Rave & Faves: The Best of 2018

2018 inspired pointed responses to the political and social unrest of the last few years. Artists as varied as Barbra Streisand (Walls) and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) addressed the tenor of the current moment in their unique creative vernacular.  Others, such as Rumaan Alam and Uzodinma Iweala, have employed the written word to probe uncertainty and tension around identity, especially race, ethnicity and nation, and their intersections. Pose blazed a trail forward in TV exploring the lives of gender non-confirming people with skill and authenticity and employing trans performers to do so. Oakland, California is the setting and context for my favorite films of the year. Check out my faves from the past year:

 

MUSIC

 

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Anthem (Madeleine Peyroux)

Peyroux and her bandmates create an endearing and highly varied suite of original songs with a few interpretations (“Last Night When We Were Young”). With an undercurrent of melancholy. Covering politics (“The Brand New Deal”) and romance (“Honey Party”) with equal passion this is an enchanting and highly listenable album elegantly produced.

 

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Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker (Maria Muldaur)

Muldaur explores the underexplored legacy of singer and composer Blue “Lu” Barker on this continually surprising set of humorous, sensuous and earthy Southern blues. Muldaur and her bandmates perform with an infectious energy and enthusiasm.

 

Caution (Mariah Carey)

A tight, flowing mosaic of mid-tempo songs and ballads produced in a sleek laidback R&B production style. Beneath the grooves are emotionally intense, often dark themes, with an accessible yet personal quality. Carey’s subtlest and most seductive recording.

 

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Some of that Sunshine (Karrin Allyson)

Jazz vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson wears her composing hat on this vibrant set of original tunes. She covers various themes within the desire and love lost realm and closes with the potent political tune “The Big Discount.”

 

Holly (Holly Cole)

A brisk and easygoing set of mostly swing standards highlighted by energetic duets with trombonist-vocalist Wycliffe Gordon and the original “We’ve Got a World that Swings.”

 

Another Time Another Place (Jennifer Warnes)

Jennifer Warnes is an accomplished interpreter who takes her time between recordings; her last album was 2001’s The Well. Her newest is a delightfully straightforward and understated collection of ballads highlighted by a contemporary version of the standard “I See Your Face Before Me” and the Crescent City homage “I Am the Big Easy.”  

 

The Window (Cecile McLorin Salvant)

Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner mine the emotional and melodic riches on an eclectic set of blues, chansons, pop and jazz ballads delivered in a highly dramatic style.

 

Walls (Barbra Streisand)

A lush collection of thematic ballads attuned to Streisand’s anxieties about the current political moment, tempered by an undercurrent of optimism. Streisand’s voice is as assured as ever and is bathed in rich, orchestrations with the epic emotionalism of film scores.

 

America’s Child (Shemekia Copeland)

Blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland explores the soul of America on this eclectic set of topical tunes. Songs like “Americans,” “Would you Take My Blood?” and “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” are thoughtful but spirited statements about the value of living in a diverse and inclusive society.

 

 

Books about MUSIC

 

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What Will Be: American Music and Cold War Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Phillip M. Gentry

 

Musicologist Philip M. Gentry’s What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity is an insightful, original and highly readable argument about the role of musical performances on record, in concerts and on film, on the process of forming an identity in the post-World War II era. Gentry opens by laying out the post-World War II genesis of “identity” as a concept focused on understanding of the self in relation to others and to time. He explores different aspects of identity formation through intricate readings that include the alternative black masculinity performed by doo-wop groups, notably the pioneering R&B group The Orioles; the constructions of whiteness that emerge from the musical performances of 50s pop icons Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page and in Doris Day’s musical film performances; contested notions of Asian-American identity gleaned through performances associated with San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub; gay male identity in relation to the iconic performances of John Cage’s famous 4’33” score. Scholars and intellectually engaged readers of popular music studies, postwar U.S. culture, performance studies and/or area studies will find much to ponder in this unusually well-crafted and efficient scholarly study.

 

 

Beyond MUSIC media favorites

 

Fiction

 

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That Kind of Mother: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2018)

Rumaan Alam

 

Rumaan Alam’s second novel That Kind of Mother explores the complexities and limitations of good intentions through the lens of cross-racial adoption.  Alam offers a sympathetic portrait of Rebecca a white, relatively privileged mother with an Ivy League pedigree in poetry, who is married to a British diplomat. They reside in the tony Bethesda, Maryland community circa the mid-1980s. Rebecca loves the possibility of becoming a mother and longs to fulfill her professional ambitions. Her vocational desires temper the excitement of her pregnancy until she meets a skilled and sympathetic black wet nurse Priscilla in the hospital during delivery. Hiring Priscilla as her nanny frees her to write but also stimulates a genuine but awkwardly expressed curiosity about her life and experience. Rebecca wants to know Priscilla’s story but struggles to do so without being obtrusive or condescending.  Alam represents her interest in Priscilla’s life as genuine yet insufficient for masking her insular existence. Cosseted by a privileged life, she has very little insight about many social realities beyond her culturally homogenous world.

            After Priscilla’s unexpected death Rebecca takes care of Priscilla’s son Andrew informally with the blessing of Priscilla’s daughter Cheryl who births a newborn around the same period. Rebecca adopts Andrew with a mixed response from her husband and family, and his needs lead Rebecca to traverse a series of experiences she never anticipated. Rebecca attempts to treat Cheryl, her husband Ian, and daughter Ivy as family, inviting them over for holiday dinners. Within this friendly context they gently prompt Rebecca to remember Andrew is a black male child. Alam places readers in a variety of intricate scenes, that address seemingly mundane concerns issues like winter skin care to classroom bias to police harassment, where Rebecca (and well-intentioned readers) must go beyond “innocence” and “ignorance” toward understanding the sobering realities necessary to raise her adoptive son in a hostile world credibly for his survival. Alam, who is an American of Bangladeshi descent, has spoken candidly about he and his white husband’s experiences raising their two black adoptive sons. He has clearly been transformed, and through That Kind of Mother Alam has crafted an illuminating array of insights regarding the intimate contexts in which the power of race emerges.

 

Honorable mentions: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books, 2018); Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (HarperCollins, 2018)

 

Essay Collection

 

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt, 2018)

Alexander Chee

 

Novelist and essayist Alexander Chee has many fascinating stories to tell in his engrossing collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Any aspiring writer contemplating enrolling in an MFA program and hoping to traverse the world of publishing will find bountiful wisdom and insight. Chee who is a gay man of Korean and White American descent, first gained fame for his novel Edinburgh.

How to Write maps out different elements of his life as a son, lover, artist and activist, in compelling detail. Some of his most memorable essays address his role as an AIDS activist and witness to state sanctioned violence toward queer protestors in the late 1980s; the emotional fallout from his father’s accidental death and the aftermath involving his estate; the mentoring he received from writer Annie Dillard; and perhaps, most memorably an eloquent defense of the important of writers in the post 9/11 world. There are other quirkier destinations ranging from his time serving as a cater-waiter for William F. Buckley Jr. and his wife Pat (“Mrs. B”) to his love of Tarot card reading. Though every essay many not be of interest to every reader the collection balances the intimate and the global with finesse.

 

Honorable mention: Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist discovers her Superpower by Brittney Cooper (Macmillan, 2018)

 

 

Music on TV

 

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Pose

 

FXX’s summer 2018 series Pose places viewers in the heart of New York’s drag ball scene circa the late 1980s. One of the unheralded stars of the show is a fabulous soundtrack that interweaves some of the best pop, dance and R&B music of the 1980s, including the Mary Jane Girls, Expose, Force MDs, among others to accompany the tightly choregraphed ball struts and to underline the drama. Pose which I wrote about in July’s blog also garnered Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice nominations for Best Drama series and Best Actor for Billy Porter and made several top 10 TV series lists including the American Film Institute (AFI) and the New York Times, among others.

 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Seasons 3 and 4 (so far!)

 

CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend began its fourth and final season this fall. As one of the few series to feature original music in each episode Crazy Ex is a unique series. Season Three delved more deeply into issues of mental health than most series would dare and did so with ample humor, intelligence and musicality. Season Four has begun promisingly with loving send-ups of New Jack Swing (“Don’t be a Lawyer”), “inspirational” songs, beach party movie music, and musicals (“The Group Mind Has Decided You’re in Love”). Check out these gems below:

 

 

Music on Film

 

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Bohemian Rhapsody

 

Though I find Bohemian Rhapsody missed opportunity dragged down by formulas and clichés, Rami Malek’s performance is a thrilling interpretation of Freddie Mercury’s immense physical presence and flair. Further, within the confines of the film the soundtrack employs their music effectively to illustrate their range as composers and performers. Incidentally, the film’s soundtrack (which is mostly greatest hits with a few live clips) has been a major album seller this fall and reignited interest in Queen’s vast catalog.

 

 

Notable Films (Based on what I have seen so far. Films are listed in order of preference):

 

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Sorry to Bother You (Directed by Boots Riley)

Dizzying and delightfully surreal Oakland based meditation on money, authenticity, art and love with the most inspired plot twist in years.

 

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Blindspotting (Directed by Daveed Diggs)

A hip-hop fueled buddy movie with provocative insights about race and gentrification in Oakland.

 

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Can you ever forgive me? (Directed by Marielle Heller)

Surly anti-heroes, brilliantly portrayed by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, con New York’s early 1990s literary trade (temporarily) without a trace of sentimentality.

 

Three Identical Strangers (Directed by Tim Wardle)

A seemingly upbeat chronicle of three twins separated at birth challenges you to reconsider everything you think you know and becomes a fascinating detective story.

 

BlacKkKlansman (Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee employs elements from Ron Stallworth’s autobiography chronicling his experiences as a black cop who integrates Colorado Springs’s police force in the 1970s as a catalyst for a broader look at racial identity then and now.

 

The Wife (Directed by Björn Runge)

Glenn Close unravels in a tense trickle in her role as a thankless wife living in the shadows of her husband, a feted author who receives the Nobel Prize in Literature in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel.

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Directed by Morgan Neville)

A straightforward yet compelling look at a very layered public figure (Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers) whose innovations redefined the way television spoke to children and expanded the notion of education.

 

Leave No Trace (Directed by Debra Granik)

An admirably lean and engaging depiction of a traumatized war veteran attempting to shelter his teenaged daughter from the world without realizing she is readier for it than him.

 

Notable Film performances (in alphabetical order):

Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You)

Ben Foster (Leave No Trace)

Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting)

Glenn Close (The Wife)

Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)

*Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You)

Letitia Wright (Black Panther)

Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased)

Maura Tierney (Beautiful Boy)

*Melissa McCarthy (Can you ever forgive me?)

Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Rafael Casal (Blindspotting)

Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)

Richard E. Grant (Can you ever forgive me?)

Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace)

Topher Grace (BlacKkKlansman)

 

(*= My favorite film performances of the year)

 

Notable musician deaths (A selective list):

 

Aretha Franklin’s signature ‘60s songs “Respect,” “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood” helped secure her status as the “Queen of Soul,” though she had a broad stylistic range.

Aretha Franklin’s signature ‘60s songs “Respect,” “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood” helped secure her status as the “Queen of Soul,” though she had a broad stylistic range.

Charles Aznavour: Cabaret vocalist, songwriter and actor

Marty Balin (Jefferson Starship): Rock vocalist and songwriter

Bob Dorough: Jazz vocalist and composer

Bob Dorough wrote jazz classics like “Devil May Care” and the songs for the TV series  Schoolhouse Rock .

Bob Dorough wrote jazz classics like “Devil May Care” and the songs for the TV series Schoolhouse Rock.

Dennis Edwards (Temptations): Vocalist

Aretha Franklin: Vocalist, writer, songwriter and actress

Hugh Masekela: Vocalist, writer, and activist

Hugh Masekela was born in South Africa and was notable for his music and his anti-apartheid activism.

Hugh Masekela was born in South Africa and was notable for his music and his anti-apartheid activism.

Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries): Rock vocalist and songwriter

Yvonne Staples (The Staple Singers): R&B and gospel vocalist

Nancy Wilson: Vocalist, actress and radio and talk show host

Nancy Wilson was one of the most versatile voices in American popular music achieving success in the pop, jazz and R&B fields.

Nancy Wilson was one of the most versatile voices in American popular music achieving success in the pop, jazz and R&B fields.

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

















 

The other great musical of 2016: Hamilton can’t get all the buzz this year

In January 2016 when I watched actress Rachel Bloom accept the Best Actress Comedy/Musical award at the annual Golden Globe Awards I thought here’s another “hip” show I’ve never heard of that the notoriously fickle Globes are recognizing and never thought about it again. More recently a friend and I were perusing Netflix and watched the first two episodes which were astutely funny and surprising. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not a traditional sitcom in the sense that it is over 40 minutes, had some darkly humorous overtones, oh yeah and it’s a musical sitcom. As with any great musical when emotions exceed reality characters launch into the surreal singing original songs, often with choreography, that are genius formally and as character devices.

 

The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be the best musical you're not watching! 

The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be the best musical you're not watching! 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was an idea hatched by Bloom with Aline Brosh McKenna and Marc Webb. Though there have been musical series on network television (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs on the CW) most are forgettable and/or asinine. Cop Rock anyone? Anyone? About a decade ago shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scrubs and Psyche, had musical episodes but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does not treat the musical format as a novelty. It’s intricately woven into the blueprint of the series and fortunately employs gifted singing actors including Broadway actors Donna Lynne Champlin and Santino Fontana.

 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was originally developed by cable network Showtime. For whatever reason the show shifted to the CW making it more accessible to a wider range of audiences. The show’s premise (humorous summarized in a brilliant Emmy-nominated theme song) is that Rebecca is a successful New York lawyer whose happiest memory is dating Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) in a summer camp as teenagers. She is miserable and ruins into him on the streets of New York. After a brief exchange he mentions he is leaving New York to live in his hometown of West Covina, California. Impulsive, desperate, and ready for a change Rebecca decides to quit the firm and move to West Covina. Despite being Harvard educated and about to make partner her divorced parents haunt her as does the reality that the real world she’s trained for is not quite as fun as camp. Embarrassed by her motives she pretends she is in West Covina on a whim which sets her up for some dramatic situations throughout the season. She immediately encounters people in Josh’s social circle and she and her co-worker develop a series of ridiculous schemes, often patterned after romantic comedies, to win Josh over. The problem for Rebecca is that Josh is already in a serious long-term relationship with the vain, unpleasant Valencia.

 

As the season plays out you get a nuanced understanding of each character. Josh is a happy-go lucky type but he is a suspended adolescent in many ways, and beneath the surface lies uncertainty about his career and relationship. Greg (played by Santino), Josh’s best friend is a dark character who is drawn to Rebecca and grows increasingly frustrated with her playing second fiddle to her emotions for Josh. Greg is intelligent and perceptive but family issues have retarded his progress. Her co-worker and friend Paula (played by Champlin) commands respect at the law firm where they work but is isolated at home with distracted kids and an inattentive husband.  Supporting characters include Rebecca and Paula’s boss Daryl (Pete Gardner) whose divorce leads him to other revelations, and Josh and Greg’s friends “White Josh” (David Hull) and Hector (Erick Lopez).

 Other cool things about the show: The cast is genuinely multicultural, including Indian-American, Filipino-American (Josh is Filipino-American), and Latino characters. Diversity is also integrated into the supporting characters and extras, meaning it actually resembles California.  There is also some sexual diversity, including the rare bisexual character, and ongoing integrations of religious cultures in the show. Tonally, the show has a sense of humor about itself and its characters but there is genuine drama informing the comedy making it that much funnier. Finally there are sublimely ridiculous moments like an arbitration hearing that is suspended by a judge when Rebecca accidentally sends a text to Josh. A hair metal band battle emerges over whether it’s a “Textastrophe” or “Textmergency.”

 

Musically the show is masterful at pastiche. I can’t think of any TV series that has employed hip-hop so cleverly including spoke-sung raps about winning over parents, the burden of large breasts, and a battle between two self-identified Jewish American Princesses.  You also get a peppy mid-tempo pop tune in the style of Huey Lewis, several jazzy tunes, including the Emmy nominated “Settle for Me,” a bombastic heal-the-world style song sung with a children’s choir, a boy band parody, and a torch song with multiple crescendos among others. Almost every song has a tongue-in-cheek meta-dimension. The songs are not only knowing send-ups of popular genres, but also comment on television itself. Television reached a golden era in the late 1990s-mid-2000s and networks and cable are trying to compete with brilliant shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon Prime’s Transparent. That a smart and innovative program airs on network television is a welcome change from stale line-ups filled with crime procedurals and bland melodramas.

 

Broadway musicals, and their cinematic offshoots, are a distinctly American genre that defined popular music from the mid 1920s-1960s. Cast albums regularly topped the sales charts in the 1950s and 1960s, popular singers across genres sang the best Broadway melodies, showtunes were on the radio regularly, and singing actors and actresses were mainstays on television variety shows. On Broadway musicals became increasingly more expensive to stage, audiences lost their interest in film musicals in the 1970s, and audiences divided their musical tastes more diffusely than ever in the late 1960s onward. As a result few musicals, aside from megahits like Rent or films like Frozen, spawn hit songs and reach the broader public. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed hip-hop musical Hamilton has won a slew of awards, spawned a popular cast album and is being filmed for public television. Whether it results in crossover songs seems unlikely given the subject matter. Still bravo to Miranda for taking a chance, and bravo to the CW for airing the best musical outside of Broadway. The show is up for several Emmys for songwriting and choreography (airing in September) and the second season returns to air in October.       

 

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.