Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Last Blog of the Decade!

Looking back at this past year, my taste in TV shows shifted ever so slightly. I've never been on a high diet of crime procedurals or science fiction, and I don't watch as many reality shows as I used to, so luckily for me it was a strong year for new comedies. As some of my old favorites continued to age, I found plenty of fresh blood to keep me entertained. Unlike my monthly music inventories, my list of five favorites is not intended to be complete; sometimes I read those critics' best-of lists, and it's like they're taunting me for nothing having HBO or Showtime. Nevertheless...
1. "Mad Men," AMC. Just when the muted angst and slow-like-molasses plot movement was about to drive fans away, some British dude gets run over by John Deere tractor. As grotesque as that scene might've been, it was an unexpected high point in what was probably the show's strongest season yet. The JFK assassination, the defining moment in American history that warped the perfected, Camelot-esque existences of nearly every principal character, was treated with realism, gravitas, and an unexpected level of shock. Memorable Episodes: "Guy Walks Into An Ad Agency," "The Grown-Ups," "Shut The Door, Have a Seat."
2. "Parks & Recreation," NBC. This show might be the pleasant surprise of the year. What was initally conceived as a slapped-together, in-it-for-the-money spinoff of "The Office" has become a tight political satire about the lowest and seemingly irrelevant rungs of local government. If this show was merely a star vehicle for Amy Poehler, P&R would've died a quick death. Instead, it thrives on the strength of its supporting cast; Aniz Ansari has found a breakthrough role in affable d-bag Tom Haverford, while Nick Offerman has proven to be a Rock of Gibralter as breakfast-loving sourpuss Ron Swanson. Memorable Episodes: "The Stakeout," "Practice Date," "Kaboom."
3. "Community," NBC. I'm surprised that I haven't seen this show on more best-of lists. Much like its fellow Thursday night comedies, "Community" revels in the latent absurity of its setting (a West Coast junior college) and the precision-like casting of its ensemble (dark horse Emmy consideration for Joel McHale and Danny Pudi). Memorable Episodes: "Spanish 101," "Football, Feminism, and You," "Debate 109."
4. "Modern Family," ABC. Though nothing will ever replace "Arrested Development" in most comedy geeks' hearts, "Family" is a strong heir apparant. Brownie points to Ed O'Neill for not playing his grandfather/sugar daddy character as a rehash of Al Bundy, and Ty Burrell may very well be reinventing the cookie-cutter "idiot dad" archetype. Memorable Episodes: "The Bicycle Thief," "Come Fly With Me."
5. "Better Off Ted," ABC. Like my #4 pick, "Ted" is the next-generation model of another brilliant-but-cancelled early '00s Fox series, "Andy Richter Controls The Universe." (The fact that it's produced by Michael Fresco and co-stars Jon Slavin is no coincidence.) Alas, it appears that nobody's watching and ABC is antsing to pull the plug, so enjoy this while you can. Memorable Episodes: "Racial Sensitivity," "Jabberwocky."
Honorable Mentions: "Glee," Fox; "American Dad," Fox.

Best British Import: "Look Around You." A wry parody of the educational strips that you watched in elementary school, with topics ranging from math to germs. "Look Around You" aired for two seasons on BBC earlier in the decade, but it became a cult favorite online and Adult Swim picked up the TV rights in early '09. Each episode is about ten minutes long, which also makes it perfect for viewing on YouTube.

Of course, no year is perfect. These were my three least favorite TV shows in '09:
1. "Sit Down Shut Up," Fox. A complete mess of a show, from the one-dimensional characters to the forced, repetitive premise of nearly every episode. What makes this especially disappointing is that no less than six major players on this show were alums of the brilliant "Arrested Development," including producer Mitch Hurwitz and stars Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler.
2. "The Jay Leno Show," NBC. I can't believe it took an overhyped time slot change to convince most of America what most comedy connisseurs have known since 1992: Jay Leno just isn't that funny.
3. "Secret Girlfriend," Comedy Central. A homage to '80s sex-farce movies, with "you" as the main character. There's precious little artistic license here; a unique twist on the single-camera concept is wasted on frat boys punching each other and gratutious shots of scantly-clad women jigging around.

I conclude my last blog of the decade (and the year, I guess) with a quick reflection at everything that's changed in the past ten years. What stands out most in my mind is the number of technological advances made since then. Think about it: in January 2000, there was no Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube, or Twitter, Huffington Post, or Townhall.com. There was no iPhone, iTunes, or iPod, though iMacs were still the rage. There were no plasma TVs, DVRs, or converter boxes. Three of the most-used search engines in the United States were AskJeeves.com, AltaVista, and Netscape, with Google just barely in the top ten. Blackberry was in its nascent stages, and was little more than an expensive walkie-talkie. Only a select handful of people had ever texted, and you couldn't access your e-mail on your cell phone. The majority of Americans still used a landline to go online. Even TV Tome, the for-us, by-us TV episode guide that evolved into the site we know today as TV.com, wasn't launched until June 2000.

It was a terrible decade in terms of foreign and domestic affairs, and a shrill and bloated ten years in pop culture; however, it was the American political dynamic that changed most signifigantly, and probably not for the better. In 1999 we had two major political parties finding a very delicate semblance of bipartisanship; that was followed by a gung-ho, all-encompassing Republican majority that ignored its opponents as it tried to push through a mountain of high-impact and controversial legislation while losing favor with the American public, which was then succeeded by a Democratic majority that was essentially doing the same thing. The rift between conservatives and liberals has grown exponentially, and the internet has become a new battleground for their partisan bickering. Political discourse has become a multimedia haymaker of illogical conspiracy theories, self-righteousness, and constant reinforcement of the same tired bullet points. On the other hand, ten years ago Gary Condit, Jack Ryan, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford were still by and large upstanding public citizens, so maybe it wasn't all that bad.

What will happen in the next ten years is anyone's guess. I guess that's the thrill of the future; it's a big frontier where anyone can stake a claim. So many elements of our culture hit their nadir in the 2000s, and from this point there's nowhere to go but up. It may not be a clean slate, but there's plenty of room for opportunity. I wish you all a wonderful 2010, and make sure to savor every moment that you can.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2009

Like any two-bit wannabe music critic on the world wide internets, I have chosen to drink the Kool-Aid and post my inevitable "Best Albums of 2009" list. If the music scene of the past 12 months could be summed up in one word, it would be "weird." I'm not saying that to be derogatory, though. As pretty much anything unique, irreverent, and forward-thinking pushed itself further away from the mainstream, Top 40, CHR, and Modern Rock radio became a synthetic cacophany of studio wizardry, sounds that were so polished that they could barely breathe. Lady Gaga, arguably the breakout artist of the year, was as praised for her songcraft as she was ridiculed for her bizarre, Madonna-lite wardrobe and aloof "genius" persona. There was hardly a dull moment in 2009, though only history will tell if it was a great year for music.

1. Bitte Orca, The Dirty Projectors. To describe the sound of this NYC-based art project is nearly as difficult as pigeonholing them into a particular subgenre. This album is a fascinating as it is obtuse, from frontman David Longstreth's abstact lyrics to the repetitive "ay, ay-oh, aaaay-ohhhh" choruses of their three female vocalists. Once you get beyond the idiosyncracies, Bitte Orca pays a debt to '60s baroque-pop and R&B girl groups, as evidenced by tracks like "Two Doves" and "Remade Horizon." It's very bewildering upon listening to it for the first time, but this disc grows on you in repeat plays.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix. Who would've guessed that Saturday Night Live still possessed the ability to be a kingmaker for unknown musical acts? Though I initially reacted to Phoenix's performance of "1901" and "Lisztomania" with mild satisfaction, there was something fresh and distinctive to these songs that I must've missed the first time around. It was new wave revival at its purest, yet they don't sound anything like our American brand of New Order and Cure proteges.
3. Vecktimest, Grizzly Bear. Much like my #1 pick, Grizzly Bear is a New York City-based outfit that pays fleeting homage to the sounds of yesteryear as they look ahead to an uncertain future. There's a recurring theme of love and yearning in this album, 12 bittersweet and earnest tracks enhanced by the band's Beach Boys-esque harmonizing, eerie choral arrangements, and swishy instrumentation. You can feel the weight of their ambition, yet you never get the sense that Vecktimest will collapse at any moment.
4. Actor, St. Vincent
5. Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective
6. Fantasies, Metric
7. Crack The Skye, Mastodon
8. Far, Regina Spektor
9. Humbug, Arctic Monkeys
10. Middle Cyclone, Neko Case. Whether she's solo or with The New Pornographers, Neko Case has proven to be of the most consistent and fascinating artists of the past decade. Her latest disc is no exception, a concept album about natural disasters and the damage it leaves in its path, a theme that becomes a metaphor for love and loss. My only complaint about this disc is the closing track, which is little more than 30+ minutes of crickets chirping; is this supposed to embody the calm after the storm, and if not, is there any point to it?

Honorable Mentions: The Crying Light, Antony and The Johnsons; Embryonic, The Flaming Lips; Backspacer, Pearl Jam; Swoon, Silversun Pickups.

"Percussion Gun," White Rabbits
"A Whole Lot Better," Brandon Benson
"Hang You From The Heavens," The Dead Weather
"Day & Nite," Kid Cudi
"Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," Cage the Elephant
"Dreams," Brandi Carlile
"You and I," Wilco feat. Feist
"Outlaw Pete," Bruce Springsteen
"The Fear," Lily Allen
"Heavy Cross," Gossip

1. "Wrong," Depeche Mode. A stunning, intense thriller of a clip. Just so you know: Dave Gahan and company make a brief cameo about halfway through the film.
3. "Panic Switch," Silversun Pickups.
4. "Make Her Say (I Poke Her Face)," Kid Cudi feat. Kanye West and Common.
5. "Mykonos," Fleet Foxes.

Unlikliest Session Musician: Rather than rest on his laurels, wallow in his millions, and continue to unsuccessfully adopt African orphans, Sir Elton John contributed piano riffs to new releases from Brandi Carlile and Alice In Chains.

2009 was a banner year for awful album titles. If I could whittle it down to the five worst, it would look something like this:
Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, The Dave Matthews Band
Confessions of an Imperfect Angel, Mariah Carey
No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories the World Is Grey I'm Tired Let's Wash Away, Mew
Pray IV Reign, Jim Jones
Raditude, Weezer

1. Full Circle, Creed. Apparently inspired by Pearl Jam's recent creative resurgence, Eddie Vedder's unwitting protege Scott Stapp reassembled his old band for their first full-player in eight years. There's a major difference, though; where Pearl Jam is evolving in sound yet maintaining their musical and creative core, Creed plays like they wish 1999 had never ended. In short, it's the same pretentious, vaguely spiritual ipecac that you hated ten years ago.
2. Halestorm, Halestorm. Say what you will about mainstream modern rock, but I think we all agree on the fact that it's one big sausage-fest. Lzzy Hale (not a typo) and her cliched "I hate guys/I'm a complicated woman" rhetoric will do nothing to change that.
3. The E.N.D., The Black Eyed Peas. Three words: "Boom Boom Pow." They've got the formula so down pat, you'd think this CD was assembled in a high school chemistry class.

Next Week: my favorite TV shows of '09, and my final thoughts on the year (and decade) that was.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Meet Me At The Fair

I tend not to discuss local news in this blog, mostly because 90% of my readers aren't from Chicago or the outlying suburbs, but there is something that has been dwelling on my mind:

We Downers Grove residents tend to associate the fourth weekend in June with Heritage Fest. Launched in 1982 to celebrate the town's sesquicentennial, Heritage Fest is a three-day party held on the streets of downtown Downers. To some degree, it's a miniature version of the Taste of Chicago; there's carnival rides, live music, and all sorts of delicious yet nutritionally-challenged cuisine. It's a cherished community event and a profitable one to boot, so I was quite shocked to learn that the village had cancelled Heritage Fest for 2010.

I first heard about the cancellation on Facebook about two weeks ago, thinking that this was some goofy rumor. Early last week, however the decision to skip Heritage Fest for a year --and maybe more-- became a reality. Apparently the village has a $4.5 million budget shortfall, and something had to give. (Yes, the population of DG is just under 49,000, but we're still considered a village for zoning purposes.) For a generation of Downers Grove residents who have expected Heritage Fest every June like a morning sunrise, it's as shocking as it is a sad indictator of the economy. As this article implies, the tourism that Hertiage Fest brought to Downers Grove and the sales tax revenue it generated will be deeply missed. The village council has left the door open to private sponsorship or even a fundraiser, though I'm doubtful that anyone will chip in the amount of money needed to keep the festival going.

In the end, losing Heritage Fest may not necessarily be the end of the world. The success of our festival inspired other towns in the western Chicago suburbs to launch their own hometown fiestas, or if they already had one, to at least up the ante. I guess driving two towns over for elephant ears will make do for a year, though it won't feel the same. Plus, it's not like this was the only event that the village council chose to cancel; our annual ice sculpture contest was benched for 2010, and the National Cycling Championships will also have to find a new home next year. Nevertheless, it's a depressing sign of the times when nobody can afford to have fun. Then again, maybe God is punishing the village for booking Foghat for the 2007 fest.

Next week: the year in music, 2009.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The New Decider

The cover of Time magazine shared my sentiments about President Obama's foriegn policy: it's his war now. After weeks of internal debate, our Commander in Chief ordered 30,000 troops to be deployed to Afghanistan by the end of the month. The surge has been approached with mild criticism from both parties, the primary complaint being the cost of sending so many arms overseas. Perhaps the most devisive aspect as Obama's announcement of the surge, a pragmatic and business-like speech held at West Point last Tuesday. The reviews ranged from "overlong" to "not embarassing," and indeed it was a blunt statement of facts, a far cry from the motivational and vaguely patriotic monologues that we're used to hearing from our 44th president. The respect for reality was apparent, though for many it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Regardless, the war in Afghanistan has been a systematic botch job, but we can't quite pull out or sweep it under the rug until we regain the momentum that we had when the United States first invaded in 2001. President Obama inherited this war and whether we like it or not, he can do whatever he damn well pleases. If the Bush-Gates surge of 2007 could save face in Iraq, could the Obama-Gates surge of 2009 have a similar effect on Afghanistan? Better yet, can we get the job done in 19 months, or is there some element of flexibility? Is Al Qaida really down for the count, as some intelligence reports claim? Those are all excellent questions, but for now the country that will feel the impact most is Afghanistan, not the U.S. This is a crucial message to our enemies that we're not casting a blind eye on their antics, and to the Afghan government to shape up and learn how to defend themselves.

Other notes:

+ Two weeks ago, some rich guy and his trophy wife crashed a state dinner. See? There is a way to explain that news story in one sentence. ;)

+ Tiger Woods had a fender bender. See? I just did the same thing twice. ;)

+ What a difference a month makes. After lamenting the state of my fantasy football team in WU #228, I'm now riding a five-game winning streak. As I write this, I'm in third place out of six, though I'm still next-to-last in total points. I guess my small-ball approach is working.

+ To anyone that might be in the Chicago area later this month, my Improv Level C class at Second City will be doing a half-hour show at the SC Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells on December 20th. We'll be performing from 12:30 to 1p; admission is two dollars. For those who can't make it, wish me luck!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

For Your Consideration

Nothing quite piques my curiousity during the baseball off-season like the announcement of the latest Hall of Fame ballot. The latest roster, released last week, is no less intriguing than any other year. Of the 26 names listed, 15 are on the ballot for the first time; all of these newcomers retired during or after the 2004 season, as you have to be out of the majors five full years to be eligible. Obviously, a lot of these fresh faces are filler and probably won't be considered for next year's vote. (I dare you to justify the Hall of Fame qualities of David Segui and Shane Reynolds.) From a talent standpoint, it's a more threadbare ballot than some of us are accustomed to. The rampant steroid usage of the late '90s and early '00s enabled aging stars to add about five years to their careers, resulting in a dearth of sure-fire inductees calling it quits midway through this decade, if not for several years to come. In the eyes of the most jaded and cynical baseball fans it may seem like a throughly unappetizing ballot, but there are three names that I wish would be put into serious consideration: longtime bridesmaids Bert Blyleven and Lee Smith and newcomer Barry Larkin.

Let's start with the Flying Dutchman. Granted, his career win-loss record is 287-250, and usually 300 wins is guaranteed admission. People tend to forget that Bert spent three years on a Pittsburgh team that scored in bunches in the late innings of the game, resulting in a unwieldy number of no-decisions, including a staggering 20 in 1979. That .534 career winning percentage may not look impressive, but it's better than Hall of Famers like Eppa Rixey (266-251 lifetime), Teddy Lyons (260-230), and even Nolan Ryan (324-292). Of course, wins don't tell half the story; Blyleven is 5th on the all-time strikeout list and only eight men have more career shutouts. Plus, he might've had the sweetest curveball anybody's ever seen; I'm sure there's clips on YouTube or Metacafe that'll prove my point.

No statistic has revolutionized the worth of a pitcher in the past half-century quite like the save, which makes the constant snubbing of Lee Smith a mystery of sorts. Smitty's 478 plugs were the standard until about three years ago, and the man who surpassed him (Trevor Hoffmann) looks like a borderline lock for the Hall. Bruce Sutter only had seven or eight dominant seasons out of the bullpen, yet he was inducted in 2006. Smith had arguably ten great years as a closer, finishing with 35 or more saves six times. Having a career 3.03 ERA doesn't hurt, either.

As for Larkin, he's not a first-ball Hall of Famer though I'm sure the sportswriters will come around to this guy sooner than later. A 12-time All-Star and 7-time Silver Slugger, "Lark" might've been the quintessential National League shortshop of the 1990s. Nobody would mistake him for a power hitter, though he squeezed out doubles like nobody's business and his career .371 on-base percentage was nothing to scoff at. His one weakness was durability; in 19 seasons in the majors he played at least 120 games just 10 times. Nevertheless, he was a team leader who willed the Reds to two division titles and one championship in the early-to-mid '90s, and having to toil under an owner like Marge Schott has to be worth something.

So what about everybody else? As a Royals fan, I grew up admiring Kevin Appier; he should be on Kansas City's wall of honor but his career stats won't bat any eyelashes in Cooperstown. My support for Mark McGwire has waned over the years, and his new gig as the Cardinals' hitting coach feels like a last-ditch attempt at public atonement. Andre Dawson's career on-base percentage is laughable, Alan Trammell was a sac-fly artist with an above-average glove, and Dale Murphy was little more than a power-hitting milquetoast. Freshman like Roberto Alomar, Edgar Martinez, and Fred McGriff will linger on the ballot for years, too divisive to get the necessary 75% to be inducted but too above-average to be ignored altogether. Maybe --and I mean maybe-- Don Mattingly will get the call from the Veterans Committee, but I'm totally impartial. If you're looking for marquee names, wait until 2011; after all, who's gonna get in the way of Jeff Bagwell?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1974

Ah, 1974. The year of Watergate, streaking, and... Symbionese Liberation, I guess. Glam-rock was king, punk and disco were in their nascent stages, jazz fusion and Kraut-rock kept the nerds entertained, and R&B was as silky-smooth as ever. Overall it was a decent year for Top 40 radio, though what actually got airplay that year was eventually overshadowed by career albums from lesser-known artists. It's a somewhat misunderstood and overlooked year, with most of the big dogs (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd) either sitting the year out or working extensively on their next project, yet top-heavy in great music either way you shake the stick.


1. Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell. There's no question that this fair-haired Canadian songstress has earned her legendary status. Most of her albums have been very consistant in that they all seem to contain six or seven brilliant songs, accompanied by some agreeable filler near the end of the disc. Spark is her one album where every track clicks; everything from "Help Me" to "Raised on Robbery" is a luscious swirl of orchestral flair and tight melodies.
2. Rock Bottom, Robert Wyatt. Recorded in the wake of a freak accident that left Wyatt crippled from the waist down, it may shock some people that the former Soft Machine drummer's best solo effort was written before he fell from a third-story balcony. The sound of the album is melancholy, yet it bursts with life; beneath all the bizarre prog-jazz flailings and the disdain for conventional songcraft is a story of a man redeeming himself via music.
3. Radio City, Big Star. Neglected in their time, Big Star became a cult favorite long after the band (or more specifically, frontman Alex Chilton) fell apart, as well as a cautionary tale about the need to nurture a gifted artist. Their second album might be the best of their three "classic" albums. Reduced to a trio after the departure of Chris Bell, Radio City trades their debut's mild skepticism or something a tad more cynical and yearning. In a way, this album is the essence of pop imperfection.
4. Here Come The Warm Jets, Brian Eno
5. Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan
6. Too Much Too Soon, New York Dolls
7. Fulfillingness' First Finale, Stevie Wonder
8. Treasure Island, Keith Jarrett
9. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Brian Eno
10. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Richard & Linda Thompson. Anyone who thinks The Swell Season's story of finding and expressing love through music is somehow original and unheard-of clearly hasn't done their homework. That's not to say the "Once" soundtrack is terrible or anything, it's just that the Thompsons beat them to the switch 35 years ago.

Honorable Mentions: Diamond Dogs, David Bowie; Autobahn, Kraftwerk; Meet The Residents, The Residents; Kimono My House, Sparks; Crime of the Century, Supertramp; Mysterious Traveler, Weather Report.


"Waterloo," ABBA
"Beach Baby," The First Class
"Hooked on a Feeling," Blue Swede
"Sundown," Gordon Lightfoot
"Spiders and Snakes," Jim Stafford
"Bad Company," Bad Company
"Skating Away," Jethro Tull
"Radar Love," Golden Earring
"Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)," The Raspberries
"The Loco-Motion," Grand Funk Railroad*
"The Payback," James Brown
"Then Came You," Dianne Warwick and The Spinners
"Mockingbird," Carly Simon
"Oh My My," Ringo Starr
"Dancing Machine," The Jacksons

*For the record, that might actually be the only Grand Funk song I like. Music critics hated them in the '70s and I think their vitriol is in the right place. This spirited cover of the old Little Eva tune holds up quite well, though it's a shame that a then 12-year-old dance tune blew anything that Mark Farner and Don Brewer did write out of the water.

So Awful, It's Brilliant: "The Night Chicago Died," Paper Lace. I single out this particular song for its inane first verse: "Daddy was a cop/on the east side of Chicago/back in the U-S-A/back in the bad old days." I was not aware that my city's finest had a cop patrolling the middle of Lake Michigan, unless there's an underwater neighborhood that I'm not aware of.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thanks... and No Thanks

Ladies and gentlemen, just in time for Turkey Day I present my 5th annual "thanks/no thanks" list. Like the previous four editions of this list, I keep the context to a bare-bones minimum; it's merely an acknowledgment of all the things that have been in my peripheral in the past year. While I'm grateful for my friends and family, this list tends to focus on the intangibles in my life. It's my way to letting you know me better, one ambiguous morsel at a time.

THANKS: The stupifyingly easy Yahoo! daily crossword, the continued brilliance of The Onion, my DVR, NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup, the fact that I'm still employed, hockey's newfound relevance in Chicago, Zach Greinke, and all my new friends and classmates at Second City.

NO THANKS: Another Yankees World Championship, Glenn Beck, the coldest summer in recent memory, anything involving Nadya Suleman and the Gosselins, old friends that never check their e-mail, still living at home, writer's block, and the system errors and various other maladies that plague this otherwise wonderful web site.

Other notes:

+ NBC is about to be gobbled up by Comcast. Is this what broadcast television is being reduced to? This is almost as sad as it is symbolic of how much mass media has evolved (mutated?) in the past few decades.

+ Let me reemphasize the fact that the Bears' woes are not Jay Cutler's fault. The players won't listen to the coaches, the secondary is middling, there's no running game, and our defense is too small and too old. When I alluded to Jay's prima donna attitude before the season started, I was half-kidding. The best player on this team right now is Robbie Gould, can we all agree on that?

+ Detained terrorists in Illinois? The prospect of having them in my home state is a little off-putting, though tiny Thomson is inexplicably welcoming the idea with open arms. In all honestly, I'm on the fence; if it creates jobs for this dying Mississippi River town, so be it. Besides, isn't driving 150 miles on I-88 a punishment in itself?

+ Speaking of hockey, last night I met Dustin Byfuglien of the Chicago Blackhawks. What an incredibly nice guy.

Next week: the year in music, 1974.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Author! Author!

"A writer uses a pen instead of a scalpel or blowtorch." -Michael Ondaatje

2009 is proving to be a strange year for autobiographies and tell-all memoirs. Why are media figures with tarnished public images so quick to enter the literary world? Maybe it's intended to be a scam. My theory is these quickie tomes are a facade so that the "authors" can go on the press junket; this way, they can write 400 pages of gibberish fully knowing nobody will buy, much less read the book. In writing this rant, the three books that come to mind are Mackenzie Phillips' High on Arrival, Gov. Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich's The Governor. I can't really say I've read any of these books --just a few excerpts that were leaked to the media-- so I'm not really at liberty to critique the memoirs themselves. Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore the smoke and mirrors.

From what I've read about The Governor, Blago continues to dish out the same empty rhetoric that made him an accidental media darling late last year. He takes his critics to task, vilifies everyone from Rev. Jesse Jackson to his own father-in-law, but never quite explains his accusations and what he is innocent of. Why this man keeps persevering is baffling. Bonnie Hunt (of all people) nailed it on the head when she interviewed Blago six weeks ago: if he claims to be innocent, why is no one coming to his defense? Why is he hiding the evidence that allegedly acquits him?

It's hard to say anything critical of Going Rogue without exposing a political bias. My only real question is how much of the book wasn't ghost-written; a co-author is not credited, though one must wonder how Palin wrote her autobiography so quickly. Reviews on Amazon.com have been mixed, which is odd considering that Rogue won't be in bookstores until November 17th and (as far I know) no advance copies have been released yet. On that note, I still think murmurs of a "vast left-wing conspiracy" trying to stifle Palin is a bunch of hooey. The McCain/Palin ticket lost last year because the GOP couldn't convincingly appeal themselves to moderates. Where Sen. McCain had a sliver of crossover appeal, Gov. Palin has both feet firmly planted in the conservative corner, take it or leave it. Regardless of its merits, conservatives will probably love the book and liberals and moderates will be apathetic. It's almost predestined.

Of the three big-name tell-alls released this year, Phillips' book probably has by far the thickest layer of slime. Why would she accuse her father of rape and molestation eight years after he died? John Phillips was well known in Hollywood circles for his debauchary and hard living so there's little reason of a doubt, but why call him out now when he obviously can't defend himself? In spite of any potential merits, High on Arrival has set a disturbing new plateau for celebrity memoirs; nobody will bat an eyelash at another washed-up TV actor's musings unless there's incest and preteen drug use involved. One can only hope that this is the sleazy autobiography that ends an entire subgenre of self-aggrandizing, profit-fueled bile.

Other notes:

+ I don't really recall where I was when the Berlin Wall fell. I was only five at the time, and I didn't have the attention span for watching the 5 o'clock news, so I probably learned about it several months after the fact. I do vaguely remember the reunification of Germany, though.

+ With all due respect to Wanda Sykes, Mo'Nique, and George Lopez, I'm not convinced that their new talk shows are going to last. The late night gabfest is a pretty crowded scene right now, and you'd think the powers that be had learned from the great logjam of 1993. Sure, talk shows are cheaper to produce than scripted shows, but even when you have 20 variations on the same theme it's still the same song.

+ File this in the "oops" department: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33622390/ns/world_news-weird_news/?gt1=43001

+ Next week: my fifth annual "Thanks/No Thanks" list.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Random Notes, November 2009

+ While I'm not totally sold on all the H1N1 hysteria, it's probably a greater threat to children than the average adult. Our local health service outlets have really been on the ball about this, posting tips for flu prevention in any public building I can think of. Sure, it's the obvious stuff like coughing into your elbow and not rubbing your eyes with dirty hands, but where I'm from common sense is not innate. If you want to get that special flu shot, go ahead, I'm not stopping you.

+ If the Republicans make any gains in today's gubernatorial races --and they probably will-- they won't be of much consequence. For all the media attention the New Jersey and Virginia governor's races are receiving, it's just two states. In the event that Doug Hoffman beats Bill Owens for the 23rd congressional district in New York, it won't rattle the status quo in Washington, at least not now. Whether or not President Obama's waffling public support will affect the 2010 midterms is still anyone's guess.

+ When did Chicago turn into Seattle? I haven't had time to do any research, but I think October was the rainiest month in my hometown in recent memory. Between the wind, the torrential downpours, the leaves falling, driving around has made for a sticky situation. This is sandwiched between an unusually cool winter and what is expected to be our third brutal winter in a row. I'd like to hear what the global warming skeptics have to say about this...

+ The number of names on the FBI's list of presumed terrorists in the US has exceeded the population of Minneapolis, MN. That's a scary thought.

+ After starting the year 2-2, my fantasy football team is reeling from a four-game schnied. I pin my roster's woes on two mistakes that I made on draft day: picking three quarterbacks (two of whom are can't-cut; the other is Jay Cutler) and drafting too many players with the same bye week. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, since I'm also the commish and half the league thinks I'm deliberately phoning it in.

+ Would anyone give a hoot about Chastity "Chaz" Bono's gender reassignment surgery if she weren't the daughter of Sonny and Cher? For all her public battles, did anyone check to see if she has any discernible talent that would make anyone besides Mary Hart bat an eyelash?

+ Baseball in November? Come on...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1964

For this month's musical best-of list, I'm taking a big leap in the wayback machine. 1964 may seem like ancient history for some of you, yet it was a tipping point in American pop culture whose impact can still be felt 45 years later. Right at the center of everything was The Beatles, who churned out not one but three great albums in '64, heretofore launching the British Invasion and proving that foreign acts can be viable, profitable, and have a long-term impact in the US. That's not to say that it was a bad year for domestic hitmakers, though; Motown was a force to be reckoned with, and out on the west coast the surf sounds of The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean et al. were still pretty happenin'. Plus, it was the first full year of the post-Kennedy era; the nation's priorities were changing, and the desire to try something different was baubling in nearly every direction, especially in regard to music.

Most importantly, 1964 was the year that the rock n' roll LP came to form. Granted, the average consumer more inclined to buy 45s and most full-players were compilations of previously released music (with some filler), but the albums mentioned below slowly altered that perception. Jazz music was best absorbed at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute --another big reason why '64 was a boon year-- though a lot of top 40 acts were slowly realizing the potential of recording in that format. Without further ado...


1. A Love Supreme, John Coltrane. To declare a piece of art --or anything you've created, for that matter-- as your gift to God is a bold statement, one that suggests ambition but also arrogance and delusion. Then again, there were very few jazz musicians quite like Trane. Seven years after kicking a near-deadly heroin habit, Coltrane became a born-again Christian and a well-to-do family man, and this thought-provoking suite emcompasses his rebirth and embrace in a higher being. Nearly half a century on, Supreme is probably far more transcendant (and important) than Coltrane ever intended.
2. A Hard Day's Night, The Beatles. Easily the Fab Four's best early-period album. Not only is Night the de facto soundtrack to an equally great movie, it shows the band coming into their own. The album is a testament to the collaborative powers of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who co-wrote all 14 songs. It's peppy and propulsive, yet to this day it remains oddly fresh.
3. Getz/Gilberto, Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto. One drawback in writing these monthly montages is coming up with something favorable to say without bordering into hyperbole. Luckily, my #3 pick is another artistic milestone in the annals of music; it may not be the purest Bossa Nova album ever recorded, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better one. Simply put, Getz/Gilberto is a thing of beauty.
4. Out To Lunch!, Eric Dolphy
5. Meet The Beatles, The Beatles
6. Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan
7. Song For My Father, Horace Silver
8. Beatles For Sale, The Beatles
9. The Times They Are A-Changin', Bob Dylan
10. 12x5, The Rolling Stones. This is not your father's Stones, though it could be your grandpa's. This sophomore effort from Mick, Keith et al. is a continuation of the dilligent blues covers that dominated their debut, though you begin to see flashes of the juggernaut they would eventually become.

Honorable Mentions: Juju, Wayne Shorter; Spiritual Unity, The Albert Ayler Trio.

As I alluded to before, the individual song carried more weight than a full record around this time, which made whitting my usual favorite singles list down to ten songs an impossible feat. The list that you're about to read is so disparate in genre, form, and style compared to my album picks --and in itself-- it's almost laughable. Here's my top 20 (in no particular order) from '64:

"I Feel Fine," The Beatles
"Bits and Pieces," The Dave Clark Five
"I'm Crying," The Animals
"You Really Got Me," The Kinks
"Oh, Pretty Woman," Roy Orbison
"Money (That's What I Want)," The Kingsmen
"Rag Doll," The Four Seasons
"Where Did Our Love Go," The Supremes
"The Way You Do The Things You Do," The Temptations
"Baby I Need Your Loving," The Four Tops

"Under The Broadwalk," The Drifters
"Remember (Walking In The Sand)," The Shangri-Las
"Be My Baby," The Ronettes
"A Summer Song," Chad & Jeremy
"Surfin' Bird," The Trashmen
"GTO," Ronny and the Daytonas
"Penetration," The Pyramids
"Boss," The Rumblers
"Hey Little Cobra," The Ripchords
"Philly Dog," Herbie Mann

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Milli Tarāna

After 6 1/2 years in Iraq, American foreign policy has shifted back toward the quagmire in Afghanistan. With combat entering its ninth year, whatever success we've had in eradicating the Taliban has slowly diminished. When measured by the number of their attacks, the radical "alternative" government is stronger than at any time since American and NATO troops removed them from power in late 2001. American troops and Marines are dying at a faster rate than ever before, and domestic support for the war is diminishing. The national debate on future American involvement in this perpetually volatile country has hit fever pitch. On one hand, if we were to pull out of Afghanistan, there's little questioning that the Taliban would slowly and eventually return to power. On the other hand, American forces have proven themselves to be insensitive and oblivious to the country's mostly tribal culture, and I don't really get the sense that we're a welcome presence there.

In my opinion, the best thing we can do right now is just stay where we are and keep going with our objectives. There's also the question of whether or not a surge in troops would further the cause. President Bush's decision to expand the number of soldiers in Iraq three years ago was a Hail Mary pass that proved to be a secret success. Iraq has made great strides in becoming a self-governing body in the past couple of years, so transferring more American troops from the Arabian Peninsula could negate speculation that we're spreading our armed forces too thin. This is far from a long-term solution --Hamid Karzai and his increasingly docile government should take some blame for the uptick in terrorist activity-- though it would certainly encourage progress. Then again, the Afghani quagmire is more of a police action than a full-blown war; pardon my vagueness, but the clusters of the country that are dominated by the Taliban must be stabilized before the threat spreads even further.

Other notes:

+ I was down at Illinois State University last weekend, and I was shocked by how much the area has changed in the less than two years since I graduated. Bloomington-Normal is an economic boomtown right now --an anomoly in this day and age-- and the construction around town is apparently moving ahead of schedule. Half the buildings in downtown (Uptown?) Normal have since been razed and rebuilt, and I was surprised to discover that the new on-campus fitness center has a skyway that links to the quad. Granted, it nice to see some old classmates again, but everything else felt bewildering.

+ In spite of my moderate success with Fantasy Baseball, my Roto Football team is 2-4 for the season thus far. I don't think I anticipated so many players having all their bye weeks at the exact same time.

+ I've already stopped giving a damn about Balloon Boy. Just so you know.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Random Notes, October 2009

+ First, we learned that David Letterman was having a rendez-vous with his assistant. Then, Jimmy Kimmel comfirmed that he was dating his head writer. Now I hear that Carson Daly was caught with a box of Kleenex and an L.L. Bean catalog...

+ I'll admit that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for his goals, not for his accomplishments. In his defense, it was a weak year for world peace --a vague statement, but it's true-- and the field was wide open; besides, he's not the worst pick the Nobel committee has ever made (see "Arafat, Yassir"). Nevertheless, I congratulate the president on his award, though I really hope he puts his money where his mouth is.

+ The world is not coming to an end in December 2012, so would everybody just let the topic die already?

+ Boy oh boy, I've been a terrible prognosticator this week. I predicted a Cards-Phillies NLCS and a Bosox-Yankees ALCS, and instead Boston and St. Louis put up terrible first-round performances. On top of that, I picked Jacksonville to humble Seattle in Week 5, not the other way around. On the other hand, my World Series forecast (Philadelphia over New York in 6) is still viable, and it's not like the Jags or She-Hawks are playoff contenders.

+ This Friday I'm driving down to Normal for Illinois State's Homecoming. For the third time in five years, my Redbirds (2-3 for the year) are heading home to face the Indiana State Sycamores, perhaps the worst college football program in the country (32 straight losses and counting dating to 2006). Here's hoping Da Trees make it 33 in a row... though as my previous comment implied, I won't bet the farm on it.

+ I support same-sex marriage, though when you live in a white bread, right-of-center suburb, you have to force yourself to downplay such a bold statement. Last Sunday was National Coming Out Day, and I'd like to dedicate this blog entry to anyone and everyone that has found the courage to be honest about their sexual orientation. In the wake of Prop 8 and growing opposition by the religious right, it'd be foolish to think that legalizing gay unions will happen overnight, but the progress made since the Stonewall Riots 40-plus years ago proves that such a possibility is feasible within our lifetimes. Keep searching for that rainbow!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

We're Gonna Have a Rio... Good Time

Regardless of the outcome, I was fully intent on dedicating this week's entry to the 2016 Summer Olympics. As a Chicagoan, I wasn't particularly shocked that we lost out to Rio de Janiero; all the hype and hoopla you've heard in the past few weeks steered clear of the gaping flaws that ultimately killed our Olympian dreams: our city's history of corrupt politicians, a recent uptick in racially motivated violence, the lack of independent funding for such an event, and most crucially, horrifically poor planning by a steering committee that didn't understand what it took to make it all happen. (Outsourcing certain events to Minneapolis and South Bend? Seriously?) The committee's presentation to the IOC was heavy on glitz and glammer, with endorsements from American sports legends and Chicago-bred celebrities up the ying-yang, and the powers that be saw right through it.

Conservatives will pin the blame on President Obama but the real goat is Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who spent gobs of money that the city doesn't have to foolhardily pursue a lifelong pipe dream. Though Chicago has no intent of trying again for 2020 or 2024, the money lost by Hizzoner's marketing blitz will prevent my hometown from making another serious bid for at least another 20 years. I'm not saying any of this to be anti-Chicagoan or out of spite; it's just the wrong time for an American city to host such a grandiose event.

Other notes:

+ I won my fantasy baseball league! Well, one of them, anyway. I finished 5th out of 8 in the Yahoo/TV.com league, but in my other group I hammered my opponent 9-1 for the title.

+ I don't condone what David Letterman did, but at least he 'fessed up before the blackmail attempt spiraled further out of control. He apologized to his wife, he begged forgiveness to Stephanie Birkett (and God knows who else), and he expressed remorse to anyone that ever worked for him. Some public figures screw up and spend years trying to avoid admitting fault, but Letterman's mea culpa felt honest, punctual, and legitimate. In his defense, Dave won't change the subject because the media won't stop hounding him and his staff about the extortion, and as far as I'm concerned, the most controversial aspect of all this is the defendent is a producer for "48 Hours." On the other hand, I haven't a clue as to what the future holds for him, but if the public can forgive Johnny Carson for his various failed marriages --and assumed infidelities-- why not Dave?

+ An excellent, well-researched article about last weekend's "Obama's Checklist" sketch on SNL.

+ Finally, I just thought I'd mention that last weekend I finished Improv Level B at Second City. I start Level C --the first level to culminate with actual stage performances-- on October 18th.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1999

After spending the past few months writing up best-of lists from years that I knew were strong and top-heavy and contained some of my all-time favorite albums, I decided to challenge myself this time around. The late '90s and early '00s have never really been that high on my radar because I just wasn't into top 40 and CHR around that time; rather than play this by memory, I decided to do my homework. When I look back at that year, it was around the time that I really got into classic rock; I had my first real tastes of bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Rolling Stones during the summer that I turned 15. 1999 was also the year where I began pursuing a career in radio; I hadn't really thought about what I wanted to do with my life at that point, and I had listened to the old WXCD-FM in Chicago to such an extent that I was really curious about being a disc jockey.

In a way, the soundtrack to '99 gets drowned out by all the other artistic achievements of that year. It was a strong year for movies, with cinematic milestones and cult faves such as The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Fight Club, Man on the Moon, Office Space, and to a lesser extent American Beauty. Over on television, "The Sopranos," "The West Wing," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "Freaks & Geeks," "Family Guy," "Futurama," and "Spongebob Squarepants" all bowed in '99. The year in literature alone gave us Isaac's Storm, The Onion Presents: Our Dumb Century, and the third Harry Potter novel. From a pop culture standpoint, the whole year was an assault on the senses. After five weeks of research, however, I think I've pieced together a pretty good summation of what the sounds of 1999 were all about. Here goes:

1. The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips. After fiddling around with an experimental, neo-psychedlic sound for a little over a decade, The Lips pieced together a career-defining album in the wake of a bizarre incident that nearly destroyed the band. (Listen to "The Spiderbite Song" for more details.) Their previous release Zaireeka was a four-disc cacophony of noise that denies any comparison; Bulletin is not as difficult or layered but probably just as weird and a lot more accessible.
2. 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Fields. This set is paid as advertised; three CDs with 23 tracks each, all of which run about two minutes in length, each about love, infatuation, and romance. The songs bounce from one genre to another, from punk to country to the old soft shoe, with a minimalist acoustic sound that's equally cozy and charming. My only question is, why 69 songs? ;)
3. Play, Moby. Nearly every track on this disc either became a top 10 hit, was used in a TV commercial, or became the theme song of a short-lived TV show. If you churned out that many catchy tunes, you'd use every part of the cow, too.
4. Summer Teeth, Wilco
5. When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts..., Fiona Apple
6. 1965, The Afghan Whigs
7. Remedy, Basement Jaxx
8. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Ben Folds Five
9. Midnight Vultures, Beck
10. Californication, Red Hot Chili Peppers. I have a weak spot for a good comeback story, and the Peppers' resurgence stood out the most that year. The uneven One Hot Minute notwithstanding, this was the true follow-up to RHCP's 1991 breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik. With guitarist John Frusicante back in the fold and frontman Anthony Kiedis looking at his demons in the rearview mirror, Californication is as theraputic as it is a goofy, funky party album.

Honorable Mentions: The Gay Parade, Of Montreal; Stupid Dream, Porcupine Tree.

"My Own Worst Enemy," Lit
"Drive," Incubus
"Let Me Go," Cake
"The Kids Aren't Alright," The Offspring
"Take a Picture," Filter
"Everything You Want," Vertical Horizon
"Steal My Sunshine," LEN
"She's So High," Tal Bachman
"Angel," Sarah McLachlan
"The Great Beyond," R.E.M.

1. "Learn To Fly," Foo Fighters. In a year where the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. dominated the gossip pages, several music videos with plane crashes at the heart of the plot were pulled by MTV out of respect to the mourning family. Where Filter's "Take a Picture" and eerie and mopey, "Learn To Fly" was a fun romp. Plus, how can you go wrong with a cameo by Tenacious D?
2. "My Name Is," Enimem. The first of many topical and incediary clips by the "artiste" Marshall Mathers. His Clinton impression looks kinda like Andrew McCarthy.
3. "Praise You," Fatboy Slim. Spike Jonze's gonzo imagination runs wild again. The whole clip is the end result of a mockumentary about a spazzy small-time choreographer (played by Jonze) and his gaggle of dancing misfits.
4. "The Child," Alex Gopher. The director of this video has repeatedly referred to this effort as "word porn," though it's what happens after procreation that dominates the premise.
5. "Coffee & TV," Blur. A poignant love story about anthropomorphic milk cartons, with a mystery to boot. I can't say anything else about it without ruining the plot, though the ambitious usage of old-school trick photography is a sight to behold.

Special thanks to mtjaws for his contribution to this blog entry.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Spare The Rod and Spoil The Toddler

Last weekend Christopher Kelly, an adviser and former fundraiser for impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, died suddenly at age 51 under mysterious circumstances. Kelly, who was convicted last month of tax fraud and was due to report to prison on September 18th, was expected to cooperate with authorities and tell them the full extent of the corruption in the Blagojevich administration. Whether or not this will hinder the feds' investigation remains to be seen; with overwhelming evidence against him, at this point it's not a question of whether Blagojevich will be found guility but how severe his sentence will be. Blago, on the other hand was nowhere near where Kelly's body was found; the former governor was in New York City, beginning another round of mugging to the cameras and stating his case to any media pundit that will listen to (but not necessarily tolerate) him. Kelly's testimony would've fueled the fire, but the government has plenty of lighters and oily rags to spare.

As one Illinois political scandal fades toward its inevitable conclusion, another might be unspooling as we speak. I'm not sure how much national media attention has been given towards Todd Stroger, the incumbent Cook County Board President, but he makes the news here in Chicago almost every night. Last week, it was announced that the Illinois Democratic Party would not endorse Stroger for another term and that there would be a party primary held in early 2010. Stroger's stint as county president has been one big botch job; thrust into office after his father suffered a massive stroke in 2006, "The Toddler" has benefited from nepotism and, like Blagojevich, has stridently defended his platforms despite decreasing public support and near-constant vilification in the local media. In his three years in office, his most notable achievements include hiking the county sales tax to 10.1% (the highest in the nation) and encouraging further nepotism and cronyism. Would anyone care to guess why Stroger has a 10% approval rating?

One last parting shot: have you noticed how Republicans don't want the public option in health care, yet they want it in their marriages? ;)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why Your Team Won't Win Super Bowl XLIV

Ah, football season. For some, it's the beginning of the "real" sports year, when America's real pasttime returns from seven months of hibernation; for others, it's a pleasant distraction between baseball and hockey seasons. (Personally, I sway more towards the former than the latter.) Though I'm excited about my Bears' prospects this year, there can be such a thing as too much optimism. Much like my baseball preview earlier this year, with my predictions I give one or two reasons why your team will not win the Super Bowl this year. Who's got the goods and who are the poseurs? Let's find out:
1. New England (11-5) Tom Brady had better be healthy. The D-line might be on the cusp of an overhaul.
2. Miami* (10-6) Same team as last year, but good luck beating anybody in the AFC East or South. Two rookie starting CBs exposes lack of depth.
3. New York Jets (8-8) Sanchez was a nice long-term pick-up. Playoffs in 2010?
4. Buffalo (5-11) This whole team feels thrown together. Lee Evans will be Trent Edwards' top target, not an aging and overpaid T.O.

1. Pittsburgh (12-4) A model of consistency that defies math and logic. However, do they really have what it takes to be a dynasty?
2. Baltimore* (10-6) Could be really dangerous if the defense stays healthy. Joe Flacco will have a hard time following up his sensational rookie year.
3. Cincinnati (7-9) Carson Palmer and Chad Ocho Cinco are reportedly sharing an apartment. How will this help matters?
4. Cleveland (2-14) Becoming the second winless team of this decade is not out of reach. Hellooooo, first overall draft pick!

1. Indianapolis (11-5) Lots of new faces led to awkward preseason and baffling 1-3 record. Manning and Saturday remain the best QB-center combo of the decade.
2. Jacksonville (9-7) Like Seattle and Baltimore, it all comes down to injuries. Expect an increase over last year's 29 team sacks.
3. Houston (8-8) If Houston were in any other division, they'd compete for a first-round bye. Rex Grossman is Matt Schaub's understudy. Gulp.
4. Tennessee (6-10) Ancient O-line will show its age. Did somebody forget to tell these guys Vince Young is still their quarterback?

1. San Diego (9-7) This team does not deserve to be coached by Norv Turner. With anybody else the Bolts would be a contender.
2. Kansas City (7-9) Matt Cassel is a perfect match for Todd Haley's shotgun-happy offense. Question is, will the new 3-4 scheme work?
3. Denver (6-10) Kyle Orton will make no attempt in replacing Jay Cutler. Also fiddling with that trendy 3-4 scheme, but with all the wrong parts.
4. Oakland (3-13) Adding aging D-liner Richard Seymour won't fix the Raiders' myriad issues on and off the field.

1. New York Giants (12-4) Losing Plaxico Burress won't make a difference. Wondering if the pass rush can keep it together for 16 games will.
2. Philadelphia* (10-6) If Brian Westbrook gets injured again, that last wild card spot will go to the Cowboys. Is Michael Vick worth the distraction?
3. Dallas (9-7) The Cowboys will underperform simply to prevent Tony Romo from getting humiliated in the playoffs again.
4. Washington (5-11) For Daniel Snyder, the 'Skins are like Beanie Babies; it's a big, trendy investment from 10 years ago that hasn't paid off.

1. Chicago (9-7) Cutler's a stud, but will his petulance wear down the rest of the team?
2. Minnesota (7-9) All Day and his fellow receivers will keep this train wreck competitive.
3. Green Bay (6-10) Second-easiest schedule in the league doesn't hide the Packs' inability to convert a first or second down.
4. Detroit (3-13) Will improve on 2008 win total. Need I say more?

1. Atlanta (11-5) The Dirty Birds have a narrow edge on a tight --albeit humdrum-- division. Can Matt Ryan avoid a sophomore jinx?
2. Carolina (9-7) This franchise underwhelms year after year. A winning record might actually be too generous this time around.
3. New Orleans (7-9) Quite possibly the worst pass defense in the NFC. Drew Brees and his pass-happy offense will be stuck doing the Lord's work.
4. Tampa Bay (6-10) Signing Kellen Winslow, Jr. automatically enhances a mediocre offense. Too bad the Bucs couldn't fix their defense or secondary.

1. Seattle (11-5) The She-hawks will pound anything in sight... as long as the offense stays healthy.
2. Arizona (10-6)* Lack of a clutch defense, post-Super Bowl hangover will hinder an otherwise talented lineup.
3. San Francisco (5-11) Coach Singletary will push fundamentals and old-school grit on a brash young team, but where's the talent?
4. St. Louis (4-12) There's a glimmer of hope here... in two years. That's not sarcasm; I can see the nucleus of a playoff contender in the baby Rams.

*Wild Card

In all seriousness, here are my straight-up predictions for the 2009 NFL season:
First Head Coach Fired (During Season): Brad Childress, Vikings
First Head Coach Fired (Post-season): Josh McDaniels, Broncos
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Sanchez, Jets
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Tyson Jackson, Chiefs
NFL MVP: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
Super Bowl XLIV: Giants 24, Steelers 20

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September? Already?

I'm working extra hours at work this week, so I'll have to keep this short:

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) was an eloquent statesman, no friend of the conservative think-tank yet respected for his negotiation skills and many years of hard-fought service to the American government. A lot of people have argued in the past week that his death at age 77 has been blown out of proportion by the media, a criticism that isn't completely invalid. If Teddy wasn't part of a legendary political family, or the last living reminder of a halyconic dynasty frequently beset by tragedy, coverage of his passing would've been incredibly basic: "Breaking News" status on all the cable and internet news outlets, a handful of mournful blurbs from those who knew him closest, and a proper funeral that would've merited (at most) 30 seconds of attention on the 10 o'clock news. Alas, Kennedy was no ordinary public servant; he carried the burden of his older brothers' premature deaths --not to mention his own unfortunate youthful discretions-- to become the face of the Democratic party and one of the most crucial liberal movers-and-shakers of the past 50 years. Whether you liked him or not, there's never going to be anybody quite like Teddy blustering through the U.S. Senate ever again.

Other notes:

+ I somehow managed to draft Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson onto my fantasy football team this season. Even though my league has just six teams, I still have no idea how I pulled that off.

+ Meanwhile, in fantasy baseball I dropped Johan Santana following his bone chip injury and picked up Randy Wolf, who'd been a workhorse on my other team. From the looks of it, both of my fantasy teams will make the playoffs this year (one has already clinched).

+ Did the Associated Press completely forget that Utah is a dry state?

+ Scientists have discovered the coldest, driest, calmest place on Earth... on the other side of Gov. Mark Sanford's bed.

+ Happy 70th anniversary, World War II!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1969

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and the moon landing in the rear-view mirrors of our minds, this month's musical lovefest drops down on 1969. It's difficult to find fault with the waning days of the '60s --Altamont notwithstanding-- if only because so many major acts were running on all cylinders. It was the last great year for Motown and all things psychedelic, the first great year for hard rock and the singer-songwriter era, and AM radio bubblegum was at its apex. Alas, this year was jam-packed with so much good stuff that I couldn't squeeze it down to ten songs and ten albums, so this month I decided to double up.


1. Abbey Road, The Beatles. The Fab Four's last studio effort --and their penultimate release as a band-- is a case example of brilliance under duress. There was little questioning the fact that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison were barely on speaking terms at this point, with Ringo Starr at the eye of the storm. The album itself is a continuation of the themes set by The White Album and strongly foreshadows the entire band's varying solo careers. Several ideas, including the "Sun King" medley on Side B, feel unfinished or half-hearted yet mesh well together. Harrison steals the show, however with two of the finest songs he ever wrote, "Something" and "Here Comes The Sun."
2. Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin. Where the first album was 45 minutes of compelling, hard-charging acid-blues, the sequel found Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones moving towards a sound that would be distinctly their own. "Whole Lotta Love" sets the tone and it never lets up.
3. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground. Of the Velvets' four proper albums this is arguably my favorite. They're all masterpieces in their own right, but there's something about their third full-player that I keep coming back to. Most rock historians judge this album as the one that single-handedly turned folk-rock upside down, an argument that's hard to dispute; it's a mostly acoustic affair flavored by the nihilistic weirdness of the Velvets' first two efforts. Purists often deride Doug Yule's presence on the disc (he replaced founding member John Cale) but he only factors on two tracks; Lou Reed is the undisputed star here.
4. Tommy, The Who
5. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Neil Young
6. The Band, The Band
7. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin
8. Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire), The Kinks
9. Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones
10. Willy and the Poor Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival. In this day and age, a band releasing two new studio albums in one calendar year is unheard of. In 1969, CCR released three LPs, and third of that bunch rivals Cosmo's Factory as one of their strongest efforts. The beautifully haunting "Effigy" notwithstanding it's also their breeziest album, 30+ minutes of country-blues-rockabilly fun.

11. In a Silent Way, Miles Davis. If there's an album in the legendary Davis oeurve that parallels The Beatles' Rubber Soul as a turning point in the artist's style and dynamic, this is probably it. Muted and ambient, In a Silent Way was a farewell of sorts to the bebop-tinged jazz that put Miles on the map and the beginning of a hard push into avant-garde and the fusion sound that dominated his early-70s work.
12. In The Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson
13. Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan
14. Blind Faith, Blind Faith
15. Santana, Santana
16. Unhalfbricking, Fairport Convention
17. Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago
18. Karma, Pharoah Sanders
19. Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane
20. Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Upon listening to this album for the first time, one could call this double-LP a bizarre, unlistenable mess; after all, it's five "musicians" that can barely play their instruments as a white Howlin' Wolf imitator recites stream-of-consciousness poetry. Then you peel away the layers; the sound was orchestrated to be abstract, the arrangements carefully scripted and manicured by Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet, and his partner in crime Frank Zappa. A highly influential album in the punk/new wave era, not as a literal musical starting point but as a catalyst of do-it-yourself experimentation.

"Dizzy," Tommy Roe
"Suspicious Minds," Elvis Presley
"Sweet Caroline," Neil Diamond
"In The Year 2525," Zager and Evans
"(Theme from) Hawaii Five-O," The Ventures
"Tracy," The Cuff Links
"One," Three Dog Night
"You've Made Me So Very Happy," Blood, Sweat & Tears
"Polk Salad Annie," Tony Joe White
"Get Together," The Youngbloods

"Get Ready," Rare Earth
"Baby It's You," Smith
"What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)," Jr. Walker & The All-Stars
"Compared to What," Les McCann and Eddie Harris
"Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In," The 5th Dimension
"With a Little Help From My Friends," Joe Cocker
"Spirit in the Sky," Norman Greenbaum
"Touch Me," The Doors
"Space Oddity," David Bowie
"Pictures of Matchstick Men," Status Quo

Finally, for next month's annual musical salute, I was thinking of doing a people's choice. I'd like to cover the year 1999, but I've only listened to five or six albums from that year (not counting the Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys CDs that my sister nearly played to death). Feel free to PM me your suggestions.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stuart Matthew Allard, the First 9,131 Days or So: A Self-Indulgent 25th Birthday Celebration

Last week, in the span of 24 hours I achieved three milestones at TV.com: 25,000 forum posts, 300 forum topics created, and 14,900 approved submissions. Either this cements my status as one of the most prolific contributors in the unofficial nine-year history of the site or makes a statement about my fledging social life, take your pick. On top of that, today's my 25th birthday and we're entering what is considered the "slow" part of the year in terms of current events*. So how should I take advantage of this unusual alignment of stars? Why, some top five lists, of course!

Five Trendy Dog Names That Could Easily Be Confused for Skin Disorders:

1. "Frengle"
2. "Zena"
3. "Taz"
4. "Rosacea"
5. "Spot"

Five Elements on the Periodic Table and Their Long-Hidden Criminal Records:

1. Strontium (held up a White Hen Pantry)
2. Bismuth (37 parking tickets dating back to 1998)
3. Praseodymium (allegedly instigated a Lanthanoid-Actinoid gang war)
4. Ununoctium (two counts of graft, three counts of mail fraud; walked on a technicality)
5. Krypton (no explanation necessary)

Five Unhelpful Sentences Used by Spelling Bee Judges to Derive the Meaning of the Word:

1. "_________ is the word you are trying to spell."
2. "_________ is one of my favorite words."
3. "_________ is a word that will never come out of Spencer Pratt's mouth."
4. "There is a single word that could alter the course of your life, that if spelled correctly will give you the personal validation and respect of your peers that you've been largely denied in your brief lifetime, and if answered incorrectly will not only further your social ostracization but hinder any future human interaction and subject you to a long, miserable life of silent anguish... and that word is _________."
5. "If you don't spell _________, I will lose fifty dollars. Let's be honest- this whole thing is rigged."

My Five Favorite Current Pittsburgh Pirates:

1. That guy
2. The other guy
3. That dude, you know, with the moustache?
4. The bullpen catcher
5. Andrew McCutchen

*Yes, I realize President Obama is backpedaling on universal health care, but there's really nothing I can add to the subject that I didn't already say two weeks ago. Plus, today's my birthday!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Capricious Card Collector Conundrum

As some of my longtime readers know, I have a large collection of sports cards and memorabilia. One of the more peculiar trends in recent years is the insertion of cards featuring famous non-athletes, stars from unrelated sports, or cards commemorating historical events. Case in point: in any pack of 2009 Upper Deck Heroes football, you are just as likely to pull a Jay Cutler or Ladainian Tomlinson card as you would Thomas Edison or Davy Crockett. In one pack of 2009 Spectrum baseball (another UD brand) that I bought earlier this year, I pulled an authentic Kendra Wilkinson autograph card, made all the more impressive because I had no idea she could read or write. But I digress.

I mention this because Upper Deck is just about to take this fad to a peculiar extreme. This week, the California-based company will release Goodwin Champions, a faux-retro set depicting modern-day players on an obscure 19th-century card design. The prospect of seeing sepia-toned trading cards of Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter is nothing new, if brands like Topps Heritage and the rejuvinated O-Pee-Chee are any indicator. The key issue is what will be inserted in packs of Goodwin. This product will feature an insert set called Landmarks (elements from notable locations, like sand from the Gobi Desert and salt from the Dead Sea, in clear plastic casing), Thoroughbred Haircut cards (swatches of hair from Smarty Jones and Funny Cide, among others), and perhaps most interestingly, cards celebrating the field of entomology featuring actual specimens. Yes folks, dead bugs in a pack of baseball cards. Whoever handles product development at Upper Deck has clearly lost their mind, and we shall suffer for their insanity. For more information, plus a scanned image of a dead bug card, click here.

Other notes:

+ In case you hadn't already heard...

+ I caught a preview of the new NBC comedy "Community," and to be honest it doesn't look half-bad. As much as I enjoyed "My Name Is Earl," the tone of this new show fits better with the remaining Thursday night comedies.

+ As of yesterday, both of my fantasy baseball teams are in fifth place. I'm still debating in my head whether or not to drop Scott Rolen; if all else fails, I'll keep him on my bench until he recovers from "concussion-like symptoms."

+ A woman in New York State became the first American recipient of a wireless pacemaker that will allow her doctor to monitor her heartbeat via the internet. I wonder what would happen if she wandered into a dead zone...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The First 6 1/2 Months

Last week, President Obama held a press conference to announce that ecomonic growth is moving faster than previously expected. While we're not quite out of the recession just yet, it was a minor highlight in what has been an otherwise hit-and-miss first six months for the Obama administration. Though his approval rating might be just below 60%, it's not necessarily nose-diving. While the first 100 days might set the tone for an administration, it's not an indicator of where a president's public support will be in six months, much less a year down the road. (for more number-crunching, check out this article from RealClearPolitics.) Considering my reputation for just-left-of-center political posturing, one might wonder what my thoughts are toward President Obama at this point in time. Well...

With the Dow Jones back in the 9000s and unemployment holding steady --not rising, not shrinking, just there-- it seems that the worst aspects of the recession are behind us. Even so, I'll admit that Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package is off to a slow start. I guess the confusion begins at the speed of which the money is spent; it'd be foolish to spend it all in the matter of a year, though the rate at which the $787 billion is actually being spent keeps accelerating. I haven't a clue as to how much the economy really has been affected by the stimulus, though if it really is skimming over unrelated policy goals, it won't be the monsterous long-term debt that most conservatives have feared.

On a related note, and I say this with great trepidation, I don't think the president's attempts at health care reform are going to pull through; not because of the expense, but because of Obama's inattentiveness towards the small details. In other words, how universal is universal health care? Will surplus money really go towards lowering the costs of medicine? He's not aggressively pushing the fix, yet strangely reluctant to compromise, which has resulted in bickering between moderate Democrats and the party core. The moderates and conservatives are obstructing reform, and while I don't necessarily blame them, their greatest nitpick seems to be the price tag and not in the outline. Health care reform is not hopeless, though it may appear that way; what isn't repaired now will have ramifications for years to come, no matter how flawed Obama's proposal might be.

Sadly, I can't avoid the subject of race. Before Obama took office, I'd hoped that this topic would be largely avoided, but both sides of the political spectrum keep dragging it out for a debate that nobody wants to join in. The Skip Gates controversy should be water under the bridge by now, and I'm not convinced that Sonia Sotomayor is any more racist than Antonin Scalia. Unfortnately, there's a stereotypical public perception that the majority of America's black population gravitiates towards socialism and that Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are leading the movement. That's pure ignorance for a variety of reasons. One of the smartest things Obama has done, however is keeping Jackson and Sharpton's influence to a minimum; he's still playing to the center and they'd just be far-left deadweight. These three man are community leaders, but they are not the faces of Black America.

A red-blooded conservative will look at this and think I'm an Obama apologist, but I'm not writing this to paint a rosy picture. With power comes responsibility, and responsibility begats risk. That was probably the hardest-fought lesson I learned from the Bush administration, the only difference is Bush seemed far more content working by himself and doing things his way, regardless of what the GOP core had in mind. There's no question that the policies that President Obama has put into effect these past few months have been drastic and polarizing, but I'm still guardedly optimistic that there will be long-term benefits. Rome wasn't built in a day, and America won't be rebuilt overnight.

Other notes:

+ If I still had my black '98 Taurus, I'm pretty sure it'd be eligible for that "cash for clunkers" program.

+ The weekend before last, I completed and passed Improv Level A at Second City. I start Level B this coming Sunday.

+ My Royals did next to nothing at the trade deadline, picking up a utility outfielder from Detroit for cash considerations. I don't think .500 is feasible at this point, but 75 wins is not out of reach.

+ I started up a fantasy football league over at Yahoo just for TV.com members. If you're interested, PM me as soon as possible.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1994

I promised a different decade, and I give you another decade...

I wonder what can be said about 1994 that hasn't already been recycled, rehashed and stewed into cliche. That it was the year Kurt Cobain --and to some degree, the grunge movement-- entered eternal life? That gangsta rap went mainstream? That emo broke out? When punk made its big comeback after lying low for nearly a decade? That a certain legendary music festival was revisited upon its 25th anniversary, only to be morphed into a highly commercial, money-making opportunity? Whether you look back at 15 years ago with glee or mild misgivings, you can't doubt the quality of music that came out that year.

1. Grace, Jeff Buckley. In a year that was top-heavy on strong debut efforts and breakthrough CDs, Buckley's first (and sadly, his only proper) disc takes the cake. His cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is the track everybody remembers, but his textured dabbles in jazz, folk, and alt-rock make Grace a ponderance at what could've been a long and healthy career as the Gen-X Van Morrison.
2. Ill Communication, Beastie Boys. Muscular, vigorous, and perhaps their most introspective piece of work, the Boys' follow-up to Check Your Head follows the same blueprint as its predecessor yet soars a tad higher. Singles like "Sure Shot" and "Root Down" hold their own against funky experimental pieces such as "Flute Loop" and "Bodhisattva Vow."
3. The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers. Incidiary for the sake of being incidiary, MSP's third album is their most political, visceral, and focused. Nothing is spared of guitarist Richey James' vitriol, from abortion to anorexia to the perception to the shallowness of American pop culture. Unfortunately, James' rants might've worked too well; shortly after the album's release he suddenly disappeared, either a victim of those he railed against or his myriad personal problems. (The remaining trio soldiers on to this day.)
4. Weezer (aka The Blue Album), Weezer
5. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement
6. Dookie, Green Day
7. Vitalogy, Pearl Jam
8. The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails
9. Superunknown, Soundgarden
10. MTV Unplugged In New York, Nirvana. CD releases of the popular MTV concert series were a dime a dozen in the mid-90s, yet the Seattle trio's 1993 performance is on a completely different wavelength. Emotionally naked and seering, the whole show plays out like Kurt Cobain's farewell message from beyond the grave. It's impossible to listen to the closing cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" and not feel haunted.

Honorable Mentions: Bee Thousand, Guided By Voices; Illmatic, Nas; Definitely Maybe, Oasis; Smash, The Offspring.

"You Wreck Me," Tom Petty
"Cornflake Girl," Tori Amos
"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" R.E.M.
"She Don't Use Jelly," The Flaming Lips
"Seether," Veruca Salt
"I Alone," Live
"Bull in the Heather," Sonic Youth
"Fade Into You," Mazzy Star
"Whatta Man," Salt-N-Pepa
"Nuttin' But Love," Heavy D & The Boyz

1. "Sabotage," Beastie Boys. Maybe the best music video ever?
2. "Closer," Nine Inch Nails. Very creepy, somewhat disturbing... and kinda hypnotic.
3. "Buddy Holly," Weezer. Innovative usage of digital green-screen technology transplants Rivers Cuomo and company in a typical episode of "Happy Days." Did Spike Jonze have a banner year or what?
4. "Gin n' Juice," Snoop Doggy Dogg. Home Boy Alone!
5. "Basket Case," Green Day. A surreal, color-saturated trip through a mental institution. No need for critical thought here; it's just a fun clip.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bummer in the Summer

As I write this, I'm still reeling from maybe the worst weekend I've ever had. It all started on Saturday morning; at the current radio station that I work it, I handle phones for a call-in nutritional/dietary advice talk show. It has nothing to do with traffic/billing or reception, it's just a little side money. There was an on-air contest for tickets to an air show in Wisconsin, with the 5th, 10th, and 12th callers each receiving prizes. Somewhere in receiving my instructions for the show, I forgot that the host wanted to speak with the winners live on-air. When the winners called in, I jotted down their contact info but I forgot to put them back on hold. The producer called the main studio to inform me of my mistake (the show is produced outside of the station), I had to backpedal and call back the three winners, but at that point there wasn't enough time left in the show to get them on-air. Two days later I was relieved of my duties as phone operator, partially because of my flub, but also because the producer wanted to experiment with an in-house phone guy, thus preventing any future miscommunication.

After work, I had to run some errands. I was driving home, going about 27 in a 25 MPH zone, when all of a sudden a little boy bolted across the street. A family had parked their van across the street from what appeared to be a relative's house. The parents were still standing beside the van with their daughter, and their eldest son was standing on the opposite side of the street. The younger son was running from the van towards his big brother. The little kid didn't look both ways and tried to gun it. Luckily for both of us, I hit the brakes just in time, the boy took two steps back, than waited to cross after I drove past the van. If I hit the brakes two seconds later, I likely would've committed vehicular manslaughter.

Of course, those two missteps don't compare to the bombshell I received Sunday afternoon. I was at Chicago Union Station after class at SC, and I had some time to kill, so decided to check my Facebook news feed with my cell phone. As I scanned down the status updates, I saw that my girlfriend from three years ago posted "I'm engaged to the most amazing man in the world!!!!!!!" Apparently, her current boyfriend popped the question on a cruise ship on Saturday night. Suffice to say, I was speechless. First off, she's only been with her new fiancee for about four months; we dated for seven. Secondly, who goes online on a cruise ship? Thirdly, why did I have to find out about this on fucking Facebook? Couldn't she have waited to break the news once she was back on American soil? (Don't worry folks, I'm about 95% sure she never reads this blog.) For the last two days, I've been venting to anyone that will listen. Without getting too personal, I really don't know how to react or what to say about the whole situation, and I'm having a hard time not thinking about it.

Other notes:

+ Looking at my Emmy predictions from three months ago, I'm surprised that the powers that be made more daring selections than I did. Of course, I also stuck with the old five-nominees per category rule (the maximum is now six, unless there's a tie for the final spot). For every force-of-habit, questionably deserving nomination like Tony Shalhoub, there's a pleasant surprise like "Flight of the Conchords" (who were on my 2008 ballot). My biggest gripe, obviously would be the selection of "Family Guy" for best comedy series. As I explained in the FG forum at TV.com, I find it mystifying that the committee chose an animated series that has broken little new ground and might very well be past its prime, yet "The Simpsons," the show that paved the way for TV-14 toons like FG, has never been nominated in this category.

+ For what seems like the sixth time in the past year, the title of World's Oldest Man has been passed to the next-oldest person. Boy, it must be jinxed or something. But seriously, this time around it's a 112-year-old resident of Montana, and according to an AP article he was born in 1896 and cast his first presidential ballot for Woodrow Wilson. (The legal voting age was 21 in 1916, so that's a nitpick.)

+ Finally- if anybody's looking for all my old blogs, they're archived at most of the other CNet sites (Gamespot, MovieTome, and the soon-to-be-vanquished mp3.com). Just so you know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Prince Albert in a Can: My Midseason Baseball Breakdown

It's been almost a week since the TV.com blog bug started, and since I don't know if and when I can post new blogs on the site, this week's missive will be posted exclusively on this site. If anything has come from the inexplicible disappearance of 175-plus blogs, I've noticed that my stance on the political spectrum has inched a lot closer to the center, at least compared to my rant in WU #38. Was "Quailgate" really that big a deal? That rant is so underinformed it's almost embarassing, though my heart was certainly in the right place.

Today's the All-Star Game, so clearly I have baseball on the mind. Here's some stray observations on the season so far and what's coming ahead:

+ Looking at my preseason predictions, I was either right on the money on some team's forecasts or dead, dead wrong on others. My thoughts on the AL West are eerily accurate, though my AL Central picks are a mess. When I said Washington would win 65 games, I didn't think I was being generous; right now they're easily the worst team in baseball and to avoid 110 losses would be an uphill battle. I took a risk picking San Francisco to win the NL West, and now they're my undisputed choice for the NL Wild Card. Bruce Bochy is a far greater manager than he's credited for. The so-called experts goofed us into thinking there would be a Rays-Cubs World Series, but I was only half-fooled.

+ If Albert Pujols retired tomorrow he'd still be a hall of famer. An article in this week's Sports Illustrated suggests that Prince Albert might have the best first 8 1/2 seasons of any player in major league history, and I can't disagree with that statement. He hit the ground running when he made the bigs in 2001, and outside of one or two minor hiccups Pujols just hasn't relented. In his worst offensive season so far (2002), Pujols batted a pathetic .314 with a measly 34 home runs and a paltry 127 RBI. At his current pace, #5 will smack 57 homers and 154 ribbies to accompany his .330-plus average. Plus, if it's worth noting, he hasn't had a single steroid allegation. Albert Pujols is not only my NL MVP for 2009, but probably 2010 as well.

+ I was down in Bloomington-Normal last weekend, so I didn't hear about Jonathan Sanchez' no-hitter until the morning after, when I read it on the ESPNews scroll on the bottom of the screen. Worse yet, I didn't see the highlights until early Monday evening. I really get a kick out of a dominant pitching performance, especially since the MLB is still recovering from its post-steroid hangover, so it looks like I missed a really fun ballgame. Than again, Chicagoans couldn't care less about west coast night games unless one of the local teams are involved.

+ I predict Zach Greinke will win 22 games... and the Royals will lose 95. On that note, Zach Greinke will win the AL Cy Young Award and the Royals will have the fourth or fifth pick in the 2010 MLB Draft. If we gave the poor guy any defense in the infield, he'd still have an ERA below two.

+ Since Wieters and Andy Mac haven't made an immediate impact, I'm changing my Rookie of the Year picks to Gordon Beckham and Colby Rasmus. Both guys are playing like they were ready-made for the bigs, with plenty of upside to boot, and I'll let the stats speak for themselves.
+ As for my latest World Series prediction, I see the Dodgers cutting down the Red Sox in 6 games. If the National League could be summed up like outdated college student stereotypes, Los Angeles is the BMOC, the undisputed golden boy with his finger wrapped around the whole campus. (In turn, the Chicago Cubs are that solid-B student that spends all his free time playing World of Warcraft.) Boston probably has the more talented roster, but the Dodgers keep squeezing out wins in spite of injuries (Will Ohman), suspensions (Manny), and prolonged batting slumps (Russ Martin).

Your thoughts?