I like lists (of old songs)

As expected, my three month trial of Apple Music has turned into a giant Music Nostalgia Machine.

I’ve been adding songs to a playlist cleverly called Pop Stuff. If I Think of a song, I add it. Most of them were songs I liked but not enough to buy the albums they were on because I was cheap and/or picky.

Here’s the list so far because, as has been established, I like lists. The songs are in the order I added them, which is random.

Save a Prayer. Duran Duran’s weirdly soothing mix of synths and guitars is both very 80s and yet timeless.
Don’t You Want Me. This was notable in being the first all-synth song to go #1. That seems positively quaint today, but in 1981 it was the first taste of what was to come.
The Safety Dance. The video is silly, the song is silly, the name of the band is silly, but it’s just so catchy. Also, synths because the 80s.
Ray of Light. From 1998, this may be Madonna’s best song. Effervescent, propulsive and vocally exciting.
Got to Get You Into My Life. I always liked this Beatles song. I think the brassy horns did it because as a kid I didn’t know what brassy horns were, I just knew I liked them.
Something About You. What lifts this song is both the soaring falsetto of keyboardist Mike Lindup and the funky bass of Mark King. The video features King as this weird pantomime character that turns seriously creepy toward the end of the song. I have no idea what they were going for.
Beat It. Never had enough interest in Jackson to commit to his albums, but really liked “Beat It.” The start of his vocal tics doesn’t diminish it.
Billie Jean. More tics and as David Letterman pointed out in 1982, he totally says “chair” instead of “child.”
Voices Carry. This song doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it would, but the chorus is still sweetly sung.
Radio Ga Ga. A guilty pleasure of sorts. The video, which intercuts clips from Metropolis, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s fun to watch, especially the bits with the band in the flying car. Most of them look vaguely uncomfortable.
Under Pressure. This song is a lot weirder than you probably remember. Freddie Mercury vamps it up while Bowie treats it Very Seriously.
We Will Rock You. Queen enters arena mode. And it works.
We Are the Champions. Arena mode, but quieter.
We Belong. Pat Benatar turns nice and this is a nice song.
White Rabbit. Amusingly subversive, the way Grace Slick’s vocals build to a crescendo is still really effective.
I Want You to Want Me. A fellow student was constantly playing Cheap Trick in Drawing & Painting class, so I pretty much knew their first two albums by heart. This song is even slighter than I remembered. Surrender is better.
Heat of the Moment. Asia was one of those “supergroups” that had the unfortunate luck of peaking with their debut, making everything after a bit of a disappointment. This song is still catchy and serves as a kind of template for what some call the widescreen music of the 80s.
Beds are Burning. Peter Garret has a weird voice and dances like a chicken, but this song delivers its message about the plight of Australian aboriginals in a slick package. Also the other band members were all really hot. I’m just sayin’.
A Horse With No Name. The lyrics are silly (“the heat was hot”) but the layered vocals are as smooth now as they were in 1971.
The Reason. The jewel robbery of the video bears no relation to the content of the song, but that’s okay. There’s nothing outstanding here, but it all fits together so well it doesn’t matter. Plus more hot band members. Just sayin’.
She Loves Everybody. One of the newer songs on the list. I don’t recall how I came across Chester French, the short-lived duo, but this song (and video) are amusing and catchy. I like catchy music. I need to find a synonym for “catchy.”
Skyfall. As Bond themes go, this is one of the best. It’s theatrical, Adele’s vocals lend it the proper gravitas, and the orchestration works perfectly. The lyrics range from opaque to silly, fitting with Bond, really.
Empty Garden. Elton John’s tribute to John Lennon. This one really takes me back to 1981.
(Just Like) Starting Over. The above inspired me to get this, Lennon’s fun take on renewal, which gleefully changes style throughout, not to mention Lennon’s occasional riffs on Elvis. Enough time has elapsed that listening to it no longer makes me feel sad.
9 to 5. Short, catchy and perfectly calibrated to the movie that it served as the theme for. In the 1980s Dolly Parton could do no wrong.
Can’t Smile Without You. Barry Manilow came out as gay at the age of 73. I hate to tell you this, Barry, but we kind of knew. This is classic Manilow–big, schmaltzy, but also kind of irresistible.
Waiting for a Girl Like You. My favorite Foreigner song. I love the icy keyboards.
Can’t Fight This Feeling. Another guilty pleasure. A bit too slick for its own good, this REO Speedwagon hit is terrific in small does.
Angel of the Morning. I love the brief martial drum in Juice Newton’s cover.
Africa. I know there’s some Toto song I really liked back when they were big (around the time of Toto IV). I thought this was it, but listening to it, I’m not so sure. Maybe it was Rosanna?
Take On Me. Everyone remembers the video, but I’m still impressed at how lead vocalist Morten Harket climbs through the octaves during the chorus.
Hold Me Now. Not sure if guilty pleasure. But dare I say it–catchy? The Thompson Twins also serve as an early example of inclusiveness.
Some Like It Hot. Power Station was another supergroup that debuted big, then disappeared (they did do a second album about a decade later). The song opens with big, crunchy percussion and Robert Palmer growls and croons his way through this with aplomb.
Sledgehammer. Everyone remembers the video, but the song itself is an amusing delight all on its own.

The paralysis of choice: Streaming music

If you ask someone to choose between three things, most will not find the task difficult. Expand those choices to ten and it requires more thought and investment in time, but most could still make a final selection using appropriate criteria.

Further expand those choices to, say, a hundred, and now you’re looking at a take-home assignment. And the person asked to choose may drop your class before reaching a decision.

This is the paralysis of choice.

I signed up to the three-month trial of Apple Music, mostly because the iOS 11.3 update seemed to add annoying pop-ups to the music app, bugging me to really try Apple Music, seriously, you’ll love it. So many songs. So much music.

I gave in and signed up to the trial and it’s true. There is a whole lot of music.

And I have no idea what to listen to because there is too much to choose from.

There are radio stations and playlists, but these just underscore how out of touch I am with current pop music. I recognize some of the names, but not all or even most of them. And these are for the music genres I like. I suppose exposing myself to new artists and the sounds they make is all part of this grand experiment, so I’ll give it a shot.

But really, my first pick was playing a song from the Styx album Kilroy Was Here. Not an auspicious start.

Also, I have some thoughts on the Apple Music interface as it relates to iTunes (PC and Mac versions), but it’s challenging formulating my impressions without lapsing into a rant, so I’ll need more time to gather those complaint-y thoughts into a more reasoned look at how Apple integrates its streaming service into the much-loved* iTunes software.

 

* ho ho

My Top 10 Albums of 2017

Or “Why I don’t know anything about the current state of pop music.”

I apparently only bought seven albums this year. That may actually be higher than average compared to most album buyers, since the album format is either dead or dying (or just on a temporary downward trend if you’re feeling less doom and gloom about it).

The albums I bought fall into these categories:

  • Albums previously owned but purchased for the sake of having them in digital format: 1
  • Albums bought because a friend had them and I liked them and they were on sale: 2
  • Albums that were cheap and had at least one song I liked so I figured why not: 4
  • Albums I bought that were released in 2017: 0
  • Albums I bought that were released in the 21st century: 0
  • The year each of the seven albums were released:
    • 1976
    • 1978
    • 1982
    • 1983
    • 1984
    • 1986
    • 1992

So really, this was an exercise in 1980s nostalgia. Not surprising since that was the formative decade for my taste (or lack thereof) in music. The seven albums are:

  • Hotel California, The Eagles. I’ve heard the title track a billion times and somehow I am still not tired of it. The rest of the album holds up well given its age and Don Henley’s cynicism is just as appropriate–or moreso–in 2017.
  • The Cars, The Cars. The Cars! This album got played endlessly in Drawing and Painting class in junior high but I didn’t mind because it’s a crazy good pop confection.
  • Vacation, The Go-Go’s. Worth it for the title track, “He’s So Strange” and “Worlds Away.” Not quite as catchy as their first album but pretty close.
  • Eliminator, ZZ Top. For some reason I can never bring myself to listen to the whole album, just the singles that I’m familiar with like “Sharp-Dressed Man” and “Legs.” I have no buyer’s regret.
  • Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. What an improbable success. A friend had this on that newfangled CD format and it’s a bizarre mix of covers, ersatz prog rock, dance music and ballads. Somehow it works, in no small part due to Holly Johnson’s commanding presence.
  • Crowded House, Crowded House. A lovely pop album with one of the most essential songs of the 80s, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
  • Harvest Moon, Neil Young. The title track is a sweet ballad and the rest of the album is similarly soothing as Young gets quiet instead of weird or angry.

Maybe one of my resolutions for next year will be to buy an album released next year. Hey, it’s happened before! (Last time in 2014.)

The limits of nostalgia

Nostalgia is one of those inevitable things you get pulled into as you get older. Some give into it entirely, refusing to embrace anything new in favor of yelling at clouds and acting as if everything from their youth was better.

The reality is some things were better. Prices were lower. I can remember candy bars costing as little as 10 cents each. They cost more than ten times that now. Is that progress? Yes, if you sell candy bars. But they’re bad for you, so it’s difficult to get overly upset about that bit of inflation.

The reality is also that some things were bad. They are not worth remembering fondly. They are maybe not worth remembering at all, except as cautionary tales to warn future generations.

Fashion comprises almost all of the things in this category. Every decade has its fashion tragedies. Big hair. Acid wash jeans. Parachute pants. Running gear from 1975. You’d think it would be hard to screw up something as basic as a shirt and shorts. Then you see this:

Image courtesy of Up and Humming – A Running Blog

This looks like a publicity still from a 1977 gay porn film. Marathon Men. And what was the deal with tucking in your shirt? At least they’re not wearing those socks. Which socks? These socks:

Yes, I had socks just like these.

But what I’m here to talk about now is music.

I was not an experimental type when it came to listening to music in my teens (time-wise this was around 1977-84). While friends grooved to Dylan, Bowie and Lou Reed, I listened to The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees and Blondie. Pretty much any band that started with the letter “b.” Now, all of the groups I’ve mentioned are fine and I still enjoy listening to them today. And The Beatles (and even to an extent Blondie) pushed the boundaries on rock music. But for the most part these were safe, mainstream choices.

Below these bands were choices that were perhaps less likely to win armfuls of Grammys, like Boney M. Still, I eventually repurchased Boney M’s seminal Nightflight to Venus on iTunes. It even embraces its retro-ness by including album art that is literally a photo of the CD cover. And I’ve repurchased other albums of yore that were not exactly showered with critical acclaim but that I enjoyed too much to resist–Queen’s The Game, Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger and so on.

But there’s a line I won’t cross, where I have to admit the music I liked way back then was actually pretty bad.

So while I happily reacquainted myself with The Police’s Synchronicity, I could not do the same with Styx.

Sorry, Styx.

I bought two of their albums, 1981’s Paradise Theater and 1983’s Kilroy Was Here.

Paradise Theater is actually a pretty decent album and I loved the concept and even the album art. I liked the album enough to pick up their next, Kilroy Was Here. This was another concept album, about a fascist government (one in the future, not the one the US has now) that outlaws rock music. There was a mini-film and most people who were around back then probably remember the oddball hit “Mr. Roboto.” But here’s the thing. It’s a terrible album.

There are some good songs, like Tommy Shaw’s shimmering “Haven’t We Been Here Before?” but “Mr. Roboto” is cringe-inducing and the concept, which seems to be mocking the Moral Majority, is played completely straight, which makes it all the more ridiculous.

Nostalgia can’t bring me to buy either of these albums, and I played both quite a bit when they were new. I can still quote the (awful) lyrics from “Mr. Roboto.” But there are lines that cannot be crossed, so while Duran Duran, Boney M and the soundtrack for Grease get a pass, Styx does not.

Seasons in the Sun, now with more bees

What if the Terry Jacks classic song had been about bees and dying, instead of love and dying?

Bee-sons in the Sun

Goodbye to you, my trusted friend.
We’ve known each other since we were nine or ten.
Together we’ve climbed hills and trees.
Learned of love and ABC’s,
skinned our hearts, got stung by bees.

Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die,
when all the bees are buzzing in the sky,
Now that the spring is in the air.
Killer bees are everywhere.
Think of me and I’ll bee there.

Had no joy, and got stung, we ran from hornets in the sun.
But the hills that we climbed
were just beehives out of time.

Goodbye, Papa, please pray for me,
I brought the bees back to the family.
You tried to teach me right from wrong.
Too much wine and too much song,
and the bees all stinging strong.

Goodbye, Papa, it’s hard to die
when all the bees are buzzing in the sky,
Now that the bees are in the air.
Children screaming everywhere.
When you see them I’ll be there.

Had no joy, and got stung, we fought hornets in the sun.
But the wine and the song,
like the bees, have all gone.

Had no joy, and got stung, we fought hornets in the sun.
But the honey and the bong,
like the bees, have all gone.

Goodbye, Michelle, my little one.
You gave me love and helped me find the sun.
And every time that I was down
you would always come around
until the bees put me in the ground.

Goodbye, Michelle, it’s hard to die
when all the bees are buzzing in the sky,
Now that the bees are in the air.
With the flowers they don’t care.
Just to sting us here and there.

Had no joy, and got stung, ran from wasps in the sun.
But the houses we could reach
were just wall to wall with bees

All our lives we would run, we faced hornets in the sun.
But the hills that we climbed
Were just beehives out of time….

Okay, that’s pretty bad, but I somehow feel better having written it. Also, I tried to rhyme “reach” and “bees”, which illustrates my mastery of poetry and songwriting.

The Cars have run me over again

iTunes has a bunch of “Classic Rock Albums” on sale right now for under $7. While one might argue over what constitutes both rock and classic, there’s a bunch of good stuff here for old fogeys who fondly look back on the 70s and 80s because they were there.

Like me.

I decided to pick up The Cars’ eponymous 1978 debut and listening to it hit me with a powerful blast of deja vu.

Back in junior high, I took Drawing and Painting, even though I was never terribly good at either. During classes when we worked on our projects we were allowed to play music, provided everyone agreed to the selection. It was an unusual treat and one we savored.

One person in particular–whose name I’ve long forgotten–was the self-appointed arbiter of music and we pretty much went along with his picks.

He really liked Cheap Trick, who were a new band at the time.But he also liked The Cars, another new band.

We listened to a lot of Cheap Trick.

But he also liked The Cars, another new band at the time.

When I listen to the album now, it not only invokes memories of the class, I am reminded of how the album plays like a greatest hits collection. There are a lot of songs here that got radio play. I’m also impressed all over again at Ric Ocasek’s writing skills. The lyrics are funny and quirky and the music is catchy and inventive, effortlessly switching off from ringing guitars to cheesy organ and back again. The album is a brief 35 minutes long and it races from beginning to end, a near-perfect pop joyride.

Plus it has the lyric “Let them brush your rock and roll hair,” which is exactly what you’d expect the good times to do. Right?

Right.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

I recently bought the album Hotel California because it was cheap and I’ve apparently decided to live in the past. Given how 2017 is playing out I don’t know that anyone would blame me. I never owned the album when it was new (in 1976), though I was just old enough to, even way back then. I was familiar with the singles, though, notably “Life in the Fast Lane” and of course the title track.

When The Eagles reunited in 1994 (after splitting up 14 years earlier) I wondered how they felt about the song. Radio played it to death, back when people listened to radios. It’s their “Stairway to Heaven,” a song that is indelibly tied to the band. I can’t even guess how many times I’ve heard it before finally buying the album. More than a dozen but less than a billion.

But a lot.

And yet, I find myself listening to the song now and it crackles with energy and still feels fresh coming through my headphones more than 40 years later. I love the opening guitars, the ironically upbeat chorus, and the overall Twilight Zone creepiness of the lyrics, ending with the great line I quote in the title of this post. And so I award “Hotel California” my favorite old song of the moment and best old song from 1976.

(I can’t actually think of other songs specifically from that year. Probably something by The Carpenters.)

Okay, I cheated and looked up the top ten songs of 1976:

No. Title Artist(s)
1 Silly Love Songs Wings
2 Don’t Go Breaking My Heart Elton John & Kiki Dee
3 Disco Lady Johnnie Taylor
4 December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) The Four Seasons
5 Play That Funky Music Wild Cherry
6 Kiss and Say Goodbye The Manhattans
7 Love Machine The Miracles
8 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover Paul Simon
9 Love Is Alive Gary Wright
10 A Fifth of Beethoven Walter Murphy

This is what you call a study in contrasts. Some legitimate classics (“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”), predictable fluff (“Silly Love Songs”–this was #1 for the year? Or any year?) but disco was in full bloom, like a hideous algae covering your favorite swimming lake with a grotesque film and you prayed it would go away and a few years later, it did (then it came back). Still, no “Muskrat Love” so it wasn’t all bad.