31 January 2007

Who would? Winwood.

Last year, my frends Josh and Katy sent me this amazing collection of CDs that contain Billboard's top 100 songs from 1980-1997. That means I own pretty much every song you can imagine from that period. (Except, strangely, "Tell it to My Heart" by Taylor Dayne and "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" by Crystal Waters. You'd think those would've been in the top 100 songs of their respective years. But then you'd also think Pat Benatar would sing "We Belong" in concert. And she didn't. Oh, sure, there's time for all those new songs, but no love for "We Belong?" What the hell?!? At least "Shadows in the Night" was awesome, and... Well, I digress. That concert was four years ago.)

Anyway, I've had these CDs for months, but it's kind of overwhelming, having so many yester-hits at one's disposal. To save my sanity, I only dip into them occasionally, like when I get a jones to hear "The Promise" by When in Rome or when I decide it's time to revisit the early work of Vanessa Williams.

Or when I've got 80s crooners on the brain.

As I was falling asleep two nights ago, I found myself singing Steve Winwood's "Valerie." Why? I don't know. But all I needed was the Top 100 of 1988 to get me rocking.

"Valerie" quickly led to "Roll With It." Which led, as surely as one margarita leads to three, to "Higher Love," "The Finer Things," and "Back in the High Life Again."

Turns out Winwood rules. That's kind of news to me, because when he was at his 1980s peak, I was less than a decade old. I just didn't grasp his magnitude. (Or his cuteness. Check the pictures in this post! Even with 1987 hair, he's dreamy.)

Thankfully, I'm old enough now to appreciate the man. It only takes ten seconds to hear how much better Steve Winwood holds up than blue-eyed-soul contemporaries like Huey Lewis or Hall & Oates. You might hear the occasional synthesizer in "Roll With It" or "Valerie," but there's impeccable craftsmanship at work, too.

Take "Higher Love:" It's buoyant horn section and Chaka Khan's backing vocal make it endure as uplifting gospel-pop. I'm listening to the song as I type this, and it's putting me in a good mood.

And how much more can you ask of pop music?

Now I guess I have to track down songs by Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, and Traffic, just to see what kind of music he was making before he embarked on a solo career.


29 January 2007

Wait... shouldn't I hate you?

Sometimes I get DVDs from Netflix and then keep them for months. Literally months. There's all kinds of reasons for this, like how I tend to work during the day and see plays at night, leaving me little time to watch a movie. There's also the fact that I can't handle starting a movie without finishing it. Andrew can watch something over a period of days, but my heart is not built that way. I need to see the completion of an arc, dammit!

Recently, I had "Harold and Maude" for ages, and I finally returned it without watching it. Pleae refrain from sending letters. I know it's supposed to be great, memorable, etc. But you know what? It had its chance. Just like "Apocalypse Now" did for my entire second semester of my third year in grad school.

In "Harold and Maude's" place came "American Dreamz." Now it just so happens that I've been on a bit of a movie-watching kick, since I don't have to go to the theater until Friday. That means I actually sat down and watched "American Dreamz" today, and it led me to a question of enormous weight:

What the hell is up with Mandy Moore?

Like, how did she sneak up on us and become this respectable star? Because if you ask me to free associate with her name, this is what happens:

You: "Mandy Moore"

Me: "Ugh. Disposable."

You: "Stephen Moore."

Me: "Cool! I went to grad school with him!"

You: "Roger Moore"

Me: "Umm... wasn't he a Bond?"

You: "Mandy Moore."

Me: "Wait. She's still around?"


But if you look harder at the evidence, Mandy Moore is not only still around, but kind of around in a serious way. It may not be brilliant, but "American Dreamz" is a decent movie--a satire of American politics and "American Idol" from Paul "About a Boy" Weitz that stars such totally credible actors as Marcia Gay Harden, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Quaid, Jennifer Coolidge, and the super cute Hugh Grant. ("Music and Lyrics?" If you insist!)

Then you have to think about "Saved!", a movie that rules and in which Mandy Moore is the bomb. Hilary Faye, y'all! She is filled with Christ's love!

But that's just one movie. Is that enough to justify my grudging respect? Or Hollywood's? How is it that Mandy Moore's obvious crap movies can still star Diane Keaton, while Kate Winslet, queen of all that's awesome, gets stuck next to the soul-crushing horror of Cameron Diaz while trying to pretend she finds Jack Black attractive?

My disbelief mostly springs from the fact that Mandy Moore was first presented as a pop starlet along the lines Britney, Xtina, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer "Who?" Paige, and Willa "What?" Ford. But even though she has an album called "Greatest Hits," Moore never actually had a hit. I mean, there were songs like "Candy" and "I Wanna Be With You," which were on the radio enough to make her annoyingly memorable, but do you know how many Mandy Moore songs have been in the top 40? One. The top twenty? Less than that.

Yet even Moore's barely-there music career isn't ridiculous. She released a fairly respectable album of covers on which she tackled Joni Mitchell and XTC. XTC! When Jessica Simpson covered Patty Griffin last year, I almost vomited. But if Mandy Moore did it, I'd probably listen to a sample before judging.

And Mandy Moore's new album features songs that she has co-written with Lori McKenna (an exceptional singer-songwriter), plus a cover of "Give in to Me," one of the best forgotten Michael Jackson songs of all time.

So... could it be that I'm actually excited for Mandy Moore's new album? Is it all thanks to an appearance in one really good movie and a general ability not to become a fame whore while her peers appear on Maxim covers and in mug shots?

I don't know. Really, the whole thing makes my mind reel.


28 January 2007

Second Times the Charm

Hey everyone! Well, as it happens, I have another story in The New York Times, this one in the theater section. You can give it a read here.


25 January 2007

EW shows the love

Well, if it weren't enough that The Times ran my story on "The Office," the good folks over at Entertainment Weekly just responded to it. You can read the interesting commentary on my story here.

You know what else happened today? I downloaded "Wincing the Night Away," the new album by The Shins. All in all, everything's coming up roses for the Markster.

For those of you who know The Shins, you'll already be familiar with their jangly pop, which is what Fountains of Wayne would sound like if they had stayed edgy instead of scoring a big fat hit with "Stacy's Mom." (I liked that song, so no offense to FoW. Just saying.)

I know some would call me a heretic for saying this, but I like The Shins' first album, "Oh, Inverted World," much more than their follow-up, "Chutes Too Narrow." Beside having a title that sounds like gay porn, "Chutes" feels blissed out and aimless to me. There's a dearth of hooks that command my attention, and I am busy, people. My attention's flickering away! If it's pop you're meant to be making, even if it's cool indie pop, then go ahead and stick in my brain.

Those songs from "Oh, Inverted World?" Stick in my brain like Post-Its. Have you heard "Girl, Inform Me?" Listen once, hum it forever. Same with "New Slang," which is the song that supposedly made Natalie Portman's character in "Garden State" stop being the prepubescent waif who would never, ever grow up and therefore force Zach Braff's character to realize that he has to deal with women and their very adult feelings.

(Oh, wait. That's not what happened. Porto stays mentally challenged, which makes her the perfect lust object for those men who want to succor their feelings of superiority and masculine power by only choosing girl-dolls as conquests. Give me Natalie-as-schemer in "Closer" any day.)

Anyway... what?

Right. New Shins. Full of great hooks. Plus, the music sounds a little bit different, but not radically so, than the last two records. Growth and familiarity all in one! Huzzah! (Listen to samples here.)


Good Times for "The Office"

Remember that post I wrote last month about music on "The Office?" Remember how it mysteriously disappeared?

That's because I rewrote it as a story for The New York Times!

If you go here, you can read my story in all its glory.



23 January 2007

This Ain't a Scene, It's an Oscar Race

Let's digress to film for a moment. Oscar nominations were announced today, and I have a couple of responses:

(1) I will not be seeing "Letters from Iwo Jima." Will. Not. Twice before, I was suckered by critics renting out the sides of blimps on which to declare the brilliance of the latest Clint Eastwood movie. Off I went, buying my ticket with expectations as high as the Pope's hat, and you know what? I hated "Million Dollar Baby." Know what I hated more? "Mystic River." Both of those mose relied on the mustiest, phoniest storytelling cliches, yet everyone insisted they were these sophisiticated, surprising works of art. I will not be fool again, even though that means this will be the first year since 1992 that I have not seen all the Best Picture nominees.

(2) I will see "Babel," but I'm not excited about it. My friend Maggie said it's more depressing than the thought of Schwarzenegger as governor, yet I feel compelled. Seven... nominations... must... see... movie. Plus, I liked "21 Grams," which is by the same director.

(3) "Dreamgirls" deserved a best picture nomination more than "Little Miss Sunshine." Though I do think "Sunshine" is pretty great.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

I love the new song by Fall Out Boy. "This Ain't a Scene It's an Arms Race" starts with a pulsing rhythm that's almost like 80s dance, and then it explodes into hyperspeed rock riffs. It features a large group singing along to the chorus. It does that thing where the audio gets split during certain verses, so that one line comes out of your left speaker, and the next line comes out of the right. Trippy!

So there you go. I dig on Fall Out Boy. Watch out, Radioactive Man!


19 January 2007

Albums and (of course) Idols

Before we begin, let me ask you all this: Are you watching "30 Rock?" If not, you should be. It's awesome. If you are, and you saw tonight's episode, you'll know what I mean when I say, "Kat Cour Su." (Just imagine that scrawled on a wall. Yeah. Now you feel me.)

Anyhoo... let's carry on. I'd like to tell you about my...

Six Favorite Albums of 2006.

(I'm on a computer with limited interface capabilities, so links to old posts won't be coming into play today. But I didn't want to wait to post. That's dedication, people!)

6. Scissor Sisters, "Ta-Dah!"

5. Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere"

4. Under the Influence of Giants, "Under the Influence of Giants"

3. Shiny Toy Guns, "We Are Pilots"

2. Snow Patrol, "Eyes Open"

1. Dixie Chicks, "The Long Way Around"

Now that I've got this blog, I feel like there's no real reason to go into detail about my choices. I've been saying what I like about these albums for months. But if you still haven't given yourself a chance to hear them, you should. You won't be disappointed.

Elsewhere, did anyone notice the recent report that the premiere for the sixth season of American Idol had the second-highest ratings in the show's history? (Behind only the finale between Clay and Ruben. Ruben, by the way, is still billing himself in concert as "American Idol's Ruben Studdard." Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson don't need the show's help anymore, Rubes. What does that say?)

However, for the second consecutive week, national album sales have hit an all-time low. It's fascinating that the most popular television show in America is centered around an industry on the wane.

What does it all mean? I don't know, but I hope that really tall woman from Seattle makes it the top 24. She's so tall! I'd buy her album for that reason alone! And that would send the sagging music business through the roof. In the way a tall woman's head might go through it.


16 January 2007

2006: The Year in Songs

The votes are in, the campaigns are finished, and, finally, the lawsuits are settled. That means it's time to anoint my best and worst songs of 2006. (Albums will come in a later post.)

Some of you have been getting an e-mail version of this annual list for years, but now the future is upon us. Behold! Like magic, an e-mail becomes a blog!

Anyway, here we go. But before I get to the countdown, I have to give a special citation.

Artist That Evoked the Most Complicated Reaction in Me: Nelly Furtado

I just don't know what to do about Nelly Furtado version 2.0, in which the former folky becomes Timbaland's R&B muse. (I've fretted about this before.) On one hand, there's the outstanding single "Say It Right," which has the standard stuttered beat of all current hip-hop, but also contains this beautiful, spooky chorus built from layers and layers of Nelly's voice. On the other, there's "Promiscuous." Or as I like to call it, "Who Needs Pants?" In three minutes, Nelly Furtado goes from folk-pop iconoclast with to the latest brand of hoochie.

So what happened here? In her quest for radio success, did Nelly Furtado dismiss her individuality? Or did she take her distinctive sound and update it, thereby making a fairly homogeneous genre a little more interesting? I mean, you can still hear Latin rhythms in songs like "Maneater" and "No Hay Igual."

Either way, I feel like I now have to say, "Nelly Furtado has a few good songs, despite being generic," whereas before I could declare her awesomeness bar none.

Like Natalie Imbruglia, I am torn.

Worst Songs of 2006

3. "Do I Make You Proud" by Taylor Hicks

God help us all. Reportedly, the final song for this season of "American Idol" will be chosen through a nationwide contest, and that will be a blessing on all humanity. The computer program that wrote this year's insipid 'inspirational' tune should never be allowed to create music again. Instead, it should be returned to its obvious original function of churning out scripts for "The Ghost Whisperer."

2. "Laffy Taffy" by D4L

I wish I could tell you what this rap song about a woman's, um, sweet taffy, sounded like in its final two minutes. But I've never been able to get all the way through it.

1. "Wind It Up" by Gwen Stefani

I pretty much said everything I want to say in this article and in this post. But let me just reiterate: Ironic yodeling wasn't cool when Jewel did it. So that means that Gwen Stefani is less cool than Jewel.

Best Songs of 2006

(Note: If I've already written about these songs or artists, the titles will be links to my previous posts about them)

20. "Want To" by Sugarland -- A country duo that excels at making hummable, feel-good melodies. And that's not as easy as it seems. This one is particularly fun for singing along.

19. "S. E. X." by Lyfe Jenninngs featuring LaLa Brown

"Cheated Hearts" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

"Crystal Ball" by Keane -- Lush and beautiful pop.

"I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)" by Sandi Thom -- And then I wrote more about this song here.

"You're All I Have" by Snow Patrol

"Fidelity" by Regina Spektor -- Once again I say, "Watch the video! It's so endearing!"

"Fireflies" by Rhett Miller and Rachael Yamagata

"Irreplaceable" by Beyonce -- This one would've been higher, but the radio is just playing the hell out of it right now, which makes it impossible to ignore the rhyming of "minute" with "minute." Now, I still love the song, but I feel like you have to get marks down for that kind of lazy songwriting. Am I too strict? Please petition your school board if you want to complain about my grading methods.

"Not Ready to Make Nice" by Dixie Chicks

"In The Clouds" by Under the Influence of Giants

"Set the Fire to the Third Bar" by Snow Patrol -- Really, just a beautiful, beautiful song. It gets more haunting with time, and Martha Wainwright's airy voice is the perfect addition.

8. "Don't Cry Out" by Shiny Toy Guns

7. "Turn, Turn, Turn" by Dolly Parton -- This year, Dolly Parton released an album called "Those Were The Days," in which she covers songs from the 60s and 70s, often duetting with the songwriters or original artists. The album has a tacky, discount-store cover, but the music is just exceptional, particularly this version of "Turn, Turn, Turn" (featuring backing vocals from The Byrds' Roger McGuinn.) The banjo-led arrangement is rollicking like the best old-school country, and Dolly's voice is astonishing. Really, the entire song is worth it for the last 45 seconds, when she starts wailing with this raspy joy that makes me want to lift a hand to Jesus. Many kisses to Andrew for giving me this CD for Christmas!

"SOS" by Rihanna -- All these months later, my booty's still shaking.

"Smiley Faces" by Gnarls Barkley

5. "Leave Me Alone (I'm Lonely)" by Pink -- Come on, people! Pink is awesome! Why, why, why has her latest album not been more popular? Oh, okay. It may have something to do with the fact that the singles "Stupid Girls" and "U + Ur Hand" are its weakest songs. But this song! Just spend the 99 cents: You won't be sorry. As I've said before, you'll feel like a bad-ass.

"Returning to the Fold" by The Thermals

"Ain't No Other Man" by Christina Aguilera

"Here It Goes Again" by O.K. Go -- I can't believe I haven't already written about this band! The treadmill-hopping video rules, of course, but the song itself demands wild dancing around the room. The fact that it sounds just like The Cars is only a point in its favor.

1. "Bitter End" by Dixie Chicks -- Without a doubt, the most gratifying song I've heard all year. There are so many small moments to love here, like Natalie Maines' voice when she sings the line "It's alright, you can sleep tonight." Her soft crack on the high notes--on the syllables "right" and "night"--define the longing in a song about missing a friend who is gone forever. Then there's the harmony vocals on the chorus and in the ad-libbed final minute. They make "Bitter End" sound like it's launching up off the ground, offering to carry us.

And the insistent tempo, with its heavy drum implying a forward march, is a poignant counterpoint to the theme of loss. No matter how much we miss someone, life keeps moving. The song keeps playing. We can raise a glass and toast the past, but then we have to go.

And that's heartbreaking and honest and exactly the kind of sentiment that the Dixie Chicks, with their impeccable artistry, can make electrifying.

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14 January 2007

Do They Need Shiny Toy Bullets, Too?

Well, it's been a while, but I'm back. Since we last gathered here, I've been out saving the cheerleader and saving the world. Oh, and angling to get Dwight booted out of Dunder-Mifflin so that I can take his job.

Also, I've been listening to "We Are Pilots," the album by Shiny Toy Guns. Last month, I was ambling around iTunes, glancing at that magical column suggests artists I might like. Right at the top was Shiny Toy Guns.

"Shiny Toy Guns?" I thought, "Well, I don't know if I can support that kind of violence."

But iTunes has been right before, so I gave the samples a quick listen. And damn!

Here's what you get with this group:

** A man and a woman who swap lead vocals, occasionally having "conversation songs"

** Dance and rock beats in the same song, living together in peace.

** A female vocalist (Carah Faye) who sound just like Neko Case from New Pornographers.. And we all know Neko rules.

** Two songs, "When they Came for Us" and "Don't Cry Out" that are miniature epics. It's always so fun when a song sounds different in the beginning, middle, and end. It's like getting three songs in one! (For another great example, see "All These Things I've Done" by The Killers.")

Speaking of The Killers, if you wish they hadn't left behind their New Wave roots--you know, like they were embarassed that their music was fun--then Shiny Toy Guns may be for you. Or if you've ever wondered what Human League might sound like today, get thee to a gunnery!

A Shakespeare joke. That's right. Welcome to the '07, fools.

(For samples of the STG album, go here.)