It's become a tradition with me over the past decade or so to make an annual New Year's Eve playlist. You should know that I do this in an obsessive fashion; like, "High Fidelity" super-geek obsessive. I believe fervently that the art of the mix tape* is a subtle and delicate craft, and like all dedicated craftspeople, I take a single-minded pride in getting it right. The process takes hours. Deciding on what makes the cut. Listening to transitions between tracks over and over again, manipulating the order until the pacing and flow feels natural. It's a labor of love.
I have a few unimpeachable ground rules for this process:
1. The tape always starts with Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game." It's a perfect New Year's tune, and as the mellowest thing on what is intended to be a party mix, it sets the threshold low, so you can elevate tempo and rock'n'roll-ness from there.
2. After Joni bats leadoff, I try to confine things mostly to songs released in the previous year. An homage to all the great new bands and tunes and albums that have filtered across the landscape since the last time I constructed this mix.
3. Rule # 2 is broken at about 10 minutes to midnight. There are three closers who have the championship belts in their weight classes, and they're not likely to be K.O.'d anytime soon. At 11:50 PM, Billy Bragg's "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" kicks on. It's a great song, full of lament over the past and ambitious plans for the future, just perfect for the moment, really. After that finishes, I shut things down, allowing for everyone to get their champagne ready, watch the ball drop, and do the countdown thing. After everyone screams "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" and kisses whomever they're going to kiss, we launch immediately into Jimi Hendrix's version of "Auld Lang Syne" from the Fillmore concerts. Because it's awesome. That's followed by REM's "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)". Bit of a cliched selection, I know, but it's never out of style and everyone loves to drunkenly pretend they know all the words and shamelessly belt out the chorus.
Of those three closing tracks, "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" is probably my favorite. It's such a poignant, hopeful song. It's about change. It's about revolution. And that makes it perfect for a quotable tribute to this year's NBA playoffs. We've seen some truly unbelievable basketball these past few weeks. Really, it's been a joy to watch. But the theme that looms largest, the overarching story, is the generational power shift taking place before our eyes. The Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics are relinquishing their decade-long reign of dominance. The Thunder, Grizzlies, Bulls and (possibly) Knicks are ascending. The Mavericks are seeking redemption and redefinition. The Hawks, Blazers, Hornets, Magic, 76ers, Nuggets and Pacers submitted noble but ultimately futile efforts. And of course, as has been the case all year, all eyes are on the Miami Heat, whose future is unfolding as well as could be expected, but that team will be judged on a very simplistic basis: Title or bust. There's so much to take in, it's a good thing I have a fiver-verse epic to apply to the situation. (Did I "steal" the quotes gimmick from Bill Simmons? Kind of, I guess, but he tends to utilize awesome/iconic TV shows and movies. I prefer to roll with awesome/iconic songs. We're probably both better when we're in our wheelhouses.)
So, ladies and gents, please allow the great Billy Bragg to sum these playoffs team by team, using every line (in order) from one of the finest tunes ever penned.
"It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline"
For the San Antonio Spurs. They've had a decade-plus run just about as idyllic as is gets. 4 rings, stars, greatness; they continued to compete, and win, as the NBA went through myriad permutations and styles of play. The Admiral. Gregg Popovich. Manu. Tony Parker. And the greatest power forward in NBA history in Tim Duncan. They were always the consummate team, always classy, decorous, and gracious. The perfect example of team basketball at its finest, they valued defensive effort and the extra pass more highly than everyone else. It makes me a little sad to see them come down like this. In round 1, Memphis filled their highway up with gasoline, then struck a match. They just didn't have the juice, despite some of the most heroic late-game play in recent memory. A tip of the cap to my favorite team of the 2000s.
"Fidel Castro's brother spies a rich lady who's crying
Over luxury's disappointment so he walks over and he's trying
To sympathize with her but thinks that he should warn her
That the Third World is just around the corner"
For the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks. Carmelo's trade saga certainly qualified as "luxury's disappointment", as does NYC's ultimately settling for the ill-fitting pieces of STAT and 'Melo as opposed to LeBron. In the end, both teams got what they thought what they wanted. Unfortunately, the Third World was just around the corner, in the form of inglorious first-round exits. I sympathize with Denver for what they lost, and the Knicks fans for what they perceived to be an immediate ticket to a ring. In reality, both teams still have a lot of work to do before they can contend seriously. How this plays out will have to wait for another season or two, assuming we have a season at all next year.
"In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded
By the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded
That Dr Robert Oppenheimer's optimism fell
At the first hurdle"
For the Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, and Philadelphia 76ers. Indy played the Bulls about as tough as could be expected, holding leads for every chunk of game clock except the ones that mattered. Their devoid-of-heavies cast played gritty defense and knocked down big shots only to collapse down the stretch. Philly came out of the gate strong in a few games as well, but couldn't withstand the onslaught of 'Bron and D-Wade when they got rolling. Portland had some throwback heroics from Brandon Roy, and they played as hard as they could, but the Mavs were simply better. The lower seeds always come into the postseason spouting the same predictable "we deserve to be here, we can play with these guys" spiel, but so often, as was the case for these two teams, optimism indeed fell at the first hurdle.
"In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear
Is the sound of people stacking chairs
And mopping up spilt beer"
For the Boston Celtics. Despite Doc Rivers returning, and the "Big Three" still coming back next year, this did look like closing time in the C's late-aughts saloon. Management is stacking the bars tools, mopping up the beer, and pronouncing last rites over this team, as evidenced by the possibly premature, looking-towards-the-future Perkins trade. KG, The Truth, and Allen aren't getting any younger. It's probably time to start seriously contemplating a rebuilding process centered around Rajon Rondo.
"And someone asking questions and basking in the light
Of the fifteen fame-filled minutes of the fanzine writer"
For the Atlanta Hawks. Fifteen fame-filled minutes are about all Atlanta's recent playoff runs have bought them. They're a cute also-ran; fringe contenders that no one actually perceives as a serious threat. Even last season, when people started talking about them as a potential fourth power in the Eastern Conference, their disjointed play and humiliating sweep at the hands of the Magic put that momentum to bed with a resounding thud. So much talent, so little coherence. They got two good things out of this year's run: revenge on the Magic, and the knowledge that Jeff Teague can play. Otherwise, things still look much like they have in years past.
"Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses
While looking down the corridor
Out to where the van is waiting
I'm looking for the Great Leap Forwards"
For the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Hornets. Both teams had the best players in their respective first-round series. (Yes, I think CP3, at this point, is better than Kobe.) Both put up strong fights, but the lack of help from any semblance of supporting casts (David West's injury and Orlando's 3-point snipers failing to show up) meant early exits for both. The usual excuses. Now both teams are very much looking down the corridor, as their centerpieces approach free agency with little incentive to stay with their current organizations.
"Jumble sales are organized and pamphlets have been posted
Even after closing time there's still parties to be hosted
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the sleepers
While you're waiting for the Great Leap Forwards"
For the Dallas Mavericks. Everyone thought their closing time happened in that dismal stretch from the '06 finals to the '07 playoff exit. But the Mavs are still hosting a party. Years, of "soft" reputations, early eliminations, and postseason ghosts are being eliminated before our eyes. After sleeping in with the sleepers for so long, Dirk and Co. couldn't look more activist-y these days. If they maintain their current level of play, their great leap forwards might very well end in some shiny new rings.
"One leap forwards, two leaps back
Will politics get me the sack?
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
Here comes the future and you can't run from it
If you've got a blacklist I want to be on itFor the Miami Heat. This lyric really should have bee their 2010-2011 slogan. After "The Decision" and that ludicrous welcome party/celebration/coronation before they'd won a single game together, the Heat were as close to a political sack with opposing fans as it's possible to get. But they embraced the hate and used the resulting conflagration of fans' ire and media criticism as a forge, emerging at the end of the season as a dangerous, solidified unit. (Granted they have no bench, no PG, and Joel Anthony protecting the rim, but still.) They have apparently become the future the league can't run from, and as long as their success continues, they don't care whose blacklist they're on.
"Well It's a mighty long way down rock 'n roll
From Top of the Pops to drawing the dole"**
For the Los Angeles Lakers. A translation of Mr. Bragg's British-ness here: