Archive for December, 2010

Last week, I jumped the gun and presented my top 10 albums of the year list. I should have known I would get gift cards o’plenty (thanks Mom, Dad, Carl, Stephen and Tyler!), and while I used most of those to buy older albums that aren’t available in stores now, I picked up three new albums and all three are excellent. So after my reviews of these gems, I’ve included an updated top 20 list and that’s my final answer, Regis.

Diddy and friends have crafted a rare gem: an album with emotional resonance and dancefloor appeal.

Diddy/Dirty Money, Last Train to Paris: One of the most pleasantly surprising albums of the year, also one of the year’s best. I was never a big fan of Diddy, Puff Daddy, Sean Combs, insert name here, as a rapper, but the guy has always been a great judge of talent (helping launch the careers of Jodeci and one of the best rappers of all time, the Notorious B.I.G.), and he has re-emerged with an hip-hop/electrodance/funk/R&B outfit Dirty Money, consisting of former Danity Kane singer Dawn Richard and singer/songwriter Kalenna Vick. Together, they’ve put out a thrilling concept album, Last Train to Paris, chronicling a stormy transcontinental Diddy romance. Diddy and other male R&B/rap superstars such as Usher, T.I., Drake, Rick Ross and Swizz Beats tell Diddy’s side of the story, while Richard and Vick’s excellent singing on most of the album’s chorus lines provide the unidentified woman’s perspective.
Actually, this is what Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks could have been if he had used other singers rather than his annoying Autotuned voice. Diddy, who doesn’t rap on every track (or at least doesn’t have a prominent role on every one), has the good sense to let the real singers do the singing, and while his rapping skills will never land him on any greatest of all-time lists, they are better than expected and keep the story arc moving along nicely.
The music was produced by many hip hop/dance luminaries, yet has a cohesive flow as many of the songs blend together seamlessly. At times the music has a Eurodisco or Techno feel, while others have more contemporary hip-hop sounds. No song sounds the same, and there really isn’t a bad track here, which is a triumph as many hip hop albums have their share of filler alongside great singles. Highlights include “I Hate That You Love Me,” “Shades (featuring Lil Wayne and Justin Timberlake), “Hello Good Morning (featuring T.I. and Rick Ross)” and the wonderful “Coming Home.” This is the rare album that conveys raw emotion yet sends you running to the dance floor at the same time. Excellent work by Diddy and crew.

Sod rating: ****

Nicki Minaj is a budding rap superstar, and her debut is outstanding.


Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday: The much-anticipated debut album from budding rap superstar Nicki Minaj doesn’t disappoint, delivering the hype depicting Minaj as the great hope for female rappers everywhere.
Minaj had already become an underground sensation on the mixtape circuit, before a major-label bidding war was won by Young Money Records (Lil Wayne and company). Throughout the last year, Minaj has guested on other stars’ albums, taking a star turn on Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad” and literally stealing the show on Kanye West’s “Monster” (no small feat considering the track featured Jay-Z as well).
On her major-label debut, Minaj shows her versatility as a rapper and singer, as she is quite gifted on writing and belting out an excellent hook (see lead singles “Right Thru Me” and “Your Love”). But she’s equally adept at going toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Eminem on Roman’s Revenge – where she pits her alter-ego Roman Zolanski against Em’s Slim Shady- and Kanye West on “Blazin'”
Lending a helping hand and a sample of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” will.i.am produces the catchy “Check it Out”, and Minaj also adds a few inspirational tunes to budding female rappers, telling them not to give up their dream of making it big in the male-dominated rap game.
Along with the emergence of Drake, Minaj shines as rap’s great hope for the future. Let’s hope she builds on this outstanding first effort.

Sod rating: ****

Vampire Weekend continues to expand their sonic palette on their thrilling sophomore effort.

Vampire Weekend, Contra: This album was released in January, and despite glowing reviews, I didn’t pick it up until yesterday because it was on sale for $7.99 at Best Buy. Vampire Weekend is a group of indie rockers from Columbia University, and their sound is hard to characterize. They employ plenty of world beats on this offering, reminding me of Paul Simon’s forays into world music on his albums Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints.
Singer/lyricist Ezra Koenig has an easygoing voice, a bit similar in style to the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. The title of the album is not only an homage to rebellion (like the Nicaraguan Contra uprising against the Sandinista government in the 1980, but also the classic Nintendo video game Contra, so you gotta love that!)
The ten songs fly by, as the album clocks in at just over half an hour, embracing many genres such as ska and even rap. African rhythms are prominent on several tracks, so a number of instruments not usually featured on Western albums are used here.
Vampire Weekend has established themselves as one of the most unique pop/rock bands out there and given their young age, they should keep delivering on their enormous promise for years to come.
Highlights include “Holiday,” “Horchata,” “I Think Ur a Contra,” “Giving up the Gun,” and “Run.”

Sod rating: ****

Updated Top 20 Albums of the Year list
20. Mojo, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
19. Slash, Slash
18. The Oracle, Godsmack
17. Hurley, Weezer
16. Come Around Sundown, Kings of Leon
15. The Adventures of Bobby Ray, B.O.B.
14. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, Big Boi
13. Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots
12. Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj
11. Sea of Cowards, The Dead Weather
10. Rise Up, Cypress Hill
9. A Thousand Suns, Linkin Park
8. Thank Me Later, Drake
7. Contra, Vampire Weekend
6. Last Train to Paris, Diddy/Dirty Money
5. Recovery, Eminem
4. The Promise, Bruce Springsteen
3. The Suburbs, The Arcade Fire
2. Brothers, The Black Keys
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West

Coughlin era crashing to embarassing end

Posted: December 28, 2010 in Giants


For the third straight season, the Giants started the year so full of hope and at times looked like one of the best teams in the NFC, if not the NFL. But, much like last year’s tankfest, the Giants fell apart down the stretch with a pair of embarassing losses in games they needed to win. The first one stung the most, as the G-Men (which could stand for Girlie Men as the Governator would say) squandered a 21-point lead in the final eight minutes to the hated Eagles, losing what would have been a firm grip on the NFC East lead.
Coach Tom Coughlin totally lost it at the end of the game, publicly chastising rookie punter Matt Dodge for not kicking the ball out of bounds instead of directly to the speedy DeSean Jackson (who naturally busted loose for the game-winning score). This was a classless move on his part. Sure, Dodge messed up, but Coughlin should have reamed him a new one out of camera’s view. Besides, it wasn’t as if Dodge had blown the 21-point lead. That was on the Giants’ defense, which has been exposed to be fraudulent once again in late-season matador-like fashion.
The Giants said all the right things heading into this Sunday’s game against the Packers, with safety Deon Grant guaranteeing a win and most players saying they had shrugged off the Eagles loss and knew they had everything to play for against Green Bay. Win that game and they were in the playoffs, they said. Instead of playing like a team with everything on the line, the Giants played as if it was the first exhibition game of the season. Tons of mistakes, no pressure on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, a general malaise still hanging over the team from the previous week’s joke of a choke.
I know he has a miraculous Super Bowl win to his credit, but it’s time for the Giants to cut the cord with Coughlin. Three straight disappointing finishes (including two epic Metsesque collapse the last two seasons) for teams that had more than enough talent to not only make the playoffs, but go deep into January. Something’s not clicking with these guys. They are far too inconsistent, looking like champions one week and a shitty semipro team the next.
Outside of the great 2007 playoff run, Coughlin hasn’t won a playoff game with the Giants and has seen his team get off to great starts in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010 and fail miserably at the end.
I believe it’s time to bring someone else in with an entirely new coaching staff and fresh set of ideas. Coughlin isn’t totally to blame for all these late-season failures, there’s plenty of blame to go around. (Don’t get me started on offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s playcalling or Perry Fewell’s inability to get anything out of his defense when it mattered the most). The players (and their 50 turnovers or whatever it is) need to look themselves in the mirror as well. I’m a big fan of Eli Manning, despite his mistakes, but he doesn’t seem to be a leader. Too nice of a guy (kind of like David Wright), but I believe he could thrive under a more controlled offense (where the run sets up the pass and not vice versa) and with a strong leader as head coach, say a Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. His prime years are being wasted, and he really hasn’t improved all that much the last five years. Flashes of brilliance scattered with stupid mistakes. Kind of a microcosm of the Tom Coughlin era in New York.

When Tom Coughlin is fired following this year's disaster, the Giants should call upon Bill Cowher and his famous chin to fix the mess.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Posted: December 24, 2010 in Odds and Sods

Santa's already had a rough month. Hopefully everything goes much smoother for him tonight!

Hope all my friends and family have a wonderful Christmas. Also hope anyone out there who randomly stumbles on this blog has a great holiday as well.

Sod’s Top 10 of ’10

Posted: December 17, 2010 in Album Reviews

With Christmas a week away, I thought I’d start counting down my top 10 albums of 2010, just in case you want to get someone a last-second gift (or grab one for yourself). I’ve reviewed all of them throughout the year and thought it would be fun to rank them. It was tough to do, and a few noteworthy releases just missed the cut, but here it goes.
10. Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots: This self-titled released marked the return of STP from a nine-year recording hiatus, and it was a triumphant comeback. While it doesn’t match early hallmark releases Core or Purple, it fits rather nicely into the band’s body of work, featuring everything they do well – Aerosmith-tinged classic rockers (Huckleberry Crumble), heavy Beatles soundalikes (Dare If You Dare) and David Bowie-esque psychedelic ballads (Last Kiss on Mars). If you’re a big fan of the band or just love classic-sounding rock, it’s a must have.

9. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards: Jack White stays busy, leading three killer rock bands (The White Stripes and Raconteurs being the others, of course). The Dead Weather is the newest of his bands, and it’s quickly becoming my favorite of the three. Sea of Cowards is a raucous set of blues-based rockers, and while some of the songs could have used a little fine-tuning, the performances are so intense and the sound so jarring, it’s worth every ounce of your attention. Allison Mosshart shares the singing duties with White, and they sometimes trade vocals in the same song. Good stuff, an improvement on their first release Horehound (released just last year). Look forward to what they come up with in the future.

8. Cypress Hill, Rise Up: It’s been 17 years since Cypress Hill released their last great album, Black Sunday. And since that was just their second album, most of the last 17 years has been spent recycling past grooves and rehashing the same love odes to a certain herb. It’s not as if the Hill is re-inventing itself here, it just sounds reinvigorated with a set of 15 tracks which run the gamut, from hard-charging rockers (Rise Up with Tom Morello, Trouble Seeker with Daron Malakian) to laid-back weed anthems (K.U.S.H aka Keeps Us So High), even adding a left-field sample of the Crosby, Stills and Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” on the wonderful closer “Armada Latina.”

7. Linkin Park, A Thousand Suns: Of all the rap/metal hybrids spawned in the early part of last decade, Linkin Park is the only one to really survive and thrive into this decade. Simply put, they’ve adapted their sound because they didn’t want to be one-trick ponys. So, they’ve taken the rap part of the equation down a few notches and added more melodies and sonic textures on each of the last two albums. And while 2008’s Minutes to Midnight had triumphant moments, A Thousand Suns truly resonates, although it takes a few listens to really get it. Songs are weaved in and out of instrumental ambience, so putting this album on shuffle does nothing for you. Highlights include “Waiting for the End,” “The Catalyst,” “Wretches and Kings,” and “When They Come for Me.”

6. Drake, Thank Me Later: The debut full-length from Canadian rapper Drake shows an artist on top of his game early on. Loaded with superstar guest spots from the likes of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, T.I. and Alicia Keys (among others), it’s Drake’s star that shines brightest on tracks like the lead single “Over,” one of the best rap songs of the year. Drake writes his own hooks and sings them, too, offering the rap-free “Find Your Love” as another hit single. The kid’s got talent and should be one to watch in the next decade.

5. Eminem, Recovery: Megastar rapper Eminem realized the error of his ways when he released his comeback album Relapse in 2009. His first set of new songs in six years was highly anticipated given his recent struggle with drug addiction and stints in rehab. That album didn’t really offer much of a look into Em’s fragile psyche, offering up much of the same slasher imagery and celeb bashing (along with cheesy accents) offered on 2003’s Encore. Originally, Eminem was going to put out Relapse II, but thought better of it, instead putting out Recovery, a much more concise set of songs with some of the best rhymes Em has laid down since the Marshall Mathers LP or The Eminem Show. And while there is still some of the misogyny included in all Eminem albums, there is also a lot more depth and real emotion here. This is the album Relapse should have been.

4. Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: One of 2010’s top releases could have been on the 1978 best of lists. That was the year Bruce Springsteen released Darkness on the Edge of Town, a classic 10-song album including such Springsteen standards as “Badlands” and “Prove it All Night.” However, had the Boss decided to go a different route, that album could have looked quite different. It also could have been four albums, as there was that much material written and recorded during those sessions. Some songs eventually were recorded and released by other artists, some were unleashed on 1998’s box set Tracks. And finally, two albums worth of material was digitally cleaned up (and in some cases, overdubs added) for The Promise. Over the course of the double-disc set, the Boss’ many gifts are on display – there are sympathetic story songs (The Promise, City of Night, Racing in the Street) featuring his typical working class heroes. There are bouncy rockers (Save My Love, Gotta Get That Feeling, Outside Looking In) and also songs that were hits for other artists (Fire, Because the Night). On its own, it stands as one of Springsteen’s best in a dazzling career.

3. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: An exhilarating set of songs from Montreal indie rockers Arcade Fire, Suburbs is the finest art record of the year. A statement on growing up in an American suburb, the album’s songs flow masterfully, and every tune is a winner. Some reach majestic status (penultimate track Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains is one of my favorite tracks of the year), while others rock with reckless abandon (Month of May, City With No Children). The husband-wife tandem of Win Butler and RĂ©gine Chassagne are gifted vocalists and songwriters, giving the band a 1-2 punch others lack.

2. Brothers, The Black Keys: From the start of the stunning album opener “Everlasting Light”, you know you’re in for a great ride from the blues-rock duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Auerbach’s falsetto vocals behind a punchy, almost T-Rex like groove, is scintillating and another candidate for Sod Song of the Year. But the album doesn’t stop there, offering a smorgasboard of rock awesomeness in the kiss-off anthem “Next Girl,” the kick-ass single “Tighten Up” and the blues stomp of “Howlin for You.” And those are just the first four songs of the album! I saw these guys open for Kings of Leon in September, and their live show is just as thrilling as the album. Along with Arcade Fire, the Black Keys are band I’m elated I got into in 2010.

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West: By actions that have little to do with his considerable musical talent, Kanye West has become quite the polarizing figure. His Twitter rants are well-known, and his awards-show mishap involving Taylor Swift put him on the most hated list of rednecks everywhere. Kanye is nothing if not self-aware, and the hits to his popularity and massive ego got to him. From pain often comes great art, and Kanye has unleashed his masterpiece in a career littered with highlights (save for the autotuned mess of 808s & Heartbreaks). Kanye has improved as a rapper through the years, but it’s his prodigious production skills that separates him from the field. His “twisted fantasy” has reaped great fruits: piledriving boasts of “Power,” a constant need to remain under “All of the Lights” while admitting he’d also there are times he’d like to “Runaway” when he’s feeling “Lost in the World.” Granted, I just had a bit of fun with some of the song titles, but it’s not too far from where Kanye is coming from. Every track has you wanting more, as Kanye is one of the finest hip-hop artists of all time.

Celtics 118, Knicks 116

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Knicks

That one stung a little bit.
The Knicks traded punches with one of the NBA’s elite teams tonight and fell just short, dropping a hard-fought 118-116 decision to the Boston Celtics at the Garden tonight.
The Knicks led for much of this contest, thanks to an extremely fast start by Amar’e Stoudemire. Scoring 17 points in the first quarter alone, Stoudemire helped the Knicks grab a 32-24 edge after one.
After that, a pattern emerged. Celtics would come back and get within one a few times, but the Knicks would eventually sprint back out by eight. Rinse, lather, repeat. In fact, the Celtics never took the lead until the game’s closing two minutes.
And what an exciting two minutes they were. The Celtics took a 116-113 lead on a Ray Allen wide-open three (Celtics had a five on four, as Raymond Felton had fallen to the floor after a hard drive netted no points). Danilo Gallinari’s floater plus a foul tied the game at 116, and following a Knicks steal, New York had a chance for the lead but Stoudemire’s shot rimmed out. Paul Pierce, who scored 32 points, scored the eventual game-winner with 0.4 seconds left and proceeded to take a home run trot around the Garden, taunting the Knicks and their fans. He stood at midcourt defiantly, acting like a punk, but that’s o.k. The game nearly had a perfect end for Knicks fans. Just after Pierce was jawing in his ear and taunting him, Stoudemire launched an apparent game-winning three as time expired. The crowd went nuts, but the officials replayed the shot and correctly overruled the basket, as Amar’e clearly had the ball in his hands when the red light went off.
Would have been nice to win this one, but the eight-game winning streak is no more. Still some outstanding individual efforts tonight. Amar’e easily eclipsed 30 points for the ninth straight game, finishing with 39 points and 10 boards. Raymond Felton continues to impress, scoring 26 and dishing out 14 assists while playing good defense on Rajon Rondo. Gallinari had 20 points, including 11 in the third quarter, and Wilson Chandler had 18 points and 12 boards.
Things don’t get any easier for New York, as the Heat and their 10-game winning streak visit the Garden. Would love to knock LeBron and gang off, even more so than I wanted tonight’s game. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s evident the Knicks are a force to be reckoned with now. Nice to have the Garden rocking again.

Review: Michael Jackson, Michael

Posted: December 15, 2010 in Album Reviews

I still find it strange that Michael Jackson is no longer with us. I grew up listening to his music, and genuinely felt bad for the guy as he suffered a tremendous fall from grace with multiple scandals involving alleged child molestation (I really don’t believe Jackson did anything wrong except use bad judgment, as he should have known just about any family of his many Neverland visitors would want to extort money from him).
All the negative press and Jackson’s increasingly bizarre behavior often obscured the fact he was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, and throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, the true King of Pop.
In the last decade of his life, Jackson retreated from the music scene, occasionally releasing new tunes on hits collections or boxed sets, but no album since 2001’s largely forgettable Invincible. At various times, it was reported Jackson was crafting a follow-up to that album, but no music ever was issued.
His death of a drug overdose robbed him of the chance to put out an album the way he would have wanted, as he was notorious for taking time between releases until he got things just the way he wanted them.
Following his death, Sony announced a 10-album deal with the Jackson estate to start putting out Michael’s unreleased tunes.
The first of these albums, simply titled Michael, came out today. Many of these tunes were his most recent songs, although a few date as far back as Thriller.
It’s a concise 10-song album, certainly not vintage Jackson, but much better than Invincible. For one, the album’s 10-song length makes it feel more focused than the meandering 70-plus minute mess of Invincible. 1995’s History and to a lesser extent, Dangerous, also could have used editing, as chopping off schlock like “Childhood,” “Gone Too Soon,” and “Tabloid Junkie” would have made those two albums considerably stronger.
The one thing those three albums did have over this one were true killer songs, as there’s nothing on Michael that screams hit single. Some of the production by Teddy Riley, John McClain and “Neff U” Feemster is a bit dated, but it’s awesome to hear Jackson’s voice in full glory again.
I’ve listened to the album three times, and there’s not a weak tune here, although there’s no kick-ass tune either. Jackson explores his problems with fame and tabloid journalists in tunes like “Monster” (featuring a welcome rap by 50 Cent) and “Breaking News.” This was a common theme on Jackson’s last two releases, but it doesn’t come off quite as bitter as it has in the past. (I Like) The Way You Love Me has a catchy hook, and the Lenny Kravitz penned (I Can’t Make It) Another Day is the lone rocker on the set, featuring Dave Grohl on drums. The last two tracks, “Behind the Mask” and “Much Too Soon” date from the Thriller era, and they’re two of the best songs included. “Mask” includes many of Jackson’s trademark “hee hee” vocal inflections, while “Much Too Soon” is a simple ballad featuring Spanish guitar, harmonica and even a touch of accordion.
Michael is more an album for fans, and longtime admirers will be happy with what was done here. Hopefully, the coming vault releases will be done just as tastefully.

Sod rating: ***

Michael Jackson discography
Off the Wall (1979) *****
Thriller (1982) *****
Bad (1987) **** 1/2
Dangerous (1991) ****
History (1995) *** 1/2
Invincible (2001) **

Ratings system
***** Robert DeNiro
**** Al Pacino
*** Sly Stallone
** The Rock
* Screech

Phillies sign Lee, take a dump on NL East

Posted: December 15, 2010 in Mets

The sentiment the Mets and the rest of the NL East are expressing right about now

The dust has settled, and I’ve had a full day to let the news sink in about Cliff Lee’s out of the blue signing with the Phillies.
Throughout the entire free agency process, it seemed only the Yankees and Rangers were serious contenders (although the delirious Nats tried to get in on the action as well) for Lee’s services.
At the 11th hour, the Phillies swooped in and grabbed the pitcher they foolishly traded away a year ago to form perhaps the best starting rotation in the last 20 years. (Atlanta and the Yankees had great staffs in the late 90s to early 2000s but this one just might be better if everyone stays healthy).
This doesn’t really affect the Mets in 2011, because they aren’t going to be contenders. The new brain trust is taking this first year to evaluate what they have and take some foolish contracts off the books by the end of the season. The Mets’ primary concern these days is player development, and Sandy Alderson and company seem to have a long-term plan in place.
They’re not spending money this offseason and are laying in the weeds looking for deals. The Phillies will be odds on favorites to win it all in 2011, despite a few chinks in the armor in the offense. Jimmy Rollins has been a non-factor the last two years, Raul Ibanez is overpaid and incredibly old, and Placido Polanco and Chase Utley are showing a lot of wear and tear. Still, pitching wins championships and the Phillies’ super staff will keep them in almost every game. The one silver lining I take out of the Lee signing is this: the Phillies are committing a ton of money and a lot of years to a 32-year-old pitcher, one who had some back problems this year. So I’m hoping this super staff doesn’t have a particularly long shelf life, although if the Phils are to win a championship or two the next few years, the big money deals will certainly be worth it.
The Mets shouldn’t do anything different right now. For once, they can treat 2011 as a rebuilding year. The hefty contracts of Ollie Perez, Luis Castillo and Carlos Beltran come off the books after the ’11 season, so the Mets will have more money to play with next winter. But as I’ve said several times, spending big money on aging free agents isn’t the way to go. Acquiring young talent is the best way to achieve longterm success. The next two drafts will be big for the Mets, as they hope to build on an already solid minor-league core of players. Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel foolishly rushed prospects like Jenrry Mejia and Ruben Tejada last year, basically taking away a year of development (especially in Mejia’s case, as the kid should have been starting in the minors, not playing a mop-up relief role on the big-league squad). Alderson has already said Mejia and Tejada will likely spend most of the year in AAA, which is good news.
So to Mets fans, I say this: Today certainly sucked big time, but this team as currently constructed wasn’t going to contend even if Lee hadn’t signed, so it doesn’t change things all that much. Just sucks to see all my Philly friends gloating and celebrating this surprising early Christmas gift.
Now more than ever, I need a Giants win over the Eagles on Sunday.