Milk, Jens and Third: A few of my favorite things..

I had originally hoped to start the new year here with another “Best beats” post similar to last year’s, but as I went to work on the year-end summary, the list format just wasn’t working for me.. I was fortunate enough to engage with art of so many different varieties in the past year, that a bulleted list just didn’t seem to do it justice. Here’s my attempt at encapsulating a banner year of artistic appreciation chronologically-ish.

When I began to think back on all of the live music I have witnessed in the past year, it was especially hard to choose a favorite. And then, my mind drifted back to a lovely spring evening in the history-filled Old Music Hall on the University of Wisconsin’s infamous Bascom Hill. Jens Lekman is a musical genius, and his performance that evening was breathtaking.

Running late to the show, which I was staffing as part of my internship duties with a music promoter, I stumbled into the theater just in time to catch the end of Lekman’s sound check – a nearly private performance of “Your Arms Around Me,” off of the Swede’s critically-acclaimed and fan-adored 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala. Later that evening, before a packed house of university hipsters happy to have such a wonderful excuse to spend a Sunday night avoiding the library, Lekman and his band lilted through their set list with a whimsical and charming style that filled the room. This show certainly deserves the stamp of “best show of the year” from me.

Springtime was home to a number of other fantastic shows which served as excellent distractions to my final semester as a college student in Madison. Leslie Hall made me a believer, once more, in the power of the gem sweater with her sparkling (though too short) set at the High Noon in March. Stars sparkled at the Barrymore. Ra Ra Riot proved why they’ve received blog buzz up to wazoo — these kids are going places fast. Tegan and Sara were their adorable, witty selves — though the mostly 18-minus audience of screaming adolescent girls made me feel out of place and… uncomfortable. And in May, at the Annex, The Kills killed. Their shows have a performance art, voyeuristic quality to them – like you’re watching a private, intimate moment between lovers while peaking through their living room window.

The spring also brought with it the release of my favorite album of the year. Around a month after the Lekman show, on April 29, I ran to the record store to pick up Portishead‘s first original release in over a decade, Third. To say that the album exceeded my expectations would be one sin of an understatement. The album is brilliant, continuing Beth Gibbons and company’s pension for music that creates the soundtrack of loneliness and despair. The single “The Rip,” featured in the video below, is a particular favorite of mine. This is music that, much like P-Head’s previous releases, will stand the test of time and cement their position as rock, er, so-called “trip hop,” legends.

And then it was summer. The official new owner of a very expensive piece of paper, I began waiting tables with the same zeal I had usually reserved for racing through poorly-written essays toward the finish line of a rapidly-approaching due-date. I also sold edible, flower-shaped fruit baskets to middle-aged women. But more importantly than that, it was my last summer of pure “freedom.” Of course, I saw the Sex and the City movie. And of course, I cried. This was required — otherwise, I risked losing the precious gay card (on which I’d only recently had my credit limit increased..). And there were Hellboy and Twilight, both of which were less impressive. Thanks to more recently viewed films like Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk (which I’ll talk about more later), the year’s unimpressive cinematic lineup was mostly salvaged in my mind.

The summer’s main jewel was a weekend trip to Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival. The hot, summer weekend spent out in the sun basking in glorious sets from Animal Collective, !!!, Dodos and M. Ward, to name just a few of the highlights, was a fantastic send-off to summer, and an excellent preview to the city which I would shortly thereafter call home. Bon Iver was a particularly great way to wind down from Sunday’s craziness, as his music played just as well to the sweaty, dehydrated masses as it did at the Orpheum Stage Door for his April show in Madison. Only disappointments: Vampire Weekend‘s far too tame set (are they the most overrated band of the year? Discuss) and missing Cut Copy‘s set due to their tardiness and my own lack of sobriety/patience.

Since calling Chicago my permanent home, my financial position has precluded enjoying as much live music as I would’ve liked to, but I still managed to make it out of the apartment for quite a few notable shows: Andrew Bird, free of charge, at Jay Pritzker Pavilion; Lykke Li, bouncing around the Empty Bottle stage; El Guincho, launching a hipster dance pit to their infectious fusion beats. In early December, Amanda Palmer played the Metro, proving that she can rock the stage solo just as well as when she performed as half of the Dresden Dolls earlier in the year at a January show at the Vic. Another bonus of the Palmer show, which surprisingly had the most diverse audience in terms of age and appearance of any other show attended this year, was the on-stage appearance of Neil Gaiman. Gaiman read had an excerpt from his upcoming book collaboration with Palmer. The show kicked outrageous amounts of ass — don’t miss any opportunity that you have to see this fabulous performer live. You won’t regret it. Not a chance.

And finally, I have to give a shout-out to the movie that really made me cry like a baby — moving me to the core with its ironic relevance to today’s political landscape facing the LGBT community. Milk is an incredible film, and it (as well as Sean Penn) deserves all of the accolades coming its way. Harvey Milk died at the hands of misunderstanding and ignorance of the same grain as that which allowed Prop. 8 to pass in California. Although it is true, as the movie said, that “you have to give them hope,” hope alone is no longer going to cut it. I hope that this film inspires all those who see it to call out and stand against prejudice and double-standards whenever you see them — such as the apparently new law that it is illegal to fly while Muslim.

Yay for art! I need a nap.


Snow queens enchant

You know how everyone has that one thing about them that’s especially quirky, endearing, but mostly just strange? For those of you who know me well, this comes as no surprise, but for the rest of you, welcome to my thing: Figure skating. I love it. And have for almost as long as I can remember — or at least since the 1994 Winter Olympic drama between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Yes, it’s probably the most trite sport — if you could even call it that — imaginable, but for whatever reason, it has always held my attention.

This past week, champions were crowned at this year’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minn., determining which American skaters will compete at March’s World Figure Skating Championships in Goteberg, Sweden. Young skaters dominated the scene, which bodes well for future American prospects, but also meant that two of the champions — 14-year-old women’s champion Mirai Nagasu and 14-year-old pairs champion Keana McLaughlin (with partner Rockne Brubaker) — were ineligible for the World team because they do not meet the international minimum age requirement (15).

But perhaps my two favorite performances from the competition came from skaters who did not win: men’s silver medalist Johnny Weir and Caroline Zhang, who placed fourth in the women’s event. Weir is a divalicious artist who lurrrrves everything Russian and is in the midst of a promising comeback, while Zhang is another 14-year-old protege with artistry beyond her years and a very bright future. If you like what you see, check out to view more streaming video from top competitors.

Johnny Weir misses the gold medal by the means of a tiebreak with Evan Lysacek.

Caroline Zhang mesmerizes to “Ave Maria.”

This entry is dedicated to the life of the beautiful and talented Heath Ledger. He was taken from us too soon, and I was deeply saddened by the tragedy. Kudos to the tabloid television shows for recently drawing the line for evasion into celebrities’ lives by choosing not to air controversial video footage of Ledger, out of respect for his life and family.

Oh, and I think that Mary Kate is most def responsible. Just check out her alleged thought process, from 23/6. So sinister.

So, if you are in Wisconsin (or the Midwest) you are probably aware that it has been almost too cold to move ninety percent of the time, as of late. While many other schools have had multiple days off, UW has not had the same foresight.

2007’s best beats

Although this is not an explicitly music-focused blog, given the blogosphere’s obsession with year-end “best-of” lists, I felt it would be appropriate to try it on for size for this blog. Music has always had a major presence in my life, from singing self-created ballads to myself softly while wandering through the woodsy area behind my childhood home to prancing along State Street to a beat emanating from my iPod today.

This is a sampling of the many albums, songs, concerts and videos that, in my opinion, stood above the rest over the course of the past 365 days. The MP3 downloads that are included are meant for non-commercial purposes. If you like what you hear, I hope that you will consider going out to your music dealer of choice (or online to the iTunes music store) and supporting these artists’ fine work. (Or check out to dig around for more free downloads).

2007’s Top Albums

Feist’s “The Reminder.”

1. Feist “The Reminder”
This album is masterful. Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist has an incredible voice that can speak to any emotion imaginable, and the music on this album paints a picture that is at once bold and nuanced. Beyond the standout single “1234,” which has unfortunately been bastardized (and even mocked) by the iPod television ad, every track on this album carries significance from the chill-inducing, flawless notes on “The Park” to the upbeat, organic energy of “Sea Lion Woman.” If you don’t already own this album, check it out immediately.

2. M.I.A. “Kala”
Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam’s much hyped follow-up to 2005’s Arular has matched and surpassed all expectations. This album has managed to bottle M.I.A.’s signature raw, unhinged energy with tracks that have become immediate club anthems for scenesters the world over. “Paper Planes” has become a particularly notable track, becoming a point of controversy following MTV’s decision to censor the sound of gunshots and many obligatories from their airing of the single’s video.

3. Jens Lekman “Night Falls Over Kortedala”
The bloggers are all over this one, and though I was skeptical at first, from first listen I was an instant convert. With his third major release, Swede Jens Lekman has crafted an intricate and witty album that is beyond comparison to other artists, with his use of complex and varying sampling, strings, guitar and other instrumentation to accompany his distinctive voice. “Friday Nights at the Drive-In Bingo” is doused in a flavor that seems to have come direct from the 1950s, while “Your Arms Around Me” carries a sweetly ironic air.

4. The Arcade Fire “Neon Bible”
This Montreal band have been considered by many to be something of a Canadian Beatles since their release of 2004’s exhilarating Funeral, and much like M.I.A., this album faced a great deal of pre-release hype that it has more than lived up to. This is epic music in the style of some of the greatest rock bands of all time, and the best is clearly yet to come for the Fire. Simply a flawless album — from the driving opening notes of “Black Mirror” to the desperate, organ-fueled crescendo of “My Body is a Cage.”

5. Chris Garneau “Music For Tourists”
American “Baroque pop” artist Chris Garneau’s Music For Tourists is the only debut album to make this list, and for good reason. Garneau’s whispering, piano-infused style has been described as the quirky gay male equivalent to Regina Spektor, but his talent goes far beyond that. This album is darkly whimsical and introspective, with each note being delivered with equal parts of pain, regret and longing. The single “Relief” is one of my all-time favorite compositions of all time, and I consisently take new things away from the album each time I listen to it — which is almost always from beginning to end.

6. St. Vincent “Marry Me”
7. Daft Punk “Alive 2007”
8. Tori Amos “American Doll Posse”
9. Patrick Wolf “The Magic Position”
10. Justice “Cross”

2007’s Top Songs

M.I.A. roxx.

1. M.I.A. “Paper Planes”
2. The Arcade Fire “Keep the Car Running”
3. Feist “I Feel It All”
4. Chris Garneau “Relief”
5. Architecture in Helsinki “Heart it Races”
6. Patrick Wolf “Bluebells”
7. Jens Lekman “Your Arms Around Me”
8. Tegan and Sara “The Con”
9. Kanye West “Stronger”
10. Rufus Wainwright “Going to a Town”
11. The National “Fake Empire”
12. St. Vincent “Paris is Burning”
13. Stars “In Our Bedroom After the War”
14. Justice “Phantom, Pt. 1”
15. Tori Amos “Big Wheel”
16. Menomena “Muscle ‘N Flo”
17. Yelle “Je Veux Te Voir”
18. Bishop Allen “Click Click Click”
19. Kate Nash “Foundations”
20. Patty Griffin “Getting Ready”
21. Beirut “Nantes”
22. Air “Once Upon a Time”
23. Bon Iver “Skinny Love”
24. Britney Spears “Gimme More”
25. Roisin Murphy “Overpowered”

2007’s Top Live Shows

1. Tori Amos, 11/3/07, at the Riverside Theatre (Milwaukee)

The haters will hate, but Miss Diva-Turned-Mommy still puts on an incredible show, and it didn’t hurt that this particular show, my third time seeing Amos live, took place on my birthday. Highlights of the show included moving performances of “Winter,” “Code Red,” “Little Earthquakes” and “Siren,” in addition to this precious blooper during an attempt at playing “Strange.” The show could not top Tori’s performance at the Vic Theatre in Chicago the following week, but it was still pretty damn amazing. And yes, I cried.

2. Feist, 11/16/07, at the Orpheum Theatre (Madison)
Even though Leslie had injured her leg a few days prior at another stop, and was relegated to sitting throughout the show (after tentatively stepping onto the stage with the use of a cane), this show was still electrifying for the sold-out audience at the Orpheum. I spent about half of the concert standing in the front, and then later retreated to the balcony to grab a seat for the conclusion, and from both vantage points, the experience was still incredible. She rocked out “Sea Lion Woman,” giving that song a new life that it doesn’t necessarily have on the album, and also included her acclaimed hits, such as “1234” and “Mushaboom.”

3. Chris Garneau, 5/26/07, at Cafe Montmartre (Madison)
Anyone who can silence a Madison bar for an hourlong piano with string trio set deserves some sort of honor, and that’s exactly what Garneau did at this show. Playing several songs from his debut album, Garneau demanded the audience’s attention with his heart-on-sleeve performance, showing an adorable degree of shy humbleness, particularly when he made a mistake during an unplanned encore to “Halloween.” Another highlight, captured by this YouTube clip, was a heralding performance of “Not Nice.”

4. Leslie and the LY’s, 9/8/07, at the Union Terrace (Madison)
5. Girl Talk, 3/24/07, at Club 770 (Madison)

2007’s Best Videos

1. Architecture in Helsinki “Heart it Races”
2. Feist “1234”
3. Patrick Wolf “The Magic Position”
4. Justice “D.A.N.C.E.”
5. Arcade Fire “No Cars Go”