Sad Songs (Say So Much)

Elton John makes a keen observation. When all hope is gone, it’s the corny West Side Story choreography that gets you through. Even though 1984 was very much not his year, at least he had one song that’s lasted. It’s schmaltzy, which is always a danger with an emotive performer like Sir Elton, but it holds up. Not least because it is, indeed, a good observation. Indeed, sad songs are there for us to lean on, when everything seems most bleak. It’s just basic emotional medication, the blues as cure for the blues. The emotional connection to a good song is like a neon beacon in an otherwise black and white landscape, or at least that’s the literal-minded illustration offered up in the video. It’s a pretty bad video and frankly it’s distracting. Points for trying, though.



I don’t listen much to anything Elton John did in the 80’s and 90’s. He was one of those high-profile stars who high-profile had a hard time staying relevant during those years. He was hardly the only one not keeping up with the times musically, of course. For his part, Elton John was also having a very rough time in his personal life, dealing with substance abuse and the pressure to stay quietly in the closet at the height of the AIDS crisis. Today we all know and love his prissy-gay-uncle persona, but back in the day he somehow convinced the world he was straight, and was actually seen as being pretty wholesome for a guy who wears that much glitter. That combined with a lot of cocaine and booze certainly drained away at the creative energy. It’s hard to keep producing heartfelt, honest work when you’re living a lie and constantly trying to medicate reality into submission. Still, there were some shining moments even in dark times. Elton and Bernie could still put their heads together and produce something of value. Even though the production is maudlin and lazy, the performance is moving and it shows that the artist hasn’t really lost his touch after all.

Roy Rogers

“The carpet’s all paid for, God bless the TV”

Elton John wouldn’t know what it feels like to be resigned to a tiny, meaningless life confined by carpet and television. He had a bigger destiny. But if he hadn’t made it as a rock star, he would well have been facing a miserable lifetime of conformity and complacency. Alcoholism, depression, divorce, alimony payments, poverty, all of the fun stuff. If he’s any sort of a reasonable thinking person at all – and I’m certain that he is! – he’s thanking the skies above that he had the talent and the drive and the luck not to end up a sad lonely little man with nothing to lean on in life but the westerns on TV. But he has a ton of empathy for those people who did end up like that. And he’s saying that there ain’t nothing wrong with it. It’s a sign of Elton John’s empathy as a performer and Bernie Taupin’s empathy as a writer that they don’t use the small person’s small life as a metaphor for some grander point about the general meaninglessness and unfairness and grinding ennui of a society that dehumanizes and isolates even as it comforts and tranquilizes etc. etc. Lots of people’s lives revolve around small comforts and familiarity and dumb entertainment and they’re not really aching for anything more. They just want to settle down and watch Roy Rogers reruns in peace, and that doesn’t make them bad people and it’s not an indictment on all of society.

Rocket Man

Grab a clean hankie and prepare to experience Rocket Man in a whole new light. In 2017 Elton John (in partnership with YouTube and others) held a contest for filmmakers to create original music videos for some of his most famous songs. This was one of the winning entries, created by Iranian refugee Majid Adin, based on his own experiences. And, yeah, you’re gonna need that handkerchief. Obviously, you have to have grasped that the song is a metaphor for loneliness and alienation, but you may have never thought of it as a metaphor for a more real and down-to-Earth right here right now human experience. In its own time, aka 1972, this song was kind of critically dismissed as an attempt by Elton John to ride the then-happening trend of songs about space and being from space and being alienated out in space and making a show of your alienation while wearing flamboyant shoes. (Harry Nilsson had a comical take on the theme with Spaceman the same year.) However, that’s really unfair to Elton John. He had his own reasons for adopting glitter rock aesthetics, and his glam persona has carried him far beyond any possible accusation of merely being trendy. Secondly, Rocket Man may cover the same tracts of space as Space Oddity, but Elton’s performance owes nothing to no man. Elton John may be flamboyant and dramatic – even tacky – in his sartorial tastes, but as a singer and musician, he’s full of empathy, soul and emotional nuance. This is a great opportunity to really appreciate an often-overlooked classic.

Pinball Wizard

If you’ve only ever heard this on the radio, you may be missing out on the bizarre freakout that is Tommy. The Who’s hit single still pops up a lot on those radio stations that claim they play anything, but it’s barely a trace of the weirdness from whence it came. The mother album was weird enough – a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball prodigy loosely inspired by the teachings of Meher Baba. It was a mountain of terrible ideas pulled off through sheer conviction, birthing the concept of concept albums on the way. But was that enough for The Who and their vision? No, they had to have their vision visualized, so they made a movie, with schlock auteur Ken Russell. That’s when things got really weird. You can enjoy it a lot more if you think of it less as a feature film and more as a very long music video. Also if you’re drugged to the gills. It’s certainly a feast of surreal images, and unexpected guest performances of various quality (Tina Turner, thumbs up; Jack Nicholson, not so much.) Ann-Margaret earned herself an Oscar nomination, presumably for the scene where she’s doused in baked beans. Roger Daltrey was not nominated for any awards, despite being very limber and blue of eye. Elton John’s guest appearance is another highlight. Sir Elton is no actor, but that’s not what the role requires. It’s the perfect Elton John cameo; it suits him both musically and aesthetically. It’s exactly the perfect collision of talent that could only happen in the musical wild west of the mid seventies, when movies of concept albums could get made and earn awards.

The Best Albums of 2016

After a gut-wrenching year, the best albums of 2016 gut-wrenchingly blew apart the boundaries of art and real experience. David Bowie faced his own death. Nick Cave faced the death of his son. Beyonce grappled with what it means to live and love as a black woman in America. Anohni railed against the dying of the planet. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant cringed before the inevitability of age. As Jerry Garcia once said; “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” We’re all gonna die, babe, but at least we got some great art out of it.

  1. ★ – David Bowie


David Bowie may have opened up a black hole in the fabric of known reality. He exited the world as he inhabited it: cryptically. At least he left us with this swan song, a final masterpiece. It is at once nakedly emotional and knowingly legend-building. Creating art in the face of death – that has to be the most intimate act of creation, besides literal conception. Yet he still cast himself as an intergalactic messiah, still offering unknowable promises of redempion through pure self creation. Once a starman, forever a starman, even through death’s door.



I Can’t Give Everything Away

2. Lemonade – Beyonce


Beyonce has outgrown being merely one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s made what has to be the most unified and relevant statement piece by a popular artist within recent memory. Beyonce grasps that the personal is the political. The (publicly unspecified but strongly implied) travails that she has suffered in her own longtime marriage take on broader meaning as a metaphor for the travails that Black women – specifically – have suffered within what is, without question, a violently oppressive white supremacist patriarchy. Though often painful, Lemonade is uplifting; Beyonce offers catharsis through pain and anger, strength through sisterhood, solace in family and community, and in the end, forgiveness and redemption through love.



Hold Up

3. Hopelessness – Anohni


Anohni cornered the market on mournful chamber pop years ago. She’s lent her unearthly voice to everything from Marina Abramovic installations to singing backup for Lou Reed. Not to mention, of course, the beautiful albums she made fronting Antony and the Johnsons. This, her solo debut, is a step in entirely new – though still mournful as fuck! – direction. She’s adopted a more modern, uptempo sound; and a newfound, keening rage. It’s an album about destruction, a dying earth, the devastation of war, the oppression of a society fast approaching digital totalitarianism.

Drone Bomb Me


I Don’t Love You Anymore

4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds


This is Nick Cave’s elegy to his dead son. It’s a horrific irony that the singer, so long fascinated by the furthest and most macabre extremes of the human condition, was struck by such a tragedy. It’s a testament to something – call it the redeeming power of art, call it the human spirit, call it a coping mechanism, call it damn plain stubbornness – that he went straight back in the studio, and there reexamined every idea he’s been writing about all these years, coming back with a record that makes those old murder ballads look like so much innocent posturing.

Jesus Alone


I Need You

5. This Is Acting – Sia


Not everyone had a terrible year of roiling turmoil. Sia, the one-time professional songsmith turned celebrity, has had the best couple of years of her career. Having become a pop star at an age when most pop stars are long out to pasture, Sia feels ambivalent about the tricky balance of fame, identity and creativity. This album is a collection of songs she wrote for other, bigger stars to sing, all of which had been rejected. It is, in a way, a concept album, the concept being; what exactly is a pop star and who exactly are you as an artist if you’ve spent most of your career furthering the careers of others? There’s no clear answer to that, but Sia does prove one thing – that flagrantly commercial pop music can be a vehicle for ideas of great complexity, when presented by the right artist.


Cheap Thrills

The Greatest

6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John


Well, Elton John, for one, isn’t trying to drive home any heavy concepts. He’s not here to deliver any messages of great complexity. He’s just having fun; he’s got his mojo back and he’s celebrating. He’s spent some of his past years in the wilderness, both personally and professionally. In the last few years, though, he’s been steadily revitalizing his career and enjoying some very well earned personal happiness. Musically, he sounds like a man truly enjoying himself, he’s brought back some of his best collaborators, and he reminds us what made him so great in the first place – his unmatched ability to deliver an emotional wallop all the way to the back rows, but effortlessly and with nuance and humor.

Looking Up

Wonderful Crazy Night

Blue Wonderful

7. Joanne – Lady Gaga


Lady Gaga continues to gratifying evolve. This record shows a little bit less pop monster, a little bit more real person. Though Gaga’s talent for hooks and choruses can still be heard, that isn’t the point here. The point is she’s capable of showing real emotion as a singer and songwriter, not afraid to show her naked face.

Perfect Illusion

Million Reasons


8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon


Back in the 60’s Paul Simon was one of the angstiest songwriters around, full of hyper articulate college boy alienation. Now, he’s the opposite. He writes about the absurd world with empathy, humor and gentle self-deprecation. His age seems to suit him fine; the older he gets the more he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also, in his own discreet way, a trailblazing sonic experimenter, always on the lookout for unexpected influences and unheard-of instruments.


Cool Papa Bell

 The Werewolf

9. Super – Pet Shop Boys


How long since Pet Shop Boys have been relevant? You may ask that, and the Boys are asking themselves the same question. Once pioneers of synthpop and electronic dance music, they’ve now become elders. How to deal with aging out of the scene you helped create? If you dedicated the first half of your life to being cool kids, what do you become when you’ve grown up? Those are deep questions to ask on a dance record, but balancing pop hooks with introspection has always been PSB’s specialty, and this is as wise, poignant and self aware as they’ve ever been. Don’t worry though, it’s still fun, and if anything, wittier than ever.

The Pop Kids

Say It to Me

The Dictator Decides

10. AIM – M.I.A.


M.I.A. has said that this will be her final album. She’s hardly the first star to threaten retirement, and few who do tend to stick with it. She’s still young, and wildly creative. Let’s hope it’s an empty threat – we need her. She’s been an outspoken provocateur, unafraid of being unpopular and determined to call out every bit of bullshit tossed her way. Her music remains equally fearless, an exuberant collage of ideas, found sounds, and cultural influences. Though she may not relish the condition of celebrity that it brings, she loves her art, and this record skews more joyful than angry.


Bird Song



The Open Chord

Guess who’a already on the shortlist for a slot on the 10 best albums of the year? Sir Elton John, that’s who. His Wonderful Crazy Night is just what the title promises, and it has to be the best Elton John album in, oh, what, like three decades. He’s really revitalized his career in the past few years, and when I say that I mean that he sounds like he’s literally been injecting vitality serum. I don’t know what changed exactly, but after how badly he phoned it in throughout the 80’s and 90’s, it’s been a fantastic turnaround ever since Songs From the West Coast came out in 2001. And he’s sounding better and better with each new record. I am thunderstruck by how great his voice sounds. Maybe it’s the sound of all the happiness he now has in his life, what with the growing family, the renewed acclaim, the successful activism and charity endeavors, the mentoring of new artists and all that whatnot. Whatever it is, you just gotta give it up for the guy; at one point it really looked like he would die at the bottom of a bottle as a mawkish sad has-been; today he’s as great as he’s ever been and he’s being rewarded for it, after all of his struggles, on every level.