Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Year in Travel

For all I talk about travel, let's look back at the year that was. Also, everything below is for calendar year 2010, but doesn't include flights to/from Portland this coming week and jetting off to Ireland on Dec. 30.

Total flights: 73 of which 52 were on Star Alliance carriers
Total miles: About 82,600
Places I went for the first time (a sampling): Paris, Warsaw, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Nashville, Eureka, Redmond, Ore., Salt Lake City, Kayenta, Ariz.

Favorite airport: Seattle-Tacoma (SEA)
I love any airport with a central terminal where all concourses are easy to get to. My new home airport qualifies, but it also has some local eating options and is mass-transit accessible. Takeoffs and landings are great because you either buzz the Seattle skyline or Mt. Rainier. And, of course, there's nothing like landing at home.

Least Favorite Airport: Paris-Charles DeGaulle (CDG)
What a god-awful mess. The interior architecture is pretty in parts of terminal 2F, which is where the good parts of this airport end. Hugely, sprawling, heaven help you if you need to make a connection on a short turn. The fact that they bus you from your gate to your plane for most intra-EU flights means you need to be at your gate much farther ahead than normal. In fairness, the in-airport helpers are extremely friendly and have a great grasp of English. But, flying through here twice was enough.

Pet Peeve of the Year: Southwest Fanboys
They are the Apple enthusiasts of the air. They speak with a superior air about them, but few truly understand the economics of the airline industry. They love telling everyone how they only fly Southwest. This despite the fact that, often, Southwest isn't the cheapest option. If they were, they'd list their fares on Orbitz, Expedia and the like. They love to talk about how Southwest "has no extra fees," but fail to mention Southwest's "early-bird check in" fee, which is nearly mandatory if you are carrying on bags. They also fail to mention Southwest's terrible record compared to other airlines when it comes to losing baggage. Southwest's marketing program has been brilliant in that they've convinced a nation of occasional flyers that it's better on Southwest. They do an OK job, but they are not that much better than "legacy" carriers. But the "fanboys" won't hear it...

In-Air Trend of the Year: E-Readers
It started after Christmas last year and I can only imagine how it's going to be after this holiday season. Everyone has a e-reader. I would say mainly the Kindle from my unscientific observations. After that, the iPad, though I do find it amusing to watch someone with a bulky iPad try to do anything on the tablet and take a sip of their drink in the cramped quarters of the fuselage. Regardless, they're the item of choice. Smaller than a traditional book, means it's much easier to carry in already-packed carry-on bags. I can say for sure having one changed the way I enjoy my flights.

Surprised-That-Works-So-Well of the Year: Smartphone Boarding Passes
It doesn't seem like it should work, having a boarding pass on a cell phone. But yet, it does. I always try to check in prior to getting to the airport, but sometimes, it's not possible. Now... I can check in from the rental car shuttle bus if I'm on certain airlines. And despite the troubles people have with security lines, somehow, mobile boarding passes have seemed to work pretty well.

Overhype of the Year: Body Scanners
See all those flights up there? You know how many times I was body-scanned? Once. Whoop. Dee. Doo. The one time I was (at the Oakland, CA airport) it was really not a big deal. The person who gets to the see the scan isn't even visible to the person being scanned. And, despite the whole "they're going to see me naked" talk, unless the person looking at the screen gets off on grainy, black and white, low res, not-at-all-sexy-and-detailed images, it's pretty innocuous. Beats a pat-down, for sure. I still think this is overkill... airport security has done nothing to provide a marked difference in the security of our airlines since 9/11... banning knives and things may have. Cockpit doors locking from inside certainly have. I think we should go back to the old system, but, in the meantime, you people want to feel safe. And now the terrorists make underwear bombs. You get what you want, then... body scanners. But really? No big deal.

Best Food on the Road: The Malt Shop, Pagosa Springs, Colo.
This is it:Just sitting there on the north side of US 160 in a town the better part of an hour east of Durango. Was told to stop here by a friend in Santa Fe. And it was absolutely worth it. The hamburger was tremendous. The cross-cut fries, a la Chik-Fil-A, were great. And the milkshake... oh, the milkshake. This was not the healthiest lunch I had during my travels. But it was my favorite.

Favorite Things I Saw

The Petroglyphs in Mesa Verde National Park - A mile down from the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, native peoples has etched a story into a sandstone wall. Crazy to see a handprint, knowing hundreds of years ago, someone who lived in one of those cliff dwellings had placed that hand there. It honestly felt like it must to stand on the moon and see one of the astronauts' footprints: a perfectly preserved part of the past in it's natural place.

Paris - If you've been there, you know what I mean. There is no city that looks like it. There are sounds that are unique to the city. Just a cool place.

The High Desert - Driving on the Mt. Hood Highway in Oregon, you pass Mt. Hood and begin descending a bit... and suddenly you go from dense pine forest... to high desert canyon country. It's almost an instantaneous switch. Lush to barren. But still beautiful. For an eastern boy like me, I wasn't aware you could go from one sort of climate and flora in the blink of an eye. But you can.

Here's to what 2011 brings!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My 2010 Pop Culture Moments

Now that I've done mt top 10 albums, some other year-end retrospectives on the way. The last one will be an indulgent bit of self-reflection. This, however, isn't the last one.

This is the year in pop culture! So... let's get to it!

Favorite movie
There are still plenty of Oscar-worthy films to see but, my movie-going 2010 is just about over. And my pick is for Inception. It may not win the big awards, though it should win some, but here was a movie that I didn't need to wear silly 3-D glasses to enjoy. A great concept, well-executed, buy a fantastic cast. Had no idea where it was going to end up. It felt fresh and didn't make me think as hard as Mission Impossible did all those years ago despite a much more complicated concept.

Disturbing trend of the year
Glee glorification. Seriously, this needs to stop. Rarely did anyone ever think a cover of an original song was superior to the original. Now, every week, someone in my Twitter feed has to tell me that some song from Glee is so much better than the original. I actually heard someone say they couldn't wait for a song to hit Glee so they could buy it. Think about that. That's like saying "Man, I cannot WAIT for someone to photocopy that Monet so I can frame it in my home." Also, someone seems to think the writing on the show is amazing. A lot of someones. Many of them writers. This is even worse because I would expect anyone who saw a single episode of Mad Men could gather that good TV writing isn't ridiculous dialogue to fill time between songs. If you love Glee, that's great, but be aware you are watching a show that is basically a scripted American Idol that gives guaranteed revenue. That is why this show exists.

Best ad of the year
To me, it takes a lot to unseat "The Most Interesting Man Alive" by Dos Equis. But... it has been done. Thank you, Geico:

Greatest sports moment of the year
You might think my high point would be getting to see the Yankees four times, including once in the new Stadium, would be the easy choice. Or perhaps watching Sidney Crosby win it for Canada in the Olympic on home ice. Maybe the schadenfreude of watching NC Tar Heels fans realize that - gasp - they might not win every game every year (the horror!). You would be wrong.

It's the Sounders. And I have never seen anything like it anywhere. The crowd is simply... astonishing. And Qwest Field is loud. Louder than they make it sound on TV. I went to three games. At each one, the lower level of the stadium didn't sit. They chant. They sing. And - this is the best part - Vancouver and Portland enter MLS next year. Each city already has fans for its teams that are equally rowdy. MLS actually has to change rules about ticket allocations for visiting fans because the "Cascadia" teams have fan bases that will travel to each of the other cities in the Pacific Northwest to cheer. I hear you... you're going on an on about how it's nothing like an SEC football game or whatever. These clips do not do it justice, but this is what it's like... but for every moment of every game:

Favorite gadget
If you know me, you can just guess: My Kindle. Simply put, it is one of my favorite things ever. It is light. It travels easy. Books are cheap. I can read it for hours. I can hold it in one hand and a drink in another. I hear a lot of folks complaining it's not in color. The funny thing is most books I read are black text on white pages, so it hasn't been an issue. I guess these people read different things than I do. But I guess the best way to put it is this... I use it as much, if not more, than when I first got it. Rare is the fun electronic gadget that you use more as time goes on.

Ridiculousness of the year
This whole controversy over the TSA, pat-down searches and the like. There are so many angles of ridiculous to take on this, but let's talk about the one that really shows how out of hand this is: the core issue for airport security. No one is talking about this. They talk about violations of privacy, long lines and annoyance. No one has raised a hand to ask just what 10 years of TSA security has done to protect us. I'd like to know. Specifically, I'd like to know why it's safer the way we have it now than it was prior to 9/11. Before 9/11, you still had to go through security at an airport. Granted, anyone could walk in... but, shouldn't going through security, you know, make things secure? From what I can gather, all the new measures we're taking is inspiring innovation among terrorists. Underwear bombs? Look, in 1999, if you had a bomb, you tossed it in your suitcase. And we knew that. So we knew to search suitcases! Now? Who knows where to look?! I'm all for securing our airways, but the simple fact is this: In more than 30 years, no US-based airline has had a domestic flight hijacked... except on one day when there were four. If I told you I could give you a security system that would work every day over the course of 30 years, except for maybe one day, would you think that sounded good? I bet you would. Well.. the old system did that. Bu no one dares ask.

Favorite concert
Moving to Seattle greatly improved my music options (sorry Charlotte. Facts is facts.). I managed to see The Dandy Warhols twice this year. I saw the Avett Brothers. I saw Arcade Fire. The concert that sticks out? Bumbershoot. I blogged all about it in September. Everything I wrote there still applies.

Looking forward to a great 2011!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The 10 Best Albums of 2010

This blog has been updated less this year than last. Chalk it up to being busy. Truth be told, even when I have more time, I don't always have a topic ready to go. The one topic that I know will come every year, though? The 10 best albums of the year.

The usual disclaimers apply. This is me ranking the music I managed to hear. We're not made of money and time here. The way I see it, if it was worth hearing, I'd have heard about it from someone at some point. So, sure, there may be an amazing album not on here. But an amazing album unheard probably doesn't make it rank among the best.

I do listen to a lot of music. And to prove I'm not nuts, every pick here has a "second opinion" by someone who actually gets paid to listen to and discuss music. Let's begin, no?

2010 was a far better year for tunes than 2009. Many of last year's picks wouldn't have ranked with this year's crop, though looking back, I do still listen to most of last year's top 10. There were several "near misses" of this list, where last year I felt like I was pulling at straws. So, which missed?

Morning Benders - Big Echo

This was a nice album with some real gems (especially "All Day Day Light"), but... a 10-song album shouldn't feel so long, right? Still, a good disc.

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

I had no idea South Florida had a real indie rock scene to speak of. Shows what I know. And thank the lord that someone out there decided they could just go out and make a guitar rock record. A refreshing disc that came out just as the new year hit.

Guster - Easy Wonderful

I guess we're talking about a band that hasn't put out anything less than amazing since I was heading into college. Songs like "On the Ocean" are just this band at it's absolute best. This one is a completely easy listen, but it seems to lack some of the emotional richness of the past several Guster albums. It is certainly missing even backing vocals by the rich-toned Adam Gardner. I, for one, missed those.

Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

I know so many people in love with this album. And it is very good. Yet, every time I listen to it - and this is not a fair comparison - I just want to hear new Fleet Foxes material (and, while their new disc is coming soon... anyone else amazed at how good that stuff still sounds?). Still, will be watching these guys.

Now, for the ones that did make the list:

10) Sleigh Bells - Treats

Second Opinion: Pitchfork

This one I almost left off. For me, this album was like one of those girlfriends from my early 20s: came out when I wasn't looking, was really intense and we spent every moment together... and then it fizzled out. And then months later when I ran back into her, it was nice to say hello, but everyone knows where the others' flaws are. That's this album. The high points are very high indeed... the opening stomp "Tell 'Em" and the makes-me-want-to-fight "Kids." But man, getting from there to the amazing "Rill Rill" gets old fast. The album closes strong, but there needed to be more variety in the tweaks and zaps. But, as music that is a step-ahead goes, it's in there for the listening.

9) Ra Ra Riot - The Orchard

Second Opinion: Pop Matters

The primary complaint I see on this disc is that it's not as good as the group's debut. That may be true, but 2008's The Rhumb Line was insanely good. Not hitting that bar of flat-out-incredible and still making a fantastic album doesn't mean you've failed (looking at you Pitchfork...). "Boy" and "Shadowcasting" are the clear standouts, but all tracks click well. "Too Dramatic" isn't, "You and I Know" makes me wish I was in the conversation and fine if the last two tracks don't deliver the same knockout punch of the first album. Whatever. What sealed this opinion up was Ra Ra Riot's tremendous Bumbershoot set where they managed to upstage the Space Needle looming just behind them. A broken drum early in the going would've ended many bands' sets. Instead, the band took to the drum-less title track of this album - which they admitted they hadn't rehearsed - and nailed it.

8) Vampire Weekend - Contra

Second opinion: The Guardian

This band, which, incidentally, sounds nothing like Ra Ra Riot, seemed to take a few cues from the combination of both bands - last year's Discovery. VW may not sound exactly like their self-described upper-west-side-Soweto anymore, but the energy remains. One of the easiest-to-listen to discs of the year, every song feels pretty effortless and occasionally remarkable. I'm not entirely sure what Exra Koenig is getting at in "Cousins" but whatever time he's planning on having, it's probably best if my teenage cousins don't attend. Despite the pearls-n-polo crap this band must put up with, here's hoping we see a third disc on this list in 2012.

7) Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

Second opinion: Entertainment Weekly

There is no one like Cee Lo in music. The Goodie Mob singer. The dark side of Gnarls Barkley. And now this. Everyone knows "Fuck You" - and thank heavens for that. Hope every person who ever balked at buying every last dinner for a girl he was dating feels somewhat vindicated for penny-pinching. Still, for an album with a marquee song, you could leave off Cee Lo's kiss-off to the golddiggers and still have a strong album. "Bright Lights Bigger City" just pounds its way into your skull, "Wildflower" is the man at his falsetto-y best and incase the mood gets too light, "Bodies" is there to remind us the "Cee" in the name might as well be for "cerebral." Great disc from a singer that is hopefully reaping rewards for nearly a decade of not-missing.

6) Broken Bells - Broken Bells

Second opinion: Rolling Stone

While Cee Lo was on his own, his Gnarls Barkley sidekick Danger Mouse paired up with Shins singer James Mercer and did what seemingly any Danger Mouse vehicle does: kick ass. Although, this kicks ass in a bit more calm manner than much of Gnarls' work. For instance, where in the world did "Your Head is on Fire" come from? And can I take it on as a second wife? Orchestration like this gets so many acts in trouble one way or another... and here we are, months after release, and it gives me chills. By the time I've recovered, "Trap Doors" is on and I'm a mess again. Honestly, the fact that this is #6 shows what a great year this was. Last year, it would've been top 3.

5) The National - High Violet

Second opinion: Pitchfork

I don't know what happened to Matt Berninger, the lead singer of this Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati outfit. But when he sings "I never thought about love when I thought about home" on "Bloodbuzz Ohio," I'm guessing his trips back to the Queen City aren't always filled with laughs. This disc shimmers through the pain, though. "Sorrow" might be one of the best songs of the year on any album, anywhere. This band does simple extremely well and hardly is it showcased better than on that sparse track. As the tension builds and Berninger sings "I don't want to get over you" - who hasn't been there? - a simple, but oh-so-amazing choral chord comes in. How such a seemingly-minor addition can make the song so relatable, I don't know. But The National knows how to do it.

4) Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love

Second Opinion: BBC

"I Didn't See it Coming" is the name of the first track. And I didn't. But it's brilliant and wonderful and so many superlatives that we could do an entire blog about it. And the album takes off. It's an album where you can point out greta moments throughout: the tremendous melodic bridge on "Calculating Bimbo," the raucous "I'm Not Living in the Real World" and the Norah Jones duet of "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John." All amazing. And we get to find out that Caery Mulligan is just as adorable in audio as she is on screen in the listen-over-and-over title track. B&S have plenty of struggles with faith and love on here... I hope they resolve them one day. But not at the expense of their music.

3) Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Second opinion: Slant

There's a moment, maybe just shy of a minute into "Rhinestone Eyes" - the first track on the disc sung by mad-genius Damon Albarn - where you realize it: Gorillaz is for real. Yeah, the first album and catchy singles was creative, but in that cute kind of way. The second disc, more earnest in presentation, still had that side-project feel to things. It was good stuff, but nothing Handsome Boy Modeling School hadn't pushed a bit further (albeit on the hip-hop side). No more. Gorillaz is legit and killing it. A complete album end-to-end, Plastic Beach rounds up the right talent (and when you say that and mean Snoop Dogg is the lower end of the depth chart, it's saying something) and the right sounds to make a deft album that pokes a little at our current world (more on that in a sec). "Melancholy Hill" seems to sum it up best, but few should even think about skipping any of the nine tracks leading up to it.

2) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Second Opinion: Spin

My. Dear. Lord. How wonderful is it to have high expectations for a band and not only have them met, but exceeded? The best rock record of the year is also the best Arcade Fire album. I just looked at the track list to pick some standouts... and failed miserably. How does one track stand out when they ALL stand out? So let's dig in: this is your world. How do you handle it? If you listen to Win Butler's take, you lament it. It's a cold world, where everyone gets teir news their own ways and needs it rightflippingnoworelse. Those that aim to step out into the open may be celebrated, but people immediately take swipes. On the incredible "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" Regine Chassagne opens with the telling line, "They heard me singing and told me to stop... quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock." That pretty much sums it up, adding the the view from on high is one where "shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains and there's no end in sight." A bland, corporate existence that has swept away the unique flavors... when differences weren't always accepted but still celebrated by the natives. The musicianship throughout is exceptional, up to the task of tackling the tough themes throughout. On "We Used to Wait," Butler looks at a society where the only time is now. Regine takes the reins again on "Empty Room" shouting out "When I'm by myself I can be myself!" In a time where everything looks the same, yet people break each other down into solely right and wrong, right and left and any number of dichotomies, The Suburbs could turn into a time capsule. And if it doesn't, it will always be amazing music.

1) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Second opinion: Pitchfork

Kanye West's response to that sort of world? Live it the hell up, and cling to what you can count on. "No more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need," he chants on "Hell of a Life" to the tune of "Iron Man." And that song is likely the most simple on here. Say what you want about Kanye. Love him. Hate him. You cannot judge his music as anything but far beyond what anyone in any genre is doing. He takes insane risks. And pulls every one of them off. The end of "Blame Game" tells us in the most profane possible manner that "Yeezy taught me." So what has Yeezy taught us on his fifth album? That Nicki Minaj might actually be the "Monster" the song gets its title from. That he can take a Trent Reznor-style set of samples and tweaks and make the darkest piece of beautiful hip-hop that may have ever graced an iPod on "So Appalled." That he lacks no dance floor power on "All Of the Lights." That he knows what you think of him on "Runaway." And that he just doesn't give a damn that you do most of the time. The sampling, the lyrics, the orchestration... it's not only more creative than any other hip-hop artists, it's better than anyone else. Insecurity often manifests itself into tremendously creative art. Kanye said himself all those albums ago "we all insecure, I'm just the first to admit it." I'm not going to say Kanye is insane, but the man could probably use therapy. But I will say he treads a fine line... and damn if he doesn't make it work for him. This album is something that should make us stand back and stop. A gifted artist with plenty of personality quirks, but who is turning out music that no one else can pull off. Or even come close to. These songs challenge us. To get into his head and understand. To get past the televised foibles. To go beyond labeling Kanye as a rapper. And like Rolling Stone asked a few years ago in reviewing a different Kanye album, are you being arrogant if you're simply stating how good you really are?