Posts Tagged ‘2010s’

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….)

Mortality and the passage of time has much been on my mind this past month, as I marked another year sailing around the sun on this ship we call Earth. We’ve entered unsettled waters of late, with towering waves thrashing the hull and cracking through rotted planks of wood that the captain, an incompetent steward if ever there was one, claimed sound prior to leaving port.

In any event, in this storm, I look back at all that’s come before with wonder and few regrets – yet, to borrow a lyric from Juliana Hatfield’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” find myself questioning “Where is the comfort in having been somewhere you know you can’t go again?” The past is behind us, in other words, and reliving past glories impacts the present not a bit. As she sings in “Fade Away,” albeit in a different context, “there is nothing I can say/that is not a cliche.”

If you’re unfamiliar with “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (which is not a cover of the classic Johnny Thunders song made famous by Guns N’ Roses), that’s no surprise. Along with “Fade Away,” it’s one of 11 God’s Foot demos she served up as a PledgeMusic premium in late 2014, while accruing cash to fund the 2015 Juliana Hatfield Three album Whatever, My Love.

The God’s Foot album, for those not in the know, was slated to be the follow-up to her 1995 Only Everything album. It was more a concept and less a stack of specific tracks, with Juliana racking up six-digit studio costs while recording in Woodstock, N.Y. Atlantic Records, her label home, rejected her efforts due to the dearth of a radio-friendly tune that could be pushed as a single, however. She recorded some more, they said no, and finally she gave in and asked to be released from her contract. They consented, but retained rights to the material she’d recorded for the unfinished album.

Two decades and several bootlegged versions of God’s Foot later, including this one…

…she decided to share what she did have from the aborted album with fans. From what she noted at the time (and Live On Tomorrow – A Juliana Hatfield Fan Site recorded for posterity), “[t]he recordings were taken from an old cassette – the only version of these recordings that I have…the songs were recorded onto two-inch reel-to-reel tape and then most likely transferred to half-inch tape and then transferred onto a cassette for my listening pleasure and then that cassette ended up in the basement sitting in a paper bag full of cassettes and then years later (circa now) the cassette was transferred onto a CD.”

She also noted that “although I never finalized an official version and sequence of the album, some of you have heard versions of what people who made the songs available (not me) were calling God’s Foot. but, again, I never sanctioned the song choices. Since I knew the album was not ever scheduled for release, I never needed to finalize the song choices or mixes or the sequence.”

The download-only delight from 2014 was 320 kbps and sounds very good, with a minimum of hiss and no slo-mo warped interludes that sometimes happens with old cassettes. The songs possess an analog warmth, actually, and none of the brittle highs that marred many recordings during the mid-‘90s. I’d love to have the set on CD, LP or full-resolution FLAC/ALAC files, as I’m sure some sonic pleasures were lost when squeezing the songs into MP3s. 

To my ears, the God’s Foot demos harken back to the oft-sweet sounds of Hey Babe while foreshadowing the lushness of Beautiful Creature, in exile deo and How to Walk Away, with dollops of harder rock (“Get Over Me” and “Charity”) punctuating the set. Guitars are plentiful, vocals are upfront and, as on the aching “Don’t Need a Reason,” cushioned by down-soft backing vocals. The lyrics feature Juliana’s idiosyncratic takes on life and love. In the opening “How Would You Know,” for instance, she confesses that “I want you to see me/look into my soul/but how would you know/my eyes are closed….”

Why Atlantic Records rejected the songs is beyond me; if these 11 songs are any indication, the album was guaranteed to be one of the decade’s top discs; instead, it’s become one of the decade’s great lost sets. To lift another lyric from “Fade Away”:

In the rosy gloom of youth
Every moment has its truth
It’s gonna fade away…

Two songs did eventually surface on the now out-of-print Gold Stars 1992–2002: The Juliana Hatfield Collection: “Mountains of Love” and “Fade Away”; and a third, “I Didn’t Know,” was made available during Juliana’s honor-download experiment of 2006-07 (somewhere I have a few cancelled checks with her signature on the back). If there was any justice in this world, however, American Laundromat would partner with Atlantic and issue God’s Foot. But I’m not holding my breath.

The songs: