Tuesday, February 26, 2019

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1988

Longtime readers will recall the monthly music blog (or listicle) that I wrote from 2008 to 2012. I've been sporadically going back to reevaluate the lists I assembled, and after a decade's hindsight I've been revisiting some of my lists.

Let's start with 1988, which NPR recently argued was one of the strongest ever. *cough* There was a lot of great late '80s college rock that I wasn't aware of until the last couple of years, and my previous list also ignored some key moments in rap. As you'll see here, I also kind of half-assed my '88 and '89 lists by lumping them together. In any case, there was enough to be enamored with to merit 15 key albums as well as 15 great songs.

(NOTE: parentheses note previous ranking)


1. Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth. (1) What I said ten years ago still stands. Thurston Moore, guitar god?
2. Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. (NR) The grossest oversight on my previous list. Gangsta and west coast rap took a big leap into mainstream acceptance with Compton, a visceral statement that doesn't care about consequences.
3. It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy. (7) Maybe I repelled by Flavor Flav's ubiquitous presence on reality shows in the mid-2000s. In any case, his hopeless search for love for vH1 shouldn't deter from his status as one of the all-time great hypemen.
4. Nothing's Shocking, Jane's Addiction. (2)
5. Surfer Rosa, The Pixies (4)

6. Isn't Anything, My Bloody Valentine (5)
7. ...And Justice For All, Metallica (6)
8. Green, R.E.M. (3)
9. Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche (9)
10. I'm Your Man, Leonard Cohen. (10) I said something in 2009 about "sparse and samey arrangements" that does not hold up. Its just an exquisite collection of songs.

11. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman (NR)
12. If I Shall Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues (NR)
13. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Camper Van Beethoven (8)
14. Starfish, The Church (NR)
15. Today, Galaxie 500 (NR). A gauzy dream of a debut album. You'd be hard-pressed to find a love song that addresses an '80s misfit weirdo like "Tugboat."

BEST SINGLES (in no particular order)

"Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," The Vaselines
"Touch Me I'm Sick," Mudhoney
"What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)," Information Society
"Chains of Love," Erasure
"Handle With Care," The Traveling Wilburys

"Desire," U2
"Stigmata," Ministry
"Straight Out The Jungle," Jungle Brothers
"Apron Strings," Everything But the Girl
"Anchorage," Michelle Shocked

"(Nothing But) Flowers," Talking Heads
"The Promise," When In Rome
"Only a Memory," The Smithereens
"Suedehead," Morrissey
"Birthday," The Sugarcubes

Sometime in March, I'll post my 1989 list.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

Random Notes, February 2019

Warm opinions, never reheated:

+ The crisis in Venezuela is not only under-reported, but also quite misunderstood. Authoritarianism knows no political stripe, and the blithe narcissism of Chavez gave way to the deadly fumbling of Maduro. The structure of a government, whether its democratic or monarchic, is irrelevant when its leader is beyond incompetent.

+ Bernie Sanders, you had your chance in 2016. Let someone else vie for the Democratic nomination. We've overdue for a woman as president anyway.

+ I've more or less given up trying to find temp work, or any sort of office work. This school year is the first where I'm totally committed to substitute teaching. I'm not taking a two- or three-month breather for a seasonal gig, let alone a position that offers being promoted to full-time but never quite pans out. Its been almost nine years since I was replaced at Salem Communications, and as time has worn on I feel far less motivated to find work elsewhere. (I still maintain a spreadsheet of jobs that I've applied for, mostly for posterity.) Some of you will recall that I considered teaching full-time, but reconsidered. Its not perfect, but I've found a distinct groove between subbing and ride-sharing.


Next week and the week after: a redux of my 1988 and 1989 music blogs.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Seasons of Love: Mystery Science Theater 3000

I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I have been sleeping on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" for a substantial part of my life. I didn't have cable in the 1990s, when the series was in first run (seven years on Comedy Central, then three on Sci-Fi Channel) I saw a handful of episodes and clips in college, but for some reason it didn't register enough to explore further. In the last five or six years, however I've become good friends with several MST3K fans (or "MS-Tees") and even dated a woman who was a diehard fan of the show. I initally watched a few episodes with her to be polite and gradually got hooked.

During winter break and the recent polar vortex, and I had some unexpected down time. This allowed me to catch up on the select number of "classic" episodes available on Netflix, as well as some full episode uploads from YouTube. (Why fan uploads? That's a long story.) That's on top of the 2017 revival of MST3K, and I had the opportunity to see the live show with the new cast on the two occasions they visited Chicago.

For the unfamiliar: sometime in the near-future, a laboratory janitor and part-time inventor named Joel Robinson (played by series creator Joel Hodgson) is unwillingly sent to space by two mad scientists. (The scientists were called "The Mads" for short, and often more antagonistic than villainous.) While trapped on a bone-shaped space station called the Satellite of Love, Joel is forced to watch terrible movies as part of their elaborate experiment. Joel had two defenses against this bizarre yet unwarranted punishment: he would poke fun of said movies, and doing so with several robots that he built, primarily the pompous Tom Servo and the immature Crow. All of these characters would appear in short sketches, also called host segments, before and during the movie.

MST3K ran for just over a decade, and like most long-running TV shows, it was susceptible to cast turnover. Hodgson/Robinson left midway through the fifth season of the series, he was succeeded by the series' head writer/frequent bit player Michael J. Nelson, who played an amicable temp worker named... Mike Nelson. The entire original cast was gone by the end of the final Comedy Central season, and gradually the other writers on the show stepped in to either play new Mads or recast the robots.

The debate over whether Joel or Mike was better is an never-ending online debate on the scale of Diane versus Rebecca on "Cheers" or the two actors that played Darren Stephens (greetings from Team York). Jonah Ray, who plays the affable but unwilling subject in the 2017 MST3K revival, has also been thrown into the remonstration. The MST3K fan base is just as vocal and ardent as it was in the pre-internet days. But I digress.

"Seasons of Love" is supposed to be about one particular season of a TV series, and this latest entry offers a toss-up. The MST3K DVD box sets were assembled when and if the producers could get the rights to release the films, and even though the episodes/films were boxed chronologically, a season set has never been released. (God bless the person who assembles 24 episodes of a two-hour TV show into one collection.) In addition, there has never been a wall-to-wall great season, so I chose what I think are the two strongest seasons, three (1991-92) and eight (1997) in spite of some minor flaws.

For the uninitiated, choosing three and eight might seem random, but this wasn't a show that hit the ground running. Prior to basic cable, MST3K aired on local TV in Minneapolis; "season zero" (1988-89) is a rough draft of things to come, and even Hodgson himself admits most of those episodes are unwatchable. Upon leaping to the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) season one is more professional and palatable, but bewildering to anyone who caught on later in the show's run. The riffing was still mostly improvised, there are long gaps between jokes, and at times the SOL crew are talking over each other. After co-creator Josh Weinstein left, season two took another leap forward: recasting Servo with writer Kevin Murphy, and subbing out Weinstein's Mad with Frank Conniff, aka "TV's Frank." An average episode of MST3K got a lot tighter, in part because nearly the entire show was now scripted. Fans were told to "keep circulating the tapes." Positive word of mouth spread.

Season three was the concept fully formed. The core five of Hodgson, Conniff, Murphy, Trace Beaulieu (as chief Mad, Dr. Clayton Forrester) and executive producer Jim Mallon (as robot Gypsy) had built an impressive chemistry as season two went on. The episode order had been raised from 13 to 24, partially because of criticial buzz but also because the merger of Comedy Channel and Ha! resulted in a mass purge of lower-rated shows. The first episode of season three, a takedown of the 1984 fantasy epic "Cave Dwellers," is arguably the series' first true classic. The third episode, an ordinary horror film turned "E.T" ripoff called "The Pod People," also frequently appears on fans' top ten lists.

With one glaring exception, season three plays like a list of fan favorites: "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," "Time of the Apes," "Daddy-O," not one but five riffs on the Gamera kaiju movies, and both "Master Ninja" movies. The aforementioned exception, an attempted takedown of 1969's "The Castle of Fu Manchu," is an intriguing anomaly. The original film is so unbearably boring and difficult to riff that Joel, Servo, and Crow break down in frustration. Indeed, a fair number of fans find "Castle" hard to get through in one sitting.

Season eight finds MST3K in a very different place. Of the core five, only Murphy still remained; Mallon would step away from playing Gypsy early on in the year. The move from Comedy Central to Sci-Fi came with two caveats: fewer films outside of the science fiction and fantasy genres, and an overarching story arc for the host segments. The movies selected were goofier and generally more colorful, and the characters evolved as well. Beaulieu gave way to Tom Corbett as the voice of Crow, and his take on the character was more acerbic if not slightly more mature.  Dr. F's mother Pearl, played by writer Mary Jo Pehl, was the new Mad in charge.

The premise was tweaked, too: Mike and the bots were on the run from Pearl, inadvertently destroying planets in the process. In the process, Pearl gains two alien henchmen, the dim Professor Bobo (Murphy) and the milquetoast Observer (Corbett). Where season three starts hot, season eight is okay from the get-go but saves its best for last: "Space Mutiny," "Time Chasers," and "Overdrawn in the Memory Bank" might be strongest winning streak of the series. "The Mole People," "Jack Frost," "Agent for H.A.R.M.," and "Horror of Party Beach" are also series high points.

Season one notwithstanding, there really isn't a mediocre season of the series. Season seven, where Beaulieu and Pehl overlapped, is only six episodes long but they're all first division. The two revival seasons have been fine; "Cry Wilderness," the second episode of season 11, is the closest to being an instant classic. As for a gateway episode, I guess "Manos: The Hands of Fate" from season four is fine; its the most popular episode of the series, though slightly overrated for that reason. If you're looking to jump in... hikeeba!