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?