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. 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 Parallel. I'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.
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.
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.
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.
Although I did buy their "pick your own price" album in 2007, I never got into Radiohead. I'm a sucker for interesting remakes, though, so ABC's cover of "High & Dry," part of the recent 80's Re:Covered album with "80s" artists doing other people's later songs, brings the 1995 single to my attention. Like Beethoven flogging a Blur album track, ABC pulls out all its trademark New Romantic flourishes for the slow-paced alt-rock tune, which was a high point for Radiohead in terms of commercial exposure. It's a fantastic cover; ABC sounds as vital as ever, and it begs the question why they haven't released an album since 2008.
One of the last things you'd expect on a Christmas album is a cover of a Yaz (Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet) tune, but that's what Kylie Minogue served as the first taste of her Christmas album in a surprising (in several ways) duet with James Corden, the Brit host of The Late Late Show on CBS. Who knew that Corden could sing? He acquits himself better on this lush cover of the 1982 synthpop classic than he does as a late-night host. The Christmasy-orchestral makeover of the bouncy original lends heart to the lovelorn lyrics, making for a welcome gift to 80s fans from the enduring Aussie.
SONG OF THE YEAR:Can't Feel My Face • The Weeknd //This is the one that stopped me in my tracks the first couple times I heard it to say, Who is that? Those moody, ominous synths and dark lyrics had me at, "And I know she'll be the death of me, at least we'll both be numb. And she'll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come," which make me smile. I was surprised to find that Max Martin is one of the songwriters, given his pedigree, but this one could earn him a slot in my top 10 of the decade.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Rebel Heart • Madonna //With some careful editing of the track list, we get the best Madonna album since Ray of Light — a worthy successor loaded with mature and sophisticated pop songs like the title track and the brilliant stomper "Devil Pray." It figures that the only song from the album to crack the Hot 100, "Bitch I'm Madonna," is the first I excised from my iTunes. Now that radio has fully dismissed her, it's time to leave those pandering efforts behind and grow old gracefully with the rest of us.
Fifteen more favorite songs released in or around 2015, not necessarily in order of preference:
Ghosttown • Madonna //My most-played song of the year, this scorched-earth ballad would have been number one for weeks during her imperial years.
Rebel Heart • Madonna High on Love • Class Actress Hold Tight • Madonna Devil Pray • Madonna Déjà Vu • Giorgio Moroder (Featuring Sia) Living for Love • Madonna Talking Body • Tove Lo //Hypnotic and blissful pop.
Geronimo • Sheppard Dead Inside • Muse Boom Clap • Charli XCX Baby Don't Lie • Gwen Stefani I Can Change • Brandon Flowers Recreational Love • The Bird and the Bee //Sounding nicely like an extension of their Hall & Oates tribute.