The bestest albums of 2017

Yes, even Dubbatrubba is not immune to the year-end list frenzy that sweeps the media this time of year (“Top News Stories”… “Best Movies”… “Favorite Cat Memes”… )

But it’s worth noting that while most hacks stick to a Top 10, in true Spinal Tap fashion, this goes to 11.

 

Not that you asked, not that you care, but here are my favorite albums of 2017, in no particular order, with a video of one of the tracks included for your listening/viewing pleasure.

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

Alvvays – Antisocialites

Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

Jen Cloher – Jen Cloher

Ron Gallo – Heavy Meta

Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator

The National – Sleep Well Beast 

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness 

Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

 

 

Still high on the Hogs

This is my favorite Sports Illustrated cover of all time:

Sure, it’s a fantastic photo, capturing Sidney Moncrief’s great elevation and determination, with a helpless Texas defender looking on. It’s fun to study the crowd too, and see the looks on people’s faces. This lady is my favorite:

She knows Sid’s about to throw it down…

But it’s also my favorite cover because in February of 1978, when this came out, I was a 13-year-old kid living in Arkansas, and I was definitely high on the Hogs. (HT to my Aunt Virginia for getting my brother and me an annual subscription to Sports Illustrated back then.) I loved those Eddie Sutton-coached teams, playing in Barnhill Arena. They had a very talented trio, nicknamed “The Triplets”: Ron Brewer, Marvin Delph and Sidney Moncrief. Steve Schall and Jimmy Counce rounded out the starting lineup. They made it all the way to the Final Four that year before losing to eventual champ Kentucky by six points in the semis. Back then, they still played a third-place game, and the Razorbacks beat Notre Dame 71-69 on a last-second turnaround jumper by Ron Brewer. I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was nearly 40 years ago.

Arkansas begins conference play this afternoon, with a home game against #19 Tennessee. I’m a Xavier alum and season ticket holder so I’ll be at the Muskies game, but there will always be a special place in my heart for my Hogs too. Woo Pig Sooie!

 

 

 

I love Buffalo this time of year

Buffalo Tom is my favorite band. Their heyday – such as it was – was back in the early 90s. A three-man band from Boston (not Buffalo), they are still together, but record only sporadically and tour even less frequently.

However, they did give their hardcore fans – the ones like me who contributed to their Pledge Music fundraiser for their new album – an early Christmas present. On 12/24, they shared an early release of their new album, Quiet and Peace which is slated to come out on March 2 of next year. It’ll be their first release in seven years, but they haven’t missed a beat. It sounds fantastic. (You can pre-order it here.)

The first song is available on Spotify and Soundcloud.

Here’s an excerpt from this Stereogum article with lead singer Bill Janovitz talking about the track:

“[‘All Be Gone’ has] this blue sky, sunny day feel to it, but it’s a really melancholy lyric in a lot of ways,” Janovitz told me when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “It’s pretty self-evident about getting older, [with lyrics like] ‘My time behind is greater than my time ahead’ — that sort of stuff. But it’s kind of a blazing, Buffalo Tom ‘let’s get the guitars up’ sort of track.’

“[As] you get older, you feel like holding onto time, especially when you have kids,” he adds. “And I’m just a victim of nostalgia in any point in time — I’m so vulnerable to it. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Kids grow at such an exponential rate, it really hits home to you. A lot of [the song] is about that, certainly. But it’s also not just this sad, melancholy song — it’s really about carpe diem, seizing it all as you can, and trying to hold on.”

And check out this Stereogum article about the Boston music scene in the 90s for more on my boys:

Buffalo Tom are roughly analogous to other somewhat overlooked artists such as Judee Sill or the Dream Syndicate; not the most prominent artists of their time, but a hidden treat for someone that falls in love with an era’s music and wants to dig a little deeper. If they do, they’ll find scores of poetic, ingratiating rock songs that can stand proudly on a playlist next to Weezer and Guided By Voices. Anyone who cares enough to know who they are thinks well of them, and Janovitz suspects he might hear a bit of their influence on younger artists like Japandroids and Speedy Ortiz — both of whom he loves. Buffalo Tom have carved out a place for themselves, and these days, that’s enough for him.

Later in the same article, there’s this great quote from Janovitz:

Not only is Janovitz surprisingly open about why Buffalo Tom never connected on the same level as some of his peers, he brings the subject up himself. “I can give you theories why I think we weren’t bigger. I think our lyrics are opaque, but we’re not like Pavement with opaque music. A lot of our music was very emotional, but it wasn’t really direct songwriting. There really wasn’t a compelling frontman. It was faceless and nerdy, but not ‘nerdy cool,’ like Weezer. It was a bunch of things that were never quite right,” he says. “I wish I could blame a press agent or a manager or a label. But I think we were given an ample shot.

“Ultimately, I can’t complain too much,” he adds. “I always wanted to be respected more than rich. I wanted people to really like our music. I wanted to touch people. I wanted people to understand. I wanted people to hold us up like I hold up my heroes.”

Mission Accomplished, Buffalo Tom. 30 years later, I still love your music.

Be not afraid

I spend a lot of time walking through cemeteries. Don’t judge. I’m not some Tim Burton goth. It’s just a great place to walk a dog (hello, Mt. Washington Cemetery), and also a great place to get some exercise when your kids are practicing at the school nearby (looking at you, Walnut Hills Cemetery).

In all my tombstone travels, this is hands-down the best name I’ve ever seen.

Fearnaught = fear naught = fear nothing.

“Do not fear death, but rather the unlived life. You don’t have to live forever. You just have to live.”  – Natalie Babbitt

You make the Yule cool

While the children are still nestled all snug in their beds (they are teenagers, after all), I just wanted to take a moment to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas. I’m sending this special Casey Kasem long-distance dedication your way: the Eels doing an acoustic version of “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas.”

Favorite lyrics:

As days go by the more we need friends
And the harder they are to find
If i could have a friend like you all my life
Well i guess i’d be doin’ just fine

 

 

Car talk

I’m not a car guy. Never have been. It’s genetic. My father lived in Jersey City, NJ, where you could get by without a vehicle – subways, streetcars, buses and trains worked just fine. He didn’t get his license until he got married in his late 20s. His first car was given to him by a friend of his who decided to become a monk. (I think it was a Studebaker, but I’m not sure. Let’s go with Studebaker because it’s fun to say. Studebaker!)

When we moved to rural Arkansas after my mom died, going car-less wasn’t an option. School and church were 10 miles away from our hillbilly home. But cash was always tight, so we never had a nice car, just a never-ending procession of $500 autos… a conga line of clunkers. Typically we had a couple at any given time – when Junker A needed repairs, we’d switch to Junker B. If the repairs cost too much, we’d pull the plug — my dad was the Jack Kevorkian of the auto industry — and buy another hooptie from W.G. Pickett’s used car lot (their sign said “we tote the note” – meaning my dad could pay in installments).

(This shot is from an ad campaign I worked on long ago – if you do an image search for “used car salesman” it shows up!)

A few years ago, just for kicks, my brother and I tried to name every car we owned while we were growing up in Arkansas. We were able to name more than 30, in a 12-year period. We owned every AMC model except the Pacer (Ambassadors and Matadors and Hornets, oh my!). We had a yellow Ford Maverick (“The Big Banana”) and an orange one (“The Great Pumpkin”) and a purple Ford Torino (“The Purple Cow”). We actually bought the “convent car” – the Ford LTD sedan that the nuns who taught at our grade school drove. They upgraded, and we got their castoff. It was pure white, of course. Can you imagine how embarrassing it was to get dropped off at grade school in the old nun-mobile?

Following in my father’s footsteps, I too was late to the car game. I bought my first car just before I graduated from college in 1986. My friend Paul was selling a 1976 Datsun B-210. It had been rear-ended so the trunk wouldn’t close, it had to be held semi-shut with a coat hanger. The car had been sitting in a campus parking lot for a few months, so Paul said he’d take 50 bucks for it. My friend LJ and I went halfsies on it… $25 each. It was a stick shift and neither of us knew how to drive a manual. After graduation, I’d get rides to Xavier and practice driving in the deserted parking lot. One day I finally got up the courage to actually drive it home. Other than mistaking first gear for third gear once and screeching through an intersection, the ride was uneventful.

coat hanger sold separately

Nowadays, I take the bus to work 95% of the time. So to me, cars are just a bucket of bolts, a way to sometimes get from Point A to Point B. I don’t give a tinker’s damn about particular makes, models and styles. With one exception – the car we just got rid of.

Behold the mighty 2010 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI. My first true car love. Smooth. Sleek. Fast. Up for whatever. Oh, and easy to put my kayak on top without hurting my back. It got great gas mileage too… over the seven years we owned it, we averaged 35 mpg, doing mostly city driving. For six of those seven years, we thought we were saving gas and being kind to the environment, because it was billed as a “clean diesel.” Turns out Volkswagen was duping us the entire time – they programmed their cars to cheat their way through the emissions tests. So our class-action-approved options were to turn it in or get the exhaust system fixed. I didn’t trust the fix, and because most owners are turning in their cars, getting parts and repairs would likely be a nightmare a few years from now. So we cashed it in – VW is paying well above book value as penance for their sins.

I never thought I’d get attached to a car, but darned if I don’t miss it. I finally understand how other folks can “ooh” and “aah” over particular cars. Maybe I’ll have to use the cash we got from VW to buy a nice Studebaker…

UPDATE – adding a comment from my older sister:

Damo you forgot to mention the recalled Ford Pinto.  Recalled because it was found that if it was rear ended, basically the whole car would explode.  This was discovered after we used it for thousands of miles going back and forth to high school (120 miles round trip per day).  Of the three of us you always rode in the back because you jimmy rigged some kind of antennae for your radio reception and it needed to be extended through a crack in the back window.  You owe your big sis for being such a good driver while applying a full face of makeup I wasn’t allowed to wear leaving the house.  Those were the days. 

Happy trees, happy dad

My kids are on winter break and it’s easy for them to fall into the trap of staring at a screen for hours on end. But yesterday my daughter Leah foraged for art supplies in our basement, and wound up creating this:

Picasso had his Blue Period, and now Leah is following suit (mainly because we only had blue and white paints in the basement).

I should mention that she was staring at a screen during the creation of this masterpiece – she was watching a Bob Ross video.

Good old Bob and his happy trees and happy accidents.

Bob and his amazing hair left us in 1995, but he’s gotten a second wind of late. It’s not just the fun hairstyle and the soothing voice… it’s because he clearly loved what he did. And a lot of his art instructions were really life instructions. Here are a couple of Bob-isms to ponder:

  1. “I think there’s an artist hidden at the bottom of every single one of us.”
  2. “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.”

I’m thrilled that my daughter is watching those old shows. Her work may never end up in the Louvre, but her life has a better chance of being a masterpiece. Thanks Bob, for continuing to make the world a happy place.

 

 

Attention all planets of the Solar Federation

I’m a day late and a dollar short on this, but that’s just how I roll. Yesterday wasn’t just the Winter Solstice. The date was 12/21… but in many countries, including Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north, they typically write the day first, then the month. So in Toronto, it was 21/12… I think we should all take 20 minutes (and 39 seconds) to celebrate:

The first concert I ever saw was Rush – on April 14th, 1981, at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, Arkansas. I lived 40 miles away from Little Rock and didn’t have a car, so going to concerts wasn’t exactly easy. For this show, I got a ride with a couple of my co-workers at Piggly Wiggly – Paul “Greens” Turner and Steve Robertson (who once fell through the ceiling of the Piggly Wiggly and landed in the meat case – butt first into the rump roast – when he was trying to look for shoplifters through the two-way mirror peepholes in the rafters… but I digress.).

It was the Moving Pictures tour (great album, btw), but Rush opened the show with the first part of 2112 (“Overture” and “The Temples of Syrinx” if you’re keeping score at home) and it blew my mind. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. Sure the song (or song suite more accurately) could be considered a bit bombastic, overwrought… heck, it takes up the entire side of an album. But when you see Geddy, Alex and Neil play it live, you appreciate their musicianship in a whole new way. Three virtuoso musicians operating as a single, living, breathing entity. So tight. So stellar. So interstellar too!

Unfortunately, Rush is no longer touring and may never record again. After 40-plus years of rocking, they’ve certainly earned their retirement. But I was a Rush nerd in ’81 (which helps explain my lack of luck with the ladies), and I’m a Rush nerd still (which helps explain my general nerdiness). I also don’t like the cold, dreary winter… so every year from now on, instead of marking the first day of the saddest season, I’ll celebrate 21/12 Day. And you should too.

 

We’re through being cool

When I think of plastic hair helmets, I think of the band Devo. (Don’t we all?)

But the old codgers who exercise at the same rec center that I do always insist on having one of the TVs in the fitness room tuned to Fox News (a.k.a. Faux News). It’s actually good for my health, because I get so worked up about the tripe spewing from the talking-heads-with-trumped-up-talking-points that my heart rate is elevated before I even start my workout.

Having (unwillingly) seen many hours of these broadcasts, I realized that Fox anchors have Devo-style hair helmets too:

And if you peel back the onion, and study a bit about Devo, and what they are all about…

The name Devo comes from their concept of ‘de-evolution‘—the idea that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.”[8]

Devo’s music and stage shows mingle kitsch science fiction themes, deadpan surrealist humor and mordantly satirical social commentary.

… you realize that Fox News is the greatest ongoing Devo performance of all time. Well played, Spudboys!

 

 

 

What does the Fox say?

My old pal John Fox (he’s the editor of Cincinnati Magazine now, but he used to visit the 97X studios when he was editor of Everybody’s News) commented on my last post about the death of the lead singer of the Smithereens, Pat DiNizio:

Great tribute, Damian. I was a huge Smithereens fan. There was a time from the early 80s to the early 90s when I delighted in finding cool new bands, pre-internet. Some hit the big time (REM, The Cure), when I sort of lost interest, and many toiled in the shadows of occasional MTV and 97X fame that was good enough for me, and the Smithereens were in that category. There was an even smaller category of bands where I thought maybe I was the only person who appreciated them, and we lost one of those guys in recent weeks. Tommy Keene died November 22 at age 59. He was from Maryland and was big on the east coast for a while; here’s a great tribute in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/tommy-keene-power-pop-songwriter-and-star-of-80s-dc-music-scene-dies-at-59/2017/11/24/ed373d1c-d12b-11e7-9d3a-bcbe2af58c3a_story.html

Thanks, John, for shining the spotlight on Tommy Keene. He certainly deserved more of a spotlight while he was with us. I was vaguely familiar with his work, but I’ve spent the past couple of days going through his catalog of tunes and it’s rife with power-pop gems. And he played with Velvet Crush, a band that also falls into the “brilliant yet criminally overlooked” category.

Dave Holmes also did a nice tribute to Tommy in Esquire. This paragraph sums things up quite nicely for folks like us who appreciate the under-the-radar folks:

A great artist can make you feel like he’s speaking directly to you. That’s how Tommy Keene made me feel for the last 31 years, and at the end of the day—and it is the end of the day—it doesn’t matter whether ten or ten million other people had that same feeling. What matters is that we did.