My Top 20 Albums of 2009

I always do my Top 20 Album List on or around December 1 each year, since I think I have to listen to something for at least 30 days before declaring it best of anything. This year, I didn’t have to think very hard about the top of the pile, as my album of the year dominated the family iTunes account for months, and is still winning regular, repeat spins. So hats off to Mos Def. The Ecstatic makes me what it’s called. After putting it on the top of the heap, I then list the four runners up that could have been contenders in a year without Mos Def playing at the top of his game, and then the 15 other albums that most rocked my world this year, in alphabetic order. Happy listening!

Album of the Year, 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

First Runner Up: Pere Ubu, Long Live Pere Ubu!

Second Runner Up: Napalm Death, Time Waits for No Slave

Third Runner Up: Niwel Tsumbu, Song of the Nations

Fourth Runner Up: The Clean, Mister Pop

The Other Fifteen:

The Beatles Never Broke Up, Everyday Chemistry

The Big Pink, A Brief History of Love

Black Moth Super Rainbow, Eating Us

Clutch, Strange Cousins from the West

Cymbals Eat Guitars, Why Are There Mountains?

DM Stith, Heavy Ghosts

Gay Tastee, Songs for the Sodomites

Girls, Album

Gong, 2032

Japanther, Tut Tut Now Shake Ya Butt

Matt and Kim, Grand

Skyscape, Zetacarnosa

Super Furry Animals, Dark Days/Light Years

Various Artists, Analog Africa No.5, Legends of Benin

The Veils, Sun Gangs

A Pig and a Horse and a Prince

jerome15While looking at land for sale in central Rensselaer County this past weekend, Marcia and I saw an amorous pig vigorously making love to the rear leg of a bored-looking draft horse.

“Mauve,” said the horse, as we passed. “I think I will paint the barn mauve.”

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about today. What I really wanted to write about is what we might build if we did indeed buy some land out there beyond Passionate Pig Pastures.

Were it up to me and me alone, I would build a stone tower. I would be very happy to sit in my tower dropping rocks on unsuspecting passersby and generally making a community nuisance of myself.

It would look something like the picture at left, with me on top. This has been an image that I’ve carried deeply and resonantly since early childhood. I got it from a book called Jerome, by Philip Ressner.

Jerome is a prince who does princely deeds. You can see him standing at the base of the tower, if you look closely. He would be the frog.

The character at the top of the tower is a wizard. I think I liked him as a child because he had “yellow eyes and mean ears.” My eyes are actually green, but the ears fit, and I wear them. Meanly.

I sincerely, without a shred of hyperbole, believe this to be the greatest children’s picture story book ever written. Or drawn. The lessons it taught me about problem-solving and self-identity and sly humor and the joys of childhood are very central to my adult philosophies and worldview.

If you’d like to read and see and marvel at the rest of Jerome, you can find a complete scan of it over at the bottom of this page (Note: link broken, alas! So you need to go find a hard copy of the book at Ebay or Amazon. They are out there) along with another appreciative remembrance of it. The colors, language, and overall design are incredibly delicious, and I smile every time I look at it.

We actually found a potentially viable 13-acre lot with a great creek running through it after we passed by Horny Ham Acres, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get to work looking for some tower designs. Watch your head.

You Can’t Spell Notre Dame without a “NO”

For only the second time in my entire life, Navy beat Notre Dame on the gridiron today, smacking the Fighting Irish on their own turf, winning by the rarest and narrowest of margins: a fourth quarter safety! Few sporting events have made me happier than watching the Midshipman beat the Irish twice in the past three years, as Notre Dame easily, handily tops the list of teams that I actively, vociferously root against. Every time the Fighting Irish take the field or the court, I’m rooting for the other guys or girls, whoever they might be. Go teams! Fight back against those Irish!

You might think that Army would top my list of teams that create the strongest sense of aversion for me, seeing as how I’m a Navy alum and all that. But the beauty of the Army (and to a lesser extent, Air Force) rivalry with Navy is that I actually pull for them to win every game they play, except the ones that find them pitted against Navy. I have the highest regard for Army’s teams, knowing what they go through on top of their sports commitments, and knowing the sacrifices that they make in exchange for their college educations. They’re my brothers and sisters. Except for when they play Navy.

After basking in Notre Dame’s shellacking at the hands of the Midshipmen for a few hours this afternoon, I got to pondering the other teams that cause me to automatically pull for the opposition. So here’s a quick list of teams that immediately pop to mind . . .

1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Any sport, any opposition, I am rooting against you, and the sense of entitlement that you carry just because you won one for the Gipper 7,000 years ago. Watching network television falling all over itself to try to get you into the BCS picture with a 9-4 record makes my stomach turn.

2. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My dad was a North Carolina State alum, so I grew up surrounded by Wolfpack memorabilia and have deep-seated, emotional memories of watching State win the NCAA basketball championships with David Thompson in the ’70s and Lorenzo Charles in the ’80s. And being a State fan is mutually exclusive with being a Tarheel fan. Plus, during my college years, my girlfriend went to Chapel Hill, and I spent a lot of time there. I adored her, but I detested most of the smug, Izod shirt wearing tools she went to school with.

3. Miami Dolphins. I also have strong memories of watching the Dolphins beat the Redskins (my dad’s favorite team) in the Super Bowl to cap their perfect season back in ’72-73. That was galling enough, but watching the members of that team cracking bottles of champagne every year when the last undefeated team falls is so tacky that I can’t help but wish that someone, somewhere would knock that record off so I don’t have to hear about you anymore. Although I am glad that it wasn’t the New England Belichick’s that did it.

4. The New York Yankees. Is there anything less imaginative than being a Yankees fan? Gee . . . big risk you take there, chief, what with historical statistics saying your team’s going to win the World Series one out of every four years. This year is worst than most, since the Yankees victory has resulted in me being subjected to far too many pictures of the untalented and dull Kate Hudson flashing across my computer screen, as though it was her who drove in all of those Game Six RBIs. You wrecked the Black Crowes, Kate. I look forward to you doing the same to the Yankees next year.

5. Dallas Cowboys. Again, growing up in a strongly devoted Washington Redskins household, these guys were the enemies to top all enemies. But back in the day, you at least had to offer grudging respect to Coach Tom Landry and QB Roger Staubach (the last Navy QB to beat Notre Dame until three years ago), whereas the current crop of spoiled rich idiots running the ranch evoke neither empathy nor respect from where I sit. Though at least they had the sense to dump T.O.

6. Washington Redskins. A hatred for something you once loved is always a strong and burning one. I grew up rooting for the ‘Skins, but can in no way, shape or form root for them as long as the repellent Dan Snyder owns them. And he’s about my age, so I don’t suspect that I’ll ever have a chance to root for a post-Snyder Washington football club. And, really, it’s time to  change that name. There’s no excuse for not doing so at this point. It’s offensive, plain and simple.

7. Philadelphia Flyers. While my beloved Washington Capitals get victimized more often by the cross-state Pittsburgh Penguins that the Flyers, I still hold the eastern Pennsylvania team to be the more loathsome, in large part because they once paid Eric Lindross to play for them. The sooner the Flyers fold up like tacos in the postseason, the happier I am. Which is convenient, because it usually happens pretty quickly.

8. Miami Hurricanes. I’m a lifelong Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) fan, and I think the conference went to the dogs when they let South Florida’s semi-pro teams join what had once been a nice Carolina-centric concern. When the Hurricanes joined, there was at least the sense that maybe a “rising tide lifts all ships” effect would help the ACC, but the ‘Canes have been largely mediocre and annoying for most of their time in the conference. How ’bout we give them and Boston College back to the Big East, huh? We’ll keep Virginia Tech, if you want us to. They’re at least in a town that’s culturally part of the South, unlike Miami. Then if we can get Furman and Elon to upgrade to Division I-A, that would be one helluva great sports conference.

9. Maryland Terrapins. Again, as a Carolina-based ACC fan, it never quite seemed right to me to have a school from so close to the Mason-Dixon line in our conference. My antipathy to the Terps only grew when I was at Annapolis, especially after I watched a now-famous member of their football team (whose name I shan’t repeat) talk smack about Navy’s team in an Annapolis bar, inciting a brawl, in which he got stomped. Heh heh heh.

10. Ohio State Buckeyes. I think this is probably carryover distaste from the infamous incident where abusive Buckeye coach Woody Hayes punched a Clemson player during a game. I remember how loathsome it was to watch at the time, and I find myself wanting Ohio State to pay for it, all these years later.

11. Any basketball team coached by Bobby Knight. Speaking of loathsome. And abusive. Blech.

12. Michigan Wolverines. Because they don’t beat Ohio State nearly as often as they should, and because a school this big shouldn’t be allowed to compete against normal sized colleges and universities. You’d think with such a large pool of student athletes to pull from, they’d be able to field some decent teams. Surprisingly not so, most of the time.

Dishonorable Mentions: The entire Southeastern Conference. The entire Big Twelve (most especially Kansas, whose teams break my brackets in hoops, year after year after year). The entire Big Ten (except for Minnesota), because they can’t count the number of teams they have. Likewise the Pac Ten.  The Philadelphia 76ers. The New York Rangers. The Milwaukee Brewers (because they got to jump from the AL to the NL instead of the beloved Royals).

So those are the ones that pop to mind after quick thought. So which teams do you root against? Any on my list?

In Praise of Good Rats

tastyIn a just universe, Good Rats would have been to Long Island as Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band were to New Jersey: local heroes who turned vivid depictions of their hometown, gritty, blue-collar world into a universal musical and lyrical language, that resonated with listeners coast to coast, regardless of whether they knew where Asbury Park (or Hempstead, or Huntington) were. From where I sit, that would have been not only a just universe, but a better one, as I’d much rather listen to the Rats than the Boss any old day, for sure.

My first exposure to Good Rats came in the mid-1970s, when my family moved from deep Dixie to Mitchel Field, smack dab in the middle of Nassau County, Long Island. I was a little dislocated country cracker at that point, with an odd musical penchant for Steely Dan, Jethro Tull and Steppenwolf. I can remember going to the base exchange soon after we moved there, poring through its large record collection, and seeing an absolutely horrifying album regularly on the display racks, with a giant cartoon rat sitting on a pile of fetid garbage, upon which it happily feasted. Later, another album appeared near it, bearing the same band name (Good Rats), but this time with a picture of five impossibly hairy dudes on the cover, some with facial hair of a variety that just didn’t grow in rural South Carolina. rats to riches

I got bold enough eventually to shell out some of my newspaper delivery route earnings to score both of these albums, and was thrilled to discover the truly outstanding rock and roll music contained on each of them. Good Rats singer-songwriter Peppi Marchello was cut from the same cloth as Family‘s Roger Chapman, a braying, brash, belting frontman with a vibrato that could castrate small mammals at 100 paces. (Like Family, the Rats are known more for what their alumni did than what they themselves achieved; Family sent ex-members into Blind Faith and King Crimson, while Good Rats alums served with KISS and Twisted Sister). The band’s vintage line up also featured the exceptional guitar work of Mickey Marchello and John Gatto, who could easily noodle their way into Wishbone Ash twin-guitar wonderlands on the weirdly structured songs that Peppi gave them to romp and stomp upon. I saw them play live half a dozen times in the ’70s, at large arenas (blowing Rush off the stage at Nassau Coliseum) and small venues (a summer party at Eisenhower Park) alike, and they rocked their audiences like nobody’s business, no matter how many people they were playing for. Their play-anywhere-for-anyone ethos was truly inspirational, then and now.

I’ve had Tasty (the album with the giant rat on the cover, and home to the band’s most famous songs, the jazzy title track and the stomping union ode “Injun Joe”) in digital format for at least a decade now, listening to it regularly, and over the past few months have also found copies of the band’s other seminal ’70s and early ’80s albums: From Rats to Riches (produced by Flo and Eddie!), Ratcity in Blue, Birth Comes to Us All and Great American Music. They are thrillingly delicious rock records, with some truly inspired writing and playing spread among them. Good Rats evoke the aforementioned Family (weird bloozy music with prog tendencies spattered throughout) as well as the bombastic pomp of Queen, with powerful three part harmonies providing sweet support to brutal rock stompers and pretty piano ballads alike. I can’t speak highly enough of Peppi Marchello’s songwriting skills, either, as he is a master of the moving non sequitur melded to the potent riff, and does a divine job of capturing the feel of his home Island, with its labor unions, and ordinary men (with ordinary wives and children), and local zeros, and bass players who get a kick in the pants because their fingers move like Vitus dance. It’s smart writing about regular workaday stuff, and I highly value people who can deliver that balance. Does it make you feel good? Yes, it does.

Peppi Marchello still leads latter-day versions of Good Rats [update: Alas, Peppi flew away to his great reward in 2013], which have in recent times featured his sons where his brother once stood. A couple of weeks ago, I saw on their website that there was a reunion show of the original crew scheduled at a popular Suffolk County bar and grill. Unfortunately, it was the same night as parents weekend at my daughter’s college, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I seriously considered driving straight from Geneseo to Farmingdale to catch the band in concert again, all these years later. They were a brilliant rock and roll band, and folks from the Island still proudly embrace them for bringing the good times and good tunes to an entire generation’s worth of concert goers and record buyers. I’m glad I had the chance to experience them. I only rue the fact that everyone else in this great Nation of ours didn’t have the same opportunity.

Get out there and track you down some Good Rats. You’ll be glad you did, I guarantee.