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The Ultimate Christmas Playlist

Today is the day after Thanksgiving here in the United States of America. You’re officially allowed to start listening to holiday music now. To get you started, I compiled a playlist of what I consider to be 100 of the best Christmas songs. Okay, 98 songs, a stand-up routine and a skit. It’s a mix of standards, versions of standards with which you may not be familiar, and obscure but delightful tunes.

Enjoy!

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In Memoriam: 2016

Per the email I received from Spotify in mid-December, my most-streamed track of 2016 was Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” While that is a great song, I don’t recall playing it more than once or twice this year. However, I did spend hours listening to music by those taken from us by the Grim Reaper. I’m not the only person to feel incredible sadness at the seemingly non-stop loss of great talents, which started on New Year’s Day when we heard the report that Natalie Cole died the day before.

With this playlist I want to celebrate the contributions these folks made to our lives and our culture. If I missed someone, forgive me. There were a lot of folks to remember.

Before we get to the Spotify playlist, videos from two whose music is not on Spotify.

Thank you for enriching my life:
David Bowie
George Michael
Glenn Frey (of Eagles)
Gene Wilder
Leonard Cohen
Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay)
Maurice White (of Earth, Wind and Fire)
Florence Henderson
Merle Haggard
Carrie Fisher (actress best known for Star Wars)
Debbie Reynolds
Paul Kantner (of Jefferson Airplane)
Signe Toly Anderson (of Jefferson Airplane)
Sir George Martin (record producer best known for his work with The Beatles)
Attrell “Prince Be” Cordes (of P.M. Dawn)
Garry Marshall (television/film director/producer/writer, creator of Happy Days)
Pete Burns (of Dead or Alive)
Billy Paul
Natalie Cole
Garry Shandling
Sharon Jones
Alan Vega (of Suicide)
Don Ciccone (of The Four Seasons)
Alan Rickman
Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer)
Greg Lake (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer)
Steven Young (of M/A/R/R/S)
Joan Marie Johnson (of The Dixie Cups)
Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor (of A Tribe Called Quest)
Prince Buster
Bernie Worrell (of Parliament)
Bobby Vee
Gary Paxton (of The Hollywood Argyles)
Rick Parfitt (of Status Quo)
Mack Rice (songwriter whose credits include “Respect Yourself”)
Milt Okun (record producer best known for his work with John Denver)
Marni Nixon (singer/actress best known for dubbing the singing voices of Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady)
Rod Temperton (of Heatwave)
Leon Russell
John Chelew (record producer best known for his work with John Hiatt)
Lonnie Mack
Gogi Grant
Jim Lowe
Sonny James
Nicholas Caldwell (of The Whispers)
Kitty Kallen
Mose Allison
Black
Otis Clay
Bobby Hutcherson
Joe Dowell
Trisco Pearson (of Force MDs)
Gayle McCormick (of Smith)
Gary Loizzo (of American Breed)
Leon Haywood
Paul Upton (of The Spiral Starecase)
Carlo Mastrangelo (of The Belmonts)
Fred Tomlinson (co-writer of “Lumberjack Song”)
Steve Young
Alexis Arquette
Dan Hicks
John D. Loudermilk
Zsa Zsa Gabor
Christina Grimmie
Alan Thicke

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Throwback Thursday – 1975

It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
You gotta get out while you’re young

New Jersey does not have an official state song. There have been attempts to adopt one since at least 1939, when the state’s Board of Education held a contest to find a suitable number. They named Samuel F. Monroe’s “The New Jersey Loyalty Song” as the contest’s winner, but it was not good enough to be the official state song.

In 1972, the state legislature proposed that Joseph “Red” Mascara’s “I’m from New Jersey” be the state’s song, but Governor William Cahill vetoed the measure, stating succinctly about the song “It stinks.”

In March of 1980, radio d.j. Carol Miller started a petition to have “Born to Run,” written and recorded by New Jersey’s favorite son, Bruce Springsteen, be named the state song. Three state assemblypersons drafted a resolution declaring “Born to Run” “as the unofficial *rock* theme of our State’s youth.” I’m confused to as to how an official resolution can name an “unofficial” theme, just as the state’s senate was confused as to how a song that includes the lyrics that open this post expresses pride in where one’s from. The bid died.
The song also includes these lyrics that tickle my friend Audrey so: Someday, girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go.

Oh, that place!

By the way, I got out of New Jersey when I was 24.

This week’s Throwback Thursday playlist spotlights some of the best tunes from 1975, kicking off with what is unofficially New Jersey’s unofficial state song, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”


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Throwback Thursday – The Hits Of 1977

An instrumental performed by then new Eagles member Don Felder was submitted to his bandmates Glenn Frey and Don Henley to add lyrics. The first working title the guys gave the song was “Mexican Reggae.”

Henley was determined to create the perfect song, spending eight months in the studio working on “Mexican Reggae,” which came to be called “Hotel California.” A lyric referring to the band Steely Dan was added (“They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast”) after Steely Dan included the lyric “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” on their song “Everything You Did.”

In 2009, music critic John Soeder asked Don Henley about the lyric “So I called up the Captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969’,” pointing out that wine isn’t a spirit, as wine is fermented whereas spirits are distilled. Soeder asked the singer/composer “Do you regret that lyric?” Henley replied “Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is….My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.” Insert steely knife here!

This week for Throwback Thursday, Tunes du Jour listens to the hits of 1977, kicking off with Eagles’ “Hotel California.”


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The Song Retains The Name

Winston + Bobby Brown
Today is Bobby Brown’s 46th birthday. A former member of New Edition, Brown had his first solo hit in 1988 with “Don’t Be Cruel,” which reached #8 on the Hot 100. Though it shares its title with an Elvis Presley #1 hit from 1956, Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” is not a remake.

That brings us to today’s playlist, which I call The Song Retains the Name. It consists of different songs with the same title. I initially planned to include twenty such songs, but more kept springing to mind. Before I knew it, I passed 100 entries. There are plenty more, so I decided to open this up to my reader(s). If you have songs that share titles you’d like to add, feel free to do so.

(NOTES: I included The Jacksons’ “This Place Hotel” because when it was released in 1980 its title was “Heartbreak Hotel.” Thought he didn’t have to, Michael Jackson, the song’s writer, later changed its name to “This Place Hotel” to avoid confusion with the Elvis Presley song “Heartbreak Hotel.” Whitney Houston didn’t feel the need to make the same Hotel accommodation.

Also, though it is listed on Spotify as “The Best of My Love,” the Eagles track does not have a “The” on the 45 or the band’s On the Border album.)

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50 Songs Named After Real People

Today is the birthday of two music icons – Jam-Master Jay of rap pioneers Run-D.M.C. and disc jockey Wolfman Jack. Besides their place in their history of rock and roll, both men have another thing in common – they were the subjects of songs. That inspired me to put together today’s playlist – songs named after real people.

I found fifty songs whose titles are actual people. Actually I found more than fifty, but I didn’t want to subject you to Chiddy Bang or Mac Miller. I made a few rules for myself:
1) The title can’t have words besides the person’s name, hence no Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” or Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.”
2) The title has to be the full name the person is known by, so no “Springsteen” by Eric Church or “Jessica” (about Jessica Simpson) by Adam Green. Allowed are “Galileo,” “Joan of Arc” and “King Tut,” as that is how most people identify Galileo Galilei, Joan d’Arc and Tutankhamun.
3) The song doesn’t have to be about the person after whom it is titled, so “Jack the Ripper” and “Rosa Parks” are in.
4) The track has to be on Spotify. This means I left out Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” and Hoodie Allen’s “James Franco.”

Amazingly for a playlist based on such a goofy concept, it holds together quite well, if I say so myself.

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Garfunkel, lang, Frey And Diddy

One day in the late 1990s, while in my office at Sony Music, I received a call from the security desk in the lobby. “Art Garfunkel is here to see you.”

I wasn’t expecting Art Garfunkel. I’d never met Art Garfunkel, though we spoke on the phone a few times. I worked in the International Licensing department and received a fair number of requests to have Simon & Garfunkel and Art Garfunkel solo tracks included on compilations. “Send him up, please.”

A few minutes later, Art Garfunkel walked into my office. We shook hands and then both sat down and chatted. I don’t recall our entire conversation, though I do remember him telling me that he is particular about the artists with whom he is to be coupled on compilations, saying he wouldn’t want a track of his to be next to one performed by Iggy Pop. It wasn’t meant as a slight to Iggy; he meant the transition from one of his ballads to a heavy rocker would be jarring to the listener. He said he and Paul Simon used to argue about the running order of the tracks on their albums.

He hung out in my office for around fifteen minutes, during which time I got him to laugh more than once (about what I have no recollection). When he got up to leave he shook my hand again and told me “You are my favorite person at Sony Music.”

A decade later I met k.d. lang at a small party meant to celebrate her latest release. I’ve seen many concerts over the years; only twice has a singer so thrilled me that the hair on my arms stood up. The first time was when I attended the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls and Jennifer Holliday sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The other time was when I saw k.d. lang at Radio City Music Hall and she covered Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Spectacular!

My interaction with k.d. at this party was very brief. A hello and a handshake. My only memory of this encounter is that she had the firmest handshake of anybody with whom I’ve ever shaken hands, including my step-uncle Steve. Damn, girl!

In 2012 I attended Warner Music Group’s pre-Grammy bash. Sean Combs a/k/a Puff Daddy a/k/a Puffy a/k/a P. Diddy a/k/a Diddy…now I forgot what I was going to write. Oh, yeah – he was at that party. I didn’t chat with him or shake his hand.

I’ve never chatted with Glenn Frey of Eagles nor have we both attended the same party, though I occasionally licensed his music while working at Warner.

k.d. lang’s birthday was this past Sunday, Diddy/Puffy/whatever’s birthday is today, Art Garfunkel’s is tomorrow and Glenn Frey’s is Thursday. Unlike Garfunkel I like compilations with jarring transitions. As such Tunes du Jour celebrates the birthdays of these four folks in today’s playlist.

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This Is Not A Love Song!

While riding the subway one day in 1987 I saw a woman sitting on the seat next to the pole onto which I was holding. In her lap was a notepad on which was written across the top “Songs for Wedding Reception.” The first song listed was Jody Watley’s “Looking for a New Love.” I saw a divorce lawyer in her future.

“Looking for a New Love” is a fine song, and it was a big hit that year, but at your wedding reception? It’s not like the lyrics could be misunderstood. “I’m looking for a new love, baby / A new love / Yeah yeah yeah.”

I could understand if she had written down the title of R.E.M.’s hit from that year, “The One I Love.” A casual listener may hear “This one goes out to the one I love,” missing the description of this person as “a simple prop to occupy my time.” I love this song and the Jody Watley song, but neither will get played at my wedding reception.

In 1997 I was dating Dr. Leon, the Russian dentist. The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” came on the radio and he told me he loves the song. “So do I,” I replied.

“You? But you’re so unromantic? How could you like such a romantic song?”

First of all, I’m very romantic, so up yours Dr. Leon. I wouldn’t play “Looking for a New Love” at my wedding reception. Secondly, “Lovefool” is a romantic song? “Fool me, fool me / Go on and fool me / Love me, love me / Pretend that you love me.” To quote The Magnetic Fields, how fucking romantic.

I don’t know what the subway woman selected as her wedding song. Maybe it was “Every Breath You Take,” a popular choice for that honor. It’s something that amuses the song’s writer, Sting. He wrote it after splitting with his wife, and calls it “a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.” Mazel tov!

Some other songs that may not be appropriate for your wedding:
“Best of My Love” by Eagles. “You see it your way, and I see it mine, and we both see it slipping away.”

“Cherish” by The Association. “Perish is the word that more than applies / To the hope in my heart each time I realize / That I am not gonna be the one to share your dreams”

“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston or Dolly Parton. “If I should stay, I’ll only be in your way / So I’ll go”

doggies + Police
Today Sting turns 63 years old. We kick off our playlist with “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, from their album Synchronicity. It was the band’s fifth and final album. After that record’s success the group, like many of those who had “Every Breath You Take” as their wedding song, split up. Sting was never heard from again.

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It’s Friday And I Need To Dance!

As a songwriter, Jimmy Webb scored his first hit in 1967 at age twenty when The 5th Dimension took “Up, Up and Away” to the top ten. Later that year Glen Campbell had a hit with Webb’s composition “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

Webb then wrote a 22-minute cantata. His friend Bones Howe, with whom Webb worked on The 5th Dimension’s Up, Up and Away album, invited Webb to play the new piece for The Association, who Howe was then producing. Their reaction was less than enthusiastic. Per Howe, one group member said “Any two guys in this group could write a better piece of music than that.”

Sometime after, Webb received a telegram from actor Richard Harris, who he met at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. Harris was nominated for an Academy Award in 1963 for This Sporting Life and again in 1990 for The Field. He later went on to play Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. The telegram read “Jimmy Webb, come to London and make a record. Love, Richard.”

Webb flew to London, bringing a satchel of songs he’d written. He played each for Harris, but nothing struck the actor. Webb recalled “I looked down with some dread because there was only one thing left.” That one thing was the last movement of the cantata he presented to The Association. He called it “MacArthur Park.”

Here are the lyrics to “MacArthur Park.” Raise your hand when they get confusing.

The opening lines are “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / it ran one step ahead, as we followed in the dance.”

I see some hands raised. The next line should help you understand: “Between the parted pages and were pressed in love’s hot fevered iron, like a striped pair of pants.” Now you got it! Harris, who is from the UK, where “pants” means underwear, uses an iron, a hot fevered iron, on his striped underwear. You may be asking: Does he iron his solid-colored underwear? Does he have solid-colored underwear? Boxers or briefs? Relax – there are still six and a half minutes left in the song, so maybe you’ll find out.

Moving on, we learn that MacArthur Park, which Harris calls MacArthur’s Park for the duration of the song, is melting. In the dark. Its icing is flowing down. Who hasn’t been there?

We now arrive at the classic lines about a cake left out in the rain, which appears to be causing Harris to have a breakdown. “I don’t think that I can take it ‘cause it took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe again. Oh no!” Calm down. It’s just a cake. Bake another one. I know – this song was recorded in the pre-Internet age when finding a cake recipe required one to open a cook book, but come on! This cake can’t be that special if you chose to leave it out during inclement weather.

By the end of verse one we have learned several things: 1) Harris is singing to a girl; 2) Harris irons his striped underwear; 3) a park is melting; 4) if you bake a cake and wish to leave it outside, check The Weather Channel first; and 5) never write a song while you are on an acid trip.

As the song continues it gets more bizarre. The melody changes and Harris threatens us by singing “There will be another song for me, for I will sing it.” Luckily, this other song never became a hit. (And may I add, he is being rather presumptuous by calling his performance on this record “singing.”)

The song clocks in at nearly seven and a half minutes, and though it reached #2 on the US pop charts, most listeners had no idea why Harris was singing about a melting park, ironed underwear and a waterlogged dessert.

Songwriter Webb didn’t understand the confusion. He told Q Magazine that the song is “clearly about a love affair ending, and the person singing it is using the cake and the rain as a metaphor for that.” Clearly. Clear as mudcake.

The love affair was one from Webb’s own life. He and his girlfriend would meet for lunch at MacArthur Park, where there would sometimes be birthday parties, with cake. Their breakup devastated Webb, who wrote “Mac Arthur Park” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” based on their relationship. (Bonus trivia – the woman went on to marry Linda Ronstadt’s cousin.)

In 1993, humorist Dave Barry surveyed his readers to find the worst song. The clear winner for Worst Overall Song and Worst Lyrics was “Mac Arthur Park.” Culture critic Joe Queenan disagreed with the results “because ‘Ebony and Ivory’ exists, as do ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,’ ‘Baby, I’m-a Want You,’ ‘Feelings,’ ‘Benny and the Jets,’ ‘Witchy Woman’ and ‘Sussudio,’” adding “On a planet where somebody thought it would be a good idea to write ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,’ the best ‘MacArthur Park’ is ever going to earn in the sucky-song sweepstakes is a tie.”

Good or bad, the song is a classic. A 1968 Grammy winner for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist, the song has been recorded by top artists in diverse genres, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, the Four Tops, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Waylon Jennings’ 1969 version won a Grammy. In 1978, Donna Summer’s rendition became her first #1 pop record and stands as the only US #1 pop song for Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Worst That Could Happen” and “All I Know.”

It has been rumored that Webb and Harris had a falling out due to the song’s success. Harris promised Webb his Rolls Royce if the song went top ten. When the record did, Harris offered Webb a different Rolls Royce. It is because of this that people named Richard are often called Dick. Allegedly, the pair stopped speaking.

Ringo + Harris 2014-08-15 12.17
Today Jimmy Webb turns 68 years old. Hopefully he’s somewhere celebrating with a nice piece of wet cake. We kick off our weekly dance party with Donna Summer’s version of “MacArthur Park,” which she, like Harris, insists on calling “MacArthur’s Park” for the duration of the song.

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“I Have Heard The Future Of Rock And Roll, And It Is The Clash.”

2014-06-26 16.10.45
“I have heard the future of rock and roll, and it is The Clash.” I said that to my friend Laura. The year was 1986. The Clash had already broken up. Sometimes I’m fashionably late to the party.

The Clash released their self-titled debut album in 1977. At that time I was very much a Top 40/Disco kid, listening to KC & the Sunshine Band, The Bee Gees, Eagles, Leo Sayer, ABBA, Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow and Fleetwood Mac, etc. I’d read about punk rockers in Rolling Stone and Billboard, with their spitting and complaining. No thank you!

I heard a few Clash songs in the few years that followed – their two US top 40 singles “Train in Vain” and “Rock the Casbah,” plus “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” I liked all of those, but assumed they were the exception. They didn’t sound like the way I read punk described.

In 1986 I was working at CBS Records. One of the perks was employees could order five records or tapes each month from the CBS Records catalogue. I got the entire Springsteen back catalogue and some Dylan releases. Eventually I got around to ordering The Clash’s catalogue. I read about them so often and the records were free, so why not?

Wow! London Calling was the most impressive and the one that led to my rave review to Laura. It was not at all what I expected. It was very melodic and very accessible, with a diverse range of styles. The other albums all had their moments, enough such moments that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of their albums.

Let me amend that – I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of their albums except Cut the Crap, released after Mick Jones left the band.

While I’m often way ahead of the general population on songs and artists that eventually gather wide acclaim, sometime I’m slow. The Clash was one of those times. And, in retrospect, I suppose I was a tad hyperbolic when I declared Men At Work to be the new Beatles.

Today Mick Jones of The Clash (and later Big Audio Dynamite) turns 59. Here are ten gems.

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