Wednesday, December 25, 2013

20 Best Albums of 2013

 You won't find Kanye West on my best of 2013 list.  But you will find some black metal, instrumental guitar and a sampling of pop from around the British Isles.   Here are my top albums of 2013:

20.  Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt

I have this fantasy that Pearl Jam, the boys now pushing 50, will come out with an album so amazing that it will transcend even their best work of the 1990s.   Lighting Bolt isn't that.  But it's very good.  Eddie Veder sounds terrific and Pearl Jam remains a worthy torchbearer for classic rock. 

19.  Camera Obscura - Desire Lines

 A lovely pop album from the Glagow band fronted by the excellent Tracyanne Campbell.

18.  Joseph Arthur - The Ballad of Boogie Christ

Joseph Arthur is an interesting cat.  He's tough to pin down but he's never boring on this creative and soulful album.  

17.  Elvis Costello and the Roots -  Wise Up Ghost

When I heard that Elvis Costello would be teaming up with the Roots, I wasn't surprised (Can any new Elvis Costello project really surprise us?) but I wasn't sure what to expect.  Thankfully, this is not an Elvis Costello hip-hop record.  It's Elvis doing his thing with funk and deep grooves.  Nice.

16.  State Champs - The Finer Things

It seems that every year some pop-punk band grabs my attention.  Last year it was the Menzingers from Scranton, PA.  This year, it's the exuberant State Champs from Albany, NY.  

15.  The National - Trouble Will Find me

It's not quite as good as High Violet but it is what we've come to expect from the National - moody and compelling.  Rolling Stone nailed it when they wrote that Matt Berninger moans "like a man drowning in too much merlot and just enough Leonard Cohen."  If you like that, you'll like this. 

14.  The Pastels - Slow Summits

What is it about Glasgow that results in such wonderful melancholy indie pop?  Before there was Belle and Sebastian, or Camera Obscura or even Teenage Fanclub, there were the Pastels, now back with a fine record.

13.  Superchunk - I Hate Music

Another band that hasn't lost a step.  One of the underrated indie bands of the 1990s, Superchunk has put together a strong work with plenty of ass-kicking pop-punk hooks.

12.  Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Powerful singing on powerful songs - Neko Case keeps getting better (even if her album titles don't). 

11.  Los Campesinos! - No Blues
Underrated band from Wales offers a fine sampling of guitar-driven Britpop.  

10.  William Tyler - Impossible Truth

William Tyler plays guitar in Nashville's eclectic alt-country outfit, Lambchop.  I don't usually go for entire albums of instrumental guitar, but Tyler's playing and layered arrangements are utterly captivating.  It's like listening to America.

9.  Mark Mulcahy - Dear Mark J Mulcahy, I Love You

Mark Mulcahy's cult following includes Michael Stipe, ThomYorke and Nick Hornby.  On this album, you can hear what the fuss is about.   

8.  Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

For me, a pleasant surprise.  When Vampire Weekend hit the scene about five years ago, I figured they were a one-off.  Sure, I enjoyed them and critics loved they way these Columbia-educated kids dabbled in world music but I also thought they were a bit too clever and too cute for their own good (or mine).  But they deliver fine pop hooks and quality songwriting here. They're for real.

7.  Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record

I had the pleasure of hearing Friedbeger (of the Fiery Furnaces) with John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders at the City Winery.  Her breathless singing recalls Patti Smith and her songs are melodious and engaging. 

6.  Deafheaven - Sunbather

I have never cared a fig for heavy metal and so the distinctions between the various subgenres - black metal, death metal, thrash metal - mean absolutely nothing to me.  But when I listen to Sunbather's swirling guitars, raw screams and crescendos of emotion, I don't hear metal.  I hear a symphony.

5. Jason Isbell - Southeastern

Do you remember when music was not just for background or accompanying some other activity but for actual listening?  When you just opened up and let the songs and heartache wash over you? If you don't, you can listen to Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-by Truckers) and he will remind you.   

4.  Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In 

A chanteuse who deserves our attention, Rose sings with a voice from old Nashville and a rock-n-roll heart.

3.  Arctic Monkeys - AM

There's always been something fun and appealing about the Monkey's misanthropy - the sneering, leering and snarling.  But here, there's also a bit of maturity and the songs, the cool beats and guitar riffs, have real staying power.

2.  Willie Nile - American Ride

No Springsteen in 2013?  No matter.  Willie Nile has been looking into the heart of America and rocking out with earnest, from-the-gut, sing-along, rock anthems for years.  On American Ride, he's never been better.

1.  Phosphorescent - Muchacho

I liked Phosphorescent's 2010 album, Here's to Taking it Easy, but it did strike me as standard alt-country-lite fare.  This time, Matthew Houck has significantly upped the ante with a mesmerizing and achingly beautiful album.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!   See you in 2014.  


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Americanarama Live at Jones Beach Theater: July 27, 2013

Americanarama is a silly name.  Let’s get that part of the way. 

But last spring, when a pairing of Wilco and Bob Dylan was announced, I was immediately sold.    And the pot sweetened when I learned that My Morning Jacket was on the bill, as was Grammy winner, Ryan Bingham.  So it was starting to look like a festival.  That concerned me a bit because there’s always the danger that it's too much and that individual sets will be too short.  Last summer, at Jones Beach, I saw a festival/show that featured Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Cracker and Big Head Todd. And though everyone partied like it was 1995, my favorite band of the four, Cracker, played something like four whole songs.  I think we heard the entire set walking from the parking lot to the arena.  But with a 6:00 pm start time, Americanarama was unlikely to shortchange us.  The only catch was that for the Jones Beach show, My Morning Jacket would not be playing.  It would be Beck instead.  As much as I like My Morning Jacket, I like Beck too. There were no complaints here.
Except for the name.  Americanarama?  Well, you could at least see where the promoters were coming from.  Bob Dylan is not only a seminal figure in the history of American popular music, he has always drawn from many different and distinctly American – musical traditions:  folk, country, rock, blues etc.   Part of his particular genius is to rebel against easy categorization.  While he’s not the chameleon like figure he used to be, his most recent albums continue to draw acclaim.   Wilco is a fantastic band which, like Dylan, cannot be easily pigeon-holed.  Wilco sprang forth from the Uncle Tupelo divorce as an “alternative country” band but have transcended that genre with a sound that ranges from power pop to experimental noise-rock.   Front man Jeff Tweedy delivers as much Brian Wilson as Johnny Cash in his songs.   Then there’s Beck, the poet-slacker-savant who does it all. Blues, folk, hip-hop, electronica, you name it.  The most traditional act on the bill was also the youngest – the opening act, Ryan Bingham.  He’s a roots-rock and country singer of the most authentic kind, a singer songwriter in the tradition of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt.  OK.  So, it’s Americanarama. 

Unfortunately, we missed Ryan Bingham’s set.  The problem with Jones Beach is Long Island.  I made the familiar mistake of underestimating the traffic and the time needed to park.  Still, there was that visceral thrill when you drive across the bay inlet and see the brick Venetian tower looming over Parking Field Four.  We settled into our seats towards the beginning of Beck’s set.   Beck was dressed in a black suit and fedora, looking like a bluesman of old, or, perhaps, a skinnier version of Van Morrison.  His trio played a full set (20 songs) that spanned his career (now 20 years).  He was subdued at times but very much locked in whether playing acoustic laments (“Lost Cause”) and delta blues (“One Foot in the Grave”).  And when he played the drum machine, he was clearly enjoying himself.   I ordinarily don’t approve of a drum machine at a rock show but this is Beck, after all, and his brand of acoustic electronica worked perfectly on playful tracks from Odelay like “Sissyneck” and “Where It’s At” and several tracks from his underrated 2008, album, Modern Guilt.
Wilco took the stage just as the sun began to set behind the amphitheater.  When the weather cooperates, there is something magical about seeing a concert at Jones Beach. The fading light colors the sky and the silvery water surrounding the bandshell and you feel the cool breeze off of Zach’s Bay. And when a band like Wilco takes the stage and the music washes over you, it’s just the way summer is supposed to be.  The band opened with “Born Alone” a song that encapsulates the musical range of the band of Wilco. It’s both sad and defiant, has a catchy guitar hook and it ends with a powerful instrumental crescendo, a musical descent that flirts with chaos, like an inversion of the Beatle’s, “A Day in the Life”.  From there, they went into “Sunken Treasure” from the 1996’s Being There.  “Music is My Savior, and I was maimed by rock and roll,” sang Jeff Tweedy.   The crowd roared with approval.

When Uncle Tupelo, the vanguard of the alternative country scene, split up in 1994, the two leading song-writers, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar went their separate ways and formed Wilco and Son Volt, respectively.  It was an acrimonious break-up but I refused to take sides.  Why should I?  As much as I enjoyed Uncle Tupelo, I figured that with two spin-offs coming out of the break-up, it would be as if a great band multiplied.  Double the music.  And sure enough, in 1995, Wilco released A.M and Son Volt released Trace.  Two very fine albums.  So far, so good.   But in the following year, Wilco released, Being There, an ambitious double album that upped the ante by offering diverse musical styles and a songwriting depth that took the group to another level.  It was breakout album for Wilco and it established Tweedy as an artist who would not be fenced in by the boundaries of “alternative country” or any particular rock or pop music genre.  It’s something he has in common with Beck, not to mention a certain bard from Hibbing Minnesota.

About halfway through the set, Wilco played “Impossible Germany,” a crowd pleaser with a swaying, jazzy feel.  Twin guitars carry the melody’s main theme and then at the midway point, the song breaks into an extended, face-melting solo by Nels Cline who stands on the side of the stage, contorting his body while firing off bursts of sound with his guitar.  Cline joined Wilco in 2002, after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and brings a touch of experimentalism and avant-garde jazz to the band’s sound.  (It’s impossible to imagine him playing with Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt).  They follow with “The Art of Almost,” a long and eerie track loaded with electronic noise, sonic chaos and delight.  Wilco closed their set with “A Shot in the Arm,” a favorite of mine from the Summerteeth album.   I wanted more but the best was yet to come. 

The highlight of the evening was Wilco’s encore. Beck came out and joined the band in a cover of the beautiful “I am the Cosmos” by Big Star’s Chris Bell.  Tweedy and Beck then traded vocals on “California Stars” from Mermaid Avenue, the album of Woody Guthrie songs played by Wilco and Billy Bragg.  It’s a song that sounds better outdoors.  (Really, it does!)  Next, they were joined onstage by the female duo, Cibo Matto and launched into a fun version of Beck’s slacker anthem “Loser” (“Choking on the Splinters!...”)  Tweedy then introduced Sean Lennon who brought the house down with rousing versions of “Yer Blues” from the Beatles White Album followed by “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver.  It was a thrilling ending that paid homage not only to John Lennon, but also to Bob Dylan.  ("Yer Blues" features the lyric “I’m feeling suicidal like Dylan’s Mr. Jones”).  Those two songs were worth the price of admission.

It was tough act to follow but then Bob Dylan doesn’t really follow anyone.   He does his own thing and his own thing is both captivating and confounding.   Even Dylan aficionados will concede that His Bobness is an uneven live performer.  He can be spellbinding one night and out-of-sync the next.   Well Dylan was less-than spellbinding this time around, but then I’m spoiled.  I’ve seen Dylan twice in the last 3 years and both times the shows were riveting.  Anyone who has heard Dylan sing in the past decade – on album or in concert -  knows that his voice is not what it used to be.  To non-fans, that may seem like a bizarre criticism but his signature nasally whine has transformed over time into a guttural croak.  He’s compensated for the decline of his instrument with a series of brilliant albums (since 1997’s Time Out of Mind) and style of delivery that lends him a certain gravity.  He’s no longer the 1960s “voice of his generation.”  Now he’s part carnival barker and part Old Testament Prophet.  His recent albums feature a range of songs from the American blues and folk tradition – depression era murder ballads, Mississippi floods, doomed love and wry musings about the end of things.   But on this night, the vocals were more garbled than usual.  He also played five or six songs from his classic period (the 1960s through 1974’s Blood on the Tracks) and, as he usually does, he completely transforms the arrangements.  It worked beautifully for “Tangled up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” but less so for “She Belongs to Me” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”  Still, to hear those songs…

Dylan’s band is a crack outfit led by guitarist, Charlie Sexton on guitar.  The versatile Donnie Heron alternates between pedal steel, mandolin and banjo giving the songs a rich texture. When you watch the band play, you notice that every member is watching Dylan, practically at all times. Is this a sign of Dylan’s command as a band leader or is it because he is unsteady?  Perhaps both?  Of course, Dylan fans will tell you that the inconsistency of the live performance comes with the territory of an artist who takes risks and re-interprets his songs every time he sings them.  You simply never know what you’re gonna get and many fans wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Bob Dylan is 72 years-old.  And while I was watching him sitting behind the piano (he rarely plays guitar anymore), I thought of John Lennon.  If he were alive, he would be 73.  What kind of music would he be making?  What kind of performer would he be?  Would he still sound like John Lennon?  (Would he sound more like John Lennon than Sean Lennon did?)  Would he have re-united with Paul McCartney and charged $500 a ticket to hear Beatles songs?  Would he be singing love songs?  Socially conscious songs?  And would his new songs be any good? Would he break musical ground with each album? Would he continue to inspire his audience?  We’ll never know these things but you could feel the depth of his inspiration on everyone who took the stage - Beck, Jeff Tweedy and Dylan himself.  It felt as if John Lennon’s spirit was in ocean air on that summer night, and it sounded pretty good to me. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Top 10 Second Basemen Not in Cooperstown

It must have been a strange weekend in sleepy Cooperstown, New York.  The only Hall of Fame inductees were 19th century players, Hank O'Day and Deacon White and Jacob Ruppert, the brewer who owned the Yankees.  For the first time since 1965, there were no living inductees.  Blame it on steroids.  This was the year that Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds would have been voted in but the Baseball Writers decided that such tainted stars don’t belong.  That was no surprise.  But the complete shut-out was.  Also deprived of  Hall of Fame honors were Jack Morris, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and his Astro teammate, Craig Biggio.  Which brings us to Second Base.

Here are my top 10 Hall of Fame eligible second basemen who are not in the Hall:

10.       Junior Gilliam

The Dodger legend’s versatility works against him since he also played in hundreds of games at 3rd base and leftfield.  But Gilliam is most famous as the player who took over second base for Jackie Robinson and did it well enough to win Rookie of the Year in 1953.  He went on to play 14 seasons for Brooklyn and LA Dodgers and was a four-time World Series Champion.

9.         Del Pratt

A college football star at Alabama, Pratt starred for the St. Louis Browns in the years after World War I.  He also played for the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers.  He was a career .292 hitter and was among the top 10 American League RBI leaders over 5 seasons. 

8.         Frank White

An 18-year veteran for the Royals, White was the best fielding second baseman of his day, winning 8 gold glove awards.

7.         Buddy Myer

A career .303 hitter with over 2,000 hits, Myer played 17 seasons for the Washington Senators and won the batting title in 1935 with a .349 average.  No, he wasn’t Jewish. 

6.         Davey Lopes

A four-time all-star, Lopes joined Steve Garvey, Bill Russell and Ron Cey to form one of the longest running infields in baseball history.  He stole 557 stolen bases at an impressive 83% success rate. Lopes had a late start to his career, breaking into the majors at 27, the age when most players hit their prime. Here’s a remarkable statistic:  In 1985, at the age of 40, he stole 47 bases in 51 attempts.

5.         Willie Randolph

An excellent number 2 hitter and a terrific glove, Randolph was a six-time all star and key contributor to a Yankee squad that won two World Series.  He is ranked 5th all time in games played at second base.

4.         Larry Doyle

A career .290 hitter, Doyle starred for John McGraw’s Giants winning the Chalmers MVP award in 1912, while batting .330 with 90 RBIs.

3.                 Lou Whitaker

Partnered with Alan Trammell to form the longest running double-play combination in baseball history.   An excellent fielder, Whitaker had over 2300 hits, 255 home runs and 1000 RBIs. 

2.            Bobby Grich

Grich is the darling of sabermetricians like Bill James who convincingly argue that the six-time all star for the Orioles and Angels is one of the most under-rated players of all time.  Grich was a terrific pivot who won four Gold Gloves, and his 1800 career hits, 224 home runs and .266 batting average don’t tell full the story of his offensive value.  His adjusted OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) is the 6th greatest of all time among second basemen.

1.                Craig Biggio

Here is the guy who was missing from Cooperstown this weekend.  Biggio received 68% of the vote in 2013, his first year on the ballot.  (75% is needed).   Jeff Kent, who has hit more home runs than any second baseman in history, becomes eligible next year, but he wasn’t better than Biggio.  In 2001, Roberto Alomar was elected in his 2nd year of eligibility.  I would expect the same for Biggio.  Look for him to join Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas (at least) as Hall of Fame inductees in 2014.  The debates about steroids will continue in Cooperstown, but at least we'll also have some marvelous careers to talk about.   

Honorable Mention:   Bobby Avila, Davey Johnson, Tony Taylor, Chuck Knoblauch


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Top 20 Goals in New York Islander History

Twenty years ago today, the Islander’s David Volek scored an overtime goal in game 7 against Mario Lemieux’s heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins.  It was the last time the Islanders won a playoff series.  This past weekend, that nearly changed.  The Islanders played a tough and entertaining series and gave Sidney Crosby’s heavily favored Penguins all that they could handle – almost.   This time, the Penguins provided the overtime drama, winning the series in six games and leaving Islander fans to wonder what could have been.   But this exciting series managed to wake up the echos of the doomed Nassau Coliseum and  and stir up a lot of great memories.

Here are the 20 biggest goals in New York Islander history:

20.    Ed Westfall,  October 7, 1972 - Beginnings

Eddie Westfall scores the first goal in Islander history in a 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Flames. 

19.  John Tavares, October 3, 2009 -  First Goal

OK, maybe it’s too soon to include this one, but I have a feeling that John Tavares first NHL goal may one day be remembered by hockey fans as a historic occasion.

18.   Brian Trottier, April 18, 1982 – OT vs. the Rangers

The Islanders and Rangers were tied at one game apiece in the Division Finals versus the Rangers.   In overtime, Bryan Trottier beat Eddie Mio at an impossible angle to win game 3.  The Islanders went on to win the series and sweep the next two to capture their 3rd Stanley Cup.

17.  Denis Potvin, October 27, 1973  Ranger Killer

Rookie Denis Potvin scores his first NHL goal as the Islanders beat the Rangers for the first time, 3-2.   The rivalry was on.

16.   Pierre Turgeon, April 2, 1993 -  50th at the Garden

With a playoff berth hanging in the balance, the Islanders beat the Rangers in overtime at MSG when Pierre Turgeon scored his 50th goal of the season.  This was the beginning of the magical playoff run of 1993.

15.  Bob Bourne, April 17, 1980  Brawling and Winning

Islander fans remember game 2 of the Playoff series against the Bruins because of the fights between Clark Gillies and Terry O’Reilly and a bench clearing brawl that toughened the Islanders on the way to their first Stanley Cup win.  This classic game was won in overtime on a slap shot by Bob Bourne

14.   Jude Druin, May 7, 1975 – Backs to the Wall

In 1975, the Islanders, playing in the playoffs for the first time in team history, faced elimination 9 times over three playoff rounds.  After coming back from a 3-0 deficit to beat Pittsburgh, they dropped the first 3 games to the Flyers before winning game 4 on a dramatic goal by Jude Drouin.  They won 2 more games before losing to the Flyers in game 7. 

13.  Denis Potvin, May 13, 1980 -  First Blood

It’s easy to forget that when the Islanders first played in the Stanley Cup finals, they were the underdog against the Flyers.  That changed when the Isles won the first game in overtime on a goal by Denis Potvin.

12.  Shawn Bates, April 28, 2002  Penalty Shot!

When Shawn Bates won game 4 against in Toronto on this penalty shot, he might have provided the most exciting moment in Nassau Coliseum in the last 20 years (not counting Bruce Springsteen concerts).  

11.  Ray Ferraro, April 24, 1993 – Overtime Encore

In the thrilling 1993 first round playoff series against Washington, the Islanders won three straight games in overtime.  Ray Ferraro had 2 of the game-winners, including a double-overtime goal to capture game 4.

10.  Mike Bossy, May 13, 1982 - Unstoppable

The greatest scorer in Islander history, Bossy scored 85 goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs – none finer than this acrobatic goal against the Canucks in the 1982 Stanley Cup finals.

9.  Ed Westfall, April 26, 1975 – Completing the Comeback

With 5:18 left in regulation, Westfall scores against Pittsburgh to win the playoff series in game seven, after trailing 3 games to none. 

8.  John Tonelli, February 29, 1982 – 15 in a row

John Tonelli beats Chico Resch of the Rockies with 47 seconds left to give the Islanders 15 straight wins, an NHL record.

7.  Ken Morrow, April 10, 1984 -  Drive for Five

Playoff overtime tends to produce unlikely heroes.  In 1984, it was defenseman Ken Morrow who scored the game winner in the deciding game 5 against the Rangers.

6.   Mike Bossy, January 24, 1981 – 50 in 50

In the final 5 minutes, Bossy scores twice to become the 2nd NHL player in history, and the first since Rocket Richard, to score 50 goals in 50 games. 

5.  Pat Lafontaine, April 18, 1987 – The Easter Epic

At 1:58 a.m., Pat Lafontaine scores in the fourth overtime period against the Capitals to end the longest game 7 in NHL history.

4.   David Volek,  May 14, 1993 -  No Threepeat for Lemieux

It was 20 years ago today…..

3.  John Tonelli, April 13, 1982 -  Mr. Clutch

Before last week, the Islanders had played 3 classic series against the Penguins.  There was 1993 (David Volek) and 1975 (comeback from 3-0) and in between was a classic first round match-up in 1982.  In the deciding game, the Islanders trailed Pittsburgh 2-1 with less than 3 minutes to play.  John Tonelli tied the game at 2:21 and then won it in overtime.  

2.  J.P. Parise, April 11, 1975 – OT win against Rangers

The upstart Islanders upset the Rangers in their first ever playoff series on a goal 11 seconds into overtime.  This was the goal that put the franchise on the map. 

1.   Bobby Nystrom, May 24, 1980 – 7:11

Of course.  Mr. Islander was clutch – he scored 4 playoff overtime goals in his career but none bigger than the one which first brought theStanley Cup to Long Island. 

Ah Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.