Three By Three: Eponymous Albums

Fleetwood Mac Album Banner ImageThe Category

NPR’s All Songs Considered had their “The Year in Music (So Far)” episode just a couple days ago (check it out here), and it got us over at Pop Modern HQ thinking about music. Specifically, with all the talk of new bands (Beneath the Brine and Sylvan Esso, to name just two), it got us thinking about albums, and about how a band can use the medium of the album to say something about themselves. Of course, rather than be simple and talk explicitly about debut albums, we decided it would be more fun to put a twist on this list and go through all of our favorite self-titled (or, if this were an SAT essay question, “eponymous”) albums. We love all of these albums, and not just because they’re easier to find in a Spotify search.

The Choices

Allen

Queen by Queen: The British pop group that is synonymous with sports anthems, screaming rock ballads, and a suite of iconic songs wasn’t always the legend it is now. In 1973, a band known mostly for playing in clubs around London found its frontman, Farrokh Bulsara (later known as Freddie Mercury). His voice shone through even on their admittedly strange first album. With tracks with names like “My Fairy King” (where Mercury got his stage name) and “Great King Rat,” it was clear that they were taking inspiration from fantasy novels as much as their contemporaries in rock music were. That’s the thing about Queen; it’s simultaneously a love letter to 70s metal and hard rock music, and a glorious peek at what was to come from the band who would redefine pop and rock music forever.

“My Fairy King”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EYUqsfl7gE&feature=kp

St. Vincent by St. Vincent: The early months of 2014 were fairly disappointing to me in terms of new music, until St. Vincent came and rocked my damn ears off with her eponymous album from back in February. This almost makes my list exclusively because of “Digital Witness,” a badass earworm of a song all about putting technology down and interacting with those around us. Ironically, the best element of the song is the digital sax that kicks in early on. And, let’s not forget that it’s preceded by “Huey Newton,” a slower jam that highlights Annie Clark’s smooth-as-silk vocal style. This one’s stuck with me for a while.

“Digital Witness”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVAxUMuhz98

Boston by BostonLooping back around to 70s hard rock, we of course arrive at Boston, as all good trips do. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t at least know the chorus to “More Than a Feeling.” There’s actually a beautiful story behind the creation of this album. Founder Tom Scholz refused to record in a fancy LA studio, so the entire album was recorded in his basement in Massachusetts. It doesn’t get more homegrown than that. And, like Queen, Scholz was influenced by contemporary bands (The Kinks and The Yardbirds, mainly), yet few other albums more perfectly represent the time and place they came from than Boston.

“More Than a Feeling”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSR6ZzjDZ94

James

Franz Ferdinand by Franz Ferdinand: The first album by Franz Ferdinand is my favorite. The band embraces the chaos of Scottish alternative, bringing a punk rock feel to a more refined album. Eschewing the freneticism of typical punk, the group chooses a tempo that impresses great energy with restraint. The band’s most famous hit remains the song “Take Me Out,” a good measure of the band, which displays the range of tempo and tonal variation that the band brings. My personal favorite song on the album is “The Dark of the Matinée,” a song with oddly insightful, if slightly meaningless lyrics, with a great chorus, a great set of harmonies, and a certain humorous cynicism.

“The Dark of the Matinée” :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKyG1dRoDlA

Flight of the Conchords by Flight of the Conchords: Flight of the Conchords is the self-proclaimed fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo in New Zealand. Their parody of songs and styles include the hit “Bowie,” a song about David Bowie getting high in space, loosely based around the tune of “A Space Oddity.” The group’s humour comes first in their albums, but their music is surprisingly catchy, with solid rhythm to back up the potent lyrics, and humorous song concepts. The ode to an impartial office romance “Leggy Blonde” colours an intense relationship with an office co-worker with the name Leggy Blonde. The lyrics are humorously bad, and the rhythm section of the song is entirely created using office supplies, showing the unique take that the band uses to approach music. My personal favorite song is a rap battle between a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros, a seeming take on the insanity of rappers’ alter-egos. But maybe it’s not. The song is filled with zippy one liners, and a catchy beat. Take it as it is: a good song.

“Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FArZxLj6DLk

Weezer by Weezer (Also known as The Blue Album): Weezer is a band that is almost perfect for any college kid. The music is on the right side of grunge, an unrefined energetic sound. The band puts together a set of appropriately angst-ridden songs, which are still appropriate twenty years later. The album has aged remarkably well, surviving the post-grunge purge that plagued other 90s bands.  The instrumentation for the songs is tight, with an emphasis on heavy drums and piercing electric guitar riffs.  My favorite song to come from Weezer is “Say It Ain’t So,” a song about an outcast feeling like an outcast. The song treads ground that has been well-traveled, but the exploration of the theme is presented well, showcasing the angst of the teen as he begs someone to say it ain’t so.

“Say It Ain’t So”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENXvZ9YRjbo&feature=kp

Magellan

The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground: I’ll go ahead and start off with my token street-cred entry (seriously, go read our other Three By Three’s, I always go for the easy pickings first). Just for the sake of transparency, my other options were Fleetwood Mac and The Cars, but the former would have just been an excuse to nod towards Rumours, and personally I think the latter is only so well-regarded because of its first few songs. Now, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you all know about The Velvet Underground, so I’ll give a little background on the album specifically. This is the group’s third release, and it marks a distinct stylistic departure from their earlier work. Here we see a shift from the noisy, avant-garde, experimental tracks that peppered The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat towards a sound that was much more folky, even poppy. Don’t equate those words with it being worse or less artistic, by any means, since this album still stands as one of the best rock records of all time. It’s a gorgeously pensive experience right from track one (the haunting “Candy Says”) and weaves its way seamlessly between mellow bitter-sweetness (like “Jesus”) and faster rock numbers (like “Beginning to See the Light”). You’re going to groan at me for this, but listening to “Pale Blue Eyes” on the day Lou Reed died will stick in my mind for maybe the rest of my life.

“Pale Blue Eyes”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcDuR9BF0Oc

The White Stripes by The White Stripes: Out of all three of the albums I picked, this is probably the one that I go back to the least. Not because it’s the worst of the three, but because it’s full of the kind of songs that The White Stripes kept doing and doing better as their career went on. If nothing else, The White Stripes is an impressive showcase of a band that isn’t afraid to explode out of the gate, to throw down nearly two-dozen rough, high-octane tracks. It’s pure energy from “Jimmy the Exploder” all the way through “I Fought Piranhas.” It’s also got a refreshingly blues-y quality mixed in with the unabashed garage rock with songs like “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” and “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Although this is certainly not the best that The White Stripes would come to offer over the course of the 00s, it’s a hell of a debut.

“Sugar Never Tasted So Good”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_aMZWv-7FY

Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend: In contrast, this is the eponymous album (and, to be honest, the Vampire Weekend album) that I return to the most often. I won’t say that it’s better than Contra or Modern Vampires of the City (although I definitely think it’s better than Contra, *cough* *cough*), but there’s no beating the sheer youthful charm of Vampire Weekend. The first four songs alone (“Mansard Roof,” “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) are all modern classics, each one unforgettably catchy and adorned with some truly gorgeous and varied instrumentation. The rest of the album is fantastic as well (“Campus” and “I Stand Corrected”), cementing this album as one of those great releases that works equally well when the songs are separated as when they’re all played back-to-back. Each song crystallizes the naivety and joy of collegiate youth better than any other album I’ve heard.

“Mansard Roof”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlgNFwoApec

The Conclusion

Something missing from our list? SantanaSteely DanStone Temple Pilots, and any of the scores of other eponymous albums deserving of love? Send your opinions our way! Situate them down in the comments sections, so we can sing along to some of your favorites.

Three By Three: Community Episodes

Community EpisodesThe Category

The new year has brought about not only a rebirth of this humble blog, but also one of its most treasured cultural artifacts: Community. Sure, Community was never really “dead” to begin with, but last season saw it walking around uncomfortably in its old skin, as some sort of TV show zombie (not to be confused with “zombie TV shows” like The Walking Dead, though that program, too, has taken on a certain undead quality). The return of Dan Harmon as showrunner, we hope, will change all that (and look out on Friday for our collective discussion of last week’s premiere); for now we’re going to psych ourselves up by reliving the glory days and talking about our favorite episodes of Community.

The Choices

Allen

S3E06-“Remedial Chaos Theory”: A fan-favorite, “Remedial Chaos Theory” has everything that makes a good Community episode; it’s filled with good character moments, the structure of the episode leads to some incredible comedy, and it’s practically written to be picked apart for references and callbacks. As Jeff rolls the dice for a game of Yahtzee, Abed warns him that this will create six different timelines where anything could happen. Each of these is then shown, and they include some of Community‘s best gags of all time. Pierce’s Eartha Kitt story, Troy smoking a candy cigarette, Britta not being allowed to sing “Roxanne”, and the creation of “the darkest timeline”, which went on to interfere with the “prime timeline” where Abed catches the dice before it falls to prevent any other dimensions from occurring. It was a smart episode, and opened up a literal new world for the show to explain and crack jokes about.

S2E19-“Critical Film Studies”: Although I am the least familiar of the group with this episode’s two main source materials, I can’t deny the brilliant bait-and-switch that it pulled on thousands of viewers like myself. Just as Community was hitting its high point in popularity, it garnered enough attention to be featured in magazines. The preview for this episode simply showed the Greendale gang in Halloween costumes based off of the characters from Pulp Fiction. Thinking the whole episode was going to be a fun Tarantino spoof, I tuned in live. What I quickly realized was that it was far from that, and even some of the characters were surprised. As is usual with the show, Abed is the one to deconstruct the whole thing, and his development into the titular character from My Dinner with Andre reveals this episode to be one of the show’s most clever.

S1E23-“Modern Warfare”: If someone were to track the exact point where I realized that Community was a special series, it would probably be somewhere in the brilliantly-shot paintball fight scenes of “Modern Warfare”. This episode proved that Community wasn’t just a well-written situational comedy, but also an intelligent spoof of genre films. Even though the stakes are relatively low, the eponymous warfare that takes place in Greendale College this episode is filmed and treated like real war, with bunkers, alliances, and supply runs taking place all on campus. It’s just a fun romp of an episode, and the climactic scene where Jeff and Britta make love before being attacked by Chang wielding a paintball-filled exploding vest and golden guns is one of the most memorable scenes of the entire show.

James

S2E09-“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Designs”: I recently rewatched a few episodes of Community, and this one was my reintroduction into the show. Jeff and Annie go to uncover the secrets of Jeff’s imaginary blow-off class, which has a real teacher, while Troy and Abed turn the school into a blanket fort. The two stories coincide perfectly. The blanket fort starts off as a seemingly childish construct: a couple of pillows, and a few blankets. However, the design expands to fill up the entirety of Greendale, allowing for cameos from Leonard, Starburns, and the rest of the motley crew who make up Greendale. Meanwhile, Jeff’s story arc ends in a culmination so perfect I can’t bring myself to spoil it. All in all, this highlights what Community does best: cracking funny jokes while coming up with an insane story.

S2E21-“Paradigms of Human Memory”: In this episode, the group thinks back to the events of the past year. This show is meant to be a clip show, but as Community always does, the product turned out better than it had any right to. Instead of actually making a clip show from the previous episodes, the show takes clips from scenes that happened right after the events of another episode. At first, the viewer is led to believe that these are regular clips, but as the clips get crazier and crazier, the realization dawns that none of this ever actually happened in the show. Once that hits, the episode becomes fresher and funnier. When the group reconciles at the end of their argument with a montage of Winger monologues, the episode proves that Community embodies heart and humour.

S1E11-“The Politics of Human Sexuality”: One of my favorite things about Community is the fact that every episode has a memorable joke. This episode is about the STD fair that Annie is running. There are a few hilarious moments, including a racial sexual joke, a joke about the childish names for penis, and of course the quote to not use condoms. Please don’t judge this one before you see it. This episode really adds to the relationship between Troy and Abed, and builds the base of Annie’s character. This is a truly funny experience of an episode that is always great to rewatch.

Magellan

S3E14-“Pillows and Blankets”: When people talk about their favorite Community episodes, they usually end up picking from the show’s storied arsenal of genre pastiches (i.e. the paintball episodes), since those are the most readily memorable. For now, I’ll lump myself in with the rest and talk about my all-time favorite genre-pastiche episode, the Ken Burns spoof episode “Pillows and Blankets.” In my opinion, the best pastiche episodes are the ones that subvert a genre you already hold very dearly, so maybe my love of history and well-done historical documentaries predisposes me to loving this episode, but I would argue that it still has everything going for it: it brings back and expands upon a concept from a previous episode (the pillow fort from “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Designs), advances the overall plot of the season, gives every character  a chance to shine (Annie as a Florence Nightingale figure and Britta as a laughable war photographer), and makes Troy and Abed’s relationship more realistic and three-dimensional.

S2E14-“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”: Community really hit its stride in the middle of its second season, and no episode is more emblematic of that than “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” The strength of this episode is that much of its plot and humor happens around the study room table, during a game of Dungeons & Dragons with Fat Neil. While most Community episodes tend to rely on visual cues for their high comedy moments, this episode doesn’t need to play around with its look all that much, letting all of the flavor of the episode come from the interactions between the characters. I would go so far as to say that the parts of this episode that are in the study room serve as a far better bottle episode than the episode which did the meta riff on bottle episodes (“Cooperative Calligraphy,” which is itself quite funny). My one complaint is the use of Pierce as the villain, though of all the episodes where that conceit was employed, it seemed to fit here the best.

S2E17-“Intro to Political Science”: Although not an outright genre pastiche, this episode still possesses that patented Community charm, taking a seemingly sensible community college event (a class election) and turning it into an utter farce. The other episode I praised for their treatment of the characters and their creative storytelling, but this episode I love for the jokes. From Troy’s “notches” joke at the beginning (watch to figure out what I’m talking about) to Troy and Abed’s election commentary, to the ultimate debate between Leonard and Magnitude, this episode is a testament to Community‘s ability, at the end of the day, to just be a smartly written sitcom about life at community college.

The Conclusion

Raring to give us a piece of your mind? “Regional Holiday Music” still your favorite episode, just because of Annie’s Christmas song? Ranting is encouraged down in the comments section. “Repilot” will be discussed on Friday, so return in a couple days for that.

Three By Three: Sci-Fi Gadgets

Sci-Fi GadgetsThe Category

We here at Pop Modern, as you may have noticed, are big fans of science fiction. Whether it’s a big budget summer blockbuster or two guys in their backyard with rubber masks and half-faded glowsticks, something about the genre is infectious. Science fiction dares us to dream, to think beyond the confines of our reality, and to see our world in a whole new light. That, and there are so many flashy gizmos. So, in honor of this beloved genre and all of its assorted baubles and whats-its, this week we’ve decided to bring you our favorite sci-fi gadgets.

The Choices

Allen

The Tricorder from Star Trek: Some of my favorite fictional gadgets are the ones based in concrete reality. The Star Trek series is known for a fairly serious tone and deep fiction, and the tricorder is an essential part of any starship team’s equipment. It’s essentially an all-in-one device, capable of foreign atmosphere analysis, cross-species communication, and even basic teleportation. Like The Force, tricorders are cooler when they aren’t explained in the universe, and are just this magical, cell phone-esque piece of technology that comes in handy at all the right times. 

The Neuralizer from Men in Black: We’ve all wanted to forget certain parts of our lives, or erase our actions from the minds of others. With the neuralizer from Men in Black, nothing is permanent. Tired of holding a grudge against someone? Tell them how you feel, and then wipe their memories! There’s something inherently nefarious about messing with the minds of others, but isn’t the breaking of the laws of physics part of what makes sci-fi so much fun?

The Holographic Touch Screen from Minority Report: Yet another gadget that we’re mere years away from, the computers in Minority Report function only to make Tom Cruise look cool while he researches criminals, but it’s actually a fascinating piece of tech. Slip on some gloves, enter a password, and you’re interfacing with a high-tech computer. The practical implications are mind-blowing, but I mostly want a touch-based hologram computer so that I can finally live out my dream of lazily browsing the Internet with just my fingertips.

James

Darth Maul’s Double-Bladed Lightsaber from Star Wars: On every sci-fi gadget list, there needs to be an obligatory lightsaber. The thinking man’s weapon, the lightsaber requires years of training, and a keen reliance upon the Force. While this is fine, like most good things it’s even better if you double it. The double-bladed lightsaber is probably extremely impractical, and leads to self-mutilation more than it leads to enemy injury. With that being said, the double-bladed lightsaber is every kid’s dream come true, a combination of staff and sword. If not for me, this choice would still be important so that my 8-year-old self did not preemptively kill me.

The Heart of Gold from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The ship from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was as improbable as the books themselves. The power source for the ship ran on infinite improbability, and as such, anything could happen while using it. Knowing exactly how improbable any event is allows it to happen, usually without too many permanent side effects. The ship really holds its own when it comes to technology and style, a combination of raw power with the smug, opulent feel to let you know that the ship will never need to use any of its power. Note: Hangs in the sky in much the same way as a brick doesn’t.

The Web-Shooters from Spider-Man: This is another invention that my 8-year-old self would require. Though it would probably wrench my arm out of its socket, I would need to try to swing around the Cleveland skyline, fighting crimes with the aide of my web-shooters. Versatile and fun, the webs can be used in place of typical adhesives saving hundreds of dollars on crazy glue. Then again the cost of web-shooters would probably offset the savings, but you need to spend some money to keep happy.

Magellan

The Portal Gun from PortalThe perfect blend of rad and utilitarian, Chell’s Portal Gun from the acclaimed puzzle-shooter is a must-have addition to any arsenal of science-fiction gadgets. After all, not only are there endless uses for such a weapon in battle, espionage, and other strategic applications, it’s also a drastic improvement to one’s quality of life. The sky’s the limit when it comes to portals, and any quotidian task would be rendered either significantly easier or just plain obsolete with a Portal Gun.

The Mr. Fusion from Back to the Future: I figured it would raise a few too many eyebrows if I put a time-travelling DeLorean into the “gadget” category, so I settled for another tribute to the classic science fiction series that would ultimately be far more useful in everyday life: The Mr. Fusion. Think about it, a thermos-sized reactor that can turn trash into green energy. That’s monumental, that little gadget would change our lives as we know it. Sure, it’s no time machine, maybe it’s about time we focus on wacky gadget that would solve our problems, rather than lump physics-bending paradoxes on top of them.

The Thermal Detonator from Star WarsFor my last choice, I thought I’d cool off on the practicality spiel and go for something a bit more deadly. Unfortunately, James already went and grabbed the lightsaber, so I had to poke around the Star Wars universe for something just as deadly, though much less dignified. I’m talking about the thermal detonator, the hand grenade to end all hand grenades, the explosive that can make Boba Fett quiver in his boots and Jabba the Hutt quiver in his…well, he’ll be quivering.

The Conclusion

Questioning why we chose what we did? Quibbles, queries, or any other issues with our selections? Quell your frustration by heading down to the comments and making yourself heard. Quaking, we’re practically quaking in anticipation.

Three By Three: Simpsons Characters

Simpsons CharactersThe Category

It’s fall premiere season, so you’ll forgive us if we here at Pop Modern are extra TV-obsessed this week. We can’t help it, television is what’s on our collective minds at this point, with new shows strutting out to dazzle us and perennial favorites set to keep us entertained as they always do. That’s why we think it’s important to pay homage to one of those most stalwart members of this year’s fall line-up: The Simpsons. With its premiere on the 29th marking the beginning of the show’s 25th season, the longest-running scripted, primetime television program shows no signs of slowing. And sure, the show’s golden age has long since passed, but those years cast a hell of a yellow shadow, and we thought we’d honor that by talking about our personal favorite characters from the show’s decades-long run.

The Choices

Allen

Rainier Wolfcastle: Although he originally started as a simple Arnold Schwarzenegger stand-in, Wolfcastle came to be one of my favorite side characters on The Simpsons. He also has a pretty funny backstory, in which he advertised bratwurst in his home country of Austria before coming to America and making it big as his famous McBain character. Like so many actors whose success is based on their fitness, Wolfcastle dealt with weight issues throughout his life, which was always played off as “something he was doing for a role”. But my favorite Wolfcastle moment by far was when he played Radioactive Man in the Season Seven episode “Radioactive Man”. As the realistic sulfuric acid washes him away, he laments the fact that his protective eyewear has failed him, and Harry Shearer’s Wolfcastle voice still cracks me up to this day.

Here is Wolfcastle’s funniest scene on the show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juFZh92MUOY

Fat Tony: Yet another character that could have simply been a parody of a famous pop culture icon (in this case, Tony Soprano), Fat Tony doesn’t get enough credit for being legitimately hilarious between acts of violence. My favorite running gag of Fat Tony’s is his lines that start out as mafia-style threats, only to be revealed to be completely innocuous.  “We are going for a ride… By which I mean the carpool” and “”Now who’s ready to sleep with da fishes?… Because I brought this Finding Nemo comforter!” are just two of my favorite Fat Tony gags. And the episode “The Mook, The Chef, The Wife and Her Homer” where we meet his son Michael shows how far the writers of this show were willing to take their side characters’ backstories.

Here’s a short interview with the voice of Fat Tony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egvzrsSFrnc

Ralph Wiggum: Ralph is the only Simpsons character who I consistently laugh out loud at. What works about Ralph comedically is that he isn’t based on any particular character or archetype; rather, he’s an amalagamation of naive children, the mentally challenged, and his own father. Ralph’s best lines come from his various failures and misunderstandings in school, like putting an ice cream cone on his head and shouting “I’m a unitard!” It’s moments like that that make me love The Simpsons. Even when there’s plenty of heart and good writing, you can always rely on characters like Ralph to bring pure, unabashed comedy to the show. Ralph, I choo-choo-choose you as my favorite Simpsons character.

This compilation of Ralph’s best moments is very well-edited, and it has just about all of my favorite scenes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS2OuTV9YdA

James

Ned Flanders: High Diddly ho there neighborino! There is nothing that is simultaneously as annoying or as enjoyable as this neighbor. The family man that the show eschews in favor of Homer, the well-intentioned character is deliberately slighted at every possible turn. What’s more, the audience loves to hate Flanders and his good-natured ways, though Flanders shows the values that America professes to preach. Flanders is my favorite character because he reveals the most hypocritical nature of America, bringing out the satire within The Simpsons.

Here’s a compilation of some of Ned’s best moments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IakU3gHXbE

Mayor Quimby: Mayor Quimby is the best of the worst within the town of Springfield. Quimby is supposed to represent the quintessential corrupt bureaucrat, a womanizer with ties to the mob and the worst sort of vote pandering. While his actions are funny, the character gets even more hilarious when you realize that the character was based on the Kennedys, from the womanizing to the accent. He has some great moments, and his hypocrisy is refreshing within the subtle satire in the show.

One such great moment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5K4QKFOfUr8

Groundskeeper Willie: Willie is one of my favorite characters on the Simpsons. An angry Scotsman who keeps the grounds, strangely enough, Willie is an uncomplicated character, devoid of any sort of subtle metaphor for a real world problem. Instead, he is just a stock character of an angry Scotsman. The thing is, his nationality makes him a caricature for himself, a ridiculous effigy of foreignism.

My personal favorite sketch is where he teaches French for the day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUjGf2Grrus

Magellan

Troy McClure: You may remember him from such things as “A Fish Called Selma,” Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!and Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide to You-know-what. Without a doubt, Troy McClure has been part of some of the funniest moments from the golden years of The Simpsons. It didn’t hurt that he had the comedic genius of Phil Hartman behind him, either, as there’s nobody else that could have better captured McClure’s unique blend of hackish desperation and egotistical self-assurance. McClure is one of the few characters on this show that could dominate several consecutive minutes of screen time, without input from any other character, and be just as engaging and hilarious as a scene at the Simpsons’ household, or Moe’s, or wherever else.

All the things you may remember Troy McClure from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYNZ1PMdO1M

Itchy & Scratchy: It may be a bit of a cop-out to pick not only two characters in one entry, but on top of that two characters that function almost exclusively as a show within this show. Still, I feel like Itchy & Scratchy are an integral part of The Simpsons‘s universe, along with being an on-the-nose parody of violent children’s cartoons like Tom and Jerry. I also tend to enjoy episodes where Itchy & Scratchy spill into the main story of the episode, such as the one where the family goes on a trip to Itchy & Scratchyland, the one featuring the Itchy & Scratchy Movie, or the one where Homer plays the newest addition to the cartoon: Poochy.

Here’s a best-off compilation of The Itchy & Scratchy Showhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a76cFdO1btk

Duffman: There were so many characters that I could have put into this slot, and most of them, admittedly, are more nuanced and fleshed-out than Duffman, of all people. And I really wanted to throw in a major character like that. Moe, for example, or Barney. But thinking of denizens of Moe’s Tavern just made me think of Duff Beer, and in turn I couldn’t help cracking up at images of Duffman. I don’t know what it is, but in my opinion Duffman is the epitome of the one-note character. The talking in third-person, the “Oh yeah”s, the histrionic voice, all of it adds up to one of the most consistently hilarious characters on The Simpsons.

A fantastic, typical Duffman scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7JY2V_GEuE

The Conclusion

Plenty of great characters abound in Springfield, so many that it’s impossible to pay tribute to them all. Perturbed that your favorite wasn’t selected? Peeved that we didn’t even mention Apu, or Skinner, or Dr. Nick? Pick your favorite and post about him or her in the comments below. Pay homage to one of the most iconic and populous television shows of all time.

Three By Three: Video Game Levels

Video Game LevelsThe Category

If anything can be said about the three of us here at Pop Modern, it’s that we all love video games. We may have each grown up on different systems and with different games, and nowadays we tend to play very different games at varying degrees of intensity, but that common link is still there. Between the three of us, we’ve spent so much time playing video games that a few key moments were bound to bubble to the surface and show themselves as our favorites. That’s why this week we’re taking things to the next level (or the previous level, as the fancy strikes us) and showing you our favorite video game levels of all time.

The Choices

Allen

“The Milkman Conspiracy” from PsychonautsIt was hard to choose just one level from Psychonauts, since it’s two greatest strengths are its level design and the writing that stitches them together. But “The Milkman Conspiracy” world takes the cake for being incredibly creative, both visually and narratively. Set inside the mind of paranoid security guard Boyd Cooper, the level borrows several sci-fi and alien invasion tropes, and mashes them up into a fine paste. As Raz navigates this strange and disjointed world, he encounters the G-Men, who are very conspicuously trying to find Boyd and uncover his secrets. At the same time, the Rainbow Squirts, which are Boyd’s interpretation of an organization like the Girl Scouts, are using explosive cookies to keep Raz from progressing. Besides having some of the funniest lines in the game (“Hi mom, look at me! I’m tangled in a web of deception!”), it was also the first level to make use of the Clairvoyance power, which allowed Raz to see through the eyes of other characters. Being able to re-appropriate this strange world as a security camera or a cute-but-deadly Rainbow Squirt was both disturbing and hilarious in a uniquely Psychonauts way.

“The Train” from Uncharted 2: Among ThievesAlthough the game starts with Nathan Drake hanging off of a crashed train in medias res, the reveal of how that train slid off a cliff is actually one of the best sections of the game, and one of the best of this generation. It represents the upper echelon of console gaming, and the polish and cleverness at play could only be done in the back half of this current console generation. As Drake navigates from the back to the front of a speeding train, the game abandons the wide open arenas of battle in favor of tight corridors and multiple layers of ground to cover. As the train goes under a tunnel, you head inside, and shoot your way through the passenger cars with reckless abandon. However, it’s when it opens up to the dense jungle that you can finally hop outside for a faster path to your goal. Enemies trying to climb on from the sides, hard turns on the track, and jumping from car to car were some of the most thrilling moments in the best game of 2009.

“Rust” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2It wouldn’t be fair to do a best levels list without mentioning one of my favorite multiplayer maps. I think one of the reasons that “Rust” worked so well was its small, dense architecture. Even though Modern Warfare 2 was my first introduction to the series (and the last one I truly loved), I was able to hold my own on this map within my first few matches. The focus on verticality, the circular nature of the area surrounding the tower in the center, and the numerous hiding spaces made it all the more fun to weed out less honorable players who prefer staying in one place and relying on the game’s weapons and gadgets to win. There was no staying in place on “Rust”; at the top of the tower, you were an open target. At the bottom, you were easy to spot between cover. And the map practically begged for weird variants on the typical Team Deathmatch mode that players all over the world would make up. Throwing knives only, rocket launchers only, or even grenades only all worked because of how tight and intimate this follow-up to Call of Duty 4‘s “Shipment” map was.

James

“The First Shard” from Bastion: Bastion had many memorable levels, but the Anklegator level was one of my favorites. The level has the careful combat and fantastic narrative style that the rest of the game has, but introduced a fearful mechanic: run in the grass, and you will probably die. Unlike most forced stealth missions in games, the level itself is fairly well-designed, with an emphasis on fighting, and avoiding certain patches of ground. The Brusher’s Pike and the final fight with the mother Anklegator at the end are just the cream of the crop, giving an exciting conclusion to a well-built level.

“Dark Energy” Half-Life 2: Half-Life 2 is built on the diverse experiences throughout the game and its episodic sequels. Ravenholm plays like a survival horror game, the initial level plays like a dystopian French film, and City 17 played like a stealthy action game. Despite their dissimilarities, there is one common theme throughout all of these levels: fear. No matter what the setting, the player always knows that one wrong turn will kill them. The game promotes caution and thoughtfulness in the midst of a revolution. The final chapter reverses this. By finding an upgraded gravity gun, Freeman no longer plays as an outlaw, running from hiding place to hiding place. Instead, the player steps into the mantle of the hero, with a setting that shows these powers while still providing enough of a challenge to counteract any hubris that might come with such immense power.

“Hoth” from Star Wars: Battlefront II: Battlefront II is a game that is based on the diversity of its maps. The maps span the entire galaxy, from Coruscant to the Outer Rim. Despite it all, there is something that is extra special about playing on Hoth. Whether teaming up with a friend in a snow speeder to take down an AT-AT, or grabbing a sniper rifle to pick off those pesky rebels from atop a giant mound of snow, there is a niche for everyone on this map.  Mopping up the reserves can be somewhat irritating, but the scale and intensity of the battles were some of the most amazing that I have ever played, and were fantastically formative to my prepubescent mind.

Magellan

“Green Hill Zone”-Sonic the Hedgehog: I figured I’d start my list off with one of those roll-your-eyes, “classic” picks. It may seem disingenuous to point to such a basic, iconic level as one of my three favorites of all time, but I assure you this is entirely genuine. When I was a kid, I had a Sega Genesis, so I played Sonic all of the time. Now, the hedgehog-in-blue has let me down a little over the past few years, but back then he was the king. I would pop in my Sonic cartridges all the time, and, given that I was never good enough to get past that one pain-in-the-ass water temple level, I would end up replaying “Green Hill Zone” quite a bit. What sets this one apart as one of my favorite levels is the fact that, like many levels in the old Genesis Sonic games, I can play it over and over again and never get sick of it. Even listening to the music is enough to make me feel like a kid again.

“Palace of Twilight”-The Legend of Zelda: Twilight PrincessNow, while I had access to an N64 growing up, I never played much Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. The first Zelda game I fully delved into and finished was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the GameCube. I knew I wanted to pay homage to that game in some way, since it’s still one of my favorites and since the Zelda franchise deserves a mention somewhere on this list, but it was hard for me to settle on which dungeon was my favorite. Ultimately, I settled on the “Palace of Twilight,” as it exemplifies what is unique about this game compared to other Zelda games. It offers a balanced mix of Link’s human form and wolf form, and showcases the interesting “twilight” look that dominates much of the game’s overworld segments. The boss fight is also interesting, as it takes you through several past boss fights, forcing you to put your entire array of equipment to the test.

“DK Mountain”-Mario Kart: Double Dash!Although I had a Genesis and a PlayStation, the console that I ended up playing the most and buying the most games for was my GameCube. Of course, there wasn’t much point in buying any games for it, since it already came with the best one: Mario Kart: Double Dash! This is a game that’s still a blast to play, so much so that whenever the three of us (Allen, James, and myself) are in town, we all hang out at my house and throw around expletives while racing through the game’s sixteen tracks. At this point, I’ve played those tracks so many times that I have them all memorized (including the fancy shortcuts) from start to finish, so it was difficult to pick a favorite. Most of them are a bit too basic to stand out as one of the best video game levels of all time, and others like “Rainbow Road” or “Sherbert Land” are more hard than fun. I ended up picking “DK Mountain” because, with it’s car-flinging cannon and rolling boulders, it epitomizes the frenetic fun of Mario Kart. Plus, that railing-less wooden bridge just before the finish line can make for some real nail-biting finishes.

The Conclusion

Oftentimes we feel as if we can’t represent the full scope of a category, given there are three of us and thus only nine slots to fill. Other, better video game levels floating around in your memory? Offer your favorites up in the comments below. Other opinions are more than welcome. Our own choices, in fact, may not even be the “right” ones. Oh, perish the thought!

Three By Three: SNL Sketches

SNL SketchesThe Category

It was announced earlier this week that Tina Fey will be hosting the Saturday Night Live premiere that will air on September 28th. This will be the show’s 39th season, and we here at Pop Modern are as excited as ever to watch and enjoy. Of course, with Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis all gone after the end of last season, and Seth Meyers set to depart in 2014 to become the next Late Night host, this year marks a bit of a changing of the guard, an end of an era. With that in mind, we figured we’d psyche ourselves up for laughs to come by remembering some of our favorite SNL sketches of all time.

The Choices

Allen

“Two Wild & Crazy Guys”: Of all the amazing SNL skits from the 1970s, Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s skit where they play two Czechoslovakian immigrants traipsing around America to “score chicks” is the most optimistic. It doesn’t rely on slapstick or cruelty, and it doesn’t end with two sad men learning the errors of their ways. Rather, it’s a brief glimpse into the lives of two giddy older men looking to start a new life in a strange country. Their poor grammar and silly outfits only add to the humor of the skit, and it was one of the best collaborations between two of the funniest men in comedy.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPy1D-bsFDE

“A Night At The Roxbury”: There’s no way that I would have heard of SNL if it weren’t for “A Night At The Roxbury”. The catchiest of all club songs, “What Is Love” was used in all sorts of early Flash videos and parodies from my childhood, and I eventually went back and found the source of the joke in this skit. Yet another case of people making the best of a situation where they don’t belong, it tells the story of three club-hoppers going everywhere that will take them, grinding on women who will dance with them to an infectious beat. Three guys with dumb suits, gigantic cell phones, and “What Is Love” are what I see when I close my eyes and think “the late 90s.” It’s a testament to how iconic and funny this simple skit is.
http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/e3f1bd80fa/a-night-at-the-roxbury-from-nino

“Lazy Sunday”: We’ve covered the 70s and 90s, but now it’s time for my favorite skit from the early 2000s to take the stage. As the show went from film to digital, so did some of its skits. “Lazy Sunday” is a collaboration starring Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell as two New Yorkers looking to get some snacks on a Sunday. The skit works for several reasons. For one, it was a pre-recorded short, which meant that they had the opportunity to do all sorts of editing, turning the skit into something resembling a cross between a Food Network special and a Snoop Dogg video. Samberg and Parnell play off of each other so well, and the back and forth shouting of “Chronic-WHAT? -cles of Narnia!” is one of the funniest bits on the show. But what really makes this skit so special is that it functions as both a catchy song on its own and a hilarious visual comedy.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/1397

James

“King Tut”: Steve Martin, though never an official cast member, is one of SNL’s most recognizable faces. This particular sketch is a great combination of clever lyrics and silly faces, a particular style that Martin often emphasized with his works. The energy and showmanship that Martin shares on stage is breathtaking. The costume really helps to sell this sketch, adding that touch of ridiculousness to the events just in case somebody did not get the comedy. Though the sketch isn’t subtle, it is good as what it is: A silly piece that provides entertainment.
The sketch itself is hard to come by, but here’s Martin performing the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgTPH5y1-ZI

“Father Guido Sarducci”: I recently came across the series of sketches about the character Father Guido Sarducci, one of the most frequently recurring characters on SNL‘s “Weekend Update” segments. The idea behind the sketch is insane. The character is a priest who talked about religion, but in a funny, SNL way. This particular sketch really captures the character. Without any blatant cynicism, Sarducci captures religion and mocks it in a light-hearted way that felt neither embittered nor deliberately antagonistic. The result was just a show of force in comedy, a light-hearted farce on religion with no ulterior motives, other than enjoyment.
This is Sarducci from an appearance outside of SNLhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp3aAvorZcw

“Stefon”: While live comedy tends to linger on scenes for too long, and causes long scene changes, the fun of a live show comes from the parts where the comedians fail to keep character. Bill Hader in the guise of Stefon always creates this form of hilarity. While Bill Hader usually plays the straight man on camera, Stefon brings him into a new role. Hader rehearses a series of lines which his writing partner John Mulaney always changes right before he goes onstage. The jokes are as fresh to Hader as they are to the rest of us, so he usually loses his cool, cracking up at his own lines. This always makes for a good skit, seeing that he’s having as much fun as the audience.
http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/weekend-update-stefon/n39908/

Magellan

“NPR’s Delicious Dish Schweddy Balls”: When we decided to do a list of our favorite SNL sketches, this was the first one that came to my mind. Sure, it’s a bit obvious to pick one of the best-known sketches, but it really is one of my all-time favorites (and it was never my mission to throw wild cards into this list). Part of what makes this one special is that every time I watch it I can vividly remember the first time I saw it, in a friend’s basement back in middle school. I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe, and I nearly fell out of my chair. It doesn’t make me laugh that hard anymore, with its admittedly easy gags, but I still appreciate it for what it felt like upon that first viewing. Plus, you’ve got to hand it to Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon for keeping straight faces through all that dead-pan, Baldwin ball talk.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/4156

“More Cowbell”: This is another one of those classic, one-off sketches that often occupies a high position in any “Best SNL Sketches” list. Out of every SNL sketch I’ve seen, this is my favorite to quote, with that great line from Walken: “I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.” (The only thing I’ve quoted more, in fact, is that sound that Fred Armisen makes in The Californians: “Whadayudooingere.”) I think “More Cowbell” is more than just that one-off joke, though. From a sketch-writing standpoint, I find it fascinating that something which must have started as a simple observation could turn into such a timeless piece of comedy. This sketch also offers a lot of great performances, from Walken and Ferrell (obviously), but also from Parnell, Kattan, and Sanz, anyone of whom could have pulled off the funnyman role, but hung back and played it straight. Of course, Fallon’s in the background breaking and chewing on his drumsticks, but even that is part of the fun.
http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/80a71ef8cb/more-cowbell

“Celebrity Jeopardy!”: I figured that for at least one of the entries I should include a recurring sketch. Picking one, though, proved more difficult than I expected. There were a number of choices I considered, like “Wayne’s World” and “Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals” for example. However, and I feel hesitant still because this choice means that my whole list comes from that late-90’s, early-00’s era of SNL, I had to go with “Celebrity Jeopardy!” I’m a sucker for impression-based comedy, and the idea of sticking four big impressions, impressions that could for the most part carry sketches on their own, into one scene is quite appealing to me. Will Ferrel’s Trebek and Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery alone could just stand and talk to each other for five minutes and I would eat it up.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/12203

The Conclusion

Not satisfied with the choices we made? Never going to forgive us for leaving out your favorites? Neglecting legendary performers such as Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig got you all riled up? Neither silence not anger are the answer here. Next thing you should do: write a list of your favorites down in the comments section. Netflix has plenty of old episodes to get you started on research.

Three By Three: Queen Songs

Queen SongsThe Category

When it comes to music, the three of us rarely overlap all at once. Sure, any two of us will have shared bands or performers, people that we can talk excitedly about with one of our friends, but not the other. But, the center, rounded triangle of our three-way Venn diagram is small and occupied by few bands. Queen is one of those few. If any group deserves to be dead-center at the nexus of our musical interests, it’s Queen. Tomorrow would have been Freddie Mercury’s 67th birthday had he not tragically passed away, so, to honor that, we here at Pop Modern wanted to showcase our favorite Queen songs. And, just to make things interesting, none of us were allowed to pick “Bohemian Rhapsody,” since that would have been way too easy.

The Choices

Allen

“Somebody To Love”: It’s hard to pick my three favorite Queen songs without dipping into the greatest hits fare, but it goes to show that so many of their songs are considered their best. “Somebody To Love” is one such song, and it’s iconic status among rock love ballads is clear from the first few seconds. It’s a wonderful showcase of Freddie Mercury’s vocal range, and his histrionic performance style comes through in every verse. It’s no wonder that it’s one of the most popular karaoke songs, because it really is just a blast to belt out that chorus with some friends.

“Under Pressure”: One of the few Queen songs that I’ve never learned all the lyrics to. I almost ignore the faster parts of “Under Pressure” in favor of the “dee-day-dum”s and “Let me out!”. But, it’s got such a strange mid-song tonal shift, and Brian May’s guitar solo might be my favorite part of the whole song. For just over four minutes, “Under Pressure” is a display of so much of what made Queen an incredible band.

“Mustapha”: A song off of the under-appreciated 1978 album Jazz, I discovered “Mustapha” by accident one day. After finally acquiring the entire Queen discography, I set my playlist to shuffle, and this song came out of nowhere and blew my mind. The beginning, which I mostly like because Freddie Mercury says my last name in the proper Arabic way, is an omen of how weird the rest of the track gets. Mercury is just throwing out Arabic, Persian, and gibberish words, and you’ve got May and Roger Taylor just barely keeping up with this fast-paced smattering of lyrics. It’s actually incredibly catchy, and the use of bells and an almost prayer-like tempo is so different from Queen’s usual rock style that it almost feels like a standalone song.

James

“Stone Cold Crazy”: The only adjective I can use to describe this song is “energetic.” Its speed and energy is hard to match, even in other Queen songs. Between the rapid beating of the drums and the speedy vocals, the band works its magic into one of their shortest songs while still maintaining the integral Queen sound. The lyrics are just the icing on the crazy cake, detailing the nonsensical adventures of a man and his crazy day. The song really works well to complement the longer ballads that Queen does and shows their variety within the confines of a nonsensical, frenetic song.

“Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”: The opening verse to the song mirrors its format. Though the song could tug at heartstrings, it goes with the excitement and enthusiasm of the titular lover boy. The sporadic “oo”s are a perfect example of the Queen vocal backups that add to the feeling of the song. The jumps in the phrase “Hey, boy” add to the playfulness of the song, a song that lacks subtlety, yet still embodies emotional expectation. The harmonies are quintessential Queen characteristics, creating a typical Queen song. That is to say, it is the perfect combination of musicality and romanticism.

“Killer Queen”: I am not uniformly impressed with the ballads that Queen sings. Most of the time the slow song pace robs me of my attention. This song however is different. From a young age I loved this song, as it was my first exposure to Queen. The deviation from the normal theme of love rings well with me, showing a noticeable change that allows me to categorize the song in a completely different way. The lyrics and the heavy emphasis on electric guitar lend a bit of style to the song, and makes this one of my favorite songs.

Magellan

“I Want to Break Free”: James may not be “uniformly impressed” with Queen ballads, but God knows I’m a sucker for them. One of my favorites has to be “I Want to Break Free,” a somber song about trying to rid yourself of relationship, despite how much you still love the person. Instrumentally, it may not be Queen’s most interesting or driving songs, but Freddie Mercury’s voice soars over the whole composition, turning an otherwise run-of-the-mill rock ballad into a thing of pure beauty. The video for this song, also, is of note, as it features the members of the band in drag, a testament to the flamboyant showmanship that accompanied their musical talent.

“Don’t Stop Me Now”: I find that the fun of most hit Queen songs is their ability to encourage the listener to sing along, to join in with those phenomenal voices and feel their musical presence as you belt out your favorite lines. “Don’t Stop Me Now” is the perfect song for such an experience, since it starts off with some lilting piano notes, but then erupts into one of Queen’s most electrifying songs. The lyrics, I think, are the major selling-point here, with great pump-up verses and two separate choruses to sing along with. And it all ends with Freddie once again showing off those immaculate pipes, as the song fades out into satisfying silence.

“Hammer to Fall”: It was incredibly difficult, deciding what song deserved to be in my third slot. It still bothers me that not a single song from my favorite Queen album, The Game, even made my top three (“Another One Bites the Dust,” “Play the Game,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” just thinking about those songs makes me smile). Still, I settled on “Hammer to Fall,” since I wanted to highlight a second-string Queen rocker that doesn’t get as much air-time as some of their bigger songs. I actually started my love affair with this song a few months ago, when I had my music on shuffle and decided to listen to the song that I would always skip as a force of habit. What I heard blew me away. This is a song that blows your socks off. It’s like The Who’s “My Generation” in a leather jacket, backed up by a gospel choir. And I still get chills every time the band kicks in with a “What the hell we fighting for?!” a moment after Brian May’s ripping solo.

The Conclusion

Myriad Queen songs were sadly left out of this list for lack of space. Maybe you have a favorite that didn’t make the cut, or maybe you hate one of our choices with a burning passion. Mad that we excluded “Bicycle Race,” or “We Are the Champions,” or the theme to Flash Gordon? Make your displeasure known in the comments, and muster up an argument for your top Queen song. Mercury would be proud.