Archive for the ‘2000s’ Category

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

It’s a damp and dreary day in the Triangle, cool but not cold, with the lousy weather stretching up the east coast to our old stomping grounds outside of Philadelphia. The main difference: It’s chillier there.

I’m listening to Melody Gardot’s Sunset in the Blue for the third time today, after playing it over and over again on Friday and Saturday; that it distracted me from Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You speaks volumes. Simply put, it’s a sumptuous set that possesses a narcotic-like effect, providing needed relief from the craziness that’s inhabited the U.S. this past month. (Most presidential election cycles are tense times, but toss in a pandemic and this one has been nuts.) Her smoky alto massages the soul like a kneading cat, just about; and when her vocals lighten a few shades, they’re akin to a rainbow cresting the sky. To say that Sunset in the Blue is already in the running for my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honors would be stating the obvious, I suppose.

As I mentioned long ago, I discovered Ms. Gardot while investigating Peggy Lee CDs on Amazon; Worrisome Heart appeared at the bottom of one of the pages in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section. (I’d seen her name prior, in Philly-area concert listings, as she’s a Philly/South Jersey girl and had been playing local clubs, including the Tin Angel, for a few years. In retrospect, I wish I’d checked her out then.) Thanks to my Amazon order history, I actually know the specific date I ordered the CD: July 15th, 2008.

At its best, as the title track demonstrates, it’s a smoldering, hypnotic set in the mode of Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee; at its worst, it’s still very good.

My One and Only Thrill, released the following April, follows the same basic approach, but expands upon it, incorporating orchestral flourishes. We saw her in concert shortly thereafter and, wow. Just wow. As I wrote in my concert summary, it was like stepping into a film noir. (There used to be a video from that show on YouTube, but it’s disappeared.)

Her 2012 set, The Absence, explores the space between notes, allowing the music to breathe in a way that’s rare in today’s world. My favorite track from that sterling album, however, hails from the deluxe edition: her rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” which she recorded for a French TV commercial. To say that it’s “tres bon” is an understatement.

Currency of Man, released in 2015, is an excellent album through and through – one of my favorites of that year, in fact. It’s also a stylistic departure, sporting a taut R&B groove that’s best exemplified by the lead single, “Preacherman.”

Live, the songs still took on a different flavor, punchier than on album and, when appropriate, expanding into propulsive jazz workouts that incorporated elements of The Absence and My One and Only Thrill. She shared the stage with her band, as opposed to fronting it, exploring riffs and leading the audience to rapture again and again. “Morning Sun” was stunning.

Watching that “Morning Sun” clip, however, is somewhat bittersweet. In the pre-pandemic age, one would expect Melody to hit the road to promote Sunset in the Blue, with the songs essentially morphing into new entities on stage. Now? At least in the U.S., I don’t see that happening for at least a year, if not two. (And when it does happen, the issue will be whether she comes to my neck of the woods….)

Singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon, whose credits include writing “When You Walk Into a Room,” singing “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and inspiring my blog’s tagline, released a lyric video for “Vanished in Time” on Friday; the song itself was released in 2000 on her You Know Me album, the video was first shared last year (sans lyrics) – while the single, which doesn’t sound like a re-recording to my ears, was issued on Friday. Why now? Who knows?

Those questions aside, it’s an interesting song for a few reasons, but chief among them: It’s a paean to a way of life that’s long since passed. As she sings in the first verse, “The flag is still waving/As the box cars roll by/Don’t look for the heartland/It’s vanished in time…”

The world we remember is rarely the world, writ large, that was, a difference that can cause dissonance and defensiveness when and/or if long-held beliefs are challenged. That’s grist for another post somewhere down the line, however. To get back on point, I’ll say that – musically and thematically – “Vanished in Time” is akin to a letter mailed from pre-9/11 America to the present. 

That doesn’t make it any less relevant, mind you. For good and ill, yearning for years long ago, romanticizing the good and glossing over the bad, has been part and parcel of this thing called life from the very start. Every generation is the last of a dying breed, just as every succeeding generation faces the same basic quandaries and questions as their forebears. “Vanished in Time” conveys a wistfulness for the past – and it’s that very wistfulness that makes it worth a listen.