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.