Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The 10 Most Painful Giants' Losses

Because being a real fan is about sharing in the pain...

10. Titans 24, Giants 21, (Nov. 26, 2006)

Prior to the Giants recent meltdown against the Eagles, when was the last time an NFL team blew a 21 point lead in the 4th quarter? Yup. The Giants took a 21-0 lead into the 4th quarter against the Titans. This time Vince Young did the damage.

9. 49ers 44, Giants 3, NFC Divisional Playoff (Jan. 15, 1994)

Some losses break your heart. Others are just humiliating. This was the worst playoff loss in Giants history. It was also the last game in the careers of both Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms.

8. Jets 27, Giants 21, (Dec. 18, 1988)

Last game of the season. Al Toon’s touchdown in the final seconds costs the Giants a playoff spot.

7. Ravens 34, Giants 7, Super Bowl XXXV, (Jan. 28, 2001)

The Ravens defense deserved it, but getting crushed on the biggest stage hurts.

6. Rams 19, Giants 13 (OT), NFC Divisional Playoff (Jan. 7, 1990)

Flipper Anderson beats the Giant secondary with a game-winning touchdown in overtime. He keeps running into the tunnel, leaving the Meadowlands stunned in silence.

5. Eagles 19, Giants 17, (Nov. 19, 1978)

One of my earliest (and worst) Giant memories. Quarterback Joe Pisarcik only needed to take a knee and the hapless Giants win. Instead he puts the ball on Larry Csonka’s hip, Herm Edwards recovers the fumble and the rest is history. The Eagles go on to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons. Giant fans know it as “The Fumble.” In Philly, it’s the “Miracle at the Meadowlands.” This wasn’t the worst loss in Giants history – the Giants were terrible and going nowhere - but it had to be the stupidest.

4. Panthers 41, Giants 9, (Dec. 27, 2009)

The Giants final home game in the 34-year history of Giant stadium. The mediocre Carolina Panthers start a back-up quarterback, Matt Moore, and humiliate the Giants, eliminating them from playoff contention.

3. Vikings 23, Giants 22, NFC wild-card playoff (Dec. 27, 1997)

A nine-point lead with less than two minutes remaining. Then the wheels come off and Giant nemesis, Randall Cunningham, completes the comeback.

2. Eagles 38, Giants 31 (Dec. 19, 2010)

The most recent ones are always the most painful, but as things stand right now, the Giants can still make the playoffs. But whether they do or they don’t, this historic collapse against the hated Eagles won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

1. 49ers 39, Giants 38, NFC Wild-Card Playoff (Jan. 5, 2003)

Some fans blame Trey Junkin, whose bad snap blew the chance for a game-winning field goal. Others blame the officials for blowing the pass interference call on the game’s final play. I remember Michael Strahan pointing at the scoreboard when the Giants were celebrating a 24 point lead. Everything after that is a nightmarish blur.

Friday, December 24, 2010

25 Best Albums of 2010

There's a lot of retro in my choices this year.  That may say more about me than it does about the year in music. But in 2010, I heard great power pop, soul and bands that mined the best of the 1960s and 70s.  And why not?  Killer riffs, great hooks and soulful grooves are timeless.  Here are my favorite albums of 2010:

25. Spoon – Transference

Spoon is either one of the most overrated or one of the most underrated acts around. According to Metacritic, the band from Austin was the artist of the decade. That seems a bit much, but there’s something very convincing in their tight grooves and Britt Daniel’s snarl. This is an album that grew on me.

24. Delta Spirit – History From Below

Well-crafted rock anthems from an up-and-coming San Diego band. Keep an eye on them.  Standout Track:  "Bushwick Blues."

23. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Mojo

Universally regarded as one of rock’s elder statesmen, Petty’s more recent work tends to get overlooked. On Mojo, Petty and the Heartbreakers again find their stride with a big bluesy album featuring the ordinarily restrained Mike Campbell playing some ferocious guitar.

22. Some Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Let it Sway

An excellent and underrated power-pop outfit, SSLYBY sounds like the love child of Weezer and Fountains of Wayne.

21. The Mynabirds – What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Beautiful. Laura Burhenn sounds like the reincarnation of Dusty Springfield.

20. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

There’s a bit of U2 and Coldplay in the way this Scottish band creates lovely, layered and majestic anthems.

19. Free Energy – Stuck on Nothing

In a year that saw the passing of Alex Chilton, it was nice find Big Star's power pop legacy evident in up and coming bands like Free Energy and SSLYBY and also in fine releases from warhorses, Teenage Fanclub and the Posies.

18. Drive-By-Truckers - The Big To-Do

Solid album from one of the most solid bands around.

17. Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs

The J. Geils Band front man sounds as good as ever. There are some gems on this album and guest appearances from Merle Haggard, Shelby Lynne and the ubiquitous Neko Case.

16. Two Cow Garage – Sweet Saint Me

It’s hard to stand out as an alt-country band, especially when your lead singer sounds just like Lucero’s Ben Nichols. But Two Cow Garage pulls it off here – an ambitious album from a band that has arrived.

15. The New Pornographers - Together

Another great offering from the New Pornos When was the last time Neko Case was involved in a musical project that wasn’t impressive?

14.  The Black Keys - Brothers

Like Jack White, these Midwestern guys make 70s guitar riffs and classic blues sound dirty and invigorating.

13.  Murder by Death - Good Morning, Magpie

True story.  For a while ITunes had them listed as a metal band.  And maybe it's their name that 's holding them back, but Murder by Death is one of the best and most interesting alt-country bands around.

12.  Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way

Sure it's retro - 60s R&B, 70s funk and lots of soul.  But it's the real deal.

11.  The Like - Release Me

Whereas Sharon Jones (a former Ryker's Island prison guard) serves up authentic soul, The Like's take on retro is entirely contrived.  The band consists of the daughters of music industry big shots and with the help of Mark Ronson's production, they try to sound like a tough 1960s girl group.  And they really do. This album has some of the best and catchiest songs you'll hear this year.

10.  Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

Excellent debut from indie rockers who borrow surf-rock, pop and punk to create something that sounds both familiar and excitingly new.

9.  The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

Not as great as their last couple of albums.  But there's more than enough on this album to affirm an earlier conclusion:  If any band can save rock 'n' roll, it is the Hold Steady.

8.  The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

If the Hold Steady isn't rock 'n' roll's savior, The Gaslight Anthem just might be.

7.  Roky Erickson with Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil

A great album and a great comback story.  Erickson was a psychedelic rock hero of the 1960s (13th Floor Elevators) whose descent into drugs and mental illness made Syd Barrett seem like a model of sanity by comparison.  His pairing with fellow Texans, Okkervil River is nearly perfect.

6.  Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Yeah, it's big, bombastic and a bit pretentious.  It's also pretty awesome.

5.  Alejandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love

Another great rocker from Austin, Escovedo is incapable of making a bad album.  This might be his best since Thirteen Years.

4.  Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

Now this is my kind of album.  Springsteen-inspired punks record an energetic, concept album about the American Civil War.  You know you're in for something different on the first track when Patrick Sickles screams, "Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!"  Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

3.  The Indelicates - Songs for Swinging Lovers

Deliciously witty, dark and dystopian indie pop.  Brilliant stuff.

2.  Bruce Springsteen - The Promise

Well, sure. (see review below).

1.  The National - High Violet

I was reluctant to believe the hype but after one listen, I became a believer.  And after repeated listens, the richness of his album only grows.

Honorable Mention:
  • The Walkmen - Lisbon
  • Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking it Easy
  • Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone
  • Robert Plant - Band of Joy
  • Grinderman - Grinderman 2
  • The Soft Pack - The Soft Pack
  • Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Promise Fulfilled

If I were forced to choose just two Bruce Springsteen albums for a desert island stay (boxed sets don’t count), I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). When I was a teenager, these albums captured my imagination in a way that few albums ever have. They still do.  More than that, they represent a key transition in Springsteen’s vision as a songwriter.  First there’s Born to Run – the colorful characters, the driving anthems and the lush wall-of-sound production. Then there’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – powerful and raw, a head-on collision between hope and desperation. But never surrender. As the street poets give way to factory workers and the romantic dreams of escape turn to a darker reality, Springsteen finds heroism in the everyday struggle. The appeal of The Promise, the two-disc collection of songs recorded in 1977 and released last month by Sony, is that it captures the moment of transition. It’s a glimpse into the making of an artist.

Professional athletes peak at the age of 27 or 28. For artists, there’s no such rule and no such limit. Still, for most of us, turning 30 represents something pivotal. As adults, we’re just finding our footing, still coming to understand the world, our community and our place within them. Our dreams and ideals aren’t necessarily abandoned, but they’re recalibrated and redefined in light of maturity and new understanding. These discoveries are expressed in the work of writers and artists. At the age of 28, Bruce Springsteen had recorded three albums, including the acclaimed Born to Run and had appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was emerging as something of a rock star but was a long way from mega-star or celebrity status. He had also been involved in a nasty legal dispute with his former manager over the rights to his songs. And when he looked around, he saw a post-Watergate nation living in doubt and he saw working class people from the towns he knew struggling to make sense of their lives.

Like other serious fans, I was already familiar with some of the tracks on The Promise through the magic of bootlegging (“Rendezvous”, “Outside Looking In”, “The Promise”) and I was pretty sure the album was going to be something special. Still, I wondered if this was the sort of release that would appeal only to hardcore fans. Were the unreleased songs left off previous albums for good reason? Was The Promise just a desperate ploy on the part of a dying music industry to pry cash from fans on the strength of one of the label’s few profitable artists?

If it was a ploy, it was one of the better ones that Sony has come up with. The Promise offers alternate takes of songs that appear on Darkness (“Racing in the Street”), favorites better known from versions by other artists (“Because the Night”, “Fire”, “Talk to Me”) and a terrific collection of rockers, 60s-style pop and soul, and heart-felt ballads which span the mood and the musical distance between Born to Run and Darkness. There’s a wealth of tasty material here. The boxed set also includes DVDs of some riveting live performances with the E-Street Band and the special which aired on HBO on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the sessions, the loose-limbed Springsteen is alternately light-hearted and intensely serious. But there’s no mistaking the drive, the restlessness and the creative energy.

The two-disc set can be seen as a sort of “lost” Springsteen album from, arguably, his most creative period. It’s not merely a collection of rejected outtakes and not-quite-good-enough songs. It more than holds its own as a cohesive work and it also offers fascinating insight into Springsteen’s creative process. The songs don’t simply come to him in fevered dreams or moments of inspiration. Instead, we see Springsteen the tinkerer, a craftsman at work. He tries different melodies with different lyrics, he mixes and matches verses, attempting different concoctions until he arrives at something that fits with the mood, the characters and theme of the story he wants to tell.

“Candy’s Boy” features most of the lyrics that would eventually make up “Candy’s Room” but a different melody and slower tempo give the song an entirely different feel. It’s a bittersweet lament rather than a desperate rocker. “Spanish Eyes” has a lyric that would appear on Born in the USA seven years later (“Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone”). “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight) uses the melody and a few lines from “Factory” but it’s a completely different song. It also has the line that would emerge years later on the underrated B-Side, Johnny Bye-Bye: “The man on the radio says Elvis Presley died.” We’re reminded that a good writer is also a judicious self-editor. It’s as if Springsteen (perhaps with Jon Landau whispering in his ear) said “I LOVE this lyric but it doesn’t work for the story I’m trying to tell right here.” So he files it away for another day.

This fruitful recording session ultimately produced Darkness on the Edge of Town, a landmark album for Springsteen. It was the first album in which he explored in depth the subject that mattered most to him throughout his career – the American Dream. And as good as The Promise is, you don’t hear any song on it that causes you to say “He should have put THAT on Darkness." For one thing, Darkness isn’t wanting for much of anything. But most of the songs on The Promise are too sentimental by comparison. The one possible exception might be the song, “The Promise,” which was as unsentimental a song as Springsteen had ever written. Just two years after he was “pulling out of here to win” on “Thunder Road”, Springsteen recorded these lyrics:

      All my life I fought this fight
      The fight that no man can ever win
      Every day it just gets harder to live
      This dream I'm believing in
      Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
      Thunder Road there's something dying down on the highway tonight

He's a long way from Born to Run.  In the Nick Hornby novel, High Fidelity, there’s a great passage in which the 30-something narrator muses:

In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot – how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.

Nick Hornby’s narrator probably hadn’t heard “The Promise.” The choices are NOT simple. The escapes don’t always work.  Springsteen’s character drives his Challenger down Route 9 through dead ends, chasing ghosts. Dreams can wither and die. And life goes on. The struggle continues. The beauty of Darkness is the way Springsteen tries to capture that struggle without flinching and without ever succumbing to resignation. When Pete Townshend first heard Darkness on the Edge of Town he summed it up this way: “When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album, that's not 'fun', that's fucking triumph, man.”

What The Promise offers is that same triumph but with a bit more fun.