Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 Albums of 2016

As another year ends, it’s time for another best-of list. 2016 proved an interesting year from which to cull together a ranking of notable albums, with many of my perennial favorites not releasing new music this year. But despite an absence of darling divas like Alison Moyet, Jessie Ware, Annie Lennox, and Lisa Stansfield, and being too soon for new material from favorite fellas like Brandon Flowers, Rob Thomas, and Jimmy Somerville, delayed sophomore releases from promising newcomers from lists past like Sam Smith, and (sadly) the untimely death of still other longtime favorite, George Michael, my ears were graced this year by an eclectic collection of artists – some new, some returning, some charting comebacks – whose albums ran the gamut from pop and EDM to alternative and classic rock.

So, without further prelude, following is my list of top ten albums from the past year.   

#10 – Shura / Nothing’s Real

London singer/songwriter Shura debuted midyear with this polished set of EDM, heavily influenced by mid-to-late 1980s dance-pop. Her ambient synthpop soundscape impressively manages to feel simultaneously retro – calling to mind Madonna, Debbie Gibson, and Janet Jackson at various early career points – and fresh. What sets Nothing’s Real apart from the competition is its authenticity and a painstaking attention to detail. Shura never sets out to mimic the aesthetic of a past musical era – she’s creating quality pop songs with a keen appreciation for their influences while remaining mindful of their place within a modern context. Her uncomplicated lyrical genuineness is complimented by the deeply infectious hooks among the many glorious pop confections here, like the “Holiday”-esque “Indecision”, “Touch”, “Tongue Tied”, “What Happened to Us?”, and the disco-infused title track.

#9 – Pretenders / Alone

Chrissie Hynde, at 65, remains the unapologetic focal point of the classic rock outfit Pretenders and – on the band’s tenth studio album – it’s clear why. Her distinctive voice has become the connective tissue between the band’s ever-changing roster, the one consistent that makes you wonder how – as sole proprietress of the Pretenders franchise – she decides which musical output gets categorized as solo versus band effort. Crediting concerns aside, Alone is a worthy follow-up to Hynde’s 2014 solo album Stockholm. Alternating between gritty toughness and sentimental sweetness, the 12-track effort produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach never forgets that Chrissie Hynde is the Pretenders and plays to her iconoclastic rank among the male-dominated world of rock-and-roll as a fiercely independent woman. Her trademark slurry sultriness remains the vocal equivalent of a swagger, especially on tracks like “I Hate Myself”. Other quintessential Pretenders tracks represented here include: “Gotta Wait”, “Holy Commotion”, “Death Is Not Enough”, and “Never Be Together”.

#8 – St. Lucia / Matter

Easily the most unabashedly joyful album of the year, St. Lucia’s Matter wears its 80s-era new romanticism influences proudly. The Brooklyn-based pop outfit – fronted by South African singer and musician Jean-Philip Grobler – crafts an irresistibly danceable collection of swirling synthpop filled with a grandiose sense of sunniness in every propulsive keyboard loop. Musical hedonism for the soul. Standout tracks include: “Physical”, “The Winds of Change” and midtempo “Love Somebody”.

#7 – Birdy / Beautiful Lies

It’s hard to believe that Birdy (aka Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde) is already on her third album at the tender age of 20 or that it’s only been five years since the one-time music competition winner released a cover version of Bon Iver's song "Skinny Love" that first introduced the world to her extraordinary talent. On Beautiful Lies, the prodigious wunderkind presents her most accomplished and commercially-accessible effort to date, with a welcome evolution from acoustic covers to alternative pop. While the singer’s signature silky piano ballads are well represented here, it’s her stepping out on a handful of uptempo gems like the anthemic “Wild Horses”, “Lifted”, and the rousing “Keeping Your Head Up” that now put her in league with contemporaries like Lorde and Florence Welch. Gorgeous from start to finish. Standouts include: “Shadow”, “Take My Heart”, and the gorgeous “Silhouette”.

#6 – Grace / FMA (Forgive My Attitude)

This 20-year-old Aussie whose full name is Grace Sewell cements herself as a frontrunner in fill the musical void left by the late Amy Winehouse with this exceptional debut album. Like the UK’s Paloma Faith, Grace has a sultry, full-throttle voice that’s set against a polished set of neo-soul, pop, and R&B, which she also penned. You’ve likely already heard Grace, her superb reworking of the Lesley Gore classic “You Don’t Own Me” featured prominently in the trailer to the film The Suicide Squad. Other standouts include: “Church on Sunday” and the achingly sparse “How to Love Me”.

#5 – Rick Astley / 50

In one of the most surprising and unlikely comebacks of the year, Rick Astley returned to music with an album masterfully executed to showcase his formidable pipes and – as evidenced by the plethora of rousing, hands-in-the-air choruses and spiritual imagery aplenty – a newfound sense of optimism. His baritone is just as rich as it was back in his heyday as the ginger poster boy for the house of Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW), with a seasoned rasp that now lends an emotional texture that was lacking in his earlier days of high-energy synthpop. And after years of being the butt of Internet jokes (rickrolling, anyone?), Astley has had the last laugh: 50 skyrocketed to the top of the UK music chart, earning him his first number-one album in 29 years. Among the many highlights of the album are “This Old House”, “I Like the Sun”, “Pray with Me”, and “Dance”.

#4 – Rebecca Ferguson / Superwoman

This one-time runner-up from the British edition of X Factor creates a deeply autobiographical collection of piano-driven ballads and mid-tempo R&B that showcases her stunningly soulful voice (Think: Macy Gray meets Amy Winehouse). On the British powerhouse’s fourth consecutive top ten studio album (in the UK), personal fortitude and hard-won female empowerment are on tap thematically, while the production is lush and sophisticated. Ferguson’s distinctive jazz-blues voice – put to such solid use on her album of Billie Holiday covers last year – is a raspy delight, capable of soaring effortlessly. The highlights here are lead single “Bones”, a cover of New Zealand artist Ginny Blackmore, the acoustic title track, and “Without a Woman”.

#3 – Selah Sue / Reason

Selah Sue (real name Sanne Putseys) is a Belgian singer-songwriter and music festival darling whose gravelly voice and real-deal musical sincerity have made her a known commodity in her native country, France, and Netherlands. If there is any justice, the twenty-seven-year-old will carve out a niche for herself outside those geographical borders with Reason, her long-awaited sophomore effort following 2011’s eponymous debut. There’s a chill urban sensibility to the collection that – when coupled with the singer’s powerhouse pipes and guttural delivery – hits the listener with an emotional depth that takes you off-guard. There’s an appealing fusion of soul, trip hop, reggae, and EDM to the album that somehow manages to establish cohesion despite its variant stylings. Standout tracks include “Fear Nothing”, “Alive”, “Right Where I Want You”, and “Alone”.

#2 – Robbie Williams / The Heavy Entertainment Show

There’s likely no modern pop star quite as entertaining or attention-deficit as the UK’s Robbie Williams. New album releases from the one-time boy band crooner and tabloid bad-boy are never predictable, and his latest (and 11th studio album) The Heavy Entertainment Show is no exception. This brilliantly eclectic 16-track collection is easily the year’s best pop album, boasting a superbly-crafted grab bag of pure pop confections that are at once instantly accessible without losing any of Williams’ penchant for musical bombast and lyrical chutzpah, evidenced here on tracks like “Party Like a Russian” and the hysterically catchy “Motherfucker” – both of which return Williams to the cocky-crass ringmaster shtick of earlier efforts. The gem here is “David’s Song”, a gut-wrenching weeper co-written by Jewel and Kara DioGuardi, that’s a tribute to Williams’ long-time manager and mentor David Enthoven who died of cancer last August at age 72. Other highlights include: The Killers-penned “Mixed Signals”, “Love My Life”, “Time on Earth”, “Sensitive”, and “Pretty Woman”.  

#1 – Garbage / Strange Little Birds
The sixth studio album by this deservedly revered Scottish-American alternative rock outfit fronted by the wildly magnetic Shirley Manson boasts a superlative collection of atmospheric electro-rock – jagged and ferocious in spots, contemplative and minimalist in others. After twenty-two years, Garbage somehow recycles and reinvents its signature confluence of 90s-grunge and trip-hop electronica, permeating Strange Little Birds with a refreshing confidence and maturity. Lyrically, the band’s trademark gothic romanticism remains largely intact, with healthy doses of angst and misery layered within sonic walls of industrial textures and distorted guitar scratches. Highlights of Strange Little Birds include “Empty”, “Night Drive Loneliness”, “Sometimes”, and “So We Can Stay Alive”.

Interested in how 2016 stacked up against 2015? Check out last year's favorites here.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Resolve: 2017 Edition

Another new year is upon us. This one seems to hold particular significance coming off the tumultuous year that was 2016. From the veritable circus sideshow leading up to and in the days following our nation’s historic Presidential election to the seemingly endless roll call of notable deaths, 2016 isn’t likely to be remembered as either the gentlest or kindest of years. Civility seemed to wane considerably, fear seemed to take hold of minds and hearts, and both reason and rationalism were unceremoniously tossed out the proverbial window in favor of emotionally-charged rhetoric often devoid of sense or sensibility. Facts became inconvenient and people became firmly rooted in personal convictions informed by fake news sites, heavily-biased media sources reflecting their own political affiliation, and outright conspiracy theories that took on lives of their own across social media platforms.
Some of the consequences of such a game-changing year seem permanent and intractable as we flip the calendar this morning. Minds of all shapes and varieties closed over the course of 2016, and it’ll likely take great mental crowbars to pry them open again.
Amid such a challenging landscape, personal New Year’s resolutions take on a new sense of urgency. After all, when the world seems to be spiraling out of control, we look to gain some semblance of solid footing – to compensate for what we can’t control in the world around us by seeking change within ourselves and our own insular worlds.
With that preamble, the stage is set for my own New Year’s resolutions. But instead of creating an ordered list this year, I’m taking a more holistic approach to formulating my personal pledges and promises. I’m going to approach 2017 with a desire to improve myself mind, body, and soul – with each resolution directly tied to one of those broader spheres of holistic well-being.
I. Mind
I’ve got two resolutions to improve my mind. First – and I’ve already started this post-election – is that I’m going to limit my news sources. As of now, I’m focusing on NPR, the BBC, and (to a lesser extent) the NEW YORK TIMES. I’ll keep my mind open to exploring other news sources with reputations for fair and unbiased reporting, but I’m going to try and consider news sources whose percentages of unbiased versus biased are higher. This will be a tough one because headlines are seductive, especially when one speaks to a personal perspective. I categorically reject this trend of fake news and recognize that it’s intellectually lazy and dishonest to cite and circulate such.
Second, I’m resolved to decrease my television viewing this year and give that time over to more reading. To this end, I’ve made a list of all the shows I currently watch and re-assessed which ones I look forward to and watch for enjoyment versus those I watch out of habit. Gone are: EMPIRE, ARROW, THE FLASH, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, SUPERGIRL, QUANTICO, and DIVORCE. That gives me back six and a half hours of time per week that will be spent with my head buried in books and other endeavors outlined below instead of lazily watching the boob tube.  
II. Body
This is an easy one – and likely one shared by many. When I hit the age of 40, I resolved to take better care of my body. By my mid-forties, I weighed less than I did in high school and was in the best shape of my life, a faithful gym rat and dedicated weight watcher. Then old habits insidiously crept back in. Apathy and laziness took over and most of those hard-won bodily gains fell by the wayside. I’m not going to spend much time analyzing and Monday morning quarterbacking on the why’s of this backslide – the mind can be either a powerful ally or foe, and if I could figure out the trick to engaging one while rejecting the other permanently, I’d be a millionaire. Instead, I’m going to forgive myself the failing and look forward to the challenge of achieving physical fitness all over again. Building on past successes in this area and what works for me, I’m not going to overshoot the goals here: I resolve to lose 50 pounds by the end of 2017 and to move more. Simple, to the point.
III. Soul (Spirit)
There are a trio resolutions making up my 2017 focus on my spiritual well-being.
The first is to make a concentrated effort to return to my writing. I’ve always struggled with the balance between passion and practicality in my life. I’m blessed-cursed to have a chosen vocation in the healthcare industry that I’m passionate about – one that brings me immense personal satisfaction that meets many of those higher self-actualization hierarchal needs that Maslow famously theorized about while providing the practicality of a generous financial compensation. I term this both a blessing and a curse because I’m also passionate about writing and the creativity that comes with world-building through the written word, which also brings me tremendous personal satisfaction. If my day job in healthcare only provided the financial security and not the personal satisfaction, it might be easier to pursue my writing with more zeal. So, for me, it boils down to consciously making the time to do both. With some of the time gained as part of my “mind” efforts above, I resolve to sit my (hopefully shrinking) ass down in front of the computer and start flexing those creative muscles again.
My second “soul” resolution is to concentrate more on my good fortune in life and myriad blessings. To that end, fulfilling this one is relatively easy and boils down to establishing a daily habit. Each day, I’m going to post something I’m grateful for to my Facebook wall. Easy-peasy. Some days the gratitude may be more profound than others, but the point of this exercise is to increase my level of self-awareness and recognize that blessings need not be momentous to be appreciated.
Lastly, I’m going to try to permanently capture more of what I experience in this grand life of mine. Photography has long been an interest so I’m pledging to take more pictures…to see life through a slightly different lens. It’s another creative outlet in which I’ve dabbled in the past and I’d like to expand both my knowledge and experience. Maybe a class is in my future, or more likely just bringing my camera along for more rides. Either way, I’m going to try to look at life in pictures…and see life reflected back in those pictures.
Wishing all my friends and readers every happiness, success, and personal satisfaction imaginable in the coming year. Regardless of what resolutions you make this January 1st, remember – above all else – to be kinder to yourself in 2017.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

SCREAM QUEENS: A Bloody Mess of Good Fun

Comedy and horror are two distinct genres, each with its own formulas and structures, devices and characteristic stylings. Blending the two is tricky stuff and, inevitably, one genre proves dominant when this hybrid model is attempted. In the SCARY MOVIE franchise, for example, comedy is the dominant genre at play, with the laughs outnumbering – even overshadowing – any frights. Conversely, in the films of the SCREAM franchise, scares trump the laughs in equal measure. 

So when Ryan Murphy, then best known for the straightforward comedy GLEE and upfront horror of the AMERICAN HORROR STORY anthology series, announced a comedy-horror anthology called SCREAM QUEENS back in October of 2014, the passionate pop culture junkie himself had to know that successfully pulling off the feat was a tall order at the outset. Then again, maybe not, as Murphy seemed to think – with arguable arrogance or naiveté – that he was creating something new here with frequent collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan.
Expectations were high. Murphy – who had by that time developed both a passion and a penchant for successfully casting actresses of a certain age – wooed perennial scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis back to the small screen amidst negotiations of limited time on the show’s first season New Orleans set. Anticipation was also high because Murphy had proven himself adept in both genres. As the FOX and Murphy PR machines launched massive amounts of advance press – including a much-touted and successful dual AHS-SCREAM QUEENS panel at San Diego Comic Con – SCREAM QUEENS promised to be a slam-dunk. 

SCREAM QUEENS bowed on September 22nd, 2015, to decidedly mixed reviews from critics and (seemingly) lackluster ratings, attracting a disappointing 4.04 million viewers while lagging in same-night numbers behind shows on CBS, NBC, and ABC. Being beat by THE MUPPETS reboot didn’t ease what must have been Murphy’s initial pain. But Nielsen’s first delayed-viewing snapshot of the season would tell a different story, with SCREAM QUEENS realizing a 65% gain – the night’s biggest in both raw numbers and percentage according to Nielsen’s “live plus-3” estimates.
As reported by VARIETY, SCREAM QUEENS would prove to be an example of modern-day viewing habits, with only a fraction of the show’s audience watching live when it aired and viewership increasing by 189% when time-shifted viewing and multi-platform viewers for the entire season were factored in. The inaugural season ended up bringing in a total audience of about 8.1 million viewers, no doubt aided by the buzz-worthy show’s sizable social media presence.

Ratings and critical notice aside, the first season of SCREAM QUEENS was a mixed bag. The plot for the show’s thirteen-episode first season focuses on a string of gory murders plaguing the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at fictional Wallace University, triggered by events linked to a twenty-year-old murder mystery and cover-up. Curtis plays Dean Cathy Munsch, nemesis to the sorority’s president, Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). Dean Munsch wants to see the snobby sorority system dismantled; Chanel wants to rule over it with a Prada-coiffed iron fist. Interrupting this battle of feminist wills is a red devil-masked serial killer who dispatches at least one hapless cast member each episode in increasingly outlandish ways.
Murphy and company wear their horror influences proudly on their sleeves with the elaborate murder set pieces here harkening back to the high camp sensibility of the giallo films of the mid- to late-70’s. Highlights of the pilot alone include a maid getting her face melted off in deep fryer, a prank involving a spray-tan tank spiked with hydrochloric acid, and the Red Devil tooling around on a lawnmower decapitating a sorority sister buried up to her neck in the sorority house lawn. Visually, the show is a treat with garish colors and flamboyant couture that give the gruesome proceedings a highly-stylized aesthetic.

Cast is uniformly excellent, with Murphy’s knack for attracting talent on full display. Roberts seems born to play the uber-bitchy Chanel, with Billie Lourde (real-life daughter of Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of Debbie Reynolds), Abigail Breslin, and pop ingénue Ariana Grande ably rounding out her clique of Chanels. Keke Palmer (in a breakout role here) plays sassy KKT pledge Zayday Williams, while Skyler Samuels plays fellow pledge Grace Gardner, who’s drawn into a Nancy Drew-like amateur detective role as the murderous goings-on escalate. Oliver Hudson (replacing originally cast Joe Manganiello) plays Samuels’ alumni father, while Diego Boneta takes on boyfriend-sidekick duties as journalism student Pete Martinez.
On the fraternity side, Glen Powell emerges as a real breakout star playing the narcissistic dumb jock Chad Radwell, President of the Dickie Dollar Scholars; pop hunk Nick Jonas as Boone, his gay best friend and fraternity brother; English actor Lucien Laviscount as the appropriately named Earl Grey, and YouTube twins Aaron and Austin Rhodes as Roger and Dodger, respectively. Niecy Nash is the genuine scene-stealer throughout the show’s first season, her uproarious portrayal of skittish security guard Denise Hemphill marked by over-the-top shrieking, screaming, and zippy one-liners.

Interestingly, the show’s first season both succeeds and fails in the same key creative aspect: the writing. With writing duties shared and handed off between Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan (or MFB, abbreviated), one could reasonably expect some problems with consistency. But what we get with the first installment of SCREAM QUEENS is painstaking attention to detail when it comes to character dialogue and an overall disjointed larger narrative.  MFB have an uncanny knack for dialogue, and their work here on SCREAM QUEENS is exemplary with lines that snap, crackle, and pop with the precision of heat-seeking missiles. Roberts’ lines, in particular, are razor-sharp with snarky, cringe-worthy political incorrectness. Her petulant coffee-shop rant over an incorrectly made pumpkin spice latte boils over with brilliant social commentary on millennials and entitlement. Curtis, meanwhile, is handed lovingly-crafted monologues that anchor the show’s abject silliness in weightier themes of feminism, politics, and the inherent evils of social hierarchies.
Plot-wise, SCREAM QUEENS maintains strict adherence to the slasher formula while borrowing heavily from Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE model, complete with a sizable body count that slowly narrows down the identity of the killer through a bloody process of attrition and dramatic drawing room-like denouement. One would think that such a solid (if clichéd) narrative structure would lend itself to an easily sustainable level of coherence – but it doesn’t. MFB, while giddily constructing tongue-twisting lines of deliciously glib dialogue for their characters to spew at each other, quickly lose sight of what matters most in a murder mystery – plot. The narrative zigs and zags all over the place, with illogical twists and turns that smack of convenience. It’s as if MFB use the parody element of SCREAM QUEENS as an excuse to lazily eschew any and all semblances of logic.

The first season of SCREAM QUEENS ultimately wallows in its own absurdity, with cartoon pacing and overblown…well, everything. It’s gaudy, glitzy excess in every sense of the word. But it’s deceptively mindless fun, with an underlying satirical brilliance that peeks through its garish coating in snippets of spot-on pop culture deconstruction.
Halfway through the first season, it was obvious to most that SCREAM QUEENS would enjoy a single-season run. Viewers were torn – too macabre for comedy fans, too silly for the horror crowd – and ratings were dropping. The show would finish its inaugural season on December 8th, 2015, with 2.53 million viewers, losing 1.51 million of its screaming queens along the way. Although Curtis garnered a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance in a Television Series by an Actress – Musical or Comedy (which she’d lose to newcomer Rachel Bloom), and the show won both a People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy and a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Most Exciting New Series, cancellation seemed all but a certainty.

But Hollywood is a weird little machine that plays by its own set of rules – and Ryan Murphy clearly boasts some serious say-so around town. It was announced in January that SCREAM QUEENS would indeed be back for another go-round.
Five episodes into the show’s sophomore season, SCREAM QUEENS seems to be finding its tonal footing. MFB have opted to set the new season in a hospital for medical oddities, already seeming a more authentic match for the show’s Grand Guignol-style of madcap macabre. Curtis is back as Cathy Munsch – now an honorary PhD who buys the hospital for as-yet unknown reasons – and MFB, wisely, have made her more front and center (likely to do with the more Curtis-convenient Los Angeles set). Niecy Nash also returns as Denise Hemphill, now an FBI Special Agent, but no less crass and smart-alecky. Zayday, along with the surviving members of the Chanels, are all back as medical students, with the ageless John Stamos and (thoroughly unappealing) Taylor Lautner joining the ensemble as doctors. Lea Michelle, whose first season deeds have finally caught up to her, is also back as Hester, now hysterically Hannibal Lecter-like, as is Glen Powell’s even-funnier himbo scene-stealer Chad Radwell. Kirstie Alley rounds out the second season cast as Ingrid Hoffel, the stern hospital administrator.     

To differentiate between a first season that failed to meet expectations that the advance hype promised and the second season reboot, Murphy and company have wisely opted to visually distinguish SCREAM QUEENS, version 2.0, from its predecessor. While the highly-stylized aesthetic that made the first season such a visual treat to watch is maintained, the show has ditched the bubblegum pink and red hues that colored fictional Wallace University and the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority and adopted an alien-green and blue color palette to tint its dingy hospital interiors. The visuals pop amid the lurid, nightmarish colors.
More importantly, MFB have seemingly settled into a creative comfort zone with the writing, opting for ghoulish comedy versus humorous horror. It’s a small distinction some might dismiss as semantics, but it’s key here. It’s no longer horror trying to be edgy with the humor; it’s comedy trying to be edgy with the horror. The dialogue still snaps, and MFB continue to write deliciously sharp soliloquies for Curtis.

Unfortunately, it may be too little, too late for the millions of initial viewers who gave up on the series. Ratings for the second season premiere were down by almost 50%, with World Series and election night preemptions doing little to keep attention-deficit viewers in place and focused in subsequent weeks on the macabre mayhem at the CURE Institute.
Prediction: SCREAM QUEENS is headed for almost-certain cancellation following its sophomore run. Murphy will move Curtis over to AMERICAN HORROR STORY in a much-ballyhooed return to her roots or to one of his other properties, depending upon the themes of future installments of AMERICAN CRIME STORY and FEUD. I’m already squealing in anticipation of shared AHS scenes between Curtis and Kathy Bates, so I’m rooting firmly for the former scenario. Roberts will also return to the AHS fold, and it’s not the last of Powell or Michelle we’ll see in the Murphy universe either. SCREAM QUEENS, the concept and the show, will go down with a lackluster legacy of having more style than substance, likely being better remembered in the Curtis filmography versus television history itself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Common Sense Matters

There’s a new, sad sequence of events in this country when it comes to mass shootings, which themselves are far too prevalent. That sequence goes something like this:

      1)      Mass Shooting.

      2)      Anti-gun and pro-gun sides shout (loudly) at one another.

      3)      Said mass shooting fades into the background over days and weeks.

      4)      No meaningful action is taken and the status quo prevails.

      5)      Repeat upon next mass shooting.
I know you’re expecting an anti-gun tirade from me – but look elsewhere because you won’t find one here. See, even though I find that the Second Amendment has been grossly misinterpreted and perverted from its original intent when it was adopted 224 years ago, I have zero issues with law-abiding citizens owning guns for protection of self and family, hunting, or other sport/recreational purposes.
Surprised? Don’t be…I’m far more moderate than people give me credit for.
Where my issues come in is within the lack of common sense among many obsessed with this country’s gun culture when it comes to applying 21st century standards to an 18th century constitutional amendment, written before electricity and running toilets. It’s that lack of 21st century context that concerns me greatly…the stubborn clinging to something that no one really wants to take away even in the face of great violence committed with alarming, increased frequency.
Newtown. Aurora. San Bernardino. Orlando.
Four mass shootings with only one common thread. And that commonality isn’t found in the nationality of the shooters, or in the profile of the targeted victims, or in the motivations that led to the shooters’ desire to kill as many people as possible in the first place.
Yes, a common thread winding through each of these events is that they were committed using guns. But the greatest common denominator running through these mass shootings is the type of gun used: An AR-15 assault rifle, developed in the 1950’s by a company called ArmaLite for use by the United States military.
To be clear, in Florida, where Omar Mateen purchased the gun less than a week before he massacred 49 innocent people in an act of homophobia and terror, there is no license requirement to buy or carry an AR-15 and no waiting period to purchase one. This gun is semi-automatic, which means it can fire bullets as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger and will continue to fire until the magazine is empty, and has an easily controllable recoil. Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, which allowed him to fire 30 rounds of ammunition (bullets) without having to stop and reload. By contrast, the handgun that Mateen used in the shooting has half that capacity.
Worse, the AR-15-style rifle can be modified to use a magazine that can hold as many as 100 bullets – as was the case in the Aurora movie theater shooting. 
And here’s the most frustrating part for me: The AR-15 – and semi-automatic weapons like it – were banned nationwide for ten years under the 1994 Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (known more commonly as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban) signed into law under President Bill Clinton. It was only when Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004 under its sunset provision that the AR-15 and other similar assault weapons were allowed to re-enter the consumer marketplace.
Although I’ve asked the question countless times on social media sites, no gun enthusiast can offer a logical answer when the question of why an average law-abiding civilian needs an AR-15-style rifle is posited. Inevitably, such questions devolve into shouts of “Obama is coming to take our guns!” and invocation of the Second Amendment.
In other words, there is no logical answer.
Therein lies my main gun-related issue: This “all or nothing” attitude amongst many (not all) gun owners.
It doesn’t help that those who stand in opposition to the free-wheeling gun culture use the words “gun control”. Semantics matter in volatile debates like this, and both sides of the argument would accomplish so much more if they toned down the rhetoric and listened with an ear toward common ground.
If AR-15-style rifles were banned, people would still get shot – that’s a given. Just like we’ve toughened drunk driving laws, inebriated people still get behind the wheels of cars and mow people down in crosswalks. But, arguably, there may have been less casualties inside the Orlando nightclub if Mateen was armed only with his 9mm handgun, firing 15 – and not 30 – bullets before he needed to reload and not in rapid succession.
Therein lies the common sense that’s missing.
Just as there’s little to no common sense when gun advocates point out that even in a world (theoretically) without guns, terrorists would find a way to inflict harm.
Well, duh.
But when Timothy McVeigh drove a truck full of fertilizer up to a federal building and blew it up, we didn’t stop selling fertilizer – but common sense changes were made. Parking restrictions were imposed around federal buildings and the average civilian purchasing those quantities of fertilizer now set off alarms with both vendors and government agencies.
When the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters and airplanes to carry out their catastrophic terrorist mission, we didn’t outlaw box cutters or ground all planes in perpetuity – but common sense changes were made. No more box cutters on airplanes, removal of shoes at check-in, liquid bans, no-fly lists, no one at departure gates without tickets.
When the Nazis used cyanide gas to commit genocide against Jews, LGBT men and women, and anyone else they found didn’t fit their new world order, common sense dictated that the average civilian couldn’t buy hydrogen cyanide in quantities large enough to kill masses of people. Again, alarms get triggered.
Again, when drunken driving fatalities increased, we didn’t ban cars – but common sense changes were made. Laws were toughened, driving privileges were lost, and cars were outfitted with technology that made them inoperable if alcohol was detected on a driver’s breath.
So why can’t this same level of common sense be applied to the issue of gun violence in America? Why can’t law-abiding citizens own handguns and hunting rifles that serve the purposes they were designed for – protection, hunting, and sport – without the demand for near-unfettered access to semi-automatic assault weapons? If the ban on AR-15-style rifles and similar weaponry was reinstated, yes, some quantity would still make its way into the hands of determined criminals – that’s a near certainty. But the quantity of these types of weapons in circulation would be less. And here comes the logic (wait for it…): Less of these types of guns, less opportunities for mass shootings and lower body counts.
No, we can’t save all lives from gun violence…but isn’t saving even some lives worth our effort? Are we that desensitized to violence and death in our culture that the images of smiling grade-schoolers gunned down in their classrooms and young people massacred in a nightclub don’t move us to want to do more? If Mateen hadn’t such easy access to the AR-15 he used to commit his horrific crime, and instead entered that club and opened fire with his handgun, killing 25 people instead of 50, isn’t that a better outcome? Why when given the chance to choose the lesser of two evils do we steadfastly opt for the greater evil? It doesn’t make sense.
So, no, I’m not anti-gun. I’m a reasonable, moderate, critical thinker and inclusive humanist who advocates for greater gun safety in light of the myriad circumstances and conditions that have changed over the past 224 years. The words “unfettered access” don’t appear anywhere in the Second Amendment.
For my money, here’s what I’d like to see across the country in terms of increased gun safety:

·       Reinstate the ban on AR-15-style semi-automatic assault rifles. Use these weapons in war, not in our neighborhoods;

·       Toughen penalties for adults whose guns fall into the hands of children who then die or are maimed because of gun owner negligence in securing their firearms. Automobile drivers can be charged with aggravated vehicular manslaughter for certain automobile accidents – apply the same standard to gun owners to increase safety;

·       Apply the same logical standards to securing a gun license as is applied to obtaining a driver license: Application, written and practical test, insurance, and registration. Let the logic that guns are at least as dangerous a piece of machinery as a car be the guiding principle here that we can all agree on;

·       Criminal background checks for all gun license applicants to help keep guns out of the hands of individuals with criminal pasts. This imposes no undue hardship on law-abiding citizens who have nothing to hide, and I’d even support these checks being free to applicants – or, better yet, let some of the money that funnels into the NRA’s coffers go to support this common sense safeguard instead of lining politicians’ pockets;

·       Equip all guns with whatever technological safeguards are available to prevent anyone but the owner from using them – biometrics, RFID chips, and other personalization technology;

·       Create a severe mental illness exemption from gun licensure, much in the same way certain medical conditions preclude access to a driver license. If you’re prescribed medications to prevent you from seeing the devil on your sofa or from hearing Charles Manson sing country tunes in your head, you shouldn’t be permitted access to firearms – call me crazy, but enough said;

·       In this age of rampant terrorism and Internet radicalization, prohibit anyone on any government watch list from buying a firearm, with extra steps built into the licensure process for anyone who has been investigated or questioned by government agencies regarding anything related to terrorist activities or expressed sympathies. If you’re on a no-fly list, you’re automatically – without question or appeal – on a no-buy list. Again, let the logic of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” be the guiding principle here;

·       Both sides compromise on the issue of carrying guns on one’s person. In other words, allow law-abiding citizens who legally go through the more comprehensive licensure process above to conceal carry – and bar the ridiculousness of open carry. Think about the intent of each: Those who conceal carry want the peace of mind knowing that they’ve got an available tool for self-defense in a moment of crisis; conversely, ask yourself what those who open carry want. Why dangle a carrot in front of the criminals and crazies?

·       Make the above safeguards universal across the country so citizens residing in a state with lackluster gun safety protocols aren’t disproportionately more likely to be the victims of gun violence than citizens in states with more stringent safety measures.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Top Albums of 2015

Another year of great music has passed, and 2015 was a banner year for this consummate mélomane. My annual year-end list of favorite albums (15 for '15) is once again dominated by women, but three solo male artists, one band, and even a "various artists" compilation crept in this year. So, without further delay, following is my list of the best albums of 2015 in descending order from #15 to my #1 pick (which will be a surprise to no one).

#15 – Various Artists / 80’S RE:COVERED

Ok, I’ll admit it. This one’s an odd choice to kick off my annual list of favorite albums. A compilation album…of covers…by 80’s artists? But, yes, it’s just that good. If names like Curiosity Killed the Cat, or Johnny Hates Jazz, or ABC, or Go West, or Wang Chung bring back great memories of zipper shirts and parachute pants and binge-watching MTV (like, when the network used to play music videos 24/7), then this album is your nostalgic wet dream come true. The concept is simple: 80’s artists—with their original production teams—covering their favorite songs from any other era…in their distinctive 80’s style. Fun, huh? Oh, it’s lots of fun to hear Samantha Fox take on Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” or Heaven 17’s version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or Kim Wilde’s take on The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”. It’s a glorious throwback and contemporary treat at the same time to hear Belinda Carlisle cover Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and Kim Carnes take on The Rolling Stones classic “Under My Thumb”, while Go West goes modern with its take on The Killers’ “Human” and ABC covers Radiohead’s “High & Dry”. Making this albums of covers even more eighties-tastic is that following the dozen newly-recorded covers are twelve remixes of the same songs!

80’S RE:COVERED is, like, totally tubular…to the max! Pop it in your Walkman and listen to it while you work on your Rubik’s Cube.

#14 – Hurts / SURRENDER

Three albums in and you’ve likely never heard of English synthpop duo Hurts – and that’s a shame. Despite the fact that singer Theo Hutchcraft and synthesist Adam Anderson had top ten success with their first two albums – HAPPINESS and EXILE – in their native United Kingdom (as well as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Finland), the duo’s closest thing to a US connection was a gig supporting Scissor Sisters on their UK arena tour in late 2010. On their third album, SURRENDER, Hutchcraft and Anderson craft a set of hooky and infectious pop songs with a distinctive, synthetic orchestra sound. The result is a euphoric collection that calls to mind the highly-stylized aesthetic of 80s artists like Johnny Hates Jazz, Go West, and – on slower moments – Swing Out Sister. 

#13 – Kelly Clarkson / PIECE BY PIECE

Terrible cover notwithstanding, Kelly Clarkson's PIECE BY PIECE is a first-rate pop-rock collection and solid addition to her growing catalog. While highlights for me include the decidedly 80's retro vibe of "Nostalgic" and "Good Goes the Bye", the sassy soul of "Bad Reputation", and the Sia-penned bombast of "Invincible", the standout here is "Run Run Run" with John Legend. On the first half of the latter, the production is stripped way down with Clarkson's award-winning pipes taking center stage accompanied only by Legend on piano, reminding us of why she was able to rise above her televised singing competition roots to the rank of a true artist.

#12 – Adam Lambert / THE ORIGINAL HIGH

The one-time AMERICAN IDOL runner-up continues his career winning streak with this third album, his first under the Warner Bros Records banner after parting ways with original label RCA (reportedly over creative differences after Lambert balked at the label’s insistence on him recording an album of 80’s covers). Longtime fans will relish the glam-rock theatrics and booming vocals that remain intact here, while appreciating that the extravagance and excess of previous efforts have been markedly toned down in the capable hands of Swedish producers Max Martin and Shellback. On the sets softer moments, Lambert croons longingly about sex, drugs, and James Dean, suggesting that he’s capable of slipping on the same hazy Hollywood summer-tinted sunglasses as Lana Del Rey. But, ultimately, Lambert is a house diva at heart – and his producers know it judging from the throbbing basslines of standouts like “Evil in the Night”, “The Light”, and the title track. The album’s best – and most unexpectedly satisfying – moments come when he blends his penchant for carrying a rhythmic thumper with some restrained sultriness, as evidenced on “Underground” and the deluxe edition bonus track “After Hours”.

 #11 – Madonna / REBEL HEART

Madonna proved (once again) that rumors of her cultural irrelevance were grossly exaggerated with her (lucky) thirteenth studio album. Using “Living For Love” as the bridge to leave the cold EDM sound of the HARD CANDY and MDNA era behind, the music icon wisely grounded REBEL HEART in a decidedly more pop-oriented landscape and the results are nothing short of dazzling. There’s a surprising delicacy at play here reminiscent of her softer BEDTIME STORIES days on tracks like “HeartBreakCity”, “Joan of Arc”, and the stunning “Ghosttown” (easily her best track in a decade).  The album seems divided thematically between Madonna’s softer and more rebellious sides and the stark juxtaposition works surprisingly well despite all the hands in the production pot here. Framed by simple folk guitars and churchy piano strains, the melodious “heart” tracks contrast sharply with the contemporary electro grooves of “rebel” tracks like “Best Night”, “Holy Water”, and “Inside Out”. Mixed in for good measure—and harkening back even further into the Madonna catalog—are the bubblegum levity of “Body Shop” and the reggae beat of the No Doubt-ish “Unapologetic Bitch”. The title track is the most revelatory—and possibly most authentically biographical—glimpse into the real Madonna we’ve ever had, with her singing clearly and confidently with unabashed nostalgia about the price she’s paid for her non-conformity.

A few missteps like groaners “Bitch I’m Madonna” and the unlistenable “Illuminati” kept this one just shy of my year-end Top-Ten but it’s in no way a snub. With REBEL HEART, Madonna proves that she’s a pop artisan of the highest caliber who delivers her most satisfying music when she focuses on structured pop arrangements. She seems to have finally learned that her continued relevancy will come from remaining true to her genuine artistic self instead of importing trendy chart styles from hot production teams.

#10 – Grace Potter / MIDNIGHT

Relegating bandmates The Nocturnals to the sidelines for her first solo outing, Grace Potter impresses with this slick pop-rock collection. Having proven herself as the dynamic lead singer of the aforementioned rock-soul outfit, Potter belts and struts with gleeful abandon on this terrifically fun set of smart, rhythmic AOR confections. Wisely, producer Eric (Queens of the Stone Age) Valentine keeps Potter's powerhouse vocals central against the musically eclectic palette he creates for her. Even amidst the overblown propulsive percussion and New Wave funk, Potter still manages to howl and growl with a gritty rawness that should keep fans of the Americana authenticity of her work with The Nocturnals happy. While highlights include “Hot to the Touch”, “Alive Tonight”, and “Delirious”, the standout track here is the uber-funky “Your Girl”.

#9 – Jess Glynne / I CRY WHEN I LAUGH

You’ve likely first heard this English powerhouse fronting Clean Bandit’s international hit “Rather Be” (included here for good measure) last year and—if justice prevails—you’ll be hearing a lot more of her in the coming year. Stepping out into her own with this relentlessly uplifting debut, Jess Glynne seems poised for stardom with this piano-centered collection of musical optimism. There’s a decidedly happy, gospel-like feel throughout I CRY WHEN I LAUGH with tambourine-shaking, hand-clapping, and backing choirs packed into each song, most of which fall thematically into the idea of one’s inner strength overcoming tribulation. Glynne’s husky alto is nicely contrasted against the effervescent disco strings and jaunty piano riffs on the majority of the songs, while the Adele comparisons are inevitable on the slower tracks like “Take Me Home” and the acoustic “My Love”. Standouts include the ebullient “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”, bouncy “Hold My Hand”, house-thumping “You Can Find Me”, and the so-sappy-but-somehow-it-works ballad “Saddest Vanilla”, in which she and duet partner Emeli Sandé play two women whose hearts get broken in an ice cream parlor.

# 8 – Rob Thomas / THE GREAT UNKNOWN

The consummate pop-rock craftsman returns with a third solo outing and he comes bringing hooks aplenty. From swelling, insistent anthems to contemplative power ballads, Thomas delivers a cohesive set of toe-tapping, head-bobbing AOR guaranteed to have you singing all the way to work and back again. Thomas excels at that middle-of-the-road classic pop formula, from the catchy hooks to the universal lyrics, all wrapped up in a slick and well-polished production. It’s ear candy through and through, with a sincerity and familiarity that’s the equivalent of musical comfort food. And no one does it better than Thomas, his vocals always strong and clear, emoting and emphasizing on all the right notes. Highlights from THE GREAT UNKNOWN include his gorgeous duet with new vocalist Rooty on “Paper Dolls”, the disco pulse of "Things You Said", the electronic horn stabs of “Absence of Affection”, and the jaunty midtempo rocker “Not Like You Told Me”.

#7 – Lana Del Rey / HONEYMOON

Wistful catatonia reigns supreme on Lana Del Rey’s sublime third album. This first-rate set remains awash in the moody musical equivalent of film noir that captured fans’ hearts on the songstress’s first two efforts, with tortured lyrics, melancholy string arrangements, and Del Rey’s now-trademark slurred vocals ably setting a mood of faded glamour and unhappy Hollywood endings. Gorgeously languorous, HONEYMOON seemingly combines the worlds of Del Rey’s BORN TO DIE and ULTRAVIOLENCE to create a hybrid world where the musically murky soundscape is best heard through a dreamy, auditory gauze. Whether she’s reciting a specifically abstract passage from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” over a sparse, science fiction-like score during the interlude to “Religion” or covering Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to avant-garde perfection, Del Rey is taking chances here on HONEYMOON unseen on earlier efforts. That those musical gambles are so subtle as to be easily missed by the casual fan is what makes them feel like rewards for our loyalty to the hardcore fatalist femme fatale. An excruciatingly exquisite addition to the gloomy chanteuse’s growing songbook. Highlights include: “Music To Watch Boys To”, “High By the Beach”, “Freak”, and “24”.

#6 – Jimmy Somerville / HOMAGE

Somerville has never sounded better vocally or more in his element musically than he does on HOMAGE, an unabashedly ebullient collection of pure old school disco goodness that feels completely authentic but never outdated. Worth digging out the bell bottoms and platform shoes for such highlights as "Back to Me", "Lights Are Shining", and "This Hand". Easily gives Jess Glynne’s I CRY WHEN I LAUGH a run for the most shamelessly happy album of 2015.

#5 – Seinabo Sey / PRETEND

If Mary J. Blige and 80’s Brit-soul ensemble Soul-2-Soul had a lovechild, her name would be Seinabo Sey. PRETEND is a genre-defying debut, an enticing fusion of transatlantic pop, soul, and EDM that reflects the singer’s Swedish and Gambian heritage. Drawing from her dual musical roots (her late father was the renowned Gambian musician Maudo Sey), the 25-year-old singer and songwriter creates an evocative sound that’s wholly and uniquely her own—no small feat in the crowded and highly imitative pop landscape of today. Combining deeply introspective lyrics with ambitious, pop-friendly arrangements (courtesy of Magnus Lidehäll, who’s done work with Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Britney Spears), PRETEND is an eclectic collection drawing from a grab-bag of influences and adorned with trip-hop beats, EDM and Afropop flourishes, and ghostly choruses. It’s simultaneously soulfully accessible and dramatically boundary-pushing. Sey retains marvelous control of whatever musical background she’s placed up against, demonstrating an enviable versatility and ease singing everything from stomping gospel-tinged anthems to sweeping piano ballads alike. This album (and artist) are true discoveries meant to be savored in their entirety. Highlights for me include the poetically soaring “Burial”, Sey’s musical response to the death of her father in 2013, the percolating title track with its killer bass-like synthesizer punches, “Poetic”, the somber “Sorry”, and the dizzying musical frenzy of “Words”. Oh, hell…they’re all standouts. Devour this one whole.

#4 – Andra Day / CHEERS TO THE FALL

Looks like we’ve found the missing link between Adele and Amy Winehouse in this 30-year-old San Diego native and one-time Stevie Wonder discovery. On her sterling debut, CHEERS TO THE FALL, Day’s jazz-trained vocals wrap effortlessly around soulful pop melodies and the result is downright intoxicating. Although the effect is akin to being transported back to a smoky, 1950’s cabaret with the raspy-voiced, pompadour-coiffed Day wearing her influences – namely, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Etta James – proudly, her sound is awash in nostalgia without ever feeling dated. NPR’s Katie Presley aptly characterizes the juxtaposition: “[Day] cultivates an aesthetic with clear reference points in the past, but she tells stories firmly rooted in her present. It's a jarring and compelling combination.”

Indeed it is. This is the one debut of 2015 that must not be missed.

#3 – Brandon Flowers / THE DESIRED EFFECT

The Killers’ frontman once again proves he may have come to musical prominence in the wrong decade, wearing his 80’s influences proudly on his artistic sleeve on this second solo album. THE DESIRED EFFECT is a masterclass in that era’s wonky production artifices and lyrical heavy-handedness – and it suits Flowers to perfection. Most impressive, for all the album’s chugging piano lines, orchestra hits, hand-clap snares, and New Wave synth-disco flourishes – all musically equated with the signature sound of a past decade – Flowers and producer Ariel (Haim, Charli XCX) Rechtshaid make it sound contemporarily relevant and authentic. Lyrically, Flowers is still all Springsteen-esque wanderlust, shift work, open highways, and small-town imprisonment, a theme hammered home when he generously samples Bronski Beat’s classic SMALLTOWN BOY (which, if it didn’t sound 80s enough, includes a brief spoken-word cameo by Neil Tenant of Pet Shop Boys) on the standout track “I Can Change”. THE DESIRED EFFECT is lyrical earnestness intersecting with production grandiosity, and the result is an entirely organic sound in which the charismatic, eternally-optimistic Flowers has never sounded more in his element. Highlights: “Can’t Deny My Love”, “Lonely Town”, and the rollicking “Diggin’ Up the Heart”.

#2 – Melanie Martinez / CRY BABY

Generally not a fan of the concept album, but Long Island native Melanie Martinez's brilliant CRY BABY is an easy exception. Loaded with childhood metaphors and similes, this bitingly insightful, surrealistic musical fairy tale plays like a maniacally macabre children's storybook. Martinez is a mesmerizing blend of Lana Del Rey and Lorde, and her debut collection of songs set against a pastel-Goth backdrop of growing up amidst familial turmoil makes it one of the best alt-pop bows in recent memory. Musical incisors for the brain. Color me officially infatuated with Ms. Martinez.

#1 – Adele / 25

Adele’s career pause may have seemed interminable but as her much-anticipated new album proved, good things come to those who wait…and wait. And then wait some more. Luckily, the intervening years between her juggernaut 21 and the new (juggernaut-ier) 25 have been kind to Adele. Her magnificent voice actually improved following that nail-biting laser microsurgery on her throat in 2011, adding four additional notes to the top of her mezzo-soprano vocal range. On 25, she cements her reputation as a musical old soul, with songwriting and vocals that belie her age (now 27). All the pathos that defined 21 remains intact with plenty of nostalgic piano-bar ruminations to accompany almost anyone’s future break-up or life’s regret. While the smash “Hello” has already inspired countless cover versions, among the album’s other highlights are the jubilantly syncopated gallop of “Water Under the Bridge” and the soulful Danger Mouse collaboration “River Lea”. Adele remains one of the few contemporary vocalists whose voice can elicit actual emotion from recipient ears, as future tear-jerking classics like “When We Were Young” or “Million Years Ago” or “All I Ask” prove. Welcome back, Adele. We’ll likely be celebrating your return through 2016 and beyond.