Tuesday, March 29, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2001


2001 was ten years ago? What the hell?

Right off the bat, I will acknowledge that no political or cultural event that year holds a candle to the events of September 11th, and as much as I'd hate to downplay its signifigance, this is not what this blog entry is about. Like the American psyche, however the music scene faced startling changes in 2001. This was the year that rock turned to pebbles, when an entire genre stopped focusing on one or two forms and broke off into what seemed like a million little niches. Every evolutionary milestone of the previous 40 to 50 years was being reviewed, recycled, or homaged, and bands were becoming subgenres onto themselves. No niche stood out in 2001-02 quite like garage rock, a raw, do-it-yourself approach that contrasted signifigantly to the slick, overproduced pop piffle that dominated CHR radio at the time. Also in 2001, the underground scene suddenly shifted from "college rock" to "indie"; college stations were giving up the free-spirit, "anything goes, support the little guy" approach for what commerical radio already had in heavy rotation. As a result, unknown bands on small labels were forced to promote their music by word of mouth, pray for positive reviews, or if they were lucky, nab a short-term deal with a big-name distributor. In short, they were independent in every sense of the word.

From a personal perspective, 2001 was also the year I finally embraced modern rock. Okay, maybe embraced is too strong a word, but this was definitely the year it finally garnered my respect. I can pinpoint this sea change to one song: "Last Nite," the leadoff single from the album ranked #1 on my list below. For me, contemporary music offered little promise: on the rock end, you had an endless sea of samey nu-metal, rap-rock, and watered-down industrial; on the pop end, you had N*SYNC, Britney Spears, and Lil' Kim in all their glittery creampuff glory. Compared to those two options, The Strokes were a revelation; if you were a 17-year-old boy self-taught in the vitrues of classic rock and new wave, they were saviors. Though the singles and videos below do a fair job of capturing the soundtrack of my junior year in high school, I didn't discover the most of these albums until I was in college.


BEST ALBUMS

1. Is This It, The Strokes. Considering the direction of popular music --a theme that I shall continue to beat to death-- recording a full-length with such a simple rock sound was either absolute genius or commercial poison. The end result was a disc that was more joyful, rhythmic, and intense than anything else released that year. To the haters that complain The Strokes will always be defined by their debut: who cares?

2. White Blood Cells, The White Stripes. After noodling around with minimalist, stripped-down punk-blues on their first two discs, "siblings" Jack and Meg White hit creative paydirt on their third effort. This is how a breakthrough album should sound: take the band's strongest elements and make it bigger and tighter. The pop teases of De Stijl are expanded and accented, from the honky-tonk of "Hotel Yorba" to the frustrated debauchery of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."

3. The Blueprint, Jay-Z. After declaring his ascention to the throne of the East Coast rap scene after Biggie Smalls' murder in 1997, it took four years for Jason Carter to silence any and all critics. The Blueprint was not only a statement, but confirmed that Jay-Z would reign for years, if not decades to come. This is the rare rap album that plays like a critic's highlights collection, from "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" to "Takeover," from "Hola Hovito" to "Jigga That Nigga." Better yet, the cameos are kept to minimum (Eminem and a young Kanye West appear on one track apiece), maintaining the focus on the king himself.

4. Oh, Inverted World, The Shins

5. Amnesiac, Radiohead

6. Things We Lost in the Fire, Low

7. "Love and Theft", Bob Dylan

8. Discovery, Daft Punk

9. Toxicity, System of a Down

10. Gorillaz, Gorillaz. Cartoon bands are a tiny, deservedly derogated novelty in the annals of rock; after this funky "quartet," the best group in this little alcove are probably The Archies. A side project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn --which eventually became his #1 gig after the band's 2003 fadeout-- is 80% hip-hop, 20% Brit-pop, 100% earcandy. The band's cartoon alter egos (a Japanese child prodigy, a mop-topped cretin, a 280-pound black dude, and a fab frontman) is just as eclectic and fascinating.

Honorable Mentions: B.R.M.C., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park; Get Ready, New Order; We Love Life, Pulp; Tenacious D, Tenacious D.


BEST SINGLES

"Schism," Tool

"Where's Your Head At," Basement Jaxx

"Hash Pipe," Weezer

"Short Skirt Long Jacket," Cake

"Fallin'," Alicia Keys

"Get Ur Freak On," Missy Elliot

"I Did It," Dave Matthews Band

"God Gave Me Everything," Mick Jagger

"New York, New York," Ryan Adams

"All The Way To Reno," R.E.M.


BEST VIDEOS

1. "Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim. To the two or three people that read this blog that have seen "Pennies From Heaven," you'd know that Christopher Walken is an excellent hoofer. This much-paroded clip exposed Walken's "hidden" talent with limber, gravity-defying zeal.

2. "Clint Eastwood," Gorillaz. Speaking of dancing, an army of zombie gorillas pay homage to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and terrorize our misfit heroes in this highly animated clip.

3. "Let Forever Be," The Chemical Brothers. Shot and released as a single in 1999, this trippy Michel Gondry-directed effort didn't find an American audience for two years, and even then it aired on MTV2 in the wee hours of the night, when they normally played techno and electronic music. That's a damn shame.

4. "Last Nite," The Strokes. Sometimes a great single doesn't need a big, flashy production, as this clip proves. Also, it's live in-studio, no overdubs or lip-syncing, which makes the low-fi earnestness all the more hip.

5. "Tribute," Tenacious D. Dave Grohl cameos as Satan in an ode to the greatest song ever written, which is... what, exactly?

Honorable Mention: "Everyday," Dave Matthews Band; "Island in the Sun," Weezer.


Your thoughts?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

30 Teams, 30 Haiku: My 2011 Baseball Preview


This week's blog entry is a milestone, but personally I'd rather be practical than self-congratulatory. With spring training in its last throes and the regular season a mere ten days away, what better time than now to post my baseball predictions for 2011? After all, there is a certain symbolism to the number 300 in baseball: a strong batting average, the unofficial minimum number of career wins to enter Cooperstown, a ridiculous amount of strikeouts in any given season. Granted, 300 home runs won't get you into the Baseball Hall of Fame --not in this day and age-- but it'll grab people's attention.

As such, my annual baseball preview typically has some type of quirk. In 2009, I explained why your team won't win the World Series, regardless of whether they were serious contenders or playing for pride. Last year, I posed a serious question about each team. This year, I'm exchanging short-order cynicism for the most simplistic yet elegant form of poetry: the haiku. That's right folks: I broke down all 30 MLB teams, seventeen syllables at a time. (Okay, sorry, moras.) Some of my prognostications are informative, others are witty, though a few are bordering on abstruse. Below my metrical compositions are my usual, concrete individual predictions for the year to come.


(playoff teams in bold)

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST
1. Red Sox: Behold, Great Gonzo!/the power hitter they need/to repeat glory.
2. Rays: No dismantling yet/youth and vigor in Tampa/means a Wild Card.
3. Yankees: One starting pitcher/is all the pinstripes have now/Lee screwed them over.
4. Orioles: Youth movement's growing/gives you one early warning/watch out for Wieters!
5. Blue Jays: Unhappy Canucks/woeful in the Great White North/is hope on the way?

CENTRAL
1. Twins: Only 83 wins/might conquer this division/ho-hum, but sturdy.
2. White Sox: If pitching's healthy/might ignite a pennant race/if not... Big Country?
3. Tigers: Miguel, stop boozing/Motor City needs Sheen blood/and less Foster Brooks.
4. Indians: Panic in the Cleve/remember Pronk and Grady?/they used to produce.
5. Royals: Young and unproven/95 losses seems fair/can't wait until '12.

WEST
1. Rangers: No Lee or Vlady/makes for an uphill battle/but the bench is deep.
2. Angels: Proven veterans/the pitching is heavenly/tread lightly, Texas!
3. Athletics: Contenders? Hardly!/their grit wears opponents down/so I'll give them that.
4. Mariners: All-defense fizzled/so back to the drawing board/long year at Safeco.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

EAST
1. Phillies: Halladay, Hamels/Oswalt and Lee, beastly arms/assured destiny.
2. Braves: Without Cox, are Braves/now Indian princesses?/surely critics jest.
3. Mets: So many questions/Beltran's glove, K-Rod's temper/this soap opera drags!
4. Marlins: Raw and unfocused/fish won't bite in '11/insert sushi joke.
5. Nationals: Strasburg and Harper/are mere glimmers in the eye/same old crap this year.

CENTRAL
1. Reds: Impressive bats, but/a matter of time before/Baker wrecks Chapman.
2. Brewers: All hail Zach Greinke/the hero has run support/repeat of '08?
3. Cardinals: Pujols' wanderlust/and all those injured starters/birds go south early.
4. Cubs: Are you kidding me?/first baseman hits .200/simply staggering.
5. Pirates: Andrew McCutchen/and 24 other guys/all you need to know.
6. Astros: The least improved team/so-so arms and good speed/will not be enough.

WEST
1. Giants. They are dwarves no more/the kids have proven themselves/a dynasty looms?
2. Dodgers. High payroll, high hopes/the divorcing boys in blue/men on the rebound.
3. Rockies. Ubaldo's first half/was quite beastly in '10, but/can he pace himself?
4. Padres. Oh dear, that offense/won't help mighty rotation/80 low-score wins.
5. D-Backs. Expecting progress/with no power, weak bullpen/quite a tall order.

AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Moustakas, Royals
NL Rookie of the Year: Domonic Brown, Phillies
AL Cy Young: Jon Lester, Red Sox
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, Giants
AL MVP: Joe Mauer, Twins
NL MVP: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Red Sox
NL Manager of the Year: Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
First Manager Fired: Edwin Rodriguez, Marlins
2011 World Series: Phillies over Red Sox in 6

Next Week: the year in music, 2001.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Random Notes, March 2011

+ I apologize for the delay (again), but I had some internet connection issues Tuesday night. Plus, it's been a dry week of sorts. I can assure that I will more than make up for it with my next two dispatches.

+ Like many of you, I'm quite concerned about the fallout (pun not intended) of last Friday's earthquake in Japan. The series of unfortunate events that have struck an island nation --it was followed by a ripple-effect tsunami, a near-nuclear meltdown, and a mild snowstorm-- could be perceived as the wrath of nature, karmic retribution for an unknown sin, or both. I won't even get started on Glenn Beck's inevitably offensive opinion on the matter. Scientifically, the earthquake was the result of a long-dormant fault in a nearly tectonic plate, and disasters of this proportion are almost impossible to predict. While the loss of life and property so far roughly matches the chaos in Haiti 14 months ago, comparing this catastrophic domino effect to the island nation or the almost forgotten Peruvian quake last year is like analyzing apples, oranges, and grapes. Financially I have my hands tied, but if you can donate a small monetary amount to the Red Cross to help the survivors, bless your heart.

+ The second week of my internship was relatively stable compared to the first. On one hand, nothing of incident occured during either of the Saturday night shows in the upstairs theater. On the other hand, the theater is right smack in the middle of the Wrigleyville bar district, and it was difficult for employees and ticketholders alike to manuever through the neighborhood during unofficial St. Pat's. At times it felt like I was a supporting character in a George Romero movie, fighting off the zombies in the only place I knew was safe. The irony, however is that after my shift ended I walked four blocks to a raucous birthday party. Before you judge me, however I had one mixed drink before crashing at another friend's apartment nearby.

+ Finally, if anyone's interested, IndianaMom has launched a Final Four Pick 'Um pool just for us TV.com folk. There's no money involved, it's just for bragging rights. Let me know if you're interested ASAP if you want to fill out a bracket, because tipoff is Thursday morning.

Next Week: WU #300, and my 2011 baseball forecast.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chronicles of an Intern

About six months ago, I applied to be an intern at the theater where I'm taking improv classes. Last month, I was finally put into consideration and last weekend I worked my first shift. An internship is not a real job but this certainly feels like one; for one night out of the week, I'm essentially part of the theater crew. My responsibilities include fetching beer from the stock room, cleaning off chairs and tables between and after shows, handling tickets and seating paying customers. Being a type-A personality, I felt an unusual sense of arousal by the intern program's motto: "ruthless efficiency."

Supposedly, my first night was a pretty rough one. A group of 16 or 17 had come to see an 8pm show in the upstairs theater, and several members of said group snuck in flasks. By intermission, they were having a weird little whisper fight in the audience and at least one member of the group vomited. We didn't eject the entire group from the theater, just the three or four offenders. Shortly after the show, I learned that a similar incident had occured at about the same time in the downstairs theater. The assistant manager who was in charge that night apologized for the "trial by fire" --four other interns were being trained that night-- and that what happened was an isolated incident. Being an intern at the theater is not glamorous by any means and I knew that when I first applied, but I'm happy for the opportunity and hope it'll be smoother sailing from this point onward.

Other notes:

+ What should we do about Libya? Whether or not the United States intervenes, it's hard to imagine Moammar Khadafi coming out of this alive and unscathed. I think American intervention is all but necessary at this point, though I'd rather go the diplomatic route rather than excaberate what is unofficially a civil war. One can argue that this would be another vaguely defined interloping in a Middle Eastern country where American interests aren't particularly vital --cough, Iraq, cough-- but the need to wipe out a highly vulnerable, long-standing nemesis is an itch that's hard not to scratch.

+ Hey, does anyone remember my diatribes against former Cook County President Todd Stroger? Well, now we have something in common: we're both getting an unemployment check from the state of Illinois.

+ Finally, a wonderful, pinpoint article about the most miserable sports cities in the US. Memo to hard-to-please Chicago sports fans: quit your bitchin', it could be a lot worse.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rahm Like the Wind?

After months of buildup, it's finally over. With 55% of the vote, Rahm Emanuel not only trounced his competitors for Chicago mayor but rejected the need for a run-off vote in March. Whoever expected this to be a close four-way race --cough cough, the local media-- must've been humbled when Gery Chico, Miguel Del Valle, and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun combined for 43% of all ballots counted. On the other hand, it's not like people were voting in droves to put Rahm in the mayor's chair; less than half of all registered voters in the city turned out on Election Day. If you think Emanuel bought the election, I'd suggest having a conversation with Michael Bloomberg first.

Mary Mitchell, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times who is notorious for turning every news story into a racial issue, declared the election a death call for the black voting bloc. What she seems to ignore was how weak Carol Moseley-Braun was as a candidate; the "crack addict" remark I mentioned a few weeks ago was only the tip of her malapropism iceberg. Granted, Braun wasn't the only African-American woman on the ballot, but she fumbled whatever momentum she had from the very get-go. CMB was the only other nationally-known name on the ballot and she never used that recognition to her benefit.

As for the future of Chicago, my outsider, suburban hiney will watch with baited breath. Maybe Emanuel will trigger a city renaissance, or maybe he'll do nothing and get spanked in 2015. Either way, we're stuck with the little fella.

Other notes:

+ An old Illinois State buddy of mine works for the CBS affiliate in Madison, WI, and over the weekend I texted him to ask for his take on the fracas up there. He's a libertarian and a social moderate, and chances are he voted for Scott Walker last November, but he shared the setiments that several of us bloggers and editorists have arrived upon: the media is totally playing the conflict wrong. It's easy to say that between the teachers' unions and Gov. Walker, no winners will come out of the protests and partisan hubris, but it's more complicated than that. In the end, the negative publicity will create some Democratic gains in the state senate come 2012, and collective bargaining will be restored while nobody's paying attention. In the long run, nothing will change.

+ A new term has begun at IO, and therefore a new schedule. For the first time in almost two years I'll have Sundays off; I'm taking Improv Level 5 on Saturday afternoons, and a Scenic Improv elective at Second City on Tuesdays. To compensate financially I'm taking a breather from the IO writing program, though I intend to finish that later this year.

+ Finally, I'm so relieved to know that CBS has figured out a way to write out Charlie Sheen from "Two and a Half Men." I don't think there could've been a more fitting ending.