Friday, December 30, 2016

These Past Eight Years, Part 1

In about three weeks, the 44th President of the United States will leave office, by virtue of the 22nd Amendment. Over this past eight years, Barack Hussein Obama has held a steady hand, but in these increasingly polarizing times he (depending on who you ask) steered America back in the right direction or further into the abyss.  From a historical perspective, however President Obama will ultimately rank somewhere in the middle of the pack. There is such a compelling case for his strengths and weaknesses, from his liberal champions to his right-wing detractors, that they nearly cancel each other out. The general consensus --if there is one-- suggests that Obama was a weaker president than Bill Clinton but stronger than George W. Bush. For myriad reasons, that is reasonable opinion on the surface but substantially not so cut and dry.

Indeed, the most divisive president of our time may have been a victim of circumstance. Just before taking office, conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh openly and infamously wished that Obama would fail, and most right-wing pundits never gave the man the chance. If you were compelled to vote for Obama in 2008 on the oversimplified promise of "hope" and "change," then there is no doubt that you were underwhelmed. The reality was more pragmatism than cynicism, and even if there was only a sprinkle of hope and a spoonful of change, President Obama made a conscious effort to avoid the mistakes of his embattled predecessor.

After an embarrassing showing by Republicans in the 2008 elections, the Tea Party movement rose out of thin air, created internal strife within the GOP and proved rather persistent in their criticism and obstruction of the president. Moderates in the ranks, anyone who could've potentially agreed or compromised with Obama, either retired or fell victim to this pesky grass-roots movement. The failure to capitalize on the super-majority of 2009-10 led to one filibuster after another, the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in the midterms that year, then lost the U.S. Senate four years after that. Arguably, President Obama's repeated inability to connect with voters outside of urban areas and Democratic safe spots may have played a part in Donald Trump's victory last month. Even when Obama tried to play the middle, wins did not come easy. The vision of post-partisanship remains a pipe dream.

If there is one thing that truly bothered me about President Obama, it was his timid, wait-and-see approach to foreign policy. That is not to say Obama was a complete milquetoast: he was very cooperative with our allies and encouraged multilateral thought, he ended the Iraq war, and bolstered our presence in Afghanistan. At the very least, Obama deserves partial credit for the death of Osama bin Laden. Still, his handling of Syria was oddly meek, and his rapid pullout of American troops may have contributed to the rise of ISIS. (Bibi isn't happy, but then again, it takes a lot to please the guy.) The impact of the Iran nuclear arms deal and resuming trade with Cuba, like a certain grandiose piece of legislation of his, will take years to unfurl and truly understand.

This is in relative contrast to to how President Obama handled domestic affairs, which was both effective and with an even keel. Amid layers of hearsy and legal prattle, the actual substance of Obama's domestic policies and their impact on the country remains poorly understood. I will elaborate more upon this with part two, sometime in January.


Monday, December 26, 2016

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2016

If there is a scientific correlation between trying times and excellent music, then let 2016 be a case example. This was the year where we were frequently reminded of our mortality (RIP David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen) and that R&B and hip-hop were socially conscious again (Beyonce, John Legend, Chance the Rapper, the surviving members of A Tribe Called Quest). Even if Ms. Knowles and the Thin White Duke were dominating the music conversation, there was an abundance of essential music released in the last 12 months.

1. Blackstar, David Bowie. What does it mean when the best album of the year was released on January 8th? As inauspicious as that may seem, it meant that all the artistic pinnacles of 2016 were edged out by one last masterpiece by an all-time great. Initially heralded as Bowie's best work since 1983's Let's Dance, the subtext of death and finality became context three days after its release, when the Thin White Duke left this mortal coil. Whether Bowie's decade-long hiatus prior to 2013's The Next Day was due to burnout or the feeling that his audience was taking him for granted, we'll never know, but tracks like "Lazarus" assured us that the man was at peace.
2. Lemonade, Beyonce. 2016 was a trying year, especially if you were a young woman named Becky with good hair. Queen Bey's sixth solo album was a multi-platform, multi-platinum declaration, both an artistic statement and a call-your-s***-out diatribe. She both demands contrition from her adulterous partner (come on, Hova) and reevaluates the relationships in her life: men and women, romantic and platonic. The three-quarters of Lemonade are dark and cathartic yet compellingly erratic; the last three songs, "Freedom," "All Night," and the single "Formation," makes for a torrid and focused hydra.
3. Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper. Coincidentally called "Three" in some circles, this Chicago-based rhymer spent Spring 2016 inadvertently teaching white kids lyrics from '90s gospel tunes. Technically an album-length mixtape rather than a proper album, Chance is compellingly fun and rambunctious; he is spiritual and humble in contrast to Yeezy's doubting swagger (he cameos on "All We Got"). This combination of skill, charisma, and quality control is both unique and astonishing, especially so early in an artist's career. Chance's voice is an iconoclastic one, and could very well be the bellringer for hip-hop in the next half-decade.
4. A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
5. The Life of Pablo, Kayne West
6. Emily's D-Evolution, Esperanza Spaulding
7. Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest
8. Wildflower, The Avalanches
9. Blond, Frank Ocean
10. You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen. In some ways, Bowie's death was bookended by the less startling passing of Field Commander Cohen. The legendary poet and troubadour had been in poor health for some time, and like Blackstar his dwindling time on Earth is largely implied but never directly addressed. The title track, doubling as a sly epitaph, is easily his last great song; Cohen has made his peace with God, and now he awaits his fate.

11. Malibu, Anderson.Paak
12. Untitled Unmastered, Kendrick Lamar
13. We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest
14. Puberty 2, Mitski
15. A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson. Rooted in outlaw country and drenched in old-school virility, Simpsons fancies himself as a Millennial answer to Waylon Jennings. This is all on display on Sailor's Guide, a concept album written for his infant son. The one cover on the album, an inexplicable take on Nirvana's "In Bloom," is effortlessly connected back to Glen Campbell's collaborations with Jimmy Webb. Simpson makes clear that even if you don't achieve goals the way you set out to, the real story is in the journey.
16. Ouroboros, Ray LaMontagne
17. Stranger to Stranger, Paul Simon
18. Love You to Death, Tegan & Sara
19. The Colour in Anything, James Blake
20. Schmilco, Wilco. Written and recorded at the same time as 2015's Star Wars, Schmilco is both its predecessor's companion piece and the Abel to its Cain. Trading ramshackle noise-pop for caustic introspection, Jeff Tweedy's knack for melody carries the proceedings, with the rest of the band painting the corners and building texture.

1. Arclight, Julian Lage. A onetime guitar prodigy now in the prime of his career, Lage blurs genres and demonstrates almost freakish dexterity in this solo effort. Joined by bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Lage works with his rhythm section in natural simpatico rather than forcing them to keep pace. The opening track "Fortune Teller" is mesmerizing in both presence and magnitude, and everything after that is both eclectic and convivial.
2. Chulca Vulcha, Snarky Puppy
3. Perfection, Murray Allen Carrington Power Trio
4. Birdwatching, Anat Fort Trio
5. Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny, Cuong Vu & Pat Metheny

Honorable Mention: Krokofant II, Krokofant.

Best Album That Missed My 2015 List Cutoff: King Push - The Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, Pusha T. Released just days before Christmas last year, this ten-track effort is both a teaser for an as-yet-released magnum opus and a dense, hard to navigate, standalone piece of art. Pusha writes a killer lyric, and the production crew assembled here is airtight. I just wish music critics (professional, amateur, or otherwise) had a little more notice.

"Born Again Teen," Lucius
"Dangerous," Big Data feat. Joywave
"Wish I Knew You," The Revivalists
"Cold Light," Operators
"Off the Ground," The Record Company

"Casual Party," Band of Horses
"Deadbeat Girl," Day Wave
"Telomere," Mystery Jets
"One More Night," Michael Kiwanuka
"Fall On Me," Kitten

"Cleopatra," The Lumineers
"TV Queen," Wild Nothing
"So Down," Martha Wainwright
"Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)," White Denim
"Walk To the One You Love," Twin Peaks

1. "Lemonade," Beyonce. The only entry on this list to get an Emmy nomination. Just buy the DVD. It's unforgettable.
2. "Burn the Witch," Radiohead. The beloved British childrens' series "Camberwick Green" mashes up with "The Wicker Man" in a visual experience that is both whimsical and disturbing. It took me awhile to realize the whole thing was a metaphor for European nationalism.
3. "Gosh," Jamie xx. I don't know if there is any singular director that is dominating the music video scene in the 2010s, but Romain Gavras is certainly a contender. Gavras is more inclined to make musical short films that are meticulous in concept, though this time he trades in his usual violent themes for a different fear: that the dystopian future we all fear is going on right now.
4. "Subways," The Avalanches. It antagonizes me that this Australian electro-pop collective went 16 years between their first and second albums, because they're denying us both great music and clips. This trippy, scatological cartoon merits all sorts of repeat viewings.
5. "Angels," Chance the Rapper feat. Saba. Christianity and goodwill permeates through Chance's rhymes, and its rarely more evident in this clip, shot mostly around Chicago's Loop. Whether he's a superhero, an angel or simply a flying Ghostbuster, he doesn't ignore the grim realities of his upbringing but always maintains a positive outlook.
6. "Conceptual Romance," Jenny Hval. The third short-form collaboration between art-pop renegade Hval and filmmaker Zia Anger isn't terribly pleasant, and its not intended to be. (I might as well tell you now, its NSFW.) The commodification of women's bodies is displayed in griping fashion; canvas, fake blood, and plastic buffers us from our most basic instincts.
7. "Wide Open," The Chemical Brothers feat. Beck. A simple but mesmerizing idea: a woman dances (and strips) to reveal the lack of humanity within.
8. "The One Moment," Ok Go. Because of course Ok Go would make the list.
9. "Your Best American Girl," Mitski. Another Zia Anger-directed clip with more feminist subtext. Mitski herself plays the protagonist in a meet-cute scenario; a male model reciprocates her flirting until she's pushed aside by a Coachella reject. They snog and she shreds the guitar.
10. "Elevator Operator," Courtney Barnett. After a plethora of downer videos, this clip is a goofy little charmer. Cameos and slapstick abound as Barnett plays a well-meaning operator in a very surreal office building.

Honorable Mentions: "Easy," Hinds; "Lazarus," David Bowie.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Random Notes, December 2016

Some hot takes from all around:

+ So far the cabinet choices of President-Elect Trump have been, to no liberal's or moderate's surprise, an ongoing nightmare. With the possible exception of Bush 43 reheat Elaine Chao, each appointee has been subject to controversy, either because of a lack of qualifications or they inherently oppose whatever department they were chosen to lead. Gov. Rick Perry, the new Secretary of Energy, famously forgot that he wanted to abolish that position in a debate five years ago. Fingers crossed, he'll forget to show up for work.

+ Why was Kimberly Peirce booed and heckled? The students that organized this protest likely don't understand that "Boys Don't Cry" wouldn't have been made if the lead actor was trans; the very idea of a movie about a person transitioning in the late 1990s was very daring, thought-provoking stuff. The far-left undergrads likely don't understand (or remember) that the LGBTQ movement was in a more nascent place in 1999 then it is now. Its still new for a lot of people. She deserves an apology.

+ Well, I somehow survived my first semester of grad school. On to the next one.

+ For the first time since 2005 (the year I started blogging) I will not be posting my annual Best of TV list. My hectic schedule prevents me from watching television live, unless its a sporting event, awards show, or SNL. Thank goodness for DVRs, except when they automatically delete older shows to make space for new stuff. Allow me the mulligan while I catch up.