Best Albums of 2008

December 31, 2008

That’s right, it’s time for me to express my nerdiness in all its fully-formed glory via a top ten list. This was a down year for me musically in the sense that I did not a get a chance to buy a lot of stuff that I am sure is quite good. However, I did manage to get a goodly amount of brand-spanking-new music this year, and I liked a great deal of it. To that end, I present my ten favorite albums of 2008.

1. Fire Songs – The Watson Twins: It makes me really proud to have a Louisville group on top here. Though, truthfully, I had no idea they were from Louisville until well after Cate bought the album. Yeah, that’s another thing. My number one album this year came via my wife. Times change. Anyway, this album is fantastic. The song writing is varied and interesting, and they have a really wonderful sound that is familiar without being derivative. It’s a wonderful slightly rockin’ singer-songwriter album. And man, they sing some sweet harmonies. I’m a sucker for good harmony. This is a 5 star album to me. Stand out tracks: “How Am I to Be” and “Dig a Little Deeper”

2. A Piece of What You Need – Teddy Thompson: Honestly, I could have put this at number one, and I might have if it wasn’t for the fact that a few years ago he put out Separate Ways, which was also unbelievably fantastic, and shares a lot, sonically, with this album. Also, I love Teddy Thompson, but he has such an unfair advantage. I mean, when Richard and Linda Thompson are your parents, how can you be anything other than brilliant. Anyway, I will say that “What’s This?!!” is probably my favorite song of the year: “What’s this, what’s this?/Oh shit, oh shit/Am I happy or something?” That’s gold. Other standouts: “Things I Do” and “Jonathan’s Book”.

3. One Kind Favor – B.B. King: “There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you/One kind favor I’ll ask of you/There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you/See that my grave is kept clean.” These are lyrics from the Blind Lemon Jefferson song that opens the album and from which the title is taken. King has not put out a good solo album for a long time. Makin’ Love Is Good for You is the last thing that wasn’t entirely throw-away (excluding a collaboration with Clapton). His last few albums have been extremely disappointing, but he seems to have done something different here. Bringing in T-Bone Burnett to produce certainly helped; the sound is much leaner than other recent King albums, but more importantly, he seems to acknowledge, finally, that he is one the downward side of life. This is an album by a man facing and contemplating death. He does it well. He sings and plays with passion. There is no show in this album, and even though it’s all covers, it feels much more genuine than anything he’s put out in years. Standout Tracks: “See that My Grave is Kept Clean”, “Get These Blues Off Me”.

4. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis: I actually got this for Cate for Christmas, but it’s fantastic. Lewis does the horse-trot country-rock thing really well. Excellently arranged and well written songs. I’m still getting to know this album, but I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. Standout Tracks: “Black Sand”, “Bad Man’s World”, “Trying My Best to Love You”.

5. Guitars – McCoy Tyner: This album and the next two are virtually tied in my mind. Tyner wins the tie-breaker because he’s been here then longest and is still trying new things. On this album he collaborates with five guitar players: Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Bill Frisell, and Bela Fleck. Tyner has never recorded with guitarists before, which is remarkable given that his career is more than 50 years old. The whole album is just the best kind of jazz. It’s complex and strange and easily accessible all at the same time. I absolutely love it. Standout Tracks: “Passion Dance” (w/Ribot), “Blues on the Corner” (w/Scofield), and “Greensleeves” (w/Trucks).

6. Volume One – She & Him: Normally, it’s a terrible idea for actors to make albums, but Zooey Deschanel is REALLY good. This is such a fun little album. It has a great sixties lounge kind of feel. All of the songs are singable, and the two covers reinterpret the songs enough that they sound almost new (which is quite remarkable ona song like “You Really Got a Hold on Me”). M. Ward does a great job supplementing her with bakcing vocals, guitar, and production. Standout Tracks: “Sentimental Heart”, “This is Not a Test”, and “Take It Back”

7. Rockferry – Duffy: Man, I wanted to hate this album. I heard a bunch about it, and it seemed like she was getting the standard girl-pop-star promotion bullshit, but this is just a wonderful album. If you ever wondered what it would sound like for a Welsh girl to sing Stax/Motown songs, here’s your chance. I know that sounds likea bad idea, but it really works, and she has a fantastic voice. I hope she keeps this up. Stand out tracks: “Warwick Avenue”, “Stepping Stone”, “Mercy”.

8. Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings – Counting Crows: I am pretty sure Adam Duritz is going slowly insane. It took several years to make this album, and by all accounts it was a struggle pretty much the whole way. However, he is still a hell of a lyricist and the acoustic-electric juxtaposition works very well here when it has failed in many other places. I continue to think that the Counting Crows are an extremely underrated act. Standout Tracks: “Los Angeles”, “Washington Square”, and “When I Dream of Michelangelo”.

9. Seeing Things – Jakob Dylan: I suppose, it is always obvious to try and compare him to his dad, but Jakob really, really reminds me of an acoustic Springsteen on this album. There is the same working-man’s plight vibe to this album and many of the melodic phrasings also feel lifted from Springsteen. He definitely got the song-writing gene from his dad, good lyrics all around. Standout Tracks: “All Day and All Night” and “Everybody Pays as They Go”

10. Where the Light Is – John Mayer: I am a sucker for live guitar albums and this is an excellent one. John Mayer probably should have come of age in the sixties. If he had, he’d probably more fulfilled creatively and more accalimed critically. His throw-away hits keep him underrated as a song writer, but he really is fantastic and has a wonderfully intimate knowledge of his instrument. Standout Tracks: “Daughters”, “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”, and “Gravity”.

Honorable Mentions: Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst: Good, but just not as good as the other albums I listed. Plus, he’s so damn pretentious. It bugs me.
Skin Deep – Buddy Guy: Good, solid, enjoyable elctric blues, just not quite up to the considerable standard he has set for himself. The title track is beyond terrible.

Most Disappointing/Worst Album of the Year: Evil Urges – My Morning Jacket: I loved Z. Loved it. But fuck, this is terrible. Jim James needs someone to tell him no. I’ve never had a band go from an automatic buy to “I have to hear a lot of good things before I’ll even think about it” so quickly. Even the songs that actually sound like My Morning Jacket are mediocre. Worst track: “Highly Suspicious”

On Harry Potter

December 22, 2008

For the last few days, I have been reading and enjoying the last book in the Harry Potter series. Yes, you read that correctly, I said enjoying. This is going to come as a shock to many of you as I steadfastly resisted Potter for a very long time. Josh, I expect, will be particularly disappointed.

I started reading the series almost exactly a year ago at Cate’s urging. It seemed like a quick, easy read and a nice little vacation from the teaching and thinking I had been doing. And it was. I enjoyed the first book enough to read the second. I enjoyed the second enough to read the third. It didn’t hurt that they were exceedingly quick reads. By about book five I had decided to read the whole damn lot. Now, that I’m finished, I have to say, I think people are a bit to hard on it.

There are three parts to writing, really. There’s writing good, expressive prose. There’s telling a story with a good plot. And then there’s creating relatable characters. It’s interesting to me, especially after some of what I’ve read this year how many people get the first of the three (good prose) and think they have good writing.

Let’s take an example. You know, in my opinion who can write a beautiful sentence? I mean, the kind of sentence you read and just think, wow, I can’t believe how much he did with that one sentence. Murakami. I read The Windup Bird Chronicle back at the beginning of the year, and man, he can really write beautiful prose. The thing is, it took me a month and a half to read the goddamn thing because I didn’t care about the characters and the story itself went absolutely nowhere. Sure were some beautiful senteces, though.

That’s the thing about Rowling. She doesn’t write great prose. Just doesn’t. The first about four books are particularly lacking on this front. They are overly descriptive in places with lots of abverbs and other pretty basic writerly problems that an editor really should have taken care of. Her prose writing does get better as the books go on and the seventh, which I just finished has prose I would call solidly good. She’s not goint to win any prizes or anything, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either.

BUT, she’s really good with plot and characters. Yes, some of the plots are a bit silly, especially early on, but these are kids’ books and so kids have to play a big role and plots need to be a little silly. Even so, I did want to know what happened, and I really started to care a great deal about the chracters. Yes, the prose drove me nuts here and there, but there the rest was really very, very good.

And that’s sort of the rub, isn’t it? People talk about how great Murakami is all the time. The Windup Bird Chronicle got fabulous reviews. Why? Because the prose is good and the story telling is pretentious enough that it seems like he might be saying something important. Really, he does nothing of the sort. He takes a boring unlikable character, forces us to follow him for six hundred pages and leaves back exactly where he started. Who cares? Great sentences. Bad book.

Rowling, on the other hand takes three interesting main characters (and many other interesting smaller characters) through thousands of pages and we watch them change continuously. Their environement and experiences have enormous effects on them. And we care. We care because we care about the characters and what happens to them. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she makes the happenign part pretty interesting as well. But boy, there are some bad sentences in there. Bad sentences. Good books.

Hopefully, I’ve made my point. There are a lot of fantastic books out there that put everything together: the prose, the story, and the characters. Books like The Poisonwood Bible and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are fantastic and deserve all the credit they get. And yes, they are better books than Harry Potter. But, there are also a lot of books that get credit for being great books that are really just a lot of great sentences strung together for a few hundred pages. This does not make a great book. You need a good story and good charaters for that. So, are the Harry Potter books the best things I’ve ever read? No they are not. But they are good, and they are much better than a lot of books that get a lot more respect, and I think that is, at least, a minor injustice.

A Bit of Sentamentality

December 19, 2008

I finished the Charles Burden book tonight. Or, as I think I have decided to call it, The Approximate Life of Charles Burden. It’s an important moment for me and I suppose I’m here is to try and explain why.

The first place I met Charles was in Advanced Fiction Writing with Paul Winner during my Junior year of college. We were assigned to find a short story and mimic it. I chose “Hands” by Sherwood Anderson and wrote a very short story about an unfortunate little man named Charles Burden who was trying desperately to recover from the death of his fiance. It was a nice little story. Paul liked it. I still have his annotated copy. It was the first time someone I respected told me that something I wrote was good. Obviously, I immediately started writing more about Charles. I definitely did not let it sit. I certainly did not waste a few years of my life barely writing anything while working at a dead end job. That would have been stupid. Ahem.

It took me a long time to find my way back. I wrote another story that, by accident, turned into a 200 page book. I’m proud of that book, and I’d like to see it published someday, but I wrote that book for different reasons than I wrote about Charles. That book was written because I was having a hard time and I needed an outlet. I wrote this book because I felt like it was a story I had to tell.

I can’t even remember how I came back to Charles. I think I was just going through old things I had written one day and re-read “Windows”, which was the first Charles story. I do remember thinking that it seemed like there was a very big story there, and that Charles and Hope might be interesting to follow.

I don’t want to sound cocky or arrogant or whatever, but it felt like an important story to me. I started looking through some other writing I had done, and I started to see a narrative. There was a story already in some of the things I had written and I felt compelled to try and do it justice. That was the scary part.

My first book was a book by accident, but I came into the Charles story knowing that it was going to need to be a book, and a pretty long one, if I was going to do it right. It was scary, I suppose, because for the first time I was trying to write something that I knew I might fail at. And if I failed, then maybe it meant I wasn’t really much of a writer. If I couldn’t tell this story, that I knew had compelling characters and all kinds of interesting events and details, then there must be something wrong, and maybe I should give up on this whole writing thing.

It took longer than I thought it would. I researched theoretical physics because I decided Charles was a physicist, and during a summer off I made myself write everyday. Then I started a new job and then I met Cate and then I got married, and, well, things just got kind of busy. So a little more than a year went by and I still hadn’t finished the first draft, but I wanted to get it done. I don’t know what got into me the last few months, but I started writing again. I broke 100,000 words and then I wrote a little more. Finally, tonight, I finished. Now, that word, “finished”, comes with qualifiers. I am going to read it now and then I will have to make revisions, but I feel good about this story. I feel like I’ve accomplished something real. When I think about the characters I get kind of choked up in a way that I never have over something I’ve written. They are real to me, or something close to it. I know them and their feelings and lives so well. I’m glad I got to write this story. I’ve probably done a terrible job of explaining why, but I’m really glad.

Not quite

December 18, 2008

Well, I didn’t get my snow day, and though I’ve been working pretty dilligently, I won’t quite get this first draft knocked out by tomorrow. I’ll probably end up finishing it tomorrow or Saturday, and that’s okay. I’ll just have to do some of the printing at home. I will have it done my Christmas which has been my stated goal for a while now. Once I finish, I’ll probably have a great big post about this book.

Writing Update

December 14, 2008

Today was nice. I was reminded that, if writing were to become my job, I would be good at it in the sense that I can crank stuff out pretty quickly when I put my mind to it. I started one of the two new chapters I still need to write and managed to crank out 2200 words (about 8 pages). I also did a fair amount of blogging about the Reds over on my other blog. All in all, I probably wrote 4-5,000 words today. I’m pretty please with that output.

The only issue I do have is that the chapter I started writing looks like it will be pretty long. I was thinking it would be about 4,000 words, but I’m starting to get the sense that it might be closer to 6,000 which is problematic in terms of trying to get this wrapped up before school let’s out on Friday. I mean, I suppose I COULD pay to print it, but I don’t really WANT to drop 20 or 30 bucks on that. Anyway, we’ve got a nasty little winter storm coming in Monday night and I’m hoping for a snow/ice day on Tuesday that will give me time to write.

Goals

December 14, 2008

I’ve finally wrapped up most of my graduate school applications (just waiting a few days for a paycheck to send out one last application), which means I can finally turn my attention more earnestly towards writing. Afew days ago I finally had a realization that I hadn’t had since I finished Looking for Elysium. I know how to finish this book. There are two chapters left to write and one to finish. My goal is to have this done by Friday so I can abuse my job and print everything there before I go on break (400 pages is expensive at Kinko’s). Now, obviously, this is just the first draft of the book, but hopefully I’ll be able to read it and make notes over break, then go back and revise, and finally hand it out to a few people around mid-to-late January. I’m excited by this. I think this is a much better effort than my first book, though I still don’t have a title. Anyway, I’ll check in with updates periodically as the week progresses.

I grew up in Indiana on a street lined with corn and soy fields as much as houses. Everyone played basketball. Everyone. It was just slightly more urban than Hoosiers. The kind of place where you pretty much have to care about basketball if you want to be able to talk to other people during the winter. In my youth and all the way through college, I cared. I followed IU continuously. Sure, I was more passionate some years than others, but that, I suspect, is true for all of us who care about something for a long time. It’s been a while, though, since I really cared about IU the way I used to. And, finally, this year, I stopped. Just like that. I don’t care anymore.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy watching a well played basketball game now and then, I do. But it takes a lot of effort to follow a team. Especially a college team, where there is more turn over that at your typical 7-11. But I guess I could have made the effort, except…

Well, these guys are just kids. I know, I know pro-athletes often are, too. But it’s not quite the same somehow. I can’t help watching and thinking that, while it’s all well and good, college sports have really gotten out of hand. Few kids on these teams are at college to get and education. Instead, college basketball functions as a developmental league for the NBA, which, again, is fine, but it gets away from what a college is supposed to be about. Tuition should never go up to pay for a coach’s salary or improvements to an arena, but these things happen. And why? I mean, yes, it’s all good fun, but it seems to have become terribly big business now, and (I can’t help repeating myself), I just don’t care. College players screw up all the time. Because they’re kids, not professionals.

And all the recruiting BS. Honestly, they should just pay the players and not have them attend class. Or maybe give them an option. Say they can have a scholarship or a paycheck. But the silly insistance that they shouldn’t get paid or that a scholarship is sufficient financial compensation when others are raking it because of the performances of these athletes, it’s just dumb.

So that’s it. I don’t know if this blog post is particularly articulate, and frankly, I don’t really care. That’s the point afterall. This my goodbye to college basketball. We had a nice run, but now it’s time for me to move on.

For anyone who hasn’t read it for a while (or ever), here is the text of the first amendment to the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Let’s look at the first ten words of that one more time: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Now look at this article. What is says, basically, is that legally, Kentucky is now required to thank god for it’s security.

One more time: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Are we seeing the connection here? Frankly, I have had enough. I think god = religion is a pretty obvious statement, so why do legislatures keep violating my first amendment rights? At the beginning of the Cold War, they put god on money and in the pledge (I have to hear that everyday in school, by the way) and it’s been growing steadily creepier since then. Look, the constitution is really, really fucking clear about this. No religion in government. People can do whatever they want with their spare time, but if you are a legislature, do not MAKE A LAW that ESTABLISHES that the state recognizes a god (RELIGION).

I don’t really know what else to say about this. I’m going to wait just a little bit and see if this gets repealed, and then, if it doesn’t, I’m going to freak out, and I might just sue the state. I am fucking tired of this. Seriously fucking tired. Stop it government. Just stop it. Stop violating my rights.

That is all.