Monday, December 10, 2018

Favorite Songs of 2018: Songs 23-33

This year in music was full of highs and lows for me. The highest of the highs was getting to see one of my favorite bands, Frightened Rabbit, in concert in Chicago. The band made a brief tour in honor of the tenth anniversary of the release of their album The Midnight Organ Fight, the album that FR singer, songwriter, and frontman Scott Hutchison credited during the concert as the one that told them that they "might be able to make a living doing this."

Scott Hutchison (center) and his FR bandmates in Chicago
(photo courtesy of me).

The low was when, less than two months later, Scott Hutchison took his own life. He was 36, seemingly at the height of his career and in the prime of his musical life. Even a casual listener of FR's songs could not mistake the references to depression and suicidal thoughts that ran through nearly all of the band's five albums. But it was still a shock, particularly to me since Hutchison seemed in such a good place during the concert. His last public words, in a Tweet, summarize all that was good about him and all that is so terribly awful and unrelenting about depression: "Be so good to everyone you love.  It's not a given.  I'm so annoyed that it's not.  I didn't live by that standard and it kills me.  Please hug your loved ones.  I'm away now.  Thanks."

I soldiered on after that shocking event and once again dedicated myself to bringing to you my favorite songs of the past year. You will, as always, recognize several of the artists here from past years. You will, with very few exceptions, have never heard them on your local Top 40 radio station.  But I hope that you enjoy many of them, and perhaps go to see at least one of them if/when they come to your town.

23.  Drink About You by Kate Nash.

"I'm sick and tired of being such a hypocrite
I'm kinda over being over it all
I think I hate yourself
I think I hate me even more
I can't remember what happened before."

Kate has always been a favorite in our family. Her clever, witty lyrics are usually amusing and always thoughtful. One of several break-up songs on this year's list (and in fact this edition of the list).

24.  About You by G Flip.

"Yeah, we got crazy, yeah, it did phase me
When you just went and took off
Yeah, I know I pushed you
Didn't think you'd follow through and leave me on the rocks."

Another break-up song that perfectly captures the yin-yang of feelings that go with it. Which, I believe, purposefully matches her black and white sneakers in the video.

25.  Ancient Names (Part I) by Lord Huron.

"Far out past the astral plane
I cast you back from whence you came
Cosmic ash and blackened brain
I call you by your ancient names."

Our boys from the Mitten State seem to have taken a turn from pseudo-cowboy rock to Raymond Chandler-esque indie noir with their latest album (maybe my first hint was its name, "Vide Noir"). No official video or official concert video for this one as far as I can tell, so let your imaginations run wild with fortune tellers and soothsayers.

26.  Without Applause by Horse Feathers.

"Mama's here and nothing can be done
No other thought meanwhile something thaws
Dad to rise, there to fix something
It's not the drinking but the worry that does him in."

First heard this band on KEXP, one of my favorite radio stations. A song, I think, about the daily grind for working for a living and the toll it takes not only on the wage earner, but on his/her loved ones as well.

27.  Fell In Love by The Pollies.

"Fell in love with the one I love
When she's starin' back at me.
Fell in love with the one I love
And now she gives her love to me."

The Pollies were high on this list a few years ago with the politically charged "Jackson."  "Fell In Love" is less dramatic as far as subject matter goes, but certainly not as far as musicianship goes. 

28.  Give Yourself A Try by The 1975.

"And what would you say to your younger self?
Growing a beard's quite hard
And whiskey never starts to taste nice
And you'll make a lot of money, and it's funny
'Cause you'll move somewhere sunny and get addicted to drugs
And spend obscene amounts on f**king seeds and beans online."

A sneaking feeling that The 1975 are becoming (or at least trying to become) this generation's The Beatles.  Ambition is sometimes a bad thing, but for me not in this instance.

29.  better off by Sjowgren.

"I'm down low and I'm nothing without you
I'm better off to stay, I'm better off to say
I'm better off with you."

Kind of a love song, kind of a regretful "I can't help but be in love with you" song.  Sjowgren has appeared several times before on the list, but each time they've given a little more of a hint of who they might actually be.  I'm fine with the mystery, as long as they keep making great music.

30.  Plimsoll Punks by Alvvays.

"When I chip through your candy coating
You're stuffed with insulation
Just strawberry ice cream floating
With a sprinkle of indignation."

Yes, Alvvays (pronounced, of course, Always).  Saw them when they opened for The Decemberists a few years back.  They sound like an '80's girl group (The Go-Go's?), but with better musicianship (including a fuzzy grunge guitar) and much sharper lyrics.

31.  Call It Dreaming by Iron & Wine.

"'Cause the sun isn't only sinking fast
Every moon and our bodies make shining glass
Where the time of our lives is all we have
And we get a chance to say
Before we ease away
For all the love you've left behind
You can have mine."

Finally!  An honest-to-gosh love song instead of a broken love song.  Also saw Iron & Wine, many moons ago now, and frontman Sam Beam appeared to be trying to turn them into a "jam band" (I believe my line at the time was "trying to be another Phish - don't bite").  Nice to see him back to doing what he does best.

32.  Quarter Past Midnight by Bastille.

"We keep on running
Running through a red light
Like we're trying to burn the night away
Away-way, oh, away-way oh
Why are we always chasing after something
Like we trying to throw our lives away?
Away-way, oh, away-way oh."

Dan Smith, Bastille's lead singer, has a great voice.  And if you're a list regular, you know that I'm a sucker for big choruses.

33.  Everybody Lost Somebody by Bleachers.

"I waited 'til the night was over
Cursed the sun for coming up all over
Cashed the checks I had, I didn't own
Standing on the corner, God I wonder when
I'll give myself a break (hey)."

The winner in Facebook voting for this year's number 33 song. It appears that in this song our boy Jack Antonoff is beating himself up, instead of allowing others to do it as seems to be a frequent theme in Bleachers' videos.

So that's it -- the first 11 songs from my favorites of 2018.  Stay tuned for the next 22.  And while you're waiting for the next installment, hug someone you love.  For me, and for Scott.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017: Songs 1-11

As another year draws to a close, so too does our list. I hope that you've found some new artists to enjoy (or perhaps avoid) in the coming years. I believe that this year's list is particularly strong, especially at the top.

1.  Old Friends by Pinegrove.

"Walking out in the nighttime springtime
Needling my way home
I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago
Saw some old friends at her funeral.

My steps keep splitting my grief
Through these solipsistic moods
I should call my parents when I think of them
Should tell my friends when I love them."

When I discovered this song nearly a year ago, it immediately went to the top of my list and has stayed there ever since. The lyrics are perfect -- sad and hopeful, smart and simple, contemplative and life-affirming. The language advisory at the start of the video? Completely legitimate.

2.  Die Young by Sylvan Esso.

"I had it all planned that way before you met me
Was gonna leave early and so swiftly
Maybe in a fire or a crash off a ravine
People would weep: 'How tragic, so early.'

I was gonna die young
Now I gotta wait for you, hun."

A lovely, albeit slightly twisted, love song. All credit to my comely spouse for first discovering this song and these artists for me. The original version (from the excellent album "What Now") is fantastic, but the "live" version here is, I believe, even better (and I highly recommend the EP "Echo Mountain Sessions" as well). That voice! That sax!!

3.  Love Is Mystical by Cold War Kids.

"Oh, can't you hear the future is calling
For heaven's sake
It's either hell or high water
Let's get outta this place." 

I'm a graduate of the "you can never go wrong with hand claps and a 'woo hoo hoo' chorus" school of music appreciation. The other half of the dueling Kids on this year's list (joining Middle Kids from the last post).

4.  Shark Smile by Big Thief.

"It came over her at a bad time
Riding through Winona down the dotted line
Held us gunning out
Ninety miles down the road of a dead end dream.
She looked over, with a part smile
Caught up in the twinkle, it could take awhile
And the money pile on the dashboard fluttering."

A beautiful and sad song. Big Thief singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker described it in a press release as "the story of a car accident in which one dies and one lives. She recalls her lover leading up to the moment of the wreck, wishing she'd been taken into the next realm, too."

5.  Off She Goes by Bad Suns.

"Where, where do you go
When the light leaves your eyes?
And you're just out of reach
Like a tree-bound kite
What's on your mind, as you're staring behind?
And I'm on my own in your arms tonight
Yeah I'm on my own in your arms tonight."

Not the most profound song on this year's list. But maybe the catchiest.

6.  Unforgiving Girl (She's Not A Single Version) by Car Seat Headrest.

"This isn't sex
(I don't think)
It's just extreme empathy."

As you may have guessed from last year's list, I'm a big fan of Car Seat Headrest. The above lyrics may be my favorite couplet (if that term can be applied to three lines) of any song this year. Besides, how can you not like a group whose front man (Will Toledo) looks more like McLovin than Russell Hammond?

7.  a million other things by pronoun.

"but you gotta come home
(come back baby, come back first)
you gotta come home first
(come back baby, even if it hurts)
cuz there's a million other things we could do in the world
there's a million other things we could do in the world."

According to Spotify, the song that I listened to more than any other in 2017. I have to admit, when I went looking for a song to lift my spirits at the end of a long day, or to sing along with on the ride home, it was "a million other things" that, more often than not, I went looking for.

8.  Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man.

"We could fight a war for peace
(Ooh woo, I'm a rebel just for kicks, now)
Give in to that easy living
Goodbye to my hopes and dreams
Start flipping for my enemies
We could wait until the walls come down."

Guessing this is the most played/heard song on this year's list. It was all over playlists/streams/satellite radio this summer. I never got tired of it (although my spouse did).

9.  The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness by The National.

"I thought that this would all work out after a while
Now you're saying that I'm asking for too much attention
Also no other faith is light enough for this place
We said we'd only die of lonely secrets."

Typical brilliance from one of my favorite bands. I love the guitar work on this song.

10.  Never Been Wrong by Waxahatchee.

"I spent all my time learning how to defeat
You at your own game, it's embarrassing.
I walk around like
This is the last strike
I love being right
Especially with you."

Rock lives, thanks in large part over the past year to female-led bands. This ain't your Daddy's Go-Go's. The woman with the pink Fender can play!

11.  Gwan by Rostam.

"And all of these dreams
Keep coming back to me slowly, slowly.
And sometimes I laugh 
When I think about how well you know me
Yeah, you know me."

I like the lyrics (about maturation and friendship, I think), but the instrumentation in this song is what takes me to a quiet, happy place every time I listen.

If you don't want to wait for my list starting in November 2018, feel free to check out the great new music at All Songs Considered, KEXP, or our local community radio station WTSQ. Or you can follow me on Spotify and see if you can figure out what will be on my list next year.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017: Songs 12-22

Without further ado, songs 12-22:

12.  Hope the High Road by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

"I've heard enough of the white man's blues
I sang enough about myself.
So if you're looking for some bad news
Well you can find it somewhere else.
Last year was a son of a bitch
For nearly everyone we know.
But I ain't fighting with you down in a ditch
I'll meet you up here on the road."

To be clear, when I called Isbell the new poet laureate of Appalachia in my last post, it was MY   version of Appalachia to which I was referring.

13.  Now & Then by Sjowgren.

"Some things had changed
But others stayed the same and you,
You had your stories.
Some different stories
I left behind."

I don't know much more about the artist than I did in 2015 when their (her?) song "Seventeen" was high on my list. But they appear to enjoy the mystery. As long as they keep making music like this, that's okay with me.

14.  Fashion by The Royal Concept.

"'Cause I love the way you wear on me
And you fashion is so wild and free
Honey, loving you ain't easy
But I'm not gonna leave ya
No no
So baby put your dope ass crazy fashion on me."

The boys from Sweden are also a past member of the list, albeit five years ago, with a song that reminded me of The Strokes (and Phoenix). "Fashion" puts me more in mind of a certain Purple Icon of Pop who passed away last year. Even if their music continues to be a bit derivative, as long as it sounds like this, I say "vive la sameness."

15.  I Dare You by The xx.

"I get chills
Heartbreak multiplies
I'm on a different kind of high.
A rush of blood is not enough
I need my feelings set on fire."

Just a plain ol' lovely love song.

16.  Then Again by Pinegrove.

"Wakin' in an unusual town
every morning this September.
You could sleep it off and leave it all
but in the morning you remember."

Along with Jason Isbell, the other artist with two songs on this year's list. Pinegrove's album "Cardinal" is my favorite of 2017.

17.  Near to the Wild Heart of Life by Japandroids.

"I was destined to die dreaming
When one day, my best friend
With passion and pure provocation
Summoned me and said
'You can't condemn your love
To linger here and die
Can't leave your dreams to chance
Or to a spirit in the sky.
May your heart always be ardent
Your conscience always clear
And succumb to the city and surrender, baby
I'll be waiting here."

If you ever get the chance, go see Japandroids live. It's astonishing how much (excellent) sound can come out of two guys, a guitar, and a set of drums.

18.  Fighting a Ghost by Matt Hires.

"What do you say
when your heart's not in it?
What do you do
when there's no new beginning?
How do you start
When you've forgotten how to finish?"

I've really liked Matt Hires for quite a while now, particularly his voice and the little bit of disgust or outrage boiling just below the surface, even if he's just singing about lost love.

19.  Slip Away by Perfume Genius.

"Don't look back, I want to break free
If you'll never see 'em coming
You'll never have to hide.
Take my hand, take my everything

In a year of angst and equivocation, there was at least one simple love song that I liked a lot -- and this is it. And those drums ...

20.  Holding On by The War on Drugs.

"Now I'm headed down a different road, yeah
Can we walk it side by side?
Is an old memory just another way of saying goodbye?"

Highway songs are common, particularly in the U.S. Somehow, The War on Drugs managed to make the genre uniquely their own in this song.

21.  Edge of Town by Middle Kids.

"I got all muddled up and journeyed to the edge of town
And then the road cracked open, sucked me in and I went down
I'm standing face to face with the kind of the underground
Some things just don't add up, I'm upside down I'm inside out."

This Aussie group toured with Cold War Kids this summer. Talk about the ultimate vacation for the Kids!

22.  Don't Take the Money by Bleachers.

"Will we fight, stay up late?
In my dreams I'm to blame
Different sides of the bed
Roll your eyes, shave my head
Now we're stuck in the storm
We were born to ignore
And all I got is a chance to just sit
(Baby love me you've got me, runaway)."

Proof that pop songs aren't necessarily devoid of meaning (or self-examination). Yes, that's Lorde you hear singing - she co-wrote "Don't Take the Money" with Bleachers' Jack Antonoff. And yes that appears to be Maeby Funke commiserating with Jack at the start of the video (and presiding over his "The Graduate" like wedding at the end). And finally, yes, Jack seems to regularly get his butt kicked in Bleachers videos.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Favorite Songs of 2017: Songs 23-33

It's hard to believe that a year ago, as I was composing the first post of my favorite songs of 2016, the Cubs had just won their first pennant in 108 years, the U.S. Men's Soccer team was still a "lock" for the World Cup, and we had a responsible adult in the White House. The dismay that many of us feel is reflected in many of the songs on this year's list. But also hope. And hope is a good thing.

23.  3WW by Alt-J.

"Girls from the pool say 'Hi' (hi)
The road erodes at five feet per year
Along England's east coastline.
Was this your first time?
Love is just a button we pressed
Last night by the campfire."

Difficult the read anything into this song as anything other than about ... intimate relationships. "3WW" stands for Three Worn Words (as the lyrics themselves say) -- the consensus is that they are "I Love You." The official video is here mostly because of the vocals by Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice, a band featured on last year's list. But live versions at KEXP and other places are wonderful too.

24.  Gossamer Thin by Connor Oberst.

"Ring 'round his eyes
Tracks down his arm
His fans are confused and his friends are alarmed.
His wife doesn't talk
Hates when he's gone
Counts ever skirt in his new entourage.

And they're all gossamer thin
Left of the dial, Bohemians.
And they dance, tournament style
Twirl 'round the room, curtsy and smile.
And they sit at his feet, sippin' their tea
And swoon with each word he speaks."

A more personal desperation at work here than in many other songs on this year's list.

25.  Cumberland Gap by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

"I ain't cut out for war,
unless I know what I'm fighting for.
And there's nothing here but churches, bars, and grocery stores.
Ain't much money in
The old-time mandolin.
So I cash my check and drink 'til I'm on my ass again."

There is not currently living a better chronicler of life in Appalachia (and that's "App-ah-latch-ah" by the way) than Jason Isbell.

26.  Lay It On Me by Vance Joy.

"Snow comes down everything is new and different.
I found you hidden in plain sight, why'd I take so long?
Write it on a piece of paper, honey
Put it in my coat before I go."

A former denizen of the top spot on my list, Joy's "Lay It On Me" doesn't quite reach those heights. But if you've been following for a while, you know I'm a sucker for choral crescendos.

27.  Modern Act by Cloud Nothings.

"Here we are among the living
See and count your friends
Gathered in a room together
This is how it ends
Can't stand the modern act
Whose war is this, what god is that?
Feels like the tide is only
Starting to come in."

One of many songs on this year's list about despair and hope. Or hope and despair. Your choice.

28.  Anymore by Goldfrapp.

"Your strange music
Like lucid dreams
The power of you
Transforming me."

A song that harkens back to when my children were young and I imposed my musical tastes upon them every chance I got - Goldfrapp's "Number One" was among them.  This is about as close to dance music or synthpop as my tastes allow me to venture. But perhaps that's my problem and not yours.

29.  Dear Life by Beck.

"You drove your Rolls into the swamp
You stole away like a thief, reeling from the sticker shock
Of the price they put upon your soul
You buy it back from the burning ashes of the devil you know."

Really reaching back now with Beck. If anyone can pull off a "sounds like The Beatles" song, Beck has both the chops and the pedigree to do it.

30.  Everything Now by Arcade Fire.

"Every inch of road's got a sign
And every boy uses the same line
I pledge allegiance to everything now
Every song that I've ever heard
Is playing at the same time, it's absurd
And it reminds me, we've got everything now
We turn the speakers up 'til they break
'Cause every time you smile it's a fake."

I'll leave it to you to decide of whom the boys and girls from AF speak when they say that every smile is a fake.

31.  Don't Matter Now by George Ezra.

"Sometimes you need to be alone
(It don't matter now)
Shut the door, unplug the phone
(It don't matter now)
Speak in a language they don't know
(It don't matter now)

Well I don't think about that stuff
No, I don't think about that stuff
It don't matter now."

One of those songs you find yourself singing in the shower or in the car on the way to work.

32.  Wolves and the Water by Edward R.

"Turn back time I don't belong here
But when I turn my head time always changes me.
Take me back to golden horizons
Hell you're gonna find me anyway
Torn between the wolves and the waters
Heaven's gonna find me on the way."

It appears that Mr. R. is sufficiently obscure enough to not have his own Wikipedia page. Seems that he's from Australia, but I can't tell you much more about him than that. I do, however, like this song, particularly the "unplugged" version in this video.

33.  Catch Me If You Can by Walking on Cars.

"I just got my head down
And I'm a little bit scared tonight
I need to run just far enough
So I can smile again, smile again
So i can smile again.

Chosen by my loyal Facebook listeners as their pick for the final spot on this year's list. A little Coldplay, a little The Fray. These guys and gal are from County Kerry, so what's not to like?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cups All Around (and not a Drop to Drink)

Some observations after watching most of the Confederations Cup and attending the U.S. Men's National team Gold Cup game against Panama in Nashville:

1.  The Confederations Cup Is No Longer a Test for Anyone but the Host Country.  Sure, you can say that the Germans don't have a B Squad, or that even their second team is better than most other countries, but whatever the excuse or the analysis, the simple fact is that they breezed through the Confed Cup starting exactly zero players who started the 2014 World Cup Final against Argentina. 

While roster turnover is a fact of international soccer, and it would be a shock if Philipp Lahm or Miroslav Klose featured in the 2018 German World Cup team (since both have retired from international football), there are several players from that team (Neuer, Ozil, Muller, Boateng) who seem naturals for the next edition as well. But they were nowhere to be found on the squad as Joachim Low chose a team without a wealth of international experience. The Germans won four games and tied one, "avenging" the tie by beating Chile 1-0 in the Final.

2.  Russia Met its Lowly Expectations. Apparently the "test" for Russia hosting these games, as far as FIFA was concerned, was to prove that it could be at least superficially friendly to traveling supporters of the participating teams and avoid any overt racism, homophobia, or hooliganism. While new FIFA Capo Gianni Infantino said that the tournament was a great success, it remains to be seen whether Russia can duplicate the feat on a much larger scale, with many of the stadiums not used for the Confederations Cup still not complete. Not to mention the pesky North Korean labor abuses upon which those stadia are apparently being built.

3.  Russia's Men's Soccer Team Met its Lowly Expectations. Which is to say, it sucks. Although one player, Yuri Zhirkov, was fun to watch.

4.  Mexico is Still Mexico. Which is to say, it folds on the big stage. The best Mexico has to offer was a poor, poor second to Germany in the semis, losing 4-1, and couldn't beat a Ronaldo-less Portugal in the third place match.

The view of Nissan Stadium in Nashville from the American
Outlaws' section prior to the U.S. v. Panama match. (photo by me)

5.  The U.S. Men's B Team is Not Germany's B Team. Or C Team. No surprise there, of course, but the performance against Panama was dross. Fortunately, the players know it and Bruce Arena knows it. While Arena chose to use the Gold Cup as a testing ground for players who are on the fringe of the potential 2018 World Cup roster, they were out-of-sorts defensively and particularly in the midfield. Which leads to the final observation ...

6.  Shut Up About Michael Bradley Already. After every U.S. match of any significance, the trolls crawl from their parents' basements to complain about how Bradley gives away the ball too much, doesn't play high enough, doesn't play back enough, blah, blah, blah. If the match against Mexico at the Azteca and a Bradley-less midfield against Panama don't convince you of Bradley's quality and the absolute necessity that he be a starting midfielder for the U.S. as long as he wants to strap on his boots and don the shirt, nothing will.

While Kellyn Acosta was good in the warm-up match against Ghana and threw himself around a bit against Panama, the other two center mids against Panama, Dax McCarty and Joe Corona, were abysmal. Here's hoping Arena gives someone (anyone) else a shot against Martinique. But only with the caveat that they will back-up, or at best play alongside, Bradley.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Giving Klinsmann His Due (If He's Owed It)

I know I've been incredibly wishy-washy about Jurgen Klinsmann over the years here.

Aside: You may ask: "Who cares about Klinsmann at this point? He's gone. Arena's got the men's team headed in the right direction. Enough is enough." But it's not, because ... well, because I've been searching in vain for something that interests me enough to post about, and this is where I landed. With the enigma that is Klinsmann.

I defended Klinsmann's decision to not include Landon Donovan in the 2014 World Cup roster, then admitted that it may have been a mistake. I took his side when critics accused him of being too European (or un-American), then took him to task for trying to assert ownership of the uniquely American traits of his team and players.

Ultimately, even though I liked the energy and inventiveness he brought to the position of National Team coach, I agreed that Coach Klinsmann needed to go based upon the U.S. team's miserable results in the first two matches of The Hex CONCACAF qualifying.

But I'm wondering now if his defense of his performance after he was let go, that his time with the team and its abrupt end was "an incomplete picture" was closer to the truth than we may have suspected at the time. At least as far as his second job, as technical director of all of the U.S. Men's teams, is concerned.

A bemused Klinsmann at a press conference
(photo from

The recent showings by the U.S. Men's U-20 and U-17 teams have led me to think that Klinsmann was undervalued as a developer of young players, or at least of putting a system in place to help them succeed. While there are a variety of factors that no doubt play into the recent successes of our national teams with a "U" in front of them (MLS youth programs, more young players turning pro rather than going to college, more youth players signing with European clubs while young, etc.), I can't help but think that Klinsmann had something to do with the improvement, and indeed some of the other factors listed above.

Although his criticism of MLS was sometimes unwarranted and generally just not helpful, whether because of that criticism or just the organic growth of the league and its teams, much of the improvement in our national youth teams is due to the fact that most of the players at the U-17 level up are now professionals, a far cry from 10 years ago. It was Klinsmann who beat the drums for the professional development of young players (admittedly, at the expense of college soccer).

By the same token, the fact that more and more young Americans are going to Europe to play must play a role in the overall improvement of their national teams, not only from a technical aspect, but also simply from a comfort level of playing against the best in the world on a weekly basis. One has to look no farther than Christian Pulisic, who age-wise is eligible to be playing in the U-20 World Cup now being held in South Korea, but talent-wise has already graduated to the full men's team, to see the added value in playing professionally in one of the best leagues in the world (in his case, the German Bundesliga).  Again, it was Klinsmann who beat the drums for players to play professionally at the highest level (i.e., in Europe) although this again put him at odds with our American soccer establishment (such as it is) in the MLS.

The genesis of this post is the U-20 World Cup, in which, to this point, the Americans have never looked overmatched, have been inventive going forward, and have actually possessed the ball for long periods of time! After going down 2-0 in the first game against Ecuador, the U.S. fought back to tie at two, only for a gaffe/howler/_______ (insert English football phrase you deem most suitable) by American goalkeeper ... (wait for it ...) Jonathan Klinsmann, only to then score again in the fourth minute of extra time to earn a tie.

The Young Yanks then beat Senegal 1-0 and tied Saudi Arabia 1-1 after a series of incredibly bad refereeing decision that left them a man down for 55 minutes and three men down (due to yellow card accumulation) for the knockout stage match against New Zealand. And all of this was accomplished after the team's primary playmaker, Gedion Zelalem, was subbed off with an apparently serious knee injury only half of an hour into the Ecuador match.

While the group stage was encouraging, the New Zealand match was a revelation. Despite starting three players who had seen little playing time to that point, the Americans dismantled the Kiwis 6-0, as 17 year-old U.S. starlet (hauling out all the Brit football terms here) Josh Sargent scored his fourth goal of the tournament, and five others chipped in a tally as well.

As is always the case, Sargent's goal scoring has attracted much of the media attention (and interest from another Bundesliga club). But the work of those under coach Tab Ramos's guidance in the midfield and defense has been equally admirable.  Even operating without Zelalem, the team has looked confident on the ball and, except for the first half hour against Ecuador, preternaturally poised.

Similarly, the U-17 team (led by Sargent) had a good run in CONCACAF qualifying, winning a spot in that World Cup by tromping Cuba 6-2 before falling 5-4 in penalty kicks to Mexico in the Final.

Maybe it's the fact that Jurgen Klinsmann has been present for the U.S. U-20 World Cup matches, watching his son perform well (for the most part) in goal, that has led me to think of him a little more kindly and want to give him credit for our recent success at the youth levels. But I can't shake the feeling that, while Dad is present, his director ghost is too, and is more than a little pleased to see that his work is bearing fruit.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Favorite Songs of 2016: Songs 1-11

And so we reach the end of another year (which by many accounts, including mine, we are happy to see the backside of) and another list (which was musically pretty darn good). My favorite 11 songs of 2016 will have some artists that you will know from earlier lists this year and years past, songs that you will have actually heard on the radio or the internet, and some you may never care to hear again. But that's okay - it's still a free country. Right? 

1. Grand Canyon by The Wind + The Wave.

"Down to your skivvies at the watering hole
Gonna get you wet
Gonna save your soul ...
It's the damnedest thing
Oh, it's the damnedest thing."

Sure, there are songs that follow this one that are more critically acclaimed or commercially successful. But this song is the one that has always brought a smile to my face whenever it pops up on my playlist, that has the opening stanza that perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the song, that I've never even thought about skipping although I've already listened to it 100 times this year. And that's why Grand Canyon, from the band lead by Dwight A. Baker and Patricia Lynn, is my favorite of 2016. Lynn, the songwriter for The Wind + The Wave, describes Grand Canyon: “[It's] about my brother,” she says. “I almost lost him to a major car accident a few years ago. To me the song is about the ability to appreciate what’s in front of you and not take the things that matter most for granted."

2. Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales by Car Seat Headrest.

"Here's that voice in your head
Giving you sh!t again
But you know he loves you...
And he doesn't mean to cause you pain.
Please listen to him
It's not too late
Turn off the engine
Get out of the car
And start to walk."

From my favorite album of the year, by a longshot: Car Seat Headrest's "Teens of Denial." A song about the choices we make, should make, or don't make; about selfishness and disillusion and how, sometimes, we need to do the right thing even though it's the hard thing. Language warning, btw, if you didn't get that from the lyrics above.

3. Cleopatra by The Lumineers.

"But I was late for this, late for that,
late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, ...
when I die I'll be on time.

The only gifts from my Lord
were a birth and a divorce
But I've read this script and the costume fits,
so I'll play my part."

My favorite song on my second favorite album of the year. Seems to be largely drawn from historical accounts of Cleopatra's life, with a certain poetic license. But of course it could be about a modern day Cleopatra instead (as the official video seems to suggest). The last two lines quoted above are my favorites from any song this year.

4. Ghosts of Santa Fe by Alberta Cross.

"This heart catastrophe
Is sad in a way
But we'll get past it after all....
I sent my last rose
Down to New Mexico
I kept my head hung there after all."

This was probably the first song on my "Best Songs of 2016" playlist on Spotify.  I discovered it late last year (too late for last year's list) and it's been there ever since. A song of love lost and with a horn section, it's definitely my kind of music. Alberta Cross frontman Petter Ericson Stakee is Swedish as well, which certainly didn't hurt the song's appeal to me.

5. I Wish I Was Sober by Frightened Rabbit.

"My love, you should know
The best of me left hours ago so
Shove a rag into my mouth and let me smoulder...
The fall out and the damage done
I can’t un-sink the things I’ve sunk
Still not giving up, though I wish that I was sober."

My brother Jeff may have thought that this was the year of a new release by the band that he refers to as "Scared Bunny" without mention on my list, and for most of the year he would have been right. I was underwhelmed, truth be told, with much of the band's new release "Painting of a Panic Attack." Until I heard this song, that is. Smart, self-deprecating, gloomy lyrics with just a touch of hope, and crescendo-building music to boost that optimism are precisely why this is one of my all-time favorite bands and Scott Hutchison one of my favorite song writers. Rock on Scared Bunny, rock on.

6. California by i said yes.

"All the dreams you killed,
Do you dream them still?
Are they there in California? Wait and see,...
And come to California with me
And we'll cruise along Broadway in a Model T
When you come to California with me
In a big Top Hat like John F. Kennedy,
When you come to California with me."

The second California song on the list, as mentioned what seems like a long time ago. Love the symbolism of every significant American landmark being in California in the lyrics, although I don't feel it's provincialism that's intended, more like California as a metaphor for the entire country. Of course, if you look in the comments on the YouTube video, some idiot insists that: "statue of liberty, mt Rushmore, chatanooga, and the sun does not rise from the water in California." Thanks for the knowledge Mr. Peabody.

7. Bros by Wolf Alice.

"Shake your hair, have some fun
Forget our mothers and past lovers, forget everyone
Oh, I'm so lucky, you are my best friend...
Oh, there's no one, there's no one who knows me like you do."

A song about female friendship and impending "real-lifedom," but could just as easily be about guys and older folks as well. This song has been around in various versions for several years, but was rereleased in 2015 so I think I'm cool as far as my list rules go. It's such a good song that I didn't want you to miss it.

8. Fill In The Blank by Car Seat Headrest.

"You have no right to be depressed
You haven’t tried hard enough to like it
Haven’t seen enough of this world yet...
But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts
Well stop your whining, try again
No one wants to cause you pain
They’re just trying to let some air in
But you hold your breath, you hold your breath, you hold it
Hold my breath, I hold my breath, I hold it."

I believe this is only the second time I've had two songs by the same artist in my top 10. Such is my admiration for this album and artist. Will Toledo, frontman for CSH, is the Strummer and Jones of the Millennial Generation as far as I'm concerned. This is music both entertaining and worth listening to.

9. Brand New by Ben Rector.

"I feel like a young John Cusack, like making big mistakes
I feel like for the first time in a long time I am not afraid
I feel like a kid, never thought it'd feel like this:

Like when I close my eyes
and don't even care if anyone sees me dancing.
Like I can fly,
and don't even think of touching the ground.
Like a heartbeat skip, like an open page
Like a one way trip on an aeroplane
It's the way that I feel when I'm with you:
Brand new."

Just a big, fun, pop song, the kind that I seem to always be a sucker for (fun., Bleachers, Walk the Moon, etc.). And despite my general distaste for amusement parks, the video is equally endearing (and kind of goofy).

10. Djin by Mashrou' Leila.

"All the women and the men
Arrive shrouded in hides
Awaiting he who dies and then returns to life...
We heed the wisdom of vines
Vines guard all wisdom of life
We relinquish self
But the god is with us."

You're going to have to trust me on these lyrics, just as I did to the vagaries of google translator, because they're in Arabic (and in fact I've seen the title of the song as both "Djin" and "Djinn"). I first heard Mashrou' Leila on NPR's Tiny Desk concert this year and was blown away by their lead singer Hamad Sinno. The group has a compelling backstory (including Sinno being openly gay in a country that is not particularly welcoming of such individuals) that also weighed into my admiration for the song.

11. Good Grief by Bastille.

"You might have to excuse me
I’ve lost control of all my senses
And you might have to excuse me...
I’ve lost control of all my words.

So get drunk, call me a fool
Put me in my place, put me in my place
Pick me up, up off the floor
Put me in my place, put me in my place."

An upbeat song about death and grieving from a British band with a French name that samples Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science. That about sums it up.