Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

As I’ve noted before in these pages, I’m a big believer in the George Santayana aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Hand in hand with that: Those who don’t know the past are also missing out on a lot of good music.

Which leads to this: In late summer 1981, I purchased Dan Fogelberg’s The Innocent Age. I was 16. I don’t remember the whys or wherefores that led me to plunk down the money for what was a pricey double-LP set. I didn’t own anything by him and wasn’t familiar with his work beyond, I think, “Same Old Lang Syne,” a single he released in late 1980 that got airplay on Top 40-oriented WIFI-92 and “adult rock”-minded WIOQ, both of which I listened to on occasion. I may have heard “Hard to Say,” the single he released the previous month, as well, but can’t say for sure. Regardless, singles alone didn’t cause me to part ways with my cash – I was a kid on a budget, after all. Fogelberg also wasn’t a hip figure within my circle, so I’m sure the recommendation didn’t come from a friend. No, it was more likely due to a review – perhaps the one that leads off this no-bylined roundup of new albums that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 13th…

In any event, I listened to it. Liked parts of it, Side 2 especially, but as a whole found it overlong and – dare I say it? – boring. As I said, however, I was just 16. Joan Jett, among others, beckoned. MTV, too. Which is to say, The Innocent Age soon gathered dust in my LP collection. I doubt I thought of Fogelberg again until 1985, when I read a review of High Country Snows in (I think) Rolling Stone. I picked up that LP not long thereafter and…well, it’s a thoroughly delightful album, one I’ve returned to many times in the years since. I even played its bluegrass-flavored songs on the Folk Show on Penn State’s (at the time) student-run radio station, WPSU, from late ’85 through early ’87, side by side with favorites from New Grass Revival and the Seldom Scene. It didn’t spur me to further investigate his oeuvre, however, or even go back and give The Innocent Age another go.

Flash forward to August 2020, when – for reasons I will explain at a later date – I gave The Innocent Age a spin via Apple Music. I liked what I heard far more than I did way back when; the songs and sides I originally found bleh resonated with me in a way they didn’t then. (Sixteen-year-old me is no doubt scoffing at my adult tastes.) A few weeks later, I listened to the 2017 Live at Carnegie Hall release, which captures a 1979 performance, and…wow. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times in the months since. I then gave a listen to his 1972 debut, Home Free, and was pleasantly surprised by what I heard.

At first, I considered spotlighting some or all of those albums in my occasional Essentials series once my Remember December navel-gazing exercise was done. In the weeks between then and now, however, I came up with something that I hope will be more fun: a slalom through his discography, most of which – obvious from the above – I simply don’t know. Beginning tomorrow, and going in order of release, l’ll spotlight one of his albums each month, offering critical insight alongside historical context, plus whatever else I can dig up.

The much-acclaimed 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis spins the tale of a St. Louis family from summer 1903 to spring 1904. A posh production helmed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s at once nostalgic and not, dreamy and dour, with most of the songs dating to the early 1900s or before. However, the film is spiced by a handful of new tunes by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: “The Boy Next Door,” the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” and a song that’s since become a seasonal classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This NPR/Fresh Air page delves into the song’s history; this Wikipedia page does, too. But if you choose not to click through, what you really should know is this: Martin’s and Blaine’s first version was rejected by Judy Garland, co-star Tom Drake and Minnelli. As Martin explained to Fresh Air host Terri Gross in 2006, “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”

Garland’s rendition was released as a single and, though it only rose to No. 27 on the pop charts, became a hit with U.S. service members fighting in World War II. It’s easy to hear why; she captures the nuances of the lyrics, which are simultaneously hopeful and yearning, cherishing the days that used to be while wishing to forge similar memories again: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now….”

Here she is performing it on the radio in 1944:

In 1957, Frank Sinatra – who first covered it in 1948 – asked Martin to change the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to something a tad more upbeat, as he wanted to re-record it for his A Jolly Christmas LP and found that line depressing. As a result, it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It zaps some of the song’s strength, I think.

In the years since, it has joined the Great American Songbook and been performed by hundreds upon hundreds of artists; SecondHandSongs lists 1575 recorded renditions, for example, and that’s likely an undercount. Simply put, it tugs at the heartstrings like few others; and, in some respects, could well be the theme song for Christmas 2020. In any event, here’s a Song Roundup of renditions that have captured my ear through the years and also this morning…

Ella Fitzgerald sings it from her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas LP. Note that she sticks with the “muddle through” line…

…while Lena Horne, on her 1966 album titled Merry From Lena, does not.  

The a cappella jazz vocal ensemble Singers Unlimited perform the “highest bough” version song on their 1972 Christmas LP.

In 1987, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders deliver a stirring rendition of the Sinatra version for the A Very Special Christmas CD compilation. (Interesting to note, but it was after this record that the song’s popularity jumped into hyperdrive.)

In 1992, the Stylistics put their soulful spin on it and make it sound brand new, though they, too, sing the “highest bough” line.

Linda Ronstadt also “hangs a shining star” on her 2000 A Merry Little Christmas album. 

In 2004, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight joined together for this moving rendition, which appeared on Warwick’s My Favorite Time of Year album; they actually make me not mind when they sing “highest bough” line. 

Also in 2004, Chris Isaak channels his inner Sinatra for this version from his Christmas album, but sings the original “muddle through” line.

In 2011, She & Him (aka Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) covered the Sinatra version for their A Very She & Him Christmas set.

First Aid Kit shared their beautiful version, which they performed on BBC Radio 2, in 2017. They, too, “muddle through.” 

Finally, the rendition that ignited this journey: Malin Pettersen and Darling West, who shared their cover a few weeks back. As I said at the time, it’s a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a haunting beautiful song. (And, note, that they also sing the original “muddle through” line.)

(An updated version of my original post that adds this year’s pick, among other edits.)

“Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom. I started the practice one night in December 1978, when I was 13, by jotting the name of my favorite LP of the year on a piece of looseleaf paper. In time, I transferred the list to typing paper, entered it into our first computer, saved it to a floppy disc and, in the late 2000s, moved it to an external hard drive and then the Cloud, where it shares space with all my other Pages documents.

For the longest time, that’s all it was – a list that I returned to every year to add another line. Even when I oversaw the original Old Grey Cat website in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, I never wrote year-end summations of my favorites – I was too busy critiquing Neil Young bootlegs. It wasn’t until 2008 on Facebook that I posted my top picks for the year; and, on and off over the next few years, I followed with similar missives until launching this blog on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch in 2012. (I’ve since moved to wordpress.com, obviously.)

I think I best explained the way I go about it in this 2010 post: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” I added this addendum last year: “The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.” (That said, I still buy a lot.)

That’s not to say I’d make the same selections now as I did then (or even last year). I was and am a major McCartney fan, but London Town and Back to the Egg weren’t his best, let alone the best of their respective years. Nowadays, I’d pick Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town as my No. 1 and Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town as my No. 2 for ’78; and Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps as my No. 1 and Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled debut as my No. 2 for ’79. I’d re-do quite a few other picks, too. Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full would be my top album for 2007, for instance, pushing Maria McKee’s Late December down a notch. I’d also flip my choices for both 2010 and 2012 – in 2010, as I wrote at the time, I relegated Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul (one of my all-time favorites) to the second slot because it hadn’t been officially released in the U.S.; and, in 2012, I was simply smitten with Susanna Hoff’s perfect solo effort, Someday – I still am, but Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill has received far more play in the years since, as I explained in a 2014 rumination titled On Albums of the Year & the Pono Player. It takes me places I need to go whenever I play it. I’d also flip last year’s top two, as Bruce’s Western Stars – like Psychedelic Pill – has become one of my latter-day go-to albums. “Hello Sunshine” slays me every time.

But that’s all beside the point. The list, as I see it, is less a critical exercise and more a chronicle of the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical taste, silly as it sometimes is, and is evidence of of my simultaneously suburban and idiosyncratic tastes. Where possible, I’ve linked to past blog posts about each of the albums or artists.

2020 – Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You (1); Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers (2)
2019 – Allison Moorer – Blood (1); Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars (2)
2018 – Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John
2017 – Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (1); Juliana Hatfield – Pussycat (2)
2016 – Rumer – This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook
2015 – The Staves – If I Was
2014 – First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
2013 – Susanna Hoffs & Matthew Sweet – Under the Covers Vol. III
2012 – Susanna Hoffs – Someday (1); Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2)
2011 – Juliana Hatfield – There’s Always Another Girl
2010 – Tift Merritt – See You on the Moon (1); Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2)
2009 – Diane Birch – Bible Belt
2008 – Juliana Hatfield – How to Walk Away
2007 – Maria McKee – Late December
2006 – The Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way
2005 – Juliana Hatfield – Made in China
2004 – Juliana Hatfield – in exile deo
2003 – Maria McKee – High Dive
2002 – Neil Young – Are You Passionate?
2001 – Natalie Merchant – Motherland
2000 – Juliana Hatfield – Beautiful Creature
1999 – Natalie Merchant – Live in Concert
1998 – Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
1997 – Steve Earle – El Corazon
1996 – Neil Young – Broken Arrow; Maria McKee – Life Is Sweet (tie)
1995 – Natalie Merchant – Tigerlily
1994 – Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Sleeps with Angels
1993 – Maria McKee – You Gotta Sin to Get Saved
1992 – 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden
1991 – Mary Black – Babes in the Wood
1990 – Rosanne Cash – Interiors
1989 – Neil Young – Freedom
1988 – Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
1987 – 10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe
1986 – Paul Simon – Graceland; Bangles – Different Light (2)
1985 – Lone Justice – self-titled debut (1); Long Ryders – State of Our Union (2)
1984 – The Go-Go’s – Talk Show; Prince – Purple Rain (2)
1983 – Neil Young – Trans
1982 – Paul McCartney – Tug of War
1981 – Neil Young & Crazy Horse – re*ac*tor (1) / Go-Go’s – Beauty & the Beat (2)
1980 – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – Against the Wind
1979 – Wings – Back to the Egg
1978 – Wings – London Town

Is there a better song than “Moon River”? Perhaps. Yet there’s no denying that it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. Composed by Henry Mancini and featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it features prominently in the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where it’s first heard as an instrumental during the classic opening sequence…

…and, later, when Audrey Hepburn sings it while sitting on her apartment’s window ledge. Initially, Paramount executives considered dubbing a trained singer’s voice and, after an early screening, then cutting the scene altogether. The former was taken care of Mancini, who specifically composed something within Hepburn’s range; and Hepburn herself took care of the second threat, insisting it remain. (Good thing she did: It won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the next year’s Academy Awards.) 

In October 1961, Mancini’s re-recorded orchestral version was released as a single alongside the album Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Music From the Motion Picture. The 45 peaked at No. 11 on the charts that December, while the LP went to No. 1. Hepburn’s winsome rendition, however, could only be heard in the movie until after she passed in 1993, when Music from the Films of Audrey Hepburn was released on CD. (Mancini is quoted as saying, “‘Moon River’ was written for her. No one else has ever understood it so completely. There have been more than a thousand versions of ‘Moon River,’ but hers is unquestionably the greatest.”)

Jerry Butler’s rendition was released concurrently with Mancini’s orchestral rendition, and also reached No. 11. 

Over in the U.K., Danny Williams – aka Britain’s Johnny Mathis – scored a No. 1 hit with the tune in 1961. (His was an interesting life. Born in 1942 South Africa, he won a talent contest at age 14, joined the Golden City Dixies and, when that act visited London in 1959, was signed to EMI.) 

Back in the U.S., meanwhile, a whole host of singers began covering the song – most notably Andy Williams, who covered it on his 1962 Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes album. He also sang it at the 34th Academy Awards and, then, adopted it as his theme song…but, oddly, never released it as a single. 

One of those “whole host of singers”: Ben E. King, who infused a “Spanish Harlem”-like vibe into his version, an album track on his 1962 Ben E. King Sings for Soulful Lovers LP.  

Bobby Darin recorded it in early 1963, though it sat in the vaults until 1999, when it was included on the Unreleased Capitol Sides compilation (and again, a few years later, on the five-star Legendary Bobby Darin CD).

Here are a few – of many – memorable renditions from the 1960s:

I’ll jump forward – and skip many other worthwhile renditions – to 1987 for one of my favorite versions, which hails from the Irish singer Mary Black’s 1987 album, By the Time It Gets Dark. At the time, it wasn’t included on the LP or cassette, just the CD. 

CD bonus tracks became all the rage by the early 1990s, of course, as music companies pulled out the stops while striving to get fans to re-purchase albums for the second (or third) time – LP/cassette —> first CD release —> CD reissue. In 1992, I.R.S. did just that with R.E.M.’s early albums, including their classic sophomore set from 1984, Reckoning. It featured five bonus tracks, including their take on “Moon River.”  

Michael Stipe & Co, though initially classified as “college rock,” weren’t the only alternative-minded rockers to cover it. In 1996, the Afghan Whigs released a cover of it as a bonus track of their “Going to Town” CD single. 

I’ll skip ahead to the next decade, when former and future Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly shared her sweet version of “Moon River” on the 2010 Sing Me to Sleep: Indie Lullabies compilation.

The next year, the retro-minded Puppini Sisters – whose close harmonies are a thing of wonder – sang it on their Hollywood album.  

The British singer-songwriter Rumer, who pretty much makes every song she sings hers, included a version of it on her 2014 B-Sides & Rarities set. 

Frank Ocean surprised fans in February 2018 with his rendition of the song…

And, finally, here’s the rendition that sent me on this journey: Melody Gardot’s. Her luminous version can be found on this year’s Sunset in the Blue.