that. Just say it’s annoying to have people constantly taking pictures, please just put your phones away. I think it’s annoying too. And while I wanted to snap a pic (the backdrop was pretty snazzy), I just didn’t. NBD.

Back to the music. She played a good mix of new and old songs. She and Kelly Hogan had some fun banter. I was really hoping she would play Nearly Midnight, Honolulu, which is this incredibly haunting yet beautiful song. I didn’t expect them to play it, since it’s just a cappella, but I hoped.

I was really impressed by how relaxed she seemed while her voice boomed in this sublime way. She killed with Night Still Comes, which is another favorite of mine from the new album.

No shots of Neko to share, but the grey streak in the front of her crazy red hair left me thinking of Bonnie Raitt, and how Neko would crush I Can’t Make You Love Me.

good eats: fall means caramel and apple everything

photo 5-2A few weeks ago I went apple picking for the first time. I should say the first successful time. Quick story. I tried to go apple picking a couple years ago with some friends. We found an orchard online and drove 45 minutes out of the city and into the part of suburbia that is still a little rural. We followed the directions and turned into the drive for the orchard only to see an incredibly dilapidated sign and NO TREES. That’s right, the trees had all been bulldozed, along with my dreams of endless apple baked goods. When we asked at the nearby pumpkin patch what happened to the orchard, a man informed us, “Oh well, Old Man McDonald died last year and they just decided to tear it all down.” DREAMS CRUSHED TWICE. THAT IS SO SAD.

We ended up driving to Whole Foods and spending way too much on organic apples and cider. I felt like I was in a sitcom. The TV Guide description would have read, “City girls try to do country thing, fail miserably.”

So anyway, this time was a much bigger success! Here are a couple things I made with the bounty:

Skillet Salty Caramel Apple Crisp from Tasty Kitchen.
A few notes: I don’t have a kitchen scale, and while I have weighed peaches before by standing on my scale with and without them, I chose to just wing it with the apples. I used these three semi-giant apples:

photo 3

If you don’t have half-and-half at home (and don’t need it for your coffee), but do have milk, you can just use that. Also, I say use whatever apples you like. If I’d had Granny Smith, I would have used those because I like the tartness for baking, but Bon Appetit recommends a few others.

So, here’s the finished product:

photo 2

Next up are PW’s Caramel Apple Sticky Buns. I love the Pioneer Woman because she’s funny, sassy, and she doesn’t try to make everything into its healthy counterpart. This lady is not afraid of butter. It also helps that she’s not a racist. Notes on this one: Her recipe is a double batch. I didn’t realize that when I started and even though I had enough ingredients for two pans of sticky buns, I didn’t need two pans of sticky buns, ya know? I’d also recommend using more apples than she used in the recipe, depending on the size, obviously. But I wanted the apples to have more of a spotlight than they got.

The secret to these buns is that you pour the caramel in the pan first, then the apples, then the buns. So, when you take the pan out of the oven, it looks like just some plain ol’ cinnamon rolls.

photo 2-2But the trick is to put a serving dish on top of the pan, then flip it over to get all the glorious caramel stickiness on top:

photo 3-2Confession: I don’t think it looks super appetizing this way! I also had light corn syrup and not dark, so that makes a difference in appearance. But don’t be fooled, these are delicious.

Now for the last treat (spoiler, no apples included): Caramel Corn! I love popcorn in all forms, but caramel corn is a great fall treat. This recipe makes quite a bit of popcorn, but it keeps well. So, here it is:

  • 8ish cups freshly popped corn
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

So, I say 8ish cups of popcorn because I rarely measure things. I pop the corn in my 8 quart stock pot and put in enough kernels to almost cover the bottom of the pot. Once popped, I’d guess it’s close to 8 cups. The good thing about making caramel corn is you can’t really mess it up, if you made too much caramel, just don’t use it all; if you need more, it’s easy enough to make quickly.

Alright, pop your corn and preheat the oven to 225ºF. In a pot, melt the butter and brown sugar over medium heat. Once melted, stir in the corn syrup and salt. Raise the heat and boil for 5 minutes, without stirring.

photo 1-2Remove from heat and add the vanilla and baking soda. Resist the urge to pour boiling sugary goodness straight in your mouth. Instead, pour the caramel over the popped corn and stir to coat evenly. Bake the corn in an oven-safe bowl (or two casserole dishes in my case) for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Let the corn cool before eating. I prefer to pour it out onto parchment paper to cool so that I can break up the chunks. If you don’t mind the big chunks of caramel corn, let it cool in the bowl or baking dish.

Happy fall!

music mondays: a great day for pop music

haimAlright guys. Here’s the deal. I’m in love. With HAIM. Their album, Days Are Gone, came out today and you should go buy it right now. But let me confess something before we go on. When I first heard their single, Forever, I liked it but was a little put off. I just thought it sounded too much like a Gloria Estefan song, or some other old pop song, but I could never nail it down.

I have since realized the error of my ways. HAIM is like gloriously, awesomely updated 80s and 90s pop music. I have missed good pop music since approximately 2002, when Justified came out (but we will get to that later). Now, HAIM isn’t definitively a pop group. According to Wikipedia, they are a ROCK BAND. I would call them pop-rock. But if you read any reviews of them, you’ll be sure to notice the frequent comparisons to 80s era Fleetwood Mac, or The Bangles, or some good 90s R&B. THOSE ARE ALL THINGS I LOVE. So naturally, I found myself enamored with HAIM.

The group is made of three sisters from LA and a drummer. Fun fact: baby Haim and I share the same birthday (different years). Their parents formed a family band when the girls were still in school. How awesome is that? And their band was called Rockinhaim, hilarious. Anyway, these girls have been playing music together for a long time and it shows.

So, I’ve been listening to their EP, eagerly awaiting the release of Days Are Gone, and the day is finally here. NPR has been streaming the album, so if you aren’t willing to drop $7.99 at iTunes, go take a listen. I really love this whole album, but if I have to pick some favorites, Honey & I is way up there. It’s like Vampire Weekend meets Wilson Phillips in the best way. The album closer, Running If You Call My Name, is also one of my favs. It’s more atmospheric and I think shows the reach that their sound has.

Okay, shift gears a bit. The other good news for pop music is today’s release of The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2. Honestly, I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but I do like Take Back the Night, and trust that in the reign of terror Miley has on pop music, JT will always be better. He definitely has a case of “artists make better art when they’re sad” (don’t even try to tell me Cry Me A River isn’t one of the best pop songs ever), but he’s still the current king. And also, JT + Timbaland forever.

Addendum: After listening to all of part 2, I’m really disappointed in it. This is a great example of the failed double album. As a friend of mine put it, part 2 just feels thrown together. Instead of wasting energy trying to put out two albums, he should have put everything into making one really solid album. The songs on part 2 don’t even work together. Some are really clearly pop tracks, like Not A Bad Thing (which I actually don’t hate), others are hip-hop infused and some are heavier, like Only When I Walk Away (which I do hate). And then. AND THEN THERE IS THIS COUNTRY SONG IN THE MIDDLE. Don’t be fooled, Drink You Away may not sound completely like a country track, but bro, it is. I mean, it’s called Drink You Away. I was also really hoping for shorter tracks on part 2, I don’t know what the fascination is with 8 minute pop songs. COMMENCE CRYING OVER THE END OF JT’S POP CAREER.

Nah, I still got your back, JT, but I expect more from you.