2nd Annual Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List (2013 Edition)

Yes, despite the fact that everyone else in the ENTIRE FREE WORLD is compiling their best of list, I have to add my random-almost-invisible-blogger list to the pile, too.

I’m still light years behind in film and television (academic demands have pulled my attentions elsewhere) so this is all about the music.

Here are the albums that are, in my opinion, the five finest works of 2013.

5. Boards of Canada, “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

BoC has been around for almost 20 years – I’ve just discovered them in the last few years, as I’ve sought out new soundscapes and started to explore ambient, electronic music. I loved their earlier work, often compared to the soundtracks of 1970s filmstrips.

While much of that earlier music had a sense of warm nostalgia, “Tomorrow’s Harvest” had a darker sound to it. It was well worth the long wait since their last album, and pieces like “Reach for the Dead” were great works.

4. Bibio, “Silver Wilkinson” 

Bibio’s been working in a vein that really speaks to me: combining electronic sounds with more traditional, guitar-based structures. Like Boards of Canada, he’s also really great at creating a whole soundscape that sets a mood.

Bibio’s music also has a wonderful thread of joy and wonder running through it. After a funk detour with “Mind Bokeh,” this was a return to the hybrid that Bibio’s been creating, and it was a mainstay on my playlist this year.

3. Prefab Sprout, “Crimson/Red”

I’ve loved the masterful songwriting of Paddy McAloon for many years, and the earlier catalog of Prefab Sprout remains a constant on my spin list. But the hopes of a new Prefab album had been all but forsaken. The last truly new work (Gunman and Other Stories) just didn’t speak to me, and while I enjoyed the release of Let’s Change The World With Music a few years back, it was a “lost” album from the mid-90s.

I also didn’t expect any new releases because of McAloon’s double-whammy health conditions – a visual impairment and a case of tinnitus that’s affected him for years.

So to hear Crimson/Red at all is a joy. For it to be so damn good is a gift. There are many songs that stand with the best of McAloon’s underappreciated songwriting, but for me, “List of Impossible Things” is achingly, hauntingly beautiful, and at 56, McAloon’s voice still sounds as swoonworthy as it did years ago.

2. Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady” 

I loved Monae’s new album. Monae, to me, is one of the most exciting new artists to come along in years. I remain mystified that Monae isn’t a megastar, though I wonder if the mythology of her albums – the android symbolism, the emotional remove of singing in character – is keeping some listeners from tuning in.

Electric Lady was another ambitious work and it (almost completely) worked. Few songs this year were as fun and funky as the title track. Heads exploded when Monae and the iconic Erykah Badu  joined forces for “Q.U.E.E.N.” (That track had an amazing video – Monae and Badu onscreen together is, in a word, electric.)

While the album is a shade long – and its spoken interludes have been criticized in the press  – it’s an achievement for Monae, who is making the most intelligent – and most fun – hybrid of pop and R&B out there.

Electric Lady reaches high heights in its final third, with the emotional “Ghetto Woman” and “Victory,” repeating, almost mantralike, “To be victorious/You must find glory in the little things.”

And my number one album of 2013:

1. Alison Moyet, “The Minutes”

I’ve been a fan of Moyet for 30 years, since she hit the scene with Yazoo. And I’ve loved Moyet in all her faces and voices.

But like several of my favorite artists – including Aimee Mann, Jonatha Brooke and Kirsty MacColl – Moyet has had repeated run-ins with several record labels. Despite her magnificent voice (one that can sing any style) and great batches of songs, it seemed like the only thing several of Moyet’s labels were any good at was getting in her way.

Her 2002 album Hometime was a high-water mark, but while I also loved Moyet’s subsequent albums, it seemed like she was increasingly pigeonholed by the industry, only “allowed” to make a certain kind of record, perpetual sequels of sorts to her 80s jazz cover of the standard “That Ole Devil Called Love.”

Moyet had embraced a wide range of genres – including a stint in a West End production of “Chicago” – but the more diverse her explorations, the more she seemed to be pigeonholed. In 2012 came news that Moyet and her label were parting ways, and it seemed unlikely that any new Moyet music was soon to be forthcoming.

Just over a year later, The Minutes was released. And it is a triumph in every possible way.

This is no rehash or victory lap for a veteran act. At 52, Moyet is in this moment and sounds magnificent in contemporary arrangements that range from electronic to more mainstream rock (“When I Was Your Girl”) and even hinting at dubstep (“Changeling”). There’s so much great songwriting here, especially with tracks like “Remind Yourself,” “Horizon Flame,” and the exquisite “Filigree.”

Moyet seems to be more comfortable in her musical skin here, and it comes through in every song. This work doesn’t read like the preconceived narrative of some record label, or the faux creation of a mask of celebrity. This is the authentic voice and the story of a confident, talented, mature woman, and it is glorious to hear.

Changeling:

When I Was Your Girl:

Other notable stuff:

A few other notable music notes for the year:

Getting lucky: I know that Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was a divisive song, with a hipster backlash against it almost from the start.

Whatever. I loved it – it’s got a fun vibe and it did remind me of those 70s and 80s disco songs, songs that seemed to have warmth and love instead of a sterile coldness and an ugly violence in them, as I hear in so much contemporary dubstep and dance. (It also didn’t have the ugly subtext of its fellow radio earworm “Blurred Lines.”)

Welcome back: Another welcome return this year was Boy George, who released a new album. He’s also appeared on a few tracks as a guest vocalist.

Best new artist: 

There were few new artists I really liked this year – most of them sound like really tinny versions of 80s synthpop bands – but I really liked Junip, especially their song “Your Life Your Call.”  (Though the video IS odd….)

So what did you love? Hate? What are you hoping for musically in 2014?

Creative class, revisted

(Internet photo)

(Internet photo)

Richard Florida came to speak at my college (Elmhurst College) a few weeks ago. Here’s my write-up on the lecture for our student newspaper, The Leader.

FLORIDA DISCUSSES CREATIVE CLASS

He’s been called a rockstar and an urban savior — as well as a charlatan and an elitist. One thing is clear — urban theorist Richard Florida elicits strong reactions to his ideas.

He shared some of those theories, and his ideas about what he called “the biggest economic shift in modern human history” at a Sept.19 lecture in Hammerschmidt Chapel.

Professor Florida is best known for his book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” A revised version of the book, originally released in 2002, has just been published.

His appearance was part theatrical performance and part classroom lecture, with a twist of urban evangelism.

Florida, clad in a sleek suit and black glasses, talked about the experiences that shaped his theories about the creative class, and his time as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s.

He said that Pittsburgh, the former “Steel City,” was an example of a place that had nearly collapsed after de-industrialization. “Pittsburgh was almost as desolate as Detroit,” he explained.

But while that city built a whole new industry in high tech fields, the people and companies that sprouted there would move to other places.

Florida cited this as an inspiration for the idea that a job or career isn’t enough to keep a person or a company in a particular place. He cited the three T’s — “technology, talent and tolerance.”

One of Florida’s assertions is that people want to live in diverse, vibrant cities with arts and culture. He courted controversy by ranking cities on a “gay index,” to illustrate the point that cities welcoming of LGBT people often had stronger economies and more innovation.

Florida joked that he was criticized for pushing his “gay agenda” but said diversity was a key factor in his findings.

“To be creative, you must be enmeshed in a creative community.”

And according to Florida’s theory, being creative, and being part of the “creative class,” is a key to success. That class includes any “knowledge work” and captures a wide range of industries, from the STEM sciences to arts and culture.

Florida said while unemployment during the most recent recession hit double digits in many job sectors, the “creative class” held up well.

“Unemployment didn’t even hit 5 percent,” he said.

Florida told the audience that he believes the places we decide to live in are as important, if not more important, that the choices we make for our careers and for our life partners.

He wrote about this idea in his book, “Who’s Your City?”

“It’s not just quality of life,” Florida said. “It’s quality of place that was enabling people to thrive.”

Florida is considered a key figure in the New Urbanist movement, which highlights the benefits of living in cities and advocates for walkable, dense living areas.

But he’s not without his critics.

Joel Kotkin, a geography professor and author, has criticized Florida’s ideas, and believes that Florida’s suggestions for Rust Belt cities are superficial ideas; he called Florida’s creative class theory “pernicious.”

In 2012, writer Frank Bures penned “The Fall of the Creative Class,” an article for Minneapolis-based Thirty Two Magazine.

In the article, Bures explored the story of several people (including himself) who moved to a city (Madison, Wisc.) based on its ranking on Florida’s Creative Class index — and had less-than-stellar experiences.

Florida recognized his critics during the lecture, but had a surprising response.

“I love my critics,” he said. “I learn from my critics.”

An earlier post on Richard Florida’s work can be found here.

Finding joy

NOTE: Thanks to everyone who’s checked out Elegy and Irony; this is my hundredth post! 

For many people (including me), today marks the end of summer. Kids are back in school. I’m starting my last year for my degree work.

Summer was supposed to be a rest and respite, a time for relaxation.

For me, it was anything but.

My summer was a big shit sandwich.

I had a health issue that required surgery, and for a brief period, the diagnosis was even worse than it thankfully, ultimately, turned out to be.

Let me be clear: in the big scheme of things, all of this was manageable. There are people who have far bigger challenges than me in this department.

But it was scary. It was a wake up call.

I’ve been working this summer on balance in my life, in my work, in how I approach everything.

When I was ill, I read several books to pass the time. Two of them – Life Happens, by Connie Schultz, and Life Itself, by Roger Ebert – had “life” in their very titles, and through all their pages. (I took those to the hospital with me.)

The story of Roger Ebert’s last few years is one of suffering, but also of great life, and great contentment and joy.

The words of a man who has been through a long, arduous journey but understood the value of embracing that journey at every step:  “I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

I’ve thought about Ebert’s wife Chaz several times since his passing. She’s coped with his passing, led the efforts to keep Ebert’s writing voice and platform for commentary alive, and explored her own voice in her own works.

But in the midst of all that, a few weeks after Roger’s passing, this happened.

This makes me smile every time I see it. And by ‘smile’ I also mean ‘bawl like a baby.’

In the midst of a season of pain, it’s beautiful to see Chaz Ebert (and the other people there) celebrating life, living in a moment of joy.

The balance of joy and pain, of celebration and suffering.

I, too, did not always know this, but am happy that my eyes are opened and that my awareness and appreciation is wide awake.

Here’s to good grades and good health for you and yours.

(P.S.: Tilda Swinton is a goddess. That is all.)

The Heart Of The Matter: Adding insult to injury for transgender murder victim

news_leadLast week, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper ran a story about a person who had been murdered. A body had been found in a pond in Olmstead Township, a small southwestern suburb of Cleveland.

What made the coverage of this story stand out was that the body found was of a transgender woman, Cemia “Ce Ce” Acoff.

I’m a member of the LGBT community. I’m also a journalist.

I’ve got a few fistfuls of bylines, and I’m also in the unique position of being back in college.

I’ve been studying the art of journalism – an art I’ve already practiced. I’m digging deeper into the finer points of reporting and writing.

And I can say, unequivocally, that the Plain Dealer has repeatedly dropped the ball on its coverage of Acoff’s death.

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Theory: The Creative Class controversy

Professor Richard Florida's book.

Professor Richard Florida’s book.

In the last few months, Professor Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory, which has been widely discussed  in urban planning and economics in the last decade, has taken some punches.

The Creative Class theory, in a nutshell, suggested that when a city or neighborhood had a highly creative and diverse population – artists and members of the LGBT community, for example – that those residents were a ‘canary in the coal mine’ and an indicator of economic renewal and revitalization.

Joel Kotkin, in an essay for The Daily Beast in March, tore into many of the assumptions of Florida’s initial theory, as well as the way it’s been implemented in various cities across the country.

Last year, in another blog, I discussed my own experience in one of the Creative Class cities (Madison, Wisconsin) and an article by writer Frank Bures that appeared in Twin Cities magazine Thirty Two, which also debated many of the Creative Class talking points.

It’s clear that the economic benefits are not as robustly realized as Florida had theorized. I agree that there are several key parts of his theory that have splintered under intense inspection. (Florida’s response to the Kotkin essay can be found here.)

But I’m not sure I’m completely ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

The main thing that always rang true for me in Florida’s theory is the idea of flexibility.

I’ve written a great deal about Pittsburgh in this blog, and I have a great love for the city. But at different times when I’ve lived there, I felt that it was very inflexible. It was a town that didn’t embrace diversity, or differences. It didn’t understand different approaches, or different ideas.

If we fast forward to 2013, Pittsburgh is a different place.

I don’t know that all artists, or LGBT people, are magic indicators. But it’s been primarily those residents who have made astonishing changes in Lawrenceville.

Of course, what few theories really delve into is the fact that in so many Rust Belt cities – and even here in Chicago – there are deeply ingrained institutionalized class and race barriers that bar many of our citizens from participating in that economic process.

To truly be diverse – and flexible – we need planning and programs that are truly flexible and inclusive. And while planning theory is helpful in that regard, reform and government involvement is what’s really needed to make that a reality.

 

Chicago: Front page news (and burying the lede)

tribuneOn Wednesday, several media outlets reported that the Tribune Company – a media conglomerate that owns a number of TV and radio stations, and newspapers across the country – is having investment bankers assist them in evaluating potential offers to buy the newspapers.

What was buried well in the discussions and the articles was one key bit: Wrapports LLC is interested in potentially purchasing the Chicago Tribune.

Why care?

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Pittsburgh: As The Yinzer Turns

Did Pittsburgh become Chicago while I was sleeping?

Luke Ravenstahl

Luke Ravenstahl

If you’ve watched what’s transpired in Pittsburgh over the last few weeks, it certainly seems so.

Increasing political conflict in city offices, and the firing of the police chief, led to a surprise announcement this morning from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl that he would not seek reelection.

That announcement may not sound significant on its own.

But it’s a culmination of months of unanswered questions swirling around city offices, and around the mayor himself. And even before this latest scandal, Ravenstahl’s actions – and inactions – fed accusations and rumors about his professional and personal life.

Pittsburgh’s made some huge strides forward into the 21st century.

Will the next Mayor help nudge that progress along – or will they embrace the traditionalism that Pittsburgh is known for?

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Chicago: That Neighborhood Feel

Let’s call this post “a tale of two neighborhoods.”

One is Andersonville. It’s a north side neighborhood. Its borders run roughly from Broadway on the east to Ashland on the west, and from Foster to Peterson/Ridge at its north end.

In terms of geography, it’s an unremarkable neighborhood – no close CTA stop or Metra stop, no rivers or remarkable parks, and one main bus (the perpetually crowded and slow 22 Clark) running down Clark Street, its main thoroughfare.

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

The second is my current hood: the West Loop. Or as I like to call it, WeLo.

(It sounds clever, right? Also, I’m a lazy typist and that’s way fewer letters.)

WeLo has a close proximity to the Loop. It’s got one main bus route (the perpetually crowded and slow 20 Madison), and a new, shiny Morgan Green Line stop. (Two more stops, both Blue Line, sit at the extreme southern ends of the neighborhood.)

The Bartelme Park at Monroe and Peoria is an entire city block of amazingness. And WeLo is also known for “Restaurant Row” on its northern end.

But for all the amazing things happening in WeLo, it still hasn’t reached that point of coalescence as a neighborhood. Andersonville, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a neighborhood, and all the pluses of one: tight community ties and people filling its shops, stores and restaurants.

Why isn’t WeLo every bit as cozy and inviting as Andersonville? I’ve wondered why for a while – and figured I’d try to use some urban planning ideas and metrics to compare and contrast these two areas.

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Hello City

Because I’m a pop culture kid at heart, I was captivated by the Atlantic Cities post on the “Hello” commercials for local news stations.

The Cliff Notes version: Local news stations share concepts, from theme music to commercial/promotional ideas, and this one spread like wildfire in the 80s. (From what I can tell, it was primarily for ABC affiliates.)

It was created by Frank Gari, who also wrote many of the theme music packages news stations have used over the years. For those of us of a certain age, it evokes a whole lot of nostalgia.

The Atlantic Cities post shares a few, including Milwaukee, the first in the series.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few other towns – Rust Belt towns, of course. (more…)