Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

A couple years ago my friend Sean and I recorded "Silver Bells" as a way to share some Christmas cheer with friends and family. This year we've come together again to record the Johnny Marks song "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Here's the product of that effort.


The iTunes Chronicles: Well, that was a stupid idea

A year and a half after announcing I would listen to my entire music library and simultaneously blog about each day of listening, I am finally (and with great relief) ending this quixotic quest of music nerdery. Of course, it’s really been over for quite some time now. I haven’t written an entry for the blog series in eight months, and that one came after several months of inactivity on the project. I’m just making it official.

Miles Davis did me in.
So why am I tossing in the towel now? The short answer is I’ve had this appetite for Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for the past week and I’m tired of denying myself a listen to one of my favorite albums because of a contract I made with myself that I’ve been refusing to break out of principle (that I’ve held to this contract this long should reveal how quirky I am, if that wasn’t already apparent). So, I turned on Kind of Blue while doing some work, marking the first time since May 2011 I have listened to an album in my iTunes library out of the alphabetical-by-artist name order I had been following when I began this series (at last check, I stopped listening at Depeche Mode’s Violator).

The long answer, though, is I haven’t been actively pursuing this endeavor for a long time now and, given my other commitments and the time it takes to write each entry, the thought of ever completing the series now seems so daunting that I’d rather relieve myself of that self-imposed burden and admit that this whole thing was a ridiculous idea in the first place. Rather than go out in total shame, I thought I’d at least try to wrap this up with some reflection and lessons learned.

It’s been so long ago that I started this that I have to think a bit to remember how it began, but I think it stemmed form a conversation with a friend. He had told me how he was in the process of listening to his entire music library, and because I was feeling a bit bored with work at the time I thought doing the same thing would be a way to liven up the workdays. Then he suggested I blog about it. As I often do, I got excited about this idea. I came up with a template for each entry that would showcase highlights of each day of listening, I wrote an introductory post that included rules stating I would not skip or fast-forward through any songs, then I kicked it off with a-ha’s “Take On Me.”

A couple friends who read that first post warned that it would take me an incredible amount of time to get through the 8,900 songs in my library, but riding the enthusiasm of the few who encouraged me, I progressed undeterred. I kept a pretty decent pace until August of last year, at which point several obstacles began impeding the project:
1)     I started graduate school, which meant the absurd amount of free time I enjoyed that allowed me to engage in a fun blog series like this suddenly vanished.
2)     My entries in the blog series, which had started off as concise briefs that I wrote in 15 to 20 minutes, became increasingly complex as I felt obliged to write in greater detail about the music I was engaging. This made each post difficult to compose in a reasonable amount of time.
3)     Whereas the project started with the purpose of getting better acquainted with music in my collection I had not given much attention to and getting re-acquainted with old favorites, my focus shifted to the process of documenting the listening. As a result, I found myself listening to the music as a matter of obligation rather than for enjoyment.
4)     The interaction of the three aforementioned obstacles made each post start to feel like a task.

I failed to make it past Depeche Mode, 
which means I quit after listening to about
25 percent of my library.
So, I stopped writing about each day’s listening, but I stayed faithful to my contract. Mostly. I refused to listen to my music library out of order, but I found ways to cheat. Listening to the radio in my car, for example, seemed fair, since I wasn’t listening to my library, and because I reasoned that was no violation of the rules, I also started listening to Pandora while working or studying. Some time later, I put a few CDs in my car and decided it was fair to listen to these while driving.

Aside from the time spent in my car, nearly all my listening for the past year has been through Pandora (I’m reluctant to join Spotify, the arrival of which has made the idea of this series antiquated by essentially nullifying the need for a music library, digital or otherwise). Listening to nothing but Pandora stations for a year is a big deal for me, because I listen to a lot of music and albums are my primary vehicle for listening. The fact that I have not listened to my favorite albums in over a year is a bit crazy to me, though one of the benefits of spending so much time listening to Pandora is that I’ve become acquainted with great music I was previously ignorant of, like Stereolab, Guided by Voices, Grant Green and Pavement.

Despite my Pandora discoveries, it’s good to return to unregulated listening. As I write this, I’ve finished listening to Kind of Blue and have moved to another favorite, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, approaching it with ears fresh from my self-imposed yearlong exile. Maybe I’ll write some posts about what these favorite albums sound like after so much time away from them. Just kidding, but that might be interesting. No, seriously, that was a joke. I’ve learned my lesson. Honestly.


A tribute to Kerry Wood and the 2003 Cubs

Kerry Wood’s career ended Friday in fitting fashion: a strikeout delivered with an aching arm. The three-pitch strikeout against Dayan Viciedo of the Chicago White Sox was No. 1,582 for the pitcher who Chicago Cubs fans once believed would lead them out of the darkness of 100+ years of futility.

For most, Wood will be remembered for his insane performance against the Houston Astros during his rookie season in 1998 when he tallied 20 strikeouts in a complete game whose only imperfection was a single that could have been ruled an error. Wood’s performance in just his fifth Major League game tied the record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game, and he went on to receive the National League’s Rookie of the Year honors that season.

For others, Wood’s accomplishments will always be overshadowed by what could have been had his career not been marred by injuries. Wood ended the 1998 season with a 13-6 record, a 3.40 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP, a stunning 233 strikeouts in just 166.2 innings and an elbow injury that would foreshadow the trajectory of the rest of his career. His injuries landed him on the disabled list 16 times in 14 seasons and after 1998 he pitched more than 150 innings in only three seasons, fully converting to a relief pitcher by 2007.

For me, Wood represented the final vestige of the 2003 Cubs, a team that was the greatest to call Wrigley Field home during my life (I was born a couple years before the 1984 team and have only faint memories of 1989). That 2003 team, led by the dominant starting rotation of Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano, gave me hope that the team I grew up adoring just might win a championship. Of course, it didn’t happen, and the team fell just short of reaching the World Series, but as disappointing as their exit from the playoffs that year was, I remember that season far more for the joy I felt watching their transformative journey from a middling team with a great starting rotation to a true contender, spurred by the lopsided trade that bolstered an offense that included Sammy Sosa and MoisĂ©s Alou with Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton (received for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill and Matt Bruback).

It was a team filled with great talent and fascinating characters. Of course, there was the swollen, grandstanding Sosa, the longtime face of the team, but 2003 turned out to be on the tail end of the Sosa years of the Cubs, and for the first time in a while, there were so many more interesting stories. In addition to Wood and Sosa, the team’s personalities included: 
  • Dusty Baker, who had nearly managed the San Francisco Giants to a World Series victory the season before; 
  • Prior, whose first full season—finishing third in the Cy Young voting after going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP and 245 strikeouts—spurred the same excitement Wood had garnered upon his arrival and, unfortunately, was followed in later years by an equally devastating string of injuries as those Wood had faced; 
  • Zambrano, whose fiery disposition endeared him to fans many years before it turned them off; 
  • Clement, who looked more like an Amish man than a baseball player; 
  • Alou, Lofton and Mark Grudzielanek, veterans in the starting lineup who put up fantastic numbers despite being well past their prime (they were 36, 36 and 33, respectively, and Grudzielanek even gained MVP votes); 
  • Eric Karros, a veteran whose excitement over the team’s playoff run—noticeable by the fact that he was frequently seen in the dugout and on the field before and after games holding a camcorder—drew him into the fans’ affections; 
  • Corey Patterson, the Cubs’ most touted offensive prospect at the time who was blossoming until an injury forced the team to acquire Lofton to replace him; 
  • Ramirez, the reticent young third baseman who would later replace Sosa as the Cubs' power hitter; 
  • Joe Borowski, the blue-collar closer (a reputation gained from the fact that he had previously worked as a firefighter) who made up for his short resume by holding Baker's confidence; 
  • Kyle Farnsworth, the setup man with the legs of a horse and two primary pitches: fastball and faster ball; 
  • Antonio Alfonseca, regarded less for his pitching that year (5.83 ERA) than for having 12 fingers and 12 toes (seriously); 
  • and a bench that included speedsters Tom Goodwin, Doug Glanville and Tony Womack, and the wildly free swinging Randall Simon.
More than just entertainment, these guys provided therapy to me that year. I had returned from studying abroad in Italy just after the start of the season and for many months struggled to make meaning of my post-study abroad life. I missed the many wonderful friends I had made, pined for experiences on the level of those I had found while traveling and, worst of all, felt overwhelmed by culture shock in my own country. The Cubs, with their surprising run to win the NL Central and land in the playoffs, helped me regain my footing. I bonded with new roommates who would become very dear friends while watching the team, felt ecstatic after their victories in a way I hadn’t felt since returning from Italy and at the same time reconnected with my culture (what’s more American than baseball?). After their National League Division Series victory against the Braves, I joined hundreds of students celebrating on the moonlit quad of Illinois State University with a feeling of bliss and fraternity I’ve seldom experienced in my life.

Of all the guys on that 2003 team, Wood was the greatest. It’s true that he was the final vestige of that team, remaining after Sosa gave way to Derrek Lee and, later, Alfonso Soriano. He stuck around longer than Zambrano and Ramirez, whose big contracts made them fixtures on the team for nearly a decade. He stood with the Cubs as management changed from Baker to Lou Piniella, then to Mike Quade and finally to Dale Sveum. He even remained as ownership changed. (Yes, he did spend a couple seasons with the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees—this was the only time in my life I cheered for the Yankees, when I hoped Wood would receive a well-deserved World Series ring—but he returned afterward and for less money than he could have received elsewhere.)

More than just the final vestige of that team, he was its heart. When he pitched, he looked like a tiger stalking its prey. His impassive demeanor on the mound and intense concentration infused confidence into a fan base with very few reasons to feel confident. Wood seemed to truly get what it meant to be a Cub, and he embraced carrying the weight that came with that identity. In the end, he didn’t come close to the Hall of Fame numbers Cubs fans envisioned after that incredible 20-strikeout performance—his final statistics included an 86-75 record, a 3.67 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, 63 saves and 1,582 strikeouts—and he didn’t lead the team to a World Series, but he created some of the greatest baseball moments I’ve experienced and he did so at a time when I most needed them, and for that I am ever grateful.


The iTunes Chronicles: Day 27 – The Clash, Cliff Martinez

When it comes to The Clash, all roads lead to London Calling. It was this classic album that recruited me into Clash fandom, and although I’ve since added the self-titled The Clash and Combat Rock to my collection, neither has garnered the affection I hold for London Calling. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy The Clash or Combat Rock—I have listened to each a fair amount—but at some point during almost every session of listening to either of these, I always find myself wanting to switch to London Calling. And so it was this time around, as the two lesser albums served as appetizers for the main dish.

Other highlights of this session were compositions by Beethoven and Wagner (performed by the Cleveland Orchestra), the amazing Cliff Martinez score for the Traffic soundtrack, and the first of many Coldplay songs found in my library (the mostly forgettable Blue Room EP, and dull stand-alone tracks “How You See the World No.2” and “The One I Love”). As usual, I was overtaken by the pathos of the Martinez score, but London Calling stole the show.

Songs Conquered: 68, from “White Riot” by The Clash to Coldplay’s “The One I Love” (live)
Favorite Album: London Calling by The Clash
Favorite Song: “Helicopter” by Cliff Martinez
Music Listened To For First Time: --
Guilty Pleasure: “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters … “don’t talk back”
Song That Inspired Greatest Air Guitar Session:London Calling” by The Clash
Song That Made Me Sleepy: --
Song I Most Wanted to Skip: “Charlie Brown” by the Coasters
Embarrassing Revelation: The most embarrassing thing about this post is the fact that it has been four months since the last one.


The iTunes Chronicles: An Odyssey through a Bloated Music Library, Day 26

Over a month since my last post? Time is really flying by. I started a graduate program in August, and since then I’ve been focusing my energy, rightly so, on my studies. However, I didn’t want this series to be completely abandoned, and that’s what it’s felt like. I enjoy writing about music too much to let it go, and I don’t want it to be yet another project that I leave unfinished, like this, or this, or this. Plus, there are a few people out there who were reading these posts, so I don't want to leave my audience hanging.

So, here’s an attempt to get back into this, albeit at a slower pace and with posts that are a bit more concise than those I had been writing before school began.

Today’s highlight was Come With Us, the extremely underrated album by The Chemical Brothers. It’s the rare album that is nearly perfect from start to finish, and even those who are not traditionally fans of electronic music will find themselves drawn in. It’s my go-to album for days at work when I need to forget I’m sitting in a cubicle before I can actually get into any sort of productive flow. It’s at once playful and introspective, danceable and chill, and crafted in such a way that it all balances out.

The other big album of the day was The Chieftains’ An Irish Evening, which is a recording of the band’s performance at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. This album makes me wish I were Irish—not just of Irish descent, but a native. The songs are so beautiful they instill in me a pride for a culture that’s not even my own. Pretty powerful stuff.

The day also featured: Charlotte Gainsbourg, performing “Heaven Can Wait” with Beck; a lesser Chemical Brothers album (Dig Your Own Hole); Chris and Thomas, whose catchy acoustic number “Take These Thoughts” was introduced to me years ago by NPR’s World CafĂ©; a few solo tracks by Chris Cornell; Chubby Checker on “The Twist”; Citizen Cope; Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away,” from the Almost Famous soundtrack; and a few others.

I closed out with the first few songs from The Clash’s self-titled album, but I’ll hold off on discussing The Clash till next time.

Songs Conquered: 65, from “Mockingbird” by Inez and Charlie Foxx to The Clash’s “Complete Control”
Favorite Album: Come With Us by The Chemical Brothers
Favorite Song: “Star Guitar” by The Chemical Brothers
Music Listened To For First Time: --
Guilty Pleasure: “Theme from the Godfather” as performed by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (it’s definitely one of the greatest movie themes of all time, but sometimes I listen to it on repeat, and that seems a little weird)
Song That Inspired Greatest Air Guitar Session: “Seasons” by Chris Cornell
Song That Made Me Sleepy: Wagner’s “Lohengrin (Bridal Chorus),” performed by Chor der Bayreuther Festspiele (I’ve been to a lot of weddings in the past couple years, so this song has a lost a bit of its grace for me)
Song I Most Wanted to Skip: Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” performed by Chris Cornell and Eleven
Embarrassing Revelation: I have a Chumbawamba song in my library and it isn't this one. How does this happen? You own a lot of soundtracks. The song is “Mary Mary,” and it comes from the Stigmata soundtrack. If you were wondering, no, it’s not very good. Still, it’s better than Cornell’s rendition of “Ave Maria”—I’m not going to post a link to that song, because I don’t want to hurt your ears.