Tuesday, June 30, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2003

Wow, 2009 is almost halfway over already?

This month's musical catch-all throws 2003 in the spotlight. I chose this year for sentimental reasons; I graduated from high school six years ago this month, and it ushered what was for all intents and purposes my last summer of freedom. The lists below symbolize the de facto "soundtrack" of my senior year in high school and my first trimester in community college.


1. Elephant, The White Stripes. This was a no-brainer. Nobody dominated the rock scene in '03 quite like the Jack and Meg White, and no rock album in the past six years has come close to equating, much less suprassing, the statement that was the Stripes' fourth album. When they became the first band to get a full-week booking on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, than proceeded to tear the house down every night they performed, you knew this band had arrived.
2. Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins. Sweet, dorky indie rock from maybe the greatest band to ever hail from Albuquerque, NM. Few bands can sound happy, melancholy, frustrated, and vulnerable all at the same time like these guys; after listening to tracks like "Kissing the Lipless" and "So Says I," you almost want to reach out and hug them.
3. Fever To Tell, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. A holdover from the previous year's garage rock/DIY renaissance, the debut long-player from Karen O, Brian Chase, and Nick Zinner is 40 minutes of compelling art-punk. My only complaint is the track sequence; the first half of the CD is mostly raucous noise, while the second half is heavy on ballads and mid-tempo experimentation. Whether you play this disc straight through or on shuffle, it's hard to not be impressed.
4. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast
5. Give Up, The Postal Service
6. Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie. Along with album #5, a banner year for DC4C frontman Ben Gibbard.
7. Hail to the Thief, Radiohead
8. Keep It Together, Guster
9. Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle & Sebastian
10. Absolution, Muse. Long-derided as a diet soda version of Radiohead, Muse hit a creative pinnacle --while not necessarily shaking off the imitator label-- with their third full-length CD. The heavy guitars and haunted harmonics that we'd come to know are tighter and more focused than their first two efforts. Sure, Muse didn't really come into their own until Black Holes & Revelations three years later, but Absolution proved that this power trio was far from derivative.

Honorable Mentions: Permission to Land, The Darkness; Welcome Interstate Managers, Fountains of Wayne; Get Rich or Die Tryin', 50 Cent; These Are The Vistas, The Bad Plus; Her Majesty, The Decemberists; Electric Version, The New Pornographers.

BEST SINGLES OF 2003 (in no particular order):

"Reptilia," The Strokes
"Meant to Live," Switchfoot
"Molly's Chambers," Kings of Leon
"Combat Baby," Metric
"Crazy in Love," Beyonce
"Jessica," Adam Green
"Spitting Games," Snow Patrol
"Crazy Beat," Blur
"Crystal Village," Pete Yorn
"United States of Whatever," Liam Lynch

What makes 2003 so compelling (for me, anyway) was that it might've been the strongest year for music videos in recent memory. If the mid-90s were the last gasp for hot clips on MTV, than 2003 was the last banner year for videos on MTV2, the cable channel's unheralded sister station and current dumping ground for old reality shows. Most of the videos on this list, which run the gamit from country to techno to industrial metal, from hilarious to poignant, were in heavy rotation on MTV2 in '03 and they've barely aged a day:

"Hurt," Johnny Cash
"The Hardest Button to Button," The White Stripes
"Minerva," Deftones
"Stacy's Mom," Fountains of Wayne
"The Hell Song," Sum 41
"Move Your Feet," Junior Senior
"The Golden Path," The Chemical Brothers feat. The Flaming Lips
"Step Into My Office, Baby," Belle & Sebastian
"There, There," Radiohead
"Big Brat," Phantom Planet

Well, I certainly hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane as much as it was a pain in the ass to embed all those clips. After focusing mostly on the '70s, '80s, and '00s thus far, next month I promise to look back at a different decade. Seriously, scout's honor. ;)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Chuck Schaden

A couple of weeks ago, I lamented the dire state of the Chicago radio scene. Later this week, another familiar name will head off to greener pastures, though this transition affects me on a more personal level. On June 27th, Chuck Schaden bids farewell to Those Were The Days, the long-running homage to old-time radio shows that he created, produced, and maintained full editorial control for the past 39 years. To put that in context, that's 2,016 weekly broadcasts since May 1970, airing on three different radio stations with only a couple of small gaps in between. This does not necessarily mean the end of old-time radio in Chicago, however; on July 4th, the baton will be passed to Steve Darnell. Steve is a longtime friend of Chuck's and the editor-in-chief of Nostalgia Digest, a magazine that I've been published in three times.

My association with Those Were The Days began in November 2003. I had just been hired as a student aide at WDCB, and the programming director assigned me to board operation on Saturday afternoons --generally a quiet time of the week, at least in radio-- to get a feel of the station. I wasn't brought in to board-op for Chuck per se; I would man the boards during "Midwest Ballroom," the 30s/40s big band show that airs directly after TWTD. Schaden regularly sells books and CDs on his program, and they needed an extra hand to handle orders by phone, so I came in four hours earlier than I needed to. I had nothing planned that afternoon, and I needed the money, so I figured why not?

I specifically remember that my first day with TWTD went very slowly. I was at a desk without a computer, so I couldn't check my e-mail between calls. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the beginning of Chuck's month-long block of Christmas programming, and in spite of the many items being sold on-air there didn't seem to be any Black Friday rush on the phones. About midway through the show, I snuck away from my phone and made a beeline for the station library. Ten minutes later, I was putting the final touches on an episode review at TVTome.com when Chuck barged in. I had never seem him this annoyed after or since. He was wondering why I wasn't handling orders, and if I wasn't doing my job I should leave immediately. I explained that I was taking a break and that I'd head back to the phones in just a minute; Chuck shrugged, than went back to the studio.

Things went much more smoothly from that point on. After receiving numerous complaints about my chicken-scratch handwriting, I went from handing orders to being the de facto operator; basically, I answered the phone, asked the person on the line if they wanted to order something, than put them on hold until one of the other phone guys could help them. I didn't treat this as a demotion, however; Chuck's support crew consisted mostly of old friends and colleagues, and by listening to these gentlemen swap stories and tell jokes between stopsets I became a de facto member of their clique.

I was going through a rough patch during the Summer of 2004; for reasons that I don't want to elaborate upon in this article, it was a trying and transitional period in my life. Chuck liked to throw impromptu birthday parties for his support staff, and with my 20th birthday approaching that August I wasn't 100% sure that I would receive a similar treatment. After all, I was still fairly new and a relative interloper to the long-standing Schaden confederacy. Upon walking into the office the Saturday before my birthday, I was shocked to find Chuck and company waiting for me in the break room with two gallons of ice cream and a cake reading "Happy Birthday Stuart." I was speechless. I'd never had a surprise birthday party before or since. I was honored with a similar bash on my 21st birthday a year later, and when I left WDCB for Illinois State in December 2005 Chuck thanked me on-air for my two years of service.

Though Chuck had been hosting TWTD since 1970, he's called WDCB-FM his broadcast home since 2001. Those past eight years couldn't have been possible without Chuck's supporting staff --Ken Alexander, Koni Shaughnessy, Jim Zaremski, Larry Youngberg, Gardner Kissick, George Littlefield, Rich Rodriguez, James Weyrick, Chris Litwin, and the late Len Kunka to name a few-- names that may be anonymous to you, yet have been invaluable to the day-to-day operations of "Those Were The Days." I also have to give credit to Chuck's wife Ellen, whose patience and support has been invaluable to Mr. Schaden over the years. It has been an honor and a pleasure to have known this wonderful man, especially for what he's done for me, and I wish him the best in his much-deserved retirement.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Left Hook, Than a Right Upper Cut

If there's a news story that I've been keeping an eye on recently, it would probably be last week's shootings at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Strangely, the media coverage of the event has eclipsed the consequences of this hate-fueled murder. The supposedly left-leaning mainstream media has painted shooter James von Brunn as a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a right-wing extremist, though only the first two labels are accurate. In response, conservative news groups such as the non-profit organization American Values has pointed out that "Nazi" is an abbreviation for "National Socialist" and that the shootings are a harbinger for more "Islamofascism" to come.

In a way, both sides are wrong; hate doesn't have a political affiliation. Comparing the party of Hitler to 21st century socialism is like saying hippies are "hip," isn't it? This bigoted old coot acted on his own terms, with no agenda beyond his prejudiced and distorted view of the world. Yes, I am aware that his "manifesto" was vehemently anti-Obama, and he was convinced that the president was not born in the US and should be removed from office immediately, but his remarks were almost purely racially motivated. James von Brunn is an ignorant, deluded, anti-government, anti-American shell of a human being, and no matter where you stand on the political spectrum I hope you agree that his punishment will be swift and justified. Even a real conservative should know that their political opponents are just as above racism and anti-Semitism as they are.

Speaking of the conservative media, while I'm not condoning per se the various jokes that David Letterman made in regards to Sarah Palin and her daughter, I think the Alaskan governor did overreact in her response. When you're suddenly thrust in the media like Palin was last year, you have to realize that when it comes to satire and mockery, you're fair game. When President Bush's twin daughters were busted for underage drinking 8 1/2 years ago, the president-elect made a quick retort at the pundits and the story was forgotten about soon after. Letterman's jokes did not condone rape, nor was he saying anything new about the way Governor Palin presents herself; the two most-quoted jokes were aimed toward Alex Rodriguez and Eliot Spitzer, and I think Jay Leno first compared Palin to Tawny Kitaen almost a year ago. (Letterman apologized for real last night, admitting the joke just wasn't that funny.) If former President Bush can live with being the butt of jokes, why not the Governor of Alaska?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Don't Touch That Dial

Some peculiar news on the Chicago radio scene: a couple of weeks ago, WNUA 95.5 FM, one of the more preeminent "smooth jazz" stations in the country, dropped its format in a cost-cutting move by Clear Channel Communications and switched to syndicated Spanish news/talk. With this shrewd move, this leaves exactly one jazz station in the Chicago market, WDCB 90.9 FM. For those of you who aren't familiar with the station (click here to listen live), this is where I worked as a student aide and board operator for roughly 2 1/2 years.

WDCB is not purely a jazz station, but rather the predominant format; their weeknight programming is an eclectic mix of blues, folk, and world music. Outside of the occasional Keb' Mo' or Robert Randolph track on WXRT 93.1 FM (the local progressive-rock station), WDCB is the only haven for blues in Chicago radio on top of being the sole source for jazz. Considering the rich heritage of blues and jazz in Chicago, having to see those two musical genres reduced to sharing one station is pretty sad. I won't miss WNUA's blend of humdrum elevator music, but at least they had their hearts in the right place.

Other notes:

+ While I wasn't floored by President Obama's address in Egypt last week, I thought it was a dilligent attempt at pointing out the flaws of the modern Arab world. Outside of one minor inaccuracy (pardon the vitriol of this link, but he's right), Obama hit it home: the only way Islam can correct its course and eradicate the terrorist and extremist clusters that dominate the world's view of their faith is from within. Of course, Rich Lowry can say it a lot better than I ever could.

+ Nice going, chump.

+ Remember that lady who was killed by another woman who was driving and painting her nails at the same times? The traffic charges have just been dropped.

+ Finally, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and families of those on board Air France Flight 447 when it crashed in the Atlantic Ocean late last week. While we should be blessed that plane crashes are fewer and far between than they used to be, the number of lives taken can still mount quickly.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Here Come De Judge, Here Come De Judge

Has any woman polarized the political spectrum in recent memory quite like Judge Sonia Sotomayor... I mean, besides Sarah Palin? If media coverage of her nomination is any indicator, the woman that could be the first Latina justice on the U.S. Supreme Court means many things to many people. Either she's an all-American rags-to-riches story or an elitist who's lost touch of her upbringing. She's a champion of equal rights or she hates white folk, take your pick. Affirmative action seems to be her cause celebre, though her stance on more hot-button issues like abortion and torture is a bit more ambiguous. I see Sotomayor as a woman split between two worlds, and if the White House can avoid branding such a complex person in an overly simplified way, that court vacancy is hers.

Liberal reactionary or not, her ascension won't change the dynamic of the court, at least not in the short term. Sotomayor is a moderate-left judge replacing the equally left-of-center David Souter, and last time I checked the conservatives still have a 5-4 edge. Justice Stevens has been rumored to retire for years now, and he's also in the liberal minority. So why exactly are Republicans up in arms about Sotomayor? Is it just partisan posturing?

Other notes:

+ Last weekend I had my first class at Second City. I can't say much has happened so far; we introduced ourselves, went over the syllabus, than did some simple exercises. I'm in a class of about 18 students, ranging in age from 20 to 40, though it seems that we all have the same goal and we're keeping an open mind.

+ Two months into the fantasy season, and both of my teams are still middling. My TV.com team was in second place at one point and has since slipped to sixth out of eight. My "other" team (consisting mostly of old ISU classmates) was once one game out of first and is gradually slipping away. I can't blame this entirely on injuries, in spite of having Joey Votto, Joakim Soria, Eric Stults, and Grady Sizemore on my rosters, but erratic pitching has dogged me as of late.

+ To read my eulogy (kind of) for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, click here.

+ Finally, I suppose some of you would like me to share my thoughts on the murder of Dr. George Tiller earlier this week. His brutal death has reopened the wounds of the long-gestating abortion debate (pun not intended); while I tilt towards pro-choice, I'm convinced that the murderer acted on his own, unlike what some clusters of the media would suggest. While most of my pro-life friends and colleagues are vehement in their views, they would certainly never do anything that drastic. Dr. Tiller was both a martyr and a pariah, and that's how he should be best remembered.