Wednesday, February 29, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1992

1992 may not have been the year grunge broke out, but it was certainly the year it invaded the mainstream. The commercial dominance of hair metal was over; the new shapes and dimensions of alternative rock was now king. The otherwise unassuming northwest metropolis of Seattle was now the center of pop culture; not unlike Liverpool or Haight-Ashbury in the '60s, the Emerald City was a breeding ground for hot bands, haute couture (flannel!), and overpriced gourmet coffee (Starbucks!). Ironically, the most important album of '92 was released in 1991; Nirvana's Nevermind hit #1 early in the year and cast a long shadow over its imitators, contemporaries, and successors. On the flip side of grunge was a potent period for hip-hop, with the rise of New Jack swing (funky and danceable), alternative rap (literate yet playful), and most notable of all gangsta rap (hardcore, violent, censor-baiting).

1. Automatic for the People, R.E.M. Taking a staggering left-field turn from their poppy but wildly uneven 1991 effort Out of Time, R.E.M. changed gears and created something haunting, melancholy, and utterly beautiful. Evoking the southern gothic of Fables of the Reconstruction, their third major-label disc (and eighth overall) is a folk album at heart, carried by songs about aging, death, and loss and assisted by a restrained string section and acoustic instrumentation. Automatic is also a transitional album, the point in the band's career where they went from outsiders looking in to elder statesmen of rock, from scrappy, workmanlike touring act to confident stadium headliners.
2. Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement. The unofficial inventors and innovators of lo-fi indie rock, this Stockton, CA quartet's debut effort introduced frontman Stephen Malkmus as an important songwriter and subvertor of conventional pop structures. Primitive and amateurish from a distance, Malkmus and his cohorts reinterpret old melodies in a way that straddles the line between complete insanity and oddly poetic. Case in point: the leadoff track "Summer Babe (Winter Version)," where Malkmus spits out surrealist lyrics of ennui and yearning while drummer Scott Kannberg pretends to search for a beat.
3. The Chronic, Dr. Dre. The gold standard of '90s gangsta rap, the good doctor's solo debut introduced Snoop Dogg, begat the defining song of its era ("Ain't Nothin' But a 'G' Thang"), and set the blueprint for hip-hop for the next 20 years. Meticulously produced by Dre and the infamous Suge Knight, Chronic floats in a sea of rolling basslines, whirling synths, and a generous heap of Parliament-Funkadelic samples. The lyrical substance is anything but; visceral, violent, embittered, and un-PC, with Dre's catharsis playing yin to Snoop's relaxed yang.
4. Hollywood Town Hall, The Jayhawks
5. Dirt, Alice in Chains
6. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine
7. Check Your Head, Beastie Boys
8. Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos
9. Your Arsenal, Morrissey
10. 3 Years, 5 Months, & 2 Days In The Life of..., Arrested Development. Perceived in its time as the game-changer in hip-hop (compared to the alienating Chronic), AD's first full-length is not quite the essential disc it was first hyped to be, but still influential in its own way. Noticeably literate and positive in message, this Atlanta-based unit stood for black unity and brotherly compassion without coming off as too naive or implying any type of double standard. Even though AD never equaled the excellence of 3 Years they're now considered the forefathers of southern hip-hop, and acts like OutKast and Goodie Mob owe a debt to the path Speech and company paved.

Honorable Mentions: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, The Black Crowes; Core, Stone Temple Pilots; Bone Machine, Tom Waits.

"Friday I'm in Love," The Cure
"Life is a Highway," Tom Cochrane
"Jump Around," House of Pain
"Atomic Garden," Bad Religion
"Got Me Wrong," Alice In Chains
"Girlfriend," Matthew Sweet
"Mr. Cancelled," Cows
"Digging in the Dirt," Peter Gabriel
"Walking in Memphis," Marc Cohn
"Hey Jealousy," Gin Blossoms
"If I Had $1,000,000," Barenaked Ladies
"Tears in Heaven," Eric Clapton

1. "Jeremy," Pearl Jam. I can't blame you if it's hard to sit through multiple viewings --I will attest to that-- but that merely illustrates the power of this video, which is based to two real-life school shootings in 1991.
2. "Baby Got Back," Sir Mix-A-Lot. Pure hip-hip cheese.
3. "Right Now," Van Halen. Pop metal that informs as well as entertains.
4. "Everybody Hurts," R.E.M. The Christian rock subgenre first came to prominence in the early '90s, and this hymn-like ballad by an otherwise secular act became a crossover hit in reverse. Not that Michael Stipe and the boys would complain; next to the equally misleading "Losing My Religion," this is their best-known song.
5. "Remember the Time," Michael Jackson. Hyped as a short film and directed by John Singleton, the epic "Time" was not nearly as controversial as "Black and White" but certainly just as extravagant. Plus, who knew Magic Johnson had comic timing?

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Commander Keen

Yesterday was President's Day, a national holiday meant to honor our nation's leaders past and present, yet mostly an excuse to sell discounted furniture. I've discussed presidential rankings in the past, and though my list of the ten greatest presidents will mostly match anyone else's, I also wonder who has become overrated and underappreciated in the sands of time. As a treat for you historical buffs, and with a slight nod to PBS' recent Bill Clinton documentary, I present my argument for our most overhyped --and underhyped-- commanders in chief:

Most Overrated President: Ronald Reagan. In choosing Ol' Dutch, I am by no means implying that our 40th president was terrible. Yes, he had his imperfections, but the level by which modern conservatives emulate him is bewildering. Inflation sank and Reagan was blessed with steady job growth, but only in his last five years in office. He raised the national debt, carried massive deficits, and is often given too much credit for the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Second Most Overrated: Harry S. Truman. The man who dropped the hydrogen bomb on Japan got off to a promising start after FDR's sudden passing, yet he won the 1948 election by the skin of the teeth. Truman's handling of union disputes in the wake of various post-war shortages was --and still is-- considered quite ineffectual. It takes a lot for labor voters to swing Republican, which is exactly what Truman did. His bungling of the Korean "Police Action," combined with scandal within the administration, is cited by many as to why he was crushed in the 1952 New Hampshire primary. The strength of Truman's legacy lied in his foreign policy (the Berlin airlift, Israel, NSC-68), but domestic affairs just weren't his strong suit.

Most Underrated President: William McKinley. Count me amongst Willie Mac's apologists, a small yet devoted legion. Most historians will argue that McKinley was the dilligent buffer between the economically shaky Gilded Age, personified by the 12-year rotation of Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, and the progressive era ushered by the irrepressible Teddy Roosevelt. TR scholars "thank" McKinley for dying in office, for otherwise the cowboy would've likely never been POTUS in his own right. Regardless, McKinley's accomplishments have been vastly underappreciated; in his 4 1/2 years in office America became a world colonial power, Hawai'i was annexed, and the Open Door policy was established. Now, if he can be forgiven for establishing the gold standard...

Second Most Underrated: James Knox Polk. Easily our nation's finest one-term president, the least-known consequential POTUS re-established the independent treasury system, reduced tariffs, acquired Oregon Country (peacefully), and annexed California and what is now New Mexico (via war). Four specific campaign promises, four crucial accomplishments for the young nation. One must wonder what he would've accomplished had he wanted to run a second term... or lived long enough to do, as he died three months after leaving office.

Finally, to cleanse the palate, please enjoy this list of Jeremy Lin puns that have not yet been used in the media:
  • Artificial Lin-semination
  • Lin-reconcilable differences
  • Lin-dustrial engineering
  • Lin-cohesive meaning
  • Lin-decent liberty with a minor
  • Lin-capable of feeling
  • Lin-sufficient data
  • Financially Lin-secure

Next week: the year in music, 1992.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Random Notes, February 2012

+ And so, the GOP handball game drags on. After a temporary insurgence by Rick Santorum --blowouts in Minnesota and Missouri, plus a nailbiter in Colorado-- Mitt Romney more or less retained his front-runner status in Maine last weekend. Regardless, I wasn't worried about the fading Newt Gingrich and I'm not concerned with the former Pennsylvanian senator; if you put the four remaining hopefuls head to head against Obama, only Romney stands a chance. The polls don't fool me. I'm not saying that to praise the stormin' Mormon, and that's not political bias either; it's just reality. Even though the Republican party is steadily shifting towards the right, and there's contempt for the current president all across the board, independents and centrists are the X-factor.

+ On the other side of the fence, did President Obama really think religious-backed groups would willingly pay for their employees' birth control? Sure, Jon Stewart nailed it on the head (as usual) but oy gevalt...

+ Chicago Update: It's been nearly four months, but my time in Roscoe Village is near a close. As I write this, I'm looking at apartments in Logan Square and North Park. My financial situation has not been straightened out yet, so I may end up commuting to classes and shows from home again. My self-imposed deadline is this Friday, so fingers crossed.

+ Finally, for those of you who would rather discuss TV, please enjoy these V-Day cards "from" Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reading, Writing, Rhetoric

About a week or so ago, a girl I've been acquainted with for 20 years pulled her two oldest sons out of a public grade school, opting to home-school the kids instead. At first, I was taken aback. I've never really supported homeschooling*, and though I didn't want to start an argument, the temptation to comment on Facebook was too much. Her friends and neighbors came to her defense, but ultimately my old classmate clarified what was going on. The grammar school that her two sons attended is about 60% Hispanic, and the cirriculum's growing emphasis on ESL was setting students back in their math and reading skills. I apologized and backed away.

What my old acquaintance did for her two sons made perfect sense; her situation is a growing piece of the pie. Her family lives in Elgin, IL, one of the last true blue-collar towns of the Chicago suburbs. With four kids and a mortgage, moving back to a superior school district like Downers Grove would be very challenging. Downers circa 1990 bears little resemblance to Downers now; the town is so overdeveloped and gentrified that you'd have to earn at least $90,000 a year just to buy property there. In a town like Elgin, it's this or nothing.

Regardless, the explosion of homeschooling over the past decade or so still bothers me. Growing up, the only kids I knew that were educated at home were children of devoutly religious parents, people that were amiable enough but not content with a mainstreamed, "secular" form of schooling. Downers Grove is neither rural nor distant, nor could any of my neighbors afford living aboard for extended periods of time. Nowadays parents are especially prickly about public school, and not necessarily on moral grounds; their local schools are failing to meet expectations (see above), the environment is hostile, the mushrooming number of students with special or personalized needs, and so forth. Some concerns are justified, others are exaggerations.

So why specifically do I oppose homeschooling? As a grade schooler, I was socially awkward; I had many acquaintances but few if any close friends, and that pattern of distance and aloofness went on until high school. However, had I been homeschooled I never would've socialized with peers of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. By the time I was in fifth grade my grammar school was 10% South Asian or of Arabic descent --a solid five years before the WTC attacks-- so attending public school was also a lesson in tolerance. (ESL was barely an issue, though.) I bungled most of my opportunities for social development, but at least I had opportunities, period. There are other concerns, like a potential for social extremism and weakened civic engagement, but they don't really apply to my background.

The growing aversion to public schools doesn't mystify me so much as it is troublesome. Apparently, the media seems to disagree with me. This past Friday, the Chicago Tribune (and at least a dozen other papers nationwide) pulled that day's Doonesbury comic strip because "(it) didn't fit the paper's best interests." A legendary cartoon that wears its left-leaning sarcasm on its sleave and treats low-scale censorship with the pride of a war wound, a skirmish like this is nothing noteworthy for 90% of the population. What the Trib took offense to, however was surprising: a PSA for a charity that assists struggling public schools.

I have no aspiration to run for public office --at least, not now-- but if I had to pick a platform I would be a pro-public education candidate. The government has been draining funds for so long, to say most districts run on a shoestring budget is somewhat flattering. Parents like my old schoolmate are being driven to homeschooling --in many cases, without the financial means to do so-- because the state and federal governments think primary and secondary education are highly expendible in a weak economy. On average, state K-12 funding bottomed out in 2011, but there's no specific indication that things will improve in 2012.

With all my ranting and raving, there is a silver lining of sorts. My graduating class at Whittier Elementary School had exactly 30 students; of that group nine became teachers. (I'm a part-time substitute teacher, but not by trade, so I'm exempting myself from that number.) The salary is barely living wage and the hours are long, but the experience is more rewarding than you can ever imagine. That 30% of the Whittier Class of '97 was inspired to take that career path by teachers that were in their own right motivated, driven, and selfless enough to steer us in the right path. It's very unfortunate that economic conditions and political interference are slowly eating away at their very essence, but I hope the next generation of teachers come out of this mess even more energized and emboldened.

*It's one word now? Seriously?