Monday, August 14, 2017

Game of Thrones Late Struggles and the Issue with Plot

There's been a nagging sense during this season of Game of Thrones that something is off. Sure, maybe it is the 7-episode order making everything move 14% faster, or the fact that characters are together again making for more central story-telling, but something definitely seems off. More than anything, this dip in Game of Thrones made me immediately think of the last show to be such a cultural phenomenon to end - Breaking Bad. It was a better show, but to me it had the same late-seasons strangeness. It also split up its last two seasons into shorter installments. But more than anything, what it did was focus way too much on the plot and the end-game. And I fear that Game of Thrones is doing the same thing, just not with the same pure brilliance Breaking Bad did.

It sounds weird to criticize any show, particularly a drama, for being too plot-driven, but in reality I think that is fair. A great show isn't always involved on moving from A to B, but going from A to F and focusing a lot of time on B, C, and D. Like many things, few shows did this better than The Wire, which changed its long-form plot each season, and was so slow, so exact it took hours for things to progress. Episodes were isolated, were rarely built off advancing some central plot. That's why I can put on any episode of The Wire at random and be entertained. If anything, some of the better episodes were early-to-middle of seasons before the plot coalesced.

Both Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones were like this. The best seasons of Game of Thrones was always paced slowly and methodically. The best seasons showcased politics, religion, race relations. There were so many lost plots of Jon north of the wall, or Dany's long march through Essos, or Stannis's entire storyline. Sure, they are all either meaningless or forgettable now that we turn towards the final stage, but in reality showcased a show at the peak of its powers, playing off great, voluminous, source material.

Breaking Bad was even better in this regard, showcasing so many small moments, be it Jesse vs. his parents or relationship with Jane & Andrea, to Walt's up and down relationship with his son, to Hank loving minerals. Breaking Bad, to me, was at its best when it was character-driven rather than plot-driven. The final two-part season of the show was way too plot-driven for me. Memorable, sure. Great, definitely. But not as rewatchable, not as lasting as those earlier seasons when it was smaller.

Taking this back to Game of Thrones, my favorite two seasons of the show were its first and fourth. The first was the show at its smallest, before they introduced so many players, cities and 'kings' that muddled Seasons 2-3 way too much. It was a long character study of a honest, good man losing his life due to that unwavering, naive purity. Season 4 was a great character piece of King's Landing, from Joffrey's evil, to Cersei and Tywin's scheming, to Jamie and Tyrion being so conflicted. Sure, you can so those seasons were plot-driven (all of Game of Thrones is), but even their 'showcase' episodes.

This season of Game of Thrones has been way, way too plot driven. Each episode has some 'Wow' moment, but the plot is now overtaking sense, be it the suddenly rapid transit that has popped up all over Westeros, with characters traipsing from region to region at the drop of a hat, or the convenient plot devices and idiotic ideas. The show is still good for the reasons it will go down in history: the incredible film-making quality of the show and the way it can pull of grand scenes and action like no show ever. Yet, there is a feeling that as Game of Thrones hits its final stretch, it has lost some of the soul that made it great. Behind those action packed moments and incredible staging, used to be a heart of dialogue and personal introspection, something that is glaringly missing in this short season.

I have hopes that Game of Thrones can stick the landing plot-wise, and even if it doesn't, it has provided more incredible moments than all but a handful of dramas I've ever seen. It only seems wobbly now due to how incredibly stable and great it has been. But much like Breaking Bad lost some of its luster for me during the end, Game of Thrones seems to be following a similar fate.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The A-B-C's of TrueHoop TV

A few years back I wrote a piece about my favorite sports podcasts. It turns out I didn't include my true favorite, and on the week following its way-too-early demise, I must wax all-too-poetic about the legacy and memory of TrueHoopTV (aka TrueHoop, aka The Basketball Analogy, aka TBA). It seems that the shows end is not 'The End' for the collection of unique voices spearheaded by the Evil Producer Jade Hoye, but for many in the strong family that the show built, the end of THTV/TBA signified the end of an era. To memorialize, I'll break out the old 'A...B...C...'s' about this brilliant little podcast that burned way too brightly to last forever.

A. is for Amin Elhassan

Let's start off with one of the TrueHoop OGs. Amin Elhassan was such an instrumental part of the show, well beyond his duties of hosting the BOMM show on Monday's after that became a thing in mid-2016. Amin Elhassan is many things, but mostly a seemingly good dude that toes the line between confidence and arrogance better than anyone I've ever seen. He also was a behind the scenes driving force in growing THTV and later the TBA podcast into something more than a daily basketball discussion. The BOMM podcast was always a great appetizer to the Week at the THTV restaurant, and he perfectly navigated that show and used his connections brilliantly to get great guests on. But more than anything, I love going back and listening to old episodes, before the BOMM days, when Amin was less the moderator and more the contributor, the brilliant, caustic, bombastic personality he portrays so well.

B. is for Banned & Bontemps

In the beginning, I didn't get the Tuesday Show, with four to five white, country NBA reporters. Over time, it became arguably my favorite show of the week - and nothing was better than the incredibly sick rapport between Banned McMahon and Timmy Goodtimes. Firstly, 'Banned' is a national treasure. For someone whose voice is so stereotypically hick, he had easily the fastest, sharpest tongue of anyone on the whole roster. He was the only person who could spar with Radio Ethan and out-fox him without even putting on a character. And nothing was better than seeing Banned McMahon take it to poor little Tim Bontempts. Goodtimes held his own nicely, and got a few jabs back, but Banned truly was the 'baddest man in all the land.' Banned's rise into a true THTV superstar cemented the Tuesday show for me, and became such a crucial part of my weekly drives through the Greater Toronto Area.

C. is for Callers

Having Callers on the show started in earnest with an appearance by Jimmer Jimson Jr., on January in 2017. It was a brief appearance during the end of the Friday Mailbag, an episode I listened to shoveling up the one big storm we had last year. The first one didn't go so well - though Jimmer became a cult favorite in the THTV/TBA universe. In reality, the first 3-4 didn't go to good. The first good one had, as Big Wos noted, the advantage 'of being black'. Anyway, overtime, the guests became more numerous and of far higher quality. In the end, the last few Friday Mailbag's featured more airtime with guests on than just the regulars, and the guests in some cases became regulars, like Tony's Trivia, a game Kaleigh Brandt seemed to mercilessly cheat at, and Anthony Canton III's brilliant poetry. By the end, TBA was a truly communal affair.

D. is for Dad Pods

TrueHoop was Henry Abbott's baby. Abbott was a true OG in the new-age basketball media, and lent his name first to a brilliant little enclave within ESPN, and ultimately TrueHoop TV and finally the podcast. He finally got hi, I don't know, revenge(?), with his short-lived but brilliant Dad Pod with David Thorpe. It was part of my weekly commute through the GTA to Bellwood's Brewery, its 40-50 minutes timing perfectly with Toronto traffic. It wasn't as raucous as the other installments (save for the Dance Break interludes) but featured two 'old hands' just shooting the shit about life and basketball development more than the game itself. It was very different than any other segment of the THTV universe, but one so special, if not long lived.

E. is for Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Oh, Ethan. What to say. THTV was family axed for a week back in April when ESPN went through its Black Friday. It was reborn, but a piece of its soul was always going to be missing without Ethan Sherwood Strauss. There's was no better punching bag on the show, but what made it work was that everyone was punching up - punching up towards a great writer, a great mind, a person who would drop million dollar words for no reason, and of course had connections to the Golden State Warriors. Ethan was also an amazing storyteller. I've relistened to his brilliant yarn about losing his passport in Bangkok during his honeymoon, full with such little meaningless hilarious details like not bartering with cab drivers and him leaving his new wife at the airport being like the Titanic sinking. Ethan was also one of the OGs of THTV, and in reality, I didn't know truly how important he was until he was gone. Sherwood was irreplacable, enough so that he takes up two letters, with the 'R' assigned to his person as well.

F. is for Fornicating Bears

Jade's legendary story (both on the POD and on instagram) of two black bears having sex in his back-yard kiddy pool doesn't make this list because it is funny, it makes this list because it existed on the air. Late in its run, TBA became less about basketball and more about the lives of the people on the show - a change that didn't really impact its quality one bit. Jade's tales from Connecticut were always welcome, whether it was his rough and tumble upbringing, to the forested nature of his current residence. Stories like these made the show less a tutorial in the game, an analysis of a sport by experts, and more getting a seat at a very diverse, integrated dinner table.

G. is for Gone with the Windy

I already mentioned in the B&B spot how much I grew to love Tuesdays Gone with the Windy, but let's reiterate from a more personal angle. Early in 2017, I was doing a project in Vaughan, Canada, a good 30-35 minutes north of Toronto Central. Being me, I decided to drive down into the city a lot for dinner (hey, when your not paying...?), and the THTV podcast kept those drives interesting, and few better than my Tuesday drives. Sure, at first the minuteau that the show covered could get irritating, but I soon (very soon) learned to love it. It is more than just the rapport between the Tims, it was Tom Habestroh's guitar, it was Windy's hot taeks that he would push so far against an audience so dismissive. Everything from Windy's dislike of Al Horford's contract, to his passionate defense of why the NBA shouldn't cut down from 82 games. It was a far more combative podcast than you would think given it was the only show to actually gather four tried-and-true basketball journalists together.

H. is for Hoooooops

The good ol' promo code of 'Hoops' became, randomly, one of the more lasting, if random, running jokes in the history of the podcast. Each time it was read, another 'o' was added to the name. Running jokes are the throughline of any great friend network, and the running jokes within the THTV/TBA universe were all so great. From 'leveraging the chat', to Wos's mysterious job, to Tray knowing everyone on earth, to KP being a machine, to Wos loving IPA's, to JV (RIP) being a tinder all-star. So many episodes were enlivened by the never ending run of jokes upon jokes upon jokes.

I. is for Intro Music

Oh the music. Jade's diverse, vibrant collection of random unlicensed music was so note perfect. Each show had an intro (and, for the most part, outra) song that fit so well, from the cheeky whistle on Tuesday, to the hard bass line on Monday, to the excited clapping hands on Friday. The music helped give each show an identity straight off the bat. More low-key was the brilliant collection of itnerlude music played during the episodes. Legend has it if you ask the Evil Producer Jade for a song with a timestamp he'll provide the goods, and why not? The music is one of the most underrated contributions Jade brought to the show.

J. is for Jade

The story of THTV and TBA begins and ends (literally, with him leaving ESPN) with Jade. The Evil Producer was the throughline of everything they did. It was, seemingly his personal passion project turned up to 11. What Jade did was so incredible, slowly cultivating an amazingly close-knit group of both podcast regulars (a roster that went a good two dozen deep) and more importantly and more impressively listnership. The TBA community was just that, a network of thousands and that came together around a truly impressive feat of engineering from the Evil Producer. To be honest, I was not at first on board with Jade becoming a more active (see: contributing) member of the shows beyond his producing, but he quickly won me over with his earnest approach, his valuable contribution as a true raconteur, and his unending love for the TBA community he was so instrumental in building.

K. is for Kaleigh

What to say about the only regular (non-FOB pod) female THTV/TBA-er. Kaleigh was truly an awesome part of the THTV experience. First off, it is hard to imagine someone with her specific combination of skills and personality traits. She was brilliant, could do a rubik's cube in ridiculous time, could wax poetic with memorable long-form monologues, and she was also a foster child who coupled as a true beauty. Quite a unicorn. Oh, and she seemingly never saw any movie worth seeing and reveled in the fact that most of the pop culture on the show flew well over her head. Kaleigh became an integral part of the show's community, making many random jump-in's on the TrueHoop reddit. Shouts to Rachel Nichols, or the many smart, funny and delightful women who appeared on the FOB show, but Kaleigh was so good as the primary female member of the gang.

L. is for Large Casts

There is no podcast I listen to on a normal basis that features more than two hosts. When a show with normally two people adds a third I find it distressing. When a podcast I like makes it more of a panel experience, like The Nerdist, I find it almost offputting, so off is the distribution of speaking and the clarity of voices. Somehow, someway, this mom and pop podcast show was able to do this better than anything I've ever seen. Hell, it does it better than live TV panel shows with 3-5 guests. There were episodes, generally on Friday, that featured 6-8 people and could distribute time somewhat equitably. It could go one without people talking over each other, without anyone feeling left out or domineering. I don't know how this could be possible over Skype, when media finds it hard to do in person, but it worked, so so well. If anything, the smaller the roster the more depressing it was. Every episode should have been the famous Thanksgiving Mailbag that featured 10 people.

M. is for Mariano's Monta Monday's

There was no recurring creation better than Monta Monday's. I am not familiar with the genesis of the segment, the origins of it all (I'm sure Monta Ellis was involved), but Mariano's weekly paean to Monta Ellis was always incredibly hilarious. Each one had a familiar pattern that never got old, inserting Monta Ellis into every conceivable situation and showing his "impact" on history. My favorite, honestly, was the first, when Monta Ellis schooled a little boy on the basketball court, with the man doing the schooling as Monta Ellis and the man being schooled as James Naismith. Other great ones were how Monta was responsible for Good Friday and Easter, and how he inspired each track name on Illmatic while trash-talking Nas on the court. As they say, Where There's a Monta, There's A Way.

N. is for No Ethnic People at Ethan's Wedding

The Trail of Ethan was so perfectly TrueHoop TV. It was deep in the doldrums of the offseason. It was a quick joke at first when weeks prior Amin mentioned how there were no African American people at Ethan's wedding, which Ethan blamed on his isolated upbringing and La Jolla. What it turned into was a truly irreverant piece of comedy, full of strange southern accents from Amin (hilariously stupidly named 'Accented Justice') and Tom, and slowly Ethan being coerced into admitting that yes, there were no African American's at his wedding. The bit reached all-time levels when it was discovered that there was one person... the DJ, which unleashed Amin in all his glory ("A Man paid to serve at your every whim"). This came at the tail-end of Amin and Ethan's faux feud, but it was a perfect little climax.

O. is for Oakland

The shows connection to Oakland is not lost on anyone, especially Wos who is famously 'heavy in the bay.' It was there they held their first live show - being a gainfully employed adult in the New York area made it fairly hard for me to go, but I sure wish I went there. Oakland was also the home to one Ethan Sherwood Strauss. It was also the location of some legendary episodes in the 2015 and 2016 Finals when the crew lollygagged around the bay. Truthfully, I had no real idea of what to put for 'O'. I'm sure I missed something more obvious or at the very least more meaningful, but whatever. 25/26 ain't bad.

P. is for Pelton

It seemed to be a cruel fate for Kevin Pelton to be the host of the Friday Mailbag. He was infamously analytically inclined (some compared him, strangely enough, to a machine), wrote hard core basketball statistical tomes, and he was part of a show that strayed miles and miles away from being about basketball. But in reality, it was golden. KP was the lovable dork. First off, I loved his voice. I always pictured KP smiling, laughing when he spoke. Something about that voice just did it for me. Pelton was also always so good at going along with the joke, whether it be his fondness for everythign Seattle. or his own side 'Pelton-cast' that he does with his brother, or his likeness to a machine. Kevin was also famously dismissive of the quality of the questions he received for the mailbag, another funny little twist on the happy-go-luck guy his voice portrayed. Also, shouts to KP for also being an infrequent drop-in guest on the TrueHoop reddit.

Q. is for Questions from KP

I've gone back and re-listened to Friday Mailbag's from early in the 2016-17 season. It is startling just how many questions KP actually asked during the episodes. Overtime, the lack of questions asked became a joke, so often with Zach chiming in "have we answered one question." The pessimist would say this was them straying away from all sense of decency. The optimist, and realist, would say that the Friday Mailbag was never about the questions (Kevin was all too quick to admit that the questions often were very poor in quality), but about getting those voices together to shoot the shit. I got a couple questions answered over the years, most memorably the first listener question when TBA was born out of the THTV ashes in May ("Over/Under two weeks before the internet says the old pods were better"), and it was an honor to get a #AskWos question asked and answered. It really only was a select few.

R. is for Radio Ethan

One of the best parts of the THTV/TBA oeuvre was their ability to beat bits into the ground without them losing any of their effect. The best example was Radio Ethan, which started so organically. I think it first started by accident (admittedly, it predates my listening to the show), and was at first used sparingly and often on-command when Amin/Tom/Wos wanted Ethan to do it for fun, to mock the overtly macho, nihilistic vibe of sports-talk radio. In time, it grew to special episodes where Ethan played the character for a full hour. But Radio Ethan was still the best in surprise doses, none better when he broke into the BOMM studios in the Monday show after Trump's inaugaration, full with him changing Big Wos's name to Big Todd, and getting a new name as Mr. Radio. Maybe five years from now Radio Ethan would have become played out, but not a second sooner.

S. is for Spreecast

I wasn't a religious THTV watcher in the Spreecast / TrueHoop after dark days. It was a bit overwhelming at the time, a grainy Skype video footage of four people I don't know talking and making each other laugh in-between buffering and audio problems (Jade corrected this overtime in a big way). But the humble origins of the show did belie its brilliance. The few times I did check in I enjoyed it - enough so to remember the names of Amin, Tom and Ethan. I followed those three in their weekly chats in, a now defunct joy hidden in some dark, desolate corner of the Worldwide leaders online fortress. I don't know when exactly I became a daily THTV listener, but when I got myself committed for good, if anything I was depressed I did not consume more of their garage-band beginnings.

T. is for Tom Haberstroh

Not sure why, but Tom was always my THTV underrated MVP. He too was one of the original OGs of the universe, I believe, but why I grow to really enjoy Tom was his slow turn into the Andre Iguodala of THTV's death lineup, the man who could play all the roles (I guess this could be Draymond Green as well). He could joke it up with the best of them. He had his own characters, whether it be his incessantly amateurish guitar playing to Rodeo Joe. He was incredibly goofy. But he was also an incredibly sharp basketball mind that could more than hold his own on the Windy Tuesday podcast and break down the game both from an X's and O's standpoint and an advanced analytics standpoint. Tom may not have been the loudest, or the funniest, or the most raucous, but he was always there filling in the gaps just perfectly.

U. is for Uncensored

What may have doomed the show in the end was how unfiltered, how raw, and how 'edgy' (in a corporate sense) the show was. By all accounts, Jade left on his own terms, but the show may not have been long for the world. ESPN may have grew tired of having non-ESPN personalities on a popular podcast network expressing opinions that could often be best described as being out-of-pace at the Mickey Mouse Corp. Still, what made it great was what killed it. The best part was the last few months when Jade seemingly went into Eff-You mode and let a few 'shits' sneak by. Beyond the literal uncensored nature, was how unfiltered the show was, not ever shying away from complex, controversial and sensitive topics, addressing them with a nuance and precision that was shocking for a show like this.

V. is for Valerie (Momma) Hoye

Not only was the TBA cadre of superstars a family, but in the literal sense they extended it to their family. There were a couple podcasts with Ethan and his wife Allie. Both Tom and Mariano's mom made cameo appearances. But more than any family member, Jade's Mom Valerie became a crucial member of the gang. I forget under what pretense was she first added to the Friday Mailbag, ostensibly to give her opinion on some TV show. Giving fairly accurate TV recommendations and opinions was her game, but overtime it extended into further opening a lens into Jade's life. Jade cultivated such a warm and welcoming atmosphere, with nothing more direct than a direct connection with his own Mom.

W. is for Wos

Oh Big Wos, mysterious, manic and marvelous. Big Wos began a great new era of the THTV story by being the first recurring non-ESPN personality. Overtime he became a crucially integral part of the show, their true 'supporting' player that would go on BOMM on Monday, moonlight every now and then on Gone with the Windy, and show up regularly on the Mailbag. There was the famed Wos Week early in 2017 where he appeared on each show during a week. Of course, one would think it is at best ridiculous for a grown adult man to do this while seemingly working a full-time job, but of course we don't exactly know what Wos does. We do know he has all the audio problems, shills for Drake constantly, calls Gordon Hayward his second son, and has a few choice opinions on the city of Boston. Wos, in many ways, was THTV's International Man of Mystery, and like Austin Powers, he's heavy in London/

X. is for X's and O's

I have gone through this whole alphabet with barely mentioning basketball, the topic the TrueHoop TV and the TBA podcast was supposed to be covering. To be honest, at times the utter lack of basketball talk was tough, but only because when they did go hard on basketball it was so good. Whether it was Windhorst and the Tims breaking down the salary cap, or Tray spinning yarns on summer runs and youth basketball, or KP bringing the numbers, or Abbott and Thorpe breaking down development and game play style. When it wanted to, TrueHoop and TBA could go so deep into basketball with an engaging style that was unmatched.

Y. is for Yeeerrrrrpppp!

OK, I'm going to get proselytize-y for second. One of the best facets of THTV was its ability to cut so easily across racial lines. From the simplistic sense, on its weekly roster was a show called 'Black Opinions Matter Monday' followed immediately by a Tuesday show whose standard roster was four white guys, three of whom lived in Omaha, Dallas and Charlotte. Jade's affectation for the phrase 'Yeeerrrr!' and 'Yeeerrrrppp!' was a small signifier of that. The show mixed worlds so well, from Tray's incessant shout-outs and the talk of dapping, to Rodeo Joe and Tom's huckster guitar alter-ego. Moving beyond the black and white was the FOB show featuring a cadre of Asian voices. To put it not-so-lightly, the show was about as diverse a program as there was.

Z. is Zach Harper

We end with Harper, the man who, more than anything, symbolized what I grew to love about THTV/TBA - the comedy. Honestly, to me a podcast is fairly meaningless unless it can make me laugh. All my favorite podcasts are either podcasts run by comedians, or about sports but have good enough chemistry that they bring the laughs (Joe Posnanski's Poscast with Michael Schur, and Marek vs. Wyshynski as prime examples). TrueHoop was the best at this, and Harper was the king of the jokes. He batted a pure .666 on his jokes too. Harper was there for the origins of the pod, but that was before I started listening. His 'return' to the normal rotation really did signal a shift in tone for the show, and his comedic focus and chops transferred quite easily to the rest of the cast as well. More than anything, THTV and TBA made me laugh. They made me learn, made me think, made me live through so many long drives through the Greater Toronto Area; but more than anything it made me laugh.

It seems like in some shape or form, they will return, but it won't be the same. Not literally in that it is very likely that the ESPN talent and the non-ESPN folks will be separated. Not emotionally as there won't be this perfect amalgam of sports, pop-culture, comedy and pure joy in one 60-150 minute package. TrueHoopTV and TBA filled way too much hours of time in my life. I've seen many podcasts that I loved come and go - many of them from ESPN itself, but nothing hit me like losing THTV and TBA. The show lives on at Podfanatic with a full archive, and more than anything it lives in my memories.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Ranking the Classic Pink Floyd & Van Halen Albums, Pt. 2

Now we get to the god stuff. These are all just incredible albums from start to finish, with the top ranking among the best I have ever listened to.

Tier IV - The True Classics

5.) Fair Warning

It’s commonly known as Van Halen’s dark album, one that has a more serious, dour, depressed tone. I get that to some degree. There are some pretty ‘dark’ songs, at least in relation to the rest of their albums. The darkest might be Push Comes to Shove, which is slow and plodding and perfectly rocking. Eddie's solo on that may be my most underrated favorite of his. The other dark song might be their most technically impressive on the album in Mean Streets, which has a fiery string of tapping at the start. But really, the album just rocks, really really loud and hard. Forget the darkness and the moodiness, it was all around brilliant.

The album contains the brownest of brown sounds from Eddie and the band. The masterpiece in this case was Unchained, a wall of brown sound that has become pretty instrumental in their success in the mid-80's. The sound was so pure, so riotous, so joyous. Similarly great sound quality emanates throughout the album, from Dirty Movies (a perfect Roth-era song lyrically), to Hear About it Later (still not sure how Eddie did what he does in the beginning), to Sinner's Swing. The album was full of incredibly tight, dark, dense songs, an apex of the Roth-era VH. 

The album ironically sold the least of any Roth-era albums, but it has captured a place in rock history. The album is a favorite among many VH fans and rock historians, a common choice for their best album overall. I, obviously, disagree as I have two more VH albums to come, but Fair Warning was a great period piece in Van Halen's development. It continued the growth they showed with Women and Children First, but a homage to their first two albums with the tightness of the songs. Fair Warning was not their masterpiece, but apart from their debut, no album better showcased what made Van Halen great.

4.) Women and Children First

I can easily flip this and Fair Warning, but Women and Children First gets a little more love from me because it was just a teensy bit more playful and more varied in style. While Fair Warning turned dark and heavy, Women and Children First played all over the map. It was such a fun album, going into standard rock, to jazz, to hardcore blues, to bluegrass, to metal. This was Van Halen at their greatest and most creative. It wasn't as momentous as the one VH album left, but it was as mature and in command as the band ever got. Plus, it has my favorite Van Halen song on it.

Romeo Delight is its name. To me, no song encapsulates everything that is great about Van Halen as this. Ironically, it doesn't feature a memorable solo from Eddie, but has everything else. Alex is great on the track on the drums. Mikey gets some great vocals in and has some of his best bass playing. Dave is brilliantly traipsing lyrics. The song itself is a not-so-well veiled ode to sex, partying and all-around having a good time. Eddie's guitar may not have a great solo, but it is so wild, so vibrant, so pouncing and joyous.

The rest of the album is nearly as great. Fools is probably the most Zeppelin-esque Van Halen ever got, while Loss of Control was their take on metal, just reduced to 2-and-a-half perfect minutes. This Could Be Magic let Eddie break out the acoustic and Dave slow down to a tee for a Soutehrn spiritual. The album was Van Halen in total command of what their band, their talent, their music was all about.

3.) Wish You Were Here

There might have been a lot of pressure on the band following Dark Side of the Moon. Somehow, someway, Pink Floyd came close. Maybe it wasn't as good as Dark Side of the Moon, but Wish You Were Here was a truly phenomenal album. It wasn't a pure concept album, it didn't have a consistent theme. It bounced around from Roger Watters disallusion to fame, to the band's general disallusion with the music industry's capitalism, to remembering the legacy of their old band mate Syd Barrett. The two-part epic that starts and ends the album in Shine On You Crazy Diamond is the headliner, but even the three songs that make up the meat in the sandwhich are great in their own right.

The two 'short' songs are the ones that will last with me. Have a Cigar is such a brilliantly written piece, so full of hilarious contempt and derision, with caustic sarcasm at the state of the music industry. Add to that the musical quality Floyd always possesses and it was an incredible short piece. Wish You Were Here (the song) was just the opposite. A haunting intro, a slight guitar riff, great background mystery from Rick Wright. The lyrics wrapped in metaphor after metaphor, a stark contrast to the rest of the album which is pretty open on its subjects. That two-parter is about as good as Pink Floyd gets (aside from Dark Side), a show of their hard rock musicality and then a show of their absolute brilliance in taking things slow.

Shine On is the masterpiece though. For an homage to Syd Barrett, it is so unlike the music he led Floyd into, but it doesn't matter. Musically, it was perfect, with sweeping melodies, brilliant harmonies, great keyboard from Wright, great riffs from Gilmour, and of course perfect vocals. The piece may drag at times, but Floyd's noodling in the slow moments makes it all better. Wish You Were Here was a perfect follow-up to Floyd's masterpiece, and taken in isolating it is pretty flawless by itself as well.

Tier V - The Legends

2.) Van Halen

There's many "I wish I was there" moments that I've had with rock music, but few would top "I wish I was there when Van Halen came out." The year was 1978. Disco ruled the music landscape. If I lived in Southern California and was between 17-25 there is a likelihood I knew of them already, but if I was in any other part of the country, the first album would have been my entry point... and my God was it an entry point. The album is Guitar brilliance from start to finish. Obviously, Ed's virtuoso performance is all-encompassing, but more than anything for me it was that tone, that beautiful meaty sound his guitar made, that was the throughline through the album. It starts off with what is not my favorite song, in 'Running with the Devil', but it was a good opener. But what came next changed rock music.

I first heard Eruption probably sometime in the mid-2000s, and even then, it changed my entire understanding of the guitar. I too was dumbfounded as to how this man could do THAT. It's been copied and played out by so many, but the original, uncut, version is still pure bliss. The rest of the album really doesn't contain one bad song in it. You get a perfectly Van Halen-ized cover of 'You Really Got Me', a shot-out to their days of rocking cover-songs as the best summer party band in LA. You get incredible guitar work multiple times over in 'Atomic Punk', or 'Little Dreamer', or 'On Fire.' You even get a change of pace with 'Ice Cream Man' that lets Dave have fun.

Every song on the track is memorable. You had the great intro riff in 'Ain't Talking Bout Love', or the soothing sexual tension of 'Jamie's Crying' and 'Feel Your Love Tonight', to the ridiculous pace of 'I'm The One' and 'On Fire.' Eddie's brilliance is pervasive, but so is Roth's energy and flair, Alex's solid drumming, and Michael Anthony's bass (more present than maybe it would ever be) and brilliant secondary harmonic vocals. Van Halen debuted with a masterpiece of a record, one that changed the focus of rock music back to American Hard Rock. It opened the eyes of many of rock music's great guitarists to come. It gave Eruption to the world. It belongs squarely in the pantheon of the all time great, singularly important, albums of all time.

1.) Dark Side of the Moon

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ranking the Classic Pink Floyd & Van Halen Albums, Pt. 1

My favorite two bands have been Van Halen and Pink Floyd. It is hard to say when I discovered each. Pink Floyd probably mostly through my Dad and VH on my own. Their classic lineups have produced such brilliant albums that I just had to rank them. What I term as classic was the Waters-Gilmour led era of Floyd (from Meddle through The Wall, discounting A Saucerful of Secrets as that album was not that great) and the Roth era of Van Halen. Anyway, here we go with #11-6

Tier 1 - The Just Barely Classics

11.) 1984

Someone has to be last. Let's start by saying this album is better than like 90% of the hard rock/hair metal/heavy metal stuff released in the 80's, but it was Van Halen starting to turn a new direction. The Sammy Era was first seen here, with a bevy of synth-heavy tracks in Jump, Top Jimmy, and I'll Wait. The album as a whole just felt a bit emptier than the others, showing the candle running empty on the Dave and Eddie era. It did have its fair share of classics with Hot For Teacher, featuring perfect symbiosis with the Brothers, and Panama, which is about as perfectly made a rock song as possible. But that doesn't make up for just a slew of good but not great tracks. Eddie is still great, but Alex was starting to experiment with drum kits, and the band was starting to experiment with minimalizing Michael Anthony's bass.

In the end, I don't really blame Van Halen for going in this direction - and it was a direction in all honesty much better suited for Sammy Hagar. Eddie Van Halen probably, in an honest moment, considers himself a musician more than just a guitarist. He was an accomplished, award-winning pianist, and this was an opportunity to let his musical creativity loose. Of course, I don't think he realized what blowback his turn to the ivories would create, but given Eddie's character, I don't think he cared too much. 1984 was a key moment for the band. Had they not had to go up against Thriller, this would have been their first #1 album. It ended up being their 2nd Diamond (10MM copies sold) album, but it was a true bridge between the Dave and Sammy eras - for better and for worse.

10.) Animals

There are people that swear by this album, but I am definitely not one of them. This was Floyd at its most self-pleasuring. This was them swollen up with largesse and an inflated sense of what made them great. They took their legacy strengths and turned the dial up a bit too far. The three keynote songs of Sheep, Pigs and Dogs are all just, simply, way too long. They all had similar structures, with a good first 3-4 minutes and an even better last 2-3 minutes when the main theme hits back again. It is that overstuffed middle that ultimately hurts the album in my eyes. As always, the melodies and the musicality of the pieces are great, but just a bit too long and, at times, prodding.

This was the first album created where there were significant splinters present within the band. Roger Waters, as was normal, wrote most of it, but David Gilmour took center stage for the truly plodding Dogs, which was 17 minutes, 13 of which mostly filler in between verses. This was a common recipe for so many of Floyd's classic songs (Echoes, Shine On, etc.), but this time they mostly struck out. Still, what helps the album still be a classic is how vibrant and pointed those beginning and ending verses were, even if the 6-10 minutes inbetween filled with vamping and strumming get a tad too laborious.

Tier 2 - The Unrankable Classic

9.) Meddle

It is so hard to rank Meddle. On the one hand, it included maybe the best epic song Floyd (and maybe any rock band) ever created, in the 23:32 long epic Echoes. It also had a really nice instrumental in One of These Days to lead it off. The rest of the album? Purely take it or leave it for me. But it is hard to deny just how good Echoes was. The song is longer than an episode of Seinfield. It is twice as long as the longest Metallica song. It was a true epic, and it was perfect. Again, One of These Days was a great opener. The rest of the songs were mostly forgettable (save for the brief appearance of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' as the coda for Fearless). But Echoes is where this album starts, ends and makes it mark.

Ironically, Echoes is a longer version of the songs in Animals, with verses at the start and end with a long, extended, instrumental in the middle. But this one was just done better. It is supposedly a tale of the creation of the world, but even if you don't see what they did, the song works so well. Starting off with sonar pings, then sounds of a cave, expanding quickly to that rhapsodic, windy melody. Echoes had a truly perfect hook - so perfect that Roger Waters will claim, to this day, that Andrew Lloyd Webber stole it for The Phantom of the Opera (admittedly, a stretch). The middle is so haunting, so beautiful. It flies by, and then slowly builds to the final 3-4 minute climax. The song itself took up the entire Side B of the album, and it was as perfect a half-album can be.

Tier 3 - The Start of the True Classics

8.) Diver Down

It's easy to mock Diver Down, as many have. It was a rushed album that was created when the creative juices were running way empty in the Van Halen brain trust after years of touring, recording and partying. Yes, they put four covers on the album among their 8 normal tracks. They added in four instrumentals as well, which were mostly just cases of the Van Halen bros fucking around. But let's not beat around the bush - part of the reason Van Halen was so great was that they were the best cover band ever. They may be the only band (save for ones that ripped off constantly without creditation like Zep) that had cover songs that in many ways become more popular and recognizable than the original. This album had one of those in Pretty Woman, plus a brilliant cover of Dancing in the Street, a song so musically packed it is hard to believe it is just four people. Finally, the best cover may have been Big Bad Bill. Firstly, it is hard to count this as a true cover since it is a fairly unknown song from the 20's. Secondly, it allowed VH to record a song with Jan Van Halen (the Dad) to play clarinet so, so beautifully. But what really makes this album be great, is the original songs.

What defined Van Halen was a perfect intersection between brilliant musicality and fun. There was no more fun band than Van Halen, and no record more fun than Diver Down, and the four original songs all oozed fun. Little Guitars is probably the most famous, an ebullient Eddie rocking a mini-guitar as Dave sings about Senoritas. But don't sleep on Hang 'Em High or The Full Bug, both quick, rampant songs. The four instrumentals may have been overkill, but they did include one classic Eddie solo in Cathedral, a perfectly played ditty with Eddie seamlessly turning his guitar into an organ by simply rotating the volume knob up and down. That was pure Eddie magic. Simple, effective, and ingenious. Diver Down will always be slammed as a rushed job, but hidden behind covers and instrumentals was a band that was as fun as ever.

7.) Van Halen II

Van Halen's second album wasn't as brilliant as their debut (deservedly way up this list), but mostly because these were all old songs and they used their best stuff the first time around. Van Halen used mostly old demo tapes for these songs and while they picked their best stuff for their premier, the prodigious talent of the band still left a lot for the second album. However, a quick shout-out to one of the few songs that was not from an old demo, Dance the Night Away. This is probably not my favorite Van Halen song, but it is the most perfect one. It is such a great, perfect rock song. It was their first true radio hit, and it launched Van Halen as a band that could appeal to the musicians and the general population. I played that song way too many times on loop when I was young. I learned how to play it on the guitar (spoiler alert: it's pretty easy, specifically because Eddie, for once, decided not to include a solo). The rest of the album only adds to its strength.

You can say Van Halen left their demo-day B sides for VHII, but those were some damn good B sides. Somebody Get Me a Doctor, Bottoms Up, Light Up the Sky and DOA are prefect, classic, VH rockers, with strong melodies, great harmonies, and brilliance from Eddie. My favorite underrated VH song may just be Women in Love with starts out with Eddie making sounds on the guitar that only Eddie could really make in those days. The album showcased each member of the band, with Alex getting to show his stuff on the intro to Outta Love Again. Of course Eddie got in a perfect solo, acoustic-ing it up for Spanish Fly, which, in a way, was a more surprising display of brilliance than was Eruption. The songs weren't as perfect as those on VH1, but for a follow-up album it was special. Dance the Night Away cemented them as a great bad. Spanish Fly cemented Eddie as a God. The album itself cemented VH as a band for the history books.

6.) The Wall

This was the album where Pink Floyd took the 'Concept Album' idea a bit too far, as a handful of truly brilliant songs were a bit muddled by a dozen or so unneccessary ones. Up until this point Floyd was defined by their haste in adding tracks to their albums. For once they went the other way and I'm not at all sure it worked. The album included my favorite Floyd song ever in Comfortably Numb, but also my least favorite of their marketable songs in the three-part overly-simplistic Another Brick in the Wall. Contrast Another Brick in the Wall to Have A Cigar, and you can see a band that went from brilliantly complex lyrics to simple metaphors. The album has so much filler, but the gems hidden within more than make up for it. The 2nd half of the album, when all the Brick in the Wall simplistic-ness is over, is truly special.

It starts off with Hey You, adding in Nobody Home, a haunting short song, Comfortably Numb, a true classic in rock, to Run Like Hell, a live favorite, to Waiting for the Worms. All of the songs on that second half had such singular brilliance in their climaxes, perfect moments etching them in my mind. If they cut out so much of the filler (The Thin Ice, Young Lust, Don't Leave Me Now, Vera, Stop, etc.) this would be well higher up the list. In a way, it was such a marked departure from Animals, with the longest song checking in at 6:23, and most being under 3:00. But it also was the beginning of the end of the band, being a creation mostly from Roger Waters mind. He was a brilliant songwriter and artist, but this was working a bit too hard. That all said, let's shout out Comfortably Numb, the best song Floyd ever released. I would still argue that Echoes is a better musical piece, but Comfortably Numb is more digestible and more well crafted. The guitar solo was just so well done. It isn't particularly tough, but so well placed and so well portrayed. Floyd was always a complex mesh of instruments and minds and they took it a step further with making keyboards a central part of their ouvre, but for once they relaxed all that stuff and just released a pure guitar rock classic, and Gilmour knocked it out of the park. Comfortably Numb and the handful of other great songs locks in The Walls place as a true classic - and ironically I may be underrating it by putting it here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 7: 2012 NHL Eastern Conference FInals - Devils Top Rangers

I've rarely done a game on these that actually had a real impact on me - rarely did one that had one of my teams playing. But there's a first time for everything. If I had to name my four favorite teams, it would be the Astros, Raiders, Colts and Devils in some order. The first three all had been the worst team in their respective league at least once, all getting the top pick. The Devils were the exception for much of my youth. They were great. They were dominant. They won Cups when I was a kid. They made the playoffs every year in my school life (1996-2009) except for the year when the season didn't happen. This year, while they weren't the worst team in the NHL, they got the first pick. It was a sad time, the one team that never really hit rock bottom did so. More than anything, it made me long for the days of respectability, the days when they mattered.

The Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995, when I was 4 and didn't know what hockey was. They won again in 2000, clinching the Cup in double overtime, with a 9-year old watching near at 1AM in his parents bedroom. They won again in 2003, when I was 12 and followed them throughout their season and postseason. They remained good through my age 13-19 years, my whole middle and high school life and first year of college, but never made it back beyond the second round of the playoffs. The Devils peaked. The Marty era, while still great, would never be great enough again. The most successful team I ever rooted for would never give me that feeling of satisfaction again after I was 13. It was sad to think the height of joy of rooting for my hockey team would occur when I was barely a teenager.

In 2011, all those slightly negative feelings I admitted to were hardened by their first season without making the playoffs in basically my lifetime. It was supposed to end there. The long road to becoming the team with the #1 pick in 2017 started then and there. But luckily we had 2012 - our one last moment of glory.

The Devils in 2012 were actually talented. They should have been good. They were good. They had the best offensive season the Devils had since about 2000-2001 (a year where they, wait for it, led the NHL in goals scored). They had a healthy Kovalchuk joining Parise, Elias, Zajac, Zubrus, Clarkson, and others on the most talented offensive lineup the Devils had in ages. The defense was a mess, and Brodeur was old. It was a weird reverse of so many other Devils seasons. They got the #6 seed, and struggled through a 7-game series against the Florida Panthers, by far the East's worst team that year. The Devils struggles there should have been a harbinger; instead it was just them getting over the jitters.

The second round saw the Devils fly past Philadelphia, a team that had hilariously undressed the Penguins in teh 1st round. The Devils won in 5 quick games, getting offensive explosions coupled by great Brodeur games. For the first time in 9 years, the Devils were in the Conference Finals. And they got the Rangers. I was too young for 1994. I did remember 2006, when the Devils swept the Rangers in the 1st round, and 2008, when the Rangers paid back the favor, but the analogue here was 1994. A series I knew from mythology more than memory, with Matteau, Matteau, Matteau etched into the hardened soul of me, like it was for every Devils fan.

The Rangers long, storied failure to win the Stanley Cup ended because the Devils blew a Game 6 at home, and then lost in triple OT. The Devils will never be the #1 team in the New York area, but performance-wise they were on the ice. Of course, in their biggest moment against a local rival, they lost in heart-breaking fashion. They had a chance to collect on that debt, 18 years later, against the best Rangers team since 1994. And man they did make good.

The first five games were all close and well played. The teams were so even, with the Devils having more top-flight talent (Parise, Kovalchuk, Elias), the Rangers more depth, and equal talent and performance in net, with the reborn Marty Brodeur scorpion-saving his way to a draw with Henrik Lundvist. The Devils entered Game 6 in a familiar position, a chance to clinch the East over their rivals at home, with the specter of a Game 7 in New York staring them in the face. This time, they came through.

The game started auspiciously in the 1st period. The Devils dominated the opening, and scored the opening goal from a quick rush by their great 4th line that dominated the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The line was created right before the playoffs started, with Ryan Carter centering Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier. None were big, none looked like the old 'crash' line that dominated the playoffs in teh Devils 1995 run, but they had the same energy and frenetic pace of play.

The second goal was more exacting, a perfectly executed power play possession, with four quick-fire passes. It was Peter Harrold to Adam Henrique to David Clarkson to Dainus Zubrus, and finally across goal to Ilya Kovalchuk, who one-timed it right by Lundqvist. It was tic-tac-toe passing, a type of play the Devils could have never made back when I loved watching them from 2000-2007. It was such a surreal moment to see the Devils to score that type of goal. The rout was on... so I hoped.

Instead the Rangers showed their resilience, showed why they were the top team in the East that regular season. They carried long stretches of the 2nd period, tying the game, setting the stage for an epic, harrowing ending. Playoff hockey is like no other experience on earth. Even worse when it is your team involved, even more worse when it is against their biggest rival, a team you have to pay back for previous ills.

The third period was breathtaking, end to end, with an openness that was unnerving and unnatural. Only once before had the Devils played a similar third period in a key playoff game. It was one of my favorite games ever - one I may detail in this series as well. It was the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals Game 7 against Ottawa. If anything, this time it was a Game 6. But no Devils fan wanted any part of Game 7 at MSG. They needed that game, but they couldn't beat Hank, and the Rangers couldn't beat Marty.

Devils games against the Rangers have historically been infiltrated by hordes of Rangers fans. Playoff games were generally no different. Their fanbase is that much larger, on the whole more wealthy, and while no New Yorker would admit it, Newark is fairly easy to get to. This game was different. There were relatively few Rangers fans. The Devils chants drowned the Rangers out easily. There was an energy running through that building, even in a nerve-wracking 3rd period of an elimination game. But to get the 1994 allegory perfectly accurate, the game couldn't end in the 3rd period. It needed overtime.

As a Devils fan, I have always feared overtime. I would think any hockey fan would fear overtime. Any play could spell the end. Any flip into the zone could end in disaster. Any blue line slap towards the net could get deflected ten times and find its way to the twine. Hockey is the fastest game, and within a blink of an eye, a game could end. For most of my memory, I've seen the Devils lose OT playoff games. During the last two rounds of that 2003 Cup run, the Devils went 0-4 in OT, losing twice each to Ottawa and Anaheim. They lost key OT games to Carolina in 2006 and 2009. That all seemed to change in 2012. The Devils entered that game 3-1 in OT games, including back-to-back wins to finish off Florida in the 1st round. The stage was well set.

Luckily for my heart and sanity, the Devils ended it quickly. It was an innoucuous rush, but a mad one. Lexi Ponikarovsky flipped it on goal, players mauled Lundqvist, including Kovalchuk. The puck slipped through Hank's legs, and Adam Henrique smacked it into an open net. The OT lasted all of 1:15, and the Devils broke 18 years of demons in one moment. In that moment, the way that series ended, with the Rangers hopes dashed in OT when they had their best team since their Cup, and having my Devils do it to them, I honestly did not care if they won the Cup or not.

Being a fan of a clearly inferior team, from a fanbase and support level, is an interesting position to be in. Putting aside the Yankees, the Devils were clearly the best franchise in New York sports from 1995-2012. They won 3 Cups, made the Finals two more times, and made the playoffs all but one season. They were, in many senses, a dynasty. But they still had to play second fiddle to the Rangers. That will never change, but at least now they had one back on them. 1994 will never die. It was a seminal moment in the league's history, allowing Mark Messier to make and make good on his guarantee, and have his shaking, gleaming face holding the Cup be a moment splashed across all Cup montages from then until forever. But now we could answer 1994 with 2012, and that was all I could ask for.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 6: 2006 World Cup Quarterfinal - France vs. Brazil

The image of so many hagiography driven World Cup ads are those with the groups of people (kids, generally, for maximum effect) huddled around a TV in some slum, inner city or favela, watching the World Cup at some ungodly hour of the night. This image was seared into my mind, especially during the ads in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup. Those ads themselves were such a part of my youth-built interest into this great game. They featured U2's 'City of Blinding Lights' a most U2-ish song to promote peace and understanding and commonality across nations - all the same garbage the World Cup tries to stand for.

One year, I got to live that advertisement, be that kid huddled in a dark room on a dark street, millions of miles away, watching the illuminating glow of a non-flat-screen TV, with the sound on low as to not wake the residents. One time I was in that position, having to get up (or stay up, can't remember which) late into the night to watch two countries square off. I wasn't poor, the location wasn't a favela, but the setting was similar, and the appeal was the same: pure magic and enchantment, led by the best player of his generation putting on one last great show for teh world to see.

I went to India over the Summer of 2006, leaving the US in the brief window between the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinal. I wasn't a huge fan of soccer - at least in a relative sense compared to where I am now. I knew somewhat what was going on. I loved Zidane, an attachment I still don't know the origins of.that love. I have reasons why I started supporting Peyton, or Oswalt, or Marty. For Zidane, I have no idea why it started, or where, and for one thing I only started really following him in the last month of his career, but follow him I did. But the 2006 World Cup wasn't fully about the player that would define it, for both good and bad.

I was in 9th Grade at the time, and for some unknown reason, our High School actually showed a lot of day-time games in the Study Hall quarters. The tournament started more or less in the last couple weeks of the year. The better (see: cooler) teachers even showed the games in their classrooms. Being in high school the other students actually seemed to care. People wore jerseys of their home countries. There was a buzz around the school. In reality, there was a buzz around the country.

The 2006 World Cup was the first one I remember that was marketed and shown in the US as the premier tournament it is. ESPN pulled out all the stops. The setting was great, with the German crowds and stadiums supporting the tournament well. It was an interesting time in the sport, with a number of countries that were trying to hold onto the last pieces of Golden Generations (France, Brazil, Italy, Portugal), with two future dynasties being born (Germany, Spain). France had won the 1998 World Cup, but entered the '06 show as something of an underdog. They struggled in their group, before drawing Spain in the Round of 16. In an incredibly open, compelling game, France beat Spain 3-1, with Zidane scoring the 3rd goal in stoppage time. This would be the last time Spain would lose a knock-out stage game for 10 years.

Next up they got pre-tournament favorite Brazil. Brazil had the world's best player at that moment in Ronaldinho. That was a fleeting title in 2006, a period where Ronaldo and Zidane stopped dominating (so we thought), and Ronaldinho, Kaka, Shevcenko were names winning the Ballon D'Or. Brazil was the favorite. France had the history. It was a special night in Frankfurt. And a little 15-year old boy in Bangalore was ready to take it all in.

The game started at 12:30 AM in India. I was in India purely for Holiday, so I had no qualms staying up for this match - a historic Quarterfinal affair between two of the blue-blood countries in soccer. The people hosting me, however? They might not have liked it. To assuage any concerns, I agreed to put the game on softly. I put the brightness of the TV down. There were enough electric personalities and talents of the field to illuminate the game as it was.

2006 was an interesting time in soccer. The preceding years were very defensive in general, with Italian sides and those coached by Jose Mourinho doing extremely well. Barcelona won the Champions League the month before the World Cup, but at this point they were nothing like they would be three years later when Guardiola took over. Tiki-Taka was not a thing. Spain barely out-possessed France in the Round of 16. The game was not more open, but more even. One of my worst complaints of the Barca-heavy era of Soccer (2008-2014) was how each game turned into a version of one team getting 70%+ possession and the other parking the bus. That just didn't happen in 2006. And with the great crowds, singing and chanting to their hearts content, the stage of the 2006 World Cup was special.

The game itself was fairly evenly played - if you removed Zidane from the field. Less than 30 seconds in, he got the ball near the mid circle., held off two Brazilian defenders, did a quick turn, and tried to spring Henry through. It was a quick, complex attack made so simple (as is everything Zidane did). Within the first minute, Zidane made it known this was going to be his night.

Zidane was spellbinding, brilliantly controlling the game as only he could. He made the sublime look simple. Whether it was one of his patented pirouettes, a self-volley to clear the ball in a dangerous position, a quick one-two to spring an overlapping fullback, to a simple flick and header to advance an attack. Zidane was magnetic, was dominating in a simple, mundane sense that defined his career. Nothing seemed out of flow. Zidane wasn't about doing things that seemed impossible. His brilliance was making the impossible seem easy, and rarely did he do it better than this game.

Zidane's flick and header to advance the ball was what led to the foul that allowed him to take a free-kick in an advanced dangerous position. His free kick was looping, arced perfectly into the far corner, where Thierry Henry met it and roofed it right past Dida. France's goal was quick, but perfectly executed (Brazil's defending on the free kick was summarily the opposite of perfectly executed). The rest of the game was without much drama (the closest Brazil really came was an 85+ minute free kick opportunity to Ronaldinho). But if anything, Zidane's control on the game only grew.

My favorite moment of the match came about the point I was ready to turn it off and retire for the night, as we approached 2AM (future me would be shocked at any inability to stay up to 2AM). Zidane found himself on the ball ahead of the mid-circle, but ahead of most of his teammates. He dribbled around, pulled back, and then released a perfectly weighted touch, looping through ball to Willy Sagnol. It was audacious in its microscopic exactness. It looked so simple in its execution. The master was playing around, in control of everything around him.

For a young kid, this was a performance seared into my mind. I was those kids in the ads, spellbound by the magic emanating from the TV screen. I was hooked into this brilliant player playing this great game. Zidane's performance is one of legend, covered and honored by sportswriters, fans and historians, but for me it was a personal moment. I stayed up way past my conventional bedtime to watch my favorite player. I wasn't sure why he was my favorite player, but I knew he was, and since that game that has never wavered. Zidane's magic was on full display, his grace oozed through the screen, a glittering example to a small kid stuck in a dark Bangalore apartment of how beautiful the beautiful game could be.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Building the Monster in Madrid

The rumors flew in the end of the season fast and furious. It went from Kylian M'Bappe, to N'Golo Kante, to Antoine Griezmann, to many others. Which high priced transfer would defending Spanish and European Champions Real Madrid scoop up. One? Two? All Three? In a way, it made perfect sense. Florentino Perez is never one to let transfer windows pass quietly, and he had to make up for a muted 2016-17 Transfer Season when a banned Real Madrid could only bring back Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio (a relative unknown at that point) back from loan. No, now Florentino Perez was unshackled and ready to wheel and deal cash.

Instead, whether by some combination of past high-priced failures and Zinedine Zidane's impact on the team's mindset, Florentino Perez and Real Madrid seem content to not go luxury shopping. Instead, they went bargain hunting, fortifying the deepest team in Europe with an infusion of young talent that make them an even deeper, better team, ready to rule Europe again. In the span of three years, Real Madrid turned over its manager and now its mindset, and the future could not be brighter.

Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos. That is essentially the extent of Madrid's transfer dealings (admittedly, for now). The rest were the ending of loans, with Jesus Vallejo, Marcus Llorente and Borja Mayoral. You might now know these players. Few should. But they, along with current Madridista rising supernova Marco Asensio (and Atleti's Saul Niguez) formed the core of Spain's U-21 team that flexed serioous might in the UEFA U-21's. Real Madrid has made a concerted effort to go younger, go faster, go deeper, and it may pay off grandly.

The players that Real Madrid let walk are as much of the story as those who came in. Pepe left, a bit acrimoniously which is sad given his success with the club, a clear sign Real wanted to get younger, get faster, and not be too attached by the recent success. James leaving for Bayern, despite being a way below-market deal, was another sign that Real wanted to go further in pushing cohesion, in meritocracy, in team.

Zidane's rotation policy has now reached cult status, and it should. He rotated his players more than any manager in a club in Europe's top leagues. 20 players played at least 1,000 minutes. Guys on the bench like Nacho, Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vasquez, may not have found any time on a previous version of Real, but they flourished in this one. For some of the more high-priced bench talent, this may have sown some discord - particularly in Alvaro Morata who was a consistent starter at Juventus the two years prior - but had Zidane rotated like a normal coach, Morata would have played even less.

A key result of this rotation policy seems that young players have no issue going to Madrid knowing they might not be starters. The squad is so deep right now you have to be a true talent to be a starter. Out of the three starlets mentioned at the beginning, none would be guaranteed starters at Real. Kante might displace Casemiro, and Griezmann is so good he may force himself in, but there's no guarantee. For younger players, it is even more of a risk, but given the allure of Madrid, the rotation equanimity that Zidane employs, it is a risk so worth taking.

The consistent throughline across all the signing/loan returnees is their age. Theo Hernandez is 18, a future star at left back, the potential eventual replacement for Marcelo. Dani Ceballos is 20, the potential replacement for Kroos and/or Modric. Marcos Llorente is 22, the third man at defensive midfield along with Casemiro and Kovacic. Mayoral is 23, and he may be lost at forward, but then the least is expected of him as well. Jesus Vallejo is 20, a potential utility defender who may just step into Sergio Ramos's shoes one day. All of these players are potentially key cogs of Real Madrid's medium-to-long term future, but to get them all to mortgage some of their short-term playing time shows the renewed, unmatched allure of Zidane's Madrid.

To be fair, there is still a logjam everywhere, and if injury strikes having 18-22 year olds may not work out too well, but Perez seems to be committed to longer-term thinking than he usually does. The chances of them three-peating as European Champions is of course small. They are probably favorites to retain La Liga, but even that is never a sure bet. A trophyless season may be a disappointment, but you get the sense that Perez, and Zidane (who Perez called his coach for life) are seeing 3-4 years down the road.

Madrid has almost never had this level of young talent on hand in their 23. Certainly not in the last 10+ years since Ronaldo came on board. Madrid's recent run has already cemented their place as one of the great teams ever. Three Champions League crowns in Four years is impossible to argue against. But in a way, this is more of a beginning, a rebirth, the start of something great rather than the end. Madrid is well on their way to a modern dynasty. They can thank their brilliant president who zigged again, straight into a wealth of young talent. They can thank their equally brilliant manager who seems to have no obvious flaw for that job. But the combination of the two is truly deadly.

Friday, July 14, 2017

MLB at the Half, Pt. 2 - 15 Thoughts on the 2nd Half

** Quick note about the derby. Sure, Stanton didn't make it out of the first round, but that was still an incredible derby. The move to a timed clock was such a game-changer, moving away from the madenning taking of pitches and turning the derby into something special. Plus, no Chris Berman!**

* The return of Mike Trout

Mike Trout will be back on Friday. He's coming back on schedule, seemingly healthy, and while he's surrendered the WAR lead to Judge/Correa/Altuve/Betts group in the AL, he has a whole 70 games to catch up. The weird part is that the Angels themselves played more or less as good without Trout as they did when he played. Eric Young Jr. was a reasonable facsimile of Trout. The pitching staff, particularly bullpen, played well. Given everyone in the AL is alive for the Wild Card, the Angels have a significant, if still minority, shot at a playoff spot. Incredibly, I could easily foresee the Angels nabbing a Wild Card spot, Trout having a monster second half, and ending up stealing an MVP in a year where he doesn't lead the AL in WAR.

* Will any AL Club Sell?

As mentioned above, literally every team is in shouting distance of a Wild Card spot. Currently, it is the Yankees and Rays, who all things considered probably are the two best teams in that maw. But everyone is within 7.5 games, and more realistically, the Twins, Royals, Angels, Rangers, Mariners, Orioles and Jays are close enough they may be deterred from dealing. Given that, does anyone sell? That group contains Chris Archer, a prime candidate for a deal in another year, plus a host of Rangers, Mariners and Jays that could be good targets for teams wanting to make a push. The best bets to sell in that group are probably the Rangers and Jays, who have the most forward-thinking front offices in that set. It would be a sad change for two teams that have done so well the last 3 years (more like 7 in case of Texas), but they've peaked and probably should start re-loading./re-tooling.

* Can Aaron Judge keep this up?

Aaron Judge can not take another at bat and still get the AL ROTY, but he's playing for a loftier goal right now. As long as the Yankees are playoff-bound (and even if they aren't), Judge is your AL MVP favorite. He leads baseball in all the advanced metrics (grading out surprisingly well on defense), with monster normal numbers. Best OBP in the AL. Best SLG in MLB. Best OPS and OPS+. He's on pace for a ridiculous year. The one knock on him coming in was his issues with strikeouts, and while he started striking out more in June, he also had his best month of the year. There's no real stopping him at this point. As he showed in the Home Run Derby, he is just a giant, powerful, adonis - who also seems to be a really cool dude as well. The last rookie to win the MVP was Ichiro. Judge has the inside track of being next. He'll have to hold off the story that could be Trout, and a trio of Astros that may end up stealing votes from each other, but he's the good bet to do so.

* What random 2nd half experiment will be next?

This is an annual favorite of mine. Some team will do something really bizarre in the second half. My go-to example was when the 2014 Reds decided to start all rookie pitchers in the second half of a lost season. It didn't really work. Only few of the pitchers ended up doing anything long-term. But still, for a team with nothing really to do, it worked. In some ways, the Rockies kind of did this last year changing their pitching staff and starting a lot of people that would end up being big contributors this year. Maybe it's the Padres. Maybe it is the Giants who have to deal with irrelevance all second half for the first time in a while. Maybe it is the Braves calling up some of their trove of prospects. Hell, maybe it will be the Marlins. There's not really any AL team that stands to be so far out of it soon they may turn to something aggressive and new, but it will be fun to look out for.

* The Re-birth and/or downgrade of the 2018 FA Class

The impending 2018 Free Agent class is expected to break the bank, with guys entering their year 26 season coming up as UFAs with all intentions of seriously testing the market. Bryce Harper is expected to get some contract we may not be able to conceive of ($400MM or something). Manny Machado may do the same. Strange thing, though, with a year-and-a-half to go, they remain a bit underwhelming. Harper started off by putting up a better version of his ridiculous 2015 season (when he was 22), but since May he's been a 300/400/500 player, a good but not otherworldly hitter with average defense. Machado's struggled all year, with an OPS+ of 96, and just 1.5 WAR even accounting for his great defense. Both will still get big contracts, but neither guy is Mike Trout. Harper himself has shown at his best he can be, but that best is surrounded by a bunch of 2-5 win seasons. Both have a lot to play for in the second half, particularly Machado who some thought could challenge Harper's contract value.

* Which teams decide to tank

So, which team is most likely to tear it down fully next. The Phillies were the last one, and seem right on track for a second straight worst record. There's not much left for them to sell-off, unless they want to pull the trigger on trading a peak-value Aaron Nola. What is more interesting is if any of the other bad teams join them in tear-down mode. The Giants are the only other team with a truly dreadful record, but their best assets are such fan favorites that it is hard to imagine them getting rid of Posey and Bumgarner. But there's a lot else (Belt, Crawford, Cueto). Then you get Toronto, which has some older players and cost-controlled pitchers that could be interesting. The sleeping giant in the tank world is the Tigers. Are they ready to call it quits on their run of success. Verlander could command quite a bit. Miggy too. Same with Avila. There is a lot of potential assets, but much like the Giants, it is hard to imagine them pulling the trigger.

* Pitchers on the block

We entered the year with Sonny Gray, Chris Archer and Jose Quintana as high-profile movable assets. Those three are still high-profile movable assets. None are having a great season. But none bad enough to really hurt their trade value. There's a lot of interesting players who could join them. A couple we've covered before, like Johnny Cueto, but there's so many more that could be trade bait. I'm interested to see if Mets give up and trade the only workable, healthy pitching asset they have left in Jacob DeGram (would love him on the Stros). The Mariners could deal one of their guys. There's a lot of teams that could do with another starter that still have serious playoff concerns, like the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Astros.

* Will HR numbers fall back to earth?

By now, basically anyone connected to baseball has realized that HRs have gone way up to levels that exceed the height of the steroid era. We are pace for around 6,200 HRs; the old record was 5,700 in 2000. By now enough studies have been done to suggest at least a plurality of the reason for the spike is due to changes to the ball. Some of it is a concerted effort by hitters to counter the (still) increasing rate of strikeouts by going for more power. It was two years ago when the spike first started (2nd half of 2015), and it took a while for it to get real prominence but it sure has now. I could see the MLB to take serious steps in investigating changes to the ball - assuming they weren't aware from the start.

* The Great Pitcher Race (Kershaw should win)

Three pitchers have utterly dominated this year of the hitter (putting aside a still-injured Dallas Keuchel for now). One is the best pitcher of his generation who is continuing to work towards removing the need for that 'of his generation' qualifier. The second is the guy who quietly is putting together a HOF resume, winning the Cy Young last year in the NL three years after doing so in the AL. The third is a gumby-like figure who has been so good since going to Boston. Kershaw, Scherzer, Sale. They are playing a so amazingly entertaining game of can you top that. Their pitching lines are staggering. Sale's may look the worst on paper, but he's in the worst ballpark and has been so dominant, with a .901 WHIP and 12.5K/9. Of course, Scherzer's WHIP is at .779. Both Scherzer and Sale have a shot at 300Ks. Kershaw has had brief periods where he was just a great pitcher instead of the best pitcher any of us have ever seen, but his recent form has been so ridiculous. Seeing each of them try to get the title of best pitcher in 2017 will be fabulous to watch down the stretch.

* Will we get a good pennant race?

Every year there is generally at least one great race, but that hasn't really been the case recently. Last year, the closest final gap was 4 games. This year, the closest right now is 2.5 (Indians over Twins) and then 3.5 (Red Sox over Yankees). While each of those could be great down the stretch, what we have largely is two teams in Cleveland and Boston projected to be really good that took a while to get going. There's a trio of races that seem over (AL & NL West and NL East). I am holding out hope the Yankees course correct and push Boston down the stretch. Partially because, as always, eff Boston, but also because the Yankees revival was such a fun part of the first half. Aaron Judge is still awesome, but the team itself struggled the last six weeks. By run differential, they should be 54-32. Instead, they are 45-41. The Yankees have played up to Boston. The only other race really worth watching will be the one I'll be talking about now...

* The Cubs inevitable push (?)

... Will the Cubs be able to catch the Brewers. The Cubs have been so stagnant all year, never really having a sustained stretch of even good play. Sure, they are a bet to run off a 10-0 run at any point, but their flaws are very real. Their starting pitching was a risk coming into the year, and it has been incredibly average. Their hitting is probably doing worse than anyone could have imagined, but the players that are struggling (namely, Russell and Schwarber) aren't great bets to turn things around. At the end, the Cubs are 43-45, without deserving to be any better. And guess what, the Brewers may just pull this off. Their offense mashes home runs like no other team in the NL. Eric Thames got all the press early on, but Travis Shaw is riding a 170 OPS+. The Cubs may play well and still not catch Milwaukee. Teams don't blow 5.5 game leads at the break too often. For Cubs fans, they better not complain after the gifts of God they were bestowed last year, but this uninspired season is just so shocking.

* Which Astro is Best?

The Astros are not only the AL's best team, they also have, as of now, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th best position players in the league (not counting Trout), and the race between those three to see who will have the best season should be great to watch. Altuve, in reality, is just continuing off what he did last year, when he finished the season with 7.6 bWAR, improving in OBP (walking more) and SLG. His stealing has even become more efficient. The other two are the real surprised. First, Springer, who's gotten a lot of notoriety for hitting all the lead off home runs. He's up to 27 total for the year, and at 4.1 bWAR. He's cut his strikeout rate, and is walking more, and is, at least for now, over .300 for the first time in his career. Finally, there's the future superstar who is becoming a current superstar. Correa actually started the season pretty slowly, then got hit on the wrist and missed a handful of games in late April. Since he's come back he's hit .341/.417/.646. For the year he's at .325/.402/577. He too has cut his k-rate and upped his walk-rate, and is again just 22. Correa will likely lead the pack at the end of the year, and if he can make a run at Judge, could easily win the AL MVP as well. By the way, given how he started the year before leaving with a pinched nerve in early June, the answer to this might actually be Dallas Keuchel.

* Clayton Kershaw The God

I spoke about him earlier but felt that Kershaw needed his own section. His continuing brilliance is so taken for granted. I realize most people consider him the best pitcher in baseball, but I think we are all still slow to accept him as one of the greatest pitchers ever. He's certainly put up numbers that put him there. Now, one can argue Randy Johnson at his peak was more dominant, or Roger Clemens, or Greg Maddux, or Pedro Martinez (damn, the period from 1990-2005 had some ridiculous pitching), but Kershaw is right there. He is on pace to continue one of the most ridiculous streaks in baseball - lowering his career ERA for a 9th successive season. He entered with a career ERA of 2.37, and he's at 2.18 this year. He had a brief spell early in the season when he wasn't THAT dominant - to where people were putting up Max Scherzer or Chris Sale - but Kershaw seemingly fixed whatever was wrong the last month. Dating back to 2011, when he first broke out and won the Cy Young at 23, he's put up 6+1/2 year of 2.08 ERA, 179 ERA+, and a K/BB ratio of 5.75. This isn't normal, people. I really want to see him put up a dominant 2nd half and win his 4th Cy Young. It's been too long since he won a Cy Young last (all the way back in 2014). We need GOAT Kershaw back.

* Can the Rockies & D'Backs keep it up?

The best story of the 1st half was the Rockies and D'Backs rise from nothing into playoff contenders. For the D'Backs, the collapse would have to be really something truly outlandish for them to miss the playoffs at this point. For the Rockies, the prospect of them falling back to the pack (ie: the runner-up in the NL Central) seems more scarily likely. Both teams, beyond being so much better than anticipated, have been so fun. There's a bunch of random things I like about them, like the Rockies seemingly figuring out how to pitch in Coors Field with these no-name guys, or the D'Backs parade of ex-2011 Top Prospects doing so well. Then there's the D'Backs propensity to start games at 7:40 MST (these are the only two teams in the Mountain Time Zone). I really want them both to continue to play great. Hopefully with the return of Jon Gray the Rockies will get back on track. Either team could make a trade to bolster them further as well. The NL was set up to be so predictable this year, and while in a way there still may not be much drama down the stretch, it is predictable in the best way, with seemingly bad teams doing well.

* Can the Astros & Dodgers be historic?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

MLB Season at the Half, Pt. 1 - First Half Retrospective

As each team enters its final series before The Greatest Home Run Derby of our Time happens next Monday, I wanted to recap where we are in one of the most enjoyable baseball seasons in a while - not only due to the Astros so far being a juggernaut.

** Quick aside on the Home Run Derby. Not only do we get Giancarlo Stanton (in his home park) and the monster that is Aaron Judge, we get a night WITHOUT CHRIS BERMAN!!! **

Again, I promise this won't be strictly about the Astros being a juggernaut. Sure, it is fun that they are. It is fun that they are on pace for 109. They have three of the top players in the AL by WAR in Springer, Altuve and Correa (who is still just twenty-fucking-two). Sure, maybe they need another arm as a starter, and having a third dependable pitcher to throw along with Keuchel anad McCullers, but I am not going to quibble. 

At the end of the day, the Astros were supposed to be good. Maybe not this good (no one is supposed to be 108-54 good), but they were supposed to be the best team in the AL West. This was supposed to be the start of great things for them, ideally for a long, long time. Let's remember Sports Illustrated famously ran a cover story in 2014 title "Houston Astros, your 2017 World Series Champions." In that way, we are right on schedule.

So beyond the Astros brilliance, what else do we have going for us in this here 2017 MLB season - well, just about everything, from two NL West teams rising from teh ashes, to the continuing incredible run the Brewers are on, to the equally dominant run of the Dodgers, to magical pitching performances, to the rise of Home Runs which at this point seem fully due to slight changes in the ball.

My favorite (non-Astros) story is really the simultaneous rise of the Rockies and Diamondbacks. Sure, teh Rockies have come on some relative hard times, but they've also banked enough wins to still be solid postseason bets. The Diamondbacks are further along to where it will take quite a collapse (and a rise of a team languishing around .500) to push them out. The NL West has been the league's most consistently boring division for a while now. The Dodgers would win it. The Giants would get a wild card - and every other year win the World Series. The Rockies and Padres were mired in never-ending rebuilds, and the D'Backs, sick of going around .500 every year, made some dubiously stupid trades and became a laughingstock.

Well, a year later, all hail the D'Backs and Rockies. For Arizona, this is the team they imagined building last year when Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart went all in. That didn't work. They both got fired. A year later their dream is coming true. Paul Goldschmidt, after years of quietly being great, seems like a good lock for NL MVP. Zack Greinke is pitching like an ace. AJ Pollock is back. Robbie Ray is back healthy. Their whole approach of assemble a bunch of 2012 great pitching prospects has been largely hit or miss with Patrick Corbin struggling and Shelby Miller requiring Tommy John, but with Archie Bradley reborn in the pen.

The Rockies approach seems to be more luck based, as they've already fallen off but having Nolan Arenado finally playing for a good team has been a joy. The Rockies should be good. Denver is a great market, Coors Field is a beautiful ballpark. If we can get a repeat of Rocktober this year it would be fantastic for baseball. The Rockies have succeeding largely on the back of finding ground-ball heavy pitchers to try to supress offense in that ballpark. It's worked more than it should have given these still aren't great pitchers, but at the very least the Rockies have a workable strategy.

I'm concentrating more on the NL because this year the two leagues have been very distinct. The AL has a jumbled mess where pretty much every team is still somewhat in the wild card race, and there are only two teams that seem close to playoff locks in the Astros and Red Sox. In the NL you can really pencil in the Dodgers, Nationals and D'Backs at this point, and there is a whole host of teams that are basically already out, but it is two of those teams that are 'out' that gave another example of baseball's beauty.

Going into the season, the NL seemed boring, with three clear best teams in the divisions (Dodgers, Nationals, Cubs - two for three ain't bad), and the leading Wild Card contenders seemed to be the Giants and Mets. Well, that's where the 'That's Baseball, Susan' of it all comes into play. The Giants have struggled so badly, with bad years from their starting pitching, worst of all being Madison Bumgarner getting hurt in an ATV accident. The Mets had the Bumgarner situation times ten, with injuries and scandals with basically all of their supposed-to-be great pitchers.

Finally, the Cubs, whose struggles are so weird, so unthinkable, and, given my still flaming hatred of my old NL Central rival, so enjoyable. They looked untouchable last year, setting sail on a multi-year long dynasty. And a year later they are playing jump-rope with .500. Whats weirder is that they haven't been unlucky. By all accounts on how they've played, they should be about .500. The starting pitching has struggled (who knew, Kyle Hendricks, wasn't going to continue to be Greg Maddux!). The record-breaking defense has regressed to just average. The offense that looked so deep and powerful last year has cratered, with Kyle Schwarber doing so bad he was sent to the minors to clear his head. Even Kris Bryant has gone from being MVP-level to merely very good. The Cubs probably will overtake the Brewers at some point (if only to avoid having to figure out how exactly the Brewers are doing what they are), but for now it is fun to watch them struggle.

And in a way, it is a good example of why I shouldn't get too excited about the Astros - we could very well be the Cubs 12 months from now. Admittedly, if in the intervening 12 months we win the World Series, I definitely won't complain.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.