Monthly Archives: January 2013

Published Dec. 28, 2012 on

“Avant-pop.” “Ambient experimental.” “Ethereal.” “Baroque-pop.” Try as they might, the blogs cannot pin a clean tag on Julia Holter’s sophomore album Ekstasis.

Though they are not entirely wrong. Underneath the layers of antique atmosphere, swelling and staccato strings, floating vocals, oceanic synths, ambient echoes and theatrical structure, there is a pop record with hooks and melodies and harmonies.

The familiar pop foundation allows Holter to add all these meticulously composed, avant-garde elements to create a record unlike anything I have ever heard before.

“Ekstasis” means “to be outside of oneself,” accurate of how Holter must have felt while composing the record, and of my mindset when I sit down to listen and of the sounds she creates.

Album opener “Marienbad” shifts between movements, as if giving a sampler of what’s to come in the next 56 minutes. It starts with soft arpeggios leading into a sweet, bouncing verse and chorus. The song transitions into something more sinister, but you only notice once it has already happened. It stops, with sparse percussion to break the uncomfortable, relieved silence before the pleasant pop kicks back in, this time rewarding your bravery with joyful trumpet riffs.

(It’s worth nothing “Marienbad” is my no-brainer pick for my favorite song this year.)

The grand finale “This Is Ekstasis” entwines jangly, jazzy brass and strings seamlessly with layered chants of “Joy! Ekstasis!” and haunting vocal harmonies which feel as if they are coming from all different corners within your head.

I empathize with the critics who tried to put words to Ekstasis. It is hard. Holter’s careful composition of melodies and atmosphere defy all logic and stereotype of the “bedroom-pop” label under which blogs have lazily filed this record. Each listen, focused or casual, reveals new layers and peeling them back is such a joy.

For the reasons I could articulate and more so for the ones I could not, Julia Holter’s Ekstasis is my favorite album of 2012 and one of my favorite records ever.


In addition to our top 10 tracks and albums of 2012 countdown and accompanying overlooked records feature, the executive board at WVAU wanted to keep the round-up fun going a bit longer by highlighting our favorite covers of the year. We also looked ahead to 2013 and shared our predictions (/hopes and dreams) for the upcoming year. These are my contributions:

Songs of 2012: Favorite Cover Songs

Julia Holter – “Gold Dust Woman”

It would be disingenuous to not include a Fleetwood Mac cover in this list as literally a lot of artists took a stab at the iconic band’s catalogue. Off of Mojo Magazine‘s Rumours Revisited cover compilation, avant-pop goddess Julia Holter puts her antique atmospheric touch on “Gold Dust Woman,” without losing the folk quality of the original. Holter’s characteristic ambient layering and floating vocals with an anxious build benefit “Gold Dust Woman” without erasing connection to Rumours‘ original.

Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland – “2”

It was a big year for Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby,” getting another makeover via Hype Williams’ pseudonym side-project, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland. Off the duo’s Black is Beautiful LP, “2” holds on to the soul of the original with the soft sweetness of Copeland’s dreamy vocals over minimal production.

Our Musical Wants and Needs for 2013

Factory Floor
The DFA Records darlings have been producing their post-industrial dance with a distinct video game pulse since forming in 2008, but have yet to release a real actual full-length record. Singles “Lying / A Wooden Box,” “(R E A L L O V E)” and “Two Different Ways” sustained fans for a few years, but banger “Fall Back,” which dropped in the opening days of 2013, has hopes high for the long-awaited LP.

A James Murphy-produced Arcade Fire album
This is literally super relevant to several of my interests.

Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
It’s been six years since he brought SexyBack, which is enough time for it to disappear again, so JT’s due to seduce us again with his smooth pipes. If “Suit & Tie” is any indication for the rest of his material, I’m ready, too. (*NSYNC 4eva<3)

Julia Holter
In the last two months of 2012, Holter signed to Domino Records, released a “Goddess Eyes” single with two new tracks, rereleased March’s Ekstasis also with new live material and is oft tweeting about being in the studio. In February Holter is performing with another of my 2012 favorites Laurel Halo (June’s Quarantine), and if the stars align, I will be in the audience. The possibility that the two collaborate in 2013 would also be more than welcome. I just love Julia Holter so much, you guys.

Published Dec. 18, 2012 on USA TODAY College.


I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there is just one thing I need…

And it is to never hear All I Want for Christmas Is You ever, ever again.

That may be dreaming big, considering it is hard to avoid the song short of never stepping out in public, but from the shelter of your own headphones you can be festive without hearing Christmas songs that turn you into a Grinch.

I present to you an incomplete guide to holiday tunes that you’re not as likely to hear over the Macy’s soundsystem. At the bottom of the page lies a Spotify playlist with these jingle jams and more, as my gift to you.


• Sufjan Stevens – Silver & Gold and Songs for Christmas
There is no bigger fan of Christmas in the music industry than Sufjan Stevens. Proof: He’s released two five-volume Christmas box sets, Songs for Christmas in 2006 and Silver & Gold this past November.

Stevens’ ode-to-Santa marathon features covers of the classics, fresh takes on the most traditional carols and hymns and his own wacky original songs, such as Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance! and Christmas Unicorn. (Also wacky, this series of infomercials he created to “promote” Silver & Gold.) Through all the songs, Stevens remains true to his experimental folk ways, continuing to play with electronic sounds on Silver & Gold as he first did on his 2010 critically acclaimed solo album The Age of Adz.

And that recent 58-track, almost three-hour long Christmas extravaganza didn’t tire Sufjan Stevens out; he collaborated with rappers Heems, Kitty Pryde, Busdriver and others on a mixtape of Silver & Gold wordplayfully entitled Chopped & Scrooged.

• The O.C. Mix 3: Have A Very Merry Chrismukkah
Like many of my peers, The O.C. introduced me to so much new music in my impressionable middle school years via Death Cab for Cutie obsessive Seth Cohen. (I still have almost all the compilations on CD.) The Chrismukkah episodes are objectively the best ones of the early 2000s teen soap opera, so naturally the holiday compilation is equally great. Ron Sexsmith’s Maybe This Christmas still makes me want to run around with Ryan and Marissa in that ritzy Orange County mall, and indie vets Low shine bright on Just Like Christmas. (I’ll highlight Jimmy Eat World’s Last Christmas WHAM! cover later as it deserves its own section.)

Holidays Rule compilation
Just before Halloween, Starbucks’ label Hear Music and Concord Music Group released a 17-song holiday compilation boasting an eclectic mix of artists. The standout track is the Sharon Van Etten and Rufus Wainwright duet Baby, It’s Cold Outside, so much so that I have to feature it here:

The always-great Eleanor Friedberger performs a jazzy Santa, Bring My Baby Back (To Me) and The Shins’ James Mercer’s airy voice well suits the band’s cover of Wonderful Christmastime.

• She & Him – A Very She & Him Christmas
Zooey Deschanel’s sweet croon and M. Ward’s smooth blues guitar complement each other and — surprisingly — Christmas music very well, especially and appropriately on the song made famous by Elvis, Blue Christmas. The duo’s take on The Christmas Song also holds up with M. Ward’s smooth guitar pickings oozing through the song under Deschanel’s hushed warm vocals. Fortunately, this Christmas album successfully avoids the too-cutesy territory that plagues She & Him’s original material.


• Fiona Apple – Frosty the Snowman
Possibly the best Christmas cover ever (read: My favorite Christmas cover ever), Fiona Apple’s bluesy voice, accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, beautifully tells the story of that magical, pipe-toting snowman. Apple’s vocal stylings, flowing from sweet and soprano to staccato and shouting to soft and soulful, bring real, wonderful life to a silly song about a sprung-to-life snowman and his magic hat.

• The Format – Holly Jolly Christmas
Nate Ruess’ latest band, fun., is featured on the Holidays Rule compilation, but before the days of uncapitalized good times, Ruess fronted The Format with Sam Means and, boy, were they a great act. Ruess’ powerful boyish vocals perfectly suit the classic by Burl Ives, and Means’ multi-instrumental talents provide the most jolly music.

• Jimmy Eat World – Last Christmas
Yes, WHAM! is a little cheesy, but that is why we love them. Alt-emo rockers Jimmy Eat World somehow manage to embrace the cheese and avoid being tacky. Maybe it’s because they’ve never tried to take themselves too seriously. (Something that likely makes London minimalist electro act The xx’s new take on the song fall flat.) Dancey and heartfelt, Jimmy Eat World lays their feelings on the line in this Christmas love song — though it would be crazy to expect anything less from these emo pros.

• The Polyphonic Spree – Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Covering a John Lennon song is an ambitious undertaking, but I suppose when your band has 20+ members, it is not as daunting a task. The Polyphonic Spree’s characteristic purely joyful symphonic-pop and massive ensemble is a perfect match for the children’s chorus supporting in Lennon’s original. The group’s layered instrumentals, highlighting brass and percussion, and inherent euphoric feeling adds an air of whimsy to the track unmatched by other attempted Lennon-coverers.

Which holiday tunes would you add to this mix?

Published Nov. 15, 2012 on USA TODAY College. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a University of South Florida professor. His name is Autar Kaw.

A more solid stamp of approval than a positive end-of-semester course evaluation rating: The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) awarded the nation’s top college educators today as the 2012 U.S. Professors of the Year.

Out of close to 300 nominees, there are four top national winners who come from all sorts of backgrounds, representing a range of U.S. educators: Christy Price is a psychology professor atDalton State College, researching how to best engage Millennials in the classroom; Lois Roma-Deeley teaches creative writing at Paradise Valley Community College and is an award-winning poet; Autar Kaw works with the National Science Foundation to share his coursework and is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida; Todd Pagano heads a lab science program at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Additionally, these winners are the leading professors from the four categories by which schools are broken down, based on the type of institution: baccalaureate colleges, community colleges, doctoral and research universities and master’s universities and colleges.

There are also 30 state Professors of the Year, plus one from the District of Columbia.

The president of CASE, John Lippincott, said this year’s winners stood out for their “intentional, innovative and inspirational” approach to learning and education.

In 2012, those three adjectives are key to engaging and education the college students of today. Now the discussions around technology in the classroom are not focused on “should we use it?” but “how do we use it best?”

The CASE awards program has been honoring the U.S.’s top professors since 1981, and the four national winners receive $5,000 from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

See the entire list of state professors of the year.