A Slice of Fried Gold

I-D-A-H-O, IDAHO, IDAHO, GO GO GO!

Thursday, December 31, 2009


Today marked the watching of one of the single greatest sporting events I've ever watched.

My alma mater, THE University of Idaho defeated Bowling Green in unbelievably exciting fashion in the Humanitarian Bowl today 43-42.

The same University of Idaho that had sub .500 seasons every year I went there.

The same University of Idaho that inspired my friend Sam to mentally prepare himself to never see a Vandals winning season in his lifetime.

We won a bowl game in our first attempt in over a decade, and we did so in true cardiac arrest fashion, giving up the go ahead touchdown with 32 seconds left and then scoring the potential tying TD with four seconds left. I say potential because our coach, Robb Akey, the man who inspired comparisons to the fusion of The Marlboro Man and a professional wrestler (WWE style), went for two and the win instead of one and the tie. A gutsy call and one that worked in completely thrilling fashion.

When Akey came onto the field in the second half he announced to audiences that were watching that they should keep wathching because they "were going to love this." 57 points and innumerable exciting plays later, the Humanitarian Bowl championship was in our hands and a bright future for the Vandals was in sight, and we certainly were loving it.

All thanks to Ric Flair, The Marlboro Man, AKA Robb Akey.

Best. Christmas Present. Ever.

Monday, December 28, 2009
As I've mentioned before, I am Facebook married to my friend Joanne Ballagh. It's a very modern thing and was mostly based around us being ridiculous and also trying to blow our friends minds via Facebook, but it has kind of stuck because we oddly like it.

While we've been friends for over a decade now, Joanne and I have an extra connection that works for us based around a movie: Pixar's Up. We saw the movie twice together in theaters and have since watched in on Blu Ray as well, and we quote the movie incessantly back and forth to each other. If you've seen it, one of the primary plot drivers is a book the main character's wife kept from childhood - her adventure book.

Well, when Joanne said she made me something for Christmas, I had no idea what it could be. She was worried I wouldn't like it, but when I opened it I immediately fell in love with it. She made me my own adventure book! It looked exactly like the one from Up and inside its pages were pictures of things we've done together along with quotes from the movie printed and pictures from the movie. The last pages were blank for me to fill in myself, which I cannot wait to do.

To say I was enthused with it is an understatement - this was without a doubt one of my favorite presents I've ever received. See below for pictures from it.

Thank you so much Joanne Ballagh. You put the Jo Lagh in Jovid Harplagh, and I love you for it my dear.



Restaurant Review: Anzilotti's Tuscan Market

When I hear of a new restaurant within the confines of Anchorage, I find it hard to resist the temptation to try it out quickly. When the Anchorage Press wrote about Anzilotti's Tuscan Market and their simple but delectable sandwiches, I could not wait to try. Given my obsession with the art of the sandwich it's unsurprising, yet something about Anzilotti's sounded to be an even better fit for me than usual. With my very first experience I can say assuredly: it is every bit as good as I thought it could be, and perhaps more.

Anzilotti's rests in a strip mall off Dimond down by Village Inn and kitty corner from Gallo's and Dimond Tuxedo. It is one of those places that is so small and unassuming that they could go on forever surviving just on the random visitors and the evangelists who fall in love with their food. Given that the person who ordered after me could not get a sandwich because they were out of bread, I'd say they are finding success quickly after the glowing review from the Press. In fact, I overheard the proprietor of Anzilotti's stating that business had increased dramatically since the article's debut.

When you walk in, nothing really grabs you save how little space they have to actually sit in their establishment. You can tell it is mostly designed to be a market for those looking for high class Italian food supplies, as they have an ample selection of pasta, Olive Oil, and various other things of that sort that takes up most of the space. In fact, the food feels mostly designed to sell the meats and cheeses that they sell rather than to to actually make it a restaurant.

Which doesn't mean that their food isn't good.

Oh no.

It's intensely delicious.

I ordered the Misti A.T.M. (what that means, I have no idea). It is a sandwich served on focaccia-home made Italian bread with Prosciutto cotto & Provolone cheese (roasted ham w/ rosemary). While when you get to its core, it really is just bread, cheese and meat, yet it is so much more. The bread itself is home made and crafted at the location itself, as I found out when the proprietor of Anzilotti's assured the customer after me that he could wait 40 minutes to get a sandwich (to which the obviously regular customer responded with "you're breaking my heart!"). It is fluffy at its core, yet I managed to score a corner piece which brought a little crunch to the affair. The top of the bread is covered with olive oil which adds even more flavor to the already delicious adventure.

Throw in almost absurdly flavorful prosciutto cotto (ham crusted with rosemary, basically) and a healthy portion of provolone, and you have a damn tasty sandwich. Not only that the but these are not small sandwiches - I am a big time eater and this filled me up. Other patrons of the restaurant were enjoying similar foods and audibly raving about them to each other, going on and on about the robust flavors the simple yet elegant concoctions would create.

Next time I visit Anzilotti's, I'll make sure to check it out with other people so I can sample other foods off the menu, like their fa freddo sandwiches (similar types of sandwiches that are warmed in a press) or their desserts that sounds epic in their deliciousness. However, I can say this with utmost sincerity: this is one of the best sandwiches I've had in Anchorage and I will most certainly be making my presence felt more frequently in the future. Hopefully when I go there they will have bread, because that would be truly heartbreaking if they didn't.

Best Albums of 2009: 30 through 1

Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Well, the cat is out of the bag. With my Top 5 Albums of 2009 list going up on the Anchorage Daily News' website today, there really is no point in waiting. Even though it is redundant on previous days work, I wanted to repost the entire list with the final ten choices of my favorite albums of 2009 coming in down on the bottom.

It truly has been a great year in music. If you haven't listened to anything on the list make sure you check it out. There's a lot of great music on here and I recommend all of it. Also, if you have a list of your own you'd like to share please do so in the comments.

Also - beware the epic length of this post. It is quite large.

30. Sufjan Stevens - The BQE

Sufjan Stevens is not an artist you can ever hope to pigeonhole. Look at those who were excited for the prodigious 50 States project were disappointed to hear he was releasing an orchestral and purely instrumental release dedicated to...the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway? That's par for the course for one of the premier avant garde musicians of our time. It's also par for the course that this venture turned out to be a stunner, channeling Phillip Glass and Aaron Copland by way of Stevens own obsession with unique instrumentation and electronic effects. Sure, it's no Illinois, but any Sufjan is a treat we should all treasure.



29. Devendra Banhart - What Will We Be

Banhart has long been a hippie god, releasing a strong discography of acoustic guitar driven tracks telling his life. Yet as he ascends in popularity and adds new instruments to the equation, people begin questioning whether or not he's forgotten what makes him special. To me though, I find this album to be the most enjoyable one yet. Filled with pop hooks and Banhart's trademark warble, it brings a diverse and atypical version of his own sound, but one that resounds as a success with me.



28. Noah and the Whale - The First Days of Spring

This British band from Twickenham returns after their highly successful debut Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down minus one member and plus an almost entirely new sound. Gone are the Belle & Sebastian affectations, as replaced with this alternately quiet and soaring score to the film they developed of the same name. The album itself depicts the disillusionment of a relationship in oft solemn ways. The relationship in question is one between lead singer Charlie Fink and former member Laura Marling, and proves once again that it is most often heartbreak that leads to the most beautiful of pop music.



27. La Roux - La Roux

Oh La Roux, you guilty pleasure of guilty pleasures. You crafter of delicious, dance-y electropop that finds me strangely singing along almost always. Whether you know them for their infectious dance tracks or singer Eleanor Jackson's uniquely coiffed red hair is unknown, but I know them for making tracks that get stuck in my head without me realizing I'd even heard it recently. In many ways the equivalent of a blockbuster film - sure, it isn't brainy or literate, but man...are the explosions and flourishes fun.



26. Girls - Album

This album moved around on my list more than any other release this year. It was high on the list, it was off the list, it was here, it was there, it was everywhere. When we're all said and done, my deal with this album is centered on the fact that I appreciate all of its songs, but I only absolutely adore two: "Lust for Life" and "Hellhole Ratrace." Those two songs exist on opposite ends in terms of emotional appeal, with "Lust for Life" being at its core a driving indie pop track filled with catchy hooks and "Hellhole Ratrace" being an anthemic ballad that hits you everywhere a song can hit you. Yet they best capture what it is that Girls does so well: charming tracks that act as a diary of lead singer Christopher Owens, who creates a sound that reminds you of The Beach Boys if they were all skate punks.



25. Mos Def - The Ecstatic

I'd never really been a fan of Mos Def the rapper until this album. I liked him quite a bit as an actor, but I'd never really enjoyed him as a rapper. From the first time I heard the second track "Twilite Speedball" with the blaring and ominous horns leading into Mos suggesting the listener "have fun, ya'll", I knew I was in for a treat. It's nice to finally start understanding the hype behind Mos the rapper, and I'm looking forward to delving into his discography to find more treasures.



24. Julian Casablancas - Phrazes for the Young

It seems to me that whenever a member of The Strokes releases an album, I end up liking it a lot. I suppose it makes sense given that I'm a big fan of The Strokes, but more often than not bands are often not exactly the sum of their parts but weighted heavily towards one member in particular. With Albert Hammond Jr. and Fabrizio Moretti finding success outside of the group, it was about time for their lead singer Casablancas to find success as well. With this album, he has a release that sounds like what The Strokes would sound like if they spent all their time off after The First Impressions of Earth getting into the intricacies of electro pop and boozy blues. I love it, but I seemed destined to anyways.



23. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

Yo La Tengo has been around for as long as I have been alive. That's a fun fact. When listening to their music this bit of information stands out, as this is a band that knows what works for them but also doesn't mind throwing in a bit of what they learned throughout the years into the mix. This album is highlighted by "Periodically Double or Triple," a song that begins with a countoff and quickly dives into a funky bass and organ driven beat. It's a bubbly and effervescent jam that clamors for you to dance, and dance I do. Even if it is just in my chair as I write this sentence.



22. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers

It starts with a solemn organ note, but when the noodling of the guitar and the heavy percussion kick in we know we're in for a treat on lead track "The Fun Powder Plot." Wild Beasts create some brilliantly layered instrumentals on this album, creating a dense and eclectic sound that is very inviting as a listener. This track is perfectly complimented by Hayden Thorpe's high pitched, mythic storyteller delivery. Oddly enough, the album as a whole feels like a Fable come to life in music. By the time Thorpe is growling "witches brew!" in the second track "Hooting & Howling" it's virtually impossible to not be sucked in by this album. A surprise hit and one that has continuously grown on me.



21. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali

I spent pretty much all year denying this album's existence on my Best of 2009 count because I was convinced it was released in 2008. Yet there I am finding out as I'm compiling the list that it was released in America in 2009, so here it comes on my list. While it isn't as consistently infectious and beautiful as 2005's Manu Chao produced Dimanche à Bamako, it does create some wondrous high notes every bit as life affirming as anything from that previous album. In particular, leadoff track "Sabali" is gorgeous, leading with Mariam's faded vocals (sounding as if they are being recorded off a record) and then folding into a repeated synth beat. Mariam's vocals throughout are haunting and gorgeous, and by the time the glorious, cascading synthesizer kicks off at the 1:54 mark I am absolutely held in its thrall. Another beautiful work from two marvelous musicians.



20. Beirut - March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland

To make sure everything is on the table up front, Beirut is one of three artists that I would say get "favorite band" status along with Spoon and Sigur Ros. Most artists that release double EP's wouldn't get that much attention from me, but I think Zach Condon is such a genius that I'm willing to accept pretty much anything he does. Given that this double EP is half his work with what effectively is an epic mariachi band and half him dabbling in his former love electro pop, he's obviously testing my limits.

Condon is such a damn good songwriter though that he manages to pull both attempts off. The March of the Zapotec side is the more successful of the two, as Condon marries the Eastern European influences of debut Gulag Orkestar with the influences he picked up from south of the border. While it is occasionally dark, it's still a joy to listen to, especially on tracks like "La Llorona" or "The Shrew." The Realpeople Holland half is perhaps a bit too saccharine for my tastes in the long haul, but it does feature "The Concubine" that sees Condon ably fuse his more traditional sound with electronica. I honestly had no idea that was possible.

I love this collection for the same reason that I love Condon's other work: his fearlessness when it comes to trying something different with his sound. Artists become better by continuously pushing themselves, and very few have done so like Condon has over the past few years.

/fawning over Zach Condon.



19. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career

I'm totally going to get some guff from my friend Erik for this choice, as he raved about this album early on in the year while I scoffed about it. "The lead singer's vocals are always on the same levels, everything sounds the same!" I claimed. Strangely enough, throughout the year this album continued to grow on me. I found myself singing along to the triumphantly orchestral tracks. My toes couldn't stop tapping to the infectiously bubbly songs ("French Navy" is definitely the highlight - I dare you to not sing along after a few listens). I was smitten all of a sudden, and I never saw it coming.

Sometimes as a music listener you find yourself eating crow about an album. This is one of those albums, and one I'm glad to say I've come around on and fully come to love.



18. jj - jj n° 2

I think the most incredible thing about this band is just how little is known about it. While the music is superb, always ambient but frequently touching on musical touchstones, reminding you of that one Lil' Wayne track here or that one Yeah Yeah Yeah's song from that Adidas commercial there. But come on...look at this from their Wikipedia page.
Nearly no information regarding the group's members or location is known.
They are so mysterious people writing on their Wikipedia page couldn't even create random facts about them! They've perplexed the music industry.

What isn't perplexing about them is how pure their music is from a pop standpoint. Once almost used as an accusational term, pop has slowly but surely moved back into the lexicon as a term of endearment for music that is as effortlessly pleasing as this album is. I feel like I could give this to nearly anyone and they could extract some level of enjoyment out of it.

That's something special in my book.

What is also special? Lala not even having a jj page! That's how unknown they are. Ridiculous. Still, enjoy their Lil' Wayne inspired track "Ecstasy" below.



17. The Boy Least Likely To - The Laws of the Playground

While jj is the mysterious type of pop, The Boy Least Likely To is more like the in your face, "we're not messing around" type. Everything about this group can be described in words like "harmless" or "innocent," but at the same time you can use far more positive phrases such as "infectious" or "inescapably charming." Sure, this British outfit isn't going to challenge you to reassess your life or turn any genres on their head. They don't want to. They just want to give you something to sing along to and to tap your toes to.

Is there anything wrong with that?

This is a band that doesn't care to hide what they are and what they want to produce. They want to make pretty, funny music that brings a smile to the face of the listener. It's nostalgic in the sense that it hearkens back to a time when bands didn't care about perception or fitting a niche. They just cared about making their listeners enjoy the experience.

And boy do I.



16. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

I went all across the board with this album at first. "It's overhyped!" "It's underhyped!" "I love it!" "I hate it!" I couldn't get my story straight if my life depended on it. Then one day I was on Twitter and I came across something that sold me entirely. ?uestlove from The Roots filmed them in a dressing room at the Jimmy Fallon show performing a rather impromptu song, and while it's obviously raw as hell, it's just so damn impressive to watch.

More importantly, it got me paying attention to the little things that they do so well. Their vocal harmonies do not work in the same way as other groups harmonies do, but almost as an instrument in their own right. Take leadoff track "Cannibal Resource," in which the female vocalists dive and combine their vocals with guitar rhythms, bass lines and percussion to add a layer of instrumentation that listeners are simply not used to. It's almost as if you have to train yourself to listen to this group.

Once you're used to their staccato rhythms and flourishing vocals, you really start to note the beauty all over the place on this record. While it is the obvious choice, my favorite track is their single "Stillness is the Move." While this in many ways could be a dirty R & B jam given the funky beats and the playful guitars, they manage to turn this into an exercise in perfectly calculating their sound for maximum effect. It's so unique, but it encapsulates the power and breadth of their sound as well as anything else does.

This album continues to grow on me, and I wouldn't be surprised if it continues that upward path well past the end of this year.




15. Major Lazer - Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do

Within the first seconds of listening to Major Lazer's debut album Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do, I knew I was going to greatly enjoy it. The Western movie guitars and walking horse sounds transitioning into a vocalist shouting "Major Lazer!" into an awesome repeated guitar strum beat and Santigold sharing with us that she makes it hot. I mean come on...that's how you sell a sound fast, as "Hold the Line" is a perfect example of what is so great about this album.

The beats, the reggae style vocals, the utter originality, and by god...the ridiculousness. This is after all a collaboration between Diplo and Switch in which they created an animated character titled "Major Lazer" who fought as a Jamaican commando and lost his arm in a secret zombie war in 1984. They gathered a virtual who's who of Jamaican vocalists and created one of the most eclectic and bizarre albums of the year. This is an album after all that features the aforementioned Major Lazer consoling a crying baby that is eventually auto-tuned and used as a beat for the song.

That was a sentence I never expected to type in my life. But hey, I'm a guy who likes new experiences.



14. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

When I first heard of this album, it was in a review where Pitchfork was highly touting it as a new lo-fi gem. Given that I at the time had a very negative relationship with Pitchfork as a listener of music and despised the lo-fi genre because of the success of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, I had exactly zero interest in listening to this album.

Yet eventually I relented and found it to be a refreshingly nostalgic album. This is an album that spends most of its time recalling the 1980's and John Hughes darkest moments. They've been compared to artists like Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and have even been suggested as an American analogue to The Smiths. Heady comparisons all, as this group is one that likes masking their sad panda nature in melodious pop. Such was the nature of music once upon a time, and these revivalists bring that sound back in a way that honors it and feels refreshingly new.

Plus, who doesn't enjoy listening to "Young Adult Friction" with the windows down as you shout out "don't check me out, don't check me out, don't check me ow-uh-ow-out." Alaskans in winter for one, but I swear, I really did enjoy doing such a thing this summer.



13. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

More so than any musician I've ever heard, Bill Callahan deserves the title of "storyteller." The way he delivers his songs is to deliver the wisdom he's earned throughout his life, sharing his point of view and where he is in his life precisely at this moment. More importantly, he shares how he got there, which is where the true wisdom in life lies. He does so in an almost spoken word, sing songy way that makes him feel like the single best campfire storyteller ever.

Of course, this music is far more complex than some guy with a guitar. Take the second track titled "Eid Ma Clack Shaw", a song that starts with a couple piano notes and Callahan's soft vocals, and then a pulsing bass that creates the rhythm for the rest of the instruments of the song. We're blessed with strings, percussion, and repeating piano throughout, but of course Callahan's voice once again is the highlight. Every once in a while within the album he'll change up his delivery entirely, such as when he sings "show me the way, show me the way" to instigate an entire shift in the tempo of the song. His vocals are the metronome for everything else within this album to time themselves to, and it works exceptionally well.

My favorite track on the album is the closer, titled "Faith/Void." It's essentially Callahan confronting religion and his desire to "put god away." The way he looks at religion is a very introspective and peaceful way to do so. While most people who turn away from god are looking to shout that fact from the rooftops, Callahan softly sings "This is the end of faith, no more must I strive to find my peace, to find my peace in a lie." That he does so in a beautifully meandering nine minute and 44 second song is the real allure for me though, as it is almost hypnotic in its repetition and lush arrangements. The perfect closer to a very personal album from a master storyteller.



12. Bibio - Ambivalence Avenue

I was contemplating reinventing the wheel on this one, but I very much like what I had to say about this album back in August. So here goes:

Bibio sounds like the love child between Rogue Wave and RJD2, two prodigious musical talents in their own right but the perfect alchemy of artists to craft Bibio's Ambivalence Avenue. While sometimes the album pushes hard in one direction (the purely RJD2 beat dropper "Fire Ant", the precious and emotional Rogue Wave-esque "Lover's Carvings"), most of the time this album finds a happy medium between soothing vocals, guitar pluckings and electronic production values. The combination of those aspects typically work off the pop music backbone of both of those artists, using the electronic structuring and beats to remove the listlessness of the folk aspects and using the emotional acuity of the folk to give this robot some heart.

This album from what I've read belongs in a genre titled "folktronica", which is extremely funny to me. Given that those two genres to me exist in two non-overlapping sections of the Venn diagram of music, the fact that Bibio not only successfully makes music with them is inspiring. The fact that he makes this album a favorite for the head bobbers and the deeply bearded alike is completely stunning. This is a wonderful album, capturing emotions without coaxing them out of me with cheap lyrics, eliciting grins with clever usage of production and instrumentation, and soothing me with pleasant and oft-charming vocals. Definitely worth a spin for you more adventurous musical folk.




11. YACHT - See Mystery Lights

I could see this album being played in many different situations. Cult meetings? Sure. A rave (if such a thing still exists)? Absolutely. A college party with frat boys singing along? Definitely. My car or office all the time? Why not? In its complete and unabashed oddity and grinworthy and fun soul, YACHT has managed to make an album that is completely undeniable to one huge audience and inaccessible to another at the same time.

Thankfully, it works great for me. This album is oddly permanently associated with the Coastal Trail in Anchorage, Alaska for me, as the first time I listened to this album I was walking along the Trail on a beautiful sunny day reading Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You. So if I think of the bench in front of Westchester Lagoon, I hear "the afterlife!" shouted by YACHT. Thinking of the opening of Tropper's novel? I think of the maraca shaking in the beginning of "Ring the Bell." This is an album that permanently ingrains itself in your life in all of the best ways, and seemingly is impossible to not be associated with good times.

It's a hysterically odd album, but good god, it's catchy as hell and fiercely original. I wasn't at all surprised to hear that these guys released this album on DFA, as it seems like the perfect home for an album of this sort. It's indie electronica for the modern party.

Based off listening to the album and watching live performances online, I can safely say this is a duo that couldn't care less about what people think of what they do or think. I take solace in that, even as I'm singing along and bobbing my head in agreement.



10. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Pop music.

Once upon a time, and still for some groups, that phrase had a stigma to it. It meant simply "popular music" which translated to "mainstream" or "generic."

Yet in recent years some groups have begun releasing albums that channel the power of what pop music is so well that the negative connotations evaporate. They create music with such strong melodies, hooks, and rhythms that the music is inescapably good.

Phoenix is perhaps the leader in that pop revivalist movement, as they've never tried to be anything besides a pop band. With this album they've managed to create one of the best pop gems in recent memory, with instant classics like "1901" and "Lisztomania" being so catchy and toe tappingly wonderful that they're pleasing to all audiences. If all was fair in the world, this would have been the most popular album in 2009 and their top tracks would have been as ubiquitous as other chart toppers have been.

While it isn't my favorite album of the year, this album would be the most easy one to recommend to anyone as it is so transcendent in its listenability.



9. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport

I've only recently started listening to this album. So recently, I actually feared it. My top 30 was starting to take shape, I had the 30 in mind. I just needed to figure out the order. I knew that if I listened to this album it would either be perfect for me or I could discount it immediately - no middle ground. For the purposes of being thorough, I decided I had to listen.

Oh fuck buttons.

This album is really good.

It's electronic music in its best and purest form. Better yet, when I listen to this I imagine this to be the electronic analogue of Explosions in the Sky in many ways. Not so much in actual sound, but in the fact both are a shoegazers dream, creating a wall of sound that doesn't just confront you but encompasses you.

Most tracks within this album give the listener a central line of sound to establish a base and then derivate from there. They surround that line with glitchy freak outs, pulsing synth, and warm textures that envelop the listener who still keeps their focus on that line. Its the audio equivalent of magic eye painting, where you stare at an image as another one slowly takes you over without much awareness to what's happening.

In particular, the third track titled "The Lisbon Maru" blows me away. It starts out with a warbling synth that moves into an oscillating and pulsing synth. It bounces back and forth in volume levels to create an oddly driving rhythm. It pairs with a Hans Zimmer circa The Rock drumline that grows progressively louder throughout to create something truly hypnotic and compelling. While listening note the tone behind the synth that forms the central line. From that primary line, they begin expanding on it. More warbling synth here, a heavily synthesized guitar sound there, all to make a sound that is truly heavy, but intensely beautiful at the same time.

Epic stuff. Can't believe it took me so long to listen to it before.



8. Kings of Convenience - Declaration of Dependence

I actually really despise most music like what Kings of Convenience perform. Soft, harmonized vocals with gentle guitar pluckings and oh so twee instrumental arrangements surrounding it? What is this? Wake me when it's over please.

Yet, whenever I listen to these Kings, I find it impossible to not submit to their transportive powers. This is the ultimate "walking around on a nice fall day, grinning from ear to ear because life is good" album. I find myself to be at least 13% classier of a person when I listen to this album, as if it alters my mental state entirely. It's just effortless, breezy, beautiful music that is easy to fall in love with. I'd say more about it, but I think that just listening to the song below should do the job.



7. St. Vincent - Actor

This album is very interesting to me for many ways. Annie Clark's softly beautiful vocals. The instrumental arrangements. The stories she tells within the songs. Many things...but I think the most interesting and surprising element of this album is the darkness.

Take standout track "Black Rainbow" for example, the entire song builds from a soft horn intro into a repeated synth beat with Clark singing softly over it about her life as a woman in a destructive relationship in a suburb filled with gossiping and contradictory nature of her life. Without listening to the lyrics, the slow burn build of the synth beat escalates into a closing section over the last one minute and ten seconds. That section is harrowing, filling the listener with nothing short of dread and a terrible sense of the foreboding. It's as if Clark knows that some listeners (such as I) pay attention to lyrics less than they should but she still wants to convey the dark subject matter at hand.

Her ability to mirror her instrumentation to the emotional state of she takes on for the song (whether it's supposed to be her or someone she's created that she sings for is unknown) is a big reason as to why this album is just so damn stellar. This is a very powerful and beautiful album from one of the better and more underrated voices in music today.



6. Raekwon - Only Built for Cuban Linx...Pt. 2

Whenever I write about rap music, I feel like a huge phoney. I just don't know how to do it properly. Yet when I listen to it I feel as if I know what is exceptional, and from the very first second I turned on Raekwon's follow up to 1995's Only Built for Cuban Linx I knew that I was in for something special. Given that I've always felt more of a connection to the members of Wu Tang Clan than any other rappers out there (perhaps its the mutual admiration of comic books and kung fu movies?), I knew that I'd like this album, but this album kills from the very beginning.

While it features production from luminaries across the industry, I'd be lying if I didn't say my favorite was RZA. The Wu Tang Clan's resident beat master provided all of the beats for the first album but has come under fire from Raek and Ghostface for losing his way on recent Wu albums, so his inclusion is more sparse than it would be otherwise. Yet it's on his tracks (namely "Black Mozart") in which Raek feels most at home, effortlessly riding the beats with his flow as well as he ever has.

The vocal performances are across the board fantastic. Obviously, you expect knockout performances from Raek and his co-star Ghostace, but they manage to coax classic verses from Inspectah Deck, Method Man, and most surprisingly, Busta Rhymes. There are a lot of other guest stars as well that stand out, but my favorite guest vocalist performance is a particularly bizarre one from RZA on "Black Mozart" in which he sings. Yes...sings. For some reason, he really sells that chorus to me.

No less, I may not know how to review it, but I know what good rap is. This is as good of an album as I've heard in years from the genre, and makes me miss the days of Wu even more.



5. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion/Fall Be Kind EP

Any other band that received the level of hype and then backlash as Animal Collective did for their January release Merriweather Post Pavilion would likely have hidden in a cave for a couple years out of fear of disappointing everyone. They were greeted with cheers of "album of the decade" at first and then jeers from music elitists who quickly would state obnoxious things like "they were better back when they released Feels."

Yet instead of hiding, they released an EP of new material in December. That Fall Be Kind EP managed to successfully create two of my favorite tracks from anyone this year - lead off songs "Graze" and "What Would I Want? Sky". "Graze" sounds like Animal Collective performing a track to a new Disney movie in the best way humanly possible - the warmth and beauty to this song are so enveloping that one doesn't listen to this track, they bask in it.

"Sky" on the other hand starts with a couple minutes of slow build synth and percussion mixed with looped vocal squeals, and then dives into a hypnotic vocal taken from The Grateful Dead singing "What Would I Want? Sky" looping to form the central beat of the entire song. Avey Tare sings over this in typically beauteous fashion, assailing us with simple yet thought provoking nuggets like "I should be floating/but I'm weighted by thinking" that fill our flying mind with things to ponder later. This track in itself is filled with lift, making the listener float along as they enjoy every second.

When they are at their best, no one can touch Animal Collective. In fact, if this list was based off my favorite assembled six songs from any album, they'd win. My primary beef with them is that sometimes they didn't knock it out of the park on every track. Too much experimental, not enough pop. When they are at their best, they achieve a balance that is so challenging yet inviting that no one can touch them.



4. The xx - xx

The xx are a band that snuck up on me. To be fair, I think they snuck up on a lot of people. A precocious group of songwriters all, they managed to create an album that is brilliantly complex in its simplicity. This album is all about setting up simple rhythms with guitar, bass, drum machine and keys, and then pouring in the beautiful vocals that weave in and out and together. The vocals tag team each track, moving in and out of harmony in lush, hypnotic fashion. The best word for the vocals often would be sultry, as they have a certain "come hither" twist to them that really sell the lyrics.

One of the most amazing things about this album is just how assured it sounds. Most of the time when a major hype album comes around, it's one that is well known for its unique take on music. I mean, look at Major Lazer for an example of what it takes to get noticed. Yet these four musicians take a pretty simple formula, stick with it throughout and just do it better than anyone else. This is an album that is filled with subtleties that require dedicated listening, but I feel as if this is another inescapably good album that will really take on another life as more people start hearing it.



3. The Thermals - Now We Can See

When I went over my favorite albums mid-year, this gem from the Portland power pop trio was at number one. It's not that I like it less than I did before, it's just that the next two albums continued to build in my mind in a way that made them impossible to deny. No matter what, the things that made this album so special to me before still stand. This album, more than any of their albums before it, managed to capture the raw power of their live sound better while still maintaining sheer listenability. I'd say most of that is thanks to improved production, but a lot of it is probably just the natural progression of the band.

Their formula of guitar, bass and drums is the classic look, but they do so in such a classically melodious fashion that makes it feel fresh once again. As lead singer Hutch Harris said to me in an interview from June, this album is if anything "The Thermals guide to better dying." Thematically, the cohesive point throughout is breaking down all of the things people hold to high value in life that prove to be meaningless in death. It's an interesting perspective, and one that is shared in a package of some of the best pure rock songs in recent memory.



2. Portugal. The Man - The Satanic Satanists

This is an album that I don't believe has earned enough love this year, as it represents the culmination of a burgeoning bands four year metamorphasis. As Portugal. The Man developed their sound through their first three full lengths, they slowly but surely started finding out what worked, what didn't, and picked up new influences along the way. Most groups choose to stick with what works and never waver, or they choose the destroy, rebuild, destroy approach. It's refreshing to hear a band that progressively builds and transmutes their own sound into the variation that best captures what they are going for.

In that regard, this album is the amalgamation of their previous three albums into a more straightforward one that packs more pure songwriting power and soul in its length than almost anything this year. Some question whether or not they moved too far in the direction of pop with this album, but not I. To me, that means you haven't been listening to the music they've been making in years before. This is the natural progression and apex of their sound to date, and it makes me excited to see what is next from P.TM even as I listen to it.



1. Passion Pit - Manners

Why do you listen to music?

It's a fair question, and when thinking of what to say about this album I had to ask. Some people listen because they are a guitar enthusiast and appreciate solid axe work. Others appreciate the storytelling abilities musicians possess. Some people prefer their music to be art that expands their mind.

Myself?

I listen to music as an enhancement to life. I listen for fun, I listen to bring emotion out in myself, I listen...to enjoy it.

A pretty simplistic answer assuredly, but that's the truth. When looking at that, it's easy to see why Passion Pit's Manners is my favorite album this year. From a pure pop and fun standpoint, there is nothing that even touches this album. This album exists in a temporal plane where life is in a permanent summer, where every occasion is one that is best enhanced by pulsing synth and soaring vocals, and most importantly, where life is always a good time.

While that may be too lenient of criteria for some, I'd be a liar if I named something else as my favorite album this year. As I told my friend Erik upon my first listen, "it's like this is an album made specifically for me." Never have I uttered those words before, and we'll see if I ever will again. Until then, I've always got this one.

What's The Situation?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

MTV's Jersey Shore is perhaps the most disgusting show that has ever existed. While it may be very basely entertaining, it highlights some of the most useless people on the planet in a way that should never be done. One of their number actually quit the show because working in a t-shirt shop was too strenuous on her life. A t-shirt shop.

Sigh.

However, this video from Funny or Die featuring series breakout star "The Situation" along with Snooki and Pauly D is a hilarious send up of the whole show and really makes you wonder: is this show really scripted? It has to be, right? There is no way these people could honestly be this terrible, could it?

Movie Reviews: Up in the Air and Avatar

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Up in the Air (Written and directed by Jason Reitman, co-written by Sheldon Turner)

Jason Reitman started his career as "the son of Ivan Reitman" but has since firmly established himself as a powerful voice in film in his own right. His Thank You for Smoking was snarky, quick and fiercely intelligent. Juno topped it in raw emotionality and featured a star making script by Diablo Cody. Both earned him a lot of esteem from the industry, critics, and movie fans alike.

Up in the Air is far beyond both of those in sheer film making power. Reitman's grasp of pacing and structure of film makes the fact that he is just 32 years old all the more shocking. Reitman seems to be on fire throughout the entire film, framing shots in always the most powerful of ways. Scenes are carefully designed to bring the maximum amount of emotion out of them, and no scene ever seems to hold on too long or rush through too fast. This is a budding master storyteller at work, and you can really sense the improvements he has made in himself with the experience he gained in his previous two films.

While Reitman assuredly gets a lot of the credit, his cast is every bit as important in making this film shine. George Clooney (as per usual) is effortlessly charming, winning over everyone he meets with his smile and steady nature. The character of Ryan Bingham could be easy to dislike, but thanks to Clooney's innate charisma he is able to make him not just someone we like, but someone we root for. The character arc Bingham goes on is made believable and powerful thanks to Reitman's script and Clooney's ability to feel so assured and vulnerable at the same time.

Everyone else in the cast is exceptional as well, from Jason Bateman (quickly becoming one of Reitman's go to guys along with JK Simmons) as Clooney's sleazy boss to Vera Farmiga as the smoldering yin to Clooney's yang to Anna Kendrick in a star making turn as industry hotshot Natalie Keener. Kendrick in particular manages to take a bit of a know-it-all character and turn her into someone that is truly three dimensional, imbuing Keener with humanity and heart. Hard to believe her cinematic acting experience mostly stems from the Twilight films.

This film is poignant, hopeful, funny, touching, and occasionally devestating. While it is predictable at times, I think that stems greatly from Reitman's naturalistic storytelling ability. It is a movie that demands you as a viewer to reassess your life and to think about what you want in your backpack. Powerful stuff, and in my mind is deserving of every accolade it has received so far.

Verdict: A


Avatar (Written and directed by James Cameron)

12 years.

James Cameron hasn't made a movie in 12 years.

That's weird to think, but it's true. He hasn't made a film since the massive critical and commercial success of Titanic, as if he himself could not figure out how exactly he wanted to follow that up. Either that or he spent the past decade figuring out how to take CGI to the next level, as Avatar finds Cameron creating perhaps the greatest visuals in the history of film.

The star of the film isn't human. It isn't even any of the blue skinned Na'vi. It's the planet Pandora itself. The atmosphere and environment Cameron creates looks like nothing short of paradise, creating some of the most wildly imaginative landscapes, creatures and visuals ever seen on film. Given that it's Cameron, he also creates some ridiculously cool technological toys, such as the massive gunships or personal warsuits the humans wear into battle from time to time. My friend Colver and I saw it in 3D, and Colver would often facetiously reach out and grasp for things on the screen. He did it jokingly, but we did discuss about how real it looked. The CGI had a real level of tangibility to it that I'd never experienced before, and it helped bring everything on the screen to life.

The plot itself was engaging, even if it was about as thinly veiled commentary as you can get. You had the people of Earth coming into conflict with the indigenous people of Pandora, called the Na'vi (also called "Native Americans"), over their desire to cultivate the vast supply of the rich natural resource that existed under their home. You also had a story about how all of Pandora's trees and environment was interconnected and that the Na'vi had a real connection to that as well (Cameron's heavy handed look at our treatment of the environment). While the plot itself led to trite, preachy storytelling at times, it still was enjoyable and featured many exciting situations. Given that it was two hours and 40 minutes long, you should expect a bit of drag in the story. That comes in the beginning of the third act, but Cameron manages to pull it all back together for a big finish.

The human stars of the film are highlighted by Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang. While some will argue he's been overshadowed by the effects in his two big movies to date (this and Terminator Salvation), Worthington is great in my book so far. He manages to create badasses with a heart of gold with the greatest of ease, and he has a simmering intelligence and sense of humor to him that can not be underrated. Lang on the other hand is just awesome, creating a classic villain that is hysterically badass at times (such as when he goes outside to try to shoot down an airship with rifles without putting on a mask so he can breathe) and brutally intelligent in others. His casual overseeing of one of the most devestating moments in the film was an entertainment highlight for Colver and I.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I was massively entertained by this movie. While the script did lead us to some laughable moments, cheesy dialogue, and pacing issues, the incomparable visuals and strong performances manage to make this an absolute must see for anyone and everyone. Whatever you do, do not see it in anything else in 3D. Go see it in IMAX or whatever the most high tech thing the theaters around you can offer. This is not a movie you want to cheapen your experience on. The visuals need to be seen in all their glory.

Verdict: B+

At the Coffee Shop

Saturday, December 19, 2009
I've always spent way too much time at coffee shops. It started in college really. I would go to shops in Moscow, Idaho to do all of my school work because for some reason "it helped me concentrate." That's possible, but it probably had more to do with the fact I like being amongst people and there are a lot more cute girls in coffee shops than there are in my apartment (why can't the opposite be true?).

No less, now that I live in Anchorage, I frequent the only real acceptable coffee shop answer - Kaladi Brothers. Over the years, I've had a lot of interesting interactions with baristas but the one today really pretty much killed me.

I hand the girl working the register my card to pay and she looks at it closely.

Her: "David...L...Harper the Second. I know you."
Me: "Do you?"
Her: "Do you go to UAA?"
Me: "Nope."
Her: "Did you go to Kenai High School?"
Me: "No."
Her: "I used to work at Starbucks for a long time...did you used to go there?"
Me: "Umm...nope."
Her: "TGI Fridays?"
Me: "Absolutely not."
Her: "Weird. I know you."
Me: "Well...there are a lot of David Harper's out there, although I must admit you do seem familiar to me as well."
Her: "I know! Wait...were you ever in trouble as an adolescent?"

That one ended it. I started laughing really hard, said no, and just walked away because the transaction was closed. Bizarre but awesome. Baristas are weird.

My Debut in Print

Friday, December 18, 2009

While my writing has been in print before it has never really been in something widespread. Not that I write for some sort of illustrious word of mouth fanzine or something like that, but in a much lamer way - like writing a story in a school fiction collection. Either that or my name has been associated as the center of another person's piece, like when my friend Ryan Atkins used me as the focus in his article about Fantasy sports place in college. From time to time I've been quoted as well, but I'd never written anything front to back that was ran.

Until today.

Sort of.

The Anchorage Daily News ran my preview of Saturday's Ludacris concert on the front page of their Play section today. It was a kind of nerve wracking experience and a thrill to see my name there, and perhaps one I'll try again eventually. While it was a bit disappointing that the version that I really loved didn't see the light of day, I understand why that version didn't. It made me realize how informal and unpolished my writing style is. Not only that, but it made me realize how much I liked writing in an informal and unpolished manner.

But as a firm believer in the idea that you should try everything once, I have tried this now. Thanks to Spencer Shroyer for giving me the opportunity to do so. I very much enjoyed the experience and hope to do it again to further enhance my writing skills. Hopefully next time it's about something I know more about than Luda (whom I discovered I actually like quite a bit while researching).

Make sure to check out my debut article, and spread the word of my glory. Or not.