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...