Friday, December 31, 2010

Best Music of 2010: Part 7

1. Eels - End Times
2010 was a very good year for me. It was an extremely busy year—a wedding and home purchase will do that—but an excellent one nonetheless. Still, I was able to post to the blog a personal record number of times, even reaching the century mark with yesterday's entry.

Also, despite it being such a good year, my album of the year isn't a happy one. From what I understand, this was a very personal record for Eels' frontman Mark Oliver Everett (aka "E"), so much so that apparently he refused to be interviewed regarding its subject matter. He did, however, admit that “This will be some people’s favorite Eels album and some people’s least favorite." Obviously, I fall into the former category, although I was a fan of their breakthrough single, 1996's "Novocaine for the Soul."

End Times is a classic breakup album, covering the territory of all the thoughts that go through a man's head as he experiences lost love. These reflections start with reminiscing about when everything was right, as Everett sings, "Wasn't no one in the world, wasn't nothing else, just me and my girl," on album opener "The Beginning."

The subject matter rapidly shifts, though. "A Line in the Dirt"—which shares my song of the year honors with Wolf Parade's "What Did My Lover Say?" and Cloud Cult's "Running With the Wolves"—begins with the humorous admission, "She locked herself in the bathroom again, so I am pissing in the yard." However, it quickly progresses to the ill-fated ultimatum in the song's chorus: "I drew a line into the dirt, and dared her to step right across it, and she did."

Eventually, desperation yields to determination, although somewhat meekly. The album's penultimate track, "Little Bird," is a conversation between E and a bird visiting him on his porch, in which he reluctantly admits, "Little bird, I guess you're right. I can't let it take me out without a fight." By referring to his nemesis as "it," rather than "her," it appears he's coming to terms with the process of moving on.

Finally, on the album's closing track, "On My Feet," he prepares himself for that realization. Although his thoughts do wander back to how much he misses that girl—"But one thing I know that is true in this world is the love that I felt for you"—ultimately he knows that "One sweet day I'll be back on my feet, and I'll be alright."

I've written several times before that I've begun to wonder what my relationship with sad music would be, now that I'm in a satisfying romantic relationship of my own. I think End Times confirms that I can still appreciate this type of music, particularly because I can relate to the subject matter without letting it bring me down. While End Times occasionally reminded me of some past experiences, it also underscored to me how happy I am with how things have turned out.

Once again, on the occasion of this final day of the year, I want to wish everyone who reads this blog—whether regularly or just occasionally—a happy new year, and, of course, the best of luck in 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Music of 2010: Part 6

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Despite the fact that this year's top ten consists primarily of bands who have been here before, the top two are newcomers to the honor. Arcade Fire made it at #16 in 2007, but this is their first appearance in the top ten. The Grammy nominations, numerous appearances on music critic top ten lists, and the fact that this album's subject matter was loosely relevant to my year, weren't quite enough to vault them to my #1. Instead, that spot goes to an artist who had never appeared anywhere near my year-end lists prior to 2010.

3. The National - High Violet
With two consecutive top five albums to their credit, The National are rapidly becoming one of my absolute favorite bands. Of course, they're a critical darling as well, as High Violet appears on numerous end-of-year lists, including album of the year honors from Crawdaddy!, DIY, and musicOMH. Surprisingly, despite all the critical accolades, they didn't earn a Grammy nomination, although honestly, I'm not really sure what the criteria are for those awards.

4. Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
Band of Horses' Infinite Arms goes up against Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, Vampire Weekend's Contra, and a few others for the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy. Along with The National, they also earned their second consecutive top five finish this year, with both bands repeating what they accomplished in 2007.

5. Wolf Parade - Expo 86
As I said in Part 4, this is a mostly predictable top ten, at least in terms of a number of artists who have clearly established themselves as mainstays at the head of the list. Not to be completely overshadowed by The Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers, this marks Wolf Parade's third consecutive album in the top ten. Although there are many highlights on this album, "What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)" is one that I'll never grow tired of, and one of my top three songs of the year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best Music of 2010: Part 5

6. Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do
Although I expanded the list beyond the top ten format back in 2005, I still consider the top ten to be a pretty big deal. In fact, due to my penchant for statistics, I keep track of things like consecutive years, consecutive releases, and overall number of releases—by artist—in the top ten. Drive-By Truckers are one of two bands this year to extend their streak of consecutive releases in the top ten to four. More on that a little later in this post. I'll find out pretty soon if they have the stuff to take it to a record-breaking five, as their next album, Go-Go Boots, is due out on February 15th.

7. Jónsi - Go
In Part 4, I mentioned that two artists in this year's top ten are there for the first time. Technically, Jónsi would be considered the third, but I didn't count him since he's appeared here twice as a member of his main band, Sigur Rós, in 2008 and 2005.

8. Cloud Cult - Light Chasers
Cloud Cult's 2007 effort, The Meaning of 8, topped my list that year. This year, they came the closest of all former #1 artists to becoming only the second band ever to reach the top spot twice. Light Chasers wasn't quite good enough for that honor, but "Running With the Wolves" was one of my three favorite songs of the year. The other two are on albums to be revealed in the top five.

9. Midlake - The Courage of Others
Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther was my #1 album of 2006. Although this year's effort generally received better reviews, I think it fell short of that record's brilliance. Still, two consecutive top ten albums make this band worthy of their Fab 40 status. Speaking of which, they also hold the distinction of being the highest ranked Fab 40 artist on this list.

10. The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever
From 1996 to 2000, Steve Earle released four albums, and all of them made my top ten. That's a record which has lasted for a decade. Along with the Drive-By Truckers, The Hold Steady are the second artist this year to match his impressive mark, although neither accomplished it in as short a period—five years—as Earle did. The Hold Steady, however, did it a little faster—six years—than the seven it took the Drive-By Truckers.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best Music of 2010: Part 4

11. Shout Out Louds - Work
Shout Out Louds are from Sweden, making them the second artist from that country on this list. Only the United States and Canada are better represented. They just missed being only the third artist in this year's top ten who have never ranked there before. So, I guess that tells you what you have to look forward to is a fairly predictable top ten. Or does it?

12. Neil Young - Le Noise
The title of this collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois is not only a tribute to his trademark sound, but it's also a clever play on his name. I've considered Neil Young my favorite artist for about 20 years now, but does his output during the time I've been producing year-end lists justify that distinction? It doesn't really have to, as it's the older material that's earned him that place in my heart. However, with three top ten finishes—Greendale (2003), Silver & Gold (2000) and Broken Arrow (1996)—and two near misses—Le Noise and Living With War (#13 in 2006)—his material over the last 15 years still ranks him right up there.

13. Tift Merritt - See You on the Moon
There are two artists among the top 12 with a fairly significant female presence. Those contributions notwithstanding, this is the highest ranking woman on the list. I believe I've mentioned before that, each year, I chose one countryish album to give to my father for Christmas. Well, this year he'll be introduced to Ms. Merritt.

14. Phosphorescent - Here's To Taking It Easy
When I wrote about this album in Frequent Spins, I referred to its comparison by one critic to Neil Young's Harvest. That's far from an insult, of course, but I would've chosen to compare it to his looser material from On the Beach, American Stars 'n Bars, and Hawks & Doves.

15. The New Pornographers - Together
There were albums released this year by a total of six artists who have/had current streaks of two or more consecutive releases to make the top ten. Some of these streaks continued, and some didn't. The New Pornographers produced a fine effort this year, but they came closest among the artists whose streaks came to an end. More on this subject later.

16. Spoon - Transference
There's not a whole lot to say about Spoon. They've made my extended list three times now, but have never reached the top ten. They're an all-white, all-male, all-American band. Pretty boring, I realize. Boring, however, is not a word I'd use to describe their 2010 effort.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Best Music of 2010: Part 3

17. Vampire Weekend - Contra
Initially, I thought this one would finish higher than their debut did in 2008. However, end-of-year listens revealed that this album is just very good rather than excellent, despite the Grammy nomination. Of course, that's nothing to sneeze at.

18. The Magnetic Fields - Realism
The Magnetic Fields are primarily known as Stephen Merritt's creative outlet, but when KJ emailed the band asking for the music to "It's Only Time," from i—with the intention of using it for our wedding ceremony, an idea that was later scrapped—it was Claudia Gonson who responded. Gonson is the female vocalist as well as the manager of the band. She is also a Boston native, as is Merritt, although he now resides in Los Angeles.

On a completely unrelated note, unless you buy into stereotypes about the residents of the city where I live, several years ago writer and music critic Sasha Frere-Jones essentially accused Merritt of being a racist because a list of his favorite recordings of the 20th century was "laughably short on black artists." I guess it's a good thing I don't have a higher profile, considering Sharon Jones—no relation to Sasha—is the only black artist to appear on this list.

19. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
I used to file these folks in the category of bands I couldn't take seriously because of their name, right up there with Death Cab for Cutie and I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness. But, in hindsight, Broken Social Scene isn't really that bad of a name after all. In fact, when I was in college, the brilliant moniker I came up with was A Trifle Paradoxical, inspired by the absurd phrase once used by one of my professors. Thankfully, I wasn't in a band, so it was never put to use.

20. Shearwater - The Golden Archipelago
This band started out as a side project by Okkervil River members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff. Eventually, Shearwater became the primary creative outlet of Meiburg, while Sheff has always been the frontman of Okkervil River. As of last year, Sheff is no longer a member of Shearwater and Meiburg is no longer a member of Okkervil River.

21. The Walkmen - Lisbon
This is The Walkmen's fourth appearance on my year-end list over the past seven years. They peaked at #6 with 2004's Bows & Arrows, but have also found themselves at #26 in 2006 and #15 in 2008. This every-other-year thing they've got going proves they've become a fairly consistent indie rock staple for me.

22. Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love
There are five European artists on this year's list, but, somewhat surprisingly, only two of them are from the U.K. Laura Marling is from the Hampshire region of England, and Belle & Sebastian are from Glasgow, Scotland. I've already mentioned that The Tallest Man on Earth is Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson. That leaves two more European artists to be revealed in the top 16.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Best Music of 2010: Part 2

23. Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can
This is the highest ranking album in the countdown that didn't previously appear in Frequent Spins. There are four such albums and, coincidentally enough, they're all among the six featured in this post. They were overlooked or bypassed from Frequent Spins for various reasons. In the case of Laura Marling, she caught my ear earlier in the year, but the album wasn't available for inexpensive purchase from my usual sources, so I didn't revisit it until just recently. I'm really glad I did.

24. Like Pioneers - Piecemeal
A Chicago supergroup of sorts, Like Pioneers includes members of Bound Stems, Chin Up Chin Up, The Narrator and other Windy City indie bands. Although Bound Stems made this list in 2008, it's hard to call an act a "supergroup" when most people have never heard of the bands its members come from. Still, this one was a late year recommendation by my home brewing partner, who also is a rock snob extraordinaire, and it turned out to be a surprising late entrant into the top 25.

25. Nada Surf - If I Had a Hi-Fi
This album of covers that mostly work is the band's second appearance on my year-end list, with the first being 2008's Lucky. These guys have certainly evolved quite a bit since their ridiculous 1996 hit single, "Popular." Coming a long way since 1996 seems to be a recurring theme this year.

26. Superchunk - Majesty Shredding
The final Frequent Spins of this year should have included this album, but I simply forgot about it. Although they're one of the most revered indie rock bands from the '90s—following the punk rock D.I.Y. ethic to the letter by founding their own record label, the highly successful Merge Records—my interest in them didn't develop until last year's Leaves in the Gutter EP. I've since begun exploring their back catalog a bit, but even their seminal record, No Pocky for Kitty, hasn't been as frequent a listen as this year's impressive effort.

27. The Black Keys - Brothers
As I wrote last year, when Dan Auerbach's solo outing made the list before any Black Keys album ever had, there's something about this band that kept me coming back, despite the fact they've never made a record that was able to hold my interest from start to finish. Then, they went out and released their longest album—at least in terms of number of tracks (15)—and it turned out to be my favorite. Go figure.

28. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way
This would be a good time for my obligatory discussion of female artists and my best music of 2010 list. Although there are more than half a dozen others with a significant female presence, only four acts fronted by women made this year's list. Three of those four—Laura Marling, Sharon Jones, She & Him—have already appeared in these first two posts, leaving only the top ranking female artist still to be revealed.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Best Music of 2010: Part 1

29. Eels - Tomorrow Morning
In 1999, I rated The Del McCoury Band's The Family as my #6 album, in the same year that they teamed up with Steve Earle for second place honors. This year, however, is the first time that two albums released exclusively by the same artist both found themselves on this list.

30. She & Him - Volume Two
The initial collaboration between Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward—not surprisingly titled Volume One—was Paste Magazine's album of the year in 2008. It failed to make my top 40. This year, it lands in exactly the same position on both lists.

31. The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt
Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson's sophomore effort had much more staying power than did his 2008 debut, Shallow Grave.

32. Pernice Brothers - Goodbye, Killer
The only artist who can boast two #1 albums over the course of the 15 years I've been compiling this list is this band led by South Shore native, Joe Pernice. Pernice and company are not in jeopardy of losing their exclusivity to that distinction this year, despite the fact that a couple former #1 artists released excellent albums this year.

33. Stars - The Five Ghosts
Of course, you know that eventually I'll get around to counting how many Canadian artists are represented here, but for now I'll just say that Stars are the first of at least a handful, and that I'm pretty sure our northern neighbors rank second to those from the states.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Best Music of 2010

2010 marks the 15th year I've produced an end-of-year best music list. The tradition started in 1996, when I was spending a lonely year in Dover, New Hampshire and probably had nothing better to do than analyze and compare albums relative to each other. Seriously, I don't know exactly how the idea first entered my head, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with the fact that was the year I read High Fidelity.

Back in '96, and for the eight years that followed, it was a top ten list. For the first few years, I compiled a cassette tape highlighting my favorite songs from those albums and gave a copy to a select group of friends. I slacked off on the mix for a couple years—at least partly due to the fact Richard Buckner's 2000 release, The Hill, consisted of one 34-minute track—before introducing my first year-end CD compilation in 2001.

So, this will be the 10th year I've made the CD. The list expanded beyond the top ten format in 2005, which also prompted me to add a second disc to the mix. I've also been sending it out to a distribution list of 20-25 people for the past few years. If you're not among my regulars, and would like to be, please send me an email or leave a comment here.

This year's rankings are pretty close to being finalized. As was the case last year, I've settled on a top 33 as my ideal format. This allows me to feel confident it's a strong list, and also to fit at least one song by each artist onto a two-disc compilation, while allowing for two songs each from the top ten albums. Well, 43 songs on two CDs is a bit of a challenge, so last year I had to compromise a little and only include one song from the #10 album, but you get the idea.

Anyway, and more importantly, look for the annual countdown to kick off within the next couple of days, culminating with the announcement of my album of the year on New Year's Eve. As I may or may not have said before here, it's the most wonderful time of the year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why Cans? A Six-Pack of Good Reasons

San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery distributes all of their beers in cans, and according to the carton that a recent six-pack I purchased came in, here are six reasons why:
  1. Cans use less energy to produce, to transport and to chill.
  2. Cans are easier to recycle and recycled more often than glass.
  3. Exposure to light ruins a good beer—cans keep the light out and the good in.
  4. Cans are lined so they don't affect the flavor of the beer.
  5. Feel that? Cans weigh less than glass.
  6. Cans go where glass is banned—pools, beaches, boats, golf courses, stadiums, parks.
#5 has always been my favorite reason, especially when picking up a six-pack on my way home from work, but #6 is a good one as well, although I'm a little skeptical it's as easy as it sounds. #3 is the reason that, when I home brew, I always use dark brown bottles, and I never buy beer bottled in clear or green glass either. But, now they're saying that aluminum works even better at keeping harmful light out of beer, and it makes sense to me.

Of course, the environmental reasons are good ones too. One I'll add is that cans take up less space in the refrigerator, particularly those that don't have shelves high enough to store bottled beer standing up. This advantage has me considering making permanent my recent decision to purchase nothing but canned beer for the next few months.

This recent quest has led me to 21st Amendment's offerings on several occasions. So far, I've picked up six-packs of their Brew Free or Die IPA, Fireside Chat, and Back in Black.

Brew Free or Die is one that I tried for the first time this past summer. Back then I described it as very well-balanced, as an IPA should be, but not as overwhelming citrusy as some of my favorites in this style. I'd say that evaluation still holds. It's simply a very good IPA, but not one that knocks my socks off.

Fireside Chat is a strong (7.9%) winter spiced ale. I purchased a six-pack over Thanksgiving weekend, at a little cheese and craft beer store in Rhinebeck, just outside of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's hometown of Hyde Park, New York. So, I thought it was an appropriate time to purchase a beer that's named after FDR's depression-era radio addresses and features the likeness of our 32nd president on the can.

I'm usually a little wary of spiced winter ales, and, unfortunately, this one did nothing to help me overcome that particular fear. I recently shared a few with friends, though, who seemed to like it, so the one can still remaining in my refrigerator will represent Fireside Chat's second chance to win me over.

Back in Black is what 21st Amendment calls a Black IPA, which is a bit of an oxymoron, considering the P in IPA stands for pale. Still, I was quite pleased with this one, a richer, but also slightly mellower, version of their standard IPA.

In addition to 21st Amendment, two other breweries seem to dominate the canned craft beer available in local stores around here. Those are Lyons, Colorado's Oskar Blues Brewery and Garrattsville, New York's Butternuts Beer and Ale. If you frequent this blog regularly, you'll surely be reading more about those two microbreweries in the coming months.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Expansion Era Hall of Fame Ballot

Unfortunately, I have to say that I don't think a single player on the Expansion Era Hall of Fame Ballot is worthy of induction. In my opinion, Ted Simmons comes the closest, but is still not quite worthy, and I'd love to say that I think Ron Guidry is deserving of the honor, but I can't.

I've heard the arguments for Dave Concepcion, but frankly, I have no reservations in saying that he ranks 8th out of the eight players nominated: Tommy John, Simmons, Rusty Staub, Guidry, Vida Blue, Al Oliver, Steve Garvey, Concepcion.

Speaking of nominations, I'd be curious to know who decided that these particular eight players should be the ones up for election. A more deserving group would include Bobby Bonds, Darrell Evans, Bobby Grich, Keith Hernandez, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles and Luis Tiant. In fact, I would vote for Grich and Hernandez if their names were on the ballot...and if I had a vote.

The player evaluation system that I referred to a couple posts ago is still in the works. Actually, I used it to make my decisions on the players in question here, but it's still subject to tweaking.

I'm not going to go into great detail right now, but my system is based on the following statistics:
  • Wins Above Replacement (30%)
  • Win Shares (30%)
  • ERA+ or OPS+ (15%)
  • Bill James's Hall of Fame Standards Test (15%)
  • Bill James's Black Ink Test (5%)
  • Bill James's Gray Ink Test (5%)
Each statistic for each player is weighted as noted above and compared to a base value, which represents that of a borderline Hall of Famer. These base values will take some time to finalize, but the idea is that a composite score of 100 will constitute a Hall of Fame level career. In fact, using the system as it currently stands, Hernandez and Grich would rate 99.31 and 97.99, respectively, leaving them just short of the baseline threshold, but close enough to consider. By comparison, Concepcion's rating is 65.14.

In addition to the eight players on the ballot, there are four non-players whose candidacies are being voted on tomorrow. For the record, I would vote for George Steinbrenner and Marvin Miller, but pass on Billy Martin and Pat Gillick. Martin is probably as deserving as Whitey Herzog, so I wouldn't object to his election, but I'm not convinced that Herzog really belongs, so I'm not going to advocate for Martin based on that comparison.

Regardless, tomorrow is the beginning of an exciting part of the baseball off-season. One month later, we'll find out the results of the writers' vote, and hopefully, in the very least, we'll be welcoming Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar and Jeff Bagwell into Cooperstown.

Friday, December 03, 2010

50 Greatest Baseball Players Not in the Hall of Fame, Part 3

Rounding out this list, here are the remaining 25 players I voted for:

Albert Belle
Bobby Bonds
Ken Boyer
Kevin Brown
Pete Browning
Eddie Cicotte
David Cone
Bill Dahlen
Darrell Evans
John Franco
Dwight Gooden
Bobby Grich
Keith Hernandez
Gil Hodges
Edgar Martinez
Fred McGriff
Tony Mullane
Graig Nettles
Tony Oliva
Dave Parker
Ted Simmons
Alan Trammell
Larry Walker
Lou Whitaker
Deacon White

I'm currently working on my own player evaluation system, which is a composite of other statistical methods, with a major emphasis on WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and Win Shares. This system will be the basis of my running list of the 25 greatest Hall of Fame eligible players who aren't enshrined in Cooperstown.

In the meantime, I'll be posting my opinions on which players should be elected on Monday's Veterans Committee ballot. Stay tuned for that over the weekend.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Frequent Spins and the Grammy Nominees

I'm not necessarily a big fan of the Grammy awards, as they're basically mainstream music honors and most of the music I listen to would be considered outside of the mainstream. However, there usually are some crossover artists featured in my Frequent Spins posts, so I thought I'd highlight those who received Grammy nominations this year.

The first nomination on this list is quite a surprise, and definitely a big deal. That is, an indie artist, recording on an independent label, going up against the likes of Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry for album of the year honors.

Album Of The Year
The Suburbs
Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire & Markus Dravs, producers; Arcade Fire, Mark Lawson & Craig Silvey, engineers/mixers; Mark Lawson, mastering engineer
[Merge Records]

Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance
"Angry World"
Neil Young
Track from: Le Noise

Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals
"Ready To Start"
Arcade Fire
Track from: The Suburbs
[Merge Records / Sonovox]

Best Rock Song
"Angry World"
Neil Young, songwriter (Neil Young)
Track from: Le Noise
[Reprise; Publisher: Silver Fiddle Music]

Best Rock Album
Le Noise
Neil Young

Best Alternative Music Album
The Suburbs
Arcade Fire
[Merge Records / Sonovox]

Infinite Arms
Band Of Horses
[Columbia Records/Brown/FatPossum]

Vampire Weekend
[XL Recordings]

Best Long Form Music Video
Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage
Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen, video directors; Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen, video producers

The latter actually had nothing to do with my Frequent Spins column, but I did write about the film here in my blog, so a mention seems appropriate.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

50 Greatest Baseball Players Not in the Hall of Fame, Part 2

Since this is such a daunting task, and there really isn't much time to do the heavy analysis that I'd like to, I asked for a little help on Pickin' Splinters, a blog I contribute to more than occasionally, and I decided to vote for all of the suggestions I received, except one. This provided me with my second list of ten:

Will Clark
Dwight Evans
Ron Guidry
Tommy John
Jim Kaat
Don Mattingly
Jack Morris
Dale Murphy
Billy Pierce
Lee Smith

Plus, I'm going to add five more of my own:

Steve Garvey
Mark McGwire
Thurman Munson
Rafael Palmeiro
Luis Tiant

Now, with the deadline being tomorrow night at midnight, I've still got to add 25 more names to my list.

Although my final list of 50 names won't be arrived at with the kind of analysis I would prefer, I've decided that the outcome of this exercise will be to develop my own ranked list of the 25 greatest non Hall of Famers. This is a list that I'll update every year, as players drop off by being elected to the Hall, and as my opinions change based on new information and on viewing current information differently.

Stay tuned for that, and for part three of this mini-series.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where in the Hudson Valley...?

The December 2010 issue of Hudson Valley magazine delivers the answer to a question that I've been seeking for almost a year and a half now.

In a feature called "Where in the Valley: Out of the Park", the whereabouts of the Wappingers Falls, New York monument to 19th century slugger and Baseball Hall of Fame member Dan Brouthers is revealed. Well, actually it's hinted at being just a stone's throw away from the churchyard cemetery where he's buried, but since I know that St. Mary's is the location in question, it shouldn't be too difficult to find my way there eventually.

As shown in the photo that accompanies the article, the monument has been nicely restored. To see for yourself, visit the link to the article above and compare to the picture I posted here back in February, which is one I took almost 20 years ago.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

50 Greatest Baseball Players Not in the Hall of Fame, Part 1

A blog called Baseball Past and Present is asking its readers and other baseball writers to vote on the 50 best players not enshrined in Cooperstown, not including those who haven't been retired long enough to be eligible. The latter condition means this includes all players who haven't played since 2005.

Ballots are due by December 1, and I just learned about this yesterday, so I've got my work cut out for me. As a result, I'm not going to do an in-depth analysis, but instead I'm going to come up with a list of the 50 players who jump out at me as deserving of the Hall of Fame or of serious consideration for the honor.

However, I'm going to do this in stages, beginning with the easy choices. That is, the players who, in my opinion, should already be in the Hall of Fame. In some cases, these are the players who would already be so honored if not for factors preventing them from getting in. It will be pretty obvious who I'm talking about once you see the list.

Since they're asking for players who haven't played since 2005—rather than 2004—this means that players who are eligible for the first time this year are included. So, technically there's one player on the following alphabetical list of my first ten choices whose Hall of Fame candidacy hasn't yet been voted on.

Dick Allen
Roberto Alomar
Jeff Bagwell
Bert Blyleven
Joe Jackson
Barry Larkin
Dan Quisenberry
Tim Raines
Pete Rose
Ron Santo

Friday, November 19, 2010

Is Roy Halladay Overrated?

How could I suggest such a thing?

While I'm not trying to imply that Roy Halladay isn't as good as everyone thinks, when it comes to the recent National League Cy Young voting, I do have a bit of a beef.

My complaint is not that Halladay's season was undeserving of the award. Rather, it's with the way in which he won it. That is, unanimously.

What I don't completely understand is how all 32 voters considered him the top choice when there was another candidate who was equally deserving by most measures, and even more deserving by others. That candidate is Adam Wainwright.

Of course I'm not going to make such a statement without backing it up. So, let's start by looking at the mainstream statistics, the three categories commonly considered the Triple Crown of pitching.
  • W-L record: Halladay 21-10, Wainwright 20-11
  • ERA: Wainwright - 2.42, Halladay - 2.44
  • Strikeouts: Halladay - 219, Wainwright - 213
Pretty even, right? Halladay's six-strikeout edge and slightly better won-lost record, while playing for a team that won 7% more of its games than Wainwright's, certainly isn't justification for the wide margin by which he won the award.

So, let's take a slightly deeper look. Halladay is lauded for his 7.30 K/BB ratio, and compared to Wainwright's 3.80, this appears to be a pretty big edge, on the surface. But, taking a closer look, Wainwright actually averaged 8.32 strikeouts per nine innings to Halladay's 7.86. So, obviously this means Wainwright had a considerably higher walk rate (2.18 to 1.08). However, Halladay made up for this by giving up more hits than Wainwright.

In fact, looking at opponents' batting statistics versus each pitcher, Halladay yielded a higher batting average (.245 to .224), which effectively canceled out Wainwright's higher walk rate, as evidenced by their almost identical opponents' on-base percentages (Wainwright - .274, Halladay - .271). But, Halladay not only got hit harder, he also gave up considerably more home runs (24 to 15). This gives Wainwright a considerable edge in opponents' slugging percentage (.330 to .373) and OPS (.604 to .645).

Let's dig a little further and look at a few SABRmetric statistics. I'm providing simplistic explanations regarding each, rather than attempting to explain how each is calculated, which would be quite difficult.
  • ERC (Component ERA) measures a pitcher's ERA based on the hits and walks he allowed, rather than actual runs: Wainwright - 2.38, Halladay - 2.69
  • DIPS ERA (Defense-Independent ERA) attempts to measure a pitcher's ERA independent of the defense behind him: Wainwright - 2.97, Halladay - 3.09
  • ERA+ is park-adjusted and league-adjusted ERA, expressed as a percentage relative to the average pitcher: Halladay - 165 (65% better than average), Wainwright - 161
As you can see, Wainwright outshines Halladay in two of three SABRmetric measures that attempt to normalize a pitcher's ERA, one of them by a pretty wide margin.

So, where does Halladay have a clear advantage over Wainwright? Well, he pitched more innings (250 2/3 to 230 1/3), and threw more complete games (9 to 5) and more shutouts (4 to 2). His other considerable edge is in the fact that he's Roy Halladay.

Is he overrated? Well, not really. But, did he receive preferential treatment in this year's Cy Young voting due to his reputation? Quite possibly, yes. Did he have a season that was deserving of the award? Of course, but Adam Wainwright was just as, if not more, deserving and how he managed to earn zero first-place votes is a question I can't possibly answer.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Frequent Spins (2010.7)

This will likely be the final Frequent Spins of 2010, as I begin to focus my music-listening efforts on compiling my year-end list for the 15th consecutive year.

This one is a bit of a hodgepodge with the preview widgets, as my main source does not prove as reliable as usual.

Antony and The Johnsons - Swanlights
Swanlights is the second Antony album since 2005's breakthrough I Am a Bird Now. While both have been very good albums, his wistful-but-soulful chamber pop sound is starting to get to the point of saturation for me.

Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love
I've only been a true Belle & Sebastian fan for their last few albums. In fact, I came along around the time they teamed up with Trevor Horn. The former member/producer of the Buggles and Yes is no longer on board for Write About Love, but the album still picks up where The Life Pursuit left off. That is, it embodies a more poppy and upbeat sound than their earlier efforts, and that—to me—is a good thing.

Cloud Cult - Light Chasers
When I did my Fab 40 series a few years ago, narrowing the list down to 40 bands/artists was a difficult process. Initially, I had decided that all artists who had an album-of-the-year, according to my rankings, would make the list. But, then I reconsidered by cutting Ryan Adams—who did make the cut with Whiskeytown—and Brian Wilson. Cloud Cult's The Meaning of 8 was my first #1 album to follow, so in some sense, they're the 41st band on the list. While they may never release another album as good as that, their latest effort is another impressive one.

Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
Whereas my slight disappointment with Antony and The Johnsons' latest is that I want to hear something a little different, when it comes to Sufjan Stevens, I'm a little frustrated that he's strayed from his trademark sound. The Age of Adz is still a good album, but a little too schizophrenic for me, and nowhere near as brilliant as Illinoise.

The Walkmen - Lisbon
What prevents this one from being as good as 2008's You & Me is a lack of standout tracks, but otherwise this is another strong effort from these indie rockers.

Neil Young - Le Noise
I thought I'd share a few remarks that were written about Young's new songs when he played them live on his recent Twisted Road tour: "...that momentum quickly subsided when the next three songs were his less-than-inspiring new material;" " pains me to say...Neil's songwriting skills are clearly fading;" " initial impression of his forthcoming material doesn't provide me with a lot of optimism." The source of those quotes? Yours truly. I take it all back. This is a much better album than anticipated, and easily his best since 2006's Living With War.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Inevitable

There's a certain inevitability that we all face. We see it coming, more and more with each passing year, although we try to deny it, or at least to postpone it. We rationalize that it's only partly true, but then witness partly turn to mostly, until one day we give in to the realization.

This is a little off topic from what I usually write about here, but it's only taken me two-plus weeks of living in my new home to realize the inevitable. That is, I am my father. Actually, it's only true that I'm much more like my father than I even realized. There are still a few distinct differences, but I expect these will be erased over time.

What makes me say that I am my father? First of all, let me admit that I began noticing these tendencies many years ago, but several new factors have really driven this point home. I'll get to those in a moment. First let me share a few of the responses I got, from those who know my father best, when I made the following declaration on Facebook:

Only two weeks into living in and owning my first house, and already it's obvious how much I am my father.

  • "You fell asleep in the comfy chair watching TV and snored so loudly the next-door neighbors could hear it?"
  • "Oh how scary!! Are you fixing everything with duct tape? Just wait 'til it's time to put up the Christmas lights."
  • "Have you mastered the deep throat grumble grandpa always does?"
But, of course, none of these are what I was talking about, although the first two have the most potential to come true. No, actually, the behaviors that have convinced me of how I've become my father are as follows:
  • Religiously checking that the thermostat has been lowered to the proper temperature, and the bolts on the doors have been locked, before going to bed.
    (Actually, I don't have to turn down the main thermostat before going to bed, because it's programmable, but programming it was one of the first things I did after moving in.)
  • I explained to KJ how a leaf could cause the garage door sensor to activate, resulting in the door reversing direction.
  • I offered to back the car out of the garage because only I could possibly understand the precision with which I parked the car in the first place. 
While we're on the latter subject, in my childhood home, I was the only driver (out of four, including dad) who never hit the basketball pole due to cutting the steering wheel too quickly while backing out. Of course, I was the youngest and was off to college only a year or so after getting my license, but this is still a point of pride for me.

While I haven't completely become my dad just yet, these are among the future behaviors of mine that KJ has to look forward to:
  • Walking around the house turning off the lights in rooms that are not in use, asking the question, "Are you done in here?" in the process.
  • Preaching against leaving the water running while lathering up the soap on one's hands.
  • Rolling up towels against door crevices that could be letting just the slightest bit of cold air in.
  • While reading the newspaper and magazines, underlining certain parts for emphasis and writing notes to no one in particular in the margins.
I just have to say that it's a good thing KJ finds my dad adorable. We'll see how she feels when she's living full-time with an exact replica of him.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Craft Beer in Cans

Last Friday kicked off the first weekend in our new house, so I thought I'd pick up a few beers on my way home from work. Using the extremely useful web site that is The Beer Mapping Project, I scouted out a couple locations that are on my walk home from the train. There were two, as depicted on the map below:

Wollaston Wine and Spirits is actually along my walking route, while the curiously spelled Wolliston Supreme Liquors is actually about 1/10 of a mile out of my way. But, it didn't take long to realize that the latter has better selection, so that's where I ended up.

Since it's still a 15-minute walk home from there, I had my sights set on some good craft beer in cans, which, of course, would feel much lighter in my backpack. I already have a couple favorites that are sold in cans, but I ended up opting for something new to me. My selection was Snapperhead IPA, brewed by Garrattsville, New York's Butternuts Beer and Ale.

I'd only just recently heard of this brewery, and I didn't realize until now that they're another brewery in Otsego County, an area that is fast becoming an upstate New York haven for craft beer. Located only half an hour from Cooperstown, Butternuts will be an easy side trip on my next journey to the "birthplace of baseball."

Snapperhead IPA is curiously described on its can as "all malt," which initially seems to be an odd characteristic for the style. But, then again, what exactly do they mean by "all malt"? My assumption is this implies there is no use of other fermentable adjuncts, such as sugar, and that it has nothing to do with the beer's hops/malt balance. In fact, while this one is not as overwhelmingly hoppy as some IPAs, there is no doubt of their presence.

I've read some pretty lukewarm, and even some bad, reviews of this beer elsewhere online, but I don't agree with them. To me, it's a fairly well-balanced high octane IPA. It's definitely a little higher on the malt side of the equation than most brews of the style, but it has a nice hoppy finish. I'm not raving about it, but I'm looking forward to drinking the four remaining beers from the six-pack I purchased last week.

Tonight, I picked up a six-pack of one of the more established and well-known canned craft beers. But, I'll write about that one later.

Instead, I'll explain my new quest. For the remainder of this fall and through the winter season, I plan to seek out as many canned craft beers as I can, with the goal of finding and identifying the best of the lot. So, come next March or so, be on the lookout for the post that will summarize my findings.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Congratulations to the Giants, and No Hard Feelings for the Eviction

Unless you really couldn't care less about baseball—in which case, you're probably not reading this—you're well aware that the San Francisco Giants are 2010 World Series Champions. This makes me happy on a number of levels, one of which I'll get to in a moment.

What you may or may not know is that the Yankees and the Giants used to share the same home. Actually, the Polo Grounds were the Giants' home, and the Yankees were their tenants. That is, until they were evicted in 1921. Yes, due to the overwhelming success at the box office the Yankees were experiencing—mainly as a result of the purchase of the popular Babe Ruth from the Red Sox—the Giants decided they had to go.

The Yankees and their fans hold no ill feelings towards the Giants regarding their actions, though. I suppose that would be like holding a grudge against your landlord who kicked you out of your $500/month apartment, when you're now living in a $10-million mansion. But, I digress.

The main reason I'm happy for this year's champions of the baseball world is that my mother's family were New York Giants fans. It's a special feeling that, less than two months after visiting my maternal grandfather's birthplace—the Tuscany region of Italy—the team he grew up rooting for wins its first World Series since leaving New York for the West Coast.

Now, I'm not so certain my grandfather would actually be happy for the Giants, as he was in the camp of those who were angry with them for moving, and was a Mets fan during the time I knew him. Still, I fondly recall hearing about his hero, Bill Terry, in addition to the amusing stories about him running from truant officers across Manhattan roof tops. I'm pretty certain, though, that my mom—a much more benevolent soul—would still be happy for the Giants, although she was also a Mets convert.

It's also hard not to like the current cast of characters that constitutes the 2010 San Francisco Giants. From likable veterans—Aubrey Huff, Édgar Rentería and Juan Uribe—to unassuming youngsters—Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Pablo Sandoval—as well as non-conforming individuals—Brian Wilson and Tim Lincecum—the Giants are a team that's easy to root for. Plus, I'd much rather see the citizens of San Francisco celebrate their team's first World Series victory than the folks from Dallas.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Win or Else?

After the New York Football Giants defeated the Dallas Cowboys last Monday night, and—more significant to this story—knocked Cowboys Quarterback Tony Romo out of action for the next 6-8 weeks, I thought about sending an old friend a text message offering my condolences on the end of his team's season. Said friend is a Dallas fan, of course. I knew that, in the process, he would return my dig by denigrating the Yankees, but I didn't care.

I never sent that text, not because I feared the repercussions, but simply because I forgot. Still, it got me to thinking about what constitutes a successful season for a sports franchise. Not from the perspective of players, coaches and front office personnel of the team, but from the point of view of the fans.

As spectators, what is our primary motivation for watching our favorite sports? I'm sure the answer varies a little from person to person, but I think the common denominator is entertainment. That is, we watch a game because it is enjoyable to us. Does it get any simpler than that?

Taking it a step further, why do we choose to follow a particular team, rather than just let ourselves be entertained by individual games in which we're less personally invested in the outcomes? I would assume the answers to that question would vary a little more than the first, but, still I think it boils down to increased entertainment level.

So, my point here is really to ask the question, is the only entertainment value associated with rooting for a specific team to witness them win a championship? If the answer is yes, then it's a pretty said state of affairs, because that means we spend 5-6 months a year worrying about an outcome that most likely will never happen.

I contend that the answer, in fact, is no. We root for a specific team because it provides us with added entertainment value, and that value is measured on a spectrum, rather than being an absolute either/or proposition. That is, the more successful our team's season, the more entertainment value they've provided us with. If they kept us believing they had a chance to win a championship for almost seven months—and survived only two weeks less than the most successful teams—then they did a very good job of entertaining us.

Don't get me wrong, here. I'm not saying I'll ever take consolation in a season that exceeds expectations, especially when it comes to the Yankees. In fact, it could be argued that, since the Yankees can never truly exceed expectations, that a little entertainment value is foregone just being a fan of theirs. But, that's a road I've been down before, and I have no intention of going there right now.

What I am saying is I'm not going to let myself get sucked into that 29-losers-and-only-one-winner mentality. I enjoyed my team's success for much of the season, despite being briefly disappointed in its final outcome. In the end, though, it provided me with a great deal of entertainment, something that I suspect Dallas Cowboys fans will be sorely lacking for the rest of this year.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chet Laabs Moves to the South Shore

This past weekend, as furniture and boxes were being packed up and moved from the old place to the new, an item of sentimental value turned up, one that I didn't even know was missing. As we pulled a bookcase away from the wall, behind it we found my framed Chet Laabs baseball card. Why would someone frame the trading card of a mediocre outfielder who played in the first half of the 20th century, you ask? Well, it's a long story, but one I'm more than willing to tell.

When I was a kid, growing up in a small town about an hour and a half north of New York City, my next-door neighbor and best friend, Brian, found his father's old baseball glove in their garage. The signature on the relic was that of the aforementioned Laabs. When Brian asked his father about the player whose name was on his childhood baseball mitt, it turns out his dad knew nothing about him.

So, they asked my dad. "Chet Laabs...oh yeah, pretty good power-hitting outfielder. Played for the St. Louis Browns during the war years," was his assessment. Of course, our next-door neighbors were dumbfounded. Brian's father and his brother had actually shared this glove as kids, and the obscurity of the player they had never heard of had become a life-long running joke. From that day forward, Brian developed an unusual fascination with a player whose career was over almost two decades prior to this birth.

In today's internet age, this may never have happened. The kid in the story would have simply Googled Chet Laabs, and that probably would have been the end of a story that became legendary due to all of these factors coming together. Our era of connectivity would later contribute to this continuing saga, however.

Years later, when Brian was out of college and on his own, his parents moved to Texas. Unfortunately, the glove did not make it with them, nor did it remain behind with Brian. Somehow, it was lost in the process and gone forever as far as we were concerned.

Five or so years ago, I was struck by the urge to search for Chet Laabs memorabilia on eBay. When I found a bat inscribed with his name, I immediately contacted Brian, and we ended up purchasing the item for $50 as a surprise Christmas gift for his uncle.

I handled the eBay transaction, and the subsequent shipping of a bat that was described—probably overly optimistically—by its seller as possibly having been used by Laabs himself. To show his appreciation the following Christmas, Brian's uncle sent me the framed card, as shown in the photo here—not the greatest picture I realize, but my camera is "flash challenged," so it will have to do for now. Like I said, I didn't even realize the item was missing, although there probably were a few occasions when I wondered about it. Regardless, it was really nice to be able to bring Chet with us to our new South Shore home.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Frequent Spins (2010.6)

This one's a little overdue, as it's been almost three months since my last Frequent Spins. In fact, a few of these are no longer in heavy rotation, but they still deserve my recognition, despite the fact I've slacked off in this department of late.

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
This Montreal-based indie rock band's debut, Funeral, was all the rage, and I was ready to embrace them as the second coming of Neutral Milk Hotel...or something like that. Instead, I found the album to be a bit disappointing, but they've improved with subsequent releases, and The Suburbs, their third full-length is easily their best. It has been suggested to me that I give Funeral another chance, and after hearing the brilliance of their most recent work, it may be time to do just that.

- Tomorrow Morning
2010 appears to be the year of Mark Oliver Everett. His band has been around for a long time, dating back to 1996's alternative radio hit "Novocaine for the Soul," but this year Eels have finally appeared on my radar with not one, but two good albums. This one is much more positively themed, but nowhere near as good, in comparison to End Times, but it's been a frequent listen of mine nonetheless.

Alejandro Escovedo
- Street Songs of Love
Alejandro E. used to be a frequent inhabitant of my yearly top ten. Not anymore, but he continues to churn out good, if not great, albums, and Street Songs of Love is no exception.

Mark Olson
- Many Colored Kite
The former Jayhawks co-frontman's second proper solo album is another solid effort. Norwegian vocalist Ingunn Ringvold replaces Olson's ex-wife and former Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers sidekick, Victoria Williams, in more ways than one.

Pernice Brothers
- Goodbye, Killer
I don't buy nearly as many CDs as I used to—I mostly just purchase mp3s through my eMusic account—but I paid a few extra dollars to add this to my Joe Pernice compleatist collection. If you can imagine the Pernice Brothers covering the Scud Mountain Boys, this is kind of what this album sounds like to me. If you're a Pernice fan, that statement isn't much of a stretch. If not, you're probably scratching your head and wondering what the hell I'm talking about.

Ra Ra Riot
- The Orchard
Easily the best band I'm aware of to come out of Syracuse, New York—although that's not saying much—Ra Ra Riot showed up on my radar when lead singer Wes Miles collaborated with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij on the side project Discovery last year. This album doesn't blow me away, but it's a nice little orchestral pop effort from a group that has the potential to get even better.

- The Five Ghosts
The second of three Canadian bands to appear in this edition of Frequent Spins, Stars consistently straddles that fine line between entirely too wussy and beautifully elegant indie pop. A great example of their penchant for over-dramatization that—for some reason—I can't get enough of, is the album's standout track, "I Died So I Could Haunt You."

Wolf Parade
- Expo 86
Expo 86 is the Wolf Parade album that really proves that, while I'm a huge Spencer Krug fan, I could really take or leave Dan Boeckner. This one is not quite as strong throughout as its predecessors, with the Krug-penned material standing out the most, of course, particularly "What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)," which may very well be my choice for song of the year.