Friday, December 16, 2011

The Year in Music: Favorite Album of 2011

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
  #9 - Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some
  #8 - Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
  #7 - Cults - Cults
  #6 - tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L

  #5 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
  #4 - Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo
  #3 - St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
  #2 - Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

#1 - PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

PJ Harvey is kind of a weird artist for me.  There are bands that create albums that I will buy sound unheard based on how much I love their previous work.  There are bands who create albums that I will check out a few times before purchasing, usually if I'm not altogether familiar with their work.  And there are artists like PJ Harvey.  I have two of her albums, and they're both fantastic.  But I'm never really sure whether I'm going to like the next one.  Part of it is because her style is always changing.  This album sounds absolutely nothing like Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.  In fact, if you didn't know they were from the same artist, you probably wouldn't be able to tell.  Her voice doesn't even sound the same.

Maybe I just have a thing for concept albums centered around wars.  My favorite album from last year was Titus Andronicus' The Monitor, an album loosely based on the Civil War.  This time around, the Battle of Hampton Roads give way to the battle fought by ANZAC forces in the Gallipoli campaign.  The references to Gallipoli (and war in general) are all over the album.  There are almost too many to list.  She sings about death at Bolton's Ridge on "All & Everyone", and returning to the scene 80 years later in "On Battleship Hill".  

Musically, this is not the album you'd expect from the same woman who produced Rid of Me.  It's more orchestral, not quite as in your face.  It's more of a quiet reflection of the horrors of war and its effect on Harvey's England, kind of a "what hath we wrought" attitude.  I can't really describe why I like this album so much, but it's definitely filled with earworms.  There probably isn't one song that stands out above the rest, and I'd guess that four or five different songs have been favorites at one point or another.  But I suppose that's what makes an album great.  

Here are the first four tracks from the album, in order, plus the sixth track, which may be my favorite song of the moment.  She did really cool videos for the whole thing.

Let England Shake The Last Living Rose The Glorious Land The Words that Maketh Murder On Battleship Hill

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Year in Music: Second Favorite Album of 2011

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
  #9 - Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some
  #8 - Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
  #7 - Cults - Cults
  #6 - tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L

  #5 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
  #4 - Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo
  #3 - St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

#2 - Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

As I mentioned yesterday, it's often an album that either greatly exceeds my expectations or wasn't on my radar at the beginning of the year that scores very highly on my list.  This album falls into the latter category.  I was familiar with the name, but thought of her as a Swedish teen-pop style singer, and maybe there's a case that her first album falls somewhere into that category.  But this album is much deeper, much more mature.  And at the end of the day, it's an album that has yet to bore me.  It seems to get better with almost every listen, and it's been a "go-to" album all year, something I can turn to when I'm in a 'no preference' sort of mood.

It's really not the type of album that I would have expected to like, but there's something about the driving drumbeats on the up-tempo tracks, the entrancing melodies on the down-tempo tracks, and the desperation in her voice as she sings lines like "Every night I rant, I plead, I beg him not to go".  She puts herself into all sorts of different roles on this album.  In one song she's a lonesome girl who's love is unrequited, on the next she's a prostitute announcing "You gon' get some".

But I think what I ultimately love about this album is the pacing.  I like songs, but I'm still an albums guy, and I love an album that I can listen to start to finish without ever feeling like a I want to skip a track.  More than that, I love albums that are more than the sum of their parts, and this album feels like that to me.  I starts of strong with an upbeat, drum-filled "Youth Knows No Pain", then slowly drifts to a crawl at "Unrequited" three songs later.  But it's back to the driving beats of "Get Some" and "Rich Kids Blues".  And what a 2011 album be without a call-back to motown style pop with "Sadness is a Blessing"?  It slows to a trickle on "I Know Places" before making one last triumphant charge on "Jerome", and coasts to a finish with the brilliantly harmonied "Silent My Song", which was just terrific in concert with the help of openers First Aid Kit.  I seriously suggest listening to the whole thing all the way through.  

Youth Knows No Pain Get Some Sadness is a Blessing Jerome

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Year in Music: Third Favorite Album of 2011

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
  #9 - Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some
  #8 - Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
  #7 - Cults - Cults
  #6 - tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L

  #5 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
  #4 - Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo

  #3 - St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Annie Clark's sophomore album Actor would have likely rated very high on my 2009 list if I had actually paid more attention to it in 2009.  As it was, I gave it short shrift until early in 2010, shortly before seeing her in concert for the first time.  The album and the show were both terrific.  Her intention on Actor was to create an album loosely based on Disney score type music, but with much more sinister themes lurking in the background.  Over the ambient and mood setting background strings she layered her beautiful voice, and juxtaposed it with angular, scratchy guitars, never more evident than on arguably the album's best track "Marrow".  

On 2011's Strange Mercy, Annie doesn't completely ditch the movie score backgrounds and lead-ins, and the angular, buzz-saw guitar is still there.  That juxtaposition is what her sound is all about.  The album's first single, "Cruel" sticks mostly to the formula from Actor.  On Cheerleader (the second great song by that title in the last couple years) she sucks you in with her vulnerable voice and quiet background, right before the pounding chorus kicks in, while singing about all the things she's done that she really doesn't want to do anymore - "I've had good time with some bad guys, I've told whole lies with a half smile, held your bare bones with my clothes on, I've thrown rocks and hid both my arms."

She brings a sense of urgency to Northern Lights, the one really rock sounding track on the album, singing of the end of times.  She gets sounds from her guitar that nature simply didn't intend.  It's this albums version of Marry Me's "Your Lips are Red", but without the major key send off.  By the end of the album, she's playing the role of the 1%, crowing about an inherent ability for scheming.  She sings on "The Tiger": When I was young, coach called me the Tiger, I always had a knack with the danger), before thumbing her nose at the proletariat (Italian shoes, like these rubes know the difference, suitcase full of cash in the back of my stickshift.  I had to be the best of the bourgeoisie...Oh America, can I owe you one?

There's something about her waifish good looks contrasted with the way she shreds on guitar that's jarring, but at the same time captivating.  And that's basically St. Vincent in a nutshell, raw power in a subtle package.  It's rare that an album so highly anticipated (at least by me) lives up to the expectations.  These final few slots are usually populated by the albums that really came out of nowhere.  But this album was everything I was hoping it would be.  

Cruel Cheerleader The Tiger

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Year in Music: 4th and 5th Favorite Albums of the Year

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
  #9 - Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some
  #8 - Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
  #7 - Cults - Cults
  #6 - tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L 

#5 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
I'll admit to having completely missed the boat on Sleater Kinney.  The Portland trio's back catalog is right up my alley, but I have hard time getting into bands with big back catalogs if I'm not there from the beginning, and when the news came out a couple years ago that they were calling it quits, I didn't put a lot of effort into educating myself.  Post S-K, I became a fan of Brownstein's blog on NPR, and she appeared in videos from a couple of my favorite acts, St. Vincent and the Thermals.  When Carrie Brownstein rejoined drummer Janet Weiss, along with Mary Timony (Helium) and Rebecca Cole (the Minders) to form Wild Flag, I decided I'd try to get in on the ground floor, and I'm glad I did.

As girl groups go, this isn't the fuzzed out retro pop of Dum Dum Girls, or the honky tonk retro pop of Those Darlins.  This isn't really pop at all.  It's pretty straightforward, in your face rock and roll.  The album alternates almost song for song between Brownstein's more up front grunge ("Boom", "Racehorse") and Timony's psychedelia ("Glass Tambourine", "Electric Band").  They don't leave the pop entirely behind, as evidenced in the hand claps on the title track, "Romance".  And there familiar influences all over the record.  Timony's guitar work in the second half of "Short Version" picks up almost exactly where Bradford Cox left off in Deerhunter's "Nothing Ever Happened".

Admittedly, this is another album that I liked before I saw their intimate Empty Bottle Show in October, but I absolutely loved afterward.  Maybe that's not entirely fair, but there's often something about experiencing a song live, hearing a different arrangement, or performed with different emotion that changes subsequent experiences with the recorded versions.  Either way, this is a great first effort, and hopefully there will be more to come.

Romance Short Version

#4 - Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo

Super Furry Animals have been going strong for the better part of 15 years, but that hasn't stopped front man Gruff Rhys from releasing two of the better solo albums of the past four or five.  It wouldn't be wrong to say that this album is very much a distillation of his contributions to SFA, slowed down, stripped down on the instrumentation side, though nicely complimented with samples.  It's an acoustic, piano, glockenspieled album with a myriad of sounds, but not overproduced.  The type of album he can tour with solo (much like he did for his last album, Candylion), but can also be competently backed up by Welsh surf-rock foursome Y Niwl, who led off his live U.S. tour with a rollicking set of Dick Dale inspired instrumentals before taking over backing duties for Gruff.

The album gets its title from Rhys' (possibly apocryphal) habit of collecting shampoo bottles and other freebies from hotels while on tour, and from the actual model of a hotel that he built from said collection.  Yeah, it sounds eccentric, and it's not surprising.  This is a guy who's band drove to gigs in a techno-blaring blue tank, played entire shows in green fibre-optic jump suits, and have been known to take the stage in head to toe golden retriever outfits to play 2007 single "Golden Retriever".

The album leads off with the first single "Shark Ridden Waters", amply accompanied by the Cyrkle's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore", a Bacharach and David number, and you'd swear that Burt Bacharach had a hand in some of the subsequent tracks, like "Space Dust #2".  But turning '60s influences into modern tracks has been Rhys' stock in trade for over a decade, probably most notably on SFA's 2001 album Rings Around the World.  And he proves that you can't complete take the Super Furry Animal out of the man, especially on standout track and second single "Sensations in the Dark".  This album is the perfect way to pass the time between SFA albums, though my Christmas wish is for one more SFA release and tour in the new year.

Shark Ridden Waters

Sensations in the Dark

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Year in Music: 6th and 7th Favorite Albums of 2011

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
#9 - Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some
#8 - Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer

#7 - Cults - Cults
In a year seemingly dominated by female vocaled '60s style retro pop (Dum Dum Girls, Tennis, Those Darlins, etc.), Brooklyn via San Diego, boyfriend and girlfriend duo Cults produced the retroist and poppyist of the bunch with their terrific self titled debut.  They hit the scene late last year with a sparse bandcamp site and an MP3 for standout track "Go Outside", and not much else.  The buzz grew over the course of the year, followed by a slew of live shows, and the June 7th release of their self titled debut.

They don't make you wait very long to figure out what they've got in store.  The album opens with "Abducted" arguably it's best and most catchy track (though on a number of listens, there are least five or six songs that I could have called my favorite at one point or another).  They bring the tempo down with "Go Outside" and "You Know What I Mean", before settling into a nice medium tempoed groove through most of the rest of the album.  It's pure sugar throughout, though the catchy melodies mask songs about longing, loneliness, bad choices, and ultimately determining that trying to change for others may not be worth it ("But I can never heal myself enough for you....But I can never be myself, so fuck you").  It all leads to the penultimate track "Bumper", which lets us in on a lovers' quarrel that ends when the two realize that they can't be apart.  They nail the '60s top 40 aesthetic perfectly on this record.  It's an easy to pick up at pretty much any time, regardless of your mood.


You Know What I Mean

#6 - tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L

A couple years ago I showed up a little early at the Bottom Lounge to see Dirty Projectors, who released my favorite album of 2009.  tUnE-yArDs, made up basically of Merril Garbus and her bass player, Nate Brenner, opened that show to a fairly decent sized crowd, most of who probably hadn't heard of her (I certainly hadn't).  She blew everyone away.  As you can see in the video below for "Powa", arguably the album's best track, she uses looping pedals to record the percussion and backing vocals, building the song from scratch right before your eyes.  As a non-musician, it's pretty impressive.  But it's all the more impressive because of her ability to back it up with her powerful voice and more than competent skill on the ukulele.

This is her second album, and she fulfilled the promise she showed on 2009's Bird-Brains.  She's backed off just a bit from the African rhythms that dominated her debut, added some horns (she toured with a pair of saxophone players all year), and the result is something that's probably a little more mainstream, but still not something you're going to hear on your local top 40 station.  It's not an easy album to have playing in the background while you're at work, because you'll find yourself getting off task so that you can pay more attention to the music.  It's tough not to be taken in.  And it's one where I simply can't separate the album from the live performances, which are simply engrossing.  This album really does a good job of triggering one's memories from her live shows. "Powa" Live at Lincoln Hall My Country

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Year in Music: My 10th, 9th, and 8th Favorite Albums of 2011

On to the top 10.  A quick note that I make every year: My favorite ten albums are exactly that.  I'm not a music critic, and I can't comment on the art, necessarily.  I can only really rank albums in terms of how much enjoyment I took from them.  I see a lot of live shows, and I spend a lot of time listening to bands that I'm going to see, because I like going to shows when I'm familiar with the material, so who's touring in Chicago has a big impact on what I listen to.  I saw nine of the ten bands on this list at least once this year.  The albums that tend to make this list are the albums that I spent a lot of time listening to not only before their shows, but after as well.  A lot of the music I listen to goes back on to the proverbial shelf when a band leaves town.  These are albums that I wanted to listen to a lot regardless of who was playing in town at any given time.

#10 - Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
The kids from Chicago, barely old enough to drink at their own shows (legally) followed up their debut album with more polished production and better songwriting.  Beach Boys style melodies and some terrific guitar work from Max Kakacek are over this January release that was actually the perfect album for summer.  In a live setting, the lead guitar can get lost a bit.  Kakacec's sound is pretty thin, though it really complements the music well.  They can also be slightly off-putting on stage, but I'm not sure that's unexpected from a band that has drawn so much interest from the indie world at a such young ages.  Still, it's music that really translates well to a live show, and for the time being, you can still check them out in really intimate settings.  Their first single "Weekend" was one of my favorite tracks of the year.

#9 - Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some

There's a local Chicago band called the 1900s that I took a liking to last year, and I try to see them whenever they play in town.  They posted a message to Facebook that they'd be opening a show for PB&J, who were playing four shows in the course of a handful of days.  They'd been on my radar, but I'd never paid much attention.  I bought a ticket to see the 1900s, and figured I'd stick around for the headliner.  I liked the album and the show so much that I bought another ticket for their Schuba's show a few nights later, and this became one of my favorite albums of the year.  It's power pop, though perhaps a bit more on the pop edge.  It's up tempo stuff that I can't really describe other than by saying it's just a lot of fun to listen to, and their live shows were really terrific.  Great audience rapport, a lot of interaction, and music that plays really well in an intimate setting.  The album is full of good tracks, but the one below, "I Know You Don't Love Me" is probably my favorite.

#8 Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
When the Fiery Furnaces released Blueberry Boat back in 2004, it was my first foray into the artier side of indie rock.  It was definitely acquired taste, but given enough time, it grew on me.  The Fiery Furnaces (Eleanor and her brother Matt), went deeper and deeper into quirk and oddity, mostly it seems at Matt's direction. They started the road back toward the beaten path on 2007's Widow City, and 2009's I'm Going Away, arguably the most accessible of all of their releases.

You're kind of never sure what you're going to get from this pair.  I saw them for the first time last year at the Empty Bottle, and their performance, while quirky, blew me away.  They played an hour straight, without pause for applause, or an instrument change, or anything.  Just a solid hour and about a 25 song medley, switching key signatures and time signatures at the drop of a hat, all while never missing a beat. They played two shows in May this year, this time as a duo, Matt on keyboards and Eleanor on the microphone, calling them their "recital shows" (the Oak Park natives were playing to friends and family).  

Based on the momentum of their last couple albums and the increased accessibility of their live material, I was really looking forward to Eleanor's solo debut.  It's about as radio friendly as a Friedberger album is going to get.  She shows a lot of pop sensibility, but retains the quirky lyrics and instrumentation that are are prevalent on Fiery Furnaces records.  And that's apparent from the opening track (and lead single) "My Mistakes" embedded below.  I should also note that she's a super nice person if you ever get the chance to meet her.  Following just about all of her shows, she hits the merch table faster than the customers, and is always a very pleasant person to chat with.  It makes her music that much easier to like.  There's also a great cameo in this video by Spoon's Britt Daniel, which she mentioned before covering Spoon's "Trouble Comes Running" in her solo show this year at the Hideout.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Year in Music 2011: The Not Top Ten

So over the course of the year, I counted up about 45 or so 2011 releases that I bought this year, in addition to a handful of albums that were released last year or earlier.  They can't all be in the top ten, so here's how the rest stacked up.

Albums that came out in 2010 (or earlier) that I discovered or appreciated this year:

  • Crocodiles - Sleep Forever
  • the 1900s - Return of the Century: Would have been higher on last year's list had I run across it earlier
  • Tame Impala - Innerspeaker
  • Gold Motel - Summer House
  • Army Navy - Army Navy (2008): Also released a new album this year
  • Superchunk - Majesty Shredding: Bought this last year, but didn't pay attention to it much before the Pitchfork Festival this year.  This a really terrific album.  May have been a top 10 last year under different circumstances.
Incompletes - Albums that I bought this year, but for whatever reason barely listened to.  Also known as albums that could show up in the category above next year:
  • Panda Bear - Tomboy: PB released my favorite album of 2008, and Animal Collective released my second favorite album of 2009, yet I couldn't seem to make time for this one.
  • Los Campesinos! - Hello Sadness: Just released recently.  Will get around to it eventually.
  • Ivy - All Hours: A band whose albums I will still buy, but need a reason to listen to.  Haven't found that reason just yet.
  • Hooray for Earth - True Loves: Bought on the basis of their EP from a year or two ago.  Didn't strike me after the first lesson.  Need to head back to it.
  • Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: Just can't seem to get into this group.
  • The Black Keys - El Camino: I'm half tempted to not even include this album in this year's list.  Released much too close to the end of the year for a proper evaluation, though it's pretty good so far.
Releases that I liked a lot, but don't feel right including because they were EPs:
  • My My My - Wishing You Whatever's Best:  Local Chicago band.  Opened for Nicole Atkins.  Put on a great show and gave out free copies of their EP.
  • Superhumanoids - Parasite Paradise:  LA act that opened for Cults and Magic Kids.  Were better than Magic Kids.
The rest of the not top 10:

36) Art Brut - Brilliant Tragic:  Loved the last album.  Was underwhelmed here.  And the antics at their live show this year were a real turn off.

35) Yuck - Yuck:   Everybody seems to love these guys, but I didn't care that much for Dinosaur Jr. the first time around.  Or apparently the second time around.  They're alright, but this album bored me.

34) Radiohead - the King of Limbs: This could also have gone into the "Incomplete" section.

33) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong:  See #36.  While I loved the first album, this was just OK, with a lot of forgettable songs, and nothing as good as the singles on the first album.  Very underwhelming live show as well.

32) the Strokes - Angles:  A couple really good songs, but a lot of meh as well.

31) the Drums - Portamento:  Another in the line of underwhelming second (or third, or fouth) efforts.  Maybe I placed the expectations too high.  Their debut was my ninth favorite album of 2010.

30) Au Ras Au Ras - Au Ras Au Ras:  The brainchild of Tess Brunet.  This is actually pretty decent, but not truly grabbing.  Donated some cash on Kickstarter for this one.  Tess seems pretty cool.

29) Cut Off Your Hands - Hollow:  Finally a sophomore effort I preferred to the debut.  Really late '80s vibe on this one.  Nothing really mind blowing, but fun to listen to.

28) The Raveonettes - Recharge and Revolt:  Kind of a by the numbers release from a band whose baseline is still pretty good.  While I liked the album, it's one that I really didn't go back to after their Lincoln Hall show in April.

27) the War on Drugs - Slave Ambient: Saw these guys three times this year, and this album has some songs that translate really well live.  Still, half of it's great, half of it is forgettable.

26) YAWN - Open Season:  Local Chicago band that was a bit of revelation. Saw them open for Tame Impala and they really impressed me.  Debut album sounds like a cross between White Rabbits and Animal Collective.

25) Nicole Atkins - Mondo Amore:  I liked this one better than her first album.  Sort of skirts "adult contemporary".  Kind of surprised she's not a bigger mainstream act.  She's beautiful and has a great voice, and this album has some really fun songs on it.

24) Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose:  One of the "girl-group retro-pop" outfits that were all over 2011.  Their schtick is GG-RP with a honkey-tonk twinge.

23) Fool's Gold - Leave No Trace:   I need to spend a bit more time with this album, but they've moved from an Israeli-African sound to something that sounds more like Foreign Born, which isn't surprising since most of the guys in Foreign Born are also in Fool's Gold.  Still, since Foreign Born hasn't released an album since 2009's fantastic 'Person to Person', this will have to do. 

22) The Ladybug Transistor - Clutching Stems:  Elephant Six connected act that's been around for 15 years or so.  This album has a bit of Burt Bacharach feel to it.  Great melodies and hooks.  

21) The Features - Wilderness:  Another album that was released pretty recently.  Like their last album, this is one that I won't need to listen to all the time, but it's something I could listen to all the time.

20) Army Navy - the Last Place:  Great power pop hooks.  Nothing too substantial, but fun to listen to.

19) Tennis - Cape Dory:  Girl-group retro-pop - the nautical version.  Sugary melodied songs from a husband and wife about their adventure sailing up and down the East Coast.  

18) Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams:  Girl-group retro-pop - the shoegazer version.  Lots of fun to listen to, and Kristen Gundred's voice sounds really nice in comparison the yelling vocals she employed in her last act 'Grand Ole Party'.  

17) Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital:  Another husband and wife act, this time writing the whole album on keyboards.  Still, the guitar heavy tracks, like "Bury Me Standing" are the stand out tracks.  Great live energy.

16) Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost:  And now we start to get into the albums that were probably in my top ten at some point in the year.  Great follow up to last year's 'Album', this has a similar mix of somewhat forgettable down tempo numbers, and really fun up tempo numbers.  Another great mix of melodies.

15) Atlas Sound - Parallax:  Hurt by it's recent release, Bradford Cox moves slightly further away from the ambient waviness of his first Atlas Sound record, and closer to the sound he's perfected with Deerhunter.  As I tend to prefer Deerhunter, it's a move I'm happy with.  "Te Amo" is to Parallax as "Helicopter" is to Halcyon Digest.

14) Destroyer - Kaputt:  I'm never quite sure what to expect from Dan Bejar.  It's safe to say that I didn't expect his latest album to be a foray in Smooth Jazz.  But Bejar pulls it off.  It's not Streethawk, but neither is anything else he's done since Streethawk.

13) Generationals - Actor Caster:  Boy-group retro-pop.  These guys really do it right.  Though I didn't like this as much as 2009's Con-Law, it's still loaded with great pure pop songs.

12) Viva Voce - The Future Will Destroy You:  Third husband and wife duo.  This Portland act took a side trip last year with their Blue Giant project, and released a great country tinged pop album.  Their back in their original format, but this felt more like a melding of Blue Giant and Viva Voce.  

11) the Joy Formidable - The Big Roar:  Pixieish Welsh vocalist Ritzy Bryan delivers some booming energy on this swirling rock and roll debut.  Big, anthemic songs delivered by a power trio that really lives up to the power aspect.  

Tomorrow we start with the top ten.  

Pujols and Wilson and Hawkins, oh my !

Here are some quick thoughts on the Angels' flurry of activity in the last 48 hours.

  • Albert's contract is an overpayment that will look pretty bad in four or five years.  And that being the case, who the hell cares?  It's not my money, and Arte has pretty clearly shown that the worst contract in baseball (Vernon Wells) is not going to keep him from spending money on excellent players who want to come to Southern California.  If he delivers a championship somewhere over the course of this contract, it's worth it.
  • CJ Wilson would make serviceable #1 starter, but he'll be a pretty terrific #4 starter on the Angels.  And while he's 30 years old, he's only been starting in the majors for two years, so he doesn't have a tremendous amount of innings on his arm.  
  • Latroy Hawkins is going to feel really out of place at that press conference.  
  • How would you like to be Jerry DiPoto?  You finally get your first real GM job, and take over a relatively solid team with some holes to fill, a team with a pretty decent farm system, arguably the best prospect in all of baseball, and oh yeah, the owner also has given $40 plus million to spend in the off-season.  
  • I have a lot of friends who are Cardinals fans, and so far I haven't sensed much animosity towards Pujols.  My friend Dayn says that Albert will continue to be one of his favorite players.  And while I understand that they're disappointed right now, they are just coming off a World Series Championship.  Given the option of losing the WS, or winning it and being forced to give up my team's best player, I'd probably choose the latter.  Flags fly forever.  
  • These are pretty great moves to make right before you sign a new television contract.
  • If there was ever a question about whether Arte Moreno cared about winning, I think it has been answered. Talk about a breath of fresh air, this is a guy that absolutely could not handle missing the playoffs two years in a row.  Long time Angels fans have been conditioned to survive at least 16 consecutive years with no post-season baseball. 
  • I love it when teams add to their strengths.  Everyone talks about balance, and sure it's important, but the Wilson signing reminds me a lot of the Braves in the 1992 off-season.  Everybody expected the Braves, coming off two straight WS losses, to go after free agent Barry Bonds.  He was a perfect fit, and would have given them an outfield of Bonds, Otis Nixon, and David Justice.  Instead, the team with the best pitching staff in baseball at the time signed reigning Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux.  They took their best part and made it better.  All that did was get them into the playoffs for the next decade.  
  • Really fun day to be an Angels fan coming off the disappointments of the Teixeira and Crawford misses.  

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Year in Music: The Year in Live Shows

Exactly one year ago, I posted about the year in live shows, 2010. Following the same format, here's the rundown on 2011, keeping in mind that I still have tickets for two upcoming shows: the War on Drugs @ Lincoln Hall (12/7), and Joy Formidable @ the Metro (12/15).

  •  Shows attended: 54 (plus two remaining), which means I'll beat last year by about 10. 
  •  Sets witnessed: 97 (plus about four remaining). Again, besting last year by about 10.
Shows by venue:
  • Lincoln Hall - 20
  • Schuba's - 12
  • Empty Bottle - 5
  • the Metro - 3
  • The Vic - 2
  • Subterranean - 2
  • the Bottom Lounge - 2
  • the Double Door - 2
  • The Hideout - 1
  • Beat Kitchen - 1
  • Fireside Bowl - 1
  • Silverlake Lounge - 1
  • Plus a number of Festival shows
Bands Seen Multiple Times (including festival shows):
  • tUnE-yArDs - 4
  • the 1900s - 3
  • the War on Drugs - 3
  • Smith Westerns - 3
  • Besnard Lakes - 2
  • Cults - 2
  • Destroyer - 2
  • Eleanor Friedberger - 2
  • the Fiery Furnaces - 2
  • Handsome Furs - 2
  • Joy Formidable - 2
  • Peter Bjorn and John - 2
  • Team Band - 2
  • Ted Leo - 2 (once solo, once with the Pharmacists)
  • the Thermals - 2
  • Wild Flag - 2
  • YAWN - 2
Biggest Months
  • July - 9
  • May - 7
  • October - 7
  • June - 6
  • August - 6
This year seemed more evenly spread out than last year.  

Biggest Letdowns:

Can't say I really had too many letdowns this year.  Most of the shows I went to provided a pretty good value, and I can't say there was anyone I was really psyched to see who didn't deliver.  I suppose I was not well positioned for either St. Vincent or Lykke Li, but that's really my own fault.  I was a bit let down by Pitchfork's overall lineup, particularly Saturday, a day on which Destroyer was the only band I really wanted to see.  I was also a bit let down by the fact that PJ Harvey didn't play any Chicago dates.

Biggest Surprise of the Year:

Actually, this year's biggest surprise was a band who was one of last year's biggest letdowns.  Girls gave what I thought was a pretty awful performance at the Pitchfork Festival, but they redeemed themselves this year with a really phenomenal show at Lincoln Hall.  I'd imagine the venue played no small role in that, but beyond the hot sun last year, I just thought their set and the tempo at which it was played didn't translate well to a live show.  No such problems this year.  I was also somewhat surprised by how much I really enjoyed the two Peter, Bjorn, & John shows I attended, particularly because those shows weren't on my radar until I learned that the 1900s would be opening one of them.  the 1900s are the reason I bought a ticket, and I ended up really being glad that I got a chance to see PB&J.

Best Single Night of Music:

Sunday at the Pitchfork Festival probably had the best overall lineup of music that I saw this year, starting off with Superchunk, leading into Deerhunter, followed by Cut Copy, and closed out with TV on the Radio.  Deerhunter put on the best performance of the weekend, and Cut Copy was better than I expected.  It was a nice way to end the Festival after a solid Friday (tUnE-yArDs, Guided by Voices, Animal Collective), and a crappy Saturday.

Biggest Screw-Job of the Year:

On June 15th at the Double Door, Team Band got totally hosed by Art Brut, a band they had been friendly with in the past.  The show was supposed to start at 9:00, with Team Band as the first opener.  Art Brut made them go on at 8:30.  Fortunately, I had checked the venue's website, which had been updated, but all of the information for the show had originally listed the start time as 9:00.  Other people who actually wanted to see Team Band, a really fun local act (and by local, I mean like my neighborhood) weren't so lucky.  The surprising thing about this is that the two bands have played together quite a few times, and the guys in Art Brut were kinda dicks about the whole thing, which really makes me want to not like Art Brut.  Fortunately, their album this year kind of sucked, so the situation kind of took care of itself.  

Top Five Shows of the Year:  

This was kind of a weird year in that there were a lot of really good shows, but very few, if any, really stood out and blew me away like the Fiery Furnaces, Titus Andronicus, and Deerhunter last year.  That said, these are the five that made the largest impression.

5) Gruff Rhys@ Schuba's - June 9th: It's been a couple years since Gruff Rhys has been to town with his main act, the Super Furry Animals, but he's been to town twice in the last few years promoting his solo stuff.  A couple years ago, he brought an extra vocalist, a bunch of props, and that was pretty much it.  He created a swirl of loops and percussion to fill in for the lack of backing musicians, and it nicely complemented his album Candylion.  This time, the Welsh surf rock band Y Niwl acted as both Gruff's opening band, and his back-up band.  The set up was well suited for his most recent album Hotel Shampoo, which is a bit more pop/rock forward than Candylion was.  His self deprecation played well to the smallish crowd in an intimate setting (Schuba's holds fewer than 200 people even when sold out).  It was among the best shows I've seen him do, with or without SFA. 

4) Wild Flag @ the Empty Bottle - October 9th: These ladies come to rock.  With Janet Weiss pounding away on drums while lead guitar duties switched back and forth between Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein, they brought a lot of energy to the packed crowd at the Empty Bottle.  

3) tUnE-yArDs @ Lincoln Hall - May 10th: The first of the three shows she played at Lincoln Hall this year, I actually made it over the venue in plenty of time after having seen the Fiery Furnaces play their "recital show" at Schuba's earlier in the evening.  

2) the Thermals @ the Green Music Festival - June 26th: It's almost impossible for the Thermals to put together a set list that won't translate well to a live show.  They tried at the Onion AV Fest show in September, but even that show turned out pretty good.  At the Green Music Festival in Wicker Park, they were as close to perfect as possible.  They broke out all of their best stuff from across their entire catalog, and they hit every note.  They're also a band who clearly has a good time playing live.  Drummer Westin Glass may be the most enthusiastic musician I've ever seen.  It was also the only show I've ever seen with a stage set up right in front of a retirement home, and they even had those residents interested.

1) Ted Leo and the Pharmacist @ the Fireside Bowl - July 26th:  TL/Rx can sell out a venue like the Metro that holds over a thousand people.  So if you have the opportunity to see them in front of about a hundred people at an old bowling alley, you have to take advantage.  No big speaker system, no fancy light show.  Just a couple of big PA speakers and a punk band playing the kind of stuff they played back when bowling alley style gigs were all they could get.  The sound wasn't terrific, but the set was long and the setting was perfect.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eleanor Friedberger @ the Hideout - 7/20/11

Fresh off a late Spring tour with her brother, the Fiery Furnaces as a duo, Eleanor Friedberger released her first true solo album, "Last Summer", and has hit the road in support. She called the duo tour their "recital", and it really had that type of feel. Just her brother Matt at the keys and Eleanor on vocals as they re-interpreted a selection of music covering more or less their entire catalog.

Last night she hit the stage without the security of a fellow performer and played an interesting mix of album tracks, Fiery Furnaces classics, new tracks that aren't on the album, and even a cover of a Spoon song, which she introduced as a song written by "the guy that licks my face" in the video for her first single "My Mistakes" (below).

The venue was packed and fairly hot, and as a Chicago local (Oak Park, actually), there appeared to be plenty of friends and family in the crowd. Eleanor went the Ted Leo route, a solo act playing an electric guitar. Typically a singer-songwriter playing solo will go acoustic, as the instrument tends to allow the performer to improvise some percussion. With just the electric, all you're getting is the guitar, but in the right hands, it can work. Whereas Ted basically plays his lead guitar parts as if he had a band behind him, Eleanor's set had more of a demo feel, like she was previewing songs that would be fleshed out at some point in the future. Of course, she's already done that on the album, and she announced that she'll be back with a full band "sometime around Halloween".

Like their Schuba's shows earlier this year, the Hideout is a venue that really lends itself well to her personality. She comes off as shy, but funny, and the bits of crowd interaction are really enjoyable. I was a bit surprised that she didn't play more from the new album, but I really look forward to hearing the full band arrangements in the fall.

Setlist - I'm creating my own titles for the new songs:
  • I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight
  • Scenes From Bensonhurst
  • That Was When I Knew - (new song)
  • My Mistakes
  • Trouble Comes Running - (Spoon cover)
  • Noise in the Distance - (new song)
  • Lost at See - (Fiery Furnaces song)
  • Heaven
  • After Perfection - (new song)
  • Early Earthquakes
  • Tropical Iceland - (Fiery Furnaces song)
  • Inn of the Seventh Ray
  • Trying Not to Stare Into the Sun - (new song)

My Mistakes

I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Maybe it was the inevitability of the thing, or maybe I've just consumed a few thousand gallons of alcohol since it happened, but I don't recall the level of reaction in the Halosphere, such as it was, to Tim Salmon's retirement as there has been to Garret Anderson's retirement. Maybe it's because there's been a lot of coverage at the OC Register's excellent blog. That's not a criticism, it's just an observation.

Anyway, the day has finally arrived for GA to hang 'em up, and that makes this as good a time as any to look back at the career of the man who a) scored the winning run in the most important inning in Angels history, and b) drove in the winnning runs in the most important game in Angels history.

He burst onto the scene in 1995, posting what would be the third best OPS+ of his career in 106 games, and was one of the three young outfielders that pushed the '95 Angels out to the huge lead that they would piss away in August and September, a collapse that probably cost him the rookie of the year. After a few less than mediocre years, he put up huge counting stats in 2000, a year in which four Angels hit more than 35 home runs (Anderson had 35 and 107 RBIs). He put up arguably his best all around year in 2002 with 29 homers and a monstrous 56 doubles. He'd put up his best OPS+ in 2003, but the career slide started the next year, with a bit of a blip in 2007.

As an Angels fan, there are a few GA moments I'll never forget:
  • Game two of the 2002 ALDS against the Yankees. Needing a win after dropping game one, the Angels went into the 8th inning trailing 5-4. With GA leading off the inning, Orlando Hernandez hung one, and I can still see him going into his windup and hearing Joe Buck say "The Angels trail by one.....the Angels have tied this game". Troy Glaus would follow with the second of back to back homers, the Angels would go on to win the game and series.
  • Game three of the 2002 ALCS against the Twins. The Angels split in Minnesota and came home hoping to take control of the series. Again, leading off, GA's second inning home run stood as the Angels' only marker until Troy Glaus' game winner in the 8th.
  • Game six of the 2002 World Series. Following Darin Erstad's home run and Tim Salmon's grossly underrated single, GA's bloop down the left field line eluded Barry Bonds. Heads up base running by Chone Figgins and GA put the winning run on second base, shortly before Troy Glaus' double cashed them in, setting up game seven's heroics.
  • Game seven of the 2002 World Series. Anderson's bases loaded double broke a 1-1 tie, cashing in all three baserunners, and provided the margin for the greatest win in Angels history.
  • The 2003 All-Star Game. This was a special couple of days for me as an Angels fan living in Chicago. It's the only ASG I've ever attended. GA won the home run derby, and was the very model of efficiency. Albert Pujols wowed the crowed with his monster shots, but GA got the job done by depositing pitch after pitch in the first row, second row, just enough to clear the wall in right center field. He followed up that performance with an ASG MVP, finishing the game, the first one that "counted", with a homer and a double.
He holds just about every offensive record in team history. He's a Southern California native who played all of the productive parts of his career in front of his home fans. Objectively, he should be the franchise's top icon. But he'll always lack the gravitas of Tim Salmon, Nolan Ryan, Brian Downing, etc. Why? I think the easiest player to compare him to is Salmon, since their careers mostly overlapped, they played similar positions, and were similar hitters in that they there were middle of the order hitters expected to produce runs.

But when you really compare their careers, a couple things jump out at me. Salmon's career OPS+ is 128 to GA's 102, primarily a function of the fact in 2,000 fewer plate appearances, Salmon drew over twice as many walks. Despite a career batting average that was 10 points lower, Salmon finished with an OBP 60 points higher, and he slugged almost 40 points higher. He also never put up the sub-mediocre years that Anderson did. Salmon had one full season with an OPS+ below 100, and that was his "cliff" year in 2001, when his OPS+ slid to 98. Anderson had five Angels seasons lower than 98, another at 99, and another four below 110, which adjusted for position is pretty average. Put simply, despite the counting stats (again, GA had nearly 2,000 more plate appearances as an Angel) Salmon was simply the better hitter.

But I should point out that in those prime years, Anderson spent a lot of his time hitting fifth and sixth behind Glaus, Salmon, and Mo Vaughn. I'm not going to argue that GA could have been a great OBP guy if the situation called for it. The guy was a swinger, and he put the ball in play ALL THE TIME. If you were hitting sixth for the Angels in the early part of the aughts, you were hitting behind relatively high OBP guys like Salmon, Glaus, Vaughn, Fullmer... Who exactly are you trying to get on base for? Orlando Palmeiro? The Ben(j)gies? Anyway.

In addition to the numbers, Tim Salmon remains the Angels only rookie of the year, and he did so by "winning from the front" so to speak. He was the odds on favorite to win the ROY before the 1993 season started, and won the award with relative ease. He was the savior that actually delivered the franchise to the promised land (with a heck of a lot of help), and like Anderson, Salmon made HUGE contributions in the 2002 playoff run. One would not have to create an logical loop to make the case that Tim Salmon is an Angel legend, while Anderson is merely an Angel hall-of-famer.

Maybe more importantly, regardless of whether the perception equals reality (I believe it does NOT), Anderson was perceived as less of a competitor. Tim Salmon was perceived as the "run through walls" competitor, while GA was content with good enough. I think this is BS, and I think when things aren't going well, fans need to find a scapegoat. GA was an easy scapegoat.

For me, the enduring GA memory will always be his interview with Steve Lyons on the Angel Stadium field after game seven of the 2002 World Series. For a guy who didn't show a lot of emotion, GA flashed one of the best smiles I've ever seen, the joy of the moment evident in his voice. This was a man who had worked hard toward a goal, who had suffered through that 1995 collapse, who had failed to reach his potential until that season, and he and his teammates had finally reached the mountaintop, thanks in large part to his heroics. GA will never be considered the greatest Angel, regardless of the record books, but he'll always be a cornerstone of my favorite team.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Snowtorious B.I.G.

The blizzard of 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


We've all read a lot in the last few days about the Vernon Wells trade, and now that Mike Napoli has ended up with the rival Rangers, things break down as such:

Angels get Vernon Wells and will owe him roughly $20MM per over the next four years to probably play left field. They lose Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera, both defensive butchers with power bats and the ability to draw a walk.

Blue Jays get Juan Rivera and Frank Francisco in exchange for getting someone to take Wells' contract off their hands.

Rangers get Napoli and lose Francisco.

So what does it mean for each team? I'm going to speculate that everyone involved is going to play, though I honestly don't know what the Jays plan to do with Rivera, or what the Rangers plan to do with Napoli.

The Blue Jays don't really lose a whole lot on offense, the lose a bit of outfield defense, and they continue to stock their bullpen. Of course, this all the rearranging of deck chairs. Their largest hope is that they might be able to catch the Rays for third place. Honestly, I don't even think Blue Jays fans care what they do. They're like the kid who gets a bunch of new pogs, when everyone knows he's going to lose them all to the school bully within a week. It's fun to get new stuff, then reality sets in.

The Rangers cruised into the playoffs and almost won a World Series last year all while getting about about a 60 OPS+ out of their catchers. Napoli is a good bet to almost double that. Their bullpen will take a hit, but it probably won't be bad enough to lose the division.

Which brings us to the Angels. I'm going to be honest, I don't think this makes the 2011 Angels any worse, and probably makes them a bit better on the field. I believe that to be true because Mike Scioscia has an unhealthy affection for catcher's ERA. It's my belief that Napoli would not have seen a ton of at bats this year, barring injury. In that sense, I truly believe that Napoli's value to the Angels does not represent his true value. And the idea that they didn't get equal value from an objective standpoint is meaningless.

Wells is a real wild card. He's been excellent in even numbered years, horrible in odd numbered years. And we're coming up on the 2011 season. We don't know which Wells we're going to get. If we get last year's model, it's an upgrade offensively and defensively. Enough of an upgrade that they can afford to let Bourjos develop offensively while providing excellent defense.

I can even begin to figure out what this means for the next few years. I'm not sure the Angels have done what they've been expected to do in off-season since Arte Moreno bought the team. But for 2011, they've probably improved the bullpen, the outfield defense, and the offense (just a smidge), but that's based on Morales' return and my belief that Napoli's bat would not have been in the lineup every day. Unfortunately, they probably didn't improve enough to to catch the Rangers even IF they hadn't done anything this off-season. With the move the Rangers have made, Angels fans may as well be Blue Jays fans this season.

And finally, what it is about Matt Welch and Vernon? Be it the player, or the small in size but huge in corruption town in SoCal, I'm thinking he just really likes the sound of the word "Vernon".