Category Archives: Music

Song of the Year 2015

The end of the year is closing in, and once again, it’s time to consider my Song of the Year for 2015.  But first…

I didn’t write a post on the subject last year, but if you must know, my Song of the Year for 2014 was:

Word Crimes, Weird Al Yankovic

After initially watching the videos on YouTube and being disappointed by the music, I later bought a copy of Mandatory Fun in a moment of desperation.  But listening to the music while doing something is not the same as watching a YouTube video.  The music started to grow on me.  ‘Word Crimes’ is energetic and rails against sloppy English, one of the persistent annoyances in my life.

And then a really strange thing happened: I started noticing the original songs on which the Weird Al parodies are based.  It seemed that the Weird Al version was correct, tight and clean, and the original was a sloppy imitation.  What does it mean when Weird Al and his group are better musicians than the original artists?

Anyway, on to this year:

Penalty Box: Almost There, but So Wrong

Writing’s on the Wall, Sam Smith (Theme from Spectre)

I’ve written about this song before.  The music is beautiful, but the lyrics are full of doubt rather than confidence, and are delivered in a whiny countertenor.  It isn’t what you want in a James Bond theme, unless your intent is to defrock Bond as a hero.

Runners Up, in No Particular Order

What Are the Chances, Duran Duran

Paper Gods, this year’s album, was a disappointment, but not a total wasteland.  ‘What Are the Chances’ is one of the best contemplative Duran Duran songs ever.  It’s beautiful, but for me, the Song of the Year has to be more energetic.

Danceophobia, Duran Duran

Also from Paper Gods, this song is more energetic.  While it has many of the flourishes that make Duran Duran songs so cool, it’s lacking in substance.  (And if you’re burning with curiosity, the real word for ‘fear of dancing’ is ‘chorophobia.’)

Confident, Demi Lovato

I was watching the American Music Awards with my wife a few weeks ago.  The music was listless, dreary, annoying.  And then this came on.  It’s energetic, exciting, and brassy (not much brass in popular music these days!).

And the Winner

Who Can You Trust, Ivy Levan (Theme from Spy)

My wife and I missed Spy when it came out in theaters earlier this year, but watched it as an in-flight movie.  The movie itself is silly and fun, in a way that too many current movies aren’t, without being inane.  The theme song is expressive and powerful and everything that a real James Bond theme song should be.

Writing’s on the Wall

For the last twelve years or so, I’ve thirsted for good music, or at least what I think is good music.  I’m looking for something propulsive and exciting, that makes me want to get up and do something.

Earlier this year, I joined a gym to work off my middle-aged spread.  One of the things that keeps me coming back is their music mix.  I don’t like all the songs, but the music keeps me moving.  Once in a while, they play something that I’ve never heard before that I really like.  I then look it up to find that it came out perhaps ten years ago.  Nevertheless, it’s a discovery.

This year, I was looking forward to two events: the new Duran Duran album, Paper Gods, which came out last month, and the theme from the new James Bond movie, Spectre.

Paper Gods was a disappointment, but that will be a discussion for another day.

‘Writing’s on the Wall,’ the theme from Spectre, is music with the power and sweep of a proper James Bond theme.  On that level, it succeeds.

But the voice!  If it had been performed by a woman, it would work perfectly.  It might still work if performed in a lower register by a man.  But the song was performed by Sam Smith in a warbly countertenor that just doesn’t fit for a James Bond movie.

Let me explain: most of the Bond themes are sung by women.  When a man sings a James Bond theme, the music is necessarily very strongly associated with the character: one can (or should be able to) readily imagine Commander Bond taking the microphone at Karaoke Night in the MI6 Lounge (in the third sub-basement) and singing it himself.

‘From Russia with Love’ passes this test, although as the second Bond film, there was still room for experimentation. ‘Thunderball,’  ‘Live and Let Die,’ and ‘You Know My Name’ pass the test with flying colors.  ‘View to a Kill’ and ‘The Living Daylights’ pass as well, although they’re more difficult to sing.  But ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ flunks spectacularly.  How could such an insecure wimp be a master spy?

But perhaps it’s consistent with the mood of the ‘rebooted’ Bond movies.

We all have our inner demons.  We conquer them, coexist with them, or find a way to make them work for us.  And we talk about them, if at all, only to our closest friends and family, or possibly to trained professional help if they’re really troublesome.  We do not share our demons in our working lives.  (At least, that’s the way I was brought up.)

The pre-Daniel Craig movies present James Bond as a man at work.  He may have his fears and insecurities, but he sets them aside and presses on with the mission.  We don’t see them in the movies because the mission is not the time or the place to contemplate them.

In contrast, we’re aware of the ‘rebooted’ Bond’s personal problems.  He isn’t the stainless hero that we imagined.  Perhaps the producers imagined they were making him more human, and more interesting, but it took away the cool factor.

So perhaps our new Bond could take the microphone and sing:

A million shards of glass
That haunt me from my past
As the stars begin to gather
And the light begins to fade
When all hope begins to shatter
Know that I won’t be afraid

But it just isn’t the same.

The writing is, indeed, on the wall.

A Dreary Start

One of my bad habits is grabbing my tablet first thing in the morning to check my e-mail, before I’ve quite gotten out of bed.  It’s usually advertising of various stripes: books or records or electronics.  Today Amazon was trying to tempt me with music.

They were selling  Lourde’s Pure Heroine at the low, low price of $3.99 (cheaper than vinyl records back in the day!).  I had heard reports that it was wonderful, and read about it in the newspaper, but never actually listened to Lourde herself.

Or maybe I did, but I just don’t remember it.

It’s that bad.  No, it’s worse.

Music is supposed to work by evoking an emotion in the listener.  But the songs of Pure Heroine evoke nothing, except a desire to change the channel.  I do not feel the earth move under my feet: I feel my neurons dying.

And Lourde is not a heroine, whatever she imagines herself to be.  She sings like a mouse.  The songs have too many words, and no space for a melody to take flight, or even work up a good waddle.

I don’t mean to be hard on Lourde.  She’s singing in the contemporary manner, and maybe it’s my fault that I don’t get it.  But it’s a disappointment.

Further wandering on Amazon brought me to the new Weird Al Yankovic album, Mandatory Fun, also well-reviewed in the newspaper.  I’ve always enjoyed Weird Al, but the input to the Weird Al process is the music of its time.  Would this be a case of ‘garbage in, garbage out’?

Sadly, it seems to be that way.  Some of the material seems worth another listen, but in general, it’s true to its title, ‘mandatory fun,’ which is to say that it’s no fun at all.

I got out of bed, went to the living room, and put on the Duran Duran song ‘Rio’ louder than I had a right to at 6:30 in the morning.

I had to clear the crap out of my head.

Music for 2013

The year is almost over: time to consider my Song of the Year for 2013.  So that everyone’s clear, my first two entries are counterexamples: they are not good music, at least not for me.  Anyway, here goes:

Extra Specially Bad: Merry Christmas Exclamation Point

This is a very late entry: the video appeared only a couple of days ago.  Yet it is so extraordinarily bad that it made this post after listening for 20 seconds.  The music was thrown together, and doesn’t properly fit the words.  And if you want to send your not-quite-friends a text message for Christmas, I really don’t want to hear about it.  Do whatever melts your butter.

Not even close: Wrecking Ball

My son was enthusiastic about this song, and recommended I give it a listen.  On one level, it isn’t too bad: I don’t find myself wanting to turn it off while listening to it.  But five minutes later, the tune has completely slipped my mind, except for the first line of the refrain: “I came in like a wrecking ball….”  OK, then what?

And I remember when music videos told a story, or at least had some continuity.  We see alternating visions of Miley riding a wrecking ball while naked, and then, no longer naked, kissing a sledgehammer.  And this is supposed to evoke… what?  My fantasy life on a construction site?

Honorable mention: The Fox

Yes, the first few lines are mind-blowingly juvenile (“Dog goes woof / Cat goes meow / Bird goes tweet / And mouse goes squeek…”).    But the music is propulsive, and unlike Miley, stays in my head.  It’s music that goes with doing something, rather than moaning about how rotten the world is.

And the winner: Levitate

The YouTube video for this song is titled ‘People Are Awesome,’ a series of clips of people demonstrating feats of athleticism.  My wife had found the video last winter, and I was more interested in the music than the visuals.  The music suggests energetic striving and achievement.

*          *          *

And a final thought.  This song came out when I was in high school.  I associated it with, among other things, a part of New York City that I had to visit this past week for a project.  In its time, it was one good song among many.  If it came out this year, it would have swept the competition.  Is it just that music, like everything else, is more exciting when you’re a teenager?  Or are there some darker forces at work?

Song of the Year 2012

For most of my life, one of my end-of-the-year activities was to identify a song of the year.  In recent years, there has been less and less music that pleased me, and it was harder to pick a good—or even halfway decent—song.  But this year, in spite of all the other crap going on, there were actually some choices.

I usually trip over myself when I try to describe what I like about a particular piece of music. Fortunately, through the miracle of YouTube, you can review the videos yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Not even close: Call Me Maybe

During Christmas dinner, my son remarked about this song as being everywhere last summer.  I couldn’t remember it, so I looked up the video.  Indeed, I had heard it, but it escaped my brain as fast as it went in: there is no melody to speak of, and the singer uses Auto-Tune, which gives her the gift of perfect pitch and extracts her soul.  The video is a treat: she’s lusting after a hot guy only to find out that he’s gay.  I suspect there’s a message in that, but I’m not sure I want to know what it is.

Honorable Mention: Gangnam Style

My wife is Korean, and picked up on the video before it became the rage everywhere.  Musically, it isn’t much to speak of, but it’s energetic and happy, and Psy is singing with his real voice.  The video has spawned countless imitators and parody versions, providing an interesting insight into cultures around the world.  The video from Oregon State University was interesting in that they erased the word ‘sexy’ from the refrain ‘sexy lady.’  Are they so policially correct that they’re not allowed to refer to a lady as ‘sexy’?

First Runner-Up: Skyfall

One of the reasons that I look forward to James Bond movies is the music.  I’m hoping for a kick-ass theme song that not only fits the movie, but illuminates my life.  The theme from Skyfall is dark and delicious.

And the winner: Sherlock

I’ve found Korean pop music interesting.  It’s propulsive and energetic in a way that most American music isn’t any more, but it’s very often too obviously synthetic.  But Shinee’s Sherlock is brassy and exciting. The video is charming, too.

Better Late Than Never

The last month has been a blur.  I pretty much missed the holidays: too much work, and when Christmas finally rolled around, I could hardly get out of bed.  We didn’t have a Christmas tree, and after New Year’s, I had working weekends with 22-hour workdays.  But last weekend was more or less normal, and my wife is still putting up with me, so it can’t be all bad.

Just after New  Year’s, someone introduced me to last year’s Duran Duran album, All You Need Is Now.  It is a pitcher of icewater in the desert of allegedly popular music.  OK: it’s a blast from the past, but what makes it so good?

I usually trip over myself when trying to write about music, so forgive me if this is a little clunky.  But Duran Duran’s music–when they’re not trying to be something else–speaks of a place of achievement, where logic and reason carries the day, where things work.   It makes you want to set aside your pains and complaints and go out and accomplish something.

And for that reason, the title track, ‘All You Need Is Now,’ is my belated Song of the Year for 2011.

End of the Year Panic

It’s December, and I’m getting nervous.

Not about getting people Christmas presents, or the vast pile of work at the office, although those are concerns.  It’s almost the end of the year, and I haven’t come across a single candidate for my Song of the Year.

Last year, it was easy: ‘Telephone,’ by Lady Gaga.  Yes, the record came out in late 2009, but I was first aware of the song in January 2010, which is what counts.  ‘Telephone’ is exciting and propulsive, a good song to play in the back of your mind while bicycling.  I was thinking of disqualifying it after watching the music video of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé as mass murderers, but there was really no competition.

But this year… nothing.  A couple of times, the Song of the Year has been a James Bond theme, but the last James Bond movie came out in 2008.

This morning, I forced myself to sit through the new Lady Gaga video, ‘Marry the Night.’  The video is a pastiche of mental illness, physical fitness, and arson: spare me.  But, as with last year, I’ll give a pass if the song is good.

Which, alas, it isn’t.  There isn’t much of a melody, but it could have worked if it was presented clearly and assertively.  But there was more noise than music, and Gaga herself knew the words were mere poetic fluff (unlike ‘Telephone’) and couldn’t bring herself to sing them like she meant it.

The song might have gotten my attention with different lyrics, perhaps with a guy singing it, but not the way it was.  Not even close.

My first Song of the Year was in 1975, when I was 14: ‘Brazil’ by the Ritchie Family.  Through about 2000, there were generally several candidates every year.  But then things simply dried up.

I’ll find something.  Maybe.

Windy

During the storm last weekend, the old song ‘Windy’ by The Association came to mind.  I remember it as a happy song from my childhood; I think one of our music teachers had the class sing it once.

Yesterday, while Googling around, I discovered that I have misunderstood the song for all these years.  Apparently, it’s really about a drug dealer.  And all the clever but flawed references to meteorology were actually references to a drug dealer and  the effects of his (her?) wares.

I doubt that I’ll ever be able to ask the songwriter’s intent, so I’ll go by the music.  There is music of druggies and music of achievement.  ‘Windy’ is definitely the latter: it is propulsive, energetic, and has a real melody.  So I’ll believe that it’s a song about a pretty girl who enchants the beholder and doesn’t take crap from anyone.

And if you still want to believe that it’s about a drug dealer, I guess that’s your privilege.  It’s still a free country, at least in that respect.

Pleasant surprises

Last night, while playing with my new PDA, I listened to some of the music files came with the device. Some were inane, but one was compelling: ‘Perfect Weapon’ by Communique, from about early 2004. I’ve given up on listening to the radio and so rarely will popular music seep into my consciousness, so this was a pleasant surprise.

The lyrics are a little silly: “Our bodies keep sweating/We’ve found the perfect weapon.” (You mean that you shower that infrequently?) But it’s propulsive and cool, and that seems very rare these days.

* * *

125 years ago this coming Saturday, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened to traffic. The Brooklyn Borough President (an amiable guy who appears to have no actual political function) noted on the news tonight that the celebration would kick off early with fireworks tonight. My wife and I often walk from our house to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, a short distance from the bridge, so we decided to watch the show.

There weren’t that many people on the promenade when we arrived, but the fireworks show was nice. It was a little chilly in the evening, so my wife and I snuggled together as we watched. I tried to take some pictures to capture the moment, although I still haven’t caught the knack of capturing fireworks with a digital camera.

Brooklyn Bridge Fireworks 2008

The last major anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge was the 100th anniversary, in 1983. I remember the time: I had just finished engineering school, and I was working on the evening of the fireworks. I watched the show back then on a black-and-white TV at my workplace, an exercise in futility if there ever was one, and followed it up with black-and-white pictures in the newspaper the next day.

Twenty-five years hence, when the bridge is 150, I’d like to believe that I’ll still be around, with my wife. We’ll be, well, old, but such is life.

It’s a vaguely pleasant thought.