Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 7 (5-1)

Before I proceed with the top five, I want to report on the progress of the year-end compilation.

I haven't started it yet. But, no worries. It's not that I've been lazy or I'm not motivated to do it. In fact, I'm quite excited that this year's mix may introduce a somewhat revised format. It's just that I've been spending a considerable amount of my downtime writing these blog entries. It takes time to insert the album images, identify and link them to insightful but non-mainstream (e.g. no Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, etc.) and non-pretentious (i.e. no Pitchfork) reviews, make sure it all formats exactly the way I want, and do the write-ups.

So, if you're interested in receiving a copy of my 2008 compilation, and you're not already on my list of regulars, just e-mail me at, or leave a comment here and we'll work out the details--most importantly, obtaining your address.

Oh, and if you're not sure if you're on my list of regulars, then it would be safer to assume that you're not.

And now, as Casey Kasem might say, back to the countdown.

5. Bloc PartyIntimacy

IntimacyThis English band has flirted with the top ten twice in the past three years. It's not necessarily that this is their best album, but possibly an indication of the relative weakness of the year in music, that they finally break into the top ten with Intimacy. Still, it's a tremendous album that's at least worthy of comparison to 2005's breakthrough Silent Alarm, and continues their trend of heavily mining the territory of relationship loss. This time, though, singer Kele Okereke seems to hint at greater loss, particularly on "Signs," which may turn out to be this year's "I Still Remember." That is, the one song that I could never listen to just once. Lyrics such as "I could sleep forever these days, 'cause in my dreams I see you again" and "I believe in anything that brings you back home to me" really struck a chord.

4. Drive-By TruckersBrighter Than Creation's Dark

Brighter Than Creation's DarkThese modern day southern rockers/alt-country heroes had quite the year, in my world. First, they were chiefly responsible for making their double-bill with The Hold Steady my concert of the year, at least based on the music itself. That's saying a lot in a year that I also saw a Neil Young/Wilco show, although other considerations would probably vault the latter to concert of the year status. But, most importantly, they join The Hold Steady as the second artist to extend their top ten streak to three consecutive releases. Brighter Than Creation's Dark plays like the follow up to the album- 2002's Southern Rock Opera--that turned me on to their down-home charm in the first place. With 19 songs divided into four "sides," as described on the CD sleeve (the LP release is actually two records), it clocks in at almost as long as that two-disc magnum opus.

3. Sigur RósMeð suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaustNot really being a fan of Sigur Rós prior to 2005's Takk..., and not yet spending much time exploring their back catalog, I generally have to take people on their word that this Icelandic band's music has been getting sunnier with each release. I've definitely witnessed their progression from that album to this one. I still can't pronounce the names of any of the songs, nor of this record's title. In fact, I still struggle with the band's name--something like see-gyer-ros--but that doesn't really matter when the music is as powerful and majestic as this. On Takk..., "Hoppípolla" was one of the most beautiful songs I'd ever heard. While none of the songs here quite reach that level, there are several that come close, cementing this album's place as better than its predecessor and one of the absolute best of 2008.

2. Wolf ParadeAt Mount Zoomer

At Mount ZoomerI've joked in this blog a few times about the prolificacy of Wolf Parade side projects in comparison to the actual band itself. Since the 2005 release of their full-length debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, co-leaders Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner have put out three albums between them--two by Krug's Sunset Rubdown and one by Boeckner's Handsome Furs. If you're scoring at home, this means that 2008 is the fourth consecutive year that Krug has played a significant role on a record in my top 11. In my Fab 40 series from a couple years ago, I discussed the question of what musicians have maintained the status of my second favorite to Neil Young at one time or another. Unofficially, I'd say that Jay Farrar, Steve Earle and Joe Pernice have held that distinction since the mid-90s, with the position currently being vacant. Does Spencer Krug now emerge as a candidate? He is Canadian, after all. I'm not sure I'm ready to elevate him to that status just yet, but the fact that I'm even bringing it up certainly says something.

1. American Music ClubThe Golden Age

The Golden Age A few years ago, while my 2004 year-end compilation played in the background at a friend's place, a mutual "friend" mocked a track from Love Songs for Patriots that was on that mix by crooning, "Oh, I am so emotional." This, of course, was from a person who wore a homemade shirt which offered that "Bon Jovi can lay me down in a bed of roses" to one of the New Jersey pop-metal icon's concerts. Don't get me wrong here. No one loves cheesy rock from the 80s more than I do--well maybe she does--but I guess I'm also a sucker for a lot of music that packs an emotional punch. As one reviewer said, American Music Club effectively blends rock muscularity with folk wussiness, and they've never done so better than on my album of the year, The Golden Age. Well, I may not be qualified to make that statement--not yet, at least. In 2009, I plan to spend considerable time exploring the AMC back catalog. I hope they prove me wrong, because if their prior albums can match the brilliance of "The Sleeping Beauty," "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco," "Windows on the World," and "Who You Are"--my 2008 theme song--then I will be quite pleased.

With that, it's goodbye to 2008 and hello to the final year of the 00s, the most awkward-to-phrase decade of my life so far. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 6 (10-6)

10. The Hold SteadyStay Positive

Stay PositiveThis marks the third consecutive album for this band that's landed in my year-end top ten. That's a pretty remarkable achievement, leaving them one short of the record of four held by Steve Earle. Earle's streak of four straight releases, covering the five-year period from 1996 to 2000, occurred entirely in the pre-downloading era, though. For that reason, The Hold Steady's streak is all the more impressive, but they're not alone. In fact, they are one of two artists to reach the distinction in 2008 alone.

9. Sun Kil MoonApril

AprilMark Kozelek puts his reverence of Neil Young on full display here by including five songs that break the seven-minute mark. Actually, despite my love of epic songs, this one may have been in the top five had it been edited down to a little shorter than its 74 minutes. Still, for as long as it is, it captures and holds my attention, with barely an uninteresting moment. Highlights include guest appearances by Will Oldham and Ben Gibbard.

8. Okkervil RiverThe Stand-Ins

The Stand-InsOkkervil River is not the other band to extend their top ten streak to three this year. Of course, they topped 2005's list, but last year's The Stage Names finished at #12. I honestly feel that they have another record that's as good as, if not better than, Black Sheep Boy in them. I suppose those are pretty lofty expectations. In the meantime, I'll continue to settle for excellent albums like this one.

7. The Mountain GoatsHeretic Pride

Heretic PrideLast year, seven of my top ten albums were by artists who had never before achieved that honor--and I use that term loosely, of course. This year, The Mountain Goats are one of only two first-timers in the top ten. Somehow, I have the feeling that this one will be the biggest surprise to those who are quite familiar with my taste. In fact, the top five seem to me as though they're about as predictable as they could be. Still, you'll have to wait until tomorrow evening to find out.

6. Mates of StateRe-Arrange Us

Re-Arrange UsMates of State are husband-and-wife team Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, the latter not being the same guy who was one of six pitchers to save games for the Tampa Bay Rays this year. The album's first track, and my personal favorite, is testimony to the idea that music is about the listener's personal experience. It's more important that "Get Better"--which includes the sing-along lyrics "Everything's gonna get lighter, even if it never gets better"--was my ultimate antidote to a bad mood this year, than is the fact that it's really about household color schemes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 5 (15-11)

15. The WalkmenYou & Me

You & MeOn "In the New Year"—one of this album's standout tracks—lead singer Hamilton Leithauser sounds as if he's trying to convince himself as he proclaims, "I know that it's true/It's gonna be a good year". I don't need any convincing. In the end, it was.

14. Vampire WeekendVampire Weekend

Vampire WeekendVampire Weekend—they of the highest ranking debut album on this year's list—tread very closely to that dangerous territory inhabited by the over-hyped. Regardless, each time I found myself thinking this, I'd listen to the album one more time and realize that it's just a really enjoyable, cohesive collection of pop songs. So, I guess what I'm saying is, believe the hype—at least for now.

13. Bound StemsThe Family Afloat

The Family AfloatI read two separate reviews that reference Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica in describing this one. Neither reviewer made a direct comparison, but I found this odd nonetheless. Many of the songs do take on a somewhat schizophrenic nature, but you'd have to call this a sunnier, friendlier version of that album for the comparison to seem slightly appropriate. Regardless, I suppose it says something about how good this album really is. While not their debut, this is the top spot occupied by a band I had never heard of prior to this year.

12. Cloud CultFeel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)

Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)Cloud Cult topped my Best of 2007 list, and the follow up to The Meaning of 8--while not as mind-blowing—certainly did not disappoint. While his lyrics can be hokey, even silly at times, and his stuff sometimes a little over-the-top, Craig Minowa's philosophical meanderings always strike me as sincere. His songs also provide me with some of the best material to sing along to—when no one else is around, of course.

11. The StreetsEverything is Borrowed

Everything is BorrowedI'm not a huge hip-hop fan, but every year that I've done an expanded list (i.e. more than a top 10), it's included at least one true hip-hop album. There was Kanye West last year, Ghostface Killah in 2006, and both Kanye and Danger Doom in 2005. Generally not considered hip-hop, The Streets is the closest thing to grace this year's list. However you want to classify it, this is an excellent return to form after the disappointing The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 4 (20-16)

20. Death Cab for CutieNarrow Stairs

Narrow StairsI'm not sure if this is the first album to make my year-end list that topped the Billboard charts, but an album by an "indie" band debuting at #1 is quite the long shot coming in. That's what happened in May of this year, when this album was released, completing the band's ascension from indie darlings to commercial success, a feat accomplished while receiving surprisingly few accusations of selling out.

19. The Rural Alberta AdvantageHometowns

HometownsCracking the list at #19, The RAA's Hometowns is actually only the third highest ranked debut album on my list. That, folks, means there are two more to come. Despite being eMusic's featured artist of the month in November, this excellent band from Toronto is, unbelievably, as yet unsigned.

18. Wild Sweet OrangeWe Have Cause to Be Uneasy

We Have Cause to Be UneasyEarlier this year, The Boston Phoenix did a feature article profiling their picks for the all-time best band and solo artist, and the best new band from each of the 50 states. Wild Sweet Orange was their pick for the "band you need to hear, like, now" from Alabama. For some reason, this was the only one of their recommendations that stuck with me. When I learned of the release of their debut album, I had to check it out, and was not disappointed.

17. Say HiThe Wishes and the Glitch

The Wishes and the GlitchOne of the reviews I read of this album describes Say Hi leader Eric Elbogen's voice as "mumbly". I think that's the first time I've ever heard a singer's voice referred to in such a way, and I find it quite amusing--even somewhat endearing. I also love the hooky synth-pop of this record, as well as Elbogen's mumbly voice, particularly when he sings lines such as "...oboes will bleat and the triangles tink, but we can't stop this thing from what it's gonna be".

16. Of MontrealSkeletal Lamping

Skeletal LampingIn an interview, Of Montreal front-man Kevin Barnes discusses this album by saying, "This record is my attempt to bring all of my puzzling, contradicting, disturbing, humorous... fantasies, ruminations and observations to the surface, so that I can better dissect and understand their reason for being in my head. Hence the title Skeletal Lamping. ‘Lamping’ is the name of a rather dreadful hunting technique where hunters go into the forest at night, flood an area in light, then shoot or capture the animals as they panic and run from their hiding places. This album is my attempt at doing this to my proverbial skeletons. I haven’t yet decided if I should shoot or just capture them though."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 3 (25-21)

I'm switching things up a little here. While I had originally intended to get through the top 40 in six parts, with 6 to 8 albums revealed in each, I'm going to count down the top 25 five at a time. So, in case you're somewhat math-challenged, that means there will be seven installments in total, with the top five appearing on New Year's Eve.

25. M83 - Saturdays = Youth

Saturdays = YouthThis is a little less over-the-top than most of what I've heard from M83 in the past--well, at least there's a little less of the overly dramatic spoken word segments. The result is an album that is intended to be somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Gonzalez's youth, and may have a similiar effect to those of us who grew up in the 80s.

24. Stephen Malkmus & The JicksReal Emotional Trash

Real Emotional TrashThe latest from the former front-man of indie rock legends Pavement is a strong candidate for "grower of the year", as odd as that distinction sounds. I could tell it was worth repeated listens right from the start, but it took quite a few before I really grew to appreciate it as the most cohesive album of Malkmus' career--which might not necessarily be a good thing to all of his fans.

23. Ryan Adams & The CardinalsCardinology

CardinologyUpon first listen, I thought this one might be almost as good as last year's Easy Tiger, which I considered to be a return to form of sorts for Adams. I even raved about it in a text to a friend. Then, I read the less-than-glowing reviews and wondered if I would change my mind over time--but, I didn't. I can't help but be amused by the third track, "Fix It", which if you don't listen closely enough, you'll think is about repairing a broken relationship--that couldn't further from the truth.

22. David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Everything That Happens Will Happen TodayThe house on the cover of this album looks sort of welcoming and the music on this record backs it up, as it certainly has an inviting feel. It strikes a chord with me as I tread further into my early 40s and find myself desiring that familiar sense of home more and more with each passing day.

21. Centro-MaticDual Hawks

Dual HawksTechnically, this wasn't a Centro-Matic album, but a split release with South San Gabriel, a band that consists of the same lineup as Centro-Matic, but with additional guest performers. The two bands' approaches are quite stylistically different, though, with South San Gabriel being the quieter, more cerebral, counterpoint to Centro-Matic's Crazy Horse-esque punch. I prefer Centro-Matic, of course, and while technically, it's all one album, I chose to consider them as separate efforts.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 2 (33-26)

33. Thao with The Get Down Stay Down - We Brave Bee Stings and All

We Brave Bee Stings and AllI almost eliminated this one from the list because I got frustrated trying to figure out if they're called Thao Nguyen with the Get Down Stay Down, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, just Thao Nguyen or simply Thao. Her (their?) web site settled my dilemma.

32. Nada SurfLucky

LuckyAnother questionable pick by critical standards, but this one is just pure pop pleasure. "Beautiful Beat" provided the perfect accompaniment to an episode-closing moment of self-realization for Ted Mosby on my favorite television show, How I Met Your Mother. "I Like What You Say" also painfully reminded me that we don't always learn from our mistakes.

31. My Morning JacketEvil Urges

Evil UrgesDespite including possibly the worst ever ode to a librarian--a train wreck of a song that I just had to listen to one more time as I write this--I really enjoyed this band's genre-bending efforts this year. There are moments here where I could swear that MMJ front-man Jim James thinks his first name is Rick.

30. Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers

Asking for FlowersI was surprised to learn that Kathleen turned 30 this year. Regardless, she's still the hottest chick in alt-country, in my opinion. I offer no apologies to Neko Case, especially since I like her power-pop oriented part-time band, The New Pornographers, much better than her country inflected solo work.

29. Alejandro EscovedoReal Animal

Real AnimalI mentioned in Frequent Spins that Alejandro was celebrating the fact that George W. Bush was leaving office, but also lamenting that he'll be returning to the state--Texas--that both men call home. This was, of course, prior to the major defining moment of 2008--the election of Barack Obama--a moment that provides an added bonus to the departure of the worst president in our history.

28. Cat PowerJukebox

JukeboxChan Marshall starts off this fine collection of mostly cover tunes with a soulful version of "New York, New York". The album was released two days after the Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers to advance to the Super Bowl. Her version is hardly Sinatra-esque, but it certainly beats Liza Minnelli's.

27. SamAmidonAll is Well

All is WellAn entire album of re-worked Appalachian folk tunes seems like a rather trite concept. But, the subtly orchestrated arrangements of these songs make each of them sound fresh and new. In fact, "O Death" being the only one that was instantly recognizable to me, I didn't even realize this at first. As I said in Frequent Spins, "Saro" is stunningly beautiful and one of my favorite songs of the year.

26. Kate NashMade of Bricks

Made of BricksI seem to discuss this every year, and 2008 is no exception. Six female-fronted acts comprise spots 26 to 40, but it pretty much ends there. One male/female duo and a few with significant female contributions are all that we'll see from the fairer sex in the top 25.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 1 (40-34)

40. The Baseball Project - Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

Frozen Ropes and Dying QuailsBecause this list is mostly about the music that defined the year for me, this album earns the final spot over a couple that were equally as worthy musically. I called this the soundtrack to my baseball park trip in August, which was an important part of a year that started and ended well, but wasn't necessarily great in-between.

39. Malcolm Middleton - Sleight of Heart

Sleight of HeartI'm still waiting for another album that measures up to his 2005 release, Into the Woods. In the meantime, there's something about Middleton's Scottish brogue and his attitude that makes even his lesser material move me. This one is no exception.

38. Damien Jurado - Caught in the Trees

Caught in the TreesIn my Frequent Spins post that included this album, I said that it falls far short of the brilliance of 2005's And Now That I'm in Your Shadow. That record was actually released in 2006, and made my top ten that year. So, saying this one falls short is not a slight, as it's still a very satisfying follow up.

37. Jennifer O’ConnorHere With Me

Here With MeIn Frequent Spins, I said this was better than her last one, Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars. I'm going to back off of that statement a little by saying it's at least as good. I may have been overly excited about the fact that I found a picture of her wearing a Giants t-shirt. Big Blue's Super Bowl upset of the 18-0 Patriots is certainly one of the highlights of my year.

36. Paul Westerberg - 49:00

49:00Westerberg's first release in four years--other than the 2006 soundtrack to the children's movie Open Season--proves that he's still going strong at age 49. It's just as ramshackle as his Grandpaboy efforts, which more than anything marked his return to form after a couple of mediocre post-Replacements solo albums.

35. Shelby Lynne - Just a Little Lovin'

Just a Little Lovin’I'm probably going to take a little heat from the music snobs for this one, but so what. Shelby's homage to Dusty Springfield made a big impression on me early in 2008 and, although I couldn't listen to it for a while, upon re-visiting it late in the year, I'm finding that I'm still enjoying its pleasingly romantic sounds.

34. DeVotchKa - A Mad & Faithful Telling

A Mad & Faithful TellingListening to indie rock that draws influence from Eastern European music is a strange experience. It kind of makes you wonder if you should be seeking out the real deal. Regardless, this eclectic quartet from Denver is quite impressive in their follow up to the grammy-nominated Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Music of 2008

I'm just about ready to begin the countdown of my top 40 albums of 2008. Since I've already written a little about most, if not all, of these albums in my Frequent Spins series throughout the year, it will be a challenge to write something different about each as I count them down. So, don't expect any critical insight--not that you necessarily get that from my Frequent Spins write-ups anyway. I may have a tendency to lean a little more towards what each record actually meant to me--or just something interesting or completely random.

So, stay tuned, as beginning today or tomorrow, I'll be posting an entry every other day or so that will include 6 to 8 of the year's best--in my opinion.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Flight 45

The Houston Astros' all-time leader in games pitched, Dave Smith, died this week at age 53. Smith, a two-time all-star who also is second on the Astros' career saves list, apparently died of a heart attack on Wednesday. He is remembered by those who played with and against him as a fierce competitor, and by teammates and friends for his generosity and zest for life. Giants third base coach and former big leaguer Tim Flannery, who also served on the Padres' coaching staff with Smith from 1999 to 2001, called him "...the most giving, unconditionally compassionate man anyone ever came across..." and fondly remembers him "...reaching into his pocket and pulling out $100 to give to someone selling newspapers for a quarter".

Personally, I remember Smith for the part he played in what I recall as the most exciting baseball post-season I've ever witnessed. During my sophomore year in college, I was part of a group of haters who rooted passionately against the 1986 Mets of Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra and Ray Knight, even going so far as to cheer for the Red Sox in the World Series.

Somewhat ironically, I no longer am the typical New Yorker who loves his team and despises their crosstown rivals, but 1986 is still one of the primary reasons I hate the Red Sox to this day. That is, the one time I rooted for them...well, you know what happened. Despite the fact that the '86 Astros were essentially a one-man show, and broke my heart by nearly toppling the vaunted Mets, I still have a soft spot for them, for the valiant effort they put forth against a team they had no business believing they could beat.

Smith didn't pitch very well in that LCS, most notably blowing game three by yielding a 9th inning game-winning two-run home run to Lenny Dykstra, and ruining the Astros' chances of going up 2-1 on the Mets with Mike Scott--the aforementioned one-man show--throwing the next day. However, he was as much a part of that team as Billy Hatcher, Glenn Davis, Charlie Kerfeld and Alan Ashby. Actually, as I peruse the box scores of that series, I realize that he was probably the biggest reason his team lost, but I love the '86 Astros, and Dave Smith was loved by his teammates.

Rest in peace, Flight 45.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frequent Spins (2008.9)

It's that time of year once again. As 2008 winds down, I present you with the year's final installment of Frequent Spins. More importantly, though, it's time to revisit my favorites for the year and start putting together the list. I shifted to the top 40 format last year, and I think I'm going to stick with it. I feel like the back end of this year's top 40 is a little stronger than last, but it's going to be a little weaker at the top. In fact, 2008 may be the most lacking in truly great albums of any year in a while.

Bound Stems - The Family Afloat
Frequently throughout this album, I have to stop and think of what indie rock band they remind me of, but most of the time, that comparison eludes me. Maybe that's because, while far from completely unique, this band just isn't that easy to pigeon-hole. Catchy throughout, but frequently leaving you wanting just a little bit more, and not necessarily in a bad way, this is a strong set of pretty straight-up indie rock/pop.

French Kicks - Swimming
The French Kicks have always been an enigma to me, curiously so considering this is their first album that I've listened to. They've been an enigma based solely on reputation. Are they over-rated indie rock pretenders akin to the Liars, or truly worthy of comparisons to bands like The Strokes and The Walkmen? Obviously, I never bothered to make my own determination until now, and considering I'm including them here, I'd say they're much closer to the latter than the former.

Los Campesinos! - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
This high energy Welch indie-pop seven-piece was one of the busiest acts in the business this year, releasing two full-length albums. Hold on Now, Youngster... was a solid effort, but We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, their second release of 2008, is even better.

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cardinology
The former Whiskeytown frontman's latest hasn't been well received by the critics. Safe, lackadaisical, self-indulgent, uninviting...I'm sure Adams has heard these all before. While it may be a drop-off from last year's Easy Tiger, which I consider to be his second best solo record, it still has all the elements that have always appealed to me about his stuff. Who else could cover ground ranging from the gentle reminder of "Go Easy" to the bitter ill wishes of "Fix It", all by the album's third track?

The Rural Alberta Adantage - Hometowns
I discovered this one on eMusic, as it's been at or near the top of their charts for a little while now. They cleverly refer to this album by the description, "In an aeroplane over Alberta...", but I'd call the Neutral Milk Hotel comparison a bit of a stretch. Quite a bit less quirky, and a little more rootsy, than Jeff Mangum's troupe, The RAA still deliver a fine first record, one that ranks among my favorite debuts of the year.

Also spin-worthy
Jay Bennett - Whatever Happened I Apologize
Pelle Carlberg - The Lilac Time
The Tallest Man on Earth - Shallow Grave
Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak
Neil Young - Sugar Mountain Live At Canterbury House 1968

Oh, and don't forget to stay tuned here for my Best of 2008 countdown, which should kick off about a week from now and run through New Year's Eve.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Neil Young, Wilco @ DCU Center

Saturday night's Neil Young show at the DCU Center quite possibly ranks as the best concert I've ever attended that I didn't know I was going to until a couple hours prior to its start. It also ranks as one of the best Christmas gifts--presentation included--I've ever received.

My new lady friend pulled off quite the feat in getting me to head out towards Worcester with her on a late Saturday afternoon. The plan was that we were heading to dinner at an old favorite of hers, a family chain of restaurants prevalent out west, but of which there are few locations back east, none closer than a 45-minute drive from Boston. After that, we were going to check out some Christmas village to get a taste of the holiday season. Or, so I thought.

While at dinner, she said she had an early gift for me. I opened the box she handed me, and was almost speechless to find an e-mail confirmation of tickets to the show, with the words "WANT TO GO?" written on it. Do I want to go? If you don't know the answer to that question, you only have to read this to find out.

I had originally decided not to go to this show because most of my friends balked at the venue and the ticket prices, and I regretted this decision a little more each time I received an email reminder from Ticketmaster or Live Nation. So, to find out I was going to the show less than two hours prior to its start was pretty incredible.

Wilco's set was solid, as they played mostly material from Sky Blue Sky and A Ghost is Born, but the highlights were "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "Jesus, Etc." from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Somehow, it didn't feel quite right not having them close the show with "Misunderstood", and with Jeff Tweedy belting out repeatedly, "I'd like to thank you all for nothing at all", at the end of the song. But, he probably figured that wouldn't be as well received from a crowd that probably wasn't there to see his band.

Neil started out strongly, putting the place on notice that he was there to rock, with show opening renditions of "Love and Only Love" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", before transitioning to one of my personal favorites, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere". Speaking of which, the set also included my two favorite guitar anthems, "Cortez the Killer" and "Cowgirl in the Sand", the latter being a little less than spectacular with no Danny Whitten or Poncho Sampredo to dual it out with him.

An extended string of a couple songs from last year's Chrome Dreams II and a few from what I could only assume is a forthcoming release lost my interest briefly, but the show ended the way it started, with an audience-rousing version of "Rockin' in the Free World". An encore of "A Day in the Life" wouldn't have been my choice, but overall Neil proved himself to be as vital as ever at age 63.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Big Apple Second Chances, Vegas Style

With the winter meetings in Las Vegas coming to an end this week, there's no question that the Yankees and the Mets stole the show. With each team making two key additions to address their respective areas of greatest need, they virtually assured that there will be a Subway Series in 2009. Alright, let's not get carried away here, but the two teams from New York were clearly the clubs looking for redemption, following disappointing 2008 seasons, in the "Capital of Second Chances".

The Yankees' signings of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, while not necessarily the most economically sound moves, certainly have to make the rest of the league take notice. Despite missing the post-season last year with a payroll of over $2 million per victory, the Yankees still won 89 games while getting significantly less contribution from Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy than was expected. They will most likely get more out of Wang and Chamberlain this year, and despite the retirement of Mike Mussina, the additions of Sabathia and Burnett should easily put them back in the playoff picture.

Don't expect them to rest just yet, either. By the time they're done maneuvering, the Yankees, whether deserved or not, will be the favorite to win the AL East and, probably, the World Series. That distinction, of course, will be based on how the team looks on paper. Translating that to actual success is the thing the Yanks have had difficulty with in recent years.

Since I brought it up, we all know that making economically sound moves is not the Yankees' modus operandi. In an era where it's believed that championship contenders are built through a balance of developing good young talent and making key acquisitions of proven veteran performers, fans have become increasingly interested in whether or not their teams are spending their money wisely. That is, all except Yankees fans. Milwaukee Brewers loyalists know that, if they had signed Sabathia to a four-year, $100 million contract, and if he ended up contributing significantly less than being the hero he was last year, the team would not be able to overcome this. Even Red Sox, Mets, Angels and Dodgers fans know that their teams can ill afford to make a monumental mistake with a long-term free agent contract.

Yankees fans do not have this concern. They do not need to care whether or not Sabathia will be overpaid in the 5th, 6th and 7th years of this $161 million deal. If he is anything approaching the Sabathia of 2007 and 2008 for two or three years, he gives them a chance to climb back to the top of the heap. The Yankees have had several bad contracts on the books for quite a few years now, yet last year is the first that they fell short of the playoffs, and, even so, were still in contention for most of the year.

With a team payroll of $201 million for 2008, the Yankees spent $2.25 million per victory. Even the Mets, Tigers and Red Sox, all with payrolls in the vicinity of $138 million, would have been as bad as the Seattle Mariners, the worst team in baseball, at that rate. Yet, if the Yankees improve this "efficiency" to $2 million per, that would translate to 100 wins. Only the three aforementioned teams, plus the Chicago White Sox, would have won as many as 60 games by that calculation.

I think you get my point. The Yankees don't have to spend wisely to win. They do have to make better personnel decisions, though, and this is something that has eluded them in recent years. Will the Sabathia and Burnett signings, and whatever they do next, continue that trend, or will they finally hit the nail on the head with their major free agent acquisitions? We'll have to wait and see, but I have to say that A.J. Burnett, who just agreed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal, somehow reminds me of a cross between Kevin Brown and Kyle Farnsworth. Again, we'll have to wait and see.

The Mets still have some rotation issues to address, including their new #1 priority--the re-signing of Oliver Perez--but they could not have done a better job of shoring up their major area of weakness. The Francisco Rodriguez signing--three years, $37 million--was a no-brainer. With the Angels never making a serious attempt to re-sign him, beyond the contract extension they offered last winter, his move to Queens was a foregone conclusion. The market for closers this off-season was clearly a buyers' market, and the Mets were the club with the most purchasing power.

The Mets have had a closer of Rodriguez's caliber for the past three years, though, so would the K-Rod signing be enough to address the area that, inarguably, was the reason the Phillies were better in 2008? Apparently, they didn't think so. The Mets had setup problems last year, even before Billy Wagner went down with an injury that will keep him out through the 2009 season, so just a day removed from acquiring their new closer, they traded for J.J. Putz in a three-way deal involving the Indians and Mariners.

The Putz acquisition shows that the Mets mean business about not letting last year's downfall repeat itself. Not only does he instantly become the favorite for the best setup man in baseball, but Putz provides them with an insurance policy they wish they had last year. Well on his way to becoming one of the best closers in the American League--in fact, take a look at the 2007 numbers and try to convince me he wasn't the best--until injuries set him back last year, Putz gives the Mets a backup plan that no other team has right now.

So, while the Yankees did the most spending--and, some will say, gambling--in Vegas last week, the Mets come away the biggest winners, by playing the percentages and knowing when to double down.