Tuesday, April 24, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1977

My 3 1/2-year exploration into popular music has been, for lack of a better word, adventurous.  My monthly dissection of a particular year in music has reaped benefits I never expected: it has given me new perspective on recordings I know like the back of my hand,  introduced me to new artists and subgenres I otherwise wouldn't touch, and put the evolution of music into a more cohesive perspective.  Some years (1967, 1970, 1980) were an embarassment of riches; others (1981, 1989, 1999) not so much.  What I've uncovered now is a whole different animal.

This month's feature, 1977, was probably the strongest year in music of the last half-century as well as the most bipolar.  It was a merciless year for both mainstream and underground music, and the albums and songs mentioned below --as disparate as these two groups may be-- have a canonical, indispensible feel.  To oversimplify the matter, it was disco versus punk, but there were fine rock and R&B cuts to be found as well.  The popular kids emulated Studio 54, the freaks and burnouts paid heed to CBGB's, and right up the middle of the bell curve were the kids buying the latest K-Tel compilation record set.

Where most best-of lists clump the two factions together, following suit just didn't feel right. Even though punk dominates most critics' polls now (and rightfully so), their work wasn't discovered by the general populace until several years later.  With a handful of exceptions, most of the songs that merited radio play are unjustly ignored, and nowadays serve as filler on oldies formats. With that said, for this month only I bucked my usual format and fleshed out two top ten lists. To quote AllMusic critic/blogger Tim Sendra:

"If you lived in small town Middle America in 1977, you weren’t listening to Television, you were watching it; Iggy Pop was the off-brand soda your mom bought at A&P; Lee Perry was the kid who sat behind you in biology; and the Ramones were that family down the street who never mowed their lawn. No, you were glued to the radio and Casey Kasem was God as he ran down the AT40 each week..."

In short, what was "hip" and happening 35 years ago was opposite sides of the same coin.  To complicate matters, 1977 was a year so top-heavy in great songs and albums that whittling this down to a clean, even 20 proved too daunting.  There are at least two albums and two songs in each category that could've made the cut, but I didn't want this to be too inclusive. Without further ado...

BEST ALBUMS (Non-Mainstream)
1. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's..., The Sex Pistols. Can we call this quitting while you're ahead? The Pistols epitomized every archetype (and stereotype) of punk rock music, aggravated the British establishment and American Deep South alike, than broke up after only one studio album. Bollocks is nihilistic, confrontational, rude, immature, ragged... and for a brief shining moment, the next logical step in rock's evolution.
2. Exodus, Bob Marley & The Wailers. I'm surprised more people aren't giving me flack for putting more Marley (or reggae in general) on my annual lists. If you know nothing about the Jamaican musician/activist, however this is an excellent place to start. The catchy "Jamming" and "Three Little Birds" were minor hits in the US, and the old Curtis Mayfield tune "People Get Ready" proves quite supple for rocksteady.
3. Marquee Moon, Television. Over in New York, the best American punk album of the year was essentially a guitar rock album. Wearing their Velvet Underground influence like a medal of honor, TV trades in anarchy for introspection and angry shredding for instrumental virtuosity, hinting towards the post-punk movement at the tail end of the '70s. Where most of their peers lived in the "now," TV was wondering if they had any future.
4. The Clash, The Clash
5. My Aim is True, Elvis Costello
6. Rocket to Russia, The Ramones
7. Pink Flag, Wire
8. Talking Heads '77, Talking Heads
9. Leave Home, The Ramones
10. Damned, Damned, Damned, The Damned. Released several months before The Clash and Sex Pistols' debuts, DDD was the warning shot of British punk. Giving themselves outrageous stage names like Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible, the Damned are credited with doing everything first.  The thrash of "Neat Neat Neat" launches the mayhem, while the smoking "New Rose" redefines romantic angst.

Honorable Mentions: Young, Loud and Snotty, The Dead Boys; 1, The Motors; Lust for Life, Iggy Pop.

1. Rumours, Fleetwood Mac. This #1 pick says more about my personal tastes than anything else here; I'll crank up the radio anytime "Go Your Own Way" or "The Chain" plays. Biased or not, there's little denying Rumours' masterpiece status.  The internal strife that fueled the album's recording bleeds into the work, and the result is two parts mouth-gapping and beautiful.  Like a car accident on the highway, you can't help but watch the wreckage.
2. Aja, Steely Dan. Jazz-rock without the rock, The Dan's sixth album (and fourth as a studio-only entity) brings the Becker-Fagen combo to unparalled levels of composition and sonic detail. The lyrics aren't as collegiate and cynical as their earlier work, and the licks by guest stars Larry Carlton and Victor Feldman are too tasty to resist.
3. Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf. I won't pretend that this is a guilty pleasure pick. The combination of producer Todd Rundgren, composer Jim Steinman, and operatic frontman Marvin Lee Aday makes for both a Wagnerian juggernaut and a grandly silly magnum opus. For all it's worth, this album is just... irresistable.
4. Low, David Bowie
5. The Stranger, Billy Joel
6. Out of the Blue, Electric Light Orchestra
7. Slowhand, Eric Clapton
8. "Heroes", David Bowie
9. Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel
10. In Color, Cheap Trick. Where their self-titled debut feels a tad raw and borrows heavily from their influences (Todd Rundgren, The Beatles, The Who), CT's second album depicts a great band fully formed. Paired with producer Tom Werman, the rough edges are smoothed to radio-friendly perfection.  Sure, it's not as visceral as their previous album, but the songs themselves are top-to-bottom resplendent.

Honorable Mentions: Let There Be Rock, AC/DC; Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick; CSN, Crosby, Stills & Nash; Running on Empty, Jackson Browne; Low Budget, The Kinks.

Outstanding Achievement by a Film Soundtrack: Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees/Various Artists. More cultural phenomenon than artistic achievement, the movie and its accompanying soundtrack defines 1977 as a year as well as the music trend it created. It was also a culmination of the direction the Brothers Gibb were taking at the time, turning them from stalwart pop act to international megastars.

"I'm Stranded," The Saints
"Blank Generation," Richard Hell & The Voidoids
"Do the Boob," The Real Kids
"Loretta," The Nervous Eaters
"Do Anything You Wanna Do," Eddie & The Hot Rods
"I Hate the Rich," Dils
"Don't Push Me Around," The Zeros
"A Life of Crime," The Weirdos
"2-4-6-8 Motorway," Tom Robinson Band
"Whole Wide World," Wreckless Eric

"We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions," Queen
"Barracuda," Heart
"Closer to the Heart," Rush
"Come Sail Away," Styx
"Cold as Ice," Foreigner
"Godzilla," Blue Oyster Cult
"Cat Scratch Fever," Ted Nugent
"Too Hot to Handle," UFO
"Estimated Prophet," The Grateful Dead
"Birdland," Weather Report

"Dancing Queen," ABBA
"Don't Leave Me This Way," Thelma Houston
"Higher and Higher," Rita Coolidge
"You Don't Have To Be a Star," Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
"Flashlight," Parliament
"Right Time of the Night," Jennifer Warnes
"Nobody Does It Better," Carly Simon
"Couldn't Get It Right," Climax Blues Band
"Jungle Love," The Steve Miller Band
"Love is the Answer," Utopia

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Random Notes, April 2012

+ Lately I've been strugging to meet my self-imposed Tuesday night deadline, sometimes because of other projects, in other cases I struggle to write something relevant and meaningful. In this instance, my procrastination was both somewhat beneficial and tragic.  I was too young to watch --much less remember first-hand-- the cultural phenomenon that was "American Bandstand." However, I've been watching Dick Clark on New Year's Eve since grade school, one-hour time difference be damned.  Watching the ball drop in Times Square won't be the same.  Thanks for the music, Mr. Clark.

+ I'm going to a chiropractor!  After having a free exam at the gym about two weeks ago, I learned that my mild lower back pain was the result of a stage 1 subluxation.  In spite of my ongoing (read: neverending) job search and lack of money, I was able to work out a payment plan that will result in me getting "the works" three days a week until mid-July.

+ Dog Update: Nearly 3 1/2 months after my sister adopted Henry, the puppy and the maltipoo still aren't getting along.  The only thing they've learned to share is a water bowl; otherwise, the two dogs get into a fight almost on a daily basis.  In spite of my sister's best intentions, my parents and I have concluded that this isn't working out.  Alas, all the local no-kill shelters are swamped and we don't know anyone looking to adopt, so we're stuck with both dogs.

+ Fantasy Update: For the fifth straight year, I'm dipping my toe (and then some) into roto baseball. In the past I've gone into detail about my various transactions, but ultimately I feel like I jinx my teams in the process. All I can say for now is, we're two weeks into the 2012 season, and both of my teams are in a healthy position . Also, "congratulations" to Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the only player I've drafted all five years.

Next week: the year in music, 1977.  It's gonna be a humdinger.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Off, Wisconsin!

As a native Illinoisan, it's difficult for me to give my neighbors in Wisconsin any credit or respect. It's a regional rivalry, plain and simple. From a political perspective, the "Cheddar Curtain" has historically been an incubator for nonpartistanship, competence, and honesty; Wisconsin stayed out of the limelight while bordering states were embarassed by the likes of Jesse Ventura, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich. It is neither a red state nor a blue state, but a gooey shade of purple. With mild trepidation, I'll admit that Wisconsin has a legislative method that I ardently envied... until now.

In 2010, Scott Walker was elected governor during the big Tea Party bum rush. A fiscal and social conservative, nearly every move Walker has made in 18 months in office has been under scrutiny. His eradication of collective bargaining rights for unions (exempting only police officers and firefighters) made national headlines. The labor guys felt blindsided, but Walker justified the move as a budget cut in the face of a deficit. Unions aside, some argue that the cuts were also a cynical manuever to emasculate a deep-pocketed Democratic constituency. This would be mere partisan chess if not for a) Walker threatening to sic the National Guard upon his critics and b) all of the union scuffling happened in his first six weeks in office. So much for a strong first impression.

Of course, that's not the only nitpick against the Walker administration. His promise to add 250,000 jobs to the Badger State hasn't panned out, and the nonpartisan Tax Foundation determined that Wisconsin has a less business-friendly tax climate than before Walker took office. This past weekend, Walker nonchalantly signed three bills that impede a woman's right to choose, denied hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples, and repealed the state Equal Pay Enforcement Act. Walker quietly signed off on Good Friday, thinking his critics wouldn't pay attention on a religious holiday. He guessed wrong.

With their agenda all but transparent, Walker and Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch are now subject to the first recall election in state history; the primary is next month, the election in early June. The state that begat Joseph McCarthy more than six decades ago is afraid of another bullying activist, and for good reason. Some will judge the state capital of Madison as a liberal enclave and Milwaukee's history of electing Socialist mayors (three total, none since 1960) but any left-leaning activism is limited to those two cities only. Wisconsin is centrist at its core, one of the last sectors of the country where the government actually gets work done, and democracy in its purist form is at stake.

Other notes:

+ Down goes Rick Santorum. As polarizing as he and his campaign might have been, and the cards stacked ever higher for Mitt Romney, he didn't want to fight futilely for his own home state. Ultimately, I suppose it came down to the well-being of his young daughter, too. At least Santorum left the race with his dignity intact.

+ Improv Update: over the weekend, my independent team The War Room made our unofficial debut. Even though we'd performed before on the Chicago "barprov" circuit, this was the first time we had demonstrated our form to an audience. This was several months in the making; my friend Brandon had formed the group, and I had never done genre-specific improv before. We play again on the 14th, so wish us luck!

+ Over on Facebook, I created an internet meme-cum-unofficial holiday. Follow this link to spread the word about "Mothra Day."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Money Mitt

Imagine, if you will, that you're in high school and there's a big dance coming up. There's this really pretty girl that you want to ask out, but you're not experienced with the opposite sex and quite nervous about making your move. Than, once you've worked up the courage, a taller, more handsome guy swoops in, asks her to the dance, and she says yes.

Mitt Romney is the girl you end up taking to the dance.

It's staggering that we're in the first week of April and there are still four legitmate candidates vying for the Republican nomination for president. Most signs indicate that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has the nomination in the bag, but he's neither asserting himself nor running away from the pack. Decisive primary victories in the north have been negated somewhat by close losses in the south and Rockies. It's one thing to compare the gridlock to the Obama vs. Hillary struggle from four years ago, but this time there's four candidates and their supporters couldn't be more polarized or disparate. Clinton supporters eventually came around to their decidedly more liberal opponent for party unity, but the split in '08 is nothing like it is now. Nobody's conceding, everyone's fighting.

So why won't Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul quit? Are they stubborn, or waiting for some epic collapse? Maybe its because the final four represent seperate factions of the GOP: Romney appeals to mainstream and moderate conservatives, Rick Santorum to social conservatives, Newt Gingrich to neo-cons, and Ron Paul a mix of libertarians, bored college kids, and people that think the other three candidates are either corporate stooges or alien robots. (I'm only half-joking about that last one.) On top of that, some have argued that the Christian conservatives have been passed aside for much of the primaries, though whether they had an active or passive role in the pushover is up for debate. I suppose I don't have the best pulse on how the religious right thinks, but are they reluctant to support Romney because he's Mormon? Is an overly quirky, yet not totally dissimilar belief system at the crux of the situation? It doesn't seem like the rift is purely based on Romney's political platform, but maybe it's me.

Members of the conservative establishment are slowly but surely throwing their weight towards Romney, though Santorum is pretending that the party core is panicking. Romney has an overwhelming edge in money and delegates, but voters are slightly more begrudging. Blowout wins in Wisconsin, Maryland, and DC tonight do not seem to be fazing the competition. White flag or not, Santorum and Gingrich are ignoring their platforms and playing offense 24/7, trying to cut down the frontrunner with a stench of desperation. Ron Paul, on the other hand, continues to march to the beat of his own drum.