Wednesday, September 23, 2015

SPIN's 50 Best Fictional Songs of All Time

Just when you thought that every kind of list had been done to death, along comes someone with a relatively untapped idea for a new one.  The latest brilliant idea comes from SPIN, in the form of the greatest "fictional" songs ever.

Of course no reader is ever going to agree with all the choices and rankings on any list, but this list is more problematic than most in that regard.  I see a lot of pet favourites of the writing staff showing up here, in favour of more obvious choices that are more entrenched in pop culture.  However, credit goes to them for not falling into anti-modernity trap and choosing mostly songs that are 20+ years old, for picking from a variety of interesting sources (live action comedies, animated TV shows, mockumentaries, etc.), and for nearly sticking to a one song per "artist" rule (the only show with more than one pick on the list is "The Simpsons", unless you group the three Beatles rip-offs into one unit.  And three Beatles tributes/thieveries is at least one too many).

Some of their picks seem to run counter to their own rules, for instance the picks from "Hedwig and hte Angry Inch" and "The Producers" run counter to the "no musicals" rule in my book.  Now technically you could claim that they only excluded examples where "characters break into song outside of a performance context".  In other words, musical numbers where the characters shift from dialogue to song while standing in the street don't count, but put those same characters in a band or on a stage and they're in.  That's a seriously problematic dividing line, and even if you accept that logic then as noted by one commenter, "Time Warp" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show would be an inexcusable omission.

Putting aside my own favourites/biases ("The Wedding Singer", HIMYM, "This Is Spinal Tap"), the rankings should favour songs that could be played on the radio, or even are played on the radio, without coming off like novelty songs from a TV show or movie.  In other words, songs that transcend their source and have been accepted into the canon of "real" songs.  By that measure, the top two are solid picks.  You could argue that The Heights' "How Do You Talk To An Angel" should have been much higher, seeing as it went to #1 on the actual Billboard charts.  For anyone who wasn't around at the time, its extraordinary success was inexplicable then and it's still inexplicable now. It wasn't riding on the back of the popularity of a TV show (this explains "Do The Bartman" hitting #1) because the show wasn't even a hit and in fact would be cancelled very soon after the song hit #1.  It stayed at #1 for one flukey week and then sank from the charts like a stone, and has been more or less forgotten.  Plus, the song sucks, so I'm not going to complain that it couldn't crack the top 20 of this list.

If choosing between The Archies and the Wonders for #1, I personally would have chosen the undeniably classic "Sugar Sugar".  But you can make a very good argument for "That Thing You Do".  The movie is a fondly remembered minor classic, and the song hits exactly the right notes, and more importantly, is completely believable in its role as the perfect top ten hit for the time and place it's supposed to be capturing.  For all of the other songs on the list, the song adds a bonus element to the movie/episode that puts it over the top as something even more memorable.  But without the perfect song to represent "That Thing You Do", there simply is no movie at all.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 26

"He endangered the safety of the mix and the ambassador held no authority to forgive him", 58 minutes

Once in a while I play around with the idea of doing a beatmatched mix without actual beats, that is, mixing rhythmic parts and long intros/outros rather than stringing together one 4/4 track after another.  This mix contains plenty of weirdo rhythms, but also some proto-big beat, classic early 90's electronica, and a few just for the hell of it slamming techno beats.  I think this is one of my most unique mixes, and has quickly become of the favourites that I've done (judging by how much I've listened to it over the past couple of months).

Thursday, September 03, 2015

X-Factor Israel Season 2: now with MORE talent and a BETTER Bar! And less fixed than before!

The first season was something of a work in progress while they tried to figure out how to distinguish themselves from the glut of other music-themed reality shows.  One thing was clear -- whereas other shows tended to go with a simple, no-frills stage setup with the singer's voice front and centre, X-Factor wanted full-on MTV Awards glitz and glamour, with no bells and whistles spared.  Contestants were backed by flashy video backdrops, dance troupes, and elaborate stage props in every effort to have them come off as stars.  Songs in English with a clear emphasis on pop were not only tolerated, but encouraged.  Nevertheless, there were a number of problems in the first season, some of which I wrote about here

I still don't like the pacing of the season -- the taped audition and cutback episodes are endless, whereas the live episodes whittle twelve contestants down to four in the blink of an eye.  The judging has been devoid of genuine honesty and insightful criticism because presumably the judges don't want to insult each other's pet projects.  Criticism was doled out almost for variety's sake.  In one episode nobody could do anything wrong, and in the next episode everyone would get critcized despite nothing really changing.  Example: one week about Anna Timofei it's "you're voice is so operatic, it's incredible", the next week it's "you can sing, but does everything have to be an aria all the time?", and the week after that they're back to "you've combined opera with pop -- we love it!"  If there were twelve weeks of live episodes (like American Idol) then I can understand trying to create some uncertainty amongst the favourites, but we're less than a month into the live episodes now with only the final left.

The blatantly fixed vote trading that nearly made a joke out of last season's results is thankfully no more, but Almog Krief was predictably eliminated last night, mainly because there's an unwritten rule to have exactly one finalist for each judge.

The plusses: Bar Refaeli is miles better than last season.  She would woodenly read from the teleprompter, too focused on getting her lines right to let her genuine enthusiasm come through in any way that wasn't forced.   This season she sounds much more natural, and shows more personality than the judges do most of the time.

Best of all, there's some real talent this year!  I have no clue who will win and you could argue for three or four of the other top twelve acts to deserve a place in the finals.  But ultimately I think the voters and judges have gotten it right this year, with the best of each grouping taking their place in the finals.  The exceptions are the horrible Ido and Attara, but there were no good groups this year anyhow, so it's not as if they stole a spot from a clearly deserving group.  If a group had to make the final then what can you do.

Ido and Attara sing amazing love songs in the most bland and sterile way possible.  Their appeal seems to be based on their boy/girl next door squeaky clean looks and the way they permasmile at each other when they sing, take criticism from the judges, eat lunch with Moshe Peretz and his wife ... in short, this pair does nothing for me.  And for a show that constantly obsessed with pigeonholing its contestants into a well labeled category of contemporary Israeli or North American pop, how are these two supposed to sell records?  Are Kenny Rogers-style duets about to make a comeback and nobody told me?

Yossi Shitrit is a phenomenon, an effortlessly great performer, and the equivalent of the country-themed Idol contestant who "knows exactly who he is" from the very start of the competition and never wavers.  This happens a lot with the Mizrahi singers on these shows.  The pop singers are so much further removed from the source material, they're copies of copies of what they think an American singer should sound like, and so much gets lost in the translation.

With the exception of the amazing Danielle Yafe, that is.  If she doesn't win X Factor she can start a revue performing Madonna covers, she's already halfway there.  She also sings in perfectly enunciated English.  Flip between channels and you'd think her performances were straight off of an awards show.  She's the most underrated contestant this season -- sure, they tell her she's great, but they undersell how great she really is.

Finally, there's Anna Timofei, the wild card of the finals.  She's beautiful, has a unique voice that can make the lions lie down with the lambs, and sings well in several languages.  She's the only contestant that can stun me into silence, shocked that such a person actually makes it onto my television and can be successful.  Lastly, she's marketable, maybe not to kids, but there's obviously a market for opera mixed with pop (e.g. Andrea Bocelli).  That said, her Evanescence performance showed that her pop side still isn't completely convincing, and her uniqueness as a TV character may wear off when she's not on TV and wants to make a living in the music business.

Predictions?  I'll go with Yossi Shitrit, but any of the four could win and it wouldn't surprise me.