Best of Lists

Here comes summer. And here comes the debate about the “song of the summer.”  As in, what song will everyone be singing when they’re driving around in the car, googling the location of the nearest Dairy Queen? Every year there are predictions and this year I’ll go out on a limb and place my money on Drake’s “Passionfruit.”

A great summer song needs one of two things:  either exuberance and a zest for life, especially if it’s even tangentially connected to sun or water, or an overt nostalgia for summers past.

Except for Christmas, no season generates the kind of nostalgia that summer does, and it’s all based on the same principle — a yearning for a simpler more innocent time of life, where everything seemed new with limitless possibility.  And I have to admit, there is nothing like that last day of school when the entire summer stretches on indefinitely.  I’d like to say I spent my summers at the swimmin’ hole, riding on Ferris Wheels, or writing poems to my first love, but I was more likely to be inside watching game shows on TV (on a perfectly good day!!!) or moping about being bored.

Nevertheless, like everyone else I have an idealized view of summer and here are the songs that remind me of the summers I may or may not have actually experienced.

15. Saturday in the Park

The band Chicago is more or less disdained now by rock aficionados because of their heavy reliance on horns.  Nevertheless I was a big fan and actually went to see them in concert at the old Boston Garden.  “Saturday in the Park” was inspired by a visit to Central Park by the band’s lead vocalist Robert Lamm on July 4, 1971 (actually a Sunday, btw), who saw steel drum players, singers, dancers, and jugglers all having a great time, which translated into: “People dancing, people laughing/A man selling ice cream/Singing Italian songs.” Yep, that sounds like summer.

14. The Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine

The Fifth Dimension’s “The Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine” is by no means a classic summer song but I am using the blogger’s privilege to include it in this list.  In 1969, when I was 15 (!!) I spent the summer building swimming pools for my father’s company, which meant a lot of physical labor outside with the radio on.  We listened to WRKO, Boston’s Top-40 radio station so I heard the same songs day after day.  Looking at the Billboard list for that summer is like stepping into a time capsule.  The apocalyptic “In the Year 2525” was a huge hit, as was Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme for Romeo and Juliet.” But in between those two extremes is “The Age of Aquarius,” a commercialized version of the anthem from “Hair.” Whenever I hear this song I remember wielding a shovel all summer and am grateful I went to college.

13. Summer Nights

I’m not really a fan of “Grease,” which makes “West Side Story” look like a serious anthropological study of 50’s teen alienation.  The song “Summer Nights,” though, cleverly combines insights on the differences between men and women while articulating the yearning for hot-weather romantic passion.  Olivia Newton John and John Travolta narrate their version of their summer romance, and in her story he was sweet and caring, while in his version she was hot and randy.   One thing they agree on, however, is “Summer fling don’t mean a thing/But, uh oh, those summer nights.”

12. Schools Out

If you ever wondered whether “This is Spinal Tap” was a parody or actual documentary all you need to do is watch Alice Cooper videos to see that “Spinal Tap” actually didn’t go far enough.  “School’s Out” seemingly celebrates the last day of school, but is actually a profoundly anti-social song (“School’s out forever/My school’s been blown to pieces”).  Aww, who takes that seriously?  Of course now Alice Cooper portrays himself as your basic bourgeois grampa, telling Terri Gross on “Fresh Air” that it was all an act.  Whatever, the song is fun and joyous as long as you don’t think too hard about it.

11. Party in the USA

Clarification Warning: The inclusion of this song does not constitute an endorsement of Miley Cyrus, twerking, celebrity rehab or anything else connected with Miley-drama.  The song isn’t really even about summer — it’s about hearing a song and partying, two essential elements of summer.  Plus in the video she’s wearing a tank-top and short-shorts and dancing in a pick-up truck.  What could be more summery than that?

10. 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy)

About half the songs in the Springsteen oeuvre are summer songs at heart, even when they’re ostensibly about closing factories and ruined futures.  That’s because they are drenched in nostalgia and yearning.  “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” which is about as nostalgic as it gets, paints a vivid word picture of an amusement park, with boardwalks, arcades, fireworks, tilt-a-whirls — the whole nine yards. The main attraction, though, is Sandy, the boss’s daughter, and the narrator’s throat-tightening, teen longing is palpable.

9.  Summer of 69

Another classic nostalgia song, reminiscing about young love, drive-ins, porches, etc, etc. during that great summer of 1969.  Or as it makes clear in no-nonsense terms, “Those were the best days of my life.”  The song turns me off a bit because it commercializes nostalgia so explicitly — and yet, it definitely pushes enough buttons to make it on the list.

8. Summertime (Kenny Chesney)

Summer songs constitute a whole sub-genre of country music, which makes sense because people always imagine they spend their summers out in the country instead of in the air-conditioned offices where they really are.  Kenny Chesney is the king of giving the people what they want — as his sold-out mega-concerts attest — and in “Summertime” what he offers is perpetual late-teenagery at the waterhole where the boys’ hearts “skip a beat” as the girls “shimmy out of their old cut-offs.” Kind of makes me wish, sometimes, that I’d grown up a yokel.

7. Walking on Sunshine

For sheer exuberance nothing quite matches “Walking on Sunshine.”  And since it’s got sunshine in the title we’ll classify it as a summer song, although the official video, which shows the band walking along the Thames on a winter day, makes clear this was about the last thing on their minds.

6. Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly and the Family Stone performed at Woodstock in 1969 and released “Hot Fun In the Summertime” soon thereafter.  The slow, soulful melody takes the banal lyrics (“I cloud nine when I want to/Out of school, yeah/County fair in the country sun/And everything, it’s true, ooh, yeah”) and turns them into one of the coolest songs ever.  A lot of summer songs are frantic in their pursuit of fun but “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is a good reminder that a good deal of summer is about conserving your energy in the heat.

5. California Gurls

Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is a clear take-off of the Beach Boys song, except that tells the story from the female perspective, as in, “damn right we’re hot.” It’s a song that invites the male gaze and finds power in overt female sexuality.  Why, the girls have sex on the beach and don’t mind getting sand in their stilettos. And this was Hillary Clinton’s ambassador to the girls of America!  Yet there’s no denying that the beat is infectious and joyful and a lot of fun to sing in the car.

4. California Girls

It’s hard to think of a Beach Boys song that doesn’t bring to mind summer (except for, perversely, “Surf’s Up,” a weird psychedelic song).  California Girls is not my favorite Beach Boys record but it’s the one that’s most overtly about summer.  I doubt that in 2017 they could get away with referring to bikini-clad women as “Dolls by a palm tree in the sand,” although Katy Perry might consider it a compliment.  In any event, it’s about being happy at the beach, in the sun, and contemplating female beauty.  Now that’s summer!

3. Summer Breeze

What I love about this song is its ordinariness.  It’s not straining after hackneyed images of manufactured fun; instead it’s rejoicing in the quiet day-to-day existence of summer.  The windows are open and the kitchen curtains are blowing and you can hear music from the neighbor next door.  And that great climax: “And I come home/from a hard day’s work/and you’re waiting there/not a care in the world.” As a kid I always thought that is what a perfect marriage would be, and you know what?  It is.

2. Dancing in the Streets

Written by Marvin Gaye and released in 1964, “Dancing in the Streets,” has an optimism that wouldn’t be seen again in pop music for decades.  The song calls for all the people of the world to come together and dance, and before the Sixties went completely haywire with war, riots and multiple assassinations, that seemed possible.  This song is also a good reminder that summer also happens in the cities and is not just a rural phenomenon.

1.  Call Me Maybe

When you talk about songs of the summer, this has got to be number one of all time.  The song is not explicitly about summer except that the participants are scantily clad and have sex on their minds. No, what makes it a summer song is that it played all summer long, worming its way into the deepest part of our cortex.  Released in 2012 just when social media was coming into its own, it became a huge ubiquitous hit, pouring out the radio all summer, and then, through YouTube parodies, out of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.   Those video parodies took on a life of their own, starting with the Harvard baseball team (see below).  This soon became a strange form of homoerotic male bonding (see more below).  That wouldn’t have happened in the halcyon summer of 1969 but it was still a lot of fun.






Mike Wallace

CBS Correspondent Mike Wallace arrested while covering the 1968 Democratic Convention

Well, it looks like those of us who’d so ardently hoped for a “contested convention” this summer will be denied again.  And if this wasn’t the year that a party convention ended up choosing the presidential candidate then maybe we should come to grips with the fact that it’s just not going to happen again in our lifetimes.

But that doesn’t mean these quadrennial events won’t provide good television.  Over the years some of the most exciting television moments have occurred at a presidential nominating convention.  Here are my nominations for the ten most memorable convention events of the television age:

1. Riots in Chicago (Dem 1968) – With the country in shock over the Kennedy and King assassinations and the party convulsed over the Vietnam War, the Democrats met in Chicago to nominate Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The result: the Chicago police beat up anti-war demonstrators as a civil war broke out inside the convention.  The footage is still shocking.

2.  Reagan Speech (GOP 1976) – The 1976 Republican convention was the last real contested convention, with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford nearly tied heading into the voting. As the sitting president, Ford prevailed, and in a gesture of unity, invited Reagan to the podium. For most party regulars, who had, in this pre-Internet, pre-cable era, never heard Reagan speak, this emotional oration generated significant buyers’ remorse, as they realized they’d backed the wrong horse. Four years later they nominated Reagan and he went on to be elected.

3. First Obama Speech (Dem 2004) – Barack Obama was a little-known Illinois state legislator when he delivered an electrifying keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, the one that nominated John Kerry. This speech, with its message of hope and inclusion, eventually powered Obama’s own drive to become President just four years later.

4. Cuomo and Jackson Excoriate Reagan (Dem 1984) – With Ronald Reagan riding high in 1984, two of the most gifted orators of the 20th Century – Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson – rose to assail him as heartless and too beholden to the rich. Throughout history, most of the most memorable convention speeches have been delivered for losing causes, as was the case that year, but Cuomo laid the groundwork for “Occupy” rhetoric 27 years later and Jackson inspired the Rainbow Coalition that ultimately elected Barack Obama.

5. Clint Eastwood Interviews a Chair (GOP 2012) – In 2012 the Romney campaign was so eager for any hint of star power that they didn’t insist that Clint Eastwood clear his convention remarks beforehand. Instead of a standard convention speech, though, what they got was a bizarre piece of performance art in which Eastwood used the rhetorical device of asking questions to someone who wasn’t there (in this case President Obama).   Nice try. Stick to acting.

6. Reagan picks Bush as VP (GOP 1980) – The choice of a Vice President isn’t usually very exciting, unless it mobilizes part of the base, as it did with Geraldine Ferraro (1984) or Sarah Palin (2008). But in 1980, there were serious discussions about Ronald Regan choosing former President Jerry Ford as his VP.  That seemed to be the operating assumption until suddenly it wasn’t, to the shock of Walter Cronkite and Leslie Stahl.

7. Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the “San Francisco Democrats” (GOP 1984) – Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador, was a former Democrat and University professor and her foreign address in 1984 was little more than a lecture on the evils of Communism. Denouncing the “San Francisco Democrats” who were prone to “blame America first,” she managed to rouse the GOP convention through the sheer power of her analysis.

8. Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech (GOP 1964) – Goldwater was the Donald Trump of his day, considered too erratic and extreme to be allowed anyway near the nuclear codes. Like Trump, Goldwater doubled down, and to the howls of the convention, declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” He then went on to receive 38% of the popular vote.

9. The Al and Tipper Gore Lip Lock (Dem 2000) – What do you do when you are perceived as a nerd and a stiff? If you’re Al Gore, you go on national television and give your wife a long and ostensibly passionate kiss right after being nominated for president.  Ick.

10. Sarah Palin’s “Lipstick” speech (GOP 2008) — Before there was the Tea Party and its disdain of intellectualism and elites, there was Sarah Palin. What is forgotten now is how she revived the moribund McCain campaign and injected energy into his convention.  The speech itself, obviously not written by Palin, blistered Barack Obama with disdain while presenting herself as a just-folks representative of traditional America.   (“You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”)  As she spoke, the camera focused on her family: her pregnant teenage daughter Bristol and Bristol’s “fiancé,” her infant son with Downs Syndrome being cradled by another daughter, and her military son about to be deployed. This was one of the first acknowledgments that political families need not be perfect.

Will something bizarre and exciting happy at the conventions this year?  My money is on the Trump coronation, with riots in the streets and the possibility of Trump extemporizing the biggest speech of his life.  But then again, who knows how the Sanders supporters will react at the Democratic convention.  Either way, it will be worth tuning in to see history made again.





Crowd watching movie in theatre

Last year was a decent year for movies, with a nice mix of arty serious cinema, a few serviceable blockbusters and a good comedy or two. There was nothing as groundbreaking as last year’s “About a Boy,” but there were still quite a few good films, all of which seemed to premiere after Thanksgiving.

Some trends: this was a big year for “based on a true story” movies (Spotlight, The Big Short, Joy, etc.) and also a good year for rebooting old franchises (Star Wars, Jurassic World, Mission Impossible and Creed.) What’s next, Indiana Jones?

I avoided obviously violent movies, so once again: no Quentin Tarrantino. Also, no Revenant. I also avoided any movie based on a comic book character and movies where sexual confusion is an obvious theme. So this is an incomplete list.

In the end, I felt fortunate that I never saw any outright terrible movies. So again, this is an incomplete list.

With that as preamble, here are my rankings for the year.

1. Spotlight

I love movies about how people do their jobs and “Spotlight” is a nuts-and-bolts depiction about news reporting. The Boston Globe’s expose about child-abusing priests is probably the most consequential newspaper story of the past twenty years and although we know how it turns out “Spotlight” is surprisingly gripping. Great acting all the way around as we see the personal toll taken on anyone who loves his or her job a little too much.

2. Inside Out

Wildly inventive, if a little over-praised. I was bored in the middle as Joy had to overcome one obstacle after another (after all, in “The Hero’s Journey” there’s only one obstacle). However, the beginning and – especially – the end were deeply moving. I wish I’d seen this before becoming a parent because of all the wisdom it dispenses.

3. The Big Short

Certainly not a conventional movie since there’s no real plot, and it’s weird to root for the economy to collapse so some short-sellers can reap millions in profits. Yet this is the best take on the 2008 financial crisis and scary as crap. I can’t remember concentrating as hard to understand what’s actually going on in a movie as I did in The Big Short but the payoff is that I now know what a Collateralized Debt Obligation is.

4. Joy

This is the third movie made together by Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and David O Russell, and if it’s not quite as good as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” it’s still pretty great. Joy sure has a lot of obstacles to overcome, starting with her soul-destroying family, but she’s got gumption, dagnabit, and she invents the Miracle Mop and becomes the queen of QVC.

5. The Martian

Matt Damon is a quintessential American hero – laconic, brave, resourceful. A actual space cowboy. This is another nuts-and-bolts “how to” movie, except this time the focus is how to stay alive on Mars when you’ve been left behind by your crew. As in “Inside Out,” there’s a little dragging in the middle but it has a thrilling start and finish.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m not ashamed to admit I had a lump in my throat when that Star Wars title, the narrative crawl and the swelling of music first boomed forth. The good news is that it’s vastly superior to the prequels, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the original three. Great action, but too much of it. Love all the new cast and it’s fantastic to see the return of LukeLeiaHan. Unfortunately I don’t understand any of the geopolitical landscape. There’s a republic, a rebellion AND a First Order? I thought we settled all that in “The Return of the Jedi”?

7. Pitch Perfect 2

Actually funnier and more enjoyable than the original. We learn that real heroism can be demonstrated simply by plugging on after experiencing extreme humiliation. I’m happy to report that this is a female empowerment movie that didn’t feel that it had to be raunchy. Congratulations to Elizabeth Banks who appeared in three movies on this list but made a bazillion dollars producing and directing PP2.

8. Jurassic World

This is about all you can ask for in a summer blockbuster – excitement, awesomeness, an understandable and somewhat memorable plot. And Chris Pratt, who is suddenly and unexpectedly a major movie star. It is not as exciting as the Stephen Spielberg original but it does deliver a few chills. I don’t know if the movie’s retro gender politics are intentional or put in to build an audience but I can’t believe Sheryl Sandberg can be very happy about what happens to the female executive in this movie when she decides to lean in.

9. Brooklyn

It’s the late 1940s and a young Irish woman emigrates to Brooklyn, where she experiences loneliness, career satisfaction and ultimately love. A nice reminder that we’re a stronger nation because immigrants came here, found opportunity and worked hard to make their own contributions.

10. Love and Mercy

Better-than-usual musical biopic about Brian Wilson, in which Paul Dano and John Cusack play the younger and older version of the greatest Beach Boy. Terrific songs of course and a fascinating back story to the dynamics of the band and of Brian’s mental illness. Here we have the second of three co-starring roles for Elizabeth Banks this year.

11. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The darkest and most philosophically deep of all the major blockbusters this year, and not exactly fun. This series has been a prolonged meditation on terrorism, propaganda, tyranny and the evils of war. I don’t really understand Katniss’ taste in men, but I assume that’s a political statement by the (female) author. This is the hat trick for Elizabeth Banks.

12. Creed

Like “The Force Awakens” this is essentially a remake of a monster hit from the mid-1970s in which father issues are at the center of the conflict. Adonis Creed is Apollo’s son, who he goes to get trained by Rocky Balboa and you can imagine the rest. Another warm bath of nostalgia.

13. A Most Violent Year

The year in question is 1981. This is a little-heralded but excellent drama about a guy who wants to run a clean and legitimate trash hauling business but has to overcome the mob without resorting to violence himself. Oscar Issac, who went on to fame as the Han Solo-like pilot in “The Force Awakens,” is the brave and honest businessman and Jessica Chastain is the skeptical wife who wonders if he’s tough enough.

14. Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the Berlin Wall get together to produce an extremely old-fashioned drama about a lawyer who defends a spy and then negotiates a prisoner swap that gets two Americans sprung from the clutches of the communists. If Jimmy Stewart were alive he’d play the lawyer but Tom Hanks does a pretty good job too.

15. Amy

A harrowing documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse. Before this, I never knew anything about her except that Dave Letterman used to make jokes about her relapses. But what a talent and what a waste.

16. Trainwreck

Amy Schumer became the flavor of the month this year. She’s obviously extraordinarily talented, but I’ve reached the age where the crudeness of the comedy makes me cringe. Any you have to wonder if there’s self-loathing underneath all those fat and wasted jokes. The movie was pretty funny and LeBron was surprisingly good. Don’t look for a plot that makes sense, though.

17. Mr. Turner

Really should be on last year’s list but didn’t see it until this year. I never thought I’d be interested in seeing a biopic on the eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner, but this was impressively evocative of life in the mid-19th Century.

18. Listen To Me Marlon

Absorbing documentary about Marlon Brando that relies heavily on audio tapes he’d made for an autobiography. The documentary convincingly makes the case that Brando was the most influential actor of all time.  He was also psychologically damaged as a child, which explains his extreme personal selfishness and support for a hodgepodge of left-wing political causes.

19. Mr. Holmes

I like the conceit – that Sherlock Holmes was a real person who retired for mysterious reasons and who is now forced to confront his past. There’s a nice mystery or two, and Ian McKellen is fine as Holmes but overall it’s a bit dry.

20.  Cinderella

A perfectly respectable live-action rendering of the old tale. Lily James, better known as Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, is nearly perfect as the title character and Cate Blanchett brings unexpected depth and pathos as the evil stepmother.

21.  71

Set during “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland in 1971, a British soldier gets separated from his unit in Belfast and needs to be rescued with the help of competing IRA gangs. I think. The action is a tense but it’s tough navigating the politics.

22. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Tom Cruise used to be a great actor, but unlike that other Tom (Tom Hanks), he’s refused to let himself age. He looks good in this movie, but weird, like he’s a cyborg. The movie itself has all the strengths and weaknesses of a big-budget blockbuster. It’s mildly diverting while it’s on the screen and completely forgettable when it’s over.

23.  Spy

Melissa McCarthy is funny as an under-appreciated CIA analyst who is awesome when she gets a chance to go into the field, but the movie is disconcertingly violent for a comedy. And crude too. Congratulations Paul Feig for getting an erect penis into a mainstream movie. Your mother must be so proud.

24. The Peanuts Movie

I’m a big Peanuts fan and this movie was big-hearted, but it was a little too low-key for a full-length feature film. Perfectly fine for kids – small kids.

25. Paddington

Another kids movie. Again, perfectly fine but a little too tame for my taste.




To those of us old enough to remember Joni Mitchell as the blonde sex-bomb of the folk music scene, the TMZ report that she was in a coma — whether true or not — is an alarming reminder of our own mortality. More than any other artist, she was a chronicler of the flower children of the 1960s. Indeed as the creator of the song “Woodstock” she essentially dictated how we should think about that era. It’s disquieting to be reminded  of how old those “forever young” artists have actually become. And it’s even sadder to think that she has no family or loved ones to serve as her conservator.

As a performer, Joni never achieved massive success. She was on the verge of it after the popularity of her 1974 albumCourt and Spark” but instead of creating more pop songs, she doubled down on the introspection, experimented with jazz and then ultimately (and unsuccessfully) tried her hand at political commentary

She will always be known as a songwriters’ songwriter. The list of artists who claim to be influenced by her is long, but she was also an outstanding performer in her own right. She burst onto the scene with one of the most beautiful voices in the industry (a voice that has deepened over the years thanks to her affinity for tobacco products). And she was beautiful, with chiseled cheekbones and long flowing hair. But more important than all of that was the emotion she put into her songs — the stories about love and loss that helped generations of young sensitive souls understand the feelings the couldn’t quite articulate themselves.

The writing itself is phenomenal. No one — not Dylan, not the Beatles — ever did a better job of phraseology, rhyming, or creating images. Listen to the words in the following songs and try to deny she wasn’t the best lyricist of her generation.

10. A Free Man in Paris

Supposedly written for her friend David Geffen, this has great sentimental value for me because when I heard the album “Court and Spark” I realized I could like Joni Mitchell on her own and not because of what she stood for as a sensitive songwriter. Even now, 40 years later, I love how her voice slides up and down the lyrics, expressing exuberance, vitality and freedom.

9. Chelsea Morning

Hillary Clinton claimed that she named her daughter after this song, and who knows, this might actually be one of those truthful Clinton claims. A cheery song, for a change. The sun poured in like butterscotch — I’m sure it did.

8. Song for Sharon

This is an unappreciated classic — one long story of a women walking around New York City ruminating on her failed relationships. Her friends tell her to find find herself a charity or “put some time into ecology” but all she wants to do is find another lover. There are no refrains and choruses, just one beautiful observation after another.

7. Blue

This is a song that makes you want to open a vein. Song are like tattoos? Love never really went right for Joni Mitchell, and the pain just pours out through these lyrics. Yet I do like to listen to it when I’m feeling self indulgently in a blue mood myself.

6. In France They Kiss on Main Street

One of her few joyful songs, this is an expression of free-love and a rejection of middle-class staidness, as the video images makes clear.

5. Carey

This song came out when I was in high school and from the very first lyric (“The wind is in from Africa”) it represented for me a glimpse into an exotic, free-spirited world that seemed to exist only in Fitzgerald and Hemingway novels. I’ve always wanted to go down to the mermaid bar and have someone buy me a bottle of wine. But alas, I went to college and got a job.

4 Both Sides Now

Ever since Judy Collins made this a massive hit, “Both Sides Now” has been Joni Mitchell’s most well-known and most frequently covered song. I’m not a big fan of the 1960’s versions, which are peppy and flower-childreny. But this rendition from 2000 by an older and wiser Joni is haunting. As she sings them now, the lyrics assume the melancholic meaning that was always intrinsically there. Somehow, when a 57 year old woman sings “I really don’t know life at all,” it has an entirely different meaning than when a 25 year-old tries it.

3. All I Want

The ultimate expression of what you can get out of love. It piles up concrete images of what she wants to do for her lover: knit him a sweater, write a love letter, culminating with the ultimate offer of “Do you want to take a chance on finding some fine romance with me.” This song always epitomized how a love affair — and even a marriage — can be fun, romantic, and mutually supportive, something that Joni herself was never able to accomplish for very long in her own life.

2. Help Me

Boy do I love this song. It was her biggest hit, but never even cracked the Billboard top ten. This is from the “Court and Spark” album, which was her most explicitly pop effort. I love the way her voice conveys the knowledge that love is once again going to cause pain, but she can’t help herself.

1. Coyote

From the “Hejira” album, when she was turning away from pop music. A great articulation of the contradictory desire to be loved and to be free at the same time. Here she is performing it during the Band’s “Last Waltz” movie. “No regrets coyote” might as well have been Joni’s own personal motto. Lord knows she lived life on her own terms.


Well, another year is in the books.  Another year of hand-wringing about the future of television, even as it delivered some of the best and worst programming in the history of the medium.

What we now call “television,” (i.e., broadcast, cable, streaming, etc.) is so vast that it’s impossible for any one person to watch every worthy or socially significant TV show.   Consequently any review of any particular 12 months is going to be impressionistic at best.  With that wimp-out caveat in mind, here are some of my favorite things from the previous year:

1. Alison Tolman – An unlikely breakout star in the miniseries “Fargo,” a terrific police drama about the gradations of good and evil, Tolman’s humanity kept us grounded and emotionally vested in the outcome. With such a short career to date, it’s hard to know whether we love Tolman herself or her character, but having seen her in a few short parts on “The Mindy Kaling Project,” I’ll say it’s a bit of both.  Tolman exudes a decency that’s in short supply on TV.

2. “Brooklyn Nine Nine” – An Andy Samberg cop comedy set in a Brooklyn precinct house, “Brooklyn Nine Nine” is one of the few reliably funny sitcoms on TV.  There are no pretensions on this show, just humor that’s a step above silly and a step below meaningful.

3. That Single-Take Tracking Shot from True Detective – The highlight of “True Detective,” one of the most absorbing and visually arresting series of the year, was a six-minute single take tracking shot in which an undercover cop played by Matthew McConaughey orchestrates a heist in a drug-infested Louisiana housing project.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga, this is possibly the most exciting single scene of the year, with the tension building minute-by-minute as the camera glides through drug dens, cramped rooms, backyards and even above a chain link fence.  This is a scene worth watching again and again just to appreciate the directing mastery.

4. Don Pardo – For 39 years Don Pardo was the opening announcer for Saturday Night Live and, as is so often the case, a bit underappreciated until he was gone.  SNL alumnus Daryl Hammond has been announcing since Pardo’s death in May (at age 96!) and since then the opening hasn’t had the same zip and joi de vivre as it did when Pardo belted out the intros

5. Podcasts – Now that “Serial” has taken the nation by storm, people are discovering there’s this thing called “podcasts.”  But not every podcast is about true crime.  There are a ton of great podcasts about TV and culture.  My personal favorites are Grantland’s “Hollywood Prospectus,” Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” and Bald Move’s Mad Men Happy Hour.

6. Olive Kitteridge – This beautiful HOB adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s collection of interlocking short stories provides a lot for a depressive to chew on.  Olive is too smart and too honest to be happy in her small Maine town, but she endures.

7. The Ending of “The Colbert Report” – We’ve come to the point where every show that’s been on more than a couple of years is expected to come up with an emotionally gratifying series finale.  “The Colbert Report” sent us off with a sappy song (“We’ll Meet Again”) performed by one of the most astounding array of personages ever assembled on one stage – a diverse group of writers, politicians, inventors, activists, sports figures and even a few celebrities. These performers, including Henry Kissinger, George Lukas, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gloria Steinem, Tom Brokaw, Ken Burns, Alan Alda, Big Bird and many many more, were joined with shout-outs from Bill Clinton, J.J. Abrams, the troops in Afghanistan and the space station.

8. The World’s Greatest Selfie – The Academy Awards were as ridiculous and self-aggrandizing as ever this year, but there was a stand-out moment when Ellen DeGeneres convinced a group of A-List movie stars to pose for a selfie.   These are very high-end stars: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, etc. And yet like teenagers at the prom, they couldn’t help but crowding and pushing all over themselves to get into the picture.

9. Mad Men – The once highly acclaimed series no longer gets the respect it once enjoyed having been passed over at the Emmys and left off most top-ten lists. 2014 seemed to be a year of “Mad Men” fatigue, which is a shame because the seven episodes shown this year were among the best of the series.  Don Draper began the season at his lowest point ever, ejected by his partners for bad behavior and faced with another marriage on the rocks.  By the end of this short run (which was the first half of the final season), Don has fought back and regained his former position at the firm, repaired some ruptured relationships, and gained important self-insight and honesty.  Perhaps my favorite scene was the final one of the year, which like Colbert’s show concludes with a corny old song: the recently departed Bert Cooper reappears to Don and sings and dances to The Best Things in Life are Free.”

10. The iPad Air Ad – My favorite ad of the year featured Robin Williams quoting Walt Whitman as innovators and explorers are shown using the iPad to create, build and inspire. As the nation’s most successful company, Apple can afford to offer beautiful, inspiring ads without worrying about an immediate ROI on their ad spend.  I know that all ads are ultimately cynical and manipulative, but I’d rather be manipulated by Walt Whitman than a sexy beer drinker.  After all, as Whitman asks, in a vain and grasping world, what’s the point of it all? “Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

So, there we have it, another great year on TV.  Will we even be watching conventional television next year at this time?  Probably, but who knows?  Either way, happy 2015.


It’s hard to overestimate the role that TV plays in contemporary American life.  Its effects are so pervasive and fundamental that we no longer even notice them.  Like any essential institution, though, television can be exasperating, overwhelming, or unsatisfying.  So, as we slip deeper into the summer doldrums, this might be a good time to fantasize about ways to improve the television experience.  Here are 10 suggestions:

1.     A pan-platform TV Guide.  With the increased availability of video streaming, it’s possible to download and watch your favorite TV shows well after they’ve run.  Great! But how do you find these shows?  Are they on a network’s website? On Hulu? On Amazon Prime? On Netflix?  Do you need a special app? You can’t just Google the show’s name and find out. Instead, you have to hunt down and search each potential website.  How much better it would be if there were one master website that could direct you to the correct portal.

2.     The Obituary Channel.  This is a concept borrowed from my former colleague Frank Palumbo. There used to be a TV channel just for trials (Court TV); why isn’t there one for the recently departed?   The channel could include breaking news coverage related to the deaths of famous personages, as well as biopics and documentaries. And don’t forget the live coverage of the funerals of the top A-Listers.

3.     Better coverage of TV ratings.  This is one of my pet peeves, articulated in greater detail previously, but every year, as more and more people timeshift their TV watching, the media’s fixation on overnight ratings for the 18-49 demographic becomes more and more ridiculous.  Except for sports and the news, the overnight ratings are essentially meaningless because more viewers will frequently watch a show via a DVR than see it live.  Consequently, it would be better to wait until the DVR ratings are in before reporting viewing in the media.  And can we skip the 18-49 call-outs while we’re at it? People 50+ watch TV too, and sometimes even buy the things that are advertised.

4.     More reality on reality shows.  I’m not sure who coined the phrase “reality television,” but there’s very little reality in that genre.  The producers clearly drive the plots, conflicts and even some of the dialogue to the point where there’s little difference between a show like “Duck Dynasty” and a traditional scripted sitcom.  To that end, I’d like to see a rating system on each show that signals how much is “real” and how much is producer-directed.  A “1” would indicate minimal involvement, while a “5” would reflect heavy coaching and wacky suggested hijinks from the producers.

5.     Commercial choice.  The bane of the TV viewer’s existence is commercials, with entire technologies built around commercial avoidance.  That’s not because people hate commercials – they just hate a lot of the commercials they are forced to watch repeatedly.  But what if people could choose their own commercials?  This is kind of a reverse targeting, where the consumer chooses the commercial instead of the other way around.  This would pressure advertisers to make ads more engaging and interesting.

6.     Universal Remote.  This is hardly a new idea. Viewers have been complaining about multiple remotes since the introduction of the first VCR, but it’s 35 years later and we are no closer to the dream of a single remote that operates the sound and channel selection for the TV, DVR, cable box, Apple TV, Chromecast, and DVD player.  I have five remotes now and, what’s worse, have no idea what two-thirds of the buttons do.  If we can put a man of the moon…

7.     A reality show about nude dating: Oh, wait, we already have that.

8.     A mega-device box: This is the pipe dream of all pipe dreams.  Instead of separate boxes for cable, DVD, Apple TV, game console, etc., why can’t they all be incorporated into one mega-device?  And instead of getting a whole new cable box every time we move, why can’t we just take the box with us? In other words, instead of the cable companies buying the boxes from the manufacturers and renting them to us, why can’t we buy directly from the manufacturer and own our boxes? That’s what happened with landline telephones — which, believe it or not, kiddies, we used to rent from Ma Bell.

9.     Make network executives and media kingpins watch TV with their families:  If the people who greenlight and oversee the junk that’s on TV had to watch these shows with their kids, parents and grandkids, I am 100% certain we’d have better TV.  After all, who wants to have his 10-year-old granddaughter turn to him and ask, “Dodo – why are that man and woman walking around without any clothes on?”

10.  A “favorites” list.  I literally have no idea how many channels are on my TV, and no matter how much “Man Men” and “Justified” I watch, I cannot remember the AMC and FX channel numbers.  Let’s have an easy menu that lets you click on your favorite channels.

The chances for any of these ideas being adopted?  Probably zero, given the inertia and special interests that afflict the TV business. But it’s summer and we can dream, can’t we?


The “Best Original Song” category – usually an Oscar snoozer – has been the subject this year of more controversy than usual.

First, the Academy inexplicably snubbed all the songs from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen Brothers depiction of a folk singer in pre-Dylan Greenwich Village.   I can only assume the problem is that there were SO MANY good songs in the movie they canceled each other out.  Because the soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett is crammed with great music, including my favorite “Fare Thee Well,” sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.   (By the way, this song is credited as being a traditional folk ballad but Mumford rewrote it so significantly that I think it could have qualified as an original song.  Here’s the traditional version for the sake of comparison. )

Then there’s the controversy over the title song from the Christian-based movie “Alone Yet Not Alone,”  which was first nominated  and then declared ineligible on the grounds of inappropriate campaigning.  Charges of anti-Christian bias flew.  Obviously I’m not in a position to judge any rule violations that but I do note that it is a lovely song.

With the two best songs out of contention, it looks like the path is clear for “Frozen” to deliver Disney its tenth Best Song Oscar for “Let it Go”. This is not a type of song I usually like, coming out of the modern Broadway tradition of big big big big quavering singing and I don’t like this one either. It’s fitting that the song is performed by Idina Menzel, who plays Rachel’s birth mother on “Glee” because a lot of the Glee songs are belted out like anthems: “Here I am, look at me, I can SIIIIIINNNGGG!!!”

Back in the day, the “Best Original Song” category was almost as competitive as the best actor and actress races.  Some of the losers from the 1930s and 1940s include some of the most beautiful songs ever written (e.g., “They Can’t Take that Away From Me,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “I’ve got You Under My Skin.”)  Modern filmmakers are less likely to use original songs to advance a plot or set a mood, but the occasional great song does slip through.  With that in mind, here are my choices for the ten best Oscar-winning songs of the past 50 years.  (I don’t want to go back further because if I included films from the early days of Hollywood, this list would be made up of solely of songs from before I was born.)

10. Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire – 2008)

This is VERY original for an “original song.” It’s both exotic and westernized, providing an emotional release at the end of a generally depressing movie.  The lyrics are a combination of Hindi, Urdu and Punjab (i.e., unintelligible for a Western audience) which makes it all the more remarkable that it won.  Clearly the impulse to get up and dance transcends cultures and languages.  By the way, this particular video is from a 2009 concert in Argentina, which among everything available on YouTube, best seemed to capture the dynamism of the song.

9. “Flashdance” (Flashdance – 1983)

Sometimes I have trouble keeping the dance-themed movies the 1980s straight. There was “Fame,” “Dirty Dancing,” Footloose” and of course “Flashdance.”  What a feeling, indeed!  Hewing closely to a post-Disco vibe, the song seems a little corny now, and of course the movie itself is terribly corny – working class girl just wants to dance!! This was “Billy Elliott “before “Billy Elliott.”  In any event, I have to confess that I love the soundtracks to all the aforementioned 80’s dance movies, but “Flashdance” is my favorite song from all of them.

8. “Falling Slowly” (Once – 2007)

“Falling Slowly” is a very simple love song from “Once,” a movie about a street singer who connects with a Czech flower girl (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová wrote and performed the songs).  They make beautiful music together, but that’s all they do together because she has a husband and he has an ex-girlfriend with whom he is reconciling.  Alas, their love remains unconsummated. Well, at least they have the Oscar and now a hit Broadway show.

7. Last Dance (Thank God It’s Friday – 1978)

I make no apologies in being a Donna Summer fan.  I even saw her perform this song at a corporate event the year before she died and she was fantastic.  Until I assembled, this list, though, I didn’t realize “Last Dance” came from a movie.  I can’t imagine how I missed Thank God It’s Friday.

6. “The Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia – 1993)

You have to say this for the Academy, they do occasionally reflect the musical tastes of popular culture.  Disco in the 1970s, Rap in the 2000’s and eventually even Rock with this award to Bruce Springsteen.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the movie “Philadelphia” came out; and even harder to believe there was a time when Springsteen deigned to appear at the Academy Awards. But then, this is the greatest AIDS awareness song of all time and I’m sure he wanted to use the Oscar platform to further raise awareness.

5. “The Windmills of Your Mind” (The Thomas Crown Affair – 1968)

“The Windmills of Your Mind” is one of the great sultry pop songs of the last 1960s, especially as performed by the always soulful Dusty Springfield.  Yet it’s actually Noel Harrison who performs the song in the movie “The Thomas Crown Affair.”  Hearing his rushed and careless rendition makes you wonder how this song was even nominated, much less a winner.  I’m including both versions below to demonstrate how two singers can achieve dramatically different effects with the same song.

4. “Skyfall” (Skyfall – 2012)

It’s really amazing that no song from a James Bond movie had ever won an Academy Award until last year when “Skyfall” finally delivered one.  Not “Goldfinger,” which is the best of them all, nor “Live and Let Die,”  “Nobody Does it Better” or even “You Only Live Twice.”   It would have pretty hard to deny Adele anything in 2013 and she certainly deserved it.

3. “I’m Easy” (Nashville – 1975)

Of all the movies mentioned in this list, Robert Altman’s masterpiece “Nashville” is unquestionably the greatest.  A story of ambition, corruption and backstabbing in the Country music industry, the film delivered several great songs, including this Oscar winner by Keith Carradine, who plays a selfish womanizer who somehow manages to make every woman in the audience think he’s singing directly to her.

2. “I just called to Say I Love You” (The Woman in Red – 1984)

Huh, this classic Stevie Wonder song comes from a pretty mediocre movie called “The Woman in Red?”  Who knew?

1 “Shaft” (Shaft 1971)

The most electric moment in the history of the Academy Awards arguably occurred in 1971 when a bare-chested, heavily chained Isaac Hayes and his synthesizer were rolled onto the stage during a wild performance of the theme from Shaft. (The only video I could find was in this Oscar wrap-up for the year. Scroll down to find it.)   This was the era when Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin were considered the cool cats.  Not after this.

So what’s missing from the list?  Well, for starters, I really can’t stand any song by Barbra Streisand,  including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen” (the theme from “A Star is Born” so they’re off the list.  I also don’t like big loud anthems with a lot of booming vocalism, such as “You Light Up My Life” and “My Heart Will Go On.” Never been a fan of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which was inexplicably a huge hit.  Having said that, have my perverse music tastes caused me to overlook anything that really should be included on the “best of” list?  Let me know.