Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010

I try to avoid gimmick columns.

It can be the downfall of a journalist, especially as early as I currently am in my journalistic journey. Get attached to gimmick columns and it can completely consume you. I mean, there is a reason why I refuse to use Seinfeld comparisons as the basis for everything I write (because I totally could) or why I refrain from relating every column to some obscure Bob Dylan lyric (I could do it half-asleep). If I were to attack every column that way, I would soon get complacent, and my readers would soon get bored (assuming there are any to begin with). Sure, there are times when a column gimmick can be great and define someone in a good way (Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback comes to mind), but for the most part, it’s very, very thin ice. For this reason, I have largely steered clear of gimmicky columns…save for my year end Top 10 Albums list. I enjoy writing it, and “year-end Top 10” lists have become so common that people seem to forget how gimmicky they actually are. Things are funny that way.

In any event, the list is back for the third consecutive year. I’ve said it before, but let me remind you that this list is simply my favorite albums of the year – not necessarily the most popular or best-selling. By no means am I an elite music critic or anything like that, but I listen to a lot of music and feel that I have a decent enough ear and eclectic enough taste to select a list of musically accomplished albums. Nevertheless, it is simply my arbitrary judgment. And no, Glee did not make the list. Sorry.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Albums of 2010 (with a few extras), courtesy of a 21-year-old with no real music education and little love for the country music genre (although I am working on this). Let the accolades begin.

  • Close Only Counts in Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades

Broken Bells – Broken Bells; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Mojo; Hot Chip – One Life Stand; The Roots – How I Got Over You; Local Natives – Gorilla Manor; Mark Ronson & Business Intl. – Record Collection; Minus the Bear – Omni; Eric Clapton – Clapton

  • The Honor Roll

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

This one wins the award for Reissue of Previously Unreleased Material, if that makes any sense at all. I don’t like to group reissues or “new” releases of old material with current albums, but it was so nice to hear these original works from The Boss during his “Darkness” period, that I figured it at least deserved some recognition.

Taylor Swift – Speak Now

As I have written before, Taylor Swift currently has America wrapped around her finger (even Jake Gyllenhaal has the Swift-fever). And if you can still sell 1 million albums in a week, especially in this day and age, you certainly deserve more than a fleeting mention in a sparsely read blog by a dumbass college kid. Alas…

My Chemical Romance – Danger Days: The True Lives of the Dangerous Killjoys

By far the most polarizing album of the year for me. Every time I listened, I was constantly oscillating between hating it and loving it, thinking it was absolute genius to thinking it was kitschy crap. In the end, I figured an album evoking that much emotion with every listen deserved at least honorable mention.

  • The Top 10

10. Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void

Blitzen Trapper has the amazing ability to tell a story while singing a song, almost making you forget that you’re listening to an album, but instead imagining the crafting of an intricate painting, revealing the events of some far-but-not-so-far away journey. The vocals and overall sound of the band, led by Eric Earley, tend to evoke similarities to both David Bowie and Yes. This seems appropriate, seeing as how Bowie and Yes were two of the more story-driven, existential artists from decades past. Throw in some old-school Fleetwood Mac on a song like “The Man Who Would Speak True” and a tad of Paul McCartney on tracks like “Heaven and Earth”, and you have an assorted, whimsical narrative in album form. No, Destroyer of the Void is not quite Ziggy Stardust, but it does capture your mind in a similar fashion.

9. John Legend & The Roots – Wake Up!

I’m usually not a big fan of political albums, but the overall vibe and sound of this release trumped any reservations I may have had about an opinionated message. I could care less where one falls on the political spectrum, but I feel that too often it impairs an artist’s music if they focus too heavily on the message they are trying to disperse. Neverthless, John Legend and The Roots largely avoided this. The Roots have always been one of my favorite rap/rock bands, and they were able to mesh that with Legends amazing vocals, allowing them to venture into genres that would have otherwise been outside of their capacity. I loved the way the two artists joined together so effortlessly, almost as if The Roots had been backing Legend for years. The soul, funk, gospel and reggae sound was a nice change of pace, and using their talents to cover the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Bill Withers gave the album an intrinsic credibility and voice.

8. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record

Broken Social Scene is notorious for its big line-up (up to 20 or so members) and the collaboration between artists from other bands, such as Leslie Feist (Feist), Spiral Stairs (Pavement), and Emily Haines (Metric). The big line-up often results in a big sound with BSS, and that still comes through on their fourth album, especially on songs like the fantastic “World Sick” and “Water in Hell.” However, they were able to tone it down a few times on this album with songs such as “Texico Bitches” and “Highway Slipper Jam”, a new and welcomed territory for this band.

7. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Few bands in today’s world of music can put together an album quite like Arcade Fire. This was hinted at with their releases of Funeral and Neon Bible, but was finally proved true by The Suburbs. Win Butler’s crooning and construction made this easily one of the year’s top albums, and set the bar pretty high for where Arcade Fire will head in the future. Songs like “The Suburbs”, “Ready to Start”, and “We Used to Wait” show the full-fledged genius and capability of this group, and their music videos alone are almost enough to land them on this list. My personal taste may rank this release at #7, but it’s easily one of the most accomplished and impressive albums 2010 laid ears on.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I don’t like reading reviews of things before I experience them. I try to avoid movie reviews or album reviews before seeing or hearing the product, mainly because I’m afraid of the review impacting my own response. Nevertheless, it was basically impossible to avoid the reviews for Kanye’s newest album. It was being touted as his best yet, and possibly the best of the year (as it later proved to be for top publications like Rolling Stone, A.V. Club, and Spin). In reading the reviews, I was afraid that everyone was over-rating the album, hyping it up to be something it is not, jumping on the bandwagon just to say they did. Turns out, they were all right. I still feel the same way about Kanye as a person (pompous, narcissistic, self-involved) and his music in general (slightly overrated)…but Fantasy was brilliant. Yes, it was aided by a great supporting cast, but it was Kanye’s lyrics and production that make it great. He’s like the black, rapper version of Radiohead. As much as I may hate to admit it, the album was great, and it put Ye atop the current list as Best Rapper Alive. And yet, it makes me wonder: is Kanye such a conceited prick because he thinks everything he does is so great, or is the album great because West is such a conceited prick?

5. Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History

Probably the surprise album of the year for me. This band’s debut hits you in the face with a slew of punchy, upbeat, fast-paced songs. They remind me of The Strokes and The Killers (early on), not so much in sound but in vibe; they are always pressing, always on the verge of something louder, some big explosion. You can even sense a little bit of Dear Science and Phoenix influence, especially in the way they play with their sound, like on “I Can Talk” and “What You Know”. You can argue that their tone begins to become somewhat repetitive over the course of the record, but if it works, why fix it?

4. The National – High Violet

The National’s fifth and highest profile album is a good representation of the band and their style. As much as a band like Two Door Cinema Club has that pressing, on-the-verge-of-something sound, The National is an interesting contrast; the band always seems to be noticeably and purposefully reserved, defining themselves by their lack of tension and explosiveness, their embrace of suppression and reluctance. And as well being buoyant and upbeat may work for a band like Two Door Cinema Club, the contrary works just as well for The National, and it’s never more evident than on High Violet.

3. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

I suppose if a band is using literary references and influence to shape their style and sound, Shakespeare and John Steinbeck are two of the smarter role models to draw from. So is the case with Mumford & Sons and their debut LP, Sigh No More. The English band counts the two authors as inspiration for their music, giving explanation to their elegant and picturesque lyrics – sophisticated yet clear, calculated yet effortless. Their fusion of folk and bluegrass resembles a Fleet Foxes-type resonance, but not to the extent that it feels like a rip-off. The easy, smooth sound and vivid lyrics suggest that Mumford & Sons could be a staple in the indie-folk genre for years to come.

2. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

“Rumor has it that I wasn’t born / I just walked in one frosty morn / Into the vision of some vacant mind.” Those words, droned by Kristian Matsson under his moniker The Tallest Man on Earth on the song “Burden of Tomorrow”, are the perfect microcosm for this artist. The experimental, folky sound always makes me feel like I’m looking inside the brain of Spike Jonze, or how girls probably feel while walking through the Anthropologie store. His voice is just raw and striking enough that it throws you off at first, but soon proves to be oddly beautiful in a slightly off-key way, similar to Dylan circa 1964. His sound is unique and whimsical, and you’d never guess there is just one man standing behind the outfit’s large name. This album also gets a bump in my eyes thanks to the September release of the EP, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, which too was fantastic. And no, The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t quite make folk music cool again, but it certainly makes it interesting.

1. The Black Keys – Brothers

The Black Keys stay true to their established sound throughout Brothers, while at the same time making sure to venture into unchartered musical waters on more than one occasion. From the opening track, “Everlasting Light”, to songs such as “Never Give You Up”, the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney experiment with new sounds and styles. And yet, while the finished product of those individual tracks may not be quintessential Black Keys, it seems to fit in to the overall album. And instead of these fresh takes arising out of boredom, arrogance, or socially-driven feedback, the pair seem to simply be proving that no matter what direction they choose, they can still make it flow. Nevertheless, the best parts of Brothers are when The Black Keys are being The Black Keys, on tracks like “Unknown Brother”, “She’s Long Gone”, and “Ten Cent Pistol”. It’s amazing to hear the band’s evolution, from their first album as a couple of grungy musicians jamming in a garage, to one of the best blues-rock bands on the planet. And no, that is not hyperbole. How else could they possibly reach #1 on my Top 10 Albums list?

2011 smells good. Thanks for reading

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dude Looks Like a Lady

The Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team recently won their 88th and 89th consecutive games, continuing their record-setting streak that stretches back to the 2008 Women’s NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, simply winning 89 straight games wasn’t good enough to satisfy the national media, and it certainly wasn’t good enough to keep UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s mouth shut.

Way back in 1974, a UCLA Bruins team, led by legendary coach John Wooden, completed a streak of 88 straight wins, a record that still stands in men’s college basketball today. And regardless of how many games the Lady Huskies win before their next loss, UCLA’s 88 straight wins will remain a men’s collegiate basketball record for the foreseeable future.

A big deal has been made (by the mainstream sports media, as well as UConn) about the Lady Huskies tying and surpassing UCLA’s mark, in turn setting a new consecutive wins record for college basketball – which to me makes no sense. And apparently it’s people like me that have UConn’s Auriemma running his mouth about what he perceives to be a lack of respect for his team and women’s basketball in general – which to me sounds a lot more like whining for what he perceives is a lack of respect for him.

First, let’s talk about this so-called record setting performance. The UConn women’s team is by far the top program in women’s collegiate basketball, and has been for some time. They deserve truckloads of respect and appreciation for their accomplishments; Geno Auriemma deserves just as much for his success as a coach. But to compare their winning streak to that of UCLA’s men’s streak is completely and utterly…dumb.

This is not a smear campaign on women’s basketball. I have no intentions of writing that men’s basketball is superior, or that UConn doesn’t deserve to be held in the same light as Wooden’s squads. My desire is not to disparage female athletes or athletics, or to state why men’s sports are better than women’s. I just want to explain why it’s idiotic to equate a men’s basketball record to a women’s basketball record, in the same manner that it’s idiotic to equate any athletic record to that of another sport.

The Los Angeles Lakers had a record 33 consecutive wins back in 1972, a benchmark that still stands today. And the reason it still stands is because the 88 wins by UCLA in 1974 had literally nothing to do with the Lakers’ win streak a couple years earlier. Sure, both teams played (men’s) basketball, but the records were different, because one took place in the NBA, while the other was at the collegiate level. Equating them would be pointless. On the same note, the Oklahoma Sooners won a record 47 straight games in collegiate football back in the 1950s, a record that still stands today, despite what UCLA basketball accomplished in the ‘70s. Each of those marks remains because they occurred in different sports. Sure, both streaks were achieved at the (men’s) college level, but anyone with half a brain would see the insanity in equating UCLA’s 47th straight victory at the time it occurred to the mark achieved by the Sooners nearly two decades prior. It wouldn’t make sense.

Do you see my point?

It’s stupid and wrong to equate the UConn Women’s 88 wins to the UCLA Men’s 88 wins, because the two streaks occurred in different sports. Yes, both teams played basketball. And yes, both competed at the Division I collegiate level. But the difference in gender supplies an obvious separation between the two teams and the records that they each set. If men’s college basketball and women’s college basketball are equal, then why do they play in separate leagues? How can they possibly be considered the same? I’m not saying that one league is superior to the other, or that one record is more impressive than the other. I’m just saying that they are different, in the same way that the NBA and NASCAR are different, or NHL and MLB are different, or the Olympics and High School sports are different. The winning streaks are two completely separate situations.

I also am not saying that it is idiotic to compare the two streaks; we do this with sports all the time. We can compare Cal Ripken Jr.’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played in Major League Baseball to Brett Favre’s streak of 297 consecutive starts in the National Football League. We can compare Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak in baseball to Wayne Gretzky’s 51-game point streak in hockey. We can compare Martina Navratilova’s 6-straight tennis Grand Slams to Jimmie Johnson’s 5-straight Sprint Cup Title’s in NASCAR. We can argue which streak is more impressive, which was harder to accomplish, or which will stand for the longest amount of time. We can always compare and always argue. But to equate any of these streaks would be fruitless and dim-witted, and the same goes for UConn and UCLA. Their inequality is not a result of the difference in level of competition or ability or national interest, but rather a result of the inherent and undeniable difference in gender. Not better or worse – just different.

Sadly, the issue goes beyond that, thanks to Geno Auriemma’s post-game comments following UConn’s 88th win. Partly because the media was (wrongly) making a big deal out of equating UConn’s streak to UCLA’s, and partly because Auriemma had (wrongly) convinced himself that the streaks were in fact equal, Geno took umbrage with the manner in which the situation was being covered.

"The reason everybody is having a heart attack the last four or five days is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men's record, and everybody is all up in arms about it,” said Auriemma, following win #88.

First of all, I find Auriemma’s statement to be intrinsically false. UConn would only be breaking a “men’s record” if they had completed their 88 straight wins against men’s college teams. Instead, they are continuing their own streak of consecutive women’s college basketball wins, the previous mark which was 70, set by a previous UConn Women’s team. Again, this doesn’t make their accomplishment any less impressive (it’s actually extremely impressive), it just makes Auriemma’s statement incorrect.

Second of all, Auriemma is creating this idea that people are mad that a women’s team is breaking a men’s record, something that appears to be mainly concocted in his own head. Yeah, I’m sure there are some old-school college basketball fanatics out there who are angry about a women’s team breaking UCLA’s record, but it is a small and relatively unheard faction, and one that is incorrect in their misplaced anger, for reasons I have already discussed at length. As dumb as it is to equate the two streaks, it is just as stupid to argue over which team had more talent, was more fun to watch, or would win in a head-to-head match-up. The best NBA team in the history of the league would pulverize the best high school team in the history of high school basketball. (Duh). But does that make the high school team any less impressive? (Of course not). It's wrong for people to equate the streaks, and it’s ridiculous for people to be mad about UConn’s streak simply because they are a women’s team. It’s worse that Auriemma suggested this sentiment is some wide-spread prejudice.

Even still, Geno wasn’t done.

"Because we're breaking a men's record, we've got a lot of people paying attention," Auriemma went on to say. "If we were breaking a women's record, everybody would go, 'Aren't those girls nice, let's give them two paragraphs in USA Today, you know, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and then let's send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.' "

And with that, Auriemma made the situation one of gender and anti-feminism, instead of consecutive collegiate basketball wins. Or at least that was his intention.

Auriemma would love for the media, fans, and anyone paying attention to this streak to believe that he is actually angry about a lack of respect shown towards women’s basketball. He wants us all to believe that he’s mad that the Lady Huskies aren’t getting enough attention from fans, enough admiration from the media, and enough equality in the athletic realm. He wants people to think that his disdain is towards those who somehow feel women’s basketball is below men’s basketball. He wants us to believe this is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

He doesn’t want us to know he’s lying.

For the most part, this is really about Geno Auriemma’s massive ego. He’s not as mad about the disrespect towards women’s basketball as he is about his own perceived lack of respect as a women’s basketball coach. He’s not as mad about the lack of attention given to the UConn program as he is about his own perceived lack of attention from college basketball fans and media. Geno considers himself to be on the same level as the great John Wooden of UCLA, and he is finally getting all pissed off at the fact that he’s not being considered or treated in such a way by everyone else.

If you know anything about Geno Auriemma, than you know how he is often perceived by others in his sport, the media, and general public. Simply put, he’s not very well liked. If this were a mainstream newspaper or magazine article, Auriemma might be described as pompous, conceited, narcissistic, arrogant, or ostentatious. But because this is a blog written by an uncompensated college kid, we can describe Auriemma as he truly is: a douche. That’s right…a giant douche.

Auriemma’s ego has always been prevalent, and frankly, always overshadowed his own success as a coach. Regardless of what sport, competitive level, and gender he is coaching, his accomplishments are extremely impressive. He makes millions of dollars because he is very good at what he does. His bank account would suggest he’s a highly esteemed man in his profession. His ego, however, is convinced that he is disrespected.

Geno’s Ego thinks he is on the same level as John Wooden, Phil Jackson or any other great coach in the history of basketball, and Geno’s Ego feels he should be valued in a similar fashion. He has convinced himself that he deserves a higher level of greatness. He thinks that because he’s a man coaching women’s basketball, people somewhat belittle his success. He thinks that if Pat Summitt were in this same position, she would be receiving a lot more recognition and praise.

(In many ways, this is probably true, and one could easily argue whether it’s right or wrong to factor Geno’s gender into his success as a women’s coach. However, Geno is overlooking both his own personal massive inferiority complex about being a man coaching girls, as well as the fact that people have always liked Pat Summitt a lot more than they like him.)

Geno’s Ego feels that because men’s basketball is so much more popular than women’s basketball, it is viewed as the superior sport, played by superior athletes, in turn making his accomplishments somewhat less impressive or devalued in comparison to a men’s coach.

(In many ways, this is also true. It is no lie that men’s basketball is more popular, and is generally held as a superior sport. I, for one, find men’s basketball much more enjoyable. I really don’t like watching women’s basketball at all. But I also do not think that makes men’s the superior sport. I have little to no interest in the NHL and NASCAR. I could care less about the Tour de France. I have only marginal interest in Premier League Soccer or the PGA Tour. Does this somehow make those sports inferior to the NFL or NBA or College Football? No, it just means I like the NFL, NBA, and College Football better. Popularity and superiority are two very different things. If Geno wasn’t so thin-skinned, he might realize this, and rise above those who look down on the sport simply because it’s played by women.)

In the end, Geno Auriemma has convinced himself that he is disrespected.

He thinks he deserves reverence and deification when applause and esteem are acceptable responses. He thinks his track record makes him equal to the legendary John Wooden, and he thinks he deserves to be treated as such. He thinks his greatness is a foregone conclusion, and he’s using archaic gender biases to try and prove his point. I, for one, am not fooled. Because in reality, Geno and Wooden are about as far away from equals as my writing is to Shakespeare’s.

Auriemma could win 1,000 games in a row and 25 championships, and yet he will never be on the same level as John Wooden. Stats aren’t the only thing that make the coach. John Wooden won a lot of games, but he’s a legend because of his character and his respect for the game of basketball. Wooden is revered because he taught the game the right way and lived his life the right way; he made sure that any player or coach to come under his tutelage understood that playing the game with fundamentals and respect was more important than on-court success, and that becoming a good person was more important than becoming a good basketball player. Wooden was great because he was concerned more with the character of his players than winning games.

Auriemma, on the other hand, is more concerned with how winning games will enhance his own recognition.

Women’s basketball being disrespected? Age-old partiality sparking hatred towards female athletes? Yeah, there is undoubtedly a grain of truth to that. But if you believe that’s the reason Geno is up in arms about how his team's 80+ game win streak is being covered, then his mission is accomplished.

It’s wrong to think that men’s basketball is superior to women’s basketball, regardless of which of the two you prefer. It’s wrong to equate the UConn Women’s winning streak to the UCLA Men’s winning streak, regardless of which you believe to be more impressive. It’s wrong for chauvinism or anti-feminism to shape your opinion on an athletic accomplishment, but it’s worse to use those things as an excuse for your own greed and perceived lack of respect (not to mention that its absurdity gives off an anti-feminist vibe of its own). And it’s wrong to put Geno Auriemma in the same stratosphere as John Wooden when it comes to coaching. Equating them would be…well, I'm assuming you get the idea by this point.

Geno Auriemma is a great coach. But as much as he’d like to think otherwise, he isn’t even worthy of holding John Wooden’s clipboard. And as much as he’d like to think (or convince you) otherwise, it has nothing to do with the gender or sport in which he coaches.

Thanks for reading