Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best albums 2014

Best Albums 2014


I am cheating because this is my barely-updated blog, and I make the rules here. No, Beyonce's album didn't come out in 2014. It slipped in too close to the end of 2013 to be counted then, but I can't let it go unnoted. It defined my year. We did the "Drunk in Love" dance. We mimicked the way she said "surfbort." We pretended to rollerskate, careening along as she sang "Blow."

The older I get, the less abashed I feel. I love pop music. However manufactured it was, Beyonce's album always felt new and rule-breaking. The songs (particularly "Partition," "Mine" and "***Flawless") broke down and reassembled in new configurations. But they weren't disjointed. Like the Madonna and Michael Jackson records of the 1980s, these were pop hits that weren't just singles but part of a bigger album narrative.

These songs were the soundtrack to the few nights I stayed up past 11 p.m., and they were the sounds that anchored me back to some version of myself that felt young. 2013 was a year of big let-downs and big decisions -- all of which left me feeling rooted and regulated. "BEYONCÉ" was all bounce and thud, cusswords and catchphrases (I woke up like this!), and when we danced around this tiny house together, I felt back on the brink of a limitless future.


Years ago, a friend and I danced dizzy around his Missouri home to old jazz records. We did the Peanuts. We did some version of the swing. We were a decade younger than everyone around us, and we drank enough beer to prove it. But our movements dissolved in the dramas of being 23 and on to the next thing. We reconnected this year, and he sent me this video near the beginning of our talking. This wasn't the jazz we listened to in Missouri. But it felt familiar. We wrote and listened, trying to close the gaps years leave. These bursts of brass were the perfect notes for regaining a friendship. I listened to these songs exclusively for weeks, thinking nothing is lost. In our 30s we can get back what we had.

As with the Beyonce album, I can't disconnect this one from the visuals -- a young baritone sax player grinding his way through the scales. By the time I saw that sax player grooving on a Portland stage this fall, the old friend had already retreated away again. The songs were so good I didn't even notice - I was dancing alone this time.

3. TAYLOR SWIFT - 1989

The post-30 metabolism is slow and droning. I can't eat ice cream the way I once could. I took up running this year, hoping to edge my way back down the scale. It's a miserable venture at first. My lungs hurt. My legs hurt. And worst of all: I was bored. That changed when "Serial" and this Taylor Swift album came out. I could stay on the treadmill for 45 minutes, listening to the murder mystery unwind or Taylor tell the story of the boy she lost. The drums and choruses here have the right kind of rhythm for powering through the miles.

Swift repeats themes, too. Her elusive boy is always driving reckless, crashing or recovering. She is wearing red lipstick, hoping he won't forget. The repetitions stick out because Swift is so good at painting a scene. Every song paints a tidy little portrait. Here they are moving the furniture to dance. Here they are somewhere before or after a breakup, terrified of monsters that turn out to be trees. They lyrics are all so specific yet universal enough that you can fill in your own stories. (I've got a blank space baby, and I'll write your name).

Best of all: This is an album made my someone super self aware of every criticism that has ever been lobbed her way. (Shake it off!) And she owns them all here. It's the kind of confidence you need to hear when taking up running for the first time at 31.

4. Sinkane - Mean Love

5. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

6. Spoon - They Want My Soul

7. Ages and Ages - Divisionary

8. Mac DeMarco - Salad Days

9. CunninLynguists - Strange Journey Vol. 3

10. J. Cole - 2014 Forest Hills Drive

11. St. Paul & The Broken Bones - Half the City

12. Hundred Waters - Morning Rang Like a Bell

13. Kindness - Otherness

14. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness

15. Beck - Morning Phase

* I'm not including D'Angelo here, even though it is the perfect album I have waited all of the 2000s for, because it didn't come out until so late in the year. I reserve the right to name it the best album of 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

December and everything after

Michelle Garfias in dorm 4

Michelle Garfias left Lewis & Clark College last December assuming she'd be back.

She packed one suitcase. She deep-cleaned her dorm room so it would look nice when she returned. Then she headed home for a Southern California Christmas.

She knew as soon as she saw her father that something wasn't right. Juventino Garfias' muscular frame had withered to that of a featherweight. His skin had gone yellow.

Doctors said it was kidney failure, eerily reminiscent of the kidney infection that had killed Garfias' mother a few years earlier. Her father would live, the doctor said, but he would need years of dialysis. He wouldn't be able to work or watch after Garfias' 13-year-old brother Cesar.

Someone needed to earn money for the family. Someone needed to cook dinners and take Cesar to school. That someone, Garfias thought, had to be her.

So Garfias had a choice: Go back to college and finish her degree, or stay and take care of her father. Friends told her a college degree would change her life forever. But what if her family needed her now?


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

two new good legs on a breeze -bent limb

I'm following around a group of Somali teens for the next month or so as they work to get their basketball team off the ground. They held an invitational for their parents last weekend.

East African All Stars Himo Osman 5

East African All Stars Himo Osman 3

East African All Stars 2

East African All Stars 4

Friday, September 12, 2014

Today, more than any other day


Because stories begat stories ...

I've been working on a news piece about the local ice skating rink. Dallas developers are remodeling the model and sizing down the rink in the process. It's a fun story -- every one I have met has a Tonya Harding story -- but I found an even better one while watching the ice one day. This is Alex, age 13. I'll be following him over the next three months or so.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

There's intense gravity. I'm just your satellite.

Tongans _ Semise moves to PSU 4

I've spent the past two years following two Tongan best friends in their last year of high school. "The Pact" ran in Sunday's Oregonian. Semise Kofe and Sione Taumoe'anga thought faith, football and friendship could lead them out of poverty. But what would they sacrifice along the way?

The first thing Semise Kofe and Sione Taumoe'anga did together was fight.

It was a Sunday afternoon in 2007, just after services at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Rose City 1st Ward. The 11-year-old boys knew of each other. Both their families had come to Portland from Tonga, a tiny Polynesian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. They lived in the same neighborhood of ranch houses at the city's edge. They both had something to prove.

Later, neither could remember why they fought that day. Boys growing up on the blocks just off North Columbia Boulevard, an especially poor, rough part of eternally downtrodden North Portland, didn't need a reason. They earned power and respect just for swinging.

Taumoe'anga, lanky with the first shade of a mustache, punched Kofe in the mouth. Kofe, neckless and wide, grabbed Taumoe'anga and slammed him against a car.

Other boys from the neighborhood were joining the Crips. Kofe and Taumoe'anga had already lost a few friends to juvenile detention centers. As onlookers pulled the boys apart that morning, Kofe and Taumoe'anga shared the same scary thought: We could be next.

"We gotta do something different, bro," Kofe remembers saying.

A friendship was formed. A deal was made.

Taumoe'anga's uncle ran a makeshift gym in a detached garage near Pier Park. Maybe, Taumoe'anga suggested, he could train them for something more productive. For football.

They showed up for the first session wearing school uniforms and no shoes. Both their fathers worked in concrete, an industry that slowed to a near-halt during Portland's wet winters. They had dress shoes for school, but no sneakers.

Kofe suggested they steal a pair. Taumoe'anga had a better idea: "What about the wires?"

People often threw perfectly fine sneakers -- the laces knotted together -- over telephone pole wires. Several pairs hung in the sky near their homes. They knocked a few sets down before finding a pair of baby blue size 9 knockoffs, then took turns wearing them. Kofe ran laps around the park while Taumoe'anga stood barefoot on the sidewalk. Then Taumoe'anga ran while Kofe waited and watched.

"We're gonna get this done," Taumoe'anga said between laps. "Get better. Prove everybody wrong."

They slapped hands and prayed: "Heavenly father, help us get out of here."

It was a contract made by boys, no more binding than a spit-shake. Later, they took to calling it their pact.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

'All we wanna do is take the chains off'

Cities across the country held a National Moment of Silence for Mike Brown and Ferguson, Mo. on Thursday night. Portland had two. The one I attended -- outside a Portland Police Precinct -- grew louder as the night wore on. Here are some photos I made for The Oregonian.

Portland protest for Ferguson

Portland protests for Ferguson 15

Portland protests for Ferguson 30

Portland protests for Ferguson 3

and an excerpt of the story:

Portland protesters stayed mostly on the sidewalks near the Portland Police Bureau North Precinct as the first wave of rush hour traffic traveled up and down MLK. But as the crowd grew, so did the tension.

An offshoot, led by Ionatana Iese of North Portland, formed a barricade in the crosswalk. Business owners from the Vanport Plaza rushed into the street, begging Iese to move out of the sidewalk.

"Open the street up," he yelled. "You're asking for violence. We ain't asking for them to shoot us."

Shareef pointed to the precinct.

"If they come, it's going to get violent, trust me," Shareef said. "It's not us against us. It's us against them."

"People have been singing and marching for years," Iese said. "Right now, we are undirected chaos. This is old. This is archaic. We need to do something that will affect the money. Sitting in traffic is something different."

"You can't fight all the time," Shareef said. "Sometimes you have to be smarter than your oppressors."

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Black Boy Speech

My coworker Beth Nakamura and I made a series of videos recently featuring mothers whose sons are Black, Latino or biracial. The mothers talked about their family's experiences with police and explained "The Black Boy Speech," a talk they've given their sons about how to interact with police. We made six individual videos, which you can watch on The Oregonian's website. But here's the main video, which includes several of the mothers.

The Black Boy Speech: Mothers of color give advice to their sons about interacting with police from Casey Parks on Vimeo.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Street names on Whidbey Island

Deception Pass

Fox Spit Road
Brainers Road
Doc Savage Drive
Xanadu Drive
Grimm Drive
Shipping View
Useless Bay Avenue
Silent Cedars Lane
Scenic Heights Lane
Monkey Hill Road
Deception Circle Road

photo from Deception Pass, the skinny waterway at the island's northern edge

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I’m wind- rattled. The wood’s splitting.

Augusta, Montana

Gas station

Augusta, Montana has just as many cowboy hats as I imagined. Just another day here in Big Sky country.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Of everyone I ever knew, I've gotten used to you

Beverly Beach

May 2014, walks with my main guy Q, steady as ever after seven years

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Fabio meets and greets

Fabio is in Portland this week, touring the local Whole Foods much to the delight of many women here. I went to the first event and wrote a story. Because: Why not?

Fabio, the Italian heartthrob known for his hunky physique and exquisite mane has parted ways with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, the spread and spray he advertised in the 1990s.

But he is still catnip to some women, and in the sales world, they call that a sure thing.

He's on a nationwide tour of Whole Foods markets, selling Healthy Planet Nutrition protein powders. And, perhaps more importantly, he is posing for pictures. His first of several Portland appearances was Wednesday on Northeast Fremont Street. Thursday, he'll be at the grocery chain's Pearl District location. Later in the week, he's at the Tanasbourne, Hollywood and Laurelhurst locations.

Women once mobbed him. Cops had to break-up fights in the 1990s as fans fought for a piece of Fabio's 6-foot-3-inch frame, the cover image of countless romance novels.

But heartthrobs come bearded here. Butter is back in style. And the 40 women lining up Wednesday in the gluten free aisle did not seem the mobbing type. They were business women, literary types, and their smiles verged on embarrassed giggles as the clock ticked toward 12.

"We booked a group meeting in Outlook," Alyson Clair confessed. She and 40 coworkers at the apparel company Amer Sports have spent the last few years working alongside a bare-chested, boot-clad cardboard cutout of Fabio.

They bought the cutout for a Halloween party. Eight of the Amer Sports workers loved it so much, they cut out of work to meet the real deal.

"No dudes would come with us," Hart said.

Fabio was late Wednesday, so they posed for pictures with their replica. It's flat, but the sweat pictured dripping down the chest gives it a lustful, if not lifelike, quality.

"We're wondering if this is a no shoes, no shirts, no service kind of place," Kristin Normansen said. A passing Whole Foods worker stopped with an official word from on high: The grocery gods would let the 55-year-old Fabio remove his shirt.

When he did arrive, his tresses still extended to the ends of the earth -- or at least well past his shoulders. But his chest was not bare. Instead, he wore cowboy boots, snug-fitting jeans and a T-shirt tight enough to leave little to the imagination.

"Oh my god, his hair is flowing," Clair said.

"He looks good, so luscious," said Jessica Neciuk, a 22-year old on her lunch break. "He's beautiful. Everyone in my office made fun of me: 'He's twice your age.' But I don't care. I'm a sucker for long hair."

Fabio and an assistant set up in the frozen food aisle, a good 10 yards from the butter and butter substitutes. The assistant blended protein power into almond milk while our hunk talked chemistry.

"Your body is 60 percent water, 40 percent protein," he said before delving deep into something called the "biological value scale."

The Italian accent gave everything Fabio said an air of the profound. But after 10 minutes of scientific talk, giggles had sharpened to pursed lips.

Jocelyn McAuley and Kellie O'Donnell interrupted the lecture. They had raided their friends' costumes closets to assemble outfits befitting the cover of a romance novel and sneaked out of work to see Fabio. This was a bucket-list ambition; Mcauley's mother would be so jealous.

Yet as midday stretched into afternoon, they lost patience.

"I'm sorry, we have to go soon," Mcauley said. "Can we please get a picture?"

Fabio paused and furrowed his brow -- giving them the sexy stare of a book jacket bodice ripper. The romance cover replicas posed for their picture then rushed out, clutching their skirts in one hand and cell phones in the other.

"OK, if you come here, I explain you then we take the pictures," Fabio told the rest of the women. "Most of the world is confused right now. All these people, they give you a lot of bologna and very little science."

He held up a bottle of protein powder: The unpasteurized, sugarless mix is kosher and gluten free. It has high levels of lactoferrin, immunoglobulins and bovine serum albumin.

And it is delicious.

Well, at least more delicious than other protein drinks the women said they had tried. It was light and slightly frothy, they said, not too chalky or sweet.

Men suddenly appeared from the aisles to sip the chocolate and vanilla mixes from tiny paper cups. A lesbian said she was considering switching teams.

"Everybody thinks beans are such a great protein," Fabio said. "They are not. They are bottom of the scale. Even a potato has more protein. There is a lot of marketing and very little science."

At $32 for 10 ounces, his mix is expensive. But other protein powders supplement the good stuff with sugar and chemicals, he said.

"Give the people the right thing, and it will be right forever," he said.

They bought the powder, but in this case, the right thing turned out to be pictures.

-- Casey Parks

Sunday, May 18, 2014

There are some things you will never do. It doesn't matter. There is no rush.

Me, photo by CW

You said I’d be terrifying at 30.

A badass version of me was hard to imagine at 24, when I knew I’d stay strutting in my Converse, polite-talking my way through everything forever. But I wanted to believe you could be right, so I waited through those awkward 20s, hoping every turn would turn me there.

I ticked off “Saturn Return” in 2011. I told myself the cosmos was to blame for the breakup and the death and my every-day-a-new-indecision ways. If that year was my upending, that meant I had smooth sailing, steady sequences waiting for me after. This is just a stop you make, I told myself. Just wait three years.

But 30 held its own upheavals. Only a month in, The Oregonian laid me off. I don’t think all the crying and gulping for breath held any real brainwaves that night, but I do remember staring out at nothing thinking this is not how 30 goes for me. This is the year I’m supposed to become terrifyingly good.

The bosses changed their minds, took back the axe and the severance package, too. But it never felt like rewind for me. If I was terrifying, it was because I was hurt and scared that the thing I had spent my whole life becoming would not exist any more. At least not for me.

I spent most of the year stubborn and mean. The layoffs gave way to musical chairs at work. The polite-talking sneaker wearer I used to be found a desk somewhere away from me. I accused everyone of being out to get me. I scrutinized my paycheck, marked every moment beyond hour 40.

“I swear all my other year-end reviews said I was a pleasure,” I told my new boss. “I know you haven’t seen me be a pleasure. But I was a pleasure before.”

I moved out of the apartment where I had spent most of my 20s. I took up with three cats and the most exquisite girl. I wrote the stories I wanted to write. I spent many Saturday nights reading.

I put one foot in front of the other. I stopped spending every moment thinking of the future. I spent some part of every workday working on the three stories I really cared about. I finally realized that great writing has little to do with being a phenom. It is not divine intervention or being in the mood for the best of clauses. It is hard work, showing up and going through the motions when your brain feels like numbing through a marathon of Bejeweled.

Eventually everything settled. I stopped waking up in the middle of the night unsure of myself. I took up running. I bought that woman a ring. My Big Speech dissolved to nonsense in the moment (I do believe I said “We had a nice Thanksgiving”), but she said yes.

That is, as the year wound its way it way to 31, I started to feel -- just slightly -- like an adult. And that’s terrifying. For me, if not for you.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sunday, March 30, 2014

if I stay here, trouble will find me

I spent a few months with Dracey as part of my recent project documenting rappers from North Portland. The package is a multimedia piece that includes sound clips, photographs by Beth Nakamura and these short documentaries I made of each rapper. For the video on Dracey, we went back to the three-bedroom apartment he once shared with 13 other people. We also visited his old high school, where he recorded his first album in a utility closet.

Glenn Waco revisits the places that inform his music from Casey Parks on Vimeo.

To see the stories, check out Straight Outta St. Johns.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

all I learned was that gravity can be painful

Dequante McDowell talks about changes on Hell Street from Cabin 7 on Vimeo.

Nine hundred is small enough to sense a shift in population. When someone new touches down, the people of Delhi notice.

When we first got out of the car four years ago, two guys immediately pulled over. Rob and Talkhead wanted to know who we were.

The next year, I walked into a convenience center at the edge of town. A guy slid over just before the door closed.

"Where you from?"

"Oh, my whole family is from here," I said, chipper and trying to belong.

"No," he said, looking down at my boots, distressed by design, not work. "Where are you from?"

"Well, my mom grew up here. I grew up in West Monroe."

He shook his head.

"I live in Oregon," I finally said.

We've been stopped by cops twice -- once because they didn't recognize us and once because they remembered us from the year before.

And best of all, we've been stopped by people with stories to tell. Pam Sykes pulled her jeep over, mid-railroad tracks, to ask what we were doing in town. She hasn't been able to shake us since. And Dequante McDowell, the 19-year-old in today's video, flagged us down last April as we cruised Chatham Street.

Chatham isn't Hell Street anymore, he told us. It's What the Hell Street.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

to places we don't know

Sunny March days on the beat, following sisters Kiera Brinkley and Uriah Boyd around as they prepare for a dance duet:

You can read the story on Oregonlive.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

back down, down to the downtown, down to the lockdown

Aubree and I are headed back to Louisiana in a few weeks, so I'm putting together a few vignettes to hype up the trip. Here's one from last April. Chris, Erin and I met Archie Lee Harrell at his church on a rainy afternoon. Chris was still brainstorming score ideas, and he sat down and played one of his ideas.

Diary of a Misfit teaser: Chris Johnson works on developing the score from Cabin 7 on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

If I mentioned all of my skeletons, would you jump in the seat?

My big multimedia project about Portland rappers came out last week. It's a package of four stories and three videos I made, along with black and white photographs from Beth Nakamura. I feel really grateful to have had the time to work with these musicians on telling their stories. NPR Music and Longreads both linked to the project, and it looks like the boys have sold some records in its wake. I went on Oregon Public Broadcasting this week, too, to talk about the stories.

Check out the whole project, called "Straight Outta St. Johns," for the full effect, but in the meantime, here's one of the videos.

Egbe Vado: A loss threatens the rapper's dreams from Casey Parks on Vimeo.

Egbevado Ananouko’s family left West Africa banking on the American dream and found minimum wage jobs instead. Like other St. Johns teenagers, Ananouko saw hip-hop as a path out of the neighborhood. Rap music’s tales of gold chains and suped-up cars gripped Ananouko. But unlike his peers, the wiry, thickly accented Ananouko built his music studio hoping to secure something more pedestrian: acceptance.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Important Matter of Small-Town Hair

The first thing she saw at Jitney Jungle was Mary Thompson’s bouffant, fresh from a foreign salon. The local barber didn’t do that kind of up-do. Louise kept her shock cropped in electric spokes, and every other mother on Chatham Street had a perm or a bob, nothing as wild as the high-rising twist Mary was now wearing. Just last month she had been no better than anyone else.

“Louise,” Mary called. “Oh, Louise, isn’t it splendid to run into each other here. Frank and I have been out of town all month. We were in Florida, and you’ll have to forgive my hair. I had to have it done on vacation. The style isn’t quite taking to this humidity. Frank says it’s the same there as it is here, but I say the whole world knows Louisiana is hotter than hell. And how is Troyce?”

“Oh, we’re fine,” Louise said. The last thing she was going to do was discuss her husband or Florida or the merits and drawbacks of humidity with this hairstyle. Not when she had business in town.

Mary said, “I heard about what the preacher did. Troyce must be so hurt.”

“He’s the same as always,” Louise said. “In fact, we are going on a trip ourselves. Troyce has said he will carry me to Oregon.”

Louise could push her buggy all the way to Oregon right this second, but the outline of Mary’s bouffant would still flicker before her. Some women have so little to worry about.

“Oregon,” Mary said. “Well, who would have guessed?”

“Troyce stopped there before Korea, said it’s the most beautiful place in the world,” Louise said. Though, now that she thought of it, Troyce might have said Washington.

“I don’t know about Oregon. We’re not so well traveled as that. But Florida has oranges. And it has the ocean and the most wonderful people. Everyone is just radiant. Even Frank had a shine there. It could really set Troyce right, too.”

Louise pushed her buggy back and forth, just a bit. Maybe he had said Washington. He said the place was green even in winter. That trees there never died. You could mow the lawn in broad daylight there, Troyce had said, and never break a sweat.

Mary said, “Well, I’m sure you have to get going. I bet you have a huge supper planned.”

“Actually,” Louise said. “I’m headed to town today. To the Montgomery Ward. My mother needs a new rug.”

“I was just telling Frank the right rug can really tie a house together. Of course Frank wants to hold out for carpet. His mother has had wall-to-wall since 1962.”

Louise looked at her watch.

“Well, don’t let me keep you. Do tell Troyce we’re sorry we haven’t been by the store. Of course we don’t agree with the pastor, but Frank says we have to listen to him anyhow. Word could get around, and then Frank might run out of business, too.”

Louise wondered if they made women this same way in Oregon. Troyce hadn’t mentioned the women. He hadn’t mentioned the women of Korea either, though more than one wife in town had lost their husband to a Korean. Troyce had come home, thank god, with not a word of a single woman. In Oregon, she bet, women knew the right time to shut up.

-- excerpted from my short story "A New Rug"

(title cribbed from a Rachel Kushner line)
(photo grabbed from historical documents)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

everything above my brain is sovereign airspace

Another sneak peek from my upcoming rap project: Spent a few hours watching guys freestyle under the St. Johns bridge. This one went on for three minutes and really blew my mind. What a talent.

{fragments} illmaculate cyphers under the St. Johns Bridge from Casey Parks on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

the white caps of memory, confusing and violent

Here's a preview of a short documentary I made, coming soon to The Oregonian.

{fragments} Egbevado's lost days from Casey Parks on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Best songs of 2013

I've been making lists of my 50 favorite songs for a whole decade this year.

1. Drake - Hold On, We're Going Home

I’m a sucker for a good pop song, and this year was full of them. But unlike “Mirrors” or "Royals" or “Wrecking Ball,” I never tired of hearing this Drake track. His voice is so smooth here, soothing his girl into knowing it is going to be all right. It’s kind of dancey, kind of pretty and very catchy.

2. Disclosure f/ London Grammar - Help Me Lose My Mind

Her voice is so pretty on both ends of the register. Disclosure managed to make a timeless track on its very of-the-moment album.

3. Ciara - Body Party

There’s a handicap in Ciara’s favor here: “My Boo” is one of my favorite songs of all time. But any other pop star might have trudged all over my beloved hook. Ciara and Mike Will Made It instead elevated it. Shout out to the video, which we replayed at the end of every hangout.

4. Waxahatchee - Swan Dive

I love the lyrics here -- the words, yes, but also the way Katie Crutchfield bends them over lines. She has a funny way of enjambing, where the middle of sentences rise up, and I love it.

5. Chance the Rapper - Chain Smoker

I have never heard a rapper use words the way he does. This track is stuffed full, packed with internal rhymes that would make Rakim proud.

6. Jason Isbell - Cover Me Up

I always listen to the lyrics over the instrumentation, and I love the story this song tells. His voice sounds great, too. I wish I had thought of this line, in particular: So girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain't leavin' this room til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.

7. Mikal Cronin - Weight

This song just makes me happy.

8. Kanye West - Bound 2

In an era of Kanye innovation, this was old school, a reminder of how good it felt to listen to him in the College Droupout days. Plus, there's a Martin reference! I'm especially fond of the live performance with Charlie Wilson on Jimmy Fallon.

9. Daft Punk - Instant Crush

Julian Casablancas never sounded so good. So smooth and moody.

10. Vinnie Dewayne - Nowhere

Y'all watch out for this Portland rapper. He looks and sounds like Kendrick Lamar, but I think he has something special of his own to add, too. He's bringing rap back to storytelling.

11. Arcade Fire - Afterlife

12. Vampire Weekend - Step

13. Justin Timberlake - Mirrors

14. Local Natives - Mt. Washington

15. J. Cole - Power Trip

16. London Grammar - Strong

17. Kanye West - Blood on the Leaves

18. Disclosure - Latch

19. Janelle Monae f/ Erykah Badu - Q.U.E.E.N

20. Kanye West - Hold My Liquor

21. Jason Isbell - Songs that She Sang in the Shower

22. Lana Del Ray and Cedric Gervais - Summertime Sadness remix

23. Vampire Weekend - Hannah Hunt

24. Neko Case - Night Still Comes

25. Janelle Monae - What an Experience

26. Daft Punk - Doin' It Right

27. Neko Case - Local Girl

28. Blood Orange - It Is What It Is

29. Justin Timberlake - Let the Groove Get In

30. Tegan and Sara - I was a Fool

31. Waxahatchee - Lively

32. Earl Sweatshirt f/ Frank Ocean - Sundah

33. Vampire Weekend - Diane Young

34. Jhene Aiko f/ Childish Gambino - Bed Peace

35. The National - I Should Live in Salt

36. Janelle Monae f/ Miguel - Primetime

37. Sampha - Without

38. James Blake - Retrograde

39. J. Cole - She Knows

40. Mariah Carey f/ Miguel - #Beautiful

41. The Killers - Just Another Girl

42. Drake - f/ Jhene Aiko - From Time

43. Glenn Waco f/ Mic Capes - Paradise

44. Youth Lagoon - Dropla

45. Lady Gaga f/ R. Kelly - Do What You Want

46. Torres - Honey

47. the Internet - Dontcha

48. Volcano Choir - Byegone

49. Tegan and Sara - Closer

50. Rhye - Open

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Favorite albums of 2013

I mostly bought singles the past few years, but I decided in 2013 to concentrate on albums. Lucky me, it was a great year for them. Here are my top 15. Mainly, I chose based on lyrics or how much fun I had listening.

1. Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt

This is totally an album the 18-year-old version of me would have loved, would have found very important and made for me alone. That it somehow made me feel all those things at 30, too, is a neat little trick. I love the lyrics, and I love her voice. The CD rarely left my car stereo.

2. Jason Isabel - Southeastern

Another one chosen for lyrics. He has a great voice, but it was the stories that kept me replaying.

3. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

I've liked this band well enough on past albums, but this one is so much better crafted. I love all the meditations on religion, the freaky drops and leaps lead singer Ezra Koenig takes with his voice. Some of the songs made me dance; others made me ache. There was a song for all seasons, and I played the hell out of it.

4. Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe

This is just my kind of sound -- groovy, vaguely retro r&b. Individual songs don't stand out as much, but I'm always in the mood to hear the whole.

5. Disclosure - Settle

For me, this is a great collection of songs. The different guest singers leaves a slightly disjointed feel to me, but the songs are just so good.

6. Janelle Monae - Electric Lady

She can rap and sing and wield a story and a hook. She put on a mean concert, too.

7. Kanye West - Yeezus

So unlike anything anyone else is doing. It's the album I most admire of the year, but I'm rating here on personal listening habits.

8. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight

Reviewers seem to think this is her most perfect album, but sadly, it's my least favorite. It's the first album of hers I've ever skipped songs. But even at half-mast, she's still better than most everyone else to me. And there are a few stand-outs here.

9. Drake - Nothing Was The Same

I had a similar reaction here: I love his earlier albums so much more, but this one also has such great moments (including my favorite song of the year). He blazes his own trails.

10. Ciara - Ciara

So very catchy.

11. Justin Timberlake - 20/20 Experience

He is not a great lyricist, but the first disc of this project (I refuse to acknowledge the dreadful second) is so fun. How he made seven-minute songs catchy and instant-replayable I don't know. But these songs soundtracked my spring.

12. Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap

I have never heard anyone use words the way he does. Taffier than taffy, springier than a rubber band. This guy has skill. And hooks.

13. J. Cole - Born Sinner

I love his storytelling.

14. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

This album made me a fan again after the snoozefest of The Suburbs. It's crazy with its genre-mixing, but I like the songs.

15. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

Another solid double from The National. I like their sound and their weird sentences.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Books I read in 2013

I thought I'd read 40 books this year, but, oh well. The books I did read were mostly great and inspired me to start trying fiction writing.

1. Ben Lerner - Leaving the Atocha Station

This reminded me somewhat of "Open City" in that the philosophy matters more than the plot. This book is sillier, wry-er than Teju Cole's, though. It's still very thoughtful, but just in a more clever, of-the-moment way. I enjoyed reading it. It's short. Probably wouldn't read it a second time, though.

2. Mitchell S. Jackson - Oversoul

I love his voice. I like the fiction here better than the essays, but I'm really excited to see what Jackson writes in the future.

3. Anuradha Roy - The Folded Earth

I really enjoyed reading this. It didn't break any narrative grounds or do anything particularly special, but I just liked reading it. The imagery is nice, the story is good, the characters are memorable. I felt really a part of the world, and I never felt eager for the novel to end.

4. Daniel Handler - Lemony Snicket: Who Could That Be At This Hour?

I love the language. It is so fun, so lip-smackingly clever. Can't wait to read the next in this series.

5. George Saunders - CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

So fun. So brilliant. I felt so lucky to be reading. The last piece -- the novella -- dragged on, but the short stories. Oh my gosh the short stories. Everything I wish David Foster Wallace or Gary Shteyngart would be.

6. Daniel Handler - Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events

I liked it, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the new Lemony Snicket. I was bummed to see a repetition of tropes ("xx here means xx"), and this one was much darker than the new book.

7. Jennifer Egan - A Visit From The Goon Squad

I skipped this when it first came out because I thought it was a futuristic book. I bought it after seeing Saunders read because I was so hungry for books and felt, OK, I better do this. But it's not futuristic. I love the non-linear structure. I love the writing and the characters. It challenged me to remember everyone and their place in the main character's life, but that was part of the fun. It taught me a new way to view life. Plus, reading it always seemed more fun than watching TV (this coming from an unabashed TV lover). The very last chapter was too blatant to be enjoyable for me, but overall, I loved the meditations on the passing of time.

8. Mary Doria Russell - Sparrow

I put off reading this for months after my former editor sent it to me. A book about a group visiting an alien planet did not seem like my kind of thing. But this editor has always recommended good books, so I finally picked it up. I didn't love the parts that had to with aliens, but 75 percent of the book actually deals in religion, loneliness, purpose and love. And those parts were great. It's dense, but the characters are well drawn. It took me a while to read because it wasn't a book that begged me to read it every second, but ultimately, I really enjoyed it.

9. Alexis M. Smith - Glaciers

I read this tiny meditation very quickly. I don't normally like to read a book set in Portland -- books are for escaping! -- but I found reading this one while reading the bus to be a nice time. It's well written and thoughtful, a good nod to what's to come from her.

10. JT LeRoy - Sarah

Despite all the controversy surrounding the writing of this book, I enjoyed reading it. I thought it was well enough written, and the plot was really engrossing.

11. Cheryl Strayed - Tiny Beautiful Things

I don't think of myself as the advice book type, but I loved this. Her advice in all situations basically boils down to: You know what to do it. It's going to suck, but you have to do it. That voice kept resounding in my head at work, as I headed down to Louisiana to film the documentary. If I had been having love problems, this would have been a godsend. Instead, I used it to push myself at work. It's incredibly written, so beautiful that it made me go buy "Wild," a book about hiking that I assumed I'd never attempt. I read it each day as if it were my devotion. It was everything I had always wished devotionals would be.

12. Karen Russell - Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I shouldn't like this book. Russell's stories are often set in times and tones (hello, magical realism) that I just do not like. But she writes such great sentences. Those looping words kept drawing me in, even through plots I would generally say I won't like. Some stories were better than others, but overall, I felt a gnawing ache of jealousy as I read this. To be this good. Sigh.

13. Nathan Englander - What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

I loved these stories. Though they tell of a world fairly unfamiliar to me (most of the stories have at least one foot in Israel), Englander's voice makes each piece feel close at hand, relatable. Though the Holocaust and Orthodox Judaism cast a pall over most of the stories, they span generations and places and moods. There is lightness here, even when the stories are dark. It's an imaginative and confidently written collection, and I read it in like two days.

14. Charlie Le Duff - Detroit

When I picked this up from the library, I snorted. There he is, journalism's grittiest, most self-indulgent son splashed across the front pages of his own book. The title suggests this is a book about Detroit, but, as with all his work, it's really about Charlie Le Duff. The cover photo is apt. When he is good, he is great. Sometimes he is not, sometimes he is too bull-headedly himself, but I knew going into the book that he would be. There's plenty to skim through, and it is not, as he would hope, the definitive book on Detroit. He is of that place, but he is not the whole place himself. He doesn't back down ever, and he nearly always describes the race of the person he talks about. A younger version of me would have glazed over it, but the Portland version of me bristled at times. Sometimes it sounds like he's doing that just to show how ballsy and real and unfraid and direct he is. And sometimes I don't need that point drilled in so hard. But it's a fun read.

15. Jess Walter - Beautiful Ruins

This is a great story. I read it over a long weekend and was always eager to choose it over TV. But that's in part because it felt like TV -- a little mindless. I didn't love the voice. At times, Walter just seems to be trying too hard. But the story was great, and I'd recommend it to anyone in need of a good yarn.

16. George Saunders - Tenth of December

I didn't like it as much as CivilWarLand, but there were some really standout pieces here. The Simplica Girl Diaries is one of the best short stories I've ever read. And overall, it was a very fun, incisive book.

17. Colum McCann - TransAtlantic

This is my disappointment of the year. I loved McCann's last book, Let The Great World Spin. It's one of my favorite books of all time. I was eager to lose myself again in his sentences. And he does have some good sentences here, but TransAtlantic fails to differentiate between voices the way Let the Great World Spin so expertly did. Everyone speaks in lofty fragments, rendering each character into one, undistinct somebody. I could never lose myself in this book. Because every sentence was so high in the clouds, I never got a chance to feel the weight of any one line. Mostly, the book felt like work, never like fun. And finally, near the last third, I just gave it back to the library.

18. Mitchell Jackson - The Residue Years

This book is made of the kind of sentences I want to remember forever. I saw Jackson read last year and have been waiting for this book ever sense. It is pulsing and alive, so so good. Again, it made me jealous of his style. It's the kind of book I wish I could write.

19. Claire Vaye Watkins - Battleborn

I loved all of these stories, but the first and last are especially perfect. I can't wait to read it again. Again! I am so jealous of her talent.

20. Cheryl Strayed - Wild

An interesting and quick read that really left me more in awe of Strayed as a person rather than as a writer. I didn't like the writing here as much as I did in the advice columns, but it was still enjoyable.

21. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah

This was hands-down my favorite book of the year. The sentences aren't as good as those in Residue Years or in Battleborn, but the story is just so good. Which reminds me: Story always trumps sentences.

22. Mark Leibovich - This Town

When he's on, he's on, but this book is a structural mess. Too meandering to really hold me. I prefer him in shorter doses -- he's killer on the news desk.

23. Rachel Kushner - The Flamethrowers

I loved the first half of this book. I rented it from the library and was immediately sad because there were so many good lines I wanted to underline. I kept a running list in my journal instead, a list that soon stretched pages. By the time the action heads to Italy, though, my fever had cooled. I felt less and less like reading it once the novel shifted.

24. Jesmyn Ward - Salvage the Bones

Tough read, but brilliantly written. Important work. I could only read a chapter a day, though.

25. Justin St. Germain - Son of a Gun

I really enjoyed the way St. Germain structured this book, going between his own life and the Tombstone legends. I read the book in only a few days. It's well written, though I wouldn't call him a voicey writer. I didn't find myself underlining any sentences. But I really enjoyed reading it.

26. Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland

Lahiri's prose is so beautiful. I love many things about this book -- including the killer last paragraph -- but parts of the story felt too rushed, too paraphrased. I wanted the story to be slowed or more focused, less overarching. I didn't feel the story benefited by showing readers the entire cycles of the character's lives. But I really enjoyed reading it. For all its scope, it was a quick read.

27. Meg Wolitzer - The Interestings

I just never came to really care about these characters. I felt like the novel was always telling me about them and who they are, rather than showing me. That left me with a shallow connection. There was nothing to keep me wanting to read more. I know Wolitzer is super accomplished and experienced, but her style reminded me of a college writer still finding her voice.

28. Jesmyn Ward - Men We Reaped

There are so many beautiful sentences in Men We Reaped. At times, the books feel repetitive or just not done enough (maybe a few more years of distance or editing would have helped?) but I think it's headed in the right direction. Lack of options, lack of government investment in equal infrastructure and economic development, self-medicating precipitated by generations of untreated depression -- these are real factors, nearly always insurmountable. It was clearly a tough write for Ward, and I admired the book.

29. Questlove - Mo Meta Blues

I loved this book. It's such a fun way to learn about the history of hip-hop, its sample sources, its commercialization. This book is so well written, too. Great read and great history of Philadelphia.

30. Jayne Anne Phillips - Black Tickets

I loved the sentences (or, frequently, the fragments) in this book. Very intense read, though, so I was glad to have the break between stories. I like the tiny stories especially.

31. Allie Brosh - Hyperbole and a Half

Not every story is great, but most made me laugh out loud or mutter "so true" to myself. I love how open she is.

32. Ben Fountain - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

After a while, the criticisms and points seemed repetitive, but I really like this book. The sentences are almost too good for the narrator. I don't believe an uneducated 19-year-old kids knows some of the words Fountain puts in his brain, but as a reader, it was fun to read them. Neat conceit for a book, too: The whole novel takes place during a Cowboys football game.