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Saturday, December 31, 2016

My favorite things in an otherwise shit year: Music edition

This has been a shit year, there's no other way to put it. (Well, maybe there is a more artful way to put it, but I don't feel like it. Describing it as "shit" just seems more appropriate).

I don't think it's necessary to enumerate the many ways in which 2016 sucked. Any year in which David Bowie and Prince died, while Donald Trump was elected president, is automatically a horrible year. All of the other bad things that happened are just more poo clogging the toilet. (Sorry for the scatological metaphors, folks).

So why not take a look at the good stuff from 2016, at least from my perspective.

The year was a good one for music. It has been a long time since I've been as excited about new music as I was in '16.

It started in January when David Bowie released Blackstaran album that has to rank as one of the best of his career, and there is no hyperbole in that statement. It was as if Bowie knew that this was his final statement to the world, and he put as much care into it as he had any music he'd ever written and recorded.

A few months later, Bob Mould--enjoying a career renaissance--released Patch the Sky. For anyone unfamiliar with him, Bob Mould was essentially the leader and main songwriter in the 1980s post-punk band Husker Du, and then went on to front the power pop band Sugar, as well as recording a number of good solo records. By the early part of the 2000s, he seemed to have lost his way a bit with odd experimental records that didn't quite hit the mark, but in the last four years has returned to what his strength has always been: solid songwriting in a punky but melodic mode. Patch the Sky continued the winning streak begun with 2012's Silver Age and 2014's Beauty & Ruin.

The shittiness of 2016 got even shittier in late May when the Tragically Hip announced that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. About a month later, the band issued their first album in four years, Man Machine Poem. I covered this album extensively in a previous post. It is one of my favorites of the year.

While on the subject of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie was busy this year. He certainly hasn't allowed his cancer diagnosis get in his way. If anything, he seems even more driven than ever before. In October, he released Secret Path, a concept album about Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who in 1966 died of exposure in a desperate attempt to return home from a residential school for native children. The entire project is multimedia, with an album, a graphic novel, and a film that was broadcast by the CBC. Naturally, it was almost completely ignored in the United States, but I believe it was one of the most important artistic and cultural achievements of 2016.

One of the few good developments of 2016--for me personally--was reconnecting with the guys I lived with in Shaw Hall at Michigan State. One of those guys, my sophomore year roommate Paul, lives in Texas and has become deeply interested in Texas music. He turned me on to a singer-songwriter named Alejandro Escovedo who a few months ago released an outstanding album called Burn Something Beautiful. The album is a great combination of punk attitude, introspection, melodicism, and heartfelt emotion. It is definitely up there with Man Machine Poem as my favorite record of 2016.

I seem to be running out of time here, so allow me to just list a few more of my favorite records of 2016, and if I get more time I will describe them in more depth.

Drive-By Truckers--American Band (Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are one of the best songwriting duos working in music today).

Childish Gambino--Awaken, My Love! (Childish Gambino is probably better known as Donald Glover, actor and writer of extraordinary talent. He's also a gifted musician, and this record is a must for anyone who likes George Clinton, Funkadelic, Prince, or '70s Philly soul).

A Tribe Called Quest--We Got It From Here...Thanks 4 Your Service (Released just after Trump was elected president--excuse we while I wretch--ATCQ return with a highly politicized salvo, and sound like they never left).

Rolling Stones--Blue & Lonesome (Just when it didn't seem possible, the Stones drop an outstanding album: loose and fun. It's probably because it's a collection of blues covers that it came out so freewheeling and joyous. The Stones didn't feel any pressure to create new material. If this is the last album these guys ever record, they will have gone out in a great way, and traveled full circle to their roots).

The Monkees--Good Times! (Another case in which it didn't seem possible for an old band to record a great album. But the Monkees pull off the seemingly impossible. Of course, it helps that they surrounded themselves with some of the best musicians and songwriters working in the business).

Radiohead--A Moon Shaped Pool (Maybe I'm just a troglodyte, but I've never been overly knocked out by anything these guys have done since OK Computer, but I continue to faithfully buy most of their output because they always push the envelope. This is perhaps the band's most subtle, gentle, and emotional music of their career).

Solange--A Seat at the Table (I actually did the incredibly modern action of DOWNLOADING this album electronically. Do miracles never cease? I did so because I heard all the positive buzz about it and it doesn't disappoint. Beyonce's sister Solange has created an album of atmospheric soul and jazz, with a little politics thrown in).

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Vacation post #3

We're on the road in Ohio, finally returning home from a 13-day trip outside of Michigan. We have driven through eight states (Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) as well as one day on a small island owned by Royal Caribbean (Cocoa Cay) and one day in Nassau, Bahamas. We also spent time just gently traveling in a cruise ship in the Atlantic to our ports of call.

Long vacations are strange because one loses all sense of time. Since ordinary routines are broken, our ways of measuring our days go completely out the window. So two weeks can feel like two months. It feels like we have been gone for way more than 13 days, at least to me.

I don't know if I'll be able to cover the whole vacation experience in one post, especially since I'm pecking away at a tiny keyboard on my phone--in the car. I can at least talk about the cruise.

So about the Royal Caribbean cruise: I had no idea what to expect, and had never envisioned myself on a cruise, nor did I care if I ever took one [With one caveat: I often see the Viking River Cruise commercials on TV and think they look fun]. I have to say, though, the cruise was a blast and I'd gladly do it again, though left to my own devices I'd spend more time relaxing in a folding lounge chair on the deck. I didn't have much chance to do that.

Here's the thing about cruises: they are whatever you want them to be. One could eat and drink through the whole cruise, or spend every waking moment in the pool, or never leave the casino, or simply read a book or sunbathe on the deck. Heck, a recluse could even spend most or all day in his or her cabin (though that sounds like a complete waste of time and money to me).

As for me, I never set foot in the casino, and did no shopping in the myriad stores on the ship. I drank multiple mixed drinks throughout the day, took a brief dip in the pool, went on all the excursions (the tour of Nassau was a major highlight) and greatly enjoyed the meals in the dining room. My only major egret is that I wasn't able to see more shows on the ship (since there is non-stop live entertainment).

I'll return for more vacation talk later.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Vacation post #2

We are currently driving near Savannah, Georgia.

Yesterday's drive was not without adventure. When we stopped in Cambridge, Ohio for a restroom and food break, we discovered that the electrical cord--that connects the trailer lights to the vehicle--had broken off and for God knows how long we had been driving without tail lights on the trailer. I tried calling U-Haul roadside assistance and was on hold for what seemed like an eternity. Meanwhile, the rest of the family had gone in McDonald's and found out there was a U-Haul location in Cambridge. After a little adventure finding the place, the people there were kind enough to fix it free of charge. Special shoutout to the young 20s-ish guy in a Chicago Bears cap who did a great job getting us back on the road.

We survived many maniac drivers on I-95 in Florida, and a couple torrential rainstorms, but we made it to Cape Canaveral.

Florida is such a strange state. Rarely does a place combine beauty, sophistication with equal elements of ugliness and sheer redneckery in such close proximity. Florida is a continuous contradiction.

Next stop: cruise ship in two hours.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Vacation post #1

I'm not good with vacations involving travel and preparation. I'm not good getting out of my comfort zone, which would be at home in my daily routine. This is either due to a natural reticence or undiagnosed Asperger's, which I suspect I may have.

So I am writing to you south of Dundee, Michigan. We are heading towards our first day destination of North Carolina.

I spent a good deal of last night tossing and turning. Will we get everything ready and packed? Will I be able to back the van out of our long-ass driveway (with the attached U-Haul trailer) without backing into a snow bank? (Almost. My wife, who is better at such things, relieved me and had slightly more luck. She made it out with just enough clearance).

So now I try to maintain calm as much as possible. It can be difficult with six family members crammed in close quarters for so long. But I survived our 2013 Disney trip, so I should be able to do this.

Signing off for now.

Friday, December 16, 2016

A month or so after the election

It's been almost a full month since I last wrote in this blog, still reeling from the presidential election.
Though I am not experiencing the full-on depression of that time, I'm still extremely anxious. With every bizarre Donald Trump cabinet appointee, I find myself cursing and wincing. I find myself constantly bombarded with news stories involving our president-elect that make me feel like someone is constantly jabbing me with a knitting needle: Russians hacking the election, Trump not attending security briefings, Ben Carson as secretary of HUD, Betsy DeVoss--a person who would love to chuck the entire public school system, as secretary of education, a secretary of state appointee (Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson) with business interests with Russia.

...and this is just scraping the surface.

For several weeks I'd wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning in a cold sweat with an overwhelming sense of despair.

The "bubble" concept: I may live in a bubble. I'm sure I live in a bubble, seeing as how I live in an upper middle-class (verging on upper class) suburb of Michigan's capital (and the largest public university in the state). It is a community largely populated by doctors, lawyers, and college professors, and though it does have an Asian population near 6 percent, Meridian Township is still by-and-large an enclave of liberal whites. As a whole, my county (Ingham) voted for Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin.

When we drove up to Tuscola County, seeing how the Trump signs outnumbered the Clinton signs by about 20-1 was the first inkling I had that Trump could win the election and it (almost) "burst my bubble." There was still a part of me that was in denial, but in the week leading up the election, punctuated by a desperate text message to my brother-in-law, I had a sense that Trump just

Well, on that note, I'm gonna wrap up this particular post. I hope to be back soon with a year-end wrap-up in which I discuss stuff like my favorite TV shows, music, and the few books I read.