Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Music of 2015: #1 Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

It's happened in a number of prior years. Going into December, I basically have my mind made up regarding my #1 album, then I give some late consideration to #2 only to eventually realize I had it right in the first place.

One such year that comes to mind is 2005 when I briefly considered Sufjan Stevens' Illinois over Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy

Stevens was in my top spot most of this year, but in the later months it looked like Kacey Musgraves would end up #1. So, it looked like Sufjan was going to be a bridesmaid once again, but upon giving several final listens to both Carrie & Lowell and Pageant Material, I realized the former was clearly my favorite of 2015.

This being the darkest album on my year-end list, it pairs well with the darkest beer among my 2015 favorites, Bell's Expedition Stout.

Thanks to those of you who tuned into my little best-of-2015 countdown, despite an 11-month absence here. I'm not sure what 2016 has in store for this blog, but I wish you all the best in the new year. Cheers.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Music of 2015: #2 Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material

Every Christmas I buy my dad a CD of one of the year's best country albums, in my opinion. It's not always my favorite, but rather something I really like that I think he will too.

This is the highest-ranking album I've given him as a gift, at least partly because it's so damn difficult to buy CDs anymore. I was initially a little concerned about the frequency of (mostly) subtle marijuana references on this one, but I couldn't find Willie and Merle's Django & Jimmie, so I went with it. 

Pageant Material is chock full of clever lyrics about simple living, being yourself and generally just not being an asshole. It seems like the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon of drinking Lagunitas Born Yesterday. Oh, and there may actually be another connection.

Best Music of 2015:
#3 CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye

CHVRCHES are the first of two female-fronted acts in my top three. While, in this case, we're talking about a female lead vocalist backed by two male members, the remaining female artist is a solo act.

The Scottish electro-pop band made my top 20 with their 2013 debut album, but really elevated their game this year with Every Open Eye, a record with barely a weak moment.

It's also the most unique album on my year-end list of mostly rootsy stuff, kind of like a Pipeworks Yuzu Saison on a beer list dominated by IPAs. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#4 Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell is the third artist in this year's top tenRyan Adams and Tame Impala are the othersto score their second top ten this decade. The fourth such act to hold this distinction is Isbell's former band, the Drive-By Truckers, but they did it in the decade's first two years and had their run of five consecutive top ten albums end last year.

It's safe to say Isbell has overtaken his former band, in popularity for sure, and now in my eyes as well. So, I'm raising a toast to him in the form of a Brewmaster Jack The Little Brother.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#5 Tallest Man on Earth - Dark Bird is Home

Sweden's Tallest Man on Earth is the first (but not the last) European artist to show up on this year's list, with Australia's Tame Impala the only other non-American act.

That's right, no Canadians this year (no Ryan/Bryan Adams jokes, please). Actually, the northerners haven't been doing as well as they used to this decade, but if Neil Young could've made an album that was as strong all the way through as The Monsanto Years' best songs, it might be a different story. 

For fairly obvious reasons, Dark Bird is Home would go perfectly with Tree House Green.

Best Music of 2015:
#6 James McMurtry - Complicated Game

Another of this year's top ten newcomers, James McMurtry was basically discovered by John Mellencamp back in 1989. 10 or so studio albums later and he's finally showed up on my radar.

McMurtry's is kind of a no-nonsense style of working man's indie folk, if that makes even the slightest bit of sense. For that reason, I'm pairing Complicated Game with Bell's Hopslam, because the name suggests it's not messing around, but its acerbic nature is mellowed out a bit by the addition of honey to the brew.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#7 Ryan Adams - 1989

It's pretty much indisputable that Ryan Adams was the best songwriter in the world from 1997 to 2000. Not just because of the two albums hyperlinked in that sentence, but also because this material was being written in between.

After two Whiskeytown and two solo records made my top ten in the first six years of its existence, Adams didn't appear again for another 10 years. He's hardly returned to his old form, because that would be almost impossible, but I'm obviously pleased with his recent output. 

Yes, this is an album of Taylor Swift covers, so it's somewhat surprising I liked it so much. On the other hand, you had to know Ryan Adams would make these songs his own, so it's not a total shock, but I still have to call it the most unlikely album to land here. 

I received Daisy Cutter Pale Ale in a beer trade with a Twitter pal from Chicago. (In fact, four of my top 13 were acquired in that exchange.) So, I'm not going to say I didn't expect much, but a 5.2% pale ale that doesn't even fall into the "pale ale that could just as easily be called an IPA" category is still the most unlikely 4.5 capper of the year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#8 Tame Impala - Currents

Although quite a departure from their last album, Currents lands as the second straight Tame Impala album in the latter half of my top ten. Two top tens in the '10s so far ties this band with a few other artists for most in the decade so far.

The beer comparisons seem to be getting more and more difficult, but I think for some of the remaining albums they'll be a little easier. If there was an R&B album on the list, it would seem appropriate to go with Mo' Shuggie Soul Bender IPA, but since, well, I could easily make another blanket statement about who's less well represented than women here, this pairing will have to do.

Best Music of 2015:
#9 Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands

This year was my 30th high school reunion. I didn't go, although it's hard to explain why. My good reason is we're trying to establish some of my son's hometown's holiday eventsmany of which happen Thanksgiving weekendas family traditions.

The harder to explain reason is I just wasn't in the mood for it. Sometimes nostalgia can be a good thing, but not always. This album really explores those themes and, in fact, makes me feel as nostalgic as any mix of marginally dance-able mid-'80s tunes could.

For that reason, my beer pairing is going to be Finch's Hardcore Chimera. Produced in cans, this beer's label uses the same fontMetal Lordthat Iron Maiden has been using on their album covers for their entire existence. Dawes' sound bears absolutely no resemblance to Iron Maiden's, so this is a stretch, but it's the nostalgic connection I'm going for here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#10: Best Coast - California Nights

There are six newcomers and four returnees to this year's top ten. Among the returnees are an old friend back for the first time in almost a decade and a solo artist making his fourth appearance (sixth if you count his former band).

Best Coast is the first of the six newcomers and also the first of three female-fronted acts in the top ten. The latter number is more than usual, but not unprecedented. The bigger deal is the positional ranking of the remaining two.

I haven't been to California in over a decade, but I could see myself spending some California nights sipping Ballast Point's Grapefruit Sculpin while enjoying Best Coast's brand of infectious indie pop.

Best Music of 2015:
#11 Craig Finn - Faith in the Future

The Hold Steady's run of four consecutive studio releases in my top ten ended last year, but only four other artists can claim as many (or more) top ten finishes in the 20-year history of this list: Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle, Wilco and one other to be revealed later.

Did I mention this is my 20th year of compiling at least a top ten list? I wasn't sure if that makes this year or next the 20th anniversary, since the list was first conceived in 1996. I also thought about burning a 20th anniversary CD and sending it to my three or four fans. I think they all still own CD players.

Both of Finn's solo albums can boast 11th-place finishes, which is about as satisfying as finishing 5th in the CFP standings (sorry Iowa).

I'm going to pair Faith in the Future with Pipeworks Citra, because in both cases, the title is a bit deceptive. Citra (aka Citra Ninja) packs a punch that belies its sunny name, while Faith dabbles in hopefulness, but the overall tone is far from bright and cheery.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#12 Built to Spill - Untethered Moon

When Dinosaur Jr. closed out the final show of their 30th anniversary celebration with "Cortez the Killer," I commented that every band should go out that way. What I really meant was Built to Spill should (oh, and perhaps Neil Young, but he has so many great options).

Doug Martsch and company just keep churning out consistently great guitar-oriented indie rock. Honestly, their last few albums haven't done anything to distinguish them from what came before, but they always come along at a time when I'm just ready for a new Built to Spill album.

Like BTS, Hopworks IPA reminds me of an old friend and, actually, I must admit I've had it before. But, it was years ago at a brew fest, and you know how they all start to run together at those events. So, it made a much bigger impression on me this time, and being from a Portland brewery, it also makes me think about a certain someone whose presence will be missed during future trips to the craft beer capital of the United States.

Best Music of 2015:
#13 Ryley Walker - Primrose Green

I won't be repeating the "I never got into so-and-so before this album" refrain because I had never heard of Ryley Walker before this year.

I came across this article yesterday and, considering I have 13 albums to go and I just put together a list of my 13 favorite beers I tried this year, I decided to borrow the idea.

Primrose Green's hazy '70s-inspired songs would pair well with Tree House Haze. Yes, because of the name, but also because of its cloudy, unfiltered appearance and, at 8.2%, because this Imperial IPA from Central Massachusetts will leave you feeling a bit, well, hazy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#14 Rhett Miller - The Traveler

I haven't really been overwhelmed by Rhett Miller's previous solo material. I guess, to be honest, I haven't been blown away by anything he's done since 1997's Too Far to Care. While this is hardly a return to his old Old 97's form, this album and last year's Most Messed Up are at least as good as 1999's Fight Songs and 2001's Satellite Rides, and that's alright with me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Best Music of 2015:
#15 Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love

This blog has unceremoniously fallen by the wayside this year. While it probably doesn't stand much chance of being fully resurrected, I thought I'd close out the year by using it for the purpose I originally started it for: counting down my favorite albums of the year.

I've never really been able to get into Sleater-Kinney until this album. Considering how I like to make light of the fact that, for whatever reason, I'm much more into male than female musicians, I will give a little hint that female artists are a little more prominent this year than usual.

More on that to come.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Beers of 2014

As usual, my beers of the year list highlights those I drank for the first time last year, but there are a couple here that don't meet that criterion. I'll explain when I get to them.

No ranked order this year, just an approximately chronological list of the beers that made my year. 

Nugget Nectar (Tröegs Brewing Co.)
I didn't acquire as many "white whales" last year as I did the year before—I think perhaps that's a phase I'm growing out of—but this was one of my most sought-after beers when the year started. A trip to the newly opened Craft Beer Cellar in a neighboring town to get my hands on some late-season Lagunitas Sucks proved fruitful in helping get advanced notice of a future shipment of this wonderful Imperial Amber (which isn't quite as good as Sucks, but I can't guarantee a blind taste test would confirm that). Get to know your beer guys, kids. I mean, young adults. 

Chico King (Sierra Nevada/3 Floyds Brewing Co.)
Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp Across America 12-pack of collaborations with smaller brewers was another of the most highly coveted products to me this year. A few of the guest collaborators were breweries it seemed I might never get my hands on their offerings. Most of the beers were good but not great, but this was the first one I drank and it made the biggest impression on me, even if everyone else raved about the Double Latte: Coffee Milk Stout collaboration with Ninkasi. 

Fort Point Pale Ale (Trillium Brewing Co.)
My first actual visit to Trillium was a fruitful one. Some half-drunk guy who worked across the street tried to convince me to opt for Congress Street IPA instead, and on most days I would have. But, I was planning on sharing it with a friend who's not a hophead. Still, this one has many characteristics I was instantly infatuated with—gloriously citrusy hops and a nice bite—that leave it straddling the line between pale ale and IPA. In fact, this one beats out Nugget Nectar as my favorite non-IPA-that-could-be-called-an-IPA, and was probably also better than any IPA I had last year as well. Time to head back to Congress Street to get more of what Boston's best brewery has to offer. 

Breakside IPA (Breakside Brewery)
It's not officially a rule or a tradition, but it seems our trips to visit KJ's family always include one night where I pick a restaurant/brewpub to go to dinner with her parents. Breakside was an excellent choice this time around, because the food was good, the atmosphere worked for a party of five that included two senior citizens and a toddler, and because their IPAs were excellent. Perhaps the fact that my father-in-law, whose favorite beer is Fat Tire, chose this over their Woodlawn Pale Ale—which was about to be my recommendation—put me in just the right mood, but I think it was really strong on its own merits. 

Fred (Hair of the Dog Brewing Co.)
I went to Portland's Hair of the Dog seeking out Adam, but I found Fred first and he made Adam seem much less friendly. Yes, these beers are named after dogs and no, they don't have much bite, which I guess is a good and a bad thing. Fred was golden and delicious (and 10%) and Hair of the Dog was one of two beer highlights of our recent family trip to Oregon. As a bonus, I got to take LC one block down the street to watch freight trains pass at street level...not once but twice. 

Celebration Ale (Sierra Nevada)
I'm not really sure how long it had been since I last enjoyed this one, but it dates back to the days when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was one of my first favorite micro-brews in the mid-'90s. Celebration Ale was always a wintertime treat that was noticeably bolder than anything I was drinking at the time. I hadn't really thought twice about it in years, until the Beergraphs guys started talking it up. The fact they were now calling it a Fresh Hop IPA (i.e. a winter ale that doesn't get any spicyness from anything but hops) made it a must-have-again for me. I was not disappointed. 

Loose Cannon Hop3 IPA (Heavy Seas Beer)
Two-plus years ago, during our visit to Baltimore for a friend's wedding, an 11-month old LC and I explored parts of the city together while KJ did pre-wedding things with the girls. After he nodded off in the stroller, I took him to Heavy Seas Ale House. He woke up a little quicker than anticipated, but I still enjoyed a cask-conditioned Loose Cannon with him. It was good, but not great, I'll admit. For Christmas this year, it was one if the beers in my stocking and it was much better than I remembered. I even snapped a photo of LC handing one of my stocking beers to me and it turned out to be this one. Clearly, this is our beer. 

Honorable Mentions: World Wide Stout (Dogfish), DirtWolf (Victory), Jurata (Coronado/Cigar City)

Monday, January 05, 2015

Two Hypothetical Hall of Fame Ballots

I'll admit I'm getting a little tired of this exercise, and perhaps you are too. I know I'm not the only one. I still love the Hall of FameI just can't help myselfbut I've grown increasingly frustrated with the process and its usual outcome for many highly deserving candidates.

That said, I'm not going to write about how to fix it. If you're interested in reading more on that subject, here are some ideas worth kicking around

I am, however, going to take you through the trite 'ole hypothetical ballot exercise. Except I've got two hypothetical ballots. Bear with me if you please. 

The first is who I'd vote for independent of what I know about prior BBWAA ballots. In other words, if I had no idea of how the voting might go. 

Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens 
Randy Johnson
Pedro Martinez
Jeff Bagwell 
Mike Piazza
Curt Schilling
Mike Mussina
Tim Raines
Alan Trammell

These are who I consider the ten most deserving players on the ballot. Honestly, after the first eight, I'm pretty torn on six guys to take the final two slots. More on that in a minute. 

The second hypothetical ballot is who I'd vote for if I actually had a vote, with a heavy emphasis on how the vote is trending based on recent elections. 

Randy Johnson
Pedro Martinez
Jeff Bagwell 
Mike Piazza
Curt Schilling
Mike Mussina
Tim Raines
Craig Biggio
Larry Walker
Edgar Martinez

As you can figure out for yourself, on the second ballot, I've dropped Bonds, Clemens and Trammell and added Biggio, Walker and Edgar Martinez. 

My reasons may be obvious to some, but I'll explain. 

Bonds and Clemens aren't going anywhere. That is, they're not getting in anytime soon, and they're not in jeopardy of falling off the ballot either. They've been safely in the mid-to-upper-30s (in terms of voter percentage) both of their years on the ballot, and that's not going to change drastically. 

Trammell, I'm sorry to say, is the definition of a lost cause. Considering this is his second-to-last chance, he'll be put out of his BBWAA misery and moving on to the hopefully greener pastures of the Veterans Committee shortly. 

There's no sense using a vote on any of these three that could be applied more usefully to someone with a chance of getting in or who needs help staying on the ballot. 

Biggio fell two votes short of election last year. He's the 14th best player (out of 17 who I think are deserving) on this ballot, so getting him inducted and out of the way will be a step toward clearing a path for other deserving candidates to get their due. 

I suppose I could vote for John Smoltz (#13 on the ballot, in my opinion) for the same reason, but his candidacy is trending towards easily reaching the 75% threshold, so I'm going to assume he needs my vote less than Biggio does. 

Walker and Martinez are my 11th and 12th most deserving players. Walker is in jeopardy of falling off the ballot if his support takes a significant hit, so he needs the vote more than any of my top 12 candidates. Martinez is in a less tenuous position, but his candidacy needs to build some momentum as he reaches the latter half of his ballot eligibility. 

That leaves Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield as the three remaining players I'd vote for if there wasn't a 10-player restriction, and the 15th through 17th most deserving players, in my opinion. McGwire and Sosa are lost causes due to the PED issue, and it appears Sheffield is trending in the same direction. 

I'd honestly like to cast a hypothetical vote for Sheffield just to help him stay on the ballot, as I believe his PED transgressions are murkier than some of the others, but he's just too far down my list to justify that decision. 

Lastly, I'm going to predict four players are inducted this year: Johnson, Pedro, Smoltz and Biggio. Piazza's vote total will make a big jump, but fall short of 75%, paving the way for his induction with Ken Griffey Jr. next year. Bagwell and Raines will receive a significant boost in support as well.

For Bagwell, I think he'll eventually earn election before his BBWAA eligibility runs out. For Raines, I'm not so optimistic.