My favourite music, tv, and podcasts of 2020

Saying “what a strange year” is both such an understatement and so obvious that I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, but I can’t help but say it anyway. What a strange, strange year. Mostly I turned to books to get me through it, but there were also plenty of standouts in other mediums that offered entertainment and escapism through the weirdness of 2020. Here are a few of my favourites from the year in music, tv, film*, and podcasts.

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The sounds of memories

Last week I was lucky enough to see two gigs by artists I have loved and wanted to see live for a long time. I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard Shakey Graves—down to which song (‘Dearly Departed’) on which radio station (NPR) and even which street I was driving on when it came on the radio (Davisville Road in Southampton, PA). And Hozier is one of the few artists I can say I listened to before they got big, although that was only because I was living in Ireland and so ‘Take Me To Church’ was on everyone’s playlists for months there before it ever hit North American airwaves.

It got me thinking about how strongly tied to memory sound can be. There are so many songs that make me think of a certain time or place, down to minuscule details about where I was or what I was doing when I listened to them. Often music conjures up memories of people or moments as well, whether it’s a fond memory of childhood and your parent singing your favourite lullaby or a song that you can’t listen to anymore because it reminds you too much of your ex. Sound is unavoidable. It can sneak up on you, a song coming unexpectedly on the radio or in the grocery store.

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My Self-Improvement Summer

As most of you know, I’m back at my parents’ house for a few months between Steve and my epic three-month, cross-country road trip and reuniting with him in Ireland again before we head on to a working holiday in New Zealand. As my town is quite small and uneventful and my work doesn’t take up too much of my time, I decided that for the summer I would work on setting some habits, reaching some goals, and making it a summer of self-improvement.

I know that summer isn’t technically over, but I’m wearing a hoodie and drinking hot tea during the day for the first time in ages, so it definitely feels like fall and therefore I’m going to check in as I move into My Self-Improvement September. The eight things I wanted to work on this summer were: yoga, meditation, piano, guitar, Duolingo’s German course, running, dance and this blog. Let’s see how I did:

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Media and Misc of the Year (aka the obligatory Best of 2014 review post)

Boyhood-DI

Films

  1. Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater – Filming over 12 years could have turned out gimmicky, but Boyhood was a moving and beautiful story of family and growing up. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so emotional while watching a film.
  2. Calvary, dir. John Michael McDonagh – The preview for this Irish film made it out to be a dark comedy, but despite actors such as Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd, and even star Brendan Gleeson (in maybe his best ever work), it’s a heartwrenchingly dark film with moments of humour.
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson – I’ve loved every film I’ve seen of Anderson’s, but for some reason hadn’t watched one since The Life Aquatic. This was a good place to start back, with his typical aesthetic and great performances.
  4. Gone Girl, dir. David Fincher – I read the book in one frantic weekend before seeing the film, and the twists and turns and madness of it all still shocked me. Though not as much as it shocked the person sitting behind us who couldn’t stop saying “What the fuck” at the end.
  5. Obvious Child, dir. Gillian Robespierre – A sweet, funny little film about a stand-up comedian who gets pregnant and has an abortion. The characters feel like your friends.

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Music

  1. The Antlers, Familiars – This album is one of those where the sound just fills the room when you listen to it. There are so many layers combining beautifully with strange, sad lyrics.
  2. Alt-J, This is All Yours – Speaking of strange, among other oddities Alt-J’s second album samples Miley Cyrus, and somehow it really works. They also put on one of the top 3 live shows I saw this year (and in fairness, the top 2 are my favourite bands, The National and Arctic Monkeys).
  3. St. Vincent, St. Vincent – I’m declaring this the year of the excellent self-titled album. And St. Vincent’s is the best of them, with an album that is both strange and wonderful.
  4. Hozier, Hozier – You’ve probably been hearing “Take Me to Church” all the time for the past 6 months, unless you’re in Ireland in which case you’ve been hearing it all year. And it hasn’t gotten old yet.
  5. Taylor Swift, 1989 – Part of me can’t believe that Taylor Swift of all people is bumping my forever girl Shakira off my Best Of list, but most of me thinks that “Blank Space” is such a jam I don’t even care.

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April/May Microreviews

January microreviews
February microreviews
March microreviews

Books:

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IV, Chuck Klosterman: Chuck Klosterman does the kind of journalism I would love to do. Funny, sarcastic pop culture essays with smart commentary on the impact of entertainment on society. I’ll always point to his essay on The Real World as one of the best I’ve read. This collection was decent; the non-fiction was great, the semi-fiction was okay, and the fiction was barely worth reading. I particularly enjoyed the profile of Morrissey’s hispanic fans and the one about tribute bands.

The World’s Wife
, Carol Ann Duffy: I love Carol Ann Duffy’s poems and their clever, feminist slant. The World’s Wife is a perfect example. Duffy writes from the perspective of the wives and lovers of famous historical and literary figures: how does King Midas’ touch affect his marriage? or alters the stories to give women more agency than in their original tellings.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
, Neil Gaiman:  I read this book over the course of two days; whenever I needed a break from wandering around London I would take advantage of the comfortable sofas in the Piccadilly Circus Waterstones and curl up for a few minutes with this book. It’s a beautiful little fairy tale about monsters and magic and growing up.

Salt: A World History
, Mark Kurlansky: I may be sick of Mark Kurlansky by the time I finish writing my thesis as one of his books is a major source I’m using, but in the meantime I loved reading this. He looks at a common material—salt—and through evidence and anecdote, explores its impact on history and contemporary life and food in an interesting and entertaining way.

The Little Friend
, Donna Tartt: Not as good as The Secret History and certainly not as good as The Goldfinch, but a book can still be pretty excellent with both of those things being true. I didn’t find myself caring much for the central mystery, which is good because I also didn’t find much resolution, but it was all the little pieces of southern gothic description and all the side stories about minor figures and all the miscellaneous everything else that I really enjoyed.

Paper Towns, John Green: Paper Towns is known for being a story that points out the ridiculousness of the idea of the so-called “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” I found it to be mostly successful in this regard, but it would’ve been more effective if it had been from the perspective of the girl, rather than about her. Still, a quick and fun read.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann: I absolutely loved this. Set in 1974, while Philippe Petit crossed the World  Trade Center towers on a tightrope, the novel features characters from all walks of live, and the city of New York itself is as strong a character as any of them. It’s a beautiful book, and one I look forward to reading again in the future.

Live by Night
, Dennis Lehane: I didn’t realise that this was a sequel of sorts to The Given Day until I started reading it, but instead of the sprawling historical novel and social commentary of its predecessor, Live by Night is a fast-paced crime story more in line with Lehane’s other detective works.

Bark: Stories, Lorrie Moore: Whenever you can finish a book in one sitting you have to assume that a) it’s not very long but b) it is very good. The first two stories didn’t entirely hook me, but by the time I got to ‘Paper Losses’ I knew I wasn’t moving until I had gotten to the end. Luckily it was a beautiful day outside. The descriptions were visceral and the relationships devastating.

Werewolves in their Youth, Michael Chabon: I shouldn’t have read this immediately after Bark, I don’t think. Too many  stories about relationships facing harsh realities. Michael Chabon is one of my favourite authors, and this isn’t his best work. There were still moments and sentences that really resonated, but overall I didn’t find the stories or characters as memorable as in most of his books.

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Shakira, self-titled & Juanes, Loco de Amor (both 2014)

shak album

If I say I love Shakira, there may be one or two people who know me that might be surprised, but probably they already know too. (Certainly anyone who has ever gotten drunk with me is aware, given that for some reason one of my favourite topics of drunk conversation is how, while Shakira and her footballer boyfriend Gerard Piqué are a cute couple, she is a goddess and could still do so much better). Anyway, my adoration of her makes me predisposed to love anything she does, including her new, eponymous album. Still, even stepping away from my massive bias, I can say with certainty that Shakira is weird and wonderful and great.

Although there are a few of her songs that I adore in any language, I’ve always preferred Shakira’s Spanish music to her English songs, whether it is because the lyrics make more sense when not translated to fit the melody or just because I think her voice is meant for the language. I wish there were more Spanish songs on this album, but “Loca por Ti” is a gorgeous track that reminds me of Sale el Sol. And I definitely prefer the Spanish version of her first single, “Nunca Me Acuerdo de Olvidarte,” to the English.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy Shakira’s English music nearly as much. I immediately loved her second single, “Empire,” and so far it remains my favourite track on the album. It reminds me in a way of a James Bond theme in the way it starts slow and relies on Shakira’s vocals to soar. Surprisingly, a song I really enjoyed upon first listen was “Medicine,” the country track featuring Shakira’s The Voice co-judge Blake Shelton. Although I’m generally not a fan of country music or Shelton’s work in particular, Shakira’s famous vibrato is perfect for the genre and she harmonises well with Shelton; it’s not a great song, but it’s so earnest I find myself liking it anyway. Another track I love is “Chasing Shadows,” written by Sia, with the blend of beauty and quirkiness that is pretty much the epitome of all things Shak.

A few of the songs are cringe-worthy on the level of Taylor Swift’s most preteen-obsessive: mainly “23,” the track most obviously written about Piqué, and the bland but probably radio-friendly “Spotlight.” While Shakira has had some notably weird lyrics in the past (“lucky that my breasts are small and humble so you don’t confuse them with mountains“), “Girl meets a boy / surrender to his charms / leaves her old boyfriend / and crumbles in his arms” aren’t interesting enough to be memorable, and the music sounds more like it could fit into Swift’s Red than Shakira’s oeuvre.

Others suffer from similarities to previous, superior works, like the duet with Rihanna, “Can’t Remember to Forget You,” which I can’t help but compare unfavourably to her “Beautiful Liar” duet with Beyonce. On the other hand, while “Dare (La La La)” is meant to be this World Cup’s “Waka Waka (Esto es Africa)” and it’s not as good as that (because let’s face it, there aren’t many songs better than “Waka Waka” and you’re lying to yourself if you don’t love it) I can still see myself listening to it on repeat while running, cleaning, doing homework… in pretty much all aspects of my life, as I do the earlier track.

Musically, the album has more interesting sounds than some of her recent work. As mentioned, there’s the country song, but on other tracks its a Caribbean vibe that reflects Shakira’s Barranquilla Colombian heritage, a power-rock sound on others, a few stripped-down ballads, and the usual bellydance-worthy pop music.

 

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