Holiday Card, 2015

Happy Holidays, friends and lovers! How I’ve missed you. I hope the ups of your 2015 outpaced the downs, and that you didn’t have too many unbearable hangovers. 

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Merry Christmas from this girl, whose sweater is equal parts comfortable and insane.

Let’s catch up. As my (belated) Festivus gift to you I present: a letter full of hot recs!

PODCASTS

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If I had to distill the most important thing I took from 2015, it was Self Care. My life hashtag has been #notimeforscrubs for quite a while now, but I’ve expanded it to include more than just idiots from my dating life, past and future. #notimeforscrubs means no time for toxic friendships, negative self-talk, or events for pure obligation’s sake. It means more time for yoga, chiropractic appointments, and face masks. I started therapy this year, and I tried ear acupuncture. My 2016 resolution is to floss. I’m really trying to get it together. A huge influence for me in this realm has been the Buzzfeed podcast Another Round. Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu make a point to discuss the practicalities of taking care of yourself, and they ask each of their guests (including Hillary GD Clinton!) how they take care of themselves, too. Just as important, they are hilarious, and I wish they were my real-life friends.

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I don’t usually recommend people go back to the beginning of a podcast, unless they’re a freak completist like me. It’s overwhelming and time-consuming. But the best thing about Hello from the Magic Tavern is the fully formed fantasy world Arnie Niekamp, Matt Young, and Adal Rifai are building, and it’s worth it to get in on the ground floor. The backstory: Niekamp is a human who fell through a portal in Chicago to the magical land of Foon. He’s joined every episode by pals Usidore the Wizard (Young) and Chunt the shapeshifting badger (Rifai), and they have a roundtable chat with a local colorful character. Think Dungeons and Dragons meets Professor Blastoff (RIP). The most impressive feat the show pulls off is the continuity between episodes. Even one-off guests readily reference rules of the universe established in previous weeks. Usually fictional podcasts are not my bag, but this hits all the right notes of the most fun improv you’ll ever see except in audio form. Full disclosure: As of this posting, Adal coaches my improv team, but he will likely never read this, so NO I’M NOT SUCKING UP.

Elise mentioned Mystery Show in her summer postcard, but I’d like to reiterate how incredible that show is. Start with the “Belt Buckle” or “Source Code” episodes. Really, anything on the Gimlet podcast network is worth your time, if you’re looking for something new. Reply All is unmissable, too. Honestly, I will listen to anything Gimlet puts out; they’re doing good work.

TV

FX had a stellar year, upping the ante on a bunch of their shows. The Americans, You’re the Worst (yeah, yeah, technically FXX), and Fargo all blew their previous seasons out of the water.

I’ve also continued upon my inadvisable rewatch of original 90210. Unless you unapologetically like bad TV, like some people I know, you have better ways to spend your time.

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What is anyone wearing, ever

MOVIES

Well, what about a little indie gem called The Force Awakens? Truthfully, I’d like to just list it here ten times, but that feels lazy. I’ll just say it was the most fun I’ve had at the movies in literal years, and if you’re not a Star Wars person, I still think you’d like it. But I’m a little too close to the material to know for sure. I could seriously watch BB-8 give a thumbs-up on repeat for five hundred years.

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Spotlight is also great. It’s part procedural, part thriller, and covers the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, as brought to light by The Boston Globe. Though it dramatizes true events, it doesn’t add any extraneous nonsense to make the story more big-screen friendly. It’s just a bunch of 2000s journalists in hideous outfits doing their jobs really well. Pro tip: I spent the whole movie thinking Cardinal Law was some sort of catechism, but it is, in fact, a person’s name. So much for 13 years of Catholic school.

Sisters isn’t getting much love, which is sadly fair. But if you like Tina and Amy at all, their chemistry certainly justifies a rental. I will be plagiarizing many of my future sick burns from the script, including: “I respect your jumpsuit, but not its contents.”

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BOOKS

In October, I successfully completed my Goodreads challenge to read forty books this year and felt a powerful sense of accomplishment, because my self-worth is determined by To Do lists. Unsurprisingly, I have significantly slowed down since then. Currently I’m reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s sad as fuck, guys. But so beautifully written. Now that I’ve finished my challenge, I am savoring the act of reading, instead of blowing through pages to cross another novel off the list.

MUSIC

My new music consumption is pathetic. As I edit this, I am listening to The Head and the Heart’s 2010 self-titled album, which I have heard approximately eleventy-bajillion times already. Sure, I bought Adele’s new album (and tickets to see her in concert, doi), and I have intensely lip-synced to it around my apartment. I like Leon Bridges’ album a whole lot, but usually when I put on Spotify, I head straight for the “Focus” section because I have work to do. I’ve written many jokes to the energizing instrumentals of the “Productive Morning” playlist. (And not always in the morning, either.)

I guess what I’m asking, dear reader, is what music should I be listening to? What were the albums you couldn’t live without this year? No aggressively dissonant music need apply, but I am otherwise open.

I’m trying to try, though. I even bought a record player this year! And my transformation to completely insufferable is now complete! Unfortunately, I had to replace my turntable within a month, and the new one was also non-functioning, so now I have about 15 records with no way to play them. Take pity on me and my virgin copy of Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits.

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Thats it! Merry happy, everybody, and see you in 2016!
Alison

Re: Postcard, Summer 2015

Hi, buddy!

Thanks for your letter. Your summer sounds like it was tremendous. Wish I could have been there, too.

The fugue state that is Chicago summer feels like months ago, instead of merely weeks. With October quickly approaching, we’ve entered the season of Impossible to Dress Yourself Since It Will Be Fifteen Degrees Warmer Later, or ItDYSIWBFDWL, for short. But fall truly is the best time of year. It holds so much promise—even without the beginning of the school year, autumn feels like the perfect time for reinvention and revitalization. Am I a Pilates Person who Reads the News now? Hey, at least for September.

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But let’s go back in time for a moment. Here are some of the things that I was jamming on this summer, about which I may or may not have already texted you.

Podcasts

I wish you had more patience for Beverly Hills, 90210 because Tara and Sarah (#squadgoals) are doing an amazing job recapping every episode on Again With This. You should at least be checking out the accompanying Visual Aids because, you know, comedy gold. I, on the other hand, subscribed to Hulu Plus to watch every second of the ten-season series because, just like Dylan and Brenda, I am going all in on this relationship.

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Co-sign on Death, Sex & Money. I teared up listening to Chaz Ebert’s episode. Love is real! All of Anna Sale’s interviews are handled masterfully—they each feel so honest. It helps, too, that her guests are game to be open books. I loved listening to Jane Fonda, Scott Aukerman with Kulap Vilaysack, Ellen Bustyn, and Joy Williams, too. And all the rest of them. Just go listen, already!

Books

I finally finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, five hundred months later. I appreciated the book more than I enjoyed it, but No Regrets 2015! Now, onto the miniseries…

Everyone should experience Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance via audiobook. Internet, contact me for more details. (Seriously.)

Mindy Kaling’s new book made me laugh out loud in public more than once. She’s a boss.

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TV

As readers of this blog may have noticed due to my sudden decline in coverage, I dropped True Detective like a hot rock. As much fun as I had mocking it, I could not carry on because it was total trash. If any of you out there are holding on senselessly to any shows that have gone off the rails, follow my example and let go. I also gave up on Masters of Sex, and I’m feeling great.

I binged Season One of Empire last month, which was amazing, but no one did batshit as well as UnREAL did this summer. Get on it, everyone. It may have aired on Lifetime, but UnREAL has an FX sensibility.

I already miss Playing House, but thanks to the podcast Womp It Up (a Comedy Bang Bang spinoff) and an iTunes purchase of the show Best Friends Forever, I’ll still have some Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham to keep me warm this winter. As a dude that I met on a dating app texted me the first night we started talking, “Alison, you are definitely crushing on Lena [sic] and Jessica.” The next day he passive aggressively complained when I didn’t respond immediately. Feeling great about my twelve-hour summer fling of 2015!

I still have not finished The Wire. I’ve got a real “slow and steady” thing going. I average about an episode every two weeks, which is the perfect pace for forgetting everything that’s happened so far.

Movies

I just Googled “summer movies 2015” because I had no memory of what I saw this year. Great sign!

I liked Trainwreck and Straight Outta Compton, loved Spy, and had my brain exploded by Magic Mike XXL. I’m a different, better person now.

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Music

James Bay (or Bae, if you will) is my new twentysomething-Brit-with-a-guitar crush. I saw him at Outside Lands in San Francisco, and have tickets to see him in Chicago in November. On a related note, there is a RedEye employee in my office who wears a similar round brim hat at his standing desk. My amateur diagnosis is that he’s trying too hard.

Lianne La Havas is a goddess. For Christmas, I’d like her jumpsuits and her casual cool.

I’ve re-signed my lease for the 2015-2016 year, which is a funny feeling. I’ll have at least one more winter and one more summer in Chicago. So much will be different by this time next year—mostly the newly wedded bliss of some of my favorite people, as 2016 is The Year of Weddings. The other changes, however, the changes in my own life, are ones I cannot foresee. And I’m excited for those.

Love,

Alison

P.S. Of course you brought corn on the plane. Of course you did.

Eurovision 2015: A Selective Recap of My Come-to-Jesus Experience

Sometimes, I’m late to the pop culture party. There are only so many hours in the day, and sry, but I’m a human woman. I like to think that for those items worth consuming, I always get there eventually. (Except for The Simpsons. There’s too much, and just the idea of starting makes me want to cry.) Case in point: I can’t believe it took me 27 years to discover Eurovision. Robert, friend of the blog, forced me to watch it with him in a bar instead of attending a potentially-Tony-award-winning musical on Broadway. I have zero regrets: I will never miss Eurovision again. What is it, you ask? Oh, my dear American friend, let me educate you.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a music competition featuring most European countries (and Australia, who made their first appearance this year).  Each country submits a song, which is then performed live on TV and the public votes for their favorite performances. Countries cannot award points to their own submissions. Most are performed in English, and the event is campy as hell. Imagine the best of the Olympics, American Idol, and that international guy from your college dorm who was into “clubbing,” all in one. The contest has been going on for 60 years, and most Americans have never even heard of it. But this show is not fucking around. ABBA won Eurovision in 1974 with “Waterloo.” Celine Dion sang for Switzerland in 1988.

Enough background. Here are a few representative songs. I’ve included a mix of music videos, Semi-Final, and Final performances. (This is a potentially obscene amount of videos to watch, but like, what are you doing right now anyway? Work? Girl, please.)

Last year’s winner was Conchita Wurst from Austria with “Rise Like a Phoenix.” And yes, she is a beautiful drag queen with a beard. Because why wouldn’t she be? (Austria got zero points this year, even though they set a piano on fire. Oops!)

Spain’s entry is a perfect example of the batshit stuff you see year after year. Can you say “Barthelona”? The video is incredibly cheesy, but also takes itself very seriously. A shirtless man jogging in leather rags? A princess that turns into a tiger? Awkward green-screen plus a non-sequitur hawk? YES, YES, AND YES.

Lithuania is so cute! Also, they kissed for so long in the Finals that they missed an entire line of the song. Pandering.biz… (This is the Semi-Finals, where they really nailed it.)

I’ll quote our friend Robert verbatim describing Israel’s song, “Golden Boy” –

* Starts out and you’re like — do you think you’re Queen?

* Then you quickly realize that, no, it’s just a Bar Mitzvah video

Here’s the 2015 winner – Sweden! Remember when Beyonce danced with herself at the Superbowl? Remember wishing to yourself that she was a handsome but forgettable guy dancing with a chubby, cartoon twelve-year-old? Well, your dream came true. In the original video, the kid wore a dunce cap, so at least they fixed that. This is basically an Imagine Dragons song, but with shittier lyrics: “We are the heroes of our time, but we’re dancing with the demons in our minds.” Aren’t we all, Sweden, aren’t we all…

Russia came in second, which was very controversial at our bar in Hell’s Kitchen because of, you know, Putin and stuff. Everyone booed whenever the singer was awarded points. But I thought she was cute, and the song is the sort of power ballad that makes you roll your eyes but also warms your heart. I’ve included her Semi-Finals performance, because she had a shaky, deer-in-headlights vibe at the Finals.

Latvia’s song was just badass. I have nothing snarky to say.

Ditto Belgium. He’s like Lorde as a teenage boy.

Armenia was like, let’s make it sound sort of like the musical Chess, and also put every type of singer in it and hope that something sticks. Opera? Yeah, fer sher! Also, though the lyrics “don’t deny you and I” are ostensibly about a relationship, when played as a soundtrack to a music video with a slowly emptying family portrait they seem like a pretty pointed message about…genocide,…Obama.

If you just watched all those videos, congratulations! You now have Eurovision Fever. Now, go forth and spread the Good Word, but prepare yourself for a lot of blank looks.

–Alison

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated Conchita Wurst is a trans woman.

Mumford and DONE

Marcus Mumford is my ideal mate. Accent? Check. Vaguely-but-not-too-hipster attire? Check. Sturdy bod, comparable to lumberjack, or sorta fat Khal Drogo? Check. Capital-F Feelings that would make me roll my eyes IRL? Fucking check. Could do without the seventh grade-style dusting of a mustache and the Pentecostal parents, but hey, love is about knowing when to compromise.

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I’m into the music, too. Mumford and Sons’ first two albums ranked among my top 100 played songs on iTunes for years. But the singles released while gearing up for their third album are…bland at best. While watching their recent performance on SNL, I kept thinking: “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband’s band? Marcus, if you are being held against your will, blink quickly three times.” If they had taken off Mission: Impossible-style masks to reveal that they were actually Coldplay, I wouldn’t have been that surprised.

The band previously released two folk-revivalist albums, the second being an extension of the first—same sound, bigger budget. The drive to experiment and evolve is a natural artistic instict, so it makes sense that Mumford and Sons would push their sound on their third outing. But their Americana twang is completely absent from the new tracks. All the songs sound the same. That was a critique lobbied against their folksier stuff, too, but here, I admit my bias. I could listen to a thousand songs of the old, sweeping Mumford and Sons, no matter how indistinguishable from each other those songs might be. I have a visceral response to the sound—it makes me both buoyant and teary at once. The new singles, on the other hand, sound like any old rock band. They’re energetic, but even Mumford’s growling vocals can’t to save them from being completely forgettable.

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Generally, I’m not anti-change. Like any art form, amazing work often comes when artists take risks. The Beatles are the world’s most obvious example of a band that pushed themselves and grew and evolved their sound record after record blah blah blah whatever. Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled album introduced us to Bey as complicated artiste. One of my favorite albums of 2014 was Taylor Swift’s 1989, which was a clear and smart break from her country roots. In an NPR interview she said that she spent hours online every day while writing the album, trying to figure out what her fans wanted from her. I’m not sure how she waded through comments like “u r a dum slut” (or so I imagine), to pull out the stellar album she did. But, cheers, girl.

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So, why is Mumford and Sons’ new sound just not working for me? Yes, it’s partially that they’ve departed from their established identity, at least for now. (And some advice, Marcus, my heart? Just a touch of banjo in the chorus of “The Wolf” could bridge the gap between the band we know and the new one you’re trying on.) Like so many artists before them, they’re attempting to be something different, and thus something greater, than they were before. But in the end, the music isn’t that good. It’s new for them, but that novelty isn’t enough. We already have a Chris Martin—no need for a knock-off. It leaves me wondering if, perhaps, they weren’t very good all along. That’s what’s breaking my heart most of all.

—Alison

The Softer Side of T-Pain

At over six million views, NPR Music certainly needs no help promoting their most recent Tiny Desk Concert featuring hip-hop superstar T-Pain. The acoustic mini-set is not augmented by his trademark auto-tune, and SURPRISE, he can sing, y’all! It’s a little weird to hear soulful, slow-jam versions of three songs that are basically saying, “Let’s booze and bone, girl.” But still, dude has chops.

Alison