Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Those Wonderful Years in Music... 1988 and 1989

In honor of my big milestone last week, our monthly salute to a particular year in music is going to be a two-fer. I decided to clump 1988 and 1989 together because they were part of a distinctive transitional period; I'll even make the case that the late '80s is the gray zone in the musical generation gap, when rock purists gave up on the Top 40, hair metal was king, pop was synth-heavy piffle, and rap and alt-rock were inching into the mainstream. Twenty years on, it appears that college rock was the place to be, with on-the-cusp bands like R.E.M. and The Pixies leading the movement. That's not to say commerical radio in '88 and '89 was a massive black hole; there were a few good songs here and there but the then-current trends of the industry haven't aged that well. (Case in point: Will To Power.) As these records and singles suggest, it was a good time to dig deep.


1. Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth. Marking the culmination of their transition from abrasive noise-rock to post-punk art-rock, Thurston Moore and company cook up a potluck dinner of sound: sprawling, varying, and quite filling. The seven-minute anti-anthem "Teenage Riot" lures you in and there's no looking back.
2. Nothing's Shocking, Jane's Addiction. From my review on mp3.com: "(This) fusion of metal and prog-rock is as influental as it is something to behold, and almost every track has a distinct tension that makes you wonder if it'll fall apart or make a smooth landing... 'Summertime Rolls,' 'Mountain Song,' 'Idiots Rule,' and the hit 'Jane Says' combine for a formidable foursome."
3. Green, R.E.M. After five decade-defining LPs on the I.R.S. label, Michael Stipe and the boys lept to Geffen --and into the American mainstream-- with their sixth out-of-the-park home run in as many years. Their previous disc Document gave the quartet their first two Top 40 hits, but Green cemented their place in the higher echelons of rock. If you don't believe me, listen to "Stand," "Orange Crush," or "Pop Song '89."
4. Surfer Rosa, The Pixies
5. Isn't Anything, My Bloody Valentine
6. ...And Justice For All, Metallica
7. It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy
8. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Camper Van Beethoven
9. Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche
10. I'm Your Man, Leonard Cohen. I had a hard time finishing this top ten, so for my last selection of '88 I chose an album that was pretty good though not exactly essential. Cohen as an artist is hard to absorb quickly; he's a poet first and foremost, and his arrangements can be sparse and samey, but once you peel away the layers of his lyrics it's hard to back off. Man was his comeback album of sorts, 41 minutes of palpable angst and lovelorn ennui.

BEST SINGLES OF 1988 (in no particular order)

"Handle With Care," The Traveling Wilburys
"Under the Milky Way," The Church
"What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)," Information Society
"Chains of Love," Erasure
"Desire," U2
"Finish What Ya Started," Van Halen
"Stigmata," Ministry
"Fast Car," Tracy Chapman
"Sweet Jane," Cowboy Junkies
"Apron Strings," Everything But the Girl


1. "Sweet Child O' Mine," Guns n' Roses. The biggest rock band on the planet in the flesh. It's not so much a showcase of Axl and Slash as it is for everyone involved. It doesn't hurt that it's an awesome song, either.
2. "New Sensation," INXS. Pretty, pretty lights...
3. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," Poison. The Camembert of '80s metal cheese.


1. Paul's Boutique, Beastie Boys. On the heels of Licensed to Ill and an ugly breakup with their original label, the New York rap-rock trio wandered into their sophomore effort with both high expectations and nothing to lose. The end result was a record that ushered sampling as an art form; so loaded with random lyrics and beats from older, more familiar songs that an effort like this could never be equaled, mostly because it risks copyright infringement. Check out "Shake Your Rump" or "The Sounds of Science."
2. Doolittle, The Pixies. In the late '80s it was hard to find a band anywhere near as cool as The Pixies, and their second album finds them at the peak of their creative powers. Harnassing the noise of their first album for something a little more melodic, Doolittle is bolstered by the tight songwriting of frontman Black Francis and the punchy bass of Kim Deal.
3. Disintegration, The Cure. Another career-defining album, this time from goth forefather Robert Smith and his mopey band of minstrels. Gloom and doom rarely sounds this alluring.
4. Three Feet High and Rising, De La Soul
5. The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
6. Full Moon Fever, Tom Petty
7. 13 Songs, Fugazi
8. Energy, Operation Ivy
9. Letter From Home, The Pat Metheny Group
10. Cosmic Thing, The B-52s. After the death of founding member Ricky Wilson in 1985, the remaining members of the Athens, GA-based new wave band were left for dead on the music scene. That's what makes their comeback album so curious to listen to. There's no bitterness or pride being swallowed; they dusted themselves off and went back to making fun, catchy pop music. "Love Shack" is filled with goofy, unbridled joy, while "Roam" could be interpreted as a vaguely defined allusion for the band's slow rise from oblivion.

BEST SINGLES OF 1989 (in no particular order)

"Like a Prayer," Madonna
"She Drives Me Crazy," Fine Young Cannibals
"Veronica," Elvis Costello
"Living in the Free World," Neil Young
"The Downeaster Alexa," Billy Joel
"The Living Years," Mike + The Mechanics
"The End of the Innocence," Don Henley
"Bust a Move," Young MC
"Knock Me Down," Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Head Like a Hole," Nine Inch Nails


1. "One," Metallica. It's tough to say at what point Metallica sold out. Was it The Black Album? When they cut their hair? When they released a live album with a symphony orchestra? The Napster flap? Some diehards would suggest Lars, James, et al. jumped the shark with this video, a somber and somewhat grotesque story of a man who just wants to feel something... anything...
2. "Janie's Got a Gun," Aerosmith. A brutal, realistic look at child abuse, and a precursor to a string of '90s videos that dealt with heavy social issues.
3. "If I Could Turn Back Time," Cher. Well, uh... um... just click on the link, okay?

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Dubious Milestone

Here we are- 200 weekly updates. They said I wouldn't last six weeks. Stupid doctors!

To be honest, I was hard-pressed to come up with something special to write for this week. Initially, I was going to pick my five favorite and least favorite entries, but I nixed it because A) I'd like to think that my writing is constantly evolving, so much that it'd hard to compare the first few WU's with say, last week's pirate rant, and B) I'm my own most damnening critic. However, if I had to pick one update that I truly regret writing, that would probably be WU #66 (that is to say, from the old site). When I was at Illinois State, the amount of free time I had to write would wildly vary, and on some occasions I almost forget it was Tuesday and I had to slap something together between classes. WU #66 took all of 45 minutes to write and it shows; while I still dislike "Full House," I don't think I did a dilligent job of expressing my animosity toward the Tanner family.

On the other hand, I wondered how appropriate it was to mark the occasion. After all, last week was the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings and yesterday marked the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine massacre. Both incidents occured at oddly convinient times in my life; I was in 8th grade when the tragedy in Colorado happened, and a college senior when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded at least a dozen others. At the time, both were the deadliest shooting incidents in American history, reminders of the fragility of life and the abstruse nature of the gun contol debate. The victims were my peers, and in the days following the shootings I felt a little less safe in the world.

Rather than deconstruct four years' of writing, however I want to take this time to reflect. I'd like to thank everyone that made this possible, from my friends and family to all the wonderful people that comment and critique this blog every week. On that note, I do have something special to share: this summer, I will be taking a class at the famed Second City comedy training center in Chicago. This is a lifelong dream of mine and I still can't fathom that it's finally become a reality.

Of course, this milestone shouldn't entirely be about me. Congratulations to TheDiamondDog on her 1,000th blog at TV.com/Gamespot/Movie Tome/what used to be mp3.com. That number is hard to fathom- that's roughly five new blogs every week since June 2005. A tip of the hat to you, Mel.

Finally, just for old times' sake, here's a top five list:

TV.com's Five Least Popular Children's Shows:
1. Let's Drink Paint
2. The Latchkey Gang
3. Inside The Toolshed with Gropie Fondleman
4. The Magical Abandoned Refrigerator
5. Backyardigans After Dark

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Somalia, Wake Up

As you've probably heard by now, last weekend U.S. Navy SEAL snipers rescued the American sea captain who offered himself as a hostage to save his crew from Somali pirates. As a result of this incident, the pirate crisis in the Indian Ocean, a rampant problem since the early '90s, has finally finangled itself into the American conscious. It feels like hyperbole to think of these pirates as terrorists; if anything, they're a bunch of misguided teenagers, hoodlums, and theives. They strike with harpoons and handguns, not molotov cocktails. This is not intended to trivialize or marginalize a serious problem; they simply lack the coordination and lust for an oppressive new world order than, say, The Taliban. (It's rumored that Al Qaida has a base outside the capital city of Mogadishu, and the Somali population is mostly Islamic, but that's another story.)

There's no question that as a country Somalia is in really bad shape; one roving journalist was quoting as saying last year that "(it) makes Iraq look like Switzerland in comparision." It's a lawless hellhole of a land, where poverty is rampant, the government is corrupt, and anti-American sentiments have been simmering since the "Black Hawk Down" incident 16 years ago. Somalia is near the top of a long and sorry list of African countries with weak (if not non-existant) central leadership, teetering on the brink of civil war and/or genocide. This is a problem with no easy solution, and as long as Somalia has no governing authority and no one to police their actions, the Gulf of Aden may very well be most dangerous body of water on the planet. Most of the European Union learned this the hard way, and last week the United States did, too.

Other notes:

+ For all the attention that Harry Kalas has received for his passing, all deserving and very affectionate, the sudden death of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych has gotten lost in the media shuffle. The ex-Tigers pitcher was found on his farm in Northborough, MA, and of this writing foul play had not been ruled out in his death. Though Fidrych only pitched one full season in the bigs, a memorable rookie season where he went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and a now-staggering 24 complete games, he's best remembered as being one of the quirkiest players to ever take the field. I am not a Detroit native nor was I alive to see the "Summer of Bird," but Fidrych made his presence known in old footage on ESPN Classic and the MLB Network. He would play with the dirt on the mound, he held conversations with the ball before he threw it, and high-fived his teammates in the middle of a game. Fidrych didn't have superstitions, he had shtick. He was a genuinely colorful guy in a game addled by cheaters and prima donnas, and to see him die just before his 55th birthday is a damn shame.

+ I finally listened to the new Springsteen album. I liked it, but I didn't necessarily love it.

+ I finished third out of five in my fantasy hockey league. Not... awful.

Next Week: WU #200... well, at TV.com, anyway.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Straighten Up and Fly Right

Ever since the Democrats took over the White House and both houses of Congress three months ago, the Republican minority has become strident and defensive in their disapproval of President Obama's policies. Strangely, this opposition has been all bark and no bite; rather than state their agenda, all they've done is whine and complain. Party leaders claim that they have an economic strategy of their own, but seem reluctant to spill the details. Is this the real deal, or just smoke and mirrors like John McCain's economic outline last year? If the GOP has a better way of doing things, why don't they explain how they would handle things differently than Obama? Maybe if the Republicans weren't so allergic to open government, they wouldn't have lost complete control 2 1/2 years ago. I'm a firm believer in the two-party system, but if you want to give the American people a choice, you need to give them the option.

I will attest that both the Republican and Democratic Parties have their share of problems (Speaker Pelosi's cluelessness notwithstanding), yet the GOP's maladies are far more egregious. It's sad when a media pundit like Rush Limbaugh has a stronger vision of the state of the party than a figurehead like Michael Steele. Bill O'Reilly, a longtime right-leaning independent, is slowly tilting towards the center out of his frustration with the tighty righties. This brings me back to my CPAC rant from five weeks ago; if the GOP wants to make their voice heard they need a singular focus to match their biggest target (i.e. the president). Stop making redundant comments like "criticizing Obama is not racist," stifle all the aberrant conspiracy theories, quit playing the victim, and most importantly, concentrate on the president's policies and what you think would be the best course of action for this country. It's not that difficult.

Other notes:

+ In a related story, France and Germany were arguably the most vocal critics of President Obama's global economic plan during the G-20 summit last week. Does that mean American conservatives have finally forgiven France? The enemy of your enemy is your friend, right?

+ The Chicago Sun-Times filed for Chapter 11 protection last week, an unfortunate turn of events that I foreshadowed last month. You can blame the economy all you want, but Sun-Times Media is unique in that it was bled dry by their previous management. As a Chicagoan I'm more than familiar with the antics of Conrad Black and his cohorts, but this excellent article from Slate.com explains it better than I ever could.

+ Speaking of Chicago, the city has been buzzing since disgruntled Broncos QB Jay Cutler was traded to Da Bears last week. Having a bona fide field general is wonderful and everything, considering the parade of underachievers that have called the shots these last 20 years, but one player isn't the solution to all the Bears' problems. Signing Orlando Pace for three years was smart, at least until his age catches up to him. For now, I can definitely forsee an NFC Wild Card.

+ If Michael Jordan was so great, why didn't the Basketball Hall of Fame waive their five-year waiting period for him? If the Hockey Hall of Fame could jump Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky to the front of the line, why not MJ? Either way, I'm glad to see he's in.