The first time in my life I sought out songs that meant something to me.
I bought The Strokes’ Room On Fire in 2004 mostly because I loved the cover art.
I’d heard “Reptilia” a few times, and each time it blew my mind. It sounded so new, so unlike anything on the radio, and it opened up a world of alt and garage rock that never found its way to Montana. I had to go and find it.
That album actually came out in 2003, but ’04 was the first year I actively cared about music. I bought so many albums that year looking for that same kind of escape The Strokes gave me. I wanted to live inside the machine three minutes at a time. I was a teenager, dammit, and I was cool and different and intellectually sophisticated.
Generously lazy extended family members kept me waistdeep in iTunes gift cards, so I kept buying albums.
And what a year for music.
Matt’s top 7 album purchases from 2004, according to iTunes
1. Hot Fuss – The Killers
2. Good News For People Who Love Bad News – Modest Mouse
This is an actual conversation that happened and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Me, verbally: Hey, TO. I don’t wanna bug you or anything, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated watching you play.
Terrell Owens: Oh, thanks, man. I really appreciate that.
Me, internally: Damn, his hand is like three times the size of mine. Firm handshake. Soft palms. He caught more than 150 touchdowns with these hands. Damn.
Yeah, I actually am a lifelong Cowboys fan, and right at the peak of my teenage fanhood, you were my favorite player. Owned your jersey, and all of that.
Always good to hear. That’s nice of you to say.
Also, for a brief time, I hated you, mostly because of the business on the star with George Teague. I’ll never forget the Sports Illustrated anecdote about your text to Drew Bledsoe before the 2006 season. “This year is gonna be sick,” you wrote. That year was decidedly unsick. But I got over it. It felt childish to hate someone so nakedly talented.
You were actually just in Billings, Montana, giving a motivational speech to some kids.
Huh? Oh, yeah! That was actually a really cool event. Very fun.
While other kids complained about your showboating, I backed you up. Even when you played for the hated Eagles. I mean, damn, dude, you’re on the cover on my favorite video game of all-time.
That’s actually my hometown — Billings. Way out there, huh?
One time, playing pickup with the guys in that very town, I stuffed a Sharpie in my sock and autographed the ball after catching a touchdown. I thought they’d think it was funny, but mostly they just thought I ruined the football. Oh, well.
Oh, no way? Yeah, man. Beautiful though.
Is there a subtle way to let you know that I know your middle name is Eldorado? Because that’s a weird middle name, dude.a
Definitely. Well, I’ll let you get back to it. Enjoy the party.
Tossing the popcorn in your mouth. That’s my favorite moment from your time with the Cowboys. You caught at least 10 touchdowns in every season you wore the silver and blue. You cried for Tony, and when everyone across the sports world shit on you for it — and I sort of did too, in public — I was secretly genuinely moved. That’s your quarterback. And mine too.
That’s all it takes. Mine’s Matt Cole, and he’s coming at you with his new single “Chasin’,” about chasing shots, girls and his dog.
I set out to find the ultimate TFN in country music today. To do this, I set up a few parameters.
Primarily, they must be active and contemporary. I agonized over whether to include Garth, but I ultimately excluded him because of his extended irrelevance. He’d be in the top 5, though.
I also followed this rigorous and thoroughly testeda scoring system.
The scoring system
1 point = Scoring a No. 1 country hit
5 points = Using your original surname
Name Popularity Points = I judged each artist on the popularity of their surname as a given name. To do this, I looked at a name’s peak popularity on Baby Name Wizard.
They measure in terms of per million babies, and I divided that number by 100. This rewards the Luke Bryans more than the Keith Urbans.b
For instance, in the 1940s, “Allan” peaked at 600 per million babies, so Gary Allan got a 6-point boost. He didn’t, however, qualify for the real name bonus, since his original surname is Herzberg.
Here’s the chart. Below it are some thoughts.
The Country Music Two-First-Namer Power Rankings
NO. 1 HITS
REAL LAST NAME?
Alan Jackson, who shares my birthday, is far away the clear winner. His hit-making longevity and the fact that he doesn’t have a stage name put him over the top, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Michael Ray just needs 35 No. 1 hits to compete with Alan Jackson. He might get started soon — “Kiss You In The Morning” is storming up the charts as I write this.
Chase Bryant is far too high, and the clear beneficiary of a popular last name. He also reminds me that we could have similar success playing this game with NBA players — Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, etc.
It came near the end of a long, winding Q&A he did with George Plimpton for The Paris Review. Since the Mailer piece I posted, those have been a well I’m slowly pumping dry.
Hem’s feisty in it. Not argumentative — more sad, a bit troubled and grumpy and unwilling to give Plimpton the space to delve into a line of questioning. Outside of that line and a few choice othersa the most elucidating parts of the interview come from Plimpton’s careful dissection of Hemingway’s writing chambers. Heads, furs, trinkets, books, sheafs of onionskin. Carved figures of big-game, small pewter turtles, broken model bi-planes… all rife with sentimentality.
He keeps three buffalo horns, not the largest he ever bagged, though. Just the ones from hunts that went so poorly he thought he might just die.
Writes standing up, always has, and he still maintained a healthy disdain for the churn and burn of newspaper writing, escaping from the profession himself.
I admired his frankness, so unknowingly close to the end of his life. He knew which books of his mattered, that Old Man And The Sea was a classic, that Death In The Afternoon was “instructive,” that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell To Arms 39 times because the wording wasn’t quite right.
Perhaps it was apocryphal. Maybe he was self-mythologizing. But I’d like to think he was himself to the marrow.
“How did you name your characters?” Plimpton asked.
There was a moment, some time after the fireworks, when I turned to Vinny and said, “This is such a surreal moment. We always find a way to manufacture fun.”
He laughed, and we clanged our beers together. Then we launched a ping-pong ball across the table at the same time, over a scarred hardwood table in an apartment we’d never known.
The idea to visit Boston on Independence Day began kicking around in the back of my head a week before Vinny came to town. Connecticut couldn’t offer the Good Times Bonanza to which we’ve grown accustomed — at least not the parts I’m familiar enough to exploit — and my focus on a day-trip sharpened after he told me he had never been.
But none of the fun that followed would’ve been possible if H hadn’t been so damn cool.
She had a friend visiting from overseas, a Dutch girl who likely heard every scrap of Holland culture I ever picked up in four years of living with Jelle. They welcomed a pair of earnest, goofy pals who too often indulged their impulse to say everything in a shitty Boston accent.a
I hadn’t seen H since March, so we caught up, caught Ubers, and caught fireworks and a few bug bites. They shoot them over the Charles, big blooming flowers of neon you feel in your chest seconds after you see them.b
H’s friends welcomed us into the fold, inviting us back to their place for a host of drinking games that are played with just enough subtle variations to piss off a West Coast fratboy.c
All the way into the night, the four of us maintained, the toughest thing to do when you’re engaged in an all-day skirmish with the bottle. H is warm and so agreeably practical, challenging in perfect measure. B was thoughtfully girlish, well-traveled and made less cynical because of it. They were the perfect company, and our talks danced on the edge of genuine curiosity and cleverness.
And there we were, all through the night, straight on to a morning sunrise on the beach, alone inside ourselves, taken in by the gray dawn, but acutely aware of a shared experience we could feel etching us in real time.
A sunburnt postscript into the next afternoon was the cherry on top. Too soon we were back in our own worlds full of advanced analytics and solar panels and holiday misdemeanors.
For that one day, though, throughout a weeks-long afternoon that offered a promise so achingly ripe, we held summer.
This stretch of the summer always races away a little too quickly, just on the other side of total comprehension. The heat of the breeze was a cell block wall, and when I looked, you were out of sight.
It’s sunburn weather, time for laying under a blue sky and baking and roasting, drinking and sweating, battling mosquitos and drowning in sunscreen. It’s my favorite time of year, without a doubt.
I’ve never had a bad summer. Some, like ’09 and ’12 and ’14, are unforgettable and represent chapters in my life that are so vividly unique and well-defined that they’ve left indelible marks on me, long after I’ve outgrown the person who lived them.
Eugene, Denver, Montana, Brooklyn, Connecticut.
Those are my last five summers.
Five different states and states of mind. One spent floating the river; two spent East; three spent working in newsrooms; three spent in love with a girl; three spent outdoors; three spent with Chief; four spent looking for work; four spent away from my family; five spent at concerts and bonfires; five summers spent chasing, always chasing, chasing girls, chasing Chief, chasing stray basketballs, chasing The Perfect Day, chasing an unending night, chasing the ephemeral Godly glory of a setting sun, and then chasing those last drops of sunlight to steal and keep for me.
When I was a kid, summer meant no school and sleeping in late and mowing lawns and stealing kisses. Summer’s added more depth now, more shades of blue and yellow tinged with a greater freedom to be foolish. Seeing more of them pass by has intensified the urgency to seize a sunsoaked afternoon, too.
But adding more chapters hasn’t changed the dazzling, white-hot core of it all, that summer to me is chainless.
Someday it will happen. The collective beast that is NBA fans will rear its ugly head and deem Stephen Curry no longer worthy of its unqualified praise. But which reason will we fabricate this time?
The uncynical truth is that even the worst NBA player is 100 times more athletic than you and me. Yet that doesn’t stop us from systemically tearing down every player’s mythology — the same mythology we often spend years constructing and tending to.
Name any player, and I’ll give you a dent in his legacy.
Kobe’s too selfish, an inflexible tyrant and, in Brian Phillips’ perfect words, the Analytics Antichrist.
LeBron’s an easy one. He took a shortcut to winning by escaping to Miami to play with his friends.
Chris Paul can’t win when it matters.
Kevin Durant isn’t aggressive enough and may no longer even be the best player on his team. Oh, and he’s got bad feet.
Derrick Rose’s knees.
A lot of these criticisms are unfair, and that’s exactly the point. We don’t adhere to any sense of justice when we collective decide a player is one thing or another. Very few great players escape this degree of treatment, and the ones who do — Tim Duncan, for example — do so sharing the burden of failure and ecstasy of success.a
All of it, really, is an in-the-moment attempt to prevent current stars from ever potentially eclipsing Michael Jordan. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Jordan’s the ruler by which all great players are judged, and none measure up.
(And even Jordan doesn’t really measure up. Most people just ignore his lame-ass stint with the Wizards because it complicates the image of Jordan as the GOAT.)
With that in mind, I’m interested to see what we decide is Stephen Curry’s downfall. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to find any fault with his on-court game. His ankles appear healthy, he’s arguably the greatest pure shooter the game has ever seen, and he’s a champion.b
But inevitably, something will go wrong for Curry. The Warriors are not going to skate to the next five titles. He’ll experience some adversity, and how he deals with it will go along way toward defining him and his mythology. Jordan had baseball. Kobe had Smush. We may be in the midst of experience LeBron’s such moment.
Maybe it will be an off-court issue. Maybe, like Tebow, he’ll get a little more emboldened with his role as public figure and become more forthright with his religious views. He already wears Psalms in his shoes.
Maybe his ankles will flare up again, and we’ll wonder — Damn, what would’ve happened if Curry could’ve stayed healthy.
There simply aren’t many feasible options right now, and that’s why I’m interested in seeing how his public persona will continue to be shaped. Right now, he’s untouchable with no signs of slowing down.
Which obstacles will we arbitrarily hurl in his way?
It’s been eight months, and he can’t remember her tattoo.
The shovel sinks into the topsoil and carves out another load for the wheelbarrow. Sweat runs down his neck and shoulders in rivulets, pooling in the fingers of his gloves. He’s about to make his 23rd trip from the neat, chest-high stack of dirt to the sallow oval patch of land behind the house, but he’s forgotten that too.
He can feel the morning’s work settle in his lower back as he lifts the handles of the full barrow. The path to the dead ground runs a wide half-circle around the house, about a quarter-mile across good grass, so he’s careful not to travel it the same way twice with his work boots.
It was cursive, he thinks, some sort of platitude about trust or conviction that belied her fierce independence and sense of free thought. If there was a drop of cynicism in her, it would’ve been ironic.
“Believe”? No, it was a phrase, he’s certain.
He tilts the barrow up, and loose mahogany shakes into the trenches he dug out the weekend before. This used to be a garden, years before he owned the land. An impressive one, given its dimensions.
He imagines a beautiful redhead in a broad sun hat carefully toeing through rows of marigolds and orchids. She’s cooing to the plants, whispering in French, chastising the runts of the crop as she waters them.
Pourquoi ne pas vous cultivez, petite fleur?
He peels off the gloves and drops them in a wet pile. As he steers the empty barrow back to the dirt pile, he can feel exactly where the blisters will begin to form, and he welcomes them.
Under the midday sun, curiosity melts into mild frustration. He used to trace the words across the curve of her stomach when they laid in bed together. But when he tries to picture it now, the words are in a language he can’t read.
“I Shall Not Be In Want”? Six words is too long, he thinks, but it makes a thoughtful Psalm.
He believed in God like he believed in her, and when it all ground to a halt and she moved back East, he didn’t know which one deserved more blame.
The empty return trip goes a little faster, and soon he’s stabbing, leveraging, heaving again. The muscles in his forearms tense and release like bowstrings. An icy daydream of a beer and a good book cuts through, but he pushes it aside. Civilize the mind, but make savage the body. Dig, scoop, dump.
Before the end of the night, he’ll line the patch with chicken wire to keep the dogs away from the baby seeds until they sprout. When the leaves turn, the green will conquer the yellow, and the lawn will look uniform and pristine, like nothing had ever happened.
Who’s reading the tattoo now? he wonders, surprising himself with bitterness.
But then the blade catches the sun on its way back into the dirt, all the way to the shoulder, and he wipes his brow with a dirty forearm and puts another shovelful behind him, and he feels nothing at all.
It sounds like Sam Smith is slated to sing the Spectre theme song. I’m fine with that. Dude’s English, he’s got pipes, and Adele’s iteration was so successful that it was pretty much predetermined they would pick another soulful singer-songwriter.a
But before his song is added to the canon, here’s a look at his predecessors. There’s a wide gulf in quality, and honestly, probably more than half of the Bond themes suck. I’m ranking them anyway.
For this exercise, I’m excluding Monty Norman’s untouchable Bond theme, which served as the de facto lead melody for Dr. No.b I still hum it to myself when executing a harrowing pass on the interstate or sneaking to my desk 15 minutes late. It’s ingrained in my DNA forever.
1. Live And Let Die – Paul McCartney, Wings
Simply everything you could want in a Bond theme, plus piccolos
2. Nobody Does It Better – Carly Simon
She could’ve easily tipped the scales into mawkishness, but she knew when to rein it in, and the result is a pop masterpiece.
3. We Have All The Time In The World – Louis Armstrong
I’m picking this over the all-instrumental OHMSS theme. This is so beautiful it transcends Bond.
4. You Know My Name – Chris Cornell
“I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights / But you yourself are nothing so divine” just seconds after Bond smashes a thug’s face through porcelain and almost drowns him in a sink. Sorry, Pierce; thisis My Bond.
5. Another Way To Die – Jack White and Alecia Keysc
I remain bullish on Quantum of Solace, but it doesn’t belong in the uppermost tier of Bond films. This song is arguably its best addition to the canon. Just enough fuzz.
6. Goldfinger – Shirley Bassey
Time has been unkind to two aspects of the Connerys — the action choreography and the songs. This one holds up best becauseGoldfinger remains so relevant that it could be a 1960s period piece made today, and Bassey’s theme clings to it with so much devotion.
7. Diamonds Are Forever – Shirley Bassey
This movie reminds me of four things, listed here in increasing order of importance:
1) Two villainous gay lovers who murder people with scorpions
2) The name Tiffany Case lol
3) Sean Connery’s preposterous hairpiece
4) This. Forever, foreva eva, foreva eva?
8. Skyfall – Adele
I don’t even really like this song… But it won an Oscar, so whatever.
10. The Living Daylights – a-ha
Now we start getting into the, uh, weirder ones.
11. From Russia With Love – Matt Munro
Sounds like what standing in a bread line in Novosibirsk must have felt like. Long, inaccessible, mercifully in the past, but oddly charming in a glad-I-didn’t-have-to-live-it way.
12. A View To A Kill – Duran Duran
This works in the sense that it sounds both like a Bond theme and a Duran Duran song. I’m not sure I know why they want me to “dance into the fire,” but considering how derivative the actual movie was, I shouldn’t complain about such frivolous things as lyrics.
13. Thunderball – Tom Jones
The premise of this song is built on a series of lyrical comparisons between Bond and other men, and right from the start it’s easy to see why this is a dumb idea — “He always runs while others walk.” Melodically, it sounds identical to Goldfinger. Having Tom Jones sing a song this lazy is like only driving your Corvette on a carefully tailored, closed-course oval. He guns the engine, but he’s just going in circles.
14. Goldeneye – Tina Turner
It’s beginning to strike me that I’m running out of okay songs. Bono and The Edge wrote this, and man, how I wished they would’ve just performed it too.
15. The Man With The Golden Gun – Lulu
The lyrics are fairly nifty but painfully explanatory. Essentially, Lulu lays out the villain’s means, motives and method. Again, we return to the brassy horns of the ’60s, and she really sells it, but there’s not much for sale.
16. The World Is Not Enough – Garbage
Sort of a husky, industrial vibe, which fits the slicked-up motifs of the movie. But if I made you list every artist who’s ever recorded a Bond theme, how many would you list before Garbage? All of them, plus some wrong answers, right?
17. Moonraker – Shirley Bassey
Surprisingly, I don’t really have a problem with this song. Actually, I don’t really feel anything about this song.
18. Die Another Day – Madonna
The real shame is that I actually love, like, the first 15 seconds, with the string work and staccato percussion. Then the autotune and synth work tramples all over everything and she starts sing-talking about Sigmund Freud. Madonna admirably went for something bold, but this remains maybe the biggest, most cringe-worthy joke in the whole damn canon. And I haven’t even mentioned the music video where she gets “tortured” in a North Korean prison.
19. Tomorrow Never Dies – Sheryl Crow
Eminently forgettable. Is it better to be remembered as a disaster or not remembered at all?
20. Licence To Kill – Gladys Knight
This song is more than five minutes long. I literally just listened to it, and I can’t remember a single thing about it. I can’t hum it, I don’t know any of the words — “licence to kill” is in there somewhere, presumably — but I cannot bring myself to play it again.
21. All Time High – Rita Coolidge
Tragically cloying. At least it has a distinctive horns hook.