Thursday, December 29, 2011
Some people are naturally gifted artists, with the inner ability to create moving and thought-provoking works that can entertain us, challenge us, and help to reveal truths about our selves, our culture, and our society as a whole. Other folks are more naturally gifted at laying around on a couch and trying to tell other people which art sucks and which art doesn't. That said, here are my annual picks for the Ten Best Records of 2011:
# 10 - The Brother Kite - Eye to Eye EP - How amazing is this unheralded band from Providence, Rhode Island? Amazing enough that they can release a 4-track EP of leftover songs that didn't make their last album and STILL have it be better than most artists' fully realized full-length works.
# 9 - Eliza Doolittle - Eliza Doolittle - It's hard to examine pop music critically, since it tends to be fun and disposable by its very nature. But sometimes the pop charts can produce timeless classics. Such is the case for 23-year-old Brit Eliza Sophie Caird and her record full of killer hooks over classic jazz/r&b samples. The end result sounds like something you'd take to a 1940's revival picnic, should one of those ever exist.
# 8 - Josiah Leming - Another Life - Pop culture junkies might remember Josiah as the homeless kid who auditioned for "American Idol" a few years back. Leming's odd faux British accent (which he claimed he picked up by listening to Coldplay & Keane records) was too left-of-center for Simon Cowell, but didn't dissuade Warner Bros., who signed him to a developmental deal. He's now matured to the point that his new record holds its own against the very bands whose style he once aped.
# 7 - Tyler, the Creator - Goblin - So what do you do with a hip-hip album that can be classified as misogynistic, homophobic, overtly violent, AND a modern classic? It's not an easy album for anyone with strong morals to enjoy, but there's no denying that the 20-year-old is one of the most lyrically gifted rappers on the planet. As frontman of the crew known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Tyler and his posse set a new benchmark for DIY hip-hop -- self-written, recorded, produced, & distributed, all by what's essentially a bunch of underage skater kids. With Tyler a lightning rod for controversy and live shows more often than not devolving into moshpit anarchy, the whole wild ride stands a chance of imploding as quickly as they arrived, so enjoy them now.
# 6 - The Vaccines - What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? - Every once in a while, it's good to have a band that just plain rocks without pretense. The Vaccines wear their influences on their sleeves (The Strokes, The Ramones, etc.) and march through their repertoire of 2-minute-long songs with bombast, confidence, and a wall-of-sound production that must be making Phil Spector turn green from his jail cell.
# 5 - Childish Gambino - Camp - You might know Donald Glover as an extremely talented stand-up comic and writer for "The Daily Show" & "30 Rock." But you PROBABLY know him best as Troy on NBC's "Community." It turns out what HE'S best at is rapping. As Childish Gambino (a name he was "assigned" during a visit to a "Wu-Tang Clan Rap Name Generator" website), his gifted flow can bounce from honesty to funny to tragic. At his best, it's magical. At his worst, it's second-rate Kanye West -- but second rate Kanye is still better than most of the schlock on today's radio.
# 4 - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - self-titled - It was one pre-show dressing room fight too many that finally did in British heavyweights Oasis back in 2009. The two essential halves of the band - brothers Liam & Noel Gallagher - both turned out new product in 2011 to varying degrees of success. Singer Liam grabbed the rest of Oasis, changed the name to Beady Eye, and released an impressive psychedelic blues rock album ("Different Gear, Still Speeding") that barely missed this list. While Beady Eye had all the swagger and atmospherics of Oasis, it was older brother Noel who prevailed with his first solo record a few months later. Full of the sort of midtempo love songs that brought him fame, Noel's album doesn't really pack any surprises -- but it does have the impeccable songwriting and timeless melodies that the elder Gallagher's built his brand on.
# 3 - Frank Ocean - nostalgia, ULTRA. - If OFWKTA does implode at the end of their fifteen minutes of fame (see #7), the sole survivor likely won't be Tyler, the Creator -- it'll be Frank Ocean, the collective's jack-of-all-trades vocalist who proved his worth this year with his debut record. It's not every R&B singer who puts out a record covering Coldplay and MGMT and singing another song over the instrumental of "Hotel California." Best yet, "nostalgia, ULTRA," like most of the Odd Future releases, isn't available in stores -- it's a free download.
# 2 - Ringo Deathstarr - Colour Trip - I came of age listening to the psychedelic, drowned-in-sound indie scene known as "shoegaze." Since falling from favor in the mid-90's (thanks, Nirvana,) shoegaze fans have been left to wallow and reminisce in sparsely attended chat rooms. Then along comes a band from Austin, Texas with the horrible name of Ringo Deathstarr who perfectly replicate the classic shoegaze sound (any time a band from the US spells color "colour," you know it's gonna rock.) Not exactly ground-breaking, but why open new doors when the old ones work so well?
# 1 - The David Mayfield Parade - self-titled - And in a year where most critics are fawning at over-produced, sampled, resampled, and multi-tracked studio-laden records, I instead tell you that the best record of 2011 is one of its simplest. For years, David Mayfield played second fiddle to his younger sister (acclaimed songstress Jessica Lea Mayfield) and lead guitarist for folk rock stalwarts Cadillac Sky. This year, after a Grammy nod for his production work, he decided to do his own thing. That thing is a quaint self-titled record that straddles the wavy lines between country, folk, alt-country, bluegrass, and rock & roll with ease. It's a throwback sound but produced so well you could swear the band's right there with you. All I know is there's been no more enjoyable record released this year.
Next week? I take advantage of my year of living like a couch potato with my picks for 2011's Best TV.
This is a bummer for those of us who suffer from year-round allergies and only occasionally get to experience life with a functioning nose. Still, I think those scientists are onto something, because there's one smell I will forever associate with Christmas.
When I was a kid, one of the greatest days of the year was when Dad would haul down the two big metal boxes containing all of our Christmas decorations. Meticulously packed, it would all be there -- the ornaments, the lights, the garland, the wreaths... but I was more concerned about the hunk of wax that was always haphazardly thrown into the bottom of the box.
It really was fairly hideous to look at, but it was always my favorite Christmas decoration: a red wax pomander in the mold of three slightly deformed Christmas carolers. It sure wasn't much to look at, but the smell that wafted from that piece of wax every year was my absolute favorite part of Christmas. As soon as the coast was clear, I usually absconded with the carolers to my room, where they'd reek up the place for the holidays.
I can't even really describe the smell, because it never really reminded me of anything. It wasn't overly fruity, and it wasn't overly perfume-y. It's hard to explain. It didn't smell like ANYTHING you could put your finger on. It just perfectly and magically smelled like Christmas.
That pomander is long gone, but I still think every Christmas should smell like it... but thanks to last weekend, it's now got competition. A new scent has settled into my brain to forever be associated with the holidays -- the smell of Hefty bags. Lots and lots of Hefty bags.
I conclude every one of my columns with my e-mail address -- and I try my hardest to read if not respond to every letter that I get. That's how I came to meet "Randy." For years, Randy's written me to comment on my columns, debate pop culture, and be a good occasional diversion from the work week. A couple weeks back, I wrote a column about trying to find the Christmas spirit hidden inside today's world of tacky commerce and holiday capitalism. Randy wrote in and suggested that I visit distribution day at Toys for Tots, where he volunteers. Last weekend, I took him up on it. It might be the best decision I've made in a loooong time.
It turns out that "Randy" my anonymous e-mail buddy is actually Randy Murdock III, one of the longest-serving civilian volunteers of our local U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation. Following his directions, I pulled into their Davenport distribution center last Saturday. My fears of getting lost amidst the warehouse district was put to rest as soon as I saw the healthy line of traffic.
"As you can see," Randy said, "you actually managed to catch us at a slow time." I laughed but he didn't.
As he was saying this, here's what I was seeing: Needy families being quickly processed through a short line by friendly Marines in their dress blues, a room filled with about a dozen busy clerical volunteers, other Marines in their fatigues -- wait, scratch that, apparantly they're now called MCCUU's and the last thing I wanna do is upset a proud Marine. Anyways, these Marines would take off into the donation warehouse at a brisk jog and bring back a bag of toys specifically put together for the needs of each recipient. Everywhere I looked, Marines and civilian volunteers were dashing to and fro with efficiency and smiles. If this was a "slow time," I couldn't imagine what their version of busy must look like.
"This is amazing," I told Randy.
"This is nothing," he said. "Wanna see the toy room?"
I didn't know what to expect. I guess I had pictured sort of a dimly-lit grungy room of chaos where folks scrounged for third-rate toys from haphazard piles, like a weird back office at the chocolate factory that was NOT part of Willy Wonka's tour. Not even close.
Remember the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? When the camera pans back to reveal that the Ark is hidden in a warehouse of such mammoth size that you can't even see the end of the room? Imagine THAT room -- but filled from one end to the other with Hefty bags full of toys. 3,959 bags, in fact -- that's how many local families QC Toys for Tots is helping this year. 3,959 bags, meticulously organized and numbered, filled to the brim with presents for kids of all ages. Kids who will have a great Christmas, all thanks to donors from the Quad Cities.
Randy told me that donations were SO good this year that they've already got a jump on NEXT year's drive. And what I saw wasn't lame stuff, either -- we're talking brand new dolls, board games, skateboards, bikes... stuff that kids will LOVE. I'm honored to live in a community as giving and people-centered as the Quad Cities. Randy's been across the country and has volunteered at other Toys for Tots programs, and he says the community response in other locales doesn't hold a candle to what the Quad Cities does year after year.
Personally, I think it's all part of the Midwest mindset. Sometimes journalists can be really hard on the Midwest -- just read some of the national coverage of the Iowa caucuses that paint us to be a bunch of backwards podunk zealots -- but the truth is, Midwesterners show a kindness you just don't get anywhere else. On the whole, we're raised right -- we know about sharing, we know about caring, and we know that you don't just walk all over your fellow man. You stop, pull him up by his bootstraps, and offer a helping hand.
This weekend, I saw that helping hand in action.
I never thought I'd catch the Christmas spirit in a chilly warehouse that reeked of Hefty bags, but there it was in full bloom. I saw it in the faces of the volunteers, I saw it in the smiles of our Marines, and I saw it in the gratitude of families.
"As far as I'm concerned," Randy told me as we walked around, "THIS is my Christmas, right here and right now."
Thanks, Toys for Tots, for everything you do -- and for bringing me a much-needed dose of reality, compassion, fellowship, and Hefty-bag-scented warm holiday fuzzies.
My new sofa! The one I decided on -- coming to a basement near you soon!
I get easily led astray from my column-writing duties around the holidays. Between staring vacantly at festive lights, surviving shopper stampedes, and watching any of the seemingly endless and endlessly cheezy holiday movies, my schedule for the month is pretty full of yuletide distraction.
So when in doubt, my old journalism teacher used to say, "write about what you know." Well, what I know this week is sofas. Actually, what I know now is that I know very, very little about sofas.
After 1.5 years of living here, the basement of my new house is officially finished. New walls, new ceiling, new carpeting. It looks AMAZING...ly empty. It might be the most unfinished finished basement in history. I currently have an astoundingly beautiful and entirely barren empty subterranean room. Now that I'm single again, outfitting the perfect man-cave has taken a back seat to maintaining an entire man-house.
Good thing, then, that I have the greatest parents in the world. I find it charming whenever people say that they have the best parents in the world. Charming because those people are all WRONG. I'm fully convinced that, given an ample budget, sizable enough control group, and an on-call team of theoretical physicists, I could scientifically prove that MY parents are, in fact, the greatest parents in the world by definition. And those great parents just informed me that they're springing for a new sofa for my basement. Holy Christmas, Batman!
"This will be AMAZING," my brain thought. "All I need to do is hit up a furniture store and find something affordable yet stylish."
In retrospect, I'm now convinced that fixing the economy would be an easier task than picking out a sofa.
The first place I went to is my dream store. It's my dream store because everything in it -- and I mean EVERY single piece of furniture from one end to the other -- makes me drool. It's also my dream store because I'd HAVE to be dreaming to think I could afford ANYTHING in the place. I'm pretty sure that purchasing ONE sofa in this store WOULD fix the economy. Still, I figured I'd pop in to see if they had any good holiday deals. Sure enough, quite a bit of their inventory was marked down at 20% off. I suppose that's a good deal, but when the original price is $10K? I'd need about another 70% off, and despite my pretty face, my bartering skills didn't extend that far.
My primary goal here is to keep things cheap. First off, there's no need for my folks to over-extend themselves just to make sure I have a comfy basement. Second off, until I get rid of this newfound "single" status on Facebook, I probably won't be spending a whole lot of time in the man-cave. But mostly, I know that there's no reason to pay good money for something that's destined to become yet another oversized scratching posts for my home's OTHER tenants.
When I bought my first ever new couch, I had a salesperson tell me that it was made of high-quality, tear-resistant leather. I was also told by that salesperson that cats aren't big on scratching leather furniture. I wish she'd have come home and told that to my cats, because from the first HOUR I had possession of the couch, my cats made it their mission to rip it to shreds. I bought scratching posts for each side of the couch; they batted them away to get to the couch. I even bought a fancy can of some foul-smelling substance that you spritz on your furniture and supposedly it makes your cats stay away. I spritzed it and the cats came racing and spent the next week incessantly licking the couch like it was some kind of fancy exotic treat. I worry that my cats might be "special."
So with cat claws deemed inevitable, there's no point going for high fashion. Instead, I wanted something comfy, cool-looking, and cheap. The second store I went to delivered just that in spades... which ended up being a worse outcome. My eyes immediately landed on a really cool sectional with an even cooler price tag. It was hip, modern, and fit my tragically deranged sense of "style." Just one problem: It was kind of uncomfortable. Well, it'd be comfortable for a doctor's office or something, I suppose, but for a basement? I could do better.
Better was the next couch I tried. Sitting in it was like floating in a marshmallow paradise. Plus it reclines, so double awesome. That said, I swear to you that it might be the ugliest couch I've ever seen. It looked like a taxidermist stuffed Jabba the Hutt and molded him into the shape of a couch. I don't care how comfy the thing is, I just couldn't bring myself to have this tan monstrosity blighting my basement.
That's when it hit me: I am Goldilocks. All I should need is a simple device upon which I can plop my chubby rump and watch a ridiculously unhealthy amount of TV. But nooooo... "this couch is too big," "this couch is too ugly," "this couch is too uncomfortable," "this couch is not the exact shade of toasted mocha I'm looking for," and I'm STILL as of press time unable to find my "juuuust right."
I've been to many other stores, and each came with mixed results. At one place, every sofa in the joint looked like it was designed BY my grandmother FOR my grandmother. At another place, the sales staff was so aggressive that I had to leave before I started strangling the innocent. Everywhere I went, I was greeting by a surplus of pros and cons. It's starting to come across like I'm looking this gift couch in the mouth, and I swear I'm not. I'm just an indecisive idiot.
Reason #3423 to have a signifigant other: let THEM pick out the furniture. Until then, I'll be sitting in the middle of an empty room, rocking back and forth on the floor, in a state of perpetual "maybe." Wish me luck.
I like to picture these people in their day-to-day lives. Is the guy grocery-shopping next to me really "AwesumDude38" who believes our President is a Kenyan-born Antichrist? Is the sweet-looking little old lady in the next car really "SilvisMama" who believes the CIA was behind 9/11?
Some people think anonymous public commenting is annoying. I think it's cathartic for all parties involved -- of which there are TWO: extreme left wingers and extreme right wingers. If you're a moderate these days, apparantly you don't have internet access (or perhaps have better things to do.)
It's always been my dream to figure out a way to write a column that gets BOTH sides of the fence riled up... and after half a decade at this, I may just do it here today.
It's not very often that I bring politics into this column -- other folks get paid to do just that and they do a MUCH better job at it than me. Still, I've never really made it a secret that my own political views tend to swing rather liberally to the left. But I've got to admit, I'm having a crisis of liberal faith, folks. There's a movement afoot that should normally have my blue state toes a-tappin' -- but they're not. Instead, I sit with raised eyebrows and a curious expression over something that I just don't comprehend -- and I'm worried that my lack of understanding means I'm secretly becoming (a) Republican, (b) my parents, or (c) just plain old:
Occupy Wall Street. I don't get it. Now please don't take away my liberal decoder ring and membership badge.
First, let me see if I've got this right: You're mad because 1% of the population has gobs and gobs of money while the other 99% of us are struggling. You're right -- that sucks. You SHOULD be mad. We should ALL be mad. So let's get united, let's get together, let's make change, let's make history, let's... hang out in a park and hold up signs saying how bad things suck?
I'm all for improving things, and I respect anyone right now who calls for progress. If there's a movement to be joined, count me in -- or at least sign me up for your mailing list. But I don't exactly understand what Occupy Wall Street expects to change by their current methods. If anything, I'm afraid that it's making even the outspoken, intelligent members of our 99% come across as smelly, whiny neo-hippies with an astonishing sense of entitlement.
The main goal of the Occupy movement appears to be raising awareness. But I don't need a sign that says "The Economy Sucks" to know that the economy sucks. Almost 10% of us are unemployed. Foreclosures are rampant. Daily existence is a struggle for WAY too many families. I don't think any of us are blindly walking around whistling "Zip A Dee Doo Dah."
Change doesn't come from having a month-long campout. If you're sick of the way things are, don't stand around in a park with a smartphone waiting to film police brutality. Be pro-active. I know it's hard to find a job, but you're never going to get one if you don't at least TRY. Make products that help commerce. Invent something. If you want to change government, run for office. Go to city council meetings. Petition Congress. Let them know that you're a voter and your friends are voters and you expect more from your elected officials. The system wasn't made for Wall Street -- it was made for YOU. USE it.
You've actually got a leg up on the fat cats on Wall Street. Know why? Because YOUR generation was raised on the internet. My dad can build a house with two bare hands, but he doesn't even know where the power button is on his computer. This gap gives your generation the advantage of global communication. Stop looking at videos of Chuck Testa and run with it.
I believe in the power of the common man to make change, and I believe that with the right leadership and cooperation, we can crawl our way out of this economic mess. If I didn't, I'd be my uncle who lives down south and keeps a "ready bag" at his door full of ammo and supplies for the day that the economy fails and the world descends into anarchy.
The intentions of the Occupiers are good. Like I said, people are desperate and they at least care about changing things, so that's half the battle won right there. But let's be realistic. Last week, I logged onto Facebook and received an event invitation to something called, I kid you not, "Drum Circle for Economic Reform." Really? REALLY? We're standing on the precipice of a global recession and THIS is your plan?
I just don't think you're going to find too many people in the 1% who are going to be moved by your bongo solo, no matter how wicked cool it is. Instead, you're going to find people like Newt Gingrich telling you to "cut your hair and get a job." And, God help me, I kind of agree with him.
What I'm really honestly hoping is that I've got it wrong. That I've fallen victim to the media's incorrect portrayal of a movement with the capability to make a real difference. I hope an Occupier reads this and comments and takes me to task for being short-sighted. I want to be with you, I really do. But right now, I'm just not seeing the point -- so PLEASE, convince me otherwise.
This doesn't mean I'm flipping sides, either, so bait me or hate me all you want, right-wingers. Like most of you, I'm in the 99%, and I just happen to believe I'm with the right (left) people to get our country back on track. Do I have all the answers? Heck no. I'm the guy who just wrote a whole column about Slurpees, so go easy on me while I occupy my couch and read your online comments.
My house with my handiwork! Well, Friend Jason helped, too!
Well, it's barely December, but I'm already trying my absolute hardest to not let the Grinch set up shop. Every year around this time, I get jazzed up about Christmas and the prospect of harvesting some of that holiday magic that's usually only found in our childhoods and/or cheezy Christmas movies on Lifetime. This year, though, that's gonna be one especially tough order to fill.
The sad real truth is that this humor columnist hasn't had a whole lot to be humorous about this fall. My girlfriend and I split after almost three years together, and it's kinda made things a little topsy-turvy in Shaneland. Not to tug the heartstrings and play the sympathy card any more than necessary, but it's a fact that I'm typing this column in the living room of an empty house that I was pretty certain would one day be "OUR" house, and the stale pizza boxes littering my landscape are testament to just how not "our" house it is anymore.
(End violins. Promise.)
That said, I refuse to let current events dictate my level of holiday cheer. Just because I may be hopelessly alone, despondent, and destined for a life of cat-owning solitude doesn't mean I can't be hopelessly alone while decking the halls with some jingle bells on a silent night.
Which is why I found myself the other night marching into Target with only ONE thing on my Christmas list: lights, lights, and more lights. Apartment-dwelling Shane never had the opportunity to decorate -- the one time I tried to put up a Christmas tree, my cat threw herself at it kamikaze-style until it was Christmas mulch. But THIS year, come heck or high water, my house will look festive, even if the weirdo loner guy living inside isn't.
Just one problem: I had NO idea what I was doing.
Step One seemed simple enough: Buy a bunch of lights. Easy, right? That was before I rounded the corner at Target into their room-o'- infinite-lights. In all my light-buying glee, I never stopped to think about what KIND I wanted. One color or variety? LED or standard? Blinkers or solids? Little bulbs or big ones?
My initial choice was go to all red -- it's festive, understated, and looks classy without being over-the-top. But I just couldn't take my eyes off Target's display of blue lights. I think it was just three weeks ago in this column that I rambled on about how it was impossible for me to have a "favorite" color, but darn it if those blue lights weren't screaming out, "PICK ME! PICK ME!"
Then it hit me: I'm the sole decision-maker now. I like red, I like blue, so why not do both? Red lights around the pillars and blue along the handrails. People would drive by the house and go, "Wow, what great red lights! Wow, what great blue lights! Whoever lives there must be a super cool guy and not at all some weirdo loner loser!"
The next morning, I proudly told my co-workers about my awesome independent decision-making skills. I had barely gotten to the good part before every one of my female co-workers, pretty much in unison, went, "Ewww! Noo! You can't mix red and blue Christmas lights by themselves!"
What is this mystical power that girls seem to have when it comes to matching colors? There's a complex system of rules, regulations, and timelines that govern these sorts of things, and only girls are privy to them. Guys, being born sane, generally do NOT comprehend. If colors don't make our eyes hurt and clothes feel comfy, we're wearing them -- at least, until a girl tells us not to.
"Feh," I said to myself. "What do THEY know? This is MY independence, MY house, and MY light show."
It took a few hours of untangling, hanging, stapling, un-doing, re-hanging, and re-stapling, but I managed to get every last light up sans falling or electrocution. All that was left was to flip the switch, walk out front, and bathe in the glory of...
...a horrible, horrible decision. I was displaying my independence, alright. In fact, the whole front of the house looked like Independence Day gone horribly awry. Red lights are pretty, blue lights are pretty, but put 'em together and you've got one horrible mess. It was a grand and patriotic salute to tackiness. The red lights were totally outshined by the blue lights, which cast this sort of unhealthy pallor over the entire house and made the whole thing just look... ill. Look, I get PAID to put things into words, and I can't even begin to describe the ugliness of this collision.
Score one for the girls and their distressingly accurate advice, I guess. I spent the rest of the night taking down blue lights, running to the store for more red, and going back to my original plan. The blue lights came inside and are ending up on my tree, where I hope their bright weird glow will make all cats flee in terror. I now have a fully red porch and it looks faaaantastic if I do say so myself.
So fantastic, in fact, that I went ahead and left them on for the season -- two weeks before Thanksgiving. That's right, I was THAT guy -- Mr. Premature Christmas. Mock me if you like, but it was 60 degrees when I put those lights up. Think about THAT while you can see your own breath as you're clinging to a frozen ladder for dear life this weekend.
I also discovered that it would be REALLY easy to fall into the Griswold trap. Once I got done, I looked at my porch and went, "That looks great. If only I had some icicle lights... and then maybe some smaller strings to go around every window... and a star for the upstairs window... and then... and then..." And THAT, my friends, is how you end up with a house that can be seen from space.
So I'm sticking to my guns and going with my understated yet festive red porch lights and little else. Maybe, just maybe, it's the perfect amount of holiday spirit to get me living again.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Wow. I just can't help but hope and pray that this is all some kind of absolutely brilliant Andy Kaufman-esque parody that will one day be played for laughs.
Because if it's NOT, then Victoria Jackson is a racist xenophobic intolerant homophobic hatemonger who should be sent very, very far away. Like Alabama or somewhere.