Friday, November 28, 2014

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2004 (again)

Boy, it feels like it's been forever since I posted a "year in music" blog. It's been over a year yet it feels like longer. At the same time, I ran out of years to cover and my primary focus as been to make my 2014 list as comprehensive as possible. The project was finished business... or so I thought.

I'll admit-- I kind of screwed up my 2004 and 2005 lists. They were among the first music blog entries I ever posted, and I didn't approach them with the care and research of my later posts. At the same time I didn't want to constantly second-guess all of the lists I posted, tempting as it may be, which is why I'm limiting myself to these two years. This week's entry will cover 2004, and I'll post a 2005 sometime early next year. (You can find my original list here.)

In hindsight, 2004 was not the strongest year for music, but it was watershed in some ways. With the iPod introduced a year earlier, '04 was the last year retail music outlets like Sam Goody, Tower Records, and Coconuts turned a profit. As I pointed out the first time around, it was a good year for comebacks; some of the most noteworthy recordings were released by established, albeit long-dormant artists. One such legend, the incomparable Ray Charles, passed away just before his life's work could be appreciated for a new generation. And yet, arguably the best new release of 2004 was a debut full-length by one of the most important bands of the past decade. Rock as a genre was irreversibly splintering, but underneath all the scenester turmoil were quite a few solid releases.

NOTE: Parentheses note previous ranking.

1. Funeral, Arcade Fire. The most glaring misfire on my previous list was right on top. I originally picked American Idiot as #1, but Billie Joe Armstrong's rock opera aspirations don't totally hold up a decade on. In picking Funeral I'm correcting a gross oversight; this album is far more daring, direct, and (perhaps) dangerous than the vast majority of the indie scene ten-odd years ago. The "Neighborhood" suite that dominates the first half of the album is an exploration of the soul by way of Joseph Conrad, but tracks like "Crown of Love" and "Haiti" balance the self-relection with whimsy.
2. A Ghost is Born, Wilco. A warmer and more organic companion piece to their 2002 masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's fifth album retains most of its predecessor's ghostly song structures even if the best tracks don't stand out immediately. In some ways, it's Foxtrot's sequel played at the wrong speed; the 15-minute dirge "Less Than You Think" gives way to the charming, witty "The Late Greats," one of the best songs in their discography.
3. The Grey Album, Danger Mouse. (2) Largely because of music licensing entanglement, the phenomenon of mash-up songs --or in this case, mash-up albums-- was relatively short-lived. This remix release, arguably what vaulted DM from moderately respected producer to hipster demi-god, set the bar high for its concept and purpose. In splicing Jay-Z's vocals with the instrument tracks from The Beatles' otherwise untouchable The White Album, DM does the impossible and makes this curious pet project into a must-listen. Case in point: the frustrated "What More Can I Say" simmering over the piano and acoustic guitar of "While My Guitar Gently Weaps."
4. Louden Up Now, !!! (3)
5. American Idiot, Green Day (1)
6. Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse (4)
7. Hot Fuss, The Killers
8. The College Dropout Kanye West (5)
9. Bows and Arrows, The Walkmen (6)
10. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (8). Four Scottish boys with a yen for Paul Weller make a lot of noise with their first full-length, the beginning of a string of good-but-not-great releases in the decade to come. The leadoff single "Take Me Out" is guarded optimism that veers into sheer drama; is it one song that morphs into another kind of song, or a false intro that exposes its true nature when the veneer self-destructs?

Honorable Mentions: ONoffON, Mission of Burma (9); Get Away From Me, Nellie McKay (7); Our Shadows Will Remain, Joseph Arthur (11); You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, Death From Above 1979; Madvillainy, Madvillain.

Best Jazz Album: Song for the New Man, David "Fathead" Newman. The career resurgences were not limited to pop or rock, as this late-period effort by the former Rayette proves. A venerable tenor sax player of the Gene Ammons variety, Fathead could also play a mean flute, as his Herbie Mann homage "Passing Through" proves. This well-rounded, straight-ahead set also features pianist John Hicks, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and another understated legend, drummer Jimmy Cobb.

"Vertigo," U2
"Walk Idiot Walk," The Hives
"C'mon C'mon," The Von Bondies
"Take Your Mama," Scissor Sisters
"Now Here is Nowhere," The Secret Machines
"She Wants to Move," N.E.R.D.
"Banquet," Bloc Party
"Portions for Foxes," Rilo Kiley
"Torture," King Khan & The Shrines
"Pressure Point," The Zutons

1. "Float On," Modest Mouse. Sometimes a band tries desperately to escape whatever turned them into a left-field commercial success. This is one such example; a catchy song with a pop-up book-inspired video, "Float On" went from charming indie rock lark to top ten hit to Applebee's background music in quick procession in Spring 2004. In a new light, this song (and video) is not as annoying as you thought.
2. "Jesus Walks" (version 1), Kanye West. Yeezy was another 2004 breakout, and though the self-deprecating survival story "Through the Wire" was a fine debut single, "Jesus" was what made Kanye... well, Kanye. The desert-set second version merited MTV airplay, but the church-happy first version of the video is the most striking. In the wake of the latest round of violence in Ferguson, Missouri the blunt truth of Kanye's rhymes couldn't be more timely.
3. "Walkie Talkie Man," Steriogram. (1) Felt and clay and yarn, oh my!
4. "Pony Ride," Bumblebeez 81. (3) Sometimes good hype just isn't enough to make a lasting impact. This weird little nugget is true ear candy, a hip-hop/garage rock lark performed by a brother-and-sister act that won an Australian reality show. Bumblebeez is long gone (I assume) but their cartoon bobbleheads remain.
5. "99 Problems," Jay-Z. (2) When was the last time a video was banned (or almost banned) from MTV? Probably this one, which aired in the wee hours of the night with a violence disclaimer. It's a powerful clip, even if Hova's retirement turned out to be just hot air.

Honorable Mentions: "Ocean Breathes Salty," Modest Mouse; "Mr. Brightside," The Killers; "Reptilia," The Strokes.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Tenth Annual Thanks/No Thanks List

Wow, Thanksgiving again? As cliche as it sounds, 2014 has really flown by. Additionally, a hectic schedule bolstered by back-to-back temp gigs with odd hours and long commutes makes you appreciate what little down time you have during the week. I've been staying busy, and even though I don't know if I'm truly accomplishing as much as I'd like to, I look forward to relaxing during this four-day weekend.

As such, I started my Thanks/No Thanks list in November 2005 and I can't think of this time of year without writing one. I use it to timestamp my goals, achievements, and general thoughts in any given year, without need for context. Here goes:

This year I give Thanks to my health, my family, the staggering progress of the marriage equality movement, the Chicago improv community, and (of course) your 2014 American League Champion Kansas City Royals.

With that said, I give a hearty No Thanks to credit card debt, cable news, old friends and classmates that never answer their messages, co-workers that won't shut up about politics, and pretty much any Chicago sports team that isn't the Blackhawks.

Next Week: the year in music, 2004. I promise.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Hunt for Red November

Some final (albeit belated) thoughts on the 2014 midterm elections:

It's not terribly clear to me how Bruce Rauner plans on steering Illinois in the right direction, but all the power to him. His defeat of incumbent Pat Quinn for the governor's seat ended 12 years of Democratic reign, and possibly a dozen years of unfocused state GOP politicking. What should have been a runaway victory against an unpopular incumbent came right down to the wire. Rauner's nearly fatal flaw was assuming just being "the other guy" was enough to seal Quinn's fate, and indeed, his stance on a variety of issues was oddly vague until the last five weeks of the campaign. And, as Rauner himself admitted, if we don't like it we can boot him in 2018.

So what triggered the Democrats' trouncing in the election? Even though they share the views on several social issues with a narrow majority of Americans --including most crucially, marriage equality-- the 2014 midterms were both a referendum on President Obama and the ineffectual and sometimes polarizing presence of the party powers that be (Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, etc.). The President has had a brutal second term, partially his fault and partially out of his control, and exasperated voters made their say. The kinda-sorta GOP landslide not only evokes 1994's "Republican Revolution" but serves as a mirror image to the butt-kicking the Democrats handed their competitors to the right in 2006 and 2008.

The Republicans made fewer mistakes as well; there was no Todd Akin/sexual assault blunder to set a disastrous domino effect into motion. On the flip side of that is the misconception that the GOP is unilaterally pro-life and wary of Planned Parenthood. Most of the defined pro-choice candidates lost, but the Republicans that support women's health matters (caveats or concessions or not) are usually stifled by the social right, not necessarily a majority of the party but a crucial line of financial needs and manpower. Alas, the social-right motormouths from the deep red states will get a more substantial chunk of our (and the media's) attention, and the influence of lobbyists and Grover Norquist-type policy wonks will ensure the impression that the GOP is in lockstep on all social issues.

Other random notes:

+ At least the 2014 World Series came down to the last strike on the last out in the bottom of the ninth. My thanks to the Kansas City Royals for a fun postseason; it wasn't perfect, but it was worth 29 years of waiting.

+ Have you checked out Stu News yet? It's not nearly as political as this blog, but it'll certainly put a smirk on your face in the morning.