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Best of 2016: Music Edition, Part 2

The musical theme of my year seems to be strong women and emotional ballads. Hey, I can think of many worse themes. Music is wonderful during happy times, but these are the kind of songs to get you through the tough times. Here are my top 5 songs of 2016!

5. Lady Gaga, “Million Reasons”

At first I was skeptical about the new Lady Gaga album, but soon I was living for it. After going to theatrical extremes on her previous efforts, she was wise to move in a more personal direction. I love that Gaga is so in earnest with everything she does, even the songs that don’t work, but “Million Reasons” definitely works for me. Besides the country-twinged melancholy, my favorite part is the play on words between needing a good reason and a good man to stay.

4. Tegan and Sara, “Dying to Know”

“Dying to Know” became a sneaky favorite off of Tegan and Sara’s new album. The jittery vocals and instrumentation fit perfectly with lyrics about wondering how your ex is doing now. In true Tegan and Sara fashion, a potentially depressing topic is softened by an infectious beat. With the album’s throwback vibe, you can imagine yourself as the protagonist in a John Hughes movie.

3. Lykke Li, “Sadness Is A Blessing”

Since Lykke Li still hasn’t blessed us with new music, I went back to her previous album instead. Wounded Rhymes is great all-around, but “Sadness Is A Blessing” has the best blend of melodrama and genuine emotion. My English major heart loves a song that sounds like it could be sung by the heroine of a Victorian novel. To say “Sadness is my boyfriend / Oh sadness, I’m your girl” is an act of defiance hidden by words of acceptance, something Jane Eyre knew all about.

2. Beyoncé, “Sorry”

My spring was dominated by Lemonade, the latest Beyoncé album. I loved it for its depiction of female experience—both the parts that are specific to my experience and the parts that aren’t. “Sorry” is catchy and angry and crass and amazing. Surely we can all agree that “He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair” is a couplet of lyrical genius. This is another downright dismissal for the ladies (and gentlemen) to revel in.

1. Sia, “Alive”

“Alive” was released in 2015, but I didn’t pay any attention to it until this year. When I really listened to the song, it resonated with me on a very personal level. Sometimes you’re at a point in your life that needs a survivors’ anthem. I love how her vocal delivery toes the line between pretty and pained, and that juxtaposition is always exciting to me. What could be more primal than declaring “I’m alive”? Sia turns those words into a powerful declaration of strength.

Come back tomorrow as we start on the movies!


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Album Superlatives: Tegan and Sara’s Love You to Death

Love You to Death

Best Song for Wistful Self-Reflection: “That Girl”

Love You to Death is Tegan and Sara’s second album of gorgeous electropop. While I loved Heartthrob, this album is an even more cohesive and consistent effort. “That Girl” sets the introspective yet catchy tone for the album. Tegan has spoken in interviews about wanting to move her songwriting toward reflecting on herself in relationships, rather than placing blame. That theme holds true throughout the album, which makes “That Girl” an ideal opening track.

Most Likely to Make You Contemplate Your Ex: “Dying to Know”

This is one of the most musically interesting songs on the album. The layering of heavy and quick beats gives “Dying to Know” the jittery feeling that you might get when running into an ex. My favorite element is the vocal delivery, which switches between staccato rhythms and drawn-out notes. This song might talk about unhappy emotions, but it’s impossible to be sad while listening to it.

Most Flirtatious Song: “Stop Desire”

If you want a straight-up catchy tune about love and lust, “Stop Desire” is for you. I knew from the first listen that this would be one of my favorites on the album. I love music that takes time to fully appreciate, but there’s nothing wrong with a little instant enjoyment. The lyrics call for an end to game-playing, which any single person can appreciate, and the chorus is made for dancing.

Best Tortured Ballad: “White Knuckles”

“100x” is a strong contender for this title, but “White Knuckles” is a more emotional listen for me. In the opening bars, the distant echo of “Knuckles turn white” hooks me instantly. While “100x” is sedate in its regrets, “White Knuckles” feels fresh. Sara proved herself to be the ballad queen on Heartthrob, and I’m so glad that she continued to explore that side of her songwriting.

Best Sing-Along Song: “U-Turn”

This was one of the songs released ahead of the album, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I heard it in the car. Apparently my laptop speakers couldn’t capture the quirky beats and bouncy chorus. “U-Turn” is a love song that might be too late, another example of Tegan exploring her own faults as a romantic partner. The Verge describes Love You to Death as pop music for grown-ups, and this song is a perfect example of how mature lyrics can still be fun.

If you want to hear these songs for yourself, they’re all posted on the official Tegan and Sara Youtube channel. Pardon me while I go listen to this album for the rest of the summer. I already have tickets for their concert in September!

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Best of 2013: Music Edition, Part 2

You will have to forgive some artist repetition in the top 10 songs this year. The new albums in my life were just too good to pick one song. Here are, completely genuine,  my top 5 favorite songs of 2013!

5. Gillian Welch, “Barroom Girls”

Gillian Welch is the troubadour of her own particular brand of dirt road wistfulness. I picked up her debut album at Cheapo, and it definitely lived up to its successors. No song is as engrossing as the yarn she spins on “Barroom Girls.” Case in point: “Last night’s spangles and yesterday’s pearls / Are the bright morning stars of the barroom girls.” Paints a picture, doesn’t it?

4. Fiona Apple, “Anything We Want”

Probably the sexiest song I’ve heard all year. Sultry is one of the first words that comes to mind when I think of Fiona Apple. The playful rhythms and coy lyrics blend perfectly on “Anything We Want.” As we used to say in the English department, form is content, and this woman knows how to make the music fit her message.

3. Flume, “Holdin On”

Last year’s list featured several songs discovered on The Current, but this year there’s only one. I heard this song on the radio a number of times, and then one day I thought, “This needs to be on my birthday playlist!” It’s a bit of a departure from my usual obsession with lyric-driven music, but there’s nothing wrong with just shaking a little booty.

2. Tegan and Sara, “Now I’m All Messed Up”

Yesterday I talked about Tegan and Sara writing peppy heartbreak anthems, but this song is just plain heartbreaking. And that’s what I love about it. Sara lays herself bare in the vocals. Through a few simple images, the song captures the desperation of imagining the person you love with someone else. “Now I’m All Messed Up” initiated many solo car singalongs in 2013.

1. Patty Griffin, “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida”

The title of this song comes from a comment made by Patty’s father in his later days, and the song itself plays like an unflinching story of his life. Her voice croons, growls, and everything in between. There are many greats songs on American Kid, an album praised thoroughly in a previous post, but I would never skip “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida.” I love when Patty gets into raucous mode. It just makes me happy.

Tomorrow the best book countdown begins!


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Best of 2013: Music Edition, Part 1

2013 wasn’t my most adventurous year in music. That being said, Tegan and Sara and Patty Griffin both released new albums, so it was a great year for discovering new favorites from my old favorites. As always, the list is open to any song that I encountered for the first time in 2013. (You probably don’t want me to talk about listening to the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album for the millionth time.) Enjoy numbers 10 through 6.

10. Elliott Smith, “Easy Way Out”

This fall included a very successful trip to Cheapo for used CDs. I figured it was time to own some Elliott Smith beyond the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. “Easy Way Out” is a perfect example of the sharp-edged melancholy that I love in him. This song should be a requirement on any breakup playlist, real or imagined.

9. Frou Frou, “Must Be Dreaming”

Frou Frou was a musical duo including Imogen Heap before she moved on to solo awesomeness. I picked up their album on another Cheapo trip last year, but I basically ignored it until sometime this summer. Three songs were already familiar to me from Garden State soundtrack days, and there’s much more Frou Frou goodness where that came from. “Must Be Dreaming” is pure joy.

8. Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife”

My significant other can attest that I made him listen to this song on multiple occasions. The playful back-and-forth of the lyrics are absolutely hypnotic. “Hot Knife” is somewhere between a song and a chant, with the parts blending together to create a frantic love anthem. But I think it’s the simple imagery of “If I’m butter then he’s a hot knife” that really gets me.

7. Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”

Patty Griffin has an uncanny ability to make sad topics seem joyful. I extolled the virtues of her new album American Kid in an earlier post, and this song is the perfect kickoff to that album. Addressed to her father after his passing, it expresses the rambling freedom that she wishes for him. Guaranteed to make you smile or cry (or both!).

6. Tegan and Sara, “How Come You Don’t Want Me”

Speaking of putting an upbeat face on depressing subjects, Tegan and Sara’s electropop album is brimming with peppy tunes about heartbreak. “How Come You Don’t Want Me” is my favorite example. I get excited when I hear those opening beats, and seeing Sara sing it live only cemented my love. I don’t care which genre their band wants to work in as long as the songs are still addictively gut-wrenching.

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!

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Tegan and Sara, Closer Than Ever

Winter 2013 012

My anticipation seems to follow a pattern. I get excited for a future event too far in advance, but eventually I’m forced to accept that I have weeks or months to wait. Then I distract myself so effectively that the event itself sneaks up on me. That was the case with the Tegan and Sara concert at First Avenue. I was pumped when I bought my tickets in December, but the three months until March 6 felt like an eternity. Then suddenly, it was one week, and then one day away!

I saw Tegan and Sara back in 2010 at the Orpheum Theatre. I knew that my second experience would be very different because First Avenue is a standing venue. Considering their dance-oriented new album, this change seemed appropriate. I decided to really embrace the experience, arrive early and stake out a spot close to the stage. My roommate Katie graciously agreed to this plan. Many other fans had the same idea, but after waiting in line for twenty minutes, we managed to get within five or six rows of the stage, slightly to the right. (Or as I called it, “the Sara side of the stage.”)

I learned a little about myself from standing in the crowd. I don’t really consider myself claustrophobic, but I do have a personal space bubble. The crowd filled in around us until it would have been an ordeal to get to the bathroom and back. In preparation for the heat and the crowd, I wore just a tank top under my coat, with the unforeseen side effect that my bare arms came into contact with many strangers. I found that sensation surprisingly unpleasant.

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All that faded into the background when Tegan and Sara took the stage. It was worth brushing against strangers to see one of my favorite bands up close. They opened with a spirited rendition of “Back In Your Head,” followed by another old favorite, “Walking With A Ghost.” The setlist included all ten songs off the new album. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, fans are embracing Heartthrob and excited to hear the new songs. One of the highlights was dancing and singing along to “Closer,” the last song before the encore.

Although I love them as a band above all else, I have always been more of a Tegan loyalist. Blame it on standing on her side of the stage, but I left the concert with a new appreciation for Sara. For one thing, she just looked rad in a cropped leather jacket and leggings. More importantly, she wrote some of the most powerful songs on Heartthrob. Seeing her belt out “How Come You Don’t Want Me” and “Now I’m All Messed Up” was spine-tingling.

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I might think twice before wading back into the First Avenue pit, but I definitely don’t regret this experience. I sang along (quietly) with “The Con,” arguably my favorite Tegan and Sara song ever. I took some quality concert photos. And I got a little bit closer to two artists whom I deeply admire.


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Be Still My Heartthrob


I have been anticipating the new Tegan and Sara album for months upon months. I even wrote a blog post about their new single and evolving sound. So you probably know where I was on January 29 immediately after work:  at the record store!

Back in September I wrote, “My hope is that the new producers have helped them unite their individual experimentation into a more polished electropop sound.” And that is certainly the case with Heartthrob. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would be an unabashed ’80s throwback. I love ’80s ladies like Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benatar — in fact, I dressed up as Pat last Halloween. So if the twins want to celebrate the music of their youth, you know I’m not mad at them.

Heartthrob is an album meant for heartfelt singalongs and dancing around your bedroom. Tegan has said in multiple interviews that she was thinking back to teenage crushes and simpler times when she wrote songs like “Closer” and “Drove Me Wild.” Both women talk about wanting to be more empowered and less self-deprecating on this record. As a fan familiar with most of their work, I can see how their personas in these songs are more forceful, even when facing the prospect of heartache.

This might sound weird, but one of the things I love about Tegan and Sara is how their music can be simultaneously catchy and heartbreaking. Even with a poppy sound, these songs deliver an emotional punch. In fact, the juxtaposition between the music and lyrics can make them even more affecting. If I was in the right frame of mind, songs like “How Come You Don’t Want Me” and “Now I’m All Messed Up” could bring a tear to my eye.


There are many ways to find out more about the songs on HeartthrobUnder the Radar‘s website has a feature called Track-by-Track, where you can read Tegan’s stories behind all ten songs on the album. Here’s a link to the first two songs. There are also YouTube videos promoting the album. My personal favorites are the conversations between Tegan and Sara about “I Was A Fool” and “Now I’m All Messed Up.” They love to joke, but it’s obvious how much thought and hard work goes into their music.

As if a new album wasn’t enough excitement, Tegan and Sara have a concert at First Avenue on March 6. You know I bought my tickets! I can’t wait to dance my heart out to new songs and old. With any luck, I will come home with photos and a blog post to share.

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Best of 2012: Music Edition, Part 2

I only have to look at these five songs to know that it’s been a good year for music. From toe-tapping indie rock to straight-up dance music, here are my favorite songs of 2012!

5. The Shins, “40 Mark Strasse”

I was driving home one January night when The Current suddenly made my day. They played “Simple Song,” a new tune by The Shins, and announced that a new album would be released in March. I like many songs on Port Of Morrow, but this tender ballad wins my heart. When it hits the chorus, I just want to hold up my arms and sway along.

4. The Decemberists, “Down By The Water”

The Decemberists will forever remind me of my college friends, in the best way possible. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard “Down By The Water” until this year, but it was probably another discovery on The Current. As is often the case with The Decemberists, I’m not entirely sure of the song’s subject, but it sucks me in all the same. I adore the instrumentation and sing-along vocals.

3. Anais Mitchell, “He Did”

When I agreed to see Anais Mitchell in concert with my old roommate Lisa, she shared some of her music so that I could prepare. Not only was the concert a wonderful experience (detailed here), but I became a bona fide Anais fan myself. Her album Young Man In America is loosely themed around manhood and fatherhood with surprisingly compelling results. While showcasing Anais’s ethereal voice and storytelling power, “He Did” also paints an absorbing portrait of a father figure.

2. Florence + The Machine, “Shake It Out”

“Shake It Out” is quintessential Florence + The Machine:  soaring, pounding, empowering. I bought the entire Ceremonials album, but I always found myself skipping back to this song. It’s an anthem for anyone who’s struggling to move on from hard times. The fact that it was played during a pivotal moment on How I Met Your Mother is just icing on the cake in my world. “It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back / So shake him off” is a simple sentiment, but beautifully true all the same.

1. Morgan Page feat. Tegan and Sara, “Body Work”

I usually try to avoid posting music videos because I don’t want to distract from the song. In the case of “Body Work” though, the video is such a big part of how I experience it. I watched and listened on YouTube over and over again until I finally bought it for myself. It makes me think of getting ready for a night out, hoping to see that special person. I love indie music as much as ever, but I also love dance music with heart. When one of my favorite bands decides to make both, it’s a good year for Courtney.

Tomorrow I will return with my top 5 movies of the year!

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