Sunday, December 31, 2017

Music that moved me in 2017

Top song …

My most-played song released in or not terribly far from 2017 is "Mistakes" by Avec Sans, which finishes at #2 overall in my top 100 of the year as monitored by This kind of ethereal, melancholy electronic bliss leaves me drooling. It's the closer on their really good debut album, Heartbreak Hi.

Other notables …

• "Up the Creek," Tori Amos' best single in years, at #29
• "Losing Touch," a new synth masterpiece by Empathy Test, at #20
• Sia had a big year on my chart, finishing at #3 with "The Greatest," #4 with "Never Give Up" and #11 with "Move Your Body."

Oldies …

My most-played song overall was Billy Joel's somber and reflective ballad "I've Loved These Days" from Turnstiles. The most-played album overall, by a substantial margin, was the very good super deluxe release of Fleetwood Mac's 1987 classic Tango in the Night.

Posthumously …

• George Michael finishes at #6 with "Something to Save," #7 with "White Light," #29 with "Heal the Pain" and #66 with "Shoot the Dog."
• Prince lands at #73 with "Strange Relationship," #87 with "The Morning Papers" and #95 with "P Control."
• Leonard Cohen is at #67 with "Hallelujah."

Most-played new album …

With 2017 releases from Erasure and Goldfrapp sadly underperforming, the door opened for Depeche Mode to sneak in with the politically charged Spirit. It's the only DM album I've wanted to listen to all the way through since Violator.

What's so hot about the Hot 100 …

There is, per usual, minimal crossover between my year-end chart and that of popular consumption. Here are the two miracle compositions:

• "I Feel It Coming" by The Weeknd Featuring Daft Punk, #34 Billboard, #56 me
• "Chained to the Rhythm" by Katy Perry Featuring Skip Marley, #73 Billboard, #20 me. I'm skeptical of everything to do with Katy Perry, and I think she's one of the most commercially and critically overrated forces in popular music, but there is no denying that this is a successful stab at mature and sophisticated electronic pop music. The same is true of "Roulette," which sounds like it could have been released in 1996, and lands at #60 on my year-end chart.

Click here for 2016 and prior years.

Friday, December 29, 2017

All these confused Star Wars feelings

Two years ago, I felt like I was one of the few detractors to The Force Awakens, which is so mired in homage to A New Hope that it fails to be its own movie, so I've watched with interest all the fan negativity being hurled at The Last Jedi. The truth lies somewhere between the critical 91 and the audience 51 scores bestowed upon this very long movie at Rotten Tomatoes … I find myself settling around a 3.5 out of 5. I left the theater feeling fairly conflicted … not outright disliking this one, but also thinking the whole franchise might be due for another good rest (which we know isn't happening), and I've never before felt that way.

Some things I know for sure:

• We do all expect a dose of humor in our Star Wars movies. "Will somebody get this big walking carpet out of my way," etc. Here, however, we have one after another painfully lame attempts at getting chuckles, starting right from the opening with the terribly awkward "on hold" for General Hux bit. It pulled me out of the movie. Along these lines, I also found myself becoming annoyed with the antics of BB-8.

• The Princess Leia moments in this movie are, sadly, not especially exciting.

• The homage problem is not as pronounced in this movie, but it's still there, as in the big fight scene in the imperial throne room, or whatever it is, when Rey is shown the attack in progress by Snoke on a handy little TV screen.

• Speaking of Snoke, who the hell is this guy?

• The absence of characters like Han Solo hurts. These movies generally have better casting than did the prequels, but the gravitas of character is lacking in The Last Jedi.

• After seeing them stand around in previous movies, it was cool to see the red-draped imperial guards engage in a major throwdown.

Rogue One easily remains my favorite of the new films.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

RIP Chiller

I've always liked knowing Chiller is there even if I don't often watch it — the world of cable would be less interesting without a channel devoted to the horror genre. But that's where we're headed, with NBCUniversal set to shut it down at the end of the year. It also fondly reminds me of the time when I got satellite television for the first time about seven years ago and had lots of new channels to explore.

I won't argue that Chiller was a great channel, but it commendably stuck to its niche — something countless channels have failed to do over the long haul as the hunt for ratings steers them to broader fare. The movies were often decidedly of the "B" variety on Chiller, but novel things came along from time to time, like that Psycho marathon, which resurrected the rarely aired sequels. And there were occasional interesting finds, like Death and Cremation (2010). The channel also stacked the schedule with some fun anthologies, like Tales from the Darkside, Monsters and '80s Twilight Zone.

Goodbye, Chiller — you were, indeed, scary good … sometimes.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ten years of scrobbling

Back in September, I reached my 10-year anniversary of using the scrobbler to record statistics on my music listening habits. At the beginning, it imported my iTunes history, so the statistics actually go back a bit farther than 10 years, and it also includes my Spotify activity. It's an irresistible thing for those of us who have the chart disease — I think people with a certain amount of OCD are predisposed to an unhealthy interest in the ebb and flow of popular music up and down the charts, and there's an added allure when it's limited to your own musical tastes. 

A few statistical highlights:

Number of songs played: 58,866
#1 artist: Pet Shop Boys (4,046 plays, about twice the number of second place)
#1 album: Yes by Pet Shop Boys
#1 song: "A&E" by Goldfrapp
#2 song: "Dancing On My Own" by Robyn. It's a crime against music that neither of these songs even cracked the Hot 100.
Highest-ranked '80s song: (tie) "One on One" by Hall & Oates and "This Is the Time" by Billy Joel at #8. I'm a little surprised to find that the two most-played from that decade are ballads, because when I think of my love for '80s music, I think of upbeat, synthy stuff. 
Highest-ranked '90s song: "I've Tried Everything" by the Eurythmics at #6
Highest ranked instrumental track: "Crockett's Theme" by Jan Hammer at #14. I've listened to a lot of Hammer's scoring for Miami Vice in recent years.
Most songs in the top 50: Pet Shop Boys, with eight. Next is Goldfrapp with five.
Most played '80s album: Autumnal Park by Pseudo Echo at #6. Ironically, I didn't own this synth pop classic until 2011.

View my profile here.

RIP John Hillerman

"Ohhhh, myyyyyyy God!"

In the last few years, I've enjoyed switching the tube onto Magnum, P.I. on The Starz Encore Classic channel in the late afternoons when I get home from work early enough to catch it. It's not a great show, but what it lacks in sophistication is made up for with style and a killer '80s theme. It has a noir-ish charm, particularly Magnum's narration (I know what you're thinking …), and a fine cast highlighted by John Hillerman as Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, the stuffy and suave caretaker of the Robin's Nest, the estate of potboiler novelist Robin Masters. Hillerman, who died Thursday (Nov. 9), was a Texan, but he played British flawlessly, and the ongoing tease of whether Higgins was actually Robin Masters was bloody good fun.

It was a fine turn, and Hillerman will always be Higgins to me.

"I say, Magnum …"

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Up the Creek with Tori Amos

Tori Amos' "Up the Creek" is the most striking song I've heard from her since the whirling dervish that is "Raspberry Swirl" from 1998. Springing from the fertile ground of resistance to today's asinine politics, it immediately takes hold with the unshakable refrain of "Good lord willing and the creek don't rise," a Southern expression that perfectly plays into the environmental theme and the struggle against "those climate blind." I haven't absorbed the full Native Invader album yet, but this is the clear standout, sounding both a tad folky and a tad electronic as her daughter joins in on vocals. It's a likely number one on my chart.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

George Michael's "Fantasy" reworked for new single

George Michael's first posthumous single isn't a new tune at all but instead a rework of a shelved track from the Listen Without Prejudice era. "Fantasy," which was previously released on the expanded reissue of Faith (and elsewhere), is transformed by Nile Rodgers into something that sounds current but also more of a piece with the smooth style of the song "Faith" than "Too Funky" and other later dance tracks. Michael's knack for killer hooks and beautifully layered vocals is evident here; it's a shame we didn't get another album full of this kind of exuberant pop music from him before much of his output became serious and stuffy. There's room for debate as to whether Rodgers has improved "Fantasy." The vocal distortions in the opening of the track and again about mid-way through are grating and nearly sink it right out of the gate, but the new rhythmic underpinnings are appealing.

Tori Amos' lost album gets release

I think the only time I ever heard a song by the one-and-done band Y Kant Tori Read during the campaign for their self-titled album in the late '80s (and until very recently) was on the old radio show "Future Hits." I distinctly remember hearing the odd name of this band, which featured a then-unknown Tori Amos. I had no memory of the song, though, which surely was the first single, "The Big Picture."

Timing is a funny thing sometimes. A couple of months ago, something got me thinking about Y Kant Tori Read and that long out-of-print album — might have been news of Tori's upcoming (now released) album — and the fact that I had no idea what it sounded like. Over to YouTube I went to check some of it out. Then, on Sept. 1, with little to no fanfare, it showed up as a digital release among the week's new music. Spotify failed to point me to it on my Release Radar playlist; I happened to come across a blog item about it. So, now I'm getting to absorb all of it.

The style is tough to label. It's had all kinds thrown at it — synthpop, hair metal, something like Pat Benatar — none of which are correct. It's really just pop rock with heavier themes that sounds very much of its time in terms of production; comparisons could be drawn to dozens of artists. One that crossed my mind is Jane Child. There is little foreshadowing of the piano-driven Little Earthquakes to come, but the closing title, "Etienne Trilogy: The Highlands, Etienne, Skyeboat Song," clearly signals the rather cryptic lyrical path Amos would choose.

The cover art is a hoot, with Amos done up like a weaponized dominatrix.

Released Jan. 6, 1988, the album Y Kant Tori Read saw its first two tracks, "The Big Picture" and "Cool on Your Island," become singles. My early impression is that these are the best tracks, perhaps followed by "Fayth" and "Floating City." So far, it seems like a 3 or 3.5 out of 5 stars album — a pleasant curiosity that Amos followed with a masterwork.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

What's so hot about the Hot 100? (chart week of May 6, 2017)

In 1987, I obsessively listened to the radio and probably could easily have identified about 80 songs on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. But it's not 1987 anymore …

Here's the first of an occasional stroll through the nation's definitive music chart to see if there is any crossover with my current rolling chart and to see what snark might emerge:

#1 Humble. by Kendrick Lamar // Another chart-topper that I've never heard …

#2 Shape of You by Ed Sheeran // There's something about the combination of Ed Sheeran's voice and enunciation that grates. Plus, this seems almost intentionally derivative of Justin Bieber's much superior "Sorry."

#11 Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt // I haven't heard it and can only imagine how atrocious this song must be, but there's no denying the cleverness of the title.

#22 Sign of the Times by Harry Styles // An 18-point drop in week two? Ouch. It's a pretty good and mature effort that is poised to reach my chart, though. I just hope he knew there is already a classic "Sign of the Times."

#31 Love on the Brain by Rihanna // A close call, as this one sits just outside my own top 100. I gave it a few spins because it sounded interesting, but then it suddenly didn't seem as interesting, and I'd like people to quit using "bae." It's even more obnoxious than "shawty." Getting back to Rihanna, it's impressive that she can still get this many singles deep into an album campaign.

#39 The Cure by Lady Gaga // Crossover! This surprise single sits at #75 on my own chart, and I haven't yet decided if I really like it. What I do know with certainty is I didn't like the direction of Joanne, although I don't begrudge her the urge to do something different.

#69 Any Ol' Barstool by Jason Aldean // I once did a phone interview with this guy to promote a small-town concert in a time before he had such a long list of hits. I'm sure he doesn't remember it, and I barely do.

So, Gaga's new single is the only instance of crossover between my chart (which includes many non-current tunes) and the Hot 100. Currently #1 on my chart is "Move Your Body" by Sia, her sixth chart-topper if we include the David Guetta collaboration "Titanium." And I say we shall.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Albums resequenced: Fleetwood Mac's Tango in the Night

Since Fleetwood Mac's 1987 classic Tango in the Night finally got the "super deluxe" treatment, I've been having fun creating my own alternate version of the album, which is one of my favorite things to do with good music. I've always enjoyed good remixes and alternate versions, and I love to plug them into the album. 

Thanks to a generous amount of material, we are able to replace all but three Tango album tracks ("Caroline," "Welcome to the Room... Sara" and "When Will I See You Again") with either a demo, an alternate version or a dance remix, while also extending the track listing with B-sides and demos of songs that didn't get released. For those remaining three tracks, we at least have the new remasters, although I'll reserve judgment on the merits of those results. As for the remixes, the treatments of "Little Lies" and "Everywhere" are among the best of their type from the late '80s, with excellent embellishments — would have been nice to get remix/edits of those as we did for "Big Love." The b-sides and demos are, by and large, fun additions.

For my alternate version, I've excised my least favorite track from the album, "When I See You Again," and added the best of the extras. I've made the instrumental demo of "Mystified" the album opener. It's got a wonderfully creepy vibe; it sounds like it should play in a scene of a movie like The Wicker Man or The Stepford Wives.

Here's my track listing, with a total run time of 1 hour, 19 minutes:

Mystified (Instrumental Demo)
Down Endless Street (B-side of "Family Man")
Big Love (Remix/Edit)
Seven Wonders (Early Version)
Everywhere (12" Version)
Special Kind of Love (Demo)
Tango in the Night (Demo)
Mystified (Alternate Version)
Little Lies (Extended Version)
Ooh My Love (Demo)
Family Man (Extended Guitar Version)
Welcome to the Room... Sara
Isn't It Midnight (Alternate Mix)
You and I, Part II (Full Version)
Book of Miracles (Instrumental)
Where We Belong (Demo)
Ricky (B-side of "Little Lies")

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Where's the revolution?

It's been about 12 years since a new Depeche Mode single really grabbed me (the last was "Precious" with the sonar sound pulsating throughout), but it's happening now with "Where's the Revolution," a rather clear and rousing political statement for those dismayed by how the country has recently gone off the rails.

Where's the revolution 
Come on, people 
You're letting me down


I especially like the bridge, with the repeated lines of "the train is coming" and "the engine is humming," as the music literally mimics the sound of a locomotive bolting down the tracks. I'm definitely on board. For a political playlist, I'll suggest "Policy of Truth" as the next track …

Ouija: Origin of Evil

The bar has sunk rather low for the horror genre when this mediocrity is sitting at 82 percent critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes, wouldn't you say? I'll grant you that it starts out promisingly, and I found myself thinking in the early going that it could end up being a rare gem. But oh, how the moods of the spirits do change. On the positive side, the '60s time setting is quaint, and watching the mother and her daughters perpetrate their innocent little ouija board scam has its charms. The ouija board scenes generate a few chills, and those bits when the youngest daughter, who falls under the spirit's influence, whispers evil nothings into her older sister's ear in the dead of night are downright creepy. It all goes awry, however, about half-way through when a character is found hanging from the rafters and the movie descends into typical horror movie claptrap, losing all the cleverness of the first half. Ouija says "no." // Verdict: 2.5 out of 5. Now available on disc and digital.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A few words about NBC's giant parabola

After about 1990, game shows seemed to move away from one of the common elements of many of the best ones — a giant, flashy set piece (think Press Your Luck, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune). But NBC's big-money spectacle The Wall, while stealing a simple game concept from another show, gets the set piece right in a big way. Not only is its prop the centerpiece of the game, it impressively serves as a massive TV screen where Rice-A-Roni would probably love to be plugged as a parting gift. The Q&A aspect of the show is certainly nothing special, and it seems a bit absurd to watch someone answer two out of six questions correctly and walk away with more than a million dollars. I could also do without the sappy husband-and-wife contestant stories. But, in the end, everybody loves a little Plinko.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Goldfrapp's new single

I really wanted to love the new Goldfrapp single, "Anymore," because it appears this album will be one of the more uptempo ones, and the last one left me cold (Head First, Supernature and Seventh Tree are my favorites). I gave "Thea" some streams but never even bought Tales of Us. "Anymore," if we compare it to the past material, sounds like it could fit on Black Cherry, which is neither particularly a good or a bad thing, but the melody is lacking for me. Here's hoping the album, Silver Eye, sounds better.

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.