Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 9

One more to go, and of course, it's my album of the year. When I declared this one the best album of 2009 so far in early May, I didn't really think it would maintain its hold on that honor for the entire year. But, while I haven't changed my opinion that this was a relatively weak year in music, I have decided that this album is truly worthy of #1.

Although the year in music wasn't spectacular, those of you who know me personally are well aware that it was a great year for me. So, thanks again for showing an interest in what I have to say, and indulging the part of me that wishes writing was my full-time gig.

Happy New Year to all of you, and here's hoping that 2010 is as good a year for you as 2009 was for me.

1. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love

As you probably know, I grew up a huge fan of Rush, and that interest evolved into a fascination for the heavyweights of '70s British prog-rock, namely Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. More recently, I've become a fan of quirky, indie pop, particularly of the variety whose influences can be attributed in part to Neutral Milk Hotel's magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. One such band that fits into the latter category, Portland, Oregon's The Decemberists, began to delve into their own brand of prog-inspired chamber pop with the release of The Crane Wife in 2006.

I'm also a big fan of a lot of classic rock, and I particularly love the aesthetic of modern music that pays tribute to the classics. Before I branched out and started proactively seeking out new music circa 1994, I listened to more material from the late '60s and '70s than from the '80s. Up until then, I had an anti-'80s bias—with my main exceptions being R.E.M., The Police, and U2—that I've since moved past, for the most part. One such classic rock band, who weren't necessarily one of my favorites but whose best material ranks right up there, is The Who. Of course, they're well known for the quintessential rock opera, their 1969 breakthrough album Tommy. Along those lines, in my Frequent Spins post about The Hazards of Love, I referred to it as an indie prog-rock opera masterpiece.

So, what I'm building up to here is if I was to play the "name three bands they remind you of" game with The Decemberists' latest, I might go with Yes, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Who. That's quite a compliment, in my book, although I realize that describing a non-mainstream act—The Decemberists—by referencing a band who's even more obscure—Neutral Milk Hotel—is a little questionable. Regardless, The Hazards of Love is, unquestionably, my album of the year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 8

2. Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer
Spencer Krug was born and raised in Penticton, British Columbia, but both of his bands—Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade—are based in Montreal. For the fifth consecutive year, a band led by Krug releases a top ten worthy album, with only Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up I Am Dreaming falling just short at #11 in 2006. In fact, this is the second year in a row that Spencer is a bridesmaid, after Wolf Parade's At Mount Zoomer earned the #2 slot last year. Previously in this countdown, I referred to the Pernice Brothers as a candidate for Artist of the Decade, an award I do plan to hand out in early January. I still haven't made my final decision on that yet, but Krug is definitely one of the finalists.

3. Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Music from Kerouac's Big Sur
Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard is from Washington, and of course, is the half part of the 4 1/2 Pacific Northwest artists count. Actually, M. Ward is from Portland, Oregon, and considering he's one-fourth of Monsters of Folk, I suppose I could have called it 4 3/4. I didn't select an Artist of the Decade for the '90s, but if I had, Jay Farrar would have won, hands down. His former Uncle Tupelo bandmate, Jeff Tweedy, would have placed a distant second. Tweedy's definitely had a better first decade of the 21st century, but Farrar had one of his best years in recent memory in 2009.

4. Built to Spill - There is No Enemy
Built to Spill is from Idaho. I'm not sure if that's officially the Pacific Northwest, but I'm counting it as such. Front-man Doug Martsch has hinted that this could be the band's final album. When Jay Farrar's Son Volt temporarily called it quits following 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo, I considered it a sad occasion, as they were one of the artists most responsible for kicking off my interest in the alt-country movement in the mid-'90s. Built to Spill was one of the finalists who just missed the cut for one of the last spots on my list of the 40 artists most important to me in my lifetime, because they were among the bands most responsible for the evolution of my music taste in the early '00s. If There is No Enemy is their swan song, it will be a sad moment as well, but they'll have chosen to end on a strong note.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 7

5. Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk
When I first heard My Morning Jacket's At Dawn in 2002, a year after its release, I was certain that Jim James was destined for future appearances in my top ten. Although his main band has yet to live up to that expectation, this year he more than gets by with a little help from his friends. Conor Oberst has turned out to be my favorite among the three creative forces that make up this super-group, but M. Ward also turns in a surprisingly strong performance as well, with utility man Mike Mogis rounding out the foursome. It's not quite Golden Smog's Down By the Old Mainstream, but an excellent album this is.

6. Modest Mouse - No One's First, and You're Next
Modest Mouse's third consecutive entry into the top ten is technically an EP, but at just over 33 minutes, it's just as long as many shorter full-lengths. One that comes to mind is The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow, my #2 album of 2003. Also, despite being a short collection of newly recorded songs from the sessions for their last two albums, it still plays cohesively straight through to the slightly disappointing album closer, "I've Got it All (Most)." Since I'm revealing the artist whose top ten streak remained alive this year, I should mention the two—in addition to Andrew Bird—whose runs ended. The Flaming Lips' Embryonic had a few promising moments, but those weren't enough to prevent it from earning the distinction of the most disappointing album of the year. Sufjan Stevens's The BQE was a stronger effort than Embryonic, but this classical album didn't really feel like a proper followup to his prior top ten efforts.

7. A.C. Newman - Get Guilty
Allan Carl Newman normally goes by his middle name, except in his solo career, where he's chosen to be referred to by his first and middle initials. He's one of two Canadian artists to land in this year's top ten, but the Vancouver-based leader of The New Pornographers is also part of a strong contingent of Pacific Northwest artists to rank near the top of the list. In fact, 4 1/2 of the top seven finishers are from that region of North America, the half representing one half of a duo. With Washington's Modest Mouse being included in that group, this leaves 2 1/2 still to be revealed in the top four.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 6

8. The Fiery Furnaces - I'm Going Away
When I referred to Neko Case as the highest ranking female artist this year, I should have been more specific. That statement wasn't intended to downplay the role of Eleanor Friedberger in The Fiery Furnaces, a band she co-fronts with her older brother Matthew. While Matthew is the primary creative force, handling most of the songwriting and studio instrumentation, Eleanor is the lead vocalist. As I wrote in Frequent Spins, this album was a bit of a comeback for the band, as far as I'm concerned, as they once again showed up on my radar following a few unremarkable albums since 2004's Blueberry Boat. When I wrote that, though, I didn't realize that this was going to be one of those records that I liked even more upon returning to it late in the year.

9. Antony and The Johnsons - The Crying Light
I didn't really expect this one to land in my top ten either. As one of the first albums I listened to in January, it was hard to overlook the fact that it was no I Am a Bird Now. But, that record was an absolute masterpiece, so that's a tough standard to live up to. I rated it highly, but for some reason, I expected it to eventually come down a rung. Instead, it proved to be a second consecutive top ten worthy album for Boy George disciple Antony Hegarty.

10. Passion Pit - Manners
A rare top ten finisher for a Boston-based band, Manners also took an indirect route to this lofty perch. Briefly, it flirted with mid-year contention for the top spot, until it proved to be one of those albums that I tired of a little easily. But, after being shelved for months, I was once again reminded of how much I loved this one in the first place. While not album of the year worthy, I'm happy that this is the record that rounds out my top ten. If I have one piece of advice for you, though, it's to enjoy this one in small doses, being very careful not to let it overstay its welcome.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 5

Of course, I like to reveal my year-end list in the countdown format. This year, though, I'm doing it a little differently, in case you haven't noticed. I'm still counting it down, but within each post, the rankings are in ascending order. The reason for this is I realized it reads better that way when the list is complete. 5-4-3-2-1 followed by 10-9-8-7-6, and then 15-14-13-12-11, etc. just seems a little awkward. But, don't you worry, the #1 album will be revealed last. While I'm on that subject, here's my tentative schedule for posts after this one:

#'s 8-10: December 26
#'s 5-7: December 28
#'s 2-4: December 30
#1: December 31

11. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Going into this year, two bands—The Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers—hold current streaks of three consecutive releases in my top ten. Since the list used to be just a top ten, I still consider that to be a pretty significant honor. A third artist earned that distinction this year, but it wasn't Andrew Bird. I guess since I'm 100% responsible for putting this list together, I could have bumped him up one place, but I didn't. So, he and two other artists failed in their attempts for a third consecutive top ten release. Bird, obviously, came the closest, and by a long shot, as the other two didn't even place.

12. Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Only four artists or individuals have made major contributions to two albums that have made my top ten in the same year: Jay Bennett (2002), Ryan Adams (2001), The Del McCoury Band (1999), and Jeff Tweedy (1996). As you can see, it used to be a fairly common occurrence, but hasn't happened in a while. Conor Oberst almost broke the drought this year, but fell a little short.

13. Anders Parker - Skyscraper Crow
Anders is a friend of mine, but that has zero influence on my opinion of his music. He's consistently made my year-end list since Varnaline's A Shot and a Beer in 1997. In fact, only one of seven studio albums he's released as a solo artist, or with his former band, hasn't ranked since I began doing the list in 1996. The only argument you could make regarding my personal bias is that I may have never heard of him if I didn't know him. However, on some level I feel that I would have eventually discovered his talents on my own. On the other hand, that could be a chicken-or-the-egg discussion, because if he hadn't turned me on to Uncle Tupelo back in the mid-90s, I'm not really sure in what direction my taste would have gone.

14. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Returning to the Grammy nomination theme, Phoenix's latest is up for Best Alternative Music Album. Their competition includes David Byrne & Brian Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which was released in August 2008; Death Cab for Cutie's The Open Door, which is a 17-minute EP; and the latest albums from Depeche Mode and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I didn't hear either of the latter two, so I can't make comparisons, but it's probably not difficult to understand my preference for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix over the former two.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 4

15. Levon Helm - Electric Dirt
The former drummer of The Band won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for his 2007 comeback Dirt Farmer. The followup to that, Electric Dirt, received a nomination this year for Best Americana Album, along with Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel's Willie and The Wheel and the next album on this list.

16. Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
Wilco's A Ghost is Born, of all albums, won a Grammy in 2004 for Best Alternative Music Album. This year they're up against Levon Helm and Willie Nelson for Best Americana Album. But, more importantly to me, they edged out the album that follows them on my list.

17. Son Volt - American Central Dust
This is the highest finish for either Wilco or Son Volt, or anything that members of these bands have done, since Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Jay Bennett's The Palace at 4am (Part 1), I believe. I labored over the decision about who to rank higher between Wilco and Son Volt, but then I realized, regardless of that, Jay Farrar had a much better year than Jeff Tweedy. More on that later.

18. Dinosaur Jr. - Farm
No newbies in this round of honorees, three out of four of whom are Fab 40 artists. In fact, Dinosaur Jr., Son Volt and Wilco are the only such artists represented here, with the exception of a few who made it, but not with the band with which they earned the Fab 40 distinction. Two of them—Joe Pernice and Olson & Louris—have already been revealed. One more is still to come.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 3

19. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Case is the highest ranking female artist this year, not counting a couple of male artists I could poke a little fun at. But, I'm going to resist that urge, because that angle is getting a little old, I realize. Like I said in Frequent Spins, this was the Neko Case album I've been anticipating for some time, and when I returned to Middle Cyclone for the purposes of ranking it among the rest of the year's best, I liked it even more.

20. Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Songs)
The Drive-By Truckers co-front man is fast becoming a list regular. I still think when he and Mike Cooley team up for an album's worth of songs, it's generally a stronger set than an entire release of Hood's material, but this is a very good album from one of my current favorite songwriters/performers.

21. Dan Auerbach - Keep it Hid
Besides wondering if this is the first time a solo artist named Dan has made the list, I've found myself pondering why this album did it for me in ways that no Black Keys album has before. To attempt to answer this question, I thought I'd reveal a little of what Auerbach has to say about himself. He describes his self-produced solo debut as a mixture of "psychedelia, soul music, loud and soft guitars." So, I suppose the answer is that Keep it Hid is not entirely about the blues-rock stomp that his main band is, and the variety it offers is just enough to keep things from getting boring.

22. Joe Pernice - It Feels So Good When I Stop
I'm certain this is not the first time a solo artist named Joe has made the list. It's also the highest I've ranked Mr. Pernice since his two #1 albums in the early years of this decade. Despite the fact that, in the six years that have passed since, he hasn't really come close to making a record as great as The World Won't End and Yours, Mine & Ours, he's still a candidate for my Artist of the Decade.

23. Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Ready for the Flood
Olson left The Jayhawks following their 1995 album, Tomorrow the Green Grass, one year before I began compiling a year-end list. I thought they would never be the same, but I was wrong. Louris turned out to be a more than capable songwriter and band leader, taking them in a more pop-oriented direction than their prior alt-country efforts. Three top ten albums later, they called it quits...or went on hiatus, I'm not sure which. 2009 was a good year for their fans, though. In addition to this reunion of the two former leaders of the band, The Jayhawks released the excellent anthology Music from the North Country.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 2

I sometimes struggle doing these brief write-ups about the artists in my countdown, partly because I've already written something about them in Frequent Spins. I have a few different basic formulas: reference the artist's history with respect to my annual "best-of" list, talk about how I was turned on to them or what they mean to me, or just write about what I previously said about the album. A newer angle I've decided to work into the mix is simply sharing what the artists have to say about themselves. Since I don't really claim to be a music critic, who better to inform us of what they're about than "they" to speak.

Back to the list...

24. Clem Snide - Hungry Bird
In Frequent Spins, I wrote about not being sure whether this was their comeback or their swan song. I still don't know for sure, although I'm leaning towards believing the former. They did tour briefly this year, but their web site is sorely lacking in information about their future. Nevertheless, a pleasant surprise this album was, and I'm sure we'll be hearing from front-man Eef Barzelay in some way, shape or form in the near future.

25. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
This Scottish quintet consists of four guys and two gals. In a short film on their myspace page, they individually refer to themselves as "a collection of misfits," "six different people who shouldn't work together...but collectively things come together" and "a non-profit making organisation."

26. Beirut - March of the Zapotec / Realpeople - Holland
Last year, Centro-Matic and its alter-ego South San Gabriel released a split-CD titled Dual Hawks. Each was a full-length on its own, and I really liked the Centro-Matic half, so I considered it as a separate album for the purpose of this list. This year, Zach Condon's main band and his side project released this split-EP. On their own, they're just two good, but short, EPs. Considered together, they're an album almost worthy of my top 25. So, call me inconsistent. I can live with it.

27. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel - Willie and the Wheel
For a few years now, I've been giving my father one or two CDs from the current year as one of his Christmas presents. Since authentic country is really the only genre where our individual tastes meet, and since he turned me on to the western swing of Bob Wills, this collaboration between old country outlaw and the band that recorded a tribute to Wills on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday, is this year's selection.

28. Those Darlins - Those Darlins
These ladies describe themselves on their web site as "...a pop group, if they are any one thing, which doesn't mean anybody with ears can't hear the country and rock 'n' roll in their sound and stance." They are part of the previously mentioned Paste Magazine Sampler 55 group, but I'm pretty certain they were an eMusic discovery, and my biggest one this year at that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Best Music of 2009: Part 1

I could have pulled together a top 40 for 2009, but I just didn't think the albums that would have rounded out the list were truly worthy. Besides, that would have meant the list would have basically consisted of every album I wrote up in Frequent Spins this year, which would be kind of anti-climactic. Not that there's a whole lot of suspense hanging over these announcements, but you get the idea.

So, I thought 33 would be a good number for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it's a fraction short of the music format that I grew up listening to. Plus, I believe it will allow for every album on the list to be represented on my two-disc year-end compilation. That's a little more complicated than it sounds, though.

This is one of the biggest moments of the year for me. In the past, I sometimes pondered how much of my time is spent thinking about this list throughout the year. At one point, I estimated that, if you pieced it all together, it would take up about an entire month. Since I sleep almost one-third of my time, that would mean that over 10% of my waking hours were devoted to this seemingly pointless exercise.

I'm nowhere near that obsessive anymore. Either that or I have more of a life now. Regardless, I really enjoy the compilation of this list and I get pretty excited about its gradual unveiling.

I don't have the time this year to write as much about each entry as I have in years past, but I'll do my best to keep it interesting. Besides, it's the countdown that really matters, so here goes...

29. Holopaw - Oh, Glory. Oh, Wilderness
This late November release is the only album to appear here that wasn't previously featured in Frequent Spins. The third record from the Florida-based indie country band is quite possibly their best, and might have ranked higher had I allowed myself to spend a little more time with it.

30. Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies
I'll have to do some digging to determine if Justin and his dad are the first father-son combination to make my list. I know both Roseanne and Johnny Cash have, but at different times. Regardless, although Steve Earle has been here several times, and he did release an album this year, unfortunately he still can't boast of making it in the same year as his son.

31. Art Brut - Art Brut vs. Satan
Fast becoming the kings of witty, tongue-in-cheek art punk, Art Brut's third album was produced by former Pixie Frank Black, and is their second consecutive release to make the final cut.

32. Fanfarlo - Reservoir
Last year, The Rural Alberta Advantage were my big eMusic discovery. This year, I became a fan of Fanfarlo thanks to Paste Magazine Sampler 55. Three artists still to be revealed were also on that sampler, although that wasn't how I was turned on to them.

33. Buddy and Julie Miller - Written in Chalk
The first of a trio of duos to make this year's list, the alt-country husband-and-wife team are the only male/female combination among the three.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best Comments of 2009

I hadn't really thought about this until recently, but this was the first year since I started writing this blog that I posted consistently throughout the year. So, the process of sorting through all of its comments for 2009 was a little more difficult than I imagined it would be. Of course, that's a good thing, as it means there were more comments than I realized, even looking past the fact that a considerable number of them were my own.

But, I still managed to compile a list of my five favorite comments of the year. When I first had this idea, I thought it would be about the most humorous comments, but as it turned out, that wasn't my major focus.

5. In what was probably the only time he read this blog, New Paltz, New York writer Terence wrote this in response to my September 7 post about local brew pub the Gilded Otter:

"Nice to see what non-locals think of the Otter. I agree that the food is excellent, but my taste in beer is fairly narrow (a limited selection of wheat beers tickle my tongue, but nothing else elicits excitement) so I've never been sure if they had decent beer or not. Next time you're in town, stop into Bacchus if you just want a selection of a hundred or so old familiars - they don't brew, but they have plenty on tap and in stock."

But, the part of his comment I really liked was this clever description of the difference between "hippy" and "hippie:"

"Incidentally, if you had typed 'hippy' you would have been saying something about the IPA's pelvic width rather than its social philosophy. I'm a writer living in New Paltz, so I need to know the difference between 'hippy' and 'hippie' for reasons of survival!"

Thanks, Terence.

4. In response to my November 5 post, "That Old Familiar Feeling," which of course was about the Yankees' World Series victory, Casey wrote:

"The Yankees make October more interesting. I hate them, and you know that. But last October just wasn't the same without them. I guess it is that I like seeing the Yanks lose on the big stage."

In a certain way, this really put it in perspective for me, and made me realize that it would have been that much better had the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in an epic seven-game ALCS on their way to the World Series, giving me hope that there still is something to root for. Casey then went on to say:

"Congrats to the Yanks."

That kind of sportsmanship is pretty unique in the world of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

3. I love nostalgia, so I thought it was great when Joey Pants made this nostalgic connection to my June 30 post, "The Pride of Dutchess County," in which I wrote about the discovery of a monument to Hall of Famer Dan Brouthers in his hometown:

"Great post. As a Wappingers Falls native this is very interesting to me.

"I grew up playing Little League in Wappingers. Where exactly was Brouthers Field? We played on a field down Channingville Road, less than a mile away from St Mary's.

"Looking at the picture it doesn't look like the field I played on. Shame that it's gone."

2. In a September 22 post, I reminisced about a team I admired from afar, only to realize that one of my regular readers (Dan Day) had an up-close-and-personal experience with the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, affectionately known as Harvey's Wallbangers:

"I'm a little late to be reading this post (and a number of others) but I thank you for it. Our young family was living in Milwaukee then, and I remember the series vividly. Somewhere in a shoebox I have photos of the Goodyear blimp making its way along the shore of Lake Michigan as it flew past our neighborhood on the way toward County Stadium.

"I'm pretty sure that Brewers logo was designed by a fan in a contest. Curiously, back then I thought it was kind of a cheesey (Wisconsin pun not intended) rip-off of the Montreal Expos logo (m-e-b, as in Montreal Expos baseball).

"Now, I am delighted whenever the Brewers wear the old-style pinstripe uniforms with this old cap.

"Thanks for dredging up some good memories."

Thanks again for sharing this memory, Dan.

1. In what was probably my favorite comment of the year, Lee called me out for referring, in my April 11 post about the new NESN guy, to New York Yankees' broadcaster John Sterling as a yahoo:

"Now wait just a goddamn minute...

"John Sterling's a lot of things, but he ain't no yahoo. Pompous? Sure. Effusive? OK. Bloviative? Of course. Blind-as-a-bat? Totally.

"It's dangerous to compare other broadcasters to Sterling, because he's not really a "broadcaster" in any common sense of the word—he’s about as objective as a silly straw. If you're tuning in to Sterling/Waldman for a description of the game, you're a lot better off with MLB Gameday."

Hilarious, although you might have to be familiar with Sterling to really appreciate it. Thanks Lee, and thank you to everyone who has commented on, or simply read, my blog this year.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best of 2009

Before I begin the countdown of my top albums of the year, I thought I'd try something a little new. I'm going to hand out a few awards, by which I mean some "best of" designations in categories related to this blog. That's the important point here. To be eligible, there had to be some discussion of the award winner right here, on this blog, at some point this year.

So, without further adieu...

Best Brewery - Despite visiting some excellent brew pubs in Portland, Oregon in August, I'm going back to February and giving this award to Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, New York's fine purveyor of Belgian-style ales.

Best Beer - Although Ommegang Abbey Ale, Southern Tier Pumking, and several Oregon brews were contenders, Portland brew pub Old Lompoc's LSD (Lompoc Strong Draft) was the best new beer I tasted this year. It's too bad I don't know when the next time will be that I'll get a second chance to enjoy some.

Best Ballpark (Majors) - The new Yankee Stadium was great, but it really was hard to think about it in terms of how I usually feel my first time at a new park. It's pretty overwhelming, and although I arrived two hours early during my first visit, it was still very crowded and, therefore, difficult to take it all in. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington was everything I look for in a new stadium, and it was definitely my favorite of the four major league parks I visited this year.

Best Ballpark (Minors) - Since I called it "...the nicest minor league park I've ever visited," it goes without saying that the Portland Beavers' PGE Park wins this award.

Best Concert - According to this blog, I only count six concerts that I went to this year. It's possible there were a couple that I didn't write about, but that's still a pretty low number. There was a time when six in a month was closer to the average. Anyway, even in a year in which I showed further signs of slowing down, The Flaming Lips put on a show worthy of concert of the year status.

Best Road Trip - KJ and I went on a lot of great road trips this year. Plus, it's hard to imagine there could be a better trip than one that included attending a baseball game every night. But, although I sometimes took liberties with my definition of road trip here, our late May vacation in Georgia and South Carolina, particularly the Savannah part, gets the nod in this category. Just to set the record straight, it wasn't my favorite just because it was legal to drink in the streets, although that certainly didn't hurt. Probably the biggest reason was that, of all the trips we took this year, this one was to a place that was new to both of us.

I've got one more "best of" post in me before getting started on the countdown of the year's best albums. That post is going to be where I honor a few of my readers with a list of the best comments of the year. It should be an enjoyable look back at some moments that have either made me laugh, or simply appreciate what you've had to say.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Ordinary Event on Hamilton Place

Local radio station WFNX dubbed last night's Spoon/Phoenix/Passion Pit show at the Orpheum Theater "Miracle on Tremont Street." I suppose this was intended to be a play on "Miracle on 34th Street," it being Christmas season and all. Well, the Orpheum is actually on Hamilton Place, just off of Tremont Street, and in reality, the show was nothing special.

Passion Pit is pretty much the undisputed hottest local act in Boston right now. The winners of four "in Boston" categories in The Phoenix's Best Music Poll for 2009 (Best Album, Local Act, Male Vocalist and Song) opened last night's show with a highly recognizable set of songs from their award-winning album Manners. Their brand of '80s inspired synth-pop played out almost as good live as it does on record, but the sound left a little to be desired—as it often does with opening bands—and their set was somewhat brief. I do have one piece of advice for Passion Pit front-man Michael Angelakos, though. If we've learned anything from Jon Anderson, it's that male lead vocalists should either play an instrument or else have a knack for on-stage performance. Otherwise, they just come across as a little...let's call it less-than-manly.

Phoenix's performance was the highlight of the evening for me, although when they opened with "Lisztomania," the opening track from their latest album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, I was afraid I was going to have to suffer through an entire set of singalongs with the annoying college girls to my left. A couple songs later, though, I really came to appreciate "Lasso" as one of the show's highlights and possibly the best track on the album. My favorite moment of the whole night turned out to be a surprising one, and somewhat contrary to what I said a couple of sentences ago. I returned from getting KJ a bottled water as the band played their final, and most recognizable, song. Listening to the crowd chant the chorus to "1901" in unison, I suddenly felt overcome with the desire to go out and buy a Cadillac.

Spoon's set was solid, but there was something about it that just seemed less than inspired. Honestly, I came away from the show realizing that this is a band that was meant to play rock clubs. There's a certain pecking order to the Boston concert scene, and once an artist graduates from the Paradise/Middle East downstairs level—venues with capacities in the 550 to 650 range—they’re generally not worth seeing after that, although it sometimes takes a show like last night's to drive that point home. I'm sure I've made that statement, or something similar to it, quite a few times before, so I'll refrain from harping on it.

Overall, I give last night's show a respectable B-minus. It's just that, for such a highly anticipated triple-bill, it fell considerably short of being worthy of comparison to one of the most successful Christmas movies of all-time.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Common Misconceptions, Part 2

Back when I was playing intramural softball in college, there was a situation that involved a rule that, surprisingly, very few people seem to be aware of.

I was on third base with less than two outs, and the batter hit a routine fly ball to left field. It was easily deep enough, so I tagged up and scored on the play. However, the left fielder bobbled the ball, giving the impression that I hadn't tagged up properly, because technically I left the base before he completed the catch.

Our opponents appealed the play, and I was called out, as my teammates offered words of consolation, indicating that it was a tough break that the fielder bobbled the ball. But, I knew better.

I took up my case with the umpire, informing him that the runner is entitled to leave his base as soon as the ball is touched by the fielder. Unbelievably, he pulled out the rule book, looked it up, and changed his ruling. If I recall correctly, we were winning by five or so runs in the final innings of the game, so it didn't turn out to be a pivotal call. But, of course, I felt kind of smug about it.

Obviously, the rules of professional baseball and amateur softball are not identical, but I'm positive the baseball rule is the same. Interestingly enough, I can't locate this technicality in the major league rule book. Here's what I found:

7.08 Any runner is out when—

(d) He fails to retouch his base after a fair or foul ball is legally caught before he, or his base, is tagged by a fielder.

7.10 Any runner shall be called out, on appeal, when—

(a) After a fly ball is caught, he fails to retouch his original base before he or his original base is tagged.

Neither rule makes mention of any exception to the requirement that the runner wait until the ball is caught before leaving the base. This, of course, is another example of the confusion caused by the vagueness of the rule book. Regardless, I know I'm right, and this has been confirmed by a few subsequent experiences. Besides, if a fielder could bobble a ball and fake a runner into leaving a base early, why wouldn't it be a more common occurrence?

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it's happened so seldomly over the course of my 30-something years as a player, spectator and umpire that I'm not sure if the scenario has crossed most people's minds. So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that, each time this has occurred, there have been witnesses who were fooled into thinking that the runner was guilty of leaving early and, therefore, out on appeal. As far as you're concerned, if you didn't know this already, now you won't need to see it to believe it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.8)

Built to Spill - There is No Enemy
Although just the third album released this decade by this indie rock band from Idaho, it just might be their best since 1999's Keep it Like a Secret, my personal BTS favorite. While still remaining true to their tendency towards sprawling, extended jams, there are also moments here that feel like a return to the carefree days of 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love. The subject matter of these songs is hardly carefree, though, particularly on one of the album's stronger tracks, "Things Fall Apart."

Fanfarlo - Reservoir
El-squared and I used to like to play this game where we'd describe a band by naming three bands that they reminded us of. Honestly, this was harder than you might think. It's pretty easy to say that "x" band reminds me of a cross between "y" band and "z" band, but coming up with the third reference point can often be difficult. Not for this English indie pop band, who bring to my mind a hybrid of Matt Pond PA, The Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Music from Kerouac's Big Sur
This surprising combination of the indie wuss whose career is on the rise (Gibbard) and the rustic voice of the working class who's on the other side of his career apex (Farrar), turns out to be a good one. The album, of course, is a celebration of the prose of Jack Kerouac, the soundtrack to the documentary of the same name. Listening to the writings of Kerouac put to music by Farrar and Gibbard, it's not difficult to imagine Jack's influence on Jay's own lyrics. Case in point are the lines, "We used to dream together, but now I drink alone. From the bottle to the tumbler is the only journey left I know," on the excellent title track. I'm a bigger fan of Farrar, but it's Gibbard's star that shines brighter here.

Sufjan Stevens - The BQE
Sufjan Stevens' ode to the highway that traverses the two suburbs of New York City that are actually on Long Island is one of those albums that I listened to a couple of times and dismissed. Not because I thought it was bad, but because I just didn't have the patience. I was rewarded, however, when I picked it back up to give it another chance. This is an unusual project for an indie musician, in that Sufjan doesn't actually play on the album. Instead, he writes and the Brooklyn Academy of Music performs. Yes, this is a classical album, but with a little bit of electronica and a healthy dose of the woodwind sound that helped make 2005's Illinoise the second best record of that year. This is no Illinoise, but it's an enjoyable outing nonetheless.

This is the final Frequent Spins for 2009. The next time you hear from me about the year in music, it will be to begin the countdown of my top albums of the year. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What's a Yankees Fan to Do? The Sequel

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post suggesting some ideas for how Yankees fans could fill the void created by a lack of October baseball. A few of my suggestions turned out to be good ones, although I got called out by a fellow Yankees loyalist for hinting that a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series would be a matchup worth pulling for.

This year, fans of the Bronx Bombers didn't have such problems. The Yanks won the World Series and all was right in their world, except for the fact that pretty much everyone has been insinuating—check that, complaining—that they purchased themselves a championship. Of course, no one was suggesting that they bought a third-place team last year, but that's not really my point.

Most of the Yankees fans I know are native New Yorkers, so they're fans of the team because they learned to be at an early age. But, as we've grown older, we've certainly had plenty of opportunities to switch loyalties. After all, most people would consider it more exciting to root for an underdog, a team whose success would create even more of a sense of euphoria.

So, if we're going to continue rooting for "The Evil Empire," we need to embrace all of the reasons why it's great to be a fan of the most hated team in baseball, maybe in the entire sporting world:
  1. The first reason, of course, is that we are the Evil Empire. Seriously, folks, do you really enjoy pulling for the good guys? How much fun is that? If you were going to become a fan of professional wrestling, who would you cheer for? The bad guys, of course. Why? Because all the other idiots are rooting for the good guys, as they try to hang on to that out-dated belief that good always triumphs. It doesn't.

  2. Spinning off #1, isn't it great to listen to everyone else whine that the Yankees are back on top? Could there possibly be any better evidence that, once again, all is right in the baseball world?

  3. Let's not forget to mention that "The Curse of A-Rod" didn't last quite as long as "The Curse of the Bambino."

  4. Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that our team spoiled the Red Sox claim to be the team of the decade. Despite eight AL East titles and four American League championships, it would be hard to argue against the Red Sox two World Series victories. But, two World Series, four AL pennants and eight AL East titles versus two World Series, two pennants and one division title? Maybe next decade, Sox fans.
Now, fellow Yankees fans, feel free to add your own reasons to this list. But, most importantly, I want you to go out and continue to enjoy an offseason—and subsequent 2010 campaign—during which your team is the defending champion. Just don't let me catch you wearing one of those silly "Got Rings?" t-shirts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Oktoberfest: The Finale

It might have been more fitting to title this post "Oktoberfest: The Letdown," because the end result of my quest is the realization that I simply don't like this style. I was disappointed with the offerings from otherwise solid breweries, such as Berkshire Brewing Company, Opa Opa and Geary's, although the latter was actually an Autumn Ale rather than an Oktoberfest. Another disappointment was that I was unsuccessful at tracking down Victory Festbier, the recommendation of one of my faithful readers. In fact, last weekend I went on their web site to try and locate stores in my area that carry their products.

Practically right down the street from me is Ball Square Fine Wines and Liquors, who had what seemed like every brand that I've ever heard of that Victory brews—including HopDevil, Prima Pils, Golden Monkey, Storm King Stout, Hop Wallop and Victory Lager—but no Festbier. In hindsight, I guess mid-November is probably too late for most fall styles, unless they're not big sellers and have been sitting on the shelves all season.

So, despite not getting to taste one of the fall beers that I most highly anticipated, I'm going to summarize. I honestly didn't find a single Oktoberfest that really made a positive impression on me. Even those that I thought were pretty good at first ended up wearing out their welcome before I'd even finished one, generally due to their overbearing sweetness. For that reason, I've come to a conclusion that's the beer-tasting equivalent of "it's not you, it's me." That is, I'm just not the right person to evaluate this style, because it's just not my thing.

That said, there were a few non-Oktoberfest fall brews that I really liked, so I'm going to rate my three favorites here. Unfortunately, you may have to wait until next September to get your hands on these.

Southern Tier Harvest Ale - Southern Tier Brewing Company is located in the village of Lakewood, in the southern part of western New York commonly referred to as the Southern Tier. I've seen their beers on draft around town occasionally, and even tasted their IPA before, but this fall they've become one of my new favorite breweries. This dry-hopped ale has a wonderfully hoppy aroma—unusual, of course, for a fall style—is nicely balanced and goes down smoothly. Grade: B+

Southern Tier Pumking - This one practically knocked me over with its powerful aroma, which is pumpkiny, of course, but also reminds me of gingerbread. At 9% ABV, you would think a brew of this variety would be overly sweet, but it's not. It's only a little hoppy, but that's just enough to offset its pumpkin-spiced sweetness. This is absolutely the best pumpkin ale I've ever tasted. Grade: A

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale - Not nearly as pumpkiny as Southern Tier, Dogfish's attempt at this style is a mildly spiced—with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as pumpkin—and mildly hoppy brown ale. In my experience, everything that Dogfish brews is excellent, and Punkin Ale is no exception. Grade: A-

Finally, here is the list of all the fall brews I tried this season (Oktoberfests unless otherwise indicated): Hacker Pschorr, Paulaner, Harpoon, Samuel Adams, Blue Hills Okto-brau, Southern Tier Harvest Ale, Gritty's Halloween Ale, BBC, Southern Tier Pumking, Shipyard Pumpkin, Geary's Autumn Ale, Leef Peeper Lager, Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Opa Opa.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Music in the Key of Life

I recently came across a mix tape I made in 1999, which was aptly named "Welcome to Sorryville." The title was borrowed from the opening lines of Chris Knight's "It Ain't Easy Being Me," which went something like this:

"There oughta be a town somewhere named for how I feel. Yeah, I could be the mayor down there and say 'Welcome to Sorryville.' It wouldn't be on a map nowhere, you might say that it don't exist. But, if you make enough wrong turns, it'd be hard to miss."

In addition to the title track, that mix included songs such as "Everything is Wrong" (Gigolo Aunts), "My Old Friend the Blues" (Steve Earle), "Desperate Ain't Lonely" (Whiskeytown), "There is No Hell Like the Hell on This Earth" (Scud Mountain Boys), "Dying on the Vine" (The Jayhawks), and "Over the Cliff" (Old 97's). You get the theme, right?

Back in those days, when I was still relatively new to the Boston area, el-squared and I were frequenters of the Cambridge music scene. We virtually had the exact same taste, and often talked about the mood of the type of music we listened to. Depressing is the obvious word that comes to mind, particularly back then, when alt-country was our main thing and much of what was on our respective playlists tackled the subject of heartbreak.

After he met, and became happily involved with, the woman who is now his wife of ten years, he seemed to be of the opinion that he could no longer really relate to that sort of music. I didn't necessarily agree that people's life circumstances preclude them from empathizing with sentiments they've felt before. But, I do agree that one's current perspective can have a major impact on the way he or she feels about music. Personally, I know a lot has to do with whether or not I'm "feeling it." In fact, this concept applies more to shows, especially now that I'm a little long in the tooth. If I'm not in the mood, it just isn't happening for me.

But, now that I'm nearing the completion of the rare calendar year during which I've actually been in a relationship for the entire annum, I'm wondering if my year-end review of the albums I've really enjoyed this year will confirm my friend's theory or not. I've already said that 2009 didn't really measure up in comparison to prior years. Could it possibly be because I'm still in the process of making a transition, and that I wasn't really seeking out the right music that properly fit my mood this year?

I'm not sure that I really need to defend myself here, but the aforementioned mix did include a few songs that had a somewhat hopeful tone. Idaho's "Alive Again" and The Byrds' "I Trust" are a couple examples of that, although both of those songs do kind of imply getting beyond more difficult times. Anyway, not really being conscious of this angle during the year means I'm going to have to work my way through my 2009 catalog before passing judgment on whether or not my musical mood has been getting brighter.

Maybe some of you can let me know what you think after comparing this year's compilation to those from the past. I have a feeling there won't be a noticeable difference, but I'll let you decide for yourself if you're so inclined.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Four Yorkshiremen

My comments have been getting spammed a bit lately. The last time this happened, I posted the Monty Python spam sketch. So, since spam now reminds me of Monty Python, I thought I'd share another classic video. Enjoy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Common Misconceptions, Part 1

A couple of the umpiring controversies from this postseason, as well as last year's, got me to thinking about a post I originally planned to do over a year ago. Unless you're new here, you probably know that I attended Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School in 1994. My "dream" to become a professional baseball umpire died pretty quickly after that, but this and my 10+ years of umpiring experience give me a slightly different perspective than your average fan and/or amateur player.

So, the idea is to write about common baseball rules misconceptions. That is, interpretations of rules that, over the years, have come to be considered common knowledge, despite the fact that they may or may not be correct.

The first of these is possibly the most earth-shattering. Maybe you've heard the phrase "tie goes to the runner" a time or two before. Well, it's not true. First of all, the word "tie" isn't even mentioned in the rule book, except in reference to the score of a game. But, you probably knew that, and you probably could guess that no experienced umpire would ever use that as the reason to rule a runner safe, anyway. What you probably don't know is that, according to the rule book, whether or not a tie goes to the runner or the fielder actually depends on the circumstance.

I'll start with the situation that confirms our long-standing belief. Rule 6.05(j) states, "A batter is out when...after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base." The requirement that he or first base must be tagged before he reaches means that if the two events occur at the same time, the requirement is not satisfied. Therefore, he's not out. So, in this example, he's safe in the case of a tie.

However, rule 7.08(e) states, "Any runner is out when...he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner." The requirement here is that he reaches the base before he or the base is tagged. Therefore, if the two events happen at the same time, the runner has failed to reach base before the tag, and he is out. So, in the case of a force play on a runner other than the batter-runner, according to the rules, the tie goes to the defensive team.

Now that I've covered the force plays, and thoroughly confused the issue, I still need to address tag plays. Well, rule 7.08(c) declares that, "Any runner is out when...he is tagged, when the ball is alive, while off his base." So, if he reaches the base at the same time as he is tagged, then he is not off base. Therefore, he is safe. In this case, once again, tie goes to the runner.

In two of the three relevant circumstances, tie does, in fact, go to the runner. However, this hardly reinforces our accepted understanding. So, does "tie goes to the runner" hold true, or does it really depend on the circumstances? Further muddying the issue is's Ask the Umpire page. When asked about this particular rule, the umpire responds, "There are no ties and there is no rule that says the tie goes to the runner. But the rule book does say that the runner must beat the ball to first base, and so if he doesn't beat the ball, then he is out." This umpire is clearly wrong, unless the wording of the rule has been changed since this Q&A was written. The umpire in question, incidentally, is none other than Tim McClelland.

I do recall, though, being taught that the exception to the "tie goes to the runner" concept—so worded because I would be incorrect to call it a rule—is the play on the batter-runner at first base. That backs up what McClelland says, so maybe I shouldn't be too quick to rush to judgment by saying he's flat-out wrong. But, the phrasing of the rule book does not reinforce my memory.

So, where does this leave us, and what wisdom do I think I'm imparting on my readers? That is, if any of them are still reading at this point. I guess it's that "tie goes to the runner" is a myth, and if anyone uses that phrase in your presence, you're now fully prepared to call them out on it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thrill vs. Agony, Part 2

I didn't intend to write a part two to this post—actually it's probably better described as an addendum—but a reference to it over on a site that I read regularly and contribute to irregularly, Pickin' Splinters, reminded me of another angle. That is, the idea that the success of one of your teams can go a long way towards softening the blow from the failure of another. A prime example of this is summed up by my current facebook status:

"I feel like a kid again...the Yankees are champions and the Giants suck."

Of course, this is not to mention the fact that the Rose Bowl hopes of my alma mater, Penn State, were crushed—as was the team—by Ohio State this past weekend, 24-7. Between that and the Giants' dismal loss to San Diego, which drops them to 5-4 after a 5-0 start, it was a pretty rough weekend for my football teams. But, it still doesn't feel all that bad.

Check back with me in a couple weeks on this one, though. I'll have a better idea by then how long this "honeymoon" will last.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Thrill of Victory vs. The Agony of Defeat

Is it just me, or does every serious sports fan agonize over their teams' losses far more than they celebrate their wins? Only a few days after my team once again became champions of the baseball world, it already seems like old news. On the other hand, I'm still sometimes haunted by the memories of the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series (not to mention the 2004 ALCS). In fact, I still have that game on VHS, and for years I've been curious to go back and see if Scott Brosius really could have turned a double play on Jay Bell's failed sacrifice attempt, but I probably never will. Still, I never taped over it because it was the final game of one of the most exciting World Series in baseball history.

I sometimes wonder if Red Sox fans realized this after the 2004 World Series. A few hours of partying it up, a day of suffering through a terrible hangover, and one parade through the city later, and I'm pretty sure they discovered that their joy paled in comparison to the pain they felt from the previous season's ALCS loss and all the heartbreaks that came before. If anyone feels otherwise, I'd love to hear what you have to say.

The pain of losing, of course, is only half the story. There's also the level of stress that we experience during and between games. As an example, just hours after the Yankees' impressive 9th inning versus Brad Lidge gave them a commanding 3-1 lead in this year's series, I woke up worrying that their plan of pitching Burnett, Pettitte and Sabathia on three days rest for Games 5 through 7 was going to backfire.

So, why is this? Why are we as fans better able to live vicariously through our teams' losses than their wins? Or, is it just me who feels this way? Lastly, if you do feel the same as I do, is it all worth it? I still say it is, although I'm not really sure I could explain why.

That said, I'll close this post with a list of my all-time top five favorite sports championships:
  1. Super Bowl XLII (2008): New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
  2. 1996 World Series: New York Yankees 4, Atlanta Braves 2
  3. 1987 Fiesta Bowl: Penn State 14, Miami 10
  4. Super Bowl XXV (1991): New York Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19
  5. 1980 Winter Olympics: USA Hockey Gold Medal

Thursday, November 05, 2009

That Old Familiar Feeling

If you're at least a semi-regular reader of this blog, you probably know that I'm a New York Yankees fan, but that I write more about baseball in general than I do about the Yankees. So, I'm not going to turn into a cheerleader now and talk about how psyched I am that they finished their run to the World Series yesterday, ending a "drought" of eight seasons without winning one. But, the title of this post seems appropriate, this being their 27th championship overall and seventh during my lifetime.

I will say, though, that it didn't really feel all that special, other than the fact that KJ put aside her Red Sox loyalties and watched several of the games with me. It did feel a little more exciting than 1999, when the Yankees completed their second consecutive sweep of the World Series and it seemed they would never lose again. Of course, we know that they did—lose again, that is—and that they are far from achieving the status of dynasty again. But, they were expected to win, and when you're expected to win, it's just not as fun as when you're not. As far as I'm concerned, there probably will never be another 1996.

Then, there's the backlash I'm hearing and reading about, mostly from bitter fans of other teams who just can't seem to put the return of the World Series championship trophy to Yankee Stadium in perspective. I have no problem with Yankee haters. I've said before that I almost always root for the underdog, unless of course, the favorite is my team. So, I expect the rest of the country to root for the Yankees to lose. But, there are a lot of people out there who seem to be mad at the Yankees, as if they consider it their responsibility to make sure the playing field is level. I've got news for you, folks. If the Yankees limitless budget is ruining baseball—which it's not—then it's Major League Baseball's responsibility to do something about it.

Besides, if the past eight years have proven anything, it's that you can't buy a championship. You can buy a contender, and I won't try to dispute that's what the Yankees have been doing, but throwing money at players doesn't guarantee anything beyond that. I've also said this before, but I'm all for a salary cap in baseball. There are a lot of constraints making it difficult to imagine that it will ever happen, though. I'm not going to get into a discussion of the economics of baseball, but there will still be the "haves" and the "have-nots." There's no getting around that fact, and it shouldn't be news to Red Sox and Phillies fans that they're in the haves category, whether they want to cling to their idealized self-images as underdogs or not.

I'm not sure if I have a real point to make here. These are just my thoughts following the completion of a really interesting 2009 baseball season. It's hard to believe this was the outcome of the same season that I was writing things like this about superstitions. Let's also not forget that it was only April of 2008 that I was warning Red Sox loyalists against messing with a good thing. Maybe I was right about that.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Down West

This is the unofficial third part of the brief "Unemployed in Vacationland" series of posts. If you haven't already, please go back and check out Part 1 and Part 2.

I had originally intended to write "Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 3," but since a few weeks have passed since part two, and since I'm no longer unemployed, I didn't think it would be an appropriate title. So, instead I'm going to do a post on a few beers from western Maine I had while there and those I brought home with me.

The first of these is Old Thumper Extra Special Ale. Created by British Brewer, Peter Austin, founder of Ringwood Brewery and mentor to Shipyard Brewing Company's master brewer Alan Pugsley, Old Thumper is a non-traditional English bitter. It has a nice, rich malty aroma. In fact, an under-the-weather KJ commented on this while she sat next to me on the couch playing Bejeweled on my iPod. It has a buttery, creamy mouthfeel and a mildly bitter finish. Grade: B

I'm not a big fan of Shipyard, so the fact that I give a rating that high to a brew even indirectly associated with them comes as a bit of a surprise. When I first came to Boston in 1997, el-squared turned me on to the locally brewed Tremont Ale. It was our beer of choice for quite a few years, and could usually be found on draft at most of our local hangouts. Then, in 2001, Tremont shut down their Charlestown brewery and contracted with Utica, New York's F.X. Matt Brewing Company, but eventually sold the brand name to Shipyard. It hasn't been the same since.

Shipyard's Export Ale and Chamberlain Pale Ale did a fine job of reinforcing my opinion about the brewery. Export Ale is their signature brand, which is hard to believe, as it has almost no redeeming qualities. On their web site, they describe it as a Canadian golden ale, and this is probably enough of an explanation. Why any microbrewery would want to emulate this style is beyond me. If I set out on a quest to discover the best Canadian beer, this would be a much more fruitless endeavor than seeking out really good Oktoberfests. [More on that one at a later date.] I've definitely had Export Ale before, and I don't know exactly how to describe it, but it always seems to have this not fresh taste to it. It finishes smooth—not that that's a raving endorsement—but, to be brutally honest, I'm really not sure if I would choose it over a Molson. Grade: D

Chamberlain Pale Ale is certainly better than Export Ale, but it's nothing to write home about either. So, I hope my dad is not reading this, otherwise that's exactly what I'd be doing. It's really just a mediocre pale ale, mildy hoppy but a little bland tasting. Grade: C

The India Pale Ale style is so named because the British discovered that hops are a natural preservative, so they added more to their standard pale ales so that they would survive long journeys to India, back in their imperialist days. In order to offset the increased bitterness this created, they also brewed them maltier and, therefore, stronger in alcoholic content. So, basically an IPA is a pale ale with extra hops and malt. An Imperial IPA is to an IPA what an IPA is to a pale ale. Geary's Imperial IPA is a good representative of the style. There's not much more to say about it, except that it's exactly what you'd expect. That is, very strong and very bitter, and very difficult to drink more than one or two of. Grade: B

There was also one beer from eastern Maine that I had with my lunch at a little place in Seal Harbor, on the southern end of Mount Desert Island. I never wrote about it, because I'd never heard of it, and was unsuccessful finding any information on the internet. So, for all I knew, the waitress had misidentified it as Black Bear Pale Ale, because all I could find was a British Columbia-brewed beer. Then, I persisted and discovered that Black Bear Brewery in Orono, Maine calls this offering Black Bear Pail Ale. It really is a nice hoppy ale with light citrus notes, so I didn't want to forget about it, but I would have to consider the alternate spelling to be a marketing no-no for an unknown microbrewery. Grade: B

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hops/Malt Balance

The title of this post is a term I use often when I'm describing and/or rating beer. Usually I shorten it by just referring to a beer's "balance." I know Joey Pants understands what I'm talking about, but maybe I take for granted that everyone else does. So, I thought I'd explain the term by sharing a conversation I had with a co-worker yesterday afternoon.

Somehow a question about what my plans are for Halloween evolved into an explanation of the meaning of hops/malt balance. In addition to telling said co-worker about KJ's Halloween party and my costume ideas, I also mentioned that I might pick up some Pumpkin-spiced beer for the gathering. I talked about how rare it is, in my opinion, that this particular style of beer is any good, but that I really want to try Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale.

My tangential nature turned this into a discussion of Dogfish's most well-known offerings: 60 Minute, 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPA. My co-worker asked me about the meaning of the names of these brews. I explained that they represent the amount of time that the hops are in the boil during the brewing process, and that the longer the time, the more bitter the beer. To offset the bitterness, higher quantities of malt are added.

Hops are bitter, malt is sweet. Increasing malt content to sweeten a highly bitter beer is the key to good hops/malt balance. Obviously, the concept also works in reverse. It just so happens that high malt content translates to high alcohol content. Although people tend to associate bitterness with strong beer, bitter brews are not necessarily strong, at least not directly as a result of what makes them bitter. But, if they're well-balanced, they are.

Pretty simple concept, really.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sorry Mets Fans

This year's World Series matchup, the realization of every Mets fan's worst nightmare, gave me an idea for an interesting list. Since the teams involved include one of their biggest division rivals, and their hated crosstown rivals, fans of New York's junior team are left with nothing to root for except injuries.

So, the list, of course, is of World Series showdowns involving two teams so despised by the fans of a third team. I decided to only go back as far as the beginning of the division play era (1969), as we all know there would be a very familiar theme if I went back further. Here's what I came up with, in reverse chronological order:

2004 (Boston Red Sox vs. St. Louis Cardinals): OK, so they don't hate the Red Sox, but Cubs fans had nothing to gain when these two teams faced off. They were either going to lose their partners in misery, or see their least favorite team win it all. I have to say that I'm happy for Chicago's north-siders that there's never been a Cardinals-White Sox World Series.

2002 (Anaheim Angels vs. San Francisco Giants): The Giants-Dodgers rivalry was so strong that it traveled 3,000 miles with them as both teams moved across the country in the late '50s. So, it certainly couldn't have made Dodgers fans happy when the Giants matched up with the team they battle with for Southern California supremacy.

1999 & 1996 (Atlanta Braves vs. New York Yankees): Lately, it seems that the Phillies are the team most hated by the Mets, but it used to be the Braves. So, these two teams squaring off in the '90s had to be at least as bad, if not worse, for Mets fans as this year's Phillies-Yankees series.

1988 & 1974 (Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Oakland Athletics): Giants fans probably didn't watch a second of either World Series in which their Bay area rivals opposed the hated Dodgers.

1986 (Boston Red Sox vs. New York Mets): This was to Yankees fans what White Sox-Cardinals would be to Cubs fans. I know from personal experience that the former group wasn't too enthusiastic about this one.

1981, 1978 & 1977 (Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Yankees): Back in the days when there were three teams in New York, it seems that just about every year it was either Dodgers fans or Giants fans who were miserable. Thankfully for the Yankees, a Dodgers-Giants World Series matchup was an impossibility.

If I'm missing any, feel free to let me know via comments. Unconventional criteria are encouraged.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Year in Music

It's getting close to the time of year that I start to re-evaluate the albums I really liked and try to rank them relative to each other. That is, I begin piecing together my "Best Music of 2009" list. I've alluded to this before, but I feel that this year has been the weakest year for new releases in recent memory. It's not that there weren't a lot of good albums this year. In fact, I should have little problem coming up with a top 40, despite listening to considerably fewer 2009 releases than I did 2008 releases. But, it's just that, there's really not a strong contender for album of the year. Or, in other words, unless my album of the year is one I haven't heard yet, this year's #1 record is going to be a little less-than-worthy of the honor.

Taking a look at the Metacritic Upcoming Release Calendar, my primary source for hopeful anticipation of what I have to look forward to, it doesn't seem likely that my personal chart-topper is yet to be released. Of course, there's really only a few more weeks left until that time of year when very few record companies would dare release anything they weren't willing to risk relegating to instant obscurity.

Other than the realistic possibility that 2009 was, in fact a weak year for new music, I'm not sure what explanation there is for the lack of one album that I really feel strongly about. As I said, I listened to fewer new releases this year than last. That could be at least part of the reason, but it also means that I was more selective with what I listened to, ignoring most of one particular friend's recommendations that, with rare exception, I end up filing under the category of "not my thing."

Or, maybe it's that my taste has become too fickle, and that I need to start branching out a little more by paying closer attention to said friend's suggestions. I definitely grow tired of music a lot quicker than I used to, so it's certainly possible that what I'm listening to is too derivative of what I've enjoyed that's come before. Regardless, if you've been able to trust my opinions in the past, I'm confident that you can continue to do so.

It's almost that time of year again. That is, the time of year that I get to begin working on my favorite list of all.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Breweries Per Capita

As I was planning our recent trip to Bar Harbor, I got to thinking about what areas have the greatest number of breweries per capita. Of course, I assumed that, among major U.S. cities, Portland, Oregon would rank #1. But, what about New England? With Boston, as the largest city in the region, being pretty poorly represented, my focus was on smaller areas. So, I started trying to determine what county in New England has the highest rate of breweries per capita, believing that Hancock County, Maine—with three breweries and a population of just over 50,000—would top the list.

Hancock, of course, is the county that Bar Harbor is in. The process of trying to figure this out proved to be fairly tedious, and I have yet to finish it, but I'm pretty certain I'm correct about Hancock County. I'll get back to that little project eventually.

KJ and I were in Vermont this past weekend, checking out a potential venue for a pretty big party we're throwing next year. While there, we stopped in at a little place called Pleasant Valley Brewing in Saxtons River. We were a little unclear as to the reason—something license-related—but they're not yet serving their own beer. Still, we really liked the place.

Quite often, brew pubs are too posh, with more of a focus on atmosphere and dining experience than quality beer. Pleasant Valley was a no-nonsense blue collar place with a really friendly vibe. While conversing with the owner, he told us that Vermont has the most breweries per capita in the country. KJ was quick to defend her home state, but he stood his ground, claiming that while Portland has the most breweries, Vermont tops the list of states.

A little post-trip research confirmed that he was right. According to statistics released by the Brewers Association in 2008, Vermont—with 19 breweries and a population of just over 620,000—has one brewery per 32,698 people. Oregon has a population over six times that of Vermont, but their 93 breweries translates to one per 40,753 people, the third highest rate in the nation. Here are the top five:
  1. Vermont
  2. Montana
  3. Oregon
  4. Maine
  5. Colorado
When we weren't discussing brewery statistics, we were tasting some of the local flavor. First up was Switchback Ale, described by Pleasant Valley's owner as the hottest beer in Vermont. It wasn't difficult to understand why. It's simply a very solid ale, hazy and pale to copper colored, slightly hoppy but excellently balanced. It wasn't advertised as overly strong, but both KJ and I felt a little buzzed after only one pint.

Later in the evening, while dining at the Old Tavern in Grafton, I enjoyed a McNeill's Dead Horse IPA, another excellent choice. True to the style, it's nicely hopped, but well balanced, although a tad higher on the hops side of the equation. To close out the night, we shared a 22 oz. bottle of McNeill's Firehouse Amber Ale, while watching game two of the ALCS at the Old Tavern's cozy Phelps Barn.

The Firehouse Amber is bottle-conditioned, which places it in the real ale category with Gritty McDuff's cask-conditioned Best Bitter. However, while low in carbonation, it didn't taste flat like Gritty's cask offering did. It was only slightly hoppy, but with some really tasty, caramel malt character.

This trip left me wondering what I was thinking when I called Maine the state that puts all others in New England to shame. Clearly, Vermont has something to say about that. Based on my recent experiences, I'm feeling partial to the Green Mountain State.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Since it's the playoffs, and there was a controversial call this past weekend that wasn't strictly about the umpire's judgment, I thought I should chime in on the issue. Saturday night's ALCS game two call by umpire Jerry Layne on Erick Aybar's double-play-that-wasn't had the potential to result in serious controversy. Well, since the call went in favor of the hated Yankees, there probably will still be a lot of conspiracy theory discussion, but fortunately, it turned out to have no noticeable effect on the outcome of the game.

Layne was roundly criticized by FOX commentators Joe Buck and Tim McCarver for not allowing the "neighborhood play" on a potential 10th inning double play. The problem with the so-called neighborhood play is that, since there's no specific definition, the amount of leeway each umpire is willing to give would have to vary. To illustrate this by exaggeration, if Aybar had caught the flip from second baseman Maicer Izturis two feet from the bag, and clearly did not touch the base as he followed through to make the throw, I don't think any umpire would have given him the call. However, is it possible that one umpire would give a few more inches margin for error than another? Of course it is.

If we asked them, no major league umpire would admit that such a neighborhood play exists, but it may very well be that Layne gives the call as long as he doesn't see daylight between the foot and the bag. Of course, we'll never know. But, what we do know is that "in the neighborhood of the base" is not as easily defined as "touching the base."

Due to these potentially significant inconsistencies, I contend that the neighborhood play is a myth. The origin of the term is likely unknown, but its use certainly has been perpetuated by the sports media. Having been to professional baseball umpire school myself, I honestly don't recall how we were instructed to handle these calls. What I do know is that a major philosophy of umpiring is self-preservation.

Self-preservation, in this context, means not going out on a limb when it's unnecessary. Could Layne have gotten away with calling the runner out in this particular circumstance? Probably. So, did he go further out on the limb than he had to? Most likely. Did he properly define the unwritten rule that is commonly referred to as the neighborhood play? There's really no answer to that question.

The call that went against the Angels in last year's ALDS probably wasn't as controversial as I contended it should have been. Ironically, this call was much more controversial than it had the right to be, particularly considering it technically was the correct call. Fortunately, though, the call didn't result in a second consecutive year that this Angels team was potentially robbed by a strangely controversial call.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.7)

Anders Parker - Skyscraper Crow
Upon first listen, I thought this album would probably make my year-end list, but not necessarily near the top. But, then I listened to the electronic half of this two-disc set on my iPod, and it won me over. Skyscraper, as the first disc is called, is "the computer record," according to Anders, and so far it's my favorite of the two. The second disc, Crow, is a nice little acoustic affair, but with fewer really catchy songs than the first. Apparently, there are two more completed records waiting to be released, as Anders has been doing his best Ryan Adams impersonation of late.

Discovery - LP
I certainly don't profess to know all that much about this genre—let's call it electro-pop—but this collaboration between Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles is delightfully cheesy throughout, including an enjoyable cover version of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs - Under the Covers Vol. 2
Cover songs present an interesting dilemma. Should they remain true to the original, or does an artist need to add a personal touch to a song to make it worthwhile? While taking the former route can produce some pretty boring results, a lot of listeners want their covers to at least remind them of the version they're most familiar with. Personally, I look for a happy medium. I don't want to hear a completely recycled, straight-up cover, but I generally don't take to those that stray so far from the original that they're unrecognizable. While this album is far from earth-shattering, Sid and Susie—as they’re calling themselves—do a nice job on their second covers album, which handles the territory of the 1970s. The songs that really stand out here are those on which they're so different from the original artists that their fairly straightforward versions still sound fresh. One particular highlight for me is Sweet’s clear enunciation of the lyrics, “Yeah man, when I got that little girl standing right by my side, you know, I can tell the whole wide world to shove it!” on “Here Comes My Girl.”

Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk
I really like supergroups, especially when they get it right, and singer-songwriter M. Ward, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst and his frequent sidekick Mike Mogis do just that. Back in the mid-90s, I recall Golden Smog being referred to as the alternative Traveling Wilburys, but I'd have to say that these guys better fit that description. Of course, I mean that in the best possible way.

Those Darlins - Those Darlins
This country/punk/rock/pop girl group consists of Kelley, Jessi and Nikki Darlin. They're not sisters, so if you want to fantasize that they're in some kind of triad relationship, I can't say that I blame you. The only problem with that theory is, they live in Tennessee. More importantly, though, they write infectious songs with charming lyrics, such as "You're too, too, too much fun, and when you're gone, clouds cover the sun," on "222," and "I may be a little darling gal of yours, that's when i'm straight and sober, and both feet are on the floor," on their ode to recalcitrance, "Wild One."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sara & Kate's NuptuAle

In late August, KJ and I teamed up to brew a batch of beer as a wedding gift for a couple friends. Other than our attempt at brewing root beer a few months ago, this was the first time we brewed together. Of course, I couldn't write about it until after the wedding, as we wanted it to be a surprise.

Since theirs was an October wedding, we decided to go the Oktoberfest route. As I wrote recently, I've always been a bigger fan of the American microbrewed style over the more authentic German varieties, but I honestly have yet to figure out what the difference is in terms of ingredients. I do know that the good American Oktoberfests are a little more malty and full-bodied, so that's what we were shooting for.

Regardless of my personal preference, it is a German style, so we developed a recipe that remained true to the origins of the style, while trying to add a little something to make it a little heartier.

For specialty grains, we used Munich and Vienna malts, while adding a little chocolate malt—an ingredient not foreign to some Oktoberfests—in an effort to make it a little more flavorful and full-bodied. We went with the German varieties of Hallertau hops for bittering, and Tettnang for aroma, while adding the Oregon-indigenous Mt. Hood hops—as a little KJ personal touch—for flavoring. Oktoberfests are usually brewed with lager yeast, but many home brewers utilize ale yeast with this style, since they can be fermented at room temperature. We went this route, opting for German Ale/Kölsch yeast. Here's the full recipe:

1.5 lbs. Munich malt (steeped for 20 mins.)
1.5 lbs. Vienna malt (steeped 20 mins.)
0.25 lbs. chocolate malt (steeped 20 mins.)
6.6 lbs. light malt extract (boiled for 60 mins.)
1.5 oz. Hallertau hops - 3.8% alpha (boiled 60 mins.)
1 oz. Mt. Hood hops - 5.2% alpha (boiled 30 mins.)
1 oz. Tettnang hops - 4.7% alpha (boiled 15 mins.)
0.5 tsp. Irish moss (boiled 15 mins.)
1.5 oz. German Ale/Kölsch yeast

Sara & Kate's NuptuAleWe also took liberties with the name, going with a derivation of a common mispelling of nuptial. We wanted it to be pronounced nup-shu-ale, as we thought trying to say nuptiale (nup-shale?) would be awkward and even a little confusing.

So, at yesterday's wedding, we delivered 36 12-oz. bottles and one 64-oz. growler of Sara & Kate's NuptuAle. KJ and I were quite pleased with our gift, and we have every reason to believe that it was, and will continue to be, quite the hit.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 2

Bar Harbor is a little port town on the eastern shore of Mount Desert Island, the second largest island on the eastern seaboard, with New York's Long Island being the first. Acadia National Park comprises 47 of Mount Desert Island's 108 square miles, although it seems to me that it takes up more like two-thirds of the island's acreage. I first visited the area in the mid-90s, and fell in love with the combination of Bar Harbor's quaintness and Acadia's spectacular mix of rocky shorelines and mountainous terrain.

Rocky shoreline of Mount Desert Island
Our Maine weekend's primary destination is the easternmost point in the United States that both KJ and I have ventured. In fact, I realized recently that it's the furthest east that I've ever been. Yes, it's true. I've never been to Europe, but I have a feeling that my relatively new traveling companion will play a major role in rectifying that situation.

Our first evening on the island, we stopped by Bar Harbor Brewing Company's in-town location for a free tasting. The small brewery was recently purchased by the Bar Harbor and Portland-based Atlantic Brewing Company, so the actual brewing now takes place at Atlantic's Town Hill location, on the outskirts of Bar Harbor.

We sampled four of their products: Harbor Lighthouse Ale, True Blue Wheat Ale, Thunder Hole Ale, and Cadillac Mountain Stout. Of course, free tastings are an excellent marketing concept, as I felt compelled to take home a mixed six-pack, which included two bottles each of my two favorites. This also gave me the idea, when I travel to an area known for beer, to take home some of the local flavors that I can't purchase elsewhere.

In total, I brought home two mixed six-packs of beers from Maine brewers. What follows are my impressions of those from the eastern portion of the state.

Thunder Hole Ale - Brown ales are an enigma. Those that fall into this category run the gamut from some of the most bland beers in existence—see Newcastle and those that try to emulate it—to others that are very complex and flavorful. Thunder Hole Ale definitely fits the latter description. It has a slightly nutty aroma, is malty and full-bodied, with just enough hop bitterness to keep it from being too sweet. Grade: B+

Cadillac Mountain Stout - Cadillac Mountain is the highest peak on Mount Desert Island. In my opinion, Thunder Hole Ale is actually the pinnacle of Bar Harbor Brewing Company's offerings, but their stout is also very good. It's full-bodied and complex, with hints of chocolate and coffee, very well-balanced, and smooth and creamy going down. Grade: B

Eastern Maine beer lineup
Bar Harbor Real Ale - Atlantic Brewing Company's brown ale offering is only slightly less tasty than Bar Harbor's. It's a little more nutty, and a little less robust, but is nicely hopped. Up front, you can't help but smell its nutty maltyness as you tilt the glass towards your mouth. On the tongue, it starts off lively, but ends smoothly. Grade: B

Coal Porter - When it comes to darker ales, I'm generally partial to stouts versus porters, but Atlantic's version of this style is solid. It's rich but smooth and slightly smokey, the latter of which is a quality I like in a porter. Grade: B-

Belfast Bay Lobster Ale - According to Belfast Bay Brewing Company's web site, they decided to brew a red ale because the style was so popular with their neighbors to the north. Red ale isn't necessarily a Canadian style, but my fairly recent experience north of the border certainly reinforced this Maine brewer's contention that it's quite prevalent there. The aptly named Lobster Ale is a slightly caramely, medium-bodied beer that's nicely balanced with medium hop bitterness. It's not fantastic, but is very drinkable. Grade: B-

Newport CoveOf course, we didn't spend our entire weekend drinking beer. In fact, I've spent more time tasting and reviewing these brews in the few days I've had off since returning home earlier this week than I did in Bar Harbor. But, since I'm no Henry David Thoreau, and since that part of Maine is not known for baseball or music, I choose to write about the beer rather than the beautiful scenery we witnessed. Just in case you don't believe me, here's a little more evidence of the latter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 1

As KJ and I headed to Maine this past weekend, I realized that I'm in the unique situation of being literally "between jobs." That's a funny phrase, in that it's most commonly used by people who are unemployed. In that situation, using the phrase kind of implies that you need to tell your audience that you do expect to, in fact, work again. In my case, my last job ended on October 2 and my new gig begins on October 13. So, it also occurred to me that, right now, I'm technically unemployed.

It's also somewhat analogous to when I used to respond, "not right now," when people asked me if I had a girlfriend. Did I feel that it was necessary to point out that I'd been in a relationship before, and that I hadn't resigned myself to a life of celibacy? I don't think so, although I will say that not being in a relationship is a little easier than not having a job. Of course, I have more experience with the former than the latter.

But, I digress. Since I generally try not to divulge too much information about my personal life here, I'll just say that this weekend was quite special and that I'm no longer concerned with having to answer such questions about my love life.

A stop-off for lunch at Gritty McDuff's in Portland got our weekend started. I'd been to Maine's oldest brewpub before, but it was over ten years ago. I recall being not all that impressed, and this visit did nothing but reinforce that. The food was solid, but the beer was a disappointment.

Gritty McDuff'sOn Gritty's web site, they refer to their Halloween Ale as a robust brew, with a "...deep amber color, a bold, malty palate and a well-rounded hop finish." This got me excited to try it, especially considering my recent interest in fall beer styles. But, in all honesty, I'm puzzled by the use of the words robust and bold to describe this one. It's very much a semi-sweet, light bodied offering that's hoppy up front, but then the bitterness fades. I really had high hopes for it, but rating it above average is as high as I'm willing to go.

I thought that the Portland brewer's signature beer, Gritty's Best Bitter, would be their saving grace, but it was not to be. I apologize to Gritty's if I wasn't aware that this was their cask offering, but it was kind of flat. If it was cask-conditioned, I would have been nice if their menu indicated as such. Regardless, my opinion is that it just isn't assertive enough to serve that way. Cask beer shouldn't taste flat, as other qualities in the beer should compensate for its relative lack of carbonation.

On the plus side for Gritty's, I loved the rustic atmosphere, particularly the brick-walled interior and long communal tables. Additionally, the fact that it was very crowded at 12:30 pm, on a dreary Saturday with no great college football on television, tells me that my less-than-enthusiastic evaluation of the place leaves me in the minority.

After a brief visit with some friends in Freeport, it was on to Bar Harbor, a small touristy hot spot that can boast two small breweries and a brewpub. But, you'll have to wait for "Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 2" to hear what I have to say about one of my favorite New England towns.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Going-Away Presents

Today was my last day at the job I've held for the past three years. After a little time off, on October 13, I begin a new and exciting endeavor that I'm really looking forward to. But, my point isn't to discuss my recent career move. Rather, it's to talk about going-away presents.

My co-workers gave me a couple of gifts yesterday to send me on my way. Those gifts were a t-shirt of the college I work(ed) at, and a generous gift certificate to the local home brew store. Also, a couple months ago, my (former) boss gave me a bottle of Unibroue's La Fin Du Monde as a thank you for stepping in to do a presentation for her at the spur of the moment.

A little over three years ago, when I left my previous job for this one, my boss organized a going-away party at which everyone contributed beer to the cause. Since there was quite the international contingent there, I was given beer from Japan, China, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, England and many other countries. I calculated that the gift totalled approximately seven cases. A year later, I still hadn't finished it all, although I can assure you that what was left were the less desirable options.

So, what is my point? Apparently, I've earned quite the reputation as either a beer connoisseur or a serious drinker...or both. Either way, I'm pretty pleased, and thinking it's just about time to start thinking about my next home brewing venture. Or, I just might decide to revisit what I consider to be the best batch of beer I've ever made, which was back in 1995. Stay tuned.