Saturday, December 26, 2015

20 Years of Brooding and Running

Ah 2015...

By all accounts you were a rough year for the world but I'm conflicted thinking about you.  You were the year I've experienced the most innate joy, the least sleep, the fewest good runs, and the most "oh shit THAT just happened" moments.  I became a father under your watch, as well documented by virtually every other blog post I've done this year.  This was a bright spot to what otherwise would have been a year I'd rather leave behind.

Something else of (only) personal significance happened in 2015: I crossed the 20 year mark as a runner.  Sometime since 1995 running became a trendy thing to do, as evidenced by the plethora of 13.1 stickers on the backs of mom cars zooming around the Triangle. I have nothing against you other runners, especially the moms, other than a tinge of jealousy these days.  For once it's not injury keeping me off the trails, but some combination of lack of motivation and lack of energy. 

The kicker this year:  in the middle of the biggest life transition of my adulthood (or ever) I took on an even "broader" job.  Running slipped to the periphery of my day - my half an hour of peace and solitude between when my "day job" ended, dark fell, the dinner/bedtime routine began, before I passed out in a clump of exhaustion after logging in one last time to choose which one of the hundred+ emails in my inbox I'd reply to.  In other words, everything I always feared would happen in my middle age came true, but strangely I am at peace with it.  As Kendrick Lamar's dad once advised a young Kendrick:  "Real is responsibility."

The thing is: Parenthood forces efficiency.  As such I've had to be purposeful in my runs. I don't get variety.  I don't have the next big race to train for; I hit the same 3-4 miles of trail most every day. To keep it fresh, I've been as dependent on good music to keep me going so no minute is wasted.  As the year went on, I started a sort of mental puzzle to keep my brain from focusing on the fact that I had gone woefully out of shape: what were my favorite running albums from the last 20 years?

Below is what I came up with. A few caveats and ground rules before sharing my list:

1) I'm not a cheery person. I'm an even less cheery runner.  Don't expect to see Taylor Swift on here (ok ok I admit I have one song from 1989... it's on the same playlist as my Chromeo tracks...)

2) I didn't come up with much that's too far off the grid.  If you took any number of Pitchfork Staff "Best of" Lists and reordered some of the picks, you'd see a largely overlapping list.  I'm not trying to be all unique here.

3) The album needs to have enough tracks that can keep up a good running pace without having to skip over half of it.  One or two great songs to run to isn't enough to make a great running album (i.e. why Future Islands' In Evening Air isn't on this list even if "Walking Through That Door" and "Tin Man" are outstanding running songs.)

4) Album must have been released since no earlier than the mid 90s - or just before I started running. I've listened to plenty of Zeppelin, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, etc... yes, I appreciate the older stuff, but this exercise was an homage to the 90s through 2015.  And it reeks of nostalgia.

5) One album per artist

Ok, enough chit chat, here we go:

#20 (tie)

Morning Teleportation, Expanding Anyway (2011)

Style:  Experimental-Indie-Rock, or "Mario Kart music"*

Season:  pollen stench season (a.k.a. Carolina spring)

High point:  the long buildup of Wholehearted Drifted Sense of Inertia - is there a better name for a running song?

Watch out for those red turtle shells on the track.

* credit to Katie Hyland for inventing the name of a new genre of music

#20 (tie)

The Go! Team - Thunder Lightning Strike (2004)

Style:  Hyperactive-Cheerleader-Indie-Electronic

Season:  back to school

High point(s):  the hard charging opening track Panther Dash and swirling synths on Ladyflash

I always wanted a marching band and cheerleading crew following me around on a run handing me dixie cups of defizzed Red Bull.  Remember that omnipresent and infectious Carolina Panthers commercial from a few years back?  The one where a head bopping Cam Newton and a bunch of kids are grooving on the school bus?  Yup, that was The Go! Team.


Archers of Loaf, Icky Mettle (1994)

Style:  Chapel Hill early 90s indie-rock

Season:  mid-spring on single track trails or an open empty beach, when it's not yet balls hot out

High point: "there's something wrong... there's something wrong... there's something WRONG WITH MY TOAST!?!"

Ocracoke Island, May 2012 - the album that got me back on my feet after a painful bout with plantar fasciitis.


Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time (2013)

Style:  80s throwback power pop

Season:  the last beach trip of the summer

High point:  Nobody Asked (If I Was Ok)

It's like running to a younger version of Courtney Love, before all the drugs started taking a toll.  Or running to the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie.


Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014)

Style:  Anxious Punk Revival

Season:  somewhere between Memorial Day and 4th of July

High point:  the first two tracks and track 6

Heavy themes here, but no subtlety.  Even in the foggy oblivion of a summer tempo run, it is clear as day what a song like FUCKMYLIFE666 is about.


Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life (2008)

Style:  Raucous Post-Hardcore

Season:  when the leaves are just starting to change over

High point:  the back half of the title song/last track

The lead singer goes by the nickname Pink Eyes.  One clever Pitchfork reviewer described his growling voice as "treated by years of guzzling Canadian Club and then eating the bottles."  I can't come up with a better description myself.  These are tracks for hammering up and down short hills, like the ones on the WaDuke loop.  Not for the casual jog in the park.


Modest Mouse - The Moon and Antarctica (2000)

Style:  Trippy Melodic Lo-Fi Alt Rock

Season:  Soupy late summer

High point:  Isaac Brock scream-chanting in march time on 3rd Planet

Infectious lyrics, Dante allusions and an appearance by the devil, wild packs of family dogs, a reminder that we're alive only a short time... for the last time.  

One of my favorite albums in general - ranked a little lower here simply because it chills out a little much after the first six tracks to be a great running album, but the first few songs alone make it worthy of being on the list.


Vince Staples, Summertime 06 (2015)

Style:  Gritty Industrial West Coast Cerebral Rap

Season:  the album title describes it well

High point:  too many to count, just throw it on and go

"I ain't never ran from nothin' but the police
From the city where the skinny carry strong heat
Northside, Long Beach, Northside, Long Beach"

Saving more comments for the end, but damn 2015 gave us some great brooding music.


The Killers - Hot Fuss (2004)

Style:  Overwrought dramatic rock-pop

Season:  the wistful beginning of summer

High Point:  Smiiiiiiile like ya mean it...

In another life, Brandon Flowers was that maudlin drama kid who sang in his high school production of Les Miserables, made out with all the theater girls, joined an a cappella fraternity with an elaborate homoerotic hazing ritual, and lived happily ever after in Holly Springs with his wife and four kids (after all, supposedly he is Mormon.) Nothing against Holly Springs ya'll.

I'm not sure where I was going with that, other than to underscore this might be the black sheep out of the group. The guilty pleasure album - everyone has several of them. This is just the one I decided to admit to in a public forum. In my freewheeling mid-twenties, I'd just as easily see a pink shirted douchebag* belting along to Mr. Brightside at a Herpes Triangle bar in DC as I would run along the Potomac with an iPod the size of an old-school Gameboy chugging away to "All the Things that I've Done." I'm less guilty about this than seeing Coldplay in concert. Twice.

* in a harrowing self realization, it has come to my attention that I was that douchebag


Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours (2008)

Style:  Hypnotic Alternative Dance-Rock

Season:  for the hottest day of the year

High point:  the closing refrains to "Out There On the Ice"

Anyone who's spent any amount of time in North Carolina in the summer knows it gets HOT.  Unfathomably so at times.  If the forecast has temps going up to the triple digits, the sensible person will stay indoors like the rapture is about to happen. There was a point one summer where I had to drive into Raleigh and the high was 105 (felt like 115 with the heat index... literally.) I think solar flares were bouncing off Wade Avenue.  It was even too hot for the horseflies.  The roads were empty - it was that bad.  

When it gets that hot, I try to wait it out to grab a run at the end of the day.  This albums goes out to the Tobacco Trail just before sun down, when it's still in the high 80s but feels comparatively cool, when I can still see the haze emanating off the asphalt under the shade of tall dark pines.  Dodging them rotten horseflies.  Gah.


Jamie XX - In Colours (2015)

Style:  the morning after the late night out

Season:  summer (again... yes there's a theme here)

High point:  the 3 minute mark of Loud Places

My wife, a voice major in college, keeps me honest in many of my music choices.  Back when I was plugging along to Paul Oakenfold and Sasha/John Digweed in the early aughts, Megan never understood how I could listen to track upon track of synth-music devoid of human voices.  In those days, "rave" music (as it was often colloquially referred) was for a niche audience.  Fifteen years later, it's almost as if the tables have turned completely - EDM has pushed rock to the fringe.

The problem I have with most EDM is it's too fast, too frantic, and too overwrought to work for a steady run. For throwing weights around or hill sprints, I could go for Zedd-Skrillex-Calvin Harris type stuff, but after half an hour my ears would start to bleed profusely.  Enter Jamie XX.  Even on this esteemed list, I can count maybe two other albums besides In Colours that I could listen to straight through on a run - one track to the next without skipping.  

We all have days that we don't really want to go out for a run.  It's too hot.  The work day was too exhausting, etc... a song like "Gosh" doesn't force us out the gate at breakneck pace.  It eases us in, building meticulously, simmering simmering before synths come whirling in.  Sans "I Know There's Gonna Be Good Times," this isn't dance party music.  This is run on a quiet Wrightsville Beach type of music - before the crowds have come in, while the Carolina sun sits low in the sky.


LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)

Style:  Ubiquitous...  house party, workout/run, driving, cooking, dancing with your 9 month old kid

Season:  the fading days of late fall

High point:  the back to back duo of "Someone Great" and "All My Friends", 14 minutes of awesome

In my graying days, James Murphy is an artist I appreciate more and more, so much so that LCD Soundsystem has risen toward the top of a list of bands I'm bummed I never had a chance to see live.  He brilliantly straddles the line between dance tracks and intelligent music.  In a day where standard radio play for a song is about three minutes, several of his best tracks span on for six, seven, eight minutes plus and somehow keep me clamoring for more.  This is the autumnal cousin to In Colours:  the type of music to ease into on a cold morning, starting slow and letting the pace crank up deliberately.  Fly through "All My Friends", and wind back down through "Us v Them."


Beyonce - Beyonce (2013)

Style:  Sophisticated R&B-Pop

Season:  Treadmill season (i.e. January-February)

High point:  Jay-Z and Yonce rapping about monogamy not sucking on "Drunk in Love"

Make no mistake - this is a brooding album.  Whether it's songs about body dysmorphia, feminism, or failed pregnancies, Beyonce reminded us she's a grown ass woman in her thirties now and she's lived some life and it's time to bow down bitches.  I raved about this album last year.  If I were still in shape I'd be listening to it more, still.  It carried me through a COLD winter in 2014 training for Boston back when I was logging miles I get tired just thinking about right now.  No shame in this one being in my top 10.


CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe (2013)

Style:  Indie-Electronic Synth-Pop
Season:  Autumn
High point:  the transition from track to 2 into the first minute to "We Sink"

The Glaswegian* trio can spin up some hard charging beats; the opening three tracks here were a regular on my "six-fifty a mile" playlist back when I was in the kind of shape to do that in every day training runs.  I'm acutely aware of the relative lack of female lead bands on this list, but if I were to choose one voice to carry the soundtrack to my runs over the last few years, it would be Lauren Mayberry's.  Oh and she's smart too!  Law degree and a masters in journalism.  Mayberry don't take shit.  That's the kind of attitude I want at mile seven of a long tempo run.

* I love this word.  Glaswegian.


The Flaming Lips - Soft Bulletin (1999)

Style:  Symphonic Neo-Psychedelia Cartoon Rock

Season:  the dead friggin middle of winter

High point:  the haunting fading echo of "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate"

Before Miley Cyrus was headlining acid washed butt nekked concerts with the Lips or even playing Hannah Montana, Wayne Coyne was pontificating on life, death, spider bites, and a band member's nasty heroin addiction.  At the time few knew of the band he fronted as anything other than the one hit wonder who sang "She Don't Use Jelly."  Sometime smack between the Flaming Lips start in 1983 (!?!) and the current day, they created their magnus opus - a critically revered masterpiece at a time when such illustrious acts as Creed and Limp Bizkit were taking over the air waves.  Shame on the late 90s.

Wayne Coyne may have intended this to be a summer time album, but the best place to crank up "Race for the Prize" or "The Gash" is running down an endless stretch of deserted suburban greenway miles outside the DC belt line on the coldest morning in February.  Cast a long gaze on an open pink sky, broken by balloons advertising another subdivision grand-opening, grip the icy cold air and keep charging on.


Weezer - Weezer (1994)

Style:  Post-Grunge Radio Alt-Rock

Season:  does it really matter?

High point(s):  the opening guitar riff, the refrain to "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here"

Let me be clear. This is more than just a "running" album. When the eponymous LP known widely as "The Blue Album" hit the legal drinking age this past summer, that marked a watershed moment in the life of 30-somethings across the country. Our conscious self-identities were old enough to graduate from college, buy booze, and get a real job. F&%#!

The Blue Album predates running for me. It predates high school (barely).  It predates crushes that meant anything.  These were the long-haired-hacky-sack-kicking-Super-NES-playing ride a bike to the neighborhood pool days.  My first track season came later, those first awful 400 meter repeats, that first time I vomited after a sprint interval workout after I barely made the cut for the conference meet.  Yes this album oozes sentiment.

Years passed. Lots of miles were run - a marathon in VA Beach, one in Chicago, a long ass winter in Connecticut, half a decade in the District, a tour in Richmond, 4 more marathons, presumably every personal best I ever will set behind me. All the while my supposed doppelgänger Rivers Cuomo maintained a steady presence somewhere on my walkman turned Discman turned mp3 player turned iPod turned iPhone across three separate decades. I can hear "My Name is Jonas" raging through my earbuds in my sleep as I dream glide down the hill on my street, running past the neighborhood kids playing tag in their front lawns joyfully unknowing of all that lay before them.


Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Style:  Brooding Rap

Season:  those days of the year where it gets dark at 5 o'clock and you're stuck on the treadmill after work

High Point:  the cheerleader chanting on "Power"

Is this non sequitur on a list of alt-rock/electronic LPs? Maybe, but this in itself explains why Kanye West is arguably the most successful rapper, musician, ARTIST of the last decade. A certain faction of the music snob crowd might dismiss him for excessive use of autotune and marrying a Kardashian, but isn't sad Kanye just as emo as Morrissey or Robert Smith?  Listen to "Runaway" and "Hell of a Life" and tell me this isn't the most outright complicated and self-aware (obsessed?) man with a regular voice on the VMAs. Kanye carries the label of pop, but this album is Kanye turning pop inside out, telling us even a gazillionaire rap mogul has all sorts of aspirations flying through his corpus callosum, that even Kanye wants to be someone else better, faster, stronger. Lord knows that's what us runners do on the daily - lace up them shoes on a solo run and be somebody else for half an hour and Mo-fucker you're rollin...


Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (2010)

Style:  Theatrical Alternative/Indie Rock

Season:  Fall marathon training season

High Point:  about mid way through "Half Light II"

Six years prior to the release of The Suburbs, Arcade Fire's debut album Funeral painted the woebegone tale of orphans living in a snow filled dystopia.  Funeral may be one of the most aptly named albums of all time - Win Butler was essentially singing a eulogy to the genre of indie rock. From that point forward, "indie" was dead.  A local outfit called Merge Records and the up and coming Canadian band vaulted the whole genre into the stratosphere.  It was the beginning of a time where charcoal-pants-wearing desk job yuppy types like me could buy an album on iTunes for $9.99 and didn't have to be part of the Montreal art-pop scene to be in the know (I don't know if such a thing exists, though it probably does.) Eleven years and a thousand sound-a-likes later, Arcade Fire is this era's "alternative band" to round out a music festival top line with a righteous place next to Drake and Deadmaus.

But damn if they don't put out some good running music.  Funeral was Arcade Fire's golden child, but no album on this list, no album in the last 20 years has carried me on more fall marathon training runs than The Suburbs.  This album carries a pace that seems to mesh perfectly for going at a steady clip - let's call it "urgent" or somewhere between "tempo" and "conversational."  We runners are suckers for patterns - covering the same ground on the same trails over and over again... yet expecting different results.


Radiohead - The Bends (1995)

Style:  Autumnal Alt-Rock

Season:  Labor Day to Thanksgiving (a.k.a. cross country season)

High Point(s):  "Planet Telex", the title track, the closing refrains to "Fake Plastic Trees"

I'll digress for a moment to set up the outline to a story that has absolutely nothing to do with running.  This was the only band ever that could have triggered the most "college-dramatic" weekend of my life.  One that involved a broken car AC, the hottest freaking ride up I-85 in the history of western civilization, several expired drivers licenses, dodging a firestorm of lightning bolts in porte-potties, turning a MonteCarlo packed with 7 soaking wet bodies into a hydrofoil, narrowly escaping the clenches of death at least a half dozen times all because we left Hooters to try to see some dumb band from Britain with a mopey lead singer who mumbled his lyrics. 

Truth is I will never be as obsessed with a band as I was with Radiohead from 1998 to 2003, and as it turns out a thousand other dorks like me had the same thought.  In the summer of Amnesiac they were the hardest ticket to come by.  I chose the Bull Run show in Centerville VA, August 2001.  I chose poorly.  Prince William County VA may as well be hell's commode.

I don't know if this type of stuff happens anymore. <begin old crotchety 'back in my day' talk> This was before domestic festivals like Bonnaroo or Coachella or Austin City Limits took off.  I waited two more years, saw Radiohead in Europe just after Hail to the Thief came out.  The point is "kids" today have MORE of everything to choose from and can get it faster than we ever could <end crotchety rant>

To bring it back to running, The Bends is not Radiohead's greatest album - that title belongs to either OK Computer or Kid A (or In Rainbows for the Radiohead fans that want to be a little different from all the others, which is a very Radiohead fan thing to do.)  Every year sometime just after Halloween I re-listen to The Bends on a run just to make sure it's as good as I remember.  The air is crisp.  The leaves are shades of brilliant orange.  It's the mid-nineties again - Radiohead is just a band with a few radio hits, and 20 skinny kids in light blue singlets are toeing the line ready to crush the other schools from the sticks.  The Bends:  it's better than a Delorean and it never fails.


Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (1993)

Style:  Scuzzy Guitars and Heavy Drums

Season:  any and all

High point(s):  the first brilliant four minutes and fifty-eight seconds

"Cherub Rock" - racing to a personal best at McAlpine Park, Charlotte, NC

"Quiet" - a hilly cross country race on Piedmont red clay trails through the woods

"Today" - running at high tide near sundown, North Myrtle Beach SC, June

"Hummer" & "Rocket" - repping out lap after lap, North Rowan High School track, Spencer NC, April

"Disarm" - a drizzly early spring day, somewhere in Davie County NC

"Soma" - a 2 mile race, East Rowan High, the first mile measured, the second an extended kick to the end

"Geek USA" - a frantic dash through Dan Nicholas Park, Salisbury NC, October

"Mayonnaise" - a bike ride to Granite Quarry NC on a cool dreary day, middle of February

"Spaceboy" - a late night bus ride back from Eddie Smith Field House

"Silverfuck" - interval after painful interval, Fetzer Field, Chapel Hill, NC

The truth is I never found Nirvana all that interesting other than Kurt Cobain.  Pearl Jam was too volatile.  I was all about the Pumpkins - especially the early shoe gaze type stuff.  It was the drums I loved all along - Jimmy Chamberlin tearing up the f'ing drums...


Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.a.a.d city (2012)

Style:  West Coast

Season:  winter somewhere warm

High point(s): "m.a.a.d city" from where MC Eiht takes over at the 4 minute mark to when Kendrick closes the track, the extended introspective denouement in "Sing About Me I'm Dying of Thirst."

I listened to this album more than any other over the last 12 months.  By far.  Maybe I'm overweighting the hysteria of the present over the past by placing this at the top of my list.  The truth is this album defines what running has become for me in this new phase of life.  It is about thinking about how to solve all the world's problems and acknowledging all are far too complex for one person to solve alone, but we have to start somewhere.

I've always been a huge fan of coming-of-age stories - regardless of the forum.  The Wire, Season 4 and this album were personal game changers.  I learned more through these outlets about our social plagues than four years at a school where this happened taught me (i.e. some brainy folks do and say some DUMB things.)

Kendrick put out his second major label album back in March of this year, a denser, darker, and more musically diverse masterpiece than Good Kid about the black experience in America in 2015.  By many accounts To Pimp a Butterfly is the true album of the year; Pitchfork took it to the next level and called it the voice of a point in time.  And March was before the riots in Baltimore.  A church shooting in Charleston.  Black Lives Matter became the hashtag of the year, and we reprimanded the folks who countered with All Lives Matter as clearly missing the point.  It seemed all year that we were living through some sort of cultural breaking point, where each week brought layers upon layers of new tragedy upon tragedy, with ethnicity and race at the center of each - both domestically and abroad. Was Kendrick clairvoyant? The best artists are; after all some say Radiohead predicted 9-11 with Kid A.

Or wasn't he just pointing out what should have been obvious all along?  The systemic disenfranchisement of an entire race - from inflated rents to underfunded social programs, the gradual erosion of public schools in favor of private, the least generous society in the developed world to new mothers and a fragmented health care system that still leaves millions hung out to dry.  These gaps are ripping the middle class apart by the seams.  The gaps have a paralyzing hidden social cost.  These gaps hit most of us in some way - but they hit blacks disproportionately hard.  Our safety nets are held together by bandaids.

I struggled with what to write here.  I can't write about what it's like to be black in America right now - not fairly at least.  I can only tell the story of one half-non-Anglo of darker complexion.  I watch out - what I do, what I say, how I say it.  I watch out for the folks watching me.  I shave my beard down before I hop on an airplane.  I watch emerging social policy and legislative agendas nervously.  I'm watching what is going on in Europe and Syria closely - and I'm praying we as a human race one day simply figure out how to all get along.  

Going into an election year, I recognize a certain faction of the country are going to align so far on either side of either of these issues, the viewpoints aren't practical or rational.  Convincing and engaging the extreme 10% on the right and the extreme 10% on the left is a waste of energy.  It's the rest of us somewhere in the middle that need to work together.  We aren't going to agree on everything, but let's start with the generous premise of mutual respect, true equality, and dignity and just goddamn take care of each other.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

I'll close with a scene from my 2015:

It's late afternoon on the American Tobacco Trail in Chatham County.  The path is mostly empty.  The tall pines stretch toward the clammy spring air.  I've reached the steady conclusion to "Sing About Me I'm Dying of Thirst." I'm tired of running. I'm tired of running, Kendrick sings to me.  I arrive at my car in a quiet gravel parking lot, walking slowly to the voice of his grandmother leading a group of young black men in prayer.  The next song starts - "Real", the penultimate track.  Real is responsibility.  Real is taking care of my motherfucking family.  Finally, I hear Kendrick's mother leaving him a voice mail, telling him if he ever makes it big, to give back to his city and all the little black and brown kids.  And that she loves him.

When I run, sometimes I want to get away from everything, but with those words, I always come back on home where my son - still a blank slate unspoiled by the world at large - awaits with the eyes of innocent wonder.  I return with a smile to the home where I belong, where I can solve one small problem at a time.

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