50 songs for 50 states: Arkansas

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Going Back To Arkansas - Big Bill Broonzy

One of the all-time greats from the early years of the blues, Big Bill Broonzy grew up in Arkansas, worked as a sharecropper and eventually went into the Army to go and fight in World War I. As the story goes: he returned home in 1919, dressed in his army uniform, only to be reminded forcefully of the depths of Jim Crow.  Rather than sticking around, he moved north to find a place for himself.

I recently finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s incredible study of the Great Migration, so I’ve been thinking a lot about experiences like these. About hard it must have been to simply pull up roots and abandon a place that has always been home. About how terrible the conditions must have been to inspire such mass exodus. About how the joys of your old home would still linger with you, simultaneous with your memories of the slights and the fear and the poverty.

I hear all of that here. It’s a song about the joys of his old home. About collard greens and the hamhock boiling, chickens crowing, a world of family and close ties, so different from the impersonal loneliness of the big cities of the North. The bayous and the rolling hills. The rich soil and farms.   It’s easy to understand why people left, why they had to leave. But it doesn’t make the good parts any less real.

Honorable mentions: “Arkansas” by another excellent old bluesman, Henry Thomas. “Arkansas Lovin’ Man” by Johnny Cash. And “The Lord God Bird” by Sufjan Stevens.

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50 songs for 50 states: Arizona

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

I thought about going with Wilco’s “Hotel Arizona” but ultimately couldn’t end up anywhere but here. I’m sure Arizona has plenty of nice features. And I have a number of great friends from Arizona. But honestly the state is defined for me by its crazy racist politics. And this song digs deep into it.  It’s a cut below the very best from Public Enemy, but is very much in the next tier. Just a great song, which really exemplifies Chuck D’s brilliant mix of utopianism and cynicism.

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50 songs for 50 states: Alaska

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Anchorage – Michelle Shocked

Epistolary songs are tough to pull off, but Michelle Shocked does a fantastic job with this one. It’s bittersweet, capturing the incredible distance of Alaska, its detachment from the rest of American life. You get hints of a deep sadness, but it’s never fully engaged. Is her friend lonely? Is she dismayed to have woken up and discovered herself to be a housewife in Anchorage? Does she regret subsuming her identity into that of her husband? It’s hard to see it otherwise, and yet…perhaps it’s simply a burst of pleasant nostalgia. After all, Anchorage is a beautiful place. She loves her children. Perhaps being ‘anchored down in Anchorage’ carries a certain freedom. The freedom to live a specific life and live it fully, rather than to be constantly restless. It’s a beautiful song that admits many possibilities.

Honorable mentions: my instinct was to go with “Stephanie Says” which might well be my favorite Velvet Underground song, but I decided that ‘the people all call her Alaska’ doesn’t quite meet the standard of a song being about Alaska. “Phantasies” by Stephen Malkmus was another strong contender, but didn’t quite make the cut.

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Beatles tidbits

A couple fun things about the Beatles I found on youtube today.

“Everyone Had a Hard Year” is a fragment of a song that would later show up in “I’ve Got A Feeling.” He wrote it in ’68 and you can really hear how much it sounds like some of the other stuff from that time. The guitar in particular is eerily reminiscent of “Julia.” Just a lovely song.

And this is a deconstruction of “Sgt. Pepper” which shows what they did with each of the four tracks. It is interesting simply to see and hear the individual parts. As always, the isolated vocal track calls attention to just how well these guys could sing. And we also get a chance to hear the always-underappreciated Ringo laying down a solid beat. But the really astonishing thing is the simple fact that they managed to make all of these songs with just four tracks.  I mean, the lead guitar and the horns are stuck on the same track!

George Martin was a genius.

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50 songs for 50 states: Alabama

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Alabama Pines - Jason Isbell

Today, we inaugurate this project with Alabama.  For me, this was an easy choice. Alabama has a strong bench of songs (from standards like “Stars Fell on Alabama” to Coltrane’s excellent “Alabama” to the classic “Sweet Home Alabama” to the somewhat loosely affiliated “Boulder to Birmingham”), but “Alabama Pines” is a work of pure genius from one of the finest songwriters on the planet.  It’s achingly sad: the perfect encapsulation of a disenchanted Southern spirit, of dead-end dreams and a weariness with the world. Isbell’s voice on the chorus just brings me to my knees every time I hear it.

In fact, on the very first state, I may have already discussed my favorite song of the whole project.  Things will get far dicier next week as I take on Alaska…  

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Top 25 albums of 2014

A year with many great albums and one transcendent one. It wasn’t quite the cornucopia that we got in 2013, but was still a very good year for music. I could produce a list 50 albums deep with stuff I genuinely enjoyed this year, but these are the 25 that have really meant something important to me, and which I expect to stick with for a long time.

This list is far more pop-heavy than any other I can remember constructing. It’s got two of the big chart-topping albums of the year, and a bunch more indie pop as well. I’m not sure if that signals a change in my tastes or in the musical landscape in general (certainly, the little indie rock boom of the last decade definitely seems to have been replaced by a return to synths and pop melodies). I think it’s probably a bit of both. But anyways, I’m going to declare 2014 to be the year I stopped worrying and learned to love the pop.

That said, the rumors of rock music’s death have certainly been exaggerated. You only need to check out the top couple albums on this list for proof.

25. AlcestShelter

Dreamy shoegaze, loud/soft dynamics, chiming guitars, indecipherable lyrics. If you like those things, you will like this album.

Highlights: Shelter, Voix sereine, Opale

24. Jon ConnorThe Late Registration Of A College Dropout Who Had A Dark Twisted Fantasy Of 808s And Heartbreak

It really doesn’t seem like this should work – a mixtape built entirely around the production from Kanye West songs – but somehow it does. Connor is not simply borrowing the beats, but is actively turning them to new purposes, and building something very impressive in its own right.

Highlights: We Don’t Care, Jesus Walks, Blame Game, Trust Freestyle, Doin My Job

23. Mark McGuireAlong the Way

This is the album that pushed me over the top on my dissertation. I discovered it in mid-November, and proceeded to listen to it obsessively for two weeks while working like crazy to get everything tied together and finalized. Space-synths, electronic beeps and bops, a sense of grandeur that doesn’t always pay off but is worth admiring nonetheless. Plus, his name is Mark McGuire! I look forward to albums on my 2015 list from Cal Ripkin and Roger Clemons.

Highlights: In Search of the Miraculous, The Instinct, Astray, The War On Consciousness

22. LiteratureChorus

RIYL: The Housemartins. Seriously, this band sounds a LOT like The Housemartins. Maybe a little bit more of the jangle pop side and a little bit less of the alt rock side.

Highlights: The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything, Court / Date, Chorus, New Jacket

21. AlvvaysAlvvays

Dusky and sweet on the surface, just enough darkness inside to keep you honest. Reminds me of the very best girl-group pop of the 60s, infused with just a touch of twee.

Highlights: Ones Who Love You, Next of Kin, The Agency Group, Adult Diversion

20. This Will Destroy YouAnother Language

Loud/soft post-rock. The soft parts tend to be better than the loud parts, but the whole thing is good.

Highlights: Mother Opiate, New Topia, War Prayer, Serpent Mound

19. Magic ManBefore the Waves

Great electro-pop. It suffers just a tiny bit from being a bit too one-note. But all that really means is that every song is riding the same glorious wave of big synths and happy times.

Highlights: It All Starts Here, Texas, Every Day, Apollo, Too Much.

18. LulucPasserby

If you like sun and you like things being dappled, you will like this record. It’s a delicate thing, making stripped down acoustic folk music. But there can be immense beauty in perfectly constructed simplicity.

Highlights: Reverie on Norfolk Street, Without a Face, Passerby

17. The Pains of Being Pure at HeartDays of Abandon

Doesn’t fulfill the promise of their last record, but remains a very nice album nonetheless. And in the end, there’s always room in the world for another record filled with jangly songs about feelings.

Highlights: Life After Life, Kelly, The Asp In My Chest, Masokissed

16. Rosanne CashThe River and the Thread

Rosanne Cash just keeps getting better with age. Half-remembered feelings coaxed out into the light which express themselves through a complicated mix of love and pain and sadness and nostalgia. Cash has lived in New York for more than two decades, but still remains intimately connected to the south and to the country music that birthed her. That bifurcated life infuses this record: the south is elegant, comforting, a historical fact, a living truth, a fading memory.

Highlights: When the Master Calls the Roll, Etta’s Tune, Tell Heaven, World of Strange Design, Modern Blue

15. The Lawrence ArmsMetropole

Another record that didn’t quite live up to my hopes for it. Oh! Calcutta! was a genuine punk masterpiece, and I’ve waited eight years for a followup. Unfortunately, this one lacks the heft needed to fulfill my expectations. Still, the more I stuck with it, the more I enjoyed it. Minor disappointment, perhaps, but when you come down to it, there really isn’t ever going to be an album from Brendan Kelly that I won’t love.

Highlights: Acheron River, Beautiful Things, Seventeener, Metropole, These Pigs Seem To Be Getting the Best of Me

14. Ariana GrandeMy Everything

My love for this album is really a love for the first half, which is just about as solid a run of pop songs as you’re likely to find anywhere, featuring the glorious bursts of “Break Free” and “One Last Time, the stark beauty of “Why Try,” and the stomping good time of “Problem.” While I enjoy the back half, which is more in the R&B songstress mold, it’s those glorious big pop songs at the start that draws me back in every time.

Highlights: Break Free, Why Try, One Last Time, Problem, Be My Baby

13. LightsLittle Machines

RIYL: CHVRCHES. This album never quite scales the heights of the best CHVRCHES songs, but is far more consistent throughout. It’s got a little bit more of a New Wave kind of vibe, but is definitely in that same wheelhouse. Just song after song of electronic indie pop goodness.

Highlights: Running With The Boys, Lucky Ones, Child, Up We Go, The Same Sea

12. SCool Choices

This was a genuinely surprising turn from Jenn Ghetto (formerly of Carissa’s Wierd), who expanded her sound significantly – producing a big record with some genuine pop flourishes. It’s a welcome change because, as much as I love her music, the unadulterated S has always been a little bit tough to consume in big doses. She needs to be cut with something a bit more effervescent in order to keep things from drifting too far down into the emotional abyss. So this record is a really nice proof of concept, which leaves me really excited to hear her stretch her wings a little bit more on future albums.

Highlights: Brunch,Vampires, Remember Love, Tell Me, Balderdash

11. NothingGuilty of Everything

Loud but delicate. Tender but sharp. Buried under a crushing weight but still somehow hopeful. Further description basically demands a series of 90s references. It’s a slightly more emotional MBV, a slightly more destructive Sunny Day Real Estate, an alternate-universe Mellon Collie that combined the tunesmithing of that record with the guitar waves of Gish. And more than anything else: this sounds to me like a lost Hum record circa 1996. Which is pretty serious praise from me because I freaking love Hum.

Highlights: This is not an album of standout tracks. You just need to let the whole thing wash over you. So: start with Hymn To The Pillory and continue from there

10. Run the JewelsRun the Jewels 2

I’ve got nothing to add that you probably haven’t read a bunch of other places. One of the best hip hop albums in a very long time. Powered by a white-hot rage, but not simply an expression of disgust. It blows apart our expectations and the resulting shrapnel cuts apart every sacred cow. It doesn’t resist the weaponization of art, but takes that as an opportunity. This is a call to war, one desperately needed in the America of 2014.

Highlights: Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck), All Due Respect, Blockbuster Night Part 1, Early, Angel Duster

9. Bing and RuthTomorrow Was the Golden Age

Organic ambient music. What it would sound like to dive into a snowflake.

Highlights: The Towns We Love Is Our Town, Postcard from Brilliant Orange, Warble, Reflector

8. Angel HazeDirty Gold

A hit-or-miss album with plenty of songs that don’t quite stick the landing. But there is just so much great stuff here that it’s well worth the investment. I love her most when she is rapping at top speed, with passion and a deep sensitivity, and least when she’s buried behind a wall of over-produced gloss. Fortunately, there’s plenty of the former.

Highlights: Black Synagogue, Planes Fly, Echelon, Black Dahlia, New York

7. Taylor Swift1989

As I said on my list of songs, this is the year I finally gave up the ghost on my Taylor Swift skepticism. Say what you like about her, but the woman sure knows how to write a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song. Like, wow.

Highlights: Shake It Off, Style, Blank Space, New Romantics, Wildest Dreams

6. Brian Blade & The Fellowship BandLandmarks

These songs are languid but also composed, loose but purposeful, melodic without losing a sense of the weird. This is a jazz record, first and foremost, but I also hear strong elements of folk, R&B, blues, and rock. Maybe even a little doo-wop. But each element is parceled out in small doses, and finely balanced with other themes. The result is a album that richly rewards careful attention, but never demands it. It’s a comforting friend, a work of deep complexity, an inspiration, or a prayer. Maybe all at once.

Highlights: He Died Fighting, Embers, Ark.La.Tex., Shenandoah

5. GrouperRuins

Liz Harris’ music is reclusive, indecipherable. Whatever secrets it reveals come only in the barest of glimpses – between ambient sounds or the crackle of static. With this album, all devices are removed. There is only her, a piano, and the croak of frogs out in the dark night. The result is a beautifully intimate essay on the experience of dis-identification.

Highlights: Clearing, Holding, Lighthouse, Labyrinth

4. First Aid KitStay Gold

A genuinely surprising second-effort from these sisters. The wispy tones and beautiful harmonies are still there, but this is a far more muscular effort. It’s the rare sophomore album that follows through on all of the promise in the debut while also evolving and taking the sound forward. I’m truly excited to hear where this band goes from here.

Highlights: Shattered & Hollow, Stay Gold, Cedar Lane, Heaven Knows

3. Haley BonarLast War

From the very first listen, I knew I loved this album. And I’ve spent most of the rest of the year deepening that relationship. This is a dark record, full of sardonic wit and occasionally heavy instrumental turns, but it never feels oppressive. That’s in part because it’s just nine songs, barely over half an hour. And the final product is wonderfully balanced: from galloping garage pop to tender folk melody to wall of sound crashing down upon you. It can sustain these shifts because the underlying melodies are so incredibly strong. Each one sets out to deliver one specific feeling and absolutely follows through. It’s almost certainly the most tightly-constructed set of songs this year. Each one is a perfect little morsel, just waiting to be consumed again and again.

Highlights: Kill the Fun, From a Cage, Law War, Eat for Free, Bad Reputation

2. Cloud NothingsHere and Nowhere Else

I’m honestly sort of shocked to find this as my #2 record of the year. Turns out it doesn’t take much more than a couple guitars and a set of drums to melt my soul. This record snarls from start to finish. It doesn’t quite reach the peaks of the last Japandroids album, but it is a reasonably wealthy man’s approximation.

Highlights: No Thoughts, I’m Not Part of Me, Pattern Walks, Now Hear In

1. The War on DrugsLost in the Dream

This record single-handedly proves that rock and roll is still a vibrant genre, capable of telling us important things about who we are and who we might become. Combine Highway 61 era Dylan with the mid-80s Springsteen, mix in some Love Over Gold era Dire Straits, bring in the Heartbreakers as a backing band, and have Bryan Ferry produce the thing, and you’ll start to get the idea of what’s going on here. But in spite of all those references, Lost in the Dream never sounds even remotely dated. Adam Granduciel has somehow achieved the impossible: an album swimming in classic rock references that feels intensely specific to 2014. It’s easily my favorite album of 2014. Honestly, you could split the thing in half and end up with the two best records of the year. It’s that good.

Highlights: Red Eyes, Eyes to the Wind, An Ocean in Between the Waves, In Reverse, Under the Pressure, Burning, Disappearing

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Top 50 songs of 2014

This was a good year for music. Quite a few disappointing efforts from some of my old favorites, but plenty of new material to fill in the gaps. My top 10 songs are a bit weaker than some other years, but I easily found 50 tracks worth raving about, and could have gone quite a bit deeper. It was a year with a strong middle class.

I had a lot less time than usual to devote to making these lists (what with the obligation to finish my dissertation), so the commentary here is a bit more sparse than I usually like to provide. As always, only one song per artist.

If you’re a Spotify person, almost every song is available in this playlist.


50. I Wanna Get Better – Bleachers (youtube link)
Do you miss the 90s? This song sure does!

49. 2 On – Tinashe ft. Schoolboy Q (youtube link)
A silky R&B throwback, a few synths, and a perfect guest spot from Schoolboy Q.

48. Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens – Tiny Ruins
A quiet interlude, somewhere near the intersection of folk and dream pop.

47. Birth in Reverse – St. Vincent
This song sounds like M.C. Escher took a jigsaw to a block of wood. I don’t really ‘get’ St. Vincent, but I do get this song at least.

46. We Go On – The Luxembourg Signal
Any year when I get to hear Beth Arzy’s voice is a good year.

45. The One That Lives Too Far – John Fullbright
Piano, guitar, the catch in the voice. This one hits just about every folk-driven singer-songwriter cliché. But you can get away with it if you stick the landing, which Fullbright absolutely does.

44. Superbia – deadmau5
If you had told me in January that arguably the prettiest song of the year would come from deadmau5…well, I would have been surprised. But here we are.

43. Coffee – Sylvan Esso
A slinky cyborg of a song.

42. On the Regular – Shamir
In the wrong mood, this song drives me bonkers – with its cowbells and boppy synths, his strangely androgynous voice, the choppy repetition. But in the right mood, those are all the things that make it so good.

41. Rather Be (feat. Jess Glynne) – Clean Bandit (youtube link)
There is absolutely nothing complicated about this song, and that’s ultimately what sells it. You’ve got your synths, you’ve got your sappy lyrics, you’ve got a good beat. Why complicate things?

40. Seasons (Waiting On You) - Future Islands
The search for ‘the next Joy Division’ has never taken off the way it has for ‘the next Dylan’ or ‘the next Springsteen.’ And I’m not saying that Future Islands are the next Joy Division. I’m just saying that if it were a parlor game, they’d be a leading candidate. It’s not even precisely that they sound like Joy Division. Same genre, yes, but much bigger, more tectonic. There’s just something about the attitude.

39. Logic Of Color – Wye Oak
Lots of reviews of the new Wye Oak album lament their radical shift in tone (from a guitar driven band playing loud/soft dynamics to the world of electropop), but as someone who never particularly dug their other stuff, this was actually a welcome bit of fresh air. The less organic textures provide a nice balance for Jenn Wasner’s voice.

38. Turtles All The Way Down – Sturgill Simpson
Based on the name alone, there was no way I wasn’t going to love this song. And the references to ‘reptile aliens made of light’ are just icing on the cake. If you think you don’t like country music, this is the song to test that hypothesis.

37. Plymouth – Strand Of Oaks
I couldn’t really ever find a way into this album as a whole. The big moment left me feeling flat. But this song has stuck with me like a comfortable old shirt that long outlasts its flashier competitors.

36. Don’t Wanna Lose – Ex Hex
Sleater Kinney is coming back in 2015. in the meantime, Ex Hex is keeping us more than satisfied.

35. Mercury Dime – Death Vessel
Death Vessel is a strong contender for the title of ‘band whose music sounds the least like their name.’ There are very few things in the world that sound less like a vessel of death than this lilting little song.

34. Primer Coat – Drive-By Truckers
My favorite song from this band in a long time. Beauty and resignation in equal doses.

33. Carissa – Sun Kil Moon
A meditation on the desperate need to try and impose reason on a world that refuses to conform. His cousin dies, pointlessly, without any explanation, in a freak accident. What can be recovered? What do we say about a life that has been lost? How do we move on?

32. Ruckus In B Minor – Wu-Tang Clan (youtube link)
The album as a whole is a bit of a sad coda to a brilliant career, one which asks the question: what if the Beatles had reunited in 1976 and Paul had insisted on closing the album with “Silly Love Songs”? But even if the album as a whole fails to really click, this song reminds us of the power in creative tension.

31. Crickets In The Rain – Allo Darlin’
Her voice when she sings “and I am grateful for that” is everything.

30. It All Starts Here - Magic Man
It gallops along, picking up speed the whole way, until you’re just about ready to burst into a shower of electro-pop goodness.

29. Miserable - Tokyo Police Club
One of those songs that just makes me smile every time I hear it.

28. The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything - Literature
Sometimes you just want a song that sounds like FUN. And when you do, this is the song for you.

27. Ones Who Love You - Alvvays
“And when the wheels come off, I’ll be an astronaut” – that about sums it up.

26. Driver - Perfect Pussy
A curse hurled into the uncaring night, the inescapable drone of words beyond comprehension, the adrenaline rush of fight or flight. Punk rock for the 21st century.

25. He Died Fighting - Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band
Come for the percussion, stick around for the melody. I don’t quite know what ‘post-bop’ jazz is, but I’m pretty sure this is it.

24. Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck) Feat. Zach De La Rocha - Run The Jewels
Gets in your face from the first second, and doesn’t back down one inch over the course of the song. The guest spot from Zack de la Rocha seals the deal.

23. Brunch - S
My favorite Jenn Ghetto song in quite a while – possibly since her days with Carissa’s Wierd. Far more energetic than her usual fare, and driven by a beautifully-picked guitar line.

22. Running With The Boys - Lights
Somewhere in between CHVRCHES and Katy Perry, in the best possible way.

21. Last Night Bus - Hello Saferide
Her specialty is the finely-drawn character portrait, captured in just a few perfectly constructed lines. This song includes four or five examples.

20. Break Free (feat. Zedd) – Ariana Grande (youtube link)
This song is to other songs as Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream is to regular chocolate ice cream.

19. Everything We Touch - Say Lou Lou
I cannot wait for them to release an actual album. Dreamy pop music has never sounded so good.

18. Dawn in Luxor - Shabazz Palaces
If this is the future of hip-hop, then sign me up.

17. Weigh True Words - I Break Horses
I was really disappointed in this album as a whole, but this song alone is enough to redeem things in my eyes. The glitchy beat is a stark departure from the shoegazy textures that made their debut so good, but at least on this one song, it works beautifully.

16. Reverie on Norfolk Street - Luluc
A quiet Sunday morning, the sun peaking through the kitchen window. The feeling of comfortable love, encapsulated in song.

15. The Towns We Love Is Our Town - Bing & Ruth
Somewhere in between classical and ambient, this song breathes in autumn and exhales the spring.

14. Shake It Off – Taylor Swift (youtube link)
2014 is the year I finally joined the T Swift bandwagon, and it was this song that did it for me. Is it complicated? No. But who cares? It’s just a great, great pop song.

13. Jokerman - Built to Spill
Built to Spill covering Dylan, what’s not to love?

12. Kill the Fun - Haley Bonar
Tightly wound around that skittering percussion, held aloft by her beautiful voice. The synths sparkle and the beat goes on.

11. Life After Life - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Jangly indie pop at its finest.

10. Acheron River - The Lawrence Arms
This lacks the cutting edge that sets the very best Lawrence Arms songs apart, but is just so unbelievably catchy that it doesn’t bother me.

9. No Thoughts - Cloud Nothings
Snarling, emphatic, aggressive. Rock and roll like it was meant to be played.

8. Boom Clap – Charli XCX (youtube link)
And the ‘best chorus of the year’ award for 2014 goes to…Charli XCX.

7. Clearing - Grouper
This song tells truths that exceed words; they can only be felt.

6. Parade - The Antlers
The Antlers album really didn’t click for me the first few times. It’s almost schmaltzy with all the tinkling pianos and soaring verses. But on the sixth or seventh listen to this song, something changed and the aching beauty suddenly became clear.

5. Shattered & Hollow - First Aid Kit
I fell for this band because of “Emmylou.” This is the song that made me realize that it was more than just a crush.

4. Bloodlines - Mimicking Birds
A delightfully weird, perfectly beautiful song. This is indie rock the way it was meant to be done.

3. Red Eyes - The War On Drugs
I could listen to this song for months on repeat and never get tired of it. It’s so dense, a concentrated burst of rock and roll, full of passion and pathos and glorious rollicking energy. And the moment at about 3:35 when the full band returns is the single best moment of music in 2014. It gives me shivers.

2. Black Synagogue - Angel Haze
At her best, Angel Haze is probably my favorite rapper in the world. This song is full of rage and empathy and she spits it all out at 150 MPH.

1. When the Master Calls the Roll - Rosanne Cash
This is a song you spend an entire lifetime hoping to write. Beautiful, expansive, heartbreaking, honest. I’m not sure it could have come from anyone but Rosanne Cash.

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World Cup final – a somewhat belated post

Impossible Germany - Wilco

Astute readers may have noticed that I never posted my commentary on the World Cup final. When I was informed of this (Hi, Hunter!), I was surprised since I remembered having written it up. But, it turns out, I only wrote about half of it up and then never posted it. So, here is a version with the gaps filled in. There might not be anyone out there who cares about reading a match report for a game that happened five months ago, but my completionism demands that I post it. So enjoy, or not!

BTW, I handed in my dissertation a couple days ago so finally have time again for…well…anything else. Which means I’ll start posting here again. Look for end of the year lists coming up, along with some other stuff.


And the Germans are champions. While I was rooting for Argentina (and Messi in particular) to put on a show, it’s hard to really argue with the end result. The Germans were the best team over the course of the tournament, and are well-deserved champions. And they fittingly won it on a very nice goal. It’s not one of the goals of the tournament, quite, but was still a lovely bit of skill late in a tiring game.

As per usual, the match was tense, controlled, and not necessarily one of the more intrinsically exciting games. In that respect, it was very similar to the last several final matches. However, that doesn’t mean it was boring. The first half, in particular, was extremely well played and featured some tremendous skill. It was notable just how different Argentina looked compared to their South American compatriots. Germany was given no space or time in the attacking third. While they were quite able to hold the ball at the periphery, there was a surprisingly lack of penetration. In a way, it sometimes seemed like everyone was expecting someone else to make the first incisive move. Özil and Müller, in particular, seemed to be waiting for a moment to pounce that never quite materialized.

One of the big conclusions people are drawing from this game is that Messi really missed his chance to show he’s an all-time great. He certainly was not able to impose himself on the game in the manner of Maradona ’86 or some of the other classic World Cup performances. But, as I have commented about all of their knockout matches, the truth in that claim needs to be balanced against some other very important factors. One is simply that the overall quality of play is SO much higher now than it was even a couple of decades ago. Messi’s opponents know precisely what he can do and have organized their squads to limit the damage they will let him do. It’s not a coincidence that Argentina’s supposedly shaky defense turned in such an impressive record of limiting their opponents in this tournament. In sort of a strange way, the threat of Messi was Argentina’s greatest defensive asset.

And then there’s the rest of his supporting cast. The moment Di Maria left the tournament, Messi’s influence declined precipitously. He was the only other consistent attacking threat over the course of the tournament, and was sorely missed. There was clearly something wrong with Aguero who looked nothing like his best self at any point in the tournament. And then there’s Higuaín, who spurned a glorious chance about 20 minutes in that could have radically changed things.

In the first half, Argentina definitely looked the stronger team, though not by a huge amount. The passing from both sides was crisp and precise, and the tackling intense. And that held for about 60 or 70 minutes. But after that, legs started to drag, and Argentina increasingly seemed bereft of ideas apart from ‘get the ball to Messi and hope for magic.’ After that, the longer the game dragged on, the more a German victory felt inevitable.

It’s a testament to this German team that they seemed utterly unfazed throughout the course of the tournament—with the very limited exception of (maybe) a brief spell in their match against Ghana. Here, they lost Khedira right before the match, but simply slotted in Kramer, who then ALSO had to be removed. And they just plugged right on.

And, when you get down to it, the balanced strength of the German team is what won them the Cup. Two of their substitutes combined for the winning goal. Their ability to move Lahm around the pitch gave them a lot of flexibility over the course of their matches. The quality of their players up the spine (the best keeper in the world, a rock solid central defense, and the mostly-excellent trio of Schweinsteiger, Khedira, and Kroos) kept them in control of every game. And the lack of a true striker never really harmed them.

On the other side, Argentina needed A+ performances from players who were capable but never quite felt certain to deliver. Mascherano was great once again, but the rest of the defense couldn’t quite hold together with him. And, like I have said, they really needed someone else on the attack capable of drawing Messi into the game more. It was certainly POSSIBLE for him to find that moment of magic, and it wasn’t a crazy strategy to just hope for it. But if the attack could have been better connected with the rest of the team, we might well have seen a different champion.

So, what do we take from this World Cup? It was a great tournament, for sure. Almost certainly the best I can remember, from top to bottom. We saw great players, great teams, some truly impressive dark horses, and deserved champions. And while the setting in Brazil had some issues in terms of social and political context, it’s a million times better than what we’re getting over the next few cycles.

Frankly, I have a hard time imagining how I can get excited for tournaments in Russia and (especially) Qatar. So I’m going to savor this one for a long time, as the memory of what a World Cup can be.

Looking back at my predictions, I got enough right to feel somewhat vindicated, and enough wrong to feel somewhat stupid. I had three of the four semifinalists. But also had Spain beating England in a quarterfinal. So there you go.

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World Cup semifinals – Blühe, deutsches Vaterland!

Two games. One: a blistering assault that produced one of the most shocking results in the entire history of the game. The other: a relatively lifeless 0-0 decided on penalties, in which some of the best attacking players in the game today were almost completely shut out. The question now is whether the final will look more like the former or the latter. My guess, unfortunately, is that it will be cagey and tight. An interesting tactical battle waiting to be open up by a few moments of brilliance, rather than a blitzkrieg of movement through open space.

Germany 7 – 1 Brazil

Wow. Just wow. It’s really hard to know what to say about this game. I’m not positive is the single most shocking result in World Cup history, but it’s certainly on the shortlist. This wasn’t a vintage Brazil team but they were still very good, favorites going into the tournament, playing at home. Even without Neymar and Silva, this was being treated on the betting markets as basically a 50/50 match. And they were simply torn apart.

I’m hesitant to read too much into one result, no matter how catastrophic. The temptation will be toward Calvinism after a result like this: to think it was predestined, that this team was always going to be ripped apart, that they were awful. And I don’t want to completely ignore that possibility. But…let’s pause for a moment here. Let’s look back, and do our best to think about the underlying qualities of the team. Let’s ask ourselves whether it was truly wrong to have thought this game was a 50/50, and whether if things had gone differently in the opening 10 minutes, the whole outcome might have shifted. What if Lahm’s tackle on Marcelo had been slightly mistimed and Brazil had won a penalty? Would they have played as fecklessly at 1-1 as they did at 0-2? Quite possibly, but we can’t really know for sure. What if Silva had been in the team? Might his presence have calmed them during their madness, imposed some discipline, reigned in Marcelo’s ludicrously exposed flank? Is it possible that playing in Brazil actually harmed them? Were they too tense, too amped up, too scared of failing to impress?

All we can say for sure is that Brazil spent 30 minutes yesterday completely lost at sea. They were outplayed in the other 60 minutes, yes, but not by a huge margin. It’s the 30 minutes in the first half where they completely lost their minds and just couldn’t grasp what was happening that define this game. Just like those 40 minutes of Spain-Netherlands, when the reigning champions of everything were bewildered and pathetic.

There is no denying that it happened. But there are plenty of questions to be asked about what it meant. My pop psychological theory is that they all were freaked out about losing Neymar and felt like they had to pour all their energy into finding a way to create something to lift the team. So you had 10 guys all hoping to be the savior, which meant they simply weren’t attentive to the more mundane duties of positioning and covering each other. So Marcelo would range far afield and no one would fill in behind him. And then you’ve got 50 yards of completely unoccupied space for the Germans to invade. And as soon as the second goal went in, it created a positive feedback cycle. They seemed to almost give up, thinking ‘there’s no way back from this,’ but also committed even more strongly to the idea of ‘throw everything in the air and hope some magic happens’ which left them even more exposed.

It’s an instance where the home field advantage flipped. They were under so much pressure that they completely lost themselves and started running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

So: I do not believe that Brazil truly are nearly as bad as the scoreline yesterday. I have repeatedly said that they were being somewhat overrated, and were flattered by their results so far. But there’s also no denying that they were the better team in each of their previous five games. Not by as much as they might have liked. But they were worthy semifinalists. Going forward, this game will define them and those five previous games won’t matter. And they certainly will need to seriously reconsider their approach to player development, to tactics, to expectations of always being the best, etc. But this was, and remains, a very talented group of players. If things had broken differently, they absolutely could have won this tournament. We shouldn’t forget that.

All that said, I’m still happy to poke a bit of fun at those 538 rankings, which touted Brazil as the overwhelming favorites going into the tournament. And express my frustration that Nate Silver – who I admire a great deal – seems so completely unwilling to acknowledge just how wrong they got this. It’s not just that Brazil failed to win. Obviously, a 45% favorite (as they called Brazil) will lose more than half the time. The point is that to think one team out of 32 genuinely has a 45% chance of winning things, you have to believe that they are miles better than all the opposition. That 45% basically means they thought Brazil would be 80% favorites in each of their knockout games. And 80% favorites simply don’t play like Brazil did in this tournament. They dominate games. They run roughshod over their opposition and only lose due to randomness and small sample size—hitting the post several times, fluke goals by the opposition, referee mistakes, superb tactical responses. And they absolutely, ABSOLUTELY do not get thumped 7-1.

As for Germany, let’s not forget just how good they were. Brazil fell apart but it took an incredibly talented, ruthless, aggressive team to put them away. Their passing was exquisite. Their movement off the ball was insane. Their vision in the midfield, to discover open spaces and exploit them, was magnificent. And their finishing was clinical. They’re obviously not THIS good, but they are absolutely the team in the world most likely to pounce on weakness and absolutely eviscerate the opposition. I doubt Argentina will give them nearly as many opportunities, but if they do…they better watch out.

Argentina 0 – 0 Netherlands (Argentina advance on penalties)

This wasn’t a terrible game, despite what some folks insist on saying. Yes, it suffered from a serious dearth of goal-scoring opportunities. And it certainly wasn’t overly exciting. But it was enjoyable in the same way that a good pitcher’s duel can be enjoyable. These two teams were both primarily concerned with the dangerous attacking players and set themselves up to neutralize first and only attack second. As a result, the vast majority of this game was played in the midfield. Van Persie was almost completely invisible as his service was totally dried up. Robben popped up a couple times but hardly exerted more presence. Messi was mostly shut out, by the relatively simple tactic of putting several men on him at basically all times. De Jong and Clasie de facto man-marked him for most of the game. And beyond that, Sneijder and Wijnaldum stayed very deep, rarely venturing forward, while Vlaar (playing the game of his life) came out regularly from the center of the defense to close off his angles. Those three players effective formed a triangle around Messi, meaning that he was often being marked by four players – two of whom were primarily concerned with closing off his ability to receive the ball in forward positions.

It’s not the most complicated strategy, and it massively reduces your ability to put numbers forward, but it just goes to show that even the greatest player in the world can be neutralized if you’re willing to devote the numbers.

That said, I want to push back against the idea that Messi played no part in this game. Precisely because he forced a radically defensive commitment by the Dutch, he massively reduced the burden on the rest of his team to defend. In effect, his presence on the field basically meant the Dutch were playing for a 0-0.

In that respect, it’s much like several other games in this tournament, where the opposition effectively shackled Messi for long periods. The only difference is that this time he couldn’t produce a match-winner. But he has done so in three games already (that beautiful run against Bosnia, that incredible goal against Iran, and the run that drew in the defense and freed Di Maria to score against Switzerland). So it’s not like this is a strategy without huge risks. That’s the thing about trying to limit Messi’s influence. You can mostly succeed, but doing so requires hamstringing your own attack, and still might be absolutely destroyed by a moment of genius.

A couple other things. Mascherano was easily Argentina’s best player. He absolutely dominated the midfield. The Dutch tactics left them somewhat toothless, but it was Mascherano who really shut them down completely. However, he really shouldn’t have been playing. It seems pretty likely that he suffered a concussion after a jarring head knock about 30 minutes in. Obviously he wanted to come back on, but the more we learn about this, the more horrifying this stuff is. It shouldn’t be up to the player or the team. We’re talking about FIFA, so asking them to do the right thing is probably fruitless, but there really ought to be independent medical professionals who get the final say.

I picked Argentina to win this tournament going in, and while they have not yet produced an especially GREAT performance, they have got themselves here without ever really being challenged. The only team in any of their six games who actually out-played them for any meaningful length of time was (bizarrely) Iran. That said, Germany has eviscerated two excellent teams (Portugal and Brazil) and ground out some incredibly comfortable 1-0s of their own against solid opposition (France, USA). So you’d have to think they’ll give Argentina a much sterner test than they’ve had so far.

The general consensus at this point seems to be that Germany are clear, but not overwhelming, favorites. Maybe 60-65%. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me at all. They were SO impressive against Brazil, in a way that Argentina hasn’t even come close to matching.

That said, I picked Argentina to win this tournament going in, and while they have not yet produced an especially GREAT performance, they have got themselves here without ever really being challenged. The only team in any of their six games who actually out-played them for any meaningful length of time was (bizarrely) Iran.

I predict the game will look a lot like the quarterfinal matches that these teams played. Both were relatively composed 1-0 victories against excellent opponents (France an Belgium). I could see a similar caginess happening here. Argentina will likely play fairly deep, counting on Mascherano once again to keep them safe. And hoping that Messi can produce a goal out of nothing. Because ‘nothing’ is likely to be a pretty accurate description of the support he’ll get. If Di Maria can come back from his injury, that would be a huge help. He hasn’t been great this tournament, but even when he’s a little off he simply supplies a huge presence in the attack, makes focusing on Messi far more risky, and open up the attack.

Theoretically, Argentina have this awesome four-pronged attack (Messi, Di Maria, Higuain, Aguero). But Di Maria is really the key there. The other two simply haven’t been able to exert much influence. Higuain has been okay, but doesn’t provide all that much of a separate outlet for the attack. If you can shut out Messi, you’ll likely starve most of the danger from Higuain, too. And Aguero seems to be quite obviously hurt. At the top of his game, his is an explosive, almost unplayable attacker. Right now, he’s a ghost. Poor touch, slow, uninventive. Basically: they need Di Maria.

So: there are plenty of reasons to defer to the consensus and make Germany favorites. But I have faith in Messi, and see just enough in this Argentina team to justify sticking with that original prediction.  So: Argentina to win their third World Cup.


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World Cup quarterfinals – we’re gonna party like it’s 1990

Yikes. Well these quarterfinals are a bit of a turd floating in the punchbowl of an otherwise outstanding World Cup. None of these games were good, and several of them were actually pretty terrible. These were almost certainly the two worst days of the tournament so far. Tense, yes. But also suffocating. It’s like we were right back in 1990.

Germany 1 – 0 France

After all that we’ve seen from Germany in the past few years, all the flair and excitement, it was pretty depressing to see this. It felt like a vintage Germany performance. Resolute, dull, stultifying. They scored on a headed goal by a defender off a set piece and otherwise basically closed up shop. Good for them, not as good for the rest of us.

Going forward, I do think it says good things about their chances. There was quite a bit of doubt going into this tournament whether they were solid enough to actually win this thing. Then, with the various injuries, it was all to easy to see them coming unraveled if they ran into a strong attacking team who could threaten them in the midfield. But France, who had been quite flamboyant up until now, showed basically nothing. You’d have to think that Löw will stick with this lineup. Having a genuine fullback did wonders for them, and the Khedira/Schweinsteiger/Kroos midfield trio seemed quite capable. Also: having Hummels back was huge. They were far more mobile than they had been against Algeria.

Brazil 2 – 1 Colombia

Possibly the most exciting of the quarterfinal games, though not necessarily in a particularly good way. The first half was reasonably good, with Brazil probably putting in their best 45 minutes of the tournament so far. They looked far more creative than they had previously and did a good job muffling the Colombian attack. All that said, it was a half marred by a lot of aggressive fouling, and completely lacking the stabilizing hand of a referee. And that problem only multiplied as the game went on. He was letting virtually everything go, resolutely refusing to take out the yellow card for countless offenses. So it’s no wonder that the game shifted from aggressive to horrible as time went on. Then, when he finally started trying to exert his influence, it was too late. His cards came out for some relatively minor offenses, while a number of other ones went completely uncalled. There was a great deal of tension in the midst of all this. But ultimately the story of this game is about the terrible refereeing job. And that’s never a good sign.

In the end, Neymar took a hard foul to the back, and will miss the rest of the tournament. I don’t quite want to say ‘you reap what you sow’ since it’s not really Brazil’s fault the ref was so wretched. But they had been fouling James Rodriguez up and down the pitch, so it’s not shocking that their own #10 got some harsh treatment too.

Once again, Brazil advanced as the better team. But once again, they failed to really impress. And now they’ll be missing Neymar and Thiago Silva (for the semifinals). So their chances have definitely taken a hit. Still, they’ve made it this far and remain a very talented team across the board, so you wouldn’t put it past them to win. It’s just that they’re no longer truly favorites.

I’m curious to see what formation they’ll employ going forward. One obvious move is simply to move Oscar forward and slot him in to replace Neymar. But they’ll have to consider that Oscar has been a huge part of their defensive success – he’s somewhat sneakily a pretty excellent defender and shuts down attacks before they even start by harrying, intercepting passes, and executing quality tackles. So moving him forward will mean relinquishing control over the midfield a bit. Add in the fact that their center forwards (both Fred and Jo) have shown basically nothing so far…and I’m really not sure what they ought to do.

Argentina 1 – 0 Belgium

Another dull 1-0 win for the favorites. This one had a bit more excitement in it than Germany-France, but not much. Most of that excitement came from Messi who was once again magical. But absent better support there’s just not that much that the little fellow can do. He is really wonderful to watch because he’s just so absurdly talented that he can seemingly do anything. My three favorites moments: 1) He gathers the ball, and makes one of those famous mazy runs toward goal, shucking defenders left and right, darting around and through them, with the ball somehow staying stuck to his feet the whole way 2) That pass. Oh my god, that pass.  3) A long ball cleared from deep in Argentina’s defense. Messi leaps and traps it with his foot, knocking it down just far enough away to elude the defenders, lands, gathers it up, and darts around the Belgian players who have descended on him. It was one of the finest bits of hold-up play that you’ll ever see. But it came from the tiny Messi rather than the hulking number-9.

Like Germany, Argentina will take joy from their success in shutting down a potent attack. After taking something like 750 shots against the US, Belgium barely managed one in this game. They spent most of the second half launching long balls into the box in the hopes that Fellaini could knock one of them into the path of a Belgian player who could then direct it on goal. While that wasn’t completely unsuccessful, Argentina never really looked especially threatened. And in the end, they saw out their victory fairly easily.

Netherlands 0 – 0 Costa Rica (Netherlands advance on penalties)

I have to admit, I didn’t see this one. I was busy floating on the Russian River. And it’s probably for the best I didn’t see it. I was really pulling for Costa Rica but just couldn’t see them holding out against the Dutch attack. I assumed that they would be better about beating the offside trap and would punish Costa Rica to the tune of at least a couple goals. But instead, with a great deal of luck it sounds like, Costa Rica held out for two full hours. If I had been watching, I would have almost started to believe that the dream could continue once it went to penalties. Which only would have made me more depressed to see them ultimately go out by the narrowest of margins.

The talk about the game mostly seems to have focused on van Gaal’s decision to use his third substitution to bring on Krul for the penalties. I plan to go back and watch that bit later when I’ve got some time, so I can’t really say anything about it specifically. But as a general idea, it makes enough sense to me that it passes the smell test. The third keeper basically never ever plays. I think Reina is the only one to see any serious minutes in the whole cup – and that’s just because Spain wanted to give their great servant a chance to play, after they had been eliminated. Colombia also sent out the 43 year old Mondragon for a few honorary minutes in their final group game, to give him one shining moment at the end of a storied career. But basically, the third keeper will almost never be called on. So why wouldn’t you have him focus extensively on practicing for penalties? If nothing else, it gives you a psychological edge. It makes it feel like you are prepped for this and can get into the head of the opposition.

Anyways, it worked, and it doesn’t sound like there was any obvious outfield substitution that desperately needed to happen which this strategy foreclosed. So the Dutch move on.  And Costa Rica are done, after a truly valiant performance.  It was a lot of fun to watch them.  The offside trap isn’t exactly the most exciting way to play, but it was awesome to watch it executed so perfectly, and catching out some of the very best players in the world repeatedly.

Three of these four are the teams I originally predicted to reach the semifinals back before things started. And while Brazil is looking quite a bit weaker than I expected, I guess I’ll still go with my original guess: a South American final. In all honesty, I don’t see all that much between any of these teams, so no matchup would surprise me in the least. The only thing I’d actually want to put money on is for at least one (if not both) of them to go to penalties. It’s Brazil-Germany tomorrow. Here’s hoping for a wide open game to restore some of the excitement we felt before the quarterfinals!

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