Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best Of 2014.

Best Film: Boyhood.

In a world where films are always striving to be unlike any other ever made, it's rare that a film actually follows through on such a promise. It's even rarer that the said film is actually great. Boyhood is one of the very few films of my lifetime that manages such a feat. Filmed over 12 years using the same cast, director Richard Linklater looks at the world through the eyes of Mason Evans, Jr. (a stellar Ellar Coltrane), as he grows from a kindergartener into a college freshman before our eyes. It is an episodic film of small moments that feels much closer to long-time-spanning documentaries like the 7 Up series & Hoop Dreams than what it really is--an motion picture epic, crafted from the small shards of everyday life into a stained-glass window of cinematic beauty.

Best Movie: The LEGO Movie.

The most visually-delicious film I've seen in years, which creates a world in which the atom is replaced by the LEGO brick. Like a well-built LEGO building, it clicks together multiple levels of humor & reality, held together by charming characters & hilarious dialogue. When I was a kid, I would imagine that my LEGO town would continue in their own world while I was away; The LEGO Movie puts me smack in the center of it. & it does so beautifully--on every brick-filled level.

Best TV Show: Orange Is The New Black.

[SPOILERS ALERT] Last year introduced us to the inmates of the Litchfield women's federal prison, this year took everything we thought we knew about them & turned it on its head. The Piper-centered story arc shifted aside while more minor characters came out of the woodwork: Who knew that the wedding-planning romantic Morello was a sick stalker whose visions of matrimony are confined to her head? Or that Sister Jane has been excommunicated? Or what really lurks beyond the sad eyes of Miss Rosa? While some of the tangled subplots were more compelling than others, no other show had me rushing back for more.

Best TV Episode: "Beach House," Girls.

In the middle of an uneven season, Girls delivered its best episode yet. When Hannah crashes Marnie's over-planned beach house girls weekend with her ex-boyfriend/now-gay BFF (& his group of gay guy friends), we see the intricacies of the characters rub up against each other & react in hilarious & insightful ways. At the center, the girls do a choreographed routine to Harry Nilsson's "You're Breaking My Heart," before everything melts down into an epic 4-way fight that has been brewing for years, flames stoked by an uncharacteristically drunk-&-blunt Shoshanna: "You treat me like I'm a fucking cab driver." Don't think they'll ever make that mistake again.

Best Album: The Basement Tapes Complete by Bob Dylan & The Band.

The Old, Weird America that was only available in bootlegs has finally been unleashed in the digital age. To keep with tradition (& avoid the $139 price tag), I ripped mine off of a friend. My thoughts about the contents within can be seen from my earlier review here. Lo & behold! 

Best Song: "Word Crimes" by "Weird Al" Yankovic.

It's been an epic year for "Weird Al" Yankovic. After some 35 years in the music business, his 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun, was his first to hit #1 on the Billboard Album chart. & with "Word Crimes" hitting #39 on the pop charts, Yankovic is now one of the few artists to score 4 Top 40 hits in 4 different decades (Michael Jackson & Madonna are 2 others). Yankovic uses Robin Thicke's catchy (if seemingly unfinished) song about sexual boundaries ("Blurred Lines") & turns it into a lesson in social media writing etiquette. & not only does it work, but it finally taught me what an Oxford comma is.

Best Book: The History Of Rock 'N' Roll In Ten Songs by Greil Marcus.

Popular music's (hell, popular culture's) finest critic takes on the assignment of a lifetime: Narrowing down the entire history of rock music to 10 songs. This would be fascinating for anyone to tackle, but Marcus, who's always eschewed the sacred cows of rock music (he once made an essential rock discography that left off Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, & What's Going On), wrote a history of the music on his terms, ignoring anything close to a chronology & gleefully omitting such artists as Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, & Led Zeppelin. Instead we find mesmerizing chapters about The 5 Satins' "In The Still Of The Nite" & Cyndi Lauper's "Money Changes Everything," among others. It is unlike any other rock history you will ever read--which is precisely the point.

Best Reissue: Nashville.

Robert Altman's sprawling country (& cinematic) masterpiece gets the Criterion treatment. I've been putting off watching it for about 20 years now. Now that I own it in its beautiful new box, I am definitely going to sit down & watch it. Maybe even by 2016.

Best Comeback: Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas.

In the middle of April, there came a story that was wholly unexpected from The New York Times Magazine. A music journalist (John Jeremiah Sullivan) & research assistant (Caitlin Love) had unearthed new information about Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas, who seemingly came from nowhere to record 6 of the most coveted, haunting sides in country blues history--including Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues" & Thomas's "Motherless Child Blues"--& then seemed to return to the nowhere from which they came. Through the archive of legendary blues scholar Robert "Mack" McCormick, Sullivan & Love followed a trail that has to be read to be believed: Check it out here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Elvis At 80: The 80 Essential Recordings.

This January 8, 2015 will be Elvis's 80th birthday, wherever he is.

But so far, I shockingly haven't seen any fanfare from the RCA/Columbia/BMG/Whatever conglomerate that will use any excuse but Arbor Day to release a new collection of the King (though now that I've put it out there, expect Itching Like A Man On A Fuzzy Tree: Elvis Sings Arbor Day, featuring "Singing Tree," "Holly Leaves & Christmas Trees," & God knows what else).

To try to beat them at their own game, I decided to propose an "Elvis At 80" boxed set of his 80 most essential recordings. 

To get an accurate cross-section of his best & most influential material, I made an inventory of his 5 most recent major multi-disc collections:  

1. The Top Ten Hits [2 discs, 1987] *
2. ELV1S & 2nd To None [2 discs, 2002 & 2003] #
3. The Essential Elvis Presley: 3.0 [3 discs, 2007] +
4. Artist Of The Century [3 discs, 1999] @
5. Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight [4 discs, 2009] %

Any song that appeared on at least 3 or more of the above compilations automatically made my list. (For the record, there are 17 that appear on all 5.) I also included all of his US Top 5 Hits & all of his platinum-selling singles.

Finally, I made sure that the list contained all of Elvis's US #1 Pop, Country, & R&B Hits, as well as his UK #1 Hits.

All sides of The King are represented--trailblazing rockabilly, hard blues, country tunes, tender ballads, slick pop, movie junk, heartfelt gospel, blue-eyed soul, live showstoppers, Vegas schmaltz, revival rock, & more--for a complete musical portrait.

From his first release in 1954 to the last single he would release in his lifetime in 1977, here is Elvis At 80: The 80 Essential Recordings.

Volume 1: Rise.

1. That's All Right: His first single, & as some like to tell it, the first rock & roll record, period. [single A-side, 1954] #+@%

2. Blue Moon Of Kentucky: The flipside of his first single, & in its own way, just as revolutionary. [single B-side, 1954] %

3. Good Rockin' Tonight: A manifesto for all that would come. [single A-side, 1954] +@%

4. Baby, Let's Play House: His first nationally charting record, making #5 on the US country charts. [single A-side, 1955] +@%

5. Mystery Train: A country song hidden in a blues song hidden in a love song to a corpse, & for some, the finest recording of his life. [single A-side, 1955] +@%

6. I Forgot To Remember To Forget: His first national #1 single (on the Country charts) & the song that facilitated his jump from regional star to national sensation. [single B-side, 1955] #%

7. Heartbreak Hotel: The song that put him over--#1 for 7 weeks in the US. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

8. I Was The One: A ballad, already oozing with his signature vocal mannerisms. [single B-side, 1956; #19 US] +%

9. Blue Suede Shoes: One of his finest rockers. [LP Elvis Presley & single A-side, 1956; #20 US, #9 UK] #+@% 

10. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You: A criminally neglected US #1 best-seller, despite what the ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits CD may lead you to believe. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #14 UK] *#% 

11. My Baby Left Me: One of the hardest-rocking recordings of the 1950s, buried on a B-side. [single B-side, 1956; #31 US] @%

12. Hound Dog: The hard rock half of his most famous single, a stateside #1 for a then record-breaking 11 weeks. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@% 

13. Don't Be Cruel: The above single's smooth pop half. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

14. Love Me Tender: A rewrite of a Civil War ballad that was the title track of his first film--& the first single to go gold based on advance orders alone. [single A-side, 1956; #1 US, #11 UK] *#+@% 

15. Love Me: The first EP to chart as a single in US history. [LP Elvis & EP lead track; #2 US] *#@% 

16. Too Much: Gluttony as lust, lifted by internal rhymes. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #6 UK] *#% 

17. All Shook Up: A signature hit that invoked his recent performance on The Ed Sullivan Show (from the waist up) & #1 in the US for 9 weeks. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@% 

18. (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me): His first gospel release, & as some like to tell it, his finest. [EP lead track, 1957; #25 US] +% 

19. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear: The most subtle song about sleeping with girls EVER--& #1 in the US for 7 weeks. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #3 UK] *#+@%

20. Loving You: The title track of Elvis's 2nd film & 3rd LP; immortalized between "Hound Dog" & "All Shook Up" at the top of the original Elvis' Golden Records, still his finest compilation. [single B-side, 1957; #28 US] #

21. Jailhouse Rock: Springsteen said that hearing Elvis for the first time was like busting out of jail; this song takes the Boss at his word--& a US #1 for 7 weeks. [single A-side, 1957; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

22. Treat Me Nice: A plea to the ladies & a study in atmosphere. [single B-side, 1957; US #27] #@% 

23. Blue Christmas: His finest Christmas recording, & in time, a rare non-charting platinum-seller. [LP Elvis' Christmas Album, 1957] % 

24. Don't: The last hit before he went into the Army--& in a quiet way, the end of an era. [single A-side, 1958; #1 US, #2 UK] *#@%

25. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck: The first major single not to hit #1 in the US or UK--although it would top the charts in Canada; an early harbinger of the shlock that was to come? [single A-side, 1958; #3 US, #3 UK] *#% 

26. Hard Headed Woman: The history of sexism as hard rock. [single A-side, 1958; #1 US, #2 UK] *#% 

27. King Creole: The title track of his finest film. [LP King Creole, 1958] #+% 

28. Trouble: A raison d'etre for every role he would ever play--on camera & off.  [LP King Creole, 1958] #+@%

29. One Night: An answer record to The Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," even though it came first. [single A-side, 1958; US #4, UK #1] *#@% 

30. (Now & Then There's) A Fool Such As I: The point at which style became the substance. [single A-side, 1959; #2 US, #1 UK] *#@%

31. I Need Your Love Tonight: A perfectly fine flipside that would've been any other singer's biggest hit. [single B-side, 1959; #4 US] *#%

32. A Big Hunk O' Love: One final blast of rock for the decade, & the song that would first associate "hunka" & "love" in the Elvis lexicon. [single A-side, 1959; #1 US, #4 UK] *#@%

Volume 2: Fall.

33. Stuck On You: Back from the Army & ready to reconquer the world, one hit single at a time. [single A-side, 1960; #1 US, #3 UK] *#@%

34. Fame & Fortune: A solid ballad with a stunning vocal--made all the more bittersweet now that we know how the story will turn out. [single B-side, 1960; #17 US]

35. Such A Night: A track so irresistible, it was carted out as a single during the doldrums of Beatlemania, where it made the Top 20 in both the US & UK. [LP Elvis Is Back!, 1960] +@%

36. Reconsider Baby: Another way his post-Army music could've gone--hard blues full of conviction, with Elvis driving the band like a runaway train; one of his greatest performances, even though he lets "Boots" Randolph steal the show. [LP Elvis Is Back!, 1960] +@%

37. It's Now Or Never: A rewrite of an Italian standard that became his best-selling single this side of "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel." [single A-side, 1960; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@% 

38. A Mess Of Blues: The above single's flipside, which could've (& should've) been a bigger hit in its own right. [single B-side, 1960; #32 US] #@%

39. Are You Lonesome Tonight?: The final third of his comeback trinity (along with "Stuck On You" & "It's Now Or Never"), & in the speaking part, the best acting of his life. [single A-side, 1960; #1 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

40. Wooden Heart: A rarity: A #1 UK single (for 6 weeks!) that was never issued as an A-side in the US. [LP G.I. Blues, 1960; #1 UK] #

41. Surrender: Picking up where "It's Now Or Never" left off, Elvis exercises his operatic tendencies that would become a caricature the following decade. [single A-side, 1961; #1 US, #1 UK] *#@%

42. I Feel So Bad: As the first non-Hollywood A-side not to hit #1 in either the US or UK, a sign of the coming trouble in paradise? [single A-side, 1961; #5 US, #4 UK] *#+%

43. (Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame: Hot enough to be a hit in its own day, hip enough to be turned into a Smiths song in ours. [single A-side, 1961; #4 US, #1 UK] *#@%

44. Little Sister: Elvis tries to get the girl, despite being wary of her older sister. [single B-side, 1961; #5 US] *#+@%

45. Can't Help Falling In Love: The lead single of his best-selling album (Blue Hawaii) & rightfully the song with which he would close his sets in the later years--what else could ever follow it? [single A-side, 1961; #2 US, #1 UK] *#+@% 

46. Rock-A-Hula Baby: Along with its flipside, "Can't Help Falling In Love," a microcosm of Elvis in the '60s, pop beauty on one side, movie junk on the other; "Rock-A-Hula Baby" wasn't the worst song Elvis ever recorded, but it was the biggest hit of his infamous 1960s hackwork. [single B-side, 1961; #23 US] #

47. Good Luck Charm: Elvis tries to get the girl by invoking the superstitions of talismans. [single A-side, 1962; #1 US, #1 UK] *#@%

48. She's Not You: Elvis tries to get the girl by re-staging the plot of Vertigo. [single A-side, 1962; #5 US, #1 UK] *#@% 

49. Return To Sender: Elvis tries to get the girl by enlisting the U.S. Postal Service. [single A-side, 1962; #2 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

50. (You're The) Devil In Disguise: Elvis tries to get the girl by entering a Paradiso-enshrined Inferno. [single A-side, 1963; #3 US, #1 UK] *#+@%

51. Bossa Nova Baby: Elvis tries to get the girl but all she wants to do is dance--also the final single he released before JFK was shot & his last US Top 10 of new material until his comeback later in the decade--coincidence? [single A-side, 1963; #8 US, #13 UK] *#+%

52. It Hurts Me: When Elvis applied himself & the material was decent, the result could transcend itself; a minor gem. [single B-side, 1964; #29 US] @%

53. Viva Las Vegas: A telling celebration of the kitschy consumer culture that would consume him in a few short years. [single A-side, 1964; #29 US, #15 UK] #+%

54. Crying In The Chapel: Elvis's only pre-comeback US Top 10 once The Beatles arrived--& it was recorded in 1960. [single A-side, 1965; #3 US, #1 UK] *#%

55. Tomorrow Is A Long Time: Elvis's only real Dylan cover--& the cover that Dylan is said to have treasure the most--buried away as a bonus track on the flipside of a mediocre soundtrack. [LP Speedway, 1966] @%

56. How Great Thou Art: The greatest sacred performance of Elvis's life. [LP How Great Thou Art, 1967; #101 US] %

57. Big Boss Man: The first of Elvis's "pre-comeback" singles that signaled his quiet return to meaningful rock music, before an official comeback vehicle was formed. [single A-side, 1967; #38 US] +@%

58. Guitar Man: The finest of his "pre-comeback" singles; reissued to the country market in 1981, it topped the genre's charts. [single A-side, 1968; #43 US, #19 UK] +@% 

59. A Little Less Conversation: A forgotten flipside that was so hot it became a #1 single. In England. 30 years later. Through a remix. Yet I find the implied funk of the original all the more exciting. [single B-side, 1968; #69 US] +

Volume 3: Resurrection.

60. If I Can Dream: The closing song of the comeback special & one of the finest performances of his life. [single A-side, 1968; #12 US, #11 UK] #+@%

61. Memories: The sentimental theme of the comeback special, which means it's the sentimental theme of his entire career. [LP ELVIS: NBC-TV Special, 1968; single A-side, 1969; #35 US] #+%

62. In The Ghetto: Keeping with the times, Elvis wanted to do a "message" song; keeping with himself, he did one that spoke out against poverty; although it missed the top of the main US & UK charts, it was snuck onto ELV1S thanks to a #1 in Cashbox. [single A-side, 1969; #3 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

63. Only The Strong Survive: Some motherly wisdom that formed the most recognizable track from the finest studio album he would ever make. [LP From Elvis In Memphis, 1969] +@%

64. Long Black Limousine: Elvis's finest performance, period. (c/f my earlier American Wolf piece about it here.) [LP From Elvis In Memphis, 1969]

65. Suspicious Minds: His final US #1, driven by a love-fueled paranoia that wouldn't meet its match until Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." [single A-side, 1969; #1 US, #2 UK] *#+@%

66. Don't Cry Daddy: A tender performance of a country weeper, just before the production values turned the material more maudlin than meaningful. [single A-side, 1969; US #6, #8 UK] *#+@%

67. Stranger In My Own Home Town: Elvis's hardest blues, in no small part because, as a '50s rocker finding his way in the '60s, he lived it out. [LP From Elvis From Vegas To Memphis/From Memphis To Vegas, 1969] @%

68. Kentucky Rain: His greatest single miss the Top 10 (except for in Canada & Australia). [single A-side, 1970; #16 US, #21 UK] #+%

69. The Wonder Of You: "Kentucky Rain" notwithstanding (it was a track from 1969 that wasn't released until early 1970), this was the beginning of Elvis's final decade--live, off-handed, passionate, overzealous, & powerful; many subsequent songs would try to meet this standard, but precious few would succeed. [single A-side, 1970; #9 US, #1 UK] *#+@

70. Polk Salad Annie: Never much of a hit or a radio staple, someone at RCA must love this one, as it makes not just every multi-disc anthology, but the one-disc summaries of them too; that said, it nicely captures Elvis on stage in his '70s prime, albeit without the focus or power of "The Wonder Of You." [LP On Stage, 1970; UK single A-side, 1973; #23 UK] +@%

71. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me: Both "The Wonder Of You" & "Polk Salad Annie" were live recordings; this song marks the beginning of the studio '70s--regal, overblown, & at its best (like here), a place where quality of songcraft is met by commitment of performance. [single A-side, 1970; #11 US, #9 UK] #+@

72. I Just Can't Help Believin': Another song that somehow makes nearly every major Elvis compilation; issued as a single a year later in the UK, it reached a more-than-respectable #6. [LP That's The Way It Is, 1970] +@%

73. An American Trilogy: The paradoxes of the Civil War resolved in a single medley: South ("Dixie"), North ("The Battle Hymn Of The Republic"), & slave ("All My Trials"). [single A-side, 1972; #66 US, #8 UK] #@%

74. Burning Love: His final truly signature hit; snuck onto the ELV1S CD because it reached #1 on Cashbox. [single A-side, 1972; #2 US, #7 UK] *#+@%

75. Always On My Mind: A stirring study in melody & regret. [single A-side, 1972; #9 UK] #+@%

76. Steamroller Blues: From his "Aloha From Hawaii" concert comes the most unlikely single of them all--a James Taylor cover that climaxes with the singer comparing his love to a napalm bomb. [LP Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, 1973; single A-side, #17 US, #15 UK] +%

77. Promised Land: His last great recording & his first successful Chuck Berry cover. [single A-side, 1974; #14 US, #9 UK] #@%

78. Hurt: The anguish of lost love met with an almost operatic delivery in his most celebrated late-period recording. [single A-side, 1976; #28 US, #37 UK] +%

79. Moody Blue: The title track of his final album & the final US #1 in his lifetime (on the country charts). [single A-side, 1976; #31 US, #6 UK] #+

80. Way Down: The last single Elvis released in his lifetime, sales (& significance) buttressed by his death. [single A-side, 1977; #18 US, #1 UK] #%