My Favorite Albums of 2016

I’m not sure what happened to 2016. In the annals of bad years, 2016 will go down in infamy. We lost Prince and Bowie. We lost Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe. Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman. Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. Garry Shandling and Garry Marshall. And then we elected Donald J. Trump to the most powerful job in the world. 2016 pretty much sucked (and it’s not quite over yet).

So why should I be surprised that for the first time in decades of compiling my favorite albums of the year I struggled to find 10 albums to make the list? For whatever reason, most of my favorite artists didn’t release new albums this year. And while we did get one magical farewell album from one of the greatest of all time, this year’s lot (for me anyway) would make Ziggy Stardust catch the first rocket back to from wherever he came.

That said, all is not lost. I’m pleased to report I did manage to find 10 albums that I liked enough to make a list this year. I’m tempted not to put them in any order, but like they say, no guts no glory. So here goes:

10. Sturgill Simpson —  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Has hell frozen over? Is that, dear lord, a country album in a Len Gutman top 10 list? I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea who Sturgill Simpson was until his incredible cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom started making the rounds on the Interwebs. The song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it and I knew I had to listen to the whole album when it came out. Admittedly, Simpson is not your typical twangy pop country crap — he is described as alt country or outlaw country. Whatever you call it, the man has chops and can write a song.  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a really soulful album that was inspired by his young son. Frankly, any album that features the Dap Kings is alright in my book.

9. Band of Horses — Why are you OK? It’s been six years since Infinite Arms made my top 10 list and truthfully I haven’t listened to much BOH since then. Something made me listen to this year’s Why are you OK? and I’m really happy I did. This Seattle band known for its Americana sound is definitely worth exploring, like this Casual Party.

8. Kaiser Chiefs — Stay Together. I didn’t know much about Leeds, UK band Kaiser Chiefs until I listened to Stay Together and I have to say they fall right in my sweet spot. I really love 80s inspired bands like Franz Ferdinand, Phoenix and The Kooks and Kaiser Chiefs fits the mold. I am definitely going back to listen to some of their older records to hear what I’ve been missing. In the meantime, check out Parachute from Stay Together.

7. Fitz and the Tantrums —Fitz and the Tantrums. The self-titled third album from Fitz and the Tantrums is another great dance album filled with that unmistakable Fitz sound. I make no apologies for loving these guys and while I certainly didn’t like this album as much as the band’s first two I did enjoy it. I was also fortunate to see them live this year for the fourth time in the past few years and you’re simply not going to find a more enjoyable live concert experience. Bring your dancing shoes and don’t forget to clap your hands to the beat.

6. Red Hot Chili Peppers — The Getaway. The Chili Peppers’ first album came out in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. I have to admit that over the years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with them. I didn’t like them early on, although here and there a song caught my attention. It wasn’t until 2002’s By The Way that I was really hooked, and I played that album over and over for years. By the time Stadium Arcadium came out in 2006; however, I’d cooled on them and that’s the way it stayed until the first time I heard Dark Necessities this summer. Oh man, that song stuck in my ear and when the full album was released I was a Chili Peppers fan again! Credit goes to Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse), who produced The Getaway, and put his unmistakable stamp on it. Damn, that guy knows how to make an album.

5. Bob Mould — Patch the Sky. You’ve got to appreciate a guy who finds his sound early on and sticks with it. When you hear Bob Mould there’s no mistaking it. Whether you first found him back in the 80s with Hüsker Dü or in the 90s with Sugar, I venture to guess that if you’re a Mould fan you like it all — as I do. So it really wasn’t a huge surprise when Patch the Sky came out in March and it was vintage Mould. If you are a fan and haven’t heard it yet I urge you to give it a listen and start with Voices in my Head. If you’re not a fan, you probably weren’t alive in the 80s!

4. The Temper Trap — Thick as Thieves. If you listened to music in 2009 you undoubtedly heard The Temper Trap’s huge hit Sweet Disposition, which went Gold in the U.S. and Platinum in the U.K. and the band’s home of Australia. But like me, you may have thought they were a one-hit wonder. Yes, they’ve been going strong down under since then, but Thick as Thieves should really put them back on the map around the world. The Temper Trap has a great sound that is one part modern and another part 80s throwback. I’ve listened to this record a lot since it came out this summer and it is solid all the way through, including this great track Fall Together.

3. Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die. Rarely does a band place back-to-back records on my favorite albums list, but this year following on the heels of 2015’s wonderful All Your Favorite Bands comes We’re All Gonna Die. I just love their sound, which has been described as having a Laurel Canyon vibe. Dawes is the kind of band that’s perfect for listening to while sitting on your patio on a warm day with a cold beer. Like I said last year, Dawes is an unabashed throwback to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown. Kick back and just Roll with the Punches.

2. Kings of Leon — Walls. I couldn’t get enough of KoL during the Only by the Night and Come Around Sundown years, but I cooled on the Followill boys in 2013 when Mechanical Bull came out. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and in truth they were pretty overexposed there for a while. So my expectations were low when Walls came out this autumn, and maybe that’s what did it for me. Walls is KoL’s best album since 2008’s Only by the Night and since it just came out a few week’s ago I expect it will get even more ingrained in my head as time goes on. All due respect to the top album on my list this year (it deserves all the accolades it gets), Walls is really my favorite record of 2016. Take a listen to Waste a Moment and tell me I’m not right!

1. David Bowie — Blackstar. What can you say about Blackstar that hasn’t already been written? For Bowie fans it was a surprise farewell album that upon his death just a few days after its release left us stunned and in awe of the man’s genius. Who else but Bowie could have written an album about his own impending death with such grace and style. Blackstar is dark and moody, but the message is clear — his time was up. I challenge anyone not to get chills watching the video for Lazarus. Ironically, I had been listening to a lot of Bowie in the months prior to his death and I was critical of myself for not having dived deeper into the man’s discography earlier in my life. That changed in the weeks following his death as I listened to Bowie nonstop and will continue to do so until my own star is extinguished. I suspect Blackstar will take home plenty of Grammy Awards and will go down in history as the best swan song ever written. I’m not going to argue it wasn’t the best album of an otherwise mediocre year.

bowie

 

I Am Spartacus!

free

In the early 1940s, as American workers still recovering from the Great Depression found themselves still facing difficult working conditions, upwards of 75,000 Americans joined the American Communist Party as a way to rally around worker rights. The movement was focused solely on improving America and not on aligning with the Soviet Union. One of those who joined the movement was novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who along with a handful of his friends in Hollywood, fought to improve working conditions for everyone involved in the film making industry — not just studio heads and famous actors.

But as the “Red Scare” grew across America, fueled by political rhetoric and fear, Trumbo and his friends were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and when he and others refused to name names he was blacklisted from Hollywood and jailed for 11 months. Trumbo was an American citizen, born and raised in Colorado, and he spent time in prison because of an idea. For years during his Hollywood exile, Trumbo continued to write screenplays under a series of pseudonyms and won two Academy Awards he could not collect. After more than a decade on the blacklist, he was finally able to return to public life and work under his own name thanks in large part to actor and producer Kirk Douglas who hired him to write Spartacus and despite significant pressure against doing so from the industry and congressional representatives, credited Trumbo publicly with writing the screenplay.

I am writing about this today because yesterday I watched the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston and it struck me as eerily familiar. I knew a little bit about the Hollywood blacklist and the Red Scare, but I didn’t know Trumbo’s story and I certainly didn’t know how things exploded so quickly in Hollywood toward the exclusion of some of the best talent in the movie industry. The film was fantastic by the way, and Cranston undoubtedly deserved his Academy Award nomination. If you have not seen it, do so right away. And tell your friends to see it. Frankly, the story is so timely every American should watch it today.

It’s 2016, nearly 70 years since the blacklist began and Trumbo served time for an idea, and I’m afraid America has learned nothing from its own history. Nada. Bupkis.

Here we are experiencing another “red” scare. And while nobody has been blacklisted or jailed yet, we are one election away from sheer madness and a repeat of one of the darkest periods in American history. Back then, the red scare was fueled by people we knew — John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Hedda Hopper, Walt Disney and a great many members of congress and the political landscape. Americans were being divided. It was madness.

Today, we are experiencing the exact same thing. Exact. Same. Thing. Except instead of Communists, we are being systematically told that the enemy are Mexicans and Latino-Americans, Muslims and Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community. Anyone who conservatives and xenophobes consider “others” or different from themselves can’t be “real” Americans and must therefore be a threat to our country. You know, the country that Donald Trump wants to make “great” again. In this case, “great” means white and Christian and male.

But you know this. We all know it. Trump and his goon squad aren’t even attempting subtlety. They are proud of their blatant racist and sexist rhetoric. And what’s worse, it seems to be working. This is another “red” scare, make no mistake about it. But the bigger issue is, what can we do about it?

Which brings me to Spartacus. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the climactic scene of the film occurs when Spartacus steps forward to his accusers and exclaims: I Am Spartacus. He knows that by doing this he will be killed, but he knows too that he is right and that he’d rather die for doing the right thing than run away or hide behind others. But it’s at that point when everything changes — one by one each of his fellow gladiators step forward and exclaim: I Am Spartacus. Frankly, it’s one of the greatest scenes in film history and yes, it was written by Dalton Trumbo while he was on the blacklist. How friggin’ cool is that?

The blacklist began to end when Americans stood up and said: No More. First Kirk Douglas and then Exodus director Otto Preminger. Then one by one the blacklist fell and Hollywood got back to the business of making films. Yes, it took a while to heal, but eventually Hollywood healed. Three words took down the blacklist. I Am Spartacus.

So to those of you who think what Donald Trump is doing to America is OK, I say this:

I Am Mexican-American.

I Am African-American.

I Am Muslim.

I Am Gay.

Stand up for the “other” with me. Scream it loud and scream it wide. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!

 

Go ‘Un’-Confidently in the Direction of Your Dreams

It’s graduation season and that means graduates around the country are being ushered off into the world with a never-ending series of clichés about the future. Take the Road Less Traveled. The World is Your Oyster. Oh the Places You’ll Go. Be Less Afraid. The Future Belongs to Those Who Believe in the Beauty of Their Dreams.

Great advice…that hardly anybody ever takes. The vast majority of people do exactly what’s expected of them. They graduate from high school, go to college, get a job, slave away for 50 years until retirement, then shuffle off this mortal coil. I think people take the road most traveled because they are afraid of the unknown. The common path is predictable and safe and nobody can fault you for following the herd. Unfortunately, that leads to a life that resembles another famous quote — Most Men Live Lives of Quiet Desperation.

I’m not one to talk. I played by the rules, went to college, and then worked in a series of not very fulfilling  jobs. It was only by accident that I veered off path, thanks in some part to a major health crisis followed by an ill-advised move to California. Frankly, I think my journey has been more about serendipity than anything I planned. But hey, I’ll take it. I’m finally really happy in life and hopefully I still have some time left on this earth.

road-less-traveledI bring this subject up because it’s graduation season, true, but it’s also the start of what looks like is going to be the last summer Leslie and I will have with Connor at home. And ironically, it is this particular 18-year-old who continues to teach me about life. It was supposed to be the other way around! As I said, most people don’t realize they are living an inauthentic life until they are in their 30s or 40s and decide to make a change — at a time when change is perhaps most difficult. This summer Connor has taught me to think hard about the choices I made in life and question what motivated those choices. In fact, I’ve been boasting about my life-changing decision to go to work for a nonprofit all while I’ve been questioning his motivations for doing what he wants. What a hypocrite I have been. He is choosing to take the road less traveled for real, at age 18, and rather than be concerned I should be thrilled for him. Instead I have been wary…but that changes today.

Connor, I am proud of you for following your bliss even though it flies in the face of so-called mainstream decisions. It took me until my late 40s before I did something controversial, and here you are at 18 going for it. You truly are an inspiration to me and I respect you immensely. It doesn’t matter what I did when I was 18. It doesn’t matter what most people do when they are 18. What matters is that you do what you want to do. And even if it doesn’t work out, I’m proud of you for trying. Now is the best time to try new things because you have plenty of time to adjust your path. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

One thing I can say I’ve learned in my 50 years is that you never know what life is going to throw at you. Here’s a popular quote that I actually like: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. If you are graduating from high school this month, or college, do me a favor and don’t listen to your parents. Don’t go to the local college because it’s what everyone else in your class is doing. Don’t take the job because it’s safe. Take a gap year. Travel abroad. Go work on a farm. Move in with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Start an alternative rock band. Work for a cause.

Or do what Connor is doing after one year at ASU — drop out, go to work for yourself, and follow the love of your life across the country. You have the rest of your life to wonder what if.

 

 

The Purple Reign of Prince Rogers Nelson

Gootar

In the summer of 1984 I had just graduated from high school and the world was my oyster. I had car and a hot girlfriend, I was heading off to college in late August, and I quit my job without telling my parents — I had nothing but time. My girlfriend and I went to the beach, we sneaked off to find places to be alone and we did whatever 18-year-old kids do. And the soundtrack to that summer was Purple Rain.

Prince was already huge by then on the heels of 1999, which catapulted him from a fringe R&B artist to rock and roll royalty. MTV was in its heyday and Prince had enormous hits with 1999, Delirious and Little Red Corvette. Purple Rain was released in June, though we had already heard tracks from the album on the radio and by June we knew all the lyrics and dance moves from the videos. When the film hit theaters, we lined up to see it at the largest theater in the area to take it all in with the giant screen and Dolby sound. It was, for us, a revolution.

Prince was larger than life and one of the first true crossover artists with appeal to R&B, Soul, Rock, Pop and Alternative music fans alike. He was George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson rolled into one. Thriller had come out six months earlier, and like everyone we liked it and danced to it and loved the music videos. But Michael was safe. He wasn’t really dangerous. He wasn’t subversive. He wasn’t sexual. He was mainstream and our parents liked him. Prince was everything MJ was not — and he made our parents nervous which made us like him even more. If Prince came on the radio while we were in the car with our parents, they blushed at the lyrics and we secretly laughed inside knowing we alone knew Little Red Corvette was not about a car.

Eighteen year old kids are like halflings — not really kids and not yet really adults. We were exploding with sexual energy and Prince made us feel grown up. I heard someone once describe Prince as “oozing sex” and that feels right. His lyrics were sometimes raw and sometimes double entendre, but almost always sexual in nature. They hit us right in our sweet spot and we couldn’t get enough.

And then there was Purple Rain. After watching the film the first time (and we watched it over and over) we felt like we understood Prince. We knew the film was semi-autobiographical, whatever that means, and we knew he expressed himself through his music. Purple Rain was about a young man overcoming his rough family life and his desire to have his music understood to reach his dreams. “The Kid” breathed via his music. And we felt it in our bones. When he plays Purple Rain after his father shoots himself, we are in that audience feeling his pain and his love. And like everyone else, we finally understood Prince.

But the movie is secondary really. Purple Rain is about the music. Top to bottom, song for song, it is a marvelous album. It’s a rock opera. You can dance to it, grind to it and cry to it. It’s soulful and it rocks. A lot of great mainstream albums came out in 1984 including Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Van Halen’s 1984. But 1984 will always be about Purple Rain for me and my friends.

Purple Rain was (and is) a great album and it has the most meaning for me because of when it came out and the impact it had on me. But it’s not even my favorite Prince album! That honor goes to 1987’s Sign ‘o the Times, which is a much more mature record musically and lyrically. In Sign ‘o the Times Prince shows us he can write about more than sex and women. The Village Voice wrote that it: “established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era—as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer.”

I admit I haven’t listened to much of Prince’s more recent efforts. I’m sure they are wonderful and I’ll probably spend some time with them now that he is gone. It’s been about 24 hours now since we first heard the news that he was gone, and I’ve listened to nothing but Prince since then and I’ll probably listen to Prince all weekend. I will relive the hits and marvel at how great they were (1999 is actually playing on the radio in the car dealership service waiting room as I write this). And I will listen to deep tracks and remember them too. I’ll probably download Sign ‘o the Times and Parade and Around the World in a Day and listen to them in their entirety as well. And I will miss Prince. But he left a lasting legacy. We’ll always have his music. And for that we should all be grateful.

‘Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last’

10 Things Every American Should Know About Jackie Robinson

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres

Today is April 15 and it’s the 69th anniversary of the day Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY and broke the Major League Baseball color barrier. Major League Baseball retired Jackie’s number 42 for all teams a few years back, but each year on this day MLB celebrates by having every player on every team wear #42. It’s a beautiful tribute and an important day for reflection on how far we’ve come (and how far we still must go) toward racial equality in America.

Jackie Robinson is one of my personal heroes for several reasons. As a Brooklyn native, I am proud that my birthplace was the place where this amazing man stepped into the national spotlight. As a baseball fan, I love how he played the game. And as an American, I’m proud of how Jackie impacted race relations in America. Jackie Robinson truly represents all that is good and possible in this country.

Along with having just the right temperament needed to be the first black major leaguer, Jackie Robinson was in fact a tremendous baseball player. While his health limited him to just 10 years, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and his statistical marks are outstanding. But this is not a post about Jackie’s baseball career, because while baseball remembers him on this day all Americans should honor Jackie Robinson for his contributions to racial justice off the field as well. For baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike, here are ten things about Jackie Robinson that every American should know:

  • In 1942 after Jackie’s graduation from UCLA (where he was the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track) he was drafted into the Army and was later court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a non-segregated bus. He was eventually acquitted but his trial kept him from serving overseas during WW II.
  • Following the 1956 season, with his legs hobbled from diabetes, the Dodgers traded Jackie to the crosstown rival Giants. Rather than play for the Giants, he retired and took an executive job at Chock Full o’Nuts, a chain of coffee shops with a large African-American employee base. From 1957 to 1964, Jackie was the vice president for personnel at Chock full o’Nuts; he was the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation.
  • In December 1956, the NAACP recognized him with the Spingarn Medal, which it awards annually for the highest achievement by an African-American.
  • Jackie was very political and following his baseball career he was actively involved in American politics. In 1960 he campaigned for Richard Nixon because his record on race relations was better than that of Nixon’s opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy. However, following Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he switched party allegiance.
  • In 1966 Jackie was named special assistant for community affairs under New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
  • In the late 1960s Jackie was publicly critical of the fact that there were no African-American managers in baseball. In 1972 after reluctantly agreeing to throw out the first pitch at the World Series he said, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Frank Robinson was named the first black manager in 1974; however, Jackie did not live to see it.
  • Jackie spent a lot of time in the South during the racial unrest of the late 1960s, even appearing with Dr. Martin Luther King. Jackie was a hero to southern blacks for breaking the color barrier in baseball.
  • Jackie and his wife Rachel had a difficult time finding a suburban home to buy in the greater New York area in the 1960s because of discriminatory real estate practices. They eventually found a home in  North Stamford, Connecticut, but only after being taken in first by Simon & Schuster co-founder Richard Simon and his family (which included Simon’s young daughter Carly.)
  • Robinson’s eldest son, Jackie Robinson Jr., had emotional trouble during his childhood in part due to being one of the only black kids in Stamford. He enrolled in the Army in search of a disciplined environment, served in the Vietnam War, and was wounded in action. After his discharge, he struggled with drug problems, later became a drug counselor, and tragically was killed in a car accident at just 24 years of age. Jackie Jr.’s struggles with drugs turned Jackie Sr. into an avid anti-drug crusader later in his life.
  • Jackie suffered from diabetes and heart disease at a young age and died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972. He was just 53 years old.

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a great new documentary by Ken Burns on PBS about Jackie’s life. Look for it on TV or watch it online here.

From Russia With Love?

dna

Yesterday my ancestry research introduced me to the term Landsmanschaft, which is German for “cultural society”. When Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they joined societies made up of other immigrants from their village. One of the many things these societies did was provide for burial in the society area of cemeteries. It turns out, if you know the name of the society where your Jewish ancestors are buried, you can find out what town they came from in the old country. There’s even a neat database where you can plug in the name of the society and it’ll tell you the town it’s affiliated with. So, mystery solved — the Gutmans (including my great grandfather Samuel and his brothers and sisters, as well as his parents Benjamin and Mollie) came to New York around 1900 from a village called Pechora in central Ukraine.

But before I buy a Ukrainian flag and celebrate my new found ancestral home, it should be noted that the reason they were in Pechora in the first place was likely because around 1800 Russian Empress Catherine II declared that all of the region’s Jews were to be relocated into one area of the empire known as the Pale of Settlement. Once they got to the Pale, they were considered second class citizens and eventually the locals started burning down their homes and businesses and killing them in what were called pogroms. I suspect that by 1900 my ancestors knew they were in danger and decided to get out of dodge and head to America. It’s a good thing they did, because a few decades later Pechora became home to a German concentration camp and thousands of Jews were killed and buried in mass graves.

I don’t know from where my ancestors were forced out of in order to end up in Pechora, but I suspect the non-Semites didn’t like them there either. It was probably some other part of Russia, but it’s tough to identify with any country that hated your ancestors enough to round them up, force them out and/or kill them. So am I Russian? Ukrainian? Something else? My DNA suggests my bloodline is mostly Eastern European and West Asian. Of course, I believe all mankind came from the first humans who came into existence in Northern Africa. Does that make me African?

Which leads to an even more esoteric question: aren’t we all African? Americans typically have a lot of pride in their heritage or “home country.” We like to identify as Irish Americans or Italian Americans or African Americans. But it’s not that cut and dry, especially if you agree with the majority of scientists who now believe that we do indeed all come from a common ancestor who lived in Africa. Here’s what National Geographic has to say:

Our species is an African one: Africa is where we first evolved, and where we have spent the majority of our time on Earth. The earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens appear in the fossil record at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago.

Doing ancestry research is a fun hobby, and it definitely provides a unique window into how we got where we did. But for all the work, it’s good to remember that if we go back far enough we are all related. That’s a great lesson to keep in mind, especially in a world full of so much geographic and ethnic hate.

 

Are You Being Eaten by Lions?

My wife Leslie and I have a little saying for when things get rough: Are you being eaten by lions? The reference is from David Eggers’ outstanding book What is the What, which tells the story of a “lost boy” of the Sudan named Valentino Deng. In the book, Valentino and the other boys from his village have been forced to flee and are making their way through the Sudanese countryside without knowing where they are going or what awaits them when they get there. Every so often during this trek, a lion would randomly attack and run off with one of the boys. Thus, no matter how bad one’s life may seem, you have to keep it in perspective. After all, you could be dinner for a hungry beast.

For the past few days I have had a nasty sinus infection that has been kicking my ass. I’ve had some time to kill on the sofa, and so I’ve watched a few movies. Without really planning it, I ended up watching three movies with the common theme of people overcoming hardship. The first of these films was Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the tale of WWII veteran and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini. Louie was shot down over the Pacific during WWII and after surviving nearly 50 days at sea in a tiny life raft was “saved” by the Japanese who proceeded to send him to a prisoner of war camp where he was singled out because of his Olympic pedigree. Zamperini survived and went on to live a productive life which he dedicated to the God he believes spared his life. The following day I watched Tig, the story of comedian Tig Notaro’s surprising way of handling her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She used comedy to cope and her attitude helped her recover, but also helped her rededicate her life to her dreams. Finally, I watched Life Itself, a documentary about the life and last days of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. This film, which not surprisingly deserves an enthusiastic thumbs up, shows us Ebert’s remarkable climb to success, but more importantly his will to survive and continue his work even after his body was ravaged with jaw and bone cancer. The dude kept smiling even when he no longer had a face. That is attitude!

All three of these films, and frankly the Eggers book as well, left me with an urgent desire to give myself a little attitude adjustment. In the weeks and months following my heart attack in 2011, I told myself I wasn’t going to take life for granted anymore and I was going to live life to its fullest. For a while, I was true to my word. I got the car of my dreams, I moved to California (and back), and I eventually got a new job that I love. But even while I was singing my own praises for these actions, I was beginning to fall back into old habits. Part of it had to do with the complacency that came with time, but in truth I have also been dealing with another medical issue that I have not been public about and which has caused me a lot of physical pain. I have been down on myself while trying to battle this issue, and it has challenged me mentally as well (and challenged my wife’s patience). It has definitely been a struggle, and throughout it I’ve tried to remind myself that it wasn’t life threatening and…well…I wasn’t being chased across the Sudanese savanna by hungry lions. Nevertheless, I was letting it keep me from doing the things I want to do in life.

These films reminded me to quit whining and get back to living life. Frankly, I was most struck by Tig Notaro’s journey. She isn’t the first person to deal with a family death and then a devastating diagnosis, but she may have been the first person ever to confront these issues on stage at a comedy club. If you don’t know the story, just days after getting diagnosed with cancer, Notaro decided to talk about it on stage. The resulting stand up routine became legendary, it went viral, and soon after Tig’s entire life changed. She became hugely famous, she did every talk show, she sold thousands of copies of her “comedy” routine, she got a TV show, and more. Here’s a few minutes of the actual routine from that night if you haven’t heard it:

You can download the entire set online if you like. Of course Tig beat cancer, but afterward she started to live the life she dreamed for herself, including finding the love of her life, getting married and having kids. She literally smiled her way through cancer. She joked about it wherever she went. She didn’t let her health issues define her. Tig Notaro understood that she wasn’t about to be eaten by a lion. She was certainly frightened, and she thought she might die, but even during the worst time in her life she kept things in perspective.

I needed this little reminder that I wasn’t about to become lion supper. My health issues are not life threatening. In fact, aside from this little battle with my sinuses I’m actually feeling better these days. For a while there, I was feeling all woe is me about life. I was starting to let it get the best of me. But Tig Nitaro is right — you gotta laugh at this shit.

Favorite Albums of 2015

I think this year was a pretty decent year for music, despite the fact that the majority of my favorite artists did not release new albums. That simply meant I looked outside my sweet spot for new music and for someone my age that’s a good thing. No point in letting yourself get stale. A lot of people my age say there’s no good music out there anymore, but I couldn’t disagree more. You just have to look, or rather listen. I suppose I could play the same artists over and over and be happy, but for me the hunt is as fun as the catch. There’s a new documentary film out this year about the history of Tower Records called All Things Must Pass. And while I have not seen it yet, the trailer reminded me of how important Tower Records was to me in my youth. I literally considered hanging out at Tower Records a night out, flipping through the rows of LPs, talking with pierced and tatted employees about the latest records, copping a squat by the magazine rack looking through copies of NME and Rolling Stone. When I worked at a record store in college I expanded my musical tastes exponentially because I was able to be exposed to so much new music.

These days, SiriusXM has become my Tower Records. I can listen to my favorites from the 80s on First Wave, the 90s on Lithium, or rock on Classic Vinyl. But more often than not I tune into The Spectrum, and in addition to my favorites I hear new music by bands I’ve never heard of…and some of them stick. And some of them become my new favorites, like The National, Phoenix, Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire. Even better, by subscribing to a streaming music service like Google Play I can listen to entire albums by new bands to go beyond the hit tracks and see if there’s more there. Or I can read about an artist on the web and give them a listen without making a commitment. Some of them turn out to be duds, but more than a few end up on my year-end favorites list. Which brings me back to my favorite albums of 2015, which consists of a nice mix of established artists and newer artists.

First, a few honorable mentions. I really liked the new Blur record The Magic Whip, especially on the heels of Damon Albarn’s amazing solo album from last year, Everyday Robots.  25 by Adele is exactly what we expected, and although for me it’s nowhere near as good as 19 and 21, it’s still Adele and it’s still wonderful. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes is bluesy goodness. Squeeze delivered a nice little reminder of why Difford and Tilbrook will always be among the best songwriters in rock and roll history with their first new album in decades — Cradle to the Grave. And speaking of history, one of the biggest surprises of the year for me was Pete Townshend’s reinterpretation of Quadrophenia with the Royal Philharmonic — seriously, give this a listen. Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie is a solid (though not great) album by one of my favorite bands. Finally, while it won’t be released until Dec. 18, early indications are that I’m really going to like Cage the Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty (which was produced by Dan Auerbach). And now, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2015:

10. Beneath the Skin by Of Monsters and Men —  This follow-up to the Icelandic band’s first album, 2012’s My Head is an Animal, is really great. It’s quite a bit more mellow than their debut, which was one of my favorite albums of 2012. While it’s probably a disappointment sales-wise following the huge success of My Head is an Animal (which sold more than two million copies), it nevertheless delivers the same lovely and moving sound of Nanna Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.

9. Return to the Moon by El Vy — What a happy surprise  it was when I heard Return to the Moon on the radio the first time and couldn’t believe The National had a new album out that I didn’t know about. Well, turns out it was indeed The National’s Matt Berninger on lead vocals but it was a side project not a new album by one of my favorite bands. I don’t know what it is these days, but musical collaboration seems to be on the rise. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with Brent Knopf before hearing this album, but I’m sure glad he and Matt decided to do an album together.

8. California Nights by Best Coast — Lead singer Bethany Cosentino cited Gwen Stefani, Sugar Ray and the Go Go’s as influences for California Nights and the result is pure California pop goodness. I don’t hear much No Doubt in the album, but there’s most definitely a Go Go’s vibe and frankly a Beach Boys vibe. This is Best Coast’s third studio album and the second to make my year-end list. They are the perfect example of a band I never would have found without doing some work — and I’m so glad I did.

7. A Head Full of Dreams by Coldplay — I’m an unapologetic fan of all things Coldplay but even I have to admit last year’s Ghost Stories album was a disappointment. And I was as surprised as everyone else when Coldplay announced a new album this fall, and I was skeptical, but after just a few listens I really like it. It’s upbeat with a bit of a dance edge and has 11 really solid songs on it, especially the disco-infused title track. Welcome back Chris and friends.

6. All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes — This band from Los Angeles tend to get put in the “folk rock” category but I think they are in a category of their own I like to call “California Cool.” I probably did not coin that genre, but it fits. Think 1970s California soft rock — Jackson Browne and the Eagles. This is perfect music for cruising up the coast in a convertible, which is exactly what I was doing when I discovered Dawes a few years ago. I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.

5. Love Stuff by Elle King — Quite the debut album from 26-year-old Tanner Elle Schneider, aka Elle King. With a huge voice and a bad-ass attitude to go along with it, King is the anti-Taylor Swift and wants you to know it. She may not be America’s Sweetheart, but she’ll be around for a long time if she keeps writing songs like Ex’s and Oh’s. I can envision dad Rob Schneider sitting up in the balcony yelling “you can do it.”

4. Yours, Dreamily by The Arcs — Released on Sept. 4 (my son’s birthday), this album featuring the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach did not disappoint. Yes, it sounds like the Keys, but if you’ve read my favorite albums lists over the past decade you already know how much I love the Black Keys. This solo project has a nice blues/soul feel that is a little less raw than the Keys, and while “Outta My Mind” could have easily been a hit for the Keys, my favorite tracks are deeper on the album, especially Put a Flower in Your Pocket. Recorded at the Sound Factory in LA, this album got a lot of plays on my stereo this fall.

3. Positive Songs for Negative People by Frank Turner — In 2013 I kept hearing this song on XM called Recovery by Frank Turner and it really grew on me. I had never heard of Turner but I listened to the whole album and really liked it. This year Turner released his sixth album and I really love it. Turner’s music is acoustic post-punk folk with a hard edge and great lyrics. I’m sure fans of his early work think he is too mellow these days, but there’s nothing wrong with being more accessible.

2. Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons — Babel was my favorite album of 2012 and it is sure to land high on the list of my favorite records of the decade, so imagine how excited I was when the band announced it would release its third album in 2015 but that it would be more modern and would not include the banjo. What! The Mumfords without a banjo? Sacrilege! Guess what? Wilder Minds is tremendous and I think Believe is probably my favorite Mumford & Sons song ever. So they evolved. What’s wrong with that? I absolutely love Wilder Mind and listen to it all the time, and almost six months later I still turn the volume up when Believe or The Wolf comes on the radio.

1. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists — 2015 began with this gift from the Decemberists and the album never stopped delivering. Frankly, it wasn’t even close this year — this album is head and shoulders above the rest for me. I was fortunate as well to see them live early this year and they were spectacular.  Make You Better was easily my favorite song of the year, and the lesser known and hauntingly beautiful Lake Song stands out as well. The Decemberists have firmly planted themselves near the top of my list of favorite bands and I look forward to many years of new music from Colin and the band.

91aaiR3wl-L._SY355_

Something Happened and We’re Head Over Heels

TearsForFears

Connor and I posing backstage at the Wild Horse Pass Casino with Curt Smith (left) and Roland Orzabal (right), also known as Tears For Fears.

Last Friday I blogged about the pleasures of a father sharing his love for music with his son, sparked by the Tears For Fears show that night at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler. The post apparently touched a few readers and it got shared quite a bit on Facebook and Twitter. Well, we had no idea it would lead to such a memorable moment for my son Connor and I, but that it did. Here’s the story that led to this incredible photo of Connor and I back stage with Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal.

One of my friends, Barb Harris, shared my blog post with her friend Eric Schaefer. I didn’t know Eric, who lives here in the Valley, but apparently he too is a big Tears For Fears fan and somehow over the years he had befriended none other than Curt Smith. Well, Eric enjoyed my blog post so much that he tweeted a link to Curt Smith. A little while later, I had two new followers on Twitter — Eric and Curt! Imagine how I felt when I was notified that I had a new follower and it was one of my musical heroes!

But the story gets better. A few hours later, Eric sent me a note that there would be two backstage passes for Connor and I at the box office and that after the show we were going to get to meet Tears For Fears. Eric and his daughter went to the venue early to meet up with Curt and apparently Curt was touched by my post. Needless to say Connor and I were thrilled. We drove over to the venue, picked up our passes, and went into the theater to watch the show.

The concert was spectacular — I had seen Tears For Fears three times previously, but it was obviously Connor’s first TFF show and it was really great to enjoy it along with him. At the end of the show we lined up at the back of the theater to be escorted back stage to get our photo with Curt and Roland. As we moved our way up to the front of the line and got closer to the band, we noticed Curt looking our way. Then he caught our attention and said, “Are you Connor?”

He proceeded to give Connor a hard time about having a beard, then we chit chatted a bit while we took our photo. Roland was quite shy, but I decided to put my arm around him anyway! Curt seemed genuinely pleased to meet Connor and it was certainly more than we expected. He gave Connor a nice firm handshake as we left and thanked us for coming. As we walked out of the theater we couldn’t believe how the day turned out. It was a father-son bonding experience that we will never forget.

That’s the thing about social media — you just never know who might be paying attention.

Advice for the Young at Heart

One of the great joys of fatherhood for me has been introducing my son to the music of my youth. It’s no secret I’m a music freak, and my musical heart is strongly rooted in the 1980s. As a father you can only hope your kids at least appreciate the things you loved in your youth, but it’s something entirely unexpected and incredibly rewarding when your kid shows true exuberance for one of your loves.

Tonight, as part of my birthday weekend, my son Connor and I will be seeing Tears For Fears in concert. The duo is without question one of my all-time favorite bands, and I have been fortunate to have seen them in concert three times over the past 30 years. But what makes tonight’s show so special is that my son is so excited about seeing Curt and Roland tonight that he is almost giddy. Yesterday I sent him a copy of the set list from the band’s show in Tulsa the other night and he was ecstatic about what we will be hearing tonight in Chandler. Even though Tears For Fears is one of my favorite bands, I’m more excited for him. And isn’t that really what parenthood is all about?

ConnorMidge

Connor got to meet the legendary Midge Ure last summer, one of his musical heroes.

Connor loves 80s modern rock. When he was very young, he would sit in his car seat in the back of my car and sing along to whatever I was listening to, and that was most often 80s music. Depeche Mode. REM. U2. Talking Heads. Peter Gabriel. Joe Jackson. The Clash.  As he got older, his tastes grew to appreciate the vast majority of my favorite artists. But that appreciation grew into a love and that was totally unexpected. At one time or another during the past few years I’d walk to the back of the house to hear the kid blasting XTC or Howard Jones or Talking Heads.

At one time or another during the past few years if you asked him his favorite band, not his favorite 80s band, but his favorite band period, he probably would have said Ultravox. Which is why when we had the chance to see Midge Ure perform last summer here in Phoenix he considered witnessing Midge perform Vienna one of the highlights of his young life. After the show, which also featured Howard Jones, China Crisis and Thompson Twins, he got to meet Midge and the photo embedded in this blog post is one of his favorite images ever. Last year I showed him what for me is the greatest concert video ever filmed, Jonathan Demme’s sublime Stop Making Sense. He loved it, and now Talking Heads is at or near the top of his favorite bands list.

But above all, Tears For Fears reigns supreme. Connor agrees with me that The Hurting is arguably the best modern rock album of the 80s. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Mad World or Pale Shelter blasting from his speakers. He loves every song they have ever released, as do I. He loves the unheralded but wonderful Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, which was released in 2004 and is the band’s last studio album (although they are recording a new one right now!). It’s an album that very few people outside of true fans have probably heard, yet still classic TFF.

One of the problems with loving 80s music is unless you were of age in the 80s your chances of ever seeing one of these great bands live is slim. Yes, there are a few retro shows now and then, but unfortunately Connor is not likely to ever see live performances by Talking Heads or XTC or The Smiths. Which is one reason why tonight’s Tears For Fears gig at Wild Horse Pass is so special to him and why the best part of my birthday weekend will be experiencing the show through his eyes.

Yes, my son and I also enjoy many modern bands together. Arcade Fire. Phoenix. Black Keys to name a few. But there will always be something special, something that connects us, when it comes to the music of the 80s. I hope you have something similar to this with your offspring.