Posts Tagged ‘2020’

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.)

What a year, huh? While many of us faced the pandemic like a deer caught in headlights, Sir James Paul McCartney, MBE, constricted his pupils and spotted the oncoming danger, darting from the road and into a studio near his sheep farm, where he was in lockdown with daughter Mary and her family. Much like 1970’s McCartney album and 1980’s McCartney II, his previous one-man-band outings, he didn’t set out to record an album, per se. As he told BBC 6 Music’s Matt Everitt, “”I was just messing around.”

My first reaction: McCartney “messing around” isn’t to be underestimated. A great case in point: “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” which opens the 11-track album. It sprung from a song he’d recorded for Flaming Pie in 1997, “When Winter Comes,” which didn’t make that record but closes this one. In some respects, the leadoff song is akin to some of II’s synth delights, with the vocals (and minimalistic lyrics) primarily in place to add extra color to the proceedings.

“Deep Deep Feeling,” which clocks in at almost 8 1/2 minutes, is another case in point. It’s sparse and rhythmic, as eccentric in its way as the techno-centric II. It builds bit by bit, with its lyrics delving into the fear of giving one’s heart to another: “You know that deep, deep feeling/When you love someone so much, you feel your heart’s gonna burst/The feeling goes from best to worst/You feel your heart is gonna burst…”

My second reaction: Although he’s carried the weight and world upon his shoulders for decades now, he became accustomed to toting the extra baggage long ago. In “Slidin’,” a rocking statement of purpose that comes a little more than midway through III, he sings, “I know there must be other ways of feeling free/But this is what I wanna do, who I wanna be/Every time I try, I feel like I can fly/But I know that I could die trying…” (It’s the one song on the album that features players beyond himself: guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., who’ve backed him since 2001.) 

My third reaction: A week before Christmas and all through the house, only a cat was stirring in hopes of not catching a mouse, but eating breakfast before dawn. That meant a slap to his dad’s head to cajole him out of bed and then a few nips on his heels while he prepared said meal. Which is to say, whimsy works wonders when not overdone – and such is the case with III. There’s plenty of McCartney’s patented homilies to heart, hearth and home, in other words, plus philosophical musings, but schmaltz is nowhere to be heard. In “Seize the Day,” for instance, he confesses that, “I bless the day when you came into my life/And I could finally roll back the blind/You helped me to realize that love was the greatest prize/I only had to open my mind…”

On “Women and Wives,” there’s wisdom to be shared: “Hear me, women and wives/Hear me, husband and lovers/What we do with our lives/Seems to matter to others/Some of them may follow/Roads that we run down/Chasing tomorrow…”

My final reaction: Unlike 1970’s McCartney, it’s fully formed; and unlike McCartney II, it’s very much a mainstream pop-rock outing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s McCartney’s best album since 2007’s five-star Memory Almost Full, which also found him in a reflective mood. If it had been released a month or so ago, III wouldn’t just be in contention for my top 25 albums of the year, but it would have made it into the top tier.

The track list:

I’ve been holding off on writing about Neil Young’s Archives Vol. II, which was released on November 20, 2020, until I finished listening to each and every of its 10 discs. For those not in the know, it covers the fertile period from 11/15/1972 through 3/10/76, when he recorded such classic albums as Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Zuma – and held back a treasure trove of audio delights, including the since-released Tuscaloosa and Homegrown LPs. Also recorded during the timespan: the ill-fated Stills-Young collaboration Long May You Run. In total, 63 of the 131 tracks are previously unreleased, though the bulk of those are alternate or live versions of known songs. Twelve tunes are – theoretically speaking – brand-new to our ears. (I say “theoretically” because a few, such as the tender “Sweet Joni,” have been available on bootlegs for decades.)

The original deluxe edition, which was limited to 3000 copies, sold out in a matter of hours despite its mammoth price of $249.98. A second run is now scheduled, with a release date of next March, as is a “retail edition” with a reduced price of $159.98. (The Greedy Hand store is aptly named.) Me, I’ll likely buy the set as high-resolution downloads…and, until then, enjoy it via the Neil Young Archives website and iPhone app. 

The online Archives, I should mention, is a tremendous value for both new and old fans. For those of us who, years long ago, traded tapes and CDRs on the Rust List or Human Highway email lists and/or browsed the bins of indie record stores in hopes of stumbling upon bootleg LPs and CDs…well, it’s (almost) all there. Every official release. Live sets. The first Archives box set and, now, Archives II. Plus, next year, bootlegs of bootlegs are slated to appear. And, if that’s not enough, there’s tons of video – Neil’s 1984 appearance on Austin City Limits, when he was backed by the International Harvesters, is currently available to watch. (For those curious, it’s free for the holidays – and even when it’s not…it’s only $19.99/year.)

Best of all, one can access it on one’s smartphone (Apple or Android). Most days, I’m enmeshed at my desk for anywhere from a few to 10 hours. Monday through Friday, of course, it’s for my job, while on weekends it’s for this blog – or just goofing off. When the former, and in the mood, I listen via my iPhone, either plugging it into my desktop speakers or using Bluetooth headphones. Enjoying the music in high-resolution form isn’t to be had, yet it still does its job: It makes the day go faster.

Anyway, back to the Archives II: The many plaudits it has received are well deserved; here are a few such reviews: The Everybody’s Dummy blog; The Guardian newspaper; The LA Beat; Louder Than Sound; Rolling Stone; and Ultimate Classic Rock. Among the gems that I’ve returned to time and again: “Sweet Joni,” which I’ve loved since first hearing it on the Rock ’n’ Roll Cowboy bootleg compilation many years ago, and Joni, Neil and the Stray Gators ripping through “Raised on Robbery.” You can hear a snippet of it in this trailer:

There are plenty of other treasures to be had, of course. This Zuma-era take on “Powderfinger” is one:

Whether one should splurge on either the deluxe or retail edition is really a decision best left to each fan. One factor holding me back: the inclusion of the recent archival releases Tuscaloosa, ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live and Homegrown, all of which I purchased. If you didn’t pony up the cash for them, the set makes better sense. Another factor: In my life, accompanying booklets – no matter how well done – are usually looked at once, maybe twice, and then placed back inside the box never to be seen again. (If high-resolution downloads aren’t to be had, I rip CDs as FLAC or ALAC files and listen to those.) Too, I’d rather put that $160 or $250 to supporting up-and-coming artists, most of whom are facing financial hardship.  

Anyway, as Diane can attest, I often cycle through my musical favorites – I can go months or more without playing anything by a longtime favorite simply because…well, to borrow a phrase from Neil’s erstwhile pal David Crosby, “time is the final currency.” For the last good while, for example, it’s been mostly Bruce Springsteen, Courtney Marie Andrews and Zach Phillips – but, after enjoying the Archives II for the past few weeks, I feel like it’s time to saddle up the Horse and go for a ride…

Typically, ‘round here, this time of year becomes a bacchanal of music and memories I’ve come to dub “Remember December.” There’s rhyme, reason, Christmas music and good cheer, plus best-of lists, recaps, frankincense and myrrh, not to mention a countdown of my most popular posts of the past 12 months. I jumpstarted the best-of fun in late November, of course, so there’ll be a little less of that – and no Concerts of the Year countdown – but there are plenty of other knick-knacks to stuff in the stocking. That fun begins next week. Today, however, it’s my stream-of-conscious musings about matters large and small, while tomorrow I plan to share my thoughts on the Neil Young Archives website and Neil’s mammoth Archives II set.

Anyway, this morning – as most Saturdays – I found myself in a line of cars waiting for curbside pickup at a grocery store while soaking my soul in the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. No, not his Letter to You album, though it could well have been, but an archival delight I downloaded from his Live Downloads store last year: Their 1988 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. I began listening to it again a few weeks back – and, wow. Just wow. It’s an excellent show that features many songs from the Tunnel of Love LP, though only a handful of pre-River classics. There’s no “Badlands,” no “Promised Land,” no “Thunder Road.” “Backstreets” is present. “Born to Run” is, too, though in a slowed-down acoustic arrangement. There’s also this:

Depending upon one’s age and musical inclinations, you may or may not enjoy it. Me? I can’t get enough. Which leads to this: When the history of these times are written, what will be said? That I momentarily unfollowed someone on Twitter because she described Springsteen’s songs as “either boring or bellowing” and followed that with “I don’t care for his music”? Of course not. But, no doubt, scholars will note an uptick in such petty reactions (as mine was) to what, pre-pandemic, were minor annoyances generally ignored. Daily stresses cause that.

Joss Stone’s new single, “Walk With Me,” is a good way to relieve that tension. It’s quickly become one of my favorite songs of the year.

Of course, one reason for the overreaction to little things is that the big things, by and large, are beyond our control – the pandemic and politics. On the latter front, despite his Supreme Court loss, the tinpot despot’s nefarious plot to upend the U.S. election isn’t over yet. Now he’ll be pushing a slew of congressional prostitutes to screw the U.S. Constitution on January 6th, when Congress is scheduled to accept the Electoral College results. Their fealty to democracy is less than their fealty to cash – or, in this case, most likely the promise of cash from his new Save America PAC. (FYI: As the contractors who helped build his Atlantic City casinos discovered, he rarely pays out.)

Breath deep. Exhale. That’s what I tell myself, at any rate. And lose yourself in such cool performances as this one from Jillette Johnson. It builds and builds, but never explodes – a Mazzy Star-like rendition, if that makes sense. It’s hypnotic.