Tuesday, June 28, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2006

Good evening everyone, and welcome to my first complete do-over of a "Wonderful Year" blog.

From a music standpoint, 2006 seems like an eternity; a different world, even. Some shameless opportunist gave Kevin Federline and Paris Hilton record deals, emo-pop was still in vogue, and people were anticipating rapper Lil' Jon's first solo album (which was released to minimal fanfare four years later). Justin Bieber was in sixth grade, Lady Gaga was still a struggling cabaret pianist in New York City, and Adele --the unlikeliest woman to ever have a #1 hit for five straight weeks in the US-- was just an average British high school student with a good singing voice and zero stage presence. Looking back, 2006 was also a challenging year to be a music critic. The splintering of subgenres in the early 2000s resulted in a year (not unlike 2005) where there was no consensus "best album." Debates were raging and endless. With that said, I have posted the list below fully confident in knowing it looks like no one else's top twenty.

So why the mulligan? When I first posted my list 4 1/2 years ago, I whipped it out almost as an afterthought; several notable albums were excluded because I hadn't listened to them. Of course, there's also the sentimental factor: the rock albums on this list more or less comprise the unofficial soundtrack to my junior year at Illinois State University. I'll listen to any given disc and find myself waxing nostalgic about college. Most of the hip-hop and R&B selections, however hit my radar later on. Plus, I thought it'd be fun to see what's held up since '06; oddly enough, most of the albums that made my list the first time around made the new cut (sorry, Hotel Lights) though their positions vary.

(note: parentheses note previous ranking)

1. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, Arctic Monkeys. After the Britpop movement of Oasis, Blur, and Pulp collapsed upon its own weight in the early 2000s, the British rock scene didn't make much of an American dent for awhile. Hey hey, along came the Monkeys, four Yorkshire lads who were in their early teens when Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers fought for world control. One of the first rising bands to take advantage of internet word-of-mouth, the Monkeys played raucous dance-punk and made the entire English-speaking world eat out of their hand. More than five years later, Whatever is a musical statement they have yet to compliment, much less replicate.
2. Black Holes and Revelations, Muse. After flirting with epic bombast on 2003's Absolution, Muse goes all in on the theatrics with Revelations. Sounding and acting like the missing link between Freddie Mercury and Thom Yorke, frontman Matthew Bellamy is the little fella with the big voice, the British rock deity for a generation that badly needs one. For those of you listening to this CD for the first time, I'd go with the expensive headphones.
3. Yellow House, Grizzly Bear. The honor of most improved band of '06 goes to this New York City art-rock quartet. Humongous and intimate at the same time, Yellow House has better songs, stronger production values, and more heart than GB's somewhat forgettable debut two years earlier. The guitars have a
chugging cool that will remind one of The Velvet Underground, but the meat is in the harmonizing, which evokes The Beach Boys by way of The Mamas & The Papas.
4. St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley (2)
5. Return to Cookie Mountain, TV on the Radio (3)

6. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, Neko Case (4)
7. Jay Dee Donuts, J Dilla
8. Modern Times, Bob Dylan (6)
9. Futuresex Lovesounds, Justin Timberlake
10. The Information, Beck (1). I'm not embarassed to admit I like this album, but looking back this was not a worthy numero uno. As I stated back in '06, the best tracks are upfront; the more experimental second half of the disc is alternately trippy, meandering, and maybe a tad pretentious. Regardless, I can't give an album that contains "Cellphone's Dead," "Nausea," and "Think I'm In Love" any bad press; if this were an EP, though The Information would be a masterpiece.

11. Sam's Town, The Killers
12. The Black Parade, My Chemical Romance
13. Robbers & Cowards, Cold War Kids (10)
14. First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes
15. Carnavas, Silversun Pickups. This intriguing debut long-player shares a few things in common with Grizzly Bear: striking harmonies, lush dream-pop cravings, fuzzy guitars. The greatest difference is SP's debt to Smashing Pumpkins and their varying allusions to the '90s grunge sound; the songs are less twee and more brooding. Regardless, there's something new to discover with each listen.

16. Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor
17. Springtime Can Kill You, Jolie Holland (11)
18. Rabbit Fur Coat, Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins
19. Show Your Bones, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
20. Broken Boy Soldiers, The Raconteurs. Long before Jack White had a gazillion side projects, in 2006 he had only one distraction from the White Stripes, this short-lived collaboration with fellow Detroit native Brendan Benson. "Steady As She Goes" is the no-brainer hit single, a catchy lark of a tune that was intended to be a one-off effort and proved to be so much more. The '70s rock stylings of cuts like "Hands," "Intimate Secretary," and "Yellow Sun" otherwise carry a fun though imperfect offering.


"Crooked Teeth," Death Cab For Cutie
"Dani California," Red Hot Chili Peppers
"How We Operate," Gomez
"World Wide Suicide," Pearl Jam
"Tear You Apart," She Wants Revenge
"Breathe Me," Sia
"Satellite," Guster
"Ain't No Other Man," Christina Aguilera
"Ain't Nothin' Wrong With That," Robert Randolph & The Family Band
"Punkrocker," Teddy Bears feat. Iggy Pop

(note: due to site HTML limits, I could not post links to all the clips. They are, however all readily available on YouTube.)

1. "Knights of Cydonia," Muse. A solid contender for video of the decade, "Cydonia" is several masculine fantasies thrown in a six-minute salad bowl: a kung fu shoot-um-up spaghetti western... in space?
2. "Hung Me Out to Dry," Cold War Kids. The oeurve of early indie-flick director John Cassavetes is homaged in this gritty, eye-catching B&W beauty.
3. "Nausea" (Version 1), Beck. Everything is better with marionettes... right?
4. "Here It Goes Again," OK Go. The first of several memorable "concept" videos by the Chicago-based quarter, it's a telltale sign that '06 was a strong year for clips if something this wonderful could only muster fourth place.
5. "Knife," Grizzly Bear. Speaking of outer space...
6. "Fidelity," Regina Spektor. A certain petite Russian-Jewish pianist/songwriter first gained notoriety with this MTV2 and MTV-U favorite, which proves that a little color makes a big difference.
7. "Rise Up With Fists," Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins. A tongue-in-cheek recreation of "Hee Haw," complete with a Junior Samples lookalike and a wacky cameo from Sarah Silverman.
8. "Read My Mind," The Killers. The stars of the popular Japanese kids' show "Hirake! Ponkikki" interact with Brandon Flowers et al. on a catawampus, whirlwind trip to Tokyo.
9. "Crazy," Gnarls Barkley. How no one thought of doing a trippy, Rorschach ink blot-inspired video until the mid-2000s is beyond me.
10. "Move Along," The All-American Rejects. The song is pop piffle, the lyrics border on cliché, but this clip is cleverly edited.

Before I ask for your thoughts, I'd like to touch upon some of the breaking news that has occured in the past 36 hours. As you might expect, I am relieved to know that my corrupt laughingstock of a former governor is facing a minimum of ten years' jail time. The verdict was not only long-anticipated by my fellow Illinoisans, but also a highly damnening (potential) death knell for the Land of Lincoln's incubator of greasy palms and coffer-filling. I feel sorry for his wife and two young daughters, but I have absolutely no pity upon Rod Blagojevich. Without question, justice has been served.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mama Said There'd Be Weeks Like This...

Hi everyone,

As you've already noticed, my blog entry is quite late this week. In fact, this is the latest I've ever posted my weekly entry. In my defense, it has been a week of overscheduling and unexpected obstacles. On top of temping 40 hours a week, I've been taking the long train ride to Chicago several times to rehearse with my improv classmates. I gave myself just enough time to write something... and than a Category 1 tornado hit Downers Grove on Tuesday night and my neighborhood was without power for over 24 hours. I even had a specific topic in mind, one that required a bit of research, but it can wait a few weeks. I was very tempted to the call this week a wash and sit it out --the first time I would've done so in 5 1/2 years-- but at heart I didn't want to let you all down. I had to type out something.

Between improv and data entry, I've also been working out. In late April I bought a gym membership, and once or twice a week I meet with a trainer. I'd been looking to lose some weight, and though I've been careful about meal portions and my sugar intake, progress had stalled. You see, I was pretty skinny in high school --about 5'8" and 130 lbs.-- but I had a high metabolism and paid minimal attention to dietary needs. Nearly five years later, I was a half-inch taller and 45 pounds heavier. That's not obese by any means, but I was increasingly lethargic and feeling more self-conscious. Rather than buy a new wardrobe to accommodate my weight gain, I made a series of changes to my diet: no large extra value meals (smalls and mediums were my breaking point), more water, and less snacking. By late 2008 I was down to 165 pounds, and that's where I hovered around until two months ago. Now I'm just over 155, which was my approximate weight in mid-2005. Once I clear that hurdle, the question now is how I'll keep that weight off in the long run.

One last thing: upon hearing of the passing of Clarence Clemons, I took a breather from my "Wonderful Year" research and listened to Greetings From Asbury Park, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and Born To Run back-to-back-to-back. I arrived at two conclusions that had been lodged somewhere in my subconscious for years. First of all, Clarence was the heart of the E Street Band; it makes perfect sense that he was the first official member of Bruce's backing band (nearly 43 years!) and The Boss' unofficial lieutanant. Secondly, he was one helluva saxophonist. I sincerely regret that I never got to see the E Street Band play live when I had the opportunity, if only to see and hear Clemons' immaculate solo on "Jungleland." You will be dearly missed, Big Man.

Next week: the year in music, 2006.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Though a Freshman's Eyes

Unless there's been a major breakthrough in the Governator and "Weinergate" scandals that I don't know about, this has been a slow week in the news. Given that, I'd like to do something different this week. Every year, Beloit College in Wisconsin releases what they call "The Mindset List." It's intent is not to make Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, or children of the '90s (*cough*) feel old, but to demonstrate the world view of a just-graduated high school senior. Maybe it's schadenfreude, but the Mindset List is also endlessly fascinating to read (Google it right now if you have some time to kill). The list for the fresh-faced Class of 2015 --i.e. children born in late 1992 and early 1993-- won't be released for a few more weeks, but out of curiousity I'd like to speculate as to what might make the cut.

With that said, if you are an incoming college freshman...

...there have always been cell phones, e-mail and the internet.

...Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. have always agreed to trade freely.

...you have never had to worry about getting nuked by the Russians.

...there has never been a Czechoslovakia or a Yugoslavia.

...there has never been a Branch Davidian Compound.

...the Pittsburgh Pirates have always sucked.

...a Canadian hockey team has never won the Stanley Cup, and a Canadian baseball team has never won the World Series. (In turn, there have always been MLB and NHL teams in the state of Florida.)

...you never saw Joe Montana play for the San Francisco 49ers or Mike Ditka coach for the Chicago Bears.

...Audrey Hepburn, Frank Zappa, Julio Gallo, and the guy who played Herman Munster have always been dead.

...there has never been a living member of the Three Stooges.

...Tom Hanks has always had the phrase "Academy Award Winner" precede his name in movie trailers.

...nobody in Palatine, IL ever dines at Brown's Chicken.

...however, there has always been a McDonald's, a Subway, and/or a Starbucks within walking distance from your house.

...you have never heard --or heard of-- the song "Cop Killer."

...Jay Leno has always been on NBC and David Letterman has always been on CBS.

..."Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and its various incarnations have always been on the air.

...People magazine and The New Yorker has always been published in color.

...the United States Post Office has always been losing money.

...you have only known one President Bush.

Scary stuff, eh? Kinda makes you think. Don't worry though; next week I'll try to post something a little less cerebral.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Weiner's Weiner, Chicken Dinner

If I've been a bit elusive lately, it's only because I'm a busy guy. The month of May marked an uptick in substitute teaching assignments, and last week I began a temp job doing data entry over in Naperville, IL, two towns west of Downers. It's 40 hours a week on top of spending all weekend in the city for improv, so I haven't had much time to write. Where I spent much of the last month sharing personal anecdotes for an imaginary autobiography I am nowhere near piecing together, I will acknowledge the unofficial sixth anniversary of this blog (!) by catching up on current events.

+ "It's the economy, stupid." Some of you will remember this blunt phrase from it's frequent refrains during the presidential elections in the 1980s and 90s. In 2012, President Obama's fiscal policies --his most apparent weakness-- will be the X factor for his Republican challenger, whoever that may be. With the birther controversy put to rest and Osama bin Laden captured and executed, the GOP can no longer play the citizenship and defense cards. As it stands, only Mitt Romney and Mitch Daniels have made any strides in prodding the perceived flaws of "Obamanomics," while the other candidates in the field are still flirting with Iowans and figuring out their platforms. Even though President Obama was on a roll in May, goodwill can be fleeting. Fifteen months before the 1980 vote, Jimmy Carter broked peace between Israel and Egypt. A year and a half before Decision '92, George H.W. Bush defeated Saddam Hussein and liberated Kuwait. Alas, neither man could create jobs nor handle a recession, and both became one-term presidents. I still consider Obama the odds-on favorite for 2012, but he's still quite vulnerable.

+ Monday night on Facebook, a conservative friend of mine openly wondered where was the "liberal rage" aimed at U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY). A mutual friend of ours commented that compared to what former Sen. John Edwards has been indicted for, "Weinergate" is small potatoes. Though his, um, "self-portrait" was a sizable lapse in judgment, Rep. Weiner's actions are more embarassing than enraging. Three months ago, a Republican congressman posted beefcake photos of himself online to impress a woman that obviously wasn't his wife; he resigned and people forgot about it shortly after. Odds are, the same thing will happen to Rep. Weiner. Where Weiner is a mostly harmless, narcissistic moron, Edwards is a flat-out monster. There couldn't be a greater difference.

+ I'm a realist, but I try to balance that with a dash of optimism. Widespread acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage won't happen in this generation, but the number of states that now permit civil unions --including Illinois, ahem-- is encouraging. With that said, I offer congratulations and the best of wishes to all the couples --both gay and straight-- that have shared vows in the Land of Lincoln since the middle of last week.

+ Fantasy Update: I've made one change after another to my rosters, but I'm still in the middle of the pack in both leagues. I finally gave up on Bronson Arroyo, but his replacement Kyle McClellan only lasted one start before going on the DL for a unspecified period. Meanwhile on the same team, after I lost Jorge de la Rosa for the year I nabbed Bartolo Colon, who quickly became my de facto ace. It was my intention to also dump Joakim Soria after he lost the Royals' closer gig, but I'm stashing him at the moment to eat innings. With my arms in flux, my position players are doing most of the talking. My TV.com team went 7-4-1 against the guy in first place, while my "other" roster finished 12-3-0 and jumped from eighth place to a tie for third.

+ Improv Update: I can't believe it's almost over. Next weekend marks my last Level 5B class, ending my 14-month run in the basic improv program at iO. After that, my class will have student demonstration performances every Sunday at 7pm, starting June 26th and running through mid-August. Meanwhile, I'm also in the last stages of my writing course at iO; as I type this, I'm working on the first draft of a spec script for an original sitcom pilot. After the term ends, I will be taking a temporary breather from improv to take an acting course --yes, acting-- at Second City.

+ Finally, a Heystu exclusive! Thanks to some old connections in the radio industry, I am in possession of the infamous photo that nearly derailed Rep. Weiner's career. This photo was posted on Twitter and deleted shortly thereafter, and now this incriminating cell phone pic is saved on my hard drive. I dare you to look.