Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1980

Ah, 1980. This is one of those years that I genuinely wish I could travel back in time and visit and just plain savor. Obviously, it was the year following 1979 --a strong year for music and a tough act to follow-- but overall it was probably just as memorable a 12-month span, if not an extension of the trends that were blossoming in '79. Disco was finally dying out, rap was on the cusp of a breakthrough, and the do-it-yourself nihilism of punk was losing ground to the easier to swallow, yet aggressively weird aesthetic of new wave. Underground FM radio was on its last legs, as the increasingly corporate sound of mainstream rock was becoming more and more indistinguishable from "safe" Top 40 radio. While other subgenres were still finding their direction, heavy metal was already on its destined path, courtesy of Judas Priest and a new act called Iron Maiden. It was a transitional year, yet great music could be found pretty much all over the place.

I didn't intend this list to be a top 20, but it was hard to encompass everything that happened in music that year and whittle it down to ten essential albums. There were at least 25 albums that I wanted to include, but after some internal debate I whittled it down to the list that you see here. I had a similar issue with the singles; I simply didn't want to overlook anything crucial.


1. Remain In Light, Talking Heads. The Heads' first three albums, all fine in their own right, were merely leading up to this. Fear of Music tracks like "I Zimbra" and "Life During Wartime" alluded to David Byrne's growing infatuation with African polyrhythms, a flirtation that he finally acts upon on Remain In Light. Each track adheres to a similar guitar-drum riff, creating a groove that's almost impossible to get out of your head. (It's also their most verbose album, though that's almost beside the point.) In short, this album is as incomparable as it is brilliant.
2. Making Movies, Dire Straits. When taking a quick jog through the Straits' oeurve, it's pretty obvious that most fans gravitate towards Brothers In Arms, their best-selling, award-nominated 1985 smash. I disagree with this (unofficial) majority opinion, largely because those people tend to emphasize Dire Straits' hits and not the substance of Mark Knopfler's songwriting. In a just world, Making Movies would be their undisputed masterpiece; it's one of those albums where you hear something new every time you listen to it. I just love this album.
3. Crazy Rhythms, The Feelies. Somewhat obscure yet highly influential, The Feelies' first LP could be argued as the missing link between Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground. Minimalist and percussion-heavy (hence the title), the jangly guitars of frontmen Glenn Mercer and Bill Million keep this freewheeling record from descending into chaos. I saw The Feelies do a 75-minute set at Millennium Park in Chicago last summer; they played four tunes from Rhythms and dadgummit, they still hold up.
4. Closer, Joy Division
5. Back In Black, AC/DC
6. The River, Bruce Springsteen
7. Pretenders, The Pretenders
8. Los Angeles, X
9. British Steel, Judas Priest
10. Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables, Dead Kennedys. Punk was all but dead in the UK by 1980, and the New York and Boston scenes had moved onto artsy experimentation (see albums #1 and 3), but the west coast did not get that memo. Where their LA-based peers X emphasized songcraft, the Bay Area outfit Dead Kennedys was often little more than a platform for the far-left ramblings of Jello Bialfa. If the Kennedys existed only to slam supply-side economics, they'd be a forgotten relic; instead, their debut long-player is a powerful fusion of surf, rockabilly, and hardcore, doused with youthful anarchy.

11. Songs The Lord Taught Us, The Cramps
12. Get Happy!!!, Elvis Costello & The Attractions
13. Kings of the Wild Frontier, Adam Ant
14. Empty Glass, Pete Townshend
15. Sound Affects, The Jam. This is the album with "That's Entertainment," "Set the House Ablaze" and "Man in the Corner Shop." Need I say more?
16. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), David Bowie
17. Sandinista!, The Clash
18. Double Fantasy, John Lennon and Yoko Ono
19. Crocodiles, Echo & The Bunnymen
20. Gaucho, Steely Dan. A meticulous and precise effort, Gaucho is the prim follow-up to the smooth, relaxed Aja. Where their 1977 masterwork was almost seemless, this record wear its imperfections on its sleeve. Fine-tuned tracks like "Hey Nineteen" and "Babylon Sisters" carry an album that occasionally battles a lack of focus and overtly glossy production values. All in all, a decent nightcap to The Dan's marvelous '70s output.


"Ace of Spades," Motorhead
"Everybody Wants Some!" Van Halen
"Crazy Little Thing Called Love," Queen
"Don't Let Him Go," REO Speedwagon
"Hell Is For Children," Pat Benetar
"Emotional Rescue," The Rolling Stones
"Working My Way Back To You," The Spinners
"Funky Town," Lipps Inc.
"The Breaks," Kurtis Blow
"Rapper's Delight," The Sugar Hill Gang

"Late In The Evening," Paul Simon
"Call Me," Blondie
"I Will Follow," U2
"Ah! Leah!" Donnie Iris
"Back of My Hand (I've Got Your Number)," Jags
"So Good To Be Back Home Again," The Tourists
"What I Like About You," The Romantics
"Do You Remember Rock n' Roll Radio?" The Ramones
"Turning Japanese," The Vapors
"Love and Loneliness," The Motors


1. "Video Killed The Radio Star," The Buggles. Yes, it was first clip to air on MTV in 1981, the single was first released in 1979, but the video was shot in '80 so it counts here.
2. "Once in a Lifetime," Talking Heads. And you may ask yourself, "what's the deal with David Byrne's glasses?" And you may ask yourself, "is that from an old National Geographic special?" And you may ask yourself, "well, how can I be that limber?"
3. "Cars," Gary Numan. The ominous video from one of the greatest one-hit wonders ever. Now available in "tamborine-vision!"
4. "Comin' Up," Paul McCartney. Primitive green-screen technology enables Macca and his wife Linda to recreate an entire band, complete with a Ron Mael look-alike on keyboards and a bassist that looks like he wandered off "The Ed Sullivan Show."
5. The "Making Movies" Trilogy, Dire Straits. Rather than shoot a video for the leadoff single, Knopfler and company shot a surrealist 20-minute film encompassing Side A of their latest release. Please enjoy the trippy triptych of "Tunnel of Love," "Romeo and Juliet," and "Skateaway."

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I'm Just Pacing Myself

As some of you have probably noticed, this is a fairly idiosyncratic blog. Where most of my peers will (and can) post something anytime they want, depending on the topic and focus of the blog, I update mine nearly every Tuesday. Why is that, you ask? The fact of the matter is, I'm a creature of habit; I do my best writing on a deadline, and for some reason I'm motivated to type my thoughts with a rigid schedule. When I started this blog not quite five years ago, I figured that one entry a week was enough to let my friends know what was going on in my life. Nowadays, I feel compelled to write more but my work and class schedules hinder that. What was initially a gimmick has become a necessity of sorts, a creative outlet in an increasingly left brain-dominated lifestyle.

I feel inclined to say this because January 2010 is shaping up to be a very eventful month for current events, and so far this year I've only covered two topics (health care reform and the late night wars) with any ponderosity. Though this week's blog has a "random notes" feel, I'm just playing catch-up on current events:

+ I watched news coverage of the Haiti earthquake and it kept triggering memories of Hurricane Katrina. The two disasters don't compare in terms of fatalities and destruction, yet I wish the government reacted as quickly to the earthquake as they did the hurricane. Where Haiti was purely a natural disaster, Katrina was arguably man-made. The denizens of the 9th Ward were poor, though the people of Port-au-Prince are far worse off. Sadly, the big question now is how long it will take before the historically corrupt and feckless Haitian government pockets all that Red Cross money.

+ The Democrats might be losing that super-majority a lot sooner than I thought. Today's election day in Massachusetts, and that vacent senate seat is still very much up for grabs. I'm posting this less than 12 hours before the polls close, and even I can't make an educated as to who will win. Regardless, I've always found Bay State politics to be quite alien; unlike most of us, the voters there aren't terribly concerned about the personal discretions and character flaws of their candidates. Case in point: 20 years ago, Rep. Barney Frank's boyfriend ran a prostitution ring in their garage, but he's just as powerful in Washington as ever. As long as the streets are clean and the taxes are low, in Massachusetts, who gives a hoot about their representatives' personal lives?

+ "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" --and several key elements of O'Brien's on-air persona-- are as good as gone. It's a shame it ended the way it did, and far too soon. His stint at NBC is all but over, and the network has reinforced their intellectual property rule, a policy that hindered David Letterman's leap to CBS 17 years ago. Basically, that means if O'Brien lands another talk show on a new network (*cough* Fox *cough*), "In The Year 3000" and "Celebrity Survey" won't be tagging along. Of course, there's a loophole or two; maybe the Masturbating Bear will be rechristened the Self-Pleasuring Ursine, who knows? Either way, this is the end of Conan as we truly know it, and we should savor his remaining shows for all its worth.

+ Apparently, French neo-conservatives are just as paranoid about immigrants as their American counterparts. Click here for the story.

+ Speaking of racial strife, a couple guys in the Deep South are still coming to terms with having a black president.

+ After nine ballots, Andre Dawson and his paltry .323 OBP was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 6th. Though "The Hawk" wasn't on my Cooperstown short list from last month, I begrudgingly accept the sportswriters' final vote. After all, Dawson was a eight-time Gold Glover and a seven-time All-Star, not to mention one of the most-feared power hitters of the 1980s. He's not as deserving as some of the players I've watched in my lifetime, but I'd rather have Dawson in Cooperstown than, say, Ron Santo. On a semi-related note, I tip my Royals cap to the one guy who voted for Kevin Appier. Yes, Kev had no chance of being inducted and his career stats are better suited for the Royals' Hall of Fame, but at least he wasn't shut out entirely like Todd Zeile or Shane Reynolds. Appier was slightly more deserving than that.

+ So what becomes of Mark McGwire? As pained and earnest as his confession might've been, it was too little, too late. Pleading the fifth and dodging the media for half a decade merely augmented the general assumption that Big Mac took steroids. His long-delayed admission had no element of surprise, though at least he complimented the MLB's current drug-testing tactics (which like McGwire, was demanded by the general public after years of dilly-dallying). There's nothing to say on this topic that I haven't articulated in past blogs; I might've waffled on McGwire's guilt on at least one occasion, but the Hall of Fame ship has long since sailed. Good luck trying to coach Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, Mark... unless that's the point.

Next week: the year in music, 1980.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Night Flight

Last week, my parents went to Las Vegas for a four-night breather from the bitter Chicago cold. Upon returning Friday night, one of the first things my dad asked me was, "so, did you hear the latest about Jay Leno?" I knew about he was talking about, and I knew right where the conversation was going. He watched Leno's monologue almost religiously when he hosted "The Tonight Show," and he knew I'd been a Conan fan for years. He's as baffled by my taste in late night comedy and I am of his viewing choices. Obviously, I responded by defending O'Brien and stating that NBC made a mistake in backing Leno. "You only say that because you hate him," he declared. He walked out of the room before I could elaborate on what I said.

If Jay Leno is returning to 11:35/10:35c, than NBC has followed one big mistake with an even more consequential misfire. By giving "The Chin" five hours of prime time a week, NBC inadvertantly overshadowed Conan O'Brien's move to to the old Leno slot and minimized his role in the network's lineup. To move Leno's show back to its old time slot is more than rectifying a wrong, it's a concession of defeat, and above all it's a slap in the face to a tremendously funny and distinctive comedian that has been loyal to The Peacock for almost 17 years. If I were running NBC, I would simply cut bait on Leno; I wouldn't care if he jumped to another network, Letterman and Conan would soundly beat him ratings-wise night after night. Leno was a cash cow for the network, but now he's just hamburger.

Of course, I can't rant about NBC's future without acknowledging the man behind the curtain, Jeff Zucker. In the nine years since he ascended to the network's upper throes, Zucker has proven to be an ineffectual, nearsighted syncophant, and the Leno/Conan situation merely reinforces his status as an idiot in a suit. On his watch, NBC went from #1 to fourth place, from torchbearer to punchline, from record profits to being bought out by Comcast. The number of bona fide hit shows that he developed during his "reign" can be counted on one hand. In moving Leno back to 11:35/10:35c, Zucker and his peons have five hours of prime time real estate that they don't know how to fill. They may as well concede 10/9c to Shamwow and the newest Jack Lalanne juicer.

In 2005, New York magazine slammed Zucker (and rightfully so) as the embodiment of bloated self-confidence, a Hollywood outsider that tried too hard to one-up his rivals, the captain of a great ship slowly sinking in an ocean of hubris and complacency. Five years later nothing has changed, and inexplicably Zucker is almost unscathed, still large and in charge. As it stands now, the collateral damage is staggering and somebody has to clean up the mess; NBC hemorraged ad revenue with Leno in prime time, the shows that once thrived at 10/9c are barely registering in earlier time slots, and local newscasts keep losing viewers. The Peacock might be molting its feathers, but I doubt that this incomparable debacle will curb Zucker's yen for experimenting. What he'll do next is anyone's guess, though for many Hollywood insiders the reason of a doubt is long gone.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Random Notes, January 2010

+ In the eyes of his critics "Obamacare" might be perceived as a Pyrrhic victory, but give the president credit for one thing: health care reform is very close to reality. It took months of bitter partisan bickering, but that legislative Stone of Sisyphus finally made it up the hill, and President Obama is thisclose to succeeding where nearly every president since Teddy Roosevelt has failed. Granted, the core of the Democratic Party didn't get everything they wanted (i.e. the public option), though at long last the seeds have been planted to patch up --though not necessarily simplify-- our faulty health care system. The cost of such sweeping reform still worries me, though I'm trying to accentuate the positive: health insurers could be banned from refusing coverage or tweaking rates based on a patient's race, gender, or medical history, and insurance companies will no longer be exempt from most anti-trust laws. Let the endgame begin.

+ The midterm elections aren't for another ten months, but is it too soon to speculate on what's at stake? Keep in mind that voter turnout is generally lower in midterms compared to a presidential election, the majority of voters in said elections are active in their parties' respective cores, and moderates and apathetics are almost a non-factor. Both parties seem to have their issues; moderate and liberal Democrats are still combing through the finer details of health care reform, while "tea party" conservatives seem to be distancing themselves from the GOP hardliners. In the end, it comes down to who's more enthusiatic and who's benefitting most from the status quo. As it stands, the Democrats will almost certainly lose their super-majority in the senate, though I can't picture the Republicans regaining control of either house. Then again, we still have less than a year to decide.

+ I have a late entry to my "best music videos of 2009" list: "Her Morning Elegance" by Israeli singer-songwriter Oren Lavie. Somehow this clip was completely off my radar until a couple days before New Year's. This video was nominated for a Grammy, which gives it additional gravitas. Plus, it inspired a pretty wacky parody. (To anyone that missed by thoughts on the last year in music, click here.)

+ Well, my mercurial second stab at fantasy football ended with a whimper, not a bang, as I finished fifth out of six. I made the bonehead move of editing the league presets and tweaking the schedule --I was the commish, after all-- by having the regular season end after week 15. Had I left it alone, I would've made the playoffs; instead, I tied with two other teams at 7-8, and I lost out because I had the fewest points of the three. (On that note, congrats to Hellfish on his roto championship.) Though fantasy football was a wash, I did marginally better at pro football pick 'em; I finished 10th out of 23 in the TV.com league and third out of eight in my friend's group.

+ A correction to last week's blog: that was a John Deere riding mower on "Mad Men," not a tractor. I humbly regret the error.

+ It's so cold outside, Mark Sanford thought he was standing next to his wife...