Saturday, January 7, 2012

One last look back at 2011

Before closing the books on 2011, seemed like a good time to look back on some of the bigger things that happened.  Being a blog on, that will obviously be the focus, but I’ll waste a little bit of space to talk about some favorites in music, TV, movies, etc.
And what a year it was to be a Cardinals fan.  Not an awful one to be a Yankees fan, either.  The Cardinals brought home their 11th world series title with an unlikely run that didn’t see the Wild Card locked up until the final day of the baseball season.  The Cards backs were literally against the wall throughout most of August and all of September and October, culminating in a World Series game 6 that was arguably the most exciting game in World Series history — unless of course you were rooting for the Texas Rangers.  That game 7 was a bit of a letdown is a huge testament to what a great game #6 was.  The Cardinals came back twice to win the game finally forcing a decisive game 7 after hometown hero David Freese’s walk off home run in extra innings.
The post season, as a whole, was a fitting encore to a final day of the regular season that was equally exciting.  The Wild Card berths were in doubt until late into the evening.  The Cardinals easily beat the Astros to guarantee a shot at a one game playoffs.  Then the Braves choked away a lead against the Phillies (an especially bitter pill for Braves fans, as the Phillies had little to play for except keeping their division rivals out of the playoffs).  With the benefit of hindsight, the Phillies might have found more luck if they’d let the Braves win that game, as their vaunted pitching staff came up a bit short against the Cardinals’ team of destiny.  Seemingly within minutes of the Phillies putting an exclamation point on the Braves collapse, the Yankees saw the Rays pull off an improbably come back to win their game while the Orioles stunned the Red Sox to send them home without October baseball. The Braves collapse was probably the more drastic of the two, but the Red Sox being such a high profile club meant a shakeup of epic proportions for the New England team.  Terry Francona was fired amid claims that he’d lost control of the club house (which included the bombshells that pitchers John Lackey and Josh Beckett were drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games), and a couple weeks later, Theo Epstein said good bye to become the savior of the Chicago Cubs.
While the Yankees did endure another less-than-successful October, it was a good year in the Bronx.  The Yankees captured another AL East crown, and better still saw the rival Red Sox revert back to their pre-2004 persona with an epic collapse that left many Red Sox fans sniping at the hated Yankees.  I’d be lying if I suggested that this didn’t give me at least a little bit of joy — and is a big reason that another poor showing in October didn’t cause the usual hand wringing that a typically accompanies a divisional series exit from the playoffs.  It also helped that the Yankees provided their fair share of magic over the summer.  Derek Jeter became the newest member of the 3,000 hit club, and became the first lifetime Yankee to reach the milestone.  After enduring a rough start to the season, Jeter returned from the DL and capped his magical run to 3k hits by collecting #3,000 on a surprising home run.  The day itself turned out to be a classic Jeter game as he provided most of the Yankees’ offense in a win over the Rays.  The season also saw Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera become the all-time saves leader — a mark that is not likely to be eclipsed any time soon.  The “core four”, as they had become known during their 2009 championship year, shrank to three as Andy Pettitte retired prior to the 2011 season.  The year played out with the knowledge that it would likely be Jorge Posada’s last in Yankee pinstripes, and while he has yet to officially retire as I am writing this, I’m really hoping that he does decide to call it a day.  It appears that Jeter and Rivera still have at least one more year together for fans to look forward to in 2012.  The Yankees (and Red Sox) closed out 2011 with what has been a surprisingly quiet off season that has seen the big name free agents (aside from Prince Fielder and Yeonis Cepedes — who have yet to be signed) sign with other teams.
The big free agent domino, of course, was Albert Pujols signing with the Angels — a tough pill for Cardinals fans, who ultimately realized that the team likely did the right thing as their last offer would have committed a huge sum to an already 32 year old slugger.  Pujols will be missed, and probably cursed by many Cardinals fans.  While I’m sad to see him go, I do realize it was probably the right move on the Cardinals’ part.  The Cardinals did offset the loss of Pujols by resigning Rafael Furcal and bringing in outfielder Carlos Beltran.  It won’t replace what’s lost in saying good bye to Pujols, but with the Brewers losing Prince Fielder to free agency and Ryan Braun slated to miss the first 50 games of the season due to a positive PED test, the Cardinals shouldn’t have much competition in the NL Central — though the Reds are a talented team and should be a force in 2012.  Regardless of what happens, 2011 will be a tough year for baseball to top.
And with that, I’ll put an end to the baseball talk for now.  Which means I’ll waste some space talking about a few of my other favorite things from 2011…
Favorite Television:  Hands down, the best new show that I watched in 2011 was Showtime’s Homeland.  I came to the show fairly late — just as the first season finale was about to air.  I had read a lot of good reviews of the show and decided to check out a few episodes that were available on-demand.  4 days later, I had watched the entire first season including the season finale.  Claire Danes gave an emmy worthy performance as a CIA analyst while one of my favorite actors, Damian Lewis, was equally good as a rescued POW turned suspected terrorist.  I won’t say too much more for those of you that haven’t yet seen this show, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The best returning show, for me, was Parks and Recreation.  This show started out as a clone of the Office (which, by the way, should have been cancelled with Steve Carrell’s exit — I thought it might be able to reinvent itself, but decided to got he easy route and is trying to capitalize on Ed Helms’ post “Hangover” popularity.  And is failing miserably), but is now perhaps the most satisfying comedy on television.  It is a show the requires a little bit of patience — you have to get a feel for the characters before you really become hooked.  But once you invest a little time, you’ll realize that the show features some of the best written stories and characters that we’ve seen.
Favorite Movies:  Having a young daughter at home has severely limited my movie watching to films available on DVD, so I haven’t seen many of the year’s most highly regarded flicks.  Those that I did manage to see were more of the blockbuster variety — Bridesmaids, XMen: First Class, and the final Harry Potter.  I found Harry Potter to be a bit of a letdown, though I think on the whole, they did as good of a job bringing the books to life as was possible.  I was also disappointed in Bridesmaids…but I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that I did not see that film until New Year’s Eve, and had heard so many raves about the film that it couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations that I had.  I did not have such high expectations for XMen, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.  I liked the first two movies, but found the third movie to be close to awful and the Wolverine solo movie not much better.  But First Class was a great mix of retro style, thrilling super hero action and a surprisingly deep story.  If you’re not completely sick of the super hero blockbuster by this point, then I think you’ll find it a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours.
Favorite Books:  As with movies, I don’t read quite as much as I’d like to.  I did enjoy Ian O’Connor’s biography about Derek Jeter — and think most baseball fans would feel the same unless they absolutely hate Jeter (which I know many do).  I found the “ESPN book”, Those Guys Have All the Fun, to be interesting, but ultimately far too long and conciliatory to ESPN (and I find that I like ESPN less and less these days).  I found Erik Larson’s tale of pre-WWII Nazi Germany, In the Garden of Beasts, to be a great read — and still find it amazing that the powers that be in the 1930′s were able to turn a blind eye to the horrors of Hitler’s reign.  I have not yet finished the book, so I can’t count it as a favorite of the year, but at just under half way through Stephen King’s latest, 11/22/63, I have to say that it’s the best King novel I’ve read in a long, long time.
And, finally, my top 10 album for 2011… I found 2011 to be a great year for music — or more specifically, for music that I happen to like.  A few “ground rules” for my list — these are the albums that I liked the most on the year, which means that I own the albums.  So if your favorite isn’t represented, I’m not slamming it — it’s either not my cup of tea or I just never got around to hearing it.  I had a tough time with this list…as I knew that my favorite album of the year was released very early on in the year.  The fact that the same band, R.E.M., happened to call it a career in the same year attached a certain sentimentality that would be tough for any other album to overcome.  But, two late entries actually end up captivating me a bit more — perhaps because they were a bit fresher in the memory banks.  I also left off best-of sets from R.E.M. and Pearl Jam (well, PJ20 was sort of a best of for die hard fans).  So here goes….
10.  ”The King is Dead” – The Decemberists:  Did I mention that I’m an R.E.M. fan?  Probably had a lot to do with me liking this one.  The Decemberists stopped making concepts albums and featured Peter Buck as a guest performer in an homage to R.E.M.’s younger days.  The only knock is that the homage feels a little bit too much like a retread at times.
9.  ”Whatever’s On Your Mind” – Gomez:  Again, I’ll stress this is my list of favorite albums of the year — not necessarily those that make the biggest contribution to music.  And I’m not saying that as a slam on Gomez or any other band on this list.  What Gomez might lack in treading new ground however, I feel is made up for by the fact that they’ve started to revisit many of the things that made their earlier work so interesting, while still embracing the more “Adult Alternative” sound that typified their previous two albums.
8.  ”Wasting Light” – Foo Fighters:  Best Foos album since their first.  Another band where you might slam them for not treading new ground, but I think you have to give them credit for doing what they do as well as it can be done.  Another one that sounds great blasting on the car stereo.
7.  ”The Whole Love” – Wilco:  I do like Wilco, but more often than not, their albums tend to be those that I feel like I should like as opposed to ones that I actually really end up liking.  This one is a bit more experimental than their last few, but I am not sure they’ve produced a song that I’ve liked more than “I Might” since the “Being There” album.
6.  ”Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes:  The opening song grabbed me right away, and before long, the whole thing settled in as one of the better albums I’ve heard in a long time.  It feels retro and current all at the same time.  Not an easy trick.
5.  ”Codes and Keys” – Death Cab For Cutie:  I think this was a very underrated album.  It’s happier than previous DCFC albums (but not so much so that it’s annoying).  Ironically, one of the better songs – “Stay Young, Go Dancing” – is also the most out of place.  Feels more tacked on than “Her Majesty” at the end of Abbey Road.
4.  ”Bon Iver” – Bon Iver:  Downloaded this one strictly based on word of mouth, and am very glad that I did.  The first song grabbed me, and I was hooked.  And yes, the last song sounds like something from the Karate Kid 2 soundtrack.
3.  ”Collapse Into Now” – R.E.M.:  Prior to December 6, this would have been my choice for favorite of the year — unfairly so.  This is the best post-Bill Berry album R.E.M.released, and it plays like a greatest hits album.  Each song harkens back to earlier times, but doesn’t sound like a rehash.  It Happened Today is perhaps my favorite R.E.M. song to be released in 10 years.  Knowing what we know now, it is also a fitting swan song.  The lyrics in many songs — notably All the Best and Blue — sound like a band saying “so long…”.  And doing it with style.
2.  ”El Camino” – The Black Keys:  While I liked “Brothers”, I wasn’t blown away by it.  There are great songs, but I have found that I can rarely sit and listen to it start to finish.  Hardly the case here — as each song builds on the last.  This is going to sound incredible blasting out of the car windows when summer rolls around.  There are no lame ballads, no missteps.  Every song is great, and the album is a perfect length, clocking in just under 40 minutes.
1. “Undun” – The Roots:  I didn’t intend to buy this one, and just downloaded it on a whim after reading one of the many glowing reviews of the album and an article where Questlove mentioned it was inspired by a Sufjan Stevens song (really….a hip hop band that is inspired by a weird folkie from Petosky, MI…how cool is that?).  It tells the story of Redford Stevens…in reverse.  I have no idea why — I’m not a huge hip-hop fan, and there’s little I can identify with personally in the subject matter — but there’s just something about the music that grabs you, pulls you in and begs you to listen for more.  And, like “El Camino”, it clocks in at an economical 38 minutes.
A few honorable mentions that spent a good bit of time playing on my iPod, but fell outside my top 10:  ”Zonoscope” – Cut Copy, “21″ – Adele (I simply lover her voice), “Kiss Each Other Clean” – Iron & Wine (a step back from “Shepherd’s Dog”, but still really, really good), “Angles” – The Strokes (saw them open for Pearl Jam, and liked them almost as much), “Ukulele Songs” – Eddie Vedder (bought this during my PJ kick this year but surprised at how good it was — and the version of Can’t Keep buries the “Riot Act” version by a mile), “Dye It Blonde” – Smith Westerns (how do 19 year old kids do such a dead-on George Harrison impersonation?), “Stone Rollin’”  - Raphael Saadiq (retro without sounding cliche), “2011″ – The Smithereens (proving they are still a dependable, if somewhat predictable, band).

Thanks for reading….bring on 2012.

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