Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sportsball Update!

I've noticed lately that people have begun to use "sportsball" as a derogatory (in my opinion) term to describe a) sports in general when they don't care for sports in general; and b) sports that they don't care for, when they may be passionate about others.  Either way, it strikes me as a way to appear superior to all of us yahoos who (to quote my mom) will watch any contest where they keep score.

So...screw that.  Instead of falling prey to the temptation to demonstrate one's superiority for not being into something that appeals to the masses, how about just keeping those thoughts to yourself?  And meanwhile, I promise not to publicly comment on any of your obsessions that I find to be particularly uninspiring.

And now that I've got that out of my system, there's a lot been going on lately in the world of sportsball, and I've been remiss in not commenting on any of it!

Let's start with the U.S. Open, both men's and women's division.  For the first time, both tournaments were played in consecutive weeks on the same course (Pinehurst No. 2), which was plenty cool in and of itself.  And notwithstanding the rants of one Donald the Trump, who likes his courses lush and green, the course looked great - and more importantly, looked exactly like the kind of course that our national tournament should be played on.

Admittedly, there wasn't a lot of drama to be found over either of the respective weekends, but that's not entirely a bad thing, because you can't sneeze at the type of dominating performance that Martin Kaymer turned in for the men.  And Michelle Wie?  She may only be 24, but she's been around forever.  She is clearly the superstar that women's golf needs to take it to the next level.  And there's something about potential fulfilled that is gratifying.  She's been through a lot, and some of her problems may have been self-inflicted, but Wie now seems poised to grab the spotlight in a way that no other golfer could hope to, outside of a couple of guys named Tiger and Phil.

And how about those San Antonio Spurs?  They may not be a "dynasty" as the term is defined by Phil Jackson, but they've certainly managed to achieve a level of sustained excellence that no other NBA team in history (outside of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers) can match.  Tim Duncan may not be the best player in the history of the league, but as Bill Simmons astutely noted last week, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have had a better career than Duncan.  Championships 15 years apart, and still playing at a high level.  Parker and Ginobli?  Mainstays for a decade.  And Kawhi Leonard, the series MVP?  The guy was SEVEN YEARS OLD when Duncan won his first title.  And when challenged by mastermind Gregg Popovich, he came through like few others have - effectively outplaying the man who might just be the best who's ever played the game.

And so what about Lebron and his legacy?  He's got his two rings and he's recovered from the asinine way he publicly portrayed his entry into Miami four years ago, but at the same time he's lost two finals and now he seems chained to a ship that, if not sinking, is certainly starting to take on water.  If he leaves for greener pastures, anywhere except Cleveland, he puts the entire "asshole" argument back in play.  If he stays and the Heat can't pull themselves together for another title run, he never challenges Jordan for the title of "best of all time."  What's important to him?   I guess we'll find out.

World Cup?  Yeah, it's been awesome this year, with dramatic games nearly every day.  And how painful was that 2-2 tie today with Portugal?  Well, it reminded me of how I felt when Robert Horry stuck a dagger through the heart of the Kings way back in 2002, in Game 4 of the greatest NBA series ever played.  But our next game is against Germany, and what have they ever done in the World Cup?  Right?

Hat tip to Rafael Nadal - great win over Novak Djokovic in the French Open Final; and all of a sudden Roger Federer's title as the greatest major player in history is at doubt.

And last but not least, kudos to the L.A. Kings - who were down THREE GAMES TO ZERO in the FIRST round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  I'd call that resilience.

Sportsball, baby...that's where it's at.

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #23: "Automatic for the People," R.E.M. (1992)

R.E.M.'s career went through a number of distinct phases.  Their first three albums established them as the world's favorite indie critics' band, even as Michael Stipe's enunciation issues and oddball lyrics made them almost impossible to understand.  Around the time of "Fables of the Reconstruction," I remember telling a good friend from my college days that I wasn't even sure if I liked them that much.

And then, BOOM.  On "Life's Rich Pageant" they hired John Mellencamp's producer, turned up the mikes on Bill Berry's drum set, and all of a sudden Michael Stipe decided to stop mumbling.  Some critics called it a sell-out (or even worse, a betrayal), but I thought it was their best album to date.  This trend continued with "Document," which was even better, and "Green," which was almost that good.

But it was after that, in the early to mid-1990s, that the band hit their creative peak.  During that time they issued four consecutive albums falling somewhere between "classic" and "masterpiece," and one of the reasons it's taken so long to restart this project is that I really wanted to avoid the cop out of selecting all four, like I did with Talking Heads.  After listening to all four albums quite a bit, it came down to a choice between "Out of Time" (which should probably be somewhere on this list, but call it near the top of the next tier) and "Automatic for the People," which were released within about a year of each other.

It's the latter album that gets the nod.  Interestingly, the worst song is the first, "Drive," and even it is pretty good.  But it's the six songs that anchor the record - all among their best, featuring some of the most beautiful music they ever wrote - that push it over the top.  I'm talking about "Try Not to Breathe," "Everybody Hurts," "Sweetness Follows," "Man on the Moon," "Nightswimming," and "Find the River."  That's half the album right there, and if I was putting together a tape representing the best of their career, I'd be hard pressed to leave any of those off.

These are not happy songs - just check these lyrics from "Try Not to Breathe:"

I will try not to breathe.
I can hold my head still with my hands at my knees.
These eyes are the eyes of the old, shiver and fold.
I will try not to breathe.
This decision is mine. I have lived a full life
And these are the eyes that I want you to remember. Oh.

I need something to fly over my grave again.
I need something to breathe.
I will try not to burden you.
I can hold these inside. I will hold my breath
Until all these shivers subside,
Just look in my eyes.

The meaning behind those lyrics has been talked about for more than two decades now, to the point where the discussion has its own page on Metafilter.  Clearly the song is about death, but the brilliance of the writing is that you can't pin down the circumstances.  I've always felt it was about someone dying of AIDs, but that's not necessarily the case.  

And these from "Everybody Hurts:"

Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well hang on

Everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts
Don't throw your hand, oh no

I'm not sure what Michael Stipe was going through at that time of his life, but he clearly had a lot on his mind.  But it's best to remember R.E.M. as a band, because their work together was definitely greater than the sum of each individual part.  Nearly every song they recorded was credited to the entire band, and the music they created together was at times so beautiful - gorgeous melodies and vocals - that you sometimes forgot that it was a lot more than Stipe and three sidemen.  So here's to Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.  You were all a great band.

Restarting: Top 50 Albums of all time

For the last couple of summers, my "summer blog project" has been the "95 Songs of Summer," but I think we've taken that one about as far as it can go.  So this summer, the goal will be to wrap up the Top 50 Albums of all time list, started long ago but which stalled out earlier this year. 

But first, let's get caught up on where we were.

You can find all of the individual reviews here.

24. Talking Heads first four albums, 1977-80
25. American IV: The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash
26.  Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan
27.  Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne
28.  Rubber Soul, The Beatles
29. Songs for Swingin' Lovers, Frank Sinatra
30.  Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney
31.  Kiko, Los Lobos
32. Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young & Crazy Horse
33.  Horses, Patti Smith
34.  The Joshua Tree, U2
35.  Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
36.  Peter Gabriel (1980)
37.  August and Everything After, Counting Crows
38.  Tie: Siren and Avalon, Roxy Music
39.  Rocket to Russia, The Ramones
40.  Making Movies, Dire Straits
41.  Black Cadillac, Rosanne Cash
42.  Graceland, Paul Simon
43.  Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams
44.  Life'll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon
45.  Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers
46.  Actually, Pet Shop Boys
47.  Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Elton John
48.  Los Angeles, X
49.  Madonna
50.  Some Girls, The Rolling Stones

Sunday, June 08, 2014

On the occasion of Born in the U.S.A.'s 30th anniversary

"...the aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn't that it was catchy or even vibrant but that it just plain sounded good."

- Robert Christgau

"Born in the U.S.A." holds a unique spot in the Bruce Springsteen canon - it's his most commercially successful album, and yet the album that is most detested by many diehard Bruce fans.  Even the website "Backstreets" has been known to dis' it on occasion - I clearly remember a time when they wrote something along the lines of "A concert without any songs from Born in the U.S.A.? Priceless."

So what happened?  For what it's worth, my theory is that the longtime fans resented the fact that the album was so successful that a) it made it a lot more difficult to get into his concerts; b) it was pretty clear that many (most?) of the new fans were fair-weather fans; and c) his popularity made it necessary to make the jump into the stadiums, resulting in a less intimate concert experience and (inevitably, given the massive scale of the enterprise) an overall drop in the quality of the shows. I saw one of those shows, and it was pretty damn good, but sitting near the top of the Oakland Coliseum surrounded by screaming young girls was definitely different than seeing him in the Arena, with a crowd that probably knew the words to every song.

As for the album, I've always thought that it was among his very best, and I'll continue to defend it now.  Would I put it above "Born to Run" or "Darkness on the Edge of Town?"  No.  But that's pretty heady company, and at the end of the day, it's hard to argue against the notion that with "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen achieved everything (and more) that he set out to accomplish.  As Christgau noted, it sounds great, which is as good a place as any to start.  There is no single track that reaches the level of "Born to Run," "Backstreets," "Badlands" or "The Promised Land," but neither is there a bad track on the album.  And while the music throughout is upbeat, the lyrics don't stray far from previous works - while you're tapping your foot to songs like "Darlington County" or "Working on the Highway," you might want to check out what those songs are about, and how they end. 

So no, it may not be his best - but it's certainly one of the best.