Saturday, December 24, 2005

COLUMN: Best o' 2005

Some people listen to music for enjoyment; for others, it's a lot more serious. We hardcore nerds listen to music predominantly for one reason and one reason alone: so that at the end of the year, we can spend countless hours assembling the definitive list of The Greatest Albums of the Year. Then we usually meet in chat rooms or e-mail forums and shred each other's lists to microscopic detail. Don't think otherwise: "What's your favorite album of the year" has a right answer and a wrong answer (i.e. if you agree with me, it's RIGHT; if you don't, it's WRONG.)

That said, I wouldn't be me without investing one column at the end of the year to offer my picks for the year's best albums. Seriously, if you guys get a second, even if you're just a passing fan of music, check some of these records out. You don't know what you might be missing.

#10 - THE MAGIC NUMBERS - "The Magic Numbers" - Sometimes a band comes along who are so stinkin' earnest about their craft that you have to just sit back and enjoy the show. The Magic Numbers defy all current trends. Two sets of brothers and sisters who might be the most unfashionable 4 people alive, the Magic Numbers fill the void between modern rock like Dave Matthews and their more obvious influences, The Mamas & Papas. Nostalgia without being corny.

#9 - MARK GARDENER WITH GOLDRUSH - "These Beautiful Ghosts" - American audiences first knew Mark Gardener when he fronted 90's UK noisemakers Ride. Years later, he's back, but for the most part, he's left his guitars unplugged. The end result is the ultimate night-beside-the-fire record of the year. Full of passion, hooks, and a surprising maturity from a much-missed voice.

#8 - THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - "Twin Cinema" - NOTHING like the name implies, folks. What began as a lark side project for some of Vancouver's top musicians has turned into a cult supergroup phenomenon. This record will be the new standard-bearer for power pop music. Bright chords, songs that get stuck in your head for days on end, and a sloppy, under-produced modesty that highlights the fun these guys must have when they're together. Who knew Canada could be the New Cool?

#7 - OF MONTREAL - "The Sunlandic Twins" - The band that refuses to release a bad album maintain their track record. Little more than frontman Kevin Barnes and a laptop computer, "Sunlandic Twins" reveals that it's sometimes okay for indie rock bands to put on their boogie shoes and dance like loons. It's impossible to express the wonders of this band in a capsule summary. Just know that they're my favorite group still making music. Here's to another decade.

#6 - JUELZ SANTANA - "What the Game's Been Missing!" - The Diplomats have always been known for great beats and samples, but no one was expecting the monstrous attack of over-looked Dipset Juelz Santana this year. Whether it's the speaker-shredding minimalism of "There It Go (The Whistle Song)" or the unexplainably awesome "Please Mr. Postman" sample that makes the hook of "Oh Yes," this is THE hip-hop record of the year.

#5 - CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH - "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah" - Not for the faint of heart. Kids, this is the one to tick your parents off with this year, as frontman Alec Ounsworth screeches like a cat with its tail under a rocker. But after the shock wears down, you realize these are killer tunes reminiscent of early Talking Heads or Wilco. Fiercely independent, and like little you've ever heard.

#4 - BLOC PARTY - "Silent Alarm" - Easily the most important new band of the year, Bloc Party took over the UK like a storm in 2005 and now need wheelbarrows just to haul around their critical acclaim. When they sing, "Something glorious is about to happen," you know they mean it. Imagine Joy Division and The Cure with the social-political slant of early (i.e. good) U2, and you'll be there. A CD collection without it is lacking. Even if he IS #4.

#3 - GIANT DRAG - "Hearts and Unicorns" - Annie Hardy might be the coolest person alive right now. At least, that's what you think when you listen to her band's first full-length record. What could have been another whiny, self-indulgent teenage post-grunge angst-fest instead brims to life with hints of everything from Hole and My Bloody Valentine to The Breeders and the Beach Boys, all held together by Hardy's shockingly charming realism.

#2 - M.I.A. - "Arular" - I'm not one of those people who falls for the joy of world music. Just because a record came from Djibouti or somewhere does not make it inherently good. Thusly hearing talk this year about "this fantastic Sri Lankan rapper" made me smirk -- until I heard it. It's indescribable, other than you simply will not hear more inventive music this year. Wicked beats that can rip your speakers in half.

#1 - HOT HOT HEAT - "Elevator" - I can't explain it. I generally like artsy music that makes you think. Hot Hot Heat make silly music that makes you dance. How this ended up my #1 I'll never know, but there should be a law against music this infectious. I'm putting it at #1 because it's never left my CD player all year, that's why. It's sheer pop punk brilliance. A little formulaic, a little affected, a little purposely weird, but the best hooks you'll hear all year. Rush out and buy.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

COLUMN: Windy City X-Mas

Well, it finally happened, and at a Bennigan's of all places.

There I was, waiting for my Turkey O'Toole, when out of nowhere I felt it. Maybe it was the garland hanging in the restaurant or Wham!'s "Last Christmas" playing on the delightfully deranged seasonal muzak.

I don't know what caused it, but -- WHAM! -- right then and there, I was struck with the holiday spirit.

Or at least the retailer's version of the holiday spirit. That's the one where Santa brings loads of expensive toys. The one where Rudolph, the Invented-by-Montgomery-Wards-To-Sell-Refrigerators Reindeer, saves the day.

The one that teaches that the amount of holiday joy and laughter one can achieve is in direct proportion to the obscene number of blinking lights adorning their home.

The one where you think of Jesus (but only when you're buying a lighted, animatronic plastic Nativity that's so tacky it frightens small children).

No offense Bennigan's, but the Turkey O'Toole suddenly wasn't cutting it. I wanted to roast chestnuts on open fires, even though I'm not sure what a chestnut IS. I wanted figgy pudding. I wanted Alvin's hula hoop. I wanted nine ladies dancing. (OK, I ALWAYS want nine ladies dancing.) The point is, it was a beautiful sight and I was happy that night.

I thought of my favorite warm, fuzzy Christmas movies. From "Elf" to "Home Alone," from "Miracle on 34th Street" to "Scrooged," my mind was abuzz with tidings of comfort and joy.

Then it hit me, the one common factor in all these flicks: all take place in major cities! It was nothing shy of divine inspiration. I needed to go holiday shopping in Chicago. I took a couple days off work, reserved a hotel, donned me now my quite-heterosexual-thanks-much apparel, and began my pilgrimage.

Note to self: When one decides to have a merry little Christmas in Chicago, one might want to check yon Doppler radar first.

As I left the Quad Cities, a lovely little picturesque snow was falling. By the time I reached Joliet and Interstate 55 into the city, it was full-on winter carnage. Top speeds on the Stevenson Expressway were 5 to 10 mph. Between the snowfall and being mere yards from Midway Airport when that plane tragically hopped the runway, it took 6 hours and 15 minutes to reach my hotel.

I was down, but not defeated. After a good night's sleep (i.e. TWO HOURS thanks to lousy hotel pillows), I headed to the Magnificent Mile. It was time to gather with fellow revelers and celebrate the holiday spirit.

Folks, the movies lie. Downtown Chicago is an evil, evil empire that only wants ONE thing: money, and gobs of it. It seemed as though every store was filled with the most aggressive salespeople imaginable.

My mom wants something called a "Mother's Ring," so I went to a jewelry store, only to be shoved a $599 ring by a saleslady who SURELY was on the naughty list.

"Sir," she implored, "don't walk out of this store without this ring. You'll regret it if you don't buy it right now! Let me get my manager..." Fa la la la la, my fanny.

I ventured into the cologne section at Marshall Field's, only to be assaulted by clerks from all directions, each with stinky cards and unwavering sales pitches. I'm pretty sure I still reek of bizarre sandalwood and citrus combinations.

As if the clerks weren't bad enough, the bell-ringers were worse. I can't believe I'm complaining about charities asking for change. I know that's in horrible taste, but there were at least two or three Salvation Army bell-ringers PER BLOCK of the Magnificent Mile, and every one of them yelling, pointing and asking for money.

Charity is a FINE thing, and we ALL should give as much as we can, but when it's to the point of harassment, that's neither holly nor jolly.

One bell-ringer, though, was fantastic. I'm pretty sure he may have been authentically crazy, but he definitely got the most of my money. As shoppers trooped by, he sang made-up tunes with random lines from Christmas songs.


So, all it took was one lousy trip to sub-zero downtown Chicago to turn my Merry Christmas back to my usual cynical, bah-humbug.

I didn't get a lick of shopping done (except for a few CDs for me.) I froze my jingle bells off, and now I've got a miserable cold. Next time I'm at Bennigan's, I'm eating my turkey and going home to bed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

COLUMN: Girls Are Still Weird

Last week in these pages, I proffered to you my latest theory, calculated at great expense of both time and manpower (or, at the very least, Shanepower.) It will, I hope, revolutionize society as we know it. The theory goes like this: GIRLS ARE WEIRD. I arrived at this conclusion after careful study of the females that surround me daily in the workplace. More specifically, I'm talking about their tendency to waste hard-earned money on overpriced knick-knacks and what-nots that adorn the many shop-at-work catalogs that circulate around our office.

Guys, it may look like your female co-workers are hard at work, but in actuality, the naked eye is simply not fast enough to see the product catalogs that are whizzing back and forth amongst them at the speed of sound. And employers, this news may come as a shock to you - but don't chastise your employettes for their catalog craze; I'm fairly certain that, once the numbers get added up, they're the glue that holds our fragile economy together in the first place.

Like any good researcher, I've spent the last ten years here at the paper trying to gain the trust of the girl gaggle here at work, in hopes of finally procuring some of these catalogs for myself. Yes, it took time, but men, I have seen of their hidden world and lived to tell this tale. From candles to chocolate, sausages to spatulas, I have seen the catalogs. Yes, guys, it's a scary world.

This is a direct quote from a Partylite catalog I stumbled upon: "I'm thrilled with the new Moroccan Spice Beaded Sconce! It's such an exciting addition to this collection -- beautiful on a wall or a tabletop!" Yes, we all know that when it comes to thrills and excitement, it gets no better than large chunks of smelly, dormant wax. I mean, really, who needs a Steven Seagal movie when you've got a (gasp) CANDLE?!

But one catalog amazes me beyond all others. One catalog that proudly defies nature's ability to make people say "Umm, no" to incredibly overpriced items. One catalog that dares to take a $4 pound of wicker and turn it into a $120.00 work of art. One catalog that goes by the name of...

Wait. I can't say their name. Too many of you out there are reps. The second I start making fun of the company, I'll be deluged by hate mail from freaky basketeers. I know -- I'll make up a fake name so that no one gets mad. Okay, let me just think up a name at random... okay, got it. For the purposes of this article then, let's call the company "Dongaberger." (Any similarities to existing companies should be considered strictly coincidental.)

Dongaberger makes baskets. And not those shoddy, run-of-the-mill baskets that you can find at a sub-standard basket emporium. No, siree. Dongaberger makes high quality, handcrafted baskets that are admired for their craftsmanship. I didn't just make that up; I found this out by going to the website of the world's leading basket authority (which, coincidentally enough, is also Dongaberger.)

Silly me, I just thought baskets were for putting stuff in. How naive of me. Putting stuff in them takes away from the appreciation of the basket's innate basket-ness, I guess. That's why every single Dongaberger basket is hand initialed at the bottom. I don't know which Dongaperson does the initialing, but the girls at my work consider those initials nothing less than a divine blessing of maximum basketosity.

And let's be honest, when you're dropping triple digits worth of cash on a basket, you don't want to sully it up by throwing some tomatoes in there. That's why Dongaberger goes to the trouble of making protective liners for their baskets (sold separately, of course.) And yes, Dongaberger reps, I'm sure that the liners are probably made of a space-age polymer developed by NASA to allow the baskets to breathe while at the same time curing cancer and saving the dolphins. But to the untrained eye (i.e. me and all other men on the planet,) the protective liners appear to be made of the same plastic that one gets when one opens up a container of Cup Cakes. The liners do come in many shapes, allowing your baskets the practicality of holding things like up to 6 CD's, one tasty beverage, or, perhaps, two Cup Cakes.

To each their own, I guess. I suppose that, maybe, if baskets are your thing, then Dongaberger's not overpriced. You waste money on baskets; I waste money on music, and one more basket loving nutbag means one less music nerd I have to fight over new releases with on Tuesdays. I can look at my wall of CD's and find Japanese imports that have cost half my paycheck. To me, that's normal; others may call it weird. So, ladies, I might pick on your shopping tastes, but at the end of the day, we're ALL weird. And us guys are still going to want to date you. And marry you. And adorn our houses with baskets just so you weirdos are happy. Sheesh.

Monday, December 05, 2005

COLUMN: Girls Are Weird

Girls are weird.

That's not speculation or rumor. It's a concrete fact. I have first-hand knowledge.

For the past 10 years, I've sat here in my corner of the newspaper office as a card-carrying member of the male minority. Day in, day out, I am surrounded up here by a gaggle of girls.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you; there are worse ways to spend a day than being in a room full of smart, funny ladies. However, this unlimited access to the girl gaggle has afforded me strange wisdom that many guys lack. I now have more familiarity than a man ever should about such things as episiotomies, Monistat, water retention, PMS, and a host of other feminine maladies that I'll just lump under the word "cooties."

But there's one thing I will never understand about the opposite sex, and that, ladies, is your bizarre network of underground workplace commerce.

It was shortly after I started at the newspaper when I first became aware of this secret world. Sitting at my desk one day, I saw it out of the corner of my eye -- a small booklet being wordlessly passed around the room. Then, when it came close to my desk, the girl who had the booklet stood up, walked right past me, and dropped it silently on the desk of the female co-worker to my right.

If there's one thing I hate, it's a rousing game of Exclude-the-Shane, so I stood up.

"What gives?" I asked. "I want the mystery booklet, too."

"Errr, no, you really don't," came the reply.

"How would you know?" I said bluntly. "Gimme."

"OK. Fine. Sheesh," she replied. But I didn't care. I was "in." As she brought over the booklet, I prepped myself for the exciting world that must lie within. Whatever it was, I HAD to show an interest in it. I needed to fit in. I needed to feel like one of the gang. I needed ...

AVON? Oh, crud.

So there I was, forced to act indignant about being excluded while looking through page after page of lipstick, lip gloss, lip balm, lip liner... So many products for, what, a two-inch body part? I'll say it again, girls are weird. I have never EVER in my life gone, "Wow. What a babe. Now THERE'S a girl who knows how to wear some lip balm. I want to marry a girl with balmy lips."

Lips are lips are lips; you don't need to gussy them up with a thousand different products. Ladies, here's a tip from the guy's perspective: We're going to want to kiss them regardless of your choice of lip goop.

Little did I know that Avon was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace commerce. Every week, more and more strange little booklets and party invitations go careening around our office. If there's a product capable of being overpriced, there's a company that sells it via a cutesy overpriced catalog. Cooking supplies, Christmas decor, chocolate-covered anythings -- my office is a mail-order Mall of America.

The other day, I saw invitations being passed around to a "candle party." Ladies, honestly, if your idea of a party is to hang out and sniff some candles, you may just need professional help. When the Beastie Boys wrote "Fight for the Right (to Party,)" I don't think they had citronella in mind. Oh, and I even got to check out a candle catalog -- and for those prices, the candles had better be capable of heating your home for the entire winter.

The most notorious of all workplace commerce is the innocent-sounding "surprise party." I don't know the full skinny, but I know it involves the selling of things you can only refer to in the confines of a family newspaper as "marital aids." Men are forbidden from attending, and frankly, that's OK by us, because whatever DOES happen at these events can't hold a candle party to what my imagination pretends happens at them.

There's one other company whose catalogs are proof positive that girls are weird -- but that'll take more space than I've got in one column. And, heck, why put your eggs in one basket when you can put them in eight limited-edition handcrafted ones instead. We're talking baskets next week. Join us, won't you?