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.







I recently argued that 1968 was the greatest year in pop musicyou can make the case that maybe it was 1967 or 1969, but there’s no debate that the late sixties were pretty terrific.

So it’s shocking to consider that just eight years later we had what is probably the worst year in pop music.  I had completely forgotten how bad it was until I listened to Chris Molanphy reviewing the number one hits of 1976 on Slate’s “The Gist” podcast.  I listened to the podcast with growing incredulity as one terrible song followed another.  The year was full of novelty songs, easy listening hits and disco-influenced garbage.

How did this happen?  First of all, it’s important to mention that every year — even 1968 (remember “Honey“?) — has its share of schlock.  But 1976 was impressive for being dominated by schlock. (Here are the top 100 songs of the year.)

It’s easy to point to contemporary events to explain the artistic output of an era, and in 1976 the U.S. was coming out of a bad time, with Watergate, the Vietnam War, gas shortages, inflation and a lousy economy still fresh in people’s mind.  Arguably, the consequence could have been a turn to mindless music.

Then too, there was a rise in Album Oriented Radio, with many of the more serious music fans focusing on albums instead of singles.  Indeed, 1976 had some great albums, including Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”, the Ramones eponymous album, David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Bob Dylan’s “Desire.” None of these artists had major hits on the singles charts in 1976.

My own explanation is simpler: cultural trends go in cycles and the tremendous tidal wave of great music from the 1960s had exhausted itself with nothing left to replace it except disco.

In any event, on to the actual music.  Here are some highlights (lowlights?) from Molanphy’s podcast.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

We’ll start with the one acceptable number one song of the year.  Believe it or not, this was Paul Simon’s only number one hit as a solo artist (he had three others with Simon and Garfunkel).  It’s not a bad song but is inferior to “Kodachrome,” “Graceland” and “You Can Call Me Al.”  It’s hard to remember what a major musical force Simon was in the 1970s, but he had a string of hits and was a frequent guest on Saturday Night Live (including the famed second episode, which put SNL on the map when he sang “Still Crazy After All Those Years” wearing a chicken suit.)

Disco Duck

From the best number one song of the year we now move to the worst. The problem with 1976 wasn’t disco per se, it was the way disco infected so many acts and spawned so many novelty songs.  Give Rick Dees credit.  He knew that the song was a joke, and maybe fun for about five minutes.  He even named his act “Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots,” suggesting that maybe this was a Mad Magazine spin-off.

A Fifth of Beethoven

Disco strikes again in a semi-novelty record.  Walter Murphy takes the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, some of the most famous musical phrases in music history and gives it a disco beat. Is nothing sacred for crying out loud?  The song, if you can call it that, is not exactly terrible, and how could it be with all that Beethoven?  It’s just deeply weird.  How weird?  The writing credit goes to “Ludwig von Beethoven  and Walter Murphy.”  Talk about cultural appropriation!!!  The song eventually appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, making Murphy a very rich man.

You Should be Dancing

The only pure disco song to top the charts in 1976, “You Should be Dancing,” is not bad a far as disco songs go.  It became even more famous the next year when John Travolta danced to it in Saturday Night Fever.  Oh, and The Brothers Gibb set a fashion style by flaunting their hairy chests, another trend that would not last.

Tonight’s The Night

Welcome to the 1970s, when Roman Polanski thought it was ok to seduce a 13-year-old and Woody Allen made a highly regarded movie about an older man’s affair with a 17-year-old. “Tonight’s the Night” fits right in there — a song about taking a young woman’s virginity that includes the line “spread your wings and let me come inside.”  This is the only number one hit that Rod Stewart wrote on his own, so it’s his full id on display.  Nice.

Afternoon Delight

People were obsessed about sex in the 1970s.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s went mainstream, as did porn (“Deep Throat”), “key parties,” the Playboy Mansion and divorce.  And here we have a number one song about having sex mid-day (“skyrockets in flight”).  The Starland Vocal Band won a Grammy for “Best New Artist” and then never had another hit single.  They did have a variety show for  six weeks in 1977; one of the show’s writers was David Letterman, so there’s that.


Another huge fad in the mid-1970s was the CB Radio.  For about 20 years blue collar workers had used the citizen band frequency to communicate with each other. It became a mainstream fascination during the energy crisis when truck drivers started using the CB to evade the 55 mile-an-hour speed limit that the government had imposed to save gas.  The C.W. McCall song “Convoy” exploited that fad and eventually spawned a movie of the same name starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw.  Needles to say, like many other popular artists in 1976, C.W. McCall never had another pop hit.

Silly Love Songs

Now we come to the most popular song of 1976.  “Silly Love Songs,” was Paul McCartney’s answer to John Lennon, who claimed that McCartney wrote insipid love songs.  So Paul’s response was to write an insipid song with an underlying disco beat that asked the burning question, “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?”  As Chris Molanphy points out, when “Silly Love Songs” became a massive hit, both Paul and John could point to the other and say “see, this proves my point.”  But really, Paul McCarney’s greatest songs, “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Penny Lane,” “Fool on the Hill”, “Back in the USSR,” and “Eleanor Rigby” were not even love songs so he had no reason to apologize.

So, what a year.  And yet out of the ash heap of 1976 arose new and exciting forms of music.  Stevie Wonder would reinvent R&B for a mainstream audience; Bruce Springsteen would breathe new life into rock; we’d see the birth of Punk and the emergence of New Wave rock stars like Blondie, Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads.  When Disco finally died whole new genres of exciting music were left standing.


The One Great Song of 1976

Lest you think 1976 was a total loss, there was one terrific song in the year’s top 100.  Sitting way down there at number 72 was “I’m Easy,” the Keith Carradine song from the movie “Nashville.”  In the movie, which takes a sardonic look at American society through the lens of the Country music industry, Carradine plays a manipulative, womanizing folk singer.  It says something about 70’s taste that a gaunt, grungy, hollowed-eye guy like that would be considered such a sex symbol.  In the movie he sings this song to attract the middle class Lily Tomlin character, although three other women that he’s already slept with think he’s singing to THEM.  It’s a soulful sensitive song that actually does manage to seduce Tomlin, although she quickly sees through him. It’s still on my all-time top 20 after all these years and somehow it came out in 1976.



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 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.


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.


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.

Phil Spector Christmas Photo

I recently wrote about my least favorite Christmas songs, and lest some think me a Scrooge, a Grinch or any another fictional crab, let me quickly pronounce myself a lover of almost all things Christmas. I especially love Christmas music, including carols, mid-Century pop classics, 14-Century Benedictine chants, ballet soundtracks, oratorios and mellow jazz versions of “Let It Snow.”

I even like rock n’ roll Christmas songs. Rock musicians have been producing Christmas songs almost from the birth of Rock ‘n Roll itself, including Elvis (“Blue Christmas”) and Chuck Berry (“Run Rudolph Run”). Even Brenda Lee, not exactly a rock icon, came up with “Rock Around the Christmas Tree.”

With its exuberance and hard-driving energy, rock ‘n roll is better-suited for the Dionysian side of the Christmas festivities than many other music genres such as Country, which delivers Christmas offerings that are often mawkish.  For me, a great Christmas rock ‘n roll song should make you happy, as in “damn right, screw all the whining and complaining, this is a great time of year.” And the best rock Christmas songs do exactly that.

With that in mind, here are six great rocking Christmas songs

6. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen. In some ways this is the quintessential rock n’ roll Christmas song because it puts some major energy into a pretty mediocre tune. I would rank this higher except that I get the impression that great Bruce Springsteen feels like he’s slumming when he plays something so frivolous.

5. Sleigh Ride – The Ventures. The Ventures were a great surf band from the 1960s, who are probably best-known now for the theme song from “Hawaii 5-0”. The band consists of a drummer, three guitarists and no vocalists, so “Sleigh Ride,” which was so famously performed by the Boston Pop without vocals, is perfect for them.

4. Here Comes Santa Claus – Los Straightjackets. Los Straightjackets are the modern heirs of the drums/guitars/no vocalist tradition, albeit now with a rockabilly flavor. As you can tell from their name, the band’s calling card is humor, and the way they perform “Here Comes Santa Claus” always makes me smile.

3. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses. It’s ironic. The Waitresses were a short-lived new wave group from the 1980s and their best-known song is a Christmas song, almost a novelty song. I’m sure they had hoped to go down in history for something edgier. The title “Christmas Wrapping” is a modest pun on “rapping,” which was just becoming popular when the song was produced in 1981. This is one of those songs that was little-appreciated when it came out, but came to fame gradually — and now it’s considered one of the best holiday songs of the past fifty years

2. Elf’s Lament — Bare Naked Ladies. This is the cleverest Christmas song ever. Considering the plight of the elf, this song describes the attempts of Santa’s helpers to unionize (“Toiling through the ages, making toys on garnished wages/There’s no union/We’re only through when we outdo the competition,” etc.) Ha ha.

1. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love. In 1986, Dave Letterman asked Darlene Love to sing this great Phil Spector-produced song and it was such a hit that he’s asked her to come back every year since. Watching Darlene Love on Dave Letterman has become – along with “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the Schweddy Balls skit on SNL – one of the great TV traditions, but this video shows the original performance from 27 years ago. Worth watching all the way through to the end of the video for nostalgia’s sake.

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 Merry 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!