Tuesday, December 31, 2013

13 Favorite Albums of 2013

It was a great year for music; at least the music that I like.  In recent years it's been a chore to come up with 10 albums deserving of a Top Ten, but this year I easily could have stretched the list to 20 (maybe even 25).  But it being 2013, I'll settle for 13.

Later on, I'll designate the "honorable mentions" that didn't quite make the list - albums that I enjoyed a great deal, and would likely have cracked the Top Ten in other years.  And just think - in less than two weeks, the new releases by Bruce Springsteen and Rosanne Cash will be out.  Happy New Year indeed!

Without further ado...

13) Magpie and the Dandelion, The Avett Brothers.  I may have underrated "The Carpenter," the brothers' last effort, but this felt like a return to form, with the production slickness turned down just a notch and the quirkiness of the songs a little closer to the Avett standard.

12) The Diving Board, Elton John.  This was the kind of album from a seasoned veteran that makes you wonder, "what the hell have you been doing for the past 25 years?"  Elton was never one for making perfect albums, so the consistency of this is as surprising as it is welcome.  His collaborations with Leon Russell and T-Bone Burnett have clearly reignited his creative engine, and Bernie Taupin provides a strong set of lyrics.

11) Shangri-La, Jake Bugg.  I've written about Bugg on several occasions this year.  Early on, I caught up with his 2012 self-titled release, and in November he came out with this Rick Rubin-produced nugget.  My guess is that he'll be a presence for an entire generation.

10) Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails.  I have to admit that this is the first NIN album I've ever bought, so for me there is no base for comparison. What I heard here impressed me a great deal - slow ones, fast ones, all blanketed under an atmospheric clarity recalling the best of Joy Division or New Order.

9) The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae.  The concept remains odd, and a great deal of the album has a distinct late seventies vibe, but that's part of what makes it so appealing.  I continue to believe, as I did on first listen, that her best work is ahead of her.

8) Fade, Yo La Tengo.  I'd call this the comeback of the year, except that they never really went away - I just drifted away from them.  "Fade" demonstrates why they, a small indie band that much of the country probably knows next to nothing about, have been able to make it work for nearly 25 years.

7) Wrote A Song For Everyone, John Fogerty.  This may sound silly, but what a delightful album.  It's a blessing to the world that Fogerty has fully come to peace with his old (best) songs, to the point where he's able to record a version of "Proud Mary" that owes as much to the Ike and Tina version as Creedence's.  Every time I listen, I have a new favorite song.

6) Reflektor, Arcade Fire.  This could continue to move up over time, but for now this seems about the right spot for it.  Ultimately, it feels like they tried to do a little too much.  But I once felt that way about Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," so only time will tell.

5) American Kid, Patty Griffin.  It's not likely that Griffin will ever top "1000 Kisses," her 2002 masterpiece.  That she could come this close, more than a decade later, is good enough.  At their best, Griffin's songs are a living manifestation of the Bruce Springsteen line, "Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart."

4) Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, Elvis Costello and The Roots.  Holy crap, Elvis - I honestly didn't think you had it in you.  Credit "Spectacle," credit Questlove, credit the band - whatever, it all works - the album he probably thought he was making back in 1980 when he released "Get Happy."

3) Trouble Will Find Me, The National.  With (what I call) an "atmospheric" band, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  "Trouble Will Find Me" captures a sound, a tone and a mood from the very first chords and maintains it over the course of an entire album.  Hauntingly beautiful from start to finish.

2) Random Access Memories, Daft Punk.  My wife focuses on lyrics a lot more than I do, and she thinks this one suffers from a lack of meaningful content on that side of the equation.  It's a fair point, because this is, pure and simple, a dance album.  But it's a dance album with smarts, one that creates a seamless fusion of the best of 70s disco with the best of modern-day electronica.  Any album that brings together Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams has a lot going for it.  But notwithstanding the hit that needs not be named, the album's two triumphs are "Giorgio by Moroder," a tribute/homage to the great seventies producer featuring the man himself, and "Touch," featuring Paul Williams (the short white guy, not the Temptations' bass voice) in a song that by all rights should not work, but does.

1) Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend.  Rolling Stone picked it #1.  Pitchfork picked it #1.  It's an almost certain lock to top the Pazz & Jop poll.  And it's deserved.  It's as close to a perfect album as has been released in...oh, lets say a decade.  Everything works - the ballads, the fast ones, and everything in-between.  There are a lot of people out there who can't stand this band, and when the album came out, a lot of those people were tweeting things like, "For a band that I hate, this sure is a good album."

It's hard to pick just one song, but if forced by gunpoint, I'd go with "Ya Hey," if nothing else for these lines:

Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning "Israelites"
Into "19th Nervous Breakdown"

Perfect.  Just perfect.

Coming soon - honorable mentions.  Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Songs of the Year - "Blurred Lines," Robin Thicke

No less an authority than Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield called it the worst song of "this or any other year," and the NSFW video certainly spawned controversy (as well as a lot of thoughtful discourse), but hey, it sure was fun to dance to, and for this listener it felt more like a tribute to Marvin Gaye than an outright rip-off.

"Blurred Lines," performed here by Robin, Jimmy Fallon, and The Roots.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Songs of the Year - "Dance Apocalyptic," Janelle Monae

And this may very well have been the performance of the year.  Janelle Monae, doing her best James Brown imitation on the Letterman Show. 

"Dance Apocalyptic," Janelle Monae.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kings Mania

So the Heat were without three starters, and in the midst of what is probably their longest road trip of the year.  Who cares?  We beat them, after a start that made me think that we'd be heading for the parking lot by the end of the third quarter.

And in the midst of the entertaining, come-from-behind victory, we were treated to this little gem from LeBron - who is amazing even when he's playing through a groin pull, as was the case for most of the second half.

When you see something like that, all you can do is smile...or just laugh out loud, which is what we did.

2013 Songs of the Year - "Blowin' Smoke," Kacey Musgraves

 I have a feeling that Kacey Musgraves is going to be around for a while.  Her 2013 album was consistently excellent, and this song seems destined for the country music pantheon.

Kacey Musgraves, "Blowin' Smoke."

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 Songs of the Year - "Finger Back," Vampire Weekend

As has been the case for the past few years, I'm going to highlight some of my favorite songs of the year.  And on New Year's Eve, not only will I be announcing my Song of the Year, but I'll also review my favorite 13 albums of 2013.

We begin with a live version of "Finger Back," from the great Vampire Weekend album, "Modern Vampires of the City."

American Hustle: Missed it by that much

"American Hustle" has been getting some of the best reviews of the holiday season, and is an almost certain nominee for the Best Picture Oscar.  Acting nominations for Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and even Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner wouldn't surprise me.  I suppose even Bradley Cooper could pull one out of the hat, but we'll talk about that in a minute.

First things first - I enjoyed it. The problem?  I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected, and the problems I had with it keep me from placing it in the "great" category.  For the sake of comparison, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," director David O. Russell's two most recent flicks, resonated more with me.  And that's a shame, because the material in "American Hustle" is ripe for the pickings, and I left the theater with a vague feeling that Russell had missed too many opportunities. 

Loosely based on the ABSCAM sting of the late '70s, the movie does a great job of evoking that era, and the "styles" and fashions of late seventies New York City and New Jersey. There's a lot moral ambiguity on display, not unlike that which Sidney Lumet explored in his magnificent "Prince of the City" (admittedly, one of my all-time favorite movies).  The FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper is a self-absorbed prick, and it doesn't take long for the viewer to begin actively rooting against his quest to make a name for himself by snagging some big names in his little caper.  All of the other protagonists are indeed breaking the law in some form or fashion, but none of it feels serious enough to warrant a full-scale FBI operation, a viewpoint well-expressed by the Louis C.K. character, Cooper's immediate supervisor in the bureau.  But again like "Prince of the City," the whole thing takes on a life of its own when someone higher up in the bureau, looking to make a name for himself, green-lights the deal.

All of the players acquit themselves well, but I was most impressed with Bale's rumpled con man, Adams as his partner, and Renner as a politician trying to do all the right things in exactly the wrong ways.  Cooper, I thought, was overwrought in his role, with his big moments screaming "ACTING!"  But for all the talent on display in the leads, it is Robert DeNiro, in a scene that can't last more than 5 minutes, who steals the show as a calm, truly malevolent mob veteran from Miami.  It's always nice to have a reminder that he still has it, and here he does, in spades.

Can you criticize a movie for not being as good as it could have been?  Perhaps that's not being fair, but that's where I am on "American Hustle."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 24: Darlene Love!

And of course, the enduring classic closes out the calendar.

Darlene Love, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," from the Late Show with David Letterman, 12/20/13.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Candlestick Memories

Candlestick Park opened for business on April 12, 1960, exactly one week after I was born.  Since it's been the home of my two favorite sports teams, it should come as no surprise that I've got a lot of memories of the place.  A few of them come to mind:

- 1968, my first Giants game.  A night game in July, against the St. Louis Cardinals.  At that time, the park had not yet been enclosed, and as any Giants fan knows, there were few things in life colder than a night game in the middle of summer at Candlestick Park.

- 1971, seeing Hank Aaron hit a home run in person.

- 1973, watching a good but not great Giants team defeat the New York Mets in August, when shortstop Bud Harrelson couldn't handle a pop fly that got caught up in the wind.

- 1975, my first 49ers game, seeing a horrible team drop a game to the Houston Oilers, and watching Billy "White Shoes" Johnson almost break one on a punt return for a touchdown.  

- 1978, when grass once again reigned supreme, a classic Giants-Dodgers matchup that saw the Giants triumph in extra innings.

- 1981, 1987 and 1988 - Opening day games, back in the days when they opened up the parking lot at 10:00 a.m. for a 7:00 p.m. start.  In '87, it was a miracle that no one was killed.  Mike Krukow started the game, and it was the one and only time that I've seen two women in a fistfight.  And trust me, it was vicious.

- 1989, my favorite in-person memory: the Dave Dravecky Comeback Game.  Just 8 months earlier, Dravecky had undergone 8 hours of surgery for a cancerous tumor in his upper arm.  By sheer luck the tickets we'd bought months earlier turned out to be for the game that he would return.  Amazingly, after 6 innings Dravecky had a no-hitter going, and he left following the 7th inning having allowed just one hit.  The Giants prevailed 4-3, and it was one of the more emotional sports events of my lifetime.  In his next start, Dravecky's fragile arm shattered during a pitch, the last of his career.  Two years later, the arm was amputated.

- 2000, the last time I attended a 49ers game, watching Kurt Warner perform surgery on the 49ers overmatched secondary.

And of course, countless moments watching on television.  My favorite baseball moment?  Will Clark's game-winning hit in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, 1989.  Favorite football moment?  Of course, The Catch.  Both called by the great Vin Scully.

As Dwight Clark put it, Candlestick was a dump.  But it was our dump.

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 21-23: Santa Claus!

The King, spitting fire.

The Crystals' indelible version.

And of course, The Boss.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 18-20: Silent Night

OK, here we go again!

Done well, "Silent Night" is as moving as any song ever written or sung.  Enya comes through with this version.

Another gorgeous version, courtesy of Joanie Komatsu.

And of course, the great Andy Williams, from his classic Christmas album.

Almost home...but more to come!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 13-17

It always happened to me when I was a kid.  A few days would go by, and all of a sudden I'd realize that the advent calendar had been forgotten.  So why should anything change in my adulthood?

So let's get caught up right quick.



Another great one from Nick's instant classic.

Great guitar player, but hey, the guy can sing too.

I'm not sure that any live performance videos exist of the great songs on the Phil Spector Chistmas Album, so this will have to do.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 12 - Scala and Kolacny Brothers

Being a Linkin Park cover, I'm not even sure this completely counts as a Christmas song, but the production quality on the video is outstanding, and as always the choir hits it out of the park.  And after all, it is called "My December."

Day 12 - "My December," Scala and Kolacny Brothers

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 11 - The Piano Guys

OK, now this is pretty cool.  I have to admit I'd never heard of these guys, but they look like they're worth checking out.

Day 11 - "Angels We Have Heard On High," The Piano Guys.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 10 - Jack Johnson

Heck, this one is worth it just to see Questlove in a Christmas sweater.

I've never heard a Jack Johnson song that I truly disliked, but on the other hand, a little Jack does tend to go a long way.  His saving grace is that he doesn't take himself too seriously.

Day 10 - "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Jack Johnson and The Roots.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 9 - The Lennon Sisters

Now, let's jump into our way-back machine, to a simpler time when musical groups like The Lennon Sisters ruled the airwaves.  OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but I do remember them growing up, mostly because my grandma was a big fan of the The Lawrence Welk Show.

And you gotta love those outfits - proof that in 1968, not everyone was a hippie.

Day 9 - The Lennon Sisters, with "Christmas Waltz."

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 8 - Johnny Mathis

Speaking of awesome, may we present the great Johnny Mathis?

An all-time classic, made even stronger by the inclusion of the seldom heard intro.

Day 8 - Johnny Mathis, "I'll Be Home For Christmas."

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 7 - Jimmy Fallon and Friends

What distinguishes Jimmy Fallon from his late night competitors - and I love David Letterman and don't hate Jay Leno - is his enthusiasm.  He's having fun doing his show, where the others often seem like they're just going through the motions.

This clip is pure awesomeness.  Day 7 - Jimmy Fallon, The Roots and Mariah Carey (with a little help from some kids), "All I Want For Christmas Is You."

Friday, December 06, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 6 - Ronnie Spector

Not quite the original with the Ronettes, but still pretty darn good.

Day 6 - "Sleigh Ride," Ronnie Spector.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 5 - Siouxsie and the Banshees

Holy cow, now this is something you don't see every day - a band like Siouxsie and the Banshees singing a song like "Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant."

But, it sounds pretty good.

Day 5 - Il Es Ne Le Divin Enfant, Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 4 - Harry Connick Jr.

When it comes to Christmas albums, one could call Harry Connick, Jr. the Andy Williams of the 21st Century and not get laughed out of the room.  He's released three of them so far, and I have a sneaking suspicion we'll see at least one more before he hangs it up for good.

Day 4 - "It Must Have Been Ol' Santa Claus," Harry Connick, Jr.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Day 3, Musical Advent Calendar - The Williams Brothers

Now, everyone knows that you can't really have Christmas without a little Andy Williams, and as an added bonus today we're happy to present Andy and all of his brothers!

To be honest, I had no idea there were Williams brothers, at least not brothers in the entertainment business.  But one thing is for certain - I want one of those sweaters.

Day 3 - "The Holiday Season," The Williams Brothers.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Day 2, Musical Advent Calendar - Nick Lowe

That's right, folks - Nick Lowe has released a Christmas album, and based on this song alone, it's one that I'm going to seek out pronto.

It's hard to believe that it's been more than 30 years since Lowe was considered one of the leading lights of the New Wave era, releasing [at least] two classic albums ("Pure Pop for Now People," "Labour of Lust") in the late 1970s as well as producing Elvis Costello's first five albums.  In terms of musical style, Lowe was less New Wave than simply a great rocker who knew well enough to adapt to the times.  On the other hand, one could argue that the times adpated to him.  Either way, he deserves a spot in history, along with his mate Dave Edmunds and his bandmates in Rockpile.

Day 2 - "Children Go Where I Send Thee," Nick Lowe.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Big Games, Big Bucks

When it comes to college football, I'm a bit of a traditionalist.  I'd just as soon that we go back to the old bowl system, where we had intense controversy every once in a while but also had, I would argue, an overall better slate of games with more at stake.  The fact that most of the key rivalry games have moved after Thanksgiving also bugs me.

But, I get it - more games means more money, and it's silly for me to complain too loudly since all of this means more football (although another thing I miss is NFL games on Saturdays in December, which seems to have gone by the wayside with the proliferation of late season college games and early bowls).  And I can't argue with the fact that with gems like Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama being played on a regular basis on the weekend after Thanksgiving, that four-day Thanksgiving holiday period may be the best football weekend of the entire year, including the NFL playoffs.

Of course, the particular games this weekend may be swaying my opinion.  But in all the years I've been watching college football, I can't remember ever seeing two games as exciting and dramatic as this year's OSU-UM and AU-UA games.  Seeing a coach go for two when trailing 42-41 against an undefeated team, in most years, would certainly go down as being the most dramatic moment of the weekend.  But thanks to the second miracle in three weeks at Jordan-Hare, that moment dropped to #2.  And after that moment, one that a lot of people in Alabama will remember for the rest of their lives as if it were yesterday, we still had Stanford-Notre Dame and UCLA-USC on tap.  The fact that those two games didn't come close to the drama that preceded them hardly mattered - they had their own storylines that made them worth watching.

All I can say at this point is that I hope they don't move The Big Game to that weekend - because I don't want to have to miss all those other classics.

The Seventh Annual Musical Advent Calendar

It's hard to believe this is the seventh year, and it's also hard to believe that it's already December.

This year, we kick off with a tune from Sufjan Stevens' "Silver and Gold," his second 5-CD Christmas extravaganza.  For those who don't know the story, for Christmas each year Sufjan creates a CD of Christmas music for his family and friends - sometimes originals, sometimes odd versions of old classics, and sometimes heartfelt versions of tunes you know you've heard before but can't quite put your finger on.

This song, "Happy Karma Christmas," falls into the first category.  Because of the dearth of record stores in Sacramento, I've yet to find the new set (actually it was released last year), so I may be resorting to Amazon sometime soon.

Day 1 - Sufjan Stevens, "Happy Karma Christmas."