Top Five Albums of 2009

January 14, 2010

It’s been a long time coming since my last post. Almost four months. But in my defense, I haven’t had internet at my house since I moved from Chicago back to Charleston in mid-October. Kinda hard to maintain a blog when you can’t get online for more than fifteen minutes at a time.

So, I am easing back into this whole blog thing again, and  I am going to start with something fun and easy – my favorite albums of the year.

*Disclaimer: I only check out certain bands and certain types of music. I am not a music critic that has CDs delivered in bunches to his doorstep for review. So take that into account when reading over these selections…

1. Mastodon – Crack the Skye

The kings of progressive stoner metal had a lot to live up to after 2007’s Blood Mountain pushed them to the forefront of the burgeoning prog-metal scene. After all, that record showed up on a lot of year-end lists, made Mastodon a household name for metal heads the world over and provided a blueprint for younger bands to strive for. Crack the Skye lives up to the hype. Reportedly a concept album built around a spirit that travels through dimensions before landing in Czarist Russia and saving Rasputin from an untimely demise, this mind-spinning  opus starts out with the catchy and harmonious  “Oblivion” and tickles the listener’s earballs throughout its 52 minutes. The majority of the album was penned by guitarist/lead singer Brent Hinds as he lay in a hospital, ailing from head wounds suffered in a drunken brawl, and explores rich textures and (gasp) clean, layered vocals. The album takes a few listens to truly “get” and it’s a pretty far cry from Remission, but the amazing guitar work and  drumming that Mastodon is known for is still clearly the band’s forte. ‘The band undoubtedly stretches itself to its very limits, and succeeds wildly in doing so. ‘The Last Baron’, the stunning final track on the album, might be their greatest musical achievement yet. And if you purchase the deluxe album edition, you get the whole album again – minus the lyrics. Another sonic treat.

2. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

The Flaming Lips have always been best known for creating artsy space rock, mixing booming bass, fuzzy guitars, electronica and layered vocal harmonies to create some of the more interesting music you can find in the mainstream. They’ve come a long way from “Vasoline”. Remember that little ditty? Embyronic finds the Oklahoma natives treading unchartered territory, forgoing their pep and gloss and exploring some very dark and brooding territory – only a handful of the songs have a real backbeat to them. There are lots of little blips, beeps and noises sprinkled throughout the album and the listener almost forgets where one track ends and the next begins. Again, and as with most good music, the album takes a few spins to leave its mark. It is best experienced through headphones and from start to finish.

3. Every Time I Die – New Junk Aesthetic

The best thing to come out of Buffalo since the hot wing, Every Time I Die takes the best traits from metal, hardcore, southern rock and grunge and blend it into their own dirty mixture. The album is built around elastic riffs and breakdowns, but the most notable aspect on their newest effort is the amazing transformation of singer Keith Buckley. Over the past few albums, the former high school english teacher has gone from spazzoid screamer to more of  a hardcore crooner. Buckley has become one of metal’s best frontmen, with his ability to seamlessly transition between throaty screams and clean vocals, all the while spinning his yarns with an uncompromising wit. NJA is the next logical step in this band’s career and offers a great overview of one of the genre’s most promising and fun groups.

4. Eminem – Relapse

Eminem, no stranger to controversy and contempt, comes out swinging harder than ever with his latest effort. Fueled by his failed marriage and the murder of his best friend, Eminem spent the better part of the past three years in exile, mired in drug addiction and depression. Now he’s back and at the top of his game again. Using his sharp wit, dark humor and robust rap skills, Em had already cemented himself as one of the genre’s finest MCs and this album strongly reinforces that. Blunt as a broadsword, Eminem dips and dives through scathing raps, attacking and mowing down anyone in his way. His delivery is unparalleled and some of his most humorous and sadistic flows to date are found sprinkled throughout. Having Dr. Dre has your producer and collaborator doesn’t hurt either. However, the most revealing and compelling aspect of Relapse is the fact that, for the first time, Eminem points the finger at himself.

5. Baroness – Blue Record

Straight from the swamps of Savannah come Baroness. Although they have stood in the shadow’s of genre buddies and local stalwarts Kylesa, Baroness came into their own with 2008’s outstanding Red Album and became more than just the heir apparent to the throne currently owned by Mastodon. The compositions that Baroness produce are not as challenging as that of Mastodon, nor are they as heavy as Kylesa. Their strength lies in their craftsmanship of exploring every riff to its fullest capacity. Jumping from sludge to jam-band in a mere matter of seconds is a tough task to pull off, but the transitions are seamless throughout their work. The fact that the band perseveres through constant lineup changes and through the burden having to play second fiddle to Georgia’s other hard rock royalty is a testament to the band’s vision. Singer/songwriter John Baizley, who also does all the cover art for his band and a slew of other acts, is one of music’s most underrated frontmen.

Honorable Mention: Isis – Wavering Radiant; Pelican – What We All Come to Need; Suicide Silence – No Time to Bleed; Mos Def – The Ecstatic; Jay Z – The Blueprint 3; Converge – Axe to Fall.

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Here's to you, Steve!

Here's to you, Steve!

During the past few weeks, network news stations and talk radio has spent much of its time discussing the recent string of deaths among our celebrities. Several famous people have passed on, most notably Michael Jackson.

But none are as tragic as the murder of former NFL quarterback Steve McNair and the sordid details that are constantly emerging on a daily basis.

Not too demean the other deaths, but they weren’t quite as shocking. Whereas the others died of old age, cancer or drug overdoses, McNair was shot to death by his mistress in the dead of night as he slept in his recliner. Soon after, his mistress took her own life. The circumstances surrounding McNair’s untimely demise are still quite unknown, but the facts seem to be that he was running around behind his wife and the killings were a murder-suicide.

From all accounts, McNair was a stand-up guy who gave back to his community. He was raised in small-town Mississippi and attended Alcorn State, a traditionally African-American school. During his time there, his football talents earned him the nickname “Air McNair” and the media flocked to his games to witness his awesome athletic ability. In doing so, he also did a lot for coverage of black colleges.

Throughout his NFL career, McNair was nothing short of the consummate teammate. He showed up early and left late during practice, was a leader by example and was the true definition of a warrior, often playing in games with several injuries. His only concern was to be on the playing field with his teammates, and not on the sidelines watching. He may have not been the sharpest passer or most elusive runner or the coolest cat on the turf, but players acrossed the league said there wasn’t a better teammate. His playing days were probably most defined by his late-game performance in the 2000 Super Bowl where he drove the Tennessee Titans to within one yard of the game-tying touchdown as time expired.

Off the field, McNair was a well-known personality in his small-town community and in Nashville as well. He loaded trucks full of relief items for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2004. Despite his recent indiscretions, he was known as a good family man who loved his four sons dearly. He was all about kids. He founded the Steve McNair Foundation (www.officialstevemcnair.com) with the mission for community awareness and helping local youth, and just this year solely funded three separate football camps. Since his retirement in 2008, McNair was working on plans to start a large farm just north of Nashville that concentrated on eco-friendly harvesting tactics and healthy food for children.

Of course the media chooses to dwell on the darker side of the story. Sex and murder sell, not community involvement.

Not to say McNair was perfect, as the details prove so. Theories behind the murder-suicide were that McNair was involved with another woman besides his mistress and his wife. Who knows if there was more to it besides a lover’s quarrel? No one will ever know the whole story. To me that’s a good thing.

But the fact of the matter is America lost another of its heroes in a tragic way.

R.I.P. Air McNair.

The Windy City in all its glory

The Windy City in all its glory

Life is full of hard decisions. From what to wear, and what to eat, to whether or not you think Stan Van Gundy might in fact actually be Ron Jeremy, every day is filled with constant conundrums. This past week, I made one of the toughest choices of my life when I decided to leave Charleston for Chicago. After spending nearly five years in the Holy City, the itch to move on to attempt to better my life got the best of me and I was forced to scratch it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time in Charleston or that I wasn’t happy with my surroundings. It’s clearly the class of the South, from its thriving tourism industry,endless history and amazing dining and nighlife, to its beaches, swamps, golf courses and of course, women as hot as train smoke. But what made Charleston so tough to leave behind was the amazing people that I encountered and bonded with during my time there. The city itself can be a little closed-minded about certain individuals from certain northern areas of the country and it did take me a few months to crack the shell and get into the inner circles, but once I made connections, I found out how truly wonderful the city and its citizens can be. Being a mecca for the aforementioned traits, people from all over the country flock to this city and make it their home. Its a virtual cornocupia of personalities and characters. I was immediately drawn to that wandering soul spirit that I saw in many of the people I came across in my time there. But as I grew older and started to ‘settle down’, I realized the city lacked any type of career that I might be interested in or would suit me for my near and distant future. Aside from lawyers, doctors, real estate agents and professional f and b’ers, there wasn’t really much to offer the single mid-20s male as far as employment was concerned. I turned my attention back to the North and the thriving metropolis of Chicago. Having grown up in Michigan, I also thought of Chicago as a second home. I can remember my first trip into the Windy City as a young man and being instantly swept up by the constant bustle of activity, the breathtaking skyscrapers and the ability to have whatever you want right at your doorstep. I’ve wanted to live here ever since then, and this seemed to be the time to make that dream happen. With my time in Charleston coming to a close like a sunset over Lake Michigan, and the lure of several family members and close friends who have made Chicago their home offering me their support, it was an easy choice to make. But it also proved to be an extremely difficult one to follow through with. It took me four days just to get the stones to turn in my letter of resignation at work. Leaving was extremely rough both mentally and emotionally, but as I have spent the last 24 hours here in my new home, I feel that the right choice was made, even if it wasn’t the easiest. Many friends and colleagues extended well-wishes and kind thoughts before my departure, but I told most of them this: This is not a good-bye, this is a see you later. So to all my brethern in Charleston I left behind (and to those hot, hot women), take care, God Bless….and….see you later.

Michael Vick still has those elusive moves, doesn't he?

Michael Vick still has those elusive moves, doesn't he?

Sports outlets around the country are a twitter with the news of embattled ex-NFLer Michael Vick’s release from federal prison this week. Unless you care nothing about sports or have lived under a rock for the past two years, you already know that Vick spent the previous 19 months in Leavenworth, Kansas as part of a sentence for federal dogfighting crimes. You already know the scope of these crimes, from the thousands of dollars funneled over state lines to finance the fights, to the brutality of the fights themselves and the ‘unconventional’ methods used to breed the dogs and put them down if they did not meet battle standards. You already know that Vick went from media darling to one of the most despised sports figures in the country. But that’s all in the past. The issue now is whether Vick should be allowed to play in the NFL again. And the answer is an unequivocal yes.

The argument here is not whether Vick is a good person or not. He is definitely not a role model. But what he is is a gifted athelete who can still help out several NFL teams. He worked his whole life to get to where he was and, unfortunately, his bad decisions and seedy friends he kept undermined his achievements. Even Atlanta Falcons Arthur Blank, who probably felt the sting of this whole incident more than most, agreed that Vick should be able to see the playing field once again.

“It goes beyond, ‘Has he paid his debt to society?’ Because I think that from a legal standpoint and financially and personally, he has,”  Blank said Wednesday at the NFL owners’ meeting in Florida.

Vick will serve the remainder of his sentence in home confinement and working for a local construction company for ten dollars an hour. He also has spend many hours working with the Humane Society as a volunteer. Vick’s main goal is to get back into the league and attempt to untarnish his image. Is he remorseful for what he has done? Who knows? Maybe the man is just a bad guy, but the fact of the matter remains that he has done his time and paid his debts. His life is in financial and social shambles. His one chance to get some of it back is to return to the league. Just because he has committed a crime does not mean he should not be able to work ever again, correct? The NFL is battling an image problem, but if you are going to let PacMan Jones or Ray Lewis back in the league after they committed felonies, why is Vick any different. Granted, if he plays for my team, the Detroit Lions, I will not be cheering for them or him. I can rest easily knowing that the Lions drafted a quarterback, Matt Stafford from Georgia, with the number one pick. Signing Michael Vick doesn’t seem like an option for them.  For some reason, I can see Vick playing for the Oakland Raiders. How fitting would that be??

Everyone knows the old saying. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to successfully complete a task. Blogging is no exception. Last summer, my friend from Texas and I were all fired up to begin writing our first blog. The idea was simple, yet brilliant (or so we thought). It would be called NorthvsSouth, with the basic premise being the two of us arguing all things in a geographic sense. Union vs Confederacy, Big Ten vs Big 12, forests vs deserts, lakes vs oceans. After two posts, however, the dream died. Or at least the passion for it did. The blog is still active, but about as active as Bob Hope on hot summer day.

Recently, a new inspiration has struck me and the want, and the need, to write again is burning deep within. Writing for me seems to come so natural. I can sit down with a certain topic in mind and my fingers just seem to glide across the keyboard as my thoughts pour out on digital paper. Sometimes late at night, if I couldn’t sleep, I would just get out of bed and just start writing, whether it be op-ed, poetry, song lyrics or a simply angry rant at being tired but not being able to sleep. But lately, inspiration has been hard to come by. It shouldn’t be, but for some odd reason, it has been. There are so many distractions these days in my life, it’s hard to find a moment’s reprieve to clear my head of the jumbled ideas and thoughts constantly banging around in there. But just as spring time is a period of rebirth and bloom, I feel my hunger for writing has sprung back to life. And so I attempt once more to blog, and to do it often. I just hope somebody out there is reading.

Happy Easter everyone!