Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Favorite Music/Movies/Books/TV/Performances of the Decade

Songs

2010 - Hey Soul Suster - Train
2011 - Rolling in the Deep - Adele
2012 - Hell or Hallelujah - KISS
2013 - (tie) The Stars are Out Tonight and Give Life Back to Music
2014 - Uptown Funk**
2015 - (tie) Seasons (Waiting on You) by Future Islands and Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon***
2016 - Put Your Money on Me*
2017 - Cumberland Gap - Jason Isbell
2018 - No Erasin' - Steve Perry
2019 - Hello Sunshine

*Song of the Decade - Up until I hear the opening chord of The Struts's "Put Your Money on Me," "Uptown Funk" was the song of the decade. Before that, it was "Give Life Back to Music" by Daft Punk. Unlike the album category, there's a whole lot more new music here. Put Your Money on Me--specifically the opening chord--sold The Struts for me. Joyful exuberance in song form.


**Uptown Funk is all but tied for first because it is everything I want in a song. Great vocals, funky bass, tight horns. I just HAVE to dance whenever I hear it.

***One man, one performance sold me the Future Islands album. Just listen to Letterman's reaction. Sounded like mine when I watched the performance live. See below.

Albums

2010 - Save Me San Francisco - Train
2011 - Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three
2012 - KISS - Monster
2013 - Random Access Memories and The Next Day
2014 - Chicago XXXVI: Now
2015 - Burlap to Cashmere - Freedom Souls
2016 - Everybody Wants by The Struts*
2017 - Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound
2018 - Sting and Shaggy - 44/876
2019 - Chicago XXXVII: Christmas

*Album of the Decade - A quick review of the albums on this list reveals one glaring thing: Most are good albums by older, legacy acts. When a band like The Struts shows up on our radar with unabashed enthusiasm for making rock music fun again and for making music multiple generations can love, well, that's a great album.

Movies

2010 - Toy Story 3 (Inception runner up)
2011 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
2012 - The Avengers (John Carter)
2013 - Man of Steel (Iron Man 3)
2014 - Guardians of the Galaxy (Edge of Tomorrow)
2015 - Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Ant-Man)
2016 - Captain America: Civil War (Rogue One and The Nice Guys)
2017 - Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Wonder Woman)
2018 - Mission Impossible: Fallout (Avengers: Infinity War)
2019 - Avengers: Endgame* (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

*Movie of the decade - When a movie as big as Endgame actually sticks the landing, you can't not give it the award for best of the decade. Every feel, every cheer, every laugh, every tear was earned.

Books

2010 - Naked Heat by Richard Castle
2011 - The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
2012 - Redshirts by John Scalzi*
2013 - Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olsen
2014 - Face the Music by Paul Stanley
2015 - Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham
2016 - Longarm and the Bank Robber's Daughter by James Reasoner
2017 - Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
2018 - The Cutthroat by Clive Cussler
2019 - The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

*Book of the decade - When you bawl your eyes out on hearing the final chapter of the audio and then break down trying to explain the ending to your wife and get emotional describing it to other people, well, that's an awesome book.

Television

2010 - Sherlock
2011 - CSI: Miami
2012 - Elementary
2013 - Castle (5th season)*
2014 - The Flash
2015 - Castle (7th season)
2016 - Stranger Things
2017 - Broadchurch
2018 - The Haunting of Hill House
2019 - The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

*Television show of the decade - I was hooked with the promos. Castle was the perfect show for me: writer who loves writing and pop culture teamed up with a beautiful detective to solve crimes. The mythology of the show blossomed into something larger than crime-of-the-week. The chemistry between Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic was palpable. The writers solved the "Moonlighting problem" [how long to keep the will-they-or-won't-they tension]. And then there were the actual books that became go-to fall reading. Great series (although that last season could have been scrapped; an odd thing to say for my favorite series of the decade).

Performances


I saw a lot of shows in this decade, and quite a few in 2018 and 2019. Here, off the top of my head, are my favorites.

KISS - Farewell Tour (2019) Full review
Halestrom (2019) Full review
The Struts (2019)
Ludovico Einaudi (2018) Full review
Tony Bennett (2018)
John Adams and "City Noir" with the Houston Symphony (2014)
Future Islands on David Letterman (2015)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Albums of 2019: A Year of Surprises

If one word can summarize my music listening for 2019, it would be surprise.

Almost literally from the start of the year, the music I took in surprised me. The first weekend of January, my family drove to visit relatives. On the way, of all things, my son suggested we listen to Alice Cooper's Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the 2011 sequel to his 1975 album Welcome to my Nightmare. I was floored by how good that album is, with music spanning genres, and consummate musicians bringing their A Game to the music. That album not only set the stage for a great year of music, but sent me and my son on a musical journey to discover new music by legacy rock acts.

Legacy Rock Still Produces Great Music


By our definition, legacy rock are the old guard, the OG, rock stars that started in the 1960s and 1970s yet still make music. We tend to focus on albums produced in this century. I asked him what kicked off this focus on legacy rock acts. He said it was a combination of KISS: Sonic Boom (2009), Alice Cooper: Paranormal (2017), and, to some extent, Chicago XXX (2006). Songs in particular were Chicago's "Feel" and "Caroline,", KISS's "Yes I Know" and "Never Enough," and Alice Cooper's "Genuine American Girl" and "Paranormic Personality." A Christmas album that added to this was Twisted Sister's "A Twisted Christmas."

After hearing these albums, he got to thinking what other legacy rock acts made music in this century. Many of the selections were by bands who hadn't made music in awhile. Others, like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, never stopped. He searched. I did, too. And we have now compiled some great albums that I never knew about. Maybe you didn't either.

Among the albums I enjoyed this year but released prior to 2019 were the following:

Alice Cooper - Welcome 2 Nightmare - A soundtrack to a Broadway musical I really want to see. Each track is a different style, all with a similar theme. I don't know a lot of Cooper's music, but this is by far my favorite.

Eagles - Long Road Out of Eden - This band is one I really loved in high school and college, but then just faded away. It was like I could only listen to so much  Eagles music in my lifetime and I had reached my limit. It got to where I'd change the station if any of their songs came on the radio. Then there is this album and I was reminded just how good they are. The Harmonies! Wonderful record and, sadly, the last with Glenn Frey.

Foreigner - Can't Slow Down - When a legacy band has to replace an iconic singer, most try to mimic the departed singer. Kelly Hanson does an exceptional job at the new songs. Yeah, he sounds like Lou Gramm's brother, but Hanson brings himself to the mix. The songs are really good at keeping what made early Foreigner good and updating it to this century. This one (2009) came fifteen years after their last album, the very definition of a legacy rock band releasing new music.

REO Speedwagon - Find Your Own Way Home - The first of two by a band I hadn't listened to in decades. This studio album arrived late in the year and right before the Christmas music started (and I rarely go back to non-Christmas music in this time of the year) but, again, this is proof that bands like this need to keep releasing new music. "Find Your Own Way Home" is a wonderful song with added weight because it comes from the point of view of an older  singer.

REO Speedwagon - Christmas With REO Speedwagon - This is one of four new Christmas albums I got this year. It's a nice record full of standard songs, highlighted by a pair of new-to-me songs: Children Go Where I Send You and I Believe in Santa. That latter is a great song that captures the spirit of the season and that of a parent and childhood.

Cheap Trick Christmas - Were it not for Chicago, this would be my favorite Christmas album of 2019 (even though it came out in 2017). Three originals--led by "Merry Christmas Darlings," a happy, joyful song that stops halfway through and just plays the sounds of a party, complete with children's laughter--are mixed with tunes that don't always get re-recorded. Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday," Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody," The Kinks' "Father Christmas," are perfect for Cheap Trick. Heck, we even get the Saturday Night Live's "I Wish It Was Christmas Today." But it is "Remember Christmas," by Harry Nilsson (From the Son of Dracula movie; yeah, really) that really surprised me. Love this album for its harder-edged yet still fun take on seasonal songs.

Legacy Rock Still Inspires


Frontiers Music keeps the flame of melodic and AOR rock alive. Back in January, I downloaded their sampler and was happily surprised by just about every song. But two songs propelled me to buy full albums by two of the bands.

Perfect Plan - All Rise - This band from Sweden could easily have been making music in the 1970s and 1980s. Their sound is right from the mold of hard rock bands with keyboard. Think Queensrhyche, Europe, (another Swedish band), Deep Purple, Foreigner, and more. Lead singer Kent Hilli has the pipes to keep up with the elders of rock with a voice reminiscent of Lou Gramm mixed with Geoff Tate and, frankly, just his own style. Speaking of styles, the different songs hearken back to earlier bands and styles, but Perfect Plan provides a good filter, making them all uniquely their own. A nice, heavy, melodic hard rock album.

One Desire - One Desire - If Perfect Plan draws from the harder-edge bands of the past, then One Desire takes a slight left, pulling from Journey, Asia, Toto, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. One Desire slides closer to the hair metal side of the 80s which is perfectly fine with me. Love that stuff, and One Desire picks up that vibe and runs with it to the 21st Century. Lead singer André Linman is as melodic a singer as Geoff Tate and Steve Perry and James LaBrie (Dream Theater), and the songs are equal to his powerful voice. "Falling Apart" is a quintessential power ballad, but it was "Hurt" (the one song on that sampler) that made me sit up and take notice.

A Year of Surprises


Not only was 2019 a year of wonderful surprises at discovering albums released prior to this year, but we got some fantastic material actually released this year. None more surprising than Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars. The Boss ditched the E Street Band for an orchestra and produced Western Stars, a wonderful album that was exactly what I wanted to hear this year. "Hello Sunshine" was the lead single. I listened to it about eight times on the last Friday of April--release day. I don't know why, but I got emotional on first listen. Happened multiple times that morning. Something about that song, the music, the words, that really struck my heart.

When the album was released in June, it just proved again and again that Western Stars is one of my all-time favorite Springsteen albums. The one-two punch of "There Goes My Miracle" followed by "Hello Sunshine" might be my favorite sequenced pair of songs in his entire discography.

Western Stars was my favorite record of the year until Chicago released Chicago 37: Christmas 2019. My son didn't think a holiday album should be the best of the year, but as I told him, Chicago 37, with it's nearly full album of original songs, is a Chicago album that just uses the trappings and vocabulary of Christmas to craft a new album.

After fifty-two years as a band, thirty-seven albums, and my personal thirty-four years as a fan, I experienced something unexpected when I listened to Chicago Christmas 2019: it surprised me. For better or worse, when I listened to XXXIII for the first time, I could actually guess the horn breaks and musical choices. Ditto for Chicago XXX. Some of that is in play here, but not as much.

Maybe it's my age (I'm fifty-one), maybe it's the more melancholy vibe to some of the songs, but Chicago Christmas 2019 hit me squarely in my heart. The holidays always are emotional, running the gamut from nostalgia of childhood to the more mature emotions of being a parent. Somehow, this collection of songs captures that spirit in an unexpected way, making it my favorite album of 2019.

Other new albums that surprised me are:


Midland - Let It Roll - This sophomore album by this Texas band is the best country album I've heard in a long, long time. We listen to the local country radio station to and from church every Sunday. We often joke that modern country is really just pop music with the occasional fiddle and steel guitar thrown in. Which makes songs like the ones Midland plays stand out. Their songs sound like country. Back in 2017, their song "Drinkin' Problem" was the key to me discovering them. Bought that album and eagerly awaited the new 2019 record. In all my years of buying music, I have never gone out to a store on release day to buy a country album. Let It Roll changed that. Excellent album. Every song is a winner. Have to admit that "Fourteen Gears" would fit easily in a playlist with Western Stars songs. And "Mr. Lonely" served as inspiration for my latest novel.

Up until Chicago 37, this was going to be the runner-up to favorite album of the year behind Springsteen. It easily is my favorite country album of the year. Both of them count as my favorite country albums of the decade.

Tesla - Shock - Up until 2019, I had never owned a Tesla CD. I could name exactly one song--"Love Song". I enjoyed it, but I don't think I've thought of Tesla in decades. The best definition of legacy rock bands making new music. Turns out, Shock is a dang good record. These guys still rock hard, as evidenced by the title track and "Tied to the Tracks." But they can also craft wonderful radio-friendly songs like my favorite from the album, "California Summer Song." Tesla is coming to Houston next year. Think I'll go see them.

Whitesnake - Flesh and Blood - If I basically never knew Tesla, I absolutely knew Whitesnake. "Here I Go Again" is one of my favorite hair metal songs of the 1980s. Still, I hadn't given Whitesnake or singer David Coverdale hardly any thought in years. So when it was announced Whitesnake would release a new album in 2019 and with the new focus on legacy rock, I certainly would give it a listen. Holy moley! These guys haven't lost a step! Granted, the mold of this music isn't too different than their 1980s heyday but I don't care. It is exactly what I want from a Whitesnake album. Lead single, "Shut Up and Kiss Me," is a perfect fist-pumping, head-bopping, driving with the windows down song, but it's "Always and Forever" that proves to be my favorite song from the album. It is basically the main song from a 1980s teen movie directed by John Hughes, the kind that would play as a montage when the students of a high school from all social strata--the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the emos--come together to decorate the gym for the big end-of-school dance. Yup.You can hear it now, can't you? Doesn't mean it's not a fantastic song.

Jason Scheff - Here I Am - My discovery of Chicago came in 1985, the same year founding member Peter Cetera left the band. As such, Scheff was in the band when I started seeing them in 1987. He was in the band when they released my favorite 1980s-era album--Chicago 19--the brilliant Stone of Sisyphus, the great big band CD, and three of the four Christmas albums. When he left, I was saddened. He was my guy.

So when he finally released his second solo album in November, I was so excited. I was a little  surprised it included five Chicago songs, but he makes them his own, especially "Will You Still Love Me." But it's the new material I really love, especially the title track and "Wonderful Day," basically a Chicago song. His voice is bright and clear and powerful. My wife, who is Chicago Adjacent (that is, she likes them but not to my level) even commented how good Scheff sounds.

The Verdict


The year 2019 was great for new and new-to-me music. And with more legacy music already on the schedule for 2020--new Ozzy! New Springsteen? New Cooper?--the new decade is going to kick off great.

Here's a link to my favorite songs of 2019.

Favorite Songs of 2019

Hello Sunshine - Bruce Springsteen - Simply one of my favorite songs by Springsteen of all time. The only song I can remember that got me emotional on first listen. Multiple times. Don't know why. The song is perfectly crafted and built, layers building on each other.


I'd Do It All Again (Christmas Moon) - Chicago - Like Hello Sunshine, I got emotional on first listenn to this song. Not as many times, but it hits all the feels. Lou Pardini sings lead. Bossa nova complete with shuffle drumming and piano embellishments? This song had me in the first measure. Simply a gorgeous song. Pardini's voice is perfect for this kind of song, and the horns just layer themselves with him, perfectly in the pocket with tasteful accents, especially as they re-enter after the piano solo. Goose bump song. A new jazz standard for others to hear and sing? You betcha. Not sure who plays the piano solo, but man is it good. Lots of Christmas music reminds me of childhood. This is one of those tunes where the vibe is that of adults in love. This is the song you'd have playing over scenes of a movie in which the couple frolic in the snow, fall down while ice skating, and snuggle up together in an open horse-drawn wagon in Central Park. Loughnane's muted trumpet is the icing on this song. In addition--and this doesn't happen too often in Christmas songs--this is the song you can easily see being played for senior citizens, as they look back on their lives. Only two songs this year made me emotional on first listen (and sometimes subsequent listens), and this is one of them. The other: Hello Sunshine by Bruce Springsteen.



I Was Made of You - Alice Cooper - If Welcome 2 My Nightmare set the stage for all the legacy rock music I'd listen to in 2019, then this opening track to that album sets the stage for the fantastic collection of songs from this 2011 album. Dramatic, bold, slow simmering are all words I'd use to describe this album. The auto-tune is odd at first, but Cooper only uses it to remind folks he's still got good singing chops. The song builds and builds until Steve Hunter's guitar solo soars over the music. I can just imagine this opening an Alice Cooper show.


Fourteen Gears - Midland - All the songs on Let It Roll are great. While I was inspired to write a novel by "Mr. Lonely," (a great song complete with the singer calling out the steel guitar solo just like all great rock songs do), Fourteen Gears is probably my favorite from this album. It sits perfectly in that late 1980s/early 1990s country renaissance anchored by Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, and all the other acts I listened to while frequently country bars in college. The chord progression actually makes it feel like an outtake from Springsteen's Western Stars.



California Summer Song - Tesla - A pitch-perfect slice of summer coming out of your speakers. You can "see" the video in your mind as you listen: beaches, surf, convertibles, young love, fires on the beach at sundown. How is this tune not more popular?


In and Out of Love - Perfect Plan - The first of two discoveries early in 2019 of bands that take the classic rock mold as a template and make some great new music. This tune takes that mold and updates it. Sure, In and Out of Love sounds like it should have come from a 1980s teen movie, but it's much more musically involved than that. The bass line chugs along, the harmonies are great, and lead singer Kent Hilli easily holds his own against any of the OG singers. This band is from Sweden, so I don't know if they ever tour in America, but I will happily and eagerly by a ticket. The entire album



Hurt - One Desire - Where Perfect Plan is a hard rock band, One Desire skews to the hair metal side of things. Their forefathers are Asia, Journey, Dream Theater, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Lead singer André Linman has a powerful voice that soars over the head-bopping driving music. The guitar solo by Jimmy Westerlund starts in a minor chord then provides a nice, melodic solo that would have have 80s teenagers raising their fists in triumph. And this band knows dynamics.



Always and Forever - Whitesnake - "Shut Up and Kiss Me" is the lead single from Whitesnake's new album is a perfect fist-pumping, head-bopping, driving with the windows down song, but it's the mid-tempo  "Always and Forever" that captured my heart on first listen. It's basically the main song from a 1980s teen movie directed by John Hughes, the kind that would play as a montage when the students of a high school from all social strata--the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the emos--come together to decorate the gym for the big end-of-school dance. Yup.You can hear it now, can't you? Doesn't mean it's not a fantastic song.



Here I Am - Jason Scheff - I could be tempted to select "Wonderful Day" as my favorite from Scheff's new album, but as it's basically a Chicago song (with brass), I'm going with the title track. Produced by Rascal Flatt's Jay Demarcus, the album showcases Scheff's first solo album since 1997's Chauncey. He sounds great on this song, especially on the first chorus. Really enjoy this song, and it could show up on any adult contemporary radio station across the nation.

Find Your Own Way Home - REO Speedwagon - This one arrived late in the year, just prior to Christmas Music All the Time. REO's Kevin Cronin's voice sounds fantastic on this mid-tempo power ballad (is that a trend?) and the rest of the band hasn't lost a step. At the time of its release in 2007, it had been eleven years since their last album. This song, with its lyrics of redemption, really play well as sung by an older, legacy rock band. Chord progressions are great, as is the bass line underneath, and the tasteful deployment of castanets.


Disintegrate - Def Leppard -  This instrumental track from 1999's Euphoria really got me this year. My son has been expanding his collection of Leppard's albums, and he got this in early summer. On first listen, I kept waiting for the vocals to start, then was happily surprised when none came. Lead guitarists Phil Collen wrote this tune. It has a bit of that 90s-era electronica laced throughout a driving rock rhythm. On first hearing the album, this was the only song I listened to twice before moving on to the next track.



Here's a link to my favorite albums of 2019

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Favorite Television in 2019

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (seasons 2 and 3) - I don't like to binge--I prefer my TV in weekly installments--but holy cow it is difficult not to binge this utterly delightful show. Watched season two earlier this year and season three this month. All the actors are perfectly cast, the music is stellar, the set pieces are things you want to watch over and over (S3: E8's opening is one), and the writing/directing by Amy Sherman-Palladino is fantastic. I love, love, love the witty banter, especially when there are about four characters on screen having two or more conversations. Cannot get enough of this show.

The Mandalorian - Speaking of shows coming out on a weekly basis, this first live-action Star Wars TV show was exactly what I was hoping it would be: a brand-new story, not part of the main nine films, using Star Wars as the canvas and the palette. We all know the meme that has sprung from this show, but it is the pacing--slower than you'd expect but that's perfectly fine--and the "western in space" vibe that makes me love it. Throw in great writing and interesting directing--you actually get a heist movie that morphs into "Alien" in one episode--and you've got one of the best TV things of 2019.

Unforgotten* (all seasons, but particularly 2) - Stumbled upon this early this year via PBS showing season three. Enjoyed it so much we watched seasons one and two on demand. Loved the "normalness" of the show and characters. No typical detectives here (i.e., raging alcoholics with ghosts of the past), just normal people doing a dirty job looking into cold cases. Season Two was particularly great.

[By the way, the asterisks you see in this post indicate shows my wife discovered first. Boy, does she know how to pick'em.]

Stranger Things (season 3) - A nice change from season two, Season Three of this nostalgia-filled show  showed our characters progressing since the last season, not an easy thing to do considering the younger actors are aging up. Great character moments and truly scary moments shows this franchise getting better.

Blood and Treasure - Speaking of perfect summer TV shows, Blood and Treasure is it. This show had me at the promos. Two fun, attractive actors in a breezy, action/adventure show that involves a quest per episode is exactly what I wanted this summer. The nods to past movies via music and visuals makes you look for the Easter eggs while watching these two leading characters form undeniably great chemistry. Cannot wait until Season Two in 2020.

Stumptown - Staying with network TV, this show also had me from the promos. Cobie Smulders stars as a veteran with PTSD who stumbles into a job as a private investigator. It's clear to me that she is a descendant of any number of TV PIs, most notably Jim Rockford. The shows dynamic between her, her brother, and her friends is what propels the show forward, but I really dig her gumption and determination. Most of all, I love her heart for doing what's right no matter the cost.

New Amsterdam - Ever since This is Us premiered (which I don't watch), it's been known for pulling tears out of the eyes of viewers. This medical drama is my version of that. I love the idealistic nature of Max Goodwin (played wonderfully by Ryan Eggold) as he leads his team of doctors at the New Amsterdam hospital in New York. Each episode wrestles with real-world issues, coming to various conclusions. The actors and their characters are spot on, and I look forward to Tuesdays at 9pm eagerly (that's right: this, along with Stumptown, are Appointment Television).

Evil* - The last network television show on this list is one for which I saw the promos all during the summer while watching Blood and Treasure: CBS's Evil. With a title like that, and most of the shots from the pilot, I wasn't that interested. I recognized Mike Colter as the same actor who played Luke Cage, and  Michael Emerson I knew from Lost, but that wasn't enough. Turns out my wife had started watching it and I ended up staying in the room as she watched episode four. That was all it took. I was hooked. This show wasn't exactly how my preconceived notions thought it would be. It's actually so much more. This might be the nicest surprise of 2019 on TV.

Goliath* - Speaking of things my wife started watching, Amazon's Goliath is another. I knew about the Billy Bob Thornton show when I'd go to Amazon Video's menu (to watch Mrs. Maisel) but never got off the fence. Cut to another day when I was about to go into the next room to read when my wife started watching episode three of season three of Goliath. I sat and watched. Hooked. Sure, Thornton was fantastic, but it was the guest stars that really took it higher. Beau Bridges was good, Dennis Quaid was great, but Amy Brenneman went somewhere I'd never seen her go: she was a fantastic baddie. I loved everything about this season--including Thorton's partner played hilariously by Nina Arianda Matijcio--but Brenneman was by far my favorite. I'll happily go back and watch seasons one and two.

The Kominsky Method - Season two dropped in December, and my wife and I blasted through all the episodes in two nights. Might've been three. As a middle-aged man, I can easily get the comedy of this show, but it's the heart and emotion between the characters that really sticks with you. Not only that, it's the real-life situations these characters find themselves in that, like New Amsterdam, shed a light on various parts of modern society. An open request to creator Chuck Lorre: If the seasons are only to be eight episodes, can we have at least an hour per episode? Or maybe sixteen half-hour episodes? This show is very, very good.

The Kettering Incident* - On the surface, this is a show in which a woman (played by Elizabeth Debicki) returns to her small town in Tasmania and causes ripples. Back in the day, she and another girl were biking when the other girl disappeared. Everyone blamed Debicki's character. Now that she's returned, another girl goes missing. Debicki's character, barely hanging on in life, decides to start digging and see if she can uncover what happened to both girls. That sounds like a typical BBC-type show (although this was filmed entirely in Tasmania) but the turns it takes are wonderfully odd. To even write comparisons would probably give away how the story turns, but this was one of the best discoveries of the year. The Tasmanian setting and characters were fantastic, and served as a glimpse of what life is like on that island nation. That there wasn't a second season is a shame.

Elementary - When season six ended in 2018, I thought it was a fitting end to this version of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Well, we got a season seven and it, too, ended perfectly. While I can appreciate other versions of the characters--Jeremy Brett nailed the traditional version; Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr. did fine work; Jude Law and Martin Freeman both played Watson as a man of action--my favorite has got to be Jonny Lee Miller. Why? Because he allowed Holmes to evolve. Let's be honest: Holmes can be a bit of a dick to Watson and others. Miller's Holmes was, too, at the beginning, but not by the end of the series. Lucy Liu's Watson also was allowed to evolve from a sober companion at the start to a co-equal partner with Holmes as a detective. Absolutely loved this show and will dreadfully miss these versions of the characters. As I wrote on Twitter the night of the finale:

"Perfect casting from day one. Perfect ending. Incredible writing for a complex pair of characters and actors who love each other deeply. So well done. That is how you create a fulfilling finale."

Favorite Movies of 2019

Avengers: Endgame - My favorite of the year for all the action, the humor, the payoffs, the tears, and the feels. A remarkable end to a 21-movie series. Full review.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - The end of a 42-year journey with the Skywalker family. I truly enjoyed the film and appreciated all the emotional payoffs.

Hobbes and Shaw - Arguably the most entertaining movie of the summer and the year. This counts as my first Fast and Furious film. Loved this movie. Full review.

Knives Out - In terms of "I think that movie looks good" to the actual viewing of the film, this is a great film. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has sent me on a search for more whodunits (and inspired me to try and write one).

Spider-Man: Far From Home - Much like Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. in their respective superhero roles, Tom Holland was born to play Peter Parker. And a dang good film that keeps reminding viewers the character is just a teenager.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - An exhuberant movie full of fun, joy, and somber moments. My son who rarely likes all the superhero movies like I do really enjoyed this film.

Jumanji: The Next Level - Dawayne Johnson and Kevin Hart have great on-screen chemistry and I think I'd watch anything they're in. The fact that the ending serves up a nice message about aging is just icing on the cake.

Shazam - It only took something like eighty years for there to be big-screen adaptation of the original Captain Marvel, but the time was worth the wait. Everything you'd want from a Shazam movie is here, led by the incredibly charismatic Zachary Levi. Full review.

IT: Chapter Two - Both parts work well as a giant six-hour movie, but this second part brought the younger actors into the show more than I expected. The adult actors were all great, but this was my first time to see Bill Hader in a serious role. Wow. And that ending...

Older Movies I Saw in 2019


A Man Called Uve - My wife read the book, saw the movie, then watched it again as I saw it. Wonderful, wonderful film.

Jersey Girl - This was the year I decided to watch all of Kevin Smith's films in the lead-up to the new movie, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. I watched all the movies cold--that is, without any prep or even without watching the trailer. I had known how Smith and star Ben Affleck dog this film over the years, but it proved to be my favorite Smith film to date. A wonderful story about a single, widowed father coming to terms with what is most important in his life: his daughter. All the feels, all the tears both times I watched it. When does this movie get a critical re-examination for how good it really is? Full review

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 52 AKA Taking Stock

Well, here it is: the final post in my year-long series of what it's like to be an indie writer. If I'm being brutally honest, where I am now is not where I expected to be on New Year's Day 2019.

The Half Year of Calvin Carter


A year ago, I anticipated me releasing all six of my Calvin Carter novels. Well, I got out three, but with the fourth, I hit a snag. In the re-reading of it for typos, I realized the book wasn't all I thought it was. It needed some additional work, work that I've not completed. Why? Various reasons, part of which is I think the book needs a little help and I ended up going in other directions. The downside is that I didn't get all six books out in 2019. The upside is I have three books in the hopper ready to be released.

One Name


Another change I made this year was to consolidate all my books under one author name: Scott Dennis Parker. I had used S.D. Parker for my westerns but came to realize readers are smart people and they can look at a book cover and determine the genre. And who is to say a mystery reader might not also be interested in a western or whatever else I end up publishing in the future.

Writing Pace


I did not write as much as I expected this year. I went through fits and starts with the fiction writing. The blog writing was much more consistent. Perhaps that's the problem? I wonder what the total word count is between blog writing and fiction writing. I'm a little worried that the blog writing might beat the fiction writing total.

What I'm aiming for in 2020--and throughout the next decade--is consistency. It's all well and good to be able to write a story rapidly--I think it makes for a better story--but it doesn't do me any good if the pace is one of fits and starts.  It would be immensely better if I were to write a lower per day word count but write every day. As many authors have said over the years, one cannot help but get better with consistency.

So that's a goal for 2020: consistent writing pace. Be it slow or fast, be consistent.

A corollary is this: knowing when the desire to write wanes. Come the last two weeks of December, I'm all about consuming books, movies, Hallmark movies, music, Christmas stories, and almost anything else. I've not been in the mood to write in recent days, and that was the case last year. And the year before. See a trend? So do I.

Plan for off weeks and days and don't give myself crap for it.

Discoverability


The goal for any writer, especially an indie writer like me. How to get folks to know my stories are out in the world. There are the typical ways of ads, blog tours and the like. But I'm looking at more non-traditional means. And I'm thinking about focusing my efforts on my hometown of Houston.

What's that you ask? Well, I can help but think focusing on letting Houston readers know I have stories they might like--many of my tales are set here--is a good focus for 2020. Definitely won't stay focused only on Houston, but it'll be my main focus.

How? Direct mail. Advertisements in local papers. Things like that. Will it work? Who knows, but why not try?

Why not?

That's the thing that has bubbled up in my thinking this last quarter of 2019. Why not try different genres? Why not try romance? Why not try an out-and-out thriller? Why not try submitting stories to print magazines?

No reason whatsoever.

Onward to 2020...


Thanks for reading in 2019. I hope you continue to read as the next decade starts.

A few years ago, I read a phrase that got me up off my seat and do something: "A year from now, you will have wished you started today."

Now, we have a new decade on the horizon. This is the last Saturday of the 2010s. And to extrapolate the above phrase forward, it becomes this: "A decade from now, you will have wished you started this year."

So I am.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Chicago Christmas (2019) - The Best Surprise of 2019

One of my greatest listening pleasures for 34 years is to listen to a new Chicago album, especially without reading the liner notes so I can guess the singer. Cracked the seal on Chicago 37 back on 13 November 2019 and was richly rewarded by a group of consummate musicians using the vocabulary and trappings of Christmas to craft a great collection of songs.

Those were the words I wrote on social media the day I first listened to this new Chicago album. I ended up listening to the new album three times that day. First time was in my car while on my morning commute. Other two times were in earbuds on my phone. Heard new things each time. Thoroughly enjoyed the experience, as I do for all new Chicago music.

The Overall Sound


But let's go ahead and address the elephant in the room: the production (or mix?) needs work. In the press release for this album, the guys mentioned how they'd practice the new tunes on the road and record in hotel rooms or on the bus. Look, I'm all for new music and if that's the way it works in 2019, fine. And I love that technology has advanced enough so this work ethic is possible.
But Chicago 36: Now didn't have this subdued quality and it was recorded in much the same way.

(Interestingly, over the month I've listened to the album, the initial sound issues I don't hear anymore. Maybe it's just repetition. Maybe I'm just used to it because when I purchased the LP yesterday--yes, I really own two versions of this album--I didn't notice the sound issue.)

So, guys in Chicago, keep making new tunes, but make sure it's the best possible sound.

The Songs


Because It's Christmas Time - Robert Lamm lead. Opening similar to White Christmas, complete with piano playing eighth notes and jingle bells. Lamm's voice is muted and buried behind the instruments. Vocal harmonies with Lou Pardini and Neil Donell are nice and tight. Great sax solo by new member Ray Herrmann, but it fades way too soon. Wanted more.

All Over the World - Neil Donell lead. This song counts as the first time I've heard Donell sing other than a few YouTube clips. Again, the vocals feel deeper in the mix, but the music is good. Love the electric piano. Really digging the first two tracks as they use the vocabulary and trappings of Christmas to craft new songs. It's certainly favoring the secular aspects of the season. This is also my first exposure to the bass playing of Brett Simons. He's really good here. Last chord is really nice and mysterious, not your typical Christmas vibe. Love how the bass mirrors the melody during the chorus. And the message is one that can be shared beyond the season.

Bring My Baby Back - Donell lead. The opening is very Christmas-y, but the bass grove as the verse starts changes the mood entirely. In a good way. Horns during chorus reminds me of earlier Christmas records, especially with the high trumpet by Lee Loughnane. More sax on the outro by Herrmann. Really digging the album so far. I made most of my notes without seeing the liner notes so it's only later when I learn Nick Lane arranged the brass parts of this song. He certainly knows the Chicago sound.

Merry Christmas, I Love You (R&B) - Lou Pardini lead. The direct sequel to Chicago XXXIII's "Merry Christmas Happy Holidays." All the feels and goofy grins on first hearing this tune on the morning commute. Cowbell back in the mix, and Keith Howland's guitar work is excellent. Pardini is a wonderful addition to the band. This is a tight band of consummate musicians performing these songs. So good. The horn work in the chorus is well done and worthy of the R&B moniker. Could easily see this song make its way on the various radio stations that play Christmas music 24/7.

What the World Needs Now - Lamm lead. Okay, so my favorite thing about listening to a new Chicago album is to let it play and not read the liner notes. Really easy when the first listen was on a morning commute. When this song started and the 70s vibe kicked in, I was so there. But by the first chord change, I actually uttered a "friggin A" in the car as I grinned ear to ear. Guessed Lamm would be the one and I was right. The vibe is pure early 70s: think Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" or Miles Davis's "Maiysha." I'm not too familiar with the Carpenters but I know this tune. Lamm's voice again is way in the back, but his clear tone shines through. James Pankow's horn arrangements are tasteful and complimentary. You can actually hear all three horns. Am I the only one who would love Chicago to do a full album of Burt Bacharach songs? Chord progressions are magical. This song will find its way onto personal playlists and not just in the Christmas season.

All is Right - Lamm and Donell and Pardini. The opening with flutes is nice, almost like Chicago is doing a Bacharach song again. Lamm opens with the verses but the lead shifts to Donell for the chorus. Goose bump moment there. So, so good. Third verse is Donell. Howland's guitar is gritty behind this easy going groove, punctuated by Ramon Yslas's nice percussion work. Pardini takes the last bridge which makes this tune one of the awesome triple-vocal songs in the entire catalog. The vibe this tune reminds me of is a 1978 Christmas TV special when the band is a guest. Again, the mysterious, minor-chord ending is surprising.

Sleigh Ride [2019 version] - Donell lead. Nice groove and horn parts, but the backing vocalists doing the "ring-a-ling" thing? Icing on top of this sweet song. They absolutely make this song. Donell's vocals are so clear. Horn breaks are short and punchy. Ending sound effects are cheesy, but I'm a cheesy guy so I'm fine with it. The chimes as the song fades out is a nice touch.

I'd Do It All Again (Christmas Moon) - Pardini lead. Bossa nova complete with shuffle drumming and piano embellishments? This song had me in the first measure. Simply a gorgeous song. Pardini's voice is perfect for this kind of song, and the horns just layer themselves with him, perfectly in the pocket with tasteful accents, especially as they re-enter after the piano solo. Goose bump song. A new jazz standard for others to hear and sing? You betcha. Not sure who plays the piano solo, but man is it good. Lots of Christmas music reminds me of childhood. This is one of those tunes where the vibe is that of adults in love. This is the song you'd have playing over scenes of a movie in which the couple frolic in the snow, fall down while ice skating, and snuggle up together in an open horse-drawn wagon in Central Park. Loughnane's muted trumpet is the icing on this song. In addition--and this doesn't happen too often in Christmas songs--this is the song you can easily see being played for senior citizens, as they look back on their lives. Only two songs this year made me emotional on first listen (and sometimes subsequent listens), and this is one of them. The other: Hello Sunshine by Bruce Springsteen.

I'm Your Santa Claus - Pardini lead. Bass notes high on the fret board opening this funky song. Donell shines through in the group chorus. Man does he blend well. Pardini's piano is sprinkled throughout this song, as is Howland's rhythm guitar...until he takes a nice, crunchy solo. Even though this tune started soft, it ends as a pretty loud rock song, especially when Howland solos again, the distortion turned up. One of my favorite parts of the entire album is the group chorus on "This gift in silver and gold." Fantastic and goose bump inducing every time.

Here We Come A Caroling - Donell lead. The timbales remind me of Chicago's version of "My Favorite Things" from Chicago XXXIII. Horn break is more complex than a typical Chicago horn riff. Can really hear Herrmann's alto sax. The sound of the horns is more "alive" than many a Chicago album. By that I mean you can all but hear the room as they record their parts, much like the horn sound of CTA is. Howland's crunchy guitar solo is a nice injection of rock and roll.

Merry Christmas, I Love You (Ballad version) - The piano intro make this song come across like a ballad from the American Songbook, circa 1958. You know what marks a good song? The ability for it to be re-imagined and still ring true. In every Christmas season, the early part of my listening is always exciting because I get to hear this wonderful music after an eleven-month absence. I play all the happy, fun songs there. But in the final week, as Christmas Day grows near, I get a little somber and reflective. This version fits squarely in this latter pocket. Herrmann's sax solo is excellent. Gave me a Stan Getz vibe. The bells mirroring Donell's vocals at the close? Perfect. As the official end of the album, it is so good.

The Verdict


After fifty-two years as a band, thirty-seven albums, and my personal thirty-four years as a fan, I experienced something unexpected when I listened to Chicago Christmas 2019: it surprised me. For better or worse, when I listened to XXXIII for the first time, I could actually guess the horn breaks and musical choices. Ditto for Chicago XXX. Some of that is in play here, but not as much.

Maybe it's my age (I'm fifty-one), maybe it's the more melancholy vibe to some of the songs, but Chicago Christmas 2019 hit me squarely in my heart. The holidays always are emotional, running the gamut from nostalgia of childhood to the more mature emotions of being a parent. Somehow, this collection of songs captures that spirit in an unexpected way.

For the past twenty-one years, I have counted Chicago 25 as one of my favorite all-time Chicago albums. The reissued version--2003's What's It Gonna Be Santa--is always the first thing I break out every single Christmas season. Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three was a wonderful addition.

Now comes Chicago: Christmas 2019 out of nowhere, filled with original songs and excellent music, by one of my two favorite bands of all time, that made the 2019 Christmas season so much better. Ever since June, I told everybody my favorite album of 2019 was already released. That would be Bruce Springsteen's excellent album, Western Stars. Well, while "Hello Sunshine" is still my favorite song, Chicago: Christmas 2019 is my favorite album of the year.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 51

I think we all know what event sucked the air out of everything this week: The premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

My family and I caught the 6pm showing on Thursday night. The theater wasn't packed, but there was a sizable audience. My one-sentence blurb is this:

"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a rousing, joyful, exuberant, and emotional film that not only successfully brings to a close the story of one family, over nine movies, and 42 years, but does so in a manner that is both nostalgic and fresh."

I'll have more thoughts after I spend more time thinking about it and seeing it again.

The event also prompted me to write an open thank you letter to George Lucas, because without him, none of this exists.


Friday, December 20, 2019

An Open Thank You to George Lucas

I'll have a more detailed movie review at a later time, but I need to say this first:

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a rousing, joyful, exuberant, and emotional film that not only successfully brings to a close the story of one family, over nine movies, and 42 years, but does so in a manner that is both nostalgic and fresh.

The payoffs are great, some hearken back four decades while others reach back only minutes. Could I find quibbles? Sure, but as a lifelong Star Wars fan, one whose mind was blown open in 1977 by George Lucas's film, this movie did everything I wanted it to and left me sitting in my seat, watching the credits scroll, awash in the music of John Williams, tears in my eyes, knowing my journey with this story is over.

And I am so grateful for it.

Star Wars helped shape me as a youth, a movie watcher, a music listener, a storyteller, and as a creative, imaginative person. I am so glad to have grown up with and experienced it all from the very beginning. It has truly been the adventure of a lifetime.

To all the thousands of people who have made these movies, and to the countless creatives who were inspired by Star Wars, y'all have enriched our lives beyond measure.

But the deepest thanks goes to one man, from whose mind this magnificent story sprang.

Thank you, George Lucas.

Thank you for dreaming, for coming up with this universe, driving to get it created, and sharing it with the world. It has provided the connective tissue for millions of people to imagine, to come together, to create, and to share ourselves.

Your Force will be with us. Always.


Saturday, December 14, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 50

The NaNoWriMo novel continues apace. My goal is to complete it this year and start 2020 fresh with new tales to tell.

Not sure about your Christmas/holiday time, but I enjoy reading specific Christmas stories in this time and listening almost exclusively to my Christmas CDs. Ever since 13 November--when I broke the seal on the newest album from Chicago, a Christmas one--that album has been spun numerous times. It's a wonderful collection of songs from a veteran music group using the vocabulary and trappings of Christmas to craft what is likely my favorite album of the year.

Spinning my own tunes has album kept me out of Whamageddon (so far.) Whamageddon, if you don't know, is a fun game where you are in the game as long as you don't hear "Last Christmas," the  really good Wham song.

Anyway, back to reading, I have a box of books that I break out every year. Most are Christmas-themed anthologies and I read a few stories each year. Granted, when one of those books is The Big Book of Christmas Stories, it'll take more than a few years to get through it.

Well, this year, there is something better.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch and WMG Publishing has done something wonderful this year. They have created what is essentially an Advent calendar with short stories. You know what Advent calendars are: Starting on 1 December, they are calendars where you get a prize each day leading up to Christmas Day.  Sometimes it's chocolate. Sometimes it is Legos.

Well, via a Patreon subscription, they are releasing a short story per day from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. And it's been so fun! She curates all the stories, giving introductions via email where you get the link to the stories. If it's a particular day--like 6 December, St. Nicholas's Day--she selects a story about that day. Ditto for Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

I'm having a blast getting a new story each day. You can still sign up. Give yourself the gift of stories.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 49

You know what you get when you write a book outside of November and NaNoWriMo? Nothing special. Just writing a book.

So, as of last Sunday, it is now December, but the novel I started on 1 November as part of National Novel Writing Month was not complete. I kept writing, as an author does. Because, you know, the novel's not finished.

I had expected to be finished by yesterday--my birthday!--but I'm still not done. Good thing, though. The story's taking on a life of its own, jetting into a direction I didn't anticipate.

But already, my mind's sifting through the possibilities. All during this writing process, I'm literally writing into the dark, experiencing the story as future readers will. But my mind keeps looking ahead, and in yesterday's session, it took a turn I never expected.

Which is what making writing stories this way so fun for the author.

Knives Out


As part of my birthday celebration, I saw the new Rian Johnson movie Knives Out yesterday. Our own Claire Boothe reviewed it last Sunday at DoSomeDamage. I intentionally stayed away from it (I've now read it) and everything before I saw the movie. Didn't want even a hint of a spoiler.

Boy, is that one delightful film. I knew going in there would be many a clue and we viewers would be able to sift through the evidence on our own to see if we could guess the ultimate solution. Well, I had a theory...that proved false. But I caught a few things, even tapping my wife's arm (more than once) and say this or that.

I really enjoyed it. The film was a nice 21st Century twist on the traditional murder mystery whodunit. Ain't gonna say more about it other than the cast was fantastic. Daniel Craig, however, was really, really good. Bravo to Rian Johnson who wrote and directed this film. He's now put his unique spin on time travel stories (Looper), Star Wars (The Last Jedi), and whodunits (Knives Out). I enjoy his take on stories, and he's now one of those writer/directors that I'll always watch, no matter the genre.