Kentucky Derby 2019: Cooper Family Live Draft

It’s Derby week and it’s already been a doozy.

A wide open race opened up even wider when Omaha Beach, the early betting favorite, was scratched with a breathing issue on Wednesday. He might be back in time for the Preakness, but he will not be running at Churchill Downs this weekend.

This obviously changes everything.

The bummer is that after my miserable performance last year, I’ve got the top pick in the draft Saturday morning. I would’ve likely taken Omaha Beach, but now I have no idea which horse I’m going with. I’ve narrowed it to…5. Yeah, I think just 5.

Every year I write up my angle on the race, and, after the news broke Wednesday, I think it makes sense to just go through the horses I’m considering and talk about how I think this race plays out for each.

But first, let’s look at all the horses…

The Horses

As I understand it, the scratch of the #12 horse means everybody will move up a spot in the starting gate but wear their original number. (So, for example, Code of Honor will now start from 12 but wear 13.)

UPDATE: Haikal has now been scratched too with a foot abscess. Nineteen horses will run from gates 2-20.

Here’s the list with updated bets as of Thursday afternoon…

  1. War of Will (15-1)
  2. Tax (20-1)
  3. By My Standards (15-1)
  4. Gray Magician (50-1)
  5. Improbable (5-1)
  6. Vekoma (15-1)
  7. Maximum Security (8-1)
  8. Tacitus (8-1)
  9. Plus Que Parfait (30-1)
  10. Cutting Humor (30-1)
  11. Haikal (SCR)
  12. Omaha Beach (SCR)
  13. Code of Honor (12-1)
  14. Win Win Win (12-1)
  15. Master Fencer (50-1)
  16. Game Winner (9-2)
  17. Roadster (5-1)
  18. Long Range Toddy (30-1)
  19. Spinoff (30-1)
  20. Country House (30-1)
  21. Bodexpress (30-1)

After watching all the prep races and considering the running style and gate positions, a few stand out as potential picks to win this year: War of Will, Maximum Security, Tacitus, Improbable, and Game Winner.

War of Will

This horse seemed destined to be a Derby favorite for most of the prep season, but after an awkward misstep a few lengths out the gate in his last race, the Florida Derby, he just hung with the pack and finished 9th. Prior to that step his trajectory was looking very strong. Derby winners are almost always coming off a podium finish in their last prep. War of Will isn’t.

That said, all the workout buzz this past week has been extremely favorable. The inside rail would normally be a bad draw, but this horse will need to get out near the front to help pace the pack regardless. In an overall slower race, I like War of Will to do well. It’s a matter of how well he has healed since Florida, and he seems healthy.

UPDATE: Haikal scratching means everybody shifts out from the wall. More room for War of Will to work. Post 1 doesn’t look so bad now.

Maximum Security

The only true pacesetter in this race. With Omaha Beach out, I don’t think he’ll be as pressed to push the tempo. If it’s a slow race, which I think it will be, Maximum Security could go gate to wire.

But can he go the extra distance in a longer race? He has managed every distance to date. We’ll see, but he’s also the only horse here who has never lost.

Improbable

He’s never finished worse than 2nd. After winning his first 3, he finished 2nd in the Arkansas Derby to Omaha Beach and the Rebel Stakes to Long Range Toddy. Both races were slightly wet ones, and it looks like rain may be in the forecast this weekend in Louisville. Omaha Beach was probably the better horse, but Improbable was forced 3-wide and couldn’t catch up. When Long Range Toddy beat him Improbable was forced to race four-wide the whole race cause he started far outside. He’s in prime position this time around, and Omaha Beach isn’t running.

Game Winner

Like Improbable, this horse has always finished Top 2. Two first place finishes back in late 2018, and two second place finished this spring: by a nose to Omaha Beach at the Rebel Stakes, and by a half-length to Roadster at Santa Anita.

Game Winner has the pedigree to suggests he can go longer distances. The gate shift from 16 to 15 is a significant one, because now he’s positioned on the inside edge of the auxiliary gate, which means he’ll have more room to work with to start. On top of that, the four horses to the inside of Game Winner – Master Fencer, Win Win Win, Code of Honor, Haikal – are ALL closers, so he will have plenty of space in which to maneuver early.

Tacitus

The 8-spot is the perfect starting gate. With the pacesetter to his left and a closer to his right, Tacitus won’t get pinched early and can settle in comfortably behind Improbable/Maximum Security/War of Will.

Around the last turn he’ll be silently lurking almost lazily off the lead mid-pack then suddenly emerge with a lot left in the tank. That’s his move. You almost forget he’s even in the race until he suddenly emerges and you’re wondering if he somehow just materialized in front. This feels like a Tacitus-type race in that it’s slow and with no clear favorite, it’s not hard to imagine that sort of finish.

Also of note: jockey Jose Ortiz chose to ride Tacitus over Improbable, then Ortiz’s brother Irad was then tapped for the latter.

Those are the horses I like.

Now let’s talk about a few I don’t…

Roadster

Omaha Beach and Roadster were both jockeyed by Mike Smith, who was forced to make a choice between the two for the derby. He picked Omaha Beach. If he wasn’t good enough for the jockey, he’s not good enough to pick at #1. I was all prepared to say that nobody has ever won from gate position 17, but now that Omaha Beach is out, he’ll slide into #16 instead. Still wearing 17, however.

Long Range Toddy

Instead, LRT will be in Gate 17. Bad luck. No can do. Even if he did best Improbable a few months ago….can’t do it. Although, he does finish well.

Master Fencer

Okay, he’s 50-1, so this isn’t a bold prediction here at all, but every year they invite a horse from Japan who qualifies to travel to Kentucky. This year they invited 3 different horses until somebody – Master Fencer – finally said yes.

For some reason the 4th best horse from Japan traveling halfway around the globe doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Plus Que Parfait

Two years in a row the Dubai winner has finished dead last in Kentucky – Mendlessohn (2018) and Thunder Snow (2017). Mendlessohn won in Dubai last year by like 17 lengths. Parfait stalked well before he made a slick move down the stretch to win it this year. Don’t care. I won’t be conned by the UAE Derby winner again. I’m not touching PQP.

Tax

Tax is a poor man’s Tacitus with a terrible starting position at #2. No way he escapes the stronger contenders to the outside and War of Will inside. Good horse, but not this race.

Okay, that’s enough of what I think for this year. Not sure which way I’m going to go yet, but I better know by Saturday!

Just writing it out has helped me narrow it to 3.

Family Draft Order

The draft order is based on the previous year’s results. All horses are picked. We pick 1-8 then snake back to the start. Remaining picks go to the back end again.

Here’s how the picks play out…

  • APC (1 & 16)
  • Jeff (2 & 15)
  • Q (3 & 14)
  • Karlie (4 & 13)
  • Anna (5, 12 & 20)
  • Dad (6, 11 & 19)
  • Mom (7, 10 & 18)
  • Holly (8, 9 & 17)

Like I said, this is not the year to have the #1 pick. But here we are.

Holly, of course, won with Justify last year, who went on to win the Triple Crown. Dad picked Audible at 1 allowing to Holly grab Justify at 2. #Regrets

The Draft

The draft is going down Saturday, 9:30AM CST.

  1. Tacitus (APC) – He’s coming off a win, he appears to be getting better and he’s never out of it. The others have more question marks. I think he sets up right where he wants to early and gets to run his race. Plus he’s gray.
  2. Game Winner (Jeff) – Could definitely win. This is a fast horse with a not-as-bad-as-it-looks gate position.
  3. Improbable (Q) – Another contender. I’m betting Improbable to show for sure. He’ll be there late.
  4. Maximum Security (Karlie) – Can he hold on to the lead gate to wire??? Recent history shows that’s the way to win the Derby.
  5. Roadster (Anna) – The remaining Baffert horse and top contender. Could win. I don’t like it.
  6. Vekoma (Dad) – Weird pick but a good one. He’ll be up near the front and could outlast others.
  7. Win Win Win (Mom) – This is the perfect time to remind everyone that this race is wide open and like 10 horses could actually win this thing.
  8. Code of Honor (Holly) – This horse’s betting odds have skyrocketed today. I was kinda sitting on him as a possible dark horse to sneak on to the podium.
  9. By My Standards (Holly) – The betting nerds love this guy and I’m not really sure why.
  10. Tax (Mom) – He could do it. Needs a lot to break his way.
  11. Spinoff (Dad) – Stretch pick, but I like his speed. He’s the type of horse who could win if there weren’t 15 horses better than him.
  12. Country House (Anna) – Worst horse name ever. It’s so bad I almost like it.
  13. War of Will (Karlie) – I’m shocked WOW is still here. I happily would’ve taken him in the 6-10 range. Love that he has the extra room without anybody in Gate 1. He’ll get a good break. If he’s healthy I could absolutely see him winning.
  14. Plus Que Parfait (Q) – UAE Derby winner is a no no. But whatever.
  15. Cutting Humor (Jeff) – Best horse available.
  16. Long Range Toddy (APC) – LRT is better than I expected at #16. I don’t think he’ll win, especially if the track is suboptimal, but he managed to win a prep race which is more than the other 3 can say.
  17. Grey Magician (Holly) – My son likes this horse because his name is cool and he didn’t have the attention span to listen past the 4th horse. Best horse left.
  18. Master Fencer (Mom) – Japan horse. No way.
  19. Bodexpress (Dad) – Deep closer. Doesn’t have a shot really, but what if everyone else like falls over and he’s the only one left?

That’s the draft!

I’m running Tacitus and Long Range Toddy. Great draft from Karlie, who has two of my favorites and could be running 1-2 into the final turn (which is exactly when Tacitus will sneak up and take over). Improbable will be there. Probably Game Winner too.

The race runs at 5:50PM CST. I’ll check back in then with the results.

The Results

Results will be posted after the race.

Photo – Sports Illustrated, accessed here: https://www.si.com/horse-racing/2018/05/05/justify-wins-144th-kentucky-derby

2018 Kentucky Derby: Cooper Family Live Draft

It’s Derby Week! And, as usual, the Cooper Family is gearing up for another live draft.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

The Tradition

Welp. Another favorite ended up wearing the roses again in 2017.

The favorite has won every year I’ve posted about it. Granted, I’ve only been documenting things here since 2014, so the streak isn’t long but it’s a streak nonetheless, and three out of the four years was with the 1st overall pick…

  • 2014: California Chrome (Karlie – 1st)
  • 2015: American Pharoah (APC – 3rd)
  • 2016: Nyquist (Mom – 1st)
  • 2017: Always Dreaming (Quinten – 1st)

One could argue that Always Dreaming wasn’t the obvious favorite last year – he didn’t even open with the best odds on race day (Classic Empire was 4-1, while McCraken and Always Dreaming were co-second favorite at 5-1), but by the time betting closed, Always Dreaming had dropped to 9/2, which was ultimately the best. Truth is, if I’d had the top pick last year, I would’ve looked elsewhere, just like both Karlie and Mom did in 2015 when they let American Pharoah fall to me with the 3rd pick.

So sure, the favorite keeps winning, but there’s no telling who the true favorite even is sometimes, and there’s no guarantee the person picking 1st will even take the horse with the best odds. To quote Ned Ryerson: It’s all one big crapshoot anyhoo.

Quinten did take Always Dreaming first overall, and the horse did break well beating everyone inside him to the rail and that’s all she wrote. Well done, Q.

I finished surprisingly well with long shot closer Lookin at Lee finishing 2nd. I added him with my final pick at #18 and got lucky. Dad made the mistake of selecting the #17 horse, Irish War Cry, who finished 10th, which earned Dad the top pick in this year’s draft.

We do this every year, and these annual posts are mostly for my own documentation at this point. Maybe some of you enjoy them. Who knows.

Ok let’s look at this year’s group.

The Horses

Yes, the favorite keeps winning, but this year looks dicier. This year we get to talk about a CURSE!!

The Curse of Apollo.

Every horse in the Kentucky Derby is a 3-year old. It’s a requirement for the race. This means each racehorse has only run handful of competitive races up to this point. Most began racing as 2-year olds, but occasionally there’s a horse or two who arrived late to the track and never ran before turning 3.

In 1882, a horse named Apollo won the Kentucky Derby after only running as a 3-year old. Since then, 61 horses have tried to do the same not a single one of them has won. In 136 years…not a single one.

There have honestly been just a few who even came close. Of those 61 horses, just 3 finished 2nd (most recently – Bodemeister, 2012) and only 1 finished 3rd (Curlin, 2007), and the rest didn’t even make the podium.

So, the Curse of Apollo…is it real? Do you believe in curses? Because it’s about to be seriously tested as two of the top contenders never raced as a 2-year old: Justify (opened as the favorite at 3-1) and Magnum Moon (third favorite at 6-1).

Justify is 3 for 3 in prep races though, most notably a wire-to-wire win in the Santa Anita Derby. Likewise, Magnum Moon is 2 for 2 including a win at the Arkansas Derby.

Other top options include Mendelssohn (5-1) who dominated the UAE Derby by like 19 lengths (!!!), Bolt D’Oro (8-1) who was the closest to taking over Justify down the stretch in the Santa Anita, and Audible (8-1) winner of the Florida Derby, the race that has produced the most Kentucky Derby winners in recent years (last two, and 3 of the last 5). Going back even further, 11 of the last 14 Kentucky Derby winners won either the Arkansas, Florida, or Santa Anita.

And truth is, if that’s as far as you cared to research this thing, I totally get it. Lots of correlation there to bet on already.

But humor me. I’ve got more to say.

When I went back and watched all the major prep races, there was one only one moment that truly blew me away.

It happened in the Louisiana Derby, a race won by Noble Indy, but it wasn’t the winner who impressed me. It was My Boy Jack.

This horse is the ultimate closer, and I admit I’m a sucker for closers. It’s just so much more dramatic, and I think more impressive.

Ok look at this screenshot…

This is the first turn, fresh out of the gate. My Boy Jack is the one in the back just doinking around. He practically trots out of the gate.

Fast forward another half a mile around the far turn and let’s see what’s changed…

Nothing! See that horse head barely peeking into the frame? That’s our boy. This is entering the final turn. The race is over in another quarter mile and he’s barely in the picture!!

But then…

…like a ROCKET. Fwoooosh! Out of nowhere it’s like he’s in fast forward. In one turn he goes from entirely out of the picture to almost neck-and-neck with the leaders. How does he have that much gas in the tank?! I could easily be convinced that Jack is the most fit horse in this race.

Here’s the finishline:

That’s My Boy Jack in the middle of the picture farthest from the rail. A photo finish to show. Just missed it. The rest of the horses are a dozen lengths behind them.

If he had just closed that last little length, managed to find a hole to slip through instead of having to bounce way outside, then My Boy Jack likely comes into this weekend as one of the favorites. Instead he’s opening at a 30-1 underdog.

But do I think he’ll win? Maybe? A lot would have to break his way, but…maybe?

Let’s look at the full gate lineup and see how things look. I liked how I did it last year listing the running-style too, so you’ll see that along with the opening Vegas odds following the position draw Tuesday morning.

  1. Firenze Fire – Closer (50-1)
  2. Free Drop Fire – Closer (30-1)
  3. Promises Fulfilled – Pacesetter (30-1)
  4. Flameaway – Pace/Press (30-1)
  5. Audible – Stalk/Close (8-1)
  6. Good Magic – Stalker (12-1)
  7. Justify – Pacesetter (3-1)
  8. Lone Sailor – Closer (50-1)
  9. Hofburg – Stalk/Close (20-1)
  10. My Boy Jack – Closer (30-1)
  11. Bolt D’Oro – Stalker (8-1)
  12. Enticed – Stalker (30-1)
  13. Bravazo – Presser (50-1)
  14. Mendelssohn – Pace/Press (5-1)
  15. Instilled Regard – Stalk/Close (50-1)
  16. Magnum Moon – Pace/Press (6-1)
  17. Solomini – Stalker (30-1)
  18. Vino Rosso – Stalk/Close (12-1)
  19. Noble Indy – Press/Stalk (30-1)
  20. Combatant – Closer (50-1)

I could make a case for about half of these horses, and if I looked at most of them long enough I could convince myself they’re definitely going to win (see above re: My Boy Jack), but here’s what I see…

First, let’s talk about the early pace.

Promises Fulfilled and Justify will lead the pack early. Flameaway may be there too, but that name is so dumb it’s hard to think he’ll be relevant. Promises Fulfilled is the fastest sprinter in this race, and with two closers on the inside there’s no reason why he shouldn’t bolt out the gate and establish himself out front. Justify has a little more work to do as does Flameaway, but both should be right there. Promises Fulfilled doesn’t have the stamina to last beyond about the 3/4 mile mark, but Justify will hang around. If Justify is going to win, it’ll have to be wire to wire, and he’s going to have to use a lot of speed early to establish position.

All that to say, Justify is in a great spot at #7. The 5-10 range is the most desirable gate position: close enough to shorten the run, but far enough out that you don’t get pinched on the rail. The big question for me when it comes to Justify is whether having Promises Fulfilled to the inside causes him to overdo it early and then fade late if he wears down? He didn’t have much trouble holding off Bolt D’Oro to go the distance in the Santa Anita, but the horses are stronger, the race is longer and the pace is likely faster. We shall see.

Audible has a really nice position on the inside nestled in among pacesetters and closers. The #5 spot has produced a ton of winners over the years, including Always Dreaming a year ago. Good Magic is another good horse in the same bunch. The Bluegrass Stakes winner has finished top 3 in all of his races, but let’s not pretend Bluegrass is on par with Florida, Arkansas or Santa Anita.

As a stalker, Bolt D’Oro wants to find a comfortable spot in the pack early and slowly creep up as the pace slows down late. I think this setup, with closers on the inside, lets him do exactly that. But he didn’t have the stamina to catch Justify in the Santa Anita, so I don’t expect him to somehow catch him in Kentucky where the race is even longer.

Mendelssohn is in a fine spot at #14, I suppose. This horse is like Bowser in Mario Kart – takes some time to work up to speed, but once he does there’s no stopping him. His cruising speed is a huge advantage in a long race.

I mean, just look at this margin of victory:

IMG_7921.PNG

And he was still pulling away. Crazy top speed.

The main issue with Mendelssohn is that the UAE Derby hasn’t really translated to success in Kentucky so he’s sort of a wildcard. Could go great, could totally bomb. Shoot, just last year Thunder Snow won the UAE, then went rogue out the gate and didn’t finish in KY. I like this horse a lot and could honestly see him making a joke out of it, but there’s also quite a bit of risk here.

Magnum Moon got stuck out in the appendage gate, which isn’t ideal for a horse that likes to be out front. Statistically speaking, if you’re going to be out wide, #16 is where you want to be as it’s resulted in the most wins out there, but with Mendelssohn trying to execute the same gameplan from the other side of the gap, it’s going to be a tough go to break the Curse. The biggest race Magnum Moon has won was a slow pace from start to finish, so he’ll have to run much faster and use a lot more energy to get it done here.

That said, if you want to listen to the best race call of the season, watch this starting at the 2:20 mark. Mercy.

Really tough draw for Vino Rosso, winner of the Wood Memorial, at #18. While the 17 gate (Solomini) has never had a winner, number 18 has only had 2. American Pharaoh just did it from there in 2015, but he turned out to be a freak. Vino’s just not a strong enough horse to make the longer trek from what I’ve seen.

Which brings me to the closers. A quarter of the horses in this race are closers and nearly half like to start slow and let the race develop. I’m a little concerned about that. When My Boy Jack finished so strong the Louisiana Derby, he only had to beat 9 other horses, and 7 of them were pacesetters or pressers. Basically the perfect formula for a closer.

Another closer, Lone Sailer was actually the 2nd place horse in that same race, but found a better line. Interesting to note: In the Louisiana Derby, Lone Sailer was #8 and My Boy Jack was #9 just outside him. On Saturday, they’ll be #8 and #10 respectively. We could be in for a similar result. It’s just so much harder to maneuver through 20 horses than it is 10. A long shot, but I won’t be disappointed if I end up with him as a late round pick.

Hofburg is worth mentioning here too. He finished second behind Audible and looked strong in the Florida Derby.  His positioning on the inner half flanked by a couple closers bodes well for finding space to maneuver early.

Beyond that, the rest aren’t worth talking about.

I like…Justify, Mendelssohn, Audible, My Boy Jack, Hofburg, Lone Sailor.

I don’t like…Bolt D’Oro, Magnum Moon, Vino Rosso, Good Magic, Solomini

As always, there’s the chance I’m just making crap up to throw off my family. Reverse psychology.

Works like a charm.

The Family Draft Order

Picks are based on the previous year’s finish. After the first round is over, we snake backwards to the start. With the remaining picks we circle back to the end again. (Additional picks in parentheses.)

  1. Dad (16)
  2. Holly (15)
  3. Karlie (14)
  4. Mom (13)
  5. Anna (12, 20)
  6. APC (11, 19)
  7. Quinten (10, 18)
  8. Jeff (9, 17)

And welcome to the draft, Jeff! My sister’s boyfriend finds himself in the mix this year which we all agree is a very big deal. We’ll honor Jeff’s presence among us by letting him pick dead last. Good luck.

Since my son’s name is Jackson, I really doubt 5 different family members pass up the opportunity to pick My Boy Jack, but If they do, the top 5 horses picked will likely be Justify, Mendelssohn, Magnum Moon, Audible and Bolt D’Oro. Maybe Good Magic. Anna will take Bolt because of her love for its endearing jockey, Victor Espinoza, and when someone inevitably takes Jack, that means I’ll have my pick of whomever is left between Justify, Magnum Moon, Audible or Mendelssohn. My get tells me Audible’s still there.

Hofburg would be a sweet add with #11, but I doubt he’ll make it back around – slim pickings with an 8 person draft! If he is gone, I’ll probably just spring for Lone Sailor and call it a day. If you can’t get the horse you want, at least pick a closer. That’s my new motto.

The Draft (May 5, 8:30AM CST)

Check back in at 8:30AM on Saturday to follow the draft. As always, I’ll be updating it live.

Pick 1: Dad – Audible

Dad picks the Florida Derby winner with the top pick. I think this is a great pick. Takes guts to pick against the favorite.

Pick 2: Holly – Justify

Who cares about the Curse? No brainer. Great horse. Great position.

Pick 3: Karlie – My Boy Jack

My wife gets her son’s namesake. I still think MBJ may win this race, and clearly everyone else does as his odds have moved from 30-1 to 5-1 in 48 hours.

Pick 4: Mom – Good Magic

A good horse in a nice gate position. He hasn’t really been tested like the other contenders, but not a bad option.

Pick 5: Anna – Bolt D’Oro

Anna gets Victor for the 39th straight year, but this year he’s on a good horse. We all saw this coming.

Pick 6: APC – Mendelssohn

Which means I get Mendelssohn. I was hoping either he or Audible would fall here and he did. After rewatching the UAE I’ve convinced myself Mendelssohn is going to dominate.

Pick 7: Quinten – Lone Sailor

Quinten’s rolling the dice! Wins once and thinks he can just pick any random horse and it’ll all work out. Kidding – we all know I like this horse.

Pick 8: Jeff – Magnum Moon

The Curse and gate position causes the top Road to the Derby point receiver to fall all the way to 8th. You’re welcome, Jeff.

Pick 9: Jeff – Hofburg

Okay, but you didn’t have to go and pick the target of my next pick here!

Pick 10: Quinten – Vino Rosso

The only good horse left.

Pick 11: APC – Free Drop Billy

And, as expected, there’s nobody else I really want available here so I’ll take a closer and hope for the best. Same position I was in last year with Looking at Lee last year, so expect some second place fireworks. I also took a Buzzfeed quiz earlier asking “Which Derby Horse Are You?” and I got FDB.

Pick 12: Anna – Promises Fulfilled

Anna’s going to have a really fun opening minute, but this horse could end up finishing dead last.

Pick 13: Mom – Noble Indy

The last 7 Kentucky Derby winners won their final prep race. Horses that fit that description here: Justify, My Boy Jack, Audible, Magnum Moon, Good Magic, Mendelssohn, Vino Rosso…and Noble Indy.

Pick 14: Karlie – Flameaway

Good luck keeping anything in the tank in the end. A bad horse surrounded by pacesetters.

Pick 15: Holly – Solomini

Gate 17. Good luck, kapeesh?

Pick 16: Dad – Enticed

Better win with Audible, cause…no.

Pick 17: Jeff – Firenze Fire

A closer on the rail? I could see it.

Pick 18: Quinten – Bravazo

I know nothing about this horse and won’t act like I do here.

Pick 19: APC – Combatant

Late pick closer out of Gate 20! Let’s have some fuuuuun!

Pick 20: Anna – Instilled Regard

Currently 99-1. This horse is just happy to be here.

The complete draft results courtesy of self-declared draft emcee, Holly:

54722108355__AD462262-2ECE-4C1C-BB09-464D95FF1BE7.JPG

Picks by family member…

  • Dad: Audible, Enticed
  • Holly: Justify, Solomini
  • Karlie: My Boy Jack, Flameaway
  • Mom: Good Magic, Noble Indy
  • Anna: Bolt D’Oro, Promises Fulfilled, Instilled Regard
  • APC: Mendelssohn, Free Drop Billy, Combatant
  • Quinten: Lone Sailor, Vino Rosso, Bravazo
  • Jeff: Magnum Moon, Hofburg, Firenze Fire

The Results (May 5, 5:50PM CST)

Holly wins with Justify! Dad really blew it.

Speaking of blew it Mendlessohn finished 73 1/4 lengths behind Justify, which was good enough for dead last. Followed that up with Free Drop Billy (16th) and Combatant (18th), so I’ll be picking first next year.

Finish:

  1. Holly (Justify)
  2. Mom (Good Magic)
  3. Dad (Audible)
  4. Anna (Instilled Regard)
  5. Karlie (My Boy Jack)
  6. Quinten (Bravazo)
  7. Jeff (Hofburg)
  8. APC (Woof)

Way to go, Hol! Pressures already on for next year’s first pick.

Image source: @BreedersCup on Twitter, accessed at Racing.com.

2017 Kentucky Derby: Cooper Family Live Draft

It’s time. The 143rd Run for the Roses is here, and I’m spewing my prognostications all over the place. Let’s get at it.

The Tradition

By now you ought to be aware of my family’s somewhat random affinity for the Kentucky Derby. (If not, check out our past drafts here.) Every year we do a snake draft. All the horses are picked so somebody’s always a winner. We’re all amateurs around here, so it’s important to remember that we really don’t know what we’re doing despite the fact I post about it every year and act like I do.

Last year was another dud, to be honest. We all knew there were only two horses who were really in the mix. My mom took Nyquist #1 overall, and my sister, Holly, snatched up Exaggerator with pick #2. It was over the moment the draft began. In fact, 2016 marked the 4th consecutive year the favorite horse won the race – Nyquist (2016), American Pharoah (2015), California Chrome (2014), Orb (2013) – but historically that’s actually a rare thing.

In the late 70s there was a similar season of domination by favorites – Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1979) – but between 1980 and 2012 the favorite won only a handful of times and didn’t win at all from 1980 to 1999. This race tends to be much more random than in recent years. Now, that’s not to say some horses aren’t still better than others here. There are four horses whose road to the Derby suggest they’re a notch above the others, but the dropoff from there is small and it levels out even more from there.

The Horses

I’ve watched all the most recent “Road to the Kentucky Derby” races this year. That’s right, I’ve committed to a new level of research, and I loved every moment of it.

A different horse won each:
Santa Anita Derby – Gormley, Arkansas Derby – Classic Empire, Louisiana Derby – Girvin, Florida Derby – Always Dreaming, Wood Memorial Stakes – Irish War Cry, Fountain of Youth Stakes – Gunnevera, Blue Grass Stakes – Irap. Throw Thunder Snow into the mix too, the horse from Ireland who won the UAE Derby in Dubai by the tip of his nose.

But these same winning horses all looked kinda bad at other times too. Some favorites have dealt with injuries. Some long shots have been consistently in the mix but never won. Shoot, Classic Empire barely beat out a horse in the Arkansas Derby who wasn’t even nominated to run in Kentucky (Conquest Mo Money). Every race I’d watch another horse push toward the wire and think, “Woah…that guy is moving up my draft board.” I said that about at least 8 different horses.

I mean, if the different horse trend continues into this weekend, then NONE of these past winning horses will win the actual Derby and it’ll be somebody like Hence or Patch or State of Honor this time around.

I’m telling you, it’s wide open.

That said, the horses considered top contenders are, in no particular order, Always Dreaming, Classic Empire, McCraken and Irish War Cry. They all have very clear paths to victory. The issue is so do like 10 other horses, and all 4 of these come with red flags.

Classic Empire has been terrific when healthy, but has dealt with an abscess in one of his hooves. Always Dreaming dominated the Florida Derby down the stretch but is stuck inside this time and surrounded by speed. McCraken suffered an ankle injury two months ago and Irish War Cry faded badly in the Fountain of Youth Stakes back in March, not to mention drew the historically-winless-for-whatever-reason post 17.

From there you’ve got a large group of horses who certainly have a shot this year who probably wouldn’t in years past. Last year there were about a dozen horses who had no shot of winning. This year, there might be half that number. If things break the right way, about 14 different horses are realistic in 2017.

I focused a lot on post positions in last year’s draft blog, and they’re no less important this time around, but I’ve found myself obsessing over running style more going into this race. Contrary to what you might think, the race isn’t just a dead sprint from start to finish. This isn’t Vin Diesel and Paul Walker (RIP) lead-footing a quarter mile. There’s strategy here and each horse is different. A sprinting colt is bound to get tired and fade way before even reaching the home stretch. There are an infinite number of factors to consider here, and how a horse likes to run is one of the most significant.

There are 3 (maybe 4) types of horses when it comes to running style: pacesetters, pressers, stalkers and closers. 

  • Pacesetter: this horse likes to bolt out the gate and lead the pack. The key here is monitoring speed – fast enough to stay ahead without wearing down too early.
  • Presser: this is the “maybe 4th” style – this horse is basically a pace/stalk hybrid. The horse doesn’t lead the pack, but still wants to push the speed a bit without totally sitting back.
  • Stalker: this horse sets up a bit off the  lead “stalking” behind the pace/press horses waiting to make a move. The key here is timing – the jockey is waiting for a hole to emerge late and only wants to make one major move to emerge from the pack.
  • Closer: this horse keeps it all in the tank until the final stretch where they hope to overtake the group. The key here is patience – the jockey is intentionally slower out the gate and waits until the last moment before hitting maximum speed down home the stretch.

There are more levels here, a continuum with Pacesetter on one end and Closer on the other, and horses can fall between these categories depending on the competition. Most aren’t a “one trick pony,” if you will. For example, depending on the competition Classic Empire races as either a presser or a stalker. If there’s a lot of speed, he’ll sit back and be more patient, but if there’s not, it benefits to push the pace a bit faster and wear down the competition to overtake them later.

Post positions were drawn Wednesday morning. Here’s how the horses line up (with running style and opening betting odds listed):

  1. Lookin at Lee – Closer – 20-1
  2. Thunder Snow – Pace/Presser – 20-1
  3. Fast and Accurate – Pacesetter – 50-1
  4. Untrapped – Stalker – 30-1
  5. Always Dreaming – Pace/Presser – 5-1
  6. State of Honor – Pace/Presser – 30-1
  7. Girvin – Stalk/Closer – 15-1
  8. Hence – Stalk/Closer – 15-1
  9. Irap – Presser – 20-1
  10. Gunnevera – Closer – 15-1
  11. Battle of Midway – Pace/Presser – 30-1
  12. Sonneteer – Closer – 50-1
  13. J Boys Echo – Closer – 20-1
  14. Classic Empire – Press/Stalker – 4-1
  15. McCraken – Stalker – 5-1
  16. Tapwrit – Stalker – 20-1
  17. Irish War Cry – Pacesetter – 6-1
  18. Gormley – Press/Stalker 15-1
  19. Practical Joke – Stalker – 20-1
  20. Patch – Presser – 30-1

A quick post position refresher: 1-4 isn’t ideal as you can get pinched inside on the rail, and 16-20 isn’t great either as you’re farther out and literally must run a longer race. Somewhere around the middle are the best spots – 8 and 10 have yielded the most champs. It’s basically it’s a bell curve that peaks around there, although 14-15 have a little extra space created by the gate appendage so that’s a slight boon. Number 17 has never yeilded a winner.

So that means, in a perfect world, our horses ought to turn the first turn in an order something like…

Fast and Accurate – Irish War Cry
Thunder Snow – Always Dreaming – State of Honor – Battle of Midway
Irap – Patch
Classic Empire – Gormley
Untrapped – McCracken – Tapwrit – Practical Joke
Girvin – Hence
Lookin at Lee – Gunnevera – J Boys Echo – Sonneteer

But this isn’t a perfect world. No no, horses get pinched and blocked and bumped. They break poorly out of the gate. They get miserable post positions and are surrounded by nasty competitors. It can get messy real quick. Here’s my best shot at sorting things out.

First thing my mind does when I see the lineup is it splits the gate into thirds – the outer, inner and middle.

Let’s start with the outer third. Irish War Cry is the only speed horse on the outside, so look for him to push hard out the gate and be in contention early. Gormley – winner of the Santa Anita Derby, as was Nyquist last year – ought to stick to Irish War Cry if he can. If he loses the pace early he’s in big trouble. Same goes for McCraken stalking Classic Empire, though both of those horses have the extra appendage room to work with. Tapwrit, Practical Joke and Patch have very little shot with this heavy-hitting bunch. If any of them were sitting in the 7-13 range they’d be immediately in the mix, but alas, no.

Irish War Cry and Classic Empire ought to have no trouble running their race from here. Same goes for McCraken. Look for them to be around late.

The inner third is all about speed, which is a disaster for Untrapped who will absolutely not live up to his namesake. Lookin at Lee will start slow and hope to be patient but this first quarter mile is going to be extremely fast and I’ll be shocked if he’s still around late. I like Fast and Accurate to emerge early (and fade early) with Always Dreaming right there in pursuit. If State of Honor can beat Always Dreaming out the gate, the latter could get pinched on both sides and lost in the herd, but that seems less likely. Thunder Snow traveled all this way just to get stuck with the worst draw of the field – on the rail, flanked by speedsters – and I can’t see how he gets through. Plus, how would you feel if you were the only Irish in the field and somebody else had your War Cry?

Always Dreaming should come out of this group – he’s the best in the bunch – but he’ll have to execute well and get a great jump out the gate. If he can do it, the horse has shown the stamina to be able to maintain a lead gate to wire.

The middle horses are fascinating – they’re all closers! Gunnevera is probably the best of the bunch, but he’s been as disappointing as he’s been impressive recently. He literally starts dead last every time but slowly works his way through the group…but what happens when Hence and Girvin mosey out to his left while Sonneteer and J Boys Echo take their sweet time to his right? I have NO IDEA how this plays out over 1 1/4 miles, but this is the grouping where the all the major moves will happen. Meanwhile, Irap is just sitting there thinking, “Alright! A free pass into contention! Thanks, you guys.” Same goes for Battle of Midway. Even though those two ought to be neck and neck early out of this third, I can’t imagine they’ll be relevant in the end trying to keep up with what’s happening inside and outside.

This third is all about the patience and timing of Girvin, Hence, and Gunnevera as the race progresses. This will be a beautiful chess match – three knights side-by-side hoping to outthink and outmaneuver their brethren.

What happens from there? Pssh. Got me. My gut tells me the opening quarter mile is going to be really really fast with the speed inside and the outside trying to maintain pace. If I’m right, that puts the stalkers and closers in the middle at a terrific advantage late. So here’s what I’ll be watching for…

Inside: Is it Always Dreaming or State of Honor who has the strongest start inside?
Middle: Who emerges late between Girvin, Hence and Gunnevera?
Outside: Can Irish War Cry streak from gate to wire ahead of Classic Empire and McCraken?

Those are my questions. There are more I’m not even asking. I think I know which way I’m leaning, but I’ll wait until the draft is over on Saturday to say any more. Gotta keep SOME cards close to the chest here.

The Family Draft Order

We pick in reverse order from how we finished the year before. In an age of favorite domination, we gotta maintain some sense of parity in our picking order. Here is this year’s picking order, 1-7 with additional picks in parantheses.

  1. Quinten (14)
  2. Anna (13 & 20)
  3. APC (12 & 19)
  4. Dad (11 & 18)
  5. Karlie (10 & 17)
  6. Holly (9 & 16)
  7. Mom (8 & 15)

My bro-in-law, Quinten, could pick anybody, a true wild card. My sister, Anna, will probably pick Gormley since he’s saddled by her boy, Victor Espinosa. That leaves me with a lot of options, and a lot of pressure to pick well because by the time pick 12 comes back around, I have a feeling I’ll be staring at a bunch of names I’m not interested in.

The Draft

Pick 1: Always Dreaming (Quinten)

Turns out Q isn’t such a wild card after all! He takes one of the favorites right out the gate. Word on the street is this horse has some personality issues. Not a huge fan of a hyped up colt sitting in the gate forever while he waits for 16 others to get loaded up. Probably the most athletic, but the red flags are worrisome.

Pick 2: Gormley (Anna)

Anna can’t help herself. Victor Espinosa forever. But who knows – the Santa Anita Derby is usually the best indicator of who’s going to win the Derby.

Pick 3: Classic Empire (APC)

Love this horse – it was between Empire and McCraken here for me, and 14 is my favorite number. His issue is he’s had some troubles in training leading up to the Derby. Without setbacks, Classic Empire would be the true favorite. I don’t think this horse has peaked yet.

Pick 4: Irish War Cry (Dad)

Dad picks the speedster. No chance from #17.  Kidding, it’s been raining in Louisville this morning and that usually helps the pacesetters a bit, and he’s been getting a lot of early wagers today.

Pick 5: Gunnevera (Karlie)

I really love this horse. I don’t think he’ll win, but I’m certain he’ll finish in the money. Regardless of his finish, I think he’ll be the most exciting horse in the race – slow starter, monster finisher.

Pick 6: McCraken (Holly)

Pick of the draft here. My #2 overall option falls all the way to #6. Holly got a steal. Home field advantage too which is always helpful in front of 160,000 people.

Pick 7: Thunder Snow (Mom)

No clue how Thunder Snow will run. He’s the biggest unknown in the race, and with all the top contenders now gone, why not roll the dice here? Good pick, okay horse.

Pick 8: Hence (Mom)

This is a great pickup for Mom. Hence has a lot of buzz right now. I think he’s got the best chance of closing late after Gunnevera, and the post positioning is awesome.

Pick 9: Girvin (Holly)

Girvin could win this thing. He’s one of the most decorated coming into the race. Holly has a great pair of horses here.

Pick 10: Tapwrit (Karlie)

Karlie: “I think I’ll take Tapwrit, he looks pretty good…okay, now I have to find something I like about Tapwrit.” Let’s be honest, the best horses are gone. Shot in the dark here.

Pick 11: Patch (Dad)

I’ll be honest – I know nothing about Patch, but I see his positioning outside three of the top contenders and don’t see any way he can be relevant in this race, but I don’t really know.

Pick 12: Irap (APC)

Like I said above – I think Irap will be in this thing from the get go. The issue is how strong the late competition will be around him. If the race is fast, and he can be ultra-patient, he could have a path here. Still a long shot.

Pick 13: Battle of Midway (Anna)

Okay the pickings are slim. Not sure what to say here.

Pick 14: J Boys Echo (Q)

Worst name award goes to JBE.

Pick 15: Practical Joke (Mom)

This horse could make some noise. In the races I watched, he seemed to be around the lead well into the race. I’m not sure he has the endurance to close but he’s not awful.

Pick 16: State of Honor (Holly)

Could beat Always Dreaming out the gate. If he does, he’s in it. If not, doubtful.

Pick 17: Sonneteer (Karlie)

This was the last horse into the race. Late closer, and it’s been well documented how I feel about closers this year.

Pick 18: Fast and Accurate (Dad)

The first 30 seconds ought to be fun for Dad here. He’ll be at or near the front around the first turn. Might finish last.

Pick 19: Lookin at Lee (APC)

Sure, why not. Inside rail isn’t ideal, but it’s a long race and anything can happen for a closer!!! Would much rather have this horse than pretty much anybody taken between my last choice and this one.

Pick 20: Untrapped (Anna)

No chance. Sorry.

So here’s where we ended up…

  • Quinten: Always Dreaming, J Boys Echo
  • Anna: Gormley, Battle of Midway, Untrapped
  • APC: Classic Empire, Irap, Lookin at Lee
  • Dad: Irish War Cry, Patch, Fast and Accurate 
  • Karlie: Gunnevera, Tapewrit, Sonneteer
  • Holly: McCraken, Girvin, State of Honor
  • Mom: Thunder Snow, Hence, Practical Joke

The Results…

Always Dreaming broke well and never looked back. He beat Fast and Accurate to the rail, which meant he was pretty much able to coast to the win uncontested. The first pick wins again! The only horse to lead Always Dreaming around the first turn was the horse to his left, State of Honor (who ended up being the last horse to finish the race). I had expected this as a possibility, but I’d also assumed Fast and Accurate would be there on the opposite side. He wasn’t, which meant Always Dreaming had the rail.

The first quarter mile played out almost exactly as I expected – speed outside and inside with the middle starting slow and hoping to close. Interestingly enough, the only closer who had a shot at catching Always Dreaming was Lookin at Lee who started on the rail. The rest of the horses around him took off, and left this giant void on the rail right off the pace. It was clear he had more in the tank down the stretch without having to run so far. A surprise second place finish and a really well run race.

And Battle of Midway finished third!? Kudos to anyone who had him to show. He was an also-ran for me. The rest of the contenders finished in the next chunk of horses: Classic Empire ran 4th (he was the only one really in the conversation down the stretch), Gunnevera 7th, McCraken 8th, Gormley 9th, Irish War Cry 10th. As much as I was off about Always Dreaming, I couldn’t have been more correct about Irish War Cry. Started fast but couldn’t find the lane to the front, ended up way outside and had nothing left in the tank down the stretch.

The final family draft results…

  1. Quinten – Always Dreaming
  2. APC – Lookin at Lee
  3. Anna – Battle of Midway
  4. Mom – Practical Joke (5th)
  5. Karlie – Tapwrit (6th)
  6. Holly – McCraken (8th)
  7. Dad – Irish War Cry (10th)

Another year without the first pick finishing about as well as I could, albeit not the way I expected. Someday I’ll compile a spreadsheet with our collective draft pick success. Since the first pick continues to be the winner, it might be time to expand how we deem success in the draft. Example: Dad having the 4th pick and finishing 10th is really bad. Mom having the 7th pick but finishing 4th is good. I’ll have to do some thinking there – maybe use the NFL’s way of grading drafts as a starting point. I’ll probably give it a couple more years to have a bit more data to work with, but that could be a fun visualization down the line.

Another fun year of drafting, and congrats to Quinten on his first Kentucky Derby win!

See you in 2018.

Photo: Eclipse Sportswire, accessed here.

2016 Kentucky Derby: Cooper Family Live Draft

Yesssssssss.

The most exciting two minutes in sports is back: The Kentucky Derby!!

The Tradition

The Cooper Family has been doing this for years. Each year we study up on the 20 horses running for the roses and make our selections on who we think will win. It’s purely for pride. (Although, I’ve been considering getting some sort of trophy created to pass around to whoever the current champion is…maybe next year.)

I remember making picks with my Dad when I was a kid – but The Draft has really become something larger since around 2002, and every year it seems to gain some momentum. Perhaps it’s due to marriages and our expanding family size. Perhaps it’s because I started doing these annual Live Draft posts in 2014. Perhaps it’s because, for the most part, we’re all living back in the same city again. Hard to say, but there’s good energy here so why not really make a big deal out of it?

But before we get to this year, let’s talk briefly about last year, since, you know, I won.

You know, that whole thing about hindsight being 20/20 is particularly apropos when one of the horses you’re considering drafting becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Last year’s Derby winner, American Pharoah, had the best odds on draft day at 3-1. Sure, there were comparable horses running last year at Churchill Downs – Dortmund (4-1) and Firing Line (7-1) were right there at the finish too – but after AP absolutely obliterated the competition in the sloppy Preakness a few weeks later, it was clear the gap at the top was wider than originally believed. I even wrote, “there’s no true favorite like there has been the past few years,” in this section of last year’s draft post. I was wrong. American Pharoah was clearly a notch above the rest.

And he graciously fell to me at pick #3. Thanks, fam.

Yes, I’m coming off my first ever Cooper Family Kentucky Derby win. It feels good, sure, but it was a gift more than something I earned. My wife scored pick #1 and took Dortmund. My mom took a flier on Carpe Diem with pick #2 which didn’t hit. And the horse of destiny just kinda landed in my lap.

Repeating will be a tall order though, since we decided to draft in reverse order from our previous year’s finish. I have the 7th pick. But more on that in a bit. First, let’s talk about the horses.

Links to the last two Derby drafts…

The Horses

There is a clear favorite this year.

Nyquist has never lost a race – a perfect 7-0 in races leading up Derby. When betting lines were first posted earlier this week, he was 3-1. He’s named after a hockey player, Detroit Red Wings’ right winger Gustav Nyquit. Amazingly, I know more about the horse than I do the man.  The next closest line is, Exaggerator, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, opening at 8-1.

But weirder things have happened than a clear cut favorite finishing in the middle of the pack. Look no further than 1994 when Holy Bull – the Horse of the Year that year – entered the Derby as the clear favorite, but sloppy track conditions and a poor break cost him. He ended 12th out of 14 horses. See? Anything is possible.

Like listen to this argument: Nyquist ran the San Vicente Stakes in California on February 15, then the Florida Derby on April 2, and now is headed to Kentucky a month later. Traveling can certainly wear down a horse. Plus, only one of the entrants has ever run a 1 1/4 mile race before, so who knows which of these horses has the stamina to go that extra 1/8 of a mile. And all it takes is a hesitation out the gate, or getting pinched around a turn.

See? Wide open. (Yeah right.)

If that happens, the number of challengers appears deep with a whopping 13 horses in the 10- to 20-1 range: CreatorGun Runner and Mohaymen opened at 10-1; Brody’s Cause and Mor Spirit at 12-1; Destin opened at 15-1, as did the two speedy pace horses, Outwork and Danzing Candy.

Oh! And you can’t ever count out Victor Espinoza these days. Jockey of the past two Derby winners. He’s riding Whitmore (20-1) this year – expect that line to drop as we approach post time.

So if you’ve got, say, the 7th pick in the draft, and you’re certainly not going to end up with Nyquist, there are guaranteed to be horses out there that have a shot. The full list by position as of this post:

  1. Trojan Nation 50-1
  2. Suddenbreakingnews 20-1
  3. Creator 10-1
  4. Mo Tom 20-1
  5. Gun Runner 10-1
  6. My Man Sam 20-1
  7. Oscar Nominated 50-1
  8. Lani 30-1
  9. Destin 15-1
  10. Whitmore 20-1
  11. Exaggerator 8-1
  12. Tom’s Ready 30-1
  13. Nyquist 3-1
  14. Mohaymen 10-1
  15. Outwork 15-1
  16. Shagaf 20-1
  17. Mor Spirit 12-1
  18. Majesto 30-1
  19. Brody’s Cause 12-1
  20. Danzing Candy 15-1
  21. Laoban (Alternate) 50-1
  22. Cherry Wine (Alternate) 30-1

Click here for the complete list of horses, post positions and betting odds.

Here’s what jumps out initially…

Both of those speedsters are interesting options. Outwork is coming out of post position 15 and Danzing Candy out of position 20. The way the gate is constructed, those are terrific spots for speedy horses. There are 14 slots in the main gate, and an appendage is attached housing positions 15-20.

Here’s a photo…

mg8872

See what I’m saying? You can see what can happen out of the gate – the 14, 15 and 20 horses have the most room to work with and establish position.

If you’re a pace horse, this is helpful to quickly get out ahead of the pack. And the two fastest horses in this race are on both ends of the attachment. Outwork and Danzing Candy have every opportunity to get a good jump and pace the pack. If that happens, this has the makings of a very very fast race.

Now, some people don’t believe post numbers matter in the slightest. The best horses get the best jumps get the best race posturing get the better finishes. And I agree with that for the most part, but at the same time, certain positions can certainly help. And when a race has been happening for 141 years, certain trends begin to develop.

The inside numbers (posts 1-5) have the shortest distance to run because they have the inside track, sure. But they’re also the most likely to get pinched against the rail. Generally, if a horse is on the inside, they want to be in spots 1, 2 or 5. Spots 3 & 4 are the most likely to get pinched and effectively eliminated in the first quarter mile.

Good news for Gun Runner. Bad news for Creator.

The outside numbers (posts 13-20) have a longer distance so a slight disadvantage. However, if they can get a good break, they typically have more room to work with and are rarely eliminated over the first quarter mile. Nyquist got a bit of a disadvantage being in #13, but not much. If you’re in the outside third, 13 and 16 (Shagaf) have produced the most winners.

The only gate to never produce a winner? 17.

Sorry, Mor Spirit.

The ideal positions are somewhere in the middle, in the 5-12 range. Posts 8 (Lani) and 10 (Whitmore) have the best winning percentages among the middle numbers.

Whoops. Really got into post positioning for a moment there. In the end, we don’t really know anything at all. It’s all one big crapshoot. Pick the best horses and hope for the best – that’s always the better shot. If Mor Spirit is still available late in the draft, am I still picking him over Trojan Nation or Oscar Nominated? Absolutely.

Most of what I just wrote was an attempt to make my family members gain some level of interest in horses I don’t want in hopes they pick them before it gets to me…OR WAS IT?! What if this entire post is a ploy to sucker my family into picking the chumps again this year?! Hmmm. Just doing my own jockeying for position here.

The Family Draft Order

In past years, we’ve picked numbers out of a hat and made it completely random. That’s just no fun for those who end up with the last pick and have no shot at picking California Chrome, American Pharoah or Nyquist. My dad definitely has the most wins in our family, but most (all?) have come due to lucking into a high pick and selecting the favorite: Orb in 2013. Big Brown in 2008. War Emblem in 2002. Pretty sure he won all of those and had a top 2 pick every time. I’m sure it was very rewarding to defeat his offspring on the regular.

So this year, we’ve adjusted the rules. From now on, we’ll be selecting in the order we finished the previous year! That way the loser from the year before has first dibs at the favorite next year. From there, it snakes back to the first pick. Any leftover picks then jump to the final picker and go in reverse order. This year there are 20 horses, so the picking order looks like this:

  • Mom – 1 & 14
  • Holly – 2, 13 & 20
  • Quinten – 3, 12 & 19
  • Anna – 4, 11 & 18
  • Karlie – 5, 10 & 17
  • Dad – 6, 9 & 16
  • Adam – 7, 8 & 15

I have picks 7, 8 and 15. Woof. The price of success, I suppose.

So who am I targeting with pick 7? Who knows. I’ll end up with whoever is left off the top of my board, and – as any good NFL general manager will say – I’ll take the best player available. I’m hoping someone in the Creator-Gun Runner-Mohaymen tier falls to me, but that feels like a stretch. Exaggerator and Nyqvist will be long gone. My sister, Anna, is a sucker for Victor Espinoza so Whitmore probably won’t be there either.

So that leaves…who? Destin? Brody’s Cause? Blegh. No thank you. The reality is I’ll end up with two also-rans who may or may not have lead hooves. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.

I’m most likely to pick two horses whose names are the most fun to root for, so HERE WE GO, SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS! What a name.

The Draft

**The Draft is happening Saturday morning. Check back then for updates as the picks come in.**

Pick 1: Nyquist (Mom)

Mom picks the favorite right out the gate. No messing around here.

Pick 2: Exaggerator (Holly)

And Hol follows up with the obvious followup. Who saw this coming? (Everyone.)

Pick 3: Creator (Quinten)

For some reason Creator isn’t getting any love for coming into the derby with such solid odds. Quinten has a good horse here, but it’s not the route I would’ve gone.

Pick 4: Whitmore (Anna)

In a completely unsurprising move, Anna takes her boy, Victor Espinoza.

Pick 5: Gun Runner (Karlie)

Amazing that Mohaymen and Gun Runner are still on the board at this point. They were #’s 2 and 3 on my draft board. Karlie gets a terrific horse at number 5.

Pick 6: Mohaymen (Dad)

And Dad somehow gets an unbelievable pick at #6 overall.

Pick 7: SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS (APC)

This just in: all the good horses are gone. If I could trade back and acquire more picks, I would, but I’m not sure that’s allowed. So I’ll go with the best name in the race here, just like I said I would.

Pick 8: Outwork (APC)

If you read everything up to this point, you know I liked the pace horses, Outwork and Danzing Candy, so I’ll take the one closer on the inside. Hoping DC falls to me at #15. Doubtful.

Pick 9: Mor Spirit (Dad)

No horse has ever won from the 17 gate, but Dad appears hopeful. “Maybe this is the year!” That’s the Spirit. Although, he did win Jimmy Fallon’s Puppy Predictor this year.

Pick 10: Destin (Karlie)

Solid gate positioning. Best available. Good pick here.

Pick 11: Brody’s Cause (Anna)

Terrible name. Best odds out there. Does anyone know what his Cause is?

Pick 12: My Man Sam (Quinten)

Has “dark horse” written all over it. Solid positioning and underrated. Dad makes the following joke: “Used to be Sam I Am before he was sold into slavery.” Wonderful. Everyone loves a good slavery joke…

Pick 13: Mo Tom (Holly)

The first of the two Toms is finally off the board. Won’t be missed. Should finish last.

Pick 14: Danzing Candy (Mom)

Love this pick. Danzing was one of the favorites a month or so ago, but slid in April and then got shoved to the #20 gate. But he’s got the speed to pull it off.

Pick 15: Shagaf (APC)

So I’ll take Shagaf, because, I have no idea.

Pick 16: Lani (Dad)

Dad takes the other grey horse in the mix. Lani is a guy’s name, supposedly. And he’s from Japan, so who knows what we’ve got here. “Could be the steal of the draft” in a prime post position.

Pick 17: Oscar Nominated (Karlie)

Terrible horse. But whatever, all the remaining horses stink, so might as well grab the one with the best starting position. Karlie finishes with Gun Runner, Destin and Oscar Nominated. That’s a good group.

Pick 18: Majesto (Anna)

Majesto is the horse I know the least about because he’s really not worth my time.

Pick 19: Trojan Nation (Quinten)

Q takes the inside rail. Too bad the Nation is going to get bumped early by…SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS.

Pick 20: Tom’s Ready (Holly)

And Holly picks up the pieces and adds the other Tom. She ends up with Exaggerator and the Toms. Sounds like an up and coming garage band. Dibs band name.

So here’s where the draft left us…

  • Mom: Nyquist, Danzing Candy
  • Holly: Exaggerator and the Toms
  • Quinten: Creator, My Man Sam, Trojan Nation
  • Anna: Whitmore, Brody’s Cause, Majesto
  • Karlie: Gun Runner, Destin, Oscar Nominated
  • Dad: Mohaymen, Mor Spirit, Lani
  • APC: Suddenbreakingnews, Outwork, Shagaf

Well…the good news is I’ll get an early pick in 2017.

Immediate takeaways – Mom’s draft was obviously strong with Nyquist, but adding Danzing Candy is a strong pick at #14 overall. Dad and Karlie had fantastic drafts for the picks they had. Anna’s way too sentimental to ever actually win this thing.

I think Danzing Candy and Outwork get out to the front from the outside, but fade late from giving too much to claim the pace. I really like Suddenbreakingnews and My Man Sam emerging from the rail horses as contenders, but getting worn out trying to keep up with Gun Runner and Nyquist, who should fall in behind the pace, boxing out Exaggerator. Mohaymen ought to just pace behind Nyquist and hope to have more left in the tank down the stretch. I anticipate a fast race where only the strongest survive.

If I’m picking a superfecta, I’m going with Nyquist, Gun Runner, Mohaymen, Outwork.

The Results

And Nyquist takes it.

The race played out almost exactly like everyone expected – Dancing Candy paced the group but faded late, Nyquist and Gun Runner hanging just off the pace kicked it into gear around the far turn. Exaggerator held back and got caught up in the middle until a hole opened up late and he scampered to a strong second place finish. Gun Runner barely hung on for third in a photo alongside Mohaymen and Suddenbreakingnews.

It’s fitting that Mom would win on Mother’s Day weekend. She picked the obvious favorite and he pulled through with ease.

So that means our family standings for this year’s Kentucky Derby look like this…

  1. Mom (Nyquist)
  2. Holly (Exaggerator)
  3. Karlie (Gun Runner)
  4. Dad (Mohaymen)
  5. APC (Suddenbreakingnews)
  6. Anna (Brody’s Cause, 7th)
  7. Quinten (My Man Sam, 11th)

Dad finished with 3 horses in the top 10 – Mohaymen, Lani (9th) and Mor Spirit (10th). Along with Gun Runner, Karlie also did well with Destin (6th). Anna’s horses struggled – Whitmore was the last to finish, and Majesto was second to last. Holly did well with Exaggerator, but the Toms were respectable too finishing 8th (Mo) and 12th (‘s Ready).

Quinten will get the first overall pick next year. His horses were not great on paper, nor in the Derby. He finished 11th (My Man Sam), 13th (Creator) and 16th (Trojan Nation).

I did as well as I could. Suddenbreakingnews (5th) was the best finishing horse remaining when it got to me. That at least counts for something. Outwork was a long shot if he could keep up with the heavy hitters, and was sitting pretty going into the last quarter mile but faded significantly down the stretch, as many predicted he would. He finished 14th.

Shagaf…did not finish.

Photo creds: CNN accessed here; Insider Louisville accessed here.

Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

 

In 2012, Alabama Shakes released their first LP titled Boys & Girls to rave reviews. This album is better. It’s significantly different, but significantly better. Their first album sounds like 70’s rock – guitar driven with even a slight country twang in places. The group hails from Athens, Alabama, and their first album reflects it in sound. It sounds like you’re sitting in a soulful southern joint eating some rice and beans or something.

But their second LP, Sound & Color hardly sounds like the same band. They’ve matured musically, moving into a much more complex array of sounds. Xylophones? Distorted vocals? Groovy bass lines? It’s so different and layered and complex compared to their debut work. It’s a welcomed move.

This album is more Al Green than it is Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is certainly a step up in the opinion of this blogger. That said, even with the drastically new sound, the same impressive pipes propel the album: those of Brittany Howard, whose high-pitched vocals make the muscles in my neck twinge just thinking about them. Her first squeal on the album’s single, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” is so painfully pitched one wonders how she even manages it. Her voice is unique and most likely unlike anything else you’ve heard before.

And I love it.

“Don’t Wanna Fight” (along with the other single, “Gimme All Your Love“) is the type of record you put on in the car when the road trip gets boring. It’s the perfect tune to just belt out at the top of your lungs. If your vocal chords aren’t throbbing through the first 5 tracks on this album, you’re doing it wrong. No restraint here. I’d suggest that the 3-year gap between their first and second albums was to allow for her chords to recover, but the group toured relentlessly over that stretch, so so much for that theory.

What probably took so long was simply how complex this album is. Alongside Howard, Alabama Shakes features Heath Fogg on guitar, Zac Cockerell on bass and Steve Johnson on drums, and unlike Boys & Girls, all four members are featured prominently on this album. On their first album, when Howard quit singing, the album lost it’s thrust. On this album, that’s not the case. The bass and guitar in particular drive this album just as much as the vocals in places.

The most interesting thing on this album – and the thing that ties the whole thing together – is the distortions on both the instrumentation and Howard’s vocals. Rather than just have her sing over the grooves, they chose to enmesh her vocals in with the overall sound of each track. The effect is fascinating. I keep coming back to Al Green – the moment he starts singing, you know it’s him. His voice is unmistakeable. Howard’s voice might be the closest thing I’ve heard to Green’s.

The latter half of the record (with the glaring exception of “The Greatest” – which is borderline punk rock) is ballad after ballad. It’s the closest to Al Green’s overall sound that the album comes. They’re not bad – in fact I like each song individually – but they do get a bit monotonous. While the first 5 tracks are asking to be screamed, the next 7 struggle to keep my ear. I really dig “Guess Who” and “Miss You” – which both beautifully oscillate between delicate and powerful, but it’s an album I struggle to get through from start to finish. The sound becomes expected the longer you listen to it, which really makes me wonder where they’ll go with their sound in the future.

It would be an absolute shock if Shakes beat out Taylor Swift or Kendrick Lamar, but it’s the only other one I see having any chance. It’s a distant third in this year’s field. I do think it will win Alternative Album of the Year. It’s primary competition there is Tame Impala, but I’ve always wondered how any of the other nominees think they have a chance against an album nominated for Album of the Year. If it’s not the best Alternative Album, how would it ever be the top overall?

Top tracks: Don’t Wanna Fight, Guess Who, Gimme All Your Love

Back to GRAMMYs.

 

1989 – Taylor Swift

It feels funny to write about an album that’s so universally known at this point. I should’ve written this back in early 2015 when the album initially dropped, because at this point we all know what kind of an album we have here.

Taylor Swift moved from Nashville to New York City two years ago and it’s reflected in pretty much everything here. The emotional acoustic guitar has been replaced with crisp cadences and catchy choruses. But Taylor’s need to overshare the depth of her soul is still present though, but instead of crying over lovers, it’s an album about freedom in the business of the big city. Even the more stripped down tracks (“This Love,” “How You Get the Girl,” “Clean“) are produced at a different level than her past ballads. She’d dabbled with pop in the past, but never truly abandoned her country connection. Here she goes full pop.

But it’s not remotely surprising. Nothing about this abandonment in 1989 is startling. It feels natural. Which is not something most artists ought to be able to do so seamlessly. When an artist changes his/her sound, there’s typically a backlash of some sort that laments them straying from their origins and chasing new sounds. Consumers don’t do well with change.

What is startling is how T-Swift refuses to be put in a box. She’s moved from winning country awards to winning pop soloist awards and somehow has managed to transcend both categories. She doesn’t fit in anyone’s mold. She’s a shapeshifter who never surprises you with her new look. Just when I think I’ve got her figured out, she morphs again, yet it all feels so natural. It’s just who she is.

She’s unapologetically herself, and that’s her greatest strength.

From the outset, it’s an incredibly fun album. “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” have been two of the loudest anthems across the nation this past year. It’s hard to leave the house without hearing her voice at some point. And, my goodness, if I’m not tapping my foot every time. Something about her tunes gets under my skin whether you want it to or not. And let’s be honest: You want it to.

This album is hit after hit, track after track, and none of them are complex. “Style” is a straightforward boy-meets-girl anthem. “Bad Blood” is a straightforward you-hurt-me-but-screw-you anthem. There’s no metaphor here and there’s no confusion as to what she’s singing about. She writes her heart, mind and soul into her lyrics, yet it doesn’t feel like an overshare because she’s probably the most lovable human since Tom Hanks. She doesn’t fit in, and that’s the way she wants it.

It’s hard to even classify her alongside other artists. Who else with her level of fame manages to sit so completely alone and look so comfortable with it? Maybe Adele? Maybe Lady Gaga? There’s no competition here, not because she’s defeated everyone else, but because she is so unlike the competition.

You know these songs. I don’t need to tell you any more. But I’ll say this: I think she loses out to Kendrick Lamar. I won’t be surprised if T-Swift takes home a bundle, but I don’t think she ends up with the Big One.

Top Tracks: Shake It Off, Clean, Blank Space, Bad Blood

-apc.

To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

Before I say anything else about this album, I need to say this: I have the highest respect for Kendrick Lamar. As an artist, as a role model, and as a human being, I’m extremely impressed with who he is and what he hopes to stand for as someone with fame and influence.

And that’s what To Pimp a Butterfly comes from: Kendrick Lamar’s deep desire to utilize his influence for good. It’s an album about leadership and celebrity. It’s Kendrick wrestling with the temptations associated with his new platform – the “evils of Lucy” (aka Lucifer) as he calls them. It’s his sophomore album – which typically has insane pressure to build off a successful debut project – isn’t anything what you’d expect from a rising star in the world. Instead of diving deep into his newfound wealth and power, he has chosen to take a step back and comment on how his status can be problematic, and how he strives to “pimp” that status for the benefit of others. Speaking value into his home community.

Kendrick Lamar is from Compton. He was raised in a world with a certain perspective and a certain way of life. No one ever told him he could amount to anything – that there was a world out there he could explore and learn from. He was born into a system of madness – which is the focus of his first album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” – and one of his primary goals in his new album is to preach potential to his community back home.

The opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” speaks to poverty and imprisonment. Opening up the collective mind of the systematic oppression experienced by those who grow up in the narrative of Compton and similar communities. There are places to visit, there’s a world out there to learn from – there are other ways of life. You’re not stuck in the narrative of cyclical generational poverty you’re been raised into.

It’s a fascinating album from a structural standpoint. The album continues in that vein through “King Kunta” and “Institutionalized” and “These Walls.” But the album seems to be framed in two parts around two songs: “u” – which focuses on the depression and suicidal feelings stemming from Kendrick experiencing a lack of control in painful things in his life – and “Alright” – which is the inverse narrative declaring that regardless of how bad things get, “we gonna be alright.”

Laced throughout the album is a poem. The first time you hear it, it’s only the first couple lines, but each recitation reveals more and more of the complete poem.

I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home…

The first time through the album, it’s confusing and disruptive. It’s tempting to skip the spoken portions to get back to the music, but the listener does him/herself a disservice if he does it. If Kendrick Lamar was about writing singles and pop hits, he’d never want the monologue there. It segments the flow and forces you to consider the words through repetition. The words provide the thrust of the album’s content.

But then you get to the end of the album – to “Mortal Man” – and you realize this isn’t a poem at all, but it’s a letter to Tupac. Apparently, while Kendrick was in Germany, some dude gave him a recording of an interview with Tupac from years ago when he was still alive. Kendrick takes that audio and creates an interview dialogue out of it between he and Tupac. It’s unbelievable. If you didn’t know/believe Tupac was dead, you’d be convinced he somehow sat down with Kendrick. It’s seamless and still so relevant to the world today.

In fact, get this: the orginal title for the album was going to be Tu Pimp a Caterpiller – Tu.P.A.C. – but went with butterfly instead because it represented Kendrick’s desire to pimp the beautiful things in life. There is so much happening here structurally it’s hard to nail it down unless you take the time to zoom out and consider the full context. The whole structure of the album is brilliant. Once the first listen is over, suddenly the end opens up the entire album in a new light – like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, to be honest. Lamar doesn’t shy away from the painful realities in the world, so there are moments on the album which, when taken out of context, can communicate something totally different than Kendrick’s big idea of the album. But when you listen to its entirety and begin to break down the themes and what he’s doing structurally, the album manages to open up to something incredible.

Admittedly, this isn’t an album that you can sit down and bump around to. It’s also not an album with singles you can throw into a playlist and listen to individually. Again, his goal isn’t to create a bunch of pop hits (which is basically exactly Taylor Swift’s goal in creating 1989) – it’s a cohesive creative unit with a message throughout.

The only single that was released for the album was “i” where features a looped Isley Brothers sample that really grooves. The phrase “I love myself” is repeated in chorus. It’s an anthem for those who society puts down – specifically young black community. Instead of believing the narrative of their world, to discover that everyone has value and ought to love themselves.

Except then on the album, it sounds like a live version! What?! Why would you do this to us Kendrick?! You can hear a crowd clamoring and someone introducing Kendrick as a guy who has “traveled all round the world but came back” – so apparently he’s performing for the people of Compton.

And then toward the end of the song he stops singing and starts talking to the people instead. He’s addressing the community about what it means to be black in the world – trying to create a new narrative for his home. He asks how many people have died in 2015 alone before doing a sort of etymological study on the N-word. He presents the Ethiopian word “negus” meaning “royalty” – a reclamation on a word taken and perverted by Americans over the decades.

By releasing the single version and then changing the album version, Kendrick further pushes his agenda. In fact, he actually sets up the speech in the “live” version by giving the single version beforehand. People come to the album expecting to bump to “i,” but end up startled by Kendrick’s message to home.

The album is honest and vulnerable. Kendrick’s message of positive influence is clear. He wants to denounce the evils associated with fame and celebrity and focus on communicating positivity to the system he came from.

It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar views himself as the butterfly that was able to come out of the system he was born into – not in a boastful or arrogant sense, as is the norm in hip hop. Rather than chasing more money and status and pointing the finger at his success, he points the finger at his struggles and pain. The album is about transformation. He hopes to change the narrative of those who grew up in the culture he did. The caterpillar he talks about in the final minute of the album are all those who are born into that system, and Kendrick hopes his voice can be one that begins a process of transformation.

If you want to know more, I recommend watching this 4-part interview Lamar did with MTV. Here’s the first of the four interviews…

Again, I respect the guy immensely. To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredible album. One with a purpose of making this world a better place. Most people probably don’t get that, and they won’t look past the controversial album cover. I believe strongly that this album deserves to win Album of the Year at the GRAMMYs. I’m rooting for it. It’s obviously highly regarded (Kendrick led all artists with 11 nominations), but can it beat out T-Swift’s 1989 – one of the most successful pop albums in recent history? We’ll see. No offense, Taylor.

Top tracks: u, King Kunta, Alright, i, Mortal Man, Wesley’s Theory

-apc.

Back to the GRAMMYs page.

Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd

As far as seasons go, winter is the worst. It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s dry and uncomfortable. It’s depressing. The best day winter has to offer is Christmas, and since winter begins on December 22, that means the season peaks on Day 3. From there, things trend downward with three major upticks in excitement: New Years Eve, Superbowl Sunday and…

…the Grammys.

And so for the second year in a row, in anticipation of one of the seasons most (only) fun days, I’ll be reviewing the albums up for Album of the Year. Here are this year’s nominees:

  • Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd
  • 1989 – Taylor Swift
  • To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
  • Traveller – Chris Stapleton
  • Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

The obvious heavy hitters are Taylor and Kendrick. There won’t be a dark horse like Beck this year. It’s a two horse race in 2016.

Noticeably absent: D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, which I think is better than all 5 of the albums listed here. It was nominated for Best R&B Album, and the track “Really Love” is up for Best R&B Song and Record of the Year. I thought for sure it would get a Best Album nom, but alas, it did not. Which sucks. Still, pretty good showing for a guy who’s been on the DL for 14 years.

I also hoped Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, would make the list, but it seems it couldn’t escape the shadow of its own single, “Uptown Funk,” which is up for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. The album did get a nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album, but it’s only going to win if they change the category to Best Non-Taylor Swift Pop Vocal Album.

Those are my only gripes. Nothing against the 5 albums here, I was just rooting for those guys.

As with last year, I need to throw out this disclaimer: I am not a musician and don’t really have any level of musical understanding beyond being a consumer. So this is purely my take. If you’re interested in reading my past music posts, feel free to hit up my Grammys blog homepage.

***

The Weeknd is just one dude. His name is Abel Tesfaye, and he’s from Toronto. Apparently the name comes from “the weekend” when he decided to drop out of high school and run away from home at age 17. But “The Weekend” was already taken as a band name, so he dropped the third “e” and moved along with it anyway. Beauty Behind the Madness is Tesfaye’s third studio album in four years.

Let’s start with what I do like about this album.

If you’re a Michael Jackson fan – and let’s be honest, odds are you probably are – then you’re going to love sound The Weeknd. Tesfaye sings almost exclusively in that same angsty falsetto range MJ is known for. It’s not as groovy as Off the Wall or Thriller, but it’s not as poppy and clean as Dangerous or Invincible. If it sounds like an MJ album, it’s definitely Bad – songs like “Liberian Girl” and “Dirty Diana” and “Smooth Criminal.” (But not “The Way You Make Me Feel” because that song’s an overplayed up-tempo stinker.)

The high-range vocals provide a great contrast to the percussion, strings and bass-heavy instrumentation. It’s dark and damp. At times BBTM goes the route of a jazzy slow jam.

Okay now on to what I’m not a fan of.

The content is mostly about party culture, drugs and sex – but rarely the exciting side of that culture. It’s mostly shadow. Darkness. Sadness. There’s a sense of depression or hurt. It feels lonely in places. Again, angsty. Emotionally charged. I suppose the content isn’t really my jam, but the resulting sound is really compelling throughout. I guess you could say it’s hollow both stylistically and lyrically.

Even the up-tempo songs aren’t upbeat content-wise. “Can’t Feel My Face” is probably the happiest sounding track on the album, but, “I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb,” sure doesn’t inspire much joy.

There are a few solid features on the album: Ed Sheeran brings his acoustic guitar to “Dark Times.” Lana Del Rey’s creepy little nightmarish voice comes in on “Prisoner.” Track three (which I like to refer to as the “power placement” on an album) is the Kanye West produced “Tell Your Friends,” which sounds straight off of Yeezus. The whole album kinda feels like a scene out of Nightmare Before Christmas…only rated R. Or maybe Sin City or something. It would be almost entirely black and white. It’s got a very Tim Burton/Danny Elfman ominous feel to it.

Here’s something I wish I’d never found out: the The Weeknd was involved in the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack (which Danny Elfman was also involved, coincidentally), which makes the album take on a totally different feel than it did the first time I listened through it. I’ve said this before, but I don’t really listen to lyrics much. My mind gets wrapped up in the groove of music and not necessarily the subject matter, but when I found out the 50 Shades bit, it suddenly connected the dots between style and content and now I can’t escape it.

It’s good. His voice is incredible and the shadowy tone gets under my skin a bit and I find myself actually grooving quite a bit. If it hadn’t been for that last bit of info, I probably would’ve dug it more overall. Which is too bad, because I really liked the sound the first time through.

It won’t win Album of the Year. It’s firmly in the second tier of nominees. But if you’re Jesse Pinkman or Christian Grey (or Chandler Jones), this could be your depressing winter hot jam. If you want a similar sound, but a happier album, go listen to Justin Beiber’s Purpose. Or, I suppose, Bad.

Top Tracks: Losers, ShamelessReal Life, Can’t Feel My Face

-apc.

Back to The Grammys Main Page.

Independence Day: Resurgence – A scene-by-scene trailer breakdown of the best movie coming out in 2016.

“We always knew they would come back.”

There are literally dozens of us who consider Independence Day our favorite movie of all time. I confess this for myself with no reservation whatsoever. Empire Strikes Back is good. Back to the Future is better. But Independence Day…well, that’s just the pinnacle of cinematic achievements, if you ask me. It can’t be topped.

Independence Day has everything anyone could ever want out of a movie. Will Smith as the rugged, hilariously glib yet sensitive fighter pilot, Captain Steven Hiller. Jeff Goldblum as the tech savvy MIT dropout who cracks the alien code embedded in Earth’s satellites, David Levinson. His ex-wife happens to be the top assistant to the President of the United States, and say what you will about Daniel Day Lewis and the All State Guy’s performances, I’m sure we can all agree that the greatest POTUS ever cast was, without a doubt, Bill Pullman in ID4.

But wait! Don’t forget about Randy Quaid! YES! Uncle Eddie stars as the drunken crop duster who claims to have abducted by aliens. And he’s the first to tell everybody that he knows exactly what’s going to happen when those creatures make it into our atmosphere: “They’re going to kill us all!”

And oh, they try. And they’re wildly successful those buggers. They take out a dozen or so major cities – New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, most major European cities. The Americans unsuccessfully try to “nuke the bastards” over Houston, so that city goes to crap too. But just when everything seems lost, Jeff Goldblum saves the day by giving the alien technology a computer virus – “a cold” – long enough for Randy Quaid and others to fly in there and “take em down…do your…stuff.”

Queue the dramatic presidential speech before the attack – only the third most dramatic moment in United States history following only Al Michael’s call of the USA hockey team defeating the Soviet Union in the 1980 winter Olympics, and – also from Miracle (my 4th favorite movie) – Herb Brooks’s pre-game locker room speech about tonight being “your time.” Pullman works a few dozen make shift “fighter pilots” into a victorious reverie before they all fly off to attack the giant saucer hovering above Las Vegas.

And wouldn’t you know it, but Goldblum’s crazy harebrained idea works. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum pilot an undercover alien spacecraft into the mothership. They upload the virus. They get stuck. They smoke celebratory “fat lady sings” cigars after the mission turns into a suicide mission. They deploy the nuke with a 30 second timer. They somehow manage to escape the mothership, and – just before the alien craft explodes in a Death Star II white orb – Goldblum regretfully does an Elvis impersonation.

Meanwhile, Randy Quaid and President Bill Pullman are engaging in close-range maneuvers with the local craft over Vegas. Everyone uses up their missiles except Quaid, who has to fly his craft straight into the ship’s mega-weapon in order for it to go off. It does. And the entire ship goes down.

They spread the word, and soon there are Randy Quaids in every nation taking out hostile alien crafts around the world.

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum land in the desert. They’re somehow still smoking the same cigars, because somehow traveling between Earth and space is 15-20 minute process.

But that was 20 years ago. That was the War of 1996, as they’re calling it. It lasted just two days, but cost millions of lives. This is 2016, and the buggers have finally come back, just like we all knew they would.

***

About a year ago I remember hearing through the grapevine that they were making a sequel. I probably danced a jig of some sort in the moment, but then promptly forgot about it until Sunday afternoon when they released the trailer for “Independence Day: Resurgence” during a mid-afternoon Cleveland Browns football game. As all major movie releases do.

I had a mild freak out as it aired. I hopped on YouTube and watched the trailer again. And again. Things escalated quickly, one thing led to another, and I changed my Twitter avatar to a screen shot of Jeff Goldblum in an astronaut suit.

The trailer looks awesome. It’s embedded at the top if you want to take a look. Or it’s on YouTube here.

In a simultaneously executed marketing maneuver, a website was launched with the chronology of events that’s taken place in the world since 1996. The website is Warof1996.com if you’d like to be fully up to date.

Essentially, there are 6 major bits of information we need to know about the earth in 2016…

  1. Twenty Years of World Peace – Earth has experienced 20 years of World Peace essentially, since the enemy is no longer each other, but is now a different species entirely.
  2. Earth Space Defense – Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is appointed as head over the Earth Space Defense program (ESD).
  3. Technology – The earthlings learn to utilize the alien technology, creating things like “smart phones, bladeless fans, drones and airport security scanners.”
  4. RIP Will Smith – Tragically, we learn that Will Smith’s character, Steven Hiller, has died. Apparently while they were trying to harness the alien’s weapons there was some malfunction and he ‘sploded. Sounds like they just didn’t have Willie in the budget.
  5. Moon Base – There’s a base on the moon that is fully operational (and, perhaps, based on one of the images on the website, bases being built or planned for Mars and one of Saturn’s moons). I can’t find anything on the site that denies the fact that this Moon Security Base is actually called the Death Star and is also a mega-weapon of some sort. It’s a working title, for now.
  6. Aliens in the Congo – Okay this is the final and probably most important bit of info: when all the Randy Quaids were able to take down the alien ships, one of them went down in Central Africa, in the Congo, and had survivors! According to the interactive site, it took them 10 years to neutralize that group, but based on the trailer I just watched, it seems to me this is where everything new begins.

There’s more than that, but it’s the nuts and bolts. I encourage you to take a gander at the site yourself. Again, warof1996.com.

None of that is a spoiler alert, by the way. All of that is stuff they want you to know. It’s not like this Star Wars: Episode VII secrecy business. ID4 is freely giving you the storyline between July 4, 1996, and July 4, 2016.

The world is united, but, again, we always knew they would come back.

***

Can we talk about the trailer? I’d like to talk about the trailer. Let’s take it scene by scene…

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It opens with a convoy headed, presumably, into the Congo where the aliens survived in some capacity for a decade after their initial invasion. Some woman has found something that only Jeff Goldblum would understand…

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..creepy alien skeletal structures? They’re present, but is this what they’ve found? It’s not stated that they’re out in the Congo, but the terrain certainly would suggest it and those structures look a lot like these from the @IndependenceDay twitter handle advertising the interactive site:

My best guess: ever since they finally took out the surviving aliens, archeologists and anthropologists and scientists have been going ape trying to learn about the species. And they’ve found something, but it isn’t just these creepy remains that they found, but something much larger.

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Enter Goldblum to raucous applause in theaters across the globe: “Oh my God.”

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What is THAT?! Is it some sort of civilization? Are those ruins from the alien ship coming down back in 1996? What is it they are looking at from that bluff? Is it Mos Eisley? Hard to say, but whatever they found out there is likely some sort of signal that the aliens are returning, or, at minimum, not entirely dead.

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Wait…Gale?! What are you doing here? It seems Liam Hemsworth is taking over the Will Smith role for the sequel. Here’s what I want to know – was it Will Smith’s decision to not come back, or was it Team ID4? On the one hand, Will probably doesn’t look as cool in dog tags in 2016, but c’mon, the guy just put out Focus where he plays the quintessentially smooth broseph. The Fresh Prince still gots it.

Anyway. Liam seems to be the new cool kid in town. Moving on..

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Hemsworth flies one of these bad boys. They appear to be a hybrid fighter jet/alien craft. Kinda disappointing. They look more like a Nerf dart/football product than they do a plane or ship, but whatever.

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Obligatory moon shadow shot.

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Then it appears some men are playing laser tag. This suggests that unlike the original, there is actually going to be some individual battles between aliens and humans and not just between flying vessels. Hand to hand combat even. I’m assuming the gun this gentleman is holding is one of the updated technologies humans have managed to harness from the aliens. During this shot, there’s a gravely voice talking about how the aliens haunt his dreams, which ends by saying, “They’re coming back.” But who is talking?

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Gasp. It’s Pullman! He’s hardly recognizable with his grey beard and receding hairline, but it’s him, and he’s as intense with his monologues as ever. In the original, the alien enters into the mind of Bill Pullman and takes him as a hostage or something. I was never totally clear how that worked. Anyway, after the fact, the President reveals that he saw it’s thoughts and saw what they planned to do. If Bill is saying that the aliens haunt his dreams, you wonder if the former POTUS is able to communicate or at least have some level of vision into their world and existence. It seems as though Pullman is the one who is first aware that they’re coming back.

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And look there – it’s another familiar face! It’s Julius Levinson! The actor is Judd Hirsch, and he play’s Jeff Goldblum’s dad. The outspoken Jewish man is probably the most underrated character in the original. He has some of the greatest one-liners in ID4, and it’s encouraging to see that he’s making a return performance. But what is he looking at?

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Ah. Of course. I tell you what, if Independence Day was able to win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects back in 1996, imagine what it’ll be able to accomplish in 2016?! I have high expectations, and this shot is a beautiful start.

Thus completes the set up. Now we enter into the sequence of characters we don’t know yet…

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First up. This has to be Will Smith’s son, right? I mean, he’s the only black guy in the original, so it’s the only explanation. I’m assuming this is adult-Buckwheat until I hear otherwise. But what will his role be? It appear Liam is already filling the fighter pilot role. Perhaps this kid has some other purpose? He looks pretty fierce.

Next up…these three…

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No idea. But I’m sure their plot line can’t be more riveting than the tertiary characters in the original. Randy Quaid’s three kids – the Responsibly Oldest Miguel, the Sickly Middle Child and the Angsty Crop Top Daughter from Mrs. Doubtfire – their roles are so vital to the story! I can’t wait to see what deeply moving parts these folks have.

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Woah. Carnage. 

I’ve only spent about 12 total hours in D.C., but that’s clearly the nation’s capitol. You can see the Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in a line on the right. That smoke is where the  White House sits, but it was blown up in the first movie, so this has to be a flashback or something – what it looked like out the window of a plane nearby when it was smoldering after the aliens moved on to Baltimore or whatever major city came next on their annihilation tour. Will there be flashbacks in Resurgence? Hmmmm.

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It’s Hemsworth and Goldblum running on the moon while missiles or meteorites or something explode behind them. One of the two astronauts gets launched…not sure which one though. Things are starting to look like Armageddon.

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The money shot. This appears to be inside some command center. On the War of 1996 website it says that the moon base is commanded from Bejing, China, but we just saw Goldblum on the moon, so my guess is this is inside the moon base. But since space travel only takes a cigar’s-length, it’s possible he could make the trek off-planet during the film.

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She has to be the new President, right? The guys next to her start shooting through an open door moments later and she just stands there. Highly protected individual. Gotta be some politician or world leader.

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Then there’s this scene with some woman chasing down a trio of helicopters. Sure reminds me of the scene when the First Lady’s chopper gets taken out by the White House explosion. As in the original, it seems that the battle is happening on two fronts simultaneously: Earthside and in space.

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Okay, I think I’ve got it – Not Jaden Smith follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a fighter pilot too. Duh. While Gale follows Jeff Goldblum into space to do…whatever he’s doing up there.

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Okay now it REALLY looks like Armageddon. What is that guy doing there?! He’s going to sabotage the whole mission by trying to revert to a secondary protocol against Bruce Willis’s orders! No! The drill has to keep going! Get more water on it to cool it down! It’ll work!

Then there’s a smattering of dramatic looking faces and some explosions that I can’t really make sense of, but the final moments are very clear:

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The title screen followed by one more Goldblum one-liner…

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“That is definitely…bigger than the last one.”

The aliens are coming back, and this time it’s more dire than 1996. Ahhhhhh!

Kinda makes you forget Star Wars is coming out this Friday, doesn’t it? Will it be as good as the original? Impossible. Without Will Smith it’s bound to lose some of what it had. Liam Hemsworth doesn’t provide the level of humor and whit Will Smith brought – but perhaps the other kid will be the humor while Liam is just the eye candy. Who knows.

That said…we’ve already gotten to see Jeff Goldblum in a spacesuit, so it’s got a lot going for it as it is, and as long as he’s the main character of this operation it’s bound to be a true treasure.

It’s too early for more theories than I’ve already mentioned. Thankfully, we have over 6 months to continue to surf the fan sites and dig into ID4 Reddit and what not to keep up with the overwhelming buzz a movie like this generates. Try to keep yourselves under control.

See you at the theater at midnight on June 24, 2016 – exactly 20 years after the first one was released.

This is going to be so fun.

-apc.

2015 Kentucky Derby: Cooper Family Live Draft

It’s Derby Day. Cooper Family, unite!

The Tradition

This is one of the most exciting days of the year in my family, and it centers around an event that not one of us pays attention to the other 364 days of the year. Maybe there’s a tiny bit of research that takes place in the week leading up, but ultimately it’s a fun tradition based on…well, based on tradition, I guess.

There have been highlights – Thunder Gulch in 1994, Smarty Jones in 2004. War Emblem in 2002. There have been heartbreaks too – namely the death of the filly, Eight Belles, in 2008.

Last year, Karlie was the winner by selecting California Chrome with the first overall pick. It’s always disappointing when there’s such a clear favorite. The whole thing boils down to a randomly selected number out of a hat. Karlie landed #1, so she won it all.

No. I’m not bitter.

That said, I proposed a new idea for future years. Starting in 2016, we’re going to base our pick selections on the results of the previous year’s race. Last will pick first and vice versa. It’s too late to do it that way this year – as one of the worst finishers in 2014, of course I’d like to pick earlier.

In the spirit of fairness, we’re going to start that in 2016 based on 2015 results.

This is a great year to do it too because there’s no true favorite like there has been the past few years. Last year, California Chrome was a no brainer. This year there are multiple options. American Pharaoh has the best current odds at 3-1. But Dortmund (4-1), Firing Line (8-1), Carpe Diem (7-1) are all perfectly viable first picks and horse like Mubtaahij (12-1), Frosted (9-1) and Materiality (14-1) are not dumb first round picks either. Everyone will get a contender this year.

Here’s the complete list of horses and live odds here: 2015 Kentucky Derby Odds.

Those odds will likely change significantly between now and this afternoon’s race too – any of these horses could be considered favorites by the time the horses are in the gate.

The field is wide open, and for the first time in a few years, it’s actually anybody’s race. Which makes for way more trash talking and a lot more drama.

The decision was also made to give the last four picks to those who have the worst opening round picks. So whoever gets picks #7, #6, #5, and #4 will have picks #15, #16, #17, and #18, respectively.

For more on the Tradition, check out last year’s post.

The Family Draft Order

This picture was just texted in from The Judges. The draft order is set.

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  1. Karlie (my wife) – Picks 1 & 14. Last year’s winner gets first pick again in 2015.
  2. Janice (my mom) – Picks 2 & 13.
  3. APC – Picks 3 & 12. Love this spot, I’ll tell you why.
  4. Greg (my dad) – Picks 4, 11 & 18. Good luck with Frammento.
  5. Anna (my sister, youngest) – Picks 5, 10 & 17.
  6. Holly (my sister, younger) –  Picks 6, 9 & 16.
  7. Quniten (bro-in-law, holly’s husband) – Picks 7, 8 & 15. Bummer, dude.

I’m crazy about the #3 pick. The pressure of choosing incorrectly on the #1 overall pick is a real one. Karlie has all the options available and no excuse for picking wrong, plus, by the time the draft comes back around to her next pick, the potential winners are probably gone. She’ll only really have one horse in the race. All your eggs are in one basket, as they say.

With pick #3 I also get #12 which means I’m guaranteed to get one of the top options in the race along with one of my favorite dark horse options: Horses like Upstart (21-1), Danzig Moon (20-1), Ocho Ocho Ocho (24-1), Bolo (36-1) or Mr. Z (30-1) all have a shot at landing at #12. I truly believe there are 12 horses that could win this year.

The #18 pick is mostly worthless. Let’s be honest, we’re all excited to make fun of my dad getting stuck with Frammento (99-1). Anna’s burn is the best thus far: “So is Frammento a Shetland pony or what?”

The Draft

LIVE NOW: The draft is taking place at 2:00 PM CST. Check back if you want to follow along, I’ll be posting riveting live updates.

And here come the picks…

Pick #1: Dortmund (Karlie) 

All the pre-draft talk was that Karlie was going to take Firing Line out of the gate. In a last minute change of heart, Dortmund was the pick instead – and a better one, in my opinion.

Pick #2: Carpe Diem (Janice)

Wouldn’t have been my top pick, but It’s not a bad one. Seize the day, Mom.

Pick #3: American Pharaoh (APC)

Shocked that the favorite slid to this spot, and I’m thrilled about it. I was prepared to have to choose between Carpe Diem and Firing Line here, but Mom’s pick bailed me out.

Pick #4: Firing Line (Greg)

This was an unfortunate spot to pick. It was pretty clear that these four horses were going to drop first. I anticipated Carpe Diem being the last one left. I think Firing Line is the better option.

Pick #5: Frosted (Anna)

The logical choice. Best available. The Cooper consensus is that Frosted is the ugliest horse. Exhibit A:

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Pick #6: Upstart (Holly)

This is a reach, but I really like this horse. I was actually targeting Upstart for my #12 pick. But hey, if you like a horse with the #6, you might as well pull the trigger, amiright?

Pick #7: Danzing Moon (Quinten)

I would’ve gone with Mubtaahij here. Or Materiality, but its hard to pass on such a lovely name like Danzing. I assumed that selecting Danzing Moon meant he would pick one of those two with his next choice…

Pick #8: Tencendur (Quinten)

…nope. This is a terrible choice. As of this moment, Tencendur is currently going at 53-1. One of the worst in the race. It’s like Quinten is trying to lose.

Pick #9: Materiality (Holly)

Somehow, someway, Materiality and Mubtaahij are still available here. Materiality is the pick.

Pick #10: Mubtaahij (Anna)

And there’s the other right choice, in my opinion. I would’ve taken “Mubby” at #6, yet somehow Anna gets him at #10 instead. Amazing draft for Anna to this point.

Pick #11: Itsaknockout (Greg)

Pretty awesome name, and appropriately timed in light of the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight. Was really happy Dad took Itsa here. I had two horses I was targeting for my #12 pick. Upstart and….

Pick #12: Ocho Ocho Ocho (APC)

Here’s what I think will happen in the race this year: two horses will jump out to pace the pack: American Pharaoh from the outside and Ocho Ocho Ocho from the inside. They’re the two speed horses. I don’t think 888 will hold on, but he might!

Pick #13: Bolo (Janice)

Who is left at this point?

Pick #14: Far Right (Karlie)

“I’ll take Far Right because the jockey looks so nice.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 3.00.01 PMFair enough.

Pick #15: Frammento (Quinten)

Quinten’s just being a nice guy at this point. First Tencendur and now Frammento? He must have all the faith in the world in Danzing Moon, because these two are mostly worthless.

Pick #16: Keen Ice (Holly)

Cool name. Bad horse. But the best one left.

Pick #17: War Story (Anna)

Jimmy Fallon’s Kentucky Derby Puppy Predictor is all you need to watch when it comes to this dog.

Pick #18: Frammento Mr. Z (Greg)

I was prepared to make a “Mr. Irrelevant” comment here, but it’s Mr. Z instead. Surprising to see a 31-1 be the last pick. Really didn’t see Quinten’s earlier pick coming, so somehow Dad gets a somewhat relevant house in the end.

So here’s how things ended up…

  • Karlie: Dortmund & Far Right
  • Janice: Carpe Diem & Bolo
  • APC: American Pharaoh & Ocho Ocho Ocho
  • Greg: Firing Line, Itsaknockout & Mr. Z
  • Anna: Frosted, Mubtaahij & War Story
  • Holly: Upstart, Materiality & Keen Ice
  • Quinten: Danzing Moon, Tencendur & Frammento

There you go. Assuming the favorites – and by that I mean Dortmund and American Pharaoh – do not win, I think Anna and Holly had the strongest drafts. I think Frosted, Mubtaahij, Upstart and Materiality are all potential winners if the race falls the right way out the gate.

I anticipate the pace to be fast, which is why I’m very happy to have the two horses I do. But like I said at the top – this year, it’s anybody’s race. Shoot, even Danzing Moon stands a chance to win.

As of this writing we are 2 hours, 4 minutes and 51 seconds away from race time. Race is at 5:44 PM CST on NBC.

The Results

That’s a winner, folks! American Pharaoh for the win!

It was a great race actually. Dortmund broke quick out of the gate and led Firing Line and American Pharaoh through the halfway point. Firing Line managed to overtake Dortmund there, but rounding the home stretch, American Pharaoh put on the afterburners around the outside and came away with the victory.

All three horses were neck and neck for the majority of the stretch run. Firing Line retook the lead for a moment, but it turned out to be too soon. American Pharaoh was strong enough to take it back.

Very fun race as all five top picks were in the mix for the majority of the race. Ultimately, Carpe Diem faded, but it truly felt like anyone’s race. Very fun year.

In my years of drafting horses with my family I’m fairly certain this is my only win. Most years I never have a chance since the winning horse is gone by the time I pick.

Here is how we ended up ranked…

  1. APC – American Pharaoh
  2. Greg – Firing Line
  3. Karlie – Dortmund
  4. Anna – Frosted
  5. Quinten – Danzig Moon
  6. Holly – Materiality
  7. Janice – Carpe Diem (10th)

Looks like I’ll be picking last in 2016, but that’s alright. I’m going to enjoy my year on the champs podium.

-apc.

Photo cred: accessed here.

Shuffle Lessons, Volume 4.

Let’s do some shufflin’, shall we? This one is a lightning round: I’m only giving myself until the end of each song to write about it.

For a refresher on the process, you can go back and read other lessons.

Drunk and Hot Girls – Kanye West

Blah. Rough start.

The lowest point on Graduation. Well, the only low point on Graduation, really. Along with “Barry Bonds” (which I admittedly like from time to time), this makes up the sad 9/10 spots on the album. Skip it 90% of the time. Although, it’s hilarious when Kanye makes fun of her singing. It’s good for a laugh, but for the most part this is…blah.

From Above – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

I don’t listen to this album enough. Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, wrote the lyrics. Ben then composed, played and sang them. Brilliant stuff.

It’s a track about soulmates. Everyone has one, but we rarely end up with them, according to Hornby. Personally, I think the idea of soulmates is a buncha baloney. I think there are probably dozens of mates we could marry. Maybe more. The trick is finding someone who feels the same way, but I mean, c’mon – you’re telling me my soulmate just happened to coincidently live right around the corner from me? Of anywhere in the world? Nah. I think we just meet people we like and love and decide to commit. Connection? Sure. But “soulmates” is a made up romantic ideal that I refuse to buy into. Sorry, Karlie.

Late – Ben Folds

MOAR BEN. Songs for Silverman is probably Ben’s most beautiful album. It lacks his Five goofiness, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking as an album. It’s just serious business.

“Late” is no different. It’s a tribute to Elliott Smith. Smith was a singer-songwriter who suffered from depression and died from stab wounds that may or may not have self inflicted. The lyric “the songs you wrote got me through a lot just want to tell you that,” is particularly meaningful – I wish more of us would take the time to share why we are important to one another. Perhaps Elliott Smith (if suicide was the cause of death) would still be with us had Ben shared this with him earlier?

Bloodstream – Ed Sheeran

How is Ed Sheeran already on my Top 2000 played list? He ascended quickly. I guess I gave this album 4 or 5 listens before writing my GRAMMY post about it.

Bloodstream is one of the better tracks on x. (It’s pronounced “multiply” – lame.) The song is about drugs/drinking – as most of Ed’s songs are. It’s dark and eerie – an outlier on x since most of the songs are either poppy fresh or acoustic chill. Here’s the whole album review.

Smile Away – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ranking the Beatles without thinking about it…

  1. Paul
  2. George
  3. John
  4. Ringo

Now, ranking the margin of victory between each ranking without thinking about it…

  1. George to John
  2. Paul to George
  3. John to Ringo

Paul is my favorite by a wide margin, but George is my second favorite by an even wider margin over John. And the fact that John is close to Ringo at all speaks volumes of how I feel about Lennon. Too political and ideological for me most of the time. Gets annoying.. George is the most talented, but Paul is the most fun and his Wings career is way too good.

Ram is one of my all time favorite albums. It stands alone as an album by  only Paul & Linda McCartney, before the rest of Wings was formed. “Smile Away” is fun and lively. The story is simple: Paul runs into a friend on the street who says he can “smell your feet/breath from a mile away.” Paul decided to brush it off and smile away. I guess it’s about positivity/not giving a rip about what others think. Which is maybe what got Kanye to tap Paul to co-produce his new album, So Help Me God, whose title was announced today.

-apc.

Religion and Hip Hop at Rice University

This popped up in my Twitter feed today via both okayplayer and BLUNTIQ and I thought I should pass it along here. 

Bun B is co-teaching a course on religion and hip hop at Rice University with Professor Anthony Pinn. There is an on-campus version of the class, but also a free online version as well. The course is six sessions. I’ve enrolled. If you have even a cursory knowledge of hip hop music, I encourage you to look into it for yourself at EdX.org.

If you enroll in the next month maybe we can go through it together!

I’m a fan of anything that reframes religion in new ways. I’m a believer that we all experience God in different ways, and that there are huge spiritual/religious intersections in all areas of life. It’s is a driving driving force behind the book project I’m working on, and in my opening chapter, I hope to encourage all people do discover where it is that they see God connecting in ways traditionally understood as non-religious or secular.

I’m not a hip hop guru like these fellas in the video (plus I’m white, and I’m unable to fully grasp the black experience that much of hip hop is rooted in), but I do love the genre and have come to appreciate it on a deeper level. I’d say I’m mostly plugged into mainstream stuff, but I was raised listening to DC Talk in elementary school (to which I’m not remotely embarrassed, but Rosenberg jokingly brings up in the interview as the band kids would pass out CDs of in the cafeteria – that wasn’t me as far as I remember). Bun B brilliantly responds that there “probably wouldn’t be Lecrae without DC Talk.”

I’m deeply invested in church culture, a current seminarian, and have great concern for how the gospel is extended in our world. Everything Eblo says regarding “Christian music” resonates strongly with my experience of the genre too – which is why I get so excited about Lecrae breaking into the Best Rap Performance category at the GRAMMYs this year. I’m tired of Christian music being labeled separately from “secular” music. It fragments the music industry and cheapens music both within and without the “Christian” genre. As if non-“Christian” music has nothing to say about God (which it does), and often “Christian” music, frankly, isn’t very good, but can survive by marketing themselves as such. There’s also a session on Islam, which excites me.

I’m enrolled in the course beginning in late March. Excited to see what Professor B has to say about the overlap between religion and hip hop.

-apc.

Image cred: EdX.org.

The 2015 Grammys in Review

Phew. Last night was crazy. I started the 2015 Grammys in the airport in Denver and finished them at home in Kansas City. I missed certain performances live due to boarding and safety information protocol, but I was able to catch up this morning on the major moments I missed the first time around.

The Grammys are a highlight for me each year. It’s basically a 3 hour concert of the greatest musicians in the world, so when people say they just can’t get into the Grammys I visualize myself giving them a wedgie before calmly responding, “that’s understandable.” No. It’s not really understandable. I mean, how often do we get to witness John Mayer, Questlove, Herbie Handcock, ELO and Ed Sheeran playing music in the same place at the same time?

It’s just a special night. It’s loads of fun.

If you’ve been following along here at all over the past month you know that I took some time to review all 5 albums up for Album of the Year, which I believe is the most important category. Last year, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories took home top honors. This year, it was Beck’s Morning Phase.

Beck over Bey

Going into last night, I had Beyonce as the clear favorite and Beck as a dark horse. If there was someone who was going to take down the Queen, I thought Beck had the best chance among the others. I didn’t really think it would happen, but wouldn’t you know it, the dude pulled it off.

And he deserves it. He really does. Morning Phase is a beautiful album. It’s perfect for waking up on a grey Saturday morning, dropping the needle on the turntable and sipping some coffee for the next 47 minutes.

Twice last night, Beck tried to give the spotlight to someone who was a bigger star than he is. When he accepted his award, Kanye West stood up and “pulled a Kanye” by running up like he did to Taylor Swift back in the day. He ran up and acted like he was going to do it again but pulled away at the last second, laughing. Meanwhile, Jay-Z and Beyonce were absolutely mortified until they realized he was joking.

“No, Kanye, no…bahahahaha.” And just look at Jay shaking his head. It never gets old.

Except Kanye wasn’t really joking. He made comments after the show saying that Beck should give the Grammy to Beyonce and that Beck isn’t a true artist. Major jerk move. To which Beck responded later that he thinks Kanye is a genius regardless of what he thinks of him in return.

It’s hard for me to say this because I spent a decade of my life borderline obsessed with Kanye West’s music, but I’ve finally had enough of his ego. I justified his antics when he embarrassed Taylor Swift by remembering that he was standing up for his friend, Beyonce, even if it was at the expense of someone else. You can think someone else was more deserving, but you cannot publicly claim that someone isn’t a true artist. Art is not objective, and Kanye West is not the absolute rule.

Clearly Kanye’s never seen this:

Yeah. Put a sock in it, dummy.

Anyway, when Kanye started walking away, Beck told him to come back. He invited him on to the stage with him. Weird. Then later, following his performance with Chris Martin of Coldplay, Martin intentionally faded into the background to give Beck the spotlight. Beck noticed this at the last second and ran back and tried to pull Martin back into the front.

There’s something selfless and open about Beck that is very likable. Like when he began his entire speech with “Hi, Prince.” Just so genuine and friendly. It’s sad Kanye’s antics took the spotlight away from him. Because he deserves the spotlight.

By the way, during his speech Beck also thanked David Campbell for doing the strings on Morning Phase. David Campbell is Beck’s father. Campbell has quite the resume of arrangements and I encourage you to take a quick scroll through the list on his Wikipedia page.

Top 10 Performances

According to LL Cool J at the top of the show, there were 23 performances during last night’s show – probably why the winners only goy 6 seconds to give their acceptance speeches – and while I’d like to talk about each one separately…I’m not going to.

But what I am going to do is list my Top 10 performances with a line or two about each one.

10. Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – Cheek to Cheek – This song is cute, but every time I hear it, it makes me miss Amy Winehouse. She would’ve been the right choice for this song. Lady Gaga is fine, but Amy…

9. Beck featuring Chris Martin – Heart is a Drum – Listening to one song from Morning Phase is like being forced to only eat one potato chip. The performance was good, but I wanted more of the album than just this sampling.

8. Sia – Chandelier  – So Sia just stands in the corner and sings with her face to the wall while Kristen Wiig runs around dancing dramatically? Goofy stuff. But a powerful song.

7. Ed Sheeran featuring John Mayer, Questlove & Herbie Hancock – Thinking Out Loud – The first time I saw this performance, I was so entranced by John going nuts on his pink guitar that I totally missed Herbie sitting on the piano behind him. Quest is awesome. I wish he’d hung around for the ELO performance. Wish it was a funner song too – TOL isn’t my favorite of his, but I’m a big fan of large chunks of x.

6. Usher featuring Stevie Wonder – If It’s Magic – “If It’s Magic” is track two off side four of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Last year, Stevie performed “Another Star” which comes two tracks later on the same side. The song in between these two is “As” which is my all-time favorite Stevie Wonder track. Since it seems the Grammys are now attempting to cameo Stevie Wonder as much as possible while he’s still around, I’m holding out hope for an “As” performance in 2016.

5. Pharrell featuring Lang Lang – Happy – What a fantastic rendition of the song that Pharrell obviously realizes is starting to get a bit redundant in the world these days. Lang Lang provides an epic piano solo while Pharrell and his backup dancers do the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” motion. The Great Hans Zimmer comes out on guitar. I am itching for new N*E*R*D in 2015.

Pharrell continues to plow an amazing path in the world of today’s music. He’s come a long way in a really short amount of time. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes in the future with the success of not only GIRL, but also his many collaborations and productions in recent years.

4. John Legend/Common – Glory – The final performance of the Grammys. Common has one of those voices – similar to Morgan Freeman, I think – that commands attention. He’s not necessarily the best rapper, but what he lacks in cadence he makes up for in clout. He has a powerful presence and the subject matter is obviously wonderful.

Also, I love the word “glory” – in Hebrew, the word is kavod which means something has significant weight. When we glorify God, we are recognizing that God has kavod. And when we ask for his glory to reign, we are asking that his weight overcome the heavy burdens we feel in our world. Appropriate image for this performance, I think.

3. Hozier & Annie Lennox – Take Me to Church/I Put a Spell on You – Four comments about this performance: 1. Hozier looks like Madison Bumgarner. 2. You may know Annie Lennox (that woman who looks like Ellen Degeneres) from The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and her song “Walking on Broken Glass.” 3. Her new album includes a cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” 4. A song originally by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that you might recall from this Pringles advertisement…

2. Beyonce – Take My Hand, Precious Lord – Chills. Just chills. Over and over and over. The more I watch it, the more I love this performance. Power singing about power. Creates some exponential biological singularity situation. Brings me to my knees. Another “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” here too.

1. ELO featuring Ed Sheeran – Evil Woman/Mr. Blue Sky – I had no idea ELO was going to be performing, so when Ed announced them, I exclaimed “YES” in the airport loud enough that the woman at the gate raised her eyebrows in my direction.

In the summer of 2004, I found Electric Light Orchestra’s Greatest Hits on cassette at a used bookstore. It was one of the three cassette tapes I had in my car for about a year until I sold my 1991 Geo Prism for a new ride in 2005. Mr. Blue Sky has the power to put anyone in an immediately positive mood (most of their music has this power, I suppose). That piano in Evil Woman just gets me immediately bumpin. These two tracks probably round out my top five ELO songs along with Livin’ Thing, Don’t Bring Me Down and Strange Magic (you can keep Xanadu, no thanks).

But the best part of this performance – for the second year in a row – was Paul McCartney dancing along in the audience. In case you’ve forgotten, in 2014, we had Snap and Wiggle Paul during Daft Punk’s performance:

This year, we were awarded with an equally wonderful moment. Behold, Sing Along Standing Paul:

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Sir Paul, in the very front row, appears to be the only one standing in the entire Staples Center. But what happens here? It seems Paul makes eye contact with someone to the left of the camera, nods, then throws his hands up and sits down.

DID SOME JERK HAVE THE AUDACITY TO TELL SIR SING ALONG PAUL TO SIT DOWN?!? No one tells Paul to sit down. No one. Ever. This is unacceptable and must be addressed. But I’m not really worried. The Illuminati will likely take care of it in one quick silent movement. It’s possible that’s what Madonna’s performance was all about.

Sam Smith Wins a Bunch

Best New Artist. Record of the Year. Song of the Year. Best Pop Vocal Album. He also performed with Mary J. Blige.

Whatever. I will not argue that the dude has some crazy pipes, but the sound of his voice give me the creeps. He’s got some weird lisp thing going on along with a glottal situation that makes me want to run away when he sings. It’s unfortunate.

I can see how he could win all the categories above – people really seem to love the guy – but Taylor Swift should’ve won at least one of the two song categories for “Shake it Off.” I’m just thankful he didn’t win Album of the Year because In the Lonely Hour is just one big cryfest that never goes anywhere else.

A quick bit on Kanye

What are these new Kanye songs? “Only One” sounds like something off 808s and Heartbreaks only there’s no 808 and instead of heartbreak it’s heartfelt. So maybe it’s the opposite in terms of content, but the autotuned voice and stripped down style is NOT working for me. “FourFive Seconds” is maybe a little bit better, but if these are the tracks that are supposed to launch a new album you’re counting down to…sorry Kanye. You may have finally lost me.

But what I don’t understand, is how Paul McCartney’s touch has created this stuff. Paul is quirky and goofy and way out of the box. So is Kanye West. I’d think that if this partnership is actually going to create something, it would have to be waaaaay out there. Paul has never been one to make boring music. Kanye certainly hasn’t either. But these two songs are boring. They offer me nothing exciting and I don’t get it.

Couple that with the comments I mentioned earlier, and I’ve all but given up on Kanye West. The only thing I can figure that might save him is if this album turns out to be another stepping stone on to another chapter in his musical discography. Perhaps his forthcoming album will act like an interlude like 808s ended up doing. Who knows. But he’s on really thin ice.

A quick bit on country music

A quick comment on country music here: this years performances were good. Miranda Lambert (who I think is adorable) played early in the show, but the two that I really enjoyed were Eric Church and the Brandy Clark/Dwight Yoakam back to back performances around the halfway point.

Last year, I had a serious issue with the country music performances. I left struggling to understand the genre. What makes something “country” music these days? Is it storytelling? Because then Ed Sheeran is a phenomenal country artist. Is it the sound of their voice? Because then anyone can play country music if they just change up their twang. I don’t understand.

But this years performances seemed to fit the bill. There wasn’t an over the top voice alteration to fit the genre, and there was plenty of storytelling to go around. It wasn’t the poppy, boy band country, and it wasn’t stereotypical subject matter either. All that to say, it didn’t leave the same bad taste in my mouth as it did in 2014.

Cats on the Red Carpet

Finally, I have to share this shot of my cats – Desmond (right) and Hugo (left) – from the Red Carpet last night.

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A thousand shout outs to Maureen for her photoshopping brilliance.

That pretty much does it for the Grammys this year. Another amazing year in music comes to a close. Looking forward to the 2016 Grammys, AKA “D’Angelo Wins Everything.” Although, Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special will get some nods, and if Frank Ocean decides to exist again, I’m sure he’ll make his presence known too. Until then, it’s back to baseball for me.

-apc.

BACK TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

In the Lonely Hour – Sam Smith

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Most every romantic comedy has this in common: a minute-long segment, deep into the storyline, when everything is falling apart between the protagonist and his/her primary love interest. Both are sad and lonely but don’t if know if that sadness is reciprocated. So they flounder for a bit while they figure out their emotions.

You know the section I’m talking about – the movie cuts back and forth from one side of the broken relationship to another checking in on how each individual’s life is progressing without their other half.

It goes like this: First, she’s reading a book at a coffee shop but can’t concentrate. Cut to him distractedly working in his office glancing periodically out the window at…something. Cut to her walking a dog in the park. Cut to him shooting hoops at the gym. Then cut to her teaching preschoolers or something. Cut to him sitting in his apartment typing her 555 number into his phone, but he can’t bring himself to hit the “Call” button. He’s probably listening to Boyz II Men too. Meanwhile, she’s staring at her old corded phone on her bedside table wondering if it’s going to ring or not. And it doesn’t. Because he won’t call. It hurts too much.

And that is what we have here. That is this Sam Smith album in a nutshell. This album is angsty and melancholy and emotional and whiney…

…and it never resolves anything.

From start to finish of In the Lonely Hour – from “Money on my Mind” to “Lay Me Down” – Smith pours out his soul. It’s vulnerable. It’s gut-wrenching. It takes some serious guts to bare your soul so publicly, and admire Smith’s openness and honesty on this album. Bravo on stepping out with authenticity and boldness. Unfortunately, this album just doesn’t go anywhere. It starts bleak and ends in bleak. It’s flat. One dimensional.

As many of you know, I spend my weekends sitting in seminary classes discussing God, Church, Scripture, etc. I’m currently in a class on Worship – what is it? how do we do and why? – and part of what we have been learning is how a worship gathering is constructed. What is the goal of each element in the order of events and how does it move/lead the worshiper from normal life and into something that transcends the normal? Do the elements of worship – songs, prayers, sacraments, sermons, etc. – take the congregation somewhere religious/spiritual?

I often look for a similar movement in music: does an album move or lead the listener into something that transcends their norm? Do the songs progress and take the listener on a journey somewhere?

Good albums do this well. Past “Album of the Year” winners have done this well. Last year’s Random Access Memories by Daft Punk does this. Adele’s 21 – the 2012 winner – does this. Arcade Fire did this in 2011. Taylor Swift did this in 2010. OutKast did this with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. Norah Jones did this in 2003.

D’Angelo’s Black Messiah does this, which is one of the bazillion reasons it will win everything in 2015.

Fellow AOTY nominees Beck and Beyoncé and Pharrell do this.

But In the Lonely Hour does not do this. It’s deep and emotional, sure. But that’s kind of it. It never goes anywhere. It’s one long plateau of emotion and it gets old really quick. Drop the needle at any moment on this record and you’re going to hear basically the same thing.

That said, Sam Smith has quite the pipes. His range is incredible. He’s got the range of Whitney Houston and the emotion of Norah Jones. The only gripe I have on his voice is that it sounds like he has a perpetual glottal bubble. I just want him to clear his throat or swallow.

It’s hard to find tracks that are favorites among an album that doesn’t really go anywhere. Most have the same feel to them. I guess I’ll just highlight the ones that are most popular and move along.

These are the top tracks from In the Lonely Hour

Stay with Me Sam would rather hold hands than have a one night stand, but mostly because he’s the most emotional being on the planet. This is a real heartbreaker…and so are all the others.

Lay Me Down The last song on the album. It’s basically the same song as “Stay with Me” lyrically. More heartbreak. More desire to lay next to someone. Work through your emotions, please. ZzzzZZzzz.

Money on my Mind – This is the first track on the album and probably the high point for me. It’s fun and snappy. Meh sings about doing music for the love of it…he’s not in it for the money. I could say the same thing about youth ministry.

I’m Not the Only One Wah-wahhhh. Sam knows he’s not the only one his lover (who is a dude, by the way) is with. But rather than tell it to his face, he’d rather just let it eat him up inside and sing a song about it.

***

So where does In the Lonely Hour rank among the other four albums up for the top Grammy? Probably in lower half. Beyoncé and Beck are the top options. Pharrell’s album is very strong but people won’t look past the success and annoyance of “Happy.” Ed Sheeran is fun and poppy, but gets old quick – plus I’m not into the slow stuff at all. It’s all subjective at some point, but Sam Smith probably slides in between Pharrell and Ed. I’d put him last.

Don’t get me wrong – Sam Smith is talented, has a wild voice and puts out good music, which is why it’s up for Album of the Year. Just not my jam.

Looking forward to the Grammy’s on Sunday night. Hope these posts come in handy for at least one person when the big night gets here.

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

Shuffle Lessons, Volume 3.

It’s been a long time since I posted a Shuffle Lessons. My last SL post came on August 18, 2012 – back when I still wrote in lowercase letters and the Royals hadn’t made the playoffs in my lifetime. A few nights ago I got into a conversation about various artists from my teenage and college years – Green Day, Simple Plan, The Rocket Summer, Linkin Park to name a few – and I got a hankering to do a quick shuffle through my iTunes.

Plus I have a LOT of other writing to get done today, and things like this always provide a nice way to break through the writer’s block and get the blood flowing in the fingers a bit.

A refresher on how this works: I open iTunes, select my “Top 2000 Most Played” playlist, click “shuffle songs” and write a paragraph on the first five songs that come up. It’s very random, but with a few caveats. If another song off the same album comes up, I’m skipping it and going on to the next one. If the song provides nothing substantial out of context, I’m skipping it. Example: the track “The Library (Intro)” opens the new Childish Gambino album – It’s a 5 seconds long snippet of some spinning machinery…I’m not writing a paragraph about that despite it having 11 plays and breaking in near the bottom of my Top 2000 Most Plays playlist.

If you want to listen to the songs, the titles are all linked to each of them.

Okay. That’s all the caveats. I’m giving myself 20 minutes here so lets get started, shall we? Lettuce.

Say You Will – Kanye West

In the wake of his sample heavy and insanely popular third album, Graduation, Kanye’s mom passed away from a botched surgery and his long-time fiancé broke off their engagement. This was around 2008. We all wanted another installment of the academic-themed College Dropout/Late Registration/Graduation albums, but instead we got 808s and Heartbreaks – a stripped down emotional auto-tuned album that was mostly disappointing. I guess I should’ve expected Kanye to trek into new territory after he “graduated” from his first three works, but this was too different and not remotely revolutionary. Although, looking back on this album after Dark Fantasy and Yeezus makes me realize that 808s was simply a stepping stone toward what the sound would eventually become.

“Say You Will” is the opening track to the album. Subtle piano and choir-esque “ahhs” accompanies the “beep…boop” and drum cadence that loops throughout the track. The song is fine – a perfect example of what is to come on the album.

Related: I prefer this Dido/Kanye mashup of the song…

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? – Amy Winehouse

Continuing the “preceding album is one of my all-time favorites but this album was forced in another direction” theme with this one – Back to Black was one of my all-time favorites and a death caused the followup to drastically move in another direction. It was the death of Kanye’s mother that changed his direction, but the death between these albums was Amy’s own. I was on vacation in Europe in the summer of 2009 when I found out Amy Winehouse had died from drug use in Camdentown. I had been in Camdentown just two days earlier exploring the shops and pubs of the London neighborhood. It was shocking and breaks my heart still.

Thus, this track comes on her posthumous work, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. She had been recording and working on another album at the time of her death, but it’s obvious she didn’t have much work done on it because this album feels far from complete. The album is mostly covers and remixes of her old stuff with a couple new tracks. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” is a cover of a track by the same name by The Shirelles from 1961. Here’s that song…

It’s a good cover – true to the original, so nothing really earth-shatteringly special. But it’s still beautiful. “WYSLMT?” has horns and backup Dreamgirls-esque vocals. I just love Amy’s voice. I can picture her in a smokey lounge sitting on a stool with a spotlight on her while she melts the hearts of everyone present. If only. RIP Amy.

Necromancer – Gnarls Barkley

Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo made a wonderful team their three years of making music – way too short. They put out two albums. I love them both.

In the past, I’ve asked myself this question: which Gnarls Barkley album do I like more, St. Elsewhere (2006) or The Odd Couple (2008)? St. Elsewhere has some of my favorite Gnarls tracks – “Crazy” and “Smiley Face” and “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” and “The Last Time” – but The Odd Couple is a better album from start to finish. It lacks the real stinkers that St. Elsewhere has. About 75% of the time I think I like The Odd Couple more. But then “Crazy” comes on and I get thrown back to the summer of 2006 and it’s St. Elsewhere instead.

“Necromancer” is one of those stinkers. Tracks 7-12 make up the desert portion of the album, and it’s track 12. Honestly, the only time I listen to this track is when I fail 6 consecutive times to skip these tracks and go straight to track 13, “Storm Coming.” The song features distorted static vocals with a ominous dark feel to them. There’s no chorus. Just a few verses with synth solos between verses. Danger Mouse really kills it with these solos, but they’re lost between Cee-Lo’s weird verses. Moving on.

Daria – Cake

“Man, why don’t I listen to more Cake?!” – me, this past Saturday morning when I woke up and listened to two and a half of their albums – Fashion Nugget (which this song comes from), Prolonging the Magic and some Pressure Chief since I didn’t have class.

John McCrae is the vocalist for Cake. I only know his name because Ben Folds announces him following McCrae’s backup vocals on the live album version of “Fred Jones, Part II.” As you probably know, his style is unlike anything else around. Is he singing, or is he just talking? Hard to say, but I really enjoy it.

I always assumed that “Daria” was about the MTV show by the same name – Daria was a spinoff of Beavis and Butthead, which I was never allowed to watch as a kid but nevertheless quoted at the lunch table with the kids who did. But upon further research I discovered that Daria first aired in 1997 and Fashion Nugget came out in 1996. Maybe they were singing about her before she had her own show. The show featured the Cake song a couple times though, so maybe MTV and Cake were in talks about it? I sure don’t know. Anyone out there have the answer to this conundrum?

This isn’t my favorite song on the album, but only because Fashion Nugget is so strong. It’s good fun just like the rest of Cake’s stuff though. Big fan of Cake.

Pusher Love Girl – Justin Timberlake

Rounding out this Shuffle Lesson is the ultimate Vacation Track – the strings that open “Pusher Love Girl” and the entire 20/20 Experience immediately transport me to a boat in the middle of the Miami intercostal waterway. I just can’t help it. The memories this song triggers are just way too strong.

Justin is singing about Mary Camden (aka Jessica Biel, his wife) being his drug that takes makes him “so high [he’s] on the ceiling, babe” and “all [he] want[s] is [her].” The strings guide this song along with Justin’s falsetto, backup horns and a snappy cadence that immediately forces a strange and uncontrolled response of weightless arms. It’s light and airy and somehow the arms just start floating away from the sides of my body. Is it a dance? Hard to say. Again, I can’t help it. This song just gets into my bloodstream like Jessica gets into Justin’s.

I will say – this song is three minutes too long. Justin loves his extended tracks these days and this song just goes on and on about being a “junkie” for her love. I can do without part two of this track.

But now I’m turning off this vacation track so I can be productive. This was fun. On to writing some papers and some book.

-apc.

Beyoncé – Beyoncé

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Look. This is Beyoncé’s world and we ought to just be thankful we get to breathe the same air she does. Beyoncé – the album and the artist – is going to win Album of the Year, and it’s not really close.

First thing I need to bring up about this album is it’s release. Sometime in the middle of the night on December 13, 2013, it just appeared on iTunes. There was no build up. No pre-release single. No rumors or leaks. One moment it wasn’t there, and then the next moment it was. After 3 days, 800 thousand people had downloaded the album. In 10 days: 1.3 million downloads.

Apparently writing and recording had begun as far back as 2012. It’s a visual album, with 14 songs and 17 videos, and the collaborator list extends to something like 50+ individuals – from big names like Pharrell, Drake, Sia and Justin Timberlake to relatively unknown names like Boots, who produced the bulk of the tracks. And obviously her husband, Jay-Z.

How is it even possible for 50 different people to stay completely silent on the project for well over a year?! How does no one say anything for that long?! What kind of power must an individual possess in order to keep a group that large so silent for so long?

Somehow, Beyonce has risen to that level of power. This is NOT the girl from Destiny’s Child. This is not even Sasha Fierce. This is NOT the leotard wearing, hand waving diva from Single Ladies. She and her husband have managed to transcend all others on this planet. I have no hesitation in dubbing them the most powerful couple in the world.

I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking, then, to imagine that Queen Bey is capable of such a release. It really sparks the conspiracy theorist in me – what sort of power are we dealing with when it comes to Beyonce? Does she know whether the Apollo 11 mission actually landed on the moon? Does she know the truth behind the Denver Airport construction conspiracy? I mean, in the same year that her husband released an album with “Holy Grail” in the title, Beyonce manages to sneak a complete visual album on to the internet without anyone noticing or anyone saying a word? This is some serious Illuminati ish, if you ask me.

I mean? Who is she even competing with for Queen at this point? Taylor Swift? Lady Gaga? Next to Bey, these two seem off-brand. At one point on the album, Bey tells us all to “bow down, bitches,” and we basically respond, “yeah, sure…I mean, yes, ma’am.”

But here’s the other thing about the surprise release: it only worked because this album was so daggum good.

“But Adam, it’s dirty! Have you listened to the lyrics? It’s like super sexual and dark and graphic in places.”

Isn’t it though?! Yep, this isn’t the Beyonce we’re all familiar with. This Beyonce is deeper and darker and harsher than ever before. This isn’t Bootylicious or Jumpin’ Jumpin’. This isn’t Irreplaceable or even Crazy in Love. This album is hot and heavy and borderline voyeuristic in spots. This album gives us a peak inside Beyoncé’s marriage that we probably shouldn’t be allowed to see.

Beyonce is trying to say something about marriage. In a culture where the sanctity of marriage is rare, the divorce rate is skyrocketing and promiscuity is borderline applauded, suddenly there’s Beyonce and Jay-Z. She’s telling us that marriage can be ultra sexy and desirable. Sex isn’t only attractive when it’s promiscuous – marriage can be steamy too. This isn’t a message we receive often in our culture.

It’s actually refreshing to listen to an album and know exactly who the artist is singing about. When she sings about how she’s “Drunk in Love” and the last thing she remembers is “our beautiful bodies grinding up in that club” – you know exactly who she’s dancing with. Jay-Z is the focus of every love interest-focused lyric. It’s an interesting twist we don’t see often in music these days. This is like John Lennon and Yoko Ono only instead of breaking up the Beatles they basically rule the entire planet.

But its not just about Bey and Jay – it’s also about motherhood. The last track on the album is called “Blue” after her daughter and future destroyer of worlds, Blue Ivy Carter. Blue undoubtedly has achieved genetic superiority over the rest of mankind. (It’s also been rumored that Beyonce is pregnant with #2. Or, should I say, they’ve hired another surrogate for round two.) Blue even gets her first vocal spot at the end of the album: “Hold on to me! Hold on!” Beyonce is positioning herself as a wife and mother – and one with all sorts of power.

This whole album exudes power. There’s even a track titled “Superpower” with Frank Ocean (naturally, my favorite track on the album since I’m a sucker for anything Frank does). It’s a feminist album. Women are powerful, and Beyonce the most powerful of them all.

Flawless” incorporates a spoken feminist speech from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that questions how we have taught women to view themselves – as lesser, smaller, less powerful and less free to be sexual and ambitious as men. There’s no mistaking the agenda here. Beyonce ought to be applauded for her willingness to unabashedly fight for how her gender is represented. The album reframes multiple aspects of womanhood – marriage and kids, sure, but power and influence and sexuality too.

The album took a risk and moved Beyonce away from being a poppy, Top 40 artist and toward the heart of the hip-hop/rap genre.

The tracks are occasionally disjointed – longer tracks, seemingly two song in one at times – and there are a half dozen jarring moments into audio clips of musical competitions from Beyoncé’s childhood or paparazzi crowds. The tracks are structured in completely different ways. It’s tough to find a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure on this album. “Haunted” – for example – incorporates multiple movements: an intro audio clip, an opening verse and a spoken section all lead up to the actual track which doesn’t really begin until 3 minutes into the song. It’s a journey from movement to movement rather than a typical pop album from track to track. The exceptions are “XO” and “Drunk in Love” – the first two singles for the album – which are probably the most well known tracks but the ones I’m the least jazzed about.

Let’s take a quick track-by-track look at the album and wrap this thing up…

Pretty Hurts – Written by Sia. It’s a song about beauty and self worth. Not my favorite. Also, I can’t stand that the open to the whole album is some guy asking Beyonce (aka Miss Third Ward) what her aspiration in life is at some beauty pagent. Meh.

Haunted Already mentioned the structure of this song, but it’s one of my favorites. Eerie and ominous.

Drunk in Love – Surfbort.

Blow – An upbeat Pharrell and JT track. It’s basically the same lyrical content as Justin Timberlake’s “Strawberry Bubblegum” and just as awkward in spots.

No Angel – Least favorite song on the album. I usually skip it. It’s the only one I can say that about. Lots of breathy vocals from Bey. Just not a fan.

Partition – The most explicit track on the album, hands down. Things get hot in the back of a limo and “we ain’t even gonna make it to this club.” The intro percussion was conceived by JT.

Jealous – Interesting conflict in the marriage conversation. The wife is home cooking dinner for her man in the buff…”so where the hell you at!?” But seriously, Beyonce gets jealous? Doubtful.

Rocket – Oooooo a slow jam?!? Smooth and sultry. Beyonce has even said it reminds her of D’Angelo’s “Untitled.”

Mine – This song features Drake. I’m not a big Drake fan, but this song is beautiful. “I just wanna say, you’re mine all mine” the chorus croons.

XO – The single. If this was all you heard off this album, you might think this is the same ole Beyonce.

Flawless – The feminist track. Coined the phrase “I woke up like this.”

Superpower – In a world starved for more Frank Ocean, this track feels like a Godsend. Amazing how similar their voices are – nailing the insanely low end of the register but able to go high too. I’m praying for a new Frank Ocean album in 2015.

Heaven – A song about death?! Woah. Sad and dark, but freeing at the same time.

Blue – A song for and about her daughter, Blue. But don’t be fooled by the sappy subject matter – this song is legit.

There you go. The album that I believe is a no brainer for Album of the Year. And deservedly so. When someone inevitably makes some comment about how the Grammys just give awards to the biggest names, I’ll be here to remind you that the biggest names are huge for a reason.

This album is insane, and deserves any award it receives.

My Top Tracks: Superpower, Haunted, Flawless, Mine

-apc.

The other albums up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

Morning Phase – Beck

81coqLBpCWL._SL1400_Beck is up for Album of the Year at the Grammys? File that one under, “didn’t even know he made an album in 2014.”

My scope for Beck is admittedly narrow. I know his biggest hits – namely “Loser” and “Where It’s At” – as well as anyone, but the rest of his catalogue is basically foreign. I know two of his albums, really: I got into Guero (the songs “E-Pro” and “Girl” specifically) back in college for a few months, and his fifth studio album, Odelay, is more of a word I’ve heard before than an album I’ve listened to at all. Overall, I’d say I’m clued into about 4% of the music Beck has put out. Why so low? Mostly because his discography includes TWELVE STUDIO ALBUMS. He’s putting out music like he’s U2, only instead of forcing it upon anybody with an iTunes account, he never told anyone.

It’s pretty amazing a guy who was worried about becoming a one-hit-wonder back in the early 90’s has suddenly had three different albums nominated at the Grammys for Album of the Year (Odelay, 1997; Midnite Vultures, 2001; Morning Phase, 2015). Beck keeps making music and it keeps getting critically high praise.

Beck’s real name is Bek Hansen. He was born Bek Campbell but his parents divorced and he took his mom’s name. He dropped out of school after 8th grade. At 19 he moved to New York with a guitar and eight dollars. He was basically homeless on both coasts for many years, living on friends couches that he met in NYC. His transient upbringing led to a variety of influences. Sometimes he would play gigs at bars or coffee shops and people wouldn’t really be paying attention so he’d start making up ridiculous lyrics to see if anyone would notice.

Beck wrote “Loser” as a goofy side project that he didn’t really think much of. When he moved back to LA it got released as a single and blew up on the radio. Still essentially homeless, he thought it was a mediocre song, but suddenly record companies were in a crazy bidding war over him. He signed with Greffen Records which basically just told him to do whatever he wanted – probably why he picked them over others.

I can’t figure out who Beck really is. I get the vibe he’s an anxious songwriter who fears getting labeled as…anything really, but especially a one-hit-wonder. It seems like any time Beck begins to get pigeon-holed as some sort of genre or “type” of artist, he pushes back and becomes anti-that. His time in New York found him heavily involved in the anti-folk movement, and he seems to have adopted the “anti-” mindset all the time.

Name a music genre and I bet he’s associated with it. Most of the awards he has won or been nominated for are in the “alternative” or “rock” categories – which basically means nothing anymore – but he sites hip-hop as a major influence as well as Latin music. Both are likely due to the neighborhoods where he grew up in poorer areas of LA. He’s electronica. He’s folk. He’s anti-folk. He’s funk, and soul, and blues. He studied R. Kelly (insert Trapped in the Closet reference here) and his R&B style. Pitchfork said his album Midnight Vultures “wonderfully blends Prince, Talking Heads, Paul’s Boutique [by the Beastie Boys], ‘Shake your Bon-Bon’ [by Ricky Martin], and Mathlete.”

Beck seems to have much higher standards for himself than the rest of the public does for him. He thought Loser was average, but the public loved it. He writes dozens of songs and then scraps them all and only uses 1 for the final record. There’s a story of Beck writing something like 40 songs, recording them on to cassettes and then leaving a briefcase full of said cassettes backstage at a show and losing them forever. Seemingly every record is a hodgepodge of old songs he’s recorded that he throws together when he feels it’s time to release more content. It’s like he’s Apple or something – he has everything everyone wants already locked and loaded, it’s just a matter of the rest of the world reaching the point where they’re asking for it.

All that to say, Beck’s all over the place. His transformation album to album is insane. Even back to back releases are can be night and day. His last album, Modern Guilt was produced by Danger Mouse (!!!) and sounds like it was produced by Danger Mouse. It’s funky and electronic. It’ll make you bump and groove.

That was 2008 and it’s been 6 years. So I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Morning Phase for a listen and a review. Only 29 more days til Grammy night. Gotta toughen up.

But wait – this isn’t the quirky, all-over-the-place Beck I was expecting. This is mellow. Chill. Subdued. This album is more like Iron and Wine or Sigur Ros or Guster than it is any of those bands Pitchfork mentioned back in 1999. Morning Phase is deep strings and sustained piano chords. It doesn’t jump around like Beck’s early records do, this one is cohesive throughout. It’s easy listening – an acoustic record you might put on after you wake up while you work on a sudoku or read the sports page and sip on coffee – especially if the temperature is in the single digits. It feels like a sunrise over a chilly pasture. I bet the directors of Pride and Prejudice wish they could go back in time and use this album for that juicy emotional scene when Darcy tells Elizabeth that his affections have not changed. (“You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I luh…I luff…“)

Apparently the foundational tracks for Morning Phase were written in 2005 – that’s nearly a decade ago, by the way – but Beck tabled them until 2012 when he began to expand on “Blackbird Chain” and “Country Down” (featuring a harmonica solo) and “Waking Light” which hold down the back half of the album, the latter coming at the end. Interesting that the songs that drive the whole album would end up on the B-Side. Here’s “Waking Light” the song that concludes the record…

Beck kinda looks like Michael Cera.

It’s hard to pick out other favorite tracks off an album that is so solid from start to finish (I’m having the same problem with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah too – love em all). I suppose “Blue Moon” is the single for a reason, so I should probably share it next.

It’s a sad and melancholy album, but there’s no denying that this album is beautiful and deserves to be nominated for a Grammy. If history has anything to say about it, Beck will probably lose out to a more mainstream album (read: Beyonce), but should take home other categorial honors instead. Morning Phase is up for Best Rock Album, Song and Performance (for “Blue Moon”) against the likes of Ryan Adams, Jack White, The Black Keys and Utoo.

If I were voting, I’d pick it for Best Rock Album of the year and give Song/Performance to Ryan Adams/Jack White for “Gimme Something Good” and “Lazaretto.” This album ought to be critiqued as a unit and not as an individual song. Blue Moon is nice, but the entire 47 minute album is where its at (see what i did there?).

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

Christmas Board Games, 2010-2014. This year’s purchase: Camel Up.

Does anyone else buy Christmas gifts for themselves?

No? Nobody?

Well, I do. That way even if everyone else really bombs the gift giving, I still have the gifts I got myself to fall back on. It’s foolproof. It’s never resorted to that though, so instead I just get some bonus gifts for myself.

Typically these gifts come in two forms: baseball cards in my own stocking and board games.

I’m just now realizing this, but 2014 will mark the 5th consecutive year of buying myself a board game for Christmas. I always write our cats names on the To/From tags as if they’re not actually gifts “To: Adam, From: Adam” – but the jig is up, and even the cats probably know the truth by now.

I thought I’d share the past 5 years worth of board games with you all. They’ve actually all been a hit up to this point. Maybe this tradition will continue and I’ll post a new game every December. Who knows. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Here are the 5 board games I’ve picked up over the past 5 years dating back to 2010.

***

2010: Ticket to Ride – Europe

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Ticket to Ride is an game of railroad expansion. It’s probably the most well known game on this list – I had already played the United States version prior to this purchase. If you’ve only played the US version – you gotta grab the Europe version. It’s way more difficult and has a few extra quirks thrown in that make the game more interesting.

Each player gets cards with a few destination routes on them and the goal is to complete as many routes/railroads as possible. You get more points for the degree of difficulty in the route. For example, if your two route goals are London to Paris and Constantinople to Edinburgh, you’re goal is to create a rail path that connects those cities. Obviously, London to Paris is not a long trek, so it’s easily accomplished, but you don’t get many points for it. Constantinople to Edinburgh is corner to corner across Europe, so it would be one of the most rewarding routs to complete.

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The catch is that opponents are utilizing the same routes and once someone plays in a location, you can’t go there anymore, so being strategic, secretive and methodical is important if you want to keep your opponent from blocking your routes.

The wrinkles in this game that make it different from the U.S. version: there are tunnels and depots to make the game a bit more difficult. Tunnels are harder to build than normal rails and require more of a risk/reward if you can pull one off. They’ll get you there faster, but if the cards don’t fall your way it could set you back a turn. Depots are necessary in the European version – since the continent and cities are way more compact, the game allows you to build up to three depots so you can utilize opponents rails to reach your destinations.

Overall, it’s a more cutthroat version of the United States game as it’s much more difficult to maneuver around the tighter terrain. It’s a fun strategic game that is relatively simple for anyone to figure out. A game lasts about 45 minutes too, so it’s the perfect length to get involved without people getting bored. Great family game. I’d recommend it for anyone.

2011: Wits and Wagers

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We play this game nearly every time we go to my parents house for an evening. It’s a party trivia game – super simple, somewhat educational and a game where winning or losing doesn’t feel super important.

Each full game lasts 7 rounds. Each round centers around a different trivia question, and every question has a numerical answer. Examples: How many Grammys did Kanye West’s debut album, “The College Dropout” win? Or, How many total hours did the Apollo 11 mission spend on the moon? Or, How many rat tails are in minkerfoils? Or, What year did Babe Ruth allegedly “call his shot” before hitting a home run at Wrigley Field?

I’m just spitballing here though. These may or may not be real questions.

Players have tiny dry erase boards to write their guesses to each question. These answers don’t have to be remotely correct, they simply become the boundaries for the betting round that follows. Answers are spread across the game mat from smallest to largest number as seen here.

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Then players have an opportunity to bet on which of the players answers is closest to the correct answer without going over (a.k.a. The Price Is Right wagering). Players each begin with two betting tokens and can increase their bets by 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, etc. – each round they can bet on either 1 or 2 different answers and can risk as many of their chips as they want.

This game is all about smart betting based off educated guesses. Older players likely have an advantage in this game as they have a greater bank of facts and years in their brains, but that can also work to their detriment when they think they know the right answer rather than betting the right answer.

For example, the answer to the Babe Ruth question above is the year 1932. People generally know that I know a lot about baseball, so they might intentionally bet on my answer or around it even though they have no idea who Babe Ruth was. In fact, they might even guess “1999” and be no where close, but simply follow my guessing or betting.

I might intentionally write “1970” on the card as a way of duping my opponent into betting the wrong place, even though I know that’s not even close to being correct. Individuals who know more than others at the table about a question sometimes get so caught up in knowing the answer that they forget that isn’t how the game is won. You don’t get any points for guessing the number correctly, your only reward comes from successful betting.

It’s a super fun multigenerational game to play together as a family. The questions are diverse and level the playing field for the group. Extremely fun game. Lasts about 15-20 minutes total and playing multiple games in a sitting is totally an option.

2012: Alhambra

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I first learned what the Alhambra was when my wife got to visit the real one when she studied abroad in Granada, Spain, in the summer of 2007. Well, she wasn’t my wife yet, but I was really hoping she’d want to be someday. I’ve since gotten to go back with her on two separate occasions. Just writing that paragraph gives me the itch to go back and visit again.

The Alhambra was in the voting for one of the modern wonders of the world. It’s a Moorish defense castle located in the Sierra Nevada mountains in southeastern Spain. It’s a gorgeous structure with detailed intricate architecture, fountains and (my personal favorite) enormous hedges.

This game is a bit of an anomaly on the list because I actually bought this as a gift for my wife as much as myself. We are both super nostalgic when it comes southern Spain and when I discovered this game and read it’s overwhelming positive reviews, I was really excited to get it.

In the game, each player builds their own “Alhambra” by drawing money cards of four different currencies and paying for tiles corresponding to that currency. Tiles are then constructed in front of each individuals by placing the tiles adjacent to one another. Some tiles have gardens on them, others have turrets or fountains or ornate hallways. Points are awarded for the most tiles of each color-coded category and to the player with the longest exterior wall.

Alhambra - finished game

It’s not a super complicated game. Individuals with heightened spacial recognition excel at this game. It has less strategy than some similar games – Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride are likely more strategic than this one. It’s a strategy game for those people who don’t love strategy games – takes about 45 minutes to an hour. Plus, when you’ve actually been to the real thing, it’s fun to get to imagine yourself strolling the halls of the Alhambra you’ve created.

2013: Puerto Rico

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This is the most strategic and complicated game on this list. The premise of Puerto Rico is that each player is a governor of San Juan, settling and developing the city by growing commodities – corn, wheat, coffee, etc. – and shipping the goods off to Europe for building supplies to further your development.

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I imagine this game as a zoomed in version of Settlers of Catan, actually. Rather than simply picking up cards on the corresponding spaces, each commodity must be purchased, grown, loaded and shipped in order to receive any further development. If products aren’t shipped out in time, they go bad and you lose them.

I’ve probably played this game a half dozen times in the year that I’ve owned it. It’s rare that it gets pulled out though because it’s a bit too meticulous for me. It’s about an 60-75 minute game. It’s still super fun, but I think I’d rather play something a bit more simplified – board games are fun, but at a certain point they start getting too technical and lose their excitement. This game flirts with that edge. Still, if you’re a Ben “Cones of Dunshire” Wyatt type, then this is your game.

2014: Camel Up

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Presenting the 2014 Christmas Board Game: Camel Up (which, my wife tells me looks like “Camel Cup” on the front of the box).

Camel Up is basically a trip to the racetrack. Five camels begin in the starting block together and move (slowly) around the perimeter of the board space by space. Players then win or lose the game by betting on these camels throughout the game.

Each camel has a color-corresponding die. The dice are placed inside the pyramid which then serves as a pseudo-Yahtzee cup, only this pyramid is rigged up to only let out one die at a time. Whatever die is rolled, that corresponding camel moves forward that many spaces. When all 5 dice are rolled, the betting round ends, money is won or lost, and the dice return to the pyramid for the next round.

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Players can bet on which camel is in first place after each betting round, but they can also place bets on the overall winning and overall losing camel at any point in the race. Whoever gets their bet in fastest (and is correct) gets the most money paid out. Whoever has the most cheese at the end wins.

The best part about this game: if the camels end up on the same tile, they are placed on the back of the camel that is already there. So it’s possible for all 5 camels to be stacked on top of one another on the same tile. If, for example, the yellow camel is the second from the bottom of the stack and the yellow die is rolled form the pyramid, the player would then pick up the yellow camel and all the camels on top of it. This means a camel is never out of the race. A last place camel could end up on the back of another camel and just ride it out to victory.

For example, in the game board image above, if the white die rolls a 3 or a 2 and then any of the orange/yellow/green dice rolls combine for at least 2, suddenly the white camel has plunged from last to first. In fact, if the right sequence happens (white 2, orange 2, blue 3, yellow 3, green 3) the white camel can move a combined THIRTEEN spaces and cross the finish line on that turn.*

* – Just noticed that the white die has already been rolled and that camel is done moving for this leg, so scratch that, but you get what I mean. Anything is possible.

I will say – and this is unabashedly juvenile of me – it’s a little awkward when one camel is “riding” the other camel. I’ll just let that comment stay right there.

As this game is brand new, I’m excited to work it into the board game repertoire. From everything I’ve read and the one time I’ve played it, I think it’s going to be a real hit.

It’s somewhat strategic, but with a lot of luck involved. However, unlike the bad luck you can experience in Settlers or Monopoly or Risk, this game doesn’t force you to hate your life while you sit there and fail at the expense of the dice. No, regardless of your status in the game, there is always a decent chance the camel you bet on will win it all, and the action doesn’t end until a camel has officially crossed the finish line. Plus, games only last about 30 min, so losing goes much faster (not that i would know…zing).

Rooting for the camels is hilarious. The drama builds with each leg as the camels get closer to the finish. Highly, highly recommend this game.

***

So there you have it. The Christmas Board Games I’ve picked up for myself from 2010-2014. I’m open to suggestions for 2015 and beyond. I have mostly made these decisions based on internet research and awards won, and I’ve done a pretty good job of picking them so far. None of them are busts, and a somewhat wide spectrum of gameplay involved.

Let me know if you want more information or want to get together and play. I love a good old fashioned board game night – although, Monopoly and Settlers of Catan are hard to trump for me.

-apc.

x – Ed Sheeran

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I’m not a musician.

I took piano lessons for something like eight or ten years when I was a kid. I started when I was 7 and quit sometime in high school. I never learned how to read sheet music without counting “Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine,” so at a certain point (high school) the music got too difficult to play by ear. I don’t have many regrets in life, but dropping the piano instead of finding a jazz piano teacher who can teach playing by ear could be considered a regret. Maybe there’s still time. Life after seminary.

Today, I can play most piano chords – C, F#, D7, Asus2, G, Emaj7, etc. – throw it at me and I can look at the keys and play it. I understand chord progressions. I can sit down at a piano and play through most any song as long as I’m given the chord progression. I can even figure out the melody if I’ve listened to a song enough times. But I’m not a musician, and I don’t review albums as if I am.

I do, however, know how to groove.

I like percussion, cadence, chord progressions, samples and lyrical flow among other things. Strings are gorgeous. Gimme a dirty bassline (see: “Don’t” on this album) and I can’t get enough. The tone of an artist’s voice is more important to me than what they’re singing about. I don’t care much for actual lyrical content – songwriting is impressive and creative, absolutely, but for some reason my ear doesn’t hear the words themselves. I don’t know the words to some of my all time favorite songs.

When I listen to music, my mind is not tuned into the meaning or language in songs. I’m in it to experience the groove. I feel music more than I listen to it.

Friends who know me well will respond: “Whatever. You know all the words to all the songs we listened to on that road trip we went on that one time.” True. And some artists are easy for me to actually hear and internalize lyrical content – hip hop, boy bands, pretty much anything I digested between 1998 and 2004 – these are exceptions. When I take in an album for the first time (Ed Sheeran’s x, for example) I don’t hear the words themselves as much as I hear their sound and flow (both areas where Ed excels greatly).

I say all this to make sure we’re all on the same page for where these album reviews come from: I am a consumer. My angle is not remotely “expert” on anything besides my own personal experience of music.

If you’re purely a consumer like me, then these reviews are for you.

Disclaimer over. On to the review.

***

It’s pronounced “multiply,” which is an extremely annoying album title, but follows up nicely to Ed Sheeran’s debut album + (pronounced “plus”) which is equally goofy.

But that’s pretty much where my negativity ends with this album. Ed Sheeran is fantastic. x is predominantly acoustic guitar centered with strong percussion/piano parts, but what truly drives the sound Ed Sheeran’s work is his vocal cadence. He’s quick and clever with his flow. His crooning quickly gets into my shoulders and neck area and gets me bobbing around.

The only song I really knew off this album prior to my first listen this week was “Sing,” and I was already a big fan. It came across Justin Timbelake-ish. It’s the high range vocals that do it – every time he goes up, he sounds like JT. Turns out, that track is produced by Pharrell Williams and while I was doing some research I literally read, “Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified, was a favourite of Sheeran’s, which he consciously tried to channel for ‘Sing,'” on Wikipedia. Well, boom. Talk about stroking my listening ego.

Take a listen here…(warning: video contains puppets)…

Caveat here: Sheeran wanted to keep “Sing” off the album and work more exclusively with Pharrell and put it on a future album. It’s the only Pharrell track on the album, so it’s naturally one of my favorites. But let’s be honest: if Ed puts out a full album with Skateboard P he’ll win multiple Grammys. You heard it here first. We’ll revisit it in a couple or three years. #Grammys2017?

Also, I’m not sure everyone realizes just how impressive Pharrell Williams is. I mentioned this in my review of G I R L earlier this year, but everything the dude touches turns to gold. But this isn’t a Pharrell post, so moving on.

This album keeps me bringing me back to Adele. Not necessarily in the sound, but in the content. This whole album is about Sheeran’s heart being broken and drinking/drugging his sorrows away. He’s not happy with this chick, and it’s entirely to our benefit. I’ve often thought if Adele falls in love and gets married we’re going to lose out on a lot of quality music. I might feel the same way here. Nobody wants to hear cute love songs (okay some people do, but I don’t) – we want tales of heartbreak and anger and frustration. WE want songs that get under our skin and make us feel something strong. That’s how Ed is like Adele – okay, they’re both British too.

Sheeran clearly has a bent toward self-medication. The entire focus of “Bloodstream” is feeling the chemicals kicking in as he tries to recover from broken heart. Those are his words, not mine. He mentions drinking away his sadness in multiple songs – which ALWAYS reminds me of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Elton and Jamie Foxx get the most mentions on how Ed Sheeran hit it big. Now I’m picturing the three of them hanging out at the booth from Horrible Bosses drinking cider – Elton and Ed on one side of the booth and Motherf*cker Jones drinking from a straw on the other. I digress.

While the core of the album is groovy and fast-paced, “One” is an odd choice for an opener upon first take. It’s directed toward the same love interest from +, which feels opposite from the rest of the album. However, it makes sense when partnered with track 2, “I’m a Mess.” By opening the album with love, it actually manages to pull the listener into the heartbreak deeper. Ed’s like, “here’s this love that I had, and now I’m going tell you how I jacked everything up and now I’m broken hearted.” And I’m like, “thanks, but no thanks, Ed. I wish I’d never met this girl so I wouldn’t have to feel your heartbreak as much.” It’s better for it though. “One” is a cute lead track that I’m sure the sentimental ladies really swoon over.

Apparently “One” was the first track recorded too, which makes me believe the track layout is less about the ebb and flow of the album as much as mirroring the story of Ed Sheeran’s own life. I wonder…is the track list simply in order of when he wrote them? Hmmm.

I should also mention this nugget: Ed Sheeran can rap. “The Man” and “Take It Back” are both straight rap. Don’t let his lyrics convince you otherwise: “I’m not a rapper/I’m a singer with a flow,” he says in the latter track. Malarky, I say. This is acoustic rap and it’s so good. It is a bit strange to hear someone with an English accent rapping – just different. The sound has a subtle enough difference that it sounds like something fresh and new.

There’s a balance between up-tempo grooves and stripped down acoustic ballads here. I’m a huge fan of the former and kinda meh about the latter – shocker, I know. Overall, it’s a very strong album. Henceforth, I’ll proudly claim to be an Ed Sheeran fan.

Top Tracks (no particular order):
– Sing
– Take it Back
– The Man
– Don’t
– Bloodstream

x is up for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2015 Grammys. His competition for AOTY: Beyonce, Sam Smith, Pharrell and Beck. His competition for BPVA: Coldplay, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Sam Smith.

As of this post, I think he’s the front runner for BPVA, but will lose out to Queen Bey in AOTY.

One last thing before I go: I’m planning reviews for all 5 albums up for Album of the Year. Potentially more than that if I really get into this. You can find the other links here (will update links as posts are released).

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

-apc.

G I R L – Pharrell Williams

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Note: I wrote this track by track review prior to knowing it would be nominated for Album of the Year. So this may not follow the same pattern as the other 4 posts in this Grammys series.

There at least three possible arguments for why I completely missed on this album two months ago.

The first is the typical excuse: I was too busy and wasn’t paying attention to music enough in the wake of Grammy season and was focusing more on class, my book project and my impending pilgrimage to Burma. This sounds good, but it’s mostly just an excuse.

Second, where was the promotion for this album?! I never heard anything about it – heck, Billboard announced it’s release date less than two weeks before it dropped on March 3. It seems like it blindsided the whole industry: “Happy” was majorly circulated with Despicable Me 2 coming out in the fall, and his heavy collaborations with Daft Punk on R.A.M. and with Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke/T.I. on “Blurred Lines” didn’t really leave the possibility for a solo record. Besides, last time he put out any solo work – In My Mind, in 2006 – it didn’t necessarily dominate my iTunes.

The third reason is the most interesting. About two years ago, I started wondering if N*E*R*D – Pharrell’s band along with The Neptunes co-producer Chad Hugo and Shay Haley – would put out a new record to follow up their disappointing Nothing from 2010.

So I set up a Google Alert for any news on N*E*R*D’s new record.

I got weekly updates for about a year, but nothing substantial on the record front. Then, in 2013, I finally started seeing some stuff circulating about how they were working on a new record, but that it wouldn’t be released for a while because of Pharrell’s side work. I guess I just assumed that if N*E*R*D wasn’t putting out something new anytime soon, then Pharrell certainly wouldn’t put out something on his own. Just didn’t compute.

Then in late March someone, I forget who, asked me what I thought of Pharrell’s new album that I didn’t even know existed at that point. And then I got caught up in my excuses again and forgot to download it.

All that to say – and it’s a lot, in retrospect – I finally picked up the album last week and haven’t stopped to listen to anything else. All last week on The West Coast, this was my jam.

It’s been referred to as a “pseudo-feminist” concept album, seemingly in response to his affiliation with the controversial “Blurred Lines” performance from the 2013 VMAs. It’s clear that he wanted to rebrand himself as…something else.

These days, it seems like anything Pharrell touches turns to gold. “Blurred Lines” was huge. I don’t think I’ve spent a day anywhere in this country over the past month without hearing “Happy” two or three times. And “Get Lucky” was the hugest of them all taking home top Grammy nods this year on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

And yet, I did not expect this solo album to be as good as it is. Here’s a track by track look at G I R L.

1. Marilyn Monroe

First of all, Hans Zimmer did all the strings on this album, and this one is the stringiest there is. A gorgeous orchestral arrangement opens the album and is coupled with some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riffs a la “Get Lucky”. The track opens the feminist theme, questioning why he would ever want to lose the girl that even Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra or Joan of Arc can compare to.

2. Brand New (Duet with Justin Timberlake)

One of the perks of completely missing on an album is that you don’t build up any expectation for should-be killer collaborations. This track is a little cheesy, especially the bridge, but I guess that’s what we should expect from a song about how a woman makes a man a better person – a “brand new” man, if you will. And a little Timbaland beatbox intro really, because JT can’t go anywhere without him apparently. Also, did you know: Pharrell and Timbaland were friends as kids?

3. Hunter

Not my favorite track, which is surprising because it has a heavy N*E*R*D sound to it. Goofy lyrics. Simple looped guitar riff. The occasional heavy breathing in the background. It’s Pharrell doing his best impression of himself sans Hugo and Haley.

4. Gush

A transition song, but a strong one. Sure, Pharrell wants to respect and not abuse the woman that makes him better, but that doesn’t mean he’s doesn’t want to get a little dirty. The chorus here is strong. Zimmer returns with the orchestra.

5. Happy (From “Despicable Me 2”)

We all know this song. Not really necessary to write about it other than to say that it’s a super fun doo-wop that I still catch myself snapping my fingers along with. But c’mon man. Track 5? This song startles me every time I’m listening to the album. I skip it about 75% of the time.

6. Come Get It Bae (Feat. Miley Cyrus)

This song has the feel of a group drumming on 5 gallon plastic buckets on a street corner. Lots of claps. A hint of strings and guitar. But mostly a stomp-style groove. This song is all about riding a motorcycle. But it’s a metaphor, you guys. Surprisingly, I actually like what Miley adds to this song – although, the “hey!” that runs throughout the song gets really old really fast.

7. Gust of Wind (Feat. Daft Punk)

Not shocking, but this is in the conversation for my favorite track. Marilyn Monroe is the front runner, but this one is right there too. Those robot vocoder voices are just so mesmerizing. I can’t help myself.

8. Lost Queen

The album takes a turn here. This song feels like it should be the last track. It brings us back to the “taking care of you is my number one thing” theme. Tribal hums and bongos drums give the first half of this song a raw human quality, and it’s reflected in the lyrics. Earth is so messed up, but this “Lost Queen” is so perfect it has to be from some other planet. This track is 8 minutes long. The middle minute is nothing but the sound of crashing waves. The second half feels like we’ve moved off Earth and into outer space. Probably Pharrell trying to communicate where this woman takes him.

9. Know Who You Are (Duet with Alicia Keys)

Alicia Keys!? Woah. This feels surprising for some reason. They seem to be from different edges of the hip hop spectrum for some reason. Pharrell gets me moving and pumps me up. Alicia’s voice just melts everything. It’s a decent song, but I can’t get over that dichotomy when I listen to it.

10. It Girl

This song is a short lyrical wrap up with an extended outro to close the album. It also has one of the best moments on the album when Pharrell takes his voice as high as it’ll go – so high that I don’t really know what he says. It’s a song with a bunch of nautical terms in relation to how this “It Girl” just does it for Pharrell: seasick without her, she’s got his compass spinnin’, her waves crash over him and and her tide pulls him in. It’s a metaphor, you guys.

Overall, it’s a very strong album, and Pharrell’s gold-touch apparently works with his solo stuff too. He even makes that goofy Arby’s hat look good.

Side note: I’ve been told on two separate occasions that I look like Pharrell. I don’t see it, but maybe you do.

Another side note: nearly all these track titles would make terrific horse names for next year’s Kentucky Derby.

Top Tracks: Marilyn Monroe, Gust of Wind, Gush

-apc.

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

2014 Kentucky Derby Cooper Family Live Draft

THE TRADITION

I think it all started 20 years ago.

The earliest memory I have of the Kentucky Derby is 1994. I was 8 years old, and I remember my dad making a big deal out of some horse called “Holy Bull” that was supposed to be the favorite that year. Holy Bull had won nearly every race to that point, and he entered the race at 2-1 odds – he was a certainty to win the Run for the Roses.

He finished embarrassingly in 12th place.

The next year, 1995, was probably the year that cemented the Kentucky Derby as a pseudo-holiday in the Cooper Family. That year, there wasn’t a “Holy Bull” type of favorite. Instead there were a handful of potential contenders, one of which was Thunder Gulch. I’m not sure if we picked horses or not in 1995, but as the horses turned the corner into the home stretch, I remember freaking out that Thunder Gulch was in the lead and pulling away.

“…and it’s THUNDER GULCH!!”

It was the last 10 seconds of the fastest two minutes in sports, the part when the announcer went crazy over Thunder Gulch, that’s probably what launched this Cooper Family tradition. Those two horses – Holy Bull and Thunder Gulch – have continued to live on in our family as staples for trash talking to this day.

“You’re picking California Chrome at number 1 overall? Mistake. He’s guaranteed to be the new Holy Bull.”

“I’m going with We Miss Artie. Can’t wait to hear his name being screamed as he pulls away down the final furlong like…Thunder Gulch!!”

These days, most of us don’t even realize the Kentucky Derby is coming up until it’s practically the day of the race. And then we frantically throw our names in a hat to determine the picking order, find the list of contenders, and make our choices with little or no information about any of the horses, jockeys, past races, owners or trainers. All we really see is the name, the odds, the gate position, and maybe a single sentence blurb in the newspaper or kentuckyderby.com.

If I’m totally honest, it’s a complete joke, really. We don’t really care about horse racing. But trash talking seems to be a family love language, so it’s one of my favorite events of the year. Don’t be fooled by my opinions, picks or comments in this blog. I know nothing about horse racing. But I know a lot about trivial trash talking.

THE FAMILY DRAFT ORDER

All the horses are picked each year, so the selecting simply cycles back through in reverse order to the beginning. Names are then re-picked to pick the remaining horses left after the first cycle through the picking order. Typically there are only a couple of these left, and they’re always the “also-rans” and it has no impact on the picking.

Okay. Time to introduce the family members and the picking order…

Picks 1 & 18: Karlie, my wife
Picks 2 & 17: Grandpa Jack, my mom’s dad
Picks 3 & 16: Holly, my younger sister
Picks 4 & 15: Quinten, my brother-in-law
Picks 5 & 14: Aunt Virginia, my mom’s older sister
Picks 6 & 13: APC
Picks 7 & 12: Anna, my youngest sister
Picks 8 & 11 & 19: Janice, my mom*
Picks 9 & 10: Greg, my dad

* – Randomly selected as the recipient of the final Pick 19.

I’m not thrilled about my picking placement this year. Barring a bizarre selection by those before me, the 6th pick takes me out of the running for one of the favorites (California Chrome, Wicked Strong, Danza, Intense Holiday).

However, the bright side is that the difference between pick 6 and 13 isn’t very different – I’ll end up with two horses with odds between 15-1 and 20-1 probably – which means I’ll have two good-not-great horses running this year. Unlike Karlie or Grandpa who will be putting all their stake in their first pick, I at least will end up with another horse who isn’t a guaranteed also-ran.

Assuming things fall as I’d expect them to fall, here’s who I’m targeting going into the draft…

Pick #6 Targets: Samraat, Wildcat Red, Ride on Curlin.

Pick #13 Targets: Medal Count, Dance with Fate, General A Rod, Vicar’s in Trouble.

…but who knows what will happen before me, and who knows if I’ll have a last minute change of heart when my pick comes up.

Okay, let’s to this. Commencing draft in 3…2…1….

THE DRAFT

Pick #1: California Chrome (Karlie)

The obvious first pick overall coming in at 2-1 odds. The clear favorite. Possibly another Holy Bull? Hope so. Otherwise this is a snoozer Derby Draft. Also, I have Paul Simon stuck in my head.

Pick #2: Chitzu (Grandpa Jack)

I could feel a wild card pick coming here, and I wasn’t disappointed. From everything I’ve read about Chitzu (which is tons) he sounds like a real loser. Grandpa takes a gamble. A pick of the heart.

Pick #3: Wicked Strong (Holly)

This is the horse I actually think will win. Tough position coming out of the farthest gate from the rail. Also, killer uniform with the diagonal red stripe across the chest.

Pick #4: Danza (Q)

Named after Tony Danza. No thanks. He’s starting right next to California Chrome out of the gate too, which makes me think one of the two will take the edge and the other will get pinned. Plus…Danza.

Pick #5: Candy Boy (Aunt VA)

Worst named horse ever. This could’ve fallen to #13 and I wouldn’t have picked him. Glad to get him off the list of names I have to stare at.

Pick #6: Samraat (APC)

My pick is still Samraat even though Intense Holiday fell to me.  The name means “emperor” in Sanskrit, so basically the rest of the horses have no chance. Honestly, I just like Samraat picking up the space after Kodachrome and Tony Danza take too much time jockeying against each other to the inside.

Pick #7: Wildcat Red (Anna)

I might have picked this horse, but my sister is a student at K-State right now, so I had a feeling she wanted it the pick after mine. You can have it Anna.

Pick #8: Intense Holiday (Mom)

What a miracle that a horse with 9-1 odds fell all the way to #8. However, he’s going to be starting out of Gate 17, and no horse has ever won the Derby from that position.

Pick #9: Tapiture (Dad)

Dumb name, but awesome uniforms: maroon with a white circle. So fresh.

Pick #10: General A Rod (Dad)

Some people are picking A-Rod to win the whole thing, but that seems like a dream to me. Clearly, my dad has been researching the “expert picks” and bought into the hype. Could’ve had two way better horses with his back-to-back picks than the two he ended up with, in my opinion.

Pick #11: Vicar’s In Trouble (Mom)

I really wanted Vicar’s. He’s a pace horse. With the scratch of two horses, they’ve shifted back starting gates one position outward. With two complete clods in the next two positions (Uncle Sigh & Harry’s Holiday), I think he’ll have a seamless break and pace the group. Maybe with no early competition he can hold the pace the whole way?

Pick #12: Vinceremos (Anna)

Terrible pick, but Anna is a sucker for Spanish names.

Pick #13: Medal Count (APC)

It was between Medal Count, Dance with Fate and Ride On Curlin here. But I can’t stand Calvin Borel, who is super whiney and obnoxious and is riding Ride On Curlin. And Medal Count is wearing my favorite number, 14, so duh.

Pick #14: Uncle Sigh (Aunt VA)

Should get pinched between California Chrome/Danza on one side and Vicar’s In Trouble on the other. With no speed, he has no chance.

Pick #15: We Miss Artie (Q)

Goofy name. Lovable, yet no shot at the Roses.

Pick #16: Dance With Fate (Holly)

This is a great pick here. Would’ve been fine with DWF instead of Medal Count. I think Holly had the best pair of horses this year for sure.

Pick #17: Ride On Curlin (Grandpa Jack)

You can have Calvin Borel, Grandpa. Also, your pick #17 was better than your pick #2.

Pick #18: Commanding Curve (Karlie) 

Better than Harry’s Holiday. Picking up the spoils, but having California Chrome is enough clout in this race to still be the favorite to win this year.

Pick #19: Harry’s Holiday

See “Uncle Sigh” only waaay worse.

The picks are in! The 140th Kentucky Derby runs at 5:24 PM CST on NBC. Check back later for the update with the results!

Here we go Samraat & Medal Count. Do it good fellas.

THE RESULTS: COMING SOON

UPDATE: Well. It was a snoozer of a Derby after all, and California Chrome won by a significant margin in the end. Sigh. So the winner this year was Karlie.

In more surprising news, however, Karlie’s backup horse, Commanding Curve, finished strong and passed both Danza (3rd) and Wicked Strong (4th) in the final stretch and ended second.

My horses…did okay, I guess.

Samraat looked strong and was positioned well entering the stretch – he was neck and neck with California Chrome – but couldn’t maintain the pace. He finished 5th.

Medal Count finished 8th. About as good as I could’ve picked with the options available to me.

But ultimately, the contest was over the moment Karlie’s name was drawn for the #1 pick. California Chrome looked as strong as he could’ve…could he win the Triple Crown?!

-apc.

Top 11 NES Games, Part V: and the winner is…

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Previous installments in this probably-too-long Top NES Games series: Part IPart IIPart III and Part IV.

It’s a miracle. We actually made it to #1 on my Top 11 NES Games list. Let’s get to this thing before I decide to draw this out to a Part VI somehow.

And the winner is…

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1. Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!

Before I do anything here, I need to address two major character pieces.

First, the referee in the game has a mustache and wears a hat. clearly the individual on the cover is an impostor. We all know the ref was really Mario.

Second, and I want to be clear about this, Mike Tyson as the final challenger is infinitely better than the other version of this game simply titled “Punchout!!” where Mr. Dream is the final opponent. Mr. Dream was created after Tyson’s contract expired with Nintendo in 1990. Take a look at the difference between these two:

punch_out__mike_tyson_vs__mr__dream_by_pudgemountain-d60w490

Same guy. Same moves. Same shorts and shoes. Slightly adjusted head.

A lot of people think Nintendo dropped Tyson after he was convicted of raping a girl and going to jail. In actuality, Nintendo made the decision to move on before his career turned south. Turned out to be a smart move.

Mr. Dream was a pathetic representation of the original.

But Mike Tyson was real. He was fierce. And he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. And I could beat him.

Well, not really me. It was actually Little Mac. But Little Mac might as well have been named Bobby Teenager from Anytown, USA. He looked like a little kid taking on hulkingly huge adults. He was basically a representation of boys everywhere.

But you weren’t alone. You had Doc Louis in your corner too. Growing up, I always thought Doc looked nearly identical to Carl Winslow from Family Matters, but I nowadays he’s morphed into Stanley Hudson from The Office. As far as I can tell, Doc has two primary giftings: encouragement and bicycle riding.

Encouragement: In between fighting rounds, you would take a break in your corner and a short exchange of dialogue would take place between Mac and Doc. For example, Doc might say…

“Stick and move, Mac! Stick and move!”

“Listen Mac! Dodge his punch, then counterpunch!”*

“Join the Nintendo fun club today, Mac!”**

* – This was, in short, the goal against every opponent you faced. Wait for their attack, dodge out of the way, then come back with a barrage of punches while they’re stunned.

** – A crummy commercial!?

This exchange was immediately followed by some sort of taunting comment from the opponent. A few of my favorites…

Soda Popinski: “I can’t drive, so I’m gonna walk all over you.”

Bald Bull: “My barber didn’t know when to quit, do you?”

Don Flamenco: “Hey! Mr. Referee Mario I like your hair!”

It’s a little comedic relief as you rest your fingers from the previous round.

But it was Doc’s other gift that was my favorite: bicycle riding.

In between bouts, Mac would throw on a pink sweatsuit and train with Doc by running behind his bike along the NYC waterfront skyline. The profile perspectives isn’t doing Doc any favors, but the camera adds some pounds so we’ll assume he’s in better shape than he appears.

Here’s a clip. It’s tough to see, but the music is what’s most important here. It’s soft, so you kinda have to crank the audio to hear it well.*

* – By the way, this was shot in my own attic and that is my TV with my games selection and systems. And my AT-AT model.

And right now I would like to pause and quickly make an appeal to all the hip-hop producers of the world. Why haven’t any of you turned this song into a sample yet?! This has some unreal potential, and it is just sitting waiting to be utilized by some genius out there. Someone, please, I’ve been waiting for so long.

Little Mac starts at the bottom and works his way up to Tyson. He travels through 3 championship bouts – Minor, Major, and World – before going up against Mike in the final contest. The opponents are embarrassingly lame at the beginning, but get progressively harder. Here they are in order…

glass-joe_punch-out_pictureboxart_160wGlass Joe – One time I tried to beat Glass Joe with my eyes closed. It was a cake walk. I’m certain that a baby could stick the NES controller in their mouth and beat Joe with ease. His all-time record is 1-99.

von-kaiser_punch-out_pictureboxart_160wVon Kaiser – This is the first actual opponent because Glass Joe is impossible to lose to. This German is aggressive, but once he misses he’s way too easy. Also, you can pull a star punch* on him whenever you want.

* – Forgot to mention that there are really only five different ways to punch in this game: left and right jab to the stomach, left and right to the face, and the “star” punch. Occasionally you could sneak in a punch that would reward you with a star, that you could use by hitting the “Start” button for maximum impact. 

piston-honda_pictureboxart_160wPiston Honda – The Minor Championship Bout opponent. He’s from Tokyo. He was a pretty straight forward opponent. Every once in a while he would step back and do a little two-step before charging at you with a hard punch sequence. A quick jab to the stomach usually took him right down though. Every “special” move always had it’s weak spot.

don-flamenco_punch-out_pictureboxart_160wDon Flamenco – Just wait for him to throw his mega uppercut once. Dodge it, then as long as you alternated uppercuts – left, right, left, right, left, right… – you could just keep punching him until he fell down. I can beat Don repeatedly in about 42 seconds.

But he comes back. And he’s way harder the next time.

d30ea859f21abe3f18383306d861b96d1390647147_largeKing Hippo – He’s fat and he can’t keep his shorts up. Punch his open mouth before he swings at you and his pants will fall down. While he’s trying to cover up his tight whiteys*, just keep punching him. The thing about Hippo – he was so fat, he couldn’t get up after you knocked him down. KO every time.

* – Okay, if he beat you though, he would raise both hands in celebration and his unders would fall down too, but his stomach was so big you couldn’t “see anything”. Hilarious though for a kid growing up.

great-tiger_punch-out_pictureboxart_160wGreat Tiger – It was about here when the game started getting hard for me as a kid. Great Tiger was basically a genie, and he had this magical move where he would squat down, disappear. and then quickly fly around the ring and punch you a bunch of consecutive times. But, if you could block/dodge this barrage, it would stun him and you could take him down with one punch.

bald-bull_punch-out_pictureboxart_160wBald Bull – The Major Championship Bout opponent. He’s about 3 times taller than Little Mac, and infinitely uglier. But don’t let his size intimidate you, because he’s not very challenging. But his punches were strong. He would do his “bull charge” and try to fly at you from across the ring and knock you down. Just like Piston Honda though, a quick jab to the gut brought him down easy.

Piston Honda – The rematch. He’s faster and quicker and has a new move where he ducks down and surprises you with a major uppercut blast. Still not a difficult opponent though.

soda-poprinski-160boxart_160wSoda Popinski – In the original version of the game he was going to be “Vodka Drunkinski”. He’s pale a ripped and supposed to be from Russia or Poland or something. He has the best taunts in between rounds. He’s a tough opponent and I used to get stuck on him as an elementary schooler.

Bald Bull – The rematch. You couldn’t knock him down the traditional way. Only by using star punches or taking him out during his “bull charge”. If his health meter goes all the way down, it will just keep replenishing itself just a little bit until he goes down one of those two ways. Much harder to defeat.

Don Flamenco – The rematch. He’s WAY better than last time. Instead of just his mega uppercut, he’s got a left jab that comes in awkwardly at times and surprises you, and he’s got a right hook that is easy to dodge but is a strange change of pace. He’ll also sometimes just STAND THERE and wait for you to punch him and block you until you’re too tired to fight back. Really frustrating character at this point of the game. Might have flipped him the bird once or twice.

mr-sandman_punch-out_pictureboxart_160wMr. Sandman – Okay this is where the game takes a serious difficult turn. The final few opponents are really difficult to beat. Sandman has the same height and punches as Bald Bull only he is extremely fast and it’s tough to get out of the way of his upper cuts. When you’re a kid, getting to Sandman is basically like beating the game.

super-macho-man_pictureboxart_160wSuper Macho Man – For a long time I just assumed that Mike Tyson was the next opponent after Sandman as the World Champ battle. This is the character we all know the least about because he’s the one you play the least. Once you get to Tyson once, you can copy down the code to get back to him whenever you want.

Macho man has a right hook and an insane spinning uppercut. I think he’s actually easier to beat than Mr. Sandman as long as you can time his spinning move. Once you beat him, write down the code and you can then speed past all these other guys and go right to Tyson. The code is…

007 373 5963

…it takes some effort to remember my childhood phone number, but this code is an immediate regurgitation. If I ever get a serious head injury, you’ll know I have long-term amnesia if I can’t remember this. It’s been cemented in my mind since I was 8.

200px-MT_Punch-Out_mike_tysonMike Tyson – The first 1:30 is the hardest of this fight. If Tyson connects with a single jab, you’re down for the count – which is just cruel at this point in the game. You’ve worked your butt off to get past Don Part Deux, Sandman and Macho Man, and now just one tiny mistake is a knock down? Harsh.

Tyson is the quickest there is and the strongest too. Tou have next to no time to react to his movement, but if you can somehow survive the first wave, you’ve got a shot.

After that, it still only takes about 3 punches from Tyson to get knocked down. His combination of power and speed makes him so hard. I actually think I’ve only beaten him a couple times in my life. Maybe only once, and I might even be making that up.

This game is the perfect combination of challenge, humor, speed and fun. Some of the opponents are embarrassingly easy to beat once you know their weaknesses, but others are insanely tough and require serious focus and practice to take them down.

Let’s recap the entire list one more time. The Top 11 including the expansion to Top 20 from last week.

20. Duck Hunt
19. Mega Man II
18. Kid Icarus
17. Blades of Steel
16. Paperboy
15. Metroid
14. Track & Field
13. Kirby’s Adventure
12. The Legend of Zelda
11. Marble Madness

10. Tecmo Bowl
9. Contra
8. RC Pro-Am
7. Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels
6. Excitebike
5. TMNT 2: The Arcade Game
4. Super Mario Bros. 3
3. RBI Baseball
2. RBI Baseball 3
1. Mike Tyson’s Punchout!!

This was fun guys. Now that I’m finished, let me know – which games did I leave out that should be on the list somewhere? Which games baffle you the most?

Thanks for reading along. Game over.

-apc.

Top 11 NES Games, Part IV (12-20)

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This is part four in this series. Be sure to check out Part I, Part II and Part III.

This is NOT the final post in this blog series.

Before I reveal what my #1 NES game of all time is, I want to mention a few other games that were in the running but just missed the Top 11. We’ll call them honorable mentions.* I don’t want to make it seem like I’m just blindly jilting a number of well-deserving NES games.

This will also serve as a preventative measure for those of you who will hate my stinkin’ guts for not listing my favorites the way you think I should.

* – On a personal note, this phrase makes me shudder due to all the white ribbons I would “win” at the science fair and other elementary school competitions when they didn’t declare losers, just non-winners, or “honorable mentions”.

The reason I originally broke the list up after #11 was because it was a clean break between the games I played all the time as a kid, and the ones I didn’t play quite as much.

They’re all fantastic, and any of these could be in my Top 10 if I’d had a different childhood. I wish I could go back and revisit all of these games as a kid and project a fair assessment of them all, but the nostalgia isn’t there on these as they are on the rest of my list. Especially with #12.

So let’s list the honorable mentions. Here are the games that would round out the Top 20 of my list. I guess I’ll go ahead and list them in the order they’d be in too…

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20. Duck Hunt

What was more fun than pulling out the Zapper and pointing it at the tube? And what was more frustrating than that moronic giggling dog?

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19. Mega Man II

This game takes place in an unknown year: 200X. Which, unfortunately, has passed us by without the arrival of world saving battle robots.

Kid_Icarus_NES_box_art

18. Kid Icarus

Greek mythology rules, but this game is really really hard. Yet I played it for hours and never made it past the 4th or 5th level. Life’s weird, man.

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17. Blades of Steel

One time I came to school in 8th grade bragging about how good I was at this game. Then I went over to my friends house and we played Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey for Nintendo 64 for about 93 hours straight and I never played BOS again.

7a8c398c1fa9b8d23a06f517d04b4e03-Paperboy

16. Paperboy

Awkward perspective and disorienting angles, but still a super fun game. Paperboy proves that you can turn literally any simple concept into an NES game.

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15. Metroid

One of the classic endings to a game ever: Samus is a girl?! WHAT?! I feel like this must have had the same impact as Vader revealing himself to be Luke’s father. Bafflingly awesome.

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14. Track & Field

Break out the Power Pad. This game was (and still is) a blast to play with friends. Bring some towels though because you’re bound to get super sweaty.

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13. Kirby’s Adventure

Okay this game is a blast. It also has possibly the best graphics of any NES game. In fact, it plays like more of a SEGA game than an NES game. This game doesn’t hold a special place in my heart like the others do, but it is undeniably one of the best overall.

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12. The Legend of Zelda

What?! It’s not in the Top 11?!

I know, I know. Feel free to start casting stones. Ultimately this missed the cut for two reasons: First, I don’t have the time to spend hours trekking the 8-bit Hyrule world. I need games that I can play for 15-20 minutes and be done. I’ve never had the patience to conquer a game like The Legend of Zelda. And secondly, I didn’t play this game nearly enough as a kid. It doesn’t hold the nostalgia that these other games do.

That gold cartridge though. Gorgeous.

I feel bad about this one, you guys. Really I do. I just couldn’t justify it for myself. But like Kirby, it just doesn’t have that place in my heart. If you’re really bent up about it, you should write your own post and I’ll link to it here.

So here’s the updated overall listing…

20. Duck Hunt
19. Mega Man II
18. Kid Icarus
17. Blades of Steel
16. Paperboy
15. Metroid
14. Track & Field
13. Kirby’s Adventure
12. The Legend of Zelda
11. Marble Madness

10. Tecmo Bowl
9. Contra
8. RC Pro-Am
7. Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels
6. Excitebike
5. TMNT 2: The Arcade Game
4. Super Mario Bros. 3
3. RBI Baseball
2. RBI Baseball 3
1. ???

Have a great Valentine’s Day weekend everyone, and stay tuned for #1. Any more guesses?

-apc.

Continue on to Part V in this series.

Top 11 NES Games, Part III (2-3)

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We are coming down to the wire! I’m counting down my Top 11 favorite Nintendo Entertainment System games. This is the third installment of my the series. Here are Part I (7-11) and II (4-6).

Here’s where we left off…

11. Marble Madness
10. Tecmo Bowl
9. Contra
8. RC Pro-Am
7. Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels
6. Excitebike
5. TMNT 2: The Arcade Game
4. Super Mario Bros. 3
3.
2. 
1. 

These two games are the reason this list is my Top 11 games and not just Top 10. In retrospect, I probably should have prepared you all for ten games and then slipped in a combo-bonus game at this point.

Oh well. Can’t do anything about it now.

Let’s keep the countdown going with number 3…

3. RBI Baseball

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Oh c’mon. You didn’t really think I’d get through this list and not include this one, did you? Really?

There were a lot of baseball games for the NES – Baseball Stars, Legends of the Diamond, Baseball, Bases Loaded, Baseball Simulator 1.000, Bo Jackson Baseball*, Major League Baseball, Tecmo Baseball – but in my opinion the RBI Baseball series takes the crown for a few different reasons.

* – Shockingly, this is the only one I just listed that I haven’t played and that I do not own. One of my two favorite players has his own baseball video game and I don’t own it. Embarrassing.

The most obvious reason: real MLB player names.

RBI Baseball got the rights to use actual player names and their skill sets (more on that in a minute), but they didn’t get the rights to the MLB logos and team names, so the 10 available teams are known only by their city and not their team name.

There are 8 division winners from 1986 and 1987. Amazingly, there were no repeat teams between those years, which in the 80’s happened way more often than it ever would today. With only two teams making it from each league, along with the much less outrageous payroll disparity (ranging from $9 (Astros) to $19M (Yankees) compared to the $24 (Marlins) to $254 (Dodgers) last year). In fact, between 1980 and 1990, only 4 teams made it back to the League Championship Series after making it the year before:

  • 80-81 Yankees
  • 84-85 Royals
  • 88-89 Athletics
  • 89-90 Athletics

The fact that the Royals are on that list tells you just how dominant they were once upon a time. Sad to think they haven’t made the playoffs since.

But anyway. I digress.

The 1986 and 1987 divisional winners were…

86: California, Boston, Houston, New York*
87: Minnesota, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco

* – Mets. Not Yankees. Took me about 15 years before I figured that out. Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden make it even more confusing since they played on both NY teams.

And you got their actual rosters from those years too. Eight starters, four pitchers (2 starters and 2 relievers), and four bench players.

And with the addition of player names comes all sorts of emotion, frustration, excitement and anger that just didn’t exist before. Suddenly the players feel real.*

* – At some point I’m going to write a review on one of my favorite books I read this past year: The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The main character (Henry) creates an imaginary baseball league and gets attached to the players and starts picking favorites, essentially God with the game results. Not coincidentally, his initials are JHWH – the Hebrew spelling of Yahweh/God. It’s silly, but deeply theological…but that’s not what this blog is about. It’ll definitely make it into my book.

With actual rosters you could play as your favorite players. Plus, with the AL and NL All-Star teams, you could play as George Brett, Fernando Valenzuela, Mark McGuire, Don Mattingly, Tim Raines and other players that weren’t on postseason teams.

This also meant that certain player skill sets were better than others just like they were in real life. Abilities you could count on.

For example, Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens threw the hardest, but Valenzuela had the best movement on his pitches.

Vince Coleman was by far the fastest. In fact, I don’t think it is possible to catch him stealing second base, and it was very difficult to catch him stealing third. If Coleman got a lead off hit, it was basically a run scored. If you play the speed game, St. Louis is the way to go, because otherwise they don’t have any strengths. Raines was a close second, but playing as the AL/NL teams is cheap.

The real powerhouses in the game are Detroit, Boston and California. In that order. Here’s how I’d rank the 8 division winners in the game…

  1. Detroit
  2. Boston
  3. California
  4. St. Louis
  5. New York
  6. San Francisco
  7. Minnesota
  8. Houston

Detroit has by far the best lineup: Trammell, Gibson, Evans, Nokes, Herndon, Lemon, Whitaker and Brookens are all capable of going yard. Boston and California both have decent lineups – CA might have the edge with Reggie Jackson – but not as good top to bottom as Detroit’s. And Boston has Clemens pitching, so they get the edge over California for 2nd.

The next five are debatable. I’m biased on St. Louis, of course. New York has a decent lineup anchored by Daryl Strawberry’s big bat, but otherwise they’re average. Houston is by far the worst. Even with Nolan Ryan pitching, they’re terrible. I’d love to know how they ever made the NLCS in ’86.*

* – Here’s a fun fact: I was born in Houston in 1986, and the first game I ever went to was as a newborn in the Astrodome. My dad could probably fill me in on how those ’86 Astros did it.

The final reason why this game is terrific: you could actually feel the ball off the bat and know which way it was going to go with your fielders.

As the screen switched from batter view to field view, there was a half second pause where you could actually feel like you knew where the ball was going to go. Contact off the bat was true to the physics of the situation. If a lefty was behind on an outside pitch, it was headed to third base. If a righty was behind on an outside pitch, it was headed to first base.

Just like in actual baseball, playing the right angles to the ball was crucial. Know which fielder should take the ball off the bat. Call for it in your mind. Taking the wrong angle or going with the wrong player could be the difference between a fly out and a triple in this game.

One compliant: Every player was white and fat. Willie McGee and Rick Reuschel, while both equally hideous men – i mean, woof! – could not look any more different. And yet, RBI Baseball makes them identical twins. C’mon now.

Also, it should be mentioned that playing this game against the computer barely counts as playing it at all. The computer makes tiny huge mistakes.

For example, when I would play as St. Louis, I would single with Vince Coleman, and then steal second and third. Then I could bunt with the next two batters and the computer, afraid that Coleman was going to bolt home if the throw went to first, would toss it to the catcher and just wait as the batter legged out a stand up double.

After I’d bunted the bases loaded, Jack Clark would hit a bomb and the score was quickly 4-0.

Also, if you were pitching, you could stand on the far edge of the rubber and throw a curveball across to the other side of home plate and the computer would swing at it every time. And every time it’d be three straight whiffs. If three straight lefty/lefty or righty/righty match ups came up in an inning, I could quickly strike out the side.

It was the best baseball video game at the time. But then they went and made it even better with…

2. RBI Baseball 3

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Reasons why RBI Baseball 3 is better than the original:

  1. You could play as all 30 MLB rosters (1990) plus all the division winners from 1983-1989…
  2. …which means you get way more players (including Bo Jackson & Ken Griffey, Jr.).
  3. You could dive/jump for the ball with your fielders.
  4. Homeruns and stellar defensive plays showed instant replays.
  5. Players weren’t chubby anymore (but they were all still white).
  6. You could play a whole season with a single team.
  7. Expanded benches and bullpens meant more strategy every game.
  8. Complete statistics from the actual season, not just AVG & HR.

There are so many different teams to choose from – 56 of them – I don’t really even know where to start, so I’ll simply list my favorite teams to play with.

1985 Kansas City Royals
– Gotta play with the champs

1990 Kansas City Royals
– Bo Jackson
– Bo Jackson
– Bo Jackson

1989 Oakland Athletics
– Rickey Henderson leading off
– Canseco/McGwire just destroy the ball
– Possibly the best team in the game

1990 Montreal Expos
– What might have been if there’s no strike in 1991?
– Tim Raines is so fast
– National Anthem = Oh, Canada

1987 St. Louis Cardinals
– One of my favorite teams ever
– Better than the original RBI Baseball Roster
– Jose Oquendo

1990 Seattle Mariners
– Ken Griffey, Jr.

These teams probably weren’t the best in the game (well, besides Oakland, which I literally just said was “probably the best team in the game”), but they were the most fun to play as. I especially liked bringing in Marquis Grissom off the bench to pinch hit late in the game for the Expos.

Poor Expos. They don’t deserve to be in D.C. today.

Welp, there you have it. The list is down to the last spot – the Best NES Game Ever. Lots of good options out there – stay tuned and comment with your pick for what you think #1 should be.

11. Marble Madness
10. Tecmo Bowl
9. Contra
8. RC Pro-Am
7. Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels
6. Excitebike
5. TMNT 2: The Arcade Game
4. Super Mario Bros. 3
3. RBI Baseball
2. RBI Baseball 3
1. ???

-apc.

Check out Part IV of this series.

Top 11 NES Games, Part II (4-6)

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.07.37 PMIf you missed the first post in this series, Part 1 (7-11), you should read that as well. This is Part II (4-6).

Here’s where we left off…

11. Marble Madness
10. Tecmo Bowl
9. Contra

8. RC Pro-Am
7. Mario Bros 2: The Lost Levels
6.
5.
4.
3.
2.
1.

Today we fill in #’s 4-6. Let’s get on with the list starting with…

6. Excitebike

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Most underrated NES game? It is in my opinion.

Excitebike has three modes: solo race, with computer racers and Design Mode where you get to create your own racetrack, which in 1985 was pretty much unprecedented in video games up until that point. And it was awesome, but it was always just a matter of time until I just started creating back to back ramps to go launching through the whole level.

Excitebike was one of the first games I ever owned, and it took me very little time to discover that the key to success was three-fold:

  1. Press as much of the B button as possible without overheating.
  2. Never, under any circumstances, run your front wheel into anyone else.
  3. Always match the angle of your wheels to the place you’re landing.

If you can consistently follow those three pointers, you are guaranteed to have success at Excitebike. The goal was to beat the clock and finish in the top three places. Levels got harder and harder. Not sure I ever actually beat this game.

The most fun thing to do in Excitebike was change up the competition to see how many CPU racers you could take out and still finish in the top 3.

Whenever you crashed, your bike and rider was thrown to the top of the track into the grassy area. Sometimes you’d land right next to the bike and could immediately hop back on and ride. But sometimes you’d get thrown way up into the grass and have to run back to your bike. As far as I could tell, it was totally arbitrary as to how far you’d get tossed. Super frustrating when you get tossed a long way.

5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game

TMNT2boxNES

This game got me through Couple Skates in elementary school.

The Skateland DJ would start playing “A Whole New World” from Aladdin or Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover”, and he would come over the intercom and announce to grab a partner’s hand for the next 3 minutes.

And I would bolt for The Arcade Game.

At first, I lost a lot of quarters playing TMNT, that is, until I learned the following sequence:

B A B A UP DOWN B A LEFT RIGHT B A START

…boom. Ten lives, and select level.

And suddenly my quarters became way more valuable.

You get to select your player – Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael or Leonardo. We used to argue about whether Leo and Don were better than Raph and Mike simply because their weapons could reach farther, but I’m pretty sure they’re all the same besides their bandanas. Actually the turtles were actually different colors of green too, but only in the cartoons.

In fact, now that I think about it, my favorite turtle is Donatello, and I wonder if you could trace it back to the fact that his bo staff is the longest weapon.

The game play was basically this: it’s a side scroller where Foot Soldiers repeatedly come out in pairs to attack you. If they were smart they’d all just come out at once and attack you together, but the Foot Soldiers are clearly stupid.

Every level had a different boss. Bebop. Rocksteady. A bunch of second-level Bad guys, and eventually Mr. Krang and Shredder himself. Shredder would split himself up over and over again so you wouldn’t know which one was the “real” Shredder. Super hard.

The best part about this game was the clever ways you could attack the Soldiers that were strategically placed along the levels. Tons of creative ways to kill them if you timed it right. A fire hydrant or a speed limit sign turned into allies.

And pizza heals you. Obviously.

4. Super Mario Bros. 3

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If you’d asked me 30 seconds ago what the “goal” of this game was, I’d have told you it was to save Princess Toadstool.

But then I went to the Wikipedia page just now to find out what year it came out and discovered that the actual point was this…

“Mario and Luigi embark on a mission on behalf of Princess Toadstool to stop Bowser and his children—the Koopalings—from terrorizing the kings of seven regions in the Mushroom World. The Koopalings stole the kings’ magic wands and transformed them into animals.”

That explains a lot. I always wondered who all those old dudes were at the end of every world.

The biggest change in this game: you could fly.

But what I never understood is this: How come a leaf is the token you pick up to fly? And then how come it transforms you into a raccoon? Because those don’t fly.

There were also whistles that took you to the Warp Zone via a tornado and you picked up those whistles (along with tons of other upgrades) and kept it on your menu bar until you needed to use it.

In level 1-3, you would squat down on a white block at the end of the level and it would take you behind the final screen to the first whistles. Then in the first mini-boss castle level, there was a secret place you could fly up to and get your second one. Then just get to World 3, and you could use them back to back to get to World 8: The Dark Land.

SMB3 is the best of the Mario franchise in my opinion. (Although, you could make an argument for Super Mario 64 and I wouldn’t really put up a fight.)

Let’s update the standings.

11. Marble Madness
10. Tecmo Bowl
9. Contra

8. RC Pro-Am
7. Mario Bros 2: The Lost Levels
6. Excitebike
5. TMNT II: The Arcade Game
4. Super Mario Bros. 3
3.
2.
1.

Again, please promise not to hang me until I’ve finished the list. There are still three left. Wonder which ones they will be?!?!

In the meantime…

Where did I get it right/wrong?
Which are your favorites?
What games are you hoping are in the Top 3?

-apc.

Continue on to Part III of this series.

Top 11 NES Games, Part 1 (7-11)

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Awwwww yeah. Let the NES nostalgia flow.

I grew up on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It has played a massive part of my life, and I still try to steal an hour or two each month to hone up on my skills. It’s important to stay fresh.

Today I have somewhere around 100 games. I’ve got the Power Pad with World Class Track Meet, the JoyStick, the Zapper and even a game called Dance Aerobics that I’m not certain how I acquired.

At first, this was just going to be a list of my Top 10 NES games. Then I realized I couldn’t cut off the list at 10, but that the first natural break was at 11. Then I decided I needed an explanation for #7, which meant I needed one for all of them. Then I realized this was way too long for just one post, so I’m splitting it into at least three (maybe four?)…we’ll see how this goes.

So let’s get started. Here are #7-11 of my Top 11 NES games ever. Ready? Break.

11. Marble Madness

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My grandparents only had one game to play at their house when I was a little kid, and it wasn’t this one. It was a giant green laundry bucket of wooden blocks and a couple small bouncy balls. I would spend hours constructing a track for the ball to go down. Then one year my parents got me Marble Works for christmas. It was awesome, but the creativity was limited to the different piece they gave you.

So when I finally got my Nintendo in the early 90s, it was probably a no-brainer for my parents to buy me Marble Madness to go with it.

This game only has 6 levels, and it’s fairly straight forward: you’re the marble, and your goal is to travel each level as quickly as possible before time runs out. Any extra time you have left over carries over to the next level adding up until you run out entirely.

Throw in a couple reverse-gravity levels and some M.C. Escher inspired physics and you’ve got a killer (albeit simple) game. Plus there’s a simultaneous multiplayer option, which always makes gaming life better.

10. Tecmo Bowl

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Two word: Bo Jackson. I think to this day I’ve only run one play in this game. I guess two if you count the kickoffs. Up+A Run. That was all you needed assuming you were the Raiders. Rumor has it that Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor and Randall Cunningham (aka Eagles QB) were pretty awesome in this game too. But I have no reference for that because I’ve only ever played as Bo.

This game sort of solidified Bo Jackson as a super hero. He is simply playing on another level. Tecmo Bowl was released in 1991 at the height of his stardom. The “Bo Knows” Nike campaign was out in full force. He was tearing it up in both the NFL and the MLB. He was invincible, and apparently someone in Japan decided to turn his abilities up an extra notch in this game.

Want to open up a massive argument among sports fans? Ask them who the greatest athlete of all time is/was. The correct answer is Bo Jackson, but people will try as best as possible to convince themselves otherwise. Then there’s always that one guy at the party that tries to bring up Michael Phelps because of his gold medals. Spare me the silliness, sir.*

* – Just this morning, @MLB Instagrammed a picture of Jameis Winston in a baseball uniform asking if he was the next Bo Jackson. One commenter brilliantly responded, “Bo Jackson would snap this guy over his knee.”

Regardless of your opinion in that argument, Bo Jackson will be remembered as the greatest NES football player to ever exist. And his immortality in this game simply added to his mystique and god-like status in our world.

I should probably mention that I’m not a major Tecmo Bowl geek like a lot of people are. Probably because football has never been as important to me as baseball. This game would be way higher up on the list if I had been a bigger NFL fan growing up. In fact, if it wasn’t for Bo Jackson, this game might not have even made my list.

9. Contra

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Is this game the reason Game Genie was invented? Because otherwise this game is impossible. I didn’t really like this game as a kid because it was so hard. But the Genie changed all that.

Contra is considered a “run and gun” game. Which means you have unlimited ammunition. Basically, if you’re not constantly firing your weapon then you’re not playing this game as well as you could. Better yet, you could pick up different types of weapons along the way: shotgun, machine gun, fireball spinning gun, and rapid fire. If you didn’t have one of these you were at an extreme disadvantage.

This game also had multiple level designs. Sometimes it was a side scroller, other times it was a 3D tunnel, other times it was a maze design. Pretty awesome stuff.

8. RC Pro-Am

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The perspective in this game was a little disorienting for a kid. It was from above at an angle and it followed your car around the track as it weaved back and forth through the level. This meant that at times you would be driving up, down, left or right, but no matter what your D-Pad turned appropriately, so if you were driving down, pressing Right turned you left. And if you were driving left, the Up key didn’t turn you right…the Right key did.

As a kid, I couldn’t figure it out. So I would sit on my dad’s lap and fire the weapons and drop the oil slicks.

The gameplay was fast and It got quickly frustrating, and every once in a while one of the other cars would make this “whoooooooop!” sound and out of no where start lapping everyone, which I always thought was unfair as a kid.

7. Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels

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Okay so this probably needs an explanation.

When Nintendo was originally going to release the follow-up to Mario Bros., they created this game and did a soft release in Japan to test it out on the public.

They hated it. It was WAY too hard.

So instead, they took some other game they were developing at the time, tweaked it around a bit and turned it into the Mario follow up instead. Aha! No wonder that second game was so weird and drastically different than the 1st and 3rd editions. For example: The final boss is a giant toad. Your weapons are turnips and beets and the stage bosses are Mouser, Birdo, Shy Guy and Fry Guy? What is this nonsense? Where did this come from?

It’s because it was developed to not even be a Mario game. Which is funny to consider now that 30 years of Mario history have been dictated by this game. Some of the characters have hung around ever since (Shy Guy, Birdo, Etc.), and this game is the only reason why Luigi can jump higher and float a little bit. It’s also the introduction of Toad as a character at all.

Take a look at these screen shots and you’ll quickly be able to connect the dots between the original Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros. 3. The actual version makes complete sense. They just got a little aggressive on the difficulty level.

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Note the difficulty in each of these pictures:

  • Screenshot 1: the land just ends. Mario has to wait for that red shelled creature to float down so he can jump on his back and keep going. Only way to proceed.
  • Screenshot 2: Even if Mario somehow manages to pick up that mushroom, there’s no way he escapes those fireballs. Best to just ignore the temptation and press on as a lil guy.
  • Screenshot 3: That’s right. actual bad guys underwater. Not just fish and squid.
  • Screenshot 4: This one is just pure evil. Notice the level…8-1. Now notice the warp destination…World 5. Yep, this game has warps that go backwards, and there’s no way around it. Like I said, pure evil.

Now, I pride myself on being a Mario Master. I can beat the original game for NES in under 6 minutes pretty consistently using the warp tunnels. I have beaten SMB2, SMB3, collected all 120 stars in SMB 64, and even beaten both SMB Galaxy games for Wii. Never played Luigi’s Mansion though…just didn’t feel right.

Anyway. Even I agree this game is super hard. I’ve never come close to beating it.

Somewhere along the way, someone packaged up the Japanese release of this game and released it in the U.S. – it looks almost identical to the original Mario Bros. – but the difficulty is ratcheted way up.

There you go. The first five games on my Top 11 NES Games list. Stay tuned for the next games on the list. And please, save your complaining until I’ve completed the list and still haven’t mentioned Double Dragon and Legend of Zelda. (Harsh, I know.)

11. Marble Madness
10. Tecmo Bowl
9. Contra
8. RC Pro-Am
7. Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels
6.
5.
4.
3.
2.
1.

More to come. In the mean time…

What are your favorite NES games?
Any you disagree with here?
Nostalgic stories to share about any of these?
Which games are you’re hoping to see in the Top 6?

-apc.

Continue on to Part II in this series.

Directing My Energy: Lord of the Rings, Breaking Bad & S.

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My life has a lot of moving parts suddenly. Between running a youth ministry, taking seminary classes, launching a book project and being a husband, there isn’t a lot of excess to commit to other things. You can tell me that it’s not difficult to watch an episode or two of Lost (or Breaking Bad) a few times a week, but I know the story doesn’t end there. It may only take up 40 minutes per episode, but I can’t measure my level of investment in the amount of time I commit to it.

I have to measure it in energy.

My good friend, Tim Ciccone, knows what I’m talking about. We worked together as youth pastors for three years in Kansas City. After every new Lost episode, we would spend way too much time the next morning discussing the possible alternate timelines and unanswered questions.

Why isn’t Richard Alpert aging? Why is Kate’s number scratched off the cave wall? Do you think Jack will become the new Jacob? Where the heck has that lighthouse been the whole time? What if Walt hadn’t quit the show? Why does Daniel Faraday have to talk like that and why does Shannon have to talk at all?

We would draw the timeline of the Island on the whiteboard with notches to signify major events: The Incident; Oceanic 815 crashes; Desmond finds his constant; Ben Linus arrives at the Island; the French team arrives. It was extensive, and all of our theories proved to be correct in the end.

Our level of investment in that show could not be bound within a time limit. It went way beyond what can be measured. Our investment of energy was significant.

I’m now 300 words into this post and I haven’t even told you the point of it yet.

The point, folks, is that I think it’s valuable to be spending energy in interests outside of the “daily grind” of activities in your life. Why? For a variety of reasons. First, I think it’s important to be able to compartmentalize life into various modes of operation, and these sorts of things are exactly the way to do it. Turn off the frantic list-creating mind for a couple hours and allow it to soak in something creative and fresh. Something completely “other” to the rhythms and practices of life.

Second, I think dabbling in interests outside of our daily “to-dos” refreshes us in new ways. While we may be giving significant energy to these activities, they end up giving us more energy in return. Our creative juices start flowing and our mind – having had some time away from our to-do list – is suddenly recharged with new energy to give to that list.

The person I know who does this better than anyone else: my college roommate, Nick – who I should add, is the smartest person I know. Nick is a mechanical engineer and spends his life taking things apart and putting things together. Figuring things out. Discovering new ways of putting things together that haven’t been figured out before. Simply put: he’s brilliant.

He always has a different “hobby” every time I get together with him. One time in college he came home all amped up and excited. My roommates and I asked him what was up. This was his response:

“Just got back from skydiving.”

Uh. What? As if that’s a normal thing to just get back from doing.

Then this past year, my friends and I were making plans to get together for a weekend trip. He emails everyone back and says:

“Hey guys. Do you think it’d be okay if I brought some arrows, a target and the amazing bow I just handcrafted out of a single plank of wood?”*

* – okay so this isn’t verbatim. I adjusted the words and added italics to prove my point.

I mean, who does that?! The guy picks up different things here and there and directs significant energy toward them. And it, in turn, energizes the rest of his life.

I’m not nearly as creative with my commitments – usually they’re in the form of entertainment: books, TV, music, and in the summer I play softball – but I have a few areas these days where I am committing a little spare energy as a way of both letting my mind refresh and sparking new creative energy. In short, these things have been life giving to me.

Lord of the Rings

I just finished the trilogy yesterday. It’s been sitting on my nightstand for almost two years waiting to be completed, but it kept getting set aside for other things. I read The Hobbit as a part of my book club – iUMBC* – a few years ago. And that sparked my interest for the first time really.

* – which has been on hiatus for the past year while we all try to get our lives less busy and more conducive to monthly gatherings. hopefully we have a resurgence soon.

Finally, I just made the decision that it was going to become a priority. And a couple months later I’ve finished it.

And it lived up to the hype. Such awesome books, and really the source for tons of science fiction/fantasy books that would come later. Does Voldemort exist if Sauron doesn’t – or the entire Harry Potter series, for that matter?

And here’s a question – which came first, Tolkien’s elves or Santa’s elves?

And here’s a quetsion – which came first, Tolkien’s dwarves or Snow White’s dwarves?

It’s amazing how influential this series has been and that I’ve spent my whole life unaware of its greatness. Also, who is your favorite character? I have a couple favorites, but I can’t decide who really takes the cake. Probably Gollum.

Breaking Bad

I didn’t really want to get involved with this. I was already into LOTR and didn’t think I had the capacity to take on another commitment like this. I’m so thankful I did, and I’m thankful that it isn’t requiring nearly as much mental energy from me as I anticipated. It’s really good, but it isn’t asking questions beyond, “What’s going to happen next?”

The storyline is cool, and I’m suddenly catching myself wondering if random individuals are secretly manufacturing or distributing meth. The guy next to you on the bus. The clerk at the grocery store. The librarian. That eccentric professor you have. It offers a new perspective on reality, which I think is the mark of a great show.

But I was expecting more.

Don’t get all railed up yet – I’m only in the third season, so I’m sure that the entire story comes together in the end. In fact, that’s been one of the major comparisons I’ve heard from some of my friends: the point where Lost failed us all – the ending – is where Breaking Bad really comes through.

So we’ll see. The jury is still out for me. But at minimum, it’s really enjoyable to watch. Favorite scene so far: Walter’s interactions with the dude locked up to the pole in the basement. It’s impossible to not love someone once you know they’re story.

It’s also possible that I’ve been spoiled by J.J. Abrams and his ability to make us ask questions. I don’t want to just be entertained anymore. I want to be involved in the experience. Which is the perfect lead into…

S.

Have you guys heard about this book? It’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in a really long time and it’s unlike any book I’ve ever encountered. It’s hardly a book actually – or maybe I should say it’s way more than a book. Conceived by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, it’s actually like three different levels of narrative all wrapped into one larger experience.

Let’s see if I can explain.

Imagine a library book on a college campus by a mysterious author with a dark, dangerous and secretive past. You pick it up and find there are notes in the margins. You start to respond to those notes in the same margins. You leave the book behind and pick it up a week later. Someone has responded to your notes and suddenly a correspondence begins between the two of you about the book, the author and his past.

That’s what “S.” is like. Only it’s not just a story about this scenario written page by page – the whole book itself is that book the way you would find it in the library. There are notes in the margins, newspaper clippings and postcards shoved into the pages for one another to reference. It’s a book within a book.

The library book is called “Ship of Theseus” by a fictional V.M. Straka. The two correspondents are named Jen and Eric and they’ve never met but are investigating the mystery surrounding Straka and the contents of all of his books on their own and talking about their findings in the margins.

Still confused? Check out by friend Jon’s blog for some help. He probably explained it better than I did. (He added some pictures too.)

Like I said. This book is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or read, and I’m not totally certain how to proceed. Do I just read the text from “Ship of Theseus” first? Or do I dabble in the margins as well? Do I blitz through the whole book ignoring the comments? Do I take them in as I go along? Regardless, this book will take two or three reads cover to cover before I’ve fully grasped what is actually happening on the various levels of this inception-like experience.

I’ve only finished the first two chapters and I’m hooked. I have really high hopes for this thing. Here are a couple quick pics to help explain – the first is the outside after I broke the seal, the second is the book “Ship of Theseus” inside, and the third is a quick glance at the margins and you can see the corner of a photo copied note that has been included in the pages…

photo 1-3photo 3-2photo 2-2

So that’s where I’ve been placing my excess energy lately. Lord of the Rings, S.* and Breaking Bad.  I recommend them all, and currently in that order. So far, they’ve all been worth my invested energy, but we’ll see what comes of the latter two as I move through them. I have high hopes.

* – technically, the title is “S.” with a period after the S…so I had to refrain from ending that sentence with it because I didn’t know if I should end with two periods or just one. 

-apc.

The 2014 Grammys in Review

daft-punk-grammy-2014-650a
So the Grammys were Sunday night. I chose to watch them over the Pro Bowl. I probably should have been interested in the TEN Chiefs players involved in the game. Rumor has it that Tony Gonzalez’s last catch of his career was from the Chiefs’ Alex Smith. Pretty poetic stuff right there.

But no, I was watching the Grammys, which are usually a January highlight for me. And this year’s did not disappoint. Daft Punk won big and performed, so basically anything else that took place was icing. Here are a few takeaways from what I saw on Sunday night.

Daft Punk + Stevie Wonder = Instant Greatness

Daft Punk teams up with Pharrell, Nile Rogers from Chic and Stevie Wonder for a Get Lucky/Another Star mash-up (with a little “Freak Out” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” in there too). So amazing.

I really hope the robots are working on a 2015 version of Alive 2007. One of my first takeaways from Random Access Memories was that parts of it seemed like a set-up for something bigger. Much like parts of Homework did. This time they managed to weave the whole record together in a way that hides the pieces within the whole, but I fully anticipate an epic mash-up album sometime in the next couple years.

All that to say, I’ll be listening to Stevie Wonder constantly this week. I might even dabble in Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (which i found on vinyl for $3, and couldn’t help myself).

I should also note that Pharrell’s hat was ridiculous and Stevie came off a little creepy early on. But the whole thing seemed to mesh once Guy & Tom showed up in those robot suits that looked nothing like Stormtroopers. More like Dr. Evil, really.

Check out the performance here.

I continue to be perplexed by country music.

First of all, I don’t even know what the genre means anymore. You’re telling me that Willie Nelson, Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, recent John Mayer, Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban and Kasey Musgraves (whoever that is?) are all in the same genre?

The way I’ve heard country music defined in the past is that it is all about storytelling. And I can respect that. But when the story is the same in all the songs – mostly goofy cliches and quips about trucks and whiskey and dirt and parent-child relationships – it all runs together into one lame story that I’ve heard a million times.

Plus, it just sounds terrible. You’re telling me that girl Kasey Musgraves had the best country album this year? What, did no one else release anything? She wouldn’t even make it past the battle rounds on The Voice, no matter how liquored up Blake Shelton gets.

The country performances happen, tons of people go nuts in person and on twitter. Martina McBride comes out and mentions how amazing that performance was, and I’m like…it was? I don’t understand.

There is some country music that I love – Garth Brooks is awesome, John Mayer’s new album is great. I even understand the draw of the Dixie Chicks and Rascall Flatts and other bands I find obnoxious. That stuff makes sense, but it’s just not for me. Usually I leave those performances perplexed and searching for answers. Just doesn’t make sense.

Paul McCartney is one of my favorite people ever.

Did you guys see him snapping his fingers and dancing around to the Daft Punk performance? Has anyone made a GIF of that yet? I don’t know how to do it, otherwise I would. Watch the performance video I linked up above and jump to 3:32. Hilarious.

Paul always seems like he’s having a blast, but doesn’t have a care in the world. His reunion performance with Ringo was hilarious in that light – Ringo was thrilled to be there, and Paul seemed like it was just another day at the office. It’s whatever. Just one of the most influential musicians ever.

Anyway, in his nonchalance, he took home 5 Grammys last night.

UPDATE: I have found it. Look at all those snaps. I love you, Internet.

How did Random Access Memories win Album of the Year?

I mean, I loved the album. It was one of my favorites of this past year, and I haven’t done any serious thought as to which albums trump it, but it certainly didn’t seem like it should have won Album of the Year. It’s not even Daft Punk’s best album (Discovery), and it’s not even the best album ever called RAM (what’s up Paul McCartney?), but somehow it beat out Sara Bareilles, Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar and MacLemore/Ryan Lewis.

Oh, that’s why it won. Not much competition there.

No offense to the other four – especially to Sara B., who I think it phenomenal – but they’re just not going to win that category. If Drake or Jay-Z or Beyonce or Kanye or some indie band, then Daft Punk may have been in trouble. But those four don’t have the clout to take home the top spot. Maybe Taylor Swift was the biggest competition, but it just didn’t feel right. Just my opinion.

Even still, it’s surprising to see a French robot electronica duo step into the Grammys and clean up. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen at the Grammys, I think. It sorta felt like they were being rewarded for past greatness. I mean, RAM was pretty good, but it wasn’t THAT good. I think they really rode the wave of one giant hit – Get Lucky – and that was enough to take home both Record and Album of the Year.

The only other song that has even made it to the public is Doing it Right…which is terrible. Felt like a weird category this year.

Wait…Bobby Bland died?!

Today, Bobby “Blue” Bland is probably best recognized for being sampled by Kanye on my favorite track off Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)“. The audio is also huge in car commercials.

5017261200631-2The album the the sampled track comes off of is called Dreamer, and it is wonderful. It’s one of my favorite albums ever. He’s looking at you, in this gorgeous shirt, with the smoke from his cigarette swirling all around him.

Bobby does this crazy thing with his voice that makes it sound like one of those fish-shaped percussion instruments that you played in music class in elementary school. It’s called a “guiro”, and his voice somehow breaks into it randomly and makes this bizarre vibrato/loogie hocking sounds that, if i’m honest, disgusts me just a little bit. But it’s so fascinating and unlike anything I’ve ever heard, I still have to give him props for it.

Anyway. When the Grammys was running through it’s “who died this year” montage, his name was the biggest one to jump out to me. I didn’t know he had passed away. Maybe I’ll have to put on Dreamer whenever I’ve had enough of Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

And lastly, Jamie Foxx is the worst.

He was high, right? Or at least drunk? Or is that what he is like all the time? His was the presenter for best Rock/Rap Collaboration. Here’s a sampling of what he did during his short and awkward time on stage…

1. got lost trying to find the podium
2. he hit on Beyonce.
3. he did a horrendous Ringo Starr impression
4. he apologized to Jay-Z about hitting on Beyonce
5. proceeded to claim that he “had his way” with her backstage
6. lost track of where he was while he was listing the nominees
7. just quit talking at one point when he didn’t have anything interesting to say about Kendrick Lamar
8. then mumbled another gibberish comment about Beyonce

Then, lo and behold, Jay-Z wins the award and comes up on stage and saves the whole thing. He whispers something in Beyonce’s ear, hugs Jamie Foxx, and calls out to his daughter, “Hey Blue! Daddy just won you a new gold sippy cup!”

Way to go Jay. Take the high road and save the day.

Just a few thoughts. I have more, but I set a 30 minute limit on writing this post. So that will have to do.

-apc.

ben folds top ten.

benfolds20112there are so many incredible options, that i feel like i ought to begin with a handful of tracks that didn’t quite make the top ten cut. in no particular order…

jackson cannery – ben folds five
alice childress – ben folds five
best imitation of myself – ben folds five
selfless, cold and composed – whatever and ever amen***
smoke – whatever and ever amen
battle of who could care less – whatever and ever amen***
losing lisa – rockin’ the suburbs
annie waits – rockin’ the suburbs***
you to thank – songs for silverman
get your hands off my woman – super d EP

dr. yang – way to normal***
a working day – lonely avenue
the sound of the life of the mind – the sound of the life of the mind

*** – denotes “first four out” (to use bracketology terminology)

10. narcolepsy, ben folds five – the unauthorized biography of reinhold messner
this song is way too hilarious to leave off the list which is why it comes in just ahead of these other tracks. sometimes ben’s humor can come off as childish and silly and it ruins the song, but this one he gets just right. the opening instrumental dupes you into thinking it’s going be a serious orchestral track. then the lyrics sound serious, but they’re NOT.

9. your dogs, ben folds & nick hornby – lonely avenue
for those of you who don’t know: nick hornby wrote “high fidelity”. so this album, as i understand it, is ben’s music with nick’s lyrics. it’s like the postal service only this ben is doesn’t suck. anyway, this track is all about how ben’s got this white trash neighbor who he claims he doesn’t judge but then basically does throughout the song. but we all do this right? it’s genius. and, as usual, when his social-consiousness sky rockets, so does ben’s humor.

8. erase me, ben folds five – the sound of the life of the mind
too soon? i wrestled including anything from this album due to it’s recent release, but this song is too great. besides, i have to celebrate the “five” reunion somehow, right? “erase me”…it’s a harsh divorce song that gets increasingly clever as the track progresses as ben comes up with different ways to explain how she “erased him” from her life. two interesting notes here: “option command escape” doesn’t actually erase anything. it just opens the “force quit” menu on OS X…also, on a sadder note, as of 2011, ben has been married and divorced 4 times now. so maybe i shouldn’t be celebrating this song afterall.

7. all you can eat, ben folds – sunny 16 EP
as a whole, i’m not estatic about the sunny 16, speed graphic and super d EPs (complied into the supersunnyspeedgraphic LP). it comes across as a hodge-podge of tracks that ben recorded in the mid-00s that never made it on to other albums. but there are some bright spots. specifically, “all you can eat”. the scene unfolds as an american dad pontificating to his son about the wealthy, greedy and overweight americans he sees around the restaurant where they’re eating. the line “god made us number one cause he loves us the best/but he should go bless someone else for a while and give us a rest” is one of my favorites in all of music.

6. mess, ben folds five – the unauthorized biography of reinhold messner
this song is gut-wrenching and i initially didn’t want to include it in my top ten simply because i didn’t want to have to write about it. ben has screwed up so many relationships that he’s decided to hide the parts of himself that are potentially messy in the future. he stuck alone in his mess of a life. the last verse is haunting – he images his life as an old house with abandoned dusty rooms. those are the parts of his life he’s going to guard in the future. and if that doesn’t seem lonely enough – the chorus admits that he doesn’t even believe that god is there. poor guy.

5. silver street, ben folds – ben folds live
apparently i really dig the depressing ben folds tracks because, once again, this song is pretty depressing. the neighborhood ben sings about here sounds like a ghost town. silver street is old and sad and dying. i picture a bunch of old men sitting on their porches watching the tumbleweeds roll through town. but really, this song is here because i’m a sucker for a gorgeous piano.

4. gone, ben folds – rockin the suburbs
in my opinion, this is the most underrated ben folds song there is. “rockin’ the suburbs” was the first album i really loved by ben. i used to drive my sister to school and listen to the first three tracks (annie waits, zak and sara, still fighting it) every day on the way. we’d never make it to track four, “gone”). then three out of the last four tracks are some of the most well known of all of his songs (not the same, rockin the suburbs, the luckiest). all those songs suddenly feel too mainstream to me, and it feels like there’s a shadow of popularity that i associate with them that makes me feel uneasy. but this song – this song is under played and undervalued.

3. one angry dwarf and 200 solumn faces, ben folds five – whatever and ever amen/ben folds live
i’m glad i didn’t go to elementary or middle school with ben because he’d probably hate me too. it’s like how when adele gets her heart broken, we all benefit because she sings songs about it…only with ben it’s getting made fun of as a kid. to whoever the o’doyle was that decided it’d be fun to call ben an angry elf – thank you. the angrier this dwarf gets, the better his musical responses are.

2. the last polka, ben folds five – ben folds five
this song has the most plays of any ben folds song in my itunes. there was a time (around 2005) when i discovered that the closer to BFF’s conception i got, the more i liked their music…which, now that i reflect on this list, is increasingly evident. also, if you know me well, you know that i’m a fantastic air pianist, and this is arguably the most fun anyone can ever have playing air piano.

1. lullabye, ben folds five – the unauthorized biography of reinhold messner
okay okay okay. i know you’re all thinking, “you just like that song because he mentions james earl jones.” and you may have a point actually. this song has a weird dream-like thing going on and it captivates me every time i hear it. the story ben is telling actually doesn’t seem very memorable to him. the facts are clearly a little mixed up – unless james earl jones was a family friend, it seems very unlikely that he was there. i wonder if this is one of ben’s earliest memories? the piano is mesmerizing and i could actually see myself singing a kid to sleep to this song someday. i can’t get enough…and the piano solo makes me head to this weird groovy swagger bob thing that probably looks awesome to all the other people in this coffee shop right now.

-apc.

the wonderfully inexhaustible pursuit of knowledge.

Questlovei’m in the middle of questlove’s book “mo’ meta blues” right now. it’s somewhat of a memoir, but it could be better described as a glimpse at the musical atmosphere of quest’s brain. it’s fascinating stuff, and i’ve spent the last two hours sampling the tip of his musical influence iceberg. sly and the family stone. prince. stevie wonder. the ohio players. and now that i’m officially going to see d’angelo in chicago next month, i feel like there’s a deadline that i need to figure it all out by (whatever “it” is).

it’s fun, but it’s exhausting. it seems like every album i try to take in turns into a string of mental connections for me. for example…

kernel event: trying to digest prince’s album “1999” —> making it through track 3, “delirious” –> recognizing the baby sound at the end of the song because it’s sampled in aaliyah’s “are you that somebody?” (begins at the 1:02 mark) –> i also make the connection that delirious is used somewhere on the girl talk album “all day”, but i’m not sure which track it is –> it’s from track 4 called “jump on stage” (4:25 mark) —> and it’s mashed up with master p’s “rock it” so naturally i need to go watch the music video.

it’s a never-ending process of making connections. which, i suppose is what the creative process is all about: making connections. it also feels like some sort of “six degrees of separation” game when it’s all written out like that.

but knowledge is insatiable. the more i read, the more i listen, the more i research, the more i study, the more the chasm of need-to-know information stretches beyond my mental capacity. i get quickly overwhelmed as i feel myself sinking deeper into the depths of my desire for knowledge.

i think we all have a quest for knowledge, and i think it looks drastically different depending on the person. for me, i could break it down into 3 different categories, which you could probably predict from me: baseball, music/hip-hop/pop culture, theology/youth ministry. i’d say that those are the three that i have spent the most amount of time intentionally researching over the years. the bummer is that all three of them have an extensive history, and they are all constantly expanding faster than my mind can keep up.

i’ve often wondered if there’s a capacity that my mind reaches where i won’t be able to handle all three of those anymore. if i want to become an expert at one of these, will i have to sacrifice my knowledge of one of the others? or both? or do i have the capacity to be an expert across all three categories? or will i be able to add a fourth or fifth someday?

maybe if i keep doing sudokus in the bathroom.

-apc.

would you rather – island portal edition.

The Source pmthis past tuesday night a middle schooler, a high schooler and myself combined forces to create my new favorite “would you rather?” icebreaker question. felt the need to share it with the masses. here it goes…

you’re on a desert island. there’s a portal on the island. you have two options on how to utilize the portal: you can reach in with one hand, or step into it entirely.

if you reach in with one hand, you have the ability to grab one item from your bedroom at home and take it with you to the island for the rest of your life.

if you step into the portal, you have an equal chance of being transported to one of four places. those places are…
1. you appear, mid-air, 30 feet above the ocean, 300 yards off the coast of antarctica. you drop. the water is very cold.
2. you appear in the middle of an endless tube slide spiraling forever downward, never ending.
3. you appear as mario in the video game “super mario 64”. there is no leaving the game, simply living our your existence at and around peach’s castle.
4. you appear in your own bedroom.
…you have an equal chance – 25% – of each of these happening.

so what do you choose? do you reach into the portal and grab something from your bedroom for your life on the island? or do you take your chances with the four options above?

-apc.

the daft punk commercial.

last weekend, during SNL, daft punk aired a 15-second commercial. they also updated their website and facebook page with simply a photo. this photo:

daft-punk-confirm-signing-with-columbia-1i wasn’t watching SNL when the commercial aired. ohhhh man i wish i had been. i would’ve freaked. absolutely bizonkers. i probably would’ve ended up running around my house like kevin mccallister in home alone. probably would’ve wet my pants a lot a bit also.

the commercial is an allusion to their upcoming album that is rumored to be dropping in may of this year.

ahem. excuse me.

ITS SUPPOSED TO DROP IN MAY OF THIS YEAR. THAT’S TWO MONTHS AWAY. HIT THE FREAKOUT BUTTON.

the video was accompanied by a bit of a song that i’ve never heard before. it’s clearly DP, but since the commercial was so short, i wasn’t really able to get a terrific grasp of it. but some genius somewhere decided to loop the track for 10-minutes straight. i dare you to listen to it without bobbing your head. seriously. good luck.

-apc.

haiku reviews – frank ocean. jack white. bruno mars.

how about some haiku reviews?! it’s been six months since i first did any of these. you can see the first set of haikus here. each album gets three things: a haiku, my top 3 fav songs, and a rating out of 5. this time around: frank ocean, jack white and bruno mars.

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1. frank ocean – channel orange

cannot get enough
occasional stevie sounds
better than mumford

favorite tracks:
1. pyramids (one of my favorite songs to come out last year.)
2. monks (that bass line is way too killer.)
3. sweet life (easily could’ve been off “songs in the key of life”)
honorable mention: crack rock, super rich kids, pink matter, bad religion, thinkin bout you

rating: 5/5

Blunderbuss

2. jack white – blunderbuss

solo jack – meg who?
folksy here and rockin there
jack can do no wrong.

favorite tracks:
1. weep themselves to sleep (the piano here is way too good to ignore. easy favorite.)
2. love interruption (painful in moments. brilliantly harsh. plus ruby from the sing off does the harmonies, so that’s neat.)
3. freedom at 21 (classic jack white – crazy and awesome. destroyed everything at the grammys with this song.)
honorable mention: sixteen saltines, take me with you when you go, hypocritical kiss,

rating: 3.5/5

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3. bruno mars – unorthodox jukebox

zero cohesion
way too many producers
mraz wants his hat back

favorite tracks – only tracks i like:
1. natalie (one of the two massive bright spots on this album. on constant repeat.)
2. treasure (the other bright spot. there’s something quicey jones-seque about the chorus here. love it)
3. money make her smile (okay so i lied. this song is pretty rad too.)
honorable mention: locked out of heaven (only because it’s mark ronson produced. it’s a distant third. like a police song only not as good.)

rating: 2/5

there you go. i can’t recommend channel orange enough. it might be my favorite album from last year (although, i doubt it would make the top 3 in 2013). absolutely preposterous that it lost out to mumford & sons for album of the year. blunderbuss is great too, but it’s not revolutionary. jack white is always awesome. unlike bruno mars, who is rarely awesome, but usually dumb.

-apc.

hindsight will be 20/20 album review – part 2.

note: on monday i posted part 1 of this blog with some backstory and my factors for making these choices. i encourage you to read it first.
o-20-20-EXPERIENCE-TRACKLIST-570

justin timberlake’s newest album, The 20/20 Experience, drops in a little over a month, but he has released the album art and track list already via twitter. so i thought it might be fun to create a pre-release album review based on zero knowledge of what the songs sound like, but educated guesses from these criteria…

1. track title
2. track list history of justified and future sex/love sounds
3. justin’s personal life
4. the single – “suit & tie”
5. two performances: he performed three songs (“suit & tie”, “pusher love girl” and “that girl”) at a super bowl show in new orleans last weekend. and his performance of “suit & tie” and “pusher love girl” at the grammys last night.

…so read this loud and clear: this is based on hunches and hopes and history. that’s it. here’s what his tracklist looks like:

1. Pusher Love Girl – on Justified, JT launched with one of my all-time favorites of his in Señorita. the FSLS opener was the album title track and felt like it served more as an introduction than it does an actual track. so this one would be pretty tough to target if it hadn’t just been performed at the grammys on sunday night. the live version was terrific, but something tells me the album version will be a lead-off homer. Favorite Odds: 6-1

2. Suit & Tie (feat. Jay-Z) – hmmmm. where do you project the pace horse? the single is great. the more i listen to it, the more i love it. the Jay-Z verse isn’t phenomenal, but that background has me bumping around like crazy. I certainly hope this is not the best track on the album – typically the single comes in third or fourth place in my mind. so i’ll project it there. Favorite Odds: 7-1

3. Don’t Hold the Wall – count on this: this track will be one of the worst on the album. why? because the three spot is just not justin timberlake’s baby. the initial reasoning is obvious: Sexy Ladies and (Oh No) What You Got – off of FSLS and Justified respectively – are two of the weakest tracks on both albums. but dug a little deeper, and you’ll discover something very very interesting…on all three of *NSYNC’s studio albums, Justin makes a strong appearance on tracks 1, 2 and 4, while track 3 is always a JC Chasez lead track. seriously. take a look at the track lists of Celebrity, No Strings Attached, and *NSYNC, and look for yourself! all that to say, the 3-spot has 16 year history of stinking. don’t expect that to change. Favorite Odds: 30-1

4. Strawberry Bubblegum – eww sickening. the word “bubblegum” is an immediate vomit-inducer for me ever since john mayer utilized the “bubblegum tongue” lyric in Your Body is a Wonderland. however, word aversions aside, it’s batting clean-up so it can’t be all bad. here’s to hoping JT can turn the aversion around. i’m confident, but not THAT confident. Favorite Odds: 10-1

5. Tunnel Vision – with the album title being eyesight related, that makes this track the only on-theme song on the entire record. couple that with the fact that it’s in the historically potent 5-spot (cry me a river & lovestoned), then you’ve got yourself a recipe for success brewing. Favorite Odds: 3-1

6. Spaceship Coupe – this is certainly the dark horse. the six spot holds some power (see: rock your body, what goes around…), but this title is like me going to the k-state/ku game in lawrence last night – high probability that it’s going to blow, but there’s an infinite ceiling if it’s a winner. also the addition blaster noises, robotic voices or melodic beep-boops will exponentially increase this song’s odds. Favorite Odds: 18-1

7. That Girl – this song is at minimum performance-ready, as it was one of three songs played at his new orleans show last weekend. that makes it a little more promising than usual, but its title and placement is very reminiscent of “damn girl” off FSLS. underwhelming. Favorite Odds: 15-1

8. Let the Groove Get In – the latter tracks are a bit of a mystery in terms of content usually, but make no mistake about this one: it’s got slow jam written all over it. turn down the metronome and dim the lights; this one has minimal shot at being my favorite, but will certainly land in the top half of the album. Favorite Odds: 8-1

9. Mirrors – this feels like a massive question mark. as mentioned on “let the groove get in”, the latter tracks are more of a mystery, and these placements always make me wonder if artists are trying to hide a weaker track here. Mirrors is a cool enough title, but i have no reason to give this song any real possibility. Favorite Odds: 23-1

10. Blue Ocean Floor – is this the third and final installment of “never again” and “all over again”? the placement at the end of the album leads us to believe it will be another outro with JT crooning at the piano. but the last two are certainly of the “you broke my heart” genre, and his new life as a Mr. Mary Camden could really toss a wrench in that trend. My bet: stylistically similar, but the content is drastically different. it’ll be beautiful, but not a favorite. Favorite Odds: 20-1

welp. that’s the tracklist and my odds on the potential winners and losers in the field. if you rank my ten in order of the odds i gave them you get…

5. Tunnel Vision (3-1)
1. Pusher Love Girl (6-1)
2. Suit & Tie (7-1)
8. Let the Groove Get In (8-1)
4. Strawberry Bubblegum (10-1)
7. That Girl (15-1)
6. Spaceship Coupe (18-1)
10. Blue Ocean Floor (20-1)
9. Mirrors (23-1)
3. Don’t Hold the Wall (30-1)

comments? criticisms? concerns? tharts?

the album drops in a little over a month, so you’ve got plenty of time to disagree and create your own pre-release favorites list. give it a shot. i dare you to do better.

-apc.

hindsight will be 20/20 album review – part 1.

before i get into this, i have to acknowledge last night’s performance. JT absolutely killed it. i was maybe most shocked to see him own the stage so strongly alongside Jay-Z – who, btw, appeared bored and above the majority of last night’s proceedings. this blog isn’t about all that, but i have to at least mention it here. moving on.

o-20-20-EXPERIENCE-TRACKLIST-570

SEVEN YEARS AGO – sometimes i like to think about this question: if you could only listen to music from one 18-month stretch, which would you choose? without doing any thinking or research, my initial answer is mid-2005 through late-2006. a short list why…

– future sex/love sounds, justin timberlake
– game theory, the roots
– late registration, kanye west
– kingdom come, jay-z
– back to black, amy winehouse
– demon days, gorillaz
– st. elsewhere, gnarls barkley

…however, none of these received as much hype in my life as the first one: justin timberlake’s future sex/love sounds. i was first in “line” to pick it up in manhattan the day it dropped. skipping my 9:05am tuesday class, i arrived at besy buy at 8:45am. sat in the car until 8:58, then got out and walked up to the door hoping an employee would see my anxious pacing, but they didn’t unlock them until 9:02. i was rather bothered by this because i was losing significant album digesting time. little did i know it would be seven blasted years before i got to experience another JT album.

so when the fanfare surrounding The 20/20 Experience began, i freaked. and when the release date was mentioned as 3/19/13, i freaked again. and when he released the track list last week, i freaked again. and then last night when he took the stage at the grammys, i freaked again.

within a month of picking up Future Sex/Love Sounds, i felt that i had enough of a grasp to put together a track-by-track blog on the album: you can read that here. i was young and silly back then. chances are, i’ll look back on this blog and find it young and silly someday too.

this year’s track-by-track blog will come a month BEFORE the album drops rather than after. what follows is a review based on five pieces of knowledge…

1. track title
2. track list history of justified and future sex/love sounds
3. justin’s personal life
4. the single – “suit & tie”
5. two performances: he performed three songs (“suit & tie”, “pusher love girl” and “that girl”) at a super bowl show in new orleans last weekend. and his performance of “suit & tie” and “pusher love girl” at the grammys last night.

these five bits of information will be what informs my upcoming “hindsight will be 20/20 review” which i will post later this week. in it, i will rank my favorite songs from 1-10 based purely on those five factors and give you my reasoning for each. maybe i’ll totally whiff on a major hit and expect a favorite when it’s a total bust. we’ll see. could be fun.

i encourage you to do it too. read the track names, and rank them based on what order you think you’ll love them in. it will feel like picking a racehorse for the kentucky derby, but i think it could be super fun to compare pre- and post- release lists.

for now, i leave you with JT’s handwritten tracklist he tweeted last week:
o-20-20-EXPERIENCE-TRACKLIST-570-1

that’s it for now. check back in a couple days for my list.

-apc.

could MJ play at fifty?

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DISCLAIMER: i’m sitting in a class called “writing for effect” right now and we’re doing a ten minute free writing exercise. the prompt is, “write about whatever is running through your mind right now.” there are two things on my mind. dissecting justin timberlake’s new album track list (but that blog is coming later this week and requires way more time and intentionality). the other one is from this article…”could michael jordan still play at 50?” here’s what i wrote. unedited…just ten minutes of flow.

Prompt: Could Michael Jordan still play at 50?

Could Michael Jordan still play at 50? The real answer is…SHOULD he play at 50?

There is no doubt in my mind MJ could be a 6th man and play a productive 15-20 minutes and put up 10 points a game. But if we learned one thing from his stint with the Wizards it’s this: MJ’s legacy can be tarnished. Luckily he had a few moments where he managed to transcend his otherwise unfulfilling return from retirement. Let’s be honest though, when we consider MJ’s career, we usually ignore his return because it doesn’t fit into his larger-than-reality persona that he managed to create in Chicago.

What would happen to his legacy if he returned and only averaged 5 points? Right now our memories tell us he can do anything, but what if the reality doesn’t line up with our hopes and dreams? What if he ruins it? What if he doesn’t live up to his own greatness.

He CAN’T live up to our expectations. He just flat out can’t. Our expectations are that he would average double digits, but our underlying motive is that he would have at least one moment where we saw a glimpse of the old MJ: the player that could make grown men look silly. Our underlying desire is to be wowed again, and averaging 10 points a game is not being wowed. Even if the dude is 50 and could be the father of half the league.

His track record doesn’t support his success either. Retiring once to try out baseball: failed. Coming back to play at 40: not necessarily a success. He simply cannot live up to our tall-tale expectation.

Or could he?

What if he did?

No no no. He couldn’t.

But maybe?

This series of “what if” questions is what MJ risks. Could it be amazing? Absolutely. But is it worth the risk if it doesn’t work out? My head tells me that he’d be putting his career on the line and making arguments for Kobe and LeBron to truly enter the “best ever” conversation. But my heart says do it.

So…please come back MJ. but only if you succeed. For our sake and your own.

UPDATE: this is part two of our exercise: write a response to your own writing that is intended as a letter, blog, poem or paragraph directed towards a high school audience. again, this is a ten minute free writing assignment. no editing, just flow.

What can MJ teach us about legacy?

Legacy: what we leave behind. Michael Jordan is pretty much inarguably the greatest NBA player of all-time. He did things no one else ever did. He made grown men look silly. He left us with our hands over our mouths in awe and wonder of the freak he was.

But legacy has a way of growing and maturing over time. Like cheese or wine or tabasco, the longer a legacy sits on the shelf, the longer society has the ability to glorify (dare i say deify?) a legacy to where it transcends the facts and figures of a lifetime.

MJ turns 50 next week, and the question on everyone’s chapped lips: could MJ still play at 50? My primary argument is that he should not. It could tarnish his legacy. It could ruin what he spent decades creating.

But the real question we should be asking is this: what legacy is MJ going to leave beyond 50? What if his post-NBA career managed to out-shine his playing career?

See, MJ – just like everyone else – is on a life-long journey of leaving a legacy. We know what he’s done from 0-50…what will people say about years 50-100?

As you navigate your personal journey, consider what you want your legacy to be, and what you want to be remembered for. Will you do something huge that will change the landscape of this world? Maybe it’s something tiny, yet still significant, that no one even knows about. Maybe it’s revolutionary. I don’t know. But maybe you do.

But your journey is happening NOW. What are you doing right this moment that you want to be remembered for? Are you living life with legacy in mind? Often we think about the future so much that we ignore the present. Where are you impacting this world in a way that is leaving your thumbprint behind? No matter how obvious or imperceptible, our legacy is being created right this moment. Let’s be conscious of that and live into this reality.

argyle socks are important to me.

my wife and i celebrated our anniversary a week ago today. well, that’s only sort of true. our anniversary was last tuesday, but due to the busyness of this season, we aren’t officially celebrating it until next weekend. i can’t wait.

the reception at my wedding was hands down the most fun i’ve ever had in all my life. and how could it not have been? all my favorite people in all the world came together to dance and laugh together. how can anything ever compete with that?

my wedding ring is awesome. it’s made of super heavy tungsten, and when i spin it on a flat surface, it keeps spinning on its side for over 2 minutes. which is a loooong time for something to spin. it has become apart of me – i’m used to its weight and how it feels on my finger. and since i never take it off, i sometimes forget i’m even wearing it and it startles me when i accidentally rap it on a stair railing or my desk or something. it’s a fun reminder about how thankful and lucky i am to be married to my wife.

argyle socks season holds a similar reminder for me. please take a moment and observe the banner photo at the top of my blog. those are the feet of my six groomsmen and me. (i’m the one with the skinniest legs and the tiniest feet, if you’re wondering.) i purchased an argyle socks variety pack and let my groomsmen pick which pair they wanted. all different. all awesome. here’s the list from left to right:
– nick g (navy/gray/burgandy)
– dan (tarheel blue/navy/white)
– nick w (tan/white/navy)
– chris (maroon/forest green/navy)
– apc (gray/orange/black)
– dave (kahki/light blue/beige)
– jon (black/forest green/charcoal)

the pack i bought contained two sets of each pair, so i got to keep one pair of each color that my groomsmen wore. this is awesome for two reasons:
1. i have a week’s worth of argyle wedding socks.
2. i get to remember my groomsmen each day depending on what color i wear.

today, i’m wearing dan’s socks. yesterday i wore chris’s. in the same way i think about my wife whenever i look at my wedding band, i remember my closest group of friends every morning when i pull on a different pair of argyle socks. it’s just another way to remember the most fun night of my life and the important people who surrounded me that night.

so next time you catch a glimpse of my socks, you’ll be able to come back here and cross-reference. oh boy.

-apc.

four haiku reviews.

every year, september is a heavy music month. there’s probably some scientific formula that someone figured out in regards to releasing an album in september and its correlation with the album’s success…like the alignment of life, finances and award shows.

all that to say, i’ve picked up 4 albums in the last month – 3 of them released in the last 2 weeks. i don’t have the time to do full reviews on them, but i will do the following:
1. a haiku review
2. my three favorite songs (with a brief reason)
3. rating out of 5

here we go.

ben folds five
the sound of the life of the mind

release date: september 18

haiku review:
whether he’s solo
or reuniting with Five,
ben can do no wrong.

favorite tracks:
1. erase me (i love it when they cuss)
2. draw a crowd (childish? or absolute genius?)
3. the sound of the life of the mind (very reminiscent of old school bff)

rating: 5/5

kanye west presents…
g.o.o.d. music cruel summer

release date: september 14

haiku review:
who are these artists?
lame. save for a few moments.
still miss vintage ‘ye.

favorite tracks:
1. mercy (kick drum at 3:15 might just save the entire album)
2. to the world (good, but i can’t take r kelly seriously after “trapped in the closet”.)
3. bliss (i had to pick another song to round out the top 3…the eagle cry sold me here.)

rating: 2/5

justin bieber – believe
release date: june 15

haiku review:
a quick prediction:
justin is the next justin.
haters gonna hate

favorite tracks:
1. boyfriend (so say hello to falsetto in 3…2…)
2. take you (get me on the dance floor. i can’t handle it.)
3. maria (distorted matt lauer interview?! amazing.)

rating: 4/5

lupe fiasco
food and liquor II: the great american rap album

released: september 25

haiku review:
lupe means business,
like ‘lasers’ never happened
welcome back, prophet.

favorite tracks:
1. around my way (cause freedom ain’t free, especially ’round my way.)
2. battle scars (a hurting love song from lupe? surprising.)
3. audubon ballroom (lupe drops his two cents on the n-word.)

rating: 4.5/5

alan rickman makes a cup of tea.


there are certain individuals that are awesome at whatever they do. doesn’t matter how mundane or routine the task is, that individual automatically makes the action at least 80x terrificer. some examples include…
– morgan freeman
– star wars characters
michael caine
– james earl jones (see: recites the alphabet)
– any of the three amigos: steve martin, chevy chase, martin short
– ?uestlove
– justin timberlake (rumored to have finally married jessica biel over the weekend – link)
– “the most interesting man in the world”
jared allen
– daft punk

…just to name a few. feel free to suggest more via comments. personally, i’d put alan rickman in the “in the conversation but not quite elite status” category, but when you add in super slow-mo and the inception soundtrack, he’s an immediate lock.

-apc.