Favorite Songs of 2011

Nuclear Seasons: Charli xcx

I haven't ranked these songs, but "Nuclear Seasons" is pretty far up there for me this year. British electro-pop sensation Charli xcx nails this one with a dark late 80s sound reminiscent of the days when good, strange music could only be found through someone who knew someone who was on college radio.

CharliXCX - Nuclear Seasons by charlixcx

Hey Sparrow: Peaking Lights

Slow and wispy, this is a little like "Heart & Soul" played on a kalimba--there's a nice plinky, repetitive thing going on. Breathy background music.

Hey Sparrow by Peaking Lights

Better Off Without You: Summer Camp

This song makes me laugh. It has the boppy throwback sound that seems to be going around (like the Dum dum girls). Also it's a breakup celebration song. I'm so happy you're gone! Stop calling! Tee hee.

Summer Camp - Better Off Without You by Webzine Obstacle

Thankless Thing: Wild Beasts

This is mostly on my list because I love Wild Beasts and their forays into the falsetto-sphere. This song is quite mellow for my taste, but also gorgeous and pretty irresistible. Find them on Facebook!

Wild Beasts - Thankless Thing by DominoRecordCo

Yellow Missing Signs: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

I posted about this on Facebook and it was pointed out to me that it seems to be about justice for serial murder victims. Which is not a bad thing, but I'd only been listening to the music, some excellent raw synth pop straight out of 1985.

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - Yellow Missing Signs by Polyvinyl Records

100 Other Lovers: DeVotchKa

DeVotchKa have a lovely happy gypsy-ish sound. Apparently they came to fame on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. This song is quietly propulsive.

DeVotchKa - 100 Other Lovers by antirecords

Beat and the Pulse: Austra

Toronto's Katie Stelmanis seems just amazing. Super-talented, the unplugged piano sessions released in the fall prove she can make awesome electro-pop without even needing the electro. This song is another big 2011 favorite.

Austra - Beat And The Pulse by bluepumpkin aka antennica

Bunhill Fields: Amor de Dias

Bunhill Fields is a London cemetery for dissenters apparently. The song seems appropriately pensive and atmospheric, with the occasional sweeping cello and piano statement. It's lovely pop.

Amor De Días - "Bunhill Fields" by OctopusWindmill

Don't Stop: The Dodos

These two guys worked with Neko Case on their album, though this song is just them. And it's great! They have some interesting percussion things going on... drumsticks? Don't Stop has a lot of layers and noise and energy, appropriate for the name.

The Dodos 'Don't Stop' by Wichita Recordings

Let's Go: Mike & Cody

Every best-songs list has to have a big club banger, right? This song makes me want to jump up and down and drink gin & tonics made fluorescent by the club black lights. Let's Go!!

Let's Go! by mikeandcody

Christmas Playlist

Maybe I get kind of fanatical about Christmas music. I'll admit it. Growing up, our rule was that Christmas music could be played from after Thanksgiving dinner until the end of Christmas Day. Such a short window makes Christmas music extra special. Nowadays I impose this rule with gusto, listening almost exclusively to Christmas music all month long until other family members start making remarks. My favorites change with the years--here are some I'm enjoying now!

Corelli's Christmas concerto. It's only about 15 minutes long and instrumental, but sounds totally like Christmas to me. Just look for Corelli's Concerto Grosso in G minor Op. 6/8 on your average baroque mixtape.

Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols. I like the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers version found on their Angels on High CD. The rest of the CD is great too.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio. What a classic. This year I also bought the piano music to learn.

Klingende Weihnacht. My father spent time in Germany in the 60s and I think this record came out of that experience. It has been part of my Christmases as long as I can remember, and the sound of the little German children singing ROCKS my every December.

Noels Celtiques: Celtic Christmas Music from Brittany, Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde. This album is so beautiful it sometimes makes me cry. The northern tippy-top part of France has Scottish connections, and they can be heard in these transfiguring songs that sometimes include bagpipes.

Christmas with the Rat Pack. Frank, Dean-o and Sammy take turns belting 'em out on this swinging collection.

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz. John Coltrane Quartet, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn, Dinah Washington... in a word: awesomesauce. Jimmy Smith's drawbar organ version of "Jingle Bells" is a total treat.

Christmas Album, Nat "King" Cole. This guy's voice is like buttah. A perennial favorite.

A Very Siúcra Christmas. This is a recent find at a used CD store, apparently from around 2002. A folky-Celtic trio, Siúcra is quickly growing on us as a new Christmas staple. There are some new Christmas songs I've never heard before, like the "Cherry Tree Carol" that makes new sense of the miracle plays I had to read in college. (Why DID the baby have cherries in his hand at the end of the play? This song answers the question.) The talented lead singer Beth Leachman got an adorable Vows wedding writeup in the NYT in 2009: click here to read.

Baroque Christmas Music. I found this at the library. The name about says it all. My cup of tea.

The Little Drummer Boy, by the Harry Simeone Chorale. Let me just say that "The Little Drummer Boy" is the most hideous Christmas song ever, in my opinion. However this gospel-like album of medleys (that sounds terrible, but it's good!) gets really rollicking in places!

Tell me what Christmas music you like! You don't even have to be Christian to have a favorite song or two. Heck, I'm some sort of witchy pagan sun-worshiper myself.

Holiday Crafts

I'm always trying to simplify Christmas, I don't know why. I should probably just accept its complexities! One great year was when my mom and I didn't get a tree, but strung lights on the coffee table and put our gifts beneath that. Craziness! These days, with children and an extended family, I'm still trying to make things easy yet special. Last year my equation was that each person would get: one homemade thing, one purchased thing (modestly priced), and food. I collected ideas from blogs and my ancient stash of abandoned projects. Here are a few examples of DIY gifts from last year. I've been waiting since then to share them!

Project: Stuffed Ornaments
Sometime in the early 80s someone gave me fabric that had Christmas toys printed on it. You were supposed to cut them out and sew them together with ribbon to make cute stuffed ornaments. Fast forward about 30 years to when I rediscovered this fabric with my sewing stuff. Santa brought two for each child--stuffed toys are excellent stocking stuffers!

Project: Boxer Shorts
Is it too much information to share that I make all of a certain person's underwear for him from a worn and loved Butterick boxers pattern? The best part about homemade boxers is the mad fabric choices that are possible. One year I made boxers with adorable otters on them floating in a sea of blue. Another time I made boxers sporting multicolored jalapeños. Here, please note one pair has an idyllic village pattern with little houses and copses scattered about.

Project: Painted Spoons
Design Mom inspired me to encourage our older child to make her own presents for family members. One of our first (hopefully of many) projects was to paint these spoons with spots and stripes. We left the stirring part of the spoon plain so nobody would have to eat paint. We also sealed the painted section with a coat of non-toxic clear stuff. (I will have to dig around to figure out what it was called...)

Project: Road Rug
I'm not sure if I like how this turned out. It is just some traffic fabric from the quilting store that I backed with plain blue cloth and sewed together. Cool, except with our hardwood floors it slides around and is really hard to play on. But it could be a good roll-up road to use outside or where there's carpeting.

Project: Porcelain Pens
I am most proud of this one. I got the basic idea from Design Mom, who explains how to make monogrammed mugs using porcelain markers from Michael's and plain white china from the thrift store. I made my own trip to Michael's and sure enough, found these neat markers that are like thin sharpies for ceramic. The best part is: everything is totally adjustable and erasable until it's how you want it, then you bake it briefly to set.

For this mug for Grandpa, we decided to add his grandchildren's hands as part of the design. First I traced the hands and cut them out.

I taped the hand stencils to the mug.

We traced around them with black porcelain pen.

Here's the basic tracing. I may have been the main handler of the porcelain pens up until this point.

Then I handed the pens over to Miss Monkey, who did her own decorating (with some help when requested).

All three grandparent gifts. If you like the ancient Greek egg-and-dart motif on the bottom of the slim vase, I take all the credit.

Project: Embroidered Tea Towel
This was also a satisfying project, many many years in the making. I got these tea towels to embroider when I was about 10, and did not finish them until my second maternity leave.

Project: Homebrew

I posted a photo essay about this early in the year -- great gift for some special uncles.

Project: Baked Goods
We packed up a bunch of lovingly recycled Christmas tins with a selection of holiday treats baked by 3 generations of ladies, me being the middle generation. (Thanks mom!) We made:
  • lebkuchen
  • fruitcake
  • shortbread
  • my signature oatmeal coconut chocolate chip cookie recipe

Thanks for reading! I have some more ideas for this year, though not being on maternity leave I will not be as prolific this time. What are your fave DIY gifts to make--or receive?

Butternut bake: Savory holiday side

This Butternut Cranberry Bake that I blogged about back in 2008 would be a great side dish for a family holiday meal. This recipe always reminds me of the K2 lunch spot in Kendall Square, Cambridge, which had a version in their salad bar circa Fall 2000. It was so yummy that I experimented at home until I figured out a pretty good replica. Here are some new things I've learned about this recipe.

The recipe is a simple affair of cutting up and rinsing a big handful of cranberries,
then sautéeing in a bunch of butter with half an onion or so.

One thing is that if you don't have brown sugar or brown rice syrup, maple syrup will also do very nicely. Just pour it on over the cubed squash before stirring in the sautéed onion mixture.

Arrange a small cubed butternut squash in a baking dish with some sprigs of thyme
and water that goes about halfway up the squash pieces.

Another thing is that very small children love this, but larger ones may not. Our kindergartner who hates "mixed up food" thought this was completely revolting. She does not care that it tastes like delicious squash candy!

Cover and bake for about 40 minutes, stirring halfway through.