It’s pretty rare that I use this blog to post anything about my life, but I’m going to now, beginning with a little explanation of why. For those who don’t know, I’m coming out of a very difficult half-year, dominated by the fact that my dad Mike O’Brian was diagnosed with brain cancer in June and died in December.
The whole thing felt like a slow-motion car crash, a catastrophe that unfolded day by day. Initially, I kept people informed via mass email, but in September transitioned over to a CaringBridge site. There, I wrote a summary of what had happened, and (along with my mom) added occasional updates on the story as it developed. About a month after Dad’s death, I wrote the story of his last day and posted it to that CaringBridge site.
There’s more I want to document about the subsequent time, but my mom has asked that I put that story elsewhere, as she feels that the “last day” post is a good cap on the site. So the story is going here! I want to talk about the next few days after Dad died. It won’t be as comprehensive as that final CaringBridge post, but I do want to capture some of the lovely and ridiculous moments from those days.
I grew up in a suburb of Denver called Aurora. I currently live in a differentsuburb of Denver, and my sister Jenny lives in Los Angeles. My mom still lives in Aurora, and that’s where my dad’s surgery and subsequent care took place as well. He spent his last few months at an excellent skilled nursing facility called The Springs at St. Andrew’s, though we usually just called it St. Andrew’s.
Dad died on a Friday, and Jenny had booked a flight to Denver for Saturday afternoon. Mom and I headed out that morning to clean out his room at St. Andrew’s. As soon as we got there, we were greeted with so much love and compassion by the floor nurses, the CNAs, and everyone. Even the housekeeper came and gave us both big hugs. It’s a staff of such good people.
It was not a surprise, but it still was a shock to walk into his room without him in it. Everything else was just as we’d left it the night before. The hospice staff had transported his body to the mortuary the night before, after we’d left. We had to take a moment to absorb that scene — it had a feeling of finality to it. After that moment, we packed everything up, put it in our cars, and carried it into her house.
We called the mortuary to make sure everything was going smoothly — Dad would be cremated, and his ashes interred with military honors at Ft. Logan National Cemetery, since he was in the Air Force from age 17 to 21. It’s not that those years of service were a huge part of his identity, though. More that it’s a free burial — he was the kind of guy who would always strive to take advantage of any benefit to which he was entitled.
That afternoon, Jenny arrived and we all went out to dinner. I think we were all a bit shell-shocked still. The previous day had been quite an emotional wringer. We just started talking, sharing stories and reminiscing about my dad. We’ve been incredibly blessed through this process by the fact that all three of us have been on the same page — mentally, emotionally, practically. It was easy to make care decisions, because we were all coming from the same basic set of values: quality over quantity, better days rather than more days.
Similarly, when we talked, we felt free to talk about the full 360-degree picture of him — the parts that could be difficult, or scary, or frustrating, right alongside the parts that were generous, loving, and incredibly helpful. It felt so good to be able to speak with affection about the whole person, rather than feeling the urge to somehow beatify him once he was gone. It made our appreciation and our grief feel grounded rather than performative. I made it home late that night, after the rest of my family was in bed, and found a sweet display of special stuffed animals arranged around a sign that simply said, “We love you. We’re here for you.” It’s a good family I’ve got.
I hadn’t been home for a couple of days, so I was very grateful for my shower the next morning, and even more grateful for the chance to tell Laura about what had transpired after she left on Friday, and how it felt. Before long, though, I headed back down to Aurora, to start tackling the many tasks.
There’s an enormous amount to do after a family member dies. In the case of a spouse, there are all manner of financial and administrative contacts and errands, getting accounts and memberships set to the correct status, canceling or updating subscriptions, and so forth. My parents made this a bit easier on themselves by having most things in both their names, but just taking inventory of all the necessary work was a job in itself. Luckily, my friend Tina had provided some excellent resources for surviving spouses that at least gave us a basis from which to work.
Then on top of all this, you have to plan an event! We knew that Dad wouldn’t have wanted a religious service (and he had said so in his estate planning documents), so that meant finding an event venue, hopefully nearby. We agreed on the format — Jenny and I would give eulogies, and then we’d invite all present to share their memories and stories. This is my favorite kind of memorial service — I guess it’s again that 360-degree view, seeing the person through all the lenses of those around him. Jenny did the research, and we settled on some venues to visit the next day.
That night, at Jenny’s request, we had a Christmas-light hunting expedition. Some people in the suburbs absolutely love to light up and decorate their houses, and from the time I could drive I would always make sure to go look at wild house lights at least once during the Christmas season, generally with my family in tow. It’s ridiculous fun and always puts me in the spirit. Apparently Los Angeles (at least Jenny’s area of it) seems to lack this vibe, so she’d really been missing this event. Thus, out we went into the Aurora night!
The suburbs did not disappoint. We always pick out some destination houses (generally based on newspaper or web listings) but allow for numerous side trips as different displays catch our eye. With a wide variety of holiday music on in the car, we treat ourselves to all the peculiar and magnificent work that people put into lighting up the night. Possibly my favorite was the yard filled with, I swear, at least fifty different inflatable decorations, including a holiday avocado whose hat read “Guac-in’ Around the Christmas Tree.” As my mom said, “Look at all those guys!”
The next day, we spent the morning resting and dealing with some of the online tasks, and then ventured out again, to check out event spaces. We started with lunch, though, at a sushi restaurant where all the sushi is on conveyor belts — you can order from the menu if you want, but it’s easier and more fun to just grab a plate off the belt when something good-looking passes by. They’re small plates, with a small charge for each, so you end up making a meal out of lots of different choices. It was incredibly enjoyable.
We chose that restaurant because it was reasonably close to our first stop on the Aurora event venue tour. Rather than name the venues (because some of these stories are pretty silly), I’m just going to number them. Venue #1 was quite familiar to me, because I had spent a bunch of time there about 15 years ago. See, I work for the University of Colorado Boulder today, but back then I worked for the umbrella IT organization that serves all CU campuses, which include locations in Colorado Springs and Denver. At the time, we were going through the process of selecting a new student system to replace our antiquated mainframe, which would soon no longer be supported. All those vendor demos took place at Venue #1, because it was more or less centrally located between those three campuses. Oh the many PowerPoints and awkward live tryouts I witnessed there.
We spoke to the Sales Manager for this place, a lively character named Roxie, who took us through all the details in clipped, colorful sentences. The most memorable part works better as a spoken story than a text story, but I’ll give it a shot. She’s laying out for us all the various pieces involved — the catering, the tables, the video projection, the sound. She says, “So I’m thinking we’ll put a podium up front that anybody can speak from. Mike will be up there.”
At this point I jumped in, a little agitated. “No, no, no,” I said. “This is not that kind of service. He’s being cremated. His body will not be present.” She looked at me, utterly bewildered at what I was on about. My sister then realized my misunderstanding, and clarified that Roxie meant “Mic will be up there”, as in “microphone.” She then turned to Roxie to explain that my Dad’s name was Mike, and we all had a good laugh.
Venue #2 was listed as an event venue on a web search, but when we arrived we found its full billing was actually “Sports Bar and Event Venue”. Even the front door was in full sports bar mode — neon beer signs, Broncos posters, et cetera. This was immediately feeling hilariously wrong, but we’d come this far, so in we went. It turned out that the event manager was unavailable at the time we arrived, but her assistant led us to the venue space.
To get to the venue space, you’re pretty much going through the bar itself, which at this time of day (like 2pm on a Monday) had several guys sitting around loudly, good-naturedly, and (I suspect) drunkenly arguing about some kind of tournament or something. We’d catch bellowed phrases like, “Well I was in first place until THIS GUY came along and put up HUGE numbers and I was like WHAT THE HELL???” The picture of a parade of elderly mourners coming through here was getting more amusing by the minute.
Then we went into the space itself, which was dominated by an enormous bar, along with a few widely scattered tables and chairs, with several steps down from the bar area to a larger floor. There were large windows that overlooked a golf course. That part my dad would have liked, but the rest of it… yeah, wrong ambience altogether.
Jenny had had a somewhat confusing conversation with the event manager for Venue #3. As we were driving out there, she explained that the guy had a fairly thick Indian (i.e. South Asian) accent, but she believed he had said we needed to go through the restrooms to get to the venue? This seemed super wrong, but we drove out there anyway, to a spaced-out strip mall, and started looking for restroom doors near the address. There was a big curry place there, and pretty soon we figured out that she had probably heard “go through the RESTAURANT”, but that the message had gotten garbled a bit.
We went into the restaurant, and indeed connected with the event manager, who took us into the space. He started explaining how the space worked. They had their own fog machine. They had laser lights. There was a space where our DJ could set up, or a stage for a band. The dance floor was strategically located between all these features. As he walked off explaining some other thing to Mom, Jenny whispered to me, “He definitely does not remember that I said this was for a funeral service.” No kidding.
We got back to the car and laughed our heads off. Venue #1 was the clear winner! I did not expect it to be quite so difficult or weird to find good choices for event spaces in Aurora, but those three were the top contenders, and two of them turned out to not be contenders at all. I mean, they might be great for a birthday party or fantasy football draft or something. Memorial, not so much.
That night Jenny made a delicious dinner for the 3 of us, after which I headed home. She was leaving the next day, but we found time to have one more delightful lunch together. Our curry-flavored explorations the previous day had put us in the mood for Indian food, so we searched around for someplace nearby that had a good buffet. I found it at a place called the Yak & Yeti.
When I told my mom this name, she was incredulous. “Is that really the name or are you being funny?” I couldn’t see what was funny about it until my sister started singing, “Tweedly-deedly-deet! Tweedly-deedly-deet!” to the tune of “Rockin’ Robin.” Oh yakkin’ yeti yeah we’re really gonna yak tonight.
Once home, we made some final decisions for the event, and my sister called Roxie to get the process started. We also started sifting through photos to include in a video slideshow. Jenny’s husband Ryan kinda blew my mind by activating Apple’s facial recognition software to immediately identify all pictures that had my dad in them. I knew I’d need to find the Windows version of that, which I did, though it was never quite as satisfying.
Finally, she was headed to the airport. It was strange — these four days following an awful event were weirdly wonderful. I felt carried by the deep kinship I had with my people — not just blood kinship but true spiritual and emotional kinship — and I hope they felt a little bit carried by me too. When my dad was in his last few hours here on planet Earth, we told him he could go, that we’d be okay. And at least for those four days, we were.
Oh my it’s been a year. I know that pretty much every person who lives long enough will witness their parents declining and dying, but the commonness of the experience didn’t stop it from feeling utterly unique to me. My dad experienced a health catastrophe in June — a glioblastoma diagnosis, and then a massive stroke during the craniotomy to remove his tumors. He died on December 9th. That experience obviously left the biggest mark on my year, but it was a year of pain and loss in other ways too. Two key colleagues at my job — one my boss and one my peer — moved on to better opportunities within a few months of each other, and both shortly after Dad’s health crashed. Also around the same time I underwent a major change in my role at work, a change that is definitely for the best but that still felt like another loss.
I’m so grateful, though, that through all this, Laura and Dante have remained rock-solid. Their steady support has been an incredible comfort through all this other turbulence, and their presence has been the source of some of this year’s sweetest memories. In particular, Dante and I went on a wonderful Pacific Northwest college-visit trip in the spring, meeting with Laura at the end in Portland, where she’d gone for a library conference. Then, just after Dad’s surgery, the three of us visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, staying at a marvelous and unique vacation rental when we weren’t out exploring.
It’s a blessing to have those times to look back on, and there have been some silver linings to the other parts too. Mom and I have spent a ton more time together — I saw her and Dad pretty much every weekend while he was alive, as well as some weekdays where she and I took care of all the various pieces of financial and logistical business that all this spawned. Even though the reason is shitty, I’m glad to have spent all that time with her. And though I’m way out of my comfort zone at work, as Laura always says, when you leave that zone you find it’s larger when you come back.
Musically, I’ve spent time as usual doing deep dives on albums alongside exploring new reaches via Spotify. There’s some music that I finally checked out after long intending to, some stuff from beloved artists who had newer material, some left-field finds from random experimentation, and some things that just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I also saw my first concert since the pandemic — Stevie Nicks at Red Rocks, which, come on, I wasn’t going to not see. It was outdoors, and felt safe enough to me. When I was there, it felt like revisiting a part of myself I’d locked away for a long time.
This mix kind of shook out into thematic pieces, and that’s the arrangement that felt best to me, so it really moves from one major destination to the next, starting at home.
1. Steve Forbert – Romeo’s Tune
I came across this song in a really sideways fashion. For a while there pre-pandemic, I had a side gig putting together trivia rounds for a pub quiz company, including audio “name the artist” rounds. I made one with a “Romeo and Juliet” theme, and unearthed this gem while searching for tunes to fit the theme. I was totally unaware of this song when it was popular, and it never got any play on local radio, but I absolutely loved it when I found it. That made me search out a Forbert collection, another piece of which will appear a little later on. As for this song, I find it to be a sweet tribute to the comfort of a strong relationship.
2. Taylor Swift – Sweet Nothing
With every passing year, I become more and more of a Swiftie, I was listening to folklore on repeat right as I passed from this year’s listening period into the next one — so look for that on next year’s mix — but right at the end of October, Midnights came out and I switched into listening to that on repeat. On one level, I don’t exactly vibe with this song, because I don’t think it’s a real thing (or at least a good thing) for a relationship to demand nothing from you.
But at the same time, there are times when the world can feel so demanding, when it’s so healing to come home to someone who knows you and only needs you to be you, and be there. That’s how I take this song. With everything going on in the latter half of the year, it sometimes felt like I was on a Twister mat, just trying to cover everything and adjust to whatever new things come up. At home, at least some of the time, I’m able to untwist.
3. Frightened Rabbit – An Otherwise Disappointing Life
Again, on one level this isn’t me. I’m not disappointed with life overall. But this year has been filled with disappointments, disasters, and frustrations outside my door, so it’s an immense relief to have a choir at home to sing my life back to life. Frightened Rabbit mostly trades in depression and despair (though they make it sound incredible musically), so I love it when they let just a little bit of hope peek through.
4. The Who – Break The News
During the period when a ton of stuff was unfolding every day, I’d come home nightly and just tell the whole story to Laura. She would listen, and witness, and it was the best thing anyone could do for me. In the slow-motion car crash that was June, July, and August, there was so much to take in, and talking through it was crucial to processing it all. This song has a bit of ambiguity to it — it could be read as the words of somebody who only tells the good things, so as to keep the happiness flowing, but I see it as being allowed to break the news, speak the truth, as long as the other person lets you.
It’s interspersed with sweet images of closeness, hearkening back to earlier days of the relationship, but leavened with the security that comes with a longtime connection. “If there’s an answer, we’ll find it without doubt.” “We fell through time and space / And cast upon this place / And so far we’ve been saved.” And most of all, “Life’s amazing, but it’s been a bumpy road.”
5. Regina Spektor feat. Ben Folds – Dear Theodosia
This year I listened to The Hamilton Mixtape, a wild ride of various artists covering, reinterpreting, or riffing on songs from the musical. This one feels so precious to me — a moving crystallization at the feeling of wonder you can get from your own child. Watching Dante bloom this year has knocked me out. He has turned into this person who knows what he wants, and is deeply dedicated to making the most of his opportunities. He takes a raft of challenging classes and involves himself in a bunch of extracurriculars, mostly centered around making a better world — High School Democrats, Environmental Advocacy, National Organization for Women, Sexuality & Gender Alliance.
Then on top of that, he’s thrown himself into the cello, practicing hours and hours a day in the summer, and finding time even during school to keep his chops up. This summer (and extending into the fall), he worked a job he disliked at KFC so that he could save up the money needed to upgrade his cello, and in the spring we spent many an hour driving to various string shops around here so that he could upgrade his bow. He’s blowing me away already, and I can only imagine what’s to come.
6. America – Ventura Highway
This spring, Dante and I visited some colleges together. He wants to pursue a forestry major, and had done some research into what schools a) have the best forestry programs, and b) are places he’d want to spend four years. We built our visits from that list, starting with a drive up to Colorado State in Fort Collins. Then we flew to Seattle to visit the University of Washington, and drove down to Oregon State in Corvallis. After that, we headed to Portland to meet up with Laura and some longtime friends of hers, some of whom live in Portland and another one of whom was there for the same library conference as Laura was.
The visits were great, and one of the fun parts was that during the drives, we traded off who would pick the album we listened to. So Dante got to hear a lot of classic rock (among other things), and I got to hear a lot of video game soundtracks. One of my picks was America’s Greatest Hits, and this song in particular always brings me back to those drives together. Also, we had a lot of fun dissecting how truly weird their songs can be sometimes. Alligator lizards in the air?
7. Austin Wintory – Nascence
Now it’s only fair to include one of the video game songs. This is a special song for a lot of reasons, and it requires a bit of explanation. For years now, Dante has been a fan of certain video game music composers, and one of his favorites is a guy named Austin Wintory, in particular his compositions for a game called Journey, which follows a traveler through the desert on a symbol-laden, uh, journey. “Nascence” is the first song on the Journey soundtrack.
Dante loved these songs so much that when he had the opportunity to nominate a song for his school orchestra to play last fall, he selected a song called “Apotheosis” from the Journey soundtrack. His teacher agreed to have the orchestra play that song, and asked Dante to play the cello solo, which is a challenging piece of music. Basically, it’s the motif you hear at the beginning of this piece, but played much lower down on the cello’s strings, so that the tones are pitched high and hard to keep in tune. As I learned from Dante’s college essays this year, it was that experience, of focusing on making that solo good, that inspired the passionate commitment he’s acquired for his instrument.
This year, we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, an environment that looks a lot like the setting of Journey, and while we were still playing the album rotation game from the spring during our drives, we agreed that as we approached the park, we should play the Journey soundtrack. This song filled the car as we got closer and closer to those dunes, and it will always, always make me think of that day, of Dante, and all the hundreds of times I heard him practice those notes. He still plays it today, just for fun.
8. Indigo Girls – Muster
One more “parent” song. I dove deep into Look Long this year, and I really appreciate how Amy and Emily are incorporating their experience as parents into their music. I tend to feel pretty hopeless about the gun issue in America, but this song both puts that issue into a broader context and also brings in a little hope, with the promise of persistent dedication and the inspirational image of the Parkland kids. This song also connects to a movie I saw this year called Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a documentary that draws a pretty clear connection between her recovery — slow, agonizing, partial — and our ability to push against the culture that proliferates gun warfare throughout our country. But stepping back, progress is visible. And possible.
9. MARINA – Man’s World
This is one of those off-the-wall tracks that Spotify served up to me, and it caught my ear. She is apparently Welsh! (Just like my friend Siân, a recipient of this mix gift.) I like the production, and the sound of her voice, and the central statement appeals to me. I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore either.
10. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I wasn’t super wild about this album overall — I tend to prefer the less slick versions of both Lewis and Rilo Kiley. But this song is a gorgeous exception to the overall tone of the album, and one of her all-time best. Most of the songs on this mix I relate to personally in some way, but this one is just a lovely piece of writing, attached to a touching piece of music, produced well and sung with sincerity. That’s enough!
11. The Decemberists – Make You Better
I was never a Decemberists fan — not that I didn’t like their stuff, but I just never made the effort to get to know it. This song was my way in, this year. I heard it on a Spotify playlist and was immediately captivated by the killer chorus, the excellent bridge, and the grainy harmonies. I like a band that harmonizes male and female parts, like the New Pornographers, or Jefferson Airplane, or, well, Fleetwood Mac.
12. Simon and Garfunkel – Fakin’ It
Speaking of harmonies. This album has been with me for pretty much the entire time I’ve cared anything about music, which is to say about 45 years, and different songs speak to me at different times. In the beginning of this year, I was trying to make the best of a weird work situation, and “Fakin’ It” could have been my theme song. I mean, I always have some amount of impostor syndrome going on, but this year has felt even more like frantic ad-libbing than usual — pretty much the minute the work situation was resolved, I was already trying to grope my way through the wholly unfamiliar terrain of terminal illness, medical bureaucracy, and omnipresent grief.
13. Frightened Rabbit – Break
Into that landscape stepped this song. Those moments when I want to hear a song over and over, learn it by heart, are precious and rare for me anymore, but WOW did this one ever vault over that fence. I identify with pieces of it so much. I was listening to it amidst work struggles that felt just like “off the ledge throwing punches”, and bending so I don’t break has been pretty much the order of the summer and fall. I did lots of driving back and forth to my home town of Aurora during my Dad’s illness, and I had a very memorable drive where I just sang my head off to this song on repeat — very cathartic.
14. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Minstrel Boy
From Scotland to Ireland. Part of the cruelty of my Dad’s condition was that the stroke didn’t just stop his body — it broke his senses too. He had severe double vision that prevented him from reading or watching video. In addition, his hearing (or perhaps his auditory processing) became muffled and distorted, which interfered not only with conversation but with music. It was unclear at first how severe this impairment was, and in the early days of his recovery we used to ask him if there was anything he wanted to hear. The answer was always “Minstrel Boy”.
He had various versions of this (and many many other folk songs) on his phone, but the Clancy Brothers’ rendition always seemed to bring him the most pleasure. Why he found this song and this version so compelling I don’t know, but I cherish the memory of his closed eyes and half-smile when it began to play. He later slipped away from the place where this worked for him anymore, but it was a sweet moment on the path.
15. Steve Forbert – January 23-30, 1978
As I said, I’ve been making a lot of trips to my old hometown over the last several months, so the mood of this song works for me right now. Not that I’m hanging out with old friends, but I am definitely visiting or passing by a lot of old haunts, kind of inevitably, and helping out with my childhood home. It’s a feeling that combines a sense of time travel with a sense of dreaming, because some things are exactly the same, and other things are so different. It feels strange, but as Steve says, “Life is strange, oh yes, but compared to what?”
16. The Eagles – Peaceful Easy Feeling
This song connects to my favorite movie of the year, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. This came to me kind of unexpectedly — I knew nothing about the viral videos that had come out in 2010, 2011, and 2014. I just went into it knowing it had gotten great reviews, and oh my gosh how I loved it. I don’t want to talk it up too much, but seriously, give it a try. It’s not just funny (it’s hilarious), it’s also a profound meditation on grief, loss, letting go, and moving forward. It was the perfect movie at the perfect time for me, and this song plays an important part in it.
17. The Zombies – Brief Candles
I always loved “Time Of The Season”, “She’s Not There”, and “Tell Her No”, but I’d never gone any further with The Zombies. Then they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as Stevie Nicks, so of course I watched the ceremony and saw this incredible outpouring of love for their album Odessey and Oracle. I gave the album a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. Picking a track for this collection, at the time I was pulling it together, this one just jumped out at me, not just as the right song to include but an impeccable title track as well.
18. The Alan Parsons Project – Old and Wise
A nice side effect of listening to more Zombies was to give me a deeper appreciation of Colin Blunstone’s voice, and in turn his vocal contribution to this Alan Parsons Project track that I’ve liked since high school, and that I absolutely love now. I can’t put into words what this song brings me today. It’s exactly what I need, and the peace it expresses is all I could wish for my dad.
19. Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero
Almost anything would be an anticlimax after the last song, but “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser” feels like a pretty divine transition. Like I said, I ended October listening to Midnights on repeat, and while there are plenty of good songs on that album, this one is a clear standout. Not only is it a brilliantly catchy melody, it also beautifully articulates familiar feelings of self-doubt and inner criticism. Every time I hear it, I want to hear it again. Pretty great video, too — a deft mix of comedy and parts psychology.
20. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart / Bella Donna (live)
For the end of this collection, I wanted to revisit one of the best moments of the year for me — Stevie Nicks’ return to Red Rocks over the summer. She had held off touring during COVID, so I hadn’t seen her for a long time. In fact, I hadn’t seen anybody in concert since before the pandemic started. Her set list hadn’t changed much from her pre-COVID shows, but that’s okay, because she’d gotten more adventurous at that point. Case in point is this medley of the title tracks from her first two albums — I never expected to hear either of these songs, because I suspect she’s not capable of singing some of the parts anymore. This blend skirts those tough parts, and is more than satisfying to me.
21. Stevie Nicks – Rock and Roll (live)
This was the final song of Stevie’s show, and it felt so perfect. It really had been a long time! I still get goosebumps hearing it now — it felt like all 8,000+ of us were re-embracing life and joy in that moment. I know I’ve put this on a previous collection, and I usually try not to repeat stuff, but this cover took on whole new layers of meaning for me this year, and there was no other choice for an end to this collection.
That’s all for 2022! Eyes closed, deep breath, eyes open, and forward.
Happy New year, and happy new 2021 music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2021 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.
This is my first full year in quite a while with no album assignments — that project remains on semi-permanent hiatus while we continue to deal with what’s thrown at us. In its place, I really dove into Spotify this year, trying out random playlists from all over the place to find new songs to love. Several of those show up in this mix, along with stalwart favorites like Neko Case, Tori Amos, and Stevie Nicks. This was also the year my iPod finally gave up the ghost, and I kept my listening records in Spotify rather than iTunes, though I sometimes had to make notes about what was missing.
As usual, I tried to craft the mix with a bit of flow to it, an art that relies much more on the gut than the head. Sometimes songs would join up like puzzle pieces, based on a sound or a mood or a theme. Gradually those joined up pieces accumulated until they made bigger pieces, which eventually fit together like tectonic plates — not seamless but close enough. By the time the order was finalized, I felt like it told a story, which is the best I can hope for these mixes. Here are my stories behind the songs.
1. Muse – Apocalypse Please
On January 1, I posted the liner notes from last year’s mix, ending with the words, “Here’s to a brighter 2021.” Five days later, United States senators were dropping to the floor of the chamber, hiding under tables, and attempting to crawl to safety as a mob of armed lunatics stormed the Capitol building, beating the crap out of cops while waving “thin blue line” flags. To me, it felt pretty apocalyptic. I never thought I’d live through a coup attempt in my own country, especially one that felt more driven by nihilism and stupidity than any particular revolutionary philosophy. So much for a brighter 2021.
2. Pink Floyd – Goodbye Blue Sky
I love the gently sinister feeling of this song, the pretty voices mixing with the stark words. “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on” really captures a 2021 feeling for me. During the Trump presidency, every day felt like it brought fresh horrors, and this year didn’t feel like that, thank god. But there’s still so much pain happening — the never-ending pandemic (thanks for that by the way, unvaccinated people), the economy struggling to deal with new realities, the ongoing partisan nastiness lurking around every corner, and a world that just seems to keep getting hotter. When Dante heard this mix, he asked me if this song was meant to refer to the way that all summer, wildfire smoke clouded the sky. I hadn’t thought of that connection, but it sure fits.
3. Simon & Garfunkel – The Times They Are A-Changin’
As I was putting this part of the mix together, a feeling of familiarity kept nagging at me. Finally I uncovered it — I used both this song and “Goodbye Blue Sky” in my 2016 mix. It feels fitting that they surfaced again for me, though with the cover/original relationships reversed (in 2016 I used Heart’s version of “Blue Sky” and Dylan’s original of “The Times”.) That year, I even framed “The Times” as hopeful, and this early Simon & Garfunkel rendition certainly feels full of freshness, youth, and enthusiasm. But I just can’t shake the way that “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall / For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled / The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls” has a new and horrifying resonance.
4 and 5. Genesis – Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974
I don’t think I’d ever really given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway a fair shake, or maybe there was a long time where I just wasn’t quite ready for it. This was Peter Gabriel’s last album with Genesis, and while I love them both, this album had never fully engaged me. For a long time I had a homemade cassette with songs plucked from it, labelled “Lamb Chops” (yes, thank you, it is awfully clever, isn’t it?), but looking back that was a pretty strange thing to do with a concept album. So this year I spent some time with it, or at least the first disc of it, and really enjoyed it back to front. It’s Peter Gabriel leveling up, before he was about to really level up.
Nevertheless, whether through familiarity or preference, it was the “Chops” songs I gravitated to even on this listen. The moment in “Fly on a Windshield” where the band kicks in still blows me away, and the image felt fitting in connection with the previous 3 songs. Then there’s the bizarre parade of cultural figures that floats through the “Broadway Melody.” I enjoy list songs, and this is a really off-the-wall one. For me, it brings to mind the way the pile-up of input that comes through all channels can start to feel grotesque, with even familiar and beloved figures beginning to take on a menacing cast.
6. Neko Case – Oracle of the Maritimes
I felt like the ending of “Broadway Melody” blended really nicely into the beginning of this one, taking us from the center of Times Square with everyone stepping on everyone else, to a lonely boat with a mysterious oarsman. This for me was the standout song from Neko’s 2018 album Hell-On, the one that felt most like her Middle Cyclone tracks — my favorite period of hers, and one that will appear later on this mix. I love the surreal, dreamlike lyrics (“ride a chest of drawers into the waves”), and of course I find her voice endlessly thrilling, especially as it rises above doubt, fear, and confusion to a crescendo of self-affirmation. It’s a song that never fails to elevate me. And oh man that cello — Dante’s playing has improved to the point that now I get to hear a lot of lovely cello in my house, and it really makes me appreciate when one shows up in a pop song.
7. HAIM – The Steps
Speaking of self-affirmation. It’s rare anymore that a song will grab me so hard that I have to listen to it on repeat for days, but that’s what happened as soon as I heard this one. I think it’s my favorite song on this mix, which is part of why I made it the “title track.” (The other part is because so many of the feelings in these songs make up the steps I went through this year, often over and over.) I was never really on the HAIM train (or the Haim train? I feel like I see conflicting versions of how they style their name) before this, but holy cow do I love this song, just everything about it. The California instrumentation, the frustrated/resigned lyrics, the swooping melody, the power harmonies, the emotion-drenched vocal… whew. This was one I ran across on Spotify, and I’m so glad I did.
8. IX Reflections – New Man’s Born
Here’s another Spotify discovery — this band came up on some playlist I stumbled across, and their sound immediately captivated me. I switched over from the playlist to their one full album, and by the time I’d finished listening to it once, it went on my “to buy” list. It turns out they are quite an obscure band, without even a Wikipedia page to their name. They’re on facebook, though, where I learned that they are a “Moscow darkwave band”. So… I guess I like Russian goth synth music? I sure do love this album, and in particular this song, which feels like the rebirth I needed.
9. Lizzo – Good as Hell
This is a whole different style, but a pretty similar message, I think. I spent some quality time with Lizzo this year, and really appreciated both her music and her persona. I have to say, though, this song has become primarily associated with Nimbus in our house. He’s got a bunch of fluff that looks just like pants, and when he’s on his way somewhere, the vibe is totally “walk your fine ass out the door.”
10. Baby Blue feat. Wretch32 – Run (TDH remix)
The “Spotify finds” section of this mix continues with this song, another one that I randomly ran across and decided I needed to buy. This time I didn’t so much dive into the artist, but I dig this song a lot. Lyrically it’s typical rap braggadocio, but I love her London accent, her “I’m so London / Scratch that, I’m so the world!”, and the beat, which always gets me moving.
11. The 1975 – The Ballad of Me and My Brain
I ran across The 1975 on Spotify, but via an even more sideways process than usual. In searching for Stevie Nicks stuff, I unearthed a podcast called The Face, in which Matty Healy (frontman for the band) interviewed Stevie for over an hour. The interview is super fun, and the two of them have a great rapport, in which it emerges that Stevie is a huge fan of The 1975. Well, that was certainly impetus enough for me to check them out, and sure enough, I loved them and bought their first two albums. This song jumped out because of its fantastic title, and stuck around because of its intriguing sound and playful words.
12. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate
This might look like another Spotify find, but I’ve actually known Kristin (whose real last name is Gundred) for a long time. I first ran across her when she was fronting a band called Grand Ole Party (ugh that name, but the band was wow) opening for Rilo Kiley in 2007. I wrote about it at the time and predicted that Kristin was going to be a big success. And as indie artists go, it kinda seems like she has been! GOP broke up a couple years after I saw them, and Gundred started the band Dum Dum Girls. That lasted for about 8 years, and then she reinvented herself into Kristin Kontrol, with a synthpop feel straight out of the 80s, like IX Reflections but with clearer vocals and the occasional New Order-ish guitar part. In other words, my kinda thing. I think this is my favorite version of Kristin yet.
13. Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In The Dark
Some songs are played so much that they need decades to recover, and this is certainly one of those for me. But I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Bruce in recent years, not just as a singer but as a speaker and a writer. I listened to his autobiography as an audiobook a few years back (highly recommended), and this year I absolutely devoured Renegades, his podcast with Barack Obama. That brought me back to this song in particular, and I gained a deeper appreciation for it not just by hearing it fresh for the first time in a long time, but also because I emotionally connected with it in my ongoing pandemic loneliness. “I ain’t nothin’ but tired / Man I’m just tired and bored with myself” — I really feel that some days.
14. 10,000 Maniacs – These Days
Another melancholy song — Jackson Browne’s original is great, but there’s a special place in my heart for this 10,000 Maniacs version, which somehow feels even more wrenching to me. I wrote last year about how the isolation produced by my change in working habits (along with everybody else I work with) has had some personal downsides for me. Sure, it’s nice not to have to commute, but I find it much more challenging to maintain personal equilibrium when so much of my “social contact” outside of family is via a screen, and some of the cornerstone routines of human connection for me — biweekly D&D games, basement bowl trivia — have just gone away. Now, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in 2020 when everything was really really locked down, and I am grateful for the connections I do have, but there are still those days.
15. Neko Case – I’m An Animal
Here’s Neko again, this time from the classic Middle Cyclone album. This song to me is about the pure need for affection and connection. Typically when we talk about the “animal side” of humans, we’re referring to violence, domination, brutality, and so forth, but here it means the animal need for comfort, Mary Oliver’s “soft animal of your body” that just wants to love what it loves. That’s what this song is about for me, and it flows from the previous two.
16. The Waterboys – And a Bang on the Ear
This one is about affection too, but from a little different direction. I spent about a week with Fisherman’s Blues this year, and found that certain songs on it perfectly embody a mood. “Sweet Thing” is absolute ecstasy, “We Will Not Be Lovers” captures defiance… and this song is quintessentially wistful, or at least it is once you know that a “bang” is a kiss or affectionate pat. It’s not just about romances, either, at least not for me. I feel it as a tour of past selves, returning to memories both happy and painful with a settled affection and grace, a making peace. As I get older, this song moves me more and more. “Not surprisingly,” as Werner Herzog would say.
17. Stevie Nicks – Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?
“You to me are treasure / You to me are dear” says the previous song, and for me this song will always be about my dear treasure of a spouse. 2021 was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we celebrated in a few ways, including ziplining across the Royal Gorge(!). My most precious memory of it, though, is the gift that Laura gave me on the day, a 45 of this song pressed into a frame with an image of the sheet music and quotes from the lyrics. A harpist played it at our wedding, and having it return this way was just profoundly lovely.
18. Tori Amos – Flying Dutchman
Just as the previous song is about Laura for me, this one (and the next) is about Dante, or at least what my imagination projects onto him. Or maybe it’s about me, as I imagine myself onto Dante. His social world is mostly closed to me, but it’s my perception that he doesn’t have many of his own tribe in his life, at least outside of us. I think that’s slowly changing, but it still feels to me like he’s an outlier among his peers, and that they can’t see what he’s born to be. But he’s got his own rocket ship, and I hope one day he finds the planet that’s home to him.
19. Brandi Carlile – The Joke
This is a song in that same vein, and was my entry into appreciating Brandi Carlile. Laura dove into Brandi’s catalog this year much more than I did, but when I heard this song on Spotify, I knew it would be part of this mix. I don’t know that Dante gets harassed in the way that this song implies, but I know that I’ve repeatedly experienced his exasperation with most of his peers and his conscious separation from their juvenile energy. I think that’s changing as he and they get older — as other kids settle down he’s able to find more common ground with them, but even so he’s often pretty well apart from what they find cool, what they find interesting, and what they find funny. But before long the joke will be on them.
20. Dan Wilson – Closing Time
Dan Wilson used to be the lead singer and songwriter of a band called Semisonic, best known for their song “Closing Time”. That band went on a long hiatus in 2001, and Wilson moved into a songwriting career. In that career he wrote or co-wrote some huge hits, including Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This year I listened to his album Re-Covered, in which he sings his own versions of all those songs he helped create, and at the end he performs this absolutely gorgeous version of “Closing Time”, with just piano and a bit of subtle synth. I’ve always adored this song — it’s how I became a Wilson fan in the first place — and it felt like a perfect grace note for this collection. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, and I’m ready for another new beginning.
I’m the same age as the kids in Stranger Things. Like them, I rode my bike around the neighborhood a bunch, loved my Kenner Star Wars stuff, and dropped many a quarter on arcade games. Also like them, I played a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a tween and early teen.
Exact ages and dates are a little hazy behind the mists of time, but my introduction to the game happened on a birthday — 11th or 12th I think. On some gift-giving occasions, my parents would send me on a treasure hunt through the house, following a trail of clues until I finally found a present. On that birthday, I opened a drawer at the end of the trail and found… something?
It was a bunch of solid shapes — a pyramid, a cube, and others with many more sides. Each one was a different color, and each side had a number written on it. They seemed like dice, maybe? The note with them said, “What are these? I don’t know either, but let’s find out together!”
The survivors of that original batch of dice — edges worn down from many rolls!
Then out came the purple box, with the red rule book, each of which sported a picture of a couple of adventurers taking on a big water-dwelling dragon. I learned about the dice, the attribute scores, the combat, and all the other mechanics, and was quite intrigued. But what hooked me was this new kind of game playing, one that combined elements of the board games I loved with themes from the Tolkien and Zelazny books I’d been reading, while at the same time bringing in an element of pure pretend play, a part of childhood I’d been leaving behind with some ambivalence.
My dad was the Dungeon Master for our D&D session that night. I was an elf, lured into an underground vault to uncover its secrets alongside another character played by my mom. I still remember our kitchen table, Dad behind the cardboard screen, narrating our adventure. “You creep as quietly as possible through the dark underground passage. From far off, you hear the sound of water slowly dripping. Your torches illuminate gauzy threads, strung across the passageway AND SUDDENLY A GIANT SPIDER DROPS DOWN FROM THE CEILING!!” Oh man, my mom and I just about jumped out of our skins. But I was enchanted.
That was the last time for a very long time that I got to be a D&D player. I corralled some friends to play, but the only way I could sell the concept was if I was the Dungeon Master. That was okay — I was utterly fascinated with the game, and more than happy to spend hours populating dungeons with monsters and making up narrative threads for my friends’ characters. Through a combination of allowance spending and holiday gifts, I acquired all the advanced rulebooks, and many an adventure module. I even branched out into RPGs (role-playing games) from other genres — science fiction, James Bond spy stuff, and of course Marvel superheroes.
On a regular basis, 3 or 4 kids would gather in my basement and I’d take them through adventures. Or try to. As much as I dug everything about the game, there was always something a touch unsatisfying about those gaming sessions. My friends and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength, and I didn’t have the skill to even identify that, let alone talk about it. I wanted to be transported into a story and soar on the high-flown fantasy of it all, but most of the time everything remained stubbornly prosaic, a hack & slash gold-grubbing exercise, never really suspending disbelief. I suspect that’s down to my lack of skill as a DM, our ages, and the overall awkwardness of role-playing among non-theatrical types.
In any case, after a few years all the RPG stuff got packed away, and we all moved on to other pursuits, including — for me — actual theater. I sold a bunch of D&D modules and such on eBay some time ago, happy to recoup a little money for papers that were just mouldering away in a box. Selling that stuff made me quite sure that the D&D part of my life was over.
Then came Dante. As he became a teenager, Dante began to be deeply interested in game design. He’d always been someone who immediately wanted to make up variants to any game we played together, but as his brain matured, he started seriously exploring whatever gaming avenues he could find and learning about all sorts of genres and mechanics. This led him to discovering some retro roguelikes, in particular Angband. As he unpacked Angband‘s mechanics, he got very interested in their origins, which allowed me to explain to him all about Dungeons and Dragons.
Some of those childhood rulebooks and accessories — I didn’t sell everything!
He wanted to try it. Of course, I’d sold much of my D&D stuff years ago, and I had no concept of the way the game had evolved since. But between the Internet and the resources I still had, I cobbled some rules together, getting as far as helping him put together a character and taking him on the rudimentary beginnings of an adventure. Right after that, magic struck.
I’d been talking to a co-worker of mine socially about Dante’s interest in D&D and well, it turns out her husband is a longtime DM who wanted to start up a campaign again. They invited us to join. I was a little shy about it at first, intimidated by the gulf between my early-teen self and my current self, and all the D&D lore that had gone by in the meantime. But “for Dante’s sake”, I warmed up to it, and we created some characters.
Starting then, and for about 16 months, Dante and I took our dwarven cleric and half-orc barbarian through a series of great adventures. The 5th edition D&D rules are a deep well of delight, and I got to be the D&D player I’d always secretly wanted to be, with a great DM and a great group. During that time, I realized something pretty profound: Dungeons and Dragons played a crucial part in making me who I am today, and some of my most ingrained personality characteristics are either extensions of the D&D aesthetic or attempts to complete the experience I reached for as a kid but couldn’t quite grasp.
Take that theater, for instance. You know one way to get involved in a story, becoming one of the characters? Audition for a play! In improv, you can even invent that character’s direction as you go along! I wouldn’t make the claim that my heavy involvement in high school theater was a direct outgrowth of my preteen D&D session frustrations, but I will say that being in plays scratched an itch that I could never quite get at via RPGs.
Here’s a broader, deeper one: systems and randomness. For all of my adult life, I’ve been someone who makes decisions via diceroll, in the framework of a set of rules. Not huge decisions, mind you (usually), but routine and daily ones. Today I decided to drink water (instead of tea or soda) via diceroll, and also what book I would read — 1950s Ditko/Lee comics on Marvel Unlimited, also selected randomly. I’m focused on writing this post today via a random choice. I’m drinking a beer right now because of what I rolled a half-hour ago.
Writing about it a little over fifteen years ago, I called this habit “a coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice.” And that’s still true. But after returning to D&D, I realized that of course I’d imprinted on this behavior because I fell in love with its manifestation in the D&D rules. One of the most fascinating and incredible things about the game is the way that the dice shape the characters’ lives, taking both mundane and exotic moments in directions that nobody can wholly predict, and around which everyone’s stories must flow. Of course, in the game those dice are merely symbolic of the randomness in the universe, but my personal universe’s randomness comes directly from dice and other random number generators.
Once I started thinking in this direction, I was floored to understand how much of my identity has its roots in the D&D experience. My love for interactive fiction, I realized, is also an attempt to find what childhood RPGing didn’t provide. Even the best IF doesn’t let you have totally free rein to take the story in any direction, but honestly neither does the best RPG session. The best IF does give you an interactive experience with a storyteller who is fully committed to immersing you in a compelling fictional world, with no risk of other humans ruining the vibe. Those hundreds upon hundreds of hours I spent text adventuring had an intrinsic value of their own, of course, but they were also a balm to the part of me that just kept longing for a deep, immersive role-playing experience.
Why was that longing so powerful, that it set me on these lifelong courses of extension and compensation? Judging by the ache that comes up in me when I write about it, I think some part of it is deeply connected to loneliness. By most measures, I’m not a lonely person. I have a family who I genuinely enjoy living with, and friends across many different realms, from workplace to trivia to IF to longtime high school bonds. But looking back on those childhood D&D sessions feels lonely in a specific way: the loneliness of being with people who are all there for a different reason than you are.
That’s nothing against those childhood friends, who were perfectly fine and most likely very patient with my D&D obsession. It’s more about trying to find a match for a part of me, and it not being there. For all the friends and family I have, I still never found that match, until my adventures with Dante and my co-workers.
Getting to have that experience after all, almost forty years after first opening that drawer with the dice inside, was an enormous blessing. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending. Our D&D campaign broke up about 9 months ago, foundering on the pandemic-scarred shoals of some ugly real-life events. According to our DM, it’s not coming back anytime soon, certainly not in 2021.
I miss those gaming sessions terribly, with an outsized grief that I only now understand has been sublimated for most of my life into other forms. Finally assuaging that lonely feeling and then having it come back makes it so much sharper. I really, really want to return to Dungeons and Dragons again, or more specifically, I really really want to be a Dungeons and Dragonsplayer again. That’s where I found the joy for which I’d been unconsciously yearning. Dante hasn’t been grieving it the way I have, of course, and unlike me he’s more into mechanics than story, but I know he hopes to return to the D&D table as well.
Anybody want to run a campaign for a 50-year-old lapsed roleplayer and his gentle, genderqueer 15-year-old son?
It’s January 1, and that means it’s time for another year-end music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2020 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.
As terrible a year as 2020 was, I spent much of it feeling pretty lucky. My job was able to smoothly transition into working safely at home, and I never felt the economic threat that hit so many people. (Laura’s job wasn’t quite so smooth, but she still has it at least.) I love the people I live with, and even after being in close proximity for much more time than usual, we still have a great time together. Our house has enough space for each of us to do our thing remotely if that’s needed.
Also, I’m so grateful that Dante is in high school, and therefore can pretty much self-manage everything he needs to do while we’re working. My colleagues and friends who have young children at home have it much rougher. For that matter, I’m grateful that school and work can even happen remotely. It’s hard to imagine how much more disruptive a pandemic like this would have been in pre-Internet days. I’m even able to virtually get together with friends for things like trivia, board games, and the occasional celebration, thanks to the Jetsons technology we all have now.
Still, god, what a year. As good as we have it, I defintely felt my share of disruptions, and one of those was in my life with music. The Album Assignments project went on pause, as Robby took on the daunting task of educating 5th graders remotely and I transitioned into a very different way of working. In the course of that transition, I found myself listening to music much less than I had before. My previous time with music was mostly spent on my commute, which evaporated after COVID-19 hit. I also worked a lot with music on, but that dried up too as I acclimated to working from home, with other people around.
Finally, sometime in June, it hit me that I was desperately missing music, and I made some changes. While I still listen to podcasts on my walks, I switched over to music while doing the dishes, cooking, and other household chores. I figured out ways to integrate it back into my work life, and I made it a part of the time I spent with Dante, including an awesome music trivia habit where we quiz each other on our favorite musical canons so that we can each learn from the other. (His are all instrumental videogame music, definitely not a strong genre for me.) We also found ourselves doing a lot of text adventures and board games (physical and virtual) together, activities which lend themselves to background music.
In any case, when it came time to make this mix, I was picking from a much shorter list than usual. Nevertheless, I’m very happy with how it came out. Here are some musical highlights from a pretty tough year.
1. Jonathan Coulton – Pictures Of Cats
How 2020 are these opening lines? “All at once, it fills up my feed / More bad news that I didn’t need / I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know.” I had that experience over and over this year, and definitely ended up doomscrolling through Twitter plenty of times when I should have just switched over to looking at pictures of cats. Strangely, I listened to this song before the full 2020 of it all hit the world, but when I reviewed the list, I knew there was no better song to kick off this mix.
2. Aimee Mann feat. James Mercer – Living A Lie
Like almost all of these tracks, this one was written prior to 2020, and in fact came out before the Trump era. And I don’t think it was ever intended politically — it’s about a relationship — but I felt like it perfectly captured a mood this year. When you’re stuck with a frantic liar, you have no choice but to live inside a lie. That was never more clear than in 2020, when the President’s relentless need for self-aggrandizement and seeking short-term advantage had him undermining and upending every single institution that any of the rest of us could trust. It got to the point where we couldn’t even be sure our own Centers For Disease Control were able to provide us reliable information. Often it felt like all we could do is wait for a crack in the shell. Thank god one came at the end of the year.
3. Richard Thompson – Keep Your Distance
I listened to a fair amount of Richard Thompson (and Linda too) toward the beginning of the year, so I wanted to include a song of his in this mix. When I looked over the list, the words “Keep Your Distance” jumped out at me. Once again, this is meant in the relationship sense, but “keep your distance” is so 2020! This was the year that simple trips to the grocery store felt like foraging expeditions into deadly territory, not helped by the wingnut contingent who wear their masks under their noses or not at all, because freedom or whatever. Keep your distance, wingnuts! (And sadly, everyone else too.)
4. Frank Sinatra – Mood Indigo
This was from one of the few 2020 album assignments, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. (Well, actually the tail end of 2019, but my listening year goes November-October, so it’s 2020 to me.) This was a concept album of sadness, and Sinatra’s smooth reading of this wonderful, melancholy Duke Ellington tune felt like a good summation of the story so far. Also, “Indigo” was particularly important this year, but more about that later.
5. Aretha Franklin – Chain Of Fools (unedited version)
And here’s the turn. I vividly remember waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when this version of “Chain Of Fools” came into my ears. I’d never heard it before — it came up on Spotify or something. The slow, soulful intro — “the sound of pain” — suddenly bursting into “chain chain chain”… BLEW MY MIND. I’ve always loved the single version of this song, and having it set up like this made little fireworks of joy go off in my head. When I finally figured out in June that I needed to bring more music back in, Aretha’s Lady Soul was the album I started with, and it worked perfectly. I will never forget giddily dancing around the kitchen to these songs, like some kind of solo remake of The Big Chill, blissfully losing everything else in music and simple tasks.
6. Prince – Little Red Corvette Lady Soul was the first album that brought music definitively back into my life. The Very Best Of Prince was the second. Prince hit big in the early ’80s, ages 12-14 for me, and I didn’t know how to process him. I think he scared me, honestly. I had friends who were fans, but all that sexuality, androgyny, and funk — I couldn’t deal with it. I pushed it away. This year, I invited it back in, and found that I love it now. Like a lot of parties, I’m very late to it, but having a great time now that I’m here.
7. Stevie Nicks – Stand Back
Anytime I hear “Little Red Corvette”, I’m pretty much always going to think of “Stand Back.” That’s because Stevie has a story she’s told many times, of driving on the highway towards her honeymoon of a short-lived, ill-advised marriage, pretty much the opposite of “a love that’s gonna last.” When “Little Red Corvette” came on the radio, she was inspired. She found a tape recorder, and composed her own song on top of Prince’s. Then, when recording “Stand Back”, she found the courage to call him and tell him this story, and in response he showed up and played the synth riff on it. “Stand Back” is the love child of ’80s chiffon royalty’s king and queen.
8. Stevie Nicks – Crying In The Night (live 2017)
You can hear that story, and many others, in Stevie’s concert film from her 24 Karat Gold tour. Despite the pandemic, I found my way to a movie theater twice this year. Once was for The New Mutants, a superhero movie that features my favorite Marvel character of all time, a Scottish mutant codenamed Wolfsbane. Having loved this character since I was 12, there was simply no way that I was going to miss seeing her played by Maisie Williams on the big screen. The movie had plenty of flaws, but it got Wolfsbane right, and for that I will always love it.
The other movie I showed up for was Stevie’s aforementioned concert film. It’s a filmed version of what I called “the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.” In it, she told lots of stories like the one above — seriously, the movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I think about 30 minutes of it is storytelling. She also sang songs she’d NEVER sung before in concert, including this one from the Buckingham Nicks album. That album isn’t even available on CD! What a thrill it was to hear her sing it in concert, and the movie brought back that thrill. Totally worth braving the virus.
9. Prince – Kiss
The next couple songs are just more sweet memories of my “soul kitchen” moments this year. “Kiss” is a super fun song on its own, and I can’t help hearing it in my mind juxtaposed with the version that The Art Of Noise recorded featuring Tom Jones. I thought about including that version in this mix, but after I went back and listened to it, I found that Prince outstripped it so dramatically that its inclusion could only feel disappointing after the real thing.
10. Aretha Franklin – (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
There’s not a lot to say about this one, except that it’s another standout moment from Lady Soul. My thick socks sliding around on our wooden kitchen floor, with this song playing in earbuds, led to great moments of happiness this year.
11. clipping. – All Black
Conversely, there is a lot to say about this one. First, some explanation of who this band is. The vocalist is Daveed Diggs, who has a bunch of credits, all of which are far overshadowed by the fact that he originated the roles of Jefferson and Lafayette in the Broadway production of Hamilton. clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio in which Diggs joins producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Their album Splendor & Misery was the last album assignment I wrote, posted just a few days before everybody went home and stayed there. Listening to it now, the music feels shockingly prophetic of what was to come. First of all, most of the story on the album is about a guy who is alone in space, first captured and then in control, but exiled from the world he knew. There have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I was in a space capsule, well-furnished and supplied with plenty of entertainment, but orbiting Earth rather than on it.
Secondly, the album and in particular this song is centrally concerned with Blackness and oppression. As it turned out, so was the summer of 2020. I wrote about this in the album post, how “all black everything” partakes of many layers of meaning, including as an allusion to other hip-hop songs that take it as a declaration of pride and strength. Those two images together — all black everything but isolated from everywhere — bundled up a lot of 2020 for me.
12. Jonathan Coulton – All This Time
Here’s another sci-fi song, albeit one in a vastly different musical mode. “All This Time” is from Coulton’s album Solid State, which I listened to a lot early in the year. It’s a wonderful album of thoughtful power pop about surveillance, technology, and love, and this is one of the standout songs. However, my attachment to this song in this year was more about its video than the song itself. That video was in the form of a text adventure — it’s by far the best text-adventure-themed video ever made, no disrespect to MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark”.
That fits this year perfectly, because this was the year I jumped back into my passion for interactive fiction. Part of that was creating a new blog to house the many IF reviews that live on my old web page, and another big part of it was revisiting many games from the Infocom canon, but this time with Dante guiding the play. Together we replayed (or in his case, played for the first time) all the Zork and Enchanter games, and had a fantastic time doing it. I may write about it in the new blog at some point, but even if I don’t, I’ll treasure that experience. This year, many things were taken away in exchange for all this newfound time, and sometimes we made the most of it.
13. Genesis – No Reply At All
Some of those losses, though, had a really negative effect on me. Here’s one that I didn’t expect, until I understood how much I counted on what I didn’t have anymore. I found myself dealing with a pretty shocking (for me) level of insecurity this year. Uncharacteristically, I found myself frequently fretting about my relationships with pretty much everybody who doesn’t live with me, especially co-workers. Absences of replies, or even delays, had me worrying I’d somehow done something to upset whoever my anxious mind chose to focus on. It turns out that I really depend on mundane social interactions at work to provide a normalizing effect that reassures my brain that everything is okay. Take those away, and throw in a round of really stressful and destabilizing layoffs, and suddenly I become Anxious Guy.
By the way, I absolutely adore the bridge to this song. (The part that starts “Maybe deep down inside…”) I find bridges fascinating in general, the way they’re like a miniature new and different song inside the bigger song, and this one just really grabs me.
14. Adele – Cold Shoulder
Continuing the insecurity theme, this felt like the right Adele song to pick for my 2020. It’s not even that people were giving me the cold shoulder. (I don’t THINK?!? :P) I just spent way too much time worried about it. I’m still working on coping with that one.
15. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
What is all this anyway? It’s paranoia, that’s what. So here’s “For What It’s Worth”, the best song I know about paranoia. On the personal level, my paranoia strikes deep, but isn’t really justified. On the larger cultural level, I’m not so sure. There’s the erosion of trust I talked about in #2. There’s the general bone-chill about how much support there still is for the lying, bullshitting, racist, bullying Toddler-In-Chief and the party that bent its knee to his every whim. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist, I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” And then, of course, there are the police.
The comparison that keeps coming to my mind, that I haven’t heard anyone else make yet, is to the Catholic church. Both the church and the police in America are these institutions that many of us (at least, the “us” at less danger of victimization) grow up seeing as helpful, honorable, and virtuous. In both cases, there are some fundamental problems with the concept and structure of the institution itself, but they also perform a great deal of good in the world. In both cases, becoming part of the priesthood or fraternity requires an amount of self-sacrifice that is reflexively seen as noble, but that carries within it seeds that can bloom into full-blown evil.
In the movie Spotlight, there’s a moment that has always stuck with me. The team of reporters is just figuring out the scope of the abuse that has happened in the Boston diocese, and they’re on the phone with a researcher (a former priest and current psychotherapist) who has spent years gathering data about it. The researcher says “Look, the church wants us to believe that it’s a few bad apples, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.” How much bigger? “Well, based on the research, I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”
That’s big. I think something similar is at work with cops, race, and violence. In both cases, the evil behavior (I don’t think there’s any reasonable way out of that descriptor) is so shocking and repugnant when it comes to light that it permanently cracks my ability to ever trust that institution again. But even worse than that, in both cases, the institution does absolutely everything it possibly can to ensure that the perpetrators of that evil escape detection and escape the consequences. Over, and over, and over again, to the tune of thousands of cases. Thousands of innocent victims raped, molested, traumatized, killed. How in the hell is anybody supposed to trust them after that? In both cases, for me, that combination taints the institution so thoroughly that I don’t think it can be redeemed. We have to demolish it and start over with something fundamentally different.
Now, I know there’s about as much chance of doing that with the police as there is with the church. But I believe that there’s a version of it that could be as much a godsend to the police as to marginalized communities. What if we had another kind of first responder, someone trained to deal with issues of mental illness and addiction? After all, we don’t send police to fires. We don’t send them to epileptic seizures. We don’t expect a single kind of responder to have to deal with everything. What if we saved the police for, y’know, CRIME, and created a new role to take over some of the stuff we’re currently asking armed, uniformed officers of the state to take on, despite the fact that they’re trained much more for situations that require force, and therefore tend to bring it to situations that don’t when they’re sent there?
Okay, that was a long digression, wasn’t it? Anyway, great song, right? Moving on.
16. Indigo Girls – Pendulum Swinger
Amy and Emily were crucial to Laura and I this year. For a while there, as Look Long was getting ready to come out, they were doing weekly or near-weekly livestreams, and for each one we would joyfully gather ’round the screen, find a way to turn up the music, and feel like we were hanging out with old friends. The one they did where they were “playing for tips” to raise money for their crew, was an utter high point for me. Hearing them play stuff I’d never heard them do before — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Elton John’s “Love Song” and “Holiday Inn” — OMG it was so wonderful.
They featured this one in their “parking lot” concert in October, with Emily introducing it as just, “This is a song about change.” It felt like a little prayer, or a little wish that came true.
17. Amy Ray – Tear It Down
This was another special moment from that concert. I love how Amy here grapples with how she genuinely loves where she grew up and the traditions that shaped her, while still unshakably rejecting the racism and hate that is inextricably interwoven with that past. The studio version is a little sweeter and more subdued, but her solo acoustic live performance of it was just electrifying.
18. Mudcrutch – I Forgive It All
The Mudcrutch albums are hidden gems in Tom Petty’s catalog, and this one in particular is special, because it’s the last studio recording that Petty did before his death. For this mix, the Indigo Girls lift me out of fear and paranoia, into hope and resolution. Petty provides the final piece: forgiveness.
19. Stevie Nicks – Show Them The Way
Hope, resolution, and forgiveness all blend into Stevie’s 2020 song. Besides “All This Time”, this is the other song in this mix that I strongly associate with its video. That video, directed by Cameron Crowe, blends black and white footage from the 1960s into black and white footage from 2020 and points in between, drawing a clear line from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. And over it all, Stevie prays for all of us to find our way to a better future. Invoking the icons of 60s dreams — JFK, RFK, MLK — she tries to dream us back to ourselves. And Crowe, piling powerful images on top of each other with increasing urgency, ends with a simple message: “Vote”. In October of 2020, it felt like exactly the magic we needed.
20. Prince – 1999
When it came out, this song was about an apocalyptic future. Listening to it now, it feels like Prince was only 20 years off with the “party over, oops, out of time” description, and 1999 sounds like a pretty good place to be. The mood of it is of jubilation even through devastation, and I think we could use a little of that. Here’s to a brighter 2021.
Those of you who have followed this blog over the years may have noticed that it had ads on it for a long time, and was at the address superverbose.wordpress.com. Then, last September, the ads went away and the address became just superverbose.com. Now the ads and the old address are back. Why? Well, there hangs a tale.
I started this blog in 2004 on LiveJournal. LJ was a great home for a long time, but in 2011-2012 it started to feel like it was falling apart. I got more and more of a feeling of impending doom… which I guess turned out to be wrong, because it’s still running and hosting the old version of this blog, but in any case I moved over to WordPress.com in 2012. I’m careful to call it WordPress.com because there is also a WordPress.org, and they are apparently two very different things. People have strong opinions about the differences between them.
Well, I’ve loved being on WordPress.com. It makes having a blog extremely easy, it handles all the hosting stuff, and I think it looks great. Plus, the basic level of it is free and pretty good, albeit ad-strewn. So as I wrote more and more — Album Assignments, Watchmen, Geek Bowl, etc. — and got more and more visitors, I felt like it was time to pony up. Mainly, I wanted to get rid of ads, and the fact that I could have my blog on its own domain (rather than a subdomain of wordpress.com) was a bonus.
So in September of 2019, I decided to buy a “Personal Plan” — basically a bare-bones subscription that did what I wanted. When I bought it, the site seemed to offer me a free upgrade to the “Premium Plan” for a year, which I really didn’t need or care about, but hey, free, so why not?
Fast forward a year. I keep getting notices that my Premium Plan is expiring, but that’s fine — I’m happy to let it expire since I still have another year of the Personal Plan remaining. But then I notice — I’ve been switched to the free plan! A glitch, I guess. So I write the “Happiness Engineers” (yeah, that’s what WordPress.com calls its support staff) and say, “…now that the Premium has expired, it seems like WordPress has forgotten about my second year of the Personal plan. Can you please reinstate me to the proper status?”
The reply I get back tells me no no no, I didn’t get a free upgrade to Premium. I traded my two-year plan for a one-year plan. That was my “free upgrade”. WTF?!? I would never have traded two years for one if it had been in any way clear that I was canceling one plan and choosing another. In fact, my billing history shows full payment for two years of Personal, and another $0.00 for one year of Premium, which is why I thought I had a free one-year upgrade as a promotion, hoping to entice me to continue at a higher level. In my experience, plenty of subscription services offer such free temporary upgrades in hopes that customers will enjoy the higher level of service so much that they’d continue paying for it after the trial period expires.
Nope, after multiple back-and forth exchanges with multiple “Happiness Engineers” (who did not engineer my happiness very well at all), WordPress.com insists that they never offered any such promotion, and that they “understand that you might’ve missed that information while checking out on the upgrade.” ARGH!
So now they’re insisting I have to pay for a second year, when in my mind I’ve already paid for it. As the old Alison Moyet song goes, “I feel I’ve been had, and I’m boiling mad.”
I’ve gone round and round and round with these guys. No luck. The best offer I’ve gotten from them (the only offer I’ve gotten) is a code for 17% off their “two years for the price of three” deal. I can’t quite swallow that right now. So the ads are back, and I guess I chalk it up to a learning experience. I’m posting this for anybody thinking of paying for WordPress.com. Don’t fall for the same trick that swindled me!
One last note. My day job is as the product owner of a web site that provides critical services for college students. We have a User Experience (UX) team whose entire mission is to prevent ridiculous snafus like this. So in my final email exchange with the Frustration Engineers, I said this: “From your side, here’s what I’d request or suggest: you guys have a UX team, right? Will you please pass along my experience to them? I think a tweak to the UX when it comes to upgrading could avoid this entire issue. For instance, if in the process of claiming my ‘free’ upgrade, I’d gotten a message like ‘WARNING: You are cancelling your two-year Personal Plan and exchanging it for a one-year Premium Plan. Do you still want to proceed?’, I could have been saved many headaches and you could have been saved many emails.” Grrrrrrr…
Larry Ferguson, who had been a member of my Geek Bowl team for all 10 years I’d participated in the event, was unable to join us in Chicago this year for medical reasons. This was hard news, and precipitated a whole lot of Mothra discussion about how to fill the gap. In the end, we were able to recruit one Jason Freng, who brings these qualities among others:
Serious dedication to trivia — dude has a plan where he focuses on a new topic each month for five years. Like, in March he’s learning one new pop music artist a day. Prior to that he watched a movie a day for two months.
24 years old, and dialed into the last 20 years of pop music, much more so than the rest of us.
Most of all, the ability to focus on fun rather than ego, which helped him mesh beautifully with our team — nary a squabble in sight. He’s a great teammate, which is the number one thing we were looking for, even above covering any missing pieces from our knowledge domains.
You can’t really replace someone on a trivia team. All you can do is occupy the void they left and hope that the new team approaches the synergy and skill of the last one. On that count, Jason was a fantastic addition, and was super fun to hang out with on the rest of the trip too. We ended up placing 13th out of 231 teams, which was amazing but not amazing enough to be in the money winners, since prizes only go to the top 5 teams. (I think it’s high time Geeks Who Drink spread that prize pool out a bit more, but more about that later.)
Also, by my count we scored 93 points, but the final tally showed us at 92. Hmmmm. It doesn’t really matter since that point wouldn’t have gotten us into the money, but it is confusing. In any case, we had a blast and placed very respectably, considering how stacked with talent Geek Bowl has become. For myself, Geek Bowl 14 contained both my happiest moment of any Geek Bowl and my most disappointing — details about both in the answers post. Dear readers, I give you the 2020 Mothra team, “When You’re Good To Mothra, Mothra’s Good To You”, wearing blue ribbons in honor of Larry:
L to R top row: Jonathan, George, me. Bottom row: Brian, Don, Jason
Our shirts say, “Are You There Godzilla? It’s Me, Mothra” — possibly my favorite Mothra name ever but one we haven’t used yet at Geek Bowl because people keep thinking of brilliant city-themed ones.
There was plenty of fun to be had before Geek Bowl too. After our flights got in on Friday, we headed to an airbnb in Bronzeville where most of the team was staying. Teammate Brian set up Playshow Jeopardy via his Apple TV, which replays actual Jeopardy! episodes and lets players buzz in via their phones and speak the answers (uh, questions) into the phone itself. It was glitchy, crashy, and had some design flaws — felt very much like a beta — but also tons of fun when it was working.
After that, most of the team converged on a cool arcade bar called Headquarters, where an amazing listener of Brian’s podcasts not only bought appetizers for the whole gathering, but paid for our bar tabs too! WOW. On top of that, the whole place is stuffed with arcade games and pinball machines set to free play mode. And let me also throw some love to the very kind manager who took pity on me after I realized that I’d taken out my ID to show with my boarding pass at the airport, stuffed it into my luggage, and left it in Bronzeville, a 40 minute Lyft ride away. Whew.
After a while we found our way to the much quieter 25 Degrees, where we quizzed each other with old Trivial Pursuit cards. We’d been doing this all day, actually — it’s a warmup method that offers the added challenge of keeping in mind that every question really starts with “As of 1981…”
On Saturday, Jason and I had breakfast together while Don & Brian headed to Fadó to watch Don’s beloved Norwich City F.C. play Sheffield United. (They lost — “boo hiss” as Alex Trebek would say.) The full team converged on Pizzeria Due for a fantastic warmup game written by George, and then headed to dinner at Safehouse, an incredibly fun spy-themed restaurant. It was there that the annual reading of the rules took place.
Mothra’s Rules Of Pub Trivia
Our team has been playing together, in one configuration or another, for many years now, and in that time we’ve had lots of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. At Geek Bowl 9 in Albuquerque, George formally codified some rules we’d all been talking about, and ever since then we’ve made it an annual ritual to read these rules.
We also tend to modify them a bit every year, continuing to refine what we discover among the many pitfalls of team trivia. In the weeks leading up to Geek Bowl 14, we ran a team Discord server, which was a superb way to discuss strategy, coordinate practice meetups, and quiz each other. That process yielded a few changes to this year’s rules:
Read/listen to the damn question.
Read it again.
Pay attention to the category.
Don’t interrupt the question/audio; let it finish before guessing out loud.
If you know the answer with 100% certainty, you can indicate that silently while the question is still being read.
If you think of an answer, say it/write it.
Make sure at least two other teammates hear/see it.
If you heard a teammate suggest a good possible answer that’s not being discussed, throw it out there again.
Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, we don’t need to write the first name.
If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it. Likewise for punctuation.
If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that answer from being used later in the same quiz (the Quincy Jones Rule).
Avoid facetious answers (the Ernie Banks Rule – so named after we got a question wrong in a practice round when somebody jokingly said that Ernie Banks, aka “Mr. Cub”, was “obviously from the Mets,” and then our non-sporty scribe dutifully wrote down “Mets.” Heh.)
Put an answer for each question, even if the whole team believes it’s probably/certainly wrong. You can object to that bad answer, but be specific about why it’s wrong, and try to provide an alternative.
If you are 100% sure that your answer is right, say so.
For that matter, try to indicate your confidence level on all answers.
One team member with partial certainty about an answer, seconded by another team member, is as good as one team member with 100% certainty, barring objections.
Focus discussion on answers that aren’t “locked”.
After dinner, it was off to the main event. Geek Bowl this year was held at the Aon Grand Ballroom, which is part of a larger attraction called Navy Pier, basically a bunch of shopping and restaurants and rides and boat stuff. And a ballroom. The ballroom was a beautiful venue, and while 231 tables with six chairs each were pretty well jammed in there, it had the advantage of no fixed seating, unlike the arenas of the past few years, while retaining good sightlines and audio quality. Plus, the whole gaming area was circled by bars and concession vendors, which was cool. It wasn’t nearly as dark as Vegas had been, but even if it were, Brian found some awesome pens with built-in lights to help illuminate things.
The Geek Bowl Format
This is the part where I copy and paste (mostly) the same information from previous years about how Geek Bowl works. For those of you who already know why there would be 231 tables with six chairs each, feel free to skip to the Tiebreaker section. For those who don’t, read on.
As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!)
Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink. However, thanks to Geeks editor-in-chief Christopher Short, I have been supplied with question material this year! Prior to Geek Bowl 12, these recaps were based off notes, memories, and photos of question slides, and in fact many of my descriptions will still suffer from this circumstance, but at least the wording of the questions will be correct. Huge thanks to Christopher for the help, and anything remaining that sucks is my fault, not the Geeks’.
The GWD question material leans heavy on pop culture and light (though not zero) on sports. In between, there is plenty of academic trivia: history, geography, science, and so forth. For years, their tone was what I called “self-consciously edgy”, but they’ve really left that behind. Instead, the questions are written in a freewheeling style, certainly not afraid of a little toilet humor or an f-bomb here and there, but no rounds of vintage porn or penis-themed rebuses wedged in there anymore. In my opinion, Geeks Who Drink now just writes their questions to be as fun as possible while covering a wide range of topics and retaining just the right amount of clueing and precision, and they do a damn fine job of it.
Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens on either side of the stage. One round is all-video, meaning that rather than anyone reading questions, the whole round is encapsulated in a video presentation on the screens. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute (usually) timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters.
The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions. Usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. (Though this year our answer sheets were labeled “Song” and “City”. Hmmm.) In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s usually only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, Round 4 also offered 16 possible points.
Finally, a team can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. Our threshold for the music round was 14, and our Round 4 threshold was 13. Failing either of those, we knew we’d have no choice but to joker Round 8.
7pm was showtime, and host Jenna Riedi took the stage, saying, “Hello, and welcome to America’s last public gathering!” (It was funny at the time, but now it’s just over a week later, and this line feels pretty much perfect.) An opening number ensued — Riedi parodying various songs from the musical Chicago, including her name in lights, a la Roxie. Riedi is an able and appealing host, as evidenced by the fact that she keeps doing it — this is her third Geek Bowl as host. And despite the joking self-adoration of her song, she’s clearly there to serve the event rather than the other way around.
After the opening number came the tiebreaker, read by the Geeks’ charity partner for the year, a group called Women Employed, a Chicago charity whose mission is to improve women’s economic status and remove barriers to economic equity. A couple of WE representatives got to read the Geek Bowl XIV tiebreaker question.
The format for this question is to take a few questions, all of which have numerical answers, and combine them into a formula. Some of these questions are nearly impossible to know exactly, so you have to approximate. The Geeks then use these answers to determine placement among teams whose overall scores are identical — the closer you get to the correct final number (on either side), the better.
As is often the case, this question was tied to the host city, and with it the question recap officially begins! As always, I’ll describe our team’s experiences inside [square brackets], and provide the answers in a separate post.
Take the number of regular-season games won by the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Subtract from that the current age of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Multiply that difference by the total number of airports you can fly to on United or United Express. Take that product and divide it by the number of Oscars won by the 2002 film Chicago. Or, expressed as a formula:
([B – M] x U) / C
Where B = Bulls regular season wins, M = Michelle Obama’s age, U = United/United Express airports served, and C = Academy Awards won by Chicago.
Chicago is known as the Second City. Some claim this is because it rose from the ashes after the 1871 fire, but the Chicago Reader seems to establish pretty definitively that the nickname, coined by New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, meant “in second place to New York.” In any case, for this round, we were told, every answer would have the word “second” in it. This allowed us to invoke rule 10(b) 8 times in a row, saying “I second that answer,” which never stopped being funny.
1. According to the American Lung Association, 41,000 annual U.S. deaths can be attributed to what stuff that’s also known as “sidestream”?
2. Smokey Robinson showed a good working knowledge of love and parliamentary procedure, in what hit 1967 single?
3. Ask Natalia Makarova: What’s the name of the stance where your feet are pointed 180 degrees from each other, with a small step between them? [Jason was first to the gate on this one.]
4. A high schooler eventually won an Ig Nobel Prize, after confirming the scientific validity of what dropped-food guideline?
5. Smack-dab between “velocity” and “jerk,” acceleration is the most commonly cited real-world example of what calculus operator? [Thank you Jonathan for jumping on this one.]
6. Sweden, the Maldives, and Estonia are among the countries that have maintained actual embassies in what Linden Lab virtual world?
7. Garret Hobart’s wife Jennie may have been the first to use what title, also held by Ilo Wallace and Muriel Humphrey?
8. In the Disney movie, Peter Pan says you can get to Neverland by following what 10-word directions?
[A pretty easy round overall, and we aced it with 8 points.] See the answers
Round 2: Here Come The State Capitals!
Round 2 is always the music round, and in Geek Bowl, that means live music. They’ve had some great acts in the past, but they really outdid themselves this year by booking They Might Be Giants! Not a Chicago act, but certainly one beloved by geeks and Geeks. TMBG came out to raucous applause and delivered a round based on their “Here Come” series of children’s albums.
Here comes the concept: Each question takes a song and changes the lyrics. The new lyrics describe a state capital. The song itself is by an artist who comes from that state capital. Our mission: name the songs for one point each, and the capitals for another point each. Each song would be played only once, but the lyrics would appear on the big screens at either side of the stage.
I hope the Geeks post video of this round at some point, but until they do, it’s going to be pretty impossible to avoid giving away at least the song. So for now, I’ll list the lyrics, and indicate what the song was in spoiler text — if you want to try to recognize the song based on the cadence of the fake lyrics (and may the trivia gods bless you if you do), go for it. Otherwise, highlight the spoiler block to see the song name, and apologies to those using screen readers. The cities will appear in the answers.
1. (To the tune of “Hey Ya!” by OutKast)
Clark Gable don’t mess around when he sees Vivien Leigh up on that second floor.
He’s gotta go fight for Dixie, but when he comes back, they gonna do-si-do.
Real soon their daughter’s gonna try to jump her horse, and break her neck for sure.
Too bad that Scarlett figures out that she loves Rhett when Rhett just knows that he’s not happy here.
2. (To the tune of “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper)
Well, I got Trump’s pardon
For my felony
Election Day you’ll see
Civil rights ain’t free
I’ll lock up illegals, I’ll help build the fence
Round up reporters, and put ‘em in tents
I’m Joe Arpaio!
3. (To the tune of “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars)
Got Tom Selleck out the Navy
Beach bum on the daily
Moki serve Campari
Higgins, bring the Ferrari
‘Cause he’s solvin’ all the drama, solvin’ all that drama
Magnum solvin’ all the drama, it’s all orchids and mahalo now
Put on the Tigers hat
(Meet me at the Robin’s Nest)
Call up T.C.
(He’ll fly us out to Diamond Head)
You deserve it, baby, you deserve it all
And I’m on CBS Thursdays for you
4. (To the tune of “Do You Realize??” by The Flaming Lips) [And shining moment to George for both recognizing the song and immediately knowing the hometown.]
And instead of saying, “that’s a boring town,” let them know
There’s roses at Will Rogers Park
The Skydance Bridge glows in the dark
And if you still have your per diem
You can visit the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
And there’s lots of cows.
5. (To the tune of “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town) [Don picked up on this song very quickly as the rest of us were just looking at each other.]
First, brine your chicken
Then take buttermilk and
Some hot sauce that’s kickin’
Coat it like so.
Then while that’s fryin’
Take butter and cayenne
Brown sugar and onion
Cook it real low
And here’s what you do next:
Rest your cooked chicken while
You take the sauce you made
And add in some frying oil.
Whisk it till it’s combined
Use it to coat that bird
Serve it with pickles, sliced
And maybe a piece of bread
You’ve got hot chicken
6. (To the tune of “Candy Girl” by New Edition) [Another big contribution from Don, who recognized New Edition right away, debated between two different songs, and then settled on the right one.]
My boy’s like Teddy, he rakes so hard
He knocks me out when he goes yard
He’s so productive as can be,
He was the 2018 MVP!
He’s the best it gets
You know he rules
With all five tools
But the very day
I wrote this down,
He just left town.
7. (To the tune of “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill)
That girl thinks she created Portlandia
I’ve got news for you – she did!
She’s in a band with Corin Tucker
They’ve sold like a half a million albums!
Sleater-Kinney did not write this song
It bears repeating: This is not their song.
8. (To the tune of “On The Road Again” by Willie Nelson)
All this barbecue
Can’t stop eating all this barbecue
“Keep it weird” is something someone else can do;
We’re just eating all this barbecue.
All this barbecue—
Keep your Stetson hats and bats and Longhorns touchdowns
We’ll be crushin’ Shiners by the Whole Foods downtown
To wash down
All this barbecue.
[As usual for Geek Bowl, we had 2 minutes to turn in our answers. The unusual part was that TMBG played loud during those two minutes, which made discussion extremely difficult. I hope this was a mistake — Geek Bowl has never had loud music during answer periods before, and it kinda sucked. In any case, we felt very confident about 7 of our 8 state capitals and 7 of our 8 songs. This met our jokering threshold, so we jokered. As it turned out, we got the capital right (there were really only a couple of choices we were debating between) and the song wrong (since we didn’t have a clue about it), for a total of 15 points for this round. Doubled that makes 30, so our new point total was 30 + 8 = 38.] See the answers
Round 3: Crossing Jordan
For years, Round 3 at Geek Bowl was 50/50 questions, sometimes combined with a speed round or, God help us, that one time we all had to sniff horribly scented dick-shaped candles. Last year the Geeks upped the ante with a very clever blackjack-themed round, but this year they truly outdid themselves, for one of the most memorable Geek Bowl rounds ever.
The quizmaster took the stage and announced that taped to the underside of one team member’s chair, we’d find a bag of Scrabble tiles. This obviously set off a bunch of scrabbling under chairs to find these bags and empty them onto the tables. The tiles themselves were gorgeously made, with a Geek Bowl logo on the back and everything. The quizmaster explained that for this round, we would use all of those tiles to form our answers, and that each answer would add up to 23 Scrabble points in honor of #23 Michael Jordan. Consequently, for this round only, spelling counts.
In addition, there would be one blank tile, which would be used just like a blank tile in Scrabble — as a wild card to stand in for any letter. On our answer sheets, we were to put an empty square where we’d used the blank tile. This was a fantastic concept for a round, but I do have one criticism of it, which is that this rule about the empty square was a) needlessly picky (would putting a square around some letter really have indicated the meaning any less?), and b) announced while everybody was grabbing tiles from under chairs and clattering them onto tables. If you want to enforce a brand-new and unusual convention, it needs to be followed up on multiple times, and reinforced in big text beside the end-of-round timer countdown.
That’s a minor gripe overall though, and I don’t mean to take anything away from how fantastically fun this round was to play. Now, if you like to play along with these recaps, this round is a bit more challenging to recreate than most other Geek Bowl rounds this side of scented candles. If you really want to do it, I suggest you print out the image below of all the tiles we were given, cut them out, then set your kitchen timer for like 12 minutes — after the questions were read, we had an 8-minute countdown to turn in our answer sheets.
1. Who played sudden numerology enthusiast Walter Sparrow in The Number 23?
2. In 1966, young activist Maulana Karenga created what weeklong end-of-year celebration? [I jumped in first on this one.]
3. More than 180 feet tall and 1,000 feet long, what haunted-ass Cunard Line ship now lies moored as a hotel in Long Beach?
4. The title roles in Ma and the upcoming Madam C.J. Walker are both played by what Oscar-winner from The Help?
5. Naturally, there’s no epitaph on the Vermont grave of what quiet U.S. president who died in 1933?
6. Also the host of many U.S.-Mexico games, Mapfre Stadium is the home pitch of what Midwest MLS charter team? [Thank you Don for knowing soccer.]
7. In Roman numerals, Master Archie Mountbatten-Windsor was born in what year?
8. According to country musician Greg Bates, “We could [conspicuous pause] with each other on the river bank. I’ll leave it up to you, baby.” What’s the title of that song?
[We aced this round — more details in the answers post. Our total now stood at 38 + 8 = 46 points.] See the answers
After this round came a scoring break and some more TMBG numbers, including a scorching trumpet/trombone performance by Curt Ramm on “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. There was also a comedy bit with Riedi putting ketchup on a Chicago Dog, to the horror of locals.
Finally, the scoring was done and the rankings rolled — we were in 9th place. On to more questions!
Round 4: Welcome to Midway
This was the other 16-point round. The concept: the Geeks would provide the midway point in a list, and we needed to give the first and last entries in that list, for one point each. So, for example, if the clue was “The Lord Of The Rings trilogy: The Two Towers”, our two answers would be “The Fellowship Of The Ring” and “The Return Of The King”.
1. Official languages of Belgium, by number of Belgian speakers: French.
2. Members of Migos, alphabetically: Quavo. [Thank you Jason for knowing the Migoses!]
3. The original Seven Sisters colleges, listed alphabetically: Radcliffe. [Jonathan really saved us on this one.]
4. Major sections of the small intestine, starting at the stomach end: Jejunum.
5. Words in the body text of 1984, not counting chapter headings and “The End”: Only.
6. Queer Eye’s current Fab Five, alphabetically by first name: Jonathan. [Oh dear. This was a knowledge gap for us.]
7. U.S. Olympic gold-medal gymnasts in the Women’s Individual All-Around, chronologically: Nastia Liukin.
8. Big-screen Shafts, oldest to youngest: Samuel L. Jackson.
[We thought we had 13 on this round, but a last-minute shift (detailed in the answers post) took a point away, so we ended up with 12. Our new point total, 46 + 12 = 58.] See the answers
Round 5: Take The “L” Train
As usual, Round 5 was a wonderfully clever video round, this time with a wordplay angle along with its Chicago theme. And lucky for me, the Geeks have posted the video.
Fair warning: answers are included in this video, though thankfully not interspersed as they’ve been in previous years. The answers start at 5:49, so pause there and give yourself two minutes if you want to recreate the Geek Bowl conditions.
[This round was almost easy, but we slipped up a bit on one question, for a total of 7 points. New point total: 58 + 7 = 65.] See the answers
Round 6: Deviled In The White Cities
Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City looked at the serial killer who attacked the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Geek Bowl round 6 took a little lighter approach, focusing on egg recipes and, uh, white cities.
1. Tart up a hollandaise with vinegar, shallots, tarragon, and chervil, and you’ve got what traditional steak sauce?
2. Brandon Teena was born in Lincoln, Nebraska – as was what actress who won an Oscar for portraying him?
3. Which came first, the Egg McMuffin or Moons Over My Hammy? [This sparked an entertaining debate, with significant contribution from George, who worked at McDonald’s in 1977-78. 🙂 ]
4. Lexington, Kentucky native Thomas Hunt Morgan was known for his genetics work with the melanogaster species of what fruit fly genus? [Jonathan slam-dunked this science question.]
5. Popularized by Filipinos, what fertilized egg snack takes its name from the Tagalog word for “wrapped”?
6. She never wanted anyone like this: Set and shot in Spokane, the 1985 film Vision Quest was renamed in some markets for what Madonna song? [Brian was all over this.]
7. If Miley Cyrus were salsa roja, Liam Hemsworth were salsa verde, and their respective fried eggs were separated by some beans, they’d be what variation on huevos rancheros?
8. Madison, Wisconsin-born Stacey Abrams served as student government president at what all-female HBCU in her current home state?
[Another 7 for us on this one, giving us a total of 65 + 7 = 72.] See the answers
At this point it was time for another scoring break, more They Might Be Giants, and more Riedi comedy at the expense of Chicago foods. They also showed the traditional “In Memoriam” video including both real-life icons and fictional characters. TMBG played “The End Of The Tour” behind this video, which was surprisingly touching.
The Geeks usually post this video, but they haven’t done so yet. I’ll be sure to include it when they do.
At the end of the scoring break, we stood in 16th place.
Round 7: Fuck It, We’ll Do It Live
Something I love about Geek Bowl is that they are always experimenting. Every year they try new ideas, from a youth dance troupe re-enacting movie scenes to street performers, uh, re-enacting movie scenes. This year in the re-enacting movie scenes category, they leaned into Chicago’s improv tradition, with a round wherein improv performers had taken suggestions from the audience via Twitter and performed fresh scenes around them. The twist is that each of these scenes would have inserted three verbatim quotes from a movie. We had to name the movies.
As an additional level of clueing and Chicago-ing, the 8 movies were themed around the 8 groups that see Ferris Bueller as a righteous dude, according to Edie McClurg: sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads. Lucky for me, the Geeks have put this up on video too, because I couldn’t possibly recap those scenes — I was too busy focusing on the quotes, which also appeared on the screens as the scenes played out. This highlights the weakness of this particular experiment — I think the improv parts were largely ignored by teams who saw them as basically distraction in the way of the actual question. But like I said, respect to the Geeks for experimenting — they can’t all be home runs.
Round 8 of Geeks Who Drink is always, always just “Random Knowledge.” In a regular pub quiz, 16 points are spread out irregularly through the questions, but in Geek Bowl they’re pretty much always two points each. This year, there was just a little extra twist, as will become apparent in the answers post.
1. a) Since around 1960, what seven-letter plural has referred to a type of rubber rain boot? b) Since around 1980, what seven-letter plural has referred to an everyday plastic shoe?
2. a) Dribble was a pet turtle swallowed by Farley Hatcher, that literary character known by what nickname? b) Ghost gal Kayako Saeki made Americans dribble out pee for the first time in what 2004 film?
3. a) A Game Boy sequel subtitled “Six Golden Coins” was the first appearance of what sometimes-villain? [Brian had this almost immediately.] b) The online game Simraceway was co-developed by Ashley Judd’s then-husband, a four-time IndyCar champ. What’s his first name?
4. a) What American figure skater was 15 when she won Olympic gold at Nagano? b) What Russian founder of abstract painting didn’t even start art school until age 30? [I’ve been working on art as a category, and was proud to know this, but it turns out I didn’t even need to, because Don got there first.]
5. a) Traditionally, what type of bread do Jews eat at the beginning of Shabbat? b) What ceremony marks the end of Shabbat? [We were only Jewish-adjacent enough to know one of these, sadly.]
6. a) In 1981, slavery was finally officially outlawed in what Atlantic-huggin’ country that’s spooned by Mali? b) What Baltic-caressin’ country launched a 2018 tourist campaign touting its capital as “The G Spot of Europe”?
7. a) An L Word bathroom makeout sesh was inspired by hotly discussing what Autobiography of Red author? b) Sexuality and race are themes in what Harlem Renaissance author’s Passing?
8. a) Politicians are always fighting over the taxation of what term for profits made by liquidating an investment? b) “All production is for the purpose of ultimately satisfying a consumer.” So said what influential British economist?
[13 points for us on this round, for a final score of 80 + 13 = 93. Like I said at the top, the Geeks’ final score tally had us at 92. I’m very curious where that discrepancy happened, but likely will never know, and in any case it doesn’t affect anything but pride of placement.] See the answers
Once the final score tallies were displayed, we were in 13th. Which was great, but not great enough to get us up on stage with the money winners. The final prize ceremony was also handled a bit weirdly. In past years, all five teams got up on stage and their placements were announced one-by-one, though of course announcing second place pretty much implies first place, so one would rapidly follow the other. This year, for whatever reason, they brought the teams up on stage one by one, so when second and first were announced, both teams were still offstage, where they were grouchily told, “Stop hugging and get up here!” This didn’t work. Geeks, please go back to having all teams on stage for the placement announcements — watching people experience joy is vicarious fun!
And as long as I’m throwing out unsolicited recommendations for Geek Bowl adjustments, let’s talk about that prize pool. Geek Bowl prizes have grown year over year. When we won Geek Bowl 5, I think the prize was around $3,000. For Geek Bowl 8, it was $6,666. This year’s top prize was $14,000. Second place got $7,000, third place $3,000, fourth $1,500, and fifth $600. So that’s just over $26,000 in prizes. I think there was also an amateur prize, and maybe some cash associated with that one.
I think the amateur prize is a great idea, but beyond that I feel like the prizes have grown and grown but stayed concentrated among the same number of winners. Would it be so bad to offer, say, $12,000 and $6,000 (which by the way splits way easier among six people) to the top, then give the top ten winning teams at least enough to cover their entry fees? And yeah, I acknowledge that this is often Mothra’s finishing place, so I can’t claim to be unbiased. Still, the event is lots of fun and very successful, and I’d love to see it become just a little more rewarding for say the top 5% rather than the top 2%. End of speech.
After all the offstage hugging was over and the prizes had been distributed, there was one more thing: the now-traditional video announcing next year’s location. There were some shots of buildings I didn’t recognize, but which caused excited cheering from a few tables. Then we heard a new version of “All This Barbecue,” (with extra lyrics!), sung by Geeks EIC and esteemed author Christopher Short. So I’ll see you next year at the answer to Round 2, question 8!
Happy New Year, and welcome to another year-end music list. Just to review, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2019 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that nothing on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.
1. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?
My Elvis Costello/Watchmen project of a couple years ago, combined with my long listening queue, meant that some Elvis Costello albums were still kicking around in that queue this year. This song felt like a great burst of energy to kick off a mix, and also pretty appropriate to the current moment. Its currency has never gone away, really, but there’s another layer available now, when our world keeps evaluating its news in the frame of entertainment. Impeachment hearings started recently, and some of the coverage has focused on whether they have enough “pizzazz.” I keep seeing headlines like “Adam Schiff’s ‘Trump Show’: Was it a hit with the undecideds?” Because what’s real doesn’t matter anymore nearly so much as how it looks and feels on TV. We’re not just a nation of pundits, we’re a nation of drama and comedy critics — just not very good ones. Which is how we got an insult comic reality TV president whose decisions are driven more by ratings (on a few different levels) than reason. What’s so funny, indeed?
2. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Badlands Darkness On The Edge Of Town was one of my album assignments this year, and “Badlands” was a standout from that listen. It’s got a similar energy to “What’s So Funny”, but with more hope. This song is about pushing through darkness, finding the faith to keep going, and recognizing that no matter how shitty things feel, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” I can always use a little of that.
3. The Hooters – And We Danced
This song always made me feel glad to be alive. I was a big fan of the Hooters’ first two albums, and I gave their debut a re-listen this year. It didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped — some of those lyrics seem REALLY dopey to me now — but musically there’s still a lot of magic there, and this song has the most of it.
4. Vampire Weekend – Unbelievers Vampire Weekend’s third album was another assignment this year, and I really wanted to include a track from it. I tried “Ya Hey” first, but although I like the song plenty it just wasn’t meshing with the mix. This one, on the other hand, dropped perfectly into its slot. It feels like it continues the spark from “And We Danced”, but transforms the sentiment from simple romantic lust to a kind of bubbly ambivalence. We’re all unbelievers over here, though we have our ways of reaching outside empiricism. I relate to the feeling of wanting just a drop of holy water.
5. Frightened Rabbit – Head Rolls Off
Frightened Rabbit picks up on this theme at the beginning of “Head Rolls Off”, affirming that “Jesus is just a Spanish boy’s name”. But despite his disconnection from traditional religion, he finds a way to see himself as part of something larger, looking beyond death — “when it’s all gone, something carries on” — but not in the self. It’s in the others we leave behind, and the “tiny changes to earth” we make while we’re here. Frightened Rabbit was a huge find for me this year, and I love the whole Midnight Organ Fight album, but this song is the absolute top for me. As I wrote in the Vampire Weekend post, I’m a long way from feeling any peace about mortality, but I find a lot of comfort in the thought of someone else’s blood flowing forward after I’m gone, in an earth that’s changed just a tiny bit for my having been here.
6. Richard and Linda Thompson – Wall Of Death
Richard Thompson has been on my “to-listen” list for a while. I know his stuff on a basic level — in fact, I saw him open for Joan Armatrading years ago, and enjoyed his set a lot — but I always felt like it would be rewarding to go deeper. Julie Covington’s “(I Want To See The) Bright Lights” pushed me even further in that direction. So this year I listened to Shoot Out The Lights, and I was right: it’s good stuff. This song particularly appealed to me, because I already knew it a bit from R.E.M.’s cover for a Thompson tribute album. Its defiant embrace (in metaphor) of joy in the face of mortality felt like a good companion for “Head Rolls Off”.
7. Roxy Music – Take A Chance With Me
I got to see Bryan Ferry in concert this year. I’d seen him once before (front row at CU’s Macky Auditorium, in fact), and I liked that a lot, but it was a tour for his album of standards, and that’s pretty much all he sang, aside from some deep DEEP Roxy Music cuts rendered in crooner style. This year his tour was focused on Avalon and Boys And Girls, which made it the perfect tour for me, since those are the albums I imprinted upon as a Ferry/Roxy fan. This song in particular is a fond memory for me, because I put it on the first mixtape I ever made for Laura. I was absolutely thrilled to hear it live at last.
8. Bryan Ferry – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (live in London 2007)
This song was another great standout from that concert. I knew Ferry had covered a lot of Dylan over the years, going so far as to release a full album of Dylan covers in 2007, but I’d never heard his version of this song before. Seeing him wail on the harmonica was a wonderful surprise, and I highly recommend the video I pulled this song from. [And because it came from that video, it doesn’t appear on the Spotify playlist for this mix. I substituted the studio version.] I absolutely love his vocals, through his whole career, and their breathy quality has let him age gracefully into performances like this one, and the one I saw. Also, Highway 61 Revisited was an assigned album for me this year, so this was a great way to work it in.
9. World Party – You’re A Hurricane, I’m A Caravan
There are times when Karl Wallinger just nails a lyric, and this is one of them. I’m a huge fan of oblique, metaphor-laden poetry — that’s a major part of what draws me to Stevie Nicks and Emily Dickinson — and this song is right in that wheelhouse. For me, it powerfully evokes a theme I’ve been wrestling with lately: abdication of personal power. My default is to be a peacemaker, and that has allowed me to get victimized by people who have no compunction about wielding their own power. I don’t want to fight, I don’t like to fight, but there is a lot of fight in me, and more bubbles up every time I decide not to fight back, or feel unable to. So when Karl sings: “You don’t own me / but I see you do / You don’t own me / I, I think you do”, I know exactly what he means.
10. Aimee Mann – Good For Me
Here’s another great poet, but there’s a funny story attached to this one. I saw Aimee in concert a couple of years ago, with Jonathan Coulton opening. She was touring on the album this song comes from, Mental Illness, and Coulton has a co-writing credit on some of those songs, so he performed a few of them with her. Before she sang this one, she told us that lots of critics had singled out the first lines of this song — “What a waste of a smoke machine / Took the taste of the dopamine / And left me high and dry” — as quintessential Mann. The problem is, Coulton wrote them. So she was a little comically miffed at his writing getting the biggest praise of the album. Then when she sang it, those opening lines got big applause, and she stopped the song, deadpanning, “How dare you applaud those lines?!”
11. Neko Case – The Next Time You Say Forever
I assigned Middle Cyclone this year because it is my favorite Neko Case album, and I wanted to write about her hypnotic hold on me. This song is a typical example of her spellbinding voice, set off by a wonderful arrangement, singing poetry that hits me at the gut level. (Not the face, though.) Plus, it’s under two minutes, which really helped it fit on the CD.
12. The Call – I Don’t Wanna
Okay, in my writeup of Into The Woods, I spent like 6 paragraphs breaking this song down, and quoted its lyrics in their entirety, so I don’t have much more to say here. There was no way this song wasn’t going to appear on this end-of-year collection — it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and this was the year I took the time to write about why.
13. Janis Joplin – Buried Alive In The Blues Another album assignment, and possibly a weird choice to include a Janis Joplin song that doesn’t actually include any Janis Joplin vocals. But when I was writing about Pearl, this song felt so emblematic to me of that album’s whole story. There’s a hole in the middle of it, left empty by Joplin’s death. She died the night before she was to record her vocals for this track, and the band left it on the album as a symbol of a life unfinished. The title sums up her life’s end, and the emptiness inside it speaks eloquently of what we lost.
14. Pretenders – The English Roses
This album assignment track is about a different kind of loss. Really, I could have picked pretty much any song from Pretenders II, an album I absolutely adore, but this one felt like it fit the mood for this part of the mix. Hynde’s portrait of the character in this song is both sympathetic and unsparing, and the music is a wonderful blend of gritty and lyrical.
15. Joe Jackson – Rain (live in New York 2019)
I always see Joe when he tours, and this was one of those years. He was touring on his album Fool, but decided to highlight four other albums in his set, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (70s), Night and Day (80s), Laughter and Lust (90s), and Rain (00s). Rain, has he explained, doesn’t have a title track, so he decided to borrow one “from an impeccable source”, albeit with the chords changed around a bit. [This one also didn’t make the Spotify playlist, as there is no version of it on Spotify. I pulled it from a fantastic video of his full 2019 concert in NYC.]
16. Fleetwood Mac – Hold Me
Fleetwood Mac also visited this year (a couple of times), and without Lindsey in the mix there was room for Stevie and Christine to open up some of the songs that don’t get played EVERY SINGLE TIME. This was one of those, and I was so happy to hear it. I got a wonderful remaster of the Mirage album for my birthday, with lots of fun extra tracks (that will likely show up in a future mix), but for now it’s just a sonically great way to revisit this Christine song, to which I’ve always been partial.
17. Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over
Also in those Fleetwood Mac concerts, Lindsey’s parts were played by Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers (mostly the guitar) and Neil Finn (mostly the vocals). That meant we got to hear tunes from their careers as well — “Free Fallin'” (sung by Stevie) for Campbell, and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” from Finn. I’ve always enjoyed this song, but I found a new appreciation for it in those performances. It also feels pretty appropriate to the current moment, the hopeful flip side of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
18. Janelle Monáe – I Like That
Dante belongs to a school club called SAGA — Sexuality And Gender Alliance — and at the beginning of this school year he created some lists of books and games that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. Because his taste in music tends to focus on classical tunes and instrumental game soundtracks, I offered to make him a playlist of music that fit this theme. I made it, and had a wonderful time doing so. Having recently delved into Monáe’s album Dirty Computer, I knew this song had to be on that mix. “I’m always left of center / And that’s right where I belong / I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs / And I like that / I don’t really give a fuck if I’m the only one who likes that” is a brilliant way to evoke her theme, and the rap at the end is so affirming, in a way that feels like it perfectly fits that group.
19. Emily Saliers – Long Haul
Emily came out with a good solo album in 2017, and my listening queue being what it is, I listened to it this year. She took a lot of musical risks on that album, with many songs emerging much more beat-driven and electronic than most Indigo Girls stuff. But it was this song that captivated me the most, and it’s the most Indigo-esque tune on the whole record, albeit with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland singing the Amy parts. Guess I know what I like. It’s also a great theme for anybody in a long-term committed relationship. That’s also relevant to my interests.
20. Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
This song felt like it paired well with “Long Haul”, making love the central goal of life. Wilson is one of those artists who just speaks to me, even though he’s much better known as a songwriter than as a performer. This song is the title track of an album I listened to this year, and of all the good songs on that album, this is the one that belongs at this point in the mix.
21. Cameron McGill and What Army – My Demons Are Organized
You can probably tell from reading these notes that I put a lot of thought into what goes with what on these mixes, grouping songs and artists together so that they feel like they flow smoothly into each other and carve out a journey. So this felt like the right way to close the set, ackowledging that while these mixes are meant as gifts, and try to bring together something of what I listened to and loved each year, they are also a bit of an exercise in organizing personal demons (and angels.) This song came to me in an odd, roundabout way. I watched a documentary called Old Man, because its subject was Andy Schneidkraut, a friend from the trivia world and the owner of a record store in Boulder called Albums On The Hill. His son is a filmmaker, and made that documentary. I found it a moving experience, and this was the song that played over the credits. I sought it out, and I’m glad I did — it’s a good way to close the door on 2019. I’ll be over here again next year, organizing my demons.
So here’s the thing with Highway 61 Revisited. It’s hard to find anything new to say about this album. Entirebooks have been written on the topic, and I’ve even read some of them. I also wrote extensively about “Desolation Row” since it was quoted in Watchmen. Not to mention the threedifferentposts I’ve already written about Bob Dylan in this Album Assignments series. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about him.
So I’m taking a different approach with this post, a more personal approach. I write a lot about how music feels to me, and I often try to capture with words how a particular song or moment works, but while I will sometimes introduce that stuff with a little bit about my life, I tend to write about music a lot and life very little. But music is woven into my life, and among other things serves me as touchstones, allowing me to time travel back to specific moments that emblematize greater relationships or themes.
Take “Like A Rolling Stone”. Obviously it’s a rock classic, and a huge milestone in Dylan’s career, and your local library is full of explanations about that. But I listen to the first two lines of it, and more often than not, I have Bob Herd in my head. That story you won’t find in the library.
Robby and I cemented our friendship when I was about 15 years old. We spent a lot of time at each other’s houses in high school, and during summers and breaks in our college years. So that meant we got to spend a lot of time with each other’s parents. Robby’s dad Bob was a kindly giant to me, a big tall goofball with Texas roots who would always try to crack us up as he made his way through the house. He was always especially good to me — in fact one time we even hung out together without Robby around, as we both really wanted to see Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and Robby had zero interest.
Bob loved classic rock in general, but specifically he was a huge Dylan fan. Robby tells me how on Sundays, his dad would sit down with him and play through some favorite record, pointing out great bits and telling stories as they’d listen. That’s where Robby’s appreciation of Dylan came from, or at least where it started. Bob and I would talk Dylan sometimes too, taking turns rhapsodizing about the musicians and especially the lyrics.
I have an image of Bob in my head. He’s coming down the stairs in Robby’s old house, while Robby and I are hanging out in the living room. His steps are heavy, and once he’s sure he has our attention, he drawls out: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine! Threw the bums a dime, in your prime!” A call, waiting for a response. We wouldn’t let him down, giving it our best nasal Dylan as we belted, “Didn’t youuuuuu!” We all three laughed at each other’s silliness, having a blast.
Bob passed away in 2007, much too young. When I hear “Like A Rolling Stone” now, I feel like he’s with me, just for a few moments, right at the same time as I wish that I could see him again.
There’s another touchstone for me at the beginning of the song “Highway 61 Revisited.” Dylan blows this wacky siren whistle a couple of times in the first five seconds of that song, a wild and silly sound that immediately sets the song apart from any other rock and roll tune before or since. Plenty of ink has been spilled about that creative choice, but none of it is about my friend Tashi.
Tashi and I worked together for many years at the University of Colorado, first for the central IT office that serves all the campuses, and then for the Boulder campus IT group. At various times I was his peer, his manager, and his colleague. He’s one of my favorite co-workers ever, and pretty much one of my favorite people in the world. Like me, he loves comedy and music, and he especially appreciates when they come together.
Tashi and I shared an office for a long time, which was the source of many a delightful conversation, sometimes trying to make each other think but usually trying to make each other laugh. At one point I was working and I suddenly heard, out of nowhere, those few notes of organ and — wOOOOOOooooo! — that siren whistle. Then it almost immediately stopped. I looked up, and the sound repeated. It was then I realized that Tashi had made that his ringtone. Hilarious.
Health issues eventually forced Tashi out of his job at CU, but we’re still friends. He comes over pretty regularly to help tutor Dante in math, not because math is a huge struggle for Dante but because Tashi absolutely loves it and gets immense pleasure from helping teach it. Much to Dante’s delight, Tashi always sticks around after the math work to play a board game or computer game or something. Our whole family loves having him around, because not only is he a wonderful mentor to Dante, he’s also super fun and incredibly funny. That siren whistle pretty much nails how I feel about him. wOOOOOOooooo!
I’ve got lots more memories attached to this stuff. Robby and I were counselors in the early 90s at a college-style camp for gifted middle and high school kids – they stayed in dorms at night, took awesome classes during the day, and participated in counselor-led activities in the afternoons and evenings. Some of the time was just “dorm time”, where the kids could hang out, play cards, and whatnot, while counselors stationed themselves at some central location. I remember clearly my little boombox in the center of a first floor dorm hallway, blasting out this album and some others (Freewheelin’, Another Side) to a small cadre of fascinated kids, getting intiated into the mysteries that had captured generations prior to theirs.
More recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Bryan Ferry in concert, and he played a cover of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that gave me major goosebumps. And now that moment is with me too, even as I dig Dylan’s very different version. Like Pretenders II, this is an album I just never get tired of. I could listen to it over and over, and sometimes I do, because it brings back such happiness to me, and more great memories await.
Because I’m sending these year-end CDs to Wales, my listening year runs November to October, giving me time to assemble and mail a mix in time for Christmas. This year, that meant I’d done most of the assembly work during the first week of November. Shortly after that, you may or may not have heard, the United States held a presidential election. It was a pretty low-key affair — only about 55% of us actually bothered to vote. What’s more, we have this quirky system that gives more power per voter to rural (ahem, whiter) areas of the country than to more diverse urban areas, a system we’ve decided to reinforce by drawing super-crazy boundaries around congressional districts in order to keep them as ideologically homogeneous as possible.
Anyway, when faced with a choice between the most dangerous and least qualified major party nominee, like, ever, and a woman with decades of political experience and a clear, proven track record of working to help vulnerable people with compassionate policies, we of course chose the qualified woman. That is to say, more people voted for her. Like, a couple million more. But, funny thing, she’s not actually going to get to become president, because the couple million extra people who voted for her live in the wrong states. Did I mention we have a quirky system?
Anyway, for people like me who were rooting for the qualified woman to not only win the most votes but also to get elected president, it’s been kind of an emotional time. You know how after you go through a big breakup or suffer some kind of major loss, every single song that comes on the radio seems to gain this halo of extra resonance, to get freighted with a bunch of additional meaning so that it turns out all those songs are about EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUFFERING, who knew? Listening to music was kind of like that for a few weeks in November.
That experience seems to have permanently infiltrated my experience of making this mix, and thus of listening to these songs. So it’s possible these liner notes may feel a bit repetitive for that reason. Oh, and also for the reason that a bunch of these songs have already been written about in the context of my ongoing album assignments project. All those messy caveats aside, here’s a mix of songs I was listening to in 2016, and a few thoughts about each one.
1. Taylor Swift – Clean
This was the year I got around to 1989. The Taylor Swift album, I mean. I’d never been drawn to her stuff too much previously, though she did always seem to me like the real thing, a talented singer-songwriter who was committed to a musical life, rather than being a video pop tart. But the country idiom isn’t a natural one for me, so I never sought her out until I heard the infectious and addictive “Shake It Off.” (And stay tuned for that one.) A few singles into this album and I knew it was for me. I wasn’t wrong, either — I love the whole thing, and this track is especially compelling to me. It’s a collaboration between TS and Imogen Heap, who herself vaulted onto my list after this. Her album is on the docket for next year. “Clean” is a relationship song, clearly, but heard in the November context it was how I was hoping to feel on the 9th. That didn’t work out.
3. Joni Mitchell – Carey Blue was an assigned album this year, and listening to it I was struck anew at just how gorgeous it is. Every note sounds so pure and right. Every song feels on par with all the others, so picking a song from it was a bit arbitrary. “Carey”, though, feels emblematic of the album, musically joyful and lyrically both aching and celebratory. I love the bohemian images, and the feel of reveling in the sweetness of life just as we still revel in the sweetness of this album. The lyric “put on some silver” makes me think of making the choice to embrace life and happiness even in dark times. It seemed a fitting title for this collection.
4. Fountains Of Wayne – Action Hero
After getting to know FoW last year, I dove deeper this year, branching into some other albums, including their (presumably final) entry from 2011, Sky Full Of Holes. It’s a typically great collection, but for me this song stands above most of the rest. There’s the usual lyrical cleverness, stringing together rhyme chains like “tests”, “chest”, “best”, “guess”, “rest”, and “stress”, with an internal rhyme of “suggest” thrown in there as a flourish. But the moment that gives me goosebumps everytime is after the second chorus, when the music swells underneath “and he’s racing against time.” Where the action hero metaphor starts out comical, with the man serving as a bit of a punchline, by the end of the second chorus his true heroism reveals itself to us, reflecting upon us the way we’re all racing against time.
5. The Lumineers – Submarines
On a musical level, I find this song hypnotic. The way it switches time signatures back and forth keeps me wonderfully off-balance, and the mix of instrumental voices is a pleasure — strong piano, subtle cello, stomps and snares for percussion. Lyrically, it’s about seeing a danger coming that nobody else believes. I can imagine there were a few who could relate to that feeling recently. I wasn’t one of them, though — I’m not sure whether I wish I’d seen it coming or not. That’s a bit like the old philosophical question about knowing the time and manner of your own death.
6. The Motels – Suddenly Last Summer
I think The Motels are one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s. I love Martha Davis’ voice, and her writing often has a mysterious, evocative quality, hinting at truths greater than the words can capture. This song is a perfect example — I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but you can’t miss the the yearning, regret, and pain in the music. It always makes me think of how some incident can change your life completely in an instant, branching you into a future very different from the one you expected. For me, the words “one summer never ends, one summer never begins” are about that inflection point.
7. Bob Dylan – Positively 4th Street
I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan this year. The subtitle of this mix may as well be “Hope Ya Like Dylan!” He’ll be showing up frequently in this list. This song is one of the best kiss-off tunes of all time. In Dylan’s context, I think it’s about the false friends he had in the Greenwich Village folk community, people who pretended to love him but were in fact jealous of his success and ready to undermine him at any turn. (At least, from his perception — no doubt there are many sides to that story.) In the 2016 context, it’s about seeing through bullshit, something we’ve all had to become well acquainted with.
8. Peter Gabriel – Lovetown
Here’s a little-known Peter Gabriel track, from the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Philadelphia. Like many of the soundtrack’s songs, it’s an interpretation of the tone of the movie — a complement to Neil Young’s “city of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?” Gabriel’s song is more subtle, more translucent than transparent. But that’s where I think its power resides. It brims with powerful images, like “do those teeth still match the wound” and the corresponding “whose lonely lips will find these hidden scars?” I listened to that soundtrack this year, and even though I love most of the other songs on it, this one felt the richest and the deepest to me.
9. The Velvet Underground & Nico – Venus In Furs As I wrote, this is the song that captivated me most when I listened to the VU’s debut album on assignment this year. It illuminates an unusual relationship to suffering — pain as release, pain as freedom, pain as comfort. It’s not my path — as Armatrading said, “It’s their way of loving, not mine.” But I’ve learned about it from friends, and come to see it as another aspect of diversity, and possibly even a different approach to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s a brilliant purple candle flame in a darkened room, casting weird shadows on the wall but nevertheless an irresistible cynosure.
10. Bob Dylan – Up To Me
Oh, “Up To Me.” The way these mixes come about is that as I go through the year of music listening, I keep throwing standout tracks into a playlist, and then I pick from that group when November comes around. There are always more songs than would fit on a single CD, so some culling is necessary, and that’s all to the good. Some songs, though, I mark as sure keepers, that will make the mix no matter what else doesn’t. This is one of those songs. I found it on the third disc of Dylan’s 1985 box set Biograph. I listen to music mostly during my commute, and when a song particularly catches my interest, I repeat it. And when it obsesses me, I repeat it until I’ve learned it. That’s what happened to me with this song, which is every bit as good as anything from Blood On The Tracks, one of my favorite Dylan incarnations. It feels like an epic novel to me, but condensed down into a series of scenes that indelibly carve the runes of friendship, regret, responsibility, loyalty, and memory.
11. Stevie Nicks – Sisters Of The Moon (demo)
There was a period, probably about a decade ago, where conditions in my life and conditions on the Internet were ripe for gathering lots and lots of Stevie bootlegs. People had web sites up where they’d feature some collection of mp3s for a week, then take those down and put up a whole new set, week after week, site after site. Some of this stuff gets pretty repetitive — how many fan-taped shows from the 2002-03 Fleetwood Mac tour does one person need? (Answer: a combination of “the best quality one” and “the one from early in the tour where they hadn’t dropped the rare songs yet.”) But there’s one collection that stands as my favorite. It was labeled “Gems” by whoever put it up, and the description is apt. It’s piano demos, mostly young Stevie singing by herself, accompanying herself, doing versions of her songs from when they were freshly written. Of that collection, this one is my favorite, an acoustic “Sisters Of The Moon” before it became a Fleetwood Mac powerhouse, when it was just a spooky, hushed, mystical gauze draped over a Tiffany lamp.
12. Buckingham Nicks – Crying In The Night
When I saw her on October 27th, Stevie’s set was full of surprises, but none more surprising than this one. This is the opening track from the Buckingham Nicks album, the one she and Lindsey released before they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. This album isn’t even available to buy — it’s been out of print since a few months after it was released in 1973, and has never even come out on CD. (At least, not in a version released by any record company.) I never, ever expected to hear it live, and it was a huge thrill. Maybe that means we’ll see a disc one of these years? We keep hoping.
13. The Pretenders – Stop Your Sobbing
Yes, The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks are side by side in this mix because they were side by side in concert. And yes, pairing “Crying In The Night” with “Stop Your Sobbing” was no accident. But I’d likely select this song even without the thematic connection, because Chrissie’s performance on it was her fiercest of the night. Yeah, it’s a Kinks cover, but for me this is a Pretenders song through and through, and one of the best. This month, it also represents what to do next.
14. The Police – Truth Hits Everybody
Now here’s a song that resonated in November. I’d just assigned Outlandos d’Amour the month before, and rediscovered the furious allure of The Police as a young band, especially Stewart Copeland. Now, listening back to the music I’d selected from the year, this song jumped out at me and took me by the throat. Reality has seldom felt so merciless.
15. Bob Dylan – Tombstone Blues
Here’s another version of merciless truth, one flooded with metaphor and cloaked in symbol, but the chorus is pretty plainspoken: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food / I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.” Sure, there’s Belle Starr and John the Baptist and Galileo and Gypsy Davey and on and on, but at its heart this song is about poverty, desperation, and death. It turns out those are powerful forces that, in a democracy, can be harnessed and pointed at a target. Sometimes, the target is even the people themselves, though they only find that out later.
16. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins – The Big Guns
The commander-in-chief says, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry.” Okay, I’m still on the previous song, but it connects right up. This Jenny Lewis solo album is much closer to the parts of Rilo Kiley that I love than was the actual last Rilo Kiley album. This track was a standout when I listened to it months ago, but it really jumped up when I was putting the mix together. “I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody.” Some people just love the big guns, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from them soon. Not that the last 8 years were some peaceful haven — we’re still in some kind of 1984 state of constant war — but it was directionally correct, and we’re about to lose that, I think.
17. Heart – Goodbye Blue Sky (live)
Which leads right into this. I think it’s very hard to cover Pink Floyd successfully — I’ve not even heard that many people try. But I absolutely adore this version of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” It comes from a Heart live album in which they play the entirety of Dreamboat Annie, and then go on to cover some of the other people’s songs they loved from that period. The original of this is fantastically sinister, but the Ann Wilson treatment just launches it into the stratosphere, no unsettling reference intended. The incredible sense of menace and power fit my November mood perfectly.
18. Coldplay – Amsterdam
The turning point. This song captivated me when I listened to A Rush Of Blood To The Head on assignment. I connected with it emotionally far more than any other song on the album. To me, this song is about being in the deep well of despair, for a time that feels it will stretch into eternity, and then finally seeing a shaft of sunlight break through. Right at 3:57, the song absolutely takes off, and the feeling changes from hopelessness to freedom. I’ve been through this once already. In 2004, I gave up on us in disgust, only to witness what felt like a miracle in 2008. This time, I’m not giving up — we just have to keep climbing until we get to that sunlight.
19. Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’
This song was first played on October 26, 1963. Less than a month later, and before the song was released on an album, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, giving the clarion words an entirely different cast. Yet when we hear it now, it signals all the good changes that came out of that painful decade. The words, though, can play either as hopeful or foreboding, or maybe both at the same time. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” That’s where we are. But the change doesn’t stop, and we can be a part of it.
20. Taylor Swift – Shake It Off
So here we are. I started with a wish to be clean, but it’s a dirty time that lies ahead. But I can’t stay mud-encrusted. As much as I can, I have to rise above, and the only way I know to do that is to connect with human joy. This song crystallizes that for me. Haters gonna hate, and that’s not something we can change. What can we do? Shake, shake, shake it off. 🙂 And look forward to 2017, despite everything.