In honor of the pending release of the first of four new feature-length Futurama DVDs, Wired magazine has an extensive feature about the past and, erm, future of the show. But it also has a feature on the original “Futurama” of the 1939 World’s Fair.
I’ve read a bit about the 1939 World’s Fair, about the eager anticipation of emerging from the Great Depression into a brighter and better “World of Tomorrow” (circa 1960), laughably naive from today’s perspective. But until now I’d never actually seen the film of the Futurama exhibit, with its swelling, dramatic score and overwrought narration. In some ways it felt like I was back in high school, watching the long-outdated science films our district had elected not to replace, devoting the precious funds instead (and to little avail) to our perpetually mediocre sports teams. But my response was deeper, and more disturbed.
It’s true that in many ways they got things right, though it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy: the “world of tomorrow” is dominated by controlled-access superhighways teeming with (free-flowing) traffic. It’s easy now to forget that back then, freeways didn’t exist. The idea that they would relieve congestion is laughable (or lamentable) however, especially considering that they also envisioned a megalopolis where residential, commercial, and industrial districts (I feel like I’m playing SimCity) are separated, for “greater efficiency and convenience.” (Ha! Good one, GM!) The current trend of revitalization (and gentrification) of depressed and/or abandoned inner-city industrial areas as mixed-use residential/commercial developments (such as the “North Loop” neighborhood of lofts and coffee houses comprised of converted warehouses and new-construction-designed-to-look-like-old-converted-warehouses here in Minneapolis) would suggest we’ve learned the error of that particular vision. And yet, the ominous portent of elimination of “undesirable slum areas” in the relentless march forward remains. (Just ask the former residents of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects… wherever they’ve been dispersed to today. It’s not that slums — and the side effects of concentrated marginalization of the economic and/or ethnic “Other” — are a good thing, it’s just that you can’t simply displace all of those people and expect their problems to magically vanish.)
On a lighter note, the enthusiastic prediction of a floating dirigible hangar in the city’s river brings some comic relief to an otherwise suffocating, earnest yet ultimately soulless and hollow, view of a future of “penetrating new horizons in the spirit of individual enterprise in the great American way.” For some, anyway. Women and slum dwellers need not apply. Freudians welcome.
Wow, I can’t believe this is already the fourth year I’ve been doing this. I am truly an old fart because the years really are flying by now. That’s what happens when you’ve made 34 trips around the sun. I’m just scared to think what it’ll feel like when I’m 60.
Well enough angst. Let’s talk music. And there’s a lot to talk about: 2007 has, for my tastes at least, been an unparalleled year for new music. I would have a hard time identifying a year that’s produced more great music without going all the way back to 1971. (And I wasn’t around to experience that firsthand.) So, without further ado, here we go.
- 5. Rush: Snakes and Arrows
- I’ve been a Rush-head for over half my life now. A sad fact of a band this long-lived and prolific is watching the quality of their output deteriorate over time. The band’s last full-length album, 2002’s Vapor Trails, was surprisingly good musically, but suffered from some of the worst production in the last several decades. The band had been enthusiastically touting Snakes and Arrows for several months before its release, and with good reason. The album is phenomenal. Easily their best work since 1984’s Grace Under Pressure. Great, rocking music, with more dynamics and variety than we’ve heard from the boys in years; lyrics with surprisingly deep insight into the woes of early 21st century American society; first-rate production; and… well what can I say? Three instrumentals. It just doesn’t get much better in the Rush canon.
- 4. Michael Brecker: Pilgrimage
- Michael Brecker was at the pinnacle of the post-Coltrane jazz world for upwards of 30 years. Late last year he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia, and with less than 5 months to live, he put together a final farewell to those of us who’ve followed his brilliant music over the years. This album is full of moments of profound beauty and intense burning jazz as full of life as anything he’d ever done. Sadly he did not survive to see the album released, but it remains a fitting good-bye to this jazz legend.
- 3. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
- I’ve enjoyed Wilco’s music since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and have been fascinated to hear the evolution of the band’s sound on each album. This is very much back-to-basics, and it works extraordinarily well. It’s simply not possible to listen to this music and not feel good. In a good way.
- 2. Radiohead: In Rainbows
- This is the album it seems everyone was talking about in October. It may still see a traditional release in stores in 2008, but so far it’s only available as a pay-what-you-want download from the band’s website. But that in no way means it’s inferior work. The band has covered some challenging musical ground in the past decade since the release of their masterpiece, OK Computer, and this album bookends that one nicely. (There’s plenty of speculation out there that the albums really were intended to integrate in Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon style, but I’ll leave that to the stoners to prove.) If you haven’t already, download it now. What are you waiting for? (I assume you are wondering what, if anything, I paid for it. Well, I sucked it up and bought the £40 deluxe package, which should be arriving next month.
- 1. Foo Fighters: Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
- I loved In Your Honor so I was eagerly awaiting the release of this album and it did not disappoint! From the lead single “The Pretender” straight on through, the band displays brilliant songwriting, impeccable chops (these guys can really play, and if you doubt that, be sure also to check out drummer Taylor Hawkins’ guest work on Coheed and Cambria’s No World for Tomorrow), and a wide stylistic and dynamic range. Dave Grohl’s voice matches the music perfectly, from a delicate whisper to a larynx-shredding scream. The best album of a great year of music.
As I said, it’s been a great year for music. It was hard to narrow the list down to 5. Here, in no particular order (OK, they’re alphabetical by artist), are some of the other great albums I enjoyed this year:
The Bad Plus: Prog
Beastie Boys: The Mix-Up
Circa Survive: On Letting Go
Coheed and Cambria: No World for Tomorrow
Dream Theater: Systematic Chaos
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
Minus the Bear: Planet of Ice
Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero
Pinback: Autumn of the Seraphs
Porcupine Tree: Fear of a Blank Planet
Room 34: Highway 34 Revisited (Had to put in a bit of self-promotion!)
And there are a few others that just missed the cut, like The Dear Hunter and Portugal. The Man. (“Portugal. The Man.” is one band. You have to give them credit just for the audacity of that band name.)
Say it ain’t so! Well, it’s so. I have my Music Man StingRay 5 bass up for auction on eBay.
I love that bass, but I just can’t justify having a $1400 bass that sits in its case 99% of the time. Especially when I can sell it and use the money to buy both a bass and a guitar from Fender’s Mexican factory. And have almost half the money left over.
Say what you will about Ed Roman, but he had it right when he was talking about the likes of Fender and Gibson. (I think he was ripping more on Gibson, because of their obscenely high prices for U.S.-made guitars, but the message applies to Fender too.) Fender has 3 basic lines of products: their low-end beginner instruments made in China under the Squier brand, their “standard” line of Fender guitars made in Mexico, and the high-end stuff made in California. But the fact is, while there’s a huge chasm in quality between the Chinese Squiers and the Mexican Fenders, at about double the retail price, there’s very little difference between the very nice Mexican Fenders and the vastly overpriced American Fenders.
This was reinforced for me last weekend when I played my father-in-law’s Mexican-made Precision Bass. He bought it to play for the contemporary services at his church, based on my recommendation. I figured it would be a decent, reliable instrument, and it would only set him back 400 bucks. I had owned a Mexican-made Fender Jazz back in high school, and it was great until I decided to take it apart and muck around with it, and even after that it was still pretty decent. But I think the Mexican factory has made great strides; if I didn’t know better, I’d never guess that P-Bass wasn’t a U.S. model.
So it is, in a week or less the Music Man will be on its way to a new home, and I’ll be applying that cash towards…
…and while I’m at it, this, to (finally!) rip all of my LPs…
At least it didn’t take me until July this time, but the only reason I’ve gotten around to this year’s list so soon is because I just happened to be looking at last year’s list and I realized, “Hey, I haven’t made a new list yet!” So, here you go.
- 5. Field Music: Field Music
- This is what Gentle Giant might sound like if they appeared on the scene today. What’s amazing is how much nerdy intricacy these guys can cram into each song without coming across as pretentious, something first-wave prog rockers constantly struggled with (or, occasionally, as with Gentle Giant, embraced with tongue in cheek).
- 4. Beck: The Information
- As I said with 2005’s Guero, any Beck is good. When I first heard this I thought it was too reminiscent of things he’s done before, but now I’ve come to see it as a further refinement of his style. I don’t get the last track though… and I pride myself on getting weird-for-the-sake-of-weird stuff.
- 3. Keane: Under the Iron Sea
- I’m not sure the world really needs the next Coldplay yet, but here’s the next Coldplay. Great atmospheric yet melodic piano-driven pop-rock.
- 2. Donald Fagen: Morph the Cat
- Half a Dan is better than no Dan at all. The Fagen/Becker duo has given us a lot to relish in the new century, and that continues with this fantastic album, easily the best of Fagen’s outstanding (if very slowly emerging) solo trilogy.
- 1. The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
- I consider this to be the best album in nearly a decade, certainly on par with the likes of OK Computer. I was immediately blown away by this band upon hearing this album and within a couple of weeks, had bought everything they’ve released. Why are you still reading this? Buy the album! Now!
Here are some other great albums released in 2006 that didn’t make the cut:
Umphrey’s McGee: Safety in Numbers
Dave Douglas: Keystone
Tool: 10,000 Days
The Mars Volta: Amputechture
The Flaming Lips: At War with the Mystics
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Stadium Arcadium
I know where you think this is going. No, I haven’t “flip-flopped” (in supposedly classic “Democrat” fashion) and become a “red-stater.” What I’m speaking of is the Republican Party’s (and, by extension, the right-wing media’s) recent penchant for referring not to the “Democratic Party,” but rather to the “Democrat Party.”
I was getting ready to forget this little bit of GOP annoyance until I spotted it once again in a quote from George W. Bush in an article on the MSNBC website.
Not familiar with this obscure little issue? Hendrik Hertzberg had a great article on it in the New Yorker a few months back. It’s a great example of the Republican strategy of death by 1000 cuts. Maybe it doesn’t matter now, but it’s still just so… well, so stupid and petty. The only thing as stupid and petty is actually getting bothered by it.
Yes, I’m bothered by it.
(For what it’s worth, so is Hertzberg: “There’s no great mystery about the motives behind this deliberate misnaming. ‘Democrat Party’ is a slur, or intended to be — a handy way to express contempt.”)