In a late-night conversation during Twangfest, the subject of favorite bands of all time came up, and we went around the room, each listing our favorite band and trying to guess which band others would name–with mixed success. Nobody could come up with mine, though several people made completely plausible guesses–the Replacements, Soul Asylum, one of Jay Farrar’s bands. I kept saying “No,” “Definitely not,” “Oh, not for years,” etc., certain that the suggested names weren’t right but not completely sure what the correct band was. And then finally Matt asked me directly, and I said the Jam. (“Or Joy Division,” I added, but then I took it back.)

It was a late-night, off-the-cuff answer, but a few days later, I’m still pretty sure it’s the right one. The Replacements were, for years (hell, decades), the band I’d name when asked for my favorite, but leaving aside my…erm, past personal attachment to the band, I don’t actually listen to them very much, and haven’t for ages. I can’t even claim “I Will Dare” as my favorite song anymore, or at least not my only favorite song—the Clientele’s “Since K Got Over Me” has become, in the six years since I first heard it, just as important to me, and objectively it might be just as good a song, maybe. Plus the filler has gotten harder to overlook as time has gone on. Can I count a band that recorded “Askin’ Me Lies” or “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” as my favorite band? I don’t think I can.

As for Soul Asylum, I’ve listened to them far more often over the last couple of decades, and they’re still the band I’ve seen the most, by a lot. I love their first two full-length records as much as I love any music, but I can’t call them my favorite band–maybe because of how little I like the albums that made them famous, but even before those albums came out, they were never my *favorite* band. Too familiar, maybe, or it might just be that they were runners-up to the Replacements in my fandom back when I was still following them, so I never learned to think of them as favorites. And Uncle Tupelo plus the first three Son Volt albums could possibly be my favorite band, if they were by a single band. But they’re not, and because it wasn’t *just* Jay who created those records, I can’t really cheat and say that Jay Farrar is my favorite band. (Besides, I don’t really listen to much Uncle Tupelo anymore either, though I listen to Son Volt all the time.)

So does that mean it’s the Jam by default? Nah. If I think about it, I’ve been listening regularly to the Jam without any significant hiatuses for more than half my life, and there isn’t really another band I can say that about. (Even Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, who I never took more than a short break from, haven’t been quite as much of a constant, though close.) Thirty+ years after I first heard those records, they still wow me: the lyrics, the guitar, the Jam-ness of it. And I’m pretty sure that thirty years from now, if I haven’t gone completely deaf (a big “if”), I suspect I’ll still be listening to the Jam. So yeah, they’re my favorite band of all time. No question, really.

So who’s yours?

…being able to find just about anything on the Web.

In one of those weird series of mental leaps that you do when you’re blogging or tweeting or posting to Facebook or whatever—in this case it was a note on Facebook in which I was musing about whether any movie had ever gotten the essence of NYC punk right—I started thinking about one of my favorite books, Like Being Killed, by Ellen Miller. It’s a book that is, though I never met the author, essentially about me, if I had been an East Village junkie when I was in my 20s. Seriously, I have never identified with a character in a book as intensely as I did with Ilyana, the narrator of the novel, and no one has ever delineated the specific type of depression that has dominated my life as effectively or precisely as Ellen Miller did in that novel. I don’t know if she was ever a junkie herself, though clearly she at least knew a few, or if she ever suffered from depression, though her description of it is so accurate that it’s hard for me to imagine she didn’t have at least a passing acquaintance with it. And in addition to mirroring my mental state back to me, she described an East Village world that I recognized, even if I was never part of it in (at least not in the way that a junkie would have been). It’s an amazing book, one that I’ve been meaning to re-read for about a year now. (I haven’t read it since shortly after it came out, more than 10 years ago.) I used to tell people that if they wanted to understand me, they should read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and then come ask me why it was supposed to help them understand me. That would actually still work, but if I still told people what to do if they want to understand me, I would say that to understand me even better, they should read Like Being Killed and imagine Ilyana without the heroin.

It was a book that kept catching my eye at the library, the title undeniably intriguing. I picked it up and put it down several times, wary of anything that glorified heroin addiction (it doesn’t, it turns out), but finally curiosity won out and I checked the book out. And it floored me. It quickly became one of my five or so favorite books of all time, and I kept checking back to see if Miller had written another novel. She didn’t, and I stopped expecting her to, though every few years I would check library catalogs and Amazon to see if she had anything new out. The closest she came was a story in an anthology of “edgy” Jewish fiction, which I never picked up (but might buy now). I started to think that she was destined to be like another author, a guy named Lowry Pei, who wrote a dazzlingly wonderful novel called Family Resemblances and then apparently vanished without trace.* The fact that there’s no further work from such talented people is maddening, but somehow makes me appreciate the writing that does exist even more.

Last year, I had an urge to read the book again. It’s out of print, sadly, but I bought a used copy on Amazon for seven cents or something. And I poked around to see if I could find anything out about what she was doing–was she teaching, writing short stories, or what? Google didn’t yield much except for a bunch of reviews of the novel, and a mention somewhere of a class she had taught at the New School. Nothing else. But I guess Google has gotten better at indexing blogs, because tonight, after being reminded of the book (which isn’t a movie that gets NYC punk right, but is a book that gets postpunk NYC right), I found a handful of blog entries mourning her death from a heart attack, in December 2008, at the age of 41.

It’s not a personal tragedy for me, of course. But it’s tremendously sad to think that such a powerful, wise, original voice, won’t be heard again. And even sadder because the words of those who mourned her make her sound like a wonderful, vibrant, strong person—happier, not surprisingly, and saner and just generally better than her memorable antiheroine, and gone from the world much too soon.

It would almost be better if I didn’t know, and could still hold out the faintest hope of more words from her someday. Stupid internetz.

*Except that he didn’t; apparently he’s been teaching at Simmons and writing for many years, and now all of his work, including the entire text of Family Resemblances, is online, for free, at his site. Highly recommended.

I’m still not ready to make this list, but it’s already January 2 (and it’ll be January 3 by the time I post this), 2010, and it’s not going to get any easier, so I’m just going to shut up and post. As mentioned, I’m ranking only the top 6, and everything after that will be unnumbered, which I hope will distract people from the fact that my top 15 contains more than 15 records.

1. The Clientele, Strange Geometry (2005)
Quantity doesn’t always equal quality, obviously. But in this case, there was no record that I listened to more during the past decade, even though it didn’t come out until 2005. Once that song (“Since K Got Over Me,” referenced several times in the archives of this blog) hooked me, I was addicted, happily, to the whole record. Although I’ve always had a thing for dreamy, semi-psychedelic, swirly, atmospheric whatever, it wouldn’t be my favorite genre even if I were to choose a favorite genre. But this is the best example of the genre (if it is even a genre) that I’ve ever heard. It’s a glorious, achingly lovely, magical, spellbinding record, and there was no question that it was going to be my record of the decade.

(tie) 2. Dolly Varden, The Dumbest Magnets (2000)
In 2000, during the worst year of my life, when I was living in (and hating my life in) Chicago, a rare bright spot was getting to interview some fine musicians for the now-defunct Miles of Music MoMZine, the awesome John Doe among them. My favorite interview that year was with Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen, the husband-and-wife team who front Dolly Varden. I had only just heard of the band when I got the assignment and a copy of their new record, and at first, I liked the record but couldn’t quite latch on to it. But the more I listened to it, the more I fell in love with it. I think I wrote at the time (or it might have been Roy Kasten who wrote it; his review was the first I’d ever heard of the band) that it was the most purely beautiful record I’d heard all year, and ten years later, it’s just as beautiful. Also joyous, soaring, magical. It contains the best wedding song ever written (the title track), one that I love so much that I got Steve and Diane to sing it at my wedding (even though I felt a little weird about “borrowing” their wedding song for my own occasion). The Dumbest Magnets was Dolly Varden’s third album, and they’ve gone on to make two more official ones since then that are just as underrated and almost as great. If I had the power to make them famous, I would.

(tie) 2. The Delgados, Universal Audio (2004)
Sometimes I think other fans don’t hear exactly what I hear in the Delgados. They get that the band was extremely good at crafting simple yet lush melodies; they get the wit of the lyrics and the brilliance of combining punk rock sensibilities with orchestral pop. I’m sure they do hear the seething rage in Alun’s lyrics, which is hard to miss. But they don’t seem to hear the edge, the undercurrent of ferocity, that I hear beneath the sweetness of Emma’s voice and the richness of the arrangements. Which makes me think that maybe I’m totally wrong and the Delgados were really just what they seemed to be on the surface. But I don’t know, when I listen to songs like “Hate,” I can’t help but think that I might not be completely wrong. Either way, though I adore every record they put out and wish like crazy that they were still around to put out more, Universal Audio, on which every song would be a hit single in a perfect world, remains my favorite. I am forever grateful that I got to see them tour the record, especially because the odds of getting to see a semi-obscure indie band from Glasgow while living in Kansas City, MO, were not great. But there they were, and there we were, and thank God for that.

4. Scott Miller, Thus Always to Tyrants
As I said earlier, I feel like I should apologize to Scott for not ranking this record higher. So: I’m sorry, Scott. To make up for it, let me say that even though he didn’t make my record of the decade, Scott was unequivocally my Artist of the Decade, one of my favorite live performers of all time (both with his ace band and solo, though the latter is my preference) and a guy I’d travel just about anywhere to see. And a really likeable person, at least in my limited experience of hanging out and drinking with him. That his 2009 record was a disappointment to me isn’t even important; I could easily have put three of his records on this list, maybe even four, if I weren’t limiting myself to one album per artist. (It was very hard not to include Are You with Me?, the magnificent solo acoustic record that came out the same year as Thus Always, and Citation was also difficult to leave out.) He’s the most literate songwriter around, but totally lacking in pretense and self-seriousness. And yeah, he writes a lot of songs about trains and the Civil War and that sort of thing, but I for one have no problem with that.

5. Malcolm Middleton, Into the Woods. (2005)
I just wrote about Malcolm last night, in my favorites of 2009 post, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to reiterate something I said a few weeks ago while working on this list: if I could somehow make you listen to Malcolm, I would.

6. Allison Moorer, The Hardest Part (2000)
The first time I heard this record was before it came out, thanks to a friend’s connections to Allison. It was the aforementioned year that I spent in Chicago, and Bill was visiting, and we’d been drinking, and it was late, so I wasn’t sure whether or not my judgment was impaired, but I turned to him while we were listening to this and said, “Is it just me, or is this kind of unbelievably great?” We determined that it wasn’t just me, and repeated listenings clarified that it wasn’t just our enhanced state; it was an amazing record, and still is. It isn’t necessary to know the story behind the record in order to appreciate it, but once you know the story, it’s impossible not to think about it: it’s an attempt to tell her parents’ story from their points of view, and their story is that her father fatally shot her mother and then himself when Allison was 14 and her older sister, Shelby Lynne, was 17, with both of them in the house. I’ve always been amazed, and impressed, and moved, that Allison was able to write such a clear-eyed, forgiving account of something so terrible, and even more impressive, to make it sound as wonderful as this record does.

The rest, in no order, and with comments only where I have something vaguely lucid to say:

–Patty Griffin, Impossible Dream (2004)
–Sam Phillips, Fan Dance (2001)
–Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul (2001)
–Robbie Fulks, Couples in Trouble (2001)
I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll reiterate: This is not Robbie Fulks’s best record, and it’s not even his best record from this decade (that would be 2005′s superb Georgia Hard). But it’s his most ambitious, and it might be, in a way, his most interesting. And it works for me, in ways that I can’t necessarily explain. It’s all over the map, and not every song works; sometimes even the ones that work (in the sense that they do what they set out to do) are difficult to listen to—”Brenda’s New Stepfather” is the one I’m thinking of there. But in addition to admiring the effort, I mostly love the results, and the high points are very high indeed.
–Gary Allan, See If I Care (2003)
–Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot (2005)
I still feel sort of weirdly guilty about not loving Jay Farrar’s work this decade as much as I love his ’90s work, and yes, I do know that that’s very silly. But hey, at least I’m not silly enough to hold it against him, as some people do, that he kept the Son Volt name going even after parting ways with the Boquist brothers and Mike Heidorn. I debated for a long time about whether to include The Slaughter Rule soundtrack, which contains some of my favorite music of Jay’s, instead of Okemah, but a bout of intense re-listening to this record a few months ago confirmed how very much I love it.
–Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, 100 Days and 100 Nights (2007)
–Richard Thompson, The Old Kit Bag (2003)
–John Doyle, Evening Comes Early (2001)
–Reigning Sound, Time Bomb High School (2002)
–The Libertines, Up the Bracket (2002)
–Camera Obscura, Let’s Get Out of This Country (2006)
–The Duke Spirit, Cuts Across the Land (2005)
For a while, I had a whole spiel worked up about the Duke Spirit’s singer, Liela Moss, and the fact that she might be the best female rock singer who ever lived, because unlike many female singers who front rock bands, she is neither a folk-ish singer straining to be heard over the power chords, nor a bluesy belter, nor a punk rock vocalist who resorts to yelling in order to make herself heard; she’s a woman with a strong voice who can maintain volume without ever sounding harsh or screechy or unmelodic. But then I thought of five or six other female rock singers about whom the same can be said, so I have to hedge somewhat on calling Liela the best. Nonetheless, she’s really, really talented, and so is the whole band. They write punk-influenced, catchy, driving songs that get better with every listen, and this record could easily be joined by last year’s splendid Neptune if I were doing multiple titles per artists.
–British Sea Power, Open Seasons (2008)
–Bettie Serveert, Log 22 (2003)
–Richmond Fontaine, Post to Wire (2004)
–Grand Champeen, Dial T for This (2007)
–The Model Rockets, Tell the Kids the Cops Are Here (2002)
In a better world, John Ramberg would be very rich and incredibly famous. Very few people have written better pop songs, and the ones who did have names like John Lennon and Ray Davies.
–Dolorean, Violence in the Snowy Fields (2004)
–Dixie Chicks, Home (2002)

A few more that won’t quite fit in my already overloaded top “15″
–Wussy, Left for Dead (2008)
–Caitlin Cary, While You Weren’t Looking (2002)
–Sunny Sweeney, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame (2007)
–Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)
–The Constantines, Shine a Light (2003)
–Brad Paisley, Mud on the Tires (2003), although Fifth Gear (2007) would also be a worthy choice

And that’s it. Well, I’m sure that’s not it, but I’ll wait till tomorrow to start kicking myself for all the records I left out.

As ever, these are “favorite” rather than “best.” This year more than any other, I had trouble ranking my favorites…so I decided not to try. The Clientele made my record of the year, but there are so many close runners-up that I’m just going to count all of them as my second favorite. Especially the first four after the Clientele.

1. The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath
As I’ve noted, oh, thirty or forty times here, the Clientele’s 2005 record, Strange Geometry, is not only my Record of the Decade, but one of my top 3 or 4 records of all time, so I mean no disrespect to this latest effort when I say that it isn’t a patch on Strange Geometry; it’s still a wonderful record, and one song, “Never Anyone But You,” is unequivocally my song of the year. Alasdair has hinted at this being the Clientele’s last record, which, obviously, I desperately hope isn’t true.

–Malcolm Middleton, Waxing Gibbous
I’ve kind of given up on anyone but John Wendland ever sharing my affection for Malcolm, Scotland’s second-favorite arch-miserablist, but that’s okay. This year’s effort, which apparently may be his last for a while, is every bit as dark and funny and melodic and lovable as its predecessors.

–Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
Some years ago, I bought Camera Obscura’s first album unheard, after someone or other recommended them to me, and I thought it was boring. This is now completely unimaginable to me, as I have come to think that they are, if anything, underrated, despite being popular (in an indie way); their songwriting and Tracyanne’s singing are really very close to perfect. This is a gorgeous record, start to finish.

–Son Volt, American Central Dust
Yes, it’s a return to form, or more precisely (since I don’t think they ever actually fell off their form), something of a return to the sound of the ’90s version of Son Volt. Which makes it even stranger that my chief reaction to this record when I first got it was to go listen to Okemah and the Melody of Riot over and over again. It turns out that even though the overall sound of this record is immediately appealing, the individual songs need a little bit of time to distinguish themselves. I eventually fell in love with the record, though. (But I still think Okemah is slightly better, she said in a small voice.)

–Wussy, Wussy
There are some really great sung-by-Chuck-Cleaver songs on this record, more than on its predecessor Left for Dead. I’m not sure if I think that’s a good thing or not, because Lisa Walker is my favorite thing about the band, and more Lisa is better. But either way, this is an excellent record, very nearly as good as Left for Dead (which is my fave).

–Reigning Sound, Love and Curses
People who like Reigning Sound are apparently a little underwhelmed by this record, and I guess I can see why: it’s kind of unvarying in tempo, and it doesn’t have any total knockout songs the way RS’s best records do. But it’s still pretty fucking great. Greg Cartwright can do no wrong, pretty much.

–Greg Cartwright, Live at the Circle A
See above comment re. Mr. Cartwright. Also, I am on a quest to own as many versions of “Drowning,” arguably his best song, as is humanly possible, and this adds to my total.

–Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
The fact that it’s not as good as the first Mountain Soul kept me, somewhat irrationally, from warming up to this one for a while. That was stupid. Mountain Soul was a mind-bogglingly great record; that this one is merely superb shouldn’t be counted against it.

–Ashley Monroe, Satisfied
A lovely bluegrass-y country record, on which every song is good. People who know my tastes kept recommending this record to me, and I kept forgetting to follow up on the recommendation. I’m very glad I finally remembered to. Ms. Monroe, who is only 23, is tremendously talented, and I look forward to following her career.

–Stuart Moxham, Cars in the Grass
Stuart Moxham was the songwriter/brains behind Young Marble Giants, and shortly after their breakup, he had a band (mostly just him) called the Gist, who recorded one of my favorite songs ever. I lost track of him after that, but earlier this year, while scouring the Internetz to try to find a copy of said favorite song, I discovered that he’d continued to make records on and off through the ’90s and ’00s. His stuff isn’t as full of blips and bloops as YMG were, but it still sounds much the same–spare, sweet, melancholy, gentle but a little edgy. I’m a fan.

–Ha Ha Tonka, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South
Ha Ha Tonka are a genuinely original band, which can’t be said about many “alt-country” acts (and certainly not many Bloodshoot Records artists). Their debut was a total surprise to me; this one doesn’t have that same shock of the new, but I looked forward to it coming out for a long time and was glad that it was worth the wait. Brian Roberts is a remarkable singer—I don’t think I’d like the band quite as much if it weren’t for his vocals, which remind me how few truly great young male singers there seem to be these days.

–Metric, Fantasies
Yes, I do love synth-y dance music, especially when it’s as smart and edgy as this. I keep meaning to go back and get Metric’s other records. This is their fourth, but I had never heard of them until this year, when a guy I follow on Twitter mentioned them and linked to an MP3. I don’t know what made me click the link—my Twitter network is mostly professional contacts, and the fact that we work in the same field is definitely not a guarantee that we’ll share other tastes. (Especially since most of them are substantially younger than me, and for some reason a lot of them seem to like industrial metal.) But I did, and it was love at first listen.

–The Morning After Girls, Alone.
I had given up on the Morning After Girls ever releasing a new record; I think their last one came out in 1992 or something. (Oh, all right, it was 2005. Practically the same thing.) So I was pretty much jumping for joy when I heard this was coming out. I’m not going to say it was worth the wait, because that would suggest that taking four years between records is somehow acceptable, but I’ll grant that it didn’t disappoint. Their sound hasn’t changed, but it’s evolved, and it’s still great: atmospheric, quietly noisy, miasmic, totally satisfying.

–The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, s/t
Unapologetically shoegazy, and very lovable, the Pains are among my favorite new bands of the late ’00s, despite having an excruciatingly bad name. (It doesn’t matter if it’s ironic, as I’m sure it is. It’s still a terrible name.) I’m pretty unapologetically shoegazy myself, at least some of the time, and this ticks pretty much all the boxes.

–Lou Barlow, Goodnight Unknown
I’m a fan of most, though not all, of Lou’s non-Sebadoh projects, but this might be the best non-Sebadoh and non-Dinosaur Jr. record he’s ever done. (Hard to say; the second Folk Implosion record is also really great.) It’s less self-consciously lo-fi than some of the solo and Sentridoh stuff, and his songwriting is really strong. If you love Lou when he’s being all sensitive-guy-Lou, you’ll love this.

–Sam Phillips, Hypnotists in Paris (EP)
Like a handful of other songwriters with cult-sized audiences, Sam has started selling new music directly to fans on her Website. I think it’s a really smart business decision, and as a fan, it makes me really happy because it means a lot less time between new releases from Sam (who has traditionally had long lags between records). And if it’s all as good as this EP, I’ll be really really really happy.

–Vivian Girls, Everything Goes Wrong
I can think of ten reasons off the top of my head that someone could argue that the Vivian Girls aren’t really ready to be on anyone’s best-of list. Among others: their songs all sound the same, and it’s kind of a thin little song to begin with; they’re not going to wow anyone with their vocal and instrumental talents, and they seem to record in a toilet in a subway station. But fuck all that. They hit a sweet spot between early ’80s Brit-post-punk, ’60s girl group, and ’90s lo-fi that just totally works for me. Besides, their playing and songwriting have improved quite a bit since their first record, and the recording quality is more than a little bit better on this one too.

–Arctic Monkeys, Humbug
This is pretty different sonically from the first two, but it still has everything that makes the Arctic Monkeys great: their combination of sarcasm, wit, and lack of pretense, and their talent for writing songs that are nicely reminiscent of a lot of the pantheon of great British punk/post-punk but still entirely original. I don’t listen to them all that often, but when I do, I’m always struck by what a seriously great band they are, one that actually deserves the success and attention that they’ve had.

A few that I wish I liked better:
–Rosanne Cash, The List
–Obits, I Blame You
–Dinosaur Jr., The Farm

And some that I just haven’t spent enough time with yet:
–The High Strung, Ode to the Inverse of the Dude
–The Swell Season, Strict Joy
–Dallas Wayne, I’ll Take the Fifth
–The Tripwires, House to House
–Alela Diane, To Be Still
–Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend of a Friend
–Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain (noteworthy for its very existence, really, and even more so for the fact that it’s really quite good)

I’ll be putting together a comp including songs from many of these releases, as I did last year. Watch this space.

Oh, and one other thing so I don’t forget: I was playing DJ for a while this evening and put on “Truth #2,” a wonderful Patty Griffin song from the Dixie Chicks’ masterpiece, Home. I realized that it came out this decade and that I had forgotten about it in sketching out my best of the decade list. It would be inexcusable to leave it off the final list (which I hope to tackle over the weekend), so I’m mentioning it here to prevent that from happening.

Happy New Year. (And good riddance to 2009, which was kind of a crap year.)

It’s past bedtime (why did I stay up to watch the most boring finale of “Project Runway” in the history of the show?), but I started thinking of bands for the best-of-the-decade list while I was in the shower, and I’m afraid that if I don’t write them down, I’ll forget them when I make my actual list. So, not in numerical order:

  • The Libertines, Up the Bracket
  • Dolorean, Violence in the Snowy Fields
  • The Model Rockets, Tell the Kids the Cops Are Here

I can’t say with absolute certainty that the latter two will make the list, but they’re strong contenders. (The Libertines will unquestionably be there.)

And then some more obvious choices came to mind, so I should capture them here just in case:

  • Patty Griffin, Impossible Dream
  • Robbie Fulks, Couples in Trouble
  • Sam Phillips, Fan Dance
  • Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
  • Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, 100 Days and 100 Nights (or maybe Naturally, or for that matter, Dap-Dippin’…can’t decide)
  • Richard Thompson, The Old Kit Bag (this one isn’t a certainty, but I can’t really imagine leaving it out)
  • John Doyle, Evening Comes Early (I was so happy when I checked the release date and found that this wonderful record was indeed released this decade)
  • Reigning Sound, Time Bomb High School (I’m missing Reigning Sound at Maxwell’s even as I type this–couldn’t get the day off work tomorrow, and schlepping to Hoboken by myself on a school night just wasn’t going to happen. I have no one but myself to blame, but I’m still disappointed.)

Plus a few maybes:

  • Wussy, Left for Dead
  • Caitlin Cary, While You Weren’t Looking
  • Sunny Sweeney, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame

If I add all of these to the six I’ve already put on the list, I’m only a little bit over 15, so I’m not doing too badly. Of course, there’s all the other records I’m forgetting…

*Is “scratch paper” a regionalism? Seems to me that I used to call it “scrap paper,” but then in high school it became “scratch paper,” maybe because everyone else said it that way, or maybe I picked it up somewhere else. (Sometimes I have trouble distinguishing between regionalisms, generational usage, and stuff-I-picked-up-somewhere-isms.) What do you call paper on which you make notes or work out your math problems or whatever?

(And for that subject line, I probably deserve a flogging.)

I’m debating between one more day of week 4 and starting on day 1 of week 5 of the Couch-to-5K program tonight. I didn’t manage the expected three days of week 4 last week, partly because I’m lazy and partly because week 4 just wasn’t very much fun at all. It alternates three- and five-minute jogging intervals with walking intervals that are half as long, and those five-minute jogs were really hard. I did them, and I didn’t give up even on the night when my breathing was particularly bad, but it was tough enough to make me start questioning whether I’m really cut out for this program. But I’m still not ready to quit completely.

There have been some signs that, as I suspected from the start, I’m just not very well designed for running/jogging: some tightness in my hamstring, some gasp-inducing knee pain that comes on all of a sudden when I’m sitting still—pain that’s more severe than anything my knees have felt in decades. But strangely, and interestingly (er…to me, at least), the desire to be someone who runs has so far been stronger than either my concerns about injury or my lifelong tendency to quit when something doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not sure how long that balance will hold; I’ve been more tired and more depressed than usual lately, which makes it harder to sustain interest in any activity. But I’m trying to appreciate it while it lasts, I guess.

I did get through day 2 of week 3 last week, but it was dispiriting enough that I didn’t feel like writing about it. It was dispiriting because it was so hard, and I felt utterly pathetic that I can barely even slow-jog (seriously, at the speed I’m going, “trot” might be a more accurate verb) for three minutes straight. I had spent the earlier part of that evening trying on dresses for my high school reunion, which is never good for my self-esteem; trying on skirts and tops and trousers can be either neutral or even gratifying depending on how well I choose what to try on (needing to go down a size in the business-casual pants I bought a couple of weeks ago, for instance, was an unexpected little ego boost), but for some reason, dresses seem to bring out all the worst parts of my figure. I found some that fit, but none that looked good, not even the one that I bought just because it was such a pretty dress (and cheap). It’s a pretty dress on the hanger, that is; when I put it on, it looks like a nightgown (it’s a size bigger than I usually wear, since they didn’t have my size), and there was no way I was wearing it to the reunion. But the whole thing was just an exercise in frustration and feeling bad about myself, and when I got home and had a hard time on the treadmill, it sent me into a bit of a funk.

Then life, including the aforementioned reunion, got in the way, and suddenly week 3 was over without my having done day 3. It was very tempting—very, very tempting—to let the combination of laziness and frustration continue to take over and just give up, but since I had already decided last week that I would be repeating week 3, I figured I would just treat today as week 3, day 1, take 2. It was still hard, I have to say; it’s possible that I’ll be repeating week 3 more than once. But it’s done, and it wasn’t as hard as it was last week, and as always, I’m glad I did it.

My high school reunion, to which I ended up wearing an evening-ish but fairly plain black skirt and a dressy top (an outfit that turned out to be appropriate, since the majority of attendees were at the same level of dressed-up-edness), was really pretty weird. I don’t know how else to describe it; I was kind of underwhelmed, but not sorry that I went. I liked high school, for the most part, so it wasn’t trauma that kept me away from previous reunions; mostly it was geography, and to a lesser extent, a sense that even though I did enjoy it at the time, high school wasn’t something that I really needed to revisit.

I went with my friend Amy, who is the person I’ve been in continuous touch with the longest, by far (although there was someone at the reunion who I’ve known even longer—since we were 11—and with whom I went to junior high, high school, and college; it was fun to see him too). Amy and I became close friends in our freshman year and have never completely lost touch, though we hadn’t actually seen each other in person since my first wedding, 19 years ago. Going with her was a good idea; she’s outgoing, and recognized people before I did, and made it easier for me to contemplate going at all. Plus we had an extended chance to catch up, which was great; there’s an ease in being with someone you’ve known well for so long that no expanse of years can erode.

There were a few other people I was genuinely excited to see, though not as many as I’d hoped. It was a little surprising how few people remembered/recognized me, though maybe not entirely unexpected. For one thing, I didn’t have shortish red hair in high school, and the situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the organizers had put my married name on my nametag. And there were 750 people in my graduating class. Besides, after about 45 minutes, I started talking to an old friend and more or less ignoring everything else. The friend, Rachel, is someone I’ve thought of fondly many times over the years, so I was delighted to find her again. She and her then best friend, Michelle, who was also there and who I was very pleased to discover actually has an office in the same building as mine, were part of a short stretch late in my senior year and into that summer between high school and college that was oddly formative—it’s hard to describe what was so special about it, but we were parent-less for some of the time and left to our own devices, and we were at a perfect age to take in everything that New York City had to throw at us. The weather was stunning that spring and summer, and the music we listened to was all new and all great, and we lived in each other’s apartments and hit the town at all hours on the least whim, haring off to Chinatown from the Upper West Side at 1 a.m. because someone wanted noodles at Hong Fat or staying out all night dancing at Hurrah, and even now, a particular song or a warm breeze coming through the window at my family’s apartment can send me right back there. It was a strangely amazing time. But I digress.

A few different people mentioned at the reunion that the thing they remembered most about me was my taste in and passion for music, and that was gratifying. A bunch of people asked after Brian Mulligan, who was my constant (platonic) companion for much of my high school years; he and I stayed in touch until our early 30s or so, when we stopped contacting each other not out of any animosity but just out of tacit acknowledgment that we had nothing in common anymore, so I’m not sure where he is, but I think he’d be pleased to know how fondly he’s remembered by many people. And fundamentally, it was good to satisfy my curiosity about some of my classmates, and pleasing to see that most people seem to have done fine for themselves in one way or another; it was comforting somehow to see that we’ve all made it this far, 30 years on. I don’t think I’ll need any more such reassurances for a while, though. One reunion in a lifetime might be enough.

The Hardest Part, the Allison Moorer record that held my #1 spot for the first few years of the decade is going to be #6 on my list. I don’t listen to it much anymore, but it’s just too good a record to rank any lower.

Still debating whether to try to rank the rest or just to list them all out. The advantage of numbering is that it encourages me to keep my list to a manageable number, and might even discourage me from simply listing every record that I liked more than a little this decade. Which would be lazy of me.

Day 1 of week 3 was a whole ‘nother level of hard, I have to say. There wasn’t any point during the workout when I thought I would have to stop, but I was watching the clock during both of the longer jogging segments. I’m not sure I’m building up as much stamina as I should be by now, and maybe I’m due to repeat a week when I get to the end of this one. But I won’t make any decisions about that until day 3, of course. And first I have to get through day 2, anyway.

So my friend Jason tagged me on Facebook in his top 15, and I’m still nowhere ready to do mine, but progress has been made. After agonizing and fretting over my top 5, I finally nailed it down. Provisionally, of course. So herewith my top 5; the other 9ish may or may not be in the form of a numbered list.

1. The Clientele, Strange Geometry
(tie) 2. Dolly Varden, The Dumbest Magnets
(tie) 2. The Delgados, Universal Audio
4. Scott Miller, Thus Always to Tyrants (I feel like I should apologize to Scott for that relatively low ranking. So: I’m sorry, Scott.)
5. Malcolm Middleton, Into the Woods. (Since this is the new addition to the list from the last version, I should note that I’m not sure this is actually the best of the prolific Mr. Middleton’s albums this decade; you can make a convincing case for A Brighter Beat being better, and I think 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine is a seriously underrated record. But this is the one that turned me into a devoted Malcolm fan, and it’s a perfectly splendid record. If I could somehow make you listen to it, I would.)

Cartoonist Sam Hurt has had a Web presence for ages; I can’t even remember when I first discovered that he was online, but I’m thinking it was sometime in the mid to late 1990s, when I was still endlessly delighted by all the obscure things that you could find on the Web. Fairly soon after that, he started putting some of his wonderful “Queen of the Universe” strips online. “Queen of the Universe” is a great strip, and Peaches is an amazing character, but I was still pining for Eyebeam, the strip that introduced me to Sam Hurt.

“Eyebeam” started a few years before I moved to Austin; it ran daily in the Daily Texan, the student newspaper, which was a pretty decent paper when I lived there in 1984-86. Sam Hurt was a law student, and his eponymous lead character was too—a slightly weird and unconventional law student (and in later strips, a lawyer) with a roommate named Ratliff*, a delightful girlfriend named Sally, and a pet hallucination named Hank. “Eyebeam” was hugely popular in Austin, so much so that Hank was nominated for student government at the University of Texas—and won. Reading “Eyebeam” was something I looked forward to every day. The strips were collected in books, and I bought every one of them as soon as each came out, even though I had read all the strips in them. I still own every single one.

I don’t know exactly what I found so appealing about the strip, but I guess it was the juxtaposition of slightly boho domesticity and everyday routine with flights of utter fancy; I don’t know any other cartoon that features a hallucination, much less a hallucination who has a girlfriend. It was also distinctively Austin-y, and for much of the time that I lived in Austin, I adored the place and its lifestyle, so that worked for me too.

I still find the strips both hilarious and charming, though I have no objectivity about them at all and don’t know if anyone else would see the appeal. But finally, I can invite people to find out for themselves, rather than trying to explain the strip to them, because they’re all online, even some super early ones from when Sam was an undergrad. So go read them all (I recommend starting with 1983 rather than the very early strips). And if you do, be sure to tell me what you think.

*I was fascinated by this, because I had moved to Austin along with a good friend from college, Bill Maxwell, who was taking a year off between college and grad school and had decided to spend that year hanging out in Austin, home of his close friend John Ratliff. I had never encountered the name “Ratliff” before—we don’t grow them in NYC (and this was before Ben Ratliff started writing for the New York Times)—and suddenly there were two of them. I considered this an amazing coincidence, though of course since then I’ve met or heard of all sorts of Ratliffs and Ratcliffes, and it turns out not to be a particularly uncommon name at all. But I was very provincial back then.