Friday, April 29, 2005

Sing Out, Elvis!

For the past year, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of rock and roll (or, more accurately, in recognition of the fact that these issues sell very, very well--hell, I bought most of them), Rolling Stone has been issuing commemorative issues in which a panel of rock and roll critics, performers, producers, and assorted others have voted on lists of the best 50 albums, best 50 songs, best 50 guitarists, and the 100 greatest artists (split into two issues that bookended the year?s money grab--er, festivities).

I know it's cool and hip these days (am I being redundant? Are "hip" and "cool" the same thing nowadays or are there subtle differences betwixt the two?) to scoff at such lists as being needlessly rigid, stuffy, and formulaic, and for the way they tend to ignore--(insert the scoffers' favorite obscure song/artist/etc. here). But I love them. See, music fan though I am, I'm not one of those intense, learned music fans. I don't have 10,000 CDs; I have maybe 400, and many of them are musical theater, classical, film score, and jazz music. So, while my tastes aren't purely mainstream, I tend not to know much about many, many rock artists the critics find essential--David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, hell, much of the Beatles work (at least the non-hit stuff). I say this not in pride, but in order to build a little context for what's to come. See, I love these lists as much for the hunting down of my personal favorites--to see how they measure up according to the "experts"--as for the opportunity to learn about a halfway, at least, decent smattering of artists, songs, and albums I don't know, and maybe would like to. For example, I just picked up Johnny Cash's At Folsem Prison in large part because the Rolling Stone album list raved about it so.

So--I like these kinds of lists; we've established that. As noted above one of the lists RS produced last year was of the greatest guitar players. Makes sense; the guitar, certainly, is key to rock and roll, maybe more key than any other instrument. Well, except for one: the voice. After all, it's not as if rock instrumentals have a huge place in the canon. Rock music is, by and large, sung music. So, to this casual fan, the lack of a look at the top vocalists was glaring in its omission. Who are the greatest rock singers? Well, I'm sure I couldn't say, but I can lay down my choices, which, after much preamble, is what this post is about.

My criteria: Unlike RS (which included smatterings of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, pop, and country in amidst the rock selections), I am limiting my list of the top ten rock singers to just rock. That means no Ray Charles, no Arethra, no Stevie. Brilliant as they are, I'm interested in a much narrower view, and in comparing, to a greater degree anyway, apples to apples. So I'm looking only at what could broadly, at least, be qualified as rock. Also, my criteria for a great rock voice hinges on my very strongly held belief that a rock singer, regardless of the fact that he or she is singing rock music, should still be singing. This means that I place a much, much higher premium on strong, open vocals, with clear supported tones, that work in the rock idiom than I do on screaming, screeching, or whining. My view is pretty simple: if you are a singer, you should sing, really sing. One final, and pretty important, disclaimer. As suggested above, I do not have anything even remotely resembling an encyclopedic knowledge of music. So this list is, by definition, limited. I very well may be missing a great singer simply by virtue of not knowing his or her work. I admit up front with no disclaimers--this list is but one man's opinion, and a very limited one at that.

So, on with the show:

10. Corey Glover
This Living Colour singer had an amazing voice, strong and powerful and with a wide, wide range. And their breakout, and only, hit, "Cult of Personality," shows pretty definitively that he could rock with the best.

Representative Moment: That impossibly high note in "Information Overload." Same note, in fact, as the famed high note at the end of the operatic section of "Bohemian Rhapsody." (se No. 4, below)

9. Roy Orbison
Orbison had a truly remarkable voice; he only places this low because he never really got down and dirty and rocked it hard. Still, I'll allow him in by simple virtue of that voice. And it's not as if "Pretty Woman" is a ballad.

Representative Moment: That last note in "Crying." Goosebumps, every damn time.

8. Janis Joplin
Janis had all of the elements: the strong voice, the ability to rock, and but hard, and a way with a lyric that got under your skin.

Representative Moment: That "come on, come on, come on, come on" build up in "Piece of my Heart."

7. Elvis Costello
The angry young man of the late 70s can croon like Bing, snarl like Johnny Rotten, and belt like a Broadway star. A voice that, unlike so many, just gets better and better with age.

Representative Moment: His indignant romp through "What's so Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?"

6. Roger Daltry
Daltry gets a lot of points right up front for still to this day having recorded the definitive rock scream at the end of "Won't Get Fooled Again." But he could do more than scream, and he wasn't afraid to sing either; the Who catalog is chock-a-block with deep, emotional singing from Daltry.

Representative Moment: See above.

5. Bruce Springsteen
The much-parodied hoarse scream of "Born in the USA" is just one side of the story. He can do understated folk like Woody Guthrie or sing hushed ballads like a more tender Johnny Cash. All before sweating his way across a stage for three hours with the E-Street Band, belting his way through seemingly his entire catalog without losing steam.

Representative Moment: Listen to the frustration in the line "Strugglin' to do everything right" from "Brilliant Disguise" to see just how well he can get into the heads of his characters.

4. Freddie Mercury
One song tells the whole story; through "Bohemian Rhapsody's" schizophrenic moods he sings a tender ballad, raps staccato absurdist mock-opera lyrics, rocks like Robert Plant, and hits a high b-flat. An astonishing singer. For proof, listen to the tribute concert the surviving Queen members did after his death, and how so many of the guest vocalists had trouble handling the songs.

Representative Moment: The way he angrily defies the death he knows is near in "Show Must Go On."

3. Elvis Presley
Presley could sing pretty much anything, and did. He had one of rock"s strongest voices, and really set the table for what was to come, defining what a singer could do in this new musical space. But beyond just that voice, he knew just what to do with a song to get at an audience, to really sell a lyric. Hard to imagine he'll ever drop that low on lists such as these.

Representative Moment: In "Jailhouse Rock" he established, very early on in rock history, how effective the combination of a strong, clear voice and some grit could be. Seemingly every rock singer since has been chasing that sound.

2. Bob Dylan
It's been said quite often that Dylan couldn't sing. This is a bit of hogwash. True, he didn't have as strong a voice as the others on this list, but, and this is important, he could and did sing well. He played so much with tone, timbre, and nasal effects that the strong voice underneath was often masked, masked so well that it was often hard to discern. But it was always there. And no one, before or since, has used phrasing so freely and effectively to convey a lyric.

Representative Moment: In "Sugar Baby" the feeling of fatigue and resignation in his voice is almost palpable; the way he sings the words do as much or more than the words themselves to tell the story in this song.

1. Bono
As I've already made clear, to my ears a great rock singer should be able to really sing and to really rock, to be able to mesh those two often disparate elements well. And Bono does it better than anyone. He can hit the high notes fairly, without cheating or screaming or screeching, and yet he can get down and dirty with the best of them. He can croon, if the occasion demands it, and he can spit out angry lyrics. He can go from the tremulous falsetto of a boy soprano, to deep rumbled bass, within a few bars, if necessary. And he sings with passion and no sense of detachment or coolness; he's never too hip to sing with real, naked emotion. He is, quite simply, the greatest rock singer of them all. That's what I think, anyway.

Representative Moment: It's on the radio now; in "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" he sings, in the bridge, with wide-open tone and with unprotected emotion about his late father. No barriers, no irony, just raw grief, in song.

Until Whenever
Approach with Caution: Star Wars Geekery Ahead

So, I finally saw the animated Star Wars Clone Wars shorts this week, not having caught any of them on the Cartoon Network last year, and Netflix having had a wait on the DVD until now. In anticipation of the rapidly approaching release of Episode III, I've begun trying to whet my appetite by partaking in some of the ancillary materials that are out there. I started James Luceno's novel Star Wars: Labyrinth of Evil last night as well; it's billed as the "prequel" to Episode III (making it a prequel to a prequel, I suppose) and presumably sets up the beginning of the film well. Only a few chapters in there; I'll post a report when I finish.

As far as the cartoon, I was impressed, if not as impressed as I may have expected. Nearly every review I read of these shorts verily crowed that THESE were "real" Star Wars, and the kind of thing Lucas should have been doing all along. Don't misunderstand; I very much enjoyed them and loved the basic idea--that of getting many quick glimpses into what the Clone Wars were all about. I've never understood the argument, promulgated in many places, that Lucas not devoting much of the actual prequel films to the Clone Wars themselves was a large letdown. I never expected the prequels to be "war" films, and his tack of showing the outset of the Wars at the end of Episode II, and the climax of the Wars at the beginning of Episode III, makes perfect sense to me. That said, these shorts were fun, as I imagine the many novels that have been published in the last three years also depicting the Clone Wars themselves were. But what these shorts were lacking, even when taken all in sequence in one sitting, (and this is not really a criticism, as I don't think this was, or should have been, their mission) was the grand storytelling tradition of the films. These shorts provided quick glimpses of an epic battle, and in doing that they hit on all cylinders. But as "what the Star Wars films should have been"? I don't see it.

Until Whenever

Thursday, April 28, 2005

No More Peanuts!! (Peppermint Patty, Don't You Know)

A story out of Alabama reports that a Republican Alabama lawmaker has proposed a bill that would prohibit public school libraries from buying copies of books or plays "by gay authors or about gay characters."

While mostly lefty-liberal, I have some sympathy for those on the far right, who've seen, in the past ten to twenty years in particular, what they consider to be core moral values disintegrating. I'm thrilled that it's happening, to be clear, but I can almost see their point of view. But this is just remarkable. I don't actually imagine that the bill would ever get passed, but nonetheless, that it could get entertained, in this day and age, is just a wee bit frightening.

Until Whenever
It's Not Just a Boring My Favorite Songs Post, Really, It's Different

Is Tosy and Cosh back? Will it stay back? Will anyone read it? Will the rhetorical questions never cease? Only time will tell (except on that last one; this sentence right here has answered that one pretty definitively), but I am going to give this another go, just to see what sticks. Who knows, maybe this time I'll hang around. Comments are welcome and encouraged; I can be reached at

Well then--into the fray, shall we?

Peter Filichia, the New Jersey Drama Critic for the Newark Star-Ledger, writes, not a blog, but an old-fashioned column, at This past Monday's column, entitled "Peter Filichia Picks Music that Matters to Him," took as its inspiration the "Artist's Choice" CDs Starbucks has started selling in the past few years, compilation CDs put together by songwriters featuring, in Starbucks' words, "music that inspires them, the music they grew up with, the CD that's in their car stereo right now, and what they think is the saddest song in the world."

Filichia's column featured 15 selections that more or less fit the above criteria, for him. His rules, which I've followed, were to stay away from obvious or popular songs and to limit himself to one artist/composer per selection. Peter, being a theater critic, and, more importantly, a musical theater fan of epic proportions, has listed naught but musical theater songs. I have included in my little list both rock/pop songs and musical theater songs, but have stayed away from the jazz and classical realms, "songs," not really being falling in either of those genre's sweet spots. In compiling this list, I've come to realize that I have an odd but very obvious affinity for melancholic, slower, sad songs. What this says about me I'd rather not plumb at this moment in time.

So: my 15.

"Check It Out"--John Mellencamp, off of Lonesome Jubilee
There's something indefinable about the way a melody can capture a very specific mood. Mellencamp does it here with a song about accepting the compromises of adulthood. "This is all that we've learned about happiness," the lyric goes, and the way it meshes with the melody does, for me, so much. This has always stood as one of my favorite songs, and I've never been entirely sure why--again, it's that indefinable something that he captures. Not sure why it works, but it does.

"Please"--U2, off of Pop
A little-known U2 song, this is in some ways a typical, almost clich├ęd song, about wanting peace. But the mode of delivery is what sets it apart--it's not a strident call for peace, or a lament for the brutality of war, but rather a naked begging for peace, an emotionally unguarded plea. Stark and beautiful.

"When the Angles Cry"--Sting, off of The Soul Cages
A beautiful, slow ballad about a loss of faith, notable for being almost uplifting about that loss, rather than shattered or demoralized. You don't see many songs that address atheism as a thing to be admired, but Sting does it here. "Take your father's cross, gently from the wall/A shadow still remaining." Indeed.

"Sugar Baby"--Bob Dylan, off of Love and Theft
The last song off of Dylan's last album, it could stand as an epilogue to his entire career. Such resignation in the voice and the arrangement, that slow, understated beat--all the elements combine to form a sad but dignified coda.

"God Give Me Strength"--Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach, off of Painted from Memory
Man, could this guy write a few musical scores if he wanted. In fact, last year he released his first CD of orchestral music, a ballet score entitled Il Sogno. Costello's talent, as has been oft-noted, is far-reaching. Give this one a listen and get a taste of the gift for melody and the way he can work in less rock-oriented structures. And a voice that just keeps getting better, one of the few rock-era singers who knows how to handle a lyric and who's not afraid to just SING, damn it.

"Like an Angel Passing through My Room"--Anne Sofie Van Otter (originally written and performed by ABBA), off of For the Stars
I don't know hardly any ABBA, and didn't know this song from Adam before hearing Otter's rendition. It's a gorgeous song, with a slow, melancholy melody that sounds obvious once you've heard it.

"No More"--Stephen Sondheim (from Into the Woods)
This is a duet in the show, but is often done as a solo number. A bittersweet, almost tragic, but resigned song about the messes one generation hands down to the next, and how that generation must resign itself to dealing with them, no matter how much they'd rather run away from them.

"How Glory Goes"--Adam Guettel (from Floyd Collins)
Sung by a man who's been trapped in an underground cave for days and is about to die; he questions God about what's going to happen next. Chilling stuff.

"The Next Ten Minutes"--Jason Robert Brown (from The Last 5 Years)
This is a two-character show about a relationship. The show covers the characters meeting, falling in love, developing problems, and breaking up, but it does it from both ends at once. Each character alternates solo songs, the man starting from meeting the woman and progressing to the breakup and the woman starting with the breakup and going backwards to their meeting. This is the middle song, where they meet in time briefly, and, for the only time in the show, and for only the briefest of moments, sing together.

"To Each His Dulcinea"--Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion (From Man of La Mancha)
Everyone knows Impossible Dream and Man of La Mancha, but this song is probably the show's prettiest, and a touching ode to the power of a dream.

"Tom"--Michael John LaChiusa (from Hello Again)
A song about an imagined affair, held down by an insinuating little bass figure, that does a marvelous job of outlining the sad desperation of a lonely married woman.

"Come Down in Time"--Sting (originally written and performed by Elton John), off of Two Rooms: celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Little-known Elton John song that I fell in love with via a stripped down, piano-bass arrangement sung by Sting. This may well be the saddest song I know.

"Hearts and Bones"--Paul Simon, off of Hearts and Bones
Not a hit, but Simon doing what he does best--melancholy love songs. The shuffling rhythm here foreshadows his African-inspired work on Graceland by a few years.

"Once Upon a Time"--Charles Strouse (From All American) (the rendition I know is by Mandy Patinkin, on his Mandy Patinkin album.
This, to me, is just one of the most beautiful melodies ever. The show is obscure, but the song has become something of a standard.

"For You"--Tracy Chapman, off of Tracy Chapman
Off of her first, and best, album, this closing song, with just her voice and a guitar, was the kind of elegant and simple song she should have focused a little more on in subsequent albums. She kind of drifted away from the spare acoustic thing and it?s a shame. The spare accompanying figure here is just lovely.

So those are mine. Each song one I truly love and cherish, and each one that can always, no matter how many times I've heard it, elicit a strong emotional response.

Until Whenever