Tuesday, February 23, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1995

It doesn't seem like 1995 was fifteen years ago. In a way, the sights and sounds of that year --with heightened emphasis on the sounds, of course-- are just a fresh in my memory then as they are now. The death of Kurt Cobain and the fadeout of the Seattle scene a year earlier threw American alternative rock into its post-grunge period; meanwhile, the Smiths-influenced "Britpop" stylings of Oasis, Blur, and Pulp threw the UK and the US into a tizzy. The punk revival was still going strong on college radio (thanks to Rancid) and the mainstream (a tip of the hat to Green Day). Gangsta rap had reached its pinnacle as 2Pac and Biggie hit it big, while the Wu-Tang Clan, two years removed from "Protect Ya Neck," sowed the seeds of their respective solo careers. The implosion of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo led to the creation of two new bands, Sun Volt and Wilco, that would eventually eclipse their predecessor's influence and decidedly modest record sales. Suffice to say, that's a lot of territory to cover for one year, though if I had to honor the absolute best albums of '95, it would look something like this:

1. The Bends, Radiohead. The album that put Thom Yorke and company on the map. Sure, their debut Pablo Honey garnered some notoriety, but name a song off the disc besides the crossover hit "Creep." This sophomore effort set the blueprint for the Radiohead we know today: cerebral anthemic rock paired with tortured lyrics and a hint of social commentary. At worst, The Bends is a filling appetizer for their 1997 masterpiece OK Computer; at best, it's a memorizing companion piece and a defining album of the decade.

2. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Smashing Pumpkins. Initially conceived as a mid-90s answer to Pink Floyd's The Wall, the Pumpkins' third album is a two-disc tour de force. As much a concept album as it is a sonic exploration, Mellon Collie finds frontman/primary songwriter Billy Corgan saying goodbye to his youth, forcing himself to grow up while looking back wistfully at his jaded teenage years. All in all, an enjoyably challenging listen that comfortably steers clear of "double-album syndrome."

3. Different Class, Pulp. Oasis might've received more hype, but Pulp was arguably the most consistent --and cheekiest-- of all the Britpop groups. Pulp's third album blows their previous two efforts out of the water; the formula of meshing alt-pop with new wave and disco flavors didn't change much, but years of trial and error led to a more perfected product. Jarvis Cocker's songwriting has never been more catchy, nuanced or immediate.

4. 6Teen Stone, Bush
5. Wowie Zowie, Pavement
6. ...And Out Come The Wolves, Rancid
7. (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, Oasis
8. To Bring You My Love, P.J. Harvey
9. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Raekwon feat. Ghostface Killah

10. Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt. Another breakthrough album in a year that was quite gracious to new(ish) acts. If this ska-pop album plays like a hits compilation, you're not far off; seven of the 14 tracks were released as singles, as Top 40 and CHR radio stations squeezed 2 1/2 years of airplay out of Kingdom. Written as the band was on the cusp of imploding, the pure energy and versatility of Kingdom eclipses the departure of founding keyboardist Eric Stefani, a major creative force in the band's early days. The breakup of bassist Tony Kanal and vocalist Gwen Stefani inspired the hit "Don't Speak," one of the best kiss-off songs of the past 20 years.

Honorable Mentions: The Great Escape, Blur; Elastica, Elastica; Return to the 36 Chambers, Ol' Dirty Bastard; Washing Machine, Sonic Youth.


"Lump," The Presidents of the United States of America
"Mother Mother," Julianna Hatfield
"Only Happy When It Rains," Garbage
"Aeroplane," Red Hot Chili Peppers
"I'll Stick Around," Foo Fighters
"Brain Stew/Jaded," Green Day
"Need You Around," Smoking Popes
"In The Meantime," Spacehog
"Gangsta's Paradise," Coolio
"More Human Than Human," White Zombie


1. "It's Oh So Quiet," Bjork.
2. "California," Wax. Spike Jonze' mid-90s winning streak was still rolling with these top two picks. "Quiet" is a modernized interpretation of Betty Hutton's '40s hit "Blow a Fuse," while "California" is probably the most intense slo-mo clip even shown on MTV.
3. "Just," Radiohead. Wait, what did he say?
4. "I'll Be There For You," Method Man feat. Mary J. Blige.
5. "Waterfalls," TLC.

Honorable Mention: "Ironic," Alanis Morrissette.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Oh Well, It's Better Than Nothing

Earlier today Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top military commander of the Taliban, was captured in a joint CIA-Pakistani operation outside Islamabad. While this is a major breakthrough for the American presence in southwest Asia, this still poses a troubling question: how many top-ranking Taliban military commanders are there? You'd think we'd captured 30 or 40 of them by now. Who would want a job with that much turnover? It's like on "24" when Jack Bauer et al. spend eight episodes hunting down one villain, and initially there's little to no evidence that he's in cahoots with anyone else, yet this bad guy turns out to be the scapegoat for an even larger conspiracy.

Baradar's capture is a signifigant success for President Palmer --er, I mean Obama-- whose ramping up of American troops in the region was met with apathy and trepidation by the usually hawkish GOP. Former Vice President Cheney just keeps attacking and nitpicking Obama's foreign policy, when in fact he might be exposing a repressed inter-party squabble over George W. Bush's war tactics. As Peter Beinart suggests, the biggest war liberal since JFK has been even more aggressive about fighting terrorism overseas than his two predecessors ever were. Where Obama's domestic policy has lost steam, his war chest is slowly finding its footing. Even so, at times it feels like the War on Terror is one big Whack-a-Mole machine, but Baradar's capture is a sign of progress; I don't know if this will get us any closer to hunting down Osama bin Laden, though I'd like to hear whatever intel that Baradar offers.

Other notes:

+ Apparently, a Saudi prince now has a minority share in the Fox News Channel. This lady's article has been sprouting up all over the internet, whining about a growing "Arabic influence" in the mainstream news media. Can't anyone stop to savor the irony of all this?

+ I didn't realize this until late Saturday night, but apparently Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, Mardi Gras, and Ash Wednesday all land on consecutive days this year. Has that ever happened before?

+ I end this week's missive on a positive note: I got published again! My article on one-armed St. Louis Browns outfielder Pete Gray will be in the Spring 2010 issue of Nostalgia Digest. This is my fourth article for the magazine, following essays on Fleer Trading Cards, the 1947 Chicago Cardinals, and the man that attempted to steal the Stanley Cup. To pre-order your copy, just follow this link.

Next Week: the year in music, 1995.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It's (Still) In The Cards

As a sports card collector, I'm feeling some trepidation about the coming year. Last week, Topps began their first year since 1980 as the sole manufacturer of MLB-liscensed baseball cards. It won't be a flashy start to the year, it's merely Series 1 of their base brand release, though it's the first harbinger of all the sweeping changes that rocked the card industry last year. For those of you who don't follow trading cards anymore, here's a short recap:

In March, the Panini sticker company was granted an exclusive licensing deal by the NBA, and shortly afterward they bought out Donruss so they wouldn't have to start their trading card operations from scratch. In August, the MLBPA announced that because of the shrinking market only one company would produce baseball cards for the 2010 season; after a contested battle, Topps got the nod over Upper Deck. Three months later, the tables were turned when the NFL denied Topps' offer to produce football cards in 2010, leaving UD and the newly christened Panini America as the sole manufacturers in that category. Later this year, the NHLPA's exclusive deal with Upper Deck will expire, leading many to suggest that Topps might re-enter the hockey fold after a six-year hiatus.

While all this tightened licensing will result in fewer options on the market, I won't have as many headaches keeping track of the myriad number of brands that come out every year. Nevertheless, the jilted parties are improvising; Upper Deck may no longer have full MLB licensing, yet they're still releasing a handful of baseball products this year, albeit with no mention of team names (i.e. "Matt Kemp - Los Angeles (NL)") and obstructed logos in lieu of chintzy airbrushing (see above). In reality though, it's hard to tell who the real winners and losers are; every major company has whittled their product line down to one or two sports (to stay afloat, Topps also makes UFC trading cards). I wouldn't call it the death of a hobby, though I can't imagine anyone is benefitting from all this consolidation, either.

Other notes:

+ Very few things can make me shout "What the hell?!?!" in a public setting. This would be one of them. Luckily, I was in a crowded bar at the time, so my rare outburst barely even registered.

+ Was it a mistake to not mention the Lt. Governor's race in my Illinois Primary blog last week? I didn't vote for Scott Lee Cohen, yet I still feel blindsided by these shocking allegations. His press conference Sunday night was held in a pizzeria, evidently symbolic of the level of class and grace he showed while he tried to salvage his campaign. Good luck to the Illinois Democratic Party as they find a running mate for Governor Quinn that doesn't wear their checkered past on their sleeve.

+ Just a friendly reminder that pitchers and catchers report in one week.

Monday, February 1, 2010

My Unofficial Guide to the 2010 Illinois Primary

February 2nd is election day in Illinois, as the Land of Lincoln determines their candidates for governor, U.S. Senate, and House of Representatives, not to mention various state offices. This is not something I've been following as much as it's been thrown in my face; if you turn on nearly any local TV or radio station in Chicago, you're only a few minutes away from watching an attack ad. The candidates mentioned below have volunteered themselves to lead and represent one of the most debt-burdoned states in the nation, and each of these races have some type of national implications. For all you non-Illinoisans, let me break down this whole mess:

U.S. Senate: The seat that Barack Obama abdicated 15 months ago is up for grabs again, and sorry folks, it's no longer up for sale. The current holder of that seat, Roland Burris, did not have the money or the public support to attempt running a full term, leaving the junior senator's seat wide open come 2011. The Democratic frontrunner is state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a 33-year-old bachelor from Chicago. A lawyer that majored in ecomonics at Boston University, Giannoulias has been deemed an Obama carbon copy by some because of his youth, unusual last name, and yen for basketball (he played one year of pro ball in Europe in the late '90s). A hardliner on immigration, Giannoulias' status as a moderate has been hindered somewhat by being pro-choice and a supporter of same-sex marriage. He also endorses an overhaul of NAFTA and No Child Left Behind. As it stands Giannoulias has a pretty good lead in the polls, as most of his competition, including Chicago Urban League CEO/ex-Blagojevich crony Cheryle Jackson, have proven too far-left or too polarizing to gain any momentum with moderates and centrists.

Over in the GOP, Rep. Mark Kirk has a commanding lead in the latest Chicago Tribune poll, though undecideds will be a huge swing factor. Kirk has by far the most experience in Washington; he was an aide to Rep. John Porter in the mid-80s and served two years in the Bush 41 administration before being elected to five terms in the House of Representatives. Kirk's nearest competitor is Andy Martin, a conservative news pundit who has spent more time making unfounded attacks on the frontrunner than establishing his own platform. Martin has accused his opponent of being a military poseur (Kirk is a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve) and in an infamous campaign ad, Martin implied that Kirk "pals around with gays and pedophiles." Where Kirk supports the Marriage Amendment, minor adjustments to No Child Left Behind, and more border security, Martin has no official stance on any of those issues and just keeps attacking and mudslinging.

Governor: This whole race is a logjam, as neither party has a clear favorite. Pat Quinn, the incumbent who replaced Rod Blagojevich 12 months ago, is a longtime political outsider who is clearly still adjusting to running as a mainline Democrat. Though Quinn had a sizeable lead in the polls five weeks ago, his primary opponent Dan Hynes has picked up steam after being endorsed by nearly major newspaper in the state. Both candidates seem to have the same stance on wide variety of issues, though they draw the line at gun control (Hynes is a FOID card-holder, Quinn has railed against concealed-carry handguns) and the death penalty (Hynes supports it, Quinn doesn't). Where Hynes has been on the offense, citing Quinn's reputation as a rabblerouser, the governor has largely played defense, emphasizing his platform and not stuping down to any character assassination. I can't tell which strategy is going to work, though.

If the Democrat Governor race is tight, the GOP contest is practically a free-for-all. Of the six remaining candidates --DuPage County board chairman Bob Schillerstrom dropped out of the race on January 22nd-- the three top frontrunners are within five percentage points of each other in the latest polls and none of them have 20% of their party's support. On Tuesday, this campaign will most likely come down to: Andy McKenna, the former chairman of the Illinois Republicans; State Senator Kirk Dillard; and former attorney general Jim Ryan, the man who lost to Blagojevich in the 2002 governor's race. Three weeks ago, McKenna nabbed the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune, citing his straightforward demeanor and his reputation as an idea man. Nevertheless, the Illinois GOP is still lacking focus following the George Ryan mess from nearly ten years ago. Even though they selected Ryan (no relation) as their candidate in '02 and Judy Baar Topinka in '06, neither candidate never really enamored the majority of the party.

Congress: This is arguably the most predictable arena, as Illinois is topheavy with incumbents running for reelection. My congresswoman, Rep. Judy Biggert, has represented the 13th district since 1999 and doesn't seem to be facing any serious competition from Democrats or from within the GOP. Her seat on the Congressional Committee on Education and Labor is more or less safe. Bobby Rush and Dan Lipinski, both Democrats, and Republican Pete Roskam will also likely coast to another two-year term.

Cook County Board President: I'm throwing this last one in for my own amusement, though I shouldn't downplay the fact that Cook is the most populous (and therefore, weightiest) county in the state. You may recall that a few months ago, I wrote a fairly scathing editorial about Todd Stroger, the sitting president of the board. His 4 1/2 years in charge have been marred by scandal, and he failed to live up to any of his campaign promises from 2006. If anyone in Cook County has any common sense this man will not nab the Democratic nomination, yet it still appears that he still has a sliver of a chance. I'll gladly take any of the three challengers over "The Toddler."

I don't know if Illinois is still the most corrupt state in the country, though politically it's certainly the most dysfunctional. In making their endorsements, the Tribune has called for "The Revolution of 2010," a call to arms for voters that are fed up with the greasy palms, cronyism and reckless spending that has swallowed my home state whole. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but a full-on assault aimed towards the career politicians in Illinois that seem to be more concerned with lining their pockets than serving their state's needs. Rep. Phil Crane, George Ryan, and Blagojevich are ancient history, with Stroger and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley likely to follow. I'll admit that none of these candidates are perfect, but this state needs an infusion of fresh blood, and fast.