Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dear NFL Network

If you insist on allowing Bryant Gumbel to mar your telecasts, would you please teach him proper football terminology? Failing to convert on 3rd down and choosing to punt is NOT the same thing as "turning the ball over on downs," yet Gumbel referred to it this way each time it happened during last night's New York-Washington game. Each time I caught myself wondering if I had missed something and the team had gone for it on 4th down. This was very distracting and further reduced Gumbel's almost non-existent football credibility. Perhaps you can lure another former player to join Collinsworth in the booth?

Richard Nelson

Friday, December 29, 2006

I've Been Tagged

Via quite a meandering chain, I've been tagged to tell you five things you may not know about me--and tag five others to do so as well. So, Paul, Jon, James, Michele, and Zaki--you're it!

1. My favorite morning beverage is coffee--but I do not drink it. Since August I've had terrible bouts of heartburn, and eventually I realized that under the circumstances drinking coffee in the morning is very much like starting the day with a column of burning acid in my chest. But I still love the smell of brewing coffee!

2. I have put up the same Christmas tree every year since I was a boy. I bought it at Osco for $20 of hard-earned paper route money, and I still decorate it with the same ornaments and bead garland I've been using for almost 15 years. The lights, alas, have been changed a few times.

3. Before I became a staunch Democrat, my nickname was "Richard the Republican." This was in sixth grade, when I was probably the only person who even knew what a Republican was. (Though at the time I did not know that they ate babies and killed the poor in their sleep.) This folly lasted long enough that I even had a "Speaker Newt" placard on the wall of my first dorm room in college.

4. Speaking of politics, I also had an odd habit as a child of naming houseplants. This was important because I named one of them George Bush in 1991, during the Gulf War, when everyone loved him. Some time later, my mother ripped George from his pot with the cord of the vacuum cleaner--pity the fool who stands between her and a clean house! Quite soon thereafter, Bill Clinton became president. (Yes, I considered naming another plant George Bush and killing it in 2004.)

5. My life is one big sing along. When I am alone in the house or the car, I sing along with whatever music I'm playing--and often dance as well. I may refuse to bust a move at a wedding, but I am a freak in my own home.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Hope that everyone reading is having--or had--a very happy holiday season. I know my holiday weekend kicked off with a bang. Our friends from Texas visited and we had dinner at Maggiano's; to celebrate Festivus, we went with a family-style meal and had lots of food--and fun! I can only hope the next two days of home cooking can match the delights of all-you-can-eat gnocchi and salmon and linguini and chicken parmesan and salads and tiramisu and profiteroles. Our table actually had to be expanded halfway through the meal to accommodate it all. 'Twas a sight to behold!

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Still Time for Gift Giving!

If you haven't seen this video yet, you're missing out on belly laughs that will burn off at least a few Christmas cookies. This is the best thing SNL has done in a long time!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

'Tis the Doubt

Gay and Evangelical, Seeking Paths of Acceptance

I feel bad for the subjects of this article. And, as we're in the thick of a season that has long been my favorite, maybe it's time to say why.

Most people who know me now know me as a very, well, agnostic person. I seeth at the notion of organized religion, and I think it's a bit arrogant to claim knowledge of an entity on the basis of an old book while simultaneously claiming the entity to be beyond all human comprehension in his majesty and glory.

See? There I go again.

And yet, folks who've known me a bit longer know that there was a time when being a good churchgoing boy was very important to me. I went every week as a child and all the way through high school, even as I chafed at the idea of being confirmed a Catholic. (I went through with it, though; technically speaking, in the eyes of the church, I'm one of them.) Even when I went off to college, I trudged off to Mass, held on Saturday nights so as not to conflict with the Sunday morning Lutheran service. I knew all the hymns by heart and could have been a reader during Mass without more than glancing at the page. Anyone who suffered through CCD will know that this was above and beyond the requirements. I loved being Catholic.

But all through this time I knew something was amiss. As it began to dawn on me what that something was, it got harder and harder to go to church. I started crying during Mass. At first it was simply tears at the beauty of the story--that the holiest of holies would give up his only son to make recompense for my wicked ways--but eventually the tears turned bitter, as I realized I was losing the stories, and the church, and everything I had known. And my wicked ways, in the eyes of the church, were partly, though not entirely, to blame

It's been at least eight years now since I was a regular churchgoer, and I don't miss the hassle of it. Meet the Press on Sunday mornings fills in nicely, though it does remove one way I might meet more friends who live close by. But I do miss the songs, the stories, and the feeling of inner certainty I once had. I've been thinking about it a lot, lately, wondering if it wouldn't be easier to just give in to the crowd and make myself believe.

I won't, of course. But that doesn't mean I don't occasionally look at the Christmas tree I've set up in the front window, surrounded by a little holiday village and stacks of carefully wrapped gifts, and wish it all meant the same thing to me that it does to others. Or that I don't look at the manger scene atop one of our bookshelves and think about what a beautiful story it represents. The holiday cannot help but permeate the season. And that brings me great joy--but it cannot help but be permeated by a tinge of sadness.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Top Ten Albums of 2006

And here we have it: my picks for the ten best albums of 2006. Paul will have his picks up at 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds as well.

1. Teddy Thompson: Separate Ways
I’ve been raving about this album since the spring and still feel strongly about it. After discovering Teddy Thompson on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, I couldn’t wait to hear more of his music, and he obliged by releasing this album early in 2006. It’s filled with wry, dark lyrics and catchy music that is as appropriate to a drive with the windows down as a quiet evening at home. The best song on the album may be “I Wish It Was Over,” but I’ve never had that feeling listening to this one.

2. Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit

It took a while for this album to grow on me after I bought it in February, but I am now thoroughly convinced of its majesty. It takes the good things about past B&S albums and turns up the volume and the rock. The result is endlessly entertaining, hyper-literate, and will stick in your head for months.

3. Scissor Sisters: Ta-Dah
This album is, in words lifted from it, a party that ain’t over ‘til it’s through. I have no idea how I have avoided a wreck while dancing and singing in my car. If “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” isn’t the song of 2006, I don’t know what could be; it protests against toe-tapping but is guaranteed to incite full-body motion. “Paul McCartney” is a riot, “Might Tell You Tonight” a very pretty but up-tempo falling-in-love song, and closer “Everybody Wants the Same Thing,” while quite vague, is sure to be played in heavy rotation at gay marriage rallies. A rough patch in the middle precludes ranking this number one, but nothing closes the deal more effectively.

4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Show Your Bones
Talk about defying expectations. While their debut album did lay a trail toward this one, the shifts are still shocking. The band took “Maps” and exploded the concept of the song into an album, with a remarkable centerpiece in “Cheated Hearts” and a closing song, “Turn Into,” that manages to make the guitar sound like it’s actually weeping. Slays me every time.

5. Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac

While other albums on this year’s list toyed with sad, this one dives in and swims around in it. Writing in the wake of the death of her mother, stepmother, and father, Cash poured out her feelings about loss, pain, anguish, memory, and moving on, and the results are so tender yet tough that I found them inspiring in a year when death touched our house. If you reach the clip of baby Rosanne talking to her father at the end and don't tear up a bit, I'm not sure you're human.

6. Bob Dylan: Modern Times
You've been expecting this one, haven't you? Another latter-day masterwork from Bob, whose catalog since 1989 has been almost uniformly brilliant. Not number one because, well, I got more excited by some other discs this year, and this isn't quite as splendid to my ears as Love and Theft was. But that's judging Bob against himself. From the hip "Thunder on the Mountain" to the soulful "When the Deal Goes Down" to the apocalyptic closer, "Ain't Talkin',"this is a rock-solid album.

7. Brahms: The Piano Concertos

Nelson Freire, piano
Riccardo Chailly, conductor
This one I bet you weren't expecting! And yet I'd bet that a survey of my daily habits would show that this two-disc set accompanied me to work more days than any other entry on this list. The recording quality is crisp and clean, the orchestra sounds remarkable, and Freire's piano is elegant and powerful. Oh, and I suppose some credit is due to Brahms...

8. John Mayer: Continuum
On this, his third proper solo album but fifth studio release, John Mayer grows up. No longer pondering his quarter-life crisis, Mayer is thinking bigger. The opener, "Waiting on the World to Change," laments his (and my) generation's difficulty in making an impact on the political and social culture, while later songs lament difficult relationships, the pain of living with a broken heart, and, in the album's most universal song, "Stop This Train," the ache he feels each time he pulls out of his parents' driveway knowing they won't be around forever. With his Trio album last year, Mayer proved he has chops. This one shows he's got staying power.

9. Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Oh, to have the voice of Neko Case. On this short album, which Amazon called the top disc of 2006, she uses it to full effect, singing dark songs that suit her to a T. In 35 minutes, there isn't a moment of filler, just 12 songs that touch on small, everyday concerns and through the sheer force of voice make them grand. Best listened to in the dark...

10. KT Tunstall: Eye to the Telescope
It took me a while to accept just how much I like this album, which American Idol brought to my attention when Katherine McPhee sang "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." A pop-star cover, thank-yous in the liner notes that look like they were written under a desk during math class, and even an odd name (KT?) were working against it. But that's all marketing, I think. With a raspy voice, lyrics with depth (that she actually had a hand in writing!), and music that sounds like it was played by actual musicians rather than a computer, this album continues to amuse and surprise me just by being as good as it is. It will be interesting to see where Ms. Tunstall goes from here!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

2006 Best of the Rest

Welcome to the "best music of the year" portion of the blog. As usual, we begin with choices in some special categories. Paul Allen will have his choices in the same categories at his blog, 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds. Our top ten lists are coming soon!

Best Surprise
The Wood Brothers: Ways Not to Lose

One day this summer, this album appeared on my screen as one of the most recent releases at The cover intrigued me (see below), and the reviews were interesting. For $5.99 plus tax, I figured, why not? It was a good risk to take. This album may not be everyone’s cup of tea—the arrangements are sometimes spare, sometimes weird, and the tempo can be slow at times—but the lyrics are thoughtful and the music plays along. I haven’t tested the theory yet, but this seems like the perfect album to play while sitting on the porch on a day a bit too chilly to be out there, drinking a cup of tea—or something stronger.

Biggest Disappointment
The Flaming Lips: At War With the Mystics
I was so excited for the follow-up to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The Flaming Lips were on a two album roll (after 1999’s masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin) and a third seemed like a sure thing. But this isn’t what I waited for. Some of the songs work, some don’t, but the big problem is that the album sounds like crap. At first I thought this was just me, but recently I read in SPIN that Wayne Coyne and company decided to mix the album loud. Lots of bad bands do this—it makes their albums sound more forceful coming out of your speakers by decreasing the volume difference between the mid-range sounds and the loudest ones. That may be fine for a song or two, but over the course of an album it all begins to sound the same, with no sonic variation, no way for big moments to stand out—and no way to enjoy listening.

Best Cover Art
The Wood Brothers: Ways Not to Lose

Simple, understated—just like the album itself—but this cover dangles the hand of fate, has you begging to see what card it’s holding, and thus sucks you into asking the question every cover should: I wonder what the music sounds like?

Best Album Title
At War With the Mystics
Hey, just because the album isn’t very good doesn’t mean the name isn’t!

Best Cover Version
Jenny Lewis and company: "Handle with Care"
Lewis is joined by Conor Oberst and Ben Gibbard in a remake of the Traveling Wilburys hit song. It should be a mess—what right do these indie wunderkind have tackling a song handed down by the masters?—but it works perfectly. Proof of the talents of both the songwriters and the ones singing.

Guiltiest Pleasure
Muse: Black Holes and Revelations
This band is supposedly a successor to Radiohead, but I don’t see it. They do, however, make for quite the car ride, even if the lyrics are either nonsense or liberal propaganda. (And you know, if I think something is liberal propaganda, it’s off the deep end.) Bombast and catchy guitar riffs—I know I should bring something else with me, but I can’t stop myself!

Best Discovery
I’ve noted this on the blog before, but 2006 was the year that living with a classical music fan finally started to penetrate my rock and roll defenses. But the fun thing I discovered is that, while he prefers symphonies, I have a yen for concertos. Hearing the rollicking interplay between an orchestra and a virtuoso pianist or violinist unlocks something in my brain. No wonder I don’t leave for work in the morning without some Beethoven, Brahms, or Mendelssohn in my bag.

Best Trend
Does my short candidate list yield any “trends?” Not really. But its very shortness points to one: new albums by old favorites that are so roundly panned as to free me from buying them. The trend began with last year’s new Sheryl Crow album, which debuted to middling reviews. This year, Everclear, Jet, The Killers, the Magic Numbers, Damien Rice, Starsailor, Robbie Williams, and Pete Yorn have all done my checking account a favor by pushing out discs that didn’t meet with much critical acclaim. Not to mention Oasis and U2 and other bands that put out greatest hits albums that fail to live up to the job description. (Not including “Whatever” on an Oasis compilation? Are they kidding?) These bad albums are like money in my pocket!

Best Concert
As I profiled here, the best concert experience of the year for me happened at Ravinia in July. The stars aligned to give us a crowdless, quiet night to enjoy what many consider Mahler’s prettiest symphony, the fourth. It was preceded by a jazz-infused piano concerto written by Erwin Schulhoff (for which my Amazon order was recently canceled after five months of waiting). Both pieces were lovely, as was the evening. Even Bob Dylan couldn’t top it.

Hardest Album to Leave Off the Top Ten
Elton John: The Captain and the Kid
It kills me to have to deny Sir Elton; he could have made the list a little bit gayer. But while I catch myself whistling the opening track, "Postcards From Richard Nixon," and admire the storytelling that goes on over the course of this sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, some of the songs just don't do it for me. The Scissor Sisters also have a hard time slowing it down, but the songs I docked them for were merely B-level material. "Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way (NYC)," "Blues Never Fade Away," and "The Bridge" are three pieces of D-level cheese, and that's too many on a disc with ten songs. Sorry, sir. Maybe next time.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sorry, Blue

Who's #2? The BCS' dumb obsession with finding America's second-best college football team. By Chris Suellentrop

Chris Suellentrop has a very good point in this article. People who are once again bashing the BCS--which, by the way, brought us one of the all-time classic games last season in Texas-USC and made dozens of games this season interesting to even someone like me who usually pays attention to only a few--are missing the point of the system. It's designed to produce a game after which college football has a champion. How would an Ohio State-Michigan game accomplish that? If Michigan were to win, wouldn't that just mean it was time to play the rubber match?

Here's Suellentrop's killer paragraph:
Do we know if Florida is the second-best team in the country? Of course not. Here's what we do know: Michigan is not the best. How do we know that? By the traditional criterion: They scored fewer points in a football game than Ohio State did. The only team that has the "right" to play in the BCS championship game is the best team, Ohio State. And the only teams that should be scratched without question are teams that have already been determined to be "not the best," like Michigan.
Exactly. I wanted Michigan to win the Nov. 18 game. I hate OSU. And I know that if Florida somehow wins this thing, there will be those who say that they should have to play Michigan to be the real champs. (Unless USC clocks Michigan, in which case I say give the trophy to Boise State if they can knock off Oklahoma.)

All of this jibber-jabber is, of course, simply more fuel on the playoff fire, and I'm all for that. How can we know for sure that, for example, Boise State could not have run with the big boys? But until that happens, I have no problem with a system that declines an inconclusive rematch in favor of a title bout between the champs of the two conferences that produced the top four teams in the BCS standings, six of the top nine, and seven of the top 12. Because if Florida was good enough to win the SEC, and Ohio State was good enough to win the Big 10, can you really deny that whichever team wins a game between the two of them is good enough to be this year's champion?

Etes-vous Prete?

This week will see a lot of lists. Are you ready?

First, Paul will finish posting the top songs of the '90s. After that happens tomorrow, he and I will each post, on Wednesday, the first portion of our lists of the best music of 2006. Thursday will bring the actual top ten lists. And, given that it's the second week of December, you can probably count on a few professionally composed best-of lists as well.

So, as I asked before, are you ready? And what are your top music picks of the year?