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.