Tuesday, October 25, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1978

Defining the music scene of the late 1970s as merely punk and disco does a great disservice to the bountiful variety and eclecticism of the era, and 1978 proves how narrowminded that opinion can be. Even though vapid American boogie and raw British nihilism captured most people's imaginations --and couldn't be more disparate in sound and philosophy-- the seeds of new wave and post-punk were being planted, while power pop hit a creative zenith. That is not to say, however that the punk movement was a tired novelty and disco flat-out sucked; there was just a lot more going on in '78 that most people recall. If there was a running pattern that year, 1978 was the year of the debut; five first albums and one sophomore effort cracked my top ten. If a notable act from the early '80s didn't bow in 1977, they rolled it out a year later.

I try to keep my lists as concise as possible, but yet again I was forced to expand my top album and song lists to an even twenty. 1978 was a bigger treasure trove of music than I initially assumed, so whittling down from twenty-five albums and ranking them took awhile. For anyone griping about why Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance, Brian Eno's Music for Airports or even a more populist pick like Bob Seger's Stranger in Town didn't make the cut, I just wanted to be as straight to the point as possible. I will attest that I left out a big chunk of disco and top-notch funk from '78 as well. The longer the list, the more out of control it feels.

1. Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen. Highly anticipated and exceeding even the highest expectations, The Boss' fourth album completes his transition from restless teen to defeated adult. The colorful cast of losers and misfits that Springsteen paints are unabashedly working class, more cowardly than heroic. It makes more than one listen to "get" Darkness, but you have to admire an artist that puts his principles ahead of his popularity.
2. This Year's Model, Elvis Costello. The spectacled Liverpudlian's most "punk" album marks the first appearance of his longtime backing band, The Attractions. Compared to his debut a year earlier, Model is tough and wild in both brain and heart, and every song careens along both sides of the street. Organist Steve Nieve almost steals the show, supplying reckless riffs on a variety of tracks including the hit "Pump It Up."
3. Parallel Lines, Blondie. Setting the template for every '80s tough gal from Pat Benetar to Madonna, Debbie Harry and the boys hit their creative zenith and cracked the mainstream on album #3. Everybody knows "Heart of Glass" and "One Way or Another," but what keeps the album so fresh 33 years later is its depth and consistency.
4. Van Halen, Van Halen
5. The Cars, The Cars

6. Dire Straits, Dire Straits
7. Outlandos D'Amour, The Police
8. The Kick Inside, Kate Bush
9. Some Girls, The Rolling Stones
10. Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star. Recorded in late 1975 and shelved almost three years --than repackaged in the early '90s-- the songs that comprise Big Star's unofficial third album depicts a band (and a songwriter) falling apart at the seams. Alex Chilton sabotages nearly every song on the disc, a tortured artist putting his depression and desperation to the forefront of every word he sings. Side A is mostly rockers, Side B is all ballads, but both sides are inherently beautiful in their shambling nature.

11. Easter, Patti Smith Group
12. More Songs About Buildings and Food, Talking Heads
13. Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon
14. Give 'Em Enough Rope, The Clash
15. Heaven Tonight, Cheap Trick. Balancing the arena-ready punch of their debut album and the shiny belligerence of In Color, Cheap Trick was another workhorse act that broke through in '78. "Surrender" is the no-brainer hit single and their defining song, while "On The Radio" and "Stiff Competition" are wonderful, albeit buried gems.

16. The Last Waltz soundtrack, The Band/Various Artists
17. Germ Free Adolescents, X-Ray Spex
18. Jesus of Cool (aka Pure Pop for Now People), Nick Lowe
19. Powerage, AC/DC
20. One Nation Under a Groove, Funkadelic. As danceable as it is political, George Clinton et al. hit a creative peak and found unexpected commercial success via Groove. Largely dismissed as merely funk (probably because of the name), Funkadelic was inherently about "black rock," fat beats under Hendrix-style guitars. The title track was a left-field #1 R&B hit, but tracks like the seven-minute "Groovealligence" give the album its soul and intellect.

"Thunder Island," Jay Ferguson
"Driver's Seat," Sniff n' The Tears
"I Need a Lover," Johnny Cougar
"Spirit in the Night," Manfred Mann's Earth Band
"Crazy Love," Poco
"Don't Look Back," Boston
"Don't Stop Me Now," Queen
"Baker Street," Gerry Rafferty
"I Feel Love," Donna Summer
"If I Can't Have You," Yvonne Elliman

"Ca Plane Pour Moi," Plastic Bertrand
"Brickfield Nights," The Boys
"Top of the Pops," The Rezillos
"Teenage Kicks," The Undertones
"Into The Valley," The Skids
"Yachting Types," The Yachts
"Down on the Boulevard," The Pop
"Pretty Please," The Quick
"Better Off Dead," La Peste
"Changing of the Guards," Bob Dylan

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Uncage the Rage

When I was down at ISU last weekend, I noticed that an "Occupy Normal" protest had been staged on the bridge connecting the quad and north campus. Compared to the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstration that clawed its way into the media spotlight in recent weeks, it was very modest; a dozen or so students sitting on the walkway, chilling on their sleeping bags and eating cold cereal. They were clearly visible during the homecoming parade but not distracting by any means. In a section of the state of Illinois where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3:2 most of the locals couldn't have cared less, but I'll give points to the protesters for their resilience and gumption. This year's ISU homecoming theme was "Uncage the Rage," a sentiment that not only applies to our avian school spirit but also the growing frustration at the state of our nation, and those proud underclassmen struck the parallel quite accurately.

So where do I stand on the "Occupy" movement? The fact that the richest 1% of the population controls 40% of the nation's money is certainly wrong, even though I'm not sure if copying the Tea Party's grass-roots rancor was the right way to go. Regardless, you don't have to tell me the system is broken. Capitalism has a right to exist but the chasm between the rich and poor grows by the day, and addressing the situation head-on is not (as some suggest) misguided "socialist" rhetoric. The so-called lazy hippies that are setting up pup tents nationwide are not unlike me, underemployed college graduates with nowhere to go and nothing to lose. The little guy is taking it in the gut these days, and both sides of our government are as polarized as they are incompetent in handling the situation. I may not join in on the protest, but I respect their right to assemble and have their voice heard.

Other notes:

+ And how was the reunion, you ask? I was everything I expected it to be. In the course of two days I spoke with my professor/mentor for all of twenty seconds as she made the rounds with fellow alums, never getting around to asking about my current job status. On the other hand, I ran into an ex-co-worker with connections, so I may have my foot in the door for a possible job. As you might expect the overall homecoming atmosphere was highly cordial and throughly communal; I was in town for four meals and technically only had to pay for two. I drank more Bud Light last weekend than I have in the last six months (not in excess, mind you). By and large, I'm glad I made the long drive down.

+ Fantasy Update: After a prolonged schneid, I finally won my first pigskin matchup of the year. I'm 1-5 for 2011 so far; there's still time for a turnaround, as insurmountable as my situation my seem. In a league where ten teams each have at least two quarterbacks, two kickers, and two team defenses --and the free agent pool is slim pickins'-- I'll have to rely on dark horse receivers and halfbacks to gain momentum.

Next week: the year in music, 1978.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Radio Dazed: Central Illinois Edition

This coming weekend I'm driving down to Normal, IL for Illinois State University's homecoming festivites. Even though I booked my motel room months ago, I'm having mixed feelings about my annual trip. This is a special homecoming of sorts because not only is my old student radio station is celebrating its 30th anniversary (six months late, not that it matters) but earlier this month they marked a long-awaited transition from being online-only to having a full broadcast signal. Goodbye Windows Media Player, hello FM preset.

Of course, that's not why I'm feeling hestitent; it's not so much the station as it is my former co-workers and my standing amongst them. In the 18 months since my unceremonious dismissal from my reception/traffic job, I have yet to find my next radio gig and I'm nearly ready to give up and focus on something else. The student-run station I used to work for is an unofficial farm system for talent --both on-air and behind the scenes-- not only in the Bloomington-Normal market but Chicago, Rockford, Peoria, and St. Louis as well. If you listen to any radio station in those markets, you've probably heard the DNA of my old station and didn't even know it. In spite of my pursuits in other fields, I have reason to believe that my name has become shorthand for underachievement.

Worse yet, the big reunion Friday night will mean having to confront the station's faculty advisor, a woman whom I consider as a mentor and someone that I have more or less failed. Chances are she'll be swamped by all other former student employees of the station, the hundreds of other students she touched, so I'll probably just smile and nod politely when I get my five seconds of face time. Of course, there's also the glass-half-full aspect; I could run into an alum who's now a bigwig in the Chicago market, hobnob a little and potentially get a foot in the door. It's not like I have anything to lose.

As you can tell, I'm experiencing a whirlwind of emotions about the reunion and I'm essentially thinking as I'm writing. Wish me luck this weekend; I could sure use it.

Other notes:

+ Having watched part of the GOP debate the other night, it seemed like the discussion and endless reemphasis of bullet points mirrored the race itself: Herman Cain rose to the occasion, Rick Perry faded, Mitt Romney just chilled, and everybody else was simply happy to be there. As much as I love an underdog story, Cain's "9-9-9" tax overhaul plan worries me. It sounds simple enough, but most lower-class Americans pay less than 9% of their income in federal taxes; ditto for the minimum-wagers and the elderly. Even with a national sales tax and a supposedly leveled playing field, the rich come out with a narrow edge. How would that satisfy anyone on the left or right?

+ Has the death of Steve Jobs been overhyped by the media? Perhaps, but not by much. There's little denying that Jobs was a man of substance, a leader of industry first and a celebrity second. I don't own an iPod or an iPad, but I do have an iTunes account and an unused gift card from last Christmas, so even I was indirectly affected by his passing. I've never seen anybody shape or forecast the market for modern technology quite the way Jobs did, and I doubt we'll see anyone with his foresight and prowess again, at least in our lifetime. With all due respect to his widow and children, this might be a greater tragedy for good ol' American ingenuity than anything else.

+ Speaking of Normal, check out this two-minute thirty-second ad from Mitsubishi, who operate a factory on the west side of town. The editing on this mini-doc whitewashes the area a little bit, as it conviniently ignores not only ISU and its status as a party school but also the decrepit mess that the adjoining city of Bloomington has become. What suckered me into sharing this was that I used to buy CDs from North Street Records, which makes a cameo near the halfway point.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Random Notes, October 2011

Last week's 1966 blog kinda beat the wind out of me, so enjoy these random notes:

+ 20 days until the move. I kinda lucked out in subletting a place that's pre-furnished, which really shaves a lot of time off the moving and packing process. Working 40 hours a week doesn't give me much time to gather my belongings, and since I'm also subletting the process has been very similar to moving into a dorm room. I fully acknowledge that what I'm doing is a risk of sorts, but I take solace in knowing that this has been almost four years in the making. Since mid-July I've been temping out in Aurora, IL; they expected me to stay until New Year's Eve, so obviously they were disappointed when they heard the word from my agency. The managers there are supportive of my decision, albeit with some reluctance. Nevertheless, I'm glad to see the wheels are turning.

+ Fitness Update: I've lost 15 pounds since May 1st, and I've been holding steady at my current weight since August 15th or so. It's amazing what happens when you overload on protein, replace skim with 1%, and avoid white bread. Money will be tight until I find a full-time job (temp or otherwise) in the city, so I hope I don't get flabby or relapse into old habits. Luckily, there's a gym right next to Second City, so the drive to exercise is right there.

+ Fantasy Update: another year, another title. This time around, I finally vanquished my TV.com peers in roto baseball. (My "other" team, champions two years running, finished 7th out of 10.) Like I normally do, I took advantage of under-the-radar guys piecing together productive seasons on mediocre teams; to unsung heroes like Michael Pineda, Edwin Encarnacion and Eric Hosmer I tip my hat.

+ Speaking of baseball... even though I'm an out and proud Kansas City Royals fan, if I had to choose a second favorite team, I'd go with the Milwaukee Brewers. The glass half-empty side of me would say I have a terrible in baseball teams; the glass half-full would brag that combined these two teams have made two playoff appearances since 1985. In all fairness I've always had a weak spot for the Brew Crew, but I've never truly committed to them. Plus, a fair percentage of my favorite non-Royals ballplayers have been Brewers: Robin Yount, Jim Gantner, Ryan Braun, the list goes on. When Zack Greinke was traded from KC to Milwaukee last winter, it was like a blessing in disguise; I can't blame him for getting fed up with David Class et al. but landing with a small-market quasi-contender was just icing on the cake. With that said, I raise my glass of Miller Lite to a long playoff run for my mistress behind the Cheddar Curtain.