Pop top 20: 2/8/92

mj-rtt

Going deep this time. A week late, but hey.

1 6 I’M TOO SEXY –•– Right Said Fred – 8 (1 week at #1) (1)  — First of all, check out that leap to the top. Secondly, listen to what a perfect/stupid pop record this is. Those Fairbrass brothers, for a quick moment, knew just what they were doing. I’d love to know what they’ve made off of this in publishing royalties, since RSF themselves wrote it. (p.s. follow-up single “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” (#3 UK, #76 US) is even better.)
2 2 I LOVE YOUR SMILE –•– Shanice – 12 (2) — This song is exuberance, joy, pure happy. Credit the songwriters, sure, but credit Shanice’s vocal even more, because she sells the sentiment without making it sappy or silly.
3 1 DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON ME –•– George Michael & Elton John – 10 (1) — George does a fine job singing it, but really doesn’t add anything to it. The issue isn’t him, it’s that this isn’t one of Elton & Bernie’s finer selections.
4 4 DIAMONDS AND PEARLS –•– Prince & The N.P.G. – 10 (4) — I’ve forever thought this was underrated: one of Prince’s prettiest ballads. Sure, it’s a bit light, but it’s so fucking pretty, and the light touch is precisely what makes this work, along with Rosie Gaines’s vocals, which are absolutely necessary.
5 3 ALL 4 LOVE –•– Color Me Badd – 14 (1) — “Sex U Up,” yes. “I Adore Mi Amor,” yes. Warmed-over early ’90s doo-wop? Absolutely not.
6 8 SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT –•– Nirvana – 10 (6) — “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” “Rapper’s Delight.” “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I mean, you know the drill.
7 5 CAN’T LET GO –•– Mariah Carey – 13 (2) — Upper-tier MC balladry with a soft touch.
8 14 TO BE WITH YOU –•– Mr. Big – 8 (8) — Not nearly as bad as I’d remembered; my memory said this was akin to “More than Words,” which I wholeheartedly detest, but it’s not. This isn’t great, but it’s okay. One of hair metal’s last gasps in the top 10 (and on its way to #1).
9 7 FINALLY –•– Ce Ce Peniston – 20 (5) — Not many artists get an era-defining song, let alone to start off their careers, but there’s nothing else you could call “Finally.” It’s one of the apexes of early ’90s pop-house, and thanks to things like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s never fully gone away. I’ve never not liked this song, and in fact, I’ve always liked this song. It’s buoyant, great house and perfect pop.
10 10 TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO –•– Tevin Campbell – 14 (10) — I’d forgotten that this was a top 10 pop record (#6!). It’s not bad, but it’s pretty slushy.

11 11 MYSTERIOUS WAYS –•– U2 – 12 (9) — Achtung Baby is a great album, period, and this is a perfect crystallization of it in single form. They really stood out from the pack at the time, didn’t they?
12 12 THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT YOU –•– Karyn White – 11 (12) — The follow-up to her #1 smash “Romantic,” this one wasn’t produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and thus feels softer and lighter. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it does mean this doesn’t have the punch and kick of its predecessor. At its pop peak this week (made it to #5 R&B); she never troubled the pop top 40 again.
13 20 REMEMBER THE TIME –•– Michael Jackson – 3 (13) — One of his finest, silkiest singles. Teddy Riley took over where Quincy Jones left off and did so so ably: the half of Dangerous he produced is one of the best New Jack Swing albums ever. But at the same time, because it can’t be anything but, it’s also some of MJ’s finest work.
14 13 2 LEGIT 2 QUIT –•– Hammer – 14 (5) — Delightfully ridiculous.
15 9 BLACK OR WHITE –•– Michael Jackson – 12 (1) — Middling MJ.
16 25 VIBEOLOGY –•– Paula Abdul – 4 (16) — Ridiculously delightful.
17 22 GOOD FOR ME –•– Amy Grant – 4 (17) — I don’t love Heart in Motion, but this is solid uptempo pop as it goes. Not as good as “Baby Baby” or “Every Heartbeat,” however.
18 19 KEEP IT COMIN’ –•– Keith Sweat – 11 (18) — GODDAMN this is a superb record. Coming off the smash-ness of his debut, Keith had to come back hard, and he did. This hit like a cherry bomb, with its sample from “Jungle Boogie,” with its tough New Jack Swing-ness, with Keith coming all all fucking sexy and sly and knowing exactly what he was doing. This is a lost classic and you should download it right this second.
19 21 I CAN’T MAKE YOU LOVE ME –•– Bonnie Raitt – 12 (19) — Sometimes there’s a marriage of singer and song so perfect that you can’t imagine anything else, anything better, and this is a perfect example of said perfection. Just that opening couplet — “Turn down the lights/Turn down the bed” — is so iconic, so tenderly sung, and so expertly produced by Raitt and Don Was, it could not be more perfect, in fact.
20 16 ADDAMS GROOVE –•– Hammer – 10 (7) — Un-delightfully ridiculous.

 

Posted in 1990s, charts, pop

Grammys 2017 liveblog

a-tribe-called-quest-grammys-2017

5pm (PST): Why is Adele wearing my Mom’s curtains?

507pm: Why the hell do these damned awards shows need hosts, anyway? If I wanted to watch a James Cordden comedy routine, I’d watch his late night show. Which I don’t.

511pm: Jennifer Lopez just quoted Toni Morrison, 11 minutes in.

513pm: I guess streaming really is the way of the future, cf. Chance.

514pm: And Paris Jackson just brought up #NoDAPL. Very nice.

5:18pm: Like it or not, “I Feel It Coming” will likely be one of the best songs performed tonight.

5:30pm: And “The Fighter” too.

5:34pm: Just when I thought I couldn’t hate twentyone pilots more, they prove me wrong.

5:58pm: Interestingly, Beyoncé’s performance feels very influenced, particularly in its staging, by her little sister’s A Place at the Table (which I’m delighted won an award earlier for “Cranes in the Sky”). I’m watching the Grammys tonight with my buddy Tim, who’s kind of hate-watching (he eschews most contemporary pop music), and he’s no fan of Bey. I pointed out to him, though, the amount of thought and frankly ART that went into that performance.

6:12pm: MAREN!!!!!

6:18pm: Yes, Bruno, yes.

6:23pm: Sure Chik-Fil-A is appalling, but those VR commercials with cows and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” are kinda awesome.

6:45pm: WHO MADE MAREN MORRIS WEAR THAT

6:46pm: Also, holy fuck that performance was terrible.

6:50pm: GM tribute: Because OF COURSE they had to turn “Fastlove” into a deathly ballad. Fuck you, Adele. “Fastlove” is a song of joy and sex, not a funeral dirge. And fuck the Grammy producers for coming up with this idea. “Praying for Time” would’ve made plenty of sense and been a solid choice. But this makes me actively angry.

7:04pm: I don’t fully get Coloring Book, but I’m still happy for Chance’s wins tonight. I’m not as happy for that dress that Taraji P. Henson was wearing, though.

laverne

7:07pm: Tim and SCREAMED for LaVerne Cox. Love that Gaga is being a total metal chick, which I believe absolutely.

7:35pm: I think Celine Dion looks awesome; she’s aging naturally. I don’t love most of her music, but I love her and feel horribly for the way she’s had to publicly mourn her late husband. Of course she gives Song of the Year to “Hello” — nothing else was ever going to win.

7:48pm: Tribe fuckin’ BRING IT. I’m so grateful for Busta’s denunciations of President Agent Orange. No one else has dared make political statements (except, oddly, J-Lo), so it’s further proof that we need ATCQ now more than ever.

7:59pm: THAT’S how you do it: Bruno Mars knows how to tribute Prince. The outfit, the guitar (I didn’t even know he knew how to play!), the presence, ALL of it.

8:23pm: Really, NARAS? You couldn’t include Pete Burns in your “In Memoriam,” but made room for “the queen of Chinese opera”? Fuck you.

8:35pm: Adele, doesn’t matter how much you thank Beyoncé for her album; you still won awards that should’ve gone to her.

Posted in 2017

These are a few of my favorite things: Jodeci

jodeci
[One of the longest reviews I wrote for Stylus, on 2005 greatest hits albums by Jodeci and K-Ci and JoJo. Originally published 7/06/05.]

The key to Jodeci, as K-Ci & JoJo’s output has shown us, wasn’t K-Ci Hailey, nor was it his brother JoJo, surprisingly. They have great, great R&B voices, JoJo’s so creamy-smooth and his brother’s stupendously gritty, a grits and gravy pair. But it wasn’t their singing that made Jodeci so undeniably great, no; it was DeVanté Swing—or, more to the point, his production. Jodeci was a group of its time, for its time, and the thanks for that can largely go to DeVanté’s mold-breaking hip-hop-soul touch behind the boards.

Remember the time with me: it was 1991. Michael Jackson could still get away with calling himself the King of Pop. Mariah Carey’s debut was still ruling the world. L.A. Reid and Babyface were the producers du jour, making sexy, of-the-moment tracks for the likes of Karyn White, Bobby Brown, and Whitney Houston (before they were, you know, Bobby and Whitney). Hip-hop was hot as ever—N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin became the first hardcore rap record to hit #1 on the Billboard album chart—but a whole lot of nobody was breaching the gap between the hip-hop and R&B audiences, until along came André Harrell and his upstart Uptown Records. Harrell signed Heavy D. and the Boyz and Father MC to make poppier rap records that could cross over to a broader audience, along with old-school loverman Christopher Williams (whose single “I’m Dreamin’” from the landmark film New Jack City quickly shot to #1 on the R&B singles chart), but frankly, those weren’t his important artists.

No, the gems in the Uptown crown were quickly revealed to be an around-the-way-girl from the boogie-down Bronx being shepherded by Harrell’s protégé, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and an R&B quartet with southern roots and an urban edge. The music made by both Mary J. Blige and Jodeci was termed “hip-hop-soul” by their label (reportedly by Combs himself), and that was an apt description, as they mixed hip-hop beats with soulful crooning. Their style was new; these were R&B artists who dressed—who lived—hip-hop. K-Ci, JoJo, DeVanté and Mr. Dalvin wore leather, and sheepskin, and tracksuits, and lots of bling; this was not your mother’s R&B quartet.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 12 R&B chart singles (excluding an airplay-only track and a soundtrack cut), 10 of which went top 10 and a full half of those which were #1s: for all their hip-hop bravado, nasty talk and of-the-moment fashions, the Jodeci songs which established such a beachhead on the charts were the old-fashioned ones, the romantic ballads. After “Gotta Love,” an uptempo track from their debut album Forever My Lady, was a nonstarter, Uptown quickly switched promotional gears and unleashed the album’s title track on an unsuspecting public. The response was immediate and massive: the sumptuous “Forever My Lady” was the first in a string of back-to-back-to-back #1 records, each of which spent a pair of weeks at the top of the charts (their pop success was initially middling, with “Lady” peaking at #25, “Stay” an assuredly frustrating #41, and “Come & Talk To Me” a near-breakthrough, making it to #11). Each of those three smashes, along with the #10 hit “I’m Still Waiting,” is featured on Back to the Future, and sounds just as superb today as they did over a decade ago. These songs were designed with romance in mind, and still do the trick, all lush production that’s never overdone—DeVanté has a very light touch—and harmonies to make you swoon.

Commercially speaking, Jodeci went from strength to strength. Appearing on Uptown MTV Unplugged gave them their first (and only) top 10 pop single and four weeks atop the R&B chart via a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” Their sophomore album, 1993’s Diary of a Mad Band, debuted on the Billboard album chart at #3 (and #1 R&B) as its first single, “Cry For You,” enjoyed the boys’ second consecutive four-week run at #1 on the R&B singles chart, with “Feenin’” following to #2. “What About Us” may have been a bit too copycat (of Jodeci’s own work) for its own good, as it made it only to #14. But that minor misstep didn’t stop the brothers Hailey and DeGrate; their third and final album, The Show, The After Party, The Hotel, debuted at #1 on the album chart, spinning off another trio of top 10 R&B singles (“Freek ’N You,” “Get On Up,” and the utterly sublime “Love U 4 Life”). With a few exceptions—“Freek ‘N You,” which for all its subtlety might as well have been titled “Fuckin’ You,” and the clever drug metaphor of “Feenin’” (their mangling of “fiending,” natch)—these are love songs, pure and simple. By and large, from Jodeci, they sound sincere—but as they got increasingly explicit (and the press starting reporting more on their nasty habits backstage), the sentiment seemed to start wearing a bit thin. Then, inexplicably, there was no more. The party, and its attendant magnificent run of music, just ended.

Back To the Future collects all of the above singles, save for “Gotta Love,” adding a couple of their more popular album tracks (such as “My Heart Belongs To U” and “Good Luv”) and a few different mixes of lesser-known songs (unfortunately, the infamous Wu-Tang mix of “Freek ‘N You” is nowhere to be found). And save for two tracks near the album’s end (“Success” and “S-More,” whose inclusion I just don’t understand), this album is relentless. The romance is slathered on thickly, but it works. From these voices, you believe it. The production helped to banish new jack swing from the airwaves, ushering in a new era of R&B, one that persists to this day (ask Omarion, or Pretty Ricky, or countless others of their spiritual children). Finally, the fact that these superb slices of early-‘90s R&B are still cherished by and spun on adult R&B stations should tell you plenty.

Presumably, Jodeci ended so that K-Ci and JoJo could embark on a career of their own, apart from the DeGrate brothers. That career has now produced more albums (four) than Jodeci did (three), but don’t take that as good news. Apart from DeVanté and Mr. Dalvin, the Haileys succumb to their worst impulses, which largely revolve around adult contemporary bathos. It’s well worth noting that the song which gives their collection its title, “All My Life,” went to #1 on the pop chart, but not R&B; it didn’t even make the R&B singles chart. To an extent, K-Ci & JoJo on their own are a soul injection away from Celine Dion territory, combining generically flat “R&B” production (lots of shuffle beats and synth snare cracks) with genuinely mediocre songwriting (especially the lyrics, oh these lyrics): “How Could You,” “Tell Me It’s Real,” the nails-on-chalkboard “Crazy” (again, so telling: #11 pop, #63 R&B—the soul is gone), and I could go on.

That’s not to say that everything in K-Ci & JoJo’s catalog is a failure. For instance, “Don’t Rush (Take Love Slowly),” the follow-up to the execrable wedding standard that is “All My Life,” is a nicely grooving midtempo track with a bit of substance to it. Oddly, the duo has excelled on soundtrack entries, chiefly because outside of their own albums, they’ve worked with people who know to craft songs that play to their strengths (and honestly, JoJo’s not that good as a songwriter or producer). The R. Kelly-produced and -penned “Life” is a great, gritty slab of contemporary southern soul, complete with a guitar lick that could be from the B.B. King songbook. “Never Say Never Again,” which Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis did up for How Stella Got Her Groove Back (a supremely underrated soundtrack), is a smoldering ballad, and The Prince of Egypt’s “Through Heaven’s Eyes” finds K-Ci & JoJo singing gospel—they were raised on it, and they still excel at it; I’d love to hear them sink their chops into a Fred Hammond production. Then there’s this album’s apex, which funnily enough isn’t even a K-Ci & JoJo song, but K-Ci’s sole solo outing. For the 1994 film Jason’s Lyric, while he was still a member of Jodeci, he hit the studio with James Mtume behind the boards to tackle Bobby Womack’s gutbucket classic “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” Mtume plays it as close to the original as possible, and K-Ci doesn’t disappoint. His voice was made for a song like this, and he makes the most of the opportunity, delivering a performance that’s all raw grit and honesty. Sadly, he’s never hit this height again.

K-Ci & JoJo Hailey still have voices worthy of wonder, but their career as hitmakers seems to clearly be a thing of the past, their time as makers of great records even longer gone. Jodeci couldn’t have lasted forever—all supernovas implode in time—but it’s understandable to have hoped for more from the Hailey brothers as their own entity. Get Back To the Future, far superior to any of Jodeci’s three albums, and remember fondly. Try to forget what came after. [A-/C+]

Posted in 1990s, favorite things, R&B, reviews, Stylus, Uncategorized

These are a few of my favorite things: on McCartney

[Originally published 2/5/07 at Stylus Magazine. The video, notably, stars John Hurt. RIP.]

Stylus Magazine’s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you’ve never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

Start at 3:18, just after Paul’s sung his last line (“Faded flowers wait in the jar / Till the evening is complete”). That’s when that heavenly chorus comes in, just singing a cloud of “Ahhhhhh.” The voices in this mastery of overdubbing are simply Paul, Linda (of course), and 10cc’s Eric Stewart, but thanks to Stewart’s vocal arrangement may well be the most gorgeous piece of vocalization this side of the chorus closing 10cc’s own “I’m Not in Love.” It’s as ethereal as Cocteau Twins and as meaning-filled as anything Paul’s ever sung post-Beatles. If only these massed singers—and then, the horns come in!—were an entire album, it’d be the best album Macca’s never made. Alas.

That’s not the only lovely vocal moment in “Take It Away”; Stewart’s also responsible for the weaving “oooh’s” that embellish the rest of the song (again, the Paul-Linda-Eric triad), and we haven’t even discussed that this song features what may be one of Paul’s most confident, assured lead vocals ever. Compare any of his verses with his first chorus following a verse—he goes from sweet to tough, sounding as solid as Ashford & Simpson’s rock. This is the sound of a professional, someone who truly knows what he’s doing. I mean that only as the highest possible compliment.

Paul’s not the only professional who deserves credit for “Take It Away,” either. George Martin slid back behind the boards for Tug of War, Macca’s 1982 “comeback.” (No, he hadn’t really gone anywhere per sé, but it was his first #1 US album since ‘77’s Wings Over America—and, interestingly, his last top 10 until Flaming Pie 15 years later.) Martin polished every inch of Tug of War to a rich, buttery sheen, but none more than “Take It Away,” the album’s clear money shot, intentionally or not.

Martin makes Ringo (yes, Ringo) a better drummer, even if all he’s really required to do here is keep a sturdy 4/4; Martin brings out the best in Paul’s bass playing (that loping cod-reggae riff that opens the song—really!); and Martin’s a highly underrated pianist (he played on numerous Beatles singles, but did you know?), attacking the electric piano riff that underpins the proceedings with delightful gusto—delight you can hear in his playing. Credit Martin, as well, with the song’s superbly snazzy horns; “Take It Away” would be maybe 2/3 of its end sum without them.

Sirs Martin and McCartney must have known what they had here, because the joie de vivre of “Take It Away” is indisputable: its thundering (like horses) choruses, its whipped cream-fluffy bridge, the way it all comes together in utter, making-it-sound-so-simple perfection. And like all great singles it knows when to take its leave, fading out as the song approaches the 4:00 mark. If “Take It Away” doesn’t convince you of Paul’s genius as a solo artist—for the record, I’m not a particularly big Beatles fan—nothing ever will. This is, as they say, as good as it gets.

Posted in 1980s, favorite things, pop, Stylus

These are a few of my favorite things: MLVC top 25

[Originally published on the short-lived move of my blog to tumblr, 5 years ago today, 2/8/12.]

So, after reading Alfred’s top 15 Madonna songs, I was inspired to do my own version of the same. My list, of course, has 25 selections because, well, it does. I didn’t include remixes, unless they’re really just extended mixes or single versions, because that’s not the same. I mean, it is. You should know what I mean. (There may be a separate list for her greatest mixes.)

25. “Keep It Together (7” Remix),“ “Keep It Together” single (1990). It’s “uplifting.” Which also means perky, in this case.

24. “Something To Remember,” I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired By Dick Tracy (1990). A co-write with Patrick Leonard, this isn’t quite Sondheim-worthy but it’s at least in the ballpark, which speaks plenty. Lovely strings, and greatly cheesy electric piano.

23. “Shoo-Bee-Doo,” Like A Virgin (1984). Her first great sad song: so simple, pretty, and sad. Bonus points for it not actually being a ballad. As a further bonus, it really does sound like an album track by a 1984 disco dolly – but in this case, one who was taking over the world and had an inkling about it.

22. “Causing A Commotion,” Who’s That Girl Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1987). Leagues ahead of its predecessor, the limp film title track – she has a thing for second singles. She also has the moves, and you’ve got the motion.

21. “Love Song” (Duet with Prince), Like A Prayer (1989). Ridiculous and all the better for it.

20. “Inside Of Me,” Bedtime Stories (1994). The parent album is a/k/a Madonna Does R&B ‘94, with the likes of Dave “Jam” Hall, Dallas Austin, and Nellee Hooper behind the boards (and the co-writes). What you’ve heard is true: in many ways this is her warmest record, and “Inside” is the plushest track on it.

19. “Bad Girl,” Erotica (1992). This might be the only Madonna protagonist I really, truly sympathize with.

18. “Get Together,” Confessions On A Dance Floor (2005). The only track from this century on this list, because without needing a remix to do so, this gets the perfect frisson of the (ahem) dance floor in a 5:31 pop song. Also, her voice doesn’t sound all stupid-post-Evita-fucked-up-from-vocal-“training” here.

17. “I Want You” (with Massive Attack), Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye (1995). Proof that tribute albums don’t have to blow goats, this pairing makes no sense on paper and all the sense on record. Her vocal slips a bit here and there, not entirely sure of itself, which totally works against MA’s disjointed, rich track.

16. “Justify My Love (The Beast Within Mix),” “Justify My Love” (single) (1990). Madonna reads from the Book of Revelation while Lenny Kravitz lays down some “Middle Eastern” samples behind her. And then she says “fuck me.”

15. “Erotica,” Erotica (1992). Underrated, underrated, underrated. MLVC and Shep Pettibone (one of the most important collaborators she’s ever had) craft a true blue ’92 house track while she sexy-talks for real.

14. “Secret Garden,” Erotica (1992). Apparently she read Nancy Friday.

13. “Lucky Star,” Madonna (1983). This absolutely throbs with excitement, even nearly 30 years later. The yearning, pleading in her voice has never sounded better.

12. “White Heat,” True Blue (1986). a/k/a “Open Your Heart” Part 2.

11. “Dress You Up (The 12” Formal Mix),“ “Dress You Up” (12”) (1985). You’ve got style, that’s what all the girls say. One of the two great pieces of popcraft on the PMRC “Filthy 15” (the other being “She Bop,” in case you were wondering).

10. “Bedtime Story,” Bedtime Stories (1994). This wouldn’t’ve been as good with Bjork’s (great but) weirdo vox all over it. A perfect marriage of song, singer, and production, and absolutely classic.

9. “This Used To Be My Playground” (from A League Of Their Own), single (1992). Her finest ballad, simply produced, beautifully written – and it does what a movie song is supposed to do, which is make the movie even more poignant. I don’t love League, but when this song comes in, I get a lump in my throat.

8. “Burning Up,” Madonna (1983). Total trash, which is precisely why it’s brilliant.

7. “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” (featuring Me’Shell Ndegéocello),“ Bedtime Stories (1994). This Isleys-sampling midtempo jam should’ve, and could’ve, been an R&B smash. Sexy without being smarmy or nasty, with a primo assist from Ndegéocello on bass and bridge rap (“tell me whatcha want/tell me whatcha need”).

6. “Into The Groove” (from Desperately Seeking Susan), single (1985). Isn’t it obvious?

5. “Angel (Extended Dance Mix),” “Angel” (12″) (1985). I’m cheating a little bit here, because while this is really “just” an extended version, what especially makes this is the faux-crowd noise mixed in, and the chanting “Madonna! Madonna! Madonna!” which turns into the backbeat OMG!!! Goddamn, the production on this is so gloriously clean.

4. “Deeper And Deeper,” Erotica (1992). Another fine example of her knack for second singles, and another fine example of why Shep Pettibone’s meant so much to her career. Pop-house perfection, no room for argument.

3. “Vogue,” I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired By Dick Tracy (1990). The lyrics, the track (Shep, again!), her nearly-breathless (sorry) vocal near the song’s end, the intent: it’s all perfect, and all comes together. Not to mention that the midsong rap made a generation of American boys homosexual.

2. “Open Your Heart,” True Blue (1986). Not just a statement of intent, this is a series of DEMANDS, and you’re not gonna say no, are you? The guitar line mirroring her vocal on the chorus (and run-ups) is more important than you think it is.

1. “Physical Attraction,” Madonna (1983). May have felt like a throwaway, buried 6 songs into her 8-song debut, but this is as fierce as she’s ever been – because she had nothing to lose and didn’t even know it. Credit as well, to writer/producer Reggie Lucas, and remixer (and boyfriend, whaddaya know) Jellybean Benitez: this song’s open spaces are as key as its occupied ones. And when Madonna asks, at bridge’s end, “What are ya gonna do?,” an entire world answered. Additionally, I’ve never liked her voice more than I do on her debut, so raw and untouched.

Posted in favorite things, lists, pop

Kate Bush, ’50 Words for Snow’ (Fish People/EMI, 2011)

A couple of years ago I discovered The Essential Winter’s Solstice, two discs of Windham Hill wintertime music at its best, and quietest; it coincided with my attending a Windham Hill holiday concert, which was a beautiful, contemplative evening. That’s where my mind initially goes when I put on Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow for the first time in 4 years. It’s similarly contemplative, and mostly, similarly quiet(ish), anchored by her piano playing and Steve Gadd’s drumming. Mind you, it’s an odd one, very classically Kate: to wit, “Misty” is about a woman having an affair/making love with a snowman, and is almost 14 minutes long to boot, but yet, it’s never boring. In fact, it’s utterly compelling for its entirety. And not only is “Misty” compelling, so is the whole album. The title track is largely drums, treated guitar, and Stephen Fry reciting Kate’s own 50 words for snow, some of which are as made-up as Elizabeth Fraser’s speech. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” is a duet with, I kid you not, Sir Elton John (one of his finest vocal performances of the past 15 years, easily), about a pair of lovers who’ve been lovers throughout the 20th century, across time and space: how very Winter’s Tale. (Not the film, which I’ve not seen, but the 1983 novel, with which I was semi-obsessed in high school.)

I guess the lack of much attention for 50 Words for Snow is due at least in part to its lack of a “single”; there’s certainly not much you’re going to leave humming. But yet, give this album a shot and it will stick with you. It’s at times haunting, at times nearly ambient, at times almost more sketches than songs, and that’s all to its benefit. Kate’s never quite made an album like this. As one who grew up with brutals winters and who never has the need to experience one again now that I live in coastal California, I nonetheless find snowy winters fascinating, now happily from afar, and this album fits snugly into that narrative for me. It evokes winter without making me experience it in person. It’s also very much, almost, anti-pop music: these are often suites, and while some things here have traditional choruses, Top of the Pops fodder this most def ain’t. Increasingly this is my favorite Kate Bush album.

(Also, I love Ryan Dombal’s review of the album for Pitchfork.)

Posted in 2010s, reviews

These are a few of my favorite things: on “Cool Night” and a complicated relationship with my father

[Originally published, here, on April 10, 2003 — almost 14 years ago. I’ve made a few minor edits/updates, but the bulk of this is as originally written. And I swear this wasn’t done intentionally — I was looking for older pieces worth reposting — but “Cool Night” was at its #11 pop chart peak this very week in 1982!

My father voted for T—-, and I’ve not spoken with him since the election. Not only do I not particularly want to, but I’m not sure what I could say to him without screaming right now. I still love my father, but these days I definitely do not like him very much.]

Was listening to Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” today at work, and it made me think of my Dad, and the cold, cold northern Indiana winter of ’81-’82. “Waiting” for some reason reminds me of “Cool Night” by Paul Davis – it’s got that similar, ironically icy, keyboard feel to it – and I’m incapable of hearing “Cool Night” without thinking of my father. We had a number of days off from school that winter, due to cold and snow (in climes which see hard winters, yes, school can be cancelled for extreme cold/wind chills). One of those days, Dad took me to work with him. As a sideline to our small family farm (64 acres, maybe 100 cows or so), he sold veterinary supplies on a multi-county route of farms throughout a 50-mile-or-so radius from our house. This particular day, the heat in his truck was broken, but he had a portable space heater rigged up somehow, at my feet. That was utterly necessary, because the air temperature that day might’ve only broken double digits if we were lucky; I recall a weather report at one point telling us the wind chill was –16 degrees. And we drove along, Dad letting me listen to the radio; I picked the then-giant from Chicago, WLS-AM. They played all the best hit pop and rock tunes, and I loved them passionately. Oddly – perhaps because of the weather and implicit irony? – the only song I vividly remember hearing that day was Paul Davis’s #11 pop hit. That day’s always held fast in my memory, I think because it was one of the rare instances in which I felt like Dad was paying attention to me, like he was really my Dad, not just some guy who worked back-breakingly hard to put food on the table and clothes on our backs. I felt loved by a man I craved a relationship with, but always felt distant from. I was not, I think, the son he imagined or perhaps even hoped for.

Dad’s the fifth of seven brothers, raised on a farm in central Indiana. He graduated from high school in 1960, by which point the oldest of his brothers (my uncles) was already a teacher at his school. Dad went on to receive a B.S. in Animal Sciences from Purdue in ’64. He married Mom in ’67, and three years later to the month, I was born, the first of four kids, but the only son. Dad was a dairy farmer for nearly 35 years, until he went into the ministry in the mid-‘90s (he’s now a Pastor in the United Methodist Church) [he retired in 2016]. His world revolved around hard, physical labor – I saw him sustain broken ribs on more than one occasion, either from being kicked by an ornery cow, or from falling out of the second-floor hayloft. When he finally came in the house and was able to relax, the den was his territory. Dad’s never been a drinker, so that wasn’t a concern. What he wanted to do was relax by watching some sports; it really didn’t matter what it was. As I got older, I felt increasingly distant from Dad. I didn’t understand his world of bluecollar work and football. Mom was the one who encouraged my reading, who went to PTA meetings and band concerts and spelling bees. So I summarily began to reject everything I saw my Dad standing for.

That’s unquestionably why, when I first registered to vote immediately after my 18th birthday, I registered as a Democrat. Now I better understand that choice, and stand firmly behind it – the Dems as the party of Ted Kennedy [or Barack Obama, of course], not Joe Lieberman. But back then, all I knew was that it was different from Dad. During most of my teenage years, I didn’t really have a relationship with him; he was a cipher who had nothing to do with my life, apart from making money. I made one last stab at pleasing him, by taking up a sport my sophomore year of high school. I was always fairly gawky; my limbs shot out before I was ready for them, and all through elementary school and junior high was one of the tallest kids in my class. I also wasn’t particularly strong. So cross country seemed ideal – anyone can run, right? Suffice it to say that I wasn’t fast, but I tried, I busted my ass out on the course.

Dad never came to a single meet.

I know now, and maybe even subconciously knew then, that he couldn’t – our meets, mostly held after school before twilight waned, were at the exact time when he had to start getting ready to milk the cows, to pay for things like my snazzy blue New Balance running shoes. And please don’t misunderstand; I adore my father now. There’s no living man I admire more. Adulthood has helped me to see and understand the sacrifices he made for his family. But back then, I wanted nothing to do with him, especially after my non-championship season.

I love sports now, some at least – most obviously to readers, college basketball. I like football a little [less over the years, as it’s become sexual assault central], though baseball’s appeal has always and likely ever will eluded me. I can go home and watch NASCAR races with Dad, and enjoy them. But as in most every man, I think, there’s yet a part of me that only lives to make my Dad proud, to earn his praise. Back on that bitterly cold day in January 1982, however, all I knew was that he was proud. We stopped at a local grain elevator where Dad liked to shoot the shit with the guys, and I distinctly remember him showing me off, perhaps even having me demonstrate to his friends what a smart kid he had. [I’m typical – too smart for my own good, and I knew it all too early. Which means I’ve always had a tendency to slack.]

I don’t want to marry a man just like Dad. But even as I make my way into my mid-30s, I do want my Dad to like the man I decide to spend my life with. And I still want to make him proud.

I love you, Dad.

Posted in 1980s, favorite things, personal, pop