Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010

The economy has hurt the music industry, just as it has hurt most of our ability to purchase music. There were fewer interesting releases this year than the past few years, and many artists chose to play it safe by revisiting formulae they know to be successful, rather than taking chances with more risky approaches. There were also several albums by well-known artists who had not released substantial new work in years. Some of them warrant merit.

In all, I have identified 100 albums worth recommending, numbering the top 30 and listing the others as “Honorable Mention.” For those of you who don’t know, my tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B/soul, indie rock, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Death Metal or Traditional Folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list. The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear one album ahead of any other, and each of these 100 albums could easily have made the top 30. With that said, here is my list in ascending order:

30. The Apples In Stereo: “Travellers in Space and Time”
This Denver-based indie pop band is known for their intricate, sunny sound. This, their seventh album since being founded in 1995, continues their approach of combining hummable tunes with interesting Beatles-like harmonies. Key songs: “Dream About the Future” and “No One in the World.”

29. Nneka: “Concrete Jungle”
Although the songs on this album were originally released overseas in 2005 and 2008, this is the first US release from this neo-soul artist whose father was Nigerian and mother is from Germany, where Nneka is based. That partially explains why her songs display such worldliness. Key Songs: “The Uncomfortable Truth,” “Heartbeat,” and “Suffri.”

28. The New Pornographers: “Together”
This is the fifth album from this Vancouver-based, indie rock band, which has received considerable critical acclaim for their superb songwriting and excellent musicianship. Here, they keep up that tradition with a very enjoyable collection. Key songs: “Crash Years” and “Your Hands (Together).”

27. Eric Benét: “Lost In Time”
On this, his sixth album, Eric Benét continues his outstanding R&B career, including duets with artists including Chrisette Michele and Ledisi. If you like good, old-fashioned R&B/soul, you should add this gem to your collection. Key Songs: “Sometimes I Cry,” “Take It,” and “Good Life.”

26. Hot Chip: “One Life Stand”
This London-based techno-dance outfit has released three previous studio albums, and this is as good as any of them, combining a hypnotic musical approach with a classic dance structure. Key songs: “Thieves In the Night,” “Hand Me Down Your Love,” and “One Life Stand.”

25. Rogue Wave: “Permalight”
This Oakland-based indie pop outfit, fronted by Zach Rogue, has released three previous studio albums. Although the personnel has changed over the years, they continue to put out high-energy tunes with catchy hooks, as evidenced by this album. Key songs: “Solitary Gun,” “Good Morning (The Future),” and “Miami, Miami.”

24. Sky Sailing: “An Airplane Carried Me to Bed”
This is a side project of Adam Young, who became famous last year with Owl City and its release of “Fireflies.” Although the songs are similar to those of Owl City (and the Postal Service), they are recorded acoustically, giving them the pretty sound that this album has. Key songs: “Captains of the Sky,” “Brielle,” and “A Little Opera Goes a Long Way.”

23. Sade: “Soldier of Love”
Yes, this is the same Sade (pronounced Shar-day) who has recorded six albums since 1984, and had a huge hit in 1985 with “Smooth Operator.” While her career since then has been uneven, she occasionally releases a gem like this effort…her first new, studio album in 10 years. Key songs: “The Moon and the Sky,” “Soldier of Love,” and “Babyfather,”

22. Eels: “End Times”
The brainchild of Mark Oliver Everett, LA-based Eels has released nine studio albums and appeared on several movie soundtracks. Difficult to classify, Eels is usually listed simply as “alternative.” This is a delightful effort from one of the most consistent acts in the recording industry. Key songs: “Mansions of los Feliz,” “A Line In the Dirt,” “Nowadays,” and “Spectacular Girl.”

21. Belle and Sebastian: “Write About Love”
The Scottish indie rock stalwarts have put out their eighth studio album of fully realized songs, complete with lush melodies and excellent lyrics. These guys, who took their name from a French children’s book, are among the most consistently good acts in the recording industry. Key songs: “I Didn’t See It Coming,” “I Want the World to Stop,” and “Suicide Girl.”

20. Corinne Bailey Rae: “The Sea”
Since her outstanding 2006 debut, British singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae has had her share of problems, including the 2008 death of her husband from an "accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol." This outstanding effort is partly a result of that tragedy and is darker and edgier than her previous recordings. Key songs: “Closer,” “Paris Nights/New York Mornings,” and the heartbreaking title song.

19. Ben Folds & Nick Hornby: “Lonely Avenue”
The unique pairing of the musical talents of North Carolina-based, singer-songwriter Ben Folds (10 previous albums) and the lyrics of English author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) has produced one of the year’s most intriguing albums. If you want something different from the standard, vapid pop of top 40 radio, this is it. Key songs: “Claire’s Ninth,” “Belinda,” “Picture Window,” and “Things You Think.”

18. The National: “High Violet”
This Brooklyn-based, alternative rock band has recorded five albums since their founding in 1999, but this is their best. It is inventive, rich, and thoroughly engaging, while presenting the listener with a montage of different sounds and styles. Key songs: “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Sorrow,” and “England.”

17. The Magnetic Fields: “Realism”
If you’ve followed my reviews for years, you know that I love the work of Stephin Merritt, originally from Boston and the creative force behind the Magnetic Fields. Fortunately for me and other music lovers, Merritt is quite prolific, having released 10 albums with this band since 1991, as well as several side projects. Using acoustic instruments only (including harpsichords), Merritt has fashioned another outstanding album which he humorously named, “Realism.” Key songs: “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” and “Seduced and Abandoned.”

16. Sara Bareilles: “Kaleidoscope Heart”
Occasionally, pop produces an artist like this young woman, who has grown with each of her three albums. A California-based artist who first achieved success at 18, Bareilles could have easily opted for stupid, light pop, but she instead has made a musically astute album with surprising skill and syncopation. Key songs: “Gonna Get Over You,” “King of Anything,” and “Bluebird.”

15. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Original Cast Recording)
This year’s best Broadway soundtrack portrays our seventh president as an emo rock star. Be forewarned—this is far from Rodgers and Hammerstein, complete with profane language and modern references—but it is thoroughly delightful, and star Benjamin Walker is destined to win more than an election (including critical acclaim and a likely Tony Award). Key songs: “I’m Not That Guy,” “Rock Star,” “Public Life,” and “Second Nature.”

14. Neil Young: “Le Noise”
Ironically, despite its title, this album is the least “noisy” of Young’s recent offerings. It is instead one of the more personal efforts from this Canadian artist, who has enthralled us since the 60s through his brilliant work with the Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and his solo efforts—this reminds me most of his classic, “Harvest.” Key songs: “Love and War,” “Hitchhiker,” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.”

13. Christina Aguilera: “Bionic”
By this point, Aguilera has so surpassed many of her earlier pop counterparts that she joins Alicia Keys, Beyonce, and Joss Stone as the new Mt. Rushmore of female pop icons. While her foray into acting (“Burlesque”) is garnering mixed reviews, there is no question that her skills as a songstress have become more evident with each album. Key songs: “Bionic,” “Lift Me Up,” and “I Am.”

12. The Dead Weather: “Sea of Cowards”
I was not originally a fan of Jack White, but as he continues to add new wrinkles to his career (White Stripes, Raconteurs), he’s starting to look more like the godfather of modern rock (much like Eric Clapton in the 60s and 70s). Here, he joins Alison Mosshart and others to produce what may be this year’s best pure rock album. Key songs: “Blue Blood Blues,” “The Difference Between Us,” and “Hustle and Cuss.”

11. Brooke Fraser: “Flags”
From New Zealand and the daughter of a former member of the prestigious “All Black” rugby squad, Brooke Fraser has released three albums, but this is her best so far…a collection of smart, intimate songs that remind you of a young Joni Mitchell. Key songs: “Something In the Water,” “Who Are We Fooling,” and a cover of the James Taylor classic, “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

10. Kanye West: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
This is the first year that I have included albums that are primarily rap, but the two “hip hop/rap” artists on this list were able to deftly combine very interesting music and speech to make their points effectively. With this, his fifth studio album, the Atlanta-based West seems to be trying to exorcize the demons he accumulated this year through his MTV Video Music Awards rant and his spat with Matt Lauer. The lyrics, although often profane, are worth hearing, and the music is very complementary. Key songs: “Dark Fantasy,” “Blame Game,” and the outstanding “Runaway.”

9. My Chemical Romance: “Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys”
It’s unlikely that anything they do will ever eclipse 2006’s “The Black Parade,” but this is probably My Chemical Romance’s second best of their four albums to date—an anti-corporate concept album written primarily by front man Gerard Way. This New Jersey-based alternative band is my favorite rock band working today. They do everything well, especially when they commit the level of time and effort they did to develop this masterful collection. Key songs: “The Only Hope for Me Is You,” “Bulletproof Heart,” “Sing,” and “Planetary (GO!).”

8. Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore: “Dear Companion”
And now for something completely different—a classically trained cellist (Sollee) and a banjo/guitar-picking folk singer (Moore) collaborating on an album with noticeably Appalachian influences. If either of these artists were less talented, the album would not have worked. But they are, and it does. The songs are sensitive, intelligent, and beautifully played. Whatever you label it, this is just good music. Key songs: “Something, Somewhere, Sometime,” “Sweet Marie,” and “It Won’t Be Long.”

7. We Are the Fallen: “Tear the World Down”
It’s no coincidence that the first album from this goth-rock band sounds like early Evanescence, because it was founded by three members of that band, who split with singer Amy Lee over “creative differences.” To replace her vocal talents, they tapped former American Idol contestant, Carly Smithson, who sounds a lot like her predecessor. The difference here is that where Evanescence had started to sound stale, this band seems to have recaptured the energy and power that had made “Fallen” such a tremendous accomplishment. Key songs: “Bury Me Alive,” “Don’t Leave Me Behind,” and “Sleep Well, My Angel.”

6. The Gaslight Anthem: “American Slang”
Sounding occasionally like fellow New Jerseyan, Bruce Springsteen, this band’s third album crackles with positive energy and outstanding musicianship. It’s the one collection of songs this year that I can just sit back and remember why I enjoy rock music so much. It is simultaneously modern and ageless, but is sure makes me smile and tap my feet. Key songs: “American Slang,” “The Diamond Church Street Choir,” and “Boxer.”

5. Lauren Pritchard: “Wasted In Jackson”
A former star of Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” Lauren Pritchard has released a wonderful first album that makes me think back to the first time I heard Joss Stone, or even further back to Dusty Springfield. A Tennessee native, the 22-year-old Pritchard has the pipes, but also can be subtle when appropriate. Keep an eye on this artist. Key songs: “Not the Drinking,” “Wasted In Jackson,” and “Try a Little Harder.”

4. B.o.B: “B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray”
22-year-old rap artist Bobby Ray Simmons from Georgia performs under the name B.o.B (pronounced Bob). This is his first full album, and he elicited help from artists as diverse as Bruno Mars, Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer), Janelle Monae, and Hayley Williams (of Paramore), who provide the musical interludes between the well-thought-out and adeptly delivered rap segments, but Bob can sing very well too. This is a fully recognized album from an artist who will doubtless be around for years to come. Key songs: “Nothin’ On You,” “Airplanes,” “Ghost In the Machine,” and “Magic.”

3. Field Music: “Field Music (Measure)”
This English band has made my list before and doubtless will again. In three albums since 2004, they have managed to combine a wide range of musical styles, instruments, lyrics, and harmonies into a sound that is generally unclassifiable, but nevertheless excellent. Their use of musical progression is unheard of in most popular genres. This is their best effort to date, and every song is worth hearing. Key songs: “Them That Do Nothing,” “Measure,” “Effortlessly,” and “The Rest Is Noise.”

2. Vampire Weekend: “Contra”
This New York band’s debut was my favorite album in 2008, and they followed it up with this gem. Their combination of African beats and pop melodies hearkens back to Paul Simon’s classic “Graceland,” but it is unique among modern recording artists. The fact that they do it so well, while writing such likeable songs and using such inventive production techniques, puts them ahead of nearly every other band working today. Key songs: “Horchata,” “White Sky,” “Holiday,” “Run,” and “Giving Up the Gun.”

1. Arcade Fire: “The Suburbs”
Hailing from Montreal, this band has released three albums—“Funeral” (2004), “Neon Bible” (2007), and “The Suburbs.” The first two were among the best albums of their respective years, but this one is the best album of 2010. Starting with the excellent songwriting skills of the husband and wife duo of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, adding in the superb musicianship and emotionally charged singing, and completing the effort with lush, full production, Arcade Fire has produced an ode to suburban existence that should be listened to by anyone professing to enjoy modern, melodic music. It doesn’t get much better than this. Key songs: “The Suburbs,” “Ready to Start,” “We Used to Wait,” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”

The following are all excellent albums that deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):
• Beach House: “Teen Dream”
• The Black Keys: “Brothers”
• Bombay Bicycle Club: “Flaws”
• Broken Bells: “Broken Bells”
• Butch Walker: “I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart”
• Chrisette Michele: “Let Freedom Reign”
• Codeine Velvet Club: “Codeine Velvet Club”
• Crystal Bowersox: “Farmer’s Daughter”
• A Cursive Memory: “Let Love In”
• Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse: “Dark Night of the Soul”
• Dwele: “Wants World Women”
• Ed Harcourt: “Lustre”
• Elizabeth & The Catapult: “The Other Side of Zero”
• Elton John & Leon Russell: “The Union”
• Envy On the Coast: “Lowcountry”
• Freedy Johnston: “Rain On the City”
• Gil Scott-Heron: “I’m New Here”
• Gorillaz: “Plastic Beach”
• Greg Laswell: “Take a Bow”
• Hellogoodbye: “Would It Kill You?”
• Hinder: “All American Nightmare”
• Hot Day at the Zoo: “Zoograss”
• Janelle Monáe: “The ArchAndroid”
• Jenny and Johnny: “I’m Having Fun Now”
• Jimmy Eat World: “Invented”
• Joanna Newsom: “Have One On Me”
• John Legend: “Wake Up!”
• Joshua Radin: “The Rock and the Tide”
• Kate Walsh: “Peppermint Radio”
• Katy Perry: “Teenage Dream”
• Ke$ha: “Cannibal”
• Kings of Leon: “Come Around Sundown”
• LCD Soundsystem: “This Is Happening”
• The Len Price 3: “Pictures”
• Lightspeed Champion: “Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You.”
• The Like: “Release Me”
• Lucy Wainwright Roche: “Lucy”
• Maroon 5: “Hands All Over”
• Massive Attack: “Heligoland”
• Meat Loaf: “Hang Cool Teddy Bear”
• MGMT: “Congratulations”
• Michael Franti & Spearhead: “The Sound of Sunshine”
• The Morning Benders: “Promises”
• Motion City Soundtrack: “My Dinosaur Life”
• Mumford & Sons: “Sigh No More”
• Natasha Bedingfield: “Strip Me”
• Neon Trees: “Animal”
• Owl City: “Ocean Eyes”
• Pete Yorn: “Pete Yorn”
• Peter Gabriel: “Scratch My Back”
• Plain White T’s: “Wonders of the Younger”
• R. Kelly: “Love Letter”
• RJD2: “The Colossus”
• Robyn: “Body Talk”
• The Rocket Summer: “Of Men and Angels”
• Rosie Doonan: “Pot of Gold”
• Rufus Wainwright: “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu”
• Scissor Sisters: “Night Work”
• Seal: “6: Commitment”
• Secondhand Serenade: “Hear Me Now”
• Serj Tankian: “Imperfect Harmonies”
• Shout Out Louds: “Work”
• Sting: “Symphonicities”
• Surfer Blood: “Astro Coast”
• Tracey Thorn: “Love and Its Opposite”
• Usher: “Raymond v Raymond”
• We Are Scientists: “Barbara”
• The Webb Sisters: “Savages”
• Weezer: “Death to False Metal”
• Yeasayer: “Odd Blood”

Friday, December 10, 2010

On Being a Boston Sports Fan

Last year, I complained about the state of Major League Baseball. I pointed out the “True-Major League” was comprised of the 14 teams who spend more than $90 million and have won the last six World Series, and I professed that I wanted the New York Yankees to win the World Series every year until the rest of the country became enraged about the inequity between team spending and forced the institution of a salary cap.

Well, that didn’t happen…the Yankees never made it to the World Series. Instead, the San Francisco Giants (salary $98 million) were eventual winners, and there was no uproar across America. I fear there never will be, so I have resigned myself to the fact that in order to compete, especially in the American League East, a team must spend obscenely (even if it means that half the teams are merely fodder for the top tier) to keep pace with the Yankees. With the acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Boston Red Sox have added $40 million in annual salaries, long term, to make their roster the best in baseball, and I am happy to live in a metropolitan area where the sports teams value excellence and success.

In fact, being a sports fan in Boston is an absolute joy these days. In addition to the recent Red Sox personnel moves, it is just plain fun to watch the Celtics and Patriots play on a regular basis. I’ve never been the greatest hockey fan—it’s hard to root for a sport where bare-fisted brawls are encouraged—so I’m less concerned about the Bruins’ average performance.

Let me list a few names (alphabetically): Ray Allen, Daniel Bard, Josh Beckett, Bill Belichick, Patrice Bergeron, Tom Brady, Clay Bucholtz, Carl Crawford, Kevin Garnett, Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey, John Lester, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Shaquille O’Neal, David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Paul Pierce, Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo, Tyler Seguin, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, and Kevin Youkilis. Nearly all have been all-stars, and many will wind up in the halls of fame for their respective sports. Even in cities like New York and Chicago, where some sports offer two major league teams, no other city can boast such an impressive list of professional athletes, nor can they profess to have a realistic chance to win championships in three major sports (as already happened here in 2007).

I realize that these opportunities are dwindling—the Celtics are aging, and every team is subject to injuries—but it is fun to revel in the Patriots’ recent drubbing of the New York Jets, the Celtics’ current nine-game win streak, and the Red Sox’ spate of high-profile acquisitions. So, let it be that during this time when the economic downturn has hurt my business and family health issues have consumed our lives, I can at least gloat about something over which I have no control, but nevertheless brings me happiness. I am indeed glad to be a Boston sports fan.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Updated Best TV Shows of 2010

If you follow my posts, I have updated the "Best TV Shows of 2010" post. You can find it under April.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Women in the Movies

In 1972, I joined the National Organization for Women, which was six years old and had begun a strong membership drive in support of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. There were other male members, but not too many. It’s not that I was a staunch feminist. Hey, I was a freshman in college and cared more about meeting women than anything else. But I truly believed in equal rights and felt that it was absolutely stupid that more than half of the population were targets of legal discrimination.

Those were heady days, and even though the amendment was not ratified (for absurd reasons I will never understand), it was a period of enlightenment around gender roles and realities. Within a few years, that enlightenment seemed to spill over into the cinema, and since then, there have been several movies about women who aspire to strength and success not limited to their personal relationships. They include “Norma Rae” (1979), “Silkwood” (1983), “The Color Purple” (1985), “Aliens” (1986), “Working Girl” (1988), “The Accused” (1988), “A League of Their Own” (1992), and “Erin Brockovich” (2000).

However, a recent spate of movies has caused me to wonder about the message we, as a society, are sending to girls and young women. In films like “Julie & Julia” (the Julie character), “Sex and the City 2,” “The Kids are All Right” (Julianne Moore’s character), and “Eat Pray Love,” there seems to be a strong focus on self-absorbed, affluent, white women. Unlike some men, I dislike the term “chick flick,” and I generally prefer movies that actually deal with some level of relationships rather than merely random explosions. I also understand that the women portrayed in these movies exist in our society, but do we have to keep glorifying them when there are so many great women doing great things daily? Where are the movies about them?

I’m not saying that these movies have to be depressing. Most of the movies I listed two paragraphs above, from “Norma Rae” to “Erin Brockovich,” were highly entertaining films that I have watched several times. I just think it’s time that Hollywood and the independent filmmakers started to focus a little more on women who inspire rather than those who wallow in self-pity. I personally know plenty of women whose experiences I’d rather see portrayed on film, and I’m sure you do too.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Places to Visit in New England

One thing about a recession is that it makes you change your travel plans and look for closer locales to visit. That’s what Joni and I have done this summer, and coupled with her newly expanded love of photography, we have searched out and found some out-of-the-way places within 2 hours of our home in Massachusetts.

I’m not talking about the obvious spots like Newport, Provincetown, and Ogunquit, but rather some beautiful and slightly less tourist-affected locales. I will update this posting as I find more spots, but until then, here are a few (the photos are by Joni):

Jamestown, RI
Just over the bridge from Newport is Conanicut Island, which has a wealth of beautiful spots including the Jamestown Village Center, the Clingstone “House on the Rocks,” and the amazing Beavertail Lighthouse and Park. For food, you can enjoy breakfast at the Slice of Heaven Bakery or oysters at the Jamestown Oyster Bar.

Biddeford Pool, ME
North of Kennebunkport and Southeast of Biddeford is the Biddeford Pool—a picturesque harbor and ocean-facing peninsula that was the site of Maine’s first recorded permanent settlement, then called Winter Harbor. Aside from spectacular views from the rocks and beaches, there is a small golf course and a town center where you can visit the Pool Lobster Pound and buy everything from groceries to wine to cooked lobster and steamers you can eat at the tables outdoors that face the harbor.

Quabbin Reservoir, MA
Once upon a time, there were Massachusetts towns named Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott. In 1938, those towns were “discontinued” so the state could construct a damn and flood the Swift River Valley, leading to the establishment of the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies the drinking water for Boston and many of the communities of Eastern Massachuetts. What was also created was an absolutely beautiful expanse of water and hills. The best site for viewing is the Enfield Lookout at the Southern end of the lake in Ware (and you will get quickly get sick of the obvious question, “Ware?”) might even see a few eagles. There are many other exquisite spots to visit along this massive body of water. If you are hungry afterward, stop by the Clam Box in Brookfield for some of the best seafood in Western Mass.

Doanes Falls, Royalston, MA
Just North of Athol (another obvious joke name) and South of New Hampshire is the town of Royalston, where lies the beautiful Doane’s Falls, a series of five waterfalls along a section of Lawrence Brook, a tributary of the Miller’s River. They have done a marvelous job of protecting this site while making much of it quite accessible to visitors. The falls are beautiful and very relaxing, as long as you don’t forget the bug spray. On the way home, you can stop for dinner or just more pictures at the Old Mill in Westminster.

Humarock Beach, Scituate, MA
This peninsula, which is now accessible only from the town of Marshfield, contains one of the most unusual and picturesque beaches in the world. The beach consists almost entirely of smooth, fist-sized rocks, which cause the receding waves to make a humming sound. And if you get hungry, you can stop nearby at Polcari’s Bridway Inn.

Mill Falls, Methuen, MA
You wouldn’t expect to find a scenic waterfall next to an apartment building in Methuen, but there it is. Although man-made and used to generate electrical power, this is a very strong waterfall, especially after a few days of heavy rain, with a noise that is almost deafening.

Wayside Inn Grist Mill, Sudbury, MA
Not far from our home is the Grist Mill, a picture that has graced many photo displays and wedding albums. You can picnic on the lawn or walk around the back to the lake that feeds the mill’s waterfall. In the summer, there are even opportunities to go inside and learn about its history. While in the Sudbury/Marlborough area, you can have breakfast at Stephen Anthony’s (which also features a gazebo overlooking Hager’s Pond), lunch at the Halfway Café, or dinner at the Wayside Inn.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

BP and You

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know by now of the magnitude of the BP oil disaster in the gulf. This is the largest environmental debacle in US history, and it threatens to eventually affect every shoreline from Mexico to Canada, with the entire US East coast in the balance. It was shoddy drilling practices that led to the problem, and British Petroleum was responsible.

So how has BP reacted? First by dragging its feet in getting equipment into place to clean up the spill, then by lying to the President, Congress, and the American people about the magnitude of the problem, then by lobbying to get a judge who has financial interest in the oil industry. Finally, they have spent millions of dollars and countless experts in their fields to develop…wait, here’s the punch line…an advertising campaign which they are plastering on the most expensive TV ad time to describe the responsibility they are displaying in the face of this “situation.” They should be giving those millions of dollars to the fishermen whose lives they have ruined or to all of us consumers who will bear the brunt of absurdly high food costs resulting from this devastation.

Let’s face it—these people should go to jail! Everyone from BP’s CEO to their Board of Directors to the people responsible for the ad campaign should be locked up in a prison with Louisiana’s most dangerous inmates, who will be encouraged to plug their holes daily.

So what can you do about it? Aside from donating to charities to help those financially ruined by the disaster, you can boycott all BP products and affiliates. They include AMPM (Convenience Store Chain), ARCO (retail gasoline brand on the US West coast), and Castrol, as well as any company whose name starts with BP. Then, pay attention to who votes for what in Congress in the next few months and vote against any bastards who side with BP or other oil companies in deflecting responsibility for this environmental nightmare.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Obama’s Energy Policy

I have been a strong supporter of Barack Obama for quite some time, and I think that overall, he’s doing an excellent job as President. However, dating back to mid-2008, there is one issue that has bothered me, and that is his energy policy.

The key to this policy is energy independence, and for a variety of reasons, it makes sense conceptually. The less we rely on the Middle East for our energy demands, the more likely we will be to guarantee our own security and protect our economy. The problem is that the President has adopted a sort of throw-caution-to-the-wind posture, embracing options for “clean coal,” nuclear power, and oil drilling. In fact, just prior to the latest environmental disaster in the Gulf, Obama had approved a plan to relax restrictions on offshore drilling, leading some to believe that the “drill baby drill” people had gotten to him.

While he has reversed that policy in the wake of the BP debacle, it’s not clear whether Obama is ready to reconsider his approach. The truth is that while the BP oil spill is a terrible nightmare, it pales in comparison to the damage that could be inflicted by a nuclear mishap, and there is very little evidence that “clean coal” is any better for the environment than any other kind of coal.

What eludes me in all his tough talk against the oil companies is why Obama has not put an all-out effort into increased, safe, carbon-free and waste-free energy options such as wind, water, and solar. Let’s face it, if any of those options cease to exist—if the sun, for example, should burn out—we will all be dead anyway.

So, why not take the equivalent of the money we spent on the war in Iraq and spend it on developing cost-efficient solar power, with effective battery solutions for storing that power? In Bush’s case, the answer was simple—he didn’t want to buck the oil companies, which were among his greatest financial supporters. But Obama is supposed to be different—a man of change who is independent of the big oil money.

In the long run, if we can harness the power of the sun, wind, and water, and store it successfully to draw upon as needed, we will permanently solve our energy concerns and become truly energy-independent.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Few More Thoughts on Professional Sports

Sorry I’ve been writing so much lately about sports, but TV shows are changing seasons, and movies and Broadway this year have mostly sucked. So, here are a few more thought about sports.

The World Cup
This may sound very American, but soccer bores me. They play entire games with no score or a 1-1 tie. Can’t they make the goal bigger or something? Then there’s the “heading” of the ball…how much abuse must their brains take? Finally, and in the proper deference to “Invictus” and Mandela and all, I hope they never hold the damned thing in South Africa again, not as long as the fans there keep blowing those vuvuzelas—the incessant buzzing horns you hear in the background. Maybe the same person who invented instant replay can invent a device that eliminates that obnoxious sound.

Sports Commentators
We should get a chance to pick our commentators through popular vote. I just finished watching the NBA Finals—congratulations Lakers fans (even if you are a bunch of surgically enhanced airheads). Anyhow, back to the point…has there ever been a worse color commentator than Mark Jackson? Let’s face it, he was at the middle of the pack as a player, and he’s just a moron as an announcer. Aren’t there enough bright, articulate NBA veterans around that we shouldn’t have to suffer through the playoffs listening to this fool’s endlessly uninspired droning? We only got to hear Magic Johnson for a few minutes per night, but we had to listen to Mark Jackson for hours…what’s wrong with that picture (literally and figuratively)?

MLB Commissioner
Can’t we get someone better than Bud Selig to be the Commissioner of Major League Baseball? It’s not enough that he was an owner of an MLB team (Milwaukee Brewers) or that he owned that team and was acting commissioner throughout the steroid era, but he continues to make ill-advised, gutless decisions, like calling the 2002 All-Star game a tie and failing to recognize Armando Galarraga’s perfect game. At least we in American League cities can revel in his decision to award World Series home field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star game, but if I lived in Philly, I’d be pissed off. If we could resurrect Kenesaw Mountain Landis (look him up youngsters), I would favor it, but maybe we could do the next best thing and find a more impartial, decisive leader for a sport that is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Problem with Sports Officiating

A Detroit pitcher is denied a perfect game by a bad call on the last out. A day later, in the first game of the NBA Finals, almost every possession for each team results in a foul call, a week after Dwight Howard is allowed to elbow opposing players at will. Stories of bad officiating resound almost daily, fostered in part by advances in technology that give TV viewers a more accurate grasp of the on-field action than those actually participating in it. Maybe we need to change our paradigm regarding professional sports officiating.

Let’s face it, professional athletes are millionaires, some making upwards of $20 million per year. At the same time, billions are bet on these events, yet we stick with the decades-old concept of the often fallible, occasionally corrupt referee, judge, or umpire having the final say on important calls or non-calls.

I know from judging karate tournaments that it’s not always easy to make the right call, even when you are trying your hardest and there is little or no money at stake. So why, when there is so much on the line, do we leave the decisions up to often-underpaid officials when the rest of us can see, on instant replay, every time they make a mistake?

The NFL took the first step with replay challenges, and the other sports have adopted replay on a limited basis, but it is still up to the officials on the field or court to decide when and how to use it, often slowing the game to a crawl while they do so. We need a 21st century solution based on current sensibilities and technology.

Why not have a replay booth above the action or even in a central, monitored location, where officials see what we see, with the option of reversing calls in real time? Rather than having officials stop the action to run off the field or stick their heads under a makeshift tent, these replay mavens would always be there, keeping an eye on the action and attempting to guarantee consistency from game to game and play to play. Given the millions of dollars spent each game on players and broadcasting, wouldn’t it make sense to spend a few more dollars to assure that the fans are getting what they are paying (a great deal) for and expect?

It’s time for the professional leagues/associations to not be constrained by the old ways and to completely rethink how these games are officiated. Only then will we all get from sports what we want and deserve.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The nice thing about having my own blog is that every now and then, I can just shoot off a disconnected bunch of ramblings about whatever is on my mind. This is one of those.

On Entertainment:

What’s wrong with American Idol? Because of changes in the show’s demographics and the fact that there are no real restrictions on telephone voting, the vast majority of voters are young white girls and women, many of whom vote on whom they think is the “cutest” rather than who really deserves it. Hence, the past three winners have almost been clones of each other, the last two of which (Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze) clearly beating better-singing opponents (Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox). African American finalist Michael Lynche never had a chance—would Reuben Studdard or Fantasia win these days? Unless they find a fix for the voting, the show will continue to produce these white-bread clones and the rest of the public will start to lose interest.

Why are TV seasons so short? I remember when shows stayed on the air from September until May, when the summer reruns started. Now, it seems like every time a show gets going, its season ends. How can you really get excited about “Mad Men” or “Parenthood” when there are fewer than 10 shows per year?

What happened to romantic comedies? I thoroughly enjoyed movies like “Bringing Up Baby” “The Philadelphia Story,” and “Pretty Woman.” They were good films, and there used to be many other romantic comedies worth watching. Now, it seems like they are all lame, formulaic nonsense. Too bad.

On Sports:

Why is Dwight Howard allowed to foul at will? I’ve been watching the Magic winning the last two games against the Celtics, partly by physically attacking the Celtics players, and Howard is the chief offender. In addition, when any Celtics go near him, they are called for fouls. Maybe Tim Donaghy was right.

Why do Tampa Bay fans deserve a major league baseball team? Here’s an MLB-leading team that was in the World Series two years ago, and none of the fans show up to what is clearly the major league’s worst ballpark. Then, when they actually come to a game, they ring cowbells. Please!

Why did the NFL award the 2014 Super Bowl to New Jersey? Until now, no team playing in an open stadium in a cold climate has ever been allowed to even apply for a Super Bowl, yet New York is awarded one for a stadium that is not even built yet. The average temperature in New York on February 2 is 30 degrees—during the day. Yet, they are going to play a nighttime game in that stadium. I somehow doubt that if Green Bay, Buffalo, or New England had asked, they would have been considered. It’s a bad idea—the most important annual sporting event in the world should not potentially be decided by weather.

On Driving:

• Why do Boston drivers get a bad rap? I’ve been driving in Boston since I was 16, and the drivers are certainly aggressive, but they generally pay attention. In driving through New Jersey and Philadelphia lately, I realize that most of the drivers there are relatively unconscious. I’ll take aggressive any day.

• What happened to passing in the left lane? Several years ago, the government decided that gas mileage worked out better if people were told they could drive any legal speed in any lane, so they dropped from the driver’s manuals any mention about driving on the right and passing on the left. Big mistake. How many times do you get stuck on the highway between two or three yahoos driving the same slow speed next to each other? When you flash headlights at them, they look at you like you’re from another planet. Likewise, you’ve got testocerone-induced drivers passing at 90 MPH in the right lane, where most cars have a blind spot. Let’s start a movement to reinstate the left passing lane.

• Do we really need generic cars? There are some cars that are so generic that they don’t deserve a name…they should just be called “car.” For 2010, I place in this category the Toyota Corolla, Mercury Milan, Nissan Versa, Kia Rio, Buick Lucerne, Chevrolet Malibu, and Ford Taurus. My criticism has nothing to do with price, it’s about the lack of imagination that goes into producing and buying one of these lame vehicles. If you dislike driving so much, take the bus.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Parently

Alex is 25 years old today. He just finished his first year of law school.

26 years ago, Joni was recovering from a spinal fusion, and some doctors said that carrying a child to term could be very dangerous for that fusion, but she did it, even spending a day in labor before her C-Section. Her fusion held and Alex was born.

The years since then have been financially draining, physically painful for Joni, and trying at times, but we are lucky. Alex is a good person who generally cares about people and succeeds at everything to which he truly applies his active mind.

“He’s very smart,” the pediatrician said shortly after Alex was born. “Too bad. The smart ones are always more difficult.” In many ways, I understand what he meant. Alex will argue for the sake of arguing, often switching sides in the middle, just for the intellectual stimulation of doing so. It used to piss me off, until I heard him doing it with his friends, some of whom do the same thing. I guess he’ll be a good lawyer.

Here’s the crux of it—parenthood is not easy. It’s a complete drain on your time and finances, and for all that, you are often just perceived as a bother. In the end, your kids will grow up to blame their faults on you, but are they wrong to do so? While you take pride in seeing them excel, often crediting that to what they inherited from you, you also cringe when you see that they have some of your worst foibles. There are times when they appear as reflections of what you don’t want to see in yourself.

Then there are the tragedies or near-tragedies. Years ago, my friend Hanley’s daughter died of an asthma attack, and I wasn’t a very effective friend. Alex was very young, and I couldn’t fathom the idea of losing him, so I under-reacted. Since then, I’ve tried to be supportive when friends Genny/Ron and Mike/Arlene went through health issues with their children, David and Nora. Fortunately, those children survived and thrived, but I can only imagine the pain they must have experienced.

So why do we do it? Why make ourselves so vulnerable by having kids at all?

The answer is found when they come home or call you with some minor success or happiness, because from the first day they’re born and look up at you, every smile or joyous laugh makes you forget all the difficulties and relish the moment. It can improve your entire week.

I’ve been lucky to parent with Joni because she’s tougher and more consistent than I am…just ask her students. She’s also more compassionate and patient, with the ability to listen to children ramble endlessly before finally getting to the point. As you might guess, that’s not a skill I possess. But what makes me effective as a parent (when I am effective) is my understanding that while I can love him and guide him, I can’t control my child…I’m just along for the ride. As such, I relish what makes Alex happy, even if it is not something I would normally do. In the end, if he’s happy, I’m happy with that.

I have no idea what his or my future will hold, but I do know that I’m extraordinarily thankful for the last 25 years. I have vivid memories of all the good times that Joni and I have had with our son. Alex is full of fun, he and Joni are my best friends, and I thoroughly enjoy the time I spend with him. I love him more than he will ever know.

Happy birthday, Alex…and thank you.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lewis Weinstein

Lewis Weinstein died today at Paoli Hospital, outside of Philadelphia—the victim of a massive heart attack this past Saturday that deprived his brain of oxygen. He was 56 years old, and he was my cousin and friend. He was the second cousin from my generation of the Moliver Family to pass away, but the first in a long time.

Lew had swagger. From the time he was young, he was a presence, carrying himself with confidence and inner strength. He marched to his own drummer, bringing us along the many phases on his journey through adulthood. His smile was almost as wide as his broad shoulders, and his sarcastic humor always hit the mark.

It was at Lew’s bar mitzvah where I first met Joni, and it was he who later re-introduced us, at 15, at the urging of Edie and Molly. Joni knew Lew since kindergarten, and for most of her young life, he was her protector, champion, and best friend. When she tells stories of her childhood, they inevitably include him. One such story occurred in 6th grade, when Joni ran for the presidency of her elementary school; Lew was her campaign manager, and to this day, she believes she won that election primarily because of her classmates’ support for him. “When Lewis was near,” Joni has said, “I always felt safe.”

As the years went on, and we all went about the tasks involved with raising children, Lew was not always an everyday part of our lives, but he was in our thoughts. During the past year, Joni and I had the chance to really reconnect with our cousin through lengthy conversations on the phone and at family events. I was glad he joined the Moliver fantasy football league last year, because it gave us a chance to communicate on a weekly basis. He added a positive energy and humor to each week, and this year, we will rename it the L.W. Moliver Family league.

Rachel, Saul, and Kevin should be very proud of their father, and they should know that we were all positively affected by his life. That will continue in his memory.

Goodbye Lewis…you will always live on within us.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Favorite US Cabs

This isn’t about cheap wines you can have with dinner, or the best wines under $10, or some other nonsense like that. Nor is it for those French wine snobs who believe there are no world class cabernet sauvignons from the United States.

If you know me, you know that I like wine, so I will intersperse an occasional article like this about wine. But, unlike some of my friends, I don’t drink wine every night…not even once per week, although that differs by the week. So, some of the wines I’ll be recommending here are hard to get and costly. In every case, either I bought it when it was cheaper or one of my friends opened it.

In any event, here are the US-produced cabernet sauvignons that I have liked best:

• 1997 Fisher Wedding Vineyard: We opened this a few years ago at a California Cab night, and it blew away me and everyone else. This Sonoma wine features a rich, velvety taste that attacks your senses while remaining balanced. It is an absolutely wonderful wine that is almost impossible to find. As of this writing, the only bottle I could locate was through, selling for $284.

• 1995 Araujo Estate, Eisele Vineyard: If a wine can be simultaneously subtle and powerful, this is it. I drank it slightly young and wish I hadn’t, but the power, elegance, superb minerality, and lengthy finish stick with me to this day. Unfortunately, the few online sites that still sell this Napa beauty are asking about $400 per bottle.

• 1996 Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select: The first thing that hits you about a Shafer Hillside Select cab is the nose. From Napa’s Stag’s Leap District, there are few wines in the world with a better aroma. And the drinking is almost as amazing, with incredible balance and finish. Online, this bottle currently lists for anywhere from $250 to $385.

• 1994 Dominus Estate: This is one of the most consistent wines from year to year, but 1994 may have been its best year yet. More than most other Napa wines, Dominus is made in the French style, comprised of 70% cabernet sauvignon, with small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. It is smooth and surprisingly fruity for an older wine, currently ranging in price online from $235 to $295.

• 2004 Quilceda Creek: Although technically early in its maturity, this Washington state wine was opened at a recent tasting and blew me away. Overpowering in its richness and not yet completely balanced, this will be a remarkable wine for years to come, and is available online starting at $195 per bottle.

If you’re looking at this list and saying, “What is he crazy? I can’t afford those wines,” let me tell you, neither can I. But if you buy wines from the likes of Fisher, Araujo, Shafer, Dominus, Quilceda Creek, Ridge, Chateau Montelena, Dunn, Beringer Private Reserve, Arrowwood, Etude, Robert Foley, or other vendors when they are first released and store them properly for a few years, you too can have some amazing wines.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Best Albums of 2008

Most people don’t realize it, but 2008 may be one of the best years in music history. Because of technological advances, ordinary people can self-record music that traditional recording companies might find too risky and get it listed on iTunes and other download services. We’ll see how the recession affects this trend in 2009.

If you’re still buying CDs from music stores, you’re probably not being exposed to all of this music. That’s why the previously defunct term “album” has made a comeback as a collection of songs, whether they end up on a CD or not.

The biggest trend this year is the return of R&B/Soul. It’s been happening throughout the decade, but in 2008, the more melodic genre seems to have finally displaced Rap/Hip-Hop as the music of choice for many young artists. Several of those artists are white and many are women. The door that was opened by Joss Stone and Christina Aguilera was knocked down by Amy Winehouse last year, and their successors are flooding through, including Adele, Duffy, Elisa, and even a few with two names like Hilary McCrae, Leigh Jones, and Shoshana Bean. They have joined more traditional R&B artists to make this year very special.

Rock also changed as Emo has faded, replaced by musicians playing varied instruments in songs with interesting changes fronted by singers who refuse to whine. As such, this year conjures images of artists who express themselves fully in a variety of ways. My tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Rap, Death Metal or traditional folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list.

For all others, I actually found 120 albums worth listing, so I numbered the top 30 and left the rest for “Honorable Mention.” Here they are in ascending order:

30. Big Blue Ball: “Big Blue Ball” This collection of World Music is the brainchild of Peter Gabriel and World Party’s Karl Wallinger, who compiled songs by a wide range of artists. Outstanding cuts include “Whole Thing” and “Big Blue Ball.”

29. Pepper: “Pink Crustaceans” This Hawaiian band combines buoyant tunes with inventive, sometimes outrageous lyrics for a delightful combination of songs. Included are “Things That You Love,” “Love 101,” and “Musical 69.”

28. School of Language: “Sea from Shore” A side project of Field Music’s David Brewis, this album shows outstanding musicianship and songwriting. Listen to “Rockist Pt. 1,” “This Is No Fun,” and “Tear Me a Part.”

27. Fleet Foxes: “Fleet Foxes” If you like vocal harmonies, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes is a band for you. Their songs are rich and full, and seem appropriate in this holiday season. This album includes “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood,” and “He Doesn't Know Why.”

26. Amanda Palmer: “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” The lead singer from the Dresden Dolls brings her compelling quirkiness to this solo effort, featuring “Astronaut,” “Runs In the Family,” and “Strength Through Music.”

25. Lalah Hathaway: “Self Portrait” The daughter of Donny Hathaway and a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Lalah Hathaway has been recording since 1990, but this may be her best effort, combining sultry jazz tones with interesting R&B riffs. My favorite tracks include “Learning to Swim,” “What Goes Around,” “Breathe,” and “On Your Own.”

24. Sunny Day Sets Fire: “Summer Palace” This indie pop band from London wins this year’s award for the best late-Beatles-influenced band. Songs include “Wilderness,” “Teenagers Talking,” and “Map of the World.”

23. Buckcherry: “15” This rollicking rock band from California recorded what is easily their best collection to date, featuring such (not suitable for all audiences) gems as “Crazy Bitch” “Everything,” “Sorry,” and “Onset.”

22. honeyhoney: “First Rodeo” Using guitar, violin, and clear vocals to combine, jazz, blues, and country into a delightful alternative mix, this is one of my favorite new bands. Listen to “Black Crows,” “Little Toy Gun,” “Give Yourself to Me,” and “Naughtiness of Me.”

21. Duffy: “Rockferry” Bursting onto the scene this year, Duffy is another throwback to the early 60s, with an interesting blend of neo-soul that includes “Mercy,” “Warwick Avenue,” and “Syrup & Honey.”

20. Jack Peñate: “Matinée” This 22-year-old South London songwriter is another of the year’s best new performers, combining inventive music and infectious lyrics. Songs include “Spit at Stars,” “Have I Been a Fool,” “Torn On the Platform,” and “Second, Minute or Hour.”

19. Raphael Saadiq: “The Way I See It” Formerly with Tony! Toni! Toné!, this album could have been recorded in the 60s, but then it wouldn’t have included performances by Joss Stone and Jay-Z. Tracks include “100 Yard Dash,” “Love that Girl,” and “Never Give Up.”

18. Josh Kelley: “Special Company” Talk about prolific, Josh Kelley released three albums in 2008—“Special Company,” “To Remember,” and “Backwoods.” All are good, but the best is “Special Company,” featuring 14 songs including “Unfair” and “Fallin in Love With You.”

17. Maiysha: “This Much Is True:” She didn’t show up on most critics’ radar, but this is one of the best new R&B artists and one of the many new performers coming from Brooklyn these days. Pay attention to “Over My Head,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Hold Me,” and “Matter of Pride.”

16. Beck: “Modern Guilt” One of music’s most interesting and influential artists, Beck seems to be getting more prolific with age, and always worth hearing. On this release, some gems include “Chemtrails,” “Orphan,” “Modern Guilt,” and “Profanity Prayers.”

15. Gnarls Barkley: “The Odd Couple” Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse are indeed an odd couple, but only because they continue to redefine modern soul, with songs like “Who's Gonna Save My Soul,” “Going On,” and “Run (I'm a Natural Disaster).”

14. In the Heights (Original Cast Recording) With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this Wesleyan-conceived musical is truly the best that Broadway has to offer, featuring Latin-rhythm songs like “It Won't Be Long Now,” “When You're Home,” and “The Club.”

13. Kate Nash: “Made of Bricks” This Irish Londoner combined theatrical tendencies with playful tunes to make one of the year’s most enjoyable song collections, including “Foundations,” “Mouthwash,” “Skeleton Song,” and “Merry Happy.”

12. Ben Sollee: “Learning to Bend” The only cellist on this list, Ben Sollee makes really good music and plays it really well. I love “How to See the Sun Rise,” “It's Not Impossible,” and a wonderful version of the all-time classic and this year’s post-election ballad, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

11. The Autumn Isles: “Wish Lists & Sunken Lands” Hailing from Perth in Western Australia, the Autumn Isles recorded this seven-song gem that reminds me of vintage Beatles/Beach Boys. This is one where I say to buy the whole album, which includes “It’s Been a While,” “A Gift to You,” and “Love's Not a Thing.”

10. Usher: “Here I Stand” Usher Raymond is a very talented artist, and on this album, he shows why he’s at the top of the R&B charts, with a combination of ballads and dance tunes that will warm your soul. They include “Love In This Club” “Moving Mountains,” “Here I Stand,” and “Hush.”

9. The Raconteurs: “Consolers of the Lonely” Fronted by Jack White and Brendan Benson, the Raconteurs have carved a special niche in the alternative rock world—one that combines well-written songs and outstanding musicianship. This list of gems includes “Old Enough,” “You Don't Understand Me,” “Many Shades of Black,” and the title track.

8. Jenny Lewis, “Acid Tongue” Most famous for fronting the superb band, Rilo Kiley, Lewis lets her amazing vocal talents and singing style shine on this solo effort, featuring “Trying My Best to Love You,” “Sing a Song for Them,” and “Pelican Bay.”

7. Beyoncé: “I Am... Sasha Fierce” How can you not love Beyoncé Knowles? She’s one of the world’s biggest stars, yet she continues to stretch the limits with efforts like this 19-song effort that showcases the two sides of her personality—the beauty in the ballads and the wild woman waiting to dance. Don’t miss “If I Were a Boy,” “Ave Maria,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”

6. Death Cab for Cutie: “Narrow Stairs” I used to think of them as the other band fronted by the Postal Service’s singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, but with this release, Death Cab for Cutie came into its own. A complete effort, this album features “I Will Possess Your Heart,” “No Sunlight,” “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division.”

5. Forgive Durden: “Razia's Shadow: A Musical” If it wasn’t for the annoying and unnecessary narration, this might have been my #1 album of 2008. As it is, the complex music and terrific singing by a slew of artists from other bands make this an album worth having. It includes “Genesis,” “Life Is Looking Up,” “It's True Love,” and “The End and the Beginning.”

4. Of Montreal: “Skeletal Lamping” This indie rock group gets better with every album, and Skeletal Lamping is their best effort to date, conjuring images of young Queen and Bowie. All the songs are great, but among the standouts are “Nonpareil of Favor,” “For Our Elegant Caste,” and “An Eluardian Instance.”

3. Adele: “19” London’s Adele Adkins is the best of this year’s new crop of white soul artists. At first overlooked because she doesn’t have movie-star looks, Adele has wowed critics and audiences alike and will doubtless be a fixture on the scene in the coming years. Among her wonderful repertoire are “Hometown Glory,” “Best for Last,” “Chasing Pavements,” and “Make You Feel My Love.”

2. TV On the Radio: “Dear Science” Brooklyn’s best band takes disparate sounds like electronic, punk, and soul music and mixes them into something special and new, which is hard to do in this world of sameness. Each track is wonderful, and they include “Crying,” “Dancing Choose,” “Shout Me Out,” and “Red Dress.”

1. Vampire Weekend: “Vampire Weekend” The year’s best album is the debut of this New York band that uses African rhythms to back a superb array of songs that make you want to dance, sing, and enjoy music as it is meant to be enjoyed. These infectious tunes include “The Kids Don't Stand a Chance,” “Walcott (Insane Mix),” “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “Mansard Roof,” and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).”

The following deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):

The Academy Is...: “Fast Times At Barrington High”
Air Traffic: “Fractured Life”
The Airborne Toxic Event: “The Airborne Toxic Event”
Akon: “Freedom”
Alamance: “Moving On”
Alanis Morissette: “Flavors of Entanglement”
Albert Hammond, Jr.: “Como Te Llama?”
Alkaline Trio: “Agony & Irony”
The All-American Rejects: “When the World Comes Down”
All Day Sucker: “The Big Pretend”
American Princes: “Other People”
Anathallo: “Canopy Glow”
Annuals: “Such Fun”
Army of Freshmen: “Above the Atmosphere”
Baldwin Drive: “Orange & Black”
Blind Pilot: “3 Rounds and a Sound”
Bodies of Water: “Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink”
Brendan James: “The Day Is Brave”
Broadway Calls: “Broadway Calls”
Charlotte Sometimes: “Waves And The Both of Us”
City and Colour: “Bring Me Your Love”
Counting Crows: “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings”
Delta Spirit: “Ode to Sunshine”
Dwele: “Sketches of a Man”
Ed Harcourt: “The Beautiful Lie”
Elisa: “Dancing”
Elvis Costello: “Momofuku”
The Fratellis: “Here We Stand”
Gabriel Kahane: “Gabriel Kahane”
Hilary McRae: “Through These Walls”
The Hold Steady: “Stay Positive”
The Hoosiers: “The Trick to Life”
The Horror the Horror: “Wired Boy Child”
Inara George & Van Dyke Parks: “An Invitation”
Irma Thomas: “Simply Grand”
Jakob Dylan: “Seeing Things”
James Morrison: “Songs for You, Truths for Me”
Janelle Monae: “Metropolis: the Chase Suite”
Jason Mraz: “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things”
Joe Jackson: “Rain”
John Legend: “Evolver”
Joshua Radin: “Simple Times”
Katy Perry: “One of the Boys”
Kerli: “Love Is Dead”
The Kooks: “Konk”
Kylie Minogue: “X”
Leona Lewis: “Spirit”
Los Campesinos!: “Hold On Now, Youngster...”
Low vs. Diamond: “Low vs. Diamond”
Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s: “Animal!”
Marié Digby: “Unfold”
Mates of State: “Re-Arrange Us”
The Morning Light: “The Morning Light”
The Mountain Goats: “Heretic Pride”
My Baby Wants to Eat Your P***y: “Ignorance & Vision”
Ne-Yo: “Year of the Gentleman”
News At Six: “What Startling News”
Newton Faulkner: “Hand Built By Robots”
Nickelback: “Dark Horse”
O.A.R.: “All Sides”
Obi Best: “Capades”
The Offspring: “Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace”
Okkervil River: “The Stand Ins”
P!nk: “Funhouse”
Panic At the Disco: “Pretty. Odd.”
Passing Strange (Original Broadway Cast)
R.E.M.: “Accelerate”
Ra Ra Riot: “The Rhumb Line”
Rachel Zylstra: “Before You Could Decide”
Ray LaMontagne: “Gossip In the Grain”
Rehab For Quitters: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Rehab for Quitters”
The Republic Tigers: “Keep Color”
SafetySuit: “Life Left to Go”
Sam Phillips: “Don't Do Anything”
Secondhand Serenade: “A Twist In My Story”
Shoshana Bean: “Superhero”
Snow Patrol: “A Hundred Million Suns”
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin: “Pershing”
Sparks: “Exotic Creatures of the Deep”
T-Pain: “Thr33 Ringz”
These Modern Socks: “Picking a Lock At the Speed of Light”
Tilly and the Wall: “O”
The Virgins: “The Virgins”
Waves On Waves: “Waves On Waves”
We Are Scientists: “Brain Thrust Mastery”
The Week That Was: “The Week That Was”
Weezer: “Weezer (Red)”
What Made Milwaukee Famous: “What Doesn't Kill Us”
The White Tie Affair: “Walk This Way”
The Wombats: “A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why the Yankees Should Keep Winning the World Series

As a Red Sox fan, this is a difficult article to write, but I believe that, for the time being, it is in the best interests of Major League Baseball that the New York Yankees win the World Series—this year, next year, and as long as it takes. “As long as it takes for what?” you wonder.

The figures I shall cite are from CBS Sports. As of 2010, the Yankees spend more than $206 million on payroll. The Boston Red Sox, which had the fourth highest payroll in 2009, have added nearly $30 million in 2010 to vault into second place ($162 million) on the payroll list, still almost $44 million less than the Yankees. At the bottom of the list is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who spend less than $35 million. In fact, if you total the four lowest-paying teams, it would come to less than $180 million—still $26 million less than the Yankees.

So, the fact is that within the “Major Leagues,” (American and National combined) there are actually three sub-leagues:

• The Slightly-Better-Than-Minor League (the ten teams that each pay less than $70 million, and have no chance of winning a World Series).
• The Almost-There League (the seven teams that pay between $70-90 million and may make the playoffs but have little chance of winning a World Series).
• The True-Major League (the 14 teams who spend more than $90 million and have won the last six World Series). In truth, aside from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006, all of the other recent World Series winners now spend more than $100 million.

So, let me return to my initial point—it is in the best interests of Major League Baseball that the New York Yankees win the World Series, as long as it takes to institute a salary cap. The people in Pittsburgh, San Diego, Oakland, Texas, and Florida, who until 2003 (the Marlins) had an actual opportunity to compete, now have absolutely no chance of celebrating a World Series victory. In truth, they should start boycotting baseball games (if they haven’t already) so the league will be forced to deal with empty stadia and waning interest in “America’s game.”

A salary cap is in the best interests of the fans, the league, and eventually the players. It works in football and basketball, where teams from Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and San Antonio have all celebrated recent championships. It helps to control costs, so average people can afford to attend an occasional game. It maintains the integrity of the league, so every team actually has a chance to beat any other team. It helps great players to win championships without making them defect to higher-paying teams.

So, while I’ll continue to root for the Red Sox on a daily basis, I’m rooting for the Yankees to win the World Series until everyone associated with the sport throws up their hands and says “Enough!”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The 30 Best Musicals

OK, so I’m a straight guy who likes musicals…shoot me! I just feel that it is a unique art form that began in America and has produced some of the best songs ever written, from composers/ lyricists like Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lerner & Lowe, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Jerry Herman, Kander & Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz, Marvin Hamlisch, William Finn, Andrew Lippa, Jonathan Larson, Joe DiPietro, Jason Robert Brown, Elton John, and Adam Guettel.

It’s hard to rank musicals because they vary greatly based on the era in which they were first produced. Instead, I will attempt to list chronologically the musicals that were the best and most important. Your choices may be different, but here are mine:

(1943) Oklahoma: While it may seem corny today, this Rodgers & Hammerstein show launched the “modern” era of musicals by combining diverse musical styles, a complete story line, and dances intended to move the story forward. Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, this show features tunes including “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” and the title song.

(1954) Peter Pan: By filming the stage version of this show and broadcasting it on TV every year in the 50s and 60s, this show did more to popularize Broadway musicals than any before it. A musical version of a play by J. M. Barrie, it featured one of the greatest stars Broadway has ever know in Mary Martin. With music by Mark “Moose” Charlap and lyrics by Jule Styne, classic songs include “Never Never Land,” “I’m Flying,” and “I Won’t Grow Up.”

(1956) My Fair Lady: It was an ambitious idea to turn George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” into a musical, but it worked, especially given the talents of Rex Harrison and a young Julie Andrews. The Lerner & Lowe score includes “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “On the Street Where You Live.”

(1957) West Side Story: Perhaps the best musical of them all, Arthur Laurents wrote the book for this show that took Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and set it on its ear with amazing songs combining the music of Leonard Bernstein with the lyrics of a young Stephen Sondheim, including “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” and the remarkable “Tonight Quintet.”

(1959) The Sound of Music: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s last great musical (book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) was a triumph onstage and a huge movie success. Although most of us are more familiar with the Julie Andrews version, the original Broadway cast, starring Mary Martin, was in many ways more simple and pure. Besides the title song, it features “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and “Climb Every Mountain.”

(1960) Oliver: Based on Dickens’s Oliver Twist, this was the first hugely successful musical to come from Great Britain. The songs by Lionel Bart include “Where is Love,” “Consider Yourself,” and “I’d Do Anything.”

(1962) Stop The World - I Want To Get Off: Another British musical, this featured the amazing work of Anthony Newley, who both co-wrote the book and songs (with Leslie Bricusse), and starred in the show, belting out great numbers like “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “What Kind of Fool Am I.”

(1964) Funny Girl: Launching the career of Barbra Streisand, who won both the Tony and the Oscar for the lead role of Fanny Brice, this comedic musical was based on a book by Isobel Lennart with songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill including “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People,” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

(1965) Man of La Mancha: Cervantes’s Don Quixote may be the most popular and respected works ever written in Spanish, so converting it to an English-language musical required a bit of dexterity by Dale Wasserman and musical integrity by Mitch Leigh & Joe Darion. Others have played the role, but Richard Kiley owned it. Songs include “I, Don Quixote,” “Dulcinea,” and “The Impossible Dream.”

(1966) Mame: This Jerry Herman musical, based on Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, and converted into a musical play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, introduced Angela Lansbury to most of the Broadway-going public (although she had previously appeared on Broadway in “Anyone Can Whistle”). It featured liberating songs like “It’s Today,” “Open a New Window” and the title song.

(1968) Hair: Not so much a great play as a happening, Hair galvanized the American psyche and produced several top ten hits. James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot composed and penned a musical that featured rock & roll, drugs, nudity, and offensive language, and it shook up Broadway. Songs include: “Aquarius,” “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Where Do I Go?” and “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In).”

(1970) Jesus Christ Superstar: Although Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote this after “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” they recorded it first, as a rock opera. Originally condemned by the Catholic church and scorned by the religious right, it is a fairly straightforward retelling of the Synoptic Gospels while drawing on Fulton J. Sheen's Life of Christ. Great songs include “Pilate’s Dream,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Gethsemane,” and the title song.

(1975) A Chorus Line: Michael Bennett based this show on actual interviews he had audiotaped with dancers. He then enlisted James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante to write the book and Marvin Hamlisch & Edward Kleban to write the songs. After months of testing, what emerged was an amazing musical about the lives of dancers in a Broadway chorus line. Songs include “At the Ballet,” “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” “Nothing,” “What I Did for Love,” and “One.” The touching 2008 documentary, “Every Little Step,” describes the development of this musical masterpiece.

(1979) The Falsettos Trilogy: This is actually three musicals—“In Trousers” (1979) “March of the Falsettos” (1981), and “Falsettoland” (1990)—all by William Finn and all dealing with the life of a gay man and his relationships with those around him, including his son. They feature some amazing dialogue and outstanding songs including “Love Me for What I Am,” “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” “I Never Wanted to Love You,” “Holding to the Ground,” and “What Would I Do.”

(1982) Cats: Although not the most coherent play, this musical, based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, contains the outstanding ballad “Memory,” performed amazingly by Betty Buckley. The music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with additional lyrics by Trevor Nunn, also includes “Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats,” “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” and “Mr. Mistoffeles.”

(1983) La Cage aux Folles: Based on the 1973 French play and movie of the same name by Jean Poiret, this musical features amazing Riviera-style, gender-bending dance numbers and outstanding Jerry Herman songs including “Song on the Sand,” “I Am What I Am” (performed amazingly by George Hearn), the title song, and “The Best of Times.”

(1986) Les Misérables: Alternately rousing and emotional, this musical based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel with music by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer, contains some of the most memorable scenes ever staged, including those for “At the End of the Day,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Master of the House,” “Stars,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “On My Own,” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

(1990) City of Angels: This is one you have to see to believe. In the book by Larry Gelbart, a shy, somewhat reclusive screenwriter pens film noir movies about a daring detective, including characters based on actual people he knows, so the same actors play the characters in his life and in the movie scenes. The writer’s scenes are lighted in full color while the detective’s scenes are lighted and the characters garbed in black and white. On Broadway, there were more than 60 set changes…the most visual play I’ve ever seen. In addition, the excellent musical numbers by Cy Coleman and David Zippel include “With Every Breath I Take,” “You’re Nothing Without Me,” and “Funny.”

(1996) Rent: It took me some time to warm up to this rock opera based on Puccini's La bohème, but the songs by Jonathan Larson are outstanding, and “Rent” shook up Broadway the same way that “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story,” and “Hair” had done before it, tackling difficult issues like homosexuality, AIDS, and the disillusionment of a new generation. Great songs include “One Song Glory,” “Tango: Maureen,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Seasons of Love,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” and “What You Own.” However, the real tragedy was that Larson died of an aortic aneurysm days before its opening.

(1996) Ragtime: The book by Terrence McNally was based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow about three families from very different backgrounds and how their lives intermingled amidst triumph and tragedy. It’s a big show and a beautiful story that in many ways relates the history of the American experience. Musical numbers by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens include the title song, “Wheels of a Dream,” “Sarah Brown Eyes,” and “Make Them Hear You.”

(1996) I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change: This little off-Broadway gem by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts features scenes and songs about love from young dating to meeting at funerals, and everything in between. Featuring only four actors, it is delightful for anyone who has ever been in love, with songs including “I Will Be Loved Tonight,” “The Baby Song,” and “Shouldn't I Be Less In Love With You.”

(1997) Songs For A New World: More of a loosely structured song cycle than a traditional play, the show consisted of four performers and the songs of Jason Robert Brown. It sounds simple, but these are very good songs, including “Opening: The New World,” “The River Won't Flow,” “Stars and the Moon,” “I'd Give It All For You,” and “Hear My Song.”

(1997) Children of Eden: With Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Schwartz completes the trio of the most prolific musical songwriters of the last 40 years, and this show, although never making it to Broadway, is among his best. As scripted by John Caird, the show explores the relationships between parents and children, drawing on stories from the Book of Genesis. The songs include “The Spark of Creation,” “A World Without You,” “Lost in the Wilderness,” and the title song.

(1998) Parade: With a book by Alfred Uhry and songs by Jason Robert Brown, this is not your standard song-and-dance musical. Rather, it tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who, in 1913 Georgia, was wrongly accused, tried, and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee. The real-life case led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. With a cast headed by Brent Carver and the amazing Carolee Carmello, songs include “Do It Alone,” “This Is Not Over Yet,” and the outstanding duet, “All the Wasted Time.”

(2000) Aida: Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang, adapted Verdi’s opera into this musical with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. It tells the story of an ancient Egyptian love affair that was never meant to be. Elton John’s music in this show was among the best and most interesting since Bernstein’s West Side Story. Clearly the cream of the Disney musicals, it featured a great cast including Heather Headley, Adam Pascal, and Sherie René Scott, and includes “Every Story Is a Love Story,” “My Strongest Suit,” “Elaborate Lives,” “The Gods Love Nubia,” and “Written in the Stars.”

(2001) Urinetown: There are not enough actual musical comedies on Broadway, but this show was among the funniest. Written and composed by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, this tells the absurd story of a world where water is scarce and people must pay to urinate. What ensues is a hilarious show that makes fun of itself, with excellent songs including “Follow Your Heart,” “Run, Freedom, Run!” and “I See a River.”

(2003) Wicked: As scripted by Winnie Hozman, this story of the Wicked Witch of the West is based on Gregory Maguire’s book that draws on character’s from Frank L. Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. With show-stopping performances by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, it features songs by Stephen Schwartz including “No One Mourns the Wicked,” “Popular,” “Defying Gravity,” and “For Good.”

(2005) Billy Elliot: Lee Hall wrote this show as well as the 2000 movie on which it is based. He also shares songwriting credits with Elton John. Premiering in London in 2005, this musical features superb choreography by Peter Darling through which much of the story is told. Songs include “The Stars Look Down,” “Electricity,” and “Once We Were Kings.”

(2008) In The Heights: Originally written and staged by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes as a senior thesis project at Wesleyan University, this show tells the stories of Dominican immigrants in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Combining Latin beats, superb tunes, and intelligent rapping, this is a beautiful musical filled with positive energy. Songs by Miranda (who also starred in the show) include “It Won't Be Long Now,” “The Club,” and “When You’re Home.”

(2009) Next to Normal: I have yet to see this show, but the score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is outstanding. The story concerns a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder and the loss of her son, and the excellent songs include “Maybe,” “I’m Alive,” and “I Am the One.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Best TV Shows of 2010

As the second season of 2010 is coming to a close (there are now three seasons per year), I'm adding several shows. If you’ve missed many of the episodes, you can download them, buy the CDs, or watch them online at various sites like

  • The Good Wife: With a stellar cast that includes Julianna Margulies, Josh Charles, Christine Baranski, Matt Czuchry, and the wonderful Archie Panjabi, as well as recurring guest roles by the likes of Chris Noth, Joe Morton, Alan Cumming, Gary Cole, Peter Riegert, David Paymer, Martha Plimpton, Joanna Gleason, and Dennis O’Hare, this new CBS series may be the best thing on television, combining long-term character development and episodic intensity.
  • Parenthood: Based on the excellent movie of the same name, Jason Katims has produced and written an outstanding family dramedy that is simultaneously real and entertaining. Add to that an outstanding ensemble including Laren Graham, Peter Krause, Monica Potter, Craig T. Nelson, Dax Shepard, Bonnie Bedelia, Erika Christensen and Mae Whitman, and you have an NBC show that will win a lot of hearts.
  • The Pacific: First, Spielberg and Hanks gave us “Saving Private Ryan,” then “Band of Brothers.” I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I think “The Pacific” on HBO is better than either of those efforts. Each riveting weekly episode starts with actual US WWII combatants recounting their experiences with regard to that episode’s subject, followed by a superbly filmed and acted story tracing the 1st Marine Division’s trek across the islands of the Pacific. The individual marines’ stories combined with the intense majesty of war make this miniseries unforgettable. Now that it has ended, it will doubtless pop up on commercial TV. If you missed it the first time, be sure to catch it.
  • Supernatural: Each episode is a weekly horror show wrapped around the larger story of two brothers, played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, as they confronted issues related to good and evil. It was supposed to come to a stirring conclusion this season, but it has been extended, which could account for the somewhat tepid season finale and the strange twist at the end.
  • Modern Family: Reinventing the half-hour comedy series is not easy, but by combining a sitcom with a mockumentary and making it about a multi-dimensional family, this ABC show has accomplished that task. The beauty is that it portrays its characters as stereotypes while skewering the concept of stereotypical characters. Although it occasionally overreaches, it has fast become TV's best comedy.
  • In Plain Site: This is starting to look like a West Wing reunion, with star Mary McCormack being joined for extended guest appearances by Josh Malina and Alison Janney, to go with an already accomplished cast that includes Lesley Ann Warren and Broadway standout Frederick Weller. The USA Network show revolves around two marshals with the Witness Protection program, but sparkles with McCormack’s prickly performances.
  • V: Vastly better than the 1983 miniseries on which it is based, this ABC series about seemingly friendly aliens with a hidden agenda features Morena Baccarin, Morris Chestnut, Joel Gretsch, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Scott Wolf. It is an enjoyable modern riff on the old alien attack genre.
  • Human Target: Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I enjoy an action show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s how I describe this Fox show about a do-gooder with a checkered past, played by Mark Valley. While he is good in the lead role, the supporting performances by Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley are outstanding.
  • House: Yes, the lead character, played by Hugh Laurie, each week crosses lines that no actual doctor would be allowed to cross, but it is still entertaining to see how this unpleasant, albeit funny, character will solve the Fox series’ weekly illness while pissing off everyone with whom he comes into contact.
  • Medium: I always enjoyed this show about the crime fighter, played by Patricia Arquette, who communicates with the dead, but moving to CBS seems to have given it new life, particularly with regard to her children, who also share her gift/curse.
  • Caprica: While it is the prequel to Battlestar Gallactica, this Syfy series goes places where its parent show never imagined, particularly a virtual world where some characters have taken on lives of their own. Occasionally slow and convoluted, this show is intellectually captivating.
  • True Blood: Despite the addition of several cast members including Dennis O'Hare, this season of the HBO supernatural and erotic series has not been as good as Season 2. However, it remains one of the more intriguing shows on TV.
  • Madmen: Now in its third year, this AMC show keeps getting more interesting, and the character of Don Draper/Dick Whitman, as played by John Hamm, is among the most complex that TV has ever seen. The show is simultaneously uncomfortable and irresistable.
  • Entourage: With the addition of several new reality characters, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and real-life porn star Sasha Grey, this HBO show has gotten edgier, although not necessarily better. This season focused more on the characters around Vince--Eric, Turtle, Ari, and Johnny, with mixerd results, although still worth watching.
  • Weeds: I know many of you stopped watching this show years ago, but let me tell you--it has gotten better. Now, the Botwin family is on the run from Nancy's Mexican druglord husband whose campaign manager was killed by her youngest son. Assuming new identities and shedding some old characters has rejuvenated this Showtime series.
  • Lie to Me: Sure, the gimmick of reading faces to learn the truth gets old at times, but the exploration of the complex lead character, played by Tim Roth, is fascinating. His performance is overlooked by Emmy voters, but it is riveting on a weekly basis, making this Fox show a gem.
  • Royal Pains: While the premise is light--kind of like Marcus Welby for the new century--the lead character, played by Mark Feuerstein, is believable. Add in a supporting cast that include Campbell Scott, Marcia Gay Harden, and Henry Winkler, and you have a USA Network series that's worth a look.
  • Covert Affairs: Also on the USA Network is this highly enjoyable spy series. Featuring Piper Perabo, Kari Matchett, Peter Gallagher, Anne Dudek (formerly Amber on "House"), and a scene-stealing supporting role by Christopher Gorham, I would view this series as a guilty pleasure if it wasn't actually so good.

So, that's where we are at so far this year, as some shows return and some other "third season" shows make an appearance. I will update this list again by year's end.

The Best Albums of 2009

Every year, someone who has read my “Best Albums” list comes up to me and says, “I don’t know anyone on your list.” If you say that this year, I can only respond by asking, “Whose fault is that?” Indeed many of the top albums of 2009 were recorded by artists who have been in the forefront of music for at least the past decade. Even some with debut albums have made big splashes. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sitting around and listening to James Taylor and Billy Joel as much as anyone, but there is so much new and exciting music going on that artists like them and others of that ilk are just a small fraction of today’s wealth of recorded music options.

There’s another point to be made here: If you are still buying your music solely on CDs from music stores, I have a leisure suit to sell you. Most of the download sites, like iTunes, are free to install on your computer. After that, you can download individual songs for around $1 each, rather than buying entire albums from which you’re realistically going to listen to three or four songs. Sure, there are some complete albums worth owning, but they can be downloaded for less money than buying the CD. Then, you can burn CDs right from your computer to listen through your home or car music system. For those who believe that compressed music doesn’t sound as good as CDs, I’ll say that you probably can’t tell the difference unless you’re powering Wilson speakers with Classé amplifiers, in which case you can afford to buy all the CDs you want.

In terms of trends for 2009, quirky female vocalists are in vogue, as are performance artists. Also hot are Canadians and New Yorkers, with less new music coming from the West coast than at any time in the past 20 years. As usual, I’ll issue the disclaimer that my tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B/soul, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Rap, Death Metal or Traditional Folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list.

In 2009, there were 125 albums worth listing, so I numbered the top 50 and left the rest for “Honorable Mention.” The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear any one album ahead of any other. With that said, here they are in ascending order:

50. The Avett Brothers: “I and Love and You” Combining folk, bluegrass, and Rock & Roll, the Avett Brothers hail from North Carolina and have released nine previous albums, but this is their first major label release. It is also one of their best and includes jewels like “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise,” “Kick Drum Heart,” and the title track.

49. Neko Case: “Middle Cyclone” Formerly with the New Pornographers, Canadian vocalist and drummer Neko Case has released eight albums containing everything from alternative country to punk rock. This is her best-known effort to date, and it includes gems like “This Tornado Loves You,” “The Next Time You Say Forever,” “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” and “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.”

48. Say Anything: “Say Anything” The brainchild of Los Angeles singer-songwriter Max Bemis, Say Anything can best be described as pop-punk art-house rock with interesting hooks and provocative lyrics. Although this is their fourth album, it is the first to be eponymously named. Outstanding cuts include “Do Better,” “Less Cute,” and “She Won’t Follow You.”

47. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” Although this, their first album, was self-released by the band in 2007, it didn’t come out into general release until this year. With it, this New York quartet introduced us to its infectious brand of indie rock, including “Young Adult Friction,” “Everything With You,” and “A Teenager In Love” (not a remake the old Dion classic).

46. Muse: “The Resistance” The English alternative rock band Muse, with its lush, wall-of-sound production and superb songwriting and musicianship, has released four previous albums, and although this is not as amazing as their classic, “Absolution,” it still shows why Muse is among the decade’s best bands. Listen to “Uprising,” “Resistance,” “Undisclosed Desires,” and “MK Ultra.”

45. The Catalogue Kings: “Astronauts and Angels” Although this is a new band, these are not young men. What they are is very talented, and lead singer Ian Hewitt sounds a lot like Elton John. The songs on this album are well-crafted and well-played, and they include “Here Is the News,” “Angels and Sirens,” and the beautiful “Long After the Rain Falls.”

44. Erin McKeown: “Hundreds of Lions” Originally from Virginia but now living in Northampton, MA, this Brown University graduate began her career as a folk singer, but she has progressed to this, her eighth album, on which she uses a variety of instruments to create a rich sound that compliments her outstanding songwriting skills. Songs include “Santa Cruz,” “The Foxes,” and “28.”

43. Rihanna: “Rated R” In 2009, Rihanna received the kind of publicity no one wants as a victim of domestic abuse. The Barbados native emerged with her fourth album, perhaps her best to date, including “Russian Roulette,” “Hard” (with Jeezy), and “Photographs” (with

42. Fanfarlo: “Reservoir” The London-based Fanfarlo was formed in 2006 by Swedish musician Simon Balthazar. His recipe is to write interesting, imaginative songs, then use a variety of instruments including horns and violins to play them. It works on this album, their first, which includes “Ghosts,” “The Walls Are Coming Down,” and “Finish Line.”

41. Josh Reichmann Oracle Band: “Crazy Power” A Canadian indie-rock singer-songwriter, Josh Reichmann released his first album using the pseudonym Jewish Legend. On this, his second album, he hits all the right notes with songs like “Sea At Night,” “Runes,” and “Shivering Black.”

40. Meg & Dia: “Here, Here and Here” Meg and Dia Frampton, from Utah, formed their band in 2004 and released two previous albums before this beauty, which straddles several musical styles and includes “Going Away,” “Hug Me,” and the title song.

39. Eugene McGuiness: “Eugene McGuiness” This unusual collection by the British singer-songwriter is his second album and draws upon a variety of influences ranging from the Kinks to Arctic Monkeys. It includes standouts like “Fonz,” “Those Old Black and White Movies Were True,” and “Not So Academic.”

38. Toxic Avenger 2009 Cast: “The Toxic Avenger Musical” The best musical theater album released in 2009 is this jaunt based on the 1984 cult classic comedy horror film. The cast does a nice job with campy but well-written rock songs including “Who Will Save New Jersey?” “Hot Toxic Love,” and “You Tore My Heart Out.”

37. Julian Casablancas: “Phrazes for the Young” The lead singer and songwriter of the Strokes, Julian Casablancas ventured out on his own with this effort which shows the artist’s depth and musicianship. Songs include “Out of the Blue,” “Left & Right In the Dark,” and “11th Dimension.”

36. Maxwell: “BLACKsummers’night” A Brooklyn native and one of the founders of the neo-soul movement, Maxwell returned to recording after an eight-year absence, picking up right where he left off with this beauty, featuring “Bad Habits,” “Pretty Wings,” and “Fistful of Tears.”

35. Ingrid Michaelson: “Everybody” A bright star in the New York indie pop scene, Ingrid Michaelson just keeps getting better since her 2005 debut. With this, her fourth album, she shows maturity and artistry through songs like “Everybody,” “Sort Of,” and “Mountain and the Sea.”

34. Blue October: “Approaching Normal” This Houston-based band has grown considerably from its emo-rock beginnings, leaving behind many of its contemporaries with smart songs that go beyond traditional rock genres. Those songs include “Say It,” “Been Down ,” “Jump Rope,” “Kangaroo Cry,” and the beautiful ballad, “Blue Does.”

33. Weezer: “Raditude” Weezer is the most dependable American alt-rock band, with every album containing several gems. This effort is no different, as Harvard alum Rivers Cuomo (who is recovering from the band’s recent bus accident) and his bandmates conjure up hummable tunes like “I’m Your Daddy,” “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” “The Girl Got Hot,” and “Can’t Stop Partying.”

32. 30 Seconds to Mars: “This Is War” Lead singer and actor Jared Leto (“My So Called Life,” “Fight Club”) fronts this band, which released two previous albums. Some have criticized them for abandoning their prog-rock roots for a more complete U2-like sound, but there are some excellent cuts here including “Kings and Queens,” “This Is War,” and “Vox Populi.”

31. Allison Iraheta: “Just Like You” Although Kris Allen and Adam Lambert finished ahead of her on American Idol, their debut albums pale in comparison to that released by third-place finisher Allison Iraheta. Her natural rock voice is perfect for songs including “Scars,” “Trouble Is,” and “You Don’t Know Me.”

30. India.Arie: “Testimony, Vol. 2: Love & Politics” I love India.Arie for her purity—both in her soul and her sound. The Denver native has taken neo-soul to new heights, and this, her fourth album, is an extension of her inner beauty and gorgeous voice. It features “He Heals Me,” “Therapy” (with Gramps Morgan), and “Chocolate High” (with Musiq Soulchild).

29. Gossip: “Music for Men” This indie pop-punk trio is fronted by Beth Ditto, who is very large and very talented. The group’s fourth album is loaded with edgy, well-written numbers like “Dimestore Diamond,” “Heavy Cross,” and “Love Long Distance.”

28. Bishop Allen: “Grrr...” Originally from Brroklyn, Justin Rice and Christian Scudder formed the group while attending Harvard University, naming it after Bishop Allen Drive. On this, their fourth album, they really hit their stride with inventive lyrics tied to well-written tunes that are slightly reminiscent of early They Might Be Giants. Songs include “Dimmer,” “The Ancient Commonsense of Things,” and “True or False.”

27. Tegan and Sara: “Sainthood” Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have released five previous albums, but on this one, they trade in a bit of their edginess for a more well-rounded sound. Nevertheless, their songwriting and musical skills are still on display with songs like “Hell,” “On Directing,” and “Alligator.”

26. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “It’s Blitz” The art punk trio from New York is one of the best and most consistent acts of the 2000s, having released three albums and several EPs during that period. This album features more of their angular rock riffs on songs like “Soft Shock,” “Heads Will Roll,” and “Zero.”

25. Andrew Bird: “Noble Beast” Proficient in the violin, guitar, mandolin, and glockenspiel, Chicago’s Andrew Bird continues to produce his own unique brand of marvelous music on this, his fifth solo album, which includes “Fitz and the Dizzyspells,” “Effigy,” and “Not a Robot, But a Ghost.”

24. Anjulie: “Anjulie” Her parents are from Guyana and she was raised near Toronto, but her music is universal and infectious on her first, self-titled album. It’s hard not to hum along with her light, lovely voice on outstanding pop songs like “Boom,” “Crazy That Way,” and “Love Songs.”

23. Lady Gaga: “The Fame Monster” Stefani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) is as much a performance artist as a recording star. A New York native and former student at NYU’s Tisch School, she burst on the scene last year with her album, “The Fame,” and she followed it up in 2009 with “The Fame Monster” on which she performs more of her dance-oriented grooves on songs like “Monster,” “Speechless,” and “Telephone” (with Beyoncé).

22. Chrisette Michele: “Epiphany” Combining R&B, jazz, and pop, Chrisette Michele Payne applies her effortlessly beautiful voice to every song she records. This is her second album, and she is quickly rising to the levels of some of the best song stylists. Pay attention to “Epiphany (I’m Leaving),” “What You Do” (with Ne-Yo), “Blame It On Me,” and “I’m Okay.”

21. Mark Mallman: “Invincible Criminal” On this, his ninth album, Minnesota’s Mark Mallman really hits his stride with well-written, well-played songs that remind you why you like to listen to music. Those songs include “Eternal Moonshine,” “You’re Never Alone In New York” (with Craig Finn), “Light the Dynamite and Fun,” and “In These Times of Harsh Economy” (with Shannon Frid).

20. Shakira: “She Wolf” Since Alex first introduced me to the music of Shakira Mebarak, I just can’t get enough of her hip-shaking, tremolo-filled style, and this album is no exception. The Columbian born artist is beautiful, philanthropic and enormously talented. Her sixth album includes “Did It Again,” “Good Stuff,” “Spy” (with Wyclef Jean), and “Give It Up to Me” (with Lil Wayne).

19. Green Day: “21st Century Breakdown” Even though this album is not so amazing as 2004’s “American Idiot” (very few are), it is certainly one of the year’s best from a group that has proven to be one of the most resilient and evolutionary groups of the past two decades. Pay attention to songs like “21st Century Breakdown,” “Viva la Gloria!” “21 Guns”, and “American Eulogy: Mass Hysteria / Modern World.”

18. Florence + The Machine: “Lungs” British songstress Florence Welch has hit all the right notes with her debut album of soul-inspired indie rock. This album defies definition or categorization. Just listen to songs like “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up),” “You’ve Got the Love,” and “Falling,” and you’ll understand.

17. Laura Izibor: “Let the Truth Be Told” Another debut artist with a soul-inspired sound, Laura Izibor is a Black woman from Dublin, where she won a 2006 Meteor Music Award while still in high school. This is an outrageously talented young woman who produces many of her own songs and possesses a voice that makes you stop and listen. Songs include “Don’t Stay,” “Shine,” and “From My Heart to Yours.”

16. Benjy Ferree: “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee” A singer-songwriter from Maryland with an unusual style and daring approach to music, Benjy Ferree wrote his second album about Bobby Driscoll, a former child star who eventually died in 1968 as a 31-year-old, homeless drug addict. I know what you’re probably thinking, but the album really works, as is evidenced by songs like “Fear,” “The Grips,” and “Zipperface Blues.”

15. Wonderlick: “Topless At the Arco Arena” Jay Blumenfield and Tom Quirk released their first album as Wonderlick in 2002, and they waited seven years to release this, their second album, which includes background vocals by Spark singer Wendy Allen and magician Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller). It was worth the wait for songs like “Everybody Loves Jenny,” “This Song Is a Commercial,” and “F**k Yeah.”

14. The Bird and the Bee: “Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future” Greg Kurstin and Inara George draw on their jazz chops for this electronic music collection comprising their second album together. The resulting sound is simultaneously trippy and rootsy with songs like “My Love,” “Ray Gun,” “Love Letter to Japan,” and “You’re a Cad.”

13. Richard Swift: “The Atlantic Ocean” Having performed under aliases including Dicky Ochoa, Company, and Onasis, Richard Swift has been writing and performing interesting, thoughtful music for years, but this may be his best effort. Sounding at times like an offshoot of the Beatles, it includes “Bat Coma Motown,” “R.I.P.,” “A Song for Milton Feher,” and the title song.

12. Elizabeth & The Catapult: “Taller Children” New York-based Elizabeth Ziman wrote a series of insightful, jazz-oriented songs and asked her friends Dan Molad and Pete Lalish to join her trio to perform this debut album. Her songs seem to make you stop whatever you’re doing and listen to them, including “Momma’s Boy,” “Race You,” and the beautiful “Golden Ink.”

11. Asa: “Asa” Born in Paris and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Asa’s vocals are triumphantly universal and remarkably infectious. This, her bebut album, includes “Jailer,” “360°,” “Fire On the Mountain,” and “Peace.

10. Rodrigo y Gabriela: “11:11” Wow! If you haven’t heard this Mexican duo play their inspired brand of acoustic guitar, you are in for a treat. You’ll be amazed that two people can make all that music—it’s like the first time you heard Simon and Garfunkel and realized that two people could sound like a choir. Well, this sounds nothing like Simon and Garfunkel, or anyone else for that matter, but it is very impressive...even the percussion is mostly made by them banging on their guitars. This, their third album, includes “Hanuman,” “Buster Voodoo,” and “Santo Domingo.”

9. God Help the Girl: “God Help the Girl” Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian created this side project with a bevy of vocalists led by Catherine Ireton. Written mostly by Stuart Murdoch, it tells the tale of a bored young woman named Eve who goes out to find some adventure. All the songs are good, but standouts include “God Help the Girl,” “Perfection As a Hipster,” “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie ,” and “A Down and Dusky Blonde.”

8. Dirty Projectors: “Bitte Orca” A project of Dave Longstreth, who recorded an album under his own name in 2002 before forming this entity in 2003. Since then, he has recorded eight albums, some of which are longer than others, as well as recording with the likes of David Byrne and Bjork. This is Dirty Projectors’ best album, with a German name meaning “Please Whale.” It contains gems like “Cannibal Resource,” “Two Doves,” and “Stillness Is the Move.”

7. Alicia Keys: “The Element of Freedom” Alicia Keys is one of those artists (along with Beyoncé and Joss Stone) who could sing the phone book and I would listen. Fortunately her songwriting is good too, so she can forgo the phone book. This album, released at the end of the year, is another example of why Keys is at the top level of the R&B food chain. It contains beauties like “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” “Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down,” and “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart.”

6. Zee Avi: “Zee Avi” This album’s worth it just for the story behind it. Zee Avi (originally Izyan Allrahman) was born in Borneo, a teenager in Kuala Lumpur, and a student in London before posting some songs on YouTube and being discovered, indeed swamped with record label offers. And yes, she is that good..unique songs that use every note in the scale in very different ways, complimented by her sweet, perky voice. Listen to “Bitter Heart,” “Honey Bee,” “Just You and Me,” and “Darling.”

5. Regina Spektor: “Far” The Moscow- born New York anti-folk goddess is one of the most influential artists working today. Indeed, many of the other artists on this list owe part of their sound to Spektor’s offbeat tunes, quirky lyrics, and piercing vocals. Each of her five albums during the decade is slightly different from the others, but they all contain that intangible that is uniquely hers. The songs on “Far” include “Laughing With,” “The Calculation,” “Eet,” “Folding Chair,” and “Dance Anthem of the 80’s.”

4. Devendra Banhart: “What Will We Be” Born in Houston and growing up in Venezuela before settling in California, Devendra Banhart released his seventh album since 2002. The music is unclassifiable, combining folk, psychedelia, and indie rock, but it is all very good. Songs include “Can’t Help But Smiling,” “Baby,” and “16th & Valencia Roxy Music.”

3. Animal Collective: “Merriweather Post Pavilion” Originally from Maryland, this group has released eight studio albums during the 2000s, and I do mean studio albums. The intricate production and experimental use of synthesizers and other instruments, combined with Beach Boys-style harmonies on this album, create a beautifully lush sound that can wow even the most casual listener. Songs include “My Girls,” “Summertime Clothes,” and “Brother Sport.”

2. Melanie Fiona: “The Bridge” This Canadian R&B singer-songwriter has produced one of the year’s most affecting debut albums. Combining clear R&B vocals with classic soul sounds, and even some sampling of 60s and 70s hits (I’m sure the Zombies don’t mind the royalties), the album simultaneously draws from new world and throwback music. Oh, and the girl can really sing too. Listen to “Give It to Me Right,” “Sad Songs,” and “It Kills Me.”

1. Kelly & the Kellygirls: “Modernism” In a year when American Idol should have been won by a gay man, the year’s best album is a little-known debut gem by an outwardly gay band from Toronto that combines horns with guitars and clear precise vocals with smart, infectious tunes. There’s no gimmick secret...just incredibly good songs being played and sung flawlessly and with a gusto that has disappeared from much of the rock world. I can’t help but smile when I hear songs like “Two Hundred Degrees Fahrenheit,” “Big Heart/ Big Tears,” “X,” and “City On Fire.”

The following deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):

A.C. Newman: “Get Guilty”
All Time Low: “Nothing Personal”
Animal Kingdom: “Signs and Wonders”
Arctic Monkeys: “Humbug”
Ari Hest: “Twelve Mondays”
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour: “Fruit”
Bif Naked: “The Promise”
Boys Like Girls: “Love Drunk”
Bruce Springsteen: “Working On a Dream”
Club of the Sons: “Young Quanta”
Dashboard Confessional: “Alter the Ending”
Deborah Anderson: “Silence”
The Decemberists: “The Hazards of Love”
Eels: “Hombre Lobo”
Gary Go: “Gary Go”
Girls: “Album”
The High Strung: “Ode to the Inverse of the Dude”
Imogen Heap: “Ellipse”
Jay Brannan: “In Living Cover”
Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard: “One Fast Move or I’m Gone”
Jesse Harris: “Watching the Sky”
John Mayer: “Battle Studies”
Joker’s Daughter: “The Last Laugh”
Joss Stone: “Colour Me Free!”
Joy Jones: “Godchild”
Karmatest: “Sand in Sand”
Kings of Convenience: “Declaration of Dependence”
Leslie Mendelson: “Swan Feathers”
Lily Allen: “It’s Not Me, It’s You”
Linda Draper: “Bridge and Tunnel”
Manchester Orchestra: “Mean Everything to Nothing”
M. Ward: “Hold Time”
Mariah Carey: “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel”
Matisyahu: “Light”
Maximo Park: “Quicken the Heart”
Mayday Parade: “Anywhere But Here”
Melinda Doolittle: “Coming Back to You”
Melody Gardot: “My One and Only Thrill”
Mika: “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”
Morrissey: “Years of Refusal”
Norah Jones: “The Fall”
The Ofersures: “New Songs for Old Friends”
Oksana Grigorieva: “Beautiful Heartache”
Oleta Adams: “Let’s Stay Here”
OneRepublic: “Waking Up”
The Orange Peels: “2020”
Owl City: “Ocean Eyes”
Papercut Massacre: “If These Scars Could Talk”
Paramore: “All We Know Is Falling”
Passion Pit: “Manners”
Placebo: “Battle for the Sun”
Puddle of Mudd: “Volume 4: Songs In the Key of Love & Hate”
The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus: “Lonely Road”
Relient k: “Forget and Not Slow Down”
Reverie Sound Revue: “Reverie Sound Revue”
Rhett Miller: “Rhett Miller”
Rob Thomas: “Cradlesong”
The Robert Cray Band: “This Time”
Ryan Shaw: “In Between”
Sean Paul: “Imperial Blaze”
Single File: “Common Struggles”
So Many Dynamos: “The Loud Wars”
Soundmonsters: “LoveHate Sounds”
The Sounds: “Crossing the Rubicon”
St. Vincent: “Actor”
The Swell Season: “Strict Joy”
Third Eye Blind: “Ursa Major”
Tom Waits: “Glimmer and Doom”
U2: “No Line On the Horizon”
Vedera: “Stages”
The Veils: “Sun Gangs”
We Are the Arsenal: “They Worshipped the Trees”
The Whitest Boy Alive: “Rules”
Wilco: “Wilco”
You Me At Six: “Take Off Your Colours”