Sunday, December 26, 2004

COLUMN: Albums of the Year

It's something I came to terms with long ago: I'm a music nerd, and proud of it.

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to learn to play an instrument. Drums, keyboard, guitar... I tried them all. Only problem? As a musician, I suck. But as a music fan, I'm one of the elite. When I'm not working or sleeping, you can usually find me haunting the stacks of every record store in town. It's so bad that sometimes when the employees at Borders can't immediately answer a music question for a customer, they look to see if I'm lurking around... that is, if I haven't already barged in and attempted to help the customer first. Yes, I'm THAT annoying.

My unhealthy obsession with music has led me to become a weekend club DJ (at 2nd Ave. in the District,) run a website for music nerds (, and become an entertainment correspondant for the Dispatch/Argus/Leader. And every year, I've had to sit green with envy because Sean Leary, our entertainment editor, gets to write a year-end column where he gets to unveil his picks for the top records of the year. Me? I just get to tell my cat, and frankly, I don't think she cares as much as she should.

So this year, I can finally throw down my trump card. Ha ha, Sean Leary, you're no longer the only nerd around these parts with a column! So please indulge me as I bid the year adios with a list of the 10 records of 2004 that you really, really ought to own.

10. THE TRASH CAN SINATRAS - Weightlifting - In 1990, the perpetually unknown Trash Can Sinatras put out my favorite album ever. 14 years later, they're back with their fourth, and it rings with the same intelligent austerity that makes this Scottish pop band a mainstay on my favorites list.

9. EMMA - Free Me - Could this really be the same Emma Bunton who five years ago was better known to the free world as Baby Spice? Yep, and her new solo record is a mature throwback to 60's pop that wouldn't sound out of place in an Austin Powers flick.

8. OF MONTREAL - Satanic Panic in the Attic - Ignore the title; as with everything the band does, it's tongue-in-cheek. Easily my favorite band today, these art school kids from Georgia routinely re-create "Sgt. Peppers"-era psychedelia in their lo-fi basements.

7. TEARS FOR FEARS - Everybody Loves a Happy Ending - The duo reunites for a comeback album that's equally as good, if not better, than the records that made them such a powerful force in the 80's. I just hope it's not really an ending.

6. LORETTA LYNN - Van Lear's Rose - If somebody told me five years ago that Loretta Lynn would make my year-end list, I'd have thrown myself off to the dogs. But along comes Jack White of the White Stripes, who wrote and produced most of this record, recreating the Coal Miner's Daughter as a gruff, blues-rock tour de force.

5. KANYE WEST - College Dropout - Wait, a rap album that's not about thug livin' and big pimpin'? Jay-Z's right-hand man comes out with a solo debut of jaw-droppingly honest lyrics on the struggle and triumphs of the common man, without all of the posing and faux glamour of today's rap scene.

4. THE KILLERS - Hot Fuss - While most of today's bands were mired in garage rock and an unhealthy love for the Velvet Underground, the Killers took their love of Duran Duran and 80's new wave and snuck out the year's most confident debut record.

3. BRIAN WILSON - Smile - The most famous album-that-never-was finally gets its due. Intended for a 1968 Beach Boys release, "Smile" was shelved in the haze of Wilson's unsteady mental state. 30 years of therapy later, Wilson (with the help of some talented young musicians) finally gets to exorcise his demons and re-record his lost masterpiece. Had this come out as intended, it would have changed music history.

2. THE LIBERTINES - The Libertines - One of the top bands in England but strangers to the U.S., The Libertines spent 2004 making UK tabloid covers that Britney could only dream of. The group managed to squeak out their 2nd album in 2004 before calling it quits in a maelstorm of drug abuse, legal trouble, and band strife. The record, produced by The Clash's Mick Jones, is the powerful diary of a band on the edge of greatness, then falling wildly off the precipice. A must-own zeitgeist of an album.

1. THE POLYPHONIC SPREE - Together We're Heavy - And the best record of the year goes to a 28-piece, robe-clad group of Texan rockers who sing anthemic orchestral odes to the Sun. Sound crazy? It's borderline, trust me. But the end result is an album that swells with life, optimism, and gives hope to mankind's effort to prevail over adversity. Don't believe me? Go buy it, I dare ya.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

COLUMN: The Letter

My holidays finally are complete. Today, I received The Letter.

My great-aunt and -uncle live in Hollywood. They might be the only ones on my mom's side of the family who ever escaped the Midwest to go live the Bright-Lights-Big-City life.

And we get to read all about it ... in their annual Christmas letter.

Do you have anyone in your family who writes one of these things? My aunt's is always one typed page, photocopied and mass-mailed, summing up their year for friends and family. I suppose the thought is to share with loved ones their highs, lows and in-betweens. Instead, what comes out is like reading a Cliff's Notes version of a really, really, boring book -- all the trappings of a soap opera, just without the intrigue, jealousy, evil twins, Luke, Laura, Bo, Hope, and/or mad tycoons with devices that can control the weather.

I love my great-aunt and -uncle, I truly do. But does that mean I need to know how the shopping was on their road trip to Colorado? I certainly don't need to know that they took a different route to Colorado this time, or that my uncle got a speeding ticket on the way back. Yet they feel the need to share, each and every year, and I soak it in with morbid fascination.

When I first started receiving The Letter, three years ago, I felt as though I were finally a man -- on equal footing, an independent thinker, a fellow adult. I no longer sit at the kids' table and now can finally partake in the good news of my uncle's improving golf game.

This year, The Letter got me thinking. Should I, too, send out a Christmas letter? I guess I'm not traveling on a cross-country shopping spree or even getting a speeding ticket. But still, I live my life regardless, and surely there are tales to be told.

Therefore, this year, I'm sending out my 1st Annual Christmas Letter, and it goes something like this:

MERRY CHRISTMAS 2004! Oh, hello, friends and family, and join with me as I bid adieu to yet another year of blessings and good cheer from the Island of Rock!

Where did the time go? I spent most of January catching up on my television watching. February soon followed, and with it a huge change in my life, as I bravely decided to change my television-watching position from the left side of my couch to the right.

In April it was road-trip time, as I commenced with my annual out-of-state spring shopping trip. I departed Rock Island on the 5th, and after an arduous and trying journey, 15 minutes later I arrived at sunny NorthPark Mall, in the far-off land of Iowa.

Tragedy stuck in May, however, as I lost five of my closest Friends all in one week. While Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica and Phoebe are no longer with us, I still reminisce about them fondly (usually every night around 6:30.)
My other Friend, Joey, moved to California to pursue his acting career, and while I still hear from him once a week or so, he's just not quite as funny as he used to be.

Summer was tough as I bravely fought through rerun season, but August brought unexpected joy and a new addition to the family with the birth of my first kidney stone. I've named the little fella Rock, and while the delivery was every bit as painful as I'd imagined, oh, was it worth it!

The fall season is my favorite time of the year, and 2004 was no exception. Between ``Lost'' and ``Desperate Housewives,'' I barely found time to enjoy my passion for golf. My game appears to be improving this year, however, as I challenged and defeated both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in ``Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005'' for Xbox.

In October, I finally figured out a way to earn a little more money. As incredulous as it may be, it seems that a local newspaper out here is willing to pay me to write a weekly column for them on whatever gobbledygook I can spew out! So far it's pretty easy, and they havent caught on to my scam yet! I just babble about my ``wacky family'' and holidays and stuff, and they keep on paying me! The editor must be a real big [editor's note: fantastic individual to work for.]

Well, that about wraps it up for 2004! Many hopes and dreams exist for an exciting 2005 -- starting with a new couch position for me! Love, Your (circle One: Son/Nephew/Cousin/Grandson/Friend/Work Colleague), Shane.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

COLUMN: Christmas Carols

Fa la la la la, la la la la. Please make it stop.

The other day I was out running errands and must have heard no fewer than 2,304 songs of holiday cheer. Yes, it's Christmas, I know, but must I be assaulted by merry Muzak each and every time I walk into a store? I pity you poor cashiers who must by now know every subtle nuance to the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

No other holiday comes complete with a stockpile of tunes, especially tunes that nearly everyone on Earth can sing along to. But does anyone really pay attention to Christmas carols? I sure don't. The words are so stuck on auto-pilot in my brain that I simply sing along festively, regardless of lyric. For all I know, the song could go, "Deck the halls with piles of doodie" and I'd be none the wiser. I just smile, nod, and hum along.

So I decided to take a moment and actually pay attention to the words of some of these songs, and I've come to some pretty shocking conclusions.

Some carols start off fairly innoculously. "We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Good tidings we bring to you and your kin." Aww, that's awfully sweet of you... UNTIL: "Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; we won't go until we get some, so bring some right here!" Well, ho ho ho to you too, buddy. The song's basically saying: "Merry Christmas. Whatever. Make with the pudding!"

And call me dumb, but what exactly even IS a figgy pudding? Can anything other than pudding be 'figgy'? "Why, Mrs. Brown, that dress you've got on is simply FIGGY!" Wrong, play again. I can safely guarantee that the only time I've ever ingested fig is when it's safely tucked inside of contained, sterile, pure Newton-y goodness. I don't even know what a fig looks like. Is it a fruit? A vegetable? Do they make figgy Pudding Pops? These, folks, are the questions that keep me up late.

Meanwhile, the closest cousin to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is another tune that makes pretty limited sense: "Here We Come A-Wassailing." Despite considering myself somewhat learned, I fear that I've never come a-wassailing in my life. A wassail is, in short, an old British custom where villagers would show up at a farm, fire off guns to ward off evil spirits, and drink toasts to the farmer's cows in hopes of increasing their yield. Very jolly, indeed. But you must admit, it's a bit catchier than "Here We Come A-Shooting To Get Drunk & Watch Your Cows Do the Nasty."

Other Christmas carols just plain lie. "I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning." Fine, I'm with ya so far. "Pray, whither sailed those ships all three? O, they sailed to Bethlehem." Well, if you saw three ships sailing into Bethlehem, you might want to put down the frankencense every once in a while, kids. Why? Check out a map. Bethlehem's nowhere near water.

But who's to argue? Go ahead and sing "Deck the halls with boughs of holly" (even though doing so is simply a Pagan ritual to keep witches at bay.) Sing of your old pal Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (even those Rudolph was invented by a marketing rep for Montgomery Ward's who hoped his red nose could be used to sell refrigerators.) Sing of the manger and the little town of Bethlehem (though many historians believe that Jesus was born in a house in Nazareth, then taken to a cave in Bethlehem some time later.) And have a Merry Christmas (though the only thing pretty much all historians can agree on when it comes to Jesus is that he wasn't born on Dec. 25th.)

In the end, it's all semantics. You can't change the fact that it truly IS the most wonderful time of the year, and any holiday touting peace on Earth and good will towards men is to be cherished like none other. So be joyous, have a wonderful time with your families, and I wish you all a truly Merry Christmas.

Now gimme some pudding.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

COLUMN: Cleaning

I'm living a lie.

For weeks now, I've presented myself as a fairly normal 30-something bachelor in full control of most if not all of my faculties. It's time to come clean. I've got a shameful secret, and what other time than the holidays to face my demons and share my dark truth. The shocking revelation, dear readers:

I was born without the tidyness gene.

There. It's out in the open. Shun me if you must. I deserve it. I cannot keep a clean apartment, try as hard as I might. If I tried at all. Which I don't.

Let me ask you, friends, how is it capable for one man (and one cat) to generate so much trash in the course of a mere couple of weeks? I will never understand it. I throw out the trash, and -- BAM -- within a day or so, it fills itself again.

My theory is that the cat must be having parties while I'm at work. How else could one possibly explain the pizza boxes that stack up night after night? The dirty dishes that just seem to stay in the sink without ever washing themselves? The pile of clothes on the floor that inexplicably seems to grow larger with every passing day? The piece of decaying fried chicken that's currently in the middle of my living room floor?

Ewww. Really? Decaying fried chicken? Yuck, that one really IS the cat's fault. Hang on a second, let me take care of that...

There, all better. Chicken is back in the trash. See? I really AM capable of cleaning after all... and now I'm beat. That's enough cleaning for one evening.

My rule of thumb is simple: obey logic. And logic tells us that there's no point in tidying up. I mean, it's only going to get messy again, right? Therefore, by simply NOT tidying, I'm saving myself time and energy best spent doing other important stuff. Like watching TV (though I prefer the term 'conducting cultural research.')

So pity me, friends, as I'm destined to live alone and hermit-like in my unkempt apartment for the rest of time. Or at least for the next two weeks, because that's when my parents are coming up for a visit.

Don't get me wrong, I adore my folks... I just tend to adore them more when they're not in my apartment. To the outsider, my mom might seem like your average, mild-mannered homemaker. Don't let her fool ya. Behind closed doors, she becomes Supermom -- faster than a speeding lintball and able to clean tall buildings in a single whisk. My mom is a clean freak, dust is her Kryptonite, and my apartment is her nemesis.

I brought it all on myself. I asked for a DVD rack for Christmas. Rather than venturing out to DVD-Racks-R-Us, my awesome dad -- who I'm convinced could show Bob Vila a thing or two about construction -- is building me one, complete with hinges and doors and quite possibly an icemaker and functioning toilet by the time he's done with it.

But this means they're going to want to come here and install it. I already had to take my apartment's terror alert to Def Con 1 earlier this month when my dad wanted to take some wall measurements. My plan worked flawlessly -- the parents came up, my apartment looked alright, we had a nice visit, my mom said, "See? Your apartment isn't that bad. You worry too much."

In fact, what REALLY happened went something like this. My mom calls (Def Con 4.) "Your father and I are coming up in two days to take measurements." (Def Con 3). "Okay, mom, but my apartment is a real mess (ho ho)." (Def Con 2). I then hang up the phone, go directly to my boss, fall to my knees, and beg for the next day off. Safely on vacation, I then call all of my friends and bribe them with pizza and beer to come help me clean. After a day's hard work, my apartment has moved from "legally condemnable" to "a real mess," and I once again deftly avoid being disowned by my family.

The hard part? They're coming BACK. Which means I have to somehow maintain this state of cleanliness for weeks on end. How have I done so far? Well, I wasn't kidding about the fried chicken on the floor if that gives you a clue.

So... if you're fans of my column, wish me luck. If you're my parents, stop reading this now and laugh at your loving son's colorful and creative way to tell a tall tale. And if you're one of my friends, the pizza should be here at 7, don't be late, and you'd best bring gloves and protective eyewear.