Monthly Archives: April 2019

Ranking Janet Jackson’s top forty hits

The death of John Singleton has rejiggered what I think of Janet Jackson’s early nineties achievement: singing and writing about erotic submission and action with the detachment of an observer who’s lived a little. Her sweet, small croon suits the material; it’s amazing how rarely Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ beats smother her. Also amazing: the range of her singles, which didn’t stop. As I’ve aged the galvanized steel of Control gets me like Rhythm Nation 1814 doesn’t; as I age, maybe “Again” will cease being a boring open-mouthed kiss.

The Hague



Miss You Much
Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You) (with Carly Simon featuring Missy Elliott)
Someone to Call My Lover
Call on Me (with Nelly)

Sound, Solid Entertainments

All For You
Because of Love
Rhythm Nation
The Best Things in Life Are Free (with Luther Vandross, Bell Biv DeVoe, Ralph Tresvant)
Let’s Wait Awhile
Doesn’t Really Matter
Black Cat
You Want This
Come Back to Me
Scream (with Michael Jackson)

Good to Great

The Pleasure Principle
What Have You Done For Me Lately
That’s the Way Love Goes
Diamonds (with Herb Alpert)
Together Again
When I Think of You
Any Time, Any Place
Love Will Never Do (Without You)
I Get Lonely (Remix) (featuring Blackstreet)

John Singleton — RIP

Few young filmmakers get their scripts approved and direct a film in which most things go right, and John Singleton did with Boyz in the Hood. The 1991 depiction of life in blighted South Central L.A. starring a mesmerizing Ice Cube became the kind of phenomenon that absorbs cultural currents and creates new ones; for a few years pop music and MTV took their cues from Boyz in the Hood. It made $60 million and, in one of the Motion Picture Academy’s occasional gob-smacking beau gestes, earned Singleton a Best Director nomination, the youngest in history and, more crucially, the first nomination for a black director. Continue reading

Chafing at limits: Lizzo, Reba McEntire, Billie Eilish

I’m catching up after finals, a conference, and listing.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

Wearing see-through panties, ordering Jerome to get his ass home before she takes matters into her own hands, Melissa Jefferson sings the body electric. Her third album shows off her big, broad voice. She’ll syncopate if she must, but the howl, as tactical as a SCUD, will do. This approach can get wearying, notably on the retro stylings of X Ambassadors’ contributions (the title track, “Heaven Help Me”), on which she balks at genre limitations but hasn’t figured out what to do besides protest — loudly. Still, at a brisk thirty-three minutes Cuz I Love You presents itself as a sturdy star vehicle, hard to imagine gaining traction even five years ago.

Reba McEntire – Stronger Than the Truth

On her thirty-third studio album the polymath merges with a band comprised in part by studio hand Buddy Cannon. If I walked into a bar and heard “Swing All Night Long with You” live, I’d ask about the voice leading the pianist and steel guitarist through the changes. Raspy but supple, worn but not to the nubbin, that voice provides as much empathy as it’s possible at sixty-four and thirty-three albums later, on material by Ronnie Dunn, sure, but also Brandy Clark and daughter Autumn. Like a solidly blue state senator gearing up for a last hurrah, McEntire takes nothing for granted; well-observed gestures of empathy like “Cactus in a Coffee Can,” in which she listens to a woman’s story of abandonment by her crack-addicted mama, don’t hide her privilege. She does sing a lot about cigarettes, though — I can’t believe she so much as sneaks outside the house for one.

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

The production is the star: as intimate as a demo, at ease with vertiginous tempo changes.Billie Eilish wouldn’t have it any other way. Arrangements requiring her to step out of the shadows would dull the acuity of her remarks. She doesn’t write songs — she collects aphorisms for the Instagram era. To imagine this album she co-created with her brother might mummify into a period piece isn’t out of the question, but Eilish circuit-damaged maximal minimalism unifies freaks and geeks from Bowie to Lorde, and not even Bowie saw an album hit #1 in America, let alone twice.

My favorite debut novels

Creating this list, I considered the arc of a novelist’s career: is the debut self-sufficient enough to be fully representative of his or her career? Hence the omission of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Also, did they only write one novel? Hence the omissions of The Bell Jar and Wuthering Heights. Others, like Jhumpra Lahiri’s The Namesake and John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, don’t match the concentration of their short stories.

1. Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim
2. Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood
3. Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
4. Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming-Pool Library
5. Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye
6. Philip Larkin – Jill
7. Saul Bellow – Dangling Man
8. Günter Grass – The Tin Drum
9. Zadie Smith – White Teeth
10 Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
11. Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road
12. James Baldwin – Go Tell It on the Mountain
13. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
14. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
15. E.M. Forster – Where Angels Fear to Tread
16. Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility
17. Monica Ali – Brick Lane
18. Garth Greenwell – What Belongs to You
19. Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
20. Michael Chabon – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
21. George Eliot – Adam Bede
22. Penelope Fitzgerald – The Golden Child
23. Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
24. Truman Capote – Other Voices, Other Rooms
25. Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
26. David Foster Wallace – The Broom of the System
27. Ann Beattie – Chilly Scenes of Winter
28. Evelyn Waugh – Decline and Fall
29. Iris Murdoch – Under the Net
30. James Wilcox – Modern Baptists

Ranking Stevie Wonder top tens

As in the case of Marvin Gaye, appreciation of Stevland Morris’ self-produced masterworks overshadows the achievements of his youth, which, as the list below indicates, are considerable. Radiant and almost transparent, flexible when the situation demands it, Stevie Wonder’s vocals are one of America’s greatest gifts to the world, despite the Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan years in which it flaunted its range. Until a few weeks ago I had no idea about “Heaven Help Us All, nor was I sufficiently aware of “If You Really Love Me”; with its Funk Brothers rhythm and ebullient Syreeta Wright backing it straddles several decades of mid tempo balladry. Continue reading