Tuesday, February 22, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1981


Let me start by saying 1981 might've been one of the weakest years ever for rock music. It makes perfect sense, though; from 1977 to 1980, the sound and feel of the genre had changed so dramatically, spawning varieties and subgenres that still are still referenced to this day, that after such a long renaissance period all parties involved needed a breather. The creative vacuum of 1981 was probably intentional, and for most music critics this is where the '70s truly ended the '80s began. That's not to say the sounds of '81 are completely worth overlooking, as implied by the albums, singles, and videos below. Disco was finally dead, punk was heading back underground, new wave was slowly gaining mainstream acceptence, and Top 40 radio was a wasteland of cheesy power ballads, insipid country-pop, and commercial rock.

That aesthetic hangover was felt for much of the first half of the year, but in the wee hours of August 1st, everything changed. It wasn't a sudden shock to the system, as the number of people that watched its debut were estimated in the low thousands, but its aftereffects changed the music industry forever. Long before it became a spawning ground for attention-hungry teen moms and mentally disabled Italian stereotypes, MTV was all about music; this fledging, low-budget cable channel was the greatest marketing tool the music industry never knew they had. We wanted our MTV, we just didn't know it yet.

Typically when I listen to albums for my monthly list, I mentally rate them by letter grade. The majority of the discs that make the final cut earned an "A," with a few scattered "B+" and "B's" toward the bottom. On this particular list of albums, the B's outrated the A's by a 2-to-1 margin. To drive my point home: there were plenty of good, memorable albums of 1981, just not that many great ones.


BEST ALBUMS

1. Damaged, Black Flag. Of all the gritty, visceral bands that came from the California hardcore-punk scene, Black Flag shined the brightest, and their full-length debut Damaged was their definite statement. After going through the parade of frontmen in their early days, the band settled on Henry Rollins, whose furious growl belied his odd charisma and startling intellect. One of many punk and metal albums that fell into Tipper Gore's family-friendly crosshairs in the mid-80s, Damaged has become an enduring document of a particular place, time, and mood.
2. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, David Byrne and Brian Eno. Continuing the brooding high art of Remain in Light --at least, in spirit-- Byrne's kinda-sorta solo debut is a collage of audio samples and demented rhythms. Similtaneously worldly, anxious, and insular, Ghosts preceded the development of cut-and-paste production methods that would dominate the music industry from the late 1980s onward.
3. Dare!, The Human League. Synth-pop's first international superstars set a blueprint of sorts with their third and far away best effort. Known mostly for the infectious single "Don't You Want Me," this record is heavy on pop hooks and what was then state-of-the-art production values. The beats are cold yet danceable, and the band is more concerned with form than content. The sound of Dare! may reek of Reagan-era indulgences, yet this album is a Polaroid snapshot of New Wave's ascent and conquering of FM radio.
4. Tattoo You, The Rolling Stones
5. Talk Talk Talk, The Psychedelic Furs
6. Ghost in the Machine, The Police
7. Wild Gift, X
8. Juju, Siouxsie and the Banshees
9. Hard Promises, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
10. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club. With the Heads on hiatus (see album #2), the husband-and-wife rhythm section of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth found light tropical breezes as partner-in-crime David Byrne uncovered dark, disturbing sonic patterns. On that opposite end of the spectrum, TTC's initial release was probably just as fun to listen to as it was to produce. Tossed off on a lark during a two-month jam session in Barbados, TTC seemlessly fuses New York alternative with the growing hip-hop scene just down the street at a time when both genres were cribbing each other's notes.

Honorable Mentions: Face Value, Phil Collins; Beauty and the Beat, The Go-Go's; As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays; Signals, Calls, and Marches (EP), Mission of Burma; Moving Pictures, Rush; Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Soft Cell.


BEST SINGLES

"Don't Stop Believin'," Journey
"Sirius/Eye in the Sky," The Alan Parsons Project
"Hold On Tight," Electric Light Orchestra
"Crazy Train," Ozzy Osbourne
"Switching To Glide/This Beat Goes On," The Kings

"Bette Davis Eyes," Kim Carnes
"Edge of Seventeen," Stevie Nicks
"Stand and Deliver," Adam & The Ants
"Ghost Town," The Specials
"6," Neats

"For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)," AC/DC
"Dancing with Myself," Billy Idol
"Bad Reputation," Joan Jett
"You Better You Bet," The Who
"Young Turks," Rod Stewart


BEST VIDEOS

1. "Whip It," Devo. No context necessary-- just crack that whip!
2. "Genius of Love," Tom Tom Club. Elvis Costello's "Accidents Will Happen" was probably the first animated music video, but this bright, energetic, and unforgettable clip proved that cartoons can make or break a hit song if the beat's just right.
3. "O Superman (For Massenet)," Laurie Anderson. If "Genius of Love" made animation a viable form, why not avant-garde installation pieces? This video was probably way too weird even for MTV, though it gave Anderson come college-rock notoriety.
4. "Rapture," Blondie. It would probably be unfair to dub Debbie Harry the Pat Boone of hip-hop, but this was the first rap-influenced song to #1 on the Billboard charts, and the video itself was not without its somniferous charm.
5. "When Things Go Wrong," Robin Lane & The Chartbusters. Apparently inspired by "The French Lieutanant's Woman," the LA-based singer-songwriter scored her biggest (i.e. only) hit with an Anglo-centric visual for her doleful girl-power anthem.

Honorable Mention: "Big Brown Eyes," The dB's.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Squawk Like an Egyptian

First it was Tunisia, then Egypt, and now Bahrain and possibly Yemen. What's most remarkable is that these revolutions were largely non-violent; the cradle of civilization has a long, brutal history of mutilation and bloodshed, so what has happened in the last three weeks has been a remarkable leap in progress not just for Egypt but the Mediterranean and Middle East in general. Hosni Mubarak had to go, no question, but what happens now? Stability is absolutely crucial, but temporary military control is seldom truly temporary. The influence of Islam extremists could be potentially troubling.

I'll concede that passive resistance won't work everywhere. One of my peacenik pals on Facebook commented that a violent overthrow of North Korea, beginning or concluding with the assassination of Kim Jong-Il, would be the only such act of bloodshed that she would ever endorse. Some semblance of reform will come to Iran someday, though it won't happen overnight and will likely need American intervention. On our end, combat in Iraq is more or less over, but Afghanistan still teeter-totters between building a democracy and eating itself whole. For all we know, 2011 in the Middle East could be a repeat of the European uprisings of 1968, and the chaos in Cairo is their Prague Spring. All that matters right now is finding a system that works, represents the people in the fairest way possible, and rejects the trend of extremism for something civil and just.

Other notes:

+ Mom Update: it's been more than six months since my mother's stroke, and she's still doing pretty well. In fact, we found out yesterday that in spite of her treatment last year, her hepatitis has now been completely eradicated. Earlier this week she began babysitting some neighbors' kids for a little side income, so I guess it's just business as usual.

+ Improv Update: for anyone in or around Chicago on February 28th, I'll be having my Level 4B class performance at IO. We'll be performing during the 7pm that night in the Cabaret (downstairs) Theater and admission is free to the general public. Drop me a line if you'd like more details.

+ Pitchers and catchers reported to the Kansas City Royals' training camp today. Oh well, there's always 2012. ;)

Next week: the year in music, 1981.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dutch Rub


I'm a little bit of a history buff, with a specific focus on U.S. Presidents. In my mind, my all-time top five is set in stone: Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt. The commanders-in-chief that round out my top ten tend to vary: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson have clinched a spot without question, but I've always believed that William McKinley and James K. Polk are far too underappreciated and that JFK would've been a lock had he finished his first term. So where does Ronald Reagan fit?

Last week marked what would've been Dutch's 100th birthday, and the milestone has not been lost on fawning conservative commentators or the "left-leaning" mainstream media. Life magazine --they still exist, kinda-- published a photo album chronicling Reagan's life and times, and Time magazine raised eyebrows last week with a cover story comparing our 40th president to our 44th. (The contrast between the two men is surprisingly minimal, though the irony was lost on some people.) Where the modern conservative movement treats Reagan like an immortal, there's so much about the man that feels skewed or exaggerated on both ends of the political spectrum. This blog, while somewhat biased, is a solid place to start.

As the blog alludes to, there are two things about Reagan's legacy that I believe are horrifically overlooked: his role in the demise of the Soviet Union and his natural sense of pragmatism. Let's begin with Ronnie's utilitarian side. Reagan was first and foremost a champion of American values, as would be any elected official in this country, but I doubt he ever declared himself a true conservative. With inflation spiraling out of control in his first six months in office, Reagan enacted a sweeping national tax cut; when that backfired in the form of record unemployment, Reagan retreated and raised taxes again... and again... and again. Eleven times between 1981 and 1989 to be exact, usually hitting the poor and lower middle class the hardest. In the long run, the government fell further into debt, and even though inflation faded the national deficit spiraled out of control. Had the Tea Party existed three decades ago, they would've vilified Dutch the same way they tar and feather Obama now (or did, before his recent shift to the middle).

Secondly, there's detente. Reagan was a man of words before action, and had very little use for nuclear weaponry. The famed "Star Wars" defense system was just that, not a specific thumb at a nose to the USSR but a means of protecting America via the space race. Unlike today's more hawkish and xenophobic conservative brand, Reagan wanted to communicate and negotiate with enemy states, and his famed friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev never would've happened if they haven't found a common need for peace and effective arms control. Russia's transition from communism to a pseudo-democracy in the early '90s might've been far bloodier had the US not intervened and become a crucial trade ally.

What I'm saying here can be disputed; after all, I'm comparing the state of American politics circa 25-30 years ago to now, and hypothetical distance feels even longer. Regardless, it feels like conservative activists have dumbed down the Reagan legacy, adding their own embellishments to suit their views, or ignored crucial elements altogether. He was not anti-taxation, he was not a champion of small government, nor was he playing to a strict partisan agenda. Seven years after his passing, Dutch has become an unlikely false idol, and in reality he would've eaten blowhards like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh for lunch. Reagan's apathy towards liberal '80s issues like abortion and apartheid didn't necessarily make him a conservative, but a leader whose drive and determination was focused elsewhere. After a rocky first two years in office, Reagan finally found that right formula of job growth and prosperity, but only after a tremendous amount of trial and error.

In conclusion, Ronald Reagan was a successful president for never compromising or catering to anyone's whims, making only minor adjustments to his general platform. He set the template for the "cowboy president" George W. Bush wanted to be but never was, and the maverick that John McCain built his reputation upon but later rebuked for party puppetry. This is why so many Baby Boomer Democrats brag that he was the only Republican they ever voted for. Simply put, Ronald Reagan was an imperfect president, but he made things work.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thunderbuck Rahm?

With 3 1/2 weeks to go, I couldn't be more apathetic about the Chicago mayoral elections. It's more lethergy than political bias; there's just nothing about any of the candidates that inspire me. As it stands the title of hizzoner is a two-man race between Rahm Emanuel, who was nearly kicked off the ballot last week for not meeting residency standards, and Gery Chico, who lacks his opponent's flash and name recognition but has demonstrated far more substance. Former U.S. Senator and onetime presidential hopeful Carol Moseley Braun was an early contender, but this incident involving a more obscure mayoral opponent basically killed her candidacy just as it was gaining momentum. I'm in full support of honesty in politics, but wow...

Regardless of who wins later this month, Rich Daley's successor has a tall order to follow: money woes, unemployment, a growing crime rate and a soaring murder rate. The mayor of Chicago is the landowner of a urban serfdom; you would think he was the de facto ruler of northeast Illinois from the attention he receives on the 10 o'clock news. The urban legend that Daley the Elder swayed the 1960 election from Nixon to Kennedy is mostly a right-wing conspiracy --JFK won Illinois in a landslide that year, so it wouldn't have mattered-- but the mayor's impact as a Democratic persuader and negotiator on the state and (to a degree) national scene is equally unheralded and indispensable. Where Emanuel would fit that role to a tee, Chico seems more like a pragmatic, transparent type of mayor. And yet, it would mean absolutely nothing to me if either man won.

Other notes:

+ As many of you have heard by now, the Illinois government voted to raise state taxes by 66%. The only good thing that came of this was that it was lower than the original proposed hike, which was 75%. The spike was justified by the crippling debt that faces our state, and 66% was the bare-bones minimum to keep everything running. To put this into context: a year ago, the average Illinoisan forked over 3% of their annual wages to the state. Now it's 5%. Considering that Pat Quinn won a full term in office by the slimmest of margins, I wouldn't say this tax hike endeared him to any of his political opponents.

+ Good news: after a four-week layover, I'm back on a temp job. Bad news: that means driving three towns over in a winter storm that the local media has alternately dubbed "Snowmageddon," "The Snowpocalyse," and "Point of Snow Return." More bad news: I also have to work Super Bowl Sunday, which means missing improv class for the very first time I began nearly two years ago. Sort of good news: there are four other Level 4B sessions during the week, so I can make it up then.

+ Speaking of the Super Bowl, this might be the first time in years that I couldn't care less about either team. As a Bears fan, you couldn't persuade me to root for Green Bay if you tried, and between Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger I can't decide which Pennsylvania NFL team has the more disgusting human being for a quarterback. I concluded after watching the AFC Championship last week that I'll probably root for the commercials.