Although I respect Randy Newman and play with pleasure several albums, I recoil from the high fructose corn syrup of a vocal attack that’s supposed to convey irony. Harry Nilsson, who recorded an album of Newman, remains his most fluent interpreter; otherwise, give me Ray Charles or Dusty Springfield. Not Three Dog Night turning “Mama Told Me Not to Come” into something worse than Muppets theater.
A few days before I jump into hyperspace drunk as a Bantha to watch The Rise of Skywalker, I wanted to get this ranking out the way. To explain how Star Wars shaped my childhood would waste time; I was one of millions who actually leaned more heavily on the action figures because in the early Reagan era the only way to watch movies again was, well, watching them in theaters or wait until their network TV debuts (which didn’t happen until years after I stopped caring). And the cross-toy mixing uncorked possibilities undreamt of by George Lucas and Disney. How many of my readers made Greedo, Hammerhead, and Snaggletooth into a criminal gang paid bounties by Megatron to hand over fleshling collaborators? You should’ve played in Mr. Soto’s Neighborhood.
I find the collapse of his American chart success after “Oh Pretty Woman” startling and unexplainable. Sure, the material wasn’t up to what he and Fred Foster made into the candy-colored psychodramas, but to think he never charted higher than #21 (“Goodnight”) until 1989’s Wilbury-written comeback “You Got It”!
A magpie whose visual instincts made him an MTV fixture well into the High Reagan era, Rick Springfield is an odd duck, his talents still unappreciated. I distrust power pop, yet “Love is Alright Tonight,” his Hagar cover, and especially “Jessie’s Girl” were taut, snotty delights in the radio doldrums of 1981-1982. Then he discovered the aural correlatives between his music and visuals, adopting synths perhaps three years too late but writing pretty good self-reflexive moves like “Human Touch.” I suppose Hard to Hold went into production at the same time as Eddie and the Cruisers; certainly the notion of a rock ‘n’ roller (who moonlighted as a soap opera heart throb) playing a rock ‘n’ roller had commercial possibilities in 1984, a year when mythologies about rock got power rotation on MTV (“Love Somebody” is as climactic as period Cars). And he kept going. Did you know he scored three top thirty singles in 1985? His last in 1988? His 2004 album, Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance, drenched in psychobabble, happened to be pretty good. Continue reading
The tough older sister of sixties pop, preferring the company of nightclub denizens whom she went home with and who broke her heart; yet she keeps her humor and equipoise. That’s the character Dionne Warwick creates in the songs written by Bacharach-David. Her career needs no defense. She was tougher than her material suggested, and when the popularity of her early material waned she turned to Barry Manilow and Clive Davis — and still triumphed. During the 1980s she hopped around: Barry Gibb, Luther Vandross, Kashif.
Well, ain’t that peculiar — an artist with no meh top tens? That’s Marvin Gaye, who followed an inimitable run as Motown’s premier male singer to a solo run in which his own productions and compositions, full of fire but capable of a tenderness that rarely went louche, maintained a standard. It’s not often said, but I’m just glad that “Sexual Healing” simmers like “I’ll Be Doggone” does.
“As Birmingham art-rockers go, ELO occupied a useful gap between the Moody Blues and Duran Duran, and were probably better at producing sharp, punchy pop songs than either,” Marcello Carlin wrote about Electric Light Orchestral’s 1979 Discovery, one of the many platinum albums they accumulated in the last seventies. Archly orchestral pop with a dash of disco did well in 1978-1979, a period coinciding with peak ELO. I confused their minor singles (“Last Train to London,” say) with Supertramp’s. Although they hit #1 in England with “Xanadu,” their considerable American success didn’t result in a similar touchstone here; to date, they remain the act with the most top twenty singles without a #1.
Which makes me ask: how known a commodity were they in the States? In the era of Foreigner, Journey, and REO Speedwagon, did fans hear the difference between, say, “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Cold As Ice”? Wasn’t “Hold Me Tight” another early Reagan-era rocker (think Frankie and the Knockout’s (e.g. the Gary “U.S.” Bonds comeback and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”) drenched in boomer nostalgia for an early era of un-arch orchestral pop?
Of course, Jeff Lynne was spent as an autonomous entity after 1986’s marvelous “Calling America,” but his subsequent legacy adds up to another interesting story.