Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Favorite Albums of 2014

And with one exception, they're all pictured at right.

1. "English Oceans," Drive-By Truckers.  DBT fills the role in my living pantheon formerly filled by Warren Zevon.  Everything they release is very good to great, and they're probably never going to hit the mainstream.  But that's OK, although it would be nice if the band didn't have to tour 200 nights a year to make a living.

Of the group's songwriters, Patterson Hood has always been the alpha dog, but "English Oceans" is Mike Cooley's triumph.  Without a doubt, this is the strongest set of songs he's ever penned for a DBT album, and for the first time Cooley has as many songs on an album as Hood (also for the first time, he even sings a Hood-penned tune).  "Shit Shots Count," Primer Coat," "Made Up English Oceans," and "Hearing Jimmy Loud" were all instant classics.

And the Hood songs?  They took a little longer to sink in, but after months of listening it's clear that they're pretty damn good too - with at least one ("Grand Canyon") that will surely end up in his own personal Hall of Fame.

2. "Songs of Innocence," U2.  The only album not pictured above, because as the entire world knows by now, it just ended up on my iPod one day.  Personally I think the controversy over that move was overblown, but after a while to think about it, I can see the point of those who criticized the move.  And what got lost in the shuffle (iPod joke not intended) was that this was the best U2 album in years.  Did they break any new ground?  Probably not.  But they did release the best crafted set of tunes they've come up with in at least 25 years.   That's good enough for me.

3. "Singles," Future Islands.  Like a lot of other people, I was introduced to the band via their amazing performance on Letterman.  And while a lot of this album makes me nostalgic for the 1980s, there's no doubting that Samuel T. Herring and his bandmates know exactly what they're doing.  Fast songs, dance songs, ballads - it all works quite nicely.

4. "Plain Spoken," John Mellencamp.   I wrote about the album here.  Iconic stuff.

5. "Most Messed Up," Old 97s.  See review here, where I called it a "messed up masterpiece."

6. "Tarpaper Sky," Rodney Crowell.  What a songwriter.  Original review here.

7. "The River and the Thread," Rosanne Cash.  When this came out, I thought it might end up at #1, but I was struck by something Robert Christgau said in his review - that the album was lacking in passion.  There's no doubting that this is an excellent album, but I can also see why he said that.  However, at least two major exceptions - "A Feather's Not a Bird," and "When the Master Calls," the great Civil War ballad she wrote with John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell.

8. "High Hopes," Bruce Springsteen.  A lot of good to great tunes here, but after living with it for nearly a year, I can't escape the conclusion that it's less than the sum of its parts.  And I'm sorry, but the Tom Morello contributions detract just as often as they add to the power of the music.

9. "Somewhere Under Wonderland," Counting Crows.  This could continue to move up with time, but the band was clearly energized by their last, covers-only effort.

10. "Platinum," Miranda Lambert.  By the time she is done, she's going to be right up there with some really, really famous country singers.

11. "Voyager," Jenny Lewis.  Pretty darn close to being a perfect pop album.

Subjects for further research: Bryan Ferry's "Avonmore," The New Pornographers' "Brill Bruisers."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Christmas Eve - Darlene Love!

You knew it was going to end with this, right?  Still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we'll never see it again.

"Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," Darlene Love.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 23 - Andy Williams

To this day, one of the greatest Christmas albums, and one of the greatest performances of one of the greatest Christmas songs.

"O Holy Night," Andy Williams.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 21 and 22 - Sting and Paul Simon

It seems only appropriate, since the old guys are now a touring staple as a team.

"Getting Ready for Christmas Day," Paul Simon

"Christmas at Sea," Sting

Which almost brings the calendar up to date.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 19 and 20 - Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, One Direction and Mariah Carey

"Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," Jimmy Fallon, The Roots and One Direction

"All I Want For Christmas Is You," Jimmy Fallon, The Roots and Mariah Carey

Whether Jimmy Fallon will be able to sustain the good cheer that defines his "Tonight Show" over a period of years remains to be seen, but for now it's a hoot to watch.  And few of his bits define that mood more than his "Musical Numbers on Childhood Instruments" videos.  Here are a couple of classics.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 18 - Montgomery Gentry

With their great cover of Robert Earl Keen's great song, "Merry Christmas from the Family."

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 17 - Elton John!

In honor of Sir Elton John's wedding, we bring you his great Christmas song, "Step into Christmas" - clearly, an homage to Phil Spector's legendary Christmas album.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 13-16: Christmas Time in the City: "Silver Bells," "Skating"

Remember when you were little and had an advent calendar, and about halfway through the month realized, "Holy Cow!  I forgot about the Advent Calendar!"?

No?  That was just me?  Oh well.

To catch up we're going to have to do a little cheating.

From Saturday through Tuesday of last week, I was in San Francisco for a conference.  It was the first time I've been in the city that close to Christmas, and I've never seen it so crowded - with revelers there for "Santa Con," with protestors, with shoppers.  It made it a little difficult to navigate through the heart of the city near Union Square, but at the same time it was a lot of fun.

As I made my way through the crowds, I couldn't get the first lines of "Silver Bells" out of my head:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there's a feeling of Christmas

"Silver Bells," Brenda Lee

And then, there were the memory invoking tones of Vince Guaraldi's "Skating":

"Skating," Vince Guaraldi Trio

Friday, December 12, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 12 - Jack Scott

Without a doubt, one of the greatest rock 'n roll Christmas songs.  First time I heard it was in "Diner," and more than 30 years later, I've never tired of it.

"There's Trouble Brewin'," Jack Scott.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 11 - The Raveonettes

"The Christmas Song."

No, not that "The Christmas Song" - this "The Christmas Song."

Either way, it's awesome.

The Raveonettes.

"The Christmas Song."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 10 - Marianne Faithfull and The Chieftains

A great song from the great Christmas album by The Chieftains, "The Bells of Dublin."

"I Saw Three Ships," Marianne Faithfull and The Chieftains.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Sportsman of the Year

I'll try not to toot my own horn too loudly about this, but back on October 30 I wrote a post about the amazing October enjoyed by the San Francisco Giants, one which just happened to include a line predicting that Madison Bumgarner would be Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.  Indeed, at the time I wrote that he was the obvious (and only) choice.

So I'm happier about this than any sane 54-year old (no comments from the peanut gallery, please) has any right to be.  For someone who started subscribing to SI almost 45 years ago, Sportsman of the Year has always been a big deal to me.  You can ask my mom how I reacted in December 1975 when I came home from school expecting to see Jack Nicklaus on the cover, and found Pete Rose smiling back at me instead.  (Things got a little better three years later when Jack was indeed the man).

I'm not even saying that SI always gets it right - in fact, they probably wish there were a few they could take back after the fact (Sosa and McGwire, perhaps?  Lance Armstrong?).  But for the most part, their selections over the years have been solid - and do in fact include an element of sportsmanship to go along with the purely athletic achievements that play a huge role in winning the award.

What's cool about this from the standpoint of a longtime Giants fan is that it feels almost like the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" on the historic nature of what the Giants have accomplished - and what Bumgarner accomplished over the course of 29 remarkable days.  Being named Sportsman of the Year places one in very heady company, and there is no shortage of legends up there on that stage - names like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Billie Jean King, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Derek Jeter, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, The 1980 Olympic Hockey Team, Jim Ryun, Chris Evert, and all the others.  Great stuff...historic stuff.

So congratulations to Madison Bumgarner...Sportsman of the Year.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 9 - Harry Connick, Jr.

Let's pick things up a bit, shall we?

I'm quite certain I've posted this one before, but what the heck - it's a classic.  And hard to believe, more than 20 years old now.  Which makes me feel pretty darn old, if you must know.

"It Must Have Been Ol' Santa Claus," Harry Connick, Jr.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 8 - Mary Gauthier

Not every Christmas song is a happy song, just as Christmas is not a happy time for everyone.

Realistic without seeming overly maudlin, Mary Gauthier does a wonderful job painting the picture of someone for whom that is the case.

"Christmas in Paradise," Mary Gauthier.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 7 - Baseballs

Rockabilly Christmas!

"Driving Home for Christmas," Baseballs.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 6 - The Vanishers

The "spending the holidays drinking at the bar" song is a fine tradition and gets a rollicking take here, courtesy of The Vanishers featuring Ginger St. James.

And yes, it's OK to be sexy at Christmas. 

"Christmas Wish at the End of the Bar," The Vanishers featuring Ginger St. James.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 4 - Sufjan Stevens

Over the past decade, Sufjan Stevens has quietly become one of the most prolific Christmas recording artists in the history of recorded music.

Each year, Stevens creates a new CD of Christmas songs - some original, others standards, still others that are difficult to categorize at all - for friends and family.  After five years (at least so far), he releases a 5-CD set encompassing the entire half-decade's worth of songs.  Some are rough, others are beautiful and moving, and some are just plain bizarre.

And then, some are pretty darn close to transcendent - and I would put this song in that category.

"Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!," Sufjan Stevens.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 3 - Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks

Every year, I put together a Christmas CD for friends and colleagues.  I try to find songs that are less familiar than those that you would hear on the radio or playing in a department store, which is a time-consuming (I usually begin during the summer) but fun process.

This song appeared in my collection in 2012, and is a good representation of the "oddball" types of songs that I look for.

"I've Got Christmas By The Tail," Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 2 - Ernest Tubb and Gene Autry

I was first introduced to "Merry Texas Christmas, You All" by the Asleep at the Wheel version, but in any version, the song is a good, rollicking (and unorthodox) way to get the holidays rolling.

The video doesn't allow embedding, but there is also an excellent version by Gene Autry.

"Merry Texas Christmas, You All," in versions by Ernest Tubb and Gene Autry.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 1 - Bob Dylan

It's a tradition going least a few years, when I post a different Christmas video each day from December 1 until Christmas Eve.

As the years have gone by, it's become more difficult to keep track of the songs that I've posted along the way, so there no doubt will be some repeats.  And I suspect that this is one of them.

The thought of Bob Dylan singing Christmas songs is not one that comes readily to the mind.  But without doubt, this is a great one - in keeping with the spirit of the season, and fun to boot.

"It Must Be Santa," Bob Dylan.