Thursday, November 19, 2015

Five Just Plain Awful Songs By Some of My Favorite Performers

This is a fun post for me, but it may not be for you if you like (or love) any of these songs. Keep in mind however that I am including performers who I love with all my heart because of all the great songs they did produce, and not because I revel in their failures. Well, maybe I revel a little. One of the joys of loving pop music is to point out the really bad stuff even as you laud the great stuff, if only because pop art is all about the balance between glorious achievement and often hilarious botching. Plus, it's just plain good fun to make fun of bad things. So in that spirit, please take a listen and a gander at some notorious botches from these otherwise stratospheric talents.

10. R.E.M., "Shiny Happy People"
R.E.M.'s 1983 debut album Murmur was and still is one of the touchstones of my pop culture life -- its shimmering, summery mysteriousness and baffling vocals reach me with equal force every time I listen to it. But as their career and popularity grew to greater heights, I felt less connected with the band's music, which was probably more my problem than theirs. It's not like they should have (or could have) duplicated Murmur with every new record. But then came the last straw for me in 1991 when R.E.M. released this grossly dopey ditty. I was especially stupefied by the crayon-color music video with all the goofy hopping around, especially by Michael Stipe, one of college rock's most notorious introverts. (The exceptions are the presence of the B-52s Kate Pierson, who makes the video almost bearable, and Peter Buck, whose facial expression throughout tells you all you need to know.) But honest to god, what were they thinking? (Stipe reportedly regrets this song to this day, and the band purposely left it off their greatest hits collections.)

9. Bruce Springsteen, "Queen of the Supermarket"

Here's where I'm really asking for trouble. Ask any hardcore Springsteen fan to name his worst song, and they will most likely answer that Bruce doesn't write really bad songs. On a certain level, this is true. It's hard to find anything in his catalog that is truly execrable, unless you can't stand Springsteen and in which case your answer would be "all of them".  But by the time I first heard this song my patience was about used up -- it seemed to me that Bruce had gotten to a point where he was just spinning out albums so he and the E Street Band would have an excuse to go on tour. Which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but this guy at the age of 24 wrote lyrics like "running into the darkness, some hurt bad, some really dying/at night sometimes it seemed you could hear the whole damn city crying" and was now stickin' us with

I'm in love with the Queen of the Supermarket
As the evening sky turns blue
A dream awaits in aisle number two

-- and I for one was having no part of it.

8. Elvis Presley, "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad"

Yes I know -- this is shooting fish in a barrel. It's actually fairly difficult to choose a bad Elvis song, because there are so many. I could easily have chosen "(There's) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" or "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce" or even "Do the Clam". The list is almost endless. And anyway, it's not entirely Elvis's fault. Once the Colonel in all his wisdom cut Elvis off from great songwriters like Leiber & Stoller (who quite rightly balked at having to cut the King in on 50% of their publishing rights), he handed his client's considerable talent over to some of the most talentless songwriting hacks who ever put notes on paper. Still, a legacy is a legacy, and Elvis sure went along with whatever crap got put on his plate, so it is what it is.

I finally decided on this song because its message is we need to pay our taxes! In case you think I'm kidding:

If you're not in form, ten-forty's your salvation
By deprivation of temptation
Dark and blondes I hear are not deductible
Oh, say, can you see if there's anything left for me?

7. John Lennon, "Luck of the Irish"

One often wonders what John Lennon would have accomplished musically had he not been gunned down savagely at the age of 40. Musically, it's hard to say -- I like to believe he would have embraced the coming of the internet and social media with fiery enthusiasm, and I am completely sure the 1996 Beatles reunion would have been absolutely fine by him. One thing I do know is that we wouldn't be left with what is a very small and deeply uneven legacy of solo work -- once you get past Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, the number of truly great Lennon solo songs is pretty meager. His 1972 album Some Time in New York City has zero great Lennon songs, so it's where I aimed my critical scope. Yoko's songs on the LP are unspeakably awful, but that's really no surprise and anyway she doesn't count for our purposes. The real standout as far as John's songs go has to be this one -- not so much for its performance, which is rather quite beautiful and earnestly sung (excepting again Yoko, whose vocals are so bad you want to hit your head with a leprechaun). What puts this song into the realm of Just Plain Awful are the lyrics, which have to be the most embarrassing and politically tone-deaf odes to the Troubles in Ireland:

If you had the luck of the Irish
You'd be sorry and wish you were dead
You should have the luck of the Irish
And you'd wish you was English instead!

Listen, I could have been really mean and quoted the verses Yoko sings, which include such brilliant observations such as "let's walk over rainbows like leprechauns/the world would be one big Blarney stone". But I would never do that to you.

6. The Clash, "Lose This Skin"

Well, I suppose maybe this doesn't count. But then again, it does. It comes from the band's 1981 album Sandinista!, which at the time was considered a staggering artistic achievement and stands as a precursor to the coming of what soon would be called "world music" and includes a brilliant hodgepodge of punk, gospel, hip-hop, and reggae that still kicks the ass of anything U2 ever came up with. Unfortunately, this 3-LP set also comes with a lot of filler, including "dub" versions of many of the songs, and a few novelty odds 'n' ends that probably could have been shelved in the interest of making Sandinista! a truly great double LP. Case in point: Joe Strummer's pal Tymon Dogg, who wrote, sang, and played violin on this track. So it doesn't count in that it is not an actual Clash song, but then the Clash released it and put their name on it, so I blame them. It's not so much that this song is so incredibly awful, it's that it should never have been on the album in the first place. But it is pretty bad. (Which still won't stop Clash fans from kicking my ass for including it here.)

What are some clunkers by some of your favorite performers?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Best and Worst Christmas Albums Around, Volume 2

The Beach Boys, Ultimate Christmas (Capitol, 1998)

1.       Little Saint Nick
2.       The Man With All The Toys
3.       Santa's Beard
4.       Merry Christmas, Baby
5.       Christmas Day
6.       Frosty The Snowman
7.       We Three King Of Orient Are
8.       Blue Christmas
9.       Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
10.   White Christmas
11.   I'll Be Home For Christmas
12.   Auld Lang Syne
13.   Little Saint Nick (Single Version)
14.   Auld Lang Syne (Alternate Mix)
15.   Little Saint Nick (Alternate Mix)
16.   Child Of Winter (Christmas Song)
17.   Santa's Got An Airplane
18.   Christmas Time Is Here Again
19.   Winter Symphony
20.   (I Saw Santa) Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
21.   Melekalikimaka
22.   Bells Of Christmas
23.   Morning Christmas
24.   Toy Drive Public Service Announcement
25.   Dennis Wilson Christmas Message - Dennis Wilson 
26.   Brian Wilson Christmas Interview - Brian Wilson

Be prepared for some ranting about the major labels.

Capitol Records (now under the thumb of Universal Music Group) has released a pile of versions of The Beach Boys Christmas Album.  That album, originally released in November 1964, was merely the sixth album the band had released in the previous 14 months.  Accordingly, it’s sort of half-great – Brian created a couple of classics in “Little Saint Nick” and “The Man With All the Toys,” both of which deservedly still get airplay on Christmas stations today.  The seven “classics” feature the typical harmonies drenched in orchestral arrangements by Dick Reynolds (who’d done the same for The Four Freshmen) – Brian loved that sound, but it was a little dated then, and even more so today.  Still, it’s a pretty decent album on the whole, and it’s in print today under two titles:  The Beach Boys Christmas Album and Christmas Harmonies (with three additional tracks).

Ultimate Christmas, however, adds more.  The good news is it has a couple of alternate versions of “Little Saint Nick” – a stereo mix with added instrumentation that was released in 1965, and a really cool version that picks up the lyrics from the song and drops them on a completely different melody – 1965’s “Drive-In,” from Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!).  It also adds a pretty decent song written by Brian Wilson circa 1973, “Child of Winter.”  Unfortunately, it also adds seven songs from what wound up being a failed attempt at a second Christmas album – when Warner Brothers told them to pony up a real album instead (Christmas albums were not on the record labels’ priority list in 1977), some of the songs were quickly rewritten for one of the band’s worst studio releases, M.I.U. Album.  (Maharishi International University – Mike Love was into TM at the time).  A few Christmas commercial spots fill up the album.

Capitol was pretty good about putting this stuff out for the fans in the 1990s, and Ultimate Christmas was a welcome release in 1998.  Now, of course, they would rather rake in the bucks, so this is out of print and unavailable for download – Amazon has one copy for thirty-five dollars (The Beach Boys Christmas Album is $7.99 for the download, and Christmas Harmonies, with those three additional songs  - all included in Ultimate Christmas – is inexplicably two dollars less.)  Couldn’t this album be available at full price?

Best:  “Little Saint Nick” (all three versions), “The Man With All the Toys,” “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “Christmas Day,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, “Child of Winter (Christmas Song),” and “Morning Christmas” (the only song written by Dennis Wilson from the 1977 sessions).

Worst:  everything else from the 1977 sessions.

Various Artists, (Putumayo Presents) Acoustic Christmas (Putumayo, 2013)

1.       Mindy Smith - "It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)"
2.       The Sugar Thieves - "Santa Baby"
3.       Leon Redbone - "That Old Christmas Moon"
4.       She & Him - "The Christmas Waltz"
5.       Emilie Claire Barlow - "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"
6.       Charles Brown - "Please Come Home for Christmas"
7.       Stacey Kent - "The Christmas Song"
8.       Stephanie Davis - "I'll Be Home For Christmas"
9.       Johnny Moore's Three Blazers - "Merry Christmas Baby"
10.   Hem - "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

Putumayo has put out a few of these CDs, and I’ve managed to take two of them out from the library.  I don’t think everything is acoustic, contrary to the title’s claim (there’s definitely some electric guitar and keyboard in there), but the idea is there.  The feel is mostly jazz and blues, and it’s somewhat nontraditional, which is fine with me.

Best:  You can’t go wrong with Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” and this acoustic remake of his own song is fine in its own right.  “The Christmas Waltz” by She & Him proves that Zooey Deschanel isn’t just getting record contracts because she’s attractive and an actress; she’s genuinely a good singer.  Mindy Smith’s “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)” has cool lyrics that work either as the first Christmas with a new love, or the first Christmas with a new addition to the family.  And Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers’ “Merry Christmas Baby,” from 1948, is a great bluesy tune that deserves more exposure.

Worst:  Stacey Kent’s “The Christmas Song” is even more pensive and lugubrious than usual.  I’ve never gotten the appeal of Leon Redbone, and after hearing “That Old Christmas Moon,” I still don’t.  And I really have never liked “Santa Baby,” which started out as a  slightly over-obvious attack on commercialism and greed and has somehow turned into a piece about seducing the big guy (I blame Madonna); The Sugar Thieves’ version isn’t awful, but I don’t think I’ve heard a good version.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Best and Worst Christmas Albums Around, Volume 1

Years and years ago, I read in Esquire magazine the best way to acquire a good collection of Christmas records was simply to pick one out every year.  I’ve tried to do that, for the last 30 years or so, and over time (and thanks to our local public library, which has a pretty astonishing collection), I’ve heard  lots of great and not-so-great Christmas music over the years.  Between now and Christmas, I’m going to try to drop a few hints here and there.

Various Artists, Have a Nice Christmas: Holiday Hits of the ‘70s (Rhino, 1994)

1.       Bobby Sherman, “Yesterday’s Christmas”
2.       Melanie, “Merry Christmas”
3.       The Jimmy Castor Bunch, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”
4.       The Osmonds, “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” (with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”)
5.       Martin Mull, “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope”
6.       Jim Croce, “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way”
7.       Liberace, “Christmas Medley: White Christmas/Jingle Bells/O Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)/Silent Night, Holy Night”
8.       Wayne Newton, “Jingle Bell Hustle”
9.       Cheech & Chong, “Santa Claus and His Old Lady”
10.   Glen Campbell, “I Believe in Christmas”
11.   Ricky Segall & The Segalls, “All I Want to Ask Santa Claus”
12.   Donny & Marie, “Winter Wonderland”
13.   Bobby Sherman, “Jingle Bell Rock”
14.   Martin Mull with The Sondra Baskin Glee Club, “Santafly”
15.   Gary Glitter, “Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas” 
16.   Grandpa Walton, Will Geer, “Grandpa’s Christmas Wish”

This is the Christmas followup to Rhino’s long-running Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the ‘70s series of compilation CDs, which were quite popular in the early 1990s (and yes, I have all 25 volumes).  However, Rhino’s didn’t make much of an effort to bag any Christmas chart hits (of the five songs with Christmas in the title that made Billboard’s Hot 100 in the 1970s, this contains precisely none of them), so what we’re offered is a mixed bag of kitsch and Dr. Demento leftovers.

Best:  Obviously, Jim Croce’s “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way” is head and shoulders above everything else here, but it’s a Christmas song in the way Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” is a New Year’s song – it’s a song of regret and longing that happens to take  place around a holiday.  It’s available on Croce’s album Life and Times, as well as a live version and another Christmas anthology, Singers and Songwriters: Christmas, that looks considerably better than this one.  Also, nothing by Glen Campbell is truly awful, so even though his “I Believe in Christmas” was unreleased to this point, it’s worth hearing.  Unfortunately, it’s not available for download.  Finally, you wouldn’t think The Jimmy Castor Bunch (“Bertha Butt Boogie,” “Troglodyte (Cave Man)” could produce a pretty decent sax-driven version of “The Christmas Song,” but what’s here is 75 percent of a pleasant surprise (it would be a 100 percent pleasant surprise if the backing track didn’t sound like the 1972 version of a MIDI file).

Worst:  Where do I begin?  With two songs each by Bobby Sherman (empty but harmless), various Osmonds (same), and Martin Mull (smarmy and obvious – “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope” is barely a song, as a third of it is his spoken lead in) taking up nearly 40 percent of the album, you’d think it couldn’t be worse – but it is.  Ricky Segall was The Partridge Family’s singing equivalent of The Brady Bunch’s Cousin Oliver, and while I hate to knock someone who became a minister (he’s been working on a play about the life of the apostle Peter), this song is agonizing to hear even once.  But at least Segall had the excuse of being four years old at the time – Wayne Newton was 33 when he made “Jingle Bell Hustle,” and it’s lousy too.  Liberace’s “Christmas Medley” has no business being here; it was recorded in the 1950s, and even though he may have been having a career renaissance in the 1970s, this orchestrated piece doesn’t fit the rest of the album at all.  Finally, Gary Glitter’s “Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas” also wasn’t a 1970s song (1984 release), and given Glitter’s been either in jail or in exile for much of the past two decades for various reasons (look it up yourself), it’s best to skip his track altogether.

Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965)

1.       "O Tannenbaum"
2.       "What Child Is This"
3.       "My Little Drum"
4.       "Linus and Lucy"
5.       "Christmas Time Is Here" (Instrumental)
6.       "Christmas Time Is Here" (Vocal)
7.       "Skating"
8.       "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing"
9.       "Christmas Is Coming"
10.   "Für Elise"
11.   "The Christmas Song”

I wish I could take a little bit of credit for the renaissance of this album, which, if it wasn’t out of print in the late 1970s, was almost impossible to find.  One of my fraternity brothers had a copy of the original vinyl edition and put it on at a Christmas party in 1981, much to our amazement (not only did most of us not know this existed, we hadn’t put together the fact that the background music from the television special we’d all seen a dozen times or more was outstanding).  All of us made a tape from that scratchy vinyl edition (happily, I found a new, untouched vinyl copy a year later), and the album has picked up in popularity ever since (it’s been one of the top 10 Christmas albums since Billboard introduced its Soundscan system in 1991).  I now own a 1988 CD issue; there have been several additional reissues and revisions (apparently the 2006 version is the one to avoid, but the one in the stores today is from 2012, so you should be safe.  That version has three additional songs to bring the running time up to a respectable 45 minutes, plucking one song each from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (which kind of ruins the Christmas thing, but I suppose they can be skipped).

Best:  “Linus and Lucy,” of course, and the evocative “Skating.”  Of the standards, I’d go with “O Tannenbaum.”

Worst:  nothing dreadful, but the vocal version of “Christmas Time Is Here” is a reminder that the kids who did the voices were really kids, and weren’t necessarily singers.