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The older I get the more out-of-step I feel with the film industry.  In a year of kiddie animation and cinematic super heroes, I saw only two of the year’s top twenty grossing movies and most of the movies I did see were at independent art houses.  It was never my intention to be at odds with popular taste but it does seem that the movie business is primarily focused on audiences who are not old enough to vote. Consequently, there were months and months when there was nothing worth going to see, followed by a crazy rush to catch everything good in December.

Of course there were a few decent mainstream “adult” movies that were aimed at a general audience but most of them fell immediately out of circulation.  Maybe adults have gotten so out of the habit of going to the movies that they no longer bother.  In any event, 2016 was a pretty disappointing year.  Here’s what I saw, ranked from best to worst.

l. Moonlight

A beautiful and mesmerizing story of a poor, sensitive, black, gay kid named Chiron growing up in the Miami projects.    This feels like something you’ve never seen before, not only because of the unsparing depiction of life among the desperately poor but because of cinematography choices that seem almost documentary-style, with a lingering camera and a lack of narrative dialogue. The story is told in three stages of Chiron’s life, depicted by three actors ranging in age from youth to teen to adult.  After two years of #OscarSoWhite, this once had a good chance to win the Academy Award and it still deserves to.

2. Manchester By The Sea

This is as bleak, unsparing, and visually arresting as “Moonlight,” but without any attempt to pretty-up a tragedy with a hint of a happy ending.  Every time you think this movie’s going to give us a conventional feel-good twist it pulls back.  To that end, it feels more like real life than anything I’ve seen in a long time.  You feel like this is exactly what would happen when an already grieving uncle returns to his hometown after his brother’s death and is unexpectedly informed that he’s to be his nephew’s guardian.  Life will go on, but it will be a struggle.

3.  La La Land

Yet another startlingly original movie — a musical set in contemporary LA.  Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are barely adequate singers and dancers but you don’t really care because the cinematography is so luscious.  But don’t expect a feel-good experience.  In the end this is an exploration of art, ambition and love. You can succeed at two of those things but not all three.

4. Rogue One

Boy I was surprised that this was as good as it was — a very worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. It’s about the most perfect prequel ever, ending exactly at the moment when the original Star Wars movie (now called “A New Hope”) begins.  The story is a little confusing but not impossible to follow, for once.   The absence of Jedi mumbo jumbo is a relief too — it’s just straight action.

5. Everybody Wants Some

Finally, an intelligent feel-good movie.  Richard Linklater’s homage to his college baseball career, seen through the prism of a freshman jock’s first weekend on campus.  He checks into the baseball team house, meets his crazy teammates, has escapades and meets a nice girl.  Very funny, textured and warm. If only my freshman year had been like this.

6. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I seem to be one of the few people who loved this movie.  Ostensibly a comedy starring Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thorton about a neophyte journalist embedded in Afghanistan, it’s also an eye-opening account of what our troops are experiencing over there.

7. Arrival

In a year of depressing movies, this one ranks way up there.  Amy Adams is a sad linguist who is called on to translate messages from aliens who have materialized at various locations around the world.  A quasi-intellectual film featuring hard thinking on linguistics and time traveling.

8. Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges has come a long way since “The Last Picture Show” but he’s still wandering the wilds of small town Texas.  He’s after a couple of bank robbers who are trying to accumulate enough cash to pay off their predatory mortgage.  Again with the bleak world view!  Funny bantering, though, and some serious disquisitions on how to live your life when fate and society seem stacked against you.

9. The Edge of Seventeen

Seventeen-year-old Nadine has been (wait for it) depressed since her father died four years ago.  Wallowing in her own grief, she loses it when her best friend starts dating her brother.  Woody Harrelson is her cynical history teacher whose complete indifference actually increases his attractiveness as a life-adviser.

10. Captain Fantastic

A family of survivalists goes on a road trip to attend their mother’s funeral, with the usual conflicts between the all-modern and all-natural lifestyles.  Their brilliant but didactic father (Viggo Mortensen) is an intellectual bully who has tried to create a new Eden in the woods but is just this side of crazy.

11. Hail Caesar

The Coen Brothers make a pretty funny but not very weighty spoof of Hollywood in the 1950s.  The plot revolved around a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix (a real person btw) who’s trying to decide whether to take a legitimate job outside the business.  Basically everyone in the movie is a moron, which is funny as far as it goes.

12. The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are incompetent detectives in 1970’s LA.  The movie is hilarious until it turns into a convoluted story of conspiracy involving smog and catalytic converters (I’m not kidding).    If you took the first half of The Big Lebowski and combined it with the second half of Chinatown you’d have this movie.

13. Weiner

A behind the scenes and very candid look at Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign.  It’s only fitting that this narcissist would trip up the 2016 campaign.  Why kind of man would expose his wife to the prying eyes of a documentary when he knows he’s been sexting with women under the nom-de-plume Carlos Danger?  This is your classic train wreck from which you cannot avert your eyes.

14. Love and Friendship

Who knew there were Jane Austen novels yet to be mined by movie-makers?  Love and Friendship is based on the unpublished novel “Lady Susan,” written when Austen was still a teenager.  Hilarious and deeply cynical about the way the sexes manipulate each other, the movie is populated with dupes, rogues, brazen adulteresses, wide-eyed innocents and even a few honest gentlemen.  Fun.

15. Sully

Sully’s plane goes up, hits some geese and miraculously goes down on the Hudson River with no loss of life.  You may have heard the story.  Clint Eastwood does an admirable job of expanding the narrative of this five-minute flight into a two-hour movie, screwing around a little bit with the truth of the post-crash investigation.  Oh well, it’s only a movie.  Tom Hanks is the only actor who could have played Sully.

16. Eight Days a Week

A documentary about the touring history of the Beatles.  This is well-covered ground but as amazing as ever.

17. Fantastic Beasts

Perfectly serviceable Harry Potter prequel that I might have liked better if I could understand more than half the dialogue.  The film-making is imaginative but I had trouble caring a lot about the main characters.

18. Sausage Party

An atheist allegory in which processed food items worship humans as gods, not knowing that their ultimate resting place is in someone’s digestive track.  This bleak message is supposed to be made more palatable by the extreme coarseness of the animated food characters.  And it is funny to see food sex.  This is not a movie to which you would bring your confirmation class.

19. Absolutely Fabulous (The Movie)

Loved the TV show in the 90s.  Very hilarious.  And the movie is fun too for a while, but it’s hard to maintain that antic quality over a full-length feature.

20. Cafe Society

Late stage Woody Allen. This is a lot like La La Land without the songs, dances, handsome lead actor and brilliant cinematography.  An ambitious young man and an ambitious young woman fall in love in 1940s Hollywood and face the usual complications.  The movie is well-enough made but you feel that Woody Allen has explored all these themes already. (By the way, I saw 24 movies last year and four of them were set in Hollywood.)

21. Ghostbusters

The most ridiculous controversy of the year was the eruption over whether redoing Ghostbusters with a female cast defamed the spirit of the original movie.  So then the female movie critics got on their high horse and said it was better than it really was, and the sexist pigs said it was worse than it was, when in reality it was just kind of meh.  Let’s face it, the original wasn’t that great to begin with. This was not an all-female remake of Citizen Kane.

22. Magnificent Seven

Another unnecessary remake.  It was fine.  Your average western.  Can’t remember much about it now.

23. The BFG

Steven Spielberg and Raul Dahl make a very strange pairing, although they’re both obsessed with childhood.  A little orphan girl gets abducted by a lonely giant and gives meaning and purpose to said giant’s life.  Technically beautiful and even charming, but a little languorous.

24. Office Christmas Party

This had a dynamite cast (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Anniston, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, etc.) and a crazy antic quality, but it never lifted off to the realm of pure comedic genius.  Nice try, though.

hey-jude

Was 1968 the greatest year in popular music? To me that seems self-evident, unless you want to claim 1967. Or maybe 1969.

OK, so I was 14 years old at the time and it is well-known that the most meaningful music in your life is the music that was popular when you were in adolescence and beginning to have a sexual awakening. But it wasn’t my hormones that made 1968 such a great year – it was the music itself.

At least that’s what I thought until I listened to a Slate.com podcast featuring music historian Chris Molanphy, who pointed out that many of the top songs from 1968 were little more than schlock or elevator music. In other words, for every fantastic Number One like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” there was a dog like Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.”

Molaphy’s theory is that music served as a refuge because 1968 was such a horrible year politically (assassinations, riots, war, etc.). Therefore some of the year’s most popular songs were mindless diversions from the evening news. Maybe that’s the reason, or maybe the truth is that every year is full of schlock and it takes a couple decades to realize it. Looking at the full list of top hits in 1968, though, it seems that about half the songs aimed to change society through social commentary that you’d never find in pop music today so I’m not sure how escapist it was.

In any event, here are ten interesting nuggets I learned from Molanphy or my own observations about the top hits of 1968.

1. “Hey Jude,” one of the all-time great songs, is still the longest single ever to top Billboard’s pop charts. It was also the Beatles song that stayed longest at Number One (nine weeks). At seven minutes and 11 seconds, it was twice as long as most pop hits, and every radio station played the whole thing. Even more unprecedented, the Beatles ended the song with a four-minute chant, giving pop music a rare sense of mysticism. I will never forget watching the “Hey Jude” clip (below) that appeared on The Smothers Brothers in October 1968. In retrospect, that moment, even more than Woodstock, was the high point of the feel-good “flower power” movement.


2. Another really great hit from 1968 was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a fragment of which had appeared in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” the year before. Paul Simon hadn’t finished the song when the movie premiered and it wasn’t released until the  next summer. The song was initially titled “Mrs. Roosevelt,” but when Simon showed it to Nichols the director convinced him to change it the name of the seductress in the movie. The famous line if the song, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” was originally intended to refer to Simon’s boyhood hero Mickey Mantle but the syllables didn’t match up. In a song so deeply contemptuous of 1960’s America it was probably better anyway to refer back longingly to DiMaggio’s generation.

3. There were two instrumental Number One hits in 1968, both by international artists. First we had “Love Is Blue” by the French composer Paul Mauriat, who remains to this day the only French artist to have a chart-topping Billboard hit. The song was composed – with lyrics – for the Eurovision contest (as Luxemburg’s entry.) It didn’t win at Eurovision but became a huge hit in the U.S. Molanphy dismisses this song as the greatest piece of elevator music ever composed, but I have to admit that I owned this record and played it constantly.


4.  The other major instrumental hit of 1968 was “Grazing in the Grass” by the South African musician “Hugh Masekela.” Of course I’ve heard this song a million times; it arguably invented the smooth jazz genre. But I never knew the music was from South Africa. Partly that’s because The Friends of Distinction added words and released their own hit single, which is now better known than the original. (And “Love is Blue” and “Grazing in the Grass” weren’t the only instrumental hits that year – only the two number one hits. Other notable instrumental songs from 1968 include “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” and my favorite, “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams. I can’t remember any instrumental hits in the 21st Century.)



5.  Another Number One hit that might as well have been an instrumental recording was “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells. This is a proto-Funk record in which Bell directs the band and the dancers on how to perform a dance called The Tighten Up. The remarkable thing about this song is that Drell had been drafted into the army and was recuperating in a German hospital from wounds suffered in Vietnam when the song hit Number One.


7. And then there’s Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a hugely popular instrumental band that had 17 Top 100 hits before they finally charted a Number One song with “This Guy’s in Love With You.” To demonstrate the oddity of 1968, this song was NOT an instrumental record. Nope, the band’s first Number One hit was vocalized by Herb Albert himself. Originally inserted as a knock-off number in a CBS TV special, the song so charmed viewers that it was rushed out as a single. And not only was this the first Number One hit for Herb Albert, it was the first Number One song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Go figure.


8. Molanphy reserves his greatest scorn for Bobby Goldsboro’s weeper “Honey,” about a husband mourning his dead wife. He claims that it is considered by many to be the worst Number One song ever, although I’m sure the competition for that title is very steep. I have to admit that it’s pretty bad: consider these immortal lyrics: “She was always young at heart/Kinda dumb and kinda smart/And I loved her so”


9. If “Honey” was notable for anything other than its schlock, it was for exemplifying the trend toward country music crossing over into pop. A worthier country/pop entry in 1968 was Jeannie C. Reilly’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” which scathingly attacked the hypocrisy of small town life.


10. Then there are Number One songs from 1968 that seem downright dangerous. The Doors’ “Hello I Love You” is ostensibly about Jim Morrison’s yearning for a girl walking down Venice Beach but the aggressiveness of the lyrics and the pulsing way in which they’re delivered seems scary even today. In any event it was the first 45 rpm stereo record.


So is 1968 the greatest year in music? I consistently liked more top songs from 1967 (Aretha’s “Respect,” The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” The Association’s “Windy,” The Supremes’ “The Happening,” even Lulu’s “To Sir With Love.”) But any year in which “Hey Jude” could be heard on the radio for month after month has to rank high.

Suffice it to say that the Sixties really were the Golden Age of pop music. Almost every week another great new song appeared on the top 40 and since we all listened to the same Top 40 format we all had the same frame of reference. Those were the days, my friends. In fact, there was a big hit with that very title in 1968.

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.

 

 

 

 

joni_mitchell_wy_150401_16x9_992

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.

Christmas Shoes

The older I get, the more that Christmas becomes a mix bag. The food makes me fat, I get anxious about buying presents, and I never get enough Christmas cards. But I do love Christmas music. I even grudgingly tolerate the songs that others abhor (Paul McCartney’s “A Wonderful Christmas Now”, Wham’s “Last Christmas”, and “The Little Drummer Boy.”)

There are, however, a small group of Christmas songs that drive me up a wall, either because they’re not really “Christmas songs” or are contrary to the spirit of Christmas. To that end, here’s my take on the five worst Christmas songs.

     5. My Favorite Things – I know that hardly anyone has seen “The Sound of Music” so let me set the stage for this song: when the Von Trapp kids are scared by a summer thunderstorm Maria distracts them with a ditty that consists primarily of unimaginative rhymes (poodles/noodles, mittens/kittens) that have nothing to do with Christmas.  Can we posit that merely mentioning sleigh bells in one verse and snowflakes in another doesn’t make a song seasonal? I’m sure the estate of Rogers & Hammerstein is thrilled that this continues to appear on Christmas albums, but it does nothing to raise my Christmas spirit. While we’re at it, check out this video by Lorrie Morgan in which she portrays a homeless woman who breaks into magnificent mansion that she apparently lived in as a child. She’s soon channeling her inner Julie Andrews, fantasizing about dancing with a handsome dude while flashing back to memories of being a scared girl upstairs in her old bedroom. It’s all pretty creepy and sad and inappropriate for a Christmas album.

     4. River – This is a great Joni Mitchell song from her massively depressing album “Blue.” The thrust of the piece is that the unstable narrator has dumped her nice boyfriend, regrets it and wishes there was a river she “could skate away on.” How this ended up as a Christmas song is inexplicable. Presumably it’s because the opening lyrics are: “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees/They’re putting up reindeer /And singing songs of joy and peace/Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winning music critic to understand that the point of that verse is to contrast the happiness she should be feeling at Christmas with her inner sadness at losing “the best baby I ever had.” Don’t people even listen to the lyrics of songs before they put them on Christmas albums? This reminds me of how Leonard Cohen’s despairing “Hallelujah” has been appropriated as an all purpose memorial dirge, although it’s anything but. As for “River”, here’s Lea Michele from “Glee” trying to turn it into something as memorably morose as “ Have Yourself a Memory Little Christmas.”

     3. Santa Baby – The anthem for sluts and gold-diggers everywhere. The song itself is mildly witty and at least it’s completely honest in its advocacy for the transactional nature of Christmas. You can’t complain about the subtext of the song since it’s all text: the dame wants a sable, a convertible, a diamond ring, decorations from Tiffany’s, etc. She claims to deserve it because she didn’t hop into bed with anyone except her main sugar daddy for an entire year. This version by Madonna is particularly wrong because she’s imitating Marilyn Monroe, who had a sly knowingness about her own manipulativeness, something that Madonna lacks completely, kewpie doll singing notwithstanding.

     2. Baby It’s Cold Outside – If you type “Christmas rape” into Google, this song comes up. Once again, I don’t understand how this particular tune came to be associated with Christmas. The holiday isn’t mentioned at all – just snow and freezing temperatures. I’m hardly an advocate for politically correctness but any song about a man trying to coerce a woman into sex doesn’t really capture the Christmas spirit. The song apparently originates from the movie Neptune’s Daughter, a 1949 MGM musical comedy starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalbán, Betty Garrett. The clip below is from the movie and what’s interesting about it is that there’s a second “seduction” scene in which the woman forces herself on the man. This is an interesting twist, to be sure, but it only amplifies the coercive nature of the interaction.

Need more convincing? Check out this funny video (“Baby, It’s Date Rape Time.”)

     1. Christmas Shoes – This is probably more famous for being the worst Christmas song of all time than it is for being a Christmas song on its own. It describes how a guy goes shopping on Christmas Eve and comes across an impoverished boy who wants to buy shoes for his dying mother — because when you’re dying the thing you really want is for your kid to blow all his money on some shoes you can be buried in. In any event, as noted, I’m not the first person to have identified the particular horror of this song, the whole point of which is to make your feel guilty about every minor complaint you might make at any time during the holiday season. The comedian Patton Oswalt did a hilarious riff on this song, so we’ll close with that. Season’s greetings everyone!

joni_mitchell_wy_150401_16x9_992

To those of us old enough to remember Joni Mitchell as the blonde sex-bomb of the folk music scene, the news that she turned 70 years old today 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. And it’s disquieting to be reminded  of how old those “forever young” artists have actually become.

As a performer, Joni never achieved massive success. She was on the verge of it after the popularity of her 1974 album “Court 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.