Sunday, January 22, 2017

The songs that moved me in 2016

Based on my monitored music-playing activity from, my 11 most-played songs of the year, limited to those released in or not too far from 2016:

Burn ~ Pet Shop Boys // From this year's Stuart Price-produced Super album, it's one of their best-ever stompers and the best track to emerge from the Boys' new hardcore dance phase. Not that the single choices matter much at this stage, but how was this not a single?

Living Inside My Heart ~ ABC // What a year to be an ABC fan, with the incredible Lexicon of Love II preceded by two amazing appetizers — this one from Fly (Songs Inspired by the Film: Eddie the Eagle) and the incredible Radiohead cover from the 80's Re:Covered album.

Blue ~ Marina and the Diamonds // Cannot get it out of my head and don't want to.

Say It to Me ~ Pet Shop Boys

Love Will Keep Us Together ~ Kim Wilde // Another gem from 80's Re:Covered.

Mine ~ Third Eye Blind // A stunning, unexpected, deconstructing cover … and those are the best kind. Better, to my ears, than Beyonce's original.

Twenty-Something ~ Pet Shop Boys // One of the best lyrical efforts of their last few albums.

I Can Fly ~ Lana Del Rey // Not much from Del Rey has caught my attention prior to this stunner from the closing credits of the great film Big Eyes about the artist Margaret Keane.

In Bits ~ Pet Shop Boys // The B-sides of the last three albums have not lived up to their impeccable track record, but the dour "In Bits" is a notable exception.

The Dictator Decides ~ Pet Shop Boys

Viva Love ~ ABC // From Lexicon II, it sounds like a natural extension of their run of '80s hits.

A few factoids on my year in music:

• Most played "oldies" of the year: "Blue Eyes" by Elton John, a single from 1982, and "The NeverEnding Story" by Limahl from 1984, prompted by the Spotify commercial. Forty of my 100 are from the 1980s.

• A look at Billboard's top 100 songs of the year is, as usual, a reminder of how far removed my tastes are now from the mainstream. My top 100 played songs of the year has only two crossovers with Billboard: "Sorry" by Justin Bieber (me #27, Billboard #2) and "Cheap Thrills" by Sia (not the Sean Paul version, please) (me #40, Billboard #11). If I had discovered it earlier in the year, "Stressed Out" by twenty one pilots would probably have joined those two — it's certainly one of the most interesting tunes to get radio play this year.

• Prince had gone a bit underappreciated in my playlists in recent years, resulting in a gradual slide down to #57 on the artists chart at the time of his death. I've since spent a lot of time revisiting his vast discography, resulting in a huge rebound to #21.

Go here for last year's recap and links to prior years.

Monday, December 26, 2016

At last, Pet Shop Boys in Nashville

Nashville enjoyed a night out with the Pet Shop Boys in November, "at last," as Neil Tennant declared. I was thrilled to be there for my second PSB concert and not to have to make the much longer drive to Atlanta as we did in 2009 for the Yes tour. It was a fantastic show in Andrew Jackson Hall near the Tennessee Capitol, with the additional on-stage musicians bringing a little twist to the performance, which included spectacular visuals. It's always thrilling to hear the new mixes they bring to the live shows.

Setlist highlights: "Love Comes Quickly," "Domino Dancing" and "The Dictator Decides"

Setlist quibbles: 1) The exclusion of "Being Boring" 2) The inclusion of "New York City Boy" 3) The representation of Fundamental only by "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show;" I'd choose any other of the album's tracks over that one except "Numb."

A special note: To the person seated in row L, seat 30, who sat on top of your seat, everyone behind you thought you were a giant douchebag.

Sometimes the clothes do not make the man, or: RIP George Michael

I've often wished that George Michael had just let go of whatever demons there were and made the proper follow-up to Faith, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) pop albums of the '80s. Listen Without Prejudice was a really good album, even if the fun had gone out of it. But, while it arguably has his best composition in "Freedom 90," it didn't feel like the proper successor to Faith. As the years went by and albums like Older and Songs from the Last Century slowly emerged, another pop opus clearly wasn't going to happen. As deep and impressive as his legacy of songs is, it still seems to me there was untapped potential. If he had ridden that imperial phase skillfully, he'd be on the short list with the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney. He currently sits at #37 on my most-played artists list.

The late-period single "White Light" seems rather poignant now.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"Hallelujah" and thank you, Kate McKinnon and Leonard Cohen

I spent some time this weekend listening to various versions of "Hallelujah," starting with Leonard Cohen's original, which I'd never heard and turned out to be nothing like I expected, based on the other interpretations.

I'm not sure I'd ever heard any version of the song before k.d. lang covered it brilliantly on 2004's excellent Hymns of the 49th ParallelI'd always assumed it was an older song, perhaps from the '60s, and certainly not something from the mid-'80s. It's an interesting piece that doesn't fit neatly into any category and is a bit confounding on a first listen. I also listened to the popular Jeff Buckley rendition, a live version by John Cale and a knowing interpretation by Willie Nelson from 2006's Songbird

But, at this moment, there is no more perfect version than the transcendent performance by Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live, which provided an emotional post-election catharsis some of us had been avoiding but desperately needing.

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Monday, October 31, 2016

Miami Vice on Blu-Ray

When Miami Vice started its run in 1984, I was 11 years old and more interested in the likes of Knight Rider. I was certainly aware of the new cop show, though — a person couldn't not be aware of it — and my folks were among the millions tuning in on Friday nights during its initial breakout. Even if I wasn't ready for its adult plots, I was ready for Jan Hammer's synthesizer masterpiece backing the flashy title sequence. I remember later buying the soundtrack on cassette in a Record Bar for about $4.99 (I now own Jan Hammer's Miami Vice: The Complete Collection).

All these years later, I became interested in actually watching the show, perhaps partly inspired by watching Magnum P.I. repeats on the Encore Classic channel and catching a few Vice airings on El Rey and Esquire (in grainy SD, though, thanks to DirecTV). Did the show match its ample style with substance? I wanted to know. I had watched the first season on DVD and about half of the second when I learned the show was finally getting a Blu-Ray release (there are also new DVD editions, if anyone cares).

So, the Blu-Ray set, released by Mill Creek, reached my hands a day or two after the Oct. 11 release date. There was scant information about its contents ahead of its release as far as audio specs and special features, which had me thinking it might be a disappointing low-rent effort, and, in some respects, it arguably is. The documentaries from the prior DVDs are excluded, so all you get here is the full five seasons, including the "lost" episodes (three aired by NBC after the show was axed and one aired in 1990 by USA). The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, and it sounds quite good, but there is no discernible use of the surround channels. I am no expert, but the transfer to Blu-Ray appears to be somewhat disappointing — it is crisp but largely lacking the "pop" you'd expect from a series set in Miami. I was particularly surprised by the flatness of the iconic title sequence. In comparison, I've been watching The X-Files, which is stunningly vivid in its new Blu-Ray presentation. The menus are fairly unimpressive, as well, lacking the episode synopses and factoids about guest stars and such found on the earlier DVDs.

As for that style vs. substance question, the jury is still out for me. I love trying to identify the songs and artists as they come up, and it's great fun to rediscover good tunes I'd completely forgotten about, like Godley & Creme's "Cry" in a mid-season 2 episode. I also find the art deco / pastels / urban decay motif visually interesting. One thing I appreciate in the storytelling style is the device of ending nearly every episode on the climax of a dramatic moment with no exposition or cleansing of the palate to follow. But, having just watched the episodes "Florence Italy" and "French Twist" and heading into the closing stretch of season two, I am feeling some fatigue with the show's recurring formulas involving prostitutes, pushers and the privileged. We'll see if I make it all the way to "Freefall," the series closer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A thought on Dead or Alive (or RIP Pete Burns)

To read the press accounts in the last few days of the death of Pete Burns of Dead or Alive, you'd think the band only ever managed one placing on the Billboard Hot 100, since they only mention "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," the 1985 hit. It's a fine pop tune, but I pretty much always preferred "Brand New Lover," also a top 15 hit in the U.S. in 1987 from the band's next album and also a production of the Stock Aitken Waterman team. The single "I'll Save You All My Kisses" from the same album is a fine reminder of the time, as well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Purple and "Gold" from Prince

While we're all revisiting the brilliance of Prince and looking for deeper cuts  — not as easy as most would probably like, given today's listening habits and his general absence from the streaming market — I suggest having a listen to "Gold," a corker of an anthem from his successful 1995 album The Gold Experience. He was reportedly very proud of this tune, and rightly so. If it had been released earlier in the mix of singles (it was last), it probably would have fared better than #88 on the Hot 100. I played it for a friend the other day, and he found it "generic," but I find it genius. 

Even at the center of fire, there is cold …