Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Biased Season Preview: The 2013 Chicago White Sox

With the Village Tavern back to quasi-active status, I decided it was time to send it back towards its roots – in other words, a not very timely or intellectual sports article.  Here is the Village Tavern’s preview of the 2013 White Sox season.


Last year, the White Sox were almost an exactly average offense, finishing 15th in baseball in runs scored.  They finished 3rd in the league with 211 home runs, but only in the middle of the pack in OBP and batting average.  Based on following them as a fan, the lineup felt more out-prone than the team’s .318 OBP would suggest, and you’d expect a team that finished 15th in OBP and 3rd in HRs to be a top-ten offense.  Part of the problem was that the Sox seemed to struggle to get that big hit with men in scoring position.  A power-heavy offense also lends itself to a boom-and-bust quality, which is not great news for their record, but which shouldn’t affect the aggregate numbers too much.

What’s changed this season?  Tyler Flowers will finally get a chance as the full-time starting catcher.  He’s actually already 27, but his debut in the role was delayed by A.J.’s long tenure and willingness to stay with the Sox on relatively cheap, short-term contracts for awhile.  The consensus on Flowers seems to be that he should hit 30+ home runs as a full-time starter in a hitter’s park (which would be roughly on track with his career HRs/AB to this point, and possibly even low), but that he’s also going to hit around .220.  In other words, in comparison to AJ, more power and fewer times on base, which will skew the offense even more towards power...just what we needed.  Personally, I think the .220s predictions will end up being low; Flowers hit in the .270s and .280s in the minors, and his more recent .220 seasons have come as a young backup moving up and down from the minors to the bigs, which isn’t easy for a hitter to deal with.

The other projected new starter, Jeff Keppinger, will provide almost no power, but hit over .300 in part-time work last year, and should hopefully get on base more than Kevin Youkillis (who at least provided power) or Brent Morel (who didn’t get on base much or hit for power).  Keppinger is also known for being difficult to strike out, so this move may have been made with the Tigers in mind – no team in baseball is more reliant on the strikeout to escape from innings than Detroit, who for the most part has great pitching and terrible fielding.  Keppinger may end up as one of those players who is better suited for a bench/utility role than as a full-time starter that other teams spend time game-planning for, so I’m actually vaguely pessimistic here, although he shouldn’t be the offensive black hole that 3B was for most of last year.

Looking at the lineup in total, this looks to be more of the same.  Power is the most obvious team strength: every regular starter but Keppinger should easily hit double figures in homers, Rios, Konerko, Viciedo, and Flowers have a chance to go over 30, and Dunn should be among the league leaders.  This will be a very scary team for opponents in games where the Sox are tied or trailing by one late, as nearly everyone in the lineup is a threat to alter the game with one swing.  I’m also hearing “regression” thrown around with this lineup a lot, especially with Dunn and Rios.  Frankly, with Dunn, it doesn’t make any sense at all, at least not if you can remember (or look things up from) further than two years into the past.  While Dunn was a feel-good story in 2012 because of his rebound from a truly horrific 2011, his 2012 season was actually right in line with his career numbers – actually, slightly worse in some respects.  If you look at his baseball card, 2011 jumps out as an obvious outlier, and that’s without considering that he had surgery early in the season and was living his first year in a new city.  He’ll be fine.  I do understand it with Rios, and to be honest, I never know what we’re going to get from him, but he seems to have fixed his approach last season and I’m cautiously optimistic there.

However, the offense is average or worse in other respects, and they will probably frustrate us fans by having more than their share of 1-2-3 innings, and teamwide slumps are going to be a possibility when they either aren’t hitting for power or are hitting too many solo shots.  In other words, this is pretty much the offense White Sox fans know and love and loathe.


First off, I’ll say that fielding might be one of the few parts of baseball left where statistics haven’t quite caught up to “the eye test.”  That said, the Sox had good defensive numbers last season, leading the league in fielding percentage and finishing eighth (and within .005) of first in defensive efficiency ratio (which is basically the rate at which balls in play are turned into outs).  However, they were only slightly above average in defensive runs saved.   So, while calling the White Sox defense “mediocre” (as Grantland’s preview did) is lazy and ill-informed, depending on what stats you value more, they were either elite or slightly above average on defense last year.

Having watched most of last season, I felt like the Sox were very good defensively, especially up the middle and with Rios in right field, but they didn’t make me feel like I was watching one of the best fielding teams in the league.  Some of the credit goes to Robin Ventura for putting more effort into positioning the defense for individual hitters than Ozzie did (the 2011 Sox, with a lot of the same players, were also near the top in fielding percentage but were 22nd in defensive efficiency with an ugly .687).

Fielding is going to be hugely important and needs to be one of the strengths of the team.  For one thing, Don Cooper’s pitch-to-contact philosophy requires good fielders to work, and for another, it’s potentially the only significant advantage the White Sox have over Detroit.  Flowers has generally been regarded as solid defensively to this point, and for once the Sox might even have a catcher that other teams don’t enjoy running on so much.  The Sox aren’t going to have a defensive ace like Morel at 3B anymore, but whatever they come up with will probably not be worse than Youkillis was, and the age of glove-only players like Morel having careers as starters is pretty much over anyway.  However, with Ramirez and Beckham, hitters aren’t going to have much room to work with over the middle.  You’d assume that Konerko is a bad fielder because he’s so aggressively old, white, and unathletic (I can’t really think of a less athletic professional athlete that isn’t fat), but he rarely makes mistakes and seems to have better range than you’d expect, and first basemen need to make hundreds of routine plays for every chance they get at a spectacular one anyway.  The outfield is good, but not amazing, and may improve a bit this year as none of the starting outfielders last season had a ton of recent MLB experience at their specific positions.


The ability to draft and develop pitching is the White Sox’s biggest consistent strength as an organization – the closer and five of the six pitchers expected to start this season have played all or substantially all of their big league careers with the Sox, and there are also Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Hudson, Mark Buehrle, Brandon McCarthy, and Sergio Santos floating around as surplus products of the “perpetually weak” farm system (although in fairness, they haven’t been nearly as successful in developing field players).

Frankly, pitching coach Don Cooper gives this team an advantage and needs to be kept around as long as possible, routinely turning pitchers with one or zero plus-pitches into viable starters – and, in Buehrle’s case, an ace and multi-time all-star.  Buehrle really embodied Cooper’s philosophy more than any other starter – don’t waste a bunch of time on the mound, pitch to contact, force groundballs, and avoid walks.  This is primarily designed to avoid giving up home runs and walks, which strikeout pitchers tend to do more of, and despite U.S. Cellular’s reputation as a homer haven, the Sox pitching staff is generally middle-of-the-pack or better in home runs allowed.

Number one starter Chris Sale is one of the primary reasons to be excited for this season.  The Sox have always had two or more good starters in the time I’ve been following them, Contreras submitted one of the best 12-month runs by a pitcher ever (the second half of ’05 and the first half of ’06), and if you offered me a deal where Sale would obtain the same amount of career and team success as Buehrle did in his White Sox career, I’d jump all over it.  All that said, the Sox haven’t really had a dominating strikeout pitcher since Jack McDowell; while Buehrle and, at times, Contreras, Loaiza, and even Garland made me feel like the Sox had a great chance to win all of their starts, I never really scheduled anything differently to get a chance to watch them pitch.  As an added bonus, his youthful age means that he’s the one White Sox player that experts won’t automatically assume to be declining from season to season!

Last season also gave us a chance to see a full healthy season from post-surgery Peavy.  While it’s a safe bet to say he’s won his last Cy Young Award, he remains a very good #2 starter, and understands how to pitch well enough that his lack of any single killer pitch doesn’t hurt him that much (which is impressive for a guy that used to have three or four such pitches).  Last season definitely took him, in my mind, from “I cannot wait until we are out of this contract,” to “uh, we sort of can’t afford to lose this guy,” sort of like a better version of what Carlos Boozer is doing this year for the Bulls.  Gavin Floyd will have amazing stretches and rough patches as usual, which is the consequence of having a devastating out pitch (his curveball) that you can only sometimes throw for strikes.

So far, I’m basically describing an average rotation for a decent MLB team – one Cy Young contender, a solid #2 starter who might make the all-star team but can’t really be described as dominant, and an up-and-down third starter who will hopefully be more good than bad.  The wild card this season will be how the back of the rotation does.  The last two spots are going to be divided by some combination of Jose Quintana, Dylan Axelrod, and John Danks When and If He is Healthy.   While Quintana and Axelrod have both pitched very well at times and are at the stage in their careers where they should improve, neither is really established yet and I’m still nervous every time they pitch.  In order to have a contending-calibur rotation, the Sox need at least one of the back three to be a reliable starter this year, and no more than one to be a disaster.  Even though his recovery is supposedly going wellish, I’m considering anything we get from Danks to be a bonus given his track record over the last couple of seasons, but if Quintana or Axelrod flame out, it will quickly become a necessity.  The other question mark is whether changing catchers will affect the rotation, as AJ was known for calling games well.  On the other hand, I’m sure that Cooper and the veteran starters have a lot of input on game planning for hitters, so this may not make much difference.

It’s impossible to predict what will happen to any bullpen over the course of the year.  Addison Reed was a mediocre closer last season, but he’s young, he throws hard, and he doesn’t walk people, so there’s certainly potential for him to become a top closer, perhaps even this season.  Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton are both very reliable setup guys who shouldn’t be asked to close regularly (or, in Thornton’s case, ever).  The rest of the bullpen is made up of young guys who could pitch very well or could be disastrous, although it’s a better group than you’d expect given how bad the Sox farm system allegedly always is.  Donnie Veal and Nate Jones are vaguely promising but not really reliable, Hector Santiago is vaguely reliable but not really that promising, and I will probably turn the game off if Septimo or Omogrosso comes in.


Robin Ventura enters his second year as manager, which should be good news; he didn’t have much prior experience and may be better at the job this season (not that I have any real complaints from last year).  The bench is mostly made up of young guys who I haven’t heard of before, and pseudo-fan-favorite DeWayne Wise, who is somehow on the White Sox again.  Considering also that Lillibridge has signed with the Cubs, I’m guessing that the Chicago area houses in the MLB bench player price range are hard to sell.  Jordan Danks and/or Jared Mitchell might come up from the minors this season, possibly for good in Danks’s case, but barring an injury neither one is going to regularly start.  Last season’s better-than-expected record, and the fact that most predictions seemed to be using 2012’s original predictions as a baseline rather than the actual results, will hopefully give the team a combination of a feel-good vibe and an “us against the world” mentality that may give them a minor edge, to the extent that stuff like that actually helps.


Most mainstream previews I’ve read of the Sox have them at about .500 or slightly under.  Honestly, that seems just a bit goofy to me.  Sox fans are used to being .500 or better (10 of the last 13 seasons), so the thought of a losing record leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  It also doesn’t really seem all that realistic – if you view their young players in the light Royals and Indians youngsters are viewed and their veterans the way Detroit’s old-timers are, this team should easily win over 100 games.  More realistically, I think they win somewhere between 85 and 90 again.  The team hasn’t changed substantially and I don’t see a reason to think they’ll be substantially worse than last year’s 85-77, and that was actually below their expected wins based on run differential, so it isn’t like they were lucky to have that record.

Is that enough for the playoffs?

Detroit is the obvious hurdle in the division.  The Tigers have some problems which could come up to bite them; many of their key players are already getting old, they don’t really have a closer, and their infield defense is somewhere between “bad” and “one of the worst of all time.”  Despite these flaws, the batting order and rotation are so good that they should be a 90-win team or close to it for at least one or two more years, and even without a clear closer, it isn’t like their bullpen is terrible.  Additionally, while Detroit doesn’t look like a super deep team this season, they addressed some of last season’s depth issues by adding Torii Hunter and by developing their younger pitchers.  While the Sox certainly are capable of finishing ahead of Detroit, it’s honestly not that likely unless the Tigers underachieve significantly or one of their “big three” gets hurt.

You'll hear some hype about the other teams in this division from time to time, but to be honest, as someone who follows them regularly, the rest of the division is pretty bad.  Cleveland and Kansas City are supposedly young and up-and-coming teams, but on the other hand, as the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me every year for ten seasons in a row, and I must be so stupid that I shouldn’t be allowed to buy my own groceries.  The Royals honestly could end up around .500ish if everything goes right and will put up a fight in every individual series, but their bullpen and the back of the rotation are excruciatingly bad, which will keep them from being close to the division lead over the course of a whole season.  As for Cleveland and Minnesota, I’ll just say that, in my fantasy baseball league (a highly competitive 12-teamer with a roster format that emphasizes starting pitching), a grand total of one starting pitcher was taken from those teams, and that was a late-round flyer on Ubaldo Jimenez.  While it's easy to assume that beating Detroit is priority #1, the type of season the Sox have will largely be dependent on whether they can beat up on the other three division rivals, or whether they end up around .500 in those games.

With two good/decent teams and three bad ones, the AL Central could have a decent chance to produce a Wild Card team, and this might be the most likely way in for the Sox.  The AL East has long been a Wild Card factory, but with Boston and New York declining and the Orioles and (maybe) Jays improving, it’s a hard division to make sense of.  The best-case scenario for our Wild Card hopes is that the East ends up being a division with five good teams but no great or terrible ones, where everybody beats up on each other and nobody is able to get past the high 80s in wins.  The AL East might produce a 90-game winner this year, but I don’t see it producing two of them, like it often has in the past.

The West looks a little more likely to produce at least one Wild Card, although it's also tougher to figure out than the Central is.  The Mariners should still be bad for at least a couple more years, which helps the rest of the division.  Texas continues to have good pitching, but with Hamilton and Napoli gone, this could be the year that their annual free agent losses catch up to them.  The Angels are positively terrifying on paper, but they also were last year and it didn’t translate to anything amazing on the field.  Defending division champ Oakland is the toughest to read – last year looked like a return to Billy Beane’s glory days, where they routinely win division titles with a bunch of players that nobody’s ever heard of.

Looking at the league this way, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that it takes less than 90 wins to get a wild card spot this year.  The final prediction for the season: 87-75, 2nd in AL Central, and into the playoffs as the AL’s second wild card team.

Friday, March 08, 2013

'Of Games and God': A Review

My "Gift from Author" version
sitting on my counter the day
 it arrived in the mail!

Full disclosure: Kevin Schut, Ph.D is the author of ‘Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games’. He is the chair of the Department of Media and Communications at Trinity Western University in Langley, Canada. Before getting his Ph.D at the University of Iowa, he and his wife served as missionary teachers in Africa and Eastern Europe, where I met them. His AP Modern European History class is what taught me how to write (now you know who to blame!) Before publishing this book he asked me to read and give feedback, which I did gladly and, I'm sure, inadequately.

The plight of the nerd has improved considerably in the last few years. While it was previously frowned upon for an adult such as myself to openly display their love for Star Wars, this is no longer the case. Sci-fi has infiltrated mainstream culture to an incredible extent. Shows like ‘Chuck’ and ‘Big Bang Theory’, popular comic book movies like the ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’ or ‘The Avengers’, and the sleek, lens-flaring ‘Star Trek’ reboot have not only taken the taboo out of being a nerd, they’ve thrust nerds to the forefront. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would hear the term “adorkable” used, and I certainly never thought such a term would be used endearingly and as a compliment!

Real life nerds, in their native
habitat (Star Wars: In concert)
The real-life “Revenge of the Nerds” is going swimmingly, but it is still very much a work in progress. While sci-fi TV, movies, and literature have garnered respect, or at least acceptance, in the main stream, the realm of video games has lagged slightly behind. Despite generating revenue equal to or surpassing the music and movie industries, gamers have remained a niche sub-culture. Where sci-fi lovers and avid comic book readers have been allowed to start reading their books out in the open, we gamers are still relegated to our mother’s basements (Disclaimer: I do not, and have never lived with my parents since leaving for college: I live with one of my college roommate’s parents instead! But on the ground floor, mind you!).

The sub-species of Christian gamers have been scorned even more. Not only are we looked down upon by society as social outcasts for being gamers, but we very often have the judgment of our Christian brethren beating down on us as well. We’re not just anti-social, we are misallocating our skills as Christians by “wasting our time” playing “meaningless” games. While my gaming activities may not be sin (it depends on who you ask), they are often addressed by Christian leadership with the sort of tone that would usually be reserved for a disappointing relative. But are the identities of being a gamer and a Christian mutually exclusive? Do they really have to be at odds with one another?

‘Of Games and God’ is for any Christian gamer who has ever felt ashamed to admit their love of video games in front of other Christians. It is also for every Christian who has proclaimed gaming as a waste of time. At the same time, there is something in this book for the unabashed gamer who has never really taken the time to consider the pitfalls of the platform. The activities we allow to fill our time, as Christians, are something we are responsible for, and therefore they must be analyzed from time to time. But there is room in the Christian worldview for joy, for play, and for fun. To write off all games as a waste of time would be a missed opportunity for exploration, creativity, education, and, yes, even social interaction. To me the question isn’t so much  “Should Christians even play video games at all?”, but rather, “Can the Church afford to ignore and shun the segment of the world that does?”.
Look closely and you'll see
my name in the acknowledgments.
Probably as close as I'll ever
get to being published!

Schut does a brilliant job of explaining that games are really just another media platform. Just like radio, television, newspapers, the Internet, or even books (real books, not just comic books!), games are a form of media that provides both information and entertainment. They just happen to be newer and more varied than the other platforms I just mentioned (with the exception of the Internet). That newness, along with the extremely wide range of game types, often scares people. But like any form of media, they are not innately evil: neither are they innately good. While he will defend the merits of gaming, Schut doesn't naively ignore its faults. Most people fall into one of two camps: they immediately think no good can come of gaming, or they don’t care about the moral implications at all. Christian gamers, and Christians in general, have to think beyond that.

Throughout the course of 'Of Games and God' Schut makes references that will make long-time gamers giddy with joyful memories, but he also does an excellent job of explaining things to the uninitiated. This makes the topics at hand approachable for both sides. Refreshingly, Schut also doesn’t presume to have all the answers. What he does, chapter by chapter, is present a variety of topics that Christians and Christian gamers should think about. That isn’t to say he lacks any opinion whatsoever: he just chooses to expend his energy trying to facilitate proper evaluation and discussion of what games are, what they should be, and what we have to be careful about letting them become. 

Maybe you will consider it an added bonus that I can confirm that Schut himself is for real. He's an actual living, breathing adult video game player who also happens to be a thoughtful Christian: not just some stuffy academician trying to sell a book (that being said... buy his book!). Whether it's the explanations of "the magic circle", the exploration of the values of gaming community, or the analysis of the merits and perils of fantasy and escapism, 'Of Games and God' will challenge you to think about topics you never considered and reconsider topics you had previously dismissed. Like and good game, Schut motivates us readers with a challenge: the challenge is to consider new ideas and refine your preconceived notions about the values an pitfalls of video games. While there are no achievement points or trophies to be earned for completion, it is a challenge worth accepting. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An intentionally overwrought homage to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series

The following spoiler-free piece on The Wheel of Time series is directed at fellow blogger Mac and any other potential reader who refused to begin the series until it had an end.

(Note: please refrain from any comments that might spoil any volume of the series for the uninitiated)

Unsuspecting provincial finds himself swept up by an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil, which (only very recently) now threatens his home and everyone he loves. And, oh by the way, the fate of the entire world may or may not rest on his shoulders.

So begins nearly every modern fantasy tale since Tolkien penned the prototypical (and still the greatest) model in the mid twentieth century. No author should be faulted for attempting to follow the path beaten by a master storyteller, and the Wheel of Time is no exception to this rule.

Some fantasy authors focus on grand plot and narrative, others on political machinations and war, many on character development, and still more on world building. Rarely can an author pull all these categories together, and even the master (Tolkien) needed multiple volumes of backstory and appendices to pull it off. Jordan was no exception in this regard. His story spanned continents, pitted kingdoms against each other, and drew the unsuspecting into the treacherous ‘Game of Houses.’ There are occasional ‘quests’ that stand alone, yet work toward the eventual climax of the series that span multiple books, for better or worse. This can be either rewarding or frustrating for the reader, and occasionally both at the same time. Yet, more than any other author, Jordan possessed a knack for writing those last hundred pages of a book so gripping that school, work, or any concern are easily forgotten in the furious sweeping of pages.

Writing characters (particularly women) was never Jordan’s strength. Indeed, the reader will lose track of the myriad minor and occasionally forgettable characters that cross paths with our main hero(es). For that matter, Jordan himself seemingly misplaced some of the major ones at certain points. But you never stopped caring for them or wanting, waiting desperately for the next volume to discover their fates. This stemmed from Jordan’s major triumph- the building of a compelling world that draws in the reader.

A world armed only with steel and scientific magic confronted a very real, physical threat to its survival. The characters live in and fight for (or against) the world, and we the readers love them for it. Jordan carefully portrayed these characters in this world, lovingly devoting pages to the material elements of their surroundings. A source of some criticism for the length of each book, this thick description rather contextualized the plot and characters in a way that gives them meaning to readers, and makes us care whether they live or die, and in what manner.

The Eye of the World, first volume of the series, was published in 1990, and Jordan issued a new installment every few years until the eleventh, his last solely authored volume, Knife of Dreams, in 2005. Jordan was diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis in 2006, and after treatment died tragically in 2007. Recently established fantasy author Brandon Sanderson took up the gargantuan task of co-authoring and completing the final volume of the series, which was released in three installments under the subtitle, A Memory of Light (also the proper title of the last installment). Sanderson impressively gathered the far-flung and loose ends of Jordan’s epic tale and wove a convincing and dramatic pattern that leaves the reader satisfied but wanting more.

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.” (EotW, 1)

Jordan and Sanderson’s ending was not what I expected, and it came more than a decade after I expected it, but (in their words) “it was an ending,” (AMoL, 909), one that I endorse wholeheartedly.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

So Long, Nintendo Power; Let's Pick Apart Your Top 25 List

Well it has been awhile, but I had to comment on Nintendo Power's list of the top twenty-five video games of all time (actually, I already did in response to an email, making this an easy post to write...).  Also, you just watch - blogging is going to become cool again as social media sites chase people away with increasing ads and constantly changing privacy settings, only now people are used to being able to make inane observations about everything publicly!

There actually could be a bit of a comeback in store - I won't promise anything, but you could see three, maybe even four, new posts on this site in 2013!

Anyway, my friend and frequent commenter Rob Malas emailed me the top-25 as well as a list of his most notable omissions.  I'll give y'all the list, then my comments on the ones that I have played.  Not surprisingly, this only includes games released on Ninetendo consoles:

Nintendo Power's Top 25:
25 - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX
24 - Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga
23 - Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
22 - Super Mario Bros. 2
21 - Street Fighter 2 Turbo: Hyper Fighting
20 - Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
19 - Chrono Trigger
18 - Super Mario 3D Land
17 - Metroid Prime
16 - Super Mario Bros.
15 - Super Mario Galaxy 2
14 - Super Mario 64
13 - Elite Beats Agents
12 - The Legend of Zelda
11 - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
10 - Resident Evil 4
9 - The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
8 - Super Metroid
7 - Super Mario Bros. 3
6 - Mega Man 2
5 - Super Mario World
4 - Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan)
3 - Super Mario Galaxy
2 - The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
1 - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Notable titles missing from the top 25:
79 - GOLDENEYE 007 (N64 - ONLY 79?)
212 - STAR FOX
256 - F-ZERO

 Here's my take, first for the top 25:
25 - Link's Awakening:
 I only played the GameBoy version, but even squinting at that dim, black-and-white screen, this was a good one.  #25 sounds about right.

22 - SMB2: 

Underappreciated game, but I think 22 is a little too high for what was essentially an experiment in changing SMB that didn't work.  Even Nintendo agrees with me as I think the Bob-omb was the only thing from SMB2 that shows up later in the series (although since it is a dream, that may be for continuity reasons?).  Laid the groundwork for Halo 2 as a video game sequel that had some cool ideas but tried to change too much about a great original game.  If Mario 2 is on this list, Zelda 2 should be also.  One thing I take away from this list is that Nintendo Power loves them some Mario series.

21 - SF2 Turbo Whatever it Was:
I have to admit, I was more of a Mortal Combat fan.  Top-fifty for sure, top twenty-five is questionable.  Started an amusing trend of arcade games and their console versions keeping the same number and adding some adjectives when they made a sequel.

19 - Chrono Trigger:
Chrono Trigger is a GREAT game, and kind of makes me want to figure out how to set up an emulator.  I replayed this game at least three times, and it was a pretty long one (you had to play it at least twice so you could have Magnus on your side once and kill him once).  Other than the "combo" attacks, I'm not sure that it changed RPG gameplay all that much, but the plot was terrific - complex enough to be interesting, simple enough that you could follow it even if you weren't a D&D nerd, and in one game it showed you the whole history of an interesting fictional world.  (SPOILER: also, even though you go back and avert it, the main character dies, and the first time, he usually does so with all of your sweetest gear!  I can't think of many video games with legitimate jaw-dropping plot moments like that one END SPOILER).

16 - SMB1:

Tough to rank since video games have gone way beyond it since, but it is actually still semi-playable even now and it might be the most influential video game ever.  When you think about it, probably about 80% of the games released for the 8-bit Nintendo, and a lot of SNES and Sega Games too, used the side-scroller format established by this game.  Somehow, Duck Hunt did not have nearly the same influence.  16 is a little low for for my taste, but they're right not to have it in the top ten.

I refuse to believe that anything called "Elite Beats Agents" deserves to be ranked that high (then again, "Animal Crossing" is an equally uninspiring title and one of Rob's friends swears it is the best game ever).

12 - The Legend of Zelda:
Great game, could be higher, plus, they invented the "open world" game twenty years before it became a trend (In my opinion, an annoying trend.  I can see how kids may like them because they live a fairly linear life, but once you get done with college, if you want to not know what you are supposed to do next, you have real life.  You don't need that from your entertainment.)  Anyway, past dungeon 3, they do not give you a road map for this one at all, plus the dungeons are tough once you finally find them.  Beating this game is one of kid me's more impressive achievements (seriously); I don't know how I did it.  Actually the fact that I'd never try to play through this again probably means the ranking is about right.

10 - Resident Evil 4:
Yes, yes, yes.  Manages the horror atmosphere so well that I was terrified WATCHING one of my friends play this game.  Salazar and his vaguely napoleon-ish henchmen might be my two favorite "one episode" villains in video games.  My one complaint is that the controls on the Gamecube version were horrid (not really that game's fault; that controller just wasn't designed for shooters), but it played beautifully on the Wii and I'd be fine with that version being in the top five.  I guess the Gamecube version fans could argue that it adds to the horror when you need to look down at the controller to figure out how to reload while a guy with a chainsaw and a bag over his head is bearing down on you.

9 - Zelda Windwaker: 
 I didn't play this but watched Mac play through at least 75% of it in college and I was kind of unimpressed.  Nothing ever looked that challenging (then again, Mac was, at the time, one of America's foremost experts on the Legend of Zelda), and it seemed like you spent more time going across the open ocean with nothing happening than doing anything else.  It did have a unique feel that worked, but that alone doesn't put it in the top ten for me.  I could be being harsh on a game that I never played myself though.  I'd be interested to see Lew's rankings for which video games are the most fun to watch other people play.

7 - SMB3:
#1 for me at least among Nintendo games.  It's mind-blowing given the graphics and complexity that this came out for the regular old 8-bit Nintendo.  The most common way to play through it now is to use the Warp Whistles and only play Worlds 1, a little bit of 2 and 5, and 8, but if you play through the whole thing, it's both really challenging (ok, it kind of needed a save mode or at least some kind of password system), and each world has a totally unique feel.  A mind-blowing game at the time (Mario World was also mind-blowing, but it was a console launch game and therefore it was expected to be).  Plus, think of the stakes: coming off a sequel a lot of people didn't like, had this game bob-ombed, the Mario series might have been done!  Pulls off what Metallica's "Death Magnetic" album in that it was both a return to Mario's roots and more complex than anything they'd ever done (SMB3 was better though).

6 - Mega Man 2:
There should be a Mega Man game near the top, but honestly every Mega Man game I played felt totally indistinguishable from all of the other Mega Man games, even across console generations.  Maybe they could just treat the "Mega Man Series" as a fifteen-parter and give it spot #5?

5 - Mario World:

This is about right.  SMB3 deserves to be above it because really, other than Yoshi, what else new did this game bring to the series?  (The cape was the same as the leaf; you're not fooling me Nintendo!)  That said, the hidden world and the ability to change the look of every normal level by playing through it was, well, "tubular" and "gnarly."

2 - A Link to the Past:
This would be my #2 after SMB3.  What a great game.  Like SMB3, every dungeon and even every region of both outerworlds had a different feel, and like SMB3 it redeemed an iffy experimental sequel by returning to, and improving on, its roots.  Probably the first video game that really felt like an epic adventure.  Also, it introduced BOING! the best ranged weapon BOING! in the Zelda series (and one of the best in any game), the hookshot!

1 - Ocarina of Time:
Personally I thought a Link to the Past was a little more fun, and I thought the Dark World/Light World concept was more interesting than time travel over such a brief period.  Actually, if you consider Navi as Al, maybe this game was loosely based on Quantum Leap?  Ok, probably not.  Still, this passes the "mind blowing when it came out" test more easily than anything on the list, and while I haven't played it recently, I'd bet it holds up pretty well now.  Also, it influenced pretty much every third person adventure game that was made after it, even up to the present day, so there's that.  While I would probably have it merely in the top five, this is definitely a defensible #1 pick.

And now, to the omissions:

27: Super Castlevania IV
I absolutely loved this game and I think the ranking is about right.  It seems like an obvious move now, but being able to whip things diagonally was huge at the time.  This is another game that I replayed multiple times.  I always get charged up at the beginning of the last level when it brings back the Castlevania I music.

39 - Mega Man X:
This is actually my favorite of all of the Mega Man games that I can't tell apart.

79 - Goldeneye:

Had this been ranked a year after it came out I think it makes the top twenty.  It really suffers from the fact that it was the last big console shooter prior to Halo, which totally altered the standards for video game shooters.  I went back to Goldeneye once after college, and after being used to smooth-handling shooters with multiple vehicles and dozens of weapons to choose from it felt like an unplayable mess.  Which is sad, because other than Halo and Madden I'm not sure if there was ever a game that was so universally played and liked by everyone for a few years.  There was no point to have an N64 if you didn't have Goldeneye.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure if there's a game that was enjoyable at the time that has held up worse over the years.

128 - Super Mario RPG:
I actually think this was a Mario experiment that worked.  I was going to express surprise given the franchises' track record that this didn't spawn a huge Mario RPG series, but a quick Wikipedia search reveals that, oops, it did!  Maybe I should try to play those other ones...

161 - Mario Kart:
"Double Dash" is the best version of Mario Kart and should be in the top 25.  For that matter, Mario Kart should be in the top 100.

212 - Star Fox:
Way too low.  Quick, name another airplane/spaceship fighting game that was actually fun to play.

213 - TMNT II:
I played this a lot but it was a little too simple to deserve to be ranked that much higher (it shouldn't be ahead of Star Fox, anyway, although I'm sure it should be ahead of "Luigi's Cookbook" or whatever else is stuck in the top 200).  I'm curious about how the first TMNT game is ranked.  Did they penalize it based on the fact that nobody has ever beaten that game?

256 - F-Zero:
 I'm fine with the low ranking if only because making a racing game without any multiplayer mode is just unconscionable.

272 - DK Country:

Way too low; this should be in the top fifty.  This was the Super Nintendo's version of SMB3, you look at it and think "isn't that an N64 game?"  Plus, unlike Mario and Luigi, Donkey and Diddy required totally different playing styles.

285 - Super Star Wars:
Consensus among my friends seems to that this was an incredibly difficult game; if it actually is the one I'm thinking of, I honestly didn't think it was that tough.  I guess I'm some kind of Super Star Wars Savant.  Before y'all think I'm not humble or something, I will point out that as life skills go, that isn't very useful; it isn't even a game that you can beat your friends at or anything.

Ok, that's it for now.  This did get me thinking that it would be fun to put my own top-25 list of video games together, especially to see where non-Nintendo games like Diablo II and Halo would fit in.  Perhaps that will be one of my next posts here.  Look for it coming soon, in early 2014!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ek's Top 100 Albums of the '10s: #50-26

Well, it is time to move a little further down the list of my favorite albums this decade. We're through the bottom half of the top 100, but now we're going to slow down a bit to give the top half the attention it deserves.

I've realized, however, that the worst part of lists like these are all of the glaring omissions, so before I go any further, I'm going to give a bonus mini-list of the Top 5 Bands That I Probably Should Have Gotten Into But Didn't This Decade:

1. Radiohead: Not only are they on the top of this list; they're definitely on the top of my personal "Oh my God, I can't believe you aren't into them" list from any decade. Time and priorities were definitely a factor in my not following all bands on these lists, but I'll try to give some other rationales as well. In this case, I got turned off by the overwhelming consensus among their fans that they (1) would always be an indie band at heart (which was obviously not true) and (2) were one of the greatest and most influential rock bands ever (even when their more groundbreaking work was too new to have influenced anyone). The band didn't help by having the highest degree of British self-importance and refusal to accept criticism since Led Zeppelin. On the other hand, I realized when I went through my Pandora phase that they were coming up with a lot of bands I do like, and a lot of their music was actually good. Maybe not good enough to justify their off-putting arrogance, but then again, they aren't really any worse than Zeppelin in that respect. Or Axl Rose. Or Dave Mustaine. Or John Fogerty. Maybe I should give them a shot.

2. Tool: They should be right up my alley as one of the top prog-metal bands ever, and of what I've heard, they have several good songs and at least a handful of great ones. They seem to have an overwhelming aura of negativity and anti-religiousness that has kept me from really wanting to get to them, although there are tons of bands I listen to despite the fact that I don't agree with their politics, religion, and/or philosophy. Part of the problem for me is that they actually come off as anti-God, rather than just criticizing the Church, the latter of which I don't have a problem with (Christians should constantly be thinking about how to make the institutional Church better, and part of that process is listening to and respecting valid outside criticism. Unlike Radiohead.). I haven't listened to them enough to really analyze their lyrics, so if I'm wrong about this, someone let me know.

3. AFI: They are one of those rare really nice stories of a band that paid their dues for a really long time and eventually got huge. Some of their stuff I've heard I've loved; some of it doesn't do that much for me. I don't have a real rationale for missing them this decade other than that every time I've been about to pick up Sing the Sorrow, there's some other album that I'm more interested in or is on sale.

4. Wilco: This is the only band on the list that I've actually seen live (thanks James!), and I have to say they put on a really good show. They are also established local heroes, and in some ways that fact that they haven't become national household names to the same extent as Kanye West, Rise Against, Fall Out Boy, or The Smashing Pumpkins makes them that much more beloved here. I feel like a bad Chicagoan for not listening to them often. The thing is, a lot of their studio stuff I've heard is just kind of boring. Since music is ultimately entertainment, I'd rather be scared, offended, frustrated, or depressed by something I listen to than bored.

5. Rap/Hip-Hop and Country: Look, I like rock music. I won't apologize to anyone for that. That said, on this whole list of 100, there's one country/bluegrass album and one rap album. Even though I won't promise to change my tastes, I have to acknowledge that there are those whole other genres out there, and that they include "songs about real life, with stories you can relate to and words you can understand."

Now that that is out of the way, I can continue to move on with the list:

50. The Killers - Hot Fuss ('04): I'd consider this album to be this decade's equivalent of Pearl Jam's Ten. This is high praise for an album that only came it at #50, but the similarities are there: both were debut albums from relatively unknown bands, both became overnight successes without really having time to figure out how to handle it well, and, although neither really created a new genre of music, both were able to combine an older style of music with recent developments to create a sound that blew away everything else on the radio. Both then were copied to the extent that they couldn't really maintain their sound on their next album while remaining original - Pearl Jam's Vs. and Vitalogy are textbook examples of how a band can expand their sound without abandoning it, and the next two Killers albums...well, they weren't, which is why Pearl Jam is our generation's Rolling Stones and the Killers are less than a decade away from playing County Fairs. Still, that shouldn't take away from how good this album was.

49. Saves the Day - Under the Boards ('07): Remember when I said it is better for a band to depress me than bore me? Well, this is one of the most depressing albums of the decade, and it doesn't help that the follow-up album, which was supposed to tell the redemptive portion of the trilogy, has become the Chinese Democracy of emo. So what's so great about it? Saves the Day had previously established themselves as a band capable of playing a lot of different styles well, pulling off '70s era punk on their early albums, art-pop on In Reverie, and melodic pop-rock punk on Sound the Alarm and Stay What You Are. However, this is the only time where they've managed to put so many different styles together on the same album - I had actually been under the impression that rock bands agreed to stop doing this some time in the early '80s. In fact, I'd put this in the same category as Vs. and Vitalogy were in the last entry - they really push the limits of their sound in multiple directions, but they never stop sounding like Saves the Day. Now put out another album already.

48. Dragonforce - Inhuman Rampage ('05)
47. Black Tide - Light From Above ('08): When I was a little kid in the '80s, the metal genre was dominated by spandex-wearing glam rock bands that had vocalists with immense range, guitarists who could shred, an innate sense of fun, and almost no ability to put an interesting or unpredictable song together. These bands traced their lineage back to Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden, but weren't really talented enough to write songs that enabled them to rival such giants. Then the Metallica, Megadeth, and others blew everybody away and the era of thrash metal began. Metal bands started to focus on dark, lengthy, compositional pieces and shied away from compromising for mass appeal; eventually, many bands in the genre even gave up on traditional singing for cookie monster vocals. Songs about drinking, sex, and rock and roll were out, songs about war, insanity, and conspiracy theories were in.

All of this was all well and good, except that, somewhere along the way, people gradually forgot that metal was supposed to be fun. Dragonforce's biggest achievement, apart from playing faster and more ridiculously than anyone else, and breaking Joel Zumaya's arm, was helping people remember that, and Black Tide gets bonus points for proving that you can make metal fun without trying to bring back the spotty legacy of hair metal. Oh, and more bonus points for making the best album by high school students since Frogstomp. While I'm here, I also have to mention that "Warriors of Time" has earned its place on the list of songs that frequently have their intros cut by radio and in other public settings even though the intro is one of the coolest parts of the song. I hate it when they do that.

46. Dashboard Confessional - The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most ('01): Yes, there is something a little bit lame and pathetic about a guy in his mid-20s writing songs about high school relationships. And yes, the over-the-top sensitive guy routine is at least as obnoxious as the over-the-top alpha male routine. But it is impossible to deny that every song on this disc is well-crafted musically and lyrically, and it is rare to find anything this personal from a band that would eventually make it big, or, for that matter, from any band (at least in 2001). You have to approach this album the same way you approach Rambo II - just enjoy it and try to bear in mind that at the time it came out, nothing in it was cliche.

45. System of a Down - Toxicity ('01): I know I just berated Heavy Metal for taking itself too seriously from the late '80s to early '00s, and this album is a prime example, but I can look past that for an album that seethes with anger without ever losing its overriding sense of melody and musicianship, and that has two or three great riffs on every song, even though I wouldn't call it a "guitar album" in the traditional sense.

44. Shai Hulud - Misanthropy Pure ('08): I don't like hardcore vocals, and I rarely like heavy metal songs that don't have significant instrumental breaks, but in this case, it doesn't matter. There are more tempo and time signature changes in all of the songs here than there are on most prog rock albums, and they somehow manage to keep it from ever becoming unlistenable.

43. Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures ('09): This gets my pick for the best "disappointing but still good" album of the decade. The Queens of the Stone Age sound seemed to take over, which is unfortunate since they're my least favorite of the three big-name parent bands involved. Ultimately, they wound up somewhere between '70s guitar rock and '00s stoner rock, but I'm pretty sure aficionados of either will like this album, although people who wanted it to sound like the next Zeppelin or Foo Fighters album will be let down. On a positive note, every song on this album is different, but there's still an overall sound bringing them all together. So far I've liked it more with each listen, meaning it could probably move up a few spots if and when I ever revisit this list.

42. Underoath - They're Only Chasing Safety ('04): The "Life, the Universe, and Everything" position goes to the best work from a band that managed to be both intensely brutal and easy to listen to, sometimes on the same song. Definitely a "gateway album" for hardcore.

41. Death Cab For Cutie - The Photo Album ('01): There hasn't been anyone else I know of since Bob Dylan that has this kind of ability to put enough emotion for a feature-length movie into less than forty minutes of music. In this case, it only took one year for the best lyricist of the decade to emerge. While musically this isn't a flat-out amazing album, it is solid, and the band manages to match the tone of the lyrics well.

40. The Get Up Kids - Guilt Show ('04): Part of me almost wishes they don't put out a post-reunion album since this one was such a great farewell. A small part of me.

39. Pearl Jam - Lost Dogs ('03): Exhibit A in the case that Pearl Jam was tanking, Vince Carter-like, due to ongoing problems with their label and/or ticketmaster. A collection of B-sides and unreleased material that ranks with their best albums will do that, as the argument that they simply lost their sound or their ability to write good songs is shot down here. This also puts Pearl Jam into the discussion when considering all-time great bands - all of the greatest bands of the classic rock era played all sorts of different styles of music, which is part of the reason I dislike the heavy specialization of bands in the current era. Even as a fan, I can't really say Pearl Jam's catalog was all that diverse prior to this album. Here, though, you get to here Pearl Jam doing things you don't expect from them, like using harmonized vocal layering, playing instrumentals, using singers other than Vedder (which is a plus since non-PJ fans can then understand the lyrics!), playing surf rock, playing soundscapes, and playing acoustic folk. They even manage to capture the sound of The Who (who they had always cited as an influence, but never sounded much like) well on "Black, Red, and Yellow." The only downside is a handful of the stronger songs on it (like "Dead Man" and "Yellow Ledbetter") had been floating around for years before this came out, but there was more than enough to like among the more obscure or totally unreleased material.

38. John Mayer - Room For Squares ('01): As with Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, you have to remember what this album was like when it came out, back when there was nothing obnoxious or frustrating about Mayer, and instead just a great acoustic rock album with a ton of great songs. I think half of the problem is that he's been miscast as a "guitar legend" when he really is more of a singer/songwriter who also happens to be an above-average guitar player. That's not really his fault. That said, I'm still holding out hope that he'll start his version of Derek and the Dominoes with Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

37. Further Seems Forever - How to Start a Fire ('03): This album grew on me once I got used to the fact that it wasn't The Moon Is Down. In some ways, Jason Gleason replacing Chris Carrabba was like Steve Young taking over for Joe Montana - both were perfectly capable in their own respects, and actually brought some things to the table that their predecessors didn't, but they really had no chance to ever be quite as beloved or iconic. (I should mention that, even though Hide Nothing was my lowest-rated FSF album, Jon Bunch deserves a better comparison than Elvis Grbac.) In Gleason's case, he was a hell of a vocalist (as evidenced by their cover of Bye Bye Bye in which the vocals sound as good or better than on the N'Sync version), but his lyrics rarely if ever made any sense, not to mention that he apparently didn't get along with the rest of the band at all. Still, the guitar layering on this album is great, and "The Sound," "A Blank Page Empire," and "I Am" are some of FSF's best songs. We're now well into the albums I very strongly recommend.

36. Sunny Day Real Estate - Rising Tide ('00): I know it isn't considered their best album by most, and it even got made fun of in emogame, but I get to avoid comparing it to their earlier work since it happened in a different decade. Sometimes it is nice to make the rules.

35. Stairwell - The Sounds of Change ('01): I'm not sure which is more fun: listening to the vocal harmonies and interplay or listening to the guitar harmonies and interplay. This album is so good, Girden thought it had to be their Greatest Hits album when it came out. The bad news for Stairwell's career is that it pretty much is.

34. Brand New - The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me ('06): A 54-minute album that doesn't remotely feel too long. Plus, Eric once described it as the soundtrack to his life (or something like that). This album also proves that just because bands had long since stopped trying to do anything new and interesting with the grunge sound, it doesn't mean there weren't interesting possibilities still left out there.

33. The Mars Volta - Amputechture ('06): The intro and outro tracks are kind of boring, but there's such a feast of prog rock in between that I don't even care. I can't really even describe Tetragrammaton and Day of the Baphomets adequately, and Asilos Magdalena expands the acoustic side of the band beautifully, even if they can't quite resist putting weird feedback and effects in at the end of it.

32. Rise Against - The Sufferer & The Witness ('06): The punk scene was already thriving in the first half of this decade, then Rise Against gave it the one thing it was missing: a really good punk band that wasn't a holdover from the '90s and didn't need to be qualified with something like "emo punk" or "pop punk."

31. Circa Survive - On Letting Go ('07): There's definitely a shortage of vocalists that can sing in the upper register without sounding whiny, but this band has one, and in addition, they just sound better together than most other bands do.

30. Flobots - Fight With Tools ('07): This is the album that made me realized that I actually don't dislike rap at all; I dislike overproduced music. By contrast, this album has great live instrumentation, and is even an innovative lineup by featuring a cello in a rock group (it works, by the way). They might come off a little preachy with their politics, but at least it is earnest and makes you think, and frankly, rap works way better with some kind of social or political message behind it anyway.

29. U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind ('00): Spawned more legitimate radio hits than most bands have in their entire career, in fact, I'm not sure if any of the songs on this album weren't hits. It also helped to make 2001-02 the (school) Year of Bono at Wheaton College and probably many other places. Let's face it, it is impressive for a band to say they are "reapplying for the job of best band in the world" and actually back up their talk (unlike Roberto Luongo). Thanks to this album, U2 would eventually join Dethklok among bands that are also among the world's largest economies.

28. Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism ('03): If The Photo Album marked Gibbard's emergence as one of rock's best lyricists, this is the album that established it fully for him, and for that matter, the band continued to develop their sound instrumentally into something that not only complemented the lyrics but would be worth listening to for its own sake. I know I've said the middle of the album drags a little bit in the past, but that's a minor flaw.

27. Rhapsody - Symphony of Enchanted Lands Vol. II: The Dark Secret ('04): I know we frequently use the term "epic" to describe a rock album, but it is pretty rare that a rock album actually also is part of an original fantasy epic. Since no musical interpretation of a fantasy epic is complete without a full orchestra, operatic vocals, choirs, lengthy guitar solos (including, but not limited to, guitar duels against orchestra instruments), and Christopher Lee, all of those are thrown in as well. At this point, you're probably already thinking "wow, that sounds awesome," or "wow, that sounds terrible," so further description from me isn't needed.

26. Margot & the Nuclear So And So's - The Dust of Retreat ('06): There are two approaches to putting a band together - one is to get a drummer, bassist, one or two guitar players, and a singer in some order and start practicing. The other is to just get everyone you'd want to be in a band with that plays something, figure out what everyone plays, and have that be your lineup. The second approach results in more creative and interesting bands, and, as you'd expect, is almost never used. Well, kudos to these guys for putting together a lineup with bass, drums, electric and acoustic guitar, but also a keyboardist, violinist, trumpet, and percussionist. To make matters better, no three of them looked like they really should have been in the same band together. While you might expect a lineup like this to come up with intricate, compositional, heavily produced work, they actually somehow managed to keep their songs simple and likable without making it feel like any of the band members weren't involved. Their disjointed look and lineup also helped them enjoy a one-year run as the most fun obscure band to see live, crushing forever the myth that bands should have a unified "look." Based on Wikipedia, they've since gone to a more stripped down, traditional lineup. In a related story, nobody I know liked their subsequent albums.

That's it for now. Later, I'll return with #25-11, then the top ten. Have a nice summer everyone.