Thursday, December 31, 2009

Good riddance to bad rubbish

So here we are. It's New Year's Eve. I work today but at least I work during the day thanks to someone at work taking pity on my soul and trading with me. Good friends old and new are scheduled to arrive for NYE festivities tonight and I'm excited about that. I still have to put the NYE playlist together on my iPod, but I should have time after work to do that. It should be a fine cap to a year that by almost all accounts could have been much better.

"Good riddance to bad rubbish"
is something I always remember my dad saying when I was growing up and I can think of no more fitting phrase as we get ready to say goodbye to 2009. I'm fond of saying to Heidi that apart from our westward vacation this summer and her books getting published, 2009 was one of the worst on record. Like most things in life, that's an overgeneralization and doesn't strictly apply, but when I look back at the last year, I can't help but think "good riddance to bad rubbish."

Certainly, there were good things, but it seemed like for every good thing, there was something massively sucky. 2009 was the year that we saw one of our (much younger than us) good friends walk just a little too closely to death's door. My wife spent the first half of 2009 fighting a mystery ailment which saw her in almost constant chronic pain and while it at least has a name now, she still has her good days and her bad days. The economy, while recovering, is still in the shitter for the most part. Our car defined "rise of the machines" as we ended up doing about 3000 bucks worth of repairs on it over the last 12 months. Most of it was scheduled maintenance to keep us from having to buy a new car, but still. And despite all my effort to pay down a significant portion of our credit card debt, we have a bit more at year's end than we started with.

It would be easy to sit and wallow in the bad but as this year comes to an end, I'm going to do my damndest to focus on the positive. Almost all the crap events of the last year have a silver lining, and while I'm not going to be all Pollyana about it, I am going to choose to focus on the positive.

I don't do resolutions - they just set you up for failure - but exciting changes are afoot in 2010. I'm going to start preliminarily looking at board certification although in exactly what I haven't decided. It probably won't happen in earnest until 2011, but looking at the web site makes me think I need to start the wheels turning now. I have not done anything outside of the required continuing education to keep my license current to really further my career since I graduated and this seems like a logical next step. And as per my usual at this time of year, I am going to continue to redouble my efforts to pay down credit card debt, especially in light of what looks like the loss of the great promo rate we have right now (although you can bet your last dollar that I'll be negotiating that come March.)

But for now, let's bring on the party. Just because 2009 was not the greatest doesn't mean that we can't have a little fun at year's end.

Back tomorrow with some highlights from this year's blogging. But for now, let's have some ABBA, because they almost always make things better.

Friday, December 25, 2009

In which I didn't get 3rd degree burns in my crotch

Well, Christmas 2009 has come and gone - it was a good one around here. Usually it's just the three of us and the 5 cats, but this year, my wife's sister Hillari was here for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Heidi really liked having her here because (as was previously mentioned) I worked. It was a double-win because she had invited the Central Iowa Authors NaNoWriMo group up tonight. Although it was certainly not for lack of trying, they weren't able to navigate the icy roads between here and Des Moines, so that was pretty much a bust. The plus side is that they are all invited to New Year's now.

The morning before I got to work was laid back and non-stressful which is how Christmas morning should be. We got up at the crack of dawn and opened presents and all that good stuff and we had a good hot breakfast as well. There was the small trifle of snowblowing the driveway and although there were only a couple inches of snow, it was the wet and heavy snow that likes to gum up your snowblower. Pushing against it with the snowblower also gets tricky as it is so heavy you frequently have to take smaller cuts through the snow in order to move it. What I thought would take 30 minutes was more like an hour but it was done so I couldn't complain.

I came in and got a cup of coffee and sat down with Anna who was watching Barbie: A Christmas Carol. Call me crazy, but those Barbie movies are actually pretty good for young girls and Anna enjoys the hell out of them. As is my custom when I sit down in that chair, it wasn't long before my eyelids started drooping and I was weaving in and out of consciousness. There I sat, not quite conscious and holding a half-full cup of coffee in my lap. I should have know that this was a recipe for disaster.

It didn't take long for me to doze off to such an extent that I lost muscle tone and my hands let go of the coffee cup. It tipped over and started spilling all over my pants and the chair. I woke up with a start, half convinced I'd lost more than just muscle tone, but it didn't take me long to figure out it was coffee. Had that coffee been just out of the pot, I shudder to think what might have happened.

Fortuanately, it had cooled quite a bit and was not a threat. I'm fine but I do have a good idea of what it must feel like to wet your pants.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy happy joy joy

It's 2 days till Christmas and we're due to get ice, rain, thunderstorms, and heavy snow all before Saturday. The next thing you know, there'll be a tornado. Anyway, I work Christmas this year which always causes this outpouring of grief and sympathy from people but really, I haven't worked it since 2006 so it really is my turn. And I do have the weekend off so no big deal.

So since the weather it so much crap, I took advantage of the last day at home and finally watched "The Post-Modern Prometheus," a 5th season episode of The X-Files. It had been built up by many an X-Phile, so I was half waiting for it to be disappointingly underwhelming, a victim of my own lofty expectations. I am happy to say that nothing could be further from the truth. It was everything I love about The X-Files - intriguing, unpredictable and a little bit scary. While the mythology arc of The X-Files is endlessly fascinating to me, sometimes it's these one-off episodes that stand out the most.

For those that don't know, "The Post-Modern Prometheus" is an homage to the Frankenstein story. Frankenstein's Monster is, in this case, The Great Mutato. He is the product of genetic experimentation gone horribly awry and as a result, he has been hidden away from the rest of the townspeople. All he wants is a mate, someone to be wih and to spend his life with. The pursuit of that goal, through some rather questionable tactics, is what leads Mulder & Scully to town.

This episode shines because of strong writing and the strength of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in their roles. Anderson, as Scully, is always the skeptic, the foil to Mulder's unfailing belief. At one point in the episode, Scully asks "Is there anything you don't believe in, Mulder?" which he (wisely) never answers. Additionally, Cher plays a rather substantial role in the story, after we find out that The Great Mutato is a huge fan of Cher's, based upon her portrayal of Rusty Dennis in Mask.

I've mentioned in previous X-Files posts that Mulder & Scully are always written so serious and the characters always have to play it so straight that when they do get a chance to be funny or let their hair down a bit, it's jarring at first and then such a relief. We don't get quite the "funny" in this episode that we got in "Detour" or "War of the Coprophages," as the subject matter of the episode doesn't really lend itself to comedy. Instead, what we get is joy and happiness that is also frequently denied the viewers when watching Mulder & Scully. Mulder especially, never seems to smile, and Scully is equally serious. But at the end of "The Post-Modern Prometheus," you get a glimpse this. Mulder & Scully inexplicably take The Great Mutato to a Cher concert (a lookalike playing in the tiniest venue EVER), and while the excitement and joy in The Great Mutato is obvious, you can see it in our intrepid FBI agents as well - especially Mulder. Have a look:

I love how much he is smiling in this photo. And then, many X-Files fans probably got what they wanted when Mulder asks Scully to dance. I still don't buy the sexual tension between them - I mean, yes, it's there, but it feels almost incestuous.

The only way this episode could have been improved is if the producers had gotten their original wish and had Roseanne Barr and Cher cast in the episode. Both declined citing scheduling conflicts, although I remember reading somewhere that Cher regretted not appearing in the episode. The song placement felt oddly like a commercial for Cher's It's A Man's World album, but since the episode aired a full year and a half after the release of that album, we can chalk that up to me being cynical.

One of the all-time best episodes.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best of 2009: Songs of the year

(Edit: The title of this post is fixed. Apparently, I don't know what year we're living in. I'm ready for the nursing home. Thanks to Mike for pointing this out.)

I was going to post this list a little bit at a time, but time has slipped away from me so you're getting it all at once. This year's "songs of the year" post has 18 songs and the overriding theme is definitely "familiarity." 2009 is going to go down in history as a year that I really did not find any new artists to follow. So much of 2009 really sucked, and taking solace in the new songs of tried-and-true, familiar artists was kind of the sonic equivalent of comfort food. There are some new acts on here, but mostly, you can tell that it's a very Dan list. Which it pretty much is EVERY year.

This is long and I've tried to keep my comments brief. As usual, in no particular order.

"Celebration" / Madonna
The lyrics could have been written by an eight year-old and it left my friend Jeff and me asking the question "do we really need another Madonna song telling people to get on the dance floor?" But it also wiped that nasty Hard Candy taste right out of my mouth and provided a good look back while giving a glimpse of what may be yet to come.

"Shining Light" / Annie Lennox
One of two new songs on Annie Lennox's best-of CD from earlier this year, it plays like an Annie Lennox original even though it's a cover. She's a perfect fit for this song.

of Modern Love" / Saint Etienne
One of the first songs I heard in 2009 and I'm still playing it like it I just heard it yesterday. A killer hook in the chorus coupled with a brilliant bridge (which even SPELLS!) assured this a spot on the year end list before we even got to February.

"Stuck on Repeat" / Little Boots

I mostly don't like Little Boots. I maintain that if I want to listen to Kylie, I'll listen to Kylie and not a pale imitation of Kylie. That said, "Stuck On Repeat" is a song that lived up to its title this summer.

"Love Comes" / Bananarama
It's not rocket science, but who says it has to be? I maintain that the ladies in Bananarama have the most generic voices in pop music, yet somehow, you can always tell it's them. Their 2009 album Viva followed in the direct footsteps of its predecessor Drama, but considering the strength of that record, that was a very good thing indeed.

"Man In The Mirror" / Casey Stratton

Of all the covers of Michael Jackson songs that came out in the aftermath of his unexpected death this year, this was far and away my favorite. It doesn't hurt that "Man In The Mirror" is one of my favorite MJ songs, but Casey manages to put his unique stamp even though his version is nearly a note-for-note remake of the original. What's most impressive is that every voice on that recording is Casey's. You can download it here for free (and guilt-free).

"Strange" / Reba McEntire
I went through a brief Reba McEntire phase about 15 years ago but after the Read My Mind album, I really lost interest outside of a few songs here and there. I don't know what possessed me to listen to this new Reba song when I hadn't liked a song of hers in so long, but I'm glad I did. It hearkens back to mid-90s Reba and is it just me but are country artists the only ones still bothering with clever videos any more?

"If Not Now Then When" / Basia
Man, I love Basia. I have tried to explain it, but I've given up. There's just something about her cheeseball music that effortless blends smooth jazz, bossa nova and pop. "If Not Now, Then When" could have easily fit on any of her albums, but it's so nice to have new material from her, we'll cut her some slack for lack of artistic growth.

"Main Event" / RuPaul

Seriously, the only way this song could be better is if it were a cover of Barbra Streisand's "The Main Event." Still, it's a great dance floor anthem with a liberal serving of (melo)drama thrown in for good measure.

"One of Those Days" / Joshua Radin
I'm not usually a fan of the breathy male singer/songwriters. Mostly, they just annoy me. But I got "One of Those Days" for free thanks to a Starbucks download of the week card, and I liked it so much I bought the rest of the album. It rapidly became one of the most listened to songs on my iPod last February and March.

"Riding the Crest" / a-ha

I found a-ha's latest album Foot of the Mountain to be a bit spotty, but it had some great songs on it. What I love about this song is how it is like "Celebration" in that it simultaneously captures a-ha's 80s sound while sounding current as well. So it's retro, but it's not. Regardless, it's top notch.

"Sing (Pete Hammond Radio Edit)" / Wynonna Judd
Much like the Pete Hammond remix of Alphabeat's "Boyfriend," I would have never heard of this song had it not been for Robbie over at Chartrigger. I always knew that Wynonna had the gay dance diva in her. More please!

"Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" / Barbra Streisand

The most sedate of all the songs on this list, but Streisand still sings the hell out of it. I like the song no matter who is singing it, but I'm not crazy about the album in general (I won't be listening to it in 4 years like I still am Guilty Pleasures) but it's good for what it is.

"Alejandro" / Lady Gaga
I finally caved on Lady Gaga late this year. While the jury is still out on whether or not she's the "new Madonna," she's definitely doing the Madonna schtick quite well. With it's vaguely Ace of Base-ish quality, this Lady Gaga song edged out "Bad Romance" for a spot on this list.

"The Sailor Song" / The Gadsdens

A song from actually late 2007 makes the list because it finally got a proper single release in November of 2009. Driving and urgent and in a minor key to boot, it is great British pop from an exciting new voice.

"Hopes & Fears" / Will Young
My wife was obsessed with (as Paul from FizzyPop!! refers to him) Sir William of Young this fall when she was writing Double Blind, and this new song from his hits collection ranks as one of his best. And forget what I said about clever videos only coming from country artists.

"Pattern Of My Life" / Annie Lennox

I couldn't decide which of the two new Annie Lennox songs this year to include on this list so I just decided to include both. Like "Shining Light," this song is also a cover (of a Keane B-side!) but Annie once again completely makes the song her own. A good introspective song that appealed even to my 8 year-old.

"Million Dollar Bill" / Whitney Houston
And when I say "Million Dollar Bill," I am specifically referring to the Freemason's Club Mix of "Million Dollar Bill." Really, it was one of my favorite remixes of the year. I wish that Whitney's comeback had been more successful - I have always maintained that if anyone deserved a Mimi-like comeback, it's Whitney. Maybe, as someone else pointed out, there just isn't room for divas any longer, now that we prefer our celebrities of the YouTube and reality star variety. Nonetheless, a stellar track from a solid album.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The next best thing to being there

I know I said that I bought a snowblower with all the extra hours I worked working overnights last week. As it turns out, once Uncle Sam took his part, it didn't quite cover the cost of it. But really, like I'm going to work my ass off like that AND screw up my circadian rhythms and NOT do something nice for myself. Yeah right.

Fortunately, the perfect splurge presented itself Tuesday. As was well documented, I missed Kylie Minogue's very brief but hugely successful North American tour in October. Well, the New York show was recorded for posterity and has been released as a live digital album! Sadly, there is no DVD in the works. A DVD would be perfect as her shows, much like Madonna's, are at least half about the spectacle of the show.

It's kind of funny, I didn't even think twice about spending the money even though I have at least 4 live Kylie shows in my iTunes library - those being Kylie Fever 2002: Live in Manchester, Showgirl: The Greatest Hits Tour, Showgirl: Homecoming and KylieX2008: Live at the O2. A couple of these are admittedly audio rips of the DVD, but Kylie has been most generous throughout her career by providing fans with numerous live albums.

At first glance, Live in New York seems like a rip off. Kylie's tour of North America is kind of an amalgam of her last few tours, taking the best parts of each of them, throwing in some new costumes and a few new arrangements and calling it a new tour. Most if not all of the songs sound identical to the other tours. So what makes it worth buying over and over again?

Well, to be honest, it's Kylie. She takes what is arguably a paper thin voice and puts it to good use. All the hits are there as well as many fan favorites. She interacts with the audience in a way that we Madonna fans can only dream of. She is so joyous and excited to be singing, as if 20 years on, she still can't believe this is happening to her. So it's always worth it. Every. Single. Time.

I hope it doesn't take another 20 years for Kylie to tour North America. Listening to this CD makes me want to hook up my Region 0 DVD player and watch KylieX2008 right now, but really, I have to get to bed.

Best of 2009: Time warp

As has been my tradition the last couple of years, I wanted to do a post that highlighted some of the stuff that really became part of the soundtrack of the year while not having the good fortune of being released this year. Sometimes it's stuff that I've newly discovered, sometimes it's recently rediscovered - it really doesn't matter. The funny thing is that the list seems to keep shrinking - the first year I did it, it was 5 albums. Last year, it was 4 albums. This year, it's two songs and an album.

"Reverse Psychology" / Laura Branigan

I don't even remember how I happened upon this song. It's from the late Laura Branigan's self-titled 1990 album, an album that came long after Branigan had stopped having hits. The song is hopelessly dated and, as one reviewer pointed out, sounds like it could have played over the credits of any 80s romantic comedy. Both points are accurate, but they say them like they're a bad thing. This song went into incredibly heavy rotation on my iPod in late May/early June of this year. I was drawn in by the cheeseball late 80s synths and incredibly hooky chorus. (which you can hear for yourself in the iTunes snippet) And besides, any song that can use the words "reverse psychology" in the lyrics, let along use them as crucially as this song does, gets bonus points from me. It has enjoyed a year-end renaissance as well as it's usually the first song I listen to on my walk into work each day.

"What's He Got?" / Graham Coxon

I had no idea who Graham Coxon was the night that one of my friends from high school referred to a mutual friend as a "Graham-Coxon look alike" on Facebook. I had to go and find out if there really was a resemblance (there was), and much like "Reverse Psychology," exactly how I stumbled across this song I still can't quite recall. The thick British accent over witty lyrics is what does it for me on this song. I loved this song so much that I went through and listened to samples of other songs of Coxon's. To my great surprise, I have found no other song of his that I really like. All the songs I've heard appear to lack the playfulness and great melody present in "What's He Got?" Although I am warming a bit to "Sorrow's Army" from his latest album, it's no "What's He Got?"

Boston / Boston

I owe this year's fascination with Boston to my friend Matt, who is a pretty big Boston fan. He and his friend Lance do a weekly podcast and one of the topics early in the year was "Timestamp Songs" and he mentioned Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time" as one of his. One thing you should know about Matt is that even though both of us are passionate about music, we have maybe a 5% overlap in musical taste. This has actually been a good thing because he's gotten a chance to appreciate the finer points of Madonna's album tracks, and he's contributed pretty much every a cappella song in my iTunes library. Anyway, Boston has always existed for me much like it does for most people - we all know "More Than A Feeling," "Don't Look Back," and "Amanda." My biggest exposure to Boston was via KGGO radio when I went to Iowa State in the early 90s. It seemed like every other song was a Boston song. So when I finally got around to purchasing Boston's debut album this summer, it was almost as if I had heard the whole thing before. Having memories associated with songs you've never heard before can be a bit trippy.

For me, Boston typifies the whole KGGO/classic rock experience, one that I have a love/hate relationship with. I do really like a lot of it, but being 18 and having KGGO blaring out of every dorm room on the floor was one of the first moments in my life that I can recall thinking "hey, the music you like is not what most guys like!" It has taken me years to stop being embarrassed of my musical choices and even now there are still vestigial remnants of it in spite of my I-don't-give-a-shit attitude when it comes to what most people think.

Boston's place on this list was sealed on our trip west this summer. Nothing warmed my heart more than driving through the Rocky Mountains with Anna sitting next to me singing the chorus to "Rock & Roll Band" at the top of her lungs. (Heidi was in the back seat of the car trying not to freak out about the mountain roads.)

All three of these things speak to a big part of why I love pop music so much - it seems like every song reminds me of SOMETHING. There was one weekend at work during which we were listening to the radio and it seemed like every song that came on, I had a story for it. It's why I write about it so much, and why the oldies really do hold a firm grip on me.

But the rest of the lists will be about stuff from this year. I'm not old and crotchety yet!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Break's over

As the lifeguards at the Carroll Rec Center would say, "BREAK'S OVER!" After taking it easy on the blog for the first half of December, I will be back tonight with the first of my 2009 best-of posts. There will probably be about 3 or 4 of them depending upon how motivated I am.

In the meantime, I was discussing with a friend the other day about the last time Madonna made a brilliant video. It's certainly been a while (the Confessions videos were God-awful), but I think I figured out which one it was.

Even though she ended up having to settle a lawsuit over ripping off someone else's work without permission (certainly not the first time she's done that), it's 100 times more visually interesting than anything video that's come out since.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

When it rains, it snows

Apparently, after a month of daily posting, I'm reaching for the stars and going for a post every 5 days. But in my defense, I did work a run of 5 overnights and no sooner was that over than we got walloped by the first winter storm of the season which left 13 inches of the white stuff on the ground in less than 24 hours. This is big even for us - folks in the Dakotas and Colorado and Michigan would scoff at this, but it pretty much paralyzed the state. Anna STILL doesn't have school today, probably due more to the fact that the roads are not completely cleared.

It was made even more stressful by the fact that I went out last week to make sure the snowblower worked and it decidedly did not. Motherfuck, it was the last thing I needed. I figured that it was probably a clogged gas line or something, but I tried putting some fresh gas in it anyway and again, nothing. So I left it and decided to mess with it later. When later arrived, I noticed that there was a large puddle that looked suspiciously like gasoline underneath the snowblower. Since we had surpassed my abilities in dealing with it, it looked like I was going to have to take it in and have it serviced. Of course, with the "storm of the century" (as the local news was calling it despite the fact that there are still 90 years left in this century) bearing down on us, every place was swamped with repair requests.

When I was out there dropping it off, the guy showed me how the blade was damaged from years of use and how it was probably reaching the end of its life. I told him to try to get it running anyway, thinking that I'd limp by another season on this on and then save next year for a new one, because if there was any one thing I couldn't do, it was plunk down the cash for a new snowblower.

Well, the universe usually conspires to teach you a lesson, even (and especially) when you close your ears to it and the next day we woke up to snow coming down and rapidly deteriorating roads. I called out to the repair place and they said they'd probably have it done by 3pm, which was fine, but Heidi and I decided to stop out there after dropping Anna off at school. We talked to the guy and he proceeded to explain to us how we were looking at a couple hundred bucks worth of repairs AT LEAST. At that point, it was becoming clear to us that fixing it would ultimately result in throwing good money after bad so we made the decision right then and there to buy a new one.

It killed me to spend the money, but what are you going to do when they're talking about 10-14" of snow and you have a 100 foot long drive to clear?

In the end, we bought a mid-range Toro and even that cost a small fortune. However, it cleared the snow quite admirably over the last couple of days. It also started right up each time I tried it (electric start - I was not compromising on that) and here's hoping that it lasts until Anna's graduated from college.

If I had known that I was going to be buying a snowblower, I never would have replaced our TV the day after Thanksgiving. But you win some and you lose some. In the ultimate example of the law of averages, working all those overnights will end up just about paying for the snowblower (I worked a crapload of overtime covering those shifts). Easy come, easy go. I was hoping to buy something a little more sexy with all that extra cash, but I'll settle for functional.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

10 minutes

I have 10 minutes to update this blog, because in 10 minutes I need to (as Madonna would say) get unconscious.

I'm working nights. It was unexpected and I am doing 5 in a row. Never have I done this many. As of this moment, I'm 60% of the way through them. In exchange for all this, I'll work 60 hours this week and still manage to get Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off work next week. A win all around except for Heidi and Anna who never see me except when I emerge like a hibernating bear to forage for food and get ready to leave.

In honor of that, let's have "Bedtime Story" - a song that has really grown on me over the years even though I only sort of liked it when it came out. The video always seemed overdone, but it's still visually like nothing else.

There will be more when I'm through all this.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

6 random songs

I'm staying up late tonight (not by choice - I've been up since 4AM-ish) so lucky everyone, I'm doing a blog post to ring in December right. 6 random songs from my iTunes library and no more than three sentences on each.

1) Dear Anne Sexton / Vanessa Daou
I love Vanessa Daou's Zipless album from start to finish - it has a very Erotica feel to it only without the couple of significant duds that otherwise mar Erotica. This is quite possibly the only song that has prompted me to move a biography of a poet into my to-be-read pile.

2) Let It Will Be (Live - Confessions Tour) / Madonna
I remember loving the choreography for this song on the tour, thinking how it had been so long since we'd seen Madonna dance that organically. I also remember that her vocals were God-awful during this song at that show we saw in Vegas. It's not much better on the DVD, but at least it still sounds live.

3) Whataya Want From Me / Adam Lambert
I bought the Adam Lambert album on AmazonMP3 for $3.99 on the day of its release. At first, it was only okay, but the more I listen to it, the more I like it. This song is written by Pink, and I honestly can't believe she didn't keep this one for herself.

4) Rubberband Girl / Kate Bush
I am not a huge Kate Bush fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like several of her songs and "Rubberband Girl" is one of them.

5) June Afternoon / Roxette
Man, Roxette is so embarrassing, but they really did do some pretty awesome pop songs. One of the first things I remember about Heidi is how Roxette was really the only pop music she listened to. Needless to say, her tastes have expanded significantly.

6) Say You Really Want Me / Kim Wilde
Kim Wilde's work is so amazingly uneven that sometimes I'm tempted to just write her off completely. But when she's good, she's brilliant - and this is one of those songs. It was never the hit it should have been (it has a killer bridge), but then at least it didn't suffer from overplay.

I would be interested to see what other people come up with. If you want to do it, go for it.