During the holidays I decided to determine once and for all how long I’ve been writing this column. I searched the Popdose archives for that first column which I knew featured the King Curtis song that gave the column its name. And there it was, published on April 15, 2010. Soul Serenade is approaching its ninth birthday. In that whole time I’ve only taken a few weeks off (alright, one of them was last week) so simple math tells me that there have been well over 400 entries in this series. Phew! I must admit that occasionally it’s challenging to come up with something I haven’t covered previously but I’m going to press on into the New Year.
Aretha Franklin’s death was one of biggest, and saddest stories of 2019. And rightly so. She was the one and only Queen of Soul after all and her life and career were the stuff of legend. But in December we lost another great singer who was iconic in her own right, Nancy Wilson.
Wilson was born in Ohio in 1937. Her father was a foundry worker who loved music and Wilson grew up listening to his records by artists like Billy Eckstein, Dinah Washington, and Ruth Brown. From the time she began singing in church choirs as a child, it was clear that Wilson would become a professional singer. Her first break came when she was 15. Wilson won a talent show sponsored by a local television station and the prize was two appearances on Skyline Melodies, a local television show. Around this time Wilson was also working in the clubs around town.
Given the vagaries on show business, Wilson decided to go to college to pursue a teaching degree. But after a year she knew that she had to return to her true calling. Soon after that, she landed a gig singing with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band. Wilson stayed with the band for two years, touring throughout the Midwest and Canada during that time. It was also with Bryant’s band that she did her first recording.
Somewhere along the way, Wilson encountered Cannonball Adderley who was taken with her talent and suggested to Wilson that she move to New York to jumpstart her career. Wilson made the move in 1969. She sang four nights a week at a club called Blue Morocco and by day she worked as a secretary at the New York Institute of Technology. With the help of Adderly’s manager, John Levy, she got a deal with Capitol Records in 1960.
“Guess Who I Saw Today” was Wilson’s first single for the label and it was so successful that Capitol released five Nancy Wilson albums over the next two years. Adderley advised Wilson to move from her pop music stylings to more of a jazz and R&B thing and the two collaborated on Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley in 1962. The album included the R&B smash “Save Your Love For Me.” Between 1964 and 1965, Wilson put four albums into the Top 10 on the Billboard albums chart. She also had her biggest single with “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” which reached #11 in 1964. Wilson charted ten other singles from 1963-1971, but “Face It Girl, It’s Over” was her only other non-Christmas single to crack the Top 40. “Face It Girl” reached the #29 spot in 1968.
Wilson was a fixture on a variety of television shows in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1967, she finally got her own shown on NBC. The Nancy Wilson Show only lasted for two years but it won an Emmy during that time. Aside from her own show, Wilson appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Tonight Show, and numerous other variety shows along with dramas series like Room 222, Hawaii Five-0, and The F.B.I.
The 1980s brought more recording and touring for Wilson. She recorded with jazz greats like Hank Jones, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Ramsey Lewis, and Stanley Clarke. Appearances included prestigious venues like the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Tokyo Songs Festival. By the ’90s, Wilson had 60 albums under her belt. From 1995-2006, Wilson hosted NPR’s Jazz Profiles and won a Peabody Award for her efforts in 2001. She continued to perform until 2011 when she made her final public appearance on a stage in, appropriately, Ohio.
“I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started – in Ohio,” Wilson told jazzcolumbus.com at the time.
Nancy Wilson won many awards and over the year. She was the recipient of three Grammy Awards, the Whitney Young Jr. Award from the Urban League, and the NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award among many other honors. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and honorary degrees from Berklee College of Music and Central State University. Wilson was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2005. The list of honors goes on and on, but you get the idea. Wilson was not only a great singer but a great citizen as well.
Nancy Wilson died in California on December 13, 2018, after a long battle with kidney cancer.
I don’t hate Christmas. I enjoy the time I get to spend with my family and the time I get to take off from work. I also enjoy seeing people opening the presents that I’ve given them and smiling, letting me know that I got it right.
But I hate the endless commercialization of Christmas. Immediately after Thanksgiving, our culture seemingly resets itself to some Norman Rockwell idea of 1955. All the music resets to pre-rock standards, everything on prime-time TV is at least 45 years old, we’re deluged with countless advertisements about shopping deals, and worst of all, there’s no escaping any of it.
The worst part of it all is how the constant repeats of our past is meant to create new emotional experiences for the next generation. And everyone automatically assumes that their child’s reaction will be the same as their reaction.
To combat this, many people have attempted to find “alternative” Christmas movies. These are films that are set at Christmas but don’t emphasize the traditional holiday spirit. Instead, they use it to explore darker themes about society and help explain why our myopic vision of Christmas is wrong.
I’ve tried to identify the best “alternative” Christmas movies out there. These are movies that are set or were released near Christmas and include cynical themes about the season. It’s impossible to present a straight-forward Christmas movie to a modern audience, so these films are trying to cater to a new audience that has no patience for Burl Ives.
Brazil – Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece has so many layers that it can be discussed as a part of any genre. But the film takes place at Christmas and there are several moments centered around Christmas traditions.
Brazil is, at its core, a satire of the distracted 1980s mentality. People, especially in America, had retreated to a more boring lifestyle where they didn’t have to face the world around them. They retreated into consumerism and be sold rubbish. Any attempts to break the mold would result in punishment.
Christmas is the best representation of this trend. Anyone who rejects its commercialist ideals is ironically considered a scrooge. Anyone who points out that a child sitting on Santa’s lap and asking for “my own credit card,” as happens in the film, is a sign of societal decay is just not celebrating the holiday properly.
Sam Lowery, on his surface, wants a boring lifestyle. But he dreams of being some vague hero who gets the girl. He seems to ignore each societal tradition – in one scene, he even refuses to give the date, thus failing to acknowledge Christmas is close – and is punished with a visit from the man who controls his torture. This man is even dressed as Santa Claus to comfort Sam but ends up being far more frightening than he intended.
Brazil is the most obvious alternative Christmas movie on this list, if only because it shows people engaged in the traditional yuletide activities. Yet the Christmas setting is inseparable from the film’s ideas of rebellion. Sam’s dreams of breaking the system seem even more poignant when set against the backdrop of an armed battalion singing “The First Noel.” Ultimately, people who want to rebel during Christmas are doomed, which may be the most important message of the holidays.
Eyes Wide Shut – Like every other Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut has been endlessly debated and people think it’s a code that must be cracked in order to be appreciated. What could the cult orgy sequence possibly mean? And what was the central mystery surrounding the death of the young woman who took part in it?
Kubrick was always more interested in the mystery than in the resolution. His films specialized in examining people who were not able to understand what was happening to them. That’s certainly the case with Bill Harford, a man who discovers that his wife may just have sexual feelings about other men. This leads him to a nighttime odyssey where he’s constantly overwhelmed by what he sees, be it an HIV prostitute who tries to solicit him to an upper-class party featuring masks and a weird religious ceremony.
But what does any of this have to do with Christmas? The movie does take place at Christmas and the final scene takes place in a mall as the Harfords go Christmas shopping. Obviously, there’s a reason Kubrick wanted to set this sexually explicit drama at during the self-proclaimed most wonderful time of the year.
Once again, Kubrick wanted to subvert expectations by showing us something new against a familiar setting. Very few people can relate to Harford’s night time odyssey. But everyone can relate to familial tensions at Christmas. Harford is looking for something familiar as he goes through the upper-class Christmas party ceremonies at the start of the film. But he’s blind to the reality around him, which is far dirtier than he could have imagined. It speaks to the child-like idea of Christmas, where good thoughts and deeds are rewarded while bad thoughts and impulses are punished.
Of course, that’s not how reality works. Harford has adulterous thoughts and ultimately learns nothing from his curiosity. Yet everyone else he meets in his nighttime odyssey commits worse actions and emerge unscathed. How can that be possible during the holidays?
The answer is because that’s how it works in real life. And the film ends on a positive note. Bill realizes that his salvation can only be found in his family. I suppose that’s sort of a positive Christmas message.
L.A. Confidential – Yes, I’m aware only the opening scene takes place at Christmas. But that opening is so good and underlines many cynical themes about Christmas and the buttoned-up post war conformity of the United States.
For those who don’t remember, the film starts with an office party for the L.A. police. As they imbibe alcohol, suspects in a police beating are brought in. The officers take it upon themselves to dole out some extrajudicial punishment, which is captured by newspaper photographers at the scene.
What does this have to do with the cynicism in Christmas? Part of it has to do with aging white people trying to control the culture no matter how much time passes. All the cops participating in the melee are white and the suspects are Hispanic. It also shows how the Christmas setting does not offer any promised peace on earth. Yet people are still shocked by the violence and the “Bloody Christmas” headline that appears the next day.
The point is that no should have been shocked then and we shouldn’t be shocked now when we hear about how the world doesn’t pause for Christmas.
The opening scene also underlines the main mystery of L.A. Confidential, which involves an enormous plot for police to take over organized crime in the city. What looks glossy and beautiful on the surface contains some dark violence and betrayal. Not even the people society trusts to uphold the citizens’ rights aren’t to be trusted.
But, as the opening scene shows, we copy annual Christmas traditions because that peaceful exterior provides people some ability to ignore the rot around them. Only when that façade is broken, as happens at the beginning of L.A. Confidential, do people start asking questions.
Mars Attacks! – It’s impossible to discuss alternative Christmas movies without discussing Tim Burton. If he’s not the director who invented the genre, he’s the man who popularized it by taking German expressionist trappings and adding them to the Christmas. But the films people usually think of – Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas – have already been discussed to death.
Instead, I’d like to look at the underrated satire Mars Attacks! While it doesn’t take place at Christmas (when it takes place is open for debate) – the film was originally released in December and it includes the same sort of themes that Burton included in his Christmas movies.
Burton’s take on Christmas is that we as a culture have built up an aesthetic that would seem weird at any other time of year. It can be beautiful, like the ice dance scene in Scissorhands. But it’s mostly about a culture that sends itself backwards and barely takes notice of any of its surroundings. How can we possibly deal with sadistic Martians that want to destroy the Earth? We’re too distracted building casinos, listening to Tom Jones music, wearing outdated clothing in a serious way, and electing a government that exists to generate positive poll ratings.
It makes the destruction of the planet that much funnier, which is the point. Like Dr. Strangelove, this film follows a culture that cannot process any flaws. It’s like watching a Black Friday crowd destroy each other. We may sit back and laugh, but we’ve lost the ability to examine why people are doing it in the first place. And the fact that so many of the characters seem excited for the Martians’ arrival on Earth mirrors the excitement the public has at Christmas. We must ignore everything that makes us feel bad and assume that everyone around us has the best intentions. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t stop spinning just because it’s Christmas.
Also, when a Martian kills someone, their skeletons end up as red or green. It’s obvious that the Martians wanted to spread a little holiday cheer to the doomed earthlings.
Metropolitan – Whit Stillman is a filmmaker who even people like Aaron Sorkin and Woody Allen find pretentious. Yet his films are incredibly captivating and his insight of popular culture, even if it’s limited to the popular culture of people who can afford to buy 1,000 square feet in Manhattan, is undeniable.
Metropolitan was Stillman’s first feature film and took four years to write. Stillman was one of the upper-class characters depicted in the film and was thus qualified to help us understand why people who attend debutante balls deserve sympathy and understanding.
The film is explicitly set at Christmas as rich young people meet and talk about random things. One of them doesn’t come from money and he’s constantly thinking up ways to fake wealth and impress people with his material possessions. Already we’re getting commentaries on the holiday season. How many times have we gone into debt in order to impress people with presents?
The characters also have a level of tragedy in them. As they go to hopelessly outdated “coming-out” parties, everyone seems to insist on copying their grandparents like we do every year at Christmas. They seem to realize that society has moved on from their obsessions. One character is even a titled nobleman. When was the last time that was going to impress everyone who wasn’t already in high society? The characters also endlessly discuss 19th century socialist thinkers at a time when socialism was on a global downward spiral. Everything about these characters is quaint and ignores what’s happening in the world around them.
Again, does any of that sound familiar?
These individuals are spending their Christmas holidays essentially trying to repeat what their grandparents did. Turn on the holiday station and tell me that we’re not doing the same thing.
The film doesn’t exactly end on a hopeful note. Despite everyone having come together, they’re ending in the same way they began – going back to Manhattan to repeat the façade they’ve developed around themselves. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I see people taking down Christmas decorations. The show is over and instead of hope, we’ve not received anything from the experience.
Ronin – This movie served as the last great film that legendary director John Frankenheimer made in his lifetime. It was released after the disastrous The Island of Doctor Moreau and unfortunately followed up with Reindeer Games. It’s a thrilling heist film with car chases.
Strangely, the film also takes place at Christmas. Yet this almost becomes almost irrelevant. Only a few jokes are made about Christmas and there’s only one scene with Christmas carolers. Outside of an ice-skating show, there’s really nothing in the film that evokes winter.
So why set it at Christmas? Like every other film on this list, that had to be a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers.
I believe that, like LA Confidential, Ronin is set at Christmas to acknowledge that criminals still exist even as we talk about being naughty or nice. Also, the figure skater is killed by a sniper in the middle of her show. Violence destroys what’s supposed to be a happy Christmas moment.
And there are jokes about the characters all “working” on Christmas day. This throwaway line says a lot about societal expectations at the holidays. No one, even criminals, wants to engage in their usual activity. It should be a day for everyone to just relax and enjoy time with their loved ones. Not get involved in shootings with the Russian mob.
Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Ninety Five
For the Christmas show (which was recorded on the 24th!), it’s a very New York-oriented episode, as the boys discuss the current state of the homeland (Jon is from Buffalo, originally; Rob is a Brooklyn native/lifelong Staten Island resident, if you didn’t know). Aside from the dissection of New York’s problems, including sports (!), they talk about the new collaboration album from The Rain Parade, The Bangles, The Three O’Clock and The Dream Syndicate (!), “In Our Heads” and a whole lot more.
This is the last show you’ll hear in 2018, so stay tuned for even better in 2019 from Jon and Rob – Happy New Year to all and thank you for listening!
Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Ninety Five
The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.
Friends, robots, Kardashians, lend me your ears. Remember the days when you didn’t rely on a streaming algorithm to turn you onto new music? That’s right, back when your parents, older siblings, radio DJs, record store clerks, opinionated friends, underpaid magazine writers, and niche bloggers used to fill this role? Well, it’s time to bring back those jobs!
Make America a Mixtape Again
Before we begin, here’s that Arianna Grande video referenced in the headline (no bait and switch here):
‘Thank you, next’ will surely be the biggest song of the year — it’s charming for sure and the chorus will surely make it a breakup anthem for the ages, but the only reason it is THIS big is because of Grande’s celebrity, allowing fans to devour and gossip about the disses to her exes laid out in the verses and video. It’s really nothing more than another episode in her real-life reality TV series.
Beyond the phenomenon of this moment, 2018 delivered hundreds of amazing singles across every genre. To open your eyes and expand your ears beyond what you’ll see in Entertainment Weekly, I weeded through thousands of good tracks to whittle down this list — some were promos, but most I bought on CD, vinyl or at least digital download. Have a go. Stream em if that’s your jam; but if you really want to put more than $0.00000002 cents in any of these artists’ pockets, buy these tracks or go see em live in concert.
#1: Dominique Pruitt ‘High in the Valley’
Popdose last spotlighted Dominique Pruitt in (gasp) 2012, when she burst onto the scene with the new millennium Patsy Cline singalong, ‘To Win Your Love‘. The world appeared to have been hers for the taking — but her stellar debut album never materialized (beyond some promos that made the rounds) and suddenly we find ourselves here six years later, not with an album (yet) but with one new song. Well, the wait was suddenly worth it, straight from the opening line, “Closest that I’ve ever been to God is a Bible on a nightstand at an old roadside motel.” Pruitt delivers a gem straight outta Marty McFly’s 1950’s Hill Valley, with detours through the tattered maps connecting John Waters and Quentin Tarantino soundtracks.
Pruitt tells Popdose that the song recalls her 18th through 20th years, passing the the time with her sister in Conoga Park, getting high with a little help from her friends. She co-wrote it with Jasmine Ash, Joseph Holiday and Kenny Fleetwood. Holiday produced, with an ace ensemble backing Pruitt up: Travis Daggett (Guitar), Kevin Conroy (drums), John Schreffler (pedal steel) and Zach Kibbee (bass). This stellar band is primed and ready to play Grand Ole Opry — or Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe — and if nothing else, some smoke filled bar along Ventura Boulevard in the Valley.
#2 Volk • ‘Honey Bee’
Gird your loins my friends for nothing can possibly prepare you for the awesome sonic ear hole sandblasting this track will throttle into your brain cave. Nashville-based Volk follows in the footsteps of Local H, the White Stripes and the Black Keys in terms of duos that could level a stadium without auxiliary touring musicians. Eleot Reich’s lead vocals scorch the rafters while she flat out pummels the drum kit — Phil Collins and that dude who sang ‘Sister Christian’ attempted the same feat, but with much mellower songs (and none rocked bedazzled eyelids and a glitter dress the way she does). Chris Lowe’s guitar unleashes a tornado of Reverend Horton Heat, Nashville Pussy, Jack White, Nick Zinner and Nuno Bettencourt style riffs (sometimes all at once) as he burns the song’s bridge with a deliriously deranged preacher rant. Average American Band (out now on Romanus Records) is their second EP, following Boutique Western Swing Compositions that they recorded totally old school in Berlin (watch a mini doc here) after being inspired by Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary.
#3: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts • ‘Fresh Start’
A Star is Born might be cinema’s finest fictional romance of the year, but the award for best real life love story caught on film goes to rock icon Joan Jett and producer Kenny Laguna, as it is told in Kevin Kerslake’s celebrated documentary, Bad Reputation (now available on VOD). If you think you know everything about Jett’s dramatic career after seeing Kristen Stewart’s Runaways biopic, think again. If you’ve ever been knocked down and can’t seem to find the strength to get up again, look no further. Should the rollercoaster of Jett’s rise and fall and return to the top of the charts not move you, her music surely will. As for the new single, ‘Fresh Start’, Jett proves she still has monster hits in her heart and a blazing fire in her soul. The Bad Reputation official soundtrack contains the single and a crash course in Jett set living.
#4: Ashley Delima • ‘Stay in America’
Popdose profiled Ashley Delima earlier this year with a song that is STILL just as urgent and visceral as it was months ago when we still cared about family separation at the border. Yes, that feels like 36 years ago in the Trump news cycle, but the song, ‘Stay in America’, is worthy of a fresh listen. Now with her eyes set on worldwide pop domination, Delima’s latest single, ‘Cigarette‘(which is against toxic relationships and not pro smoking), features a seductive beat and a tight guest rap by $tandard. Connect with Ashley Delima on facebook.
#5: Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers • ‘I Hate Chicago’
When the Against Me! singer approached Chicago’s alt-country power label Bloodshot Records about releasing a side project, one would imagine it would be in the vein of current and former stablemates Robbie Fulks, Neko Case, or Lydia Loveless — well, think again my friends. Bought to Rot returns Grace to her abrasive punk roots, her most visceral since Reinventing Axl Rose, while building upon the ridiculously addictive songwriting she’s perfected ever since (New Wave, White Crosses and Transgender Dysphoria Blues all topped my Best Albums lists in their respective years). ‘I Hate Chicago’ will now forever hold a place on my Breakup Tunes Playlist, giving all the weepy ballads a swift kick in the caboose right when it’s time to get over it and move forward.
#6: The Ocean Blue • ‘Therein Lies The Problem With My Life’
HOLY CRAP — has it already been SIX years since The Ocean Blue returned from a long hiatus with one of their best-ever albums, Ultramarine? Like Against Me!, this band released some of the most essential records in my life on Sire Records before setting out on their own. Thankfully, they’ve at least eeeped out a few tracks as b-sides and Korda Kompilation contributions since then; here’s hoping we don’t need to wait another six years for the next album. This song doesn’t stray too far from their shimmering guitar, dreamy vocal formula because why mess with perfection? Speaking of perfection AND Sire Records…
#7: Cait Brennan • ‘Just an Old Fashioned Love Song’
Arizona power pop goddess Cait Brennan came thiiiiiis close to signing with Sire founder Seymour Stein before fate took her career in another direction. Brennan once topped my best albums list with her self-released classic, Debutante, before signing to Omnivore Recordings to release her second album, Third. The way I first described her sound remains one of my all-time descriptions of any recording artist: “Imagine David Bowie fronting the Beach Boys, covering Cheap Trick and Babys songs with producer Jeff Lynne.”
While I pine relentlessly for her actual third album, she’s been keeping me satiated with a steady stream of singles. ‘Miss Valentine’ anchored the third disc on Omnivore’s massive International Pop Overthrow Volume 21 release earlier this year. She also contributed ‘Home‘ to producer Fernando Perdomo’s guest-studded compilation Fernando Perdomo Has Lost His Voice. And now, she delivers another chestnut on the rising star studded Paul Williams tribute album, White Lace and Promises: The Songs of Paul Williams (out December 7). Now, speaking of Caits I adore…
#8: Cait • Stay Out
My other favorite Cait (with all apologies to the other Ms. Jenner), is a singer/songwriter/fashion icon who has been steadily releasing killer pop tracks with producer Brian Phillips for the past year or so. ‘Stay Out’, co-written with Phillips and Devin D’Amato, is a slinky breakup jam.
“Essentially, this song is about being rejected,” Cait tells Popdose. “True story: Many years ago, I told one of my best friends that I had feelings for him, and he did not feel the same way (gut punch). I originally wrote a sad victim-y ballad called ‘Stay Out’ that sat on the shelf for years. I revisited the song last year, and realized I wanted to rewrite it with a stronger and more confident tone. Now, it takes on new life as a song for anyone to jam out to after a break-up or rejection that isn’t going to make them sadder – but feel empowered.”
‘Stay Out’ just came out a few weeks ago and Cait’s already followed it up with her first holiday single, ‘Run Away For Christmas‘.
Now, with such a common moniker, you need some stealth sleuthing skills to find Cait on a Google or Amazon search, unless you also know the names of her songs. Start with these two, continue with her sultry update of No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’, and then deep dive into the rest. Why get lost? Connect with Cait on facebook.
And speaking of HARD TO FIND artists…
#9: Cat Pierce • ‘Sometimes You Lose’
Cat — aka Catherine Pierce and NOT the person “we need you to rap” on Prince’s ‘Alphabet Street’ — has been steadily releasing adventurous singles under her full and abbreviated names since her harmonic sister act, The Pierces, went on hiatus. While her sister Allison went the mainstream country route on her solo outing, Year of the Rabbit, Cat keeps taking the bold, romantic, mysterious, and entrancing chances that landed The Pierces’ fourth album, You & I, atop my best albums list in 2011. Cat sings straight from a David Lynch fever dream and remains a woman of mystery despite my obsessive fandom these past 10 years. And speaking of women of mystery…
#10: Alana Sweetwater • Gotta Get Up
Another Popdose blast from the past is Alana Sweetwater of Los Angeles. We spotlighted her single, ‘Love More Than Anything‘, back in 2013 when she was fronting a band, Sweetwater and the Satisfaction, and rocking a delicious mix of Amy Winehouse, Joan Jett, and No Doubt. In the years that passed, Sweetwater took a creative sojourn to Nashville where she booked some time to record at RCA Studio A. At the time, Ben Folds was in the midst of saving the Music Row institution by getting it listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Those introspective sessions were the foundation of what eventually became Sweetwater’s 6th album, Compass, recorded upon her return to Los Angeles. She also found time to open for The Push Stars on tour before reinventing herself once again as a solo artist and a composer for film and television projects.
Songs throughout Sweetwater’s career have helped her deal with the rollercoaster of life. While the size of her live venues will surely grow, as will the stream counts on her songs, Sweetwater has also tapped the power of music in performances few will see and in songs few may hear. She’s the founder of Sweetwater Soul Sessions, a songwriting workshop that helps people with addiction or trauma to work through their feelings by composing (weekend #1) and recording (weekend #2) their own song under the guidance of industry professionals. Journaling, sharing, and collaborating are all part of the therapeutic process, usually done on location at the treatment facility. The recipients walk away with a fully produced song they can share with the world or simply hold close to their heart.
For 2019, Sweetwater has a small batch of new tunes on the way with hopes of dropping a new album. She kicks off the year with a gig at Hollywood landmark Hotel Cafe.
#11: Holden Laurence • ‘Indian Summer’
Cleveland’s Holden Laurence has landed on my year-end Best Albums list both as a solo artist and as a guitarist for The Modern Electric. In a perfect world, both acts would be on the precipice of international success. While a leap from the Beachland Ballroom (where they share the bill for this year’s Northcoast Christmas concert on December 23rd) to Wembley might be a stretch, Europe is much more open to their brand of well produced, emotive, cinematic, alternative pop. Look no further than kindred spirits, James, that released one of their best and biggest albums in 2018 (Living in Extraordinary Times). If you’re a fan of James or the aforementioned The Ocean Blue, or have albums by Pulp, The Wild Swans, Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, or The Smiths tucked away in your collection, then Laurence’s solo album and the two platters by The Modern Electric are just what you’ve been looking for. Laurence’s ‘Indian Summer’ is an epically melodic solo single to tide us over between last year’s spellbinding Wild Empty Promises and a new album that could hit the market in 2019.
But before we enter 2019, let’s go back (gasp) 20 years…
#12: Charli XCX & Troye Sivan • ‘1999’
It’s been a lifetime since Charli XCX released True Romance, one of the best dark wave dance pop albums of all time (way more Siouxsie and Goldfrapp leaning than her current work). Around that same time, she delivered worldwide smashes for Icona Pop (‘I Love It’) and Iggy Azalea (‘Fancy’). While her sophomore album, Sucker, didn’t ride the momentum, XCX has been delivering a metric ton of delicious singles ever since. In today’s digital and streaming age, that likely makes the most sense from a promotion and profit perspective. Whereas Prince’s 1982 classic, ‘1999’, looked forward to what will be, Charli XCXs ‘1999’ (no relation) looks back on what was. It sends up all the pop culture milestones of the year and beat Arianna Grande’s very similar ‘thank you, next’ video to the punch by several months (co-singer Troye Sivan appears in both clips). Charli’s video comes out on top by a mile by being 100% free of cameos by Kris Jenner. Now what could possibly be better than either of these videos? Perhaps…
#13: Carly Rae Jepsen • ‘Party For One’
If he or she or they never called you maybe, then it’s time to take matters into your own hands. Jepsen never fails to drop huge, freaking, earworm hits every time she steps to the plate, and this latest single certainly hits it out of the park. It’s perhaps the best ode to self love since ‘I Touch Myself’ by Divinyls, Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing With Myself’, or ‘Fingers’ by P!nk. The video wraps an entire sleazy hotel anthology series into a single 3-minute clip, complete with the big (emotional) release at the end. And speaking of bodies and souls…
14: Teddy <3 • Body and Soul
Am I the only person here who fondly remembers Love Monkey, the short-lived CBS drama starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed, The Flash), Jason Priestly, Judy Greer and surprisingly hip list of music biz cameos (see em all on IMDB). From what I recall, Teddy Geiger played the potential pop star that could save Cavanagh’s struggling record label (This is 40 pretty much turned this concept into a movie, with Graham Parker taking over the Geiger role). Geiger went on to pen some pretty freaking big pop hits for herself and other artists while slowly coming to terms with her gender and re-emerging on the scene as her true, beautiful self. Teddy <3’s debut single is a down and dirty rock and roll booty shaker that might jar some of her mainstream pop fans but it’s about time we salute those who are about to rock.
Speaking of rock stars, let’s listen to one of my favorites make some sweet, sweet jazz…
15 • Jeff Goldblum Featuring Haley Reinhart • ‘My Baby Cares Just For Me’
If you can suffer through Jeff Goldblum’s relentless mugging, then Haley Reinhart’s two appearances on his album with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra (which is more of a combo than an orchestra) are quite charming. Reinhart has been having a stellar 2018, soaring along one of the most exciting, prolific, and constantly surprising careers of any American Idol alum. In addition to these jazzy outings, she’s released two sweetheart non-album solo singles, ‘Last Kiss Goodbye‘ and ‘Don’t Know How To Love You’ and a pop banger, ‘Something Strange‘ with Vicetone. In recent years, she’s been a session ringer for stacks of acts, including Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox (steampunk covers of just about every mega-hit of the past 20 years), Big Easy legends Irvin Mayfield and Kermit Ruffins (including a surprisingly not awful version of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’), and several tracks with affable fellow Idol, Casey Abrams.
Speaking of Idols, two more make our hit list below…
16: Blake Lewis • So Alive
I’ll be honest, I did not care much for Lewis’s human beat box schtick on American Idol, but my former wife LOVED it. The futuristic 8th grade class photo cover art for his debut album, 2007’s Audio Day Dream (A.D.D.), is among the cheesiest of all time, but then his music hit me and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. ‘Heartbreak on Vinyl‘, the title track of his second album is a love song and elegy for independent record stores. Every song that has followed has taken adventurous twists and turns, buffered by cameos with Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox as well. Blake’s latest, Our Fragile Heart: Remixes & Rarities, collects some remixes of past hits, along with two new songs. ‘So Alive’ bears no relation to the mega Love & Rockets hit from the 80s, but it still sounds like a bonafide dance floor jam from the era. It’s fresh off the boat, so I can’t find an embed, but it’s easily tracked down on Spotify. Now, to complete our lost Idols trilogy…
17. Halo Circus • ‘Commander’
Rocker David Cook went further, winning Season 7, and Daughtry went bigger, scoring platinum hits, but the best rock album from an American Idol finalist goes to Just Like You by Season 8’s Allison Iraheta. Despite scoring a plum 70+ city opening slot for Adam Lambert (who also lost that season to Kris Allen, finishing 2nd to Iraheta’s 4th), the album never truly enjoyed sales worthy of its greatness. Instead of slinking into obscurity (or off Broadway shows), Iraheta formed a band, Halo Circus, and built a loyal following on social media before heading out on tour to cities where fans proved the demand was there. Their debut album, Bunny, featured tracks co-authored with none other than Paul Williams (how’s that for a callback, see Cait Brennan above) and John Taylor of Duran Duran. Popdose hosted the world premiere of their ‘Nothing at All‘ video and the album landed high on my year end list. Just when you think you’ve got her pegged, Iraheta reinvents herself again, pairing down the act to just herself and bassist/keyboardist turned husband Matthew Hager. Robots and Wranglers was launched with ‘Narcissist’ a ferocious techno dance track that spits out like ‘Hollaback Girl’ on Red Bull; its perhaps the perfect theme song for the Trump era.
The album, one of this year’s best, takes exciting twists and turns at every moment — returning to our Top 18 List, ‘Commander’, a deep album cut, is one of Robots and Wranglers‘ emotional anchors. Now speaking of the year’s best albums…
18. Dua Lipa (Featuring Silk City) • ‘Electricity’
When I named Dua Lipa’s self titled album as my #1 title for 2017, the most common reaction was, “Who the hell is Dua Lipa???” Well, that question was certainly answered in 2018 while her tour played festivals around the world, she cleaned up at just about every award show she attended while her singles shattered streaming records on YouTube (one billion views of ‘New Rules’ alone) and Spotify. As her 2-year long album cycle drew to a close this fall, she expanded and re-released her album as the 2CD Dua Lipa Complete Edition (available this week for only $10 on Amazon), collecting some one-off singles with Calvin Harris and the Mark Ronson/Diplo project, Silk City. The bonus disc alone will likely rank near the top of this year’s best albums list, and in terms of total plays on my own stereo, the complete set just might repeat at #1 for 2018.
And finally, since it is the year 2018, why not blow this 18 song list out to an even 20 with two of the years biggest tracks that need no explanation:
Coming next week — yet another list of the Top Albums of 2018.
When we think of Philly Soul, we tend to think of Gamble & Huff and their work with the Intruders, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the O’Jays, and many more. We also think of Thom Bell and his work with the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and the Spinners. And while those producers, songwriters, and artists certainly represent the peak of Philly Soul, the fact remains that there was great music coming out of Philadelphia before any of them arrived on the scene. Case in point, Dee Dee Sharp.
Dione LaRue was born in Philadelphia and when she was 16 years old she began her career as a background singer. It wasn’t long before the newly christened Dee Dee Sharp was stepping out on her own. Her first hit was a duet with Chubby Checker called “Slow Twistin’,” although Parkway Records failed to credit her on the record label. Her first hit on her own came with the smash “Mashed Potato Time” in 1962. The Cameo Records single ran all the way up the Billboard Hot 100 to #2.
“Mashed Potato Time” was followed by “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes),” and “Ride!,” both of which also reached the Top 10 that same year. Sharp’s final Top 10 hit was “Do the Bird” in 1963. She also released “Rock Me I the Cradle of Love” and “Wild!” that year and both singles made the charts but neither had the kind of success that the earlier hits did. Subsequent Cameo singles like “Where Did I Go Wrong,” “Willyam, Willyam,” “Never Pick a Pretty Boy,” “I Really Love You,” and “It’s a Funny Situation” also found only minor chart success.
A marriage made in Philly Soul heaven took place when Sharp married Kenny Gamble in 1967 and began recording as Dee Dee Sharp-Gamble. The disco era brought a bit of a career renewal for Sharp-Gamble as she released a moderately successful cover of the 10cc hit “I’m Not In Love” on her husband’s Philadelphia International label in 1976. Sharp and Gamble were divorced in 1980 and Sharp subsequently remarried. Her last chart single was “I Love You Anyway” which reached #62 on the R&B chart in 1981.