Idina Menzel — “River” (from Holiday Wishes) —
Robert Downey Jr. (with Vonda Shepard) — “River”
(from Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas) —
Joni Mitchell — “River” (from Hits) —
Miss Idina landed a knockout blow last night on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, with a beautifully restrained take on one of the Buzz’s all-time favorite Christmas chestnuts: Joni Mitchell’s wrenching “River,” the obligatory sad song of choice for many a holiday mixtape, you can be sure. Despite her booming voice and soaring range (and despite the fact that she was ostensibly on the program to sell some records), Menzel gets beaucoup bonus points for choosing, largely, to undersing the song, allowing the tune’s simple elegance to emerge by not overloading the lyric with thrills and trills. (Much as I love her, you can bet neither Celine Dion nor any other diva of her caliber would be so moderate in her approach.) My favorite cover of this Joni classic remains Robert Downey Jr.’s gorgeously gruff version — which he performed on Fox’s one-time signature series Ally McBeal when he was a member of its cast in one of its misbegotten, past-its-prime later seasons — but last night’s staggering performance (which you can check out in the video embedded below) instantly makes Idina’s effort a riveting runner-up.
(PS: As for Queen Joni, she’s creating a stir all her own this season with Love Has Many Faces, a spankin’-new four-disc box set of hits and favorites from her forty-year career, including “River” and “A Case of You” (the latter of which would easily in the upper echelon of my list of the greatest songs in the history of ever), all stunningly remastered for the first time in years. If this thing isn’t at the very top of your Christmas list this year, joo are a fool.)
Whitney Houston — “The Star-Spangled Banner”
(from Whitney – The Greatest Hits) —
Two hundred years ago today — September 14, 1814 — while temporarily imprisoned on a British warship in the Chesapeake Bay as Baltimore’s Fort McHenry was under siege, a Maryland lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key, inspired by the sight of the American flag still waving in the wind after a brutal night of battle, penned the words that became our National Anthem. And on a crisp January night in 1991, just before the commencement of the twenty-fifth Super Bowl and just ten days into the first of what would become a series of Mideast military skirmishes (this one a battle against Iraq for Kuwait’s sanctity in the Persian Gulf), the wondrously glorious Whitney Houston cemented her reputation as the greatest voice of her generation with a thrilling, thunderous performance of those very words. You don’t have to be particularly patriotic to appreciate the brilliance of the contents of the grainy video below, but as a way to mark such a significant milestone — especially given that we as a nation seem once again to be inevitably marching to war in a hostile land whose methods and mores we are never going to alter in any meaningful way, whether we foist one bomb upon them or one hundred — it bears noting that nobody has ever (or, likely, will ever) sung our song’s lyrics with more passion, more purpose, and more grace. Happy 200th birthday to The Star-Spangled Banner.
Madonna — “Vogue” (from Celebration) —
This fascinating factoid churned pretty quickly through the Twittersphere, so you’d be forgiven for having missed it entirely, but just in case you, like me, were fourteen in 1990 and are given to enjoy a bit of useless trivia: Slate.com tells us that, with last week’s unfortunate passing of Lauren Bacall (at age 90), all sixteen of the pop cultural icons and legends, almost all of whom were scions of Old Hollywood balls and beauty, that Miss Madonna name-checked during the thrilling climax of this instant-classic turn-of-a-decade smash — a loving, gorgeously etched homage to the movie-star era — have now shuffled off of this mortal coil. Seems a fair bet that we’ll never see the likes of Bacall and those broads ever again, and Miley and her cabal of tartlets could take a comprehensive lesson or two from their grit and grace. True glamour rarely sounded so glorious. Rest in peace, Betty. (Incidentally, if you’d care to do further reading — both on this tune and the rest of Madonna’s hit-filled career, before and after — I put together a playlist of her best-known pop classics in April 2010, and you can find that piece by clicking right cheer.)
Sinead O’Connor — “Take Me to Church”
(from I’m Not Bossy I’m the Boss) —
With its crunchy guitars and catchy pace, this tune is likely a bit jarring for those fairweather fans who only know Sinead for her gorgeously spare chartbusting epic “Nothing Compares 2 U” (echoes of whose equally stark video — which, amazingly enough, celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday next spring — seep brilliantly into this clip’s color palette), but those of us who recall O’Connor from her “Mandinka” days will no doubt feel right at home worshipping at the altar of “Church,” the irresistible lead single from Sinead’s tenth studio record I’m Not Bossy I’m the Boss (due out this Tuesday). Any random ten seconds of this late-summer gem are instantly more compelling than the whole of that nauseating nymphet Iggy Azalea’s discography, and I’m ready to fling a hallelujah up into the heavens that, with her strongest effort since at least 1997’s “This Is to Mother You,” Sinead is once again getting more attention for her music than for her musings on the sexual efficacy of yams. Amen.
Don Henley — “The Boys of Summer”
(from The Very Best of Don Henley) —
“When the song came out [in 1984], for me then, the idea of being 50 was so far away. . . . And then here I was singing that song [now at 50] and I’m a very different person from that person who was listening to that then. . . . You realize that time is passing on, people are leaving the planet, people are coming on to the planet, and the boys of the summer change — who those boys are changes — but for a time you are that thing and you’re still that thing that you were. Some people who aren’t with us anymore can still be that in memory, but not physically. It is quite sad.”
— the terrific Tori Amos, describing to The Huffington Post’s Noah Michaelson what was going through her mind when she decided to cover Don Henley’s Grammy-winning solo classic smash while on the Scandinavian leg of her latest world tour (this one in support of her languid new record Unrepentant Geraldines) earlier in the year. The shaky YouTube clip of this performance — which I’ll embed at the bottom of this post if I can remember how the hell to do it — held me enraptured just moments ago; once again, Tori proves just how peerless she is at the act of drilling down to the very heart of a song — any song! — and yanking its inherent melancholy core to the fore. (And do know that when I say “any,” I mean exactly that, and if you ever heard Tori’s heart-wrenching take on the old children’s chestnut “This Old Man” — one of the brilliant b-sides of her “Caught a Lite Sneeze” single in 1996 — then you damn well know what I mean.) (PS: Don’t mind me if I spend the remainder of this day trying to wrap my blown mind the fact that this classic track will celebrate its thirtieth birthday later this year, a fact made all the more crazy by the fact that I can still clearly remember the first time I ever heard it on the radio in that gloriously alive autumn of 1984. Fear not, Tori: we’re all getting older, babe.)
Emmylou Harris — “Boulder to Birmingham”
(from Heartaches and Highways:
The Very Best of Emmylou Harris) —
The brilliant Sherry Ann has been aflame of late thanks to Rolling Stone‘s hellaciously half-baked new list of the one hundred greatest songs in country music history, a collection of tunes that contains two hideous tracks from that irritating twit Brad Paisley (which, incidentally, is exactly two more than Sammi Smith, K.T. Oslin, Kathy Mattea, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Crystal Gayle, Lacy J. Dalton, Janie Fricke, Shawn Colvin, Deana Carter, and Trisha Yearwood combined managed to score). (RS printed only the top 25 songs in the latest issue of the magazine; the full list can be viewed here.) Sherry’s (and my) problems with this list are far too legion to list here (although, let it suffice to say that any list that purports to compile the hundred best anything with regard to country music and yet hoists Taylor Swift’s singalong piffle “Mean” all the way up to #24 while unceremoniously stranding Rosanne Cash’s searing, stunning “Seven Year Ache” in the mid-60s and making poor Juice Newton hang on by her fingernails all the way down at #92 at very least needs a new panel of nominators, if not an entirely new governing philosophy). So in honor of Sherry Ann’s birthday today, I am giving her, from across the miles, the greatest gift I can: the Buzz’s turntable is spinning one of her favorites from the glorious Emmylou Harris — ridiculously, another artist whose brilliant work as a lead vocalist makes nary an appearance on the aforementioned list — and crankin’ it all the way up to eleven. (Happiest of happy birthdays to the greatest friend a guy ever had. You are the best, Sherry Ann!)
Shivaree — “Goodnight Moon”
(from I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head
for Making Me Live in This Dump) —
In honor of last night’s total lunar eclipse — in which the moon passed through the darkest parts of Earth’s shadow on the same night that Mars made its closest approach to Earth (hardly a near-miss at just over fifty-seven million miles, but nonetheless close enough to cast an eerie red pall over the moon’s reflection) in about six years — that lit up social media like a Roman candle as Monday faded into oblivion, I can think of no better tune to serve as the soundtrack for some ravishing photographic evidence of the galactic traffic jam. (The top photo is from The University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and the bottom photo is from Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, Calla-forny.)
Pete Yorn — “Burrito” (from Day I Forgot) —
Convenience store comestibles may well not be the preferred romantic motifs of priests and poets. But just try to name a pop song that better captures the kinetically heady rush of new love.
David Gray — “Gulls” (from Mutineers) —
Don’t tell me the universe doesn’t love me when it gives me a new Tori Amos single and a new David Gray single in the same calendar week. Such a pity then, is it not, that this song isn’t a bit more — uh — enjoyable that what we’ve come to expect from this infinitely brilliant Irishman. My gut reaction upon first listening to this track was that Gray is far too gifted to settle for turning in a second-rate Bon Iver impression, and though “Gulls” comes alive a bit in the tune’s more sonically absorbing back half, I can’t even try to claim I’m not disappointed to see David — who, a decade and a half ago, with a shattering recording called White Ladder, nearly singlehandedly rescued the idea of the male singer-songwriter as a commercially viable thing — meekly following trends he used to set.
Aloe Blacc — “The Man” (from Lift Your Spirit) —
The thunderously soulful voice behind Avicii’s autumn smash “Wake Me Up” steps into the solo spotlight with a killer track and an able assist from the most recognizable lyric that Bernie Taupin likely ever penned for Elton John to sing. Just try getting this one out of your head after one listen.