Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 4

For what it's worth, three artists this year see their streaks of two consecutive releases in my top ten come to an end: Sigur Rós, Band of Horses and A.C. Newman; the latter of whom being the only one of the three to make the 2012 list at all.

5. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
The album that turned me on to Bird was 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs. This is probably his best effort since that one, and it's his third record overall that lands in my top ten, with 2007's Armchair Apocrypha coming in between.

4. Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames - New Multitudes
I didn't count this as one of the six artists new to my top ten, as three of these four guys have made multiple appearances: Farrar as solo artist, with Son Volt (twice), and on his collaboration with Ben Gibbard; Parker as solo artist and with Varnaline (thrice); and Yames (aka Jim James) with My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk (with whom Johnson also played).

3. Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne
When I first heard 2006's Tales from Turnpike House, I thought it was Saint Etienne's debut. Needless to say, I was surprised to find out this English band had been crafting their very own brand of danceable indie-pop—or "...the disco-llision of '60s pop, '70s dance, and '90s club," according to one reviewer—since the early '90s. So, they're actually about the same age as I am, and apparently just as nostalgic, particularly on album-opener "Over the Border," as lead singer Sarah Cracknell reminisces about falling in love with, and because of, music in her younger days and wonders aloud, "...and when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?"

2. The Walkmen - Heaven
2012's highest ranking American artist is no stranger to my year-end list, but this is just their second time in the top ten, and the first since 2004's Bows & Arrows. I can't really say for certain these two albums have been that much better than the three that came between, just that they've resonated with me more. Although this one is a much happier affair than any of their previous output, I still find myself most drawn to the album-closing song of yearning, "Dreamboat."

1. Mumford & Sons - Babel
I don't know how many times I've said or written this before, but it's all too often I overlook an artist's commercial breakthrough only to jump on their bandwagon an album later. I dismissed 2009's Sigh No More after just a few listens, but was drawn in when their appearance at the 2011 Grammys made me wonder if that was a mistake.

My last two #1 albums have been records that meant a lot to me lyrically, in addition to being fantastic musically. That's kind of a funny coincidence, I suppose, or maybe meaningful songs added just enough to albums like Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues to make me think it was better than The Decemberists' The King is Dead.

Babel is a great album in its own right, but I honestly had to read reviews to realize the themes surrounding these songs are so spiritual. In hindsight, I suppose that should've been pretty obvious, not that it would have made a difference anyway. It's just that Mumford & Sons' particular brand of rowdy folk-rock is what made a huge impression on me, and it wasn't aided by anything their lyrics were saying to me.

That's both a testament to how good this album is and how mildly disappointing the year in music was for me. Either that or I'm beginning to learn my own answer to Sarah Cracknell's question.

Whether this is your first time here, or your thousand-and-first...Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 3

2012 featured a lot of high-quality releases, although nothing that's a candidate for my all-time list. Honestly, these five records could have just as easily landed in the top five, but if you're going to rank them, you have to make some tough decisions.

10. Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal
An Icelandic band in the top ten? And it's not Sigur Rós? That's right. This indie-pop outfit, co-fronted by the male/female duo Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, is one of six artists making their top ten debut this year.

9. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light
These indie-rock veterans who somehow combine VU-like minimalism with space-rocky soundscapes are one of three English bands in this year's top ten, with two more to come in the top five.

8. Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky
Since most of this band's best work pre-dates my year-end list making, it's only kind of surprising this is their first top ten entry. I should point out that, while I already called this the best of their three post-comeback albums, it's final standing just kept improving every time I listened to it.

7. Tame Impala - Lonerism
I don't know if there's ever been a year where American artists have barely made up 50% of my list. This year's breakdown: U.S. - 17, Canada - 5, England - 4, Sweden - 2, Iceland - 1, Australia - 1. Tame Impala makes it six different countries represented on this year's list. 

6. Passion Pit - Gossamer
I'm pretty sure it's quite unprecedented there are two Massachusetts bands in the top ten. (Obviously, Dinosaur Jr. is the other.) Following Manners' #10 ranking in 2009, Passion Pit is the only two-time top ten finisher featured in this post.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 2

I started a little on the late side, and plan to take a long weekend to celebrate Little Chuck's second Christmas, so I'm counting them down a little faster than usual this year.

After this post, only the top ten remain. I'll be returning on December 27 to reveal those albums gradually between that date and New Year's Eve, when I'll announce #1. I know, I know. Much ado about nothing.

Anyway, if you celebrate the holiday, Merry Christmas. If you don't, Happy December 25th.

20. Stars - The North
Canadian artists tend to be the second most highly represented in my lists, and this year is no exception. Five Canadian bands and solo artists are here in total, including Kathleen Edwards (already revealed), this outfit and three listed below.

19. The Shins - Port of Morrow
The Shins win the award for most inconsistent album of the year, one that was top ten material based on its best tracks—most notably "Simple Song" and "No Way Down"—but contains some borderline unlistenable stuff as well, particularly the album closing title track.

18. Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill
When I heard this album, it made me kind of regret my decision to pass on this year's Neil and the Horse tour. There's nothing lyrically tremendous here, but in his advanced years, Young seems to be making the statement that simple and direct is the way to go. Or, perhaps, he's just become less creative. Either way, this one definitely made up for the mediocre affair that was their early 2012 release, Americana.

17. Metric - Synthetica
Since I've previously tried and failed to get into this band, I should go back and give the rest of their catalog another shot I suppose. Recommendations anyone?

16. Shearwater - Animal Joy
The album opening "Animal Life" is definitely one of my favorite songs of 2012. Obviously, the rest of the album doesn't quite maintain those lofty standards, but it's clearly this band's best to date.

15. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
One reviewer wrote about this album "...there are songs here that suggest the band has finally found the formula that finely balances its well-meaning musical intellectualism with actual pop songs." That pretty much sums it up.

14. Beach House - Bloom
There aren't really any killer songs here, just a beautifully cohesive set of tracks that, in the end, yield a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" result.

13. Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
Hood is still at his best when teaming with Mike Cooley to lead the Drive-By Truckers, but this ranks as his best solo effort, in my opinion.

12. A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets
The New Pornographers frontman beats out Neil Young and Metric for this year's highest ranking Canadian.

11. Craig Finn - Clear Heart Full Eyes
Of course, when it comes to storytelling, there is no one in modern music who tops the Hold Steady's lead singer. I'd probably rank this album behind every one in his main band's catalog, but that's more a testament to how great they are than anything else.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 1

2012 was easily my most difficult year with regard to consuming new music. The obvious reason is it was the first year of my life that I was a parent for its entirety. Still, I managed to listen to a lot of quality new releases, and while my list is a little shorter than in past years, I feel pretty confident there's a lot of good stuff here.

I expanded this list from a top 10 to a top 50 in 2005, but it has dwindled in size ever since: to a top 40 from 2007-2008 and a top 33 from 2009-2011. This year, while I could have easily included 33 albums or more, I decided to cut it off where I felt the quality took a hit. While not as much a critical list as a nod to the music i really enjoyed in 2012, the records that just missed were solid, but not really worth recognizing, in my opinion. It turns out the cutoff was at a round number (30), but in the future, if it's 29 or 32, so be it.

30. Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
With an honorable mention to Tift Merritt, who missed this year's list, this is my female alt-country album of the year.

29. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
There are a lot of bands with significant contributions from women who rank much higher, but this ranks as my favorite album from a female solo artist this year.

28. Bloc Party - Four
While I certainly listen to a lot of older music from English artists, when it comes to modern stuff, not so much. This year, however, four U.K. bands—including these guys and three in the top ten—are represented on my list.

27. Damien Jurado - Maraqopa
Not exactly your average singer-songwriter, Jurado comes from a punk background and his songs, while occasionally dirge-like, sometimes find themselves meandering into brief, but meaningful, psychedelic guitar wankings kind of reminiscent of '70s British folk-rock.

26. Wild Nothing - Nocturne
This is the only album to make the list that wasn't featured in a Frequent Spins post this year. So, let's play the "name three bands they remind me of" game: Mojave 3, The Cure, Galaxie 500.

25. Sun Kil Moon - Among the Leaves
I'm no critic, and even if I were it wouldn't be my place to suggest what songs should or shouldn't have been included on an album. But, purely from a personal enjoyment standpoint, if this 74-minute album was edited down to my favorite 40 or so minutes, it might be top ten.

24. Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
I've been into old-timey music for longer than I've been obsessed with old-timey baseball players, but modern music heavily influenced by a 100+ year old genre isn't usually my thing. This three-piece string band, of course, is one of the exceptions.

23. Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
There's no "A Postcard to Nina" here, but this album actually lands one spot higher on my list than the album that contained that gem. However, Lekman is not even the highest ranking Swedish artist in this year's countdown.

22. Todd Snider - Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Singer-songwriter probably is less apt a description for Snider as for Jurado, but storyteller would probably fit the bill. Let's be clear, though. The stories are set to a rocking tone, and they're more than just a tad cynical as they delve into political and occasionally religious themes.

21. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
This Swedish duo of sisters certainly has some country influences, but considering the numerous comparisons to Fleet Foxes, indie folk is probably more like it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Baseball Bloggers Know Music

It started out rather innocently.* I noted on Twitter that several of my fellow High Heat Stats writers were folks I've bonded with to varying degrees about music. Or, rather, I said they have good taste in music, in that their tastes have considerable common ground with mine.

*OK, so it actually wasn't all that innocent, as I kind of poked fun at our "boss" in the process. But, he defended himself in the only way he knows how. He told me I was fired. Jokingly, of course. I think. Come to think of it, I haven't seen a paycheck since the incident (or before, for that matter).

In the ensuing conversation, a suggestion was made that we all collaborate on a little music-related post. I'm using the term "little" rather loosely here, because as it turns out, said post will end up in the ballpark of 3000-5000 words.

So, you can look forward to early January, when you'll get to read 25-40 words on each of the following baseball bloggers' top 25 albums of all-time. Why 25 albums and 25-40 words, you ask? Because a baseball team generally consists of 25 players, with rosters being expanded to 40 in September. Yeah, not that clever, I know.

Adam Darowski (@baseballtwit) is possibly the most "indie" of the group, although since he was a teenager in the '90s, he's probably been known to use the term "alternative" on occasion. We'll see if that's reflected in his selections, although if his baseball interests parallel his music taste at all, there will be a lot of old-timey stuff on his list. He's the creator of the brilliant Hall of Stats, and writes for High Heat Stats and Beyond the Boxscore as well.

Dave England (@juniusworth) is the brainchild of the idea, and is also our token non-east coaster. He writes for Big Game Claws, the Texas Rangers site on the network, as well as MLBDirt and Baseball: Past and Present. Dave and I share a love for alt-country and have learned that if we were playing Six Degrees of John Wetton we could be connected in just two steps. He's friends with Will Johnson and the rest of the Centro-Matic crew, who are friends and frequent collaborators with my hometown pal, Anders Parker.

Dalton Mack (@dmack1291), currently a student at Rutgers University, is the young whippersnapper of the group. He writes for High Heat Stats and hosts "DM in the PM" on Rutgers radio station 90.3: The Core. Despite his youth, Dalton and I have discussed our common reverence for Yes and Steely Dan, but I also know we share two top ten of 2012 selections in common as well.

Bryan O'Connor (@replevel) is the guy most likely to mock the others for their selections, although he's not as tough in this regard as some other friends of mine who will remain nameless. He is the man behind The Replacement Level Baseball Blog and also writes for High Heat Stats and southern Maine regional newspaper The Forecaster. His top 100 albums of each decade posts on Facebook are what opened my eyes to his pretty similar taste to mine, although I predict Dave will have the most albums in common with my list.

Oh, and you'll be hearing from me too. But, you already know me...right?

Like I said, look for this post to appear here in early January (although I might be using the word "early" loosely here as well). In the meantime, you can expect the countdown of my favorite albums of 2012 to get underway shortly.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

All-Time Teams #15: Miami Marlins

This is part of an ongoing series where I'm naming an all-time team for each of the current 30 MLB franchises, and using this as a vehicle to discuss their greatest eligible player who is not in the Hall of Fame.

I apologize for the two-month hiatus between entries in this series, know, life happens. Plus, I've had a few other things to write about in my occasional free moments in the meantime.

But, I'm pleased to finally get around to completing the most-anticipated of the all-time teams. That is, the most successful franchise in baseball history other than the terms of frequency of World Series victories.

That's right, the Marlins' two World Series in 20 years (10%) is second to the Bombers' 27 in 112 seasons (24.1%), with the Cardinals ranking third (11-of-131, 8.4%).

Franchise History
Miami Marlins (2012-)
Florida Marlins (1993-2011)

C - Charles Johnson (1994-1998, 2001-2002)
1B - Jeff Conine (1993-1997, 2003-2005)
2B - Luis Castillo (1996-2005)
SS - Hanley Ramirez (2006-2012)
3B - Miguel Cabrera (2003-2007)
LF - Cliff Floyd (1997-2002)
CF - Juan Pierre (2003-2005)
RF - Gary Sheffield (1993-1998)

Choosing Pierre over Cody Ross was a tougher decision than you'd think. Ross rates higher in terms of WAR and WAA (Wins Above Average), but a lot of that value comes from better defense (a lot of it in just one year), which I'm not certain might be over-rated. Besides, for a team that's won two World Series in 20 years, being a key member of one of those championships has to enter into it. 

The only other difficult decision was Sheffield or Giancarlo Stanton in right field. Check back in a year and Stanton will probably get promoted to starter, assuming he's still wearing a Marlins uniform at that point.

Josh Johnson (2005-2012)
Kevin Brown (1996-1997)
Dontrelle Willis (2003-2007)
Anibal Sanchez (2006-2012)
Josh Beckett (2001-2005)

Brown had two pretty phenomenal years in south Florida, but Johnson's years of service earn him the nod as staff ace. Otherwise, the choice between Beckett and A.J. Burnett for the final rotation spot was pretty easy once the 2003 World Series was factored in.

Robb Nen (1993-1997)

C - Mike Redmond (1998-2004)
1B - Derrek Lee (1998-2003)
2B - Dan Uggla (2006-2010)
SS - Edgar Renteria (1996-1998)
3B - Mike Lowell (1999-2005)
OF - Giancarlo Stanton (2010- )
OF - Cody Ross (2006-2010)

I could have gone with Ivan Rodriguez over Redmond on the basis of his one very good season in Florida, but Redmond is second to Johnson in games caught and accumulated more value than Rodriguez. Besides, I have tough time considering a guy who played only one year for the Marlins—even a team with as short a history as this—as an all-time team member.

Lee versus Kevin Millar was pretty close in terms of overall value, but Lee shows up in the franchise's top ten in so many counting stats (Runs, Hits, Total Bases, HR, RBI), giving him the edge. Of course, that's because he played longer with the Marlins and basically means he was less good over a longer period, but so be it.

Alex Gonzalez gets left off in favor of Renteria, and not just because of the most important hit in team history. Gonzalez's eight years in Florida land him in the top ten in a few important categories (dWAR, Runs, Hits, Total Bases, RBI), but WAR flat out despises him, mainly because it doesn't rate him as well on defense as his reputation.

A.J. Burnett (1999-2005)
Carl Pavano (2002-2004)
Brad Penny (2000-2004)
Ricky Nolasco (2006- )

Nolasco and his 93 ERA+ squeaks into the final pitching slot only because he's the team's all-time wins leader.

Jack McKeon (2003-2005, 2011)

Of course I had to choose one of the two managers who guided the Marlins to World Series victories. McKeon gets the nod over Jim Leyland because he took over a 16-22 team and directed a pretty impressive turnaround that ended with Beckett shutting down the Yankees in the season's finale. He also guided the team to two more decent seasons following their post-Series overhaul, so he gets a few bonus points for that.

Greatest Eligible non-Hall of Famer

Based on playing just two seasons for the Marlins, Charles Johnson doesn't qualify for this honor. Obviously, it's pretty slim pickings otherwise, as Johnson and Conine—newly eligible this year, but sure to drop off the ballot after one round of voting—are the only options.

Although I'm sure Conine is considered a more important player to the team's history, Charles Johnson is the easy choice here. While far from worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration, Johnson was one of the best players in the game at his position for a few years, winning four legitimate Gold Gloves and adding decent—sometimes above average—offense.

Next Up: Milwaukee Brewers