Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Thirty-Four

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Thirty Four

This is one of those “you have to listen!” episodes – this 134th installment of Radio City…  is an uplifting, smart thoughtful conversation that just FLOWS.  Rob and Jon dissect the ever-disappearing print media and the disingenuousness of certain “news” outlets online; a highly powerful discussion on the difference between “nostalgia” and “perspective”; the embarrassing circus atmosphere of the impeachment inquiry in our nation’s capital; two New York Mets win baseball’s top honors; a look at the flat television landscape, a wonderfully left-field “In Our Heads” and even more.

Join the boys; you can hear the good vibes and (frankly) the emotion behind this particular show.  It will definitely warm you up and make you smile.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Thirty Four

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.

Dizzy Heights #67: Wizards of Oz

The idea for this show came around the same time as the Scotland show. I know that the timing of its release looks gauche, like I’m trying to capitalize on the horrific wildfires that Australia is enduring. I’m not; I’ve had a thing for Australia since I first read “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day.” Then MTV happened, and I wanted to move there. Still do, sometimes.

Huge tip of the cap to my friend Cynthia Wang, who’s lived in Oz for a few years now, and sent me about 50 song suggestions. She said she listened to the rewind stations incessantly to give her a better sense of the culture. The show is exponentially better because of her.

Apologies to AC/DC, Rick Springfield, the Bee Gees, the Jezabels, Michael Carpenter, Jet, Men at Work, Oh Mercy, Taxiride, DMA’s, Goanna (remember them?), Pseudo Echo, my beloved Olivia Newton-John, Jimmy Barnes, and the Church, as they did not make the cut this time. Maybe on Volume II.

Thank you, as always, for listening. We are with you, Australia.

Neil Peart: “Experiences To Extremes”

Since the announcement of Neil Peart’s death on January 10, 2020, there’s been an outpouring of tributes, obituaries, and other remembrances of a man who valued his privacy over the trappings of celebrity. Being the drummer and primary lyricist for Rush — a band often called the biggest cult band in the world — came with baggage that Peart probably wished was never there. The zealotry of fans, for one. Being fanatical about a band was not something Peart thought was bizarre or strange. As a teenager, he loved The Who, so he understood the power music and lyrics have on a young person’s ears. Despite his single-minded dedication to rock drumming — often channeling the spirit The Who’s Keith Moon — and his deep admiration for Pete Townshend’s lyrics, he said he could never imagine a scenario where he’d stalk them as a teenager. Even when he had an opportunity to meet Pete Townshend in 2012, Peart kept his cool by mostly talking about how much he enjoyed Townshend’s 1985 short story collection, Horse’s Neck.

To be a slobbering fanboy in front of one of his rock idols was not in Peart’s hard wiring. So, he found it odd and unsettling that his fans often had no sense of boundaries when it came to his privacy — which is probably why he traveled with a security detail during Rush tours. As he wrote in one of his seven books, Roadshow, it gnawed at him that people thought he was a dick because he valued his privacy outside the Rush Machine. How could people who didn’t know him at all think so badly of him? Instead, he summed up his relationship with his fans with a quote ascribed to Humphrey Bogart:  “The only thing I owe the public is a good performance” — which, if you ever saw Rush live, you would know he lived up to that promise every night. Later in his career, he’d remind people that he’s actually a very shy person. Talking about himself or the importance of his work with fans made him feel awkward, uncomfortable and looking for the exits. He added that if you met him in a small town diner somewhere in North America — and had no idea who he was — he’d be incredibly social and talkative. However, the moment when someone does recognize him is the very moment he starts to shut down and put up defenses to protect himself from guys (and it was mostly guys) who would tell him how much this or that song meant to them or wanting to be pals for life. When Peart wrote the lyrics for ‘Limelight” — and most notably the line “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend” — it was before the band’s fame and fortune really took off. If he was feeling leery about fanboys in 1980-81, that feeling of dread was certainly far worse after the Moving Pictures Tour made Rush rock stars.

Peart captioned this selfie “Are you serious?” It could easily be the way he reacted to the adulation of fans.

I note the great lengths Peart went to protect his privacy to illustrate another reason why:  the guy loved experiencing the beauty and awe of the world — without feeling like he was the center of it. From the grand, to what some would consider the mundane, Peart’s adventure travels were chronicled in his books. Whether it was cycling through three West African countries with a group, riding over 55,000 miles on his motorcycle after the deaths of his oldest daughter and first wife in the 1990s, his love of snowshoeing, bird watching, cross-country skiing, stamp collecting, hiking, swimming, and reading, it was clear that he found incredible joy and a sense of healing while being an active participant in the world. After he remarried and eventually had a child with his second wife, domestic bliss rarely meant retreating from little and big adventures. In more than one interview, Peart often said that he lived by the motto: “What’s the most excellent thing I can do today?” That, to me, is a guy for whom experiences were an integral part of living a life where — to quote a lyric from “Headlong Flight” — he wouldn’t trade tomorrow for today. 

Photo credit: Charles Voisin

Photo credit: Michael Mosbach

Much has been made of Peart’s professed atheism — especially after his older daughter Selena and first wife Jackie died in 1997 in and 1998. I used to belong to a couple of Rush online groups during that period, and a good number of fans noted that while they knew Peart was an atheist, they hoped the deaths of his family members would get him to believe in God. Well, that didn’t happen. In “Faithless” he was quite upfront that his own “moral compass…beats a spirit in the sky.” Rather than engaging in polemics, though, he asserted that clinging to hope and believing in love is enough for him. I’ve often wondered what hope meant for Peart. It’s a word that conjures a sense that something will turn out favorable in the end. But there are other interpretations that run deeper than that. I don’t know if Peart ever read anything by Cornel West, but West often says he’s “prisoner of hope.” It’s not hope borne out of optimism, though. Rather, West says that hope is the refusal to succumb to despair and nihilism. Considering the kind of tragedies befall us all in life, sinking into despair and even nihilism are clearly things one wants to avoid if you’re living an engaged existence that celebrates the sheer force of life. Losing family members and friends is something all of us experience. Some of us find solace in religion. Others, even with words and deeds meant to comfort, may fall into despair. Peart certainly felt those things in 1997-98 — and found that only through the motion of travel on a motorcycle could his wounded “baby soul” find comfort among the wonders of the world. And so it was with love. Peart met Carrie Nuttall in 2000 after the band’s photographer (Andrew MacNaughtan) played matchmaker for his widowed friend. The couple married a year later and Nuttall gave birth to their daughter Olivia in 2009. After realizing that he spent little time with his first daughter — partially because of Rush’s relentless touring and recording schedule — Peart vowed not to repeat what he did in the past. Though he was pulled back to work for three more tours and one album (Time Machine in 2010, Clockwork Angels in 2012, and R40 in 2015), he was reluctant to leave his daughter for extended periods of time. So, while Rush calling it quits in 2015 was very sad for fans who had become used to the band being active since their “comeback” record Vapor Trails in 2002, Peart must have felt relief that he was finally free of the itinerant life of a touring musician. 

Alas, those post-music years came with a cancer diagnosis — which Peart kept private right up to his death on January 7, 2020. Most reports say he was battling cancer for 3 ½ years, but The Guardian suggested a longer time frame of five years. Whatever the case, Peart’s retirement probably did not mean he retired from life. Certainly, the aggressive form of cancer he had amplified the limitations of time. It’s that limited time Peart probably took advantage of with his wife, daughter, parents, sisters, brother, and friends — while an invisible countdown clock ticked down. 

How he spent those last years of his life is entirely a private matter. 

Publicly, Peart leaves a number of books that detail his experiences both with Rush and on his own — ironically, often told in a personally revealing manner. However, it’s the music he created with Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson under the band name Rush that will stand as an example of how talent, hard work, chemistry, and artistry led to a unique form of musical excellence in rock music. Those moments are preserved in recordings that can still motivate, inspire, or be a catalyst for just rockin’ out. 

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It’s the only return that you expect — “The Garden” lyrics by Neil Peart

Popdose Video Premiere: Angela Perley, “Don’t Look Back Mary”

Tonight, if the clouds above play nice, you’ll see the Wolf Moon; stand still listen close, and from further up in the heavens you just may hear the angelic official lunar soundtrack, courtesy of Angela Perley. Howlin’ moons, starry nights, dark forests, and long and winding roads are the perfect tapestries for her dreamy mix of Americana, classic Country/Western, and modern Rock & Roll. Perley hails from Columbus, Ohio and has been steadily breaking hearts and winning fans nationwide; one dusty tavern, town hall, and occasional arena gig at a time. 

Popdose is proud to premiere the new video for ‘Don’t Look Back Mary’, the latest single from 4:30, Perley’s exquisite album that recently landed in our Top 10 Albums of 2019 countdown. 

Angela’s been placing albums in Popdose’s year-end best-of list as long as we’ve been doing them, starting with Hey Kid in 2014 and Homemade Vision in 2016. Much like ripples when a tossed stone hits a still pond, Perley has been spreading her gospel one self-promoted gig a time around Ohio and as far out as San Antonio, Colorado and Boston. But even then, a few Buckeyes will take root in then crowd. “I feel like wherever we go, there’s someone from Ohio that’s there at the show,” Perley told us in a phone call last summer. “They either travel there or have some kind of connection. I feel like each show we play, we kind of grab maybe a couple people from each town. It’s been a slow build over over the last 10 years.”

In a way, the video for this single helps Perley deliver an experience to the audience she can’t capture on stage. “It’s one of the softer songs on the album, and it is hard to pull off live with all the piano and violin parts that we don’t have with our regular four-piece,” Angela said. “It really needed another realm it could exist in. Amber Thompson directed and edited and we really hit it off from the very beginning with the vision for this video. We wanted to keep things really simple and just capture the emotion and vibe of the song.”

While other Ohio legends like The Black Keys and Nine Inch Nails started local and then relocated, Perley’s heart and feet remain planted in the thriving Columbus art scene. “I received a grant from the Greater Columbus Art Council to bring this video to life. They have an art campaign going on in the city (#artmakescbus) that is really special and helps out tons of artists and musicians. They go above and beyond to promote art in Columbus — from helping artists through grants to advertising musicians and artists on billboards around town and in the airport. It’s really made a big impact on the community here.” The video was filmed at the Early Television Museum in Perley’s hometown of Hilliard and at Loose Films Studios in Columbus. 


4:30 is available on Amazon and direct from Angela. For tour dates, new releases, and dreamy vibes, connect with Angela Perley via her official website and store, on facebook, Instagram, and twittter. Cover picture by Cate Groubert. 

Video Premiere: Angela Perley “Don’t Look Back Mary”

Tonight, if the clouds above play nice, you’ll see the Wolf Moon; stand still listen close, and from further up in the heavens you just may hear the angelic official lunar soundtrack, courtesy of Angela Perley. Howlin’ moons, starry nights, dark forests, and long and winding roads are the perfect tapestries for her dreamy mix of Americana, classic Country/Western, and modern Rock & Roll. Perley hails from Columbus, Ohio and has been steadily breaking hearts and winning fans nationwide; one dusty tavern, town hall, and occasional arena gig at a time. 

Popdose is proud to premiere the new video for ‘Don’t Look Back Mary’, the latest single from 4:30, Perley’s exquisite album that recently landed in our Top 10 Albums of 2019 countdown. 

Angela’s been placing albums in Popdose’s year-end best-of list as long as we’ve been doing them, starting with Hey Kid in 2014 and Homemade Vision in 2016. Much like ripples when a tossed stone hits a still pond, Perley has been spreading her gospel one self-promoted gig a time around Ohio and as far out as San Antonio, Colorado and Boston. But even then, a few Buckeyes will take root in then crowd. “I feel like wherever we go, there’s someone from Ohio that’s there at the show,” Perley told us in a phone call last summer. “They either travel there or have some kind of connection. I feel like each show we play, we kind of grab maybe a couple people from each town. It’s been a slow build over over the last 10 years.”

In a way, the video for this single helps Perley deliver an experience to the audience she can’t capture on stage. “It’s one of the softer songs on the album, and it is hard to pull off live with all the piano and violin parts that we don’t have with our regular four-piece,” Angela said. “It really needed another realm it could exist in. Amber Thompson directed and edited and we really hit it off from the very beginning with the vision for this video. We wanted to keep things really simple and just capture the emotion and vibe of the song.”

While other Ohio legends like The Black Keys and Nine Inch Nails started local and then relocated, Perley’s heart and feet remain planted in the thriving Columbus art scene. “I received a grant from the Greater Columbus Art Council to bring this video to life. They have an art campaign going on in the city (#artmakescbus) that is really special and helps out tons of artists and musicians. They go above and beyond to promote art in Columbus — from helping artists through grants to advertising musicians and artists on billboards around town and in the airport. It’s really made a big impact on the community here.” The video was filmed at the Early Television Museum in Perley’s hometown of Hilliard and at Loose Films Studios in Columbus. 


4:30 is available on Amazon and direct from Angela. For tour dates, new releases, and dreamy vibes, connect with Angela Perley via her official website and store, on facebook, Instagram, and twittter. Cover picture by Cate Groubert. 

An Aging Hipster’s Top 50 Albums of 2019

As society hurdles ass over ears into the smog congested, plastic particle infested, fact contested, crap basket of incivility, we can at least take solace in the fact it was a mighty good year for new music. 

My year-in-review list of albums is a bit different than most. I’ve limited mine to albums I actually OWN on CD — there are countless more I streamed online, but these are the ones I stepped up and put a ring on at the cash register. 

Event Of The Year: The Prince Estate Opens The Gates

It’s hard to believe Prince has been gone for almost four years now — and the fact that there are likely 100 years of Prince albums awaiting fans in the vault is little comfort to those of us who have at best 20 to 30 years left. The last few years saw some false starts like the somewhat useless 4ever compilation, the moderately expanded Purple Rain reissue, and the Piano and a Microphone 1983 disc that was sold as a full-length album but should have been bonus content within some larger package. Thankfully the Estate got up to speed and unleashed a steady stream of reissues in 2019. The 1999 box set was by far the most exciting release by any artist during the year, highlighted by 2 discs of unreleased songs in pristine audio form that thrilled even the most devout bootleg collectors.

From the expanded liner notes to the comprehensive assortment of b-sides, live tracks, remixes, and a remaster of the original LP, the box set sets a new gold standard for how each era of Prince’s incredible life should be celebrated. One can only hope Around the World in a Day, Sign ‘O The Times, and Parade get similar reissues in the coming year or years. Purple Rain could also use a 5 to 10 CD edition, one that includes the full 1983 First Avenue concert, the full-length ’17 Days’ and other rarities left off the original reissue. 

Earlier in the year, the estate reissued 1999’s ill-fated Santana/Supernatural wannabe, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, by expanding it to include 2001’s Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic remix album, bringing essential Prince tracks like ‘Beautiful Strange’ to official CD for the first time. Ultimate Rave also included a live DVD which was a nice addition to the more vintage live concerts included in the 1999 box. 

I think due to an obscure overseas licensing agreement, Germany was given an exclusive Sign O’ The Times Blu-Ray/DVD box set with a full-length documentary. The set is on its third pressing, this time a compact booklet version, that ships to the USA from Amazon Germany — simply “translate the page” to arrange easy shipping with your current Amazon account. 

Prince Originals offered fans yet another full-length album of new material, his versions of songs given to other artists. It played like a very satisfying full-length album, the only misfire being the CD did not include the expanded liner notes found only on the deluxe vinyl issue. 

Another brief misfire of the year was a CD reissue of the Versace Experience DJ mix that was apparently sourced from a cassette. So while not a true “source master tape” experience, this release at least makes it easier for most people to play it in their cars. 

The Top 50 New Albums of 2019

  1. The Ocean Blue • Kings and Queens, Knaves and Thieves

In 1989, the self-titled debut album by these dreampop darlings formerly of Hershey, PA, came thiiiiiiis close to winning my album of the year, competing against Madonna’s Like a Prayer, Kate Bush’s The Sensual World, Tears For Fears’ The Seeds of Love, and Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood. I honestly don’t remember who won, because back then — pre-Popdose — my year-end list was simply a playlist on my pre-dawn show on WKSR-AM (serving about a ¼ mile radius within Kent State University). 

The Ocean Blue served as the American contemporaries to fellow Sire Records labelmates Echo & The Bunnymen, The Wild Swans, and The Smiths. After delivering three perfect albums to Sire and then going indie for a few more very good records, they went into a quiet period before emerging with the stellar Ultramarine in 2013. Kings and Queens… is the latest entry into what appears to be their next trilogy of perfect albums — their dark and epic The Empire Strikes Back if you will. Beneath the shimmering guitars, earworm hooks, and David Schelzel’s dreamy, lovelorn, and lamentful croon, are beautiful stories, abstract visions, easter eggs to previous albums, and eloquent social commentary. Read Popdose’s 2019 interview with Schelzel. 

  1. Haley Reinhart • Lo-Fi Soul

While other American Idol alumni have won Oscars, Grammys, CMA Awards and their own talk shows, Reinhart has blazed one of the most artistically rewarding careers. At the time, we all wondered if she’d become the next Kelly Clarkson or Janis Joplin. None of the above. It’s all been pure Haley’s comet from that moment forward. She released spot-on solo albums alongside inventive Steampunk-style covers as part of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. Trip #4 to the solo plate, Lo-Fi Soul, is her best-ever album, released this year alongside a slew of one-off singles (solo and collaborations). This comes on the heels of a scene-stealing guest spot with Jeff Goldblum’s Mildred Snitzer Orchestra and her cover of the Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’ for that omnipresent Mazda campaign, and sharing the stage with The Doors’ Robby Krieger among others. 


Lo-Fi Soul is a mix of modern pop and timeless throwbacks to the 1940s, 60s, and 70s. Plenty of artists release style exercises and period knockoffs as “love letters” to bygone eras, but Reinhart truly delivers the goods — excellent songs, impeccably produced, that work because she when she belts, growls, coos, falsettos, and snarls — it’s clear she truly feels every note. While Amy Winehouse was sadly not long for this Earth, and Aretha is now singing from the heavens, Reinhart, Lizzo, Dua Lipa, and rising star Cat Delphi are here to keep the jazzy, soulful, and magnificent torch songs blazing for generations to come.

  1. Billie Eilish • When We All Fall To Sleep, Where Do We Go?

It’s way too easy for hipsters and record geek elitists to write off Billie Eilish, the first artist born after the year 2000 to score a number #1 Billboard album. Their loss, because like Angel Olsen, she is rapidly emerging to be this generation’s most visionary and imaginative pop star — titles Kate Bush, David Bowie, and Bjork have held before her. So what if she doesn’t remember Van Halen. We never chided Van Halen fans for not knowing Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, or artists that were popular 40 years prior of ‘Jamie’s Cryin’. Even though I am old enough to remember all of these artists, I still know the real deal when someone new emerges from the herd — and Eilish is the real deal. Sleep delivers freaky trap beats, freeform lyrical flow, dark and dreamy vocals, and surprises around every turn. This album is relentlessly creative, ambitious and daring — so skizzy and rewarding on headsets, it’ll blow the wax straight outta your ears. 

  1. Angela Perley • 4:30

The last time I was into country music was when Gambler-era Kenny Rogers was bigger than Bieber, ONJ-era Olivia Newton John wouldn’t dare ‘Soul Kiss’ on the first date, and Marie Osmond was just a little bit into everything. Ohio-based Angela Perley is also a little bit country and a lotta bit Pat Benatar-style rock and roll. She’s constantly on tour — with and without her band the Howlin’ Moons, becoming quite the concert draw in the Midwest and East Coast in addition to fans around the world who buy and stream her albums. ‘Athens‘ from 2014’s Hey Kid, is one of my favorite songs of the decade, and her two follow-ups, including this one, have landed high on my year-end lists.

While it’s hard to screw up a song in the toe-tapping genres of country, roots, and Americana, it’s also hard to stand out. Perley’s songwriting, performance and production are truly world-class. 

  1. Louise Burns • Portraits

This Canadian singer/songwriter ties the best elements of my Top 3 acts into the fourth chapter of her amazing solo discography. Burns first flirted with fame as bassist and co-vocalist for Lillix, one of the best and most tragically overlooked power pop bands of the 2000’s. While bandmates Tasha-Ray and Lacey-Lee Evin put out a superb third Lillix record without her (Tigerlily), Burns set forth to create solo albums that in my humble opinion rank alongside the best albums by The Ocean Blue, The Church, Echo & The Bunnymen, Tori Amos, Jane Siberry, and Kate Bush.


Portraits has its heart in the 80s with shimmering synths and sparkly beats, but its feet are firmly planted in the modern day thanks to Burns’ sharp lyrics and angelic vocals.

  1. !!! • Wallop

By now, most everyone knows how to pronounce the name of this band, but it’s still up to some debate whether the “chks” can also be “chicks” or “chiks” when you search for them online. Closing in on 20 years now, !!! has consistently delivered edgy, freeform yet tightly wound, punk rock dance music with each new album. Their most famous contemporaries are LCD Soundsystem, with whom they’re connected to by the band Out Hud and their New York City stomping grounds. Wallop, their 8th long-player returns “the disco chks” to the edgier underground club sound of their first four albums. 

  1. The Stray Cats • 40

Oddly enough, 40 is the first-ever Stray Cats album I’ve ever purchased; their classic hits populate many of the 80s compilations that fill my CD wall. The Cats’ anniversary victory lap turns out to be a slim dandy of an album and the perfect dish to scratch that The Reverend Horton Heat itch I get between that band’s albums. By December, the three core Cats have all since moved back into their solo projects, but hopefully they’ll still strut together a few more times before age 80. 

  1. Black Swan Lane • Vita Eterna

In the early 80’s, Manchester’s Chameleons released three post-punk albums so perfect, they just kept re-releasing them in different forms (demos, acoustic, live, BBC sessions, “re-workings”, etc.) for the next 40 years (and yes, I own them all). While that band seemed fine to rest on their laurels, the world was still in need of NEW songscapes filled with shimmering guitars and haunted, dissonant vocals.


Enter, Atlanta’s Black Swan Lane, which I assume is named after the only street in the city without “Peach” in the title. Founders Jack Sobel and John Kolbeck were actually joined on their first three albums by Chameleons vocalist, sorry, “Vox-alist”, Mark Burgess. The Andys Whitaker and Clegg joined the fun for 2009’s The Sun and the Moon Sessions, heralding an unofficial sequel to the spinoff band’s tragically out of print self-titled album. For several more albums, Black Swan Lane carried on just fine without Burgess (who now fronts Chameleons Vox), but for their latest, former Chameleons guitarist Dave Fielding joins in for 11 of the album’s 13 heavenly songs. If you need to catch up, check out their online store. 

  1. The Wonder Stuff • Better Being Lucky

One of the greatest wonders about the Stuffies — as this Midlands guitar pop band is lovingly called by die-hards — is that despite breaking up after 1993’s landmark Construction for the Modern Idiot, they have never, ever gone away. Frontman Miles Hunt has kept the band and brand intact for some 30+ trips around the sun now, releasing countless albums under his name, The Wonder Stuff, Miles Hunt Club, and duet records with violinist Erica Knockalls. Better Being Lucky ranks among the best modern stuff they’ve done (2006’s Suspended by Stars is a personal favorite).


There really is no equivalent in pop these days than the sound of Hunt’s impassioned voice and Knockalls’ firey violin — the duo are partners in life as well and their passion is well documented on every note of this album. 

  1. Brooke White • Calico

LA singer-songwriter and the human embodiment of sunshine, Brooke White, recorded one of my all-time favorite albums before she landed on American Idol. After the show, she was branded as “the next Carole King”, similar to Reinhart’s tag as the “next Janis Joplin”. After releasing her pleasant big label debut, the aptly titled High Hopes and Heartbreak, she caught her creative mojo again with “Life is OK”, a duet with fellow contestant, the late Michael Johns. As the decade progressed, she released a stack of stellar EPs as part of the duo Jack and White and starred in a charming made-for-cable movie. When I heard that her latest solo album would be country, I curbed my enthusiasm; but she debuted the first single on the local Fox affiliate and I was hooked. Every single track on Calico is a breath of fresh sonic air and living proof, you don’t need to be in Nashville to make a bonafide country classic. Now, for added fun, can you guess who makes a slew of cameos in her ‘Back Pocket’ video?

  1. Jeff Lynne’s ELO • From Out of Nowhere

After quite a hiatus, Jeff Lynne is back where he belongs, filling stadiums with that massive spaceship light show and topping the charts with new material. From Out of Nowhere was #1 in the UK and #6 on the Billboard Rock Albums chart. Lynne’s space age Beatles music soundtracked the 1970s, culminating in the 1981’s masterpiece, Time. From Out of Nowhere sounds like a lost-gem from that era, serving as a great companion to the mothership, 1977’s Out of the Blue. 

  1. The New Pornographers • In The Morse Code of Brake Lights

This band is supposed to be a “side hustle” for ringers like Neko Case, Carl Newman, and former/possibly future member Dan Bejar, but eight albums in it seems to be as much of an A-list project as their day jobs. Neko typically sings on 2 songs per album and occasionally tours, but she’s more front and center on this outing, resulting in perhaps their best-ever album. 

  1. Harry Styles • Fine Line

On Page 136 of the Manly Men Manual, it clearly states you can never, ever admit to liking boy band music, which is a shame because supergroups NKOTB to BTS, not to mention forefathers David Cassidy, Andy Gibb, and Leif Garrett have produced some of the most joyous pop songs of our lifetime. One Direction was no different, and now one, possibly two, former members (Niall Horan recently crushed it on SNL) have emerged as bonafide superstars with unisex appeal. Harry Styles in many way seems like the second coming of Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Prince all in one. His second album shows his first one wasn’t a fluke. The CD arrived right at the end of the decade and truly ends this era on a high note. By the time the multi-layered fabulocity of these tunes actually sinks in, it just might top next year’s best albums list. 

  1. Holden Laurence • Rewire

The Modern Electric is to Cleveland what The Killers are to Vegas: modern power pop purveyors destined for global domination. Well, one of those bands already made it to the headline festival slot, and perhaps the next Modern Electric album will break on through to the other side of worldwide fame. In the interim, lead guitarist, Holden Laurence, dropped his second solo album in 2019, plus a handful of great singles. While both projects echo Echo & The Bunnymen and New Order, Holden’s sound leans closer to The Ocean Blue and The Wild Swans, while his band leans the way of Bowie and The Airborne Toxic Event. Rewire’s collection of lovelorn post punk modern new wave new classics is something all the cliques in a John Hughes film can finally agree upon. 

  1. Tom Bailey • Science Fiction

I completely missed this 2018 solo debut from the former Thompson Twins frontman, but in 2019 Science Fiction made a perfect playlist companion to those Ocean Blue and Holden Laurence records, plus the most recent albums by Howard Jones and Adam Lambert. At times jazzy, new wave, and modern pop, there’s not a dud track in the bunch; it already plays more like a solo-era greatest hits album. 

  1. The Futureheads • Powers

I run hot and cold with these lads from Sunderland, an English borough in Tyne and Wear. Their 2004 self-titled debut was my album of the year, chok full of ear worm originals plus a transcendent cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’. Their third record, 2008’s This Is Not The World, remains one of my all-time favorites, featuring absolute bangers like ‘The Beginning of the Twist’ and ‘Walking Backwards’. I thought their 2006 and 2010 outings were just OK, with 2012’s a capella Rant coming in at a tie. Some seven odd years and one Barry Hyde solo album later, I was quite shocked to see these barbershop quartet indie rock troubadours return from exile. Powers is a slow-burner — I dismissed it at first, but once it sunk in, it quickly built momentum. In this Trump/Brexit hellscape we currently call home, we need more sharp, creative, deliciously weird bands like this. 

  1. Lissie • When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective

I tend to dismiss “acoustic” rehashes of existing material as a contract-filling cash grab, but Lissie absolutely SLAYS on this intimate, haunting, confessional outing. The album plays like a coffee house victory lap through her storied catalog. I was lucky enough to see her countless times in concert, before and after her international breakthrough. The similarity between her voice and Stevie Nicks is haunting; perhaps that’s why her Fleetwood Mac cover, ‘Go Your Own Way’ has 19 million streams and counting. For this collection, Lissie includes covers of the Mac’s ‘Dreams’ along with the Dixie Chicks’ ‘Cowboy  Take Me Away.’

  1. SONTALK • Stay Wild

Back in 2014, Joseph Lemay’s raw, confessional, cathartic, and majestic Seventeen Acres was an utterly melodic emotional gut punch. The fact that his follow-up, Stay Wild, was on a major label seemed like the ultimate happy ending for a struggling singer/songwriter from humble beginnings. Even with the new stage name, the song remains the same — which in this case is a good thing. The ghosts of Lemay’s past — desperation, isolation, and depression — are clearly present in the mix, but so too is the glorious and powerful songcraft that make SONTALK one of this generation’s best singer/songwriters. 

  1. A Projection • Section

If you’re going to bring a genre back from the dead, make it a monster — and that’s just what these Stockholm darkwave darlings do. For their third outing and first with a new singer, A Projection jettisons the Joy Division leanings by making perhaps the best Sisters of Mercy album ever. 

  1. Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders • Get The Money

The Foo Fighters stickman and occasional vocalist pulls out all the stops on his fifth solo album (3rd under this moniker), inviting loads of his friends to the party. Where else on Earth could you possibly get Dave Grohl, Nancy Wilson, Duff McKagan, Perry Farrell, Chrissie Hynde, Joe Walsh, Lee Ann Rimes, Pat Smear, Roger Taylor (Queen, not Duran Duran) and Steve Jones (The Sex Pistols) — all on one record? The result is a big, fun, sleazy mess of an homage to 70s rock excess, which is exactly what they were going for.

  1. Piroshka • Brickbat

Speaking of super groups, Miki Berenyi emerges from the ashes of the short-lived but epic Lush reunion (I saw them live in Seattle the night Prince died), to join up with Justin Welsh (Elastica), KJ McKillop (Moose) and Mick Conroy (Modern English) to create an aggressive, brilliant post-punk record — complete with album art that recalls the best 4AD releases (RIP Vaughan Oliver). Heaven knows if this band will last, but count me in for any project Miki lends her beauty and beautiful voice to. 

  1. Maren Morris • Girl

Maren Morris is having the best year ever — and when you listen to her two beautiful albums (this and the all-star Highwomen), you will too. Girl is the daytime pool party record that balances the dark of night vibe on the latter platter. Both records were huge commercial and critical hits, and she’ll soon deliver her next package, a baby boy, due in March. 

  1. Robert Forster • Inferno

Not to be confused with the iconic David Lynch character actor who passed this year, the former Go-Betweens frontman preceded that band’s epic box set with another stellar solo outing in 2019. Some 30+ years into his career, Forster remains a master of lyrics and songcraft. All year long, this album meshed well with new outings from fellow not-so-elder indie rock statesmen, Richard Hawley and Bill Pritchard. 

  1. Charli XCX • Charli

I just added up 75 albums that I will rank for an upcoming “Best of The Decade” roundup and (spoiler alert), Charli XCX’s goth pop masterpiece True Romance from 2013 will likely come out on top. She’s kind of abandoned that disc’s romantic Prom Night Siouxise sound on subsequent, weirder, more club-friendly fare while also writing pop hits for countless others. This year, she somehow also found time to guru Nasty Cherry into existence (a made-for Netflix experiment that resulted in one of the year’s top short-form albums). Charli feels as much of a mixtape as her previous two outings: enjoyable, constantly updated digital content for the streaming age. 

  1. Mark Ronson • Late Night Feelings

Mark Ronson is the sonic equivalent of a really great Instagram filter — he makes everyone sound their absolute best. On his latest all-star cavalcade of stars, the uber producer who brought Duran Duran back to the A-list recruits current A-listers Miley Cyrus, Lykke Li, Camila Cabello, Angel Olsen, Alicia Keys and King Princess, while giving the center suite of tracks to rising star YEBBA (Abbey Smith). 

  1. Carly Rae Jepsen • Dedicated

Carly Rae isn’t as big of a celebrity as Taylor Swift, Charli XCX, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Camila Cabello, but when it comes to delivering consistently perfect pop albums, she leaves everyone else in her stardust. The 15 new tracks here feed the streaming beast that rewards long-players. 

  1. Audra • Dear Tired Friends

Sam Rosenthal’s darkwave label, Projekt Records, has haunted me like a ghost for much of my life; seeing that he and I both lived in Tampa, Chicago, and the Pacific Northwest at the same time. As a goth-curious, outwardly post punk, pre trans young soul, I first gravitated to his ‘zine and scene, including a slew of acts he curated like Black Tape For a Blue Girl, as well as kindred spirits Rachael’s Surrender, Big Hat, My Scarlet Life, Danielle Dax, and all of the Bauhaus side-projects at the time. Long story short, but this is how I discovered Audra and their dark, dreamy, Peter Murphy adjacent self-titled album about a decade after its 2000 release. Close to a decade after that, the band released its 4th album, Dear Tired Friends, the perfect jolt of guitar-driven post punk to wake up the sleepiest of souls. 

  1. Coldplay • Everyday Life

Yes, they might be the most boring band in the history of the world, but then why do I own all of their records? Well, because sometimes you need stirring music that doesn’t get all up in your grill. Some 20 years into their career, the lads are stretching their wings a bit, so this record should likely get better and better long into 2020. 

  1. Taylor Swift • Lover

The biggest pop star on the planet has yet to have a major scandal or release a dud record. Sure, Reputation wasn’t as good as Red or 1989, but Lover is a fine return to form and a huge step forward. It took a while, but her singing finally caught up to her incredible songwriting. I find her music is best enjoyed while knowing little to nothing about her well-publicized personal life, that way you can make an emotional connection to the songs instead of to her messy list of exes. 

  1. Ladytron • Ladytron

For me, Ladytron were one of the greatest bands of the 2000’s, swept into my ears at the height of the Electroclash movement (Felix da Housecat, Miss Kitten, Fischerspooner, etc.). This self-titled set picks right up where 2011’s Gravity the Seducer left off: sinister yet romantic, retro yet futuristic, dance music you can daydream to. 

  1. Monochrome Set • Fabula Mendax

If you’re like me and snap up all of the Cherry Red Records box set deep dives into very specific niches of UK Indie Rock, you’re well familiar with The Monochrome Set, as they’ve been steadily releasing great music for some 40 years now. Fabula, their 4th outing on Tapete Records, is quite fabulous — post punk with a dash of spaghetti western. 

  1. The Highwomen • The Highwomen

Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris are the big draws here, but Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires more than hold their own on this seamless, heartfelt supergroup (Sheryl Crow and Yola also appear). Though I must admit, when searching for it on Amazon and Tidal, I typed “Highwaywomen” a bit too many times. 

  1. Ariana Grande • thank you, next

Ariana is so adorable I can’t even handle it. Girl can sing, and she has totally got streaming media on-lock by delivering a steady stream of new albums and singles at near Beatles pace. No quality control issues here amidst the deluge. Just this week, she dropped a 32-track live album to boot.

  1. Fader • In Shadow

I can almost set my clock by the arrival of new albums by Neil Arthur’s Blancmange and his many side hustles. This second full-length composed with Benge under the name Fader is already top-ranked on many of the electronic music blogs and is one of Arthur’s best since 2015’s Semi-Detached, the Blancmange album that topped my year-end best albums list. 

  1. Beck • Hyperspace

Mr. Hansen’s latest arrived in my mailbox the same week as Coldplay, and both got rolled over by the arrival of Prince’s 1999 box set. Not to be outdone, at the same time, Beck released a companion EP, The Paisley Park Sessions, that included a lovely Prince medley. Beck albums age incredibly well, so I am in no rush to inhale this one, it will likely live for years in my car dashboard stereo.

  1. Kaiser Chiefs • Duck

I’ve been a fan of this band retroactively since the Parva days, and while I’m not sure if the title of this record relates to keeping your head down or that “other other white meat”, it’s clearly intended to mix up their festival anthem setlists and does so swimmingly. It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed since ‘I Predict a Riot’ was a worldwide smash; few of the new gen bands I listened to then are still around now, so it’s nice to see the Chiefs still in fine form.

  1. Hirie • Dreamer

Anyone who loves the new Camilla Cabello record will absolutely adore the third album from Trish Jetton’s tropical pop band, HIRIE. Rap, pop, and reggae blend like the perfect margarita across the album’s 11 tracks. If you’re into sand, sunshine, and dirty dancing to the likes of the Dirty Heads, No Doubt and Sublime, HIRIE is your new #1 band crush. 

  1. Madonna • Madame X

Diehard fans who slogged through MDNA and the somewhat better Rebel Heart were finally rewarded with her best album since the tragically maligned American Life. 

  1. The Divine Comedy • Office Politics

Neil Hannon’s vacation aboard the ‘National Express’ is over — but this joyous celebration of the mundanity of daily life is on par with his best work. 

  1. The Raconteurs • Help Us Stranger

Jack White releases so many records that the full decade since the last Raconteurs record went by in a blip. If you loved the first one and liked the second, you’ll love this one. 

  1. Matthew Logan Vasquez • Light’n Up

The lead singer of Delta Spirit, Middle Brother, and Glorietta drops his third solo record, once again bringing a Radiohead and Beck sense of unbridled sonic creativity to Americana, Roots and Garage rock music. The Delta Spirit’s most recent two albums rank in my Top 20 records of the 2010’s, so hopefully we’ll see another full band album someday soon — but until then, their MVP, MLV, is keeping the band’s adventurous spirit alive. 

  1. Lux Prima • Lux Prima

Karen O and Danger Mouse return from where the wild things are with a dark, dreamy and delightful collaboration. 

  1. UNKLE • The Road Part II / Lost Highway

Perhaps the most ambitious album of the year demands and rewards your complete attention. James Lavelle creates the ultimate highway mixtape and invites Ian Astbury (The Cult), Mick Jones (The Clash), Tom Smith (Editors), Dhani Harrison, and a busload of session and stage ringers along for the ride. 

  1. Bill Pritchard • Midland Lullabies

More than 30 years on from his breakthrough, Three Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days, Pritchard never fails to deliver an enchanting listen — if you love the Forster record (above), this is a good follow-up to spin. 

  1. The Black Keys • Let’s Rock

Garage rock’s bickering exes reconcile long enough to bang out another disc of solid bangers and vacuum in enough cash to last them a few more years. 

  1. Joe Jackson • Fool

After forays away from his patented brand of New York style pop, Jackson returns to his sonic home turf with wonderful results. 

  1. Jenny Lewis • On The Line

The Rilo Kiley singer’s latest album was buoyed by one of the year’s best singles, ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’. 

  1. Gary Clark Jr.  • This Land

Much like Orianthi, Gary Clark Jr. is an incredibly gifted singer, songwriter, and guitarist, in search of landing that career-defining album — this very ambitious set gets him closer to the end zone. 

  1. Camila Cabello • Romance

This one also arrived long after I started writing this list, but it’s worth including here as its ascension into greatness is only just beginning. Hopefully, her recent racism scandal can lead to some social good as she uses her platform to bring people together to love, dance, and just have fun — that is, until it’s time to vote and end this shit show we call modern life under #IMPOTUS. 

50: The Albums I Missed…

A lot of big names made big waves with small albums that will need to wait for an eventual roundup of 2019’s best EPs and short plays — including Adam Lambert (Velvet Part One), The Pierces’ Cat Pierce (assorted singles), Cat Delphi (Woman), Beck (The Paisley Park EP), Thunderpussy (Milk It), and my favorite new band of 2019,  Other Americans. 

Also, reading everyone else’s top albums list makes me shortlist a ton of new albums worth discovering, including Angel Olsen, Desperate Journalist, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and Vampire Weekend.

And as for 2020… Green Day, Nada Surf, and the Airborne Toxic Event have all announced new records, The Pierces tease surprises to come, ABBA may be back with a few singles or an EP, and perhaps we’ll see a long awaited Liz Phair disc. The new decade looks like its off to a stellar start. Congrats — you made it to the end. I hope you’ve found something amazing to buy or stream here — support the artists you love!

(Not So) Famous Firsts – Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily?

For more than sixty years now, Woody Allen has been an icon in the comedy world. Lately, though, it’s obvious that he’ll likely be remembered just as much for his questionable personal life instead of his films. I understand that’s for the best. (It’s important to hold people accountable for their actions.) But that does miss how much of a mark he left on American comedy.

For about thirty years or so, Allen was considered not just a comedy legend but one of America’s best exports. People LOVED this guy. He had a worldwide fanbase. He beat Star Wars for Best Picture. Sure, there were occasional slumps, but he always rebounded with another great script and a great movie that would allow Allen to reclaim his throne.

And frankly, I’ve never understood why.

I don’t necessarily hate Allen. I’ve just never understood what, exactly, people saw in him. Some of his films are great. (Love and Death, Sleepers, Radio Days, and Midnight in Paris are my personal favorites.) But a little of his schtick goes a long way. Also, his screen presence has always been off-putting to me. He comes across more as a nerdy YouTuber whining about the fact women don’t fancy him and his characters are impossible to relate to. I know that’s part of the joke, but it’s the same joke he’s been making for decades now. As he got older, I was forced to ask why he never seemed to learn from his mistakes. I’ve also never understood why Annie Hall still gets the attention it does. Sure, it’s perfectly watchable and has some good gags. But I don’t understand why people hold it up as an unimpeachable comedy classic. Finally, Allen seems to be the person most responsible for the concept of New York City being full of upper-class snobs who don’t care what happens beyond the New Jersey Turnpike. As time goes on most of his filmography becomes increasingly dated.

Besides, he doesn’t seem nearly as original now that Larry David has kept Curb Your Enthusiasm going for ten seasons.

Overall, I prefer the Woody Allen that mocked specific features and film tropes, be it the sci-fi dystopia or the autobiographical film essay. Allen used to constantly search for the link between the items considered high art (like jazz music and classic Russian literature) and low art (like most movies). Even Annie Hall started out as a spoof of murder mysteries until the editor told him that only the romance subplot was any good.  And that leads me to What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

Allen’s producers (including famed schlockmeister Samuel Z. Zarkoff) bought a Japanese James Bond spoof called Key of Keys with the intention of releasing it in the U.S. But they felt the movie was too confusing as it was, so they hired Allen (fresh off the success of writing and costarring in What’s New Pussycat) to write a new comedy script to dub over the original dialogue.

The idea of having someone mock a movie wasn’t new. Throughout the 1950s, television stations played old horror movies and started building shows around them. They hired hosts to introduce the movie and occasionally cut in with their own commentary. The Vampira Show is likely the most famous example of this phenomenon, but New York City had a guy named John Zacherle who did pretty much the same thing. Allen seemed to take inspiration from these horror hosts and has the same ironic love of the film he’s mocking.

Additionally, this dubbing trend wasn’t completely new. Americans didn’t see the original Godzilla in theaters for 50 years. I can’t count how many kung fu movies were released in the U.S. and how utterly asinine the dubbing was. I suspect many kung fu fans aren’t just fans of the fight scenes but rather just how ridiculous the new script makes the movie. Finally, the concept captures Allen’s primary obsession at the time – mocking junk culture and spoofing Hollywood trends. (During his introduction, Allen jokes that Gone with the Wind was shot in a foreign country and then dubbed over.) And he’d have a directorial effort on his filmography without having to direct anything.

Too bad the results are about as funny as a rendering plant.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? doesn’t work, mainly because it never decides what it wants to be. Allen and his team barely make any jokes and doesn’t try to score any points against the film. Sometimes, his dubbing job doesn’t acknowledge what’s happening on screen. Other times, it doesn’t sound like a joke, but rather like a serious effort to dub the movie. Sometimes it’s meta (one character states the director and his wife are doing their cameo as a random couple walks across the frame) and the characters acknowledge they’re in a movie. Sometimes they don’t. It’s so confused and weird.

It should be easy to mock Key of Keys. It owes just as much to the 1960s Batman television show as it does to James Bond. The one big mistake the film makes that prevents it from becoming a camp classic is that it has no individual personality. The characters are utterly forgettable and there are no memorable scenes. In order to work, the movie needs a Torgo equivalent so that it would stand up on its own as a comedy. The jokes Allen dubbed over would just be the icing on the cake.

The film stumbles out of the gate by showing scenes from Key of Keys undubbed with no subtitles. I can’t figure out why. Presumably everyone knew what they were getting into and the introduction was not necessary. It plays more like an Andy Kaufman prank that would force people to make sure they walked into the right theater. Unfortunately, it’s a sign of things to come.

The redubbed plot involves a Japanese James Bond womanizing character trying to recover the stolen recipe for the perfect egg salad. No, seriously, that’s it. The concept of a James Bond figure involved in a mundane adventure can be made to be funny. But that seems to be the only joke anyone could think of for the movie. Why, exactly, is this egg salad recipe important? What are the stakes involved in getting it? Why should I care if a villain ends up with the recipe? Is the joke that I shouldn’t care? If it is, then why am I bothering with this? It doesn’t even get Bond tropes right. The person who created the egg salad recipe is said to come from “a fictional, but real sounding country.” James Bond was already well known for his globe-trotting adventures and how the producers got to film in exotic locations. For that joke to work, you’d need it to be someplace mundane but real. (I don’t know what place would work…maybe Skokie, Illinois?)

Later spy spoofs acknowledge how ridiculous Bond villains are and that such people could never possibly exist. But despite that, we still wanted to see Austin Powers defeat Doctor Evil. The film doesn’t do enough to make me care about the characters. (Also, I don’t particularly find egg salad to be funny, like the movie does.)

The strange thing is that a lot of dubbed dialogue could be mistaken for a serious effort. (“Is sex all you think about,” one woman asks the Bond stand in.) And in those moments, What’s Up, Tiger Lily becomes…not great, but it’s a very interesting time capsule of 1960s popular culture. To be clear – there were a lot of studios around the world that wanted to emulate the Bond franchise. For example, the Gaumont Film Company in France revived the Fantomas series and took many notes from Bond. Even the U.S. created their own Bond knock off with In Like Flint. These films had to be produced very quickly and were rushed to theaters. If Key of Keys doesn’t make sense and seems more focused on showcasing expensive suits and beautiful women, that’s by design. It’s a great representation of how studios jumped on major this even before the blockbuster era.

But, as I stated earlier, the film is lacking is any personality. Think of two major things Bond films always bring to the table – classic villains and memorable Bond girls. No matter how silly they are, we care about them. This film doesn’t have the equivalent of an Oddjob or even a Xenia Onatopp. I was also reminded of Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, produced around the same time. It’s a movie with memorable characters and great, if bizarre, action sequences. The stakes and conflict are very well established. And frankly, I believe it would have made for a better spoof. Yes, it’s a classic that has inspired a lot of independent filmmakers, but it has the personality Key of Keys is missing. Can you imagine what Allen and his writing crew would have to say about a guy who is sexually aroused by the smell of rice cooking? What’s Up, Tiger Lily? fails as a spoof, because Allen and his crew are forced to make jokes over weak material.

There is one great moment in the film. About halfway through, Key of Keys cuts off and returns to Allen and his producer in the studio. The producer asks if Allen would like to summarize the plot for the audience since the film is difficult to follow. Allen responds with a simple, “No.” You can’t find a better way to sum up the film. Allen doesn’t have his heart in the project and doesn’t care how if audiences will like his idea. Part of this wasn’t his fault – he apparently wanted it to be a standalone TV special and the original version was padded with footage of rock band Lovin’ Spoonful without his involvement.  But I can’t imagine it working at any length. The film doesn’t have nearly enough to make it interesting or funny. Fortunately, Allen learned his lesson very quickly.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Thirty-Three

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Thirty Three

This is one of those conversations where you know the boys are excited and chomping at the bit to get into it!  And there is A LOT to savor here, starting with the clickbait approach of CNN Online; a post-mortem on an Election Day that saw no changes for the better in New York City; inept publicists and the lack of professionalism; the pandering and pushing of unqualified presidential candidates, an upbeat/uptempo “In Our Heads” and as always, even more!

So do that thing – sit back, relax and let Jon and Rob take you on a thoughtful ride.  It’ll make your day.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Thirty Three

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.

Exit Lines: “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven”

“Daddy, what show are you going to see tonight?,” the kids asked.

Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven,” I replied.

They laughed. “What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “But it’s from the playwright who wrote The Motherfucker With the Hat.”

More laughter. Thanks for the profane merriment*, Stephen Adly Guirgis–and for penning another remarkable play, the equal to Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, and, yes, The Motherfucker With the Hat. It’s been five years since his Pulitzer-winning Between Riverside and Crazy and his gift–an ability to burrow into the darker recesses of humanity, excavating the sorrow, the terror, big laughs, and glimmers of the better angels of our nature–is intact.

I didn’t know much about the show before taking my seat at the Atlantic, preferring to be surprised. In early previews it’s said to have run four hours, on its way to its locked three–but I’m certain that at no time was a minute wasted. Immersion begins at the outset, with Narelle Sissons’ semi-hospitable, mildewed set, a halfway house for women on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Before this place is peopled–and it will be populated by no less than 18 actors, playing 20 characters, and an unexpected animal–we feel it, in its institutional decrepitude and bureaucratic cheer, which is at the very edge of cheerlessness. But it is home, one halfway to nowhere for many of its residents.

Like Guirgis’ prior LAByrinth Theater Company productions Halfway Bitches alternates from large, frequently explosive group encounters to more intimate sequences with a handful of characters. Director and company cofounder John Ortiz knows the terrain inside and out and keeps rein on what could be a hodgepodge of acting styles and emotional see-sawing, but not too tightly; the thrill of a play like this is that the performers seem to be finding their parts anew for each audience. And what performers, and parts! You can access the piece from several directions, but I’ll start with Sarge (the incredible Liza Colon-Zayas), Iraq War veteran and the terror of the facility, whose smoldering anger only softens when her girlfriend, former stripper and single mom Bella (Andrea Syglowski), is around. Sarge’s ire is mostly directed at Venus (Esteban Andres Cruz), a trans woman who barely passes as female, a constant source of tension within the group.

But Sarge has her reasons. Venus is a near-total fuckup, whose friendships with drug dealers threaten to pull Bella back into addiction. Yet Guirgis loves Venus, and Sarge, and the rest of this very motley crew of survivors; he sees through the decay of victimization, hard knocks, and foolish choices and empathizes, a quality in short supply, even in egalitarian NYC. (One plot strand that emerges in this splendidly observed show is how the neighborhood barely puts up with the shelter.) Reminiscent of classic, teeming plays like Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End there’s a vibrant cross-section of life onstage, from the names on down.

There’s Happy Meal Sonia (Wilemina Olivia-Garcia), whose mental illness and codependency keep her grown daughter Taina (Viviana Valeria) in a state of suspended animation. Disabled Wanda Wheels (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) entertains with tales of movie stardom and boyfriend Noam Chomsky while seeking a permanent way out–maybe Queen Sugar (Benja Kay Thomas), who’s pursuing get-rich-quick schemes, will oblige. I’ve hardly scratched the surface (there’s a story, or rather a poem, behind the title, too), but Guirgis also lets us hear from the supervisors, like the African immigrant Mr. Mobo (Neil Tyrone Pritchard), who has discipline over everything except his heart and loins, and the shelter’s director, Miss Rivera (Orange is the New Black castmember Elizabeth Rodriguez), who’s taken to drink over her long hours and exasperating duties. Guirgis has let these marginalized people be seen, and heard.

Loose but urgent, with an ending that reduced me to tears, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven deserves a half life once its run ends. Experience it and be stirred, and lacerated, and moved.

*After my kids repeated the titles, I told them that they had to contribute to our swear job. “But it’s not our fault,” my daughter protested. “We’re quoting the writer!” There’s a certain logic to that, so, if you’re out there, Mr. Guirgis…you owe me money.

Exit Lines: Broadway Has Issues

From the blockbuster album by Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill is bookended by scenes at Christmas, but you’re unlikely to be of good cheer as the story unfolds. Hyper-controlling Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley) is writing her annual year-end newsletter from her Connecticut abode, willfully oblivious that her nuclear family is set to explode. Despondent over their sexless marriage husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) busies himself with work and online porn. Son Nick (Derek Klena) is going to Harvard but, imprisoned by expectations, feels he’s going nowhere. Adopted black daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) is flirting with bisexuality and actively engaged in student protests at her high school.

Want more? Her putative girlfriend, Jo (Lauren Patten), cracks wise to conceal her breaking heart, as Frankie crushes on Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano), who’s trying to keep up with the wokeness. Then meet high school acquaintance Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), who gets drunk at a party and is sexually assaulted by a wealthy, connected friend of Nick’s. Nick saw what happened, failed to act, and broods as the incident is relayed on social media. That’s a lot for one Christmas newsletter, but Mary Jane isn’t seeing much of anything–addicted as she is to opioids she’s getting from street hustlers now that her prescription has run out.

One part Next to Normal (frazzled, pill-popping mom; that show’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning composer, Tom Kitt, is this show’s music supervisor) and one part Dear Evan Hansen (YA torment), this isn’t your average singalong jukebox musical, which is always a plus. Morissette’s album, still potent after 25 years, and augmented by songs from her other recordings and new material, has been filtered through the edgy indie movie sensibility of book writer Diablo Cody (Juno). But the collaboration is only fitfully satisfying. Cody’s witticisms (which, amusingly, don’t spare the songwriter’s lyrics, as Frankie’s writing class dissects “Ironic” while performing it) are better suited to supporting characters like Jo than Mary Jane, who’s a jagged little pill alright. In screenplays like Young Adult and Tully, Cody is able to skirt the nettlesome issue of “likability” by having the high wattage Charlize Theron play the leads. Like the rest of the cast Stanley is proficient but earthbound, and mildly annoying. With Cody reeling off the zingers to lighten the load we never fully invest in self-absorbed Mary Jane and her family, and the revelation that’s meant to bind the two generations of the show doesn’t pack the necessary punch. It’s just one more trauma that needs unpacking and airing until the next Christmas newsletter.

But. Director Diane Paulus, of the Tony-winning revivals of Hair and Pippin, keeps the piece moving visually, with an invaluable assist from choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkkaoui, whose balletic, kinetic reenactment of the date rape is a chilling sequence. Patten’s second-act rendition of “You Oughta Know” raises the roof and temporarily gets us on our feet, and there are other moments where Jagged Little Pill, the musical, has a rhythm of its own. Misfire? Sort of. An ambitious one, however.

Midway through the first act of the two-part, six-and-a-half-hour behemoth that is The Inheritance, the characters, young gay men in a college writing class, congregate around the communal table that is the principal set and argue about the problems of their lives in our era: discrimination, representation, poverty. Any of these might have made for a lively hour, but then we’re back to The Inheritance, too much of which plays like a half-season of the melodramatic Queer as Folk cable TV show, binge-watched live.

I haven’t seen playwright Matthew Lopez’s other work, but this is a swing at the fences, and it hit in the West End. Given its length and fantasy elements it’s been compared to Angels in America, but the contrasts are more revealing. Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia” was rooted in anger as the age of AIDS raged, deeply political at its core, and drew blood from its fully realized characters. As its title indicates The Inheritance lives off the blighted legacy of the 80s and early 90s, and at its best shows how the past commingles with the present. But the primary mode is soap opera, with flatly drawn people. (That the actors, some quite good despite the limits of the text, are all rather hunky adds to an air of superficiality.)

The show begins with that writing class, as the students struggle to commit their stories to the page and discuss the strengths and limitations of E.M. Forster, that closeted literary pathfinder. Played with a fusty curiousity by Paul Hilton, Forster appears (as “Morgan”) and offers words of counsel and advice, sometimes defensively, as the classmates morph into the characters of one student’s imagination…look, just go with it, it makes sense enough onstage. In rough outline The Inheritance takes the shape of Forster’s Howards End, and if you haven’t read the book, or seen the Oscar-winning film or recent cable miniseries, relax, the essentials are conveyed (as they are with his openly homosexual, but suppressed, Maurice, in the cram session parts of the show). But this is not your great-grandfather’s Howards End.

Much of the show is communicated via direct address, with the characters speaking directly to the audience. It’s a litmus test for showing vs. telling, but soon enough who’s who is sorted. Driving the storyline is a tumult-wracked couple, Eric (Kyle Soller), an earnest social justice warrior, and writer Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), who’s simply at war, with Eric, anyone in the entertainment rackets who are trying to mold him, and the weaker-willed men he abuses. If you thought the Healys, or Wheeler, the protagonist of Tracy Letts’ Linda Vista, were a handful you’ll recoil from Toby, and while Burnap gives his all to the part I tended to look away during his bitchily written rampages. It emerges–no surprise–that Toby is mostly at war with himself, and is lost in a cycle of victimhood and victimization. The point is made in the first act, as Toby corrupts a young man into lurid, and unsafe, sexual encounters…then Lopez makes it again in the second act, with the same actor, playing a different character, reenacting the exact same trauma at Toby’s behest. Once was more than enough, and I couldn’t help but feel that Lopez was getting off on this nightmarish sexual fantasy.

The show is better when Toby is sidelined. Eric’s journey takes him an eyebrow-raising relationship with a rich, older Republican (John Benjamin Hickey), who holds the keys to a property held in almost mystic regard. I’m skipping a lot of turgid synopsis here, but suffice it to say Eric eventually find his way there, where in the second act he meets its elderly caretaker, who, in a nod to Forster, is named Margaret (the only woman in the show). On the West End the part was played by the film’s co-star Vanessa Redgrave, but here we have our own living legend, Lois Smith, as a woman who failed her own gay son as the epidemic hit and has spent the rest of her life helping other AIDS patients seeking refuge and solace. Any minute spent with Lois Smith, 89, is a minute to treasure, and this sequence is a lovely interlude. 

In truth, however, if The Inheritance had ended after its first act, leaving all the tedious drama to come behind, it would have been all the stronger and more affecting. In a final, wrenching tableau of men living and dead coming together in a ghostly communion, the show (directed by Stephen Daldry, and graced, like the London imports Betrayal and A Christmas Carol, with a clean, expressive, nothing-wasted design, here arranged by the great Bob Crowley) reaches the summit of its achievement. Even with Lois Smith waiting in the wings there’s nowhere for it to go but down, but for a few minutes we “only connect,” as Forster would have wanted.

Finally, a few words on A Christmas Carol, and a few more on Cats, the movie, which maybe isn’t the dog that you’ve heard. Everyone’s a critic as 2019 draws to a close–thanks for reading.