Thursday, August 30, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1972

Nobody guessed, therefore nobody wins that cookie...

I saved one of the best for last. In an era of unprecented creative freedom and genre-defining masterworks that were the result of that constant experimentation, 1972 extended the all-encompassing winning streak that began in the mid-to-late 1960s. Nearly every LP in my top ten is a five-star, "A" effort. Even if the psychedelic era was over and most of its core players (Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin) were already dead at this point, that sense of progressive thinking was still alive and kicking. Glam rock ruled the seas, and my #1 album pick captained the ship. Makeup wearing, androgynous bands like T.Rex and Roxy Music --who both put out fine recordings in '72-- were merely riding Bowie's wave.

If 1972 wasn't all about the glam, it was about the twang. America and The Eagles weren't critics' darlings, but they sold albums like hotcakes. This was also the singer-songwriter era, and sensitive souls like Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Carly Simon gave pop music a mellow, acoustic aftertaste to the "free love" '60s. R&B was at its sexy zenith courtesy of Al Green, and Roberta Flack gave us the best of both worlds. The void left by The Beatles (whom as seperate entities, mostly sat out '72) begat power-pop and a generation of rock acts heavily influenced but not contempory to the Fab Four. Over in Central Europe the Kraut-Rock movement was in full swing, though the general agoraphobia and weirdness of their output would barely make a dent in the US until years later, if at all.


1. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, David Bowie. I love this album to the extent that I have a poster of the album cover hanging above my bed. A concept album in which the plot falls apart by the third song, Bowie's debauched swagger and paranoid lyrics matches well with Mick Ronson's heavy yet energetic guitar. Already the leader of the glam rock movement, Bowie's vision and execution match seemlessly in a manner not entirely seen on hisfirst four albums.
2. Exile On Main St., The Rolling Stones. Like so many of my past picks, this is not an album you'll "get" after one listen. Jumping between boogie, blues, soul, and country it doesn't seem like the Stones are doing anything new, but the substance of this double album is quite fresh. The slow but steady bleakness of their previous three albums hits pitch black; Mick Jagger howls with futility, crying in the night as Keith Richards and Mick Taylor exchange one incredible guitar riff after another.
3. #1 Record, Big Star. With the Box Tops, Alex Chilton was a teenager trying to sound like an adult. With Big Star, a twentysomething Chilton was allowed to regress. The result is akin to The Velvet Underground and Nico in craft and overall influence, ignored upon its initial release but deservedly celebrated in hindsight. If everything about the album seems familiar, it's only because Chilton and partner-in-crime Chris Bell set the power-pop blueprint.
4. Pink Moon, Nick Drake
5. Harvest, Neil Young
6. On The Corner, Miles Davis
7. Transformer, Lou Reed
8. Roxy Music, Roxy Music
9. Talking Book, Stevie Wonder
10. Can't Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan. The most unconventional debut of '72 reveals an iconoclast almost fully formed. The Becker/Fagen combo are already near the peak of the powers on tracks like "Do It Again" and "Midnight Cruiser"; the only stumbling blocks are the unnecessary second lead singer (sorry, David Palmer) and only the vaguest hints of their future innovation. Regardless, this is a fine ten-song set eclipsed somewhat by The Dan's later work.

11. The Harder They Come soundtrack, Jimmy Cliff/Various Artists
12. Machine Head, Deep Purple
13. Something/Anything?, Todd Rundgren
14. Eat a Peach, The Allman Brothers
15. Honky Château, Elton John. This is my second favorite Sir Elton album, but ranked kinda low due to stiff competition. If Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was Reggie Dwight's Sgt. Peppers, than this is his Rubber Soul. We begin to see hints of John's flamboyant side on "Susie (Dramas)" and "Hercules," but overall this is a fun, jaunty, almost bohemian effort that feels eclectic but never boring. Plus, who can resist "Rocket Man?"
16. The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit
17. Fresh, The Raspberries
18. Manassas, Stephen Stills et al.
19. Neu!, Neu
20. Return to Forever, Chick Corea. A Corea solo album in name only, this is the de facto debut of a '70s jazz fusion juggernaut. Corea's trippy mysticism is lathered on so much that it dates the album almost immediately, but the unit of Chick, Airto, Joe Farrell, Stanley Clarke, and guest vocalist Flora Purim click from the very get-go. Blending electric piano with Brazilian and Latin rhythms, Return to Forever is playful yet daring, somehow cosmic and grounded at the same time.


"Superfly," Curtis Mayfield
"If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want To Be Right," Luther Ingram
"Thunder and Lightning," Chi Coltrane
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Roberta Flack
"Let's Stay Together," Al Green
"Back Stabbers," The O'Jays
"I'll Take You There," The Staple Singers
"Use Me," Bill Withers
"I Can See Clearly Now," Johnny Nash
"Last Night I Didn't Get to Sleep At All," The 5th Dimension

"Go All The Way," The Raspberries
"School's Out," Alice Cooper
"Telegram Sam," T.Rex
"Baby Blue," Badfinger
"Without You," Harry Nilsson
"Everything I Own," Bread
"Taxi," Harry Chapin
"The City of New Orleans," Arlo Guthrie
"Take It Easy," The Eagles
"Garden Party," Rick Nelson

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Akin to Idiocy

No pun intended, but Todd Akin is screwed. In an election where women's health rights has been running side-by-side with the economy as the topic of choice, Akin's "legitimate rape" remark was a staggering and potentially lethal blunder.  There is no exaggerated overaction here, what he said was beyond appalling. Worse yet, this proves the fallacy of male politicians determining what a woman should do with her body. Whether Akin stays in the race --he wants to, but the GOP is pressuring him to quit-- what should have been a fair victory over a weak incumbent is now looking like a clear Claire McCaskill victory. When noted pro-lifers like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are asking you to quit, you're done for.

Other notes:

+ So it turned out Jesse Jackson Jr. has bipolar disorder, a serious mental health condition. If my previous comments about the congressman seemed insensitive, it was only because of the suspicious manner in which Jackson disappeared from DC and public view. On the national scene, he's more famous for being the son of a garrelous far-left activist than anything else. Word in Chicago is, Triple J is still favored to keep his seat in November but not by a landslide.

+ To reiterate: reports of nationwide voter fraud have been greatly exaggerated.

+ Remember my mindest list for the high school class of 2012 (college class of 2016)? Here's the real deal, as depressing as ever.

Next week: the year in music... you know what? I'll let you guess. At this point, I've covered every year between 1964 and 2011 except one. Whoever guesses right wins a cookie.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Days of Ryan and Roses

After months of speculation, Governor Romney chose his running mate last weekend. Despite rumors of picking a campaign rival/ideological opposite, a fan favorite like Chris Christie, or a "safe" pick like Rob Portman, Romney chose Paul Ryan. This was good news for the GOP, who have perceived the notoriously austere congressman from south central Wisconsin as a rising star in the party, and equally delightful news for the Democrats, who have plenty of ammunition with his name on it. Anyone expecting another Sarah Palin was either relieved or disappointed, depending upon who you ask.

I may not agree with Rep. Ryan politically, he seems like an intelligent, sincere, and thoughful guy. This pick was everything in Palin in '08 wasn't: Ryan is not looking for celebrity, and his bark has bite. Ryan's not fishing around for buzzwords like "grizzly mama," he's a straight talker. I'm almost certain he can hold his own in an extensive interview with Katie Couric. He's a fiscal conservative but a social moderate, as evidenced by his somewhat torpid support for gay rights. As far as everything else is concerned, the congressman tips imperceptibly more to the right than the ex-governor.

With that said, Rep. Ryan does face one major issue: marketing himself to the mainstream. He's an economic wonk, more comfortable laying out an agenda than stumping on the campaign trail. For better or worse, he's the nerd candidate. He's the chess club captain, not the all-conference running back. His connections to the Tea Party movement are prevalent but loose; most criticisms of Ryan being a champion of "top down" economic policies are accurate, and he wholeheartedly supported TARP. In short, he's a DC insider representing a party where outsiders have the loudest voices. His charisma could be the X-factor.

So what does this mean for the election? The first post-Ryan poll suggests a minimal impact, with Romney and Obama still running in dead heat. From a financial perspective, the GOP war chest and SuperPACs keep on chuggin' along, raising record amounts of money. Also, the Ryan pick gives Romney a slight advantage in Wisconsin, which post-recall has become an apparent swing state. At the moment, the bluster is rising but the stances are unwavering; the Obama/Biden ticket was expected to reinforce their core, but like Romney/Ryan they're gained little new ground. Independents and undecideds remain a tough crowd, fighting to decide between two candidates with equally uninspiring economic platforms, more innately drawn to attacking each other than expounding ideas.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Random Notes, August 2012

With all the drama past us, maybe it's time to catch up on current events big and small:

+ Even though Chick-Fil-A has been promoting family values for years --which is perfectly fine in the right context-- I think Mr. Cathy's comments were a humongous mistake. It's one thing to be a social conservative, it's another to let your beliefs stand in the way of business. This is why Chick-Fil-A will never run with the big dogs (McDonald's, Burger King, etc.). If anyone from those companies are against gay marriage, and I'm sure there are, they would do better than make a formal statement that A) has nothing to do with the company and its wares and B) alienates a substantial percentage of their potential customers. This is not a question of first amendment rights, but a lesser case of foot-in-mouth disease.

+ On one hand, I'm curious to know why Mitt Romney hasn't released any of his pre-2009 tax returns. On the other hand, speculation is building into a witch hunt, a marginally more substantial conspiracy than the Obama/birther absurdity of yore. On one hand, this demonstrates the lack of transparency that hinders the people's faith in government. On the other hand, we already know Romney is filthy rich, and he likely has nothing to hide.

+ Finally this week, I have a "mom update" of sorts. For the last few weeks, her hands had been trembling and we weren't sure why. She already has osteoporosis, but that's really a symptom. After going to a specialist late last week, my mom learned that she has early-onset Parkinson's Disease. The disease is very much treatable, and she's not treating it like a big deal, but regardless please keep  my mom in your thoughts.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1997

Two types of music dominated the critics' lists (and Billboard charts) in 1997: hip-hop and British alternative. The American hip-hop scene was a watershed, teaming with new voices (Timbaland, Wyclef Jean, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Erykah Badu) even though the death of Notorious B.I.G. nearly overshadowed these developments. The bigger story, however was the latest and adamantly Gen-X British invasion: cult UK acts like Blur and The Verve were suddenly burdened with a left-field hit in the states, then quickly written off by myopic trendmakers as one-hit wonders. Two years after The Bends, Radiohead released one of the most important rock albums of the '90s, if not all time. Pre-21st century dance-rock was defined by the likes of Daft Punk, Prodigy, and The Chemical Brothers.

And where was I in 1997? Transitioning from grade school to junior high, I was still mostly oblivious to popular music. I remember we had a new gym teacher that was hip enough to play "MTV Buzz Bin" and the Lost Highway soundtrack during class. If I had a personal highlight, I joined my middle school AV Club and fiddled around with camera equipment, a gateway of sorts to my career in radio. The long-awaited arrival of the first CD player in the Allard household that Christmas, however was the likely impetus of my musical obsessions. (Alas, at the time my sister dominated the boombox with her Spice Girls CDs.)

1. OK Computer, Radiohead. Can a guitar-rock album feel accomplished and bewildering when it doesn't feel like a guitar-rock album? If that album is as subtle and textured as OK Computer, than the answer is yes. Building upon The Bends but refusing to augment old ideas, the innovation and surprise of Radiohead's third album makes this an essential, albeit demanding, listening experience for a whole generation.  There's little else I can say that any other music critic hasn't praised or construed.
2. Dig Your Own Hole, The Chemical Brothers. Raising their game from promising, above-average post-techno act to innovators, Hole carries many of the same challenging yet rewarding qualities that OK Computer does, if not at the same echelon. This feast of sound begins with the cacophonous "Block Rockin' Beats," with the Beatles-baiting hit single "Setting Sun" serving as the main course. This is a mercilessly propulsive album, an exhilarating experience these brothers-in-spirit have yet to match.
3. The Colour and The Shape, Foo Fighters. The best straight-up rock album of '97 was a proving point for Dave Grohl. In his desire to prove he wasn't just "the drummer from Nirvana" and an artist of his own merit, Grohl turned his side project Foo Fighters into a full-fledged band and entity. The end result is The Colour, the last (?) great "arena rock" album and Grohl's most tenacious effort as a drummer, frontman, and songwriter. As the band thrashes for 47 minutes, Grohl and producer Gil Norton maintain a semblance of focus and control.
4. Either/Or, Elliott Smith
5. Homework, Daft Punk
6. Urban Hymns, The Verve
7. Homogenic, Bjork
8. Blur, Blur
9. The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse
10. Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan. The unlikeliest great album of the late '90s started a new chapter in an American icon's sprawling career. After releasing two decades' worth of albums that ranged in quality from adequate to disposable, not to mention spending most of the decade touring without writing or recording, there was a certain suspension of disbelief when Dylan finally returned to the studio in late '96. Like most of his post Desire efforts, this is album that blends blues and folk, but its essence lies in Dylan's songcraft and Daniel Lanois' ominous production.

Honorable Mentions: Whatever and Ever, Amen, Ben Folds Five; Brighten the Corners, Pavement; Fat of the Land, Prodigy; Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space, Spiritualized; Third Eye Blind, Third Eye Blind; Presents the Carnival, Featuring Refugee All-Stars, Wyclef Jean; I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Yo La Tengo.

"The Perfect Drug," Nine Inch Nails
"Miss Misery," Elliott Smith
"Sonny Came Home," Shawn Colvin
"Legend of a Cowgirl," Imani Coppola
"The Freshmen," The Verve Pipe
"One Headlight," The Wallflowers
"Angel," Sarah McLachlan
"The Impression That I Get," Mighty Mighty Bosstones
"Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)," Deftones
"I'm Afraid of Americans," David Bowie feat. Trent Reznor

1. "Smack My Bitch Up," Prodigy. As epic was it was controversial, this seemingly mundane POV clip takes one dark turn after another, which crescendos into a brilliant twist ending. Banished to the wee hours of the night by MTV (where it aired exactly once) it remains a NSFW roller coaster 15 years later.
2. "Everlong," Foo Fighters. 1997 was a breakout year of sorts for director Michel Gondry; he directed seven short-form videos that year, three of which are on this list. "Everlong" takes the cake, at least stylistically; the overlapping dreams of Dave Grohl and "wife" Taylor Hawkins are a creepy world onto itself.
3. "Virtual Insanity," Jamiroquai. A quick hint about the video's production: the walls move, not the floor. I hope that doesn't ruin the magic of this trippy clip.
4. "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," Missy Elliott. A hard video to forget, even if it carries many of the usual late '90s hip-hop video clichés (the Hummer, the booty walk, the Puff Daddy cameo). The essence lies in the fish-eye lens, which make the diminutive, lusciously lipped Missy look like a colossus.
5. "Criminal," Fiona Apple. In two words: heroin chic. Not nearly a controversial as "Smack," but almost as pornographic. Modern-day hipsters will think this video is nothing more than a moving Hipstamatic print. They don't know this broke the mold.
6. "Bachlorette," Bjork.
7. "Around The World," Daft Punk.
8. "Karma Police," Radiohead.
9. "Not If You Were The Last Junkie on Earth," The Dandy Warhols.
10. "Sky's The Limit," Notorious B.I.G. featuring 112.

Your thoughts?