Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Diamond with a Flaw is Better Than a Pebble Without

With my monthly musical journey all but over (I will revisit and revamp some lists later this year) I thought touch upon some of the quirks and foibles of my four years' worth of great listens. This will be the first of such inventories:

Not every song on an album has to be great to make it a strong album overall. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls had their Jack Haley, the 1927 Yankees their Julie Wera. Sometimes the brilliance of the whole allows you to ignore one weak track that either breezes by or fits only in the context of the album's peripheral. You take away that one song and it somehow completes your listening experience. Without being too nitpicky or beating around the bush, what happens when bad songs appear on great albums?

For the sake of not being too wonky, I will use the top of Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, plus a couple personal favorites. Keep in mind, this is their list and not mine I apologize for any inadvertent plagiarism on my part.

1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles. This is a tough call. If you think erstaz children's sing-alongs sung by Ringo are cloying, "A Little Help From My Friends" might be your pick. "She's Leaving Home" has probably the least memorable melody, but it's a fine, tragic story-song. "Sgt. Pepper's (Reprise)" is a truncated encore of the title track and barely a song in its own right, but it segues into the brilliant "A Day in the Life." It's the buffer between the full-length masterpiece you just heard and the individual achievement you're about to hear. In the end, I went with the droning Within You, Without You.
2. Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys. In the context of the album, the title track is fine. Out of context, it feels like intermission music in an old-time movie theater. If you want to nitpick, this is an instrumental credited to the Beach Boys, yet only one member (Brian Wilson) plays on the track; the small army of session players that populate and color this album merely cater to Wilson's whims. It's not filler per se, but the album's namesake feels like a tag-along.
3. Revolver, The Beatles. Another tough pick. "Yellow Submarine" has always been ammo for the Ringo haters, and while it has some annoying qualities, it's hard to not sing along. Of the three druggiest songs on the album, "I'm Only Sleeping" pales next to "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows," but only barely. There's too much I love here. No Pick.
4. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan. I would choose "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," but that was on Blonde on Blonde. I would choose the icky "Ballad in Plain D," but that was on Another Side of Bob Dylan. The nine tracks on this album are miniature masterstrokes joined together as one breathtaking suite. Again, No Pick.
5. Rubber Soul, The Beatles. I don't want to keep hating on Fab Four, but this is Rolling Stone's top five after all. Sure, "The Word" is kinda sappy, but Wait is a well-written song hindered by a rushed production.

Also, some personal favorites:

Odelay!, Beck. Whenever I listen to this album, I'm naturally inclined to skip over High Five (Rock the Catskills). Even though it maintains the surrealist party-rock aesthetic, "High Five" veers into generic "Jock Jams" territory.
Purple, Stone Temple Pilots. If I didn't hear Interstate Love Song at all for the next six months, I would not miss it. Now that grunge and '90s is seeping its way into classic rock playlists, I hear this song now on twice as many radio stations. For a nearly 20-year-old song, it needs a rest.
#1 Record, Big Star. Remember The India Song? The song with the flutes and allusions to Rudyard Kipling? Yeah, that one.
Purple Rain, Prince. I often wonder if Foo Fighters covered Darling Nikki just to be ironic.
British Steel, Judas Priest. United is quite possibly the greatest soccer --er, football-- anthem nobody wanted. The song's Wikipedia is embarassingly threadbare, which tells you how much Priest fans appreciate this song.

I'm sure I'll think of more, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Random Notes, January 2013

It's been much too long since I've commented on current events:

+ If you follow what's going on down in Springfield, chances are you won't hear much about anything besides measures to legalize gay marriage. Even though same-sex civil unions have been legal in Illinois for about 18 months ago, full marital rights are now at stake. We're far from being the first state to debate the topic, but we might be first where there is support from Democrats and Republicans.  The armchair conservatives that densely populate the Chicago suburbs are warming up to the idea, and GOP support in central IL and downstate has been more indifferent than opposed. Strangely, only a smattering of religious conservatives are voicing their dissent.

The Illinois GOP is still in relative disarray since George Ryan's ignoble term as governor ended ten years ago, but at least they're (almost) on the same page about something, and for a decidedly "liberal" cause, no less. The core of the state Republican Party is relatively moderate; outside of one-term wonder Joe Walsh, the Tea Party hasn't found much footing in the Land of Lincoln. On the other hand, this is the same Illinois GOP that couldn't beat Rod Blagojevich for the governor's seat... twice. It's a weird mix of kowtowing, populist fervor, and just being sensible.

+ The majority of gun owners in America are not loners, lunatics or sociopaths. Sadly, it's that lunatic and sociopath minority that continue to gobble up headlines and alter the course of gun control in the United States. We can't overlook the hubris and lack of preventative measures by lobbies like the National Rifle Association that keep dragging out the second amendment debate what seems like every three months or so. You can make the argument that gun control doesn't work, but at the time there has to be some type of regulation. Governor Cuomo's new legislation in New York state is strict and well-meaning, but could backfire easily. In short, in the wake of Aurora and Newtown, the gun debate is just as complicated and irresolute as ever.

+ Finally, as happy as I am that the NHL is back in action, it's too little too late. The league and the players' union have been at loggerheads for so long that neither party came out of the lockout a winner. Simply put, the players are overpaid and the owners are greedy, and both share a virulent streak of narcissism. I fear that the damage now is irreversible, that one more labor dispute will just kill the sport in North American altogether, that no PR spin can sustain any further damage. Just shut up and play.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My Last, Last Blog of 2012

Without further ado, a list of my favorite TV shows in 2012:

1. Parks & Recreation, NBC. With "Community" little more than a cult favorite and "30 Rock" and "The Office" riding into the sunset, the Pawnee P&R crew are now the torchbearers of NBC's comedy block, if not comedy on network television. Continuing its evolution from political satire in miniature to understated yet zany workplace comedy to hybrid of both, "Parks" is a program that continues to surprise and delight, bolstered by the tightest ensemble in TV, clever writing, and big dollop of heart. Memorable Episodes: "Operation Ann," "The Debate," "Ms. Knope Goes to Washington"
2. Girls, HBO. It was not obvious at first what Lena Dunham was doing. The first two episodes played out like a young female version of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," crossed with a self-serving indie flick. Episode three, however was when Dunham's vision blossomed (at least, from my POV) and her agenda fully realized. This is an unflinching look at immature, entitled, privileged white girls coming to terms with the realities they've created for themselves. "Girls" is empathic, poignant, and squeamish all at the same time. Memorable Episodes: "All Adventurous Women Do," "Welcome to Bushwick (a/k/a The Crackcident)," "She Did"
3. Mad Men, AMC. And than there was color. Saturated hues of red, orange, green, and blue said more about SDCP's emotional undercurrents than any performance could. This past season generated maybe the greatest winning streak of the show's run, a string five or six episodes that rank among the series' best. While not as strong overall as Season 4 --blame the anti-climatic season finale, blame too much Megan, whatever-- few dramas are as consistently compelling. Memorable Episodes: "Signal 30," "Far Away Places," "The Other Woman"
4. Community, NBC. The fourth season is still in limbo, but even before that agonizingly long hiatus 12 marvelous episodes aired in this calendar year. The long-term potential is limited, and the post-Dan Harmon era has yet to be scrutinized by fans and critics alike, but I'd rather accentuate the positive. Few things on TV can compare to that aggressively weird, frequently brilliant third season. Memorable Episodes: "Pillows and Blankets," "Virtual Systems Analysis," "Basic Lupine Urology"
5. Bob's Burgers, Fox. With much nonchalance, a very unlikely young cartoon has become the tentpole of the rapidly aging "Animation Domination" lineup. "Oddball delight" does not do justice to a show that blends its unusual viewpoint with affability, quirky laughs, and emotional heft. The mere thought of the show just makes me smile. Memorable Episodes: "The Belchies," "Burgerboss," "Ear-sy Rider"

Honorable Mention: 30 Rock, NBC ("Leap Day," "Murphy Brown Lied to Us," "Mazel Tov, Dummies!")

Worst Show of 2012: Animal Practice, NBC. The show with the monkey vet and Justin Kirk as an unlikable horndog. Not much to elaborate upon here.

In Memoriam (and I hope I didn't forget anybody): Mike Enriquez, Etta James, Joe Paterno, Don Cornelius, Mike Wallace, Whitney Houston, Moose Skowron, Dick Clark, George Lindsay, Tom Davis, Gore Vidal, Judith Crist, Marvin Hamlisch, Helen Gurley Brown, Richard Dawson, Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes, Tony Scott, Phyllis Diller, Jerry Nelson, Neil Armstrong, Hal David, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Williams, Andy Griffith, Steve Sabol, Alex Karras, Sen. Arlen Specter, Sylvia Kristel, Sen. George McGovern, Elliott Carter, Sen. Warren Rudman, Art "Mr. Food" Ginsburg, Hector Camacho, Zig Ziglar, Dave Brubeck, Larry Hagman, Ravi Shankar, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Jack Klugman, Charles Durning, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Fontella Bass, and Nick Wieme.