5 Things: Favorite Music of 2014

One: click here for a Spotify playlist of forty-two favorite tracks from the year (including “O Canada” by Jill Sobule, video for which is embedded above).

Two: A complete list of all the albums I liked, ranked (click here and scroll to read further about the top twenty more or less in order):

    1. Jill Sobule – DOTTIE’S CHARMS
    2. Future Islands – SINGLES
    3. The New Pornographers – BRILL BRUISERS
    4. St. Vincent – ST. VINCENT
    5. Jessie Ware – TOUGH LOVE
    6. Lykke Li – I NEVER LEARN
    7. Cibo Matto – HOTEL VALENTINE
    8. Emm Gryner – TORRENTIAL
    9. Leonard Cohen – POPULAR PROBLEMS
    10. Stars – NO ONE IS LOST
    11. Gruff Rhys – AMERICAN INTERIOR
    12. Sun Kil Moon – BENJI
    13. Neneh Cherry – BLANK PROJECT
    14. Mac DeMarco – SALAD DAYS
    15. The Both – THE BOTH
    16. Ben Watt – HENDRA
    17. Suzanne Vega – TALES FROM THE REALM OF THE QUEEN OF PENTACLES
    18. Owen Pallett – IN CONFLICT
    19. Erasure – THE VIOLET FLAME
    20. Jenny Lewis – THE VOYAGER
    21. Sharon Van Etten – ARE WE THERE
    22. Perfume Genius – TOO BRIGHT
    23. Tori Amos – UNREPENTANT GERALDINES
    24. Spoon –THEY WANT MY SOUL
    25. Damon Albarn – EVERYDAY ROBOTS
    26. Lake Street Dive – BAD SELF PORTRAITS
    27. Real Estate – ATLAS
    28. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT
    29. Broken Bells – AFTER THE DISCO
    30. War on Drugs – LOST IN THE DREAM
    31. London Grammar – IF YOU WAIT
    32. Beck – MORNING PHASE

Three: Among the older albums I heard for the first time this year, I particularly liked the following: Fleetwood Mac – TUSK, Matthew E. White – BIG INNER, Jill Sobule and John Doe – A DAY AT THE PASS, John Grant – PALE GREEN GHOSTS, Prefab Sprout – STEVE McQUEEN/TWO WHEELS GOOD, The Dirtbombs – ULTRAGLIDE IN BLACK, Lalo Schifrin – BULLITT, Fairport Convention – UNHALFBRICKING, The Turtles – PRESENT THE BATTLE OF THE BANDS, Harry Nilsson – PUSSY CATS, Bob Mould – WORKBOOK

Four: I’ve made it one-fifth of the way through my ambitious 100 Albums project, finishing twenty essays so far (plus an introduction). Here are links to the five I like best, possibly because they are the most personal:

The Beatles, ABBEY ROAD
Joni Mitchell, BLUE
Stevie Wonder, INNERVISIONS
Talking Heads, REMAIN IN LIGHT
Kate Bush, THE DREAMING

My goal for this project is to at least make it to the half-way mark before 2016, but no big deal if I don’t, because I want these essays to be good.

Five: as for 2015, Belle and Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney and The Decemberists all have new albums coming out on January 20, so that’s a heck of a start. Also on the way: a reunited Juliana Hatfield Three, the first ever solo album from Kate Pierson (of The B-52’s) and Laura Marling–will her fifth LP be her fourth in a row to make my year-end top ten? Stay tuned…

5 Things: Turkeys of 1980

Instead of one turkey this year, why not five? I’ve previously written about how 1980 was an especially weird year for pop culture (via its award shows and top ten singles). Although it produced as much great, timeless art as any year (Talking Heads’ Remain In LightThe Empire Strikes BackThe Shining), one senses a general temporary lapse in good taste. If you disagree, well, take a look at the following five clips:

1. Xanadu

I will never argue that Xanadu is a great film, but compared to the other stuff on this list, it’s fairly benign unless you HATE Olivia Newton-John and roller disco and ELO and Gene Kelly (and would you really want to spend time with someone who hates two or more of those things?). It’s rife with contradictions: a futuristic extravaganza somewhat stuck in the ’70s and a commercial flop that produced a hit soundtrack. What sinks it is that it takes itself a little too seriously–the recent Broadway adaptation works much better because it’s gleefully, unapologetically camp.

2. The Jazz Singer

This “very special happening” is the one thing on this list that I haven’t seen. Apparently, film studios back then were desperate to turn pop singers into movie stars, via Bette Midler in The Rose (if you need another example of a flop, there’s Paul Simon in One Trick Pony). In theory, the gloriously hambone Diamond should have made the transition as easily as Midler. Unfortunately, he chose what looks like a real stinker, a preposterous, anachronistic remake no one was asking for with a wooden female lead and a rube of a main character who doesn’t know what palm trees are. Oh well, as with Xanadu, at least the soundtrack was a hit.

3. Pink Lady and Jeff

Long an easy punch line for the inquiry, “What’s the worst television show ever made?”, Pink Lady and Jeff does have an egregiously bad premise: it’s a variety show starring a female Japanese disco duo (each of whom speak precious little English) and an unctuous American comedian sidekick (who sadly talks too much). It’s brought to you by those crazy czars of bad 70s TV, Sid and Marty Krofft, whose Brady Bunch Variety Hour from three years before is actually the Worst Variety Show of All Time. In comparison, this one is almost The Carol Burnett Show, but instead of “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together”, each episode ends with a hot tub party–this one features a pre-senility Hugh Hefner; I’ve seen another with Larry Hagman and Teddy Pendergrass in the tub, whom with Jeff unintentionally resemble the “stars” of our next selection…

4. Can’t Stop The Music

Grease producer Allan Carr’s “musical extravaganza that launched the ’80s” (Carr biography Party Animals is a must-read, BTW) takes the rock-star-into-movie-star approach of The Jazz Singer and lets it run rampant like a bratty child on a sugar high (or an indulgent auteur with unlimited access to cocaine). The Village People were obviously past their prime by 1980, and you can practically taste the flop sweat dripping off this trailer. The whole project’s  inexplicable, really–watch Steve Guttenberg as VP’s svengali, a pre-Kardashian Bruce Jenner with his teeny tiny t-shirt and daisy dukes, special guest stars The Ritchie Family (WTF?), all of it directed by Rosie the Bounty Paper Towel Lady. That Can’t Stop The Music got made when disco was already dead is a testament to Carr’s chutzpah. Still, it’s almost Cabaret compared to…

5. The Apple

The Apple defies any notion of good taste and all logic, for that matter. Like Brian De Palma’s infinitely superior Phantom of the Paradise, it’s a rock-and-roll take on Faust, only this one’s set in the oh-so-futuristic-dystopia of 1994 and contains more sparkly sequins than even the opening credits of Can’t Stop The Music can manage. There simply are no words for how awful and awfully bizarre this film is. You won’t know whether to laugh, cringe or hurl stuff at the screen (like audiences did at a preview screening with copies of the soundtrack album) when viewing any of the musical numbers (thankfully, most of ’em are on YouTube). Instead of the trailer, I’ve singled out perhaps the film’s craziest sequence. “Speed” (or rather, “SPEEEEEEED!”) pushes 1980’s questionable aura to an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink extreme and comes off like an unholy combination of Billy Idol video and Richard Simmons workout. It could be a lost musical number from another infamous motion picture of 1980, Cruising. I have yet to see anything else so fascinatingly bad–from 1980 or any other year.

5 Things: Milwaukee TV Nostalgia

welcome milw vis

We’re gonna do it!

 

In YouTube’s infancy, a user who dubbed himself “MilwaukeeTV Madman” posted a treasure trove of commercials and station promos from the 1980s/early 1990s. By doing so, he revealed perhaps the website’s greatest asset: the ability to recall ephemeral touchstones previously stored deep within one’s memory. Silly but prevalent things from my childhood I haven’t thought of in years suddenly returned, from the super-nerdy jingle for Kahn’s men’s clothing stores to the fact that, from approx. 1984-85, Kohl’s Food Stores (not the department store) tried (and failed) to re-brand themselves as, ahem, Kohl’s II (actually kind of fitting in a golden age of movie sequels)

Sadly, it was  too good to last. MilwaukeeTVMadman’s channel was eventually shut down due to “copyright infringement”. I still periodically scour the web for similar artifacts from that era; below are five good ones.

1. Epic Channel 6 News Intro

This actual intro from the city’s then-CBS (now Fox) affiliate’s newscast actually made the internets earlier this year, prompting numerous Anchorman-type jokes. Personally, I’m not familiar with this one–it might be from the really early 80s, which I’m too young to remember well. Then again, when it came to the 10:00 news, we were more of a Channel 4 family .

2. Emergency TV Service

The quality here’s not the greatest, but if you watched Milwaukee TV in the 1980s, then you surely remember this deathless jingle. Hey, it’s still in business!

3. The Bowling Game, Brought to You By Geiser’s

Since it ran every weekday on once independent (now CW affiliate) Channel 18 at 7:00 PM (usually after a rerun of Gimme A Break! or Family Ties), The Bowling Game’s rousing, dorky theme song is forever etched in my brain–it seems so quaint that thirty years ago, people watched bowling on TV on a daily basis! Also, skip ahead to 8:50 for an ad for a once-ubiquitous, now long gone regional potato chip brand.

4. Is That A Hub Tag On Your Car?

Well, is it? Another catchy, if less-ubiquitous jingle (which is really all this ad had going for it) with an unforgettable spoken tag line. Speaking of which, I wish someone would post a commercial with the old Ernie von Schledorn jingle (“who do you know vants to buy a car?”).

5. Hello Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s version of the “Hello (fill in name of city)” jingle still makes me feel all warm and gooey inside. This article is vindicating, if only for proving that the jingle originated in my hometown. Although Milwaukee’s changed since the ’80s (mostly for the better), Channel 12 retains that same awful logo.

5 Things: Album Closers

Introducing an occasional new feature where I dissect examples of various pop culture phenomena and, um, basically, it’s a top five list (in no particular order). For years, I’ve also wanted to write about my favorite album closing tracks (because the “side one, track one” thing has been done to death); here’s five out of many I could have chosen.

Sam Phillips, “Where The Colors Don’t Go” (from Cruel Inventions)

At best, a strong album closer encapsulates everything great about the whole record while also feeling like an ending, providing some sense of closure. This track at the end of Phillips’ second secular LP lyrically reads like a career-defining manifesto, while Van Dyke Parks’ stirring string arrangement sweetens what could have risked sounding like a mere diatribe in a plainer setting.

Roxy Music, “Prairie Rose” (from Country Life)

Often, the best album closers are songs you never previously knew existed. Take Roxy Music’s fourth album, whose singles were “All I Want Is You” and “Out of the Blue”–both great tunes, but “Prairie Rose” is better. Everything about it showcases the glam Brits at their peak, from its propulsive, sly groove to Andy McKay’s frenetic sax solos to vocalist Bryan Ferry’s inspired interjections (“you’re TAHN-talizing me!”).

Portishead, “Glory Box” (from Dummy)

Most great album closers seem tailor-made for that slot in the sequence–you couldn’t imagine it placed in any other position (consequently, it runs the risk of sounding really out-of-place on a compilation). This trip-hop primer’s finale is a grand one indeed, slo-o-o-w-l-y fading in until it reveals itself as a declarative anthem in its chorus. Then, it goes even further than that (Beth Gibbons sounds on the brink of a violent death as she loudly sings the line that begins with “THIS IS THE BEGINNING…”) before slowly fading back out into the ether.

Belle and Sebastian, “Stay Loose” (from Dear Catastrophe Waitress)

The last track on an album is often reserved for its most atypical song: it could be an experiment, a deliberate stylistic departure, or simply a weak throwaway (on occasion, it can be all three). This Scottish group’s shiny, happy 2003 album is, in its entirety a departure from their earlier, moodier work and a generally successful one at that; this six-minute closer goes further afield, sporting an acerbic new wave influence never present before, but splendidly executed in service of an excellent melody and gleeful dueling guitar solos.

Sparks, “Suburban Homeboy” (from Lil’ Beethoven)

I mentioned album closers that aptly summed up the songs that preceded them; I also talked about ones that pivoted towards something new. Ladies and gentlemen, this one does both simultaneously and although it serves as an exquisite jumping-off point for this venerable duo’s eccentric melding of operatic/classical embellishments and pop music, it also perfectly caps off an album full of similarly themed and arranged songs with its most outrageous and inspired idea: a Gilbert and Sullivan-like testimonial to white boys who act like they’re black.