I find that combining these two years into one blog entry is rather appropriate as far as the events of my life are concerned. From 2011 through the month of May 2012, I was a high school chemistry teacher who was dealing with too much pain to really function as an effective teacher, in my opinion. For these 17 or 18 months, the school attempted to give me all kinds of accommodations in order to help me succeed. First was my schedule. Over the past few years, we, my administrators, department chair and colleagues and I, all noticed that if my schedule was broken up into sections of two or three classes followed by a break, then I might be able to recover to be able to teach more effectively. So, these last two school years basically meant that I taught the first three periods, had “A” lunch (10:30 am to 11:00 am), taught fourth and fifth periods, then have my prep period during sixth period (which I would often spend laying down on a couch that had been brought up to the second floor of our mega-school building), and finish the day teaching up my students during seventh period. Then, I would go home and, hopefully, come back the next day to do it all again.
By Spring Break 2012, I knew I was seeing the end of the road for my career. I was having one helluva time just trying to keep up with the every day goings-on in my classroom, let alone take on any special requirements that are regularly dropped on teachers. Earlier in 2012, in a last futile attempt to find something to alleviate my back pain and spasms, I had the rods and screws that were inserted five years earlier to be surgically removed. Everyone had high hopes, but once again, we were left very disappointed. In the meantime, I had gone back to my original pain management physician simply because the Satan’s Lair was in some malpractice problems (Gee! I wonder why? Not!). Once we were certain that the “hardware” removal had not worked, I began to talk with my principal about taking disability in order to retire from education. That whole process struck me right through my heart. Additionally, my pain management team were ready to hand me off to another group whose expertise was in more advanced treatments. My group had thoroughly feted this new group so I would not be given to another bunch of quacks and snake oil salesmen.
So, when June 1, 2012 rolled around, I was no longer coach but also no longer a teacher. Obviously, for the next three or four years I was depressed, and more so than my normal low mental health baseline. While in that state of severe malaise, I began my fight with an insurance company in order to prove my qualifications to use my long-term disability insurance AND to receive my social security earlier in my life. Additionally, I was being assessed by the new pain management group as to what my new treatment would be. Eventually, by 2014, my financial picture would be straightened out. And, in September of 2012, I had another device implanted into my body, a pain pump.
The pain pump consists of a hockey puck sized reservoir that holds around 40 milliliters of a dilute solution of morphine. Coming off the reservoir is some thin tubing that runs from the device, which is implanted around my waist on the front of my right side. The tubing is threaded through my body until it reaches the L4/L5 area of my spine, where the tubing stops. This allows the diluted pain killer to be delivered right to the area experiencing the pain. It also means you no longer have a need for oral pain medication. Some people’s pumps will automatically deliver medication via a timing system in the hockey puck. Me? I use a device that tells my pump to deliver my programmed amount of medicine ten times per day. There is no way in which I can overdose because of the programming of the pump. We did attempt to use a muscle relaxer in the pump as well, but that only made me pass out a few times. Needless to say, we stopped that brilliant idea. I continue to take oral medication for my back spasms, but, today, I am a little more clear-minded than I was before. The problem was that I was definitely physically worse than I had ever been before. But, now, I had surrounded myself with some pretty competent medical and mental healthcare people, so I was able to deal with this whole pain situation.
So, let’s look at the music that helped me deal with the end of my teaching career. And although this was a very dark period in my life, my favorite music does not all share that viewpoint. And, it’s a good thing too.
Adele – 21 (2011). Two years earlier, Adele had released her debut album that had critics squealing with delight in praise of her work. But, those critics were worshipping Adele as another Amy Winehouse, when she really was just another diva in more of a Barbra Streisand/Mariah Carey/Etta James mixture vein. So, when 21 was dropped, it became one of those albums that became a cultural milestone. Just as Thriller had seemed to be a mandatory purchase for every home in the Western World back in the Eighties, so too was Adele’s 21. “Rolling in the Deep” is simply a classis R&B/soul/pop song. And the rest of the album is not too shabby either.
Bon Iver – Bon Iver (2011). What made Bon Iver’s debut so compelling was the sparseness of the music that Justin Vernon had created in that backwoods cabin in Wisconsin. This time, however, Vernon went full tilt into The Flaming Lips territory by making the arrangements of this batch of songs as filled to the brim with instrumentation as possible. The result at times is that the songs themselves are not given a reach opportunity to breathe. The tension of this set of songs being cluttered with so many sounds results in a nearly claustophobic feeling for the listener. While a very interesting and ultimately influential album, this album is still a slight step down from For Emma, Forever Ago.
Drake – Take Care (2011). After Canada’s most acclaimed rapper (and Toronto Raptors fan) finally hit the big time in 2010 with Thank Me Later, Drake dropped a rap album dripped with all the R&B smoldering love heat that seemed to come from another place and time, like the Seventies. But this album represents Drake finding his personal wheelhouse. This album represents Drake becoming the superstar Drake.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2011). You gotta hand it Ms. Apple. She sure knows how to name with an impossibly long title that few while ever be able to recite accurately for anyone else in particular. However, Fiona sure knows how to create emotionally compelling music. She doesn’t release new material often, but when she does, it is excellent.
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (2011). Dave Grohl has done so much session work over the years, it can be a daunting task to list every artist with whom Grohl has collaborated. One of the more significant moments occurred when Dave played drums for Queens of the Stone Age, because that influence finally showed up on a Foo Fighters album nearly a decade later. This is definitely the band’s heaviest album in their catalog to date. It’s as if Grohl is finally exorcising his past as part of Nirvana by ripping out his heart and vocal cords while making this emotional LP. With this album, the band proves they are one versatile rock band.
Gotye – Making Mirrors (2011). If you are like me and miss new material being released by the alternative arty likes of Peter Gabriel or The Police, then I image that this left field hit album by the rarely solo Gotye became your go-to album around this time in history. It was wonderful to hear an artist actually embrace his inner pretensions to create this truly timeless album. Oh, it contains that outstanding song of the year “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
Jay-Z/Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011). I remember how excited both of my boys were when word was released that Jay-Z and Kanye were collaborating on an album. Both rappers have stated that this album is equal parts thought-provoking “shit” and mindless “shit.” I can’t argue there. It must have been a treat to watch these two giant egos attempting to compromise their individual visions into one iconic sound. This could have been a complete mess, but, instead, isn’t too shabby.
Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011). Whereas Gaga’s debut album, The Fame, introduced herself to the word as the latest incarnation of the disco queen with a sense of artistic vision, Lady Gaga’s sophomore LP is a full-blown nod to all forms of Eighties music updated for the 21st century. I find this album to seem to be showing all of Stefani Germanotta’s musical loves from her childhood. Not only did Born This Way made Lady Gaga a musical treasure, but it ensured her place as a voice for all of the neglected, like the bullied, the LGBTQ+ community, racial minorities, etc. This album seamless mixes rock, dance and pop, much as her apparent inspiration Madonna once did back in the day.
The Black Keys – El Camino (2011). Striking while the iron was still hot, The Black Keys jumped on the Sixties blues/garage rock sound of their commercial breakthrough hit Brothers to demonstrate just how important R&B is to their sound. Just as he had on the duo’s previous two albums, Danger Mouse, of Gnarls Barkley and The Grey Album bootleg fame, is the producer who adds a pinch of glam to the atmosphere that does not interfere with the songs. At times, The Black Keys seem to be striving into Led Zeppelin musical zones.
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (2012). After spending a good six months in a Black Keys haze, I was really itching to listen to a band who was as influenced by early-Seventies rock as it was as by the sounds created by the Muscle Shoals studio session players. At that very moment, all three Keller boys simultaneously discover Alabama Shakes. This album got me through the summer and fall of my first year of retirement. This reminded of all the great things I loved about rock music: soulful singing, R&B-influenced rock music and great playing. Come to think of it, The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes ought to combine with Danger Mouse to help The Rolling Stones rediscover themselves.
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (2012). This is a 21st century take on the old soul/R&B romantic music of yesterday. Instead of stilling specific to one gender of another, Frank Ocean confidently fashions his storytelling in the manner befitting a bisexual man. This is a beautiful album no matter who the subject of a particular song is. Love is universal, no matter what so-called people of the cloth say, since they are the ones attempting to put limitations on God’s love and how humans are supposed to love one another.
fun. – Some Nights (2012). This album answers the question, “What would a pop/rock band sound like if their influences were Queen and ELO, Seventies disco and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?” Enter the Indie Pop/Rock band fun., who takes these influences and funnels them through a baroque-style filter, and create this wonder mix of the grand and the junk. This is truly an album that lives up to the band’s name, fun.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2011). It had been a few years since a rap artist’s debut album was being as hyped as Lamar’s was being. Lamar actually lives up to the hype with a flowing rhymes that only enhance his inner city Springsteen-esque storytelling. This man represents the present AND future of hip hop. Not even 50 Cent was hyped as much. Lamar was more on the level of Nas. The talent on display on this album is unparalleled for nearly the past 30 years, and all of hip hop wants in on it. Get ready, Kendrick, the world is your oyster.
Mumford & Sons – Babel (2012). Mumford & Sons, an English folk revivalist band, saw their debut album, Sigh No More, take a slow heating before the album broke through to commercial success. So, the band became something of a hot commodity as this album was being recorded. The timetable for the release of this new album, Babel, was delayed so the previous album could cool a bit. But, when Babel was finally unleashed on the public, copies immediately began fling off the shelves. To top things off, Babel won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Taylor Swift – Red (2012). Taylor Swift intended Red to be the album in which she sheds her country outward wear and begin a shift toward the pop charts. And, for all intent and purposes, Swift was successful in this move. She collaborate with many of the current hitmakers to concoct a terrific pop/rock album that still showcases her remarkable songwriting skills. This just might be one of her best albums to date. And, an argument can be made that she is the songwriting voice of the Millennial Generation.
And, cut! That’s a wrap on those two years’ worth of music. We now have only 48 more albums left on the list. See you next time. Peace.