Friday, June 28, 2013

Baseball for One

Author's note: This post was largely written during and entirely about the Mets Cardinals game on Wednesday June 12

My walk to the 7-Train at Grand Central Station is missing something.  It might be the shocking absence of Mets hats, of blue with orange trim. Down a staircase, through a tunnel and down again I go, but even the platform wants for regalia.

Once onboard, I cannot shake the same feeling of absence. The scene is one of weekend warriors returning home, one step closer to Friday, either unaware or apathetic to the plight of ‘the Amazins.’ Disappeared are baseball gloves on the hands of expectant young fans, and unheard are the usual gripes about the detested Yankees or Phillies.

This train may be on the express track to Citi Field, but its passengers couldn’t be further distanced from the looming 7:10 first pitch.

By the time Citi Field comes into view, a single Mets hat waits for the slowly chugging subway's doors to open. This lone brave soul, with his even braver wife in-tow, gazes out at the stadium’s brick façade. He croons quietly in Italian, while she scuffles towards the subway map. Perhaps her interest has already waned, as she slowly traces their route to the stadium—or is it their path home?—with her index finger. After all, as many a Mets fan already knows, on some nights, the greatest relief and the loudest cheer is let out after the final pitch and the accompany tally in the loss column.

I step off of, and leave behind, an empty train. I can see the entire car clearly. But as the doors slide shut, I still feel like I've lost something.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For most of this season, in four out of every five games, it didn't seem to matter who pitched. Now, with Zack Wheeler in the big leagues to stay, that number has fallen to three of five, and fans have substantially more to cheer for every few days. But on those other occasions, whether its Niese or Marcum or Hefner or Gee or any of the other hurlers who seem to have been dusted off from the bargain basement and force-fit into the starting rotation, the Mets pitching staff boasts nothing except underdogs. 

But Mets fans’ short-temper with that motley crew is only partially an indictment of the pitchers’ talent. The other end of the equation is the enormously unfair standard to which they are held—because when the comparison is to Matt Harvey, the ruler against which they’re measured may as well be 100 miles long. Yes, he is every bit that good.

Unfortunately for me, Harvey will pitch in tomorrow night’s series finale, matching up with his early competition for the NL Cy Young—the equally exquisite—if altogether less surprisingly so—Adam Wainwright. But, for lovers of the sport's most pure art form in attendance tonight, perhaps hope is not lost. It just so happens to be wearing the wrong colors.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Shelby Miller is among the frontrunners for NL Rookie of the Year. A year and a half Harvey’s junior, and with stats to match, Miller has Cardinals fans almost as excited as Harvey does Mets fans. The only difference, of course, is the intensity with which their respective fan bases need each pitcher. For a Cardinals fan, Miller’s breakout is a feather in a hat that would already make a peacock jealous. The Cardinals have many, many more wins than the Mets and two World Series championships over the past six seasons. The Mets haven’t had a winning record since 2008—and before this year it was speculated they could chase the 62 Mets' woeful franchise record of 120 losses in a season. Mets fans need Matt Harvey—and more recently Zach Wheeler—much, much more than Cardinals fans need Miller.

And it shows. Because tonight, on a night where neither Harvey nor Wheeler is pitching, the stadium is populated sparsely at best. But among those who have made the trip (and aren’t wearing Cardinal red), many don t-shirts already marked with the names of the young phenom pitchers. 

As game time nears, the stands slowly fill in, gradually accumulating in the inner sections as the outer wings of Citi Field continue to flirt with vacancy. Three minutes before the scheduled first pitch, I count six entire sections with one or no fans in them. Here in Section 520, there are as many Johnny Unitas jerseys as there are Mets uniforms. One. 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Even without a pennant to chase and even though Cardinals fans outnumber the Mets faithful 2:1, there is nothing better than baseball on a warm June night. And Mets fans, few as they may be, are a breed unto their own. It doesn’t matter how many years pass: when Carlos Beltran comes to the plate in the top of the first, boos award his appearance. And when he trudges away, head hung after a called third strike, the crowd’s glee, and its ability to appreciate the little things—in this case poetic justice—is what makes baseball in Flushing worth watching.

The old timers sitting behind me talk about the 62 Mets of loserdom lore with a sense of genuine reverence. They quiz each other as to which member of the club ended his career a member of baseball Valhalla in Cooperstown (the answer: former Phillies great Richie Ashburn). Before we know it, the top-half of the first inning is over and the Mets are only a leadoff walk worse for the wear. And, to add yet another small victory, a second Mets jersey has found its way two rows back and seven seats to my left. The Mets may still be tied with the Cardinals on the scoreboard, but at least we’re beating the Baltimore Colts in the battle for representation.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

By the time David Wright comes to bat in the bottom half, and with our first two batters already retired, the stands are now far less embarrassingly barren. As if to prove the point, when Wright doubles into the gap, the scattershot Wednesday crowd stirs to life. So what if the next hitter, Daniel Murphy—batting cleanup in this iteration of the scorecard— has about as much power as the third rail in the old W line tunnels. Because Murphy doesn’t need to put one into the stands, the single he delivers sends Wright around third and puts the Mets on the board. Moments later, Lucas Duda wanders from the on-deck circle and into the batters box, coaxed by an idiosyncratic saxophone solo that is unlike any entrance music anyone in the stands seems to have heard before. Perhaps its good juju, however. In a moment of small-ball beauty, Murphy scores all the way from first—capitalizing on a strategically blooped single and a well-timed hit and run that, in concert, prove that God is most certainly in the details of America’s pastime.

When John Buck strikes out to end the inning a batter later, it almost doesn’t matter. Nor does my recollection that the Mets had squandered a very similar lead only the night before, eventually losing by 7. Mets fans aren’t fickle in a season like 2013—you take the leads you can get, and when you do, you guard them like treasure.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In the top of the second, Yadier Molina—who is quietly leading the National League in hitting—puts a prompt end to Dillon Gee’s bid for the second no-hitter in Mets history. Hey, a guy can dream. From there, things fall into a rhythm. The Cardinals accumulate base runners in the second, third and fourth, but each time they fail to get on the board. The Mets similarly find a pattern—as the eight batters that follow Duda’s RBI single in the first all return to the dugout without seeing first base. Shelby Miller appears to have settled into a groove, dominating the paltry hitters at the bottom of the Mets lineup. Indeed, it is only the return of Luca Duda, and a no-doubt-about-it homerun, that calls into question Miller’s command and draws the Citi Field faithful’s attention away from a boisterously wandering Mr. Met.

Rising to my feet, it is strange to turn to my left and to my right, only to find the stadium so sporadically populated—the already thin crowd depleted no doubt by trips for ice-cream and bathroom breaks—that there is no-one next to me to high five.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Allen Craig’s homerun in the top of the sixth comes with a tinge of guilt as I internally debate the morals of rooting for your fantasy team at the expense of your real team. David Wright’s solo shot in the home half invokes cloture, as the Mets lead buoys back to a comfortable three runs. 

The last of the scoring comes in the bottom of the seventh inning, when easily the most pleasant surprise of the Mets offensive battery—Marlon Byrd—punctuates the effort with a two run bomb. For the third time in the evening, the homerun apple rises in center field. Each time it does so, it marks the return of an old friend. The Stadium might now be branded by Citi, but the Apple still smacks of Shea.

Even though the Mets lead is comfortable and it’s a weeknight, Mets fans make a strong showing in the ninth inning. I watch from the third-base side, hovering at the top of the expensive seats without sitting—with the non-verbal consent of the usher to my right. On my left is a young Cardinals fan, watching in silence as Bobby Parnell methodically retires the Cardinals side in order. As Pete Kozma lifts a flyball into the outfield, I turn and make my way to the rotunda. Behind me, I hear the crowd murmur, confirming what I already knew, that the final out has been made and the Mets have put a rare W in the books.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

As noticeably as my train en route to Citi Field was empty, my train back to Manhattan is full. I reflect on the fact that, for the first time in my life, tonight at the park I sat between two empty seats. But in the end, the sense of absence, which was so palpable on the way to the game and lingered even into batting practice, has long since gone. There were 23,331 fans in announced attendance and nearly 10,000 seats left unbought, but still no chair was empty. We all bring something with us every time we step into a stadium. Baseball always has been and always will be an anachronistic pursuit—a way to connect our past with the promise of our future. And each April, and from then on every game, is saturated with baseball's history and filled with its potential.  


And so we root on, fans in search of a pennant, thrown back ceaselessly into the top of the first.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Faith in Foxboro

A holy man and the anti-Christ walk into a football stadium. Yes, this could be the beginning to a bit of politically incorrect and religiously insensitive humor. Unfortunately, after yesterday’s revelation that Tim Tebow will be joining Bill Belichick in New England for the upcoming NFL season, this is no joking matter.

No joking matter because, in the days and weeks to come, ESPN will almost assuredly once again be commandeered by Tebow-mania. Except this time, rather than basking in the Jets idiotically dysfunctional decision to allow the network near complete access, ESPN will almost certainly be forced to dance with the constantly evasive and media-unfriendly Vader-esque leader of the Patriots in Bill Belichick. But even the threat of falling victim to some bastardized football version of ‘the force’ seems unlikely to dissuade ESPN. Because if there is one thing the boys up in Bristol—or what’s left of them, after the station’s recent swath of layoffs—love more than fanatically chasing Tebow-mania, it’s heaping praise on the Patriots. The opportunity to do both at the same time—well let’s just say that’s not a banana in John Clayton’s pocket.

ESPN must be drooling at the possibilities: stories on Timmy receiving quarterback counsel from Tommy and Tommy receiving spiritual counsel from Timmy. Stories on Tebow changing the ways of porn-star pursuing bad-boy bro Rob Gronkowski (or the inverse, which would be far more entertaining: Tebow’s version of rumspringa, complete with him and Gronk, shirtless, doing the Carlton Dance before chasing coeds through the streets of Cambridge). And yes, dare I say it, stories on Tebow hoisting the Lombardi trophy this coming February at Met Life Stadium—in the very venue where his career was supposedly ended and his mystique purportedly maimed by the debacle that was the Jets 2012 season.

However this plays out, it undoubtedly cannot end in poorer fashion than Tebow’s tenure in New York. I genuinely think that Tebow is a better player than the Jets ever gave him the opportunity to show. And, if his playoff run in 2011 taught football fans anything, it’s that he certainly does have some tricks up his sleeve. Perhaps more importantly, if it taught us two things, it was that a well coached Patriots team is easily capable of stifling that magic.

Is it possible, however, that the combination of those two forces—Tebow’s special something and Belichick’s dark genius—could strike a perfect balance? Whether Tebow’s role will be decoy or quarterback, tight end or H-back, it almost doesn’t matter. Any weapon in the hands of the Patriots suddenly becomes a deadly weapon. And a player with as diverse a skill-set as Tebow’s—it includes just about everything a coach could ask for, except the ability to throw the ball well—certainly has the potential to be of value to the Patriots. And maybe, just maybe, if someone could teach Tebow’s ducks to fly straight, well then New England might have the perfect heir-apparent to Tom Brady. After all, Brady and Tebow are in a class of their own when it comes to ESPN-fuelled media-love fests, and should Tebow eventually succeed, then Brady is the only player whose rags-to-riches story—from sixth-round pick to six bazillion-time MVP—could rival Tebow’s.

Only one thing is for sure. Sometime soon in New England, a holy man and the anti-Christ are going to walk into a football stadium. And whatever the result, the only punch line to this joke is going to be the New York Jets.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On Grantland

Earlier today, I spent a good deal of time problematizing the current state of sports journalism with my roommate. The jumping off point of our discussion--and for the intents and purposes of this blog--the epitome of journalistic virtue: a recent post on Grantland by Jay Caspian Kang about the woes of the New York Mets in the context of the meteoric rise of apparent ace Matt Harvey.

My contention was and is not that Kang's writing wants for quality. His craft is technically sound and his delivery is by and large interesting. Indeed, he paints a colorful picture of the disrepair in which the Mets franchise currently finds itself and writes the prologue to what may ultimately prove to be a Quixotic path awaiting Matt Harvey, who appears to have gained flagship status for a starting rotation falling so far short of seaworthiness that this fleet of pitchers probably couldn't even make it across the East River.    

No, rather, my issue lies in that Kang, and so many sports journalists like him, are incredibly lazy. Because while his post cleverly compares Harvey to Mark Fidrych--an ace starter for a Detroit Tigers team equally as bereft of quality as the 2013 Mets--Kang also opts for many a layup--if you don't mind me crossing sports with my metaphors. 

Take the much-masticated morself of Bobby Bonilla's contract, for example. Few monetary blunders in the Mets recent history--except perhaps the debacle of Jason Bay's compensation, which Kang touches on shortly before discussing Bonilla--have been more thoroughly maligned and more entirely lamented. Indeed, well before Bonilla's bizarre payouts began taking place, Mets beat writers and fans alike were awe-strickenly leaning upon it as a tenet of the Mets undeniable accursedness. 



So that Kang, a full two years after Bonilla began collecting checks, revisits the issue--and a host of other exhausted topics, like the unavoidable column space dedicated to the Wilpon's role in the Madoff ponzi scandal or the inevitably shallow discussion of the poor quality of players surrounding Harvey (this article has a fever, and the only prescription is more Cowgill)--is not criminal. Rather, it's simply complacent. 

Kang and sports writers across the country are happy to take the easy way out these days. Even those dabbling in the art of long form seem content to retell the same stories and replay the same highlights over and over. But, for sports fans, that shouldn't be enough. After all, the whole reason we look to journalists and columnists is that they have access reserved for only a select few. Whether you're a casual observer or as die-hard as cowbell man, you and I don't have the same ability to tear down the fourth wall between fan and phenom. Sure, the internet has made sabermetric nirvana attainable even for the most average of Joes, but that doesn't get you or me any closer to the Mets dugout, or clubhouse, hell even their parking lot.

And, not to be one of those whiners who pokes and prods and pouts but doesn't offer anything constructive....here's what I think Kang, and in broader terms sports writing, is missing.

This game and all games, whether we're talking about baseball or badminton, hockey or jai-alai, still make us feel. In our guts, when you walk into Citi Field, when I walk into Citi Field--when every baseball fan out there walks into any ball park or bar to watch their Mudville Nine incarnate take the field--we all share a common experience and at the same time grasp some iota of the game in an entirely  unique and unrepeatable way. 

Matt Harvey included.

So what I want to hear from Kang is, what did the kid from Groton, Connecticut--just a few hours north of Flushing--think about the Mets growing up? Harvey missed the Miracle Mets by two decades and Mookie's marauders by two and a half years. But that still means he was at least aware of the Mets during some massive highs--Robin Ventura's walk-off grand slam single--and some crushing lows--Carlos Beltran's called strike three. And even if Harvey doesn't want to talk about what he feels in the ball park, and what his eight year old self might have felt if forced to hypothesize his future as a Met, I bet some industrious journalist could get in touch with at least a few of the newly famous hurler's childhood friends and spin us a yarn or two.

Or, if the writer can't get me into Harvey's head, he could at least let me into his. Rather than telling me what it feels like to watch the Mets lose--which, along with the rest of America, I am much too familiar--what does it feel like to watch Harvey dominate in spite of them. What does it feel like to watch him pitch? Because after almost 2000 thousand words and nearly 64 innings pitched in 2013, I still don't know. I haven't been lucky enough to witness him throw firsthand, haven't heard John Buck's mitt pop or listened as fans' groans turned to cheers when Harvey took the mound and then back to groans again when the Mets bats couldn't turns six and 2/3 perfect into a win before extra innings.

Fundamentals. They are the keystone to any good sports team just like they are the lynchpin of an effective sports writer. And at the core of its existence, the fundamental issue at hand in any story is now just who, what, where when,  and why--it's the how, as in how does it feel--that drives it all home. Roger Angell, the Babe Ruth of baseball writing, penned in his in piece Agincourt and After--which is almost certainly his equivalent of the 'Called Shot': 

"What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about: this is what we come for. It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift."

I will probably never write professionally. Not about baseball, or any of the other subjects I hold close to my heart. But that doesn't mean I can't expect more from those who have the privilege to do so. Today, I read an article about the Mets and Matt Harvey on a website that boldly proclaims to be descendant from Grantland Rice. Tomorrow, or someday not long after, I hope to read something that truly captures the guts of sport the way he did. Until then, his four horsemen ride unchallenged. And the sports writing apocalypse almost dares to loom.   

Friday, January 11, 2013

An Open Letter to the Ownership of the New York Jets:



 Dear Woody Johnson,
                 

First off, congrats on the baby product empire. Really top notch work on the ‘no tear shampoo’ especially (maybe it's time to bring the 'no tear' mentality to your other endeavors??). And sorry about Mitt Romney. I know you were really hoping that he would win, but chin up; he seems to really enjoy being a disheveled regular guy. Come to think of it, the bizarrely unkempt pictures of him pumping gas, trying to pay with pure gold bullion, remind me of how I look most Sundays after the Jets lose, wandering through my local bodega, trying to pay for 40s of Colt 45 with my tears.

                
Speaking of Sundays, I think it’s time for a new approach. I know PSL sales aren’t where they need to be, and Tebow mania seemed like a great way to put asses in the seats. But I’ve got to be honest with you Woody, all Tebowmania did was put assholes in the seats…you know, like the guy who sat in front of me in section 307, wearing a camo Florida Gators hat, a Tebow t-shirt with the sleeves meticulously ripped off, shouting racial epithets at the fans around us who unreasonably believed that Tebow was not, as this gentleman proclaimed, “the shit.” Now I’m not saying I blame you, the CEO of a national corporation with no experience in scouting or athletic talent assessment, for misjudging Tebow’s value to the Jets as a football field. I’m merely wondering if it’s time to stop treating the franchise like its Barnum and Bailey Circus—clowns, it turns out, don’t perform all that well when 300 pound defensive linemen sit on their heads—and to start treating like it’s, well, you know, a football team. 

      Before you jump down my throat and say, “of course I know the Jets are a football team,” let me make a few suggestions. Just a handful. After all, since the team’s salary cap situation is so unmanageable general manager candidates are literally turning down the job before you can even bring them in to interview, it seems like there is currently a noticeable dearth of sensible consultation inside the Jets organization at the moment. 
  
      So here’s what I’ve got:

      1) Sign Chad Pennington as QBs coach. Actually, you shouldn’t make the approach, since you were the one who summarily screwed him, kicking him to the curb for Brett “have you seen my weiner” Favre. But Chad is still, according to the NFL record books, the most accurate QB in NFL history. Mark Sanchez, the incumbent QB, turned the ball over, himself, more times than 18 entire teams did (yes, Woody, that means he did turn the ball over more than half of the teams in the NFL). So maybe, while you didn’t value Chad as a QB, he might be able to provide some insight as to why Mark prefers to complete so many passes to players in colors other than green and/or white. Coaches around the league always said that Chad was one of the smartest QBs in the game…he may be the last man on the earth who could possibly save the Sanchize’s career, and maybe adding a smart guy to average out some of the dumb things Rex says would even benefit the team’s woeful PR apparatus.
      
      2)      Trade DOWN—the opposite of up—in the draft, and then select Chance Warmack in the first round. Under Mike Tanenbaum, the Jets had an affinity for either mortgaging the future or  taking “sexy” draft picks. Sexy, by the way, could mean physically attractive—see Mark Sanchez—could mean attractive in a football sense—see Darrelle Revis—and apparently could even mean utter disaster—see Vernon Gholston. Instead, the Jets should trade down, pick up a few extra draft picks (build for this crazy thing called the future), and take the ultimate combination of unsexiness—a 300 pound interior offensive linemen whose dominance of the Notre Dame front 7 in the BCS championship should prove to the Jets that, while they may no longer have God on their side after the Tebow fiasco, Warmack has the ability to smite even the most pious of football players. 

      3)      Don’t sign other team’s castaways. The Jets have, over recent  years, somehow become the NFL version of the Island of Misfit Toys. When a player's luck is out in another city—Santonio Holmes “blazing” his way out of Pittsburgh, Braylon Edwards talking his way out of both Cleveland and Seattle, LaRon Landry tearing every muscle in his body in Washington—they somehow seem to end up on the Jets roster, disrupting what little zen the team might have had from the year prior. Whether the individual performs well—like Landry—or not—like Holmes—it doesn’t matter, because the good ones forsake the Jets in favor of lots of money after proving themselves and the bad ones’ contracts hang around the Jets’ neck like a multimillion dollar albatross. 

      4)      Stop worrying about PSLs. Listen Woody, I get that the Jets are a business, and that, unlike Jay-Z, you are a business man and  not a business, man. So you’re in this to make money. Sure. But here’s the deal. People pay to see good football teams. People buy stock in the Packers—i.e. pieces of paper that say "Go Packers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" and "no monetary value" in not all that small print—just because the franchise is so revered not only in Wisconsin but across the country. If you built a reputable dynasty here, not only would your PSLs sell, but so would Jets Jerseys, and beer, and even little Woody Johnson action figures, complete with pose-able arms and blank checks. The business end of football is still football. Product is secondary to results. So stop trying to trick Jets fans into coming to games with gimmicks, and start selling me something that’s so good I can’t say no to it. 


In summation, the Jets are not doomed to failure. They need help. Lots of help. Like help of biblical, Noah’s flood-sized, proportions. But if you take my four pieces of advice, and maybe hire me as GM, the Jets can win games again. You want to make money; well you’re doing it wrong. Right now the Jets are like meth, a really horrible drug that a few people are miserably addicted to but no one new is begging to try. Stop dealing meth Woody Johnson. It’s bad.  

Your Benevolent, and Thoroughly Displeased, Servant,

John Hill

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012: A Rocktrospective


I am not a music critic, nor do I come anywhere near to listening to all the artists I want to listen to—Frank Ocean—let alone the bands I ought to listen to—Fiona Apple, Cat Power, other things that Pitchfork tells me are good even if I can’t sit through more than two and a half minutes of them without going back to (spoiler alert) Japandroids.

All the same, I feel strongly about six—not ten, six—songs that, for one reason or another, will last well beyond 2012. Some were impactful, others entertaining, others still so bad you couldn’t turn them off, until, somewhere in your bleary-eared listening, you realized that maybe they were in fact so bad they were actually good.

Whatever the reason, as 2012 draws to a close, I have too much to say about this veritable profusion of pop, this abundance of anthem and this cornucopia of crap not to heave up a special Loveable Losers buzzer-beater (hey this wouldn’t be my blog if it was wanting for sports jargon, right?) of the top tracks from 2012.

1) Land of Hopes and Dreams—Bruce Springsteen

It seems fitting that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s first ever studio release after the death of the late, great Clarence Clemens is haunted by the ghosts of the Boss’s working hero, rock and roll raconteur past. With horns once again blaring and Springsteen’s uncompromising criticism of what he self-referentially calls, “the death of my hometown,” Wrecking Ball is a brilliant homage to where Bruce has come from and where he wants to be going. The album’s crowning jewel is "Land of Hopes and Dreams," in which Springsteen preaches in front of a literal choir and is once again backed by that touchstone saxophone. As the last track that Springsteen ever recorded with the Big Man before Clemens’ death, the E-Street sax has never been more alive and the listener has never been more conscious of the enduring influence Clarence Clemens had on the music of Bruce Springsteen over the last 40 years.  Hearkening pack to power ballads of the past like “No Surrender,” and “Promised Land," "Land of Hopes and Dreams” puts the downtrodden on the backs of American brawn, guiding them through hard times and promising that “This train, dreams will not be thwarted/This train, faith will be rewarded/This train, the steel wheels singing/This train, bells of freedom ringing.”


2) Japandroids—The House that Heaven Built/Continuous Thunder 

If my gushing over Bruce Springsteen didn’t convince you of the merits of anthemic power ballads coupled with gut-wrenching guitar, Japandroids’ Celebration Rock will. The Canadian duo follows in the great guitar-rock tradition of countrymen Neil Young and Bachman Turner Overdrive (listen to Not Fragile on an open highway and, I dare you, try and keep the car under eighty before the last track ends), melding righteous solos for each of the bands two members with angsty but thoughtful lyrics. The album starts and ends with fireworks but saves its best for the grand finale, as the last two tracks, “The House that Heaven Built” and “Continuous Thunder” blend into one euphonious torrent, with the former’s fast paced but never rushed tempo perfectly seguing into the latter’s tinny, triumphantly climactic assurance that Japandroids are here to stay, “singing out loud/like continuous thunder.”





3) Call Me Maybe—Carly Rae Jepsen 

What "Gangam Style" meant to Youtube, "Call Me Maybe" was to radio. Maybe it didn’t get a billion plays (or, to put that in perspective, a view for one in every six people on the planet), but "Call Me Maybe," for what seemed like 500 years of darkness but turns out to have only been nine weeks of indecency, was not only atop Billboard’s Hot 100 but was also on the tip of the tongue of every person under 30 in the country. It gave birth to brilliant parodies—looking at your Harvard Baseball Team—brash pickup attempts and banshee packs of thousands upon thousands of drunk sorority girls at parties across the nation. Hate her or love her, Carly Rae was undeniably and inoperably wedged in the backs of our heads and, I for one, will never be the same because of it.



4) Lakeside View Apartments Suite—The Mountain Goats

Not exactly a pick me up, this dark tune doesn’t mask its dreary subject matter with up-tempo misdirection like The Mountain Goats jangly, catchily-cataclysmic “No Children.” Rather, “Lakeside View” is occasionally Spartan, mixing piano with barebones percussion to tell a drug-addled story that is alternatingly beautiful and stirring.  As a whole, the song may not have the same staying power of “No Children,” which is both musically likeable while unforgettably negative, but is exactly the sort of melancholy melody that the Carpenters might find themselves listening to on repeat on rainy days and Mondays (you’re better off for it if you didn’t get that reference). Jokes aside, the Mountain Goats continue to make innovative alternative music and “Lakeside View” marks another triumph in their ever-expanding catalogue of high-quality folk.



5) You’re Mine—Devin 

Admittedly, this track is a little deep for me or my list, but once you hear something kickass you can’t just unhear it, and instead you should probably blog about it—albeit with credit given where credit is due, and it is most certainly due in this case to my good friend at Aesthetes Anonymous. Devin’s raspy up-tempo New York (Brooklyn to be exact) grit is evocative of a different era in rock and roll music: when jackets were always leather, but never ironically so, and the outer boroughs were still uncool and often times unsafe. In “You’re Mine,” Devin grabs you with a guitar hook that doesn’t let go and slowly thrusts itself into your brain, leaving you with no option but to tap your foot and nod your head.



6) Apollo Bay—Craig Finn

If there’s one trend on this list, it’s my affinity for guitar rockers with a bar band reputation. Be it Springsteen at the Stony Pony to kick the list off or Craig Finn, who helms “America’s Bar Band,” the Hold Steady, at its conclusion, a crunchy guitar and outstretched arms are as close to a common thread as there is—with perhaps Carly Rae’s insidious intrusion aside.  But on his Clear Hearts, Full Eyes Finn rolls up his “rock and roll scriptures,” and instead takes a walk on the (more) acoustic side. Still, Finn knows how to tell a story and, behind whining guitars and an uncompromisingly introspective accompaniment, “Apollo Bay” sews Hold Steady oats in a different but not unfamiliar part of the garden. The solo project is intensely interesting and undeniably successful at achieving its purpose: Craig Finn, at his core, is a storyteller and Clear Hearts, Full Eyes has a handful of doozies. “Apollo Bay,” exemplifies Finn’s success where so many, including his idol and this list’s capstone, Bruce Springsteen, have failed: finding a middle ground as a solo artist despite being known as the front-man for a band. With “Apollo Bay” Finn strikes a balance, mixing that perfect blend of his Hold Steady origins with the story he has to tell now.