Last week, Diane and I began re-watching Season 1 of Joan of Arcadia, about a teen (Amber Tamblyn) who speaks to God – and by “speaks,” I mean has actual conversations and debates with Him. He – and She, as God changes bodies and genders episode to episode and often within episodes – often has what seems to Joan to be a mundane, silly or overwhelming task for her to perform, such as joining the chess club or debate team, or throwing a party. Inevitably, however, it leads to a larger, positive event occurring within Joan’s world.

Interwoven throughout are the stories of Joan’s family – her father (Joe Mantegna), a cop in a big (but not too big) Maryland city; her mother (Mary Steenburgen), who works at her school; older brother Kevin (Jason Ritter), who’s still coming to terms with being a paraplegic following a car accident a year-and-a-half earlier; and younger brother Luke (Michael Welch), a brainiac who should never, ever, drink caffeine.

That summary doesn’t do the series, which lasted a scant two seasons (2003-2005) justice, I should add. 

All in all, it’s good with glimmers of greatness. The cast is excellent. The stories are a mix of sweet and bittersweet, with some surprising grittiness thrown into the mix – and not just when focused on the father, who faces evil – and politics – on the job. The give-and-takes between Joan and God are adroit, funny, smart, and even philosophically deep. And the growing concern of Joan’s folks over her eccentric behavior rings true. (They don’t know about her pipeline to the above, after all.)

Anyway, it’s a series I wanted to watch when it first aired, but in those days we were often out on Friday nights, and OnDemand didn’t include much network fare. We’d unhooked our VHS recorder in favor of a DVD player by then, too, so recording it was out. I did keep an eye on the DVD sets when they became available (and when I remembered to look), but was unwilling to fork over the $45-60 per season retailers originally wanted to charge. I was also shocked by its lack of availability on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. But, finally, God heard my prayers: Two years back, I stumbled across a sweet deal on Amazon. ($16 per season. Woo hoo!) 

We watched it in about a month, filed the DVDs away, and moved on. As one does.

But, as I said at the outset, we’re watching it again. I love the philosophy behind it. The notion that a good deed, no matter how small, can cause a domino-like run of goodness in the wider world that eventually circles back to you is the essence of karma, which I’ve subscribed to since I first heard “The End” by the Beatles a long, long time ago: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” What we put out is what we take in. Good begets good.

And Joan of Arcadia begets a smile. It’s a perfect escape from the insanity that has befallen the world, where kindness is too often seen as a vice.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: God, Faith & Joan…of Arcadia.

1) Joan Osborne – “One of Us.” The theme song to Joan of Arcadia is this song, written by Eric Brazilian of the Hooters. It reached No. 4 on the pop charts.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – “May Your Kindness Remain.” Kindness, goodness, sympathy and empathy all go hand in hand. This clip is from Courtney’s appearance in the Paste Studios earlier this week…

3) The Stone Foundation with Paul Weller – “Your Balloon Is Rising.” The Stone Foundation has a new album in the works, but this one – from their last studio set, Street Rituals – says it all. “May your words go on forever/May your kindness show no measure/Keep on breathing your life into every little thing…”

4) Paul Weller – “Above the Clouds.” And speaking of Weller and clouds…

5) Rumer – “Love Is the Answer.” The British singer-songwriter’s cover of the Todd Rundgren song was a match made in heaven when she recorded it in 2015, and remains so three years later. Love is the answer, indeed.

And in the end… the Beatles – “The End.”

Here’s an unlikely opening: On May 24, 1984, President Ronald Reagan introduced the Navy’s first female ensign, Kristine Holderied, during a press event at the White House.

That clip, I should mention, is well worth watching in full. It features all of President Reagan’s public events on this specific day. In addition to Holderied, he meets with National Wildlife Federation president Jay Hair; the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s mother and father of the year; AMVETS’ commander; and Chiu Luu, who arrived in this country from Vietnam in 1979. Luu, I should mention, taught himself English after arriving on these shores and, by the time of this meeting with America’s 40th’s president, was graduating as valedictorian from City College of New York. 

The clips are interesting for several reasons. First and foremost: Reagan’s affection for those he meets. He doesn’t seem to think of these greetings as a chore, in other words, or as something to be endured, but as events to be cherished. When you see him reading the notes on Luu prior to meeting with the young man, one sees admiration sink into his face and demeanor.

I share that, along with this: I wasn’t a fan of Ronald Reagan or many of his policies. But I did agree with him when it came to his unbridled optimism in America, and his belief in the “shining city on the hill.” He articulated it throughout his time in the public spotlight, but summarized it best in his January 1989 farewell address:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Note that he didn’t say the doors were closed.

But back to May 24, 1984, which was a Thursday. Light rain fell in the Delaware Valley, which saw a high of 75 and low of 54. I’d just wrapped my first year at Penn State Ogontz, one of Penn State’s satellite campuses; worked as an usher at the now-defunct Hatboro Theater; and had purchased a slew of albums over the past few weeks, including the Flying Burrito Brothers’ self-titled third album on the 1st; the Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around on the 3rd; Gram Parsons’ G.P. and Return of the Grievous Angel, also on the 3rd; Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual on the 11th; Todd Rundgren’s Healing on the 14th; Rogers Waters’ The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking on the 18th; and, on the 24th, Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Yet to come: Spinal Tap’s This Is Spinal Tap and Van Halen’s 1984, both on May 29th.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: May 24, 1984 (via Weekly Top 40; the chart is for the week ending May 26th). Unlike other looks back, I’m going to hop, skip and jump down its rungs…

1) Deniece Williams – “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” This effusive song, which is ingrained in my brain due to its inclusion in the Footloose movie, landed at No. 1 this week. As I said above, I worked as an usher at a movie theater – and the film flickered across our fraying screen for at least two weeks, and I worked more nights than not. Unlike the other Footloose songs, it’s one I never grew tired of.

2) Cyndi Lauper – “Time After Time.” Rising from No. 6 to No. 3 is this classic Cyndi Lauper song, which she co-wrote with Rob Hyman of the Hooters.

3) The Go-Go’s – “Head Over Heels.” In its 11th week on the charts, this infectious single reaches No. 11. Here they are performing it at the Greek Theater in August ’84…

4) John Mellencamp – “Authority Song.” Mellencamp’s “I Fought the Law” rewrite rises a notch, from No. 16 to 15…

5) The Style Council – “My Ever Changing Moods.” Further down the charts, at No. 34 (up from No. 36), is this classic tune from Paul Weller’s second band. It was the lead single from the Style Council’s debut album, which was titled Café Bleu in the U.K. and My Ever Changing Moods in the U.S. 

And three bonuses…

6) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Dancing in the Dark.” Entering the charts this week, at No. 36, is this lead single from Springsteen’s now-classic Born in the USA album, which would be released on June 5th. Brian De Palma directed the video, which features a young Courteney Cox as the fan the Boss picks to dance with him on stage.

7) Joe Jackson – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want (’Til You Know What You Want).” Jackson’s Body and Soul, from which this song is drawn from, is a true overlooked gem. That this song would eventually hit No. 15 was a surprise to me then and now, given how out of step it was with the times. This week, it’s still on its slow upwards climb, landing at No. 29.

8) Wang Chung – “Dance Hall Days.” One of the week’s power plays, at No. 45, is this nostalgic New Wave pop tune from the U.K. band. In a sense, their “Come Dancing” or “Ballroom Dancing”… 

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

To my ears and soul, Life Is Sweet is not just one of the greatest lost albums of all time, but one of the greatest, period. It’s glam. It’s rock. It’s operatic. It’s art.

The story behind it: While touring in support of her country-rock classic You Gotta Sin to Get Saved in 1993, one of the members of Maria’s band is said to have given her a mixtape of classic glam and glitter tunes. Maria listened. Loved. Obsessed. And then wrote and recorded a set of songs, released in 1996, that blended those glittery hues of yore with dramatic colors of her own design.

“Scarlover,” the opening track, is a great example. It’s rough, ragged and refined all at the same time, with guitars giving way to strings that give way to guitars, set to Maria’s seemingly stream-of-conscious admission that “ugly inside of me taught me of beauty/I wouldn’t trade that work of art.”

As a whole, the album explores self-doubt, self-loathing and, ultimately, self-acceptance. At times, yes, it’s stasis in darkness (aka Sylvia Plath set to song). More than that, however, it’s Maria McKee unshorn, seemingly exploring her rapid-cycle bipolar disorder in ways that both replicate it and make it relatable. It’s the Bowie homage “Absolutely Barking Stars” with lyrics that delve into yin-yang duality… 

…and the dramatic “I’m Not Listening,” in which she attempts to ignore the voices inside her head that are taunting and haunting her. 

The utterly catchy “Everybody” explores celebrity and Andy Warhol’s infamous “15 seconds of fame” maxim: “We’ve all been flirting/with the perfect day/when they think we’re perfect/Yeah, but who are they?” There’s also a flat-out incendiary guitar break:

“Carried” is another highlight:

And, of course, there’s the title track, which may well be the greatest song she’s yet written or recorded. 

Geffen, her record label, hated the album. AAA radio stations like WXPN, which embraced and promoted the hell out of You Gotta Sin, refused to play it. Some critics slammed it. Some fans did, too. Artistic growth often comes at a price, and in this case the cost was Maria’s major-label career. Life Is Sweet failed to sell, and she left Geffen not long thereafter. The album also fell out of print, and has never been reissued, even digitally. (A true crime against art.)

Twenty-plus years since its release, however, and it sounds as fresh and hauntingly familiar as it did upon first listen. If you like Anna Calvi, Bat for Lashes, and similar dramatic acts, seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

The track list:

  1. Scarlover
  2. This Perfect Dress
  3. Absolutely Barking Stars
  4. I’m Not Listening
  5. Everybody
  6. Smarter
  7. What Else You Wanna Know
  8. I’m Awake
  9. Human
  10. Carried
  11. Life Is Sweet”
  12. Afterlife

I planned to trip back to September 18, 1984, this morning and bore into my first two published reviews – in the Ogontz Campus News, the weekly newspaper for what’s now known as Penn State Abington. But my archives are not as organized as, say, Neil Young’s. From the time I hit on the idea – Friday – to Saturday afternoon, when I finally located said newspaper, something happened: I discovered two new-to-me artists whose music made me feel young again.

So, here’s today’s Top 5: New Music, Vol. XLI.

On Friday night, while browsing the Paste Magazine sessions (always a rewarding endeavor), I stumbled across singer-songwriter Jillette Johnson’s four-song set, which was live-streamed earlier in the day. 

Her latest album is All I Ever See in You Is Me (2017) and, based on the above performance, I’ll be checking it out this week. 

Then, Saturday morning, a fan post on the Nanci Griffith Facebook Fan Page recapped a Nanci tribute in Austin that was organized and hosted by Austin-based singer-songwriter Nichole Wagner. That led me to look Nichole up on YouTube. Here’s her boss rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Tougher Than the Rest,” a track that has been covered by a coterie of cool artists in the past, including Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin.

That led me to check out her own songs – and, as I’m apt to say, wow. Just wow. I’m looking forward to her forthcoming album, which is slated for release on July 13th.

Another group that I came across on Paste’s YouTube channel, albeit earlier in the week: Haerts. They’re originally from Munich, but moved to Brooklyn some time ago.  Very cool retro vibe and harmonies. As Diane just remarked, “they’re fabulous.”

Another band with a cool retro vibe: the UK-based Treetop Flyers, who borrowed their name from a Stephen Stills song. Here’s the lead single from their forthcoming self-titled set, “Needle.”

I’ve mentioned Mikaela Davis’ Delivery, due out July 13th, before. Here’s the funky “Get Gone” as performed live at the Layman Drug Company in Nashville.

I’ll close out with what a classic track for the bonus – Willie Nelson’s “Living in the Promiseland,” which I’ve returned to quite often in recent months. The David Lynn Jones-penned song was a No. 1 hit for Willie that same year, and the cornerstone of Willie’s 1986 Promiseland LP, which I believe was the first album of his I purchased.