My Favorite Albums of 2021

This year my musical tastes took me to a wide range of places, from soul to Americana to pop to blues and everything in between. It was also a year in which some old favorites returned, some with albums that really landed and a few that, for me, disappointed. I’m not sure what one can expect when an artist returns after a lengthy hiatus — do I want more of what made me appreciate them in the first place or something different? I suppose I can only take them as they come.

I had high hopes for new music from Aimee Mann, Tori Amos, and Crowded House, but ultimately these left me feeling empty and longing for their old stuff. On the other hand, new records from The Wallflowers, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and The Connells brought back 80s and 90s sounds that still worked for me.

Before I get to my 10 favorites, here are a few honorable mentions: I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs; Steadman’s Wake by The Connells; Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice; and Life by Misadventure by Rag’n’Bone Man. The latter delivered one of my favorite singles of the year, the beautiful soulful duet from Rag’n’Bone Man and P!nk entitled Anywhere From Here.

Now on to my 10 favorites:

Long Lost by Lord Huron. This indie folk band from Michigan has become regulars on my year-end list since their debut in 2012 and has never disappointed. Long Lost is hard to define, just as the band is hard to categorize. To me, the band feels part country, part folk, a little rockabilly, with a touch of the old west. The title track is a great example of their unique throwback sound.

Exit Wounds by The Wallflowers. Maybe you forgot about The Wallflowers or you relegated them to the one-hit-wonder pile whenever you heard One Headlight on the radio. I mean, Bringing Down the Horse was released in 1997. I sorta forgot about them too. But a few years ago lead singer Jakob Dylan reemerged as the narrator/tour guide of a wonderful documentary film about the Laurel Canyon sound called Echo in the Canyon and I marveled at how much history Dylan knew and loved how he brought together modern artists like Beck, Cat Power and Fiona Apple to cover classics from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, and others. I was reminded how good Dylan is and was excited to learn he was bringing The Wallflowers back together to release this new record. And it’s really solid.

The Future by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Nathaniel Rateliff is another artist that defies category, typically filed under soul or blues. I’m really into neo-soul, blues rock, blue-eyed soul, or whatever you call artists that sound like they grew up on Al Green, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. There has been a tremendous resurgence in this genre of late and I don’t care if the artist is white or black if they sound like Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. I loved their debut album in 2015 and the new album is super.

Obviously by Lake Street Dive. I’ve been a fan of these guys for a few years now mostly because they have a great pop/jazz sound and frankly I think Aussie-born lead singer Rachael Price is adorable. The band came together in the early 2000s at the New England Conservatory of Music, were named after a dive bar in Minneapolis, but is now based in Brooklyn. No question Hypotheticals is one of my favorite songs of the year and the whole album simply makes me happy. LSD is getting more notice thanks in large part to the Colbert Bump.

Starting Now by Toad the Wet Sprocket. This was the best surprise for me this year. I had low expectations for a new Toad album, but Glen Phillips could sing the alphabet song and I’d be all in so I gave it a listen and it transported me back to the early 90s in a good way. The band’s last good album, Coil, came out in 1997, and while Glen made some very solid solo records since that time I missed the Toad of the 90s. Starting Now is vintage and unlike some other older bands I found I wanted more and this album hits the mark. If like me you love Pale, Fear, Dulcinea, and Coil you’ll enjoy Starting Now.

Delta Kream by Black Keys. Every Black Keys record since Brothers has made my top 10 list over the years so it should come as no surprise Delta Kream lands on this list at no. 5. What is surprising though is that this record is unapologetically pure delta blues and not a rock record. In fact, it recently earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album, and rightfully so. Recorded over a couple of days in Nashville, Pat and Dan brought in some powerhouse blues musicians like guitarist Kenny Brown, bassist Eric Deaton, and organist Ray Jacildo and covered some special songs that Dan and Pat say they grew up on. It’s 54 minutes of down-home Mississippi blues and it shreds.

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Jake Bugg. Twenty-seven-year-old Brit Jake Bugg released his first record as a teenager, but he has matured into a great rock and roll singer-songwriter. I first got hooked when I saw him open for the Black Keys, and at that time he was heavy into blues-oriented rock just like the Keys. Then in 2017, he released Hearts That Strain which sounded more like a Cat Stevens record, and his follow-up this year follows in that mold…weaving in some blues, rock, and even a little electronic. It’s beautiful and he has earned his place among my favorite artists.

When You See Yourself by Kings of Leon. 2021 was a rough year for the Followill clan as shortly after they released their new record and headed out on the road they lost their mother to cancer. The band canceled their remaining U.S. tour dates for the year but are expected to head back out on the road in 2022. When You See Yourself is a great KoL record and if you’re a fan of the band you’ll undoubtedly love it as I do. The Bandit is one of my favorite songs of the year.

Private Space by Durand Jones & The Indications. My love affair with neo-soul bands continued this year and no soul record got more airtime on my Spotify account than this one. These guys formed in Bloomington, Indiana and have been together for almost 10 years but for my money this album should put them into the upper echelons of the modern soul revival. Durand’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and that’s saying something. This record is smooth and soulful and a joy to listen to. If this song doesn’t make you want to dance I can’t help you.

In These Silent Days by Brandi Carlile. One thing is clear — Brandi Carlile’s time has come. On the heels of her 2017 Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You she toured for a while, made Barack Obama’s popular year-end playlist, formed supergroup The Highwomen with Amanda Shires and Maren Morris, covered a pair of Soundgarden songs to critical acclaim, and then finally went back into the studio to release a new album that even before this week’s five Grammy nominations I knew was going to redefine her once again. By the Way, I Forgive You gave her wins in three categories — Americana, American Roots, and the all-genre song of the year category. This year the Grammy goofballs put her in pop, but to her credit, she doesn’t give a shit. She just makes her music and lets the cards fall where they may, but she did tweet: “Americana/American Roots music is more than a genre to me…it represents my community, my family, my friends, and my beautiful island of misfits.”

In These Silent Days may not win any Grammy’s (which would be criminal), but it’s the best album of the year by far and also my favorite album of the year. If you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll agree. But if you’re not, do yourself a favor and find an hour to be by yourself and give this record a listen from start to finish. It’s flat-out gorgeous and Brandi is truly a genre-busting megastar. When she hits the crescendo on Right on Time I get chills. And because this album is so great I’ve included a bonus song!

I Know it’s Weird, but I’ve Got a Thing for Cover Songs

This week Jason Isbell released a charity album of cover songs of Georgia artists and it’s fabulous. Among the great tracks is a cover of Kid Fears by Indigo Girls with Brandi Carlile and Julien Baker performing the Amy and Emily parts and Jason lending a hand with the Michael Stipe bits. Kid Fears is one of my favorite Indigo Girls tracks and Isbell and friends do a great job with it.

I know some people don’t care for covers, but I love it when an artist I like covers another artist I like. I think it’s sort of a tribute to the original song, and it’s awesome to know a newer artist appreciates the same older songs that you do. For me the key is not worrying about whether the cover is true to the original version but rather enjoying the new take even if it jumps genres. In fact, I kind of like it better when the track jumps genres. A great example of this is Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Train in Vain by The Clash. He countryfies it, but it works as a country song because the lyrics resonate in the country world.

A few years back Rolling Stone magazine readers ranked their favorite cover songs of all time with Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower topping the list. Jimi’s version, for me anyway, is better than the original. I think that’s rare, and as I said I’m not looking for better but rather different. I like U2’s version better than Dylan’s as well, but I think Dylan is a far better songwriter than he is a performer.

Sometimes a band or artist can have a huge hit with a cover. Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sold 1.2M copies and nearly topped the charts while Cohen’s original didn’t chart at all when it first came out. Buckley’s cover makes most “best covers” lists but for my money k.d. lang’s version sung at the 1988 Calgary Olympics is even better. The Fugees took Killing Me Softly With His Song to number one in 1996 while Roberta Flack’s original version peaked at number six. Heck, Alien Ant Farm took Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal to number three while MJ’s version only reached number eight.

Once in a while a hit song comes along that listeners don’t even know were covers. UB40’s Red Red Wine is one example — it was actually written by and performed first by Neil Diamond. Bow Wow Wow is most famously known for their hit I Want Candy but it was written and performed in 1965 by The Strangeloves. Tainted Love by Soft Cell was 20 years old when they recorded it and had a hit. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was a mega hit for Cyndi Lauper but it was released earlier by its writer Robert Hazard (yep, the same guy who had a new wave hit with Escalator of Life).

I like covers so much I have a growing playlist of them on Spotify and whenever I hear a new one I like the playlist grows. It’s currently at 179 songs and counting! To make my list, I either have to like the song itself, the cover band, the original artist, or all of the above.

Some highlights for me include The Beautiful South covering the Pebbles hit Girlfriend (because why wouldn’t a British alternative band cover a 1987 R&B hit by an American New Jack Swing artist. The Beautiful South is one of my favorite bands and they love a good unexpected cover. They’ve also covered diverse hits by Blue Oyster Cult, the Bee Gees, the Smiths and Ramones to name a few.

Another favorite if mine is Tori Amos covering Smells Like Teen Spirit, which she does in her own raspy sexy way.

California-born Gary Jules is mostly known for his cover of the Tears For Fears song Mad World, which the band liked so much they covered his toned down version at a live show I attended. How’s that for a tribute?

All this is to say a good cover song can be a hit on its own, or be a nice diversion from an artist’s typical work, or can just be a ton of fun. What are some of your favorite covers? Let me know and I may add them to my Playlist.

U.S. Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout Symptom of Everything that’s Wrong with our Country

There are a lot of things wrong with America, but none perhaps as concerning of our growing inability to get shit done. Wasn’t it always an American hallmark that we kicked ass and took names? As the saying goes, we put a man on the moon, but…

I don’t think it’s a political issue, although the Trump administration has fucked up more than its share of basic government function over the past four years. No, this inability to do things started long before we elected that orange moron. Maybe it started after the attacks of 911. Instead of hunting down the perpetrators, we bungled our way into a quagmire in two countries that didn’t attack us on Sept. 11, 2001 and made things worse for millions of people living in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our response to Hurricane Katrina was pathetic and immoral. Our trains don’t run on time and crash all the time. Our cities are crumbling and we can’t even ensure our citizens get clean water to drink. Our forests are burning down and taking whole towns with them. Our healthcare system is a clusterfuck of bureaucracy, escalating costs, and coverage gaps. We can’t even do something as basic as hold an election without major issues. Seriously, I could go on all day but I might have to shoot myself afterward it’s so depressing. America feels like a banana republic not the greatest country on the planet. There’s plenty of blame to go around, on every side of the political spectrum, but also on all of us for allowing this to happen under our watch. It’s our country, therefore it’s our fault that things are so bad. I know, it’s not all bad — we still make a damn good hamburger.

The pandemic has, unfortunately, highlighted our ineffectiveness. I don’t think it’s fair to compare our response to, say, New Zealand’s. They are a small island with fewer citizens than New York City alone. But the list of countries managing this virus better than us is a little sad. We’re number one in total cases and total deaths. Near the top of the list in deaths per million citizens at 1,201. China is 45th in total deaths despite having four times our population. There are a lot of what the orangutan in chief called shithole countries kicking our ass on this virus. Somalia has had 130 total deaths from coronavirus. Laos — none. Nobody has died from Covid-19 in Laos. All these facts are readily available here:

But nothing we’ve screwed up over the past few years is as terrifying as how we are rolling out the Covid vaccine. Seriously, we have a solution in our hands and we’re tossing bricks like Shaquille O’Neal at the free-throw line. There’s plenty of blame here for the Trump administration. By delaying vaccine purchases and not developing a national roll out strategy he caused this mess. Punting this roll out to the states to figure out may end up causing tens of thousands if not millions of lives. Still, you’d think state government could figure this out but things are going terribly wrong. Because in America we can’t do basic things anymore.

The obvious question is why? Are we just too big? Are we too divided politically that we can’t agree on something as nonpartisan as a deadly virus? Have we spent years underfunding infrastructure while propping up corporations and billionaires? Are our best and brightest eschewing public office because why would any smart person be foolish enough to put themselves in that no-win cycle of fundraising? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of the above and more.

I’m furious with the vaccine rollout here in Arizona. And not just because I have significant risk factors and haven’t been able to get the vaccine yet. I also have been trying desperately to book vaccine appointments for my parents. Meanwhile, I’m seeing people with far less risk than myself smiling on Facebook as needles are plunged into their arms. It’s not their fault — good for them. The system is ridiculous and ripe for fraud. Here’s a headline I saw today that sums it up — The Wild Ways Young People Justify Jumping Ahead of the Line for the Coronavirus Vaccine. Again, not blaming them for jumping ahead of the line. It should never have been an issue to begin with.

I know things are bad in many states. I just read about a friend in Texas who drove hours to get a vaccine only to be turned away because they ran out. But Arizona’s rollout has been especially bad. When the administration left this task to the states, Arizona could have done the smart thing and brought together state and county health officials, corporations, and medical experts to formulate a logical plan to vaccinate our seven million citizens over the next six months. Instead, our state punted to the counties. And now we’re left with a mishmash of policies and procedures that are unfair, ineffective, and delayed and that will result in lives lost. It’s that serious. Lives will be lost.

In Maricopa County, where I live, in order to get the vaccine you have to register on the Arizona Department of Health Services website to get an appointment for the vaccine. There is only one large-scale vaccine delivery site, at State Farm Stadium, and those appointments are booked through the end of the month and the site is not yet taking February appointments for some unknown reason. The state’s registration site is confusing, leaving many eligibility details to interpretation resulting in people who should not be first in line getting vaccines. Meanwhile, people under age 75 with pre-existing conditions are still waiting for registration slots to open and crossing their fingers that when the slots do open they can get an appointment and that there are vaccines available. I can wait until my turn (I’m 1B but apparently there are two phases of 1B though nobody mentioned this. Or maybe I’m 1C. Not sure, which is the point). Or I can fib and say I am a teacher or a childcare worker and hope nobody asks for proof, something I’m hearing is exactly what is happening at the State Farm Stadium site. If you show up with an appointment you get a vaccine even if you lied on the registration form. And again, I’m not blaming people who have done just that. The guidelines are unclear. If you work for a company that has previously been deemed essential does that mean you are 1B or 1B phase two? Do you work or volunteer with children even though you do not work for a school, and does that make you eligible? It’s unclear so people are checking that box and heading down to the distribution sites and getting vaccinated even without proof of employment. Of course there is fraud in this system — it was designed to enable fraud.

For the record, even if you are in 1B phase one there are no appointments left at State Farm Stadium in January despite it being open 24/7 and February appointments are not yet being accepted. So I can’t get a vaccine in Maricopa County for now.

Which brings me to the rest of the state. Every county has its own plan and its own way of determining what phase it is in. Pima County finally opened their registration site on Thursday, and it immediately crashed. I decided to try to sign up in Pima and when I went through the process the final outcome was a note that said the county was going to evaluate my eligibility and get back to me. Get back to me? When? How?

Meanwhile, I heard from someone on Facebook that Banner Health was taking registrations for appointments at a site in Pima County so I headed to that site and was successful in getting appointments for my parents and myself. Though I’m still not 100 percent sure if I’m truly eligible at this time or if my mother is truly eligible. For her it’s because you have to be 75 in Pima County to get a vaccine, but only until Tuesday at which time they are opening it up to people 65 or older. By the way, Maricopa County has decided not to open up to those 65 and older for now despite guidance from the state saying they didn’t think they had enough vaccines. And they probably don’t. Whose fault is that? I’d say it’s the collective “leadership” of the U.S. — the greatest country on the planet?

So here we are. A year into this pandemic and science has gifted us with a vaccine and we can’t come together and create a smart, logical, and fair process for vaccinating every citizen. It’s just a vaccine dammit — we put a man on the moon!

Five Quirky Little Films From Five Different Decades You Probably Haven’t Seen…but Should Watch ASAP

With so much time on our hands these days because of the pandemic many of us have been catching up on our movie watch lists. In the past few weeks I’ve ripped through quite a few films I’d been sitting on for a while, some of which were great (1917) and some…well, not so much (Mad Max: Fury Road). Sometimes it’s funny what ends up in your watch list and when you finally do get around to them it can be a great surprise. I currently have 137 films in my IMDB watch list, and I never quite know how to choose what to watch when I scroll through it looking for a two-hour escape. I’m never really sure how some of the films ended up in my watch list to begin with! (By the way, I recommend choosing one overarching site to keep your watch list otherwise you’ll end up with films and TV show suggestions all over the place. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google. If they all synced that’d be one thing, but they don’t.)

This morning I got to thinking about some of the more indie or lesser-known films I’ve loved over the years and decided to share one to represent each of the past five decades. You probably didn’t see these films, but they all rate among my all-time favorites.

1970s. They Might Be Giants. If quirky is your thing I highly recommend this 1971 film from director Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter) starring George C. Scott as a mental patient who believes he’s Sherlock Holmes and escapes into the streets of New York looking for clues to find his archrival Moriarty. He enlists the help of his doctor, whose name is, of course, Dr. Watson (played wonderfully by Joanne Woodward). You can’t help but love this odd love story that’s really about taking life by the horns and living fully. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the film did indeed inspire the name of the band They Might Be Giants. This film will inspire you to tilt at windmills. The film is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and others.

Here’s the original trailer for They Might Be Giants

1980s. Five Corners. In 1987 John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck, but in the same year the little-known film Five Corners was released and it is without a doubt one of my favorite films ever. Truthfully, I’m not sure how this film slipped past most viewers because it’s amazing. It was directed by Tony Bill, who is well known for his work in television but not for directing films. Five Corners stars Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins, and in what is certainly a preview of things to come, a remarkable performance by a young John Turturro two years before his breakout role of Pino in Do The right Thing. The story of a few odd and dangerous days in the Bronx neighborhood of Five Corners will never leave you. This film is currently available to watch for free on Amazon Prime for members and for rent on Fandango.

John Turturro stars as psychotic parolee Heinz in 1987’s Five Corners

1990s. 29th Street. These days it’s all too common for film stars from other countries to play Americans, but this wasn’t always the case. When I first saw Anthony LaPaglia in 1990s Betsy’s Wedding, I couldn’t have imagined he wasn’t really an Italian American from New York. Then a year later he popped up again in 29th Street, a critical favorite that year that did not do very well at the box office, again playing an Italian New Yorker. The thing is, no matter what you see on your screen, the fact remains that LaPaglia is Australian. I know, how can that be? Based on a true story, 29th Street is the story of Frank Pesce, a man from a tough New York neighborhood who wins the lottery. You’d think this would make his life easier, but alas what kind of story would that be. Danny Aiello and Lainie Kazan also star in this very funny film. It doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere right now so add it to your watch list for later.

Danny Aiello and Anthony LaPaglia star in 1991’s 29th Street

2000s. State and Main. I know David Mamet is not for everyone, but I love snappy dialogue as much as anyone. Mamet is a genius when it comes to dialogue, right up there with Aaron Sorkin, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers. Mamet has written some gems, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog, and The Untouchables, but State and Main is nonstop beginning to end poetry delivered by a host of the world’s best actors. It’s the story of what happens when a film crew invades a small town because it’s the perfect location for their movie. The town is at first a little star struck, but soon it becomes clear that these Hollywood big shots have no concern for the town and its residents. State and Main stars William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin (he plays a famous actor with a proclivity for very young women, something a local teen restaurant worker played by Julia Stiles soon finds out), Sarah Jessica Parker, Patti LuPone, and a host of character actors you know and love. Do your best to keep up with the frantic dialogue and enjoy this smart and funny film. Currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.

2000s State and Main is one of writer/director David Mamet’s best films

2010s. In a World… Allow me to just for a moment rave about a very underappreciated Hollywood triple threat. I never saw Boston Legal, so I didn’t know Lake Bell before seeing In a World… when it first came out. But this little film made my top 10 of the year in 2013 and my top 10 of the decade. Lake is the writer, director and star of In a World…, a funny little film in which she plays a voice coach who decides to take on Hollywood’s big boys when the industry decides to reintroduce the campy “in a world” film trailer trope and she looks to become the first female voice to utter those dramatic words in a major Hollywood film trailer. You know the trope, right? In a world where apes are in charge and men are kept in zoos… It’s ubiquitous in the film trailer world, made famous by the late voiceover actor Don LaFontaine. Nobody thinks Lake’s character can break through the glass ceiling, including her famous father (played by the always funny Fred Melamed) who is also in line for the part. This film is a Lake Bell tour de force. She is so funny in it, and as director she brought in some incredible talent to play alongside her including Melamed, the underappreciated Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro (who apropos of nothing met her future wife Stephanie Allynne on set), Ken Marino, Eva Longoria, and Rob Corddry. I have written many times about this film and have insisted ever since that Lake Bell is an American treasure. It’s currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.

In a World where Lake Bell plays a voiceover actress she will make you laugh out loud

I’m not going to lie, it was hard to pick just one quirky little film from each decade so you can bet that these are among the best in my opinion. And yes, these are opinions. As with most art, one person’s endorsement isn’t necessarily an indication of whether or not you’re going to feel the same way. But if you don’t LOVE these five films there’s something wrong with you. 😉

Lifelong Learning Via Documentary Films

With all the down time I’ve had as a result of the pandemic, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the films I’ve marked “to-watch” on my various platforms. I don’t know about you, but when I run across a film or television show I want to see I keep track of it so when I’m sitting around trying to figure out what to watch I have a place to start. Honestly, I don’t have a perfect system because in the current climate we’re forced to subscribe to various platforms to enjoy media. Through one means or another I have access to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Movies, Disney Plus, HBO Max, YouTube TV, IMDB, and a host of other platforms. There is no great way to keep track of what you want to watch, so as a result I have multiple watch lists. If I had the time and inclination, I could probably cross-reference them all and add them to one single watch list — but who has time for that?

All this is to say I have hundreds of titles available to watch at any given time. Lately though, I’ve been catching up on documentaries. I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner and often people ask me how I know so much random crap and I usually say I read a ton and I watch educational television and films. Documentary films in particular allow you to do a deep dive on an issue and usually you end up learning something valuable. Yes, some documentaries are more about entertainment and the subject matter can be trivial or frivolous (Tiger King comes to mind), and yes there are far too many true crime documentaries for my taste, although I do watch them sometimes if the subject is of particular interest. I recently watched the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix because I’ve read a lot about her case and I’m fascinated by the travesty of justice displayed by the Italian court and the focus on a wild but unproven theory about a sexual tryst gone wrong. That poor girl was nearly destroyed simply because she didn’t react “normally” when her roommate was killed.

But what I really look for in a documentary is an opportunity to learn something significant. Some of my all-time favorite docs include Hoop Dreams, Man on Wire, Religulous, When the Levies Broke, Roger & Me, An Honest Liar, Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, Searching for Sugar Man, Sherman’s March, and The Thin Blue Line.

I love me some rock documentaries, especially Amy, Stop Making Sense, and A.K.A. Doc Pomus. I have seen tons of food documentaries, from Food Inc. to Forks Over Knives to The Future of Food. Some documentaries are funny, some are serious, and some are a little of both. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a film is a documentary or a drama, like Zelig or This is Spinal Tap.

These are glorious times if you like documentaries given there are so many streaming sites. Right now I have a few dozen docs lined up in my queue from Crip Camp to 13th to I Am Not Your Negro to What Happened, Miss Simone? I hope to catch up on a bunch of them over the next few weeks given I’m off work.

Earlier this week I watched a documentary that had been in my watchlist for a while but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It is called Disclosure and its about depictions of trans people in Hollywood past to present. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have to say I learned more about trans people in 1 hour 48 minutes than I had in my previous 54 years on the planet. Disclosure is a series of interviews with trans actors and actresses who share their experiences and thoughts on various key trans moments in film over the years. It features a who’s who of trans actors and actresses, including a few I knew something about like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono and tons I knew very little about. It was so eye opening.

It may be true the world is awakening when it comes to trans people, and while there’s a long way to go I was struck by a few things I learned in the film. I know this makes sense, and of course it’s true, but there have always been trans actors and actresses in film. It’s just that for the majority of the time the average viewer had no idea we were watching a trans performance. It was fascinating to hear from some of these actors and actresses who performed on film for years without anyone knowing their true gender. I couldn’t imagine having to hide such a significant thing about yourself in order to do your job.

The most striking thing I learned in the film was that up until very recently, like the past couple of years, trans people were ridiculed on the screen and we all thought nothing of it. There were a couple of specific (and loosely related examples) highlighted. Most film fans will remember 1992’s The Crying Game, about a man who unknowingly entered into a relationship with a trans woman. While Jaye Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, (spoiler alert) upon learning he’s been having sexual experiences with a trans woman Stephen Rea’s character reacted by literally throwing up at the thought of it. Imagine how that might have felt if you were a young trans person watching the film at the time? How horrifically irresponsible of the filmmaker. Two years later blockbuster Ace Ventura: Pet Detective spoofed the scene by having multiple characters throw up simply upon seeing a trans person. In fact, a trans person is the villain in the film. This too is a common theme in Hollywood, that of the villainous trans person — from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs.

I never really thought about trans portrayals on film and on TV. Over the past few months I’ve been watching the Showtime series Billions, which stars TVs first significant non-binary character in Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason. They are wonderful in the series, but it took until 2016 for Hollywood to write in a non-binary character with some meat to the part. And as for trans characters, they’ve long been subjected to roles as sex workers, murder victims, or comedic interludes.

Disclosure is ultimately a film about the positive turn underway in Hollywood. Trans actors are being taken seriously, and they are getting roles written as trans to be acted by trans actors and actresses. Orange is the New Black was a breakthrough moment for the trans community with Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset portrayed as much more than a sideline character for comedic relief. In fact, Sophia’s storyline is both heartwarming and tragic and it’s definitely not one dimensional. I have not seen the show Transparent, but I understand that while there has been some negative reaction to CIS actor Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans woman, the show does in fact provide some meaty roles for actual trans actors and actresses including Alexandra Billings who is interviewed in Disclosure. And of course there are the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana, who wrote and directed The Matrix films and who are setting the bar for trans power in film.

The bottom line is I had never thought much about trans portrayal in Hollywood but it makes sense that popular opinion of trans people will be both reflected by and influenced by film and television. It’s important if we are going to continue to advance as an inclusive society that we recognize the past and fight for the future. We all have a role to play, and educating ourselves is a good start. I’d like to think I’m already a good trans ally for the trans people I know — and I know more and more people transitioning all the time — but there’s a difference between surface-level knowing and deeper understanding. There are so many lessons for the CIS community in Disclosure that I recommend it for everyone who wants to be a better ally.

Top 20 Things I Watched on TV in 2020

In the past I liked to blog about my favorite films of the year, or my favorite TV shows of the year, but 2020 has been a year like no other and I can’t even remember the last time I was in a movie theater. On the other hand, I have spent an inordinate amount of time watching television — older shows, new shows, documentaries, limited series, and everything in between. And yes, I’ve watched a ton of movies on TV, including some that never got to theaters because of the pandemic. So this year I’ve decided to blog about the top 20 things I watched on TV regardless of whether they are “TV” shows or “movies” since those lines are perhaps forever blurred.

For many of us, 2020 has been the year of the binge. Certain shows captured the attention of the whole nation and entered the pop culture that maybe would have been just a blip on the radar in the past. I’m thinking of Tiger King of course, which for the record I did not watch in its entirety rather I saw bits and pieces as my son and his girlfriend binged it, or The Mandalorian which I also didn’t watch. I think the most asked thing on Facebook this year was people asking friends and family for advice on what to binge.

That said, there was a ton of content to choose from in 2020. I definitely haven’t seen everything I want to yet, so I reserve the right to add to this list, but for now with a couple of week’s to go in the year this is where I am. So here we go:

  • Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. (Amazon) I make no excuses for this, but I absolutely loved Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. Yes, I loved the original. And yes, I think Sacha Baron Cohen is very funny. Very very funny. And while I didn’t think it was as pee-in-your-pants funny as the original, it still made me laugh.
  • Unorthodox. (Netflix) I’m a sucker for a good cult story and make no mistake, Hasidism is a cult. The story of Esther Shapiro was engaging, heartbreaking, terrifying, but ultimately redeeming. Inspired by a true story, this miniseries will have you on the edge of your seat. It also featured one of the most remarkable acting performances of the year in Shira Haas’ magnificent portrayal of Esther.
  • The Last Dance. (ESPN) It felt like everyone was watching The Last Dance over the summer. This documentary about the Chicago Bulls was compelling television for basketball fans, sports fans, and frankly fans of drama in general. The footage and the inside stories were remarkable and let’s face it, Michael Jordan is one of the most famous people on the planet and getting a peek into his world was fascinating.
  • My Octopus Teacher. (Netflix) This is one of those documentaries that you would never watch unless someone told you it was a don’t miss. It’s a don’t miss. It’s about a South African guy who becomes friends with an octopus. Really. I know, but he does.
  • David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet. (Netflix) This should really be higher on my list. If you’ve ever watched a nature show, you pretty much have David Attenborough to thank for bringing the genre to life. But this is much more than a nature show, it’s a clarion call to humanity to wake up before it’s too late — and it’s just about too late. If life on earth does go the way of the dodo, what’s left of humankind will look back at this particular documentary and mark the beginning of the end. If we listen to him, there is hope for humankind. If we don’t? Well, I think you know the answer to that. Thank you Sir Attenborough for this farewell message. I hope you don’t look down from above 30 years from now and say I Told You So.
  • Sex Education (Season 2). (Netflix) This show was one of the best surprises of 2019 and Season 2 did not disappoint. This British show is what a teen comedy should be. It’s funny as hell, but it’s also smart and the teens are real. It has a great cast led by Asa Butterfield as the awkward Otis who inadvertently becomes his school’s expert in sex thanks to all the knowledge he soaked up from his mom’s therapy practice. His fellow teens are desperate for his advice and so of course he launches an underground sex therapy practice at school. Ncuti Gatwa excels as Otis’ best friend Eric, a teen coming to terms with his homosexuality in fabulous ways.
  • The Good Place. (NBC, Hulu). I binged all four seasons of this silly show in 2020 and I really enjoyed it. I have to admit, I’m a Kristen Bell fan and her portrayal of Eleanor Shellstrop from Phoenix, Arizona was hysterical. But what makes this show so good is that the entire ensemble cast is wonderful. If you don’t fall in love with D’Arcy Carden’s encyclopedic “Good Janet” there’s something wrong with you and you should be sent to her void.
  • Hannah Gadsby: Douglas. (Netflix) In 2018, Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby broke the internet with her standup special called Nanette. Seriously, people couldn’t decide if it was the best standup special they’d ever seen or it was a Ted Talk in disguise that had no business being called standup. I can tell you what it was for me — the most brave and vulnerable performance by a comedian I’d ever seen and the best 70 minutes you’ll ever spend if you have any humanity. Douglas was her follow up, if there can be a follow up to a revelation, and it was funny and smart and clever and darn good. I doubt very much Gadsby expected that first special to change her life so dramatically, but it did and we’re all better for her being in the spotlight. Nanette will change you. Douglas will make you laugh. Watch them both.
  • Little Fires Everywhere. (Hulu). I’m always skeptical when a film version is made from a book I love, and while the Hulu miniseries based on Celeste Ng’s wonderful novel is not perfect it’s very well done and worth the watch even you haven’t read the novel. Reese Witherspoon has a keen eye for good material and she is an avid reader so I wasn’t surprised when she grabbed up the rights to Ng’s book and I was thrilled when they cast the exceptional Kerry Washington in the co-lead role. Little Fires Everywhere is timely and important.
  • High Fidelity. (Hulu). I began this remake as a sort of “hate watch” but it wasn’t long before I forgot my complaints about why they even attempted to remake a perfect movie. It’s really not the same story. I mean, it’s about a love worn record store owner who shares details about past relationships. But Zoe Kravitz brings a whole new flavor to Rob, above and beyond the obvious gender flip. It is nice to see a story about a woman in charge of her relationships and taking ownership for her mistakes. So often films are stuck in the “boy fucks up relationship” mold that it was downright refreshing to watch Kravitz struggle through her issues. I really didn’t want to like this because the film is among my all-time favorites. But I liked it. A lot. And I’m rooting for a second season. Oh, and the fun little irony of Kravitz’ real-life mom Lisa Bonet having a key role in the original was cool.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix). Aaron Sorkin takes on the 1968 Chicago riots and a cast of 60s characters too crazy to be fiction…I was always going to love this film. When I was in college I read Tom Hayden’s autobiography so I knew a lot about the trial, but it was great to see it come to life on the screen. Sorkin did a tremendous job bringing these hippies to life, but the performances truly stole the show. Sacha Baron Cohen was unforgettable as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne played a perfect laced up Hayden, and Frank Langella was a wicked Judge Julius Hoffman. Truthfully, Sacha Baron Cohen can really act.
  • The King of Staten Island. (Amazon). Judd Apatow has become one of my favorite directors and this semi-autobiographical film about Saturday Night Live regular Pete Davidson was funny, warm, touching, and well done all around. Davidson is one of the few SNL stars with real talent and he puts it all on display here and he may just have a future as a leading man. This film also includes fabulous supporting performances by Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei and especially young Brit Bel Powley as Pete’s girlfriend. It’s classic Apatow, complete with a cameo by his daughter Maude who has really grown up since her under-the-radar turn in This is 40. But this film is all about Davidson, whose real-life story of growing up without his dad who was killed on 911 is heartbreaking. This film is heartbreaking, but ultimately leaves the viewer feeling good about the young protagonist’s future. I suspect we’ll see the same in Pete’s real life…in fact we already are.
  • What We Do in the Shadows. (FX, Hulu). I haven’t seen the film version of What We Do in the Shadows, so I didn’t have any baggage coming into the television series. Frankly, if the film is half as funny as the TV show I should probably watch it sooner rather than later. I’ll admit, this kind of humor isn’t for everyone. It is very British, or in this case kiwi, since the creators are from New Zealand. Creator Jemaine Clement is a crazy nut with a devastating sense of humor and show runner Taika Waititi (of Jojo Rabbit fame) is a dark comedy genius. This show about modern day vampires living in Staten Island really made me laugh and I can’t wait for season three next year. The whole cast is fabulous, but English actor Matt Berry truly steals every scene. Bat!
  • Ozark (Season 3). (Netflix) The story of Marty Byrd and his family is what binge watching is all about. Ozark has been one of the top shows now for three seasons and season three did not disappoint. In fact, it may have been the best yet. The storyline with Wendy’s brother was intense, and every minute of screen time for Julia Garner was breathtaking. Dang that woman can act. She’s already won a pair of Emmys and I suspect it won’t be long before she brings home an Oscar. Her Ruth Langmore is one of the most memorable television characters of all time. I know not everyone liked season three, but that final episode? Come on.
  • Better Things. (FX, Hulu). Don’t you love it when you take a chance on a show and it turns out to be amazing? I binged 43 episodes of this Pamela Adlon-led gem this summer and it was remarkably bold and dangerous and heartwarming and funny all rolled into one mom trying to keep a family of all girls from exploding. I mean, it did sort of explode a few times, but Sam Fox always pulled it together in the end. The actresses who play her daughters are super, especially Hannah Alligood who plays middle daughter Frankie. Seriously, it’s hard to upstage Adlon, but 15-year-old Alligood did it time and time again on this show. I know some won’t watch this show because it was written and produced by Louis C.K., and I get that, but Pamela Adlon is not Louis C.K. nor is she an apologist for her longtime friend and collaborator and in fact she severed ties with him following the scandal. She is an American treasure is what she is. This show was brilliant.
  • Narcos: Mexico (Season 2). (Netflix). The Narcos franchise has been one of television’s most compelling series over the past few years and whether you watch the original series on the Columbian drug trade or the newer series about the Mexican cartels you’re in for a powerhouse of performances and drama. I think Narcos can easily be placed among the best crime dramas ever and for my money it’s right up there some of my other favorites like The Sopranos and The Wire.
  • Love on the Spectrum. (Netflix). This limited series from Australia was a delight to watch. The show follows several autistic adults as they attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of dating, hard enough for people not on the spectrum but even more difficult if you have a disorder like autism. But everyone deserves love. This show is sweet, and pulls at the heartstrings, and makes you giggle. The “stars” of the show are a joy to get to know and you can’t help but root for them to make a love connection. I can’t wait for season two.
  • The Great. (Hulu). Maybe I’m a sick fucker, but no show made me laugh more in 2020 than this little series about Catherine the Great. Yes, it’s a dark comedy set in 18th century Russia. That in and of itself is strange, but it’s truly laugh out loud funny (if you don’t mind gallows humor). I plowed through both seasons of The Great in a few days and didn’t want it to end. Dakota Fanning is so good, but Nicholas Hoult is tremendous as the sex-crazed, solipsistic, idiot of a king. Hoult is one of those actors who you know you’ve seen before but who you don’t likely know by name. The chap from Wokingham was in Mad Max: Fury Road, About a Boy (he was the boy), X-Men, Deadpool 2, and on and on. He’s fantastic, but never better than in The Great. Huzzah!
  • The Queen’s Gambit. (Netflix). Sometimes there’s a good reason why a show gets so much attention — it is deserved. The Queen’s Gambit is such a wonderful series about a topic you probably care nothing about. But the mini-series is a period piece, and it was beautifully shot, but mostly it’s just a great story about a fascinating young woman.  Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an orphan with a mind for chess. What’s great about the show is you don’t have to give two shakes about chess, it’s simply a fabulous story. The fact is, we all love a story about someone considered common who turns out to be extraordinary. It’s part of the American narrative isn’t it? Taylor-Joy is definitely one to watch as she is marvelous as Harmon.
  • Ramy. (Hulu). This underappreciated gem from Hulu is the perfect show for our times and the single best show I binged in 2020. Ramy stars comedian and actor Ramy Youseff as a first-generation Egyptian American living in New Jersey trying to both fit in with his American friends and neighbors while at the same time trying to figure out his relationship to his religion. And that ain’t easy when you’re Muslim in America these days. Youseff is torn between enjoying the freedoms life in America affords us all while still trying to be a good Muslim. It may be an impossible task, and it sure isn’t easy for Youseff. On the one hand, he’s a young American male who wants to have sex, do drugs, go to parties, and enjoy life. But he’s being called to a more religious life and that appeals to him as well. Truth is, you really can’t do both despite the hypocrisy he sees all around him in his Muslim community. Ramy is such an important show right now. It’s critical for Americans to see Muslim characters that are not always cast terrorists. It really is that simple. People fear what they don’t know. The more you watch Ramy, the more you relate to him, the more we start to get past all the hatred of the other. What is wonderful about Ramy is that he does this through comedy, but at times the drama is hard hitting so when you least expect it you get a sense of just how divided we are as a society. Bravo to Hulu for making this show, and bravo to Youseff for bringing it to us. Ramy is a great television show that everyone in America should watch. You’ll have a good laugh, but you’ll also understand more about our Muslim brothers and sisters. This is television at its most relevant and importance. I don’t know if TV can truly change America, but it sure can’t hurt.
A Black Spot on the Heart

Ramy — “A Black Spot on the Heart” – Episode 103 – So let me get this straight, you don’t do drugs, but you’ll have sex with women you’re not married to? That’s not nuanced, its hypocritical. Ramy (Ramy Youssef), Ahmed (Dave Merheje), and Mo (Mohammed Amer), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)






My Favorite 20 Albums of 2020 (#10 to #1)

Earlier this month I posted the first half of my countdown of my favorite 20 albums of 2020, which you can review here. Interestingly, looking back, 9 out of the 10 were fronted by female voices and the one that was not had no vocals. Hmm. Not sure what that means, if anything.

Nevertheless, to quote the late great Casey Kasem…on with the countdown.

10. On Sunset — Paul Weller. This should come as no surprise to my longtime readers, given I’m a huge Weller fan. Mr. Weller has been prolific of late, with On Sunset being his sixth studio album since 2010. This album is classic bluesy Weller, which is always a good thing. There are some special tracks and some odd, experimental ones too. It’s a solid effort, though it’s not going to rank high in the Weller pantheon. I do think the title track is one of those great Weller tunes so enjoy.

9. The End of Everything — Noah Cyrus. I’m not gonna lie, this one surprises me too. I didn’t even know Miley had a little sister, let alone one with a voice so hauntingly beautiful. The first time I heard her sing it was on a 2017 Jake Bugg track called Waiting. I loved the song and when I looked to see who that female voice belonged to I was truly surprised. Noah is only 20 years old, but her sound is really mature. Billy Ray may have been a hack, but his girls got chops.

8. Women in Music Pt. III — Haim. I didn’t think much of Haim when they first hit the music scene. I may have, just may have, referred to them as Hansen with tits. But once I let my guard down and listened I found a trio that played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, and had something to say. Kind of like Hansen. And while I still didn’t consider myself a fan, from the very first moment I heard I Know Alone off their new album Women in Music Pt. III I was all in. This album has been getting huge critical accolades since before it was released, and the Haim sisters are everywhere. They are smart, wise, and fucking talented. I was wrong. I admit it…I was wrong.

7. Swimmer — Tennis. Not since Captain and Tennille have I enjoyed a husband and wife due as much as I love Tennis. The musical couple of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley met at the University of Colorado in 2008 and have been churning out pop delights ever since. 2016’s Yours, Conditionally made my year-end list that year and Swimmer is more of the beautiful same. I’m really happy Alaina decided not to go to law school and instead chose to chase her musical dreams. The world has enough lawyers!

6. Serpentine Prison — Matt Berninger. There was never any question that the first solo album from The National front man Matt Berninger was going to make my list. What is worth noting though is just how unique and interesting this record is…it’s not just a National album without the rest of the band. It’s a beautiful album full of wonderful heartfelt songs that showcase Matt’s remarkable voice. Yes, if you like The National you’ll probably like this album. I love it. Matt could sing the alphabet and I’d be all in.

5. Gigaton — Pearl Jam. I was a little late to the Pearl Jam bandwagon, but over the years I’ve come to consider Eddie and the boys the class of the rock world and the best thing ever to come out of the 90s grunge scene. Pearl Jam makes rock and roll records. If you like rock, you have no excuse not to like PJ. Gigaton is a perfect rock album, one with a nice mix of ballads and rockers. I hope they never stop making music. I think Dance of the Clairvoyants is one their best songs ever.

4. Alphabetland — X. Has it really been 27 years since the last studio album from X? Shit. It has. I’m getting old, but apparently John, Exene, Billy and D.J. are not. I got to see X perform live late last year at the Chandler Center for the Arts (somehow it seemed like a strange venue for a punk act) and they flat out brought it. Exene can still belt it out. John still shreds. And while Billy Zoom sat on a stool while playing his signature guitar, he sounded superb and not too shabby for a 68-year-old punker. The whole band is pushing 70 but they blew the doors off the venue that night. Honestly, it wasn’t too different than the previous time I’d seen them live in the 80s on the tower lawn at San Jose State. Alphabetland is classic X. Welcome back.

3. Always Tomorrow — Best Coast. Lead singer Bethany Cosentino is everything you want in a rock star. She’s cool, she’s smart, she’s a little edgy, and she brings all her demons to her songwriting. This is the third time Best Coast has made my countdown and while I don’t love this record like I did 2015’s California Nights it’s still awesome enough to nearly top my list. I simply love Bethany’s whole vibe.

2. The New Abnormal — The Strokes. I think of The Strokes as the prototypical 21st century indie band and they have certainly been influential. It has been seven years since their last album, and folks in the industry were starting to wonder if we’d ever get another Strokes album but it finally came in April and it was worth the wait. The New Abnormal is perfect alternative rock and critics seem to agree. I simply love listening to it as every song has something to offer.

Before we get to number one, a quick word about some disappointments in 2020. I was looking forward to a few releases that just didn’t do it for me. The Psychedelic Furs released a new record that was meh. Morrissey delivered a dull record in 2020. I was excited for a new record by The Pretenders, but it didn’t do anything for me nor did the latest from Dawes, Joan Osborne, Tame Impala, Vanessa Carlton, Fleet Foxes, and The Struts. But nothing was more disappointing to me than the long awaited fifth studio album from Fiona Apple, who I absolutely love, and who never disappointed me before. I found Fetch the Bolt Cutters really difficult to listen to and despite getting critical raves I just didn’t like it.

What I did like, was my favorite album of 2020 though!

1. Reunions — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. From the first notes of Reunions I was hooked and no album got more playing time on my Spotify account this year than this gem. Reunions is what rock and roll was meant to be. Critics and music fans around the world agreed, and Reunions topped charts in the U.S. and the U.K. In June in the U.S., Reunions topped the country, folk, and rock charts — at the same time. Is it country? Is it rock? Who cares. It’s amazing songwriting and guitar-playing and it just gets under your skin and stays there. I mean, the first song includes my new favorite artist Michael Kiwanuka. The album features the amazing Muscle Shoals, Alabama based members of the 400 Unit, including Jason’s talented wife Amanda Shires on fiddle. Jason is making music the way it should be made, songs from deep down in his soul, with lyrics that have weight, and with indifference to little notions like genre. It’s just gorgeous, heart-felt, music. Truth is, if you don’t like this album I’m not sure I can be friends with you.

Little GTO, You’re Really Lookin Fine

One thing this pandemic has done to me is exposed some of my mental health issues and turned up the volume. I was struggling with a few things pre-Covid which have been exacerbated by this crisis. For example, I don’t have many hobbies and over the past few years I’ve lost any sort of passion for things to do when I’m not at work or with friends and family. I’ve blogged about it in the past, and in fact I have a whole category of blog posts related to hobbies (or lack thereof).

Someone I trust suggested I look to my youth to try to find some spark. She thought perhaps just experiencing some past activities might help me get unstuck. I thought about this for a bit, and one thing that came to mind that I loved to do as a kid was putting together plastic model kits. I used to build cars, planes, ships, spaceships, and more. All you needed was a kit, some glue, a little paint, and some time. It was with this in mind that I found myself wandering the aisles of a hobby shop in North Phoenix a few weeks ago and leaving with a model kit, a tube of glue, and a can of spray paint.

I definitely enjoyed the experience of putting together the model, but I will say I realized I don’t have a lot of skill when it comes to detail work. I got the model together, but when I was done there were a few pieces leftover and some parts I just looked at and thought to myself no way I can do that. SO my GTO doesn’t have passenger-side seatbelts or a shifter. Frankly, the shifter snapped in my hands while I was trying to get it free from the frame that holds all the parts. Oh well, it’s not perfect. But I painted it, and chose to go with the convertible vs the hardtop, and I think it looks pretty good for my first model since I was about eight.

I’m not sure I’ve found a new hobby. I don’t have a burning desire to run back to the hobby shop and buy another model. But it was fun and I used my hands.

In the same spirit, I went to Michael’s over the weekend to browse through arts and crafts sections to see if anything else sparked some joy. It was pretty overwhelming really. There were all kids of art supplies, crafts, beads and yarn. I decided I’m not going to find much joy in knitting, or scrapbooking, or painting (I have no skill there). I did decide to buy some markers and spend some time coloring mandalas — in the past I’ve found this to be quite a zen-like experience.

Since I’m still sort of laid up with a foot issue and there’s this little pandemic going on I am still going to keep my eyes open for hobby ideas. And without a doubt I’ll continue with the hobbies I do have even though they are pretty passive — watching movies, reading, blogging.

But I’m really curious about what others do in their spare time (assuming they have any). Seriously, I want to know about your hobbies and why you like them. Reply to this post or post under the link where you first saw this blog post.

My Favorite 20 Albums of 2020 (#11 to #20)

This year has been like no other, to say the least, but even while most everything has sucked one thing that surprisingly has not sucked is new music from a wide array of artists. It’s almost as if the pandemic caused musical acts to dig deeper and record special albums. Either that, or it’s just luck. Regardless, 2020 has been music to my ears.

2020 has also proven to be a very diverse year in music for me. My tastes have certainly expanded over the years, but it’s becoming clear to me that I’m mellowing with age. Oh I still like to rock out on occasion, but truthfully I’ve just been drawn to more slow and thoughtful albums. I also have to say my ears have continued to open to music that in the past I would have just written off as “country” and never given it a second thought. And while I’m still not likely to ever listen to mainstream country, I am delving deeper and deeper into the murky waters of alt-country and Americana/roots music. This is reflected in the list below to be sure.

Usually I only choose to rank my top 10 favorite albums of the year, but because I’ve enjoyed so many different artists this year and because it’s 2020 I decided to go ahead give 20 albums some love. So I’ll skip the usual honorable mentions and get right to the count down.

20. Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it sure seems like the artists are getting younger these days. I have to admit, at first I was uncomfortable as a 54-year-old adult man listening to music by a twentysomething artist — especially a female artist. But I realized I wasn’t being true to my musical self by neglecting younger artists just because they are young. Yes, Phoebe Bridgers, at 26, is more than half my age. But the fact is, she’s talented, interesting, unique, a proud member of the LGBTQ community, and way cooler than I ever was at 26 or any age. She’s also a badass, having been one of the artists who called out ex-beau Ryan Adams for sexual misconduct. Punisher is a great album made up of interesting songs written and performed by a talented woman.

19. RoundAgain — Joshua Redman. The members of the original Joshua Redman Quartet—Redman (saxophone), Brad Mehldau (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—reunite with RoundAgain, the group’s first recording since 1994’s MoodSwing,

18. Jump Rope Gazers — The Beths. This New Zealand quartet is the definition of power pop. Jump Rope Gazers is only their second full-length record and it rocks. Lead singer Elizabeth Stokes has one of those lovely pop rock voices that for me is reminiscent of one of my favorite female pop vocalists, Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays, but with a little more rock. As they say in New Zealand, The Beths are choice.

17. Such Pretty Forks in the Road — Alanis Morissette. It has been 25 years since the release of Jagged Little Pill and while Morissette has worked steadily since then she’ll always be considered a 90s artist. That’s unfortunate because her best album in my opinion is 2002’s Under Rug Swept and now all these years later this, her ninth record, showcase’s a whole new side of her — a matured Morissette if you will. Hell, it’s downright motherly.

16. Gaslighter — The Chicks. The artists previously known as Dixie Chicks have officially shed their connection to country music (the genre rejected them in the early 2000s after lead singer Natalie Maines was quoted as saying she was ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas). Regardless, these chicks have been genre-defying from the start and I’m proud to be a fan. Gaslighter is solid rock and roll (with a country twang) and the band has continued to say “fuck you” to the Country music establishment, its fans, and anyone else who thinks they should shut up and play. I love them for that as much as their music. And if you cross Natalie, expect to be featured in their next song!

15. Shelby Lynne — Shelby Lynne. Now in her early 50s, if it feels like Shelby Lynn Moorer has been around forever that’s probably because she had her first breakthrough at 19. Over the years she’s been a rising country star, a Grammy-winning “Best New Artist,” a folk singer, an Americana artist, and a pop chanteuse. Categories aside, for me she’s just a great singer/songwriter.

14. Look Long — Indigo Girls. The first time I saw Indigo Girls live was in the late 80s in Berkeley, CA on Halloween night and it was an experience to say the least. I’ve been a fan since the first album and they never let me down. Look Long, in fact, is their 15th studio album and one of their best records in years. Emily and Amy write separately, but sing together better than any two women to ever share a stage.

13. Superstar — Caroline Rose. This New Yorker has been around for a few years but I’m just now discovering her work. I did enjoy her 2018 album “Loner” but Superstar is solid from top to bottom. She has a cool voice and plays multiple instruments. She is not a classic singer/songwriter but instead delivers really fun pop songs and has a great sense of humor as evidenced by this crazy good video. If Greta Gerwig was a pop star she’d be Caroline Rose.

12. St. Cloud — Waxahatchee. I’m not gonna lie, I’d never heard of Waxahatchee before mid-2020. Officially this band, fronted by Alabama-native Katie Crutchfield, is considered indie rock or indie folk, but I don’t care what you call it — it’s damn fine music by a wonderful songwriter. Can’t Do Much is my favorite track from the album and a good representation of her powerful voice.

11. Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas. For me London-based Lianne La Havas has the most soulful voice around with a sound that frankly reminds me of one of my all-time favorite artists — Sade. Which is to say, if you like smooth soul and music designed for a rainy day or quiet evening in you’re gonna love Lianne La Havas if you don’t already. She’s not just a singer either — she plays multiple instruments too. Plus, she’s not afraid to think outside her genre — she covers a Radiohead track on this her third studio album. I’ve been a fan for a while and trust me you should be too.

Stay tuned for the second half of my year-end top 20 albums post coming soon to a blog near you. In the meantime, enjoy these albums and let me know what you think.

A COVID-19 Shot in the Dark

I am a man of reason. By that I mean I rely on science to inform my opinions and many of my decisions, from climate change to astrophysics (no, the earth is not flat) to health. When I’m unsure of something, I look to the research. This worldview has shaped my belief system, my politics, and my health decisions. It is why, for example, after my heart attack in 2011 I continue to take the medications I’ve been prescribed, and why I eat a low carb diet. I do my own research, and then I trust the science. I’m not saying this to be derogatory to anyone who trusts faith, pseudoscience, or “holistic” treatments for illnesses — I’m just not the kind of person who sees an ad on television for a memory enhancer and decides to take a pill derived from jellyfish. Show me the peer-reviewed study, please.

I bring this up because today I was given the first of two injections of a vaccine for COVID-19 as part of a phase three medical trial being done by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in cooperation with Oxford University. I get my second shot, or booster, in four weeks. Why, you ask, did I volunteer to be a human guinea pig for a coronavirus vaccine? Because of science.

To start with, I am at high risk for developing serious issues if I get coronavirus. This is because of my heart history, but also because I’ve had asthma since I was a child. Coronavirus is most definitely more deadly among those with pre-existing conditions and I do not want to be a statistic.

Second, it is unclear how much longer we’ll all have to wait for a vaccine and I’m getting tired of living in fear. I have seen this virus devastate lives, and almost take the life of someone close to me, and why not opt in for a chance to get a vaccine early — by the time a vaccine reaches phase three it has been proven to be pretty safe and as we learned earlier this week with the news from the Pfizer vaccine trial the results can be tremendously positive.

There is not much downside to taking the vaccine during a phase three trial. Yes, I had to read and sign off on about 20 pages of legalese to receive the injection, but for the most part the vast majority of side effects have been mild with some patients reporting fever and achiness following the booster. There have been a few isolated cases of a neurological condition but there is no evidence yet as to whether or not those cases were caused by the vaccine and in fact in one of the cases the patient received the placebo rather than the vaccine. And so far nobody has grown a tail.

The upside is that by early December I may have antibodies to the coronavirus and this will limit my chances of getting the virus or having a serious issue from the virus. I am not taking my mask off any time soon, but it feels like a light at the end of the tunnel and that’s exciting. If, by chance, I was one of the 33% of trial patients who received a placebo rather than the vaccine, well I guess I’ve at least helped the medical community bring this vaccine to the world and as a study participant I may even be vaccinated as a thank you for participating in advance of the general population. Hell, even if a slew of vaccines are ready for mass use in December as suspected it could be months before any of us get it so I’m happy to have jumped the line.

Which brings me back to reason. Vaccines work. Not sure? When was the last time you got measles or polio? I trust science. Science is why when you get a cut on your finger you do not die from infection (thank you Sir Alexander Fleming). Science is why I didn’t die from a heart attack in 2011, instead I had an angiogram and had three stents placed, thus keeping the blood flowing through my body (thank you Dr. Charles Thomas Stent — not joking).

I’m no hero for participating in this trial. Yes, it will help the world. And yes, I will make a few hundred bucks. But I’m doing it for myself and my loved ones. I have spent the better part of the last six months wearing a mask when I’m in public, dining on patios rather than inside, working from home, and generally living like a hermit. I miss my friends. And I want it to end. I want to get my life back. I really hope I was one of the 66% of AstraZeneca trial participants who received the actual vaccine and not the placebo.

Just the other day AstraZeneca reported they expect the trial results to be ready this year and could begin large scale vaccinations in December. Phase one and two results were extremely successful and warranted moving into the phase three trial with the AstraZeneca vaccine being shortlisted as one of the more promising candidates.

Despite the anti-vax movement (proof that people will believe anything if it’s repeated enough times), vaccines are among humankinds greatest achievements. Don’t take my word for it — check out what noted pro-science and bullshit detectors Penn and Teller have to say: