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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.)


Joni Mitchell — “River” (from Blue) — River - Blue

I always found it funny that this little tune — the token heartbreaker on many a holiday album — was considered in some circles to be a modern Christmas standard, because a) it is so depressing and full of melancholy, and b) it only mentions Christmas in passing in the first verse. Then, after all these years, it dawned on me recently — don’t remember how, but I was thunderstruck in that moment — that it shares the exact same melody and chord structure (if not general mood and sentiment) as “Jingle Bells.” Ooh, you’re a sly one, Joni. (Merry Christmas Eve, y’all.)


The Pretenders — “2000 Miles” (from The Singles) — 2000 Miles - The Singles

Christmas month opens in earnest with one of my all-time favorites, which A and I heard last night as we waited for a table at one of our favorite restaurants. Even though, much like Joni Mitchell’s classic “River,” it is related to the holiday on only a superficial level, “Miles” has become the token heartbreaker on many a Christmas album, but methinks you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more moving (or more masterfully executed) version than the wistfully shattering original, on which Chrissie Hynde achingly yearns for the safe and timely return of an absent loved one. (Here’s hoping the one you adore is not two thousand miles away from you this holiday season.)


won’t let sorrow bring me way down

posted at 2:26 am by brandon in mine's on the 45

Just so you know, this is how you celebrate the spirit of the season: the marvelous Kristine Weitz — better known to her legion of fans (the vast majority of whom happen to be gay, natch) as Kristine W, the Streisand of the thumpa-thumpa set — has just released Hey Mr. Christmas, her very first set of holiday-inspired music, and it’s so fabulously tacky — the record’s front cover depicts the wondrously becleavaged Mizz W thrusting her glorious chest westward as though she’s perched atop the mast of a luxury liner and pointing the ship toward safe harbor, and the back cover finds her held in the sway of a gorgeously sculpted bicep — and irresistible, you really gotta hear it to believe it.

Featuring — I swear I’m not making this up! — hilariously bold techno-centric covers of “Mary Did You Know, “O Holy Night,” and the underrated Dolly Parton chestnut “Hard Candy Christmas” (originally from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), which, though it ultimately has scant little to do with the season itself — much like its spiritual cousin, Joni Mitchell’s “River” — has become the token heartbreaker on a number of Christmas-themed musical projects, Mr. Christmas also includes a pair of new holiday tracks, as well as a moving acoustic reading of one of W’s biggest club hits, “The Wonder of It All,” the new version of which contains virtuosic piano accompaniment from the incredible Jim Brickman. Trust me here if nowhere else: as brilliantly trashy guilty pleasures go, this one’s an instant classic — W’s off-the-freakin’-wall take on “Hard Candy” alone, which is so bizarrely enjoyable you’ll be tapping your feet by the time the first verse has passed, is worth the price of admission — the kind from which you can derive serene pleasure not just in the twilight of December, but all year long.


September opens with a bang, courtesy of a marvelously likable freshman television series and a hotly-anticipated reunion album from one of the most memorable (and missed) relics of the ’90s.  No sense in wastin’ time on pleasantries; let’s dive right in:

One of network television’s most pleasant diversions from this past strike-crippled spring, The thirteen-episode Complete First Season of ABC’s light-hearted charmer Eli Stone makes a most welcome arrival on DVD this week.  Starring the ridiculously adorable Jonny Lee Miller as a noble lawyer who, thanks to a pesky brain aneurysm, begins experiencing ill-timed hallucinations — many of which involve pop singer George Michael (who makes numerous appearances throughout the course of the season, including a terrific outing in which he is sued for promoting promiscuity through his music) — Stone is bolstered by a fabulously eccentric supporting cast, including Victor Garber and the priceless Loretta Devine, whose superbly-rendered sarcastic line delivery goes miles toward grounding the series through a great many of its outlandish flights of fancy.


The series returns for a second season in mid-October, and since it’s not yet clear whether or not King George will continue to be involved — don’t let me ruin anything here, but let’s just say the first season finale gave all the storylines a good bit of closure — it’ll be interesting to see if (and how) Stone is able to reinvent itself.  My beloved A, who finds television to be the root of all evil, fell head over heels for this show — go figya, that! — and if you’re able to get past its Ally-McBeal-with-a-penis premise (which, at times, can become unbearably cutesy), chances are you will as well.



Brandon’s Tips: fall 2007 and January 2008

posted at 12:08 am by brandon in

Just in time to celebrate one of the most colossal fall lineups I can ever remember — September 18 alone gave us sixteen (!) albums worthy of attention, and combined, that month’s final two Billboard 200 album charts featured a mind-boggling (and record-breaking) 76 debuts — comes, finally, the latest exhilarating trip into the ne’er-ending dementia that is Brandon’s Tips. With damn near one hundred (!!) pieces of brilliant material to discuss, we’ve not a second to waste, kids, so conserve your energy and don’t forget to pack a pillow and a Power Bar.

— Two of the season’s most significant arrivals actually hail from outside the music world, but don’t let that stop you from diving in, as either is the latest brainchild of virtuosos from whose brimming brilliance have sprung some of this young millennium’s most dazzling artistic accomplishments. The first is a novel five full years in the (hotly-anticipated) making, from a woman who knocked the whole damn crunchy’s socks plumb off with her last one. A half-decade ago, Alice Sebold’s fiction debut The Lovely Bones landed in the marketplace with a quiet thud and zero fanfare, until no less a discerning judge of talent than the terrific Anna Quindlen (whose blistering masterwork One True Thing proves forever that she knows from it) appeared on “Today” and innocently let slip to the audience that if they could only read one book that summer, without question it should be Bones. Faster than you can say, “Wait, you’re not Oprah,” the book set up camp atop the hardcover bestseller lists for the next fifteen months, flying off of store shelves and into the parched hearts of a hungry populace who had just been hoodwinked into accepting The Da Vinci Code as earth-shattering literature.

Centered on the fallout from the brutal rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, Bones quietly emerged as an uplifting elegy of faith, of love, of the power of family, and of the idea that sheer stubborn will can transcend any plane. (My only defense — and it’s meek, I got it — for the seeming incongruity of the two halves of that sentence: you really do have to read it to believe it.) Susie (the murdered girl) narrates the novel from heaven; the action cuts to and fro — and, mind you, in a completely credible fashion — between her new home and her old one, and although the climax is a bit fantastical (not to mention just a little too pottery wheel, if you get my drift) for even the most accepting among us, the novel closes with what may be the strongest, most delicately sculpted final scene I’ve ever read in contemporary fiction.

Sebold returns this fall with The Almost Moon, which I understand unfolds over a twenty-four period and hinges on a mysterious matricide. (I say I understand because, when I was home for Thanksgiving, I ended up letting my mother borrow the book — I gave her Bones for Mother’s Day a few years back, and I think she loved it even more than I did — so I’ve yet to read a word of it. Otherwise, I’d proceed to sit here and give you a full book report, natch! I’ll go out on a limb and say, however, that if you’re looking for a strong read this winter, you could do far worse than to curl up with Sebold’s prose.)

As for the season’s other noteworthy effort: one of the small screen’s most fascinating and spectacular flameouts ever has made a most welcome debut on DVD. Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” hit network television seventeen months ago surfing an avalanche of hype and buzz that not even a flawless masterpiece could have made good on. It’s difficult even now to explain exactly what went wrong here: a dream cast, headed by Matthew Perry, the hilariously brilliant Bradley Whitford (forever banishing from memory the pompous ass he played on “The West Wing”), Amanda Peet (painfully miscast as a sarcastic network president, though she did better than could have ever been expected, given her character’s unforgivably shaky throughline), Steven Weber, and Sarah Paulson (not to mention terrific guest turns from Christine Lahti, John Goodman, and Judd Hirsch, whose spine-tingling condemnation of television’s bottom-feeding nature sets the whole series in motion), and a dream behind-the-scenes team led by Sorkin (a Tony-winning playwright turned Oscar-nominated screenwriter turned Emmy-winning televisionary) and Thomas Schlamme (Jughead to Sorkin’s Archie, ever), teaming up to celebrate their chosen medium’s glories and ridicule its faults in what should have been a can’t-lose triumph. And indeed, it started out exactly that way: I don’t kid when I tell you that, as a devoted television fiend for too many of my thirty-one years, I’ve never seen a pilot episode this dazzling, this immediately arresting. (No foolin’: the series’ opening eight minutes, a pulse-pounding sequence built around a fed-up television executive’s (blisteringly well-scripted) Network-esque breakdown, is one of the most listened-to tracks on my iPod, and I can damn near recite it from memory.)

The critical hosannas were immediate and deafening, but somewhere around episode six or seven, the show started to groan under the weight of its own pretensions. (And Sorkin, even at his finest, has always had the annoying habit of using his own immense intelligence as a blunt billy club with which to bludgeon his audience; witness those early “Sports Night” episodes which, while often brilliantly engrossing, tended to screech to a dead halt while Sorkin made his characters rail against, say, the hypocrisy of drug laws and/or the outrage of recreational hunting (!).) Sorkin and Schlamme both seemed to panic a bit, and tried to re-fashion the series as a romantic farce, a disastrous decision that led to the whole damn mess being yanked off the air in mid-February. When “Studio 60” returned in June to finish its run, traces of the early episodes’ verve and joie were on full display, but by then the coffin had been sealed.

The twenty-one episodes are spread out over five discs, and it’s a genuine treat to devour them in rapid-fire succession. Warts and all, search no further if you’re in the market for stimulating, engaging drama.

— While I’m on the subject of short-lived television series, a pair of massively influential ABC efforts from the early ’90s have returned to DVD with exquisitely-rendered, must-own sets. One ran for twenty-nine episodes, and the other sputtered out after nineteen, but it’s hard to imagine a whole host of modern small-screen masterworks even existing minus the trail that either of these classics blazed.

One of the most serendipitous collisions of talent and timing to ever rock American popular culture, Twin Peaks hit the airwaves in April of 1990 with the brunt force of a runaway asteroid. Nobody could make head or tail of the project at ABC, whose executives — most of them quite publicly — feared they had greenlit the most ridiculous turkey since Manimal. (Little did they know they indeed had: Steven Bochco’s bizarro bellyflop Cop Rock would be laughed off their air a mere five months after Peaks’ premiere.) Thinking nobody would watch the damn thing anyhow, they scheduled the series’ backdoor pilot as a two-hour TV-movie event on Easter Sunday, and held their breath.

Silly, that. Some thirty-five million folks tuned in, and before the end of the first commercial break, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” had become a national obsession. (Just try to tell me the stunning sight of Sheryl Lee’s body swathed in clear plastic on that rock-strewn shore doesn’t remain one of the most frighteningly beautiful images American television has ever produced.)

Despite star-making turns from Kyle MacLachlan (as the off-kilter FBI agent called in to investigate the murder) and Sherilyn Fenn (as the town billionaire’s nymphet daughter who develops an illicit crush on the G-man), and typically iconoclastic behind the scenes work from creator David Lynch, the bloom wore quickly off the rose as the murder mystery meandered for months on end (matter of fact, Lynch later revealed that it was never his intention to actually solve the crime, and that ABC forced his hand midway through season two) and the network made the bafflingly tragic mistake of moving the series to Saturdays at 9 (thus ensuring that its target audience — young folks, duh! — wouldn’t be home to watch it). Ratings plummeted, and ABC yanked the series before its creative team could tie up all the loose ends (episode 29, the ersatz finale, concluded with one of the strangest cliffhangers you’ll e’er witness, as MacLachlan slams his forehead into a bathroom mirror and, blood gushing from his skull, starts chanting “How’s Annie?” and laughing like a hysterical nutbar).

Now comes Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition, which pulls together the series’ two seasons, its two-hour pilot (making its DVD debut, at long last), the extended overseas cut of the pilot (which purports to “solve” the murder straightaway, albeit in a radically different way than the American version eventually does), and a host of documentaries, promos, interviews, and retrospectives into a tantalizing ten-disc event. If you think for a second that this miraculously warped piece of television history wasn’t the primary precursor for The X-Files and Lost, you’re kidding yourself, and if you missed any of this brilliance the first time around, this sucker oughta land on your Netflix queue pronto.

Three years after Peaks’ farewell (and, mind you, five months before the dubba-dubba-WB even existed), ABC rolled the dice on a notion that raised many an eyebrow: a weekly dramatic series fronted completely by teenagers. Nowadays, in this post-Dawson’s/O.C. universe, it’s a wholly unoriginal concept, but My So-Called Life was stunningly revolutionary for its time. Brought to you by the creative team responsible for thirtysomething (several jaded critics even labeled the show “fifteensomething” in mock exasperation) and boasting one of the most achingly etched lead performances in the history of television (full disclosure: she irks me no end, but Claire Danes’ work in this series was thoroughly and undeniably boffo), it seemed from the start almost as if it was too good for the small screen. A prescient thought, that: thanks to some typically inept marketing (why it never dawned on anybody in the ABC executive suite that they had pulled off the rarest hat trick by commissioning a program that could appeal simultaneously to adults and teenagers is the biggest head scratcher this side of D.B. Cooper) and the timeslot of death (Thursdays at 7, versus a rookie phenom called Friends), the series lasted but nineteen episodes, yet cast a shadow that continues to shade the television landscape. (Shows as wildly disparate as Friday Night Lights — for its bracing authenticity — and One Tree Hill or Dawson’s Creek — for their casts of impossibly pretty people stumbling through their angst-ridden lives — surely each owe the lion’s share of their niche-driven success to Life; the creators of another underrated classic, Felicity, even went so far as to lift Life‘s basic conceit — unconventionally beautiful wallflower torn between the brooding bad boy and the doe-eyed nice guy — wholesale.)

My So-Called Life: The Complete Series makes its second appearance on DVD this fall, this time with a documentary tracing the show’s tortured history, exclusive interviews with Claire Danes and the rest of the impossibly photogenic cast, and a beautiful treatise (rendered in the form of a composition book) containing an essay by Buffy’s maestro Joss Whedon and extended production notes for each of the nineteen episodes.

— So, now that football season is almost finished and we can do a proper post-mortem, a most serious question: why in the living hell didn’t NBC use its priceless Sunday night NFL showcase to promote the shit out of Friday Night Lights, the classy Tiffany-set diamond that has been cast uselessly adrift amid the sea of interminable crap that now comprises the entirety of the peacock’s prime time lineup? I didn’t watch all of the football games themselves, but, owing to my king-size crush of Cris Collinsworth (hands down the coolest, sharpest man in professional sports analysis), I caught urry second of this season’s Football Night in America, the 75-minute highlights show that precedes each Sunday Night Football telecast. And in those sixteen weeks, I saw all of one commercial for Lights (which was shunted off to Fridays this year as part of NBC’s continuing campaign to make sure as few people as possible watch the most powerful, thrilling drama series to hit the airwaves in a decade). Instead, they’ve thrown their promotional muscle behind Heroes and that insipid Bionic Woman remake last fall. The results were as remarkably daffy as almost every other dum-dum move NBC has made in the decade since they lost Seinfeld: the former has seen double-digit ratings declines in its sophomore season, and the latter was an instant flop. Meanwhile, Lights — even though it has without question (sorry, Christianne) stumbled more than a little following a virtually flawless first season (no crime, that: that kind of momentum is impossible to maintain forever, and it remains better than 95% of its peers, even though this whole Lyla-the-bible-thumper thing is officially out of control) — has been quietly competitive in its wretched time slot among young adults, and counts the digital video recorder as a BFF. And yet, its network seems not to know or care that the show exists. Did anyone catch NBC’s promos trumpeting the fact that, thanks to the returns of The Apprentice, Law and Order, and Medium, the network will have more new material than the competition in this strike-ravaged winter? Not one mention of Lights, which returned to the airwaves on January 4 with six episodes still stockpiled. (Contrast that with ABC’s megahits Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, which have zilch left in the can.)

— And so, without further ado, the season’s tunes:

“Deluxe” editions: Well-documented is my disdain for the music bidness’ utterly maddening, totally fear-driven practice of adding bonus material to hit albums and re-releasing them to see if we, the worshipful consumers of their product, are dense enough to pony up more money for them. (The pathetic second verse to that blues: I usually am, although not always: that Taylor Swift record literally gave me hives the first time around, and I can’t see how more of it — a new version with outtakes and a DVD — is going to miraculously endear her to me, Grammy nominations or no.)

Fall has given us a passel of these offerings, primary among them an expanded take on Justin Timberlake’s triumphant masterwork FutureSex/LoveSounds, now available in a gorgeous two-disc set which contains the original album, enhanced with wholly unnecessary appearances by Beyonce (on a flaccid duet of “Until the End of Time” that is not bettered by the added female counterpoint) and Missy Elliott (on a bizarro remix of “SexyBack” that almost makes you discount what a spectacular song it originally was) and a riveting DVD chock full of music videos and live performances. (Be forewarned, though: this version of the album is edited, and I posit you’ll find that “SexyBack” isn’t nearly as cool with its cuss words blurred.)

Pink, whose terrific fourth album I’m Not Dead got yanked from the jaws of oblivion by its twin surprises “U + Ur Hand” (easily the finest four minutes of music she’s ever attached her name to) and “Who Knew” (as in, “who knew it would take three tries to make this thing a radio smash?”), celebrates her success by tacking onto the album a handful of b-sides and remixes, adding a DVD of videos and performances (including two of her scorching collaboration with the Indigo Girls, “Dear Mr. President”), and preys upon our immense love for her in order to sell a few more copies.

Even though they couldn’t be more disparate in size nor scope, summer’s two most enjoyable films — musicals, both — have released expanded editions of their brilliant soundtracks, each tied to its film’s respective arrival on DVD. I had never seen any of its previous incarnations, so I had no idea what to expect from Hairspray. I certainly wasn’t expecting the rollicking blast it turned out to be: the gimmick of John Travolta in a dress wears thin fast, but the ageless Michelle Pfeiffer is hilarious as a bitter beauty queen-cum-TV producer, my beloved, bedimpled James Marsden — also a total revelation as the handsome prince in Enchanted (his cover of “That’s Amore” on that film’s soundtrack is a riot) — is a dynamo as the dreamy host of a Pfeiffer’s variety show, the sensational Queen Latifah rocks the house as a southern mama protestin’ said show’s blatant racism, and striking newcomers Nikki Blonsky and Elijah Kelly anchor the film’s manic madness as the kids who live for strutting their stuff on said show’s stage. Marc Shaiman’s music is extraordinary across the board, and the soundtrack now comes with a bonus disc of deleted performances, early outtakes, and karaoke mixes (no doubt so that you, too, can take a shot at setting The Corny Collins Show on its ear).

Diametrically opposed in every way (save, naturally, for its undying quality), a deeply profound and profoundly affecting musical essay Once has just been released on DVD following a stunningly successful summer-long run in theaters. The tender, achingly chaste tale of two amateur musicians who meet by chance on the streets of Dublin and spend an intense weekend recording a demo tape, the film flies on the haunting, open-souled work of its leads Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, a pair of untrained actors whose work nonetheless burns in the memory — if you don’t find the sight of them walking down the street with Irglova dragging a broken Hoover behind her isn’t both hilarious and heart-wrenching, something’s desperately wrong with you — months after the fact. (In fact, one can only assume the reason there’s no Oscar talk swirling around these performances is that the real actors who run the Academy are seethingly jealous at having their clocks scrubbed clean by a pair of buskers from across the pond.) To commemorate the film’s arrival on home video, Columbia has rereleased the soundtrack in a special edition with a pair of bonus tracks (including a knockout take on Van Morrison’s classic “Into the Mystic” that you can feel all the way down to your toenails) and a DVD detailing the making of the film. (Glen and Marketa also offer a cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to the star-studded I’m Not There soundtrack, alongside Eddie Vedder, Jack Johnson, Jeff Tweedy, and over thirty other artists.)

One of the most revered albums in modern music history is back just in time to celebrate its 20th anniversary. In the summer and fall of 1987, a little-known Irish band called U2 skyrocketed to worldwide prominence and fame with their massive breakthrough The Joshua Tree. Swayed by the record’s twin smashes “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the whole planet sang along as we watched Bono and the boys blossom into superstars before our very eyes. Tree returned this fall with a pair of expanded reissues, each of which contains a bonus disc with studio outtakes, demos, and b-sides, and one of which contains a 1987 concert DVD.

“Idol” worship: 2007’s “American Idol” finalists have entered the marketplace with their radically different debut efforts. Runner-up Blake Lewis, the beatboxing wonder himself, is up with Audio Daydream, a surprisingly enjoyable collection spearheaded by wunderkind newcomer Ryan Tedder (more on him directly). Blessedly, Lewis keeps the human percussion to a minimum, and while Justin Timberlake neither should nor will feel no immediate threat to his pop dominance, I promise you’ve heard far less credible introductions than Lewis’. Meanwhile, winner Jordin Sparks went and made the ballad-heavy effort everyone expected her to, and it’s every bit as unassuming and inoffensive as you’re thinking.

The new queen of the “Idol” franchise — sorry, Kell — is without doubt season four winner Carrie Underwood. Hot on the heels of her terrific debut Some Hearts’ 6,000,000th sale (which makes it the series’ best-selling album ever) comes her sophomore effort, Carnival Ride , which doesn’t make the immediate impression that Hearts did, even as it drives home the fact that she is now the artist to beat at country radio these days. (Keep an ear peeled for certain future singles “Get Out of this Town” and “Flat On the Floor,” each of which prove that her blistering vocal victory with “Before He Cheats” was no fluke; additionally, as bizarre as it sounds, I swear to Jesus you can hear the slightest hint of Rosanne Cash’s inimitable timbre in the album’s majestic closer, “Wheel of the World.”)

Back from Elba: A full ten years after vowing she had finally gotten it all off her chest, the finest songwriter of our time — Joni Mitchell, come on down! — has thankfully been coaxed out of retirement by Starbucks’ upstart label Hear Music, which, in the wake of the home run that was Paul McCartney’s summer album, gets the privilege of releasing Shine, Mitchell’s strongest effort since 1991’s Night Ride Home. (Hear Music has also lured onto its dance card the peerless James Taylor, whose latest release, the live outing One Man Band, is a riveting reinvention of a handful of his classic hits. Taylor may not be everyone’s cup o’ tea, but me, I try to swallow fire and bottle rain urry chance I get.)

Evidently, so does Babyface, whose return from an extended hiatus, Playlist, is a trip down mem’ry lane which contains not one but two Taylor covers — limp remakes of “Shower the People” and “Fire and Rain” — not to mention earnest stabs at the best of Eric Clapton, the tragically late Dan Fogelberg, and Dave Loggins (could ‘Face’s take on “Please Come to Boston” be more painfully bloated?)

After a half-decade sojourn in sitcomland, the ever-divine Reba McEntire (who, incidentally, handed in a much better version of “Boston” on her 1995 record Starting Over) is back doing what she does best: openin’ her mouth and sangin’. She and Narvel enlisted a posse of ridiculously famous stars to join her on Duets, and most all of the results — notably her and Trisha Yearwood’s take on Lisa Brokop’s unheralded classic “She Can’t Save Him,” and her and Timberlake’s slightly bizarre collabo “The Only Promise That Remains” — are eminently enjoyable.

Grammy-winning troubador Marc Cohn , who cheated death two years ago after being shot in the head during a bungled carjacking, is back with Join the Parade, his first record since 1998’s Burning the Daze. No huge stylistic leaps here: if you liked him before, you’ll like him equally now.

Though the idea that she actually went anywhere is certainly debatable, Taking Chances is being billed as Celine Dion‘s comeback record. I was her biggest fan once upon a glorious time — hey, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” still chokes me up, honey — but her decade-long stint in the hottest, cruelest corner of David Foster’s adult contemporary hell has ripped the bloom off the beauty. Chances aims to change all that, but the returns are a mixed bag: “Eyes On Me,” her stab at dethroning Shakira, is a wicked miscalculation, but she hands in a serviceable rendition of Heart’s 1987 classic “Alone” — I wouldn’t normally advocate that kinda thing, since Ann Wilson now and forever owns that song, but that chorus was built for a steamrolling voice like Dion’s — and the title track is easily her best single since her freaky techno cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “I Drove All Night” a few years back. (While I’m on the subject of Ann Wilson, don’t miss her solo debut Hope and Glory, which features duets with the likes of Elton John, Shawn Colvin, Wynonna Judd, and Rufus Wainwright.)

All this talk of ’80s heroes Lauper and Wilson gets me waxing nostalgic for Duran Duran, who are back in fine form with Red Carpet Massacre. Justin Timberlake (this generation’s Simon LeBon, you’d best believe) appears on a pair of tracks, including the set’s killer leadoff single “Falling Down.”

No question, the ultimate comeback this season has been staged by The Eagles. Not counting 1994’s hybrid Hell Freezes Over (which was half new material and half live hits), their last album turns 30 next year. And yet, after swearing for the umpteenth time that they were never reconciling professionally, Mr. Henley and his compadres have finally followed up 1979’s The Long Run with Long Road Out of Eden, a double album that can only be found at the band’s website as well as any Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club location.

All the way live: One of the all-time great people is Michelle Branch, and while you might say it’s way too soon for her band The Wreckers to be releasing Way Back Home, their first live album — they only have one studio record, 2006’s stunning Stand Still, Look Pretty, on their discography, after all — I say any exposure to the brilliance that is Branch is time well spent.

Winning much less of my reverence is that simpy doofus Damien Rice, whose ersatz earnestness never fails to fully annoy the piss out of me. Coming off the rather chilly reception to his second album 9 (which I’m man enough to admit I liked times better than his overheated, overblown debut O), Rice offers Live at the Union Chapel. And while his best song, the fiery “Rootless Tree,” is nowhere to be found, you may still find this interesting. (If so, please do feel free to explain to me why.) Rice can also be found on a new three-disc compendium of last summer’s Live Earth concerts, performing a gotta-hear-it-to-believe-it cover of “Que Sera, Sera” with his (and my, incidentally) obvious hero David Gray.

Nelly Furtado seals her inspiring comeback with a live set chronicling her Loose tour. (I try hard not to like her, but, all jokes aside, she’s not half-bad. Waaaay more tolerable than that irksome twit Fergie.) And as we look forward to April’s new R.E.M. album, we can sate ourselves with their very first live effort, a three-disc CD/DVD combo recorded on their 2005 Around the Sun tour.

I find Rufus Wainwright magnificent and maddening in equal measure; luckily, the recording of his much-ballyhooed note-for-note recreation of Judy Garland’s classic 1961 Carnegie Hall concert tends more toward the former. Key tracks here: “After You’ve Gone,” a showstopping duet with Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” on which Wainwright displays an abundance of atypical tenderness and warmth.

I’m a great big fan of Brandon Boyd’s voice. Too bad, then, that he can’t quite decide what he wants his band Incubus to be. They have flirted strongly with being the second coming of both Metallica and Counting Crows, and you’ll be seriously disappointed if you look to their new concert DVD Look Alive to alleviate the confusion. The tracklist doesn’t stray far from their last two albums (meaning their biggest hits “Drive” and “Wish You Were Here” are sadly absent), but Best Buy is selling an exclusive version of this with a bonus CD of live performances and instrumentals. Flaws and all, it has its moments.

Brace yourself for another knockout punch from the invaluable Patty Griffin, whose recent contribution to the Artists Den series is now available on DVD. Even though she sadly ignores the beauty that was Flaming Red (and damn, wouldn’t “Christina” and “One Big Love” have sounded right at home in this tracklist?), she gathers a riveting collection of songs from her oeuvre, from Living with Ghosts’ heartbreaking “Sweet Lorraine” right up through Children Running Through‘s stunning masterpiece “Heavenly Day” (the latter of which damn near sounds better than the original studio recording). Make certain you purchase this at Barnes and Noble, whose version contains a bonus CD with a complete audio rendition of the concert.

And now for my next trick: Does the music bidness offer its participants a more gut-wrenching task than trying to follow up a mega-successful breakthrough? The wayside is liberally strewn with the carcasses of artists — R.I.P. Marcy Playground, Heather Nova, and The Wallflowers — who attempted in vain to capture consecutive bolts of lightning in a bottle. (Like — and I’m just riffing here — don’t you reckon that cute li’l Colbie Caillat is gonna have a spectacularly tough row to hoe in a year or two?)

Still, there are always those brave artists ready and willing to take their shot and spit in the face of cruel fate. Take that trio of brazen Brits Natasha Bedingfield, James Blunt, and KT Tunstall, who each burst onto the scene around the same time two years ago with singularly sensational debut singles, and who are now fighting mightily to top those efforts. Tunstall, in particular, hit the ground running the first time around, thanks to her slightly kooky and wholly brilliant smash “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” a single so great it neatly masked the fact that Eye to the Telescope, the album from whence it came, wasn’t. She’s back with act two, Drastic Fantastic, which holds together so much better as an album despite the glaring absence of a “Cherry Tree”-esque thunderbolt.

The same holds for Blunt: his latest, All the Real Souls, is much less esoterically earnest than its predecessor, Back to Bedlam, but don’t enter thinking something here is gonna grab you by the throat the way “You’re Beautiful” — which, in spite of its massive overexposure (thanks a lot, Oprah!), was and remains a killer song — did back in the day. (One of Souls’ highlights, “Same Mistake,” also appears on the P.S. I Love You soundtrack, alongside a new tune from the insanely talented Ryan Star, one of the standouts from 2006’s so-bad-it-was-brilliant reality show Rock Star: Supernova.)

As for la Bedingfield, I have no clue what to expect from her latest record, Pocketful of Sunshine. Its leadoff single, a duet with that annoying Jamaican Sean Kingston called “Love Like This,” is eminently forgettable, but let’s not forget this is the woman who gave us the miraculous “These Words (I Love You, I Love You)” her very first time at bat three summers ago. She deserves the benefit of our doubt. (The Wal-Mart version of this disc contains bonus acoustic readings of “Love Like This” and her signature smash “Unwritten.”)

Sadly, not much attention was lavished upon 2006’s Girl Next Door, the great debut from Ohio band Saving Jane. The title track became a minor radio hit, but a devastating lack of promotion doomed the project. Nevertheless, the band is back with One Girl Revolution, and this much is quite clear: lead singer Marti Dodson — whose work on Next Door‘s wrenching centerpiece “Come Down to Me” would have become a touchstone in a calmer musical climate — has a whale of a voice. For her alone, this band is worth checking out.

All hail the second solo effort from Australia’s own Sia Furler, who exploded in 2005 when Alan Ball handpicked her sensational track “Breathe Me” to underscore the riveting closing minutes of “Six Feet Under.” She’s up this month with Some People Have Real Problems, and while some of it falls flat — “Academia” amuses A no end — on the whole it’s another quirky success.

Three years ago, in an attempt to capitalize on her Oscar-nominated triumph in Chicago, Queen Latifah offered The Dana Owens Album, an unexpectedly terrific collection of standards (including what is most seriously the best version of “California Dreamin'” I’ve ever heard) that very quietly evolved into a smash. She has followed that up with Trav’lin’ Light, an even stronger gathering of material highlighted by entrancing covers of Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man” and Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.”

A trio of off-kilter rock bands whose debut efforts became word-of-mouth hits last year are back in the ring. Even though their lead singer Justin Warfield has the most irritating voice this side of Ugly Kid Joe’s Whitfield Crane, I kinda sorta liked She Wants Revenge‘s self-titled first album. Their new effort, This is Forever, is even better: the melodies are amped up and the angry-young-man shtick is toned considerably down. And check out L.A. band Say Anything, whose first record …is a Real Boy was a left-of-center blast. I haven’t heard any of their new disc, In Defense of the Genre, yet, but I’m looking forward to more of the same. The strongest leg of this threesome, without question, is Blink-182 castoff Tom DeLonge’s new band Angels and Airwaves, who follow up their fascinating debut We Don’t Need to Whisper with the even more hummable I-Empire. (Could there be a better way to kick off 2008’s singles derby than with the terrific “Everything’s Magic”? Methinks not.)

Two’s company: Take a moment to allow the marvelous Bettye LaVette into your life; I guarantee you won’t regret it. Although she has been around since the early ’60s, her big break didn’t arrive until 2005, when her go-for-broke covers record I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (which featured a heart-stopping cover of Joan Armatrading’s “Down to Zero” and a take on “Sleep to Dream” that makes Fiona Apple’s pulse-pounding original sound like Miss Piggy) stopped everybody who gave it a spin dead in their tracks. She keeps that momentum rolling with The Scene of the Crime, on which she teams up with rising southern rock band Drive-By Truckers (who last week released their own intriguing new record, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark) to reinvent material from Don Henley, George Jones, and even Elton John (from whose pen springs this album’s centerpiece, a burning cover of Tumbleweed Connection‘s “Talking Old Soldiers”). Just trust me: do not miss this. (Also of note: LaVette offers a stunning, stripped-down take on Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Streets of Philadelphia” to a new three-disc collection called Song of America, which also contains contributions from Kim Richey, John Mellencamp, Matthew Ryan, Suzy Bogguss, Janis Ian, and a whole host of other brilliant folk.)

A new pair of collaborative projects hilariously illustrates just how narrow and imperceptible is the line between “all in good fun” and “just plain tacky.” From the Screen to Your Stereo, Part II, the improbably brilliant new album from pop/punk band New Found Glory, certainly lands in the former category. A collection of famous movie tunes from the past three decades, the record includes duets with Fall Out Boy’s fearless leader Patrick Stump (whose rendition of Go West’s classic “King of Wishful Thinking” is a start-to-finish scream), Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba (the perfect guy to attempt a rock version of When in Rome’s “The Promise”), and Lisa Loeb (who gamely sends up her own smash “Stay (I Missed You)” with great panache); on paper, it seems like it’s gonna be a train wreck, but in truth, it’s too much fun for words.

Funny how the exact opposite is true of The Chain, the too-ambitious latest effort from that eternal wackydoo Deana Carter. It’s apparent quite early in the record — a collection of twelve of Carter’s favorite songs — that she has bitten off waaaay more than she could chew, and even though she gets welcome assistance from the formidable Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, it’s not enough to salvage the album’s utter bizarre-ness (you won’t even believe how bad her version of “The Boxer” is, and the fact that she sings it with Paul Simon’s son Harper makes it that much worse; the less said about her and John Anderson’s remake of his country classic “Swingin’,” the better).

Laugh if you absolutely must, but for as long as I can remember, I have been a massive fan of that inimitable Canuck Anne Murray, who is finally back from and center and sounding better than ever (this woman is 62 years old!) on her new project, Duets: Friends and Legends. The lineup of talent that she and producer Phil Ramone amassed for this album is plumb-ass extraordinary: my beloved Jann Arden joins in splendidly on “Somebody’s Always Saying Goodbye”; the Indigo Girls add their indelible harmonies to “A Little Good News”; and Martina McBride and Murray tear the frickin’ roof off of “Danny’s Song.” (To say nothing of Emmylou Harris, k.d. lang, Amy Grant, Shelby Lynne — much more on her shortly — Shania Twain, Nelly Furtado, Sarah Brightman, and Celine Dion!) Plus, Duets contains a true musical event: a duet with the late, great Dusty Springfield, whose little-heard version of Murray’s classic “I Just Fall in Love Again” actually pre-dates Anne’s by several months, and whose vocal performance of same has been joined with Murray’s to craft a thrilling blend of pure silken bliss.

An idea that could have been a disaster and instead is an unsettling triumph: Raising Sand, the collaboration between gruff Robert Plant and angelic Alison Krauss. Lord knows who conceived this one: it sounds like these two are having the time of their lives on their brilliant cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” and yet the majestic melancholy of “Please Read the Letter” is mind-blowing. Shouldn’t have worked. Does work. ‘Nuff said.

When the nominations for the 2008 Grammy Awards were announced last month, one of the genuinely puzzling Album of the Year nods was for Herbie Hancock‘s River: The Joni Letters , on which the music legend teams up with the likes of Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Tina Turner to reinterpret the classic works of the aforementioned Joni Mitchell. Make no mistake: I love me some Joni Mitchell, and, seeing as I was a huge fan of Hancock’s last album — 2005’s wholly brilliant Possibilities — I thought this would be a can’t-miss proposition. Oops. Jones turns in a passable take on “Court and Spark,” but Bailey Rae’s shaky, cloying vocal on “River” is unbearable, and Hancock’s instrumental version of “Both Sides Now” defies comprehension. Do yourself a favor and stick with Mitchell’s originals; there truly is no need to improve upon perfection.

If you’re in the market for that brand of interpretative jazz, you’re much better off going with the divine Chris Botti and his amazing new record, Italia. Andrea Bocelli joins Botti on the title track, and Botti once again teams up with his apparent muse, my forever favorite Paula Cole, this time for a dashing new take on “The Very Thought of You.” But this album’s real treat are the stunningly gorgeous instrumental renditions of classics like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Ave Maria”; plus, Botti serves up a lyric-less take on Pavarotti’s signature aria “Nessun Dorma” (another performance of which we’ll be discussin’ directly) that is so marvelously rich and satisfying that you almost forget that song even has (much less needs) words. (Also, don’t miss the August Rush soundtrack, which finds Botti and Cole wrapping their enormous talents around a must-hear flirty, playful version of “God Bless the Child.”)

Not technically a greatest hits collection — lord knows she already has enough of those! — yet, in actual fact, a quite fine compendium of her late career triumphs, Aretha Franklin closes out her thirty year association with Arista Records with Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen, a mix of sixteen collaborations (three of them — with Fantasia, John Legend, and Mary J. Blige — brand new) from the past two decades. Included here are classic duets with Annie Lennox (1986’s “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” still a complete romp twenty years on), Michael McDonald (1992’s little-known gem “Ever Changing Times”), and George Michael (whose brilliant 1987 match-up with Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” absolutely laid the groundwork for the fireball that was Faith later that year), but all of that pales next to the real reason to own this album. Billed as a joint effort with the New York Recording Orchestra, and finally available commercially, ten years after the fact, is Franklin’s historic on-the-fly performance of “Nessun Dorma” on the 1998 Grammy Awards telecast. (Luciano Pavarotti had been slated to perform the aria that night and had fallen ill, and with just eight minutes notice, Franklin took the stage and nimbly wailed her ass off, navigating the tough Italian verses as if they were “Row Row Row Your Boat.”) It’s a once-in-a-lifetime musical event folks are still talking about.

In general, I have little use for Wyclef Jean, but his new album Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant contains a captivating duet with none other than Paul Simon. It’s called “Fast Car” — don’t worry, it’s not Tracy Chapman’s — and you can go to iTunes, get it for a buck, and go on about your day.

Hits just keep on comin’: The annual avalanche of best-of compilations always threatens to bury us with its sheer heft, and that was no less true this past fall. Still, if you missed any of the killer music offered up therein, these greatest hits discs are always great ways to play catch-up. For instance, if you’re a closet Goo Goo Dolls fan but are too ashamed to actually own one of their albums, don’t let their new Greatest Hits, Volume One pass you by. This truly is one-stop-shopping: the only hit they omitted was 1996’s “Naked”; everything else from “Name” (which appears here in a beefed-up new mix) to “Iris” to (my personal fave) “Slide” made the cut.

A gaggle of country music’s top-shelf artists released best-ofs last fall, and they all serve as terrific primers if you’ve heard their names before but aren’t that familiar with the music they make. Her hit-or-miss song selection irks me overall — funny, yeah, how her cover of Edwin McCain’s “I Could Not Ask for Me” was a steaming pile of horseshit, yet her take on Radney Foster’s “A Real Fine Place to Start” was an instant classic? — but Sara Evans has more than earned her current Greatest Hits. Ditto Keith Urban, who endured a ridiculously abysmal debut album at the head of the decade to become one of music’s most dependable stylists. (If you haven’t already, don’t miss 2004’s smash single “Days Go By,” which is so convincingly country that all those snobby, pompous program directors never even realized they were playing that year’s finest pop song.) I’ve had a long, tortured history with Faith Hill, but she had the good sense to include on The Hits her best-ever song (1999’s ferociously smart “The Secret of Life”), so I won’t complain too much. (Plus, I’m still in awe over that altercation at a recent concert, at which an overzealous fan grabbed at Tim McGraw’s crotch, only to receive the verbal beatdown of the century from Miss Faith herself.) Garth Brooks, ever the arrogant jackanape, could take a lesson from Faith: he’s back with yet another best-of compilation, The Ultimate Hits, and yet his strongest track — 1996’s incredible “The Red Strokes” — is nowhere to be found. I’m thinking of a word. The word is “feh.”

You’ll have much better luck with the latest offering from Brooks’ professed hero, the legendary George Strait, who bookends his 2004 collection, 50 Number Ones, with a companion piece, 22 More Hits, a great gathering of songs that, even though they never reached pole position on the charts, are still fondly remembered as classics. (Indeed, you’ll find my two favorite Strait songs — “Marina Del Rey” and “If You’re Thinkin’ You Want a Stranger (There’s One Comin’ Home),” both from 1982 — included here.)

I’ll resist the temptation to tell you that I’m certain I could have made David Gray‘s Greatest Hits even better than it is — like, where is “Lately”? And why did he include a live version of “Shine” and not the shattering studio original? — and I’ll simply tell you that it’s a fabulous collection of music that you’ll not regret purchasing. The usual suspects, from “Babylon” and “This Year’s Love” up through “The One I Love” and “Alibi,” are front and center, and two new tracks (the goofy “The World to Me” and the wondrous “Destroyer”) are tossed in for good measure. (Also, don’t miss the liner notes, in which Gray expounds upon each of the fourteen tracks on this disc. Plus, be aware: the Barnes and Noble exclusive edition of this comes with a bonus disc containing live covers of the Bee Gees’ “In the Morning” and Will Oldham’s “One with the Birds.”)

Ever the Led Zeppelin fan, why do I think my father would have been thrilled with Mothership, an incredible two-CD/one-DVD overview of their legendary career?

Presumably, everyone who is interested already owns the smash duets contained on Ultimate Santana (and my undying love for Rob Thomas aside, I’m not sure how bothered I’d be if I never heard “Smooth” ever again), so the disc’s one nugget of note is the so-called “original” version of Santana’s Grammy-winning duet with Michelle Branch. Supposedly, his partner on the song was originally to be Tina Turner (and isn’t it funny how that story didn’t come to light until just prior to this compilation’s release?), and for whatever reason, the deal couldn’t be reached and Branch stepped in. Both versions are on this album and you can judge for yourself. My vote: the extraordinary Branch. In a landslide.

Speaking of Mr. Thomas, his band Matchbox Twenty is also up with a career retrospective, Exile on Mainstream, which combines six new tracks — the brilliant smash “How Far We’ve Come” and five other instantly forgettable tunes — with all eleven of their previous radio hits. (This is also available in a deluxe edition package with a bonus DVD, which contains a track-by-track video commentary from the band, as well as special software that allows you to create your own mix of “How Far We’ve Come,” which I’m here to tell you — and I swear I’m not kidding — gave me the most fully-clothed fun I’ve had in quite some time.)

Quick hits: There’s yet another best-of from Bob Dylan, the iTunes version of which includes Mark Ronson’s funky remix of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” — Diana Krall, she of the impossibly husky voice, offers The Very Best Of, and wouldn’t ya know her very best song (that breathtaking rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” that closes her Live in Paris) isn’t included? Feh, again — Count me among the folks who hadn’t the foggiest clue that Mick Jagger even had enough solo material to justify a best-of set — that deliriously brilliant freak Paul Oakenfold has a new collection of his best remixes, including a cool-to-die-for new take on Everything But the Girl’s 1995 landmark “Missing” — Ani DiFranco has released Canon, a two-disc chronicle of her the maverick’s career, and if you’ve never heard the original version of “32 Flavors” (later made famous, to the reported chagrin of DiFranco herself, by that one-hit flameout Alana Davis), get thee to iTunes, stat — last but not least, the Spice Girls have roared back with a new hits set, the significance of which is twofold: one, “Wannabe” probably wasn’t that bad a pop song, in humble retrospect; and two, my crazy best friend Sherry’s impression of one of cinema history’s immortal pieces of dialogue (Spice World‘s “Innybody got inny PAY-puh?!” — I know, I know, you just had to be there) is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Ever.

A classic is a classic is a…: Believe it or not, we’re creeping up on the fifteenth anniversary of the release of one of music history’s true landmark recordings. Although it took most of a year to really galvanize the zeitgeist, August and Everything After, the deliciously dense debut disc from Adam Duritz and his band Counting Crows, dropped upon an unsuspecting public in September of 1993. The grunge revolution was hurtling toward a full flameout by that point — with Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots slowly and irrevocably realizing they were miles beyond their glory days, and with only Nirvana and Pearl Jam managing to hang on for dear life (with Kurt Cobain’s imminent suicide, Nirvana’s fate would soon be sealed) — and along came a beautifully Dylanesque hunk of back-to-basics musical manna that turned out to be precisely what we needed to carry us over the hump.

To mark the occasion, Geffen has just re-released August in a new two-disc set, which finds the riveting original album — complete with extensive new liner notes penned by the ever-pensive Duritz, who waxes nostalgic on the extraordinary experience of becoming an immediate superstar — packaged with six demos from the 1992 recording sessions, plus a pristine rendering of the now-legendary 1994 Paris concert that brought the band’s grueling first world tour to a soaring close. I’m telling you now: if you missed this album the first time around — and, if you did, seriously?! — or if you just plumb wore it out the first time around, do not let pass the opportunity to rectify it now.

Less is more: Because Ryan Adams seems pathologically incapable of relaxing, he and his band The Cardinals are up with an EP of new material, Follow the Lights. (Verdict: it’s not bad, but it’s not that great, either.) Also, don’t miss a pair of vital short takes from my favorite new band The Fray. The first, Reason, is the seven song indie EP that got them the rapt attention of Columbia Records; the second, Bootleg No. 2 [Acoustic in Nashville], is being packaged with the Target edition of their monster debut album How to Save a Life. (Just wait ’til you hear Fray frontman Isaac Slade’s knockout take on “Vienna” when you pop Bootleg into the player. Just wait.)

Try it on my own: Listening to The Fray, you just know that we’ll someday be discussing the masterful solo debut from Isaac Slade, the same way we always discuss and debate any artist brave enough to break away from an established band and strike out on his or her own. The modern blueprint for such an endeavor was almost certainly set forth by the forever divine Annie Lennox — lead singer of the legendary Eurythmics — who is back with her fourth solo record, Songs of Mass Destruction. Produced by Glen Ballard (who, you’ll recall, famously handed Alanis Morissette her prescription for success), Destruction is something of a disappointment; coming as it does on the heels of three utterly magnificent albums (1992’s stunning Diva, 1995’s transcendent Medusa, and 2003’s gut-punching Bare), this one, despite killer tracks “Dark Road” and “Smithereens” and typically strong vocal work from Lennox, never seems to find its footing and completely fizzles out in its second half.

Let’s give the amazing, resilient Siouxsie Sioux a hearty how-the-hell-are-ya. The face of trailblazing ’70s goth-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees (who, in 1992, gave us one of the greatest songs ever, the astonishingly cool, Jayne Mansfield-inspired “Kiss Them for Me”) and the certain forerunner for a handful of females (think Debbie Harry, think Courtney Love, most definitely think Shirley Manson) who ended up getting times more famous, she’s back (and Banshee-less) after a decade-wide hiatus with her compelling solo debut Mantaray. Now 50, her voice has developed a hauntingly hollow timbre (imagine a more baritone Joni Mitchell, minus the smoke damage) that fascinates; she’s still takin’ everybody to school, thirty years past breaking through.

A pair of ’90s guys, each of whom scored exactly one monster hit before their bands were tossed mercilessly into the dustbin of obscurity, are taking a noble swing at solo success. As the lead singer of Tonic, Emerson Hart wrote and sang the inescapable “If You Could Only See,” a smash that ruled multiple radio formats in 1997. Subsequent Tonic albums failed to match that success, and the band broke up in 2004. Hart is going it alone now, and the results are impressive: his solo debut, Cigarettes and Gasoline, is loaded with great, easy melodies. And how now, Dan Wilson? Of all those groups (Sister Hazel, Third Eye Blind, and Smash Mouth, anyone?) who spent the back half of the ’90s trying to split the difference between Counting Crows and Pearl Jam, Wilson and the rest of Semisonic gave us what may well have been that subgenre’s shining moment, their 1998 breakthrough Feeling Strangely Fine. “Closing Time” was the behemoth that ate top 40 radio that summer, but if you skipped the other eleven tracks on that record, you missed out on the brilliant “Singing in My Sleep” (wherein a poor sap gets a mixtape from his girlfriend and listens intently as it drives him toward dementia; “in the city / the lion sleeps / pray to Sony / my soul to keep” could very well have been the lyric of the decade) and the album-closing masterpiece “Gone to the Movies” (for which the deliberately elliptical verses made devastating use of Wilson’s dreamy, bewitching voice). Semisonic disbanded shortly after their 2001 album All About Chemistry flopped, and Wilson moved on to become an in-demand songwriter (his most notable credit: he co-wrote five tracks with those goofy bitches the Dixie Chicks for their triumphant Taking the Long Way, including the amazing title track and the painfully ridiculous “Not Ready to Make Nice”). Wilson is now back before the microphone, having just released his solo debut Free Life, and on it, he includes his own take on “Easy Silence,” another of the songs that were born in his Long Way sessions.

If, like me, you’re a huge fan of modern rock band Switchfoot, take care not to miss lead singer Jonathan Foreman‘s first solo project Fall and Winter, which is actually two separate EPs (one dedicated to each season mentioned in the title) brought together into one amazing listening experience. Don’t enter into this expecting Switchfoot’s signature bombastic sound; this is a seriously stripped-down affair, with only an acoustic guitar and Foreman’s achingly bittersweet voice. Trust me here if nowhere else: you need nothing more.

If you only have room in your life for one of these lone wolf projects this season — and incidentally, if that’s the case, please don’t break my heart by letting me know about it — make absolutely sure it’s Pat Monahan‘s rich, dazzling Last of Seven, easily the most enjoyable solo debut since Rob Thomas’ …Something to Be three years ago. You’ll recognize Monahan as the Grammy-winning lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Train, whose last album — 2006’s dreary For Me, It’s You — was a boring, drowsy disaster. Monahan being Train’s primary songwriter, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from Seven, but I’m thrilled to tell you that he is unquestionably back; whatever funk he was in while he was writing You, there’s no trace of it here. You shouldn’t miss a second of this record, really, but if you’re gonna cherry-pick a song or three, don’t skip over “Great Escape” (quite possibly the only pop song to credibly feature the word “cosmonaut” in one of its verses) or “Pirate on the Run” (a searing duet with major new talent Brandi Carlile).

Snapshots: LeAnn Rimes‘ latest, Family, is a sizable comedown from her last record, 2005’s superb This Woman, but “Ain’t Doin’ Nothing Wrong,” the uber-cool duet with the great Marc Broussard, is worth a listen — The third piece of Barry Manilow‘s decades trilogy, The Greatest Songs of the Seventies, is as unforgivably ridiculous as the previous two, but the always-welcome Melissa Manchester brightens up his cover of “You’ve Got a Friend,” and his acoustic redo of “Weekend in New England” merits mention (I’ve always had a soft spot for that one, sue me!) — Traditionally, I’ve had no use for the dopey Ben Lee and his brand of insipid pop, but one track on his latest, Ripe, “Sex Without Love,” is goofy, unfettered bliss — Ditto Jennifer Lopez, and ditto Brave’s “Mile in These Shoes” — Wow, is the latest Dashboard Confessional record, The Shade of Poison Trees, a blurry mess! — If you’re curious to see what kind of impact a strong, visionary producer can have, check out Frank, Amy Winehouse‘s stunningly inferior first album, just now getting an American release (Winehouse should never leave the house without Mark Ronson!) — Perhaps you’re as taken as I am with the song playing under those new Dentyne television ads; it’s called “Stuttering,” and it can be found on Beta Male Fairytales from new band Ben’s BrotherSawdust, an invigorating new b-sides set from A’s favorite band The Killers, features a must-own live version of “Sam’s Town,” Jacques Lu Cont’s bracing remix of “Mr. Brightside,” and a hilarious cover of Kenny Rogers’ classic “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” — Obviously looking to be this year’s Lily Allen is Kate Nash, and with her off-the-wall debut Made of Bricks, who’s to say she won’t get there? — “Inspired” by the smash film of the same name, Jay-Z‘s latest opus American Gangster is available in both regular and a cappella versions — Now embarking on a music career following an acting dry spell, The Phantom of the Opera’s unbelievably gorgeous Emmy Rossum takes a valiant stab at the Carpenters’ classic “Rainy Days and Mondays” on her debut Inside Out — The overhyped Cat Power follows up her 2006 commercial breakthrough The Greatest with Jukebox, a companion piece to 2000’s The Covers Record (from which springs her glorious cover of “Sea of Love” that can currently be found on the Juno soundtrack) — I’m still not convinced that neo-soul wunderkinds Alicia Keys and John Legend are half as good as they think they are; you can judge for yourself with their new efforts, hers, a new studio album called As I Am (you’ve no doubt heard that undeniably great leadoff single “No One” everywhere), and his, a new Target-exclusive concert album Live from Philadelphia — Speaking of Target exclusives, don’t miss Hollywood, the new record from Collective Soul (who knew they were even alive still?!) — Ever the ramblin’ troubador, the brilliant Josh Rouse follows up his best album yet, 2006’s Subtitulo, with Country Mouse, City House, another concise set of stirring folky melodies — It’s probably sacrilege speaking out against a homosexual heroine, but don’t you kinda miss the days when Melissa Etheridge (too much of whose new The Awakening plays like a stuffy Hallmark card stretched out to novel length) actually wrote fun songs? — Chase This Light meanders and fades after a while, but Jimmy Eat World tears it up on “Big Casino,” the album’s rockin’ first single — Don’t you dare miss the virtuosic title track from Stars‘ sonically stunning fourth album In Our Bedroom After the War — I never had a big problem with pop princess Vanessa Carlton (on the contrary, I found her 2004 single “White Houses” to be extraordinarily shrewd), and her third album, Heroes and Thieves, does nothing to sway that opinion in either direction; having said that, all those critics who proclaimed in recent reviews that Carlton’s talent surpasses that of the incontrovertibly stupendous Michelle Branch oughta be flogged — “Creep” definitely notwithstanding, I’ve never been able to connect with Radiohead and their peculiar batch of oblique esoterica, no matter how I hard I try to; sorry to say, In Rainbows keeps that streak alive — I walked out of a screening of Into the Wild crushed, not by the film that I had just seen, but rather by the film that Wild could have been in the hands of a real director and screenwriter; two of the picture’s merits, however, are beyond reproach: Hal Holbrook’s heart-wrenching performance as the last man to forge a real bond with the doomed Christopher McCandless (bawled like a baby during their goodbye scene in the pickup truck, I did), and Eddie Vedder‘s pitch-perfectly grandiose contributions to the film’s soundtrack — What can I say about Britney Spears‘ new Blackout that hasn’t already been said atop a thousand gay dance floors all across the country? — Jack Johnson’s compadre Matt Costa is back with his second album, Unfamiliar Faces, and the Best Buy edition contains a bonus DVD with interviews and extra tracks — PJ Harvey seems to have mellowed considerably, if her languid latest White Chalk is to be believed; remembering how high strung she was in her youth, that’s probably not such a bad thing — Foo Fighters earned a surprise Grammy nod for Album of the Year for Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace, and while that’s not necessarily a reliable indicator of its quality, do check out Dave Grohl’s timely, hilarious “Cheer Up Boys (Your Make Up is Running),” a biting smackdown on all those irritating emo bands whose members think they’re edgy just because they know how to apply eye shadow — A pair of newish bands who delivered superlative contributions to last year’s excellent The O.C. Mix 6 compilation are now up with fascinating full-length projects: Band of Horses (whose cover of The New Year’s “The End’s Not Near” was a haunting triumph) hits the next level with their new Cease to Begin, and Rogue Wave (whose strangely mirthful reinvention of the Pixies’ classic elegy “Debaser” stood alongside Miss Patty’s “Heavenly Day” at the top of last year’s music heap) hits the ground running with their latest, Asleep at Heaven’s Gate — Once upon a time, Seal was headed toward “legend” status; he may have lost his way on that journey, but his sonic textures remain hypnotic, as his latest album, the more dance-heavy System, proves — a new charity album to benefit OxFam’s Make Trade Fair campaign, The Cake Sale‘s list of participants — Josh Ritter, The Cardigans’ Nina Persson, Gemma Hayes, Damien Rice’s right hand woman Lisa Hannigan, and Snow Patrol’s arresting lead singer Gary Lightbody — is a veritable who’s-who of brilliant rising stars — Some are calling Magic Bruce Springsteen‘s strongest album yet, and while you shouldn’t be foolish enough to play along with that farce (no way is it better than Tunnel of Love or even The Rising!), neither should you dismiss the record out of hand; “Long Walk Home” and leadoff single “Radio Nowhere” belong in any discussion of Springsteen’s standout songs — The album overall feels a bit flat and forced, but Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love lands the divine Trisha Yearwood a pair of instant classics in the bittersweet “Let the Wind Chase You” (featuring a forlorn harmony vocal from Keith Urban) and the horn-drenched stunner “Nothin’ ‘Bout Memphis” — Don’t let the not-at-all-subtle first single “So Hott” fool you: clearly out to regain his status as music’s premier outlaw, Kid Rock has hurled at us Rock & Roll Jesus, an unusually nuanced, strikingly brilliant, unapologetically fun new album — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s former wife Sarah Brightman returns with Symphony, her first album since 2003’s Harem; Brightman’s very much an acquired taste, but if you’re at all familiar with her exotic cover of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” you understand why she deserves a chance to win you over — Ryan Tedder, whose gripping vocal just made his band OneRepublic‘s home run “Apologize” the most played song in the history of top 40 radio, has unveiled the group’s full-length debut, Dreaming Out Loud; the album turns a tad irritating toward the end, but Tedder (who can belt with full-throated splendor, but can also nail a heart-melting falsetto) never fails to captivate.

And last but not least, this week’s new releases: After finding great success on Broadway (with starring roles in Rent and Wicked) and on film (recreating her Rent role on celluloid, as well as winning James Marsden’s heart in Enchanted), Idina Menzel closes out the first month of the new year by releasing her major label recording debut, I Stand. (I know nothing whatsoever about this album, and every time I see her, I can’t help but think of “Over the Moon,” Menzel’s dippy performance piece from Rent. She’s obviously a great singer, however, which probably makes this worth investigating.)

The list of contenders for this year’s Grammy Awards hardly reached out and grabbed me by the throat (which is not to say they did in previous years, either), which makes the annual compilation 2008 Grammy Nominees such a pleasant surprise. Eight entries from my list of 2007’s 50 best singles — most notably Amy Winehouse’s retro throwback “Rehab” and Bon Jovi’s mesmerizing comeback “(You Want to) Make a Memory” — can be found among this album’s eighteen tracks, which purport to represent the musical highlights of the year that just passed. That may not strike you as particularly impressive, but there are years when the opinions of the Academy and myself don’t intersect at all. Believe me, this is a resonant victory.

For Christmas 2006, the ever-enterprising folks who run ABC Daytime (who, given the uneven quality of the three series — from the heinously unwatchable “All My Children” to the gloriously reborn “One Life to Live” — that remain on the network’s lineup, seem to not only treasure but horde style over substance) invited all their soap stars who possessed the gift of song (and a few who didn’t) and created A Holiday Affair, an album of Christmas classics that was highlighted by the peerless Kathy Brier’s powerful take on Joni Mitchell’s “River” (a marginal Christmas song, at best). Well, they’re at it again over there: just in time for Valentine’s Day comes A Love Affair, a new collection of standards and pop classics. Thank God Brier’s back, this time with a spry take on The 5th Dimension’s “Never My Love”; soap legends Anthony Geary, David Canary, and Susan Lucci also take a shot behind the mic. The kitsch factor here is real high, but it’s still a hell of a lot more fun than Deana Carter’s ridiculous new album. (And Deana’s a trained singer!)

Without question, this week’s marquee release comes from the ravishing Shelby Lynne, who first seized our attention in 2000 when, after years of toiling in Nashville trying to become the next Reba (or, at very least, the next Holly Dunn), she chucked the playbook and crafted an incendiary triumph called I Am Shelby Lynne. The industry went gaga over the record, and a year later, wholly in spite of the fact that she had been singing for a decade, Lynne won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

Seven years and three poorly-received albums — 2001’s Love, Shelby, 2003’s Identity Crisis, and 2005’s Suit Yourself — later, Lynne finds herself at a peculiar career crossroads. Whatever minuscule measure of success she has managed to attain for herself has proven to be extremely fleeting, and it seems now to be do-or-die time for her career. So with nothing to lose, she has teamed up with legendary producer Phil Ramone to put her own stamp on some highlights from the spellbinding Dusty Springfield songbook in her debut for Lost Highway, Just a Little Lovin’. Lynne wisely avoids tampering with Springfield’s touchstone “Son of a Preacher Man” in favor of wrapping her weary voice around lesser-known gems like “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” and “How Can I Be Sure,” but I’ll admit I was disappointed to not see my two favorite Springfield tracks — 1978’s “A Love Like Yours” and 1987’s “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” her irresistible duet with the Pet Shop Boys (and aren’t you certain that Lynne and George Michael could set that song on fire?!) — didn’t make the cut. No matter. Seems as though we already have 2008’s first terrific album. (And you should get that album at Best Buy, whose version contains a bonus DVD with live performances.)

And so, some eleven thousand words after we began this twisted little journey through my deranged mind, we finally reach the payoff: this week’s playlists. A has been beside himself not having new song titles to chew on for all these weeks the tipsheet has been absent, so in a feeble attempt to make up for lost time, I’m presenting him (and you) with four groups of songs based on themes discussed in these tips. First up: a deeper exploration of the genius that is Shelby Lynne.

1. “Your Lies” — Shelby Lynne (from I Am Shelby Lynne) — crazy ol’ Phil Spector himself couldn’t have designed a better, more effective use of the wall of sound. As album openers go, this one — as blatant a “fuck you very much” to the Nashville boys’ club establishment as has ever been written — is a TKO.

2. “Gotta Get Back” — Shelby Lynne (from I Am Shelby Lynne) — if you’re not humming this one by the end of the first chorus, you’re not listening hard enough.

3. “Tarpoleon Napoleon” — Shelby Lynne (from Love, Shelby) — Lynne took a lot of heat — much of it undeserved — for enlisting (unsuccessfully, as it would turn out) super-producer Glen Ballard to help her keep that precious Grammy momentum rolling. True enough, Love was a radical 180 from the painfully intimate I Am — and absolutely indecipherable tunes like this one sure didn’t help that cause — but that didn’t necessarily make it bad.

4. “Jesus on a Greyhound” — Shelby Lynne (from Love, Shelby) — a powerhouse performance rescues this slightly dopey story song about the ultimate spirit quest.

5. “Run Away” — Live featuring Shelby Lynne (from Awake: The Best of Live) — this pops up in an iPod shuffle once a month or so, and whenever it does, I’m reminded anew how much I love both it and her. The vocal interplay between Lynne and Live’s lead singer Ed Kowalczyk — particularly at the song’s harrowing climax — never fails to give me goosebumps.

In playlist number two, we’ll take a closer look at the highlights of one of the all-time classics, Counting Crows’ smashing 1993 debut August and Everything After (which, as previously discussed, has just been reissued in a new deluxe edition). Eons have passed since I sat down and created a list of desert island discs, but you can bet your ass this record — a transcendent meditation on heartbreak, sexual discovery, and the fame that frontman Adam Duritz would later regret wanting so desperately — retains a permanent place on it.

1. “Mr. Jones” — February 26, 1994. 1:30 pm, give or take a quarter hour. As was standard practice back then, I was whiling away a Saturday afternoon listening to Z-93, Amarillo’s great (and, sadly, now defunct) top 40 station, when all of a sudden came an aural miracle hurtling through the heavens, ready at once to take root inside my hungry soul. You might very well say, “It’s a crying-ass shame Duritz and the boys have never again even approached the percussive majesty on full display in this landmark smash.” And I might respond, “BFD. Neither has anyone else.”

2. “Anna Begins” — a true story, from high school days: I signed up for AP Government senior year, because our school system’s social studies teacher — a brilliant man name of Clay Nelson — was a genius, and easily the most popular man in that building. A few weeks before the beginning of fall term that year, Mr. Nelson’s wife accepted a great job in Washington State, and he went with her, leaving the school district high and dry. They finally found this poor fool named Steve Moncrief to take over all the history and civics courses, and the result was predictably disastrous: he meant well, and he tried very hard to penetrate our severe disappointment at Mr. Nelson’s absence, but we were having none of it, and he eventually gave up. If you’re wondering what, exactly, any of this has to do with the Crows, I’ll enlighten you: happening as it did during fifth hour, AP Government essentially became an extension of lunch for us. We would all segregate into our little cliques and listen to music, drink soda, and catch up on gossip. (This story has the added advantage of being absolutely true!) So, one day, as I was talking to my friends Ramona and Heather, “Mr. Jones” came on the radio, and I got very excited (as I was wont to do back then), and Ramona began to tell me about “Anna Begins,” a track from August that she liked even better than “Mr. Jones.” It’s probably true that she lost me right at the outset of her presentation; at that time, I couldn’t quite conceive of liking anything better than “Mr. Jones” (and to be brutally frank, I still can’t), but I nonetheless listened intently as Ramona defended this tune — a wrenching story song about a tryst between friends and the emotionally tragic ramifications it sends ricocheting through the relationship — with an admirably passionate extemporaneity. At the end of her spiel, I looked her dead in the eye, and with all the warmth and sincerity I could muster, I asked, “Ramona, what in the flying fuck are you talking about?” (Hand to God, I have no clue what I’m trying to impart with the above story, but if you absolutely need a moral, try this: A, Lord love him, is often horrified by the fact that I’m many, many times more conversant with pop culture than with politics. That couldn’t be because I spent more time discussing Counting Crows than I did Congress in government class, could it?)

3. “Rain King”August‘s third radio single (following “Jones” and the gorgeous “Round Here”) and in its own ridiculous way, the album’s most moving cut. Don’t fail to respect the deft way Duritz manages to mask his naked vulnerability with a fun bouncy beat.

4. “A Murder of One” — the classic album-closing singalong from which the band lifted its name.

5. “Sullivan Street” August‘s unsung hero, with a lyrical zenith (“it’s almost / everything I need….“) — as performed by Duritz with achingly quiet intensity — that devastates.

Earlier in the tipsheet, we devoted a prime chunk of real estate to one of musicdom’s great phenomena: a band gets famous, its lead singer gets recognized, and he or she decides to roll the dice on solo success. Predictably, failures abound with these types of ventures, but a select few buck the odds and bust out of the pack. Let’s use playlist number three to celebrate these grand slams.

1. “Freedom ’90” — George Michael (from Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1) — full disclosure time: this playlist was born out of my perilous quest to make my beloved A a fan of my favorite brilliant Brit. Just after New Year’s, we took a road trip to Las Vegas, wherein I tried yet again to bring that stubborn fool around to the proper way of thinkin’ musically. And yet again, he rejected my advances with a quick, merciless swat. Yay for me, then, that my tenacity is boundless (and, perhaps more importantly, my skull is much harder than his); to wit, I have decided to shoehorn Michael’s music into any and all future playlists until that silly boy cries uncle (which I believe to my soul that he eventually will). Hence, let’s kick off those festivities by introducing A to one of pop music’s enduring classics, an ingenious single in which Michael reckons with his bubblegum past and then forever puts it to bed. (And if you missed George’s uproarious appearance on the series premiere of Eli Stone last Thursday night, get thee to or to iTunes at once and catch yourself up. It’s a top-to-bottom laugh riot.)

2. “Cry Me a River” — Justin Timberlake (from Justified) — talk about boundless tenacity: remember how we all snickered with cynical glee when we heard that *NSYNC’s poster boy was striking out on his own? With one riveting smash, he silenced all that jazz but good.

3. “Walking on Broken Glass” — Annie Lennox (from Diva) — from the woman who can sing anything, the elegant 1992 opus that shot her solo career into orbit. This pristine vocal just drips utter perfection.

4. “She is His Only Need” — Wynonna Judd (from Collection) — gotta love the way Lady Wy steeped into the spotlight and proved definitively she was the brains and the brawn behind the most successful duo in country music history.

5. “Wonder” — Natalie Merchant (from Tigerlily) — as the voice of 10,000 Maniacs, she only flirted with mainstream success; her 1995 solo debut changed all that forever, and nobody from her era deserved it more. (Speaking of the Maniacs, isn’t it criminal that their landmark appearance on MTV Unplugged — another permanent resident on that aforementioned list of desert island discs — is available neither on DVD nor at iTunes? What the hell is that about?!)

6. “Just Between You and Me” — Lou Gramm (from Jukebox Heroes: The Foreigner Anthology) — even though this was a top ten hit in 1990, it’s a ridiculous fact that most folks don’t even remember this sliver of excellence from Foreigner’s former frontman. No matter, that: it’s still one of the fifty best songs ever.

7. “Problem Girl” — Rob Thomas (from …Something to Be) — I eventually fell in mad love with the entire record, of course, but on those initial listens to Thomas’ phenomenal full-length debut, this was the first song that grabbed me by the throat.

8. “Talk to Me” — Stevie Nicks (from Crystal Visions: The Very Best of Stevie Nicks) — you just knew a fierce megatalent like Nicks wasn’t going to be satisfied forever traversing the drug-addled political minefield that was (and remains) Fleetwood Mac. Nicks hasn’t always gotten her due as one of the premier vocalists, so don’t lose the thread here: this woman rocks.

9. “Sledgehammer” — Peter Gabriel (from So) — it took a full decade after his acrimonious departure from Genesis for Gabriel (easily the most lovable wack job ever, aside from me) to hit the ground running as an individual artist, but he more than made up for lost time with his fifth album, which contains no fewer than four of the all-time classics, “Big Time,” “In Your Eyes,” and his soaring duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up” included.

10. “Pirate on the Run” — Pat Monahan and Brandi Carlile (from Last of Seven) — so, Seven isn’t exactly lighting up the charts as yet. But I refuse to believe that this track can’t be a sensation at radio this spring.

And finally, to bring this rambling monstrosity to a blessed close, this week’s final playlist offers one final obituary on the marvelous music year that was 2007. In such a great twelve month period that was jam-packed with terrific tuneage, there were bound to be a handful of worthy songs that slipped through the cracks. Here’s hoping you didn’t allow the following tracks to pass you by.

1. “Sober” — Kelly Clarkson (from My December) — yes, December was indeed a hubris-strewn disaster. But when she lets loose in the middle of this song and goes to baying with her whole heart, she makes you feel her pain. An undeniable triumph.

2. “I Wish” — Hilary Duff (from Dignity) — my love for Duff is well-documented by now, so I’ll just say that if she’s not running the business by the time she’s 30, I’m moving to Ecuador. Oh, and one more thing. Miley Cyrus, you better recognize it, hon: Duff’s already done your shtick, baby. And done it better.

3. “Most of Me” — Mandy Moore (from Wild Hope) — a lyrically complex (thanks, Lori McKenna!) winner from one of the year’s underrated albums.

4. “Midday (Avoid the City After Dark)” — Yusuf Islam (from An Other Cup) — God bless good ol’ Cat Stevens, who flew in under the radar last year with an eminently interesting song he wrote after getting mugged. I dare you not to love it.

5. “The One U Wanna C” — Prince (from Planet Earth) — just too much fun: a long-overdue return to sexed-up form from the uncontested king of horny pop.


Brandon’s Tips: July 17, 24, and 31, 2007

posted at 12:57 pm by brandon in

So, I’m pleased to report that after a two-week breather — my schedule lately has been such an impossible minefield that I barely had time to do my music shopping, much less wax eloquent about it — Brandon’s tips blows back into town with a riveting tripleheader teeming with brilliant, interesting voices that we’ve adored for eons.

Before we get to that, please allow me a quick detour and head west with me to check in with the California sun, that glorious celestial body which, to quote Ray Charles, lolls ’round in heaven all day, but, in so doing, kickstarts so many of nature’s miracles. Its radiant rays have been particularly industrious this summer; between photosynthesizing the landlocked palms and warming the water-logged ocean (not to mention browning the lithe, sinewy bodies of the boys and girls who opt to enjoy either), it’s wondrous that the floating fireball has time for additional endeavors.

And yet, in a development that is as fascinating as it is worrisome, that very same sun has also evidently decided to scorch and squelch the immeasurable good sense of my beloved A. How else to explain his increasingly erratic reactions to so many of the terrific tracks contained in the most recent playlists? Following May’s regrettable Lisa Stansfield debacle, as well as our hideously ugly standoff over early June’s grunge playlist (during the climax of which I had to literally beg him to buy “Hunger Strike,” which I’m entirely convinced he did only to shut me up), we got on a bit of a roll. There even passed a majestic pair of weeks in which three songs (instead of the usual one or two) tickled his fancy! After stumbling about like a clumsy foal during the first few weeks of this crazy experiment, I was hitting my stride! I felt invincible!

Then came July, whereupon the bottom completely fell out. The month’s first playlist — a short compendium of the year-to-here’s best work, which contained stunning tracks from Paula Cole, Abra Moore, and the incomparable Patty Griffin, among others — was loaded with serene beauty. The list was literally too good to be believed, much less denied. A’s bizarro take on the situation: neither Moore nor Cole interested him in the slightest (can you imagine?!). Worse, and let me quote directly the coup de grace: “I am afraid to say anything about Patty Griffin.” (An approximate A-to-English translation follows: “I loathed it, and I know if I tell you that, you’ll do your level damnedest to run me over.”)

The month’s second playlist was even more stout. (A beaming remembrance of the music of 1987, I don’t kid when I tell you that, of the eleven playlists I’ve presented you with thus far, that one was by far the strongest and most striking; I loved it even better than the Tori list, which was sensational.) Here’s where the tale turns plain comical: A actually had the aural clarity to gravitate toward that lineup’s two best tracks — Belinda Carlisle’s classic “Heaven is a Place On Earth” (which he already owned, incidentally) and Crowded House’s still-brilliant “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (which he ended up purchasing) — which indicates to me — and believe me, I’m sooo heartened by this, and maybe even delighted — that he is completely capable of recognizing musical ingenuity when he hunkers down and focuses. The problem is, he decided not to stop there. No, no, he went on to declare that, though he could see why T’Pau and Steve Winwood were great, he was not at all sold on George Michael. I ask you without a trace of jocularity: has a more utterly flabbergasting sentence ever been transmitted? I love Steve Winwood (and that goes all the way back to his soulful ’60s work with the Spencer Davis Group when he was but a wee teenager), but I’m telling you, babe, in no way does he have the upper hand on George Michael. (Even typing that blatant heresy gives me the giggles!) I have to keep reminding myself that, since A didn’t reach these shores until 1990, he completely missed both the explosive revolution that was Wham! and the pulse-pounding revelation that was Faith; therefore, it’s quite likely that his first true exposure to George — “Praying for Time” and “Fastlove” obviously notwithstanding — was the singer’s unfortunate conduct in a Beverly Hills bathroom at century’s end. I have to keep reminding myself that, since “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper” are still totally alien to him, he holds no reference points when he is introduced to songs like “Faith” or “Father Figure” or “A Different Corner.” He has no way to track Michael’s extraordinary artistic evolution. But then I delve deeper into this quandary, and I always reach the same conclusion: “Faith” is a kick-ass milestone in popular music, three of the most eminently blissful minutes you’ll ever surrender, and that’s true irregardless of one’s familiarity with George’s earlier triumphs.

It has become painfully obvious that a comprehensive tutorial on ’80s pop is in order (luckily, A and I are taking a road trip next month, which smells like as golden an opportunity as one can possibly fathom), one that begins with Christopher Cross, Juice Newton, and REO Speedwagon, one that detours down Duran Duran Drive, Whitney Way, and B-52 Boulevard (“tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin roof… rusted!”), and one culminates with orgasmic glee, courtesy of visits from Madonna and Mr. Michael himself.

Our intensive classwork — and believe me, I smell a pop quiz or two — certainly won’t overlook Suzanne Vega and Prince, each of whom were responsible for their fair share of the most distinctive music of the ’80s, and each of whom have just returned with bold new records. I’m particularly enthralled with Vega’s latest, a fascinating concept album called Beauty and Crime, which Vega herself has stated is a love letter to New York City. On paper, the whole project seems unbearably precious (and song titles like “Frank & Ava” and “Edith Wharton’s Figurines” certainly don’t turn that image around), so I’m actually quite surprised at how into this record I really am: sonically, it’s very rich and even uncharacteristically edgy (which is odd to say, considering she once gave us the most melodic ditty about child abuse ever composed, 1987’s classic “Luka”). I’m on my third listen, and I get more intrigued each time.

As for the wildly mercurial Prince, he’s also back, with a new album called Planet Earth. I haven’t lent this one my ears yet, but my bet is that it’s going to be every bit as jarring and inconsistent as every other one of his records has been. From “Little Red Corvette” almost thirty years ago right up through 2005’s stunning “Cinnamon Girl,” the man has written and performed some of the unforgettable singles of our time, but I can’t name a truly stem-to-stern-brilliant Prince album. (Even his supposed masterpiece, 1984’s Purple Rain soundtrack, is rife with aimless filler like “Computer Blue.”) He has earned the benefit of the doubt, no question, but I don’t hold out a plethora of hope.

If for no other reason than to support a dynamite television series that needs every iota of goodwill it can gather — particularly now that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has sunk to unprecedented levels of asininity in flagrantly flouting almost all of its innumerable merits and charms — the brand new soundtrack to Friday Night Lights is a must-own disc. Luckily for you, there are better reasons to buy this one, namely that the music contained herein is really good. Led by Tony Lucca’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town” (which was featured prominently in the season finale) and an exclusive mellow version of The Killers’ “Read My Mind,” plus classics from Spoon, Whiskeytown, and Starsailor, among others, about the only omission — and it’s as painful as it is egregious — is W.G. Snuffy Walden’s extraordinary, electrifying theme song, which indelibly set the tone for each episode and completely deserved a slot on this record. But c’est la vie.

My best friend Sherry (who, incidentally, was hacked and didn’t hesitate to set me straight when, a few weeks back, I failed to properly credit her for tipping me off to the Mark Ronson record) talked me into buying Young Modern, the new record from those megacrazy Aussies Silverchair, from whom I’ve heard neither hide nor hair since their beyond-freaky 1999 ode to anorexia, “Ana’s Song (Open Fire).” “You have to get this,” she implored as we strolled through Best Buy last Saturday evening browsing the new release wall. “That guy has gotten so cute!” I was dubious, but I’ve bought albums for far less viable reasons, so I took the bait. Verdict: lead singer Daniel Johns is indeed oddly sexy these days (his face has filled out admirably, and he has, like, cheekbones now! Funny how that happens when you don’t make yourself vomit after e’ery meal, yeah?), and his band’s music, while not exactly memorable, isn’t terrible.

Remember roughly a decade ago when, for a handful of months there, it looked like Shirley Manson (who, most seriously, used to frighten the living hell out of me, especially after I stumbled across the clip for “Stupid Girl” on “Friday Night Videos” one rainy evening) and her band Garbage were gonna break loose and wind up ruling the world? Well, despite a few flashes of brilliance — go ahead, try to convince me you didn’t love “#1 Crush,” easily the best thing about Baz Luhrmann’s nonsense-riddled Romeo and Juliet revival — it didn’t quite work out that way. Still, the band got its first best-of collection, Absolute Garbage, last week, and I’m here to tell you, when you see the highlights of their career (“Only Happy When It Rains,” anyone?) all lined up on one taut disc, you totally gain a new appreciation for their work. If you let them pass you by the first time around, here’s a great way to get caught up.

They’ve been a band on the verge for several years now, threatening to become huge stars, but thus far Tegan and Sara have remained essentially a cult act. I’m not sure I see that changing with their new album, The Con. True enough, I find it a massive improvement over their last record, 2005’s rigidly dull So Jealous (not a solitary note of which managed to match the sheer erotic power of their 2001 breakthrough “My Number,” despite all the critics which tried to anoint them as the second coming of Joni Mitchell with all their hyperbolic hosannas — rub a lamp, guys! That’s only cute when I do it!), but these girls still don’t quite get me there. Yet.

Two years ago, Academy Award nominee (not to mention the woman who almost certainly stole the superlative Connie Britton’s Emmy nod this year) Minnie Driver raised more than a few eyebrows when she released Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket, a unexpected treat of an album for which those same critics lay in wait, as if it were beyond conception that Driver could be as talented a singer as she is an actress. Believe it: that record’s title track is a lush, haunting masterstroke, and while you may need a minute to wrap your mind around it, her sleepy, somber take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” is gripping. (Plus, anyone who stuck with Joel Schumacher’s weak-kneed film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera through the end credits heard Driver delve with credible, pitch-perfect restraint into a new Andrew Lloyd Webber offering, the gorgeous “Learn to Be Lonely.”) Now she’s back with a sophomore effort, Seastories, and it’s immediately clear from track one — the stellar “Stars and Satellites” — that’s she’s been hard at work on her craft, and what may have once seemed a vanity project can no longer be brushed aside. With formidable chops in more than one arena of entertainment, this girl could well be our new Liza.

A name you almost certainly won’t recognize is Emerson Hart, who was once the lead singer of a band called Tonic. You’ll no doubt recall their debut smash, 1997’s positively inescapable “If You Could Only See,” and how they failed miserably to follow that up with anything strong enough to stick. The band broke up following their 2002 flop Head On Straight, and Hart’s flying solo now. His debut record is entitled Cigarettes and Gasoline, and while I have yet to listen to any of it, I’m curious. Much like Robin Wilson’s work with Gin Blossoms all those years ago and the oeuvre that Chad Kroeger is currently constructing with Nickelback, I always found Hart’s voice to be not less than twice as compelling as much of the material said voice conveyed.

Don’t you dare try to make that statement about Taylor (whose raw presence as a pop vocalist can’t be matched these days) and the other two Hanson brothers, who, after an excruciating three year hiatus, return triumphantly with this frame’s marquee release, The Walk. That these guys — who, as they traverse their twenties, continue to have the most remarkably keen ears for what works and what doesn’t musically — are consistently (and, in most cases, purposely) overlooked is an entire outrage (and when I take power, I vow to personally smite every last idiot who turned their backs); that they refuse to give up (and indeed, resolve to only become stronger and more focused musicians), anything but. Following their massive debut Middle of Nowhere (and the intense white heat that surrounded its first single, the trippy masterpiece “MMMBop”) ten years ago, they drowned in the shallow, cruel cesspool that is record company politics after Island/Def Jam swallowed Mercury Records whole in 1999 and instantly decided they despised everything about this strange band of teenagers who literally got the whole damn world singing along to their inspired beats. Hanson’s phenomenal second record This Time Around was released with minimal promotion the following year, by which time *NSYNC had already stormed the palace and stolen the throne and the thrills (this was the spring of “Bye, Bye, Bye,” don’t forget); after going octuple-platinum with their first record, This Time — despite being a more cohesive, more melodicallly accomplished record — didn’t even move 500,000 copies.

Still bearing the scars of their embarrassing fall from grace, the guys regrouped in 2003 and, in what will eventually be judged as one of the classic up yours moves in the history of popular music, decided to take total control of their careers by building their own studio and forming their own record company (with its own built-in distribution arm, natch). Check it out: these churren now write, play, sing, record, produce, edit, master, and release every note of their music themselves. Their first effort as mavericks, 2004’s airtight Underneath (which featured terrific harmony work from one of my great faves Michelle Branch), was a resounding success, one of only a handful of independent albums to break into the Billboard 200’s top 25. Their second effort, The Walk (co-produced by James Taylor’s main man Danny Kortchmar), is just out, and it’s a soaring, soulful stunner.

Since we’re covering three weeks in this tipsheet, A has requested that many separate playlists. My original plan was to allow a George Michael playlist to close out this tipsheet, one strong enough to force feed that lovably crazy fool his indecorous “I’m not really sold…” crack. But, alas, I need time to craft something that powerful, so that’ll have to wait for a more prudent date. (Rest assured, however: I will sell him. Mark it.) That leaves me with two playlists to populate, and for that task, I turn to the two strongest musical voices on this week’s tipsheet.

I included a Hanson track in my guilty pleasures playlist a few weeks back, and A found himself curious about their music, so in the spirit of their terrific new record, let’s start there.

1. “MMMBop” (from Middle of Nowhere) — even ten years on, it’s still difficult to envision a more exhilarating piece of musical perfection. One of the great singles of all time; more staggering yet, the fact that it’s a debut single.

2. “This Time Around” (from This Time Around) — put your ear right next to the speaker, and you’ll catch not only an ingenious idea, but a marvelous execution of same: take the basic tenets of ’60s Brill Building soul, and graft them seamlessly onto the basic tenets of contemporary pop. (Eat your heart out, Ms. Winehouse.) One of the most noble failures ever.

3. “Runaway Run” (from This Time Around) — A wanted so badly to buy this song a few weeks ago when it appeared on the guilty pleasures playlist, but then he realized at the last possible second that it’s a killer track and caught himself. Propulsive and euphoric, this is Hanson at its absolute peak.

4. “Dancin’ in the Wind” (from Underneath) — it’s extremely difficult to pick a favorite song from this record, both because I love them all and because each song plays a distinct role in telling the album’s story. That said, this tune, with its slightly off-kilter chord structure and with Taylor’s slightly disquieting vocal, never fails to captivate.

5. “Great Divide” (from The Walk) — much like “The Long Way Around” from those goofy Dixie Chicks last year, this is one of the most obvious hit singles I’ve ever heard. No wonder top 40 radio, with its maddening reliance on blatant, unbearable horseshit running more rampant this summer than ever before — Fergie, babe, that’s you — won’t touch it.

My gut feeling is that this week’s other playlist will go over like a wooden enchilada with A, because its star is unabashedly crazy (and damn proud of it). Still, when I stated earlier that Prince, The Purple One himself, has given us throughout his career some of the great musical touchstones, I wasn’t just blowin’ smoke. As follows, the pudding proffers the proof:

1. “Little Red Corvette” (from 1999) — looking back at this 1983 classic — his first top 10 hit — all the signs that Prince was revving up to become that decade’s most prolific superstar were there on full display. I dare you to name me another artist whose raw, unfettered ambition was ever this close — close enough to taste — to his or her music’s surface.

2. “When Doves Cry” (from Purple Rain) — and then came the track that slammed into the music world (and, hell, the world period) with the hyper force of a hydrogen bomb. Even in a blissfully unkempt, uncensored music year which saw its men dressing up like women (“lovin’ would be easy / if your colors were like my dreams,” indeed) and its women dressing up like clown college castouts (“oh Daddy dear / you know you’re still number one,” no doubt), Prince managed to make 1984’s biggest splash simply by being himself. A masterpiece, ever.

3. “U Got the Look” (featuring the vastly underrated Sheena Easton) (from Sign o’ the Times) — years before the ridiculous Marilyn Manson made a complete mockery of the form, guess who took that guitar-driven industrial sound and totally made it his own? One of the savviest, funkiest jams ever put to record.

4. “Alphabet St.” (from The Very Best of Prince) — isn’t it silly how, despite the fact that this track was a huge hit in the spring of 1988, hardly anyone remembers it nowadays? Mind-blowing, from start to finish.

5. “Diamonds and Pearls” (from Diamonds and Pearls) — true enough, Rosie Gaines’ gut-busting solo in the middle totally makes this song worthwhile (“dee / to the eye / to the ay / to the emm,” and don’t even play like you were above singing that back in the day!); what’s truly amazing here is, this is quite possibly Prince’s only conventional love song.

6. “The Morning Papers” (from The Love Symbol Album) — alongside the dopey-yet-marvelous “7,” this was one of the precious few highlights from that unfortunate stretch of years when Prince went apeshit nuts and changed his name to that bizarro symbol.