Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Season 2 of Mrs. Maisel: a Marvelous Mess

Last January I sung high praises for the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a smart comedy with likable characters who don’t choke anyone to death with a chain or dissolve a human body in an acid bath.  What a nice change of pace!  But the second season of Mrs. Maisel, which my wife and I just finished last week, is a mess, full of plot lines that lead nowhere, unnecessary characters, inconsistencies and lazy writing.  Is it still better than a lot of what’s on TV?  Probably, but the show isn’t striving for mediocrity – that’s merely its outcome.

Mrs. Maisel is without a doubt among the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen, with amazing 1950s costumes and set designs, and glamorous glimpses into record shops, department stores, switchboards, and summer months spent at the Catskills.  The acting is also superb, with now two-time Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan as Midge and the incomparable Tony Shalhoub killing it as Midge’s father, Abe.

But then there are the plot lines, and there are so many debacles in this department that it’s hard to know where to begin.  I’ll address just a few.

Great pains were made to show that Midge’s first impromptu comedy show at the Gaslight was recorded and bootlegged at a local record store, where it was appreciated by a few comic nerds, pressed into vinyl and placed on sale.  In one episode, Midge’s manager Susie discovers the record at the shop and chases the store clerks onto the street.  Where does this intriguing plot line lead?  Absolutely nowhere.  No money made.  No lawsuit filed.  No discovery from a club promoter or record label.  Might this plot line come back in Season 3?  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, but by that time it’ll be a complete non sequitur.

Susie begins the season receiving death threats, resorting to sleeping at the Gaslight and switching apartments with an Italian-immigrant family.  Where does all this lead?  Nowhere.  It just…stops, and Susie once again safely roams the streets of New York and is back at her apartment before the season’s end.

The first two episodes of Season 2 have Midge’s mother Rose living in Paris, having escaped an unfulfilling life and inattentive husband, and Abe and Midge travel across the Atlantic to retrieve her.  Where does this transcontinental diversion lead?  Well, nowhere…unless you include Rose’s brief foray into art studies as integral to the show.  Her husband doesn’t change, Rose goes back to the life she’d led before, and Midge once again displays her twisted priorities by traveling to Paris at a moment’s notice without a second thought about her children, which leads me to my next point.

As the show is written, Midge’s two children are grave inconveniences, and one wonders if show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is regretting introducing them into the script in Season 1.  The current show would be better without them, because it’s hard to root for Midge when she’s up for The Most Neglectful Mother of the Year Award.  Yes I know, parents may not have doted on their children in 1958 the way they do today, but aside from reading a book to her son in one episode, Midge interacts with her children not one iota.  And don’t get me wrong – Joel is just as bad in his role as a father as Midge is as a mother.  The Maisel children are equal opportunity victims.  Mrs. Maisel would be a much better show if Midge was trying to figure out how to follow her dream while being a good mother. Too bad that’s not part of the package.

Then there are the amazing number of expendable characters who keep mucking up the story.  We meet Susie’s dysfunctional family, a device used to garner a car for Midge and Susie’s tour, but it would have been just as well to learn that Susie came upon a car by some bit of serendipity.  We get a detour to the art world of New York, of which Midge’s new boyfriend Benjamin is well-versed, and spend half an episode (or did it just feel like half an episode?) on a self-destructive artist Declan Howell, who’s apparently in the script to help Midge decide what she wants out of life.  But the culminating scene – where Midge gets to see the artist’s previously hidden magnum opus – takes place as Benjamin goes out for coffee, so the reveal doesn’t lead to any growth between Midge and Benjamin, which I think would have been a more important development. We watch Midge’s husband Joel take out a bank loan with his pestering parents, we hear his self-loathing rants to his buddy while they whack at baseballs (which they then retrieve without the aid of their baskets), we learn about Midge’s brother’s employment at the CIA, and on and on.  What we don’t see much of is Midge perfecting her craft, learning the hard knocks of comedy, and gradually breaking into the business while keeping her personal life together.  That would be a great show!

And then there are Mrs. Maisel’s vulgarities, which make no sense.  Susie is supposed to be the tough one with the foul mouth, and I am all in with her character’s obscenities. But Midge grew up in upper-class society, attended Bryn Mawr, married a guy and gave birth to two children; I don’t believe for a second that house-wife Midge Maisel is spewing out F-bombs left and right in 1959.  And then the writers have Midge doing an impromptu performance at her friend’s wedding reception, a scene that’s so cringe-worthy it lacks believability, which is just another way of saying it’s lazy writing, something I also commented on in my post on Season 1. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of the F-word, and I can tolerate the show’s use of some of today’s idioms (“It is what it is,” for example), but the words have to match the characters.  Otherwise, they’re just a distraction.  If you’re interested in reading about the plethora of anachronisms in Mrs. Maisel check out this blog

Mrs. Maisel works so hard to visually represent the late 1950s and I find it odd that the writers don’t work just as hard on plot points and verbiage.  Season 2 gets a thumbs down from me, and if Season 3 doesn’t redeem itself I’m giving up, though admittedly, 50 year-old middle-class white guys may not be the advertiser’s most coveted demographic! 

Next for me on TV - checking out The Good Place and The Kominsky Method.

Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

The Last Eleven Albums I Can't Live Without

Fifty down with another eleven below, capping off my list of albums I can’t live without at sixty-one. As a reminder, this list is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen.

Rush – Permanent Waves (1980). I’ve written extensively about Rush’s catalog before, but I’ll quickly say that Permanent Waves is their best album.  It’s such a fresh and positive collection of songs, with just enough prog-rock elements to keep things from getting stale. 

Sting – Mercury Falling (1996).  One of the best-sounding albums ever, Sting was at his peak here, creating sonic moods, telling compelling stories (“I Hung My Head” and “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”) and deftly encapsulating feelings (“Let your Soul Be Your Pilot” and “All Four Seasons”).  The album preceding and succeeding this release are good too, but this is Sting’s best solo recording, and while I could certainly make an argument for the Police’s second and last albums, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I rarely turn to those aside from the title track of the former and the title tracks of the latter.

Genesis – Duke (1980).  It came down to this or the following year’s Abacab, but ultimately I can’t say no to the thrilling bookends to the album and “Turn it on Again,” among my favorite tracks ever.  Once again, Tony Banks contributes a few killer tracks in “Heathaze” and “Cul-de-Sac,” and Rutherford even adds a terrific “Man of our Times.”  Collins disrupts the genius with “Please Don’t Ask,” but oh well.  It’s still a fantastic album, and at 55 minutes in length, you can skip that one track and still have a ton of Genesis leftover to enjoy!

Yes – Tales from Topographic Albums (Sides 1 and 2).  Look, I know that The Yes Album, Fragile, Going for the One, Drama and 90125 are all great, but in the context of the other albums I’m selecting, having the first few sides of Tales is a really satisfying addition, a set of rich and mysterious tracks that still mesmerize me after all these years, having purchased the album used in Milwaukee back in 1981.  If I made a top 100 albums, I’d probably include many of the aforementioned albums.

Toto – Toto (1978).  This is another one I might get crap for, but doggone it, it’s such a solid album from front to back, with terrific hooks, crafty musicianship, and a killer lead-off track, it’s hard to resist.  Employing not one, not two, not three, but four lead singers, the album alternates between solid rock and jazz-tinged pop, and with Jeff Porcaro on the drums, it’s as tight as can be.  It you like some of the later hits off of Toto IV, check this album out and be amazed.

Indigo Girls – All That We Let In (2004).  This duo is so fricking good I could have chosen another three albums, but this one made the cut, an extremely solid album from start to finish.  The Indigo Girls is another band that really benefits from having two singers with two distinct voices and two distinct writing styles, Emily Saliers’s sweet and Amy Ray’s edgy, and the way they intertwine these voices gives them a distinctive sound. Ray’s songs on this effort are particularly strong, which isn’t always the case, and songs like “Perfect World” and “Tether” work perfectly alongside “Fill it Up Again” and “Come on Home.”  Just beautiful.

The Beatles – The Beatles, sides 1 and 3 (1968).  You knew the Fab-Four would have to be represented somewhere on this list.  It’s not easy to stay excited about songs you’ve heard a thousand times, but The White Album still grabs me, particularly side one.  I love the rising guitar motif at the end of “Dear Prudence,” the juxtaposition of “Glass Onion” and the quirky “Wild Honey Pie” surrounding “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” and Harrison’s best composition, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but its Lennon who really shines on this album throughout.  Sides two and three are tossups, with Lennon’s beautiful “Julia” almost giving the former the edge, but I love how the band rocks on side three in sharp contrast to the rest of the album (also, “Don’t Pass Me By” is on side two – which is unfortunate).  The band’s next album, Abbey Road, is probably the most complete Beatles release, and it’s second side is among the best album sides ever recorded, but I’m no longer intrigued with “Come Together” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  With the White Album, it’s not the individual tracks that lead to greatness, but the collective whole.

Pat McCurdy – The Big, Bright, Beautiful World of Pat McCurdy (1997).  Some may categorize this Milwaukee artist as a novelty act, but I argue that there’s a lot more going on here than cheap laughs.  McCurdy, whose songwriting prowess is apparent, has a penchant for memorable melodies, social commentary and satire, with an occasional touching moment.  The song “Thankless Bastard” was a regular sing-along song for my children (which tells you something about their father), but the whole album is well-done, with a few live numbers to heighten the energy and give it jovial feel.  Yes, this album harkens me back to my nights watching McCurdy at The Celebrity Club in Milwaukee when I was young, poor, drunk and obnoxious, but I think it holds up on its own merits.

Utopia – Utopia, sides 1 and 2 (1982).  When I saw the Todd Rundgren-led Utopia open up for the Tubes on my eighteenth birthday, they didn’t leave much of an impression on me except that they were really, really weird.  I didn’t pay them any attention for the next thirty-one years, but then a record-collection friend of mine encouraged me to check out their self-titled 1982 release, and my oh my, what a superb power-pop album.  Funny and witty, melodic and complicated, mixed moods, tight harmonies.  This collection has it all.  It’s not unlike some of XTC’s best stuff, but whereas I have trouble digesting more than twenty minutes of the latter’s music, this album goes down nice and easy.

U2 –The Joshua Tree (1987). U2’s seminal release took place during my freshman year in college and the album was everywhere.  Hard-core U2 fans prefer one of their first four releases, but I’m not really a hard-core U2 fan.  The album does lose steam on the final two tracks, but it would have been a lot to ask that the heightened ecstasy be sustained beyond the album’s first nine songs.  “Where the Streets Have No Name” is the perfect opener and was quite the splash at the Super Bowl in 2002, and “Red Hill Mining Town” has always been a favorite of mine.   I’ve sadly never seen them in concert because their ticket prices are usually ridiculous.

Sarah McLachlan – Surfacing (1997).  I recall purchasing this album and 10,000 Maniacs’ Love Among the Ruins in Allentown, PA with my friends Scott and Todd.  I wavered holding Surfacing in my hands, and Scott said, “You should get it.”  I did, and happily absorbed this album as part of soundtrack to my first year of parenthood.  What I dig about this album is the alternating between darkness and heartbreakingly beautiful, with neither side winning.  The song “I Love You,” is pretty terrible, but it’s the only song I consistently skip on this release.  The opening track packs a punch, as does “Sweet Surrender,” and then we get to probably the most forgiving and empathetic breakup songs ever, “Adia,” with beautiful vocals skating on top of a tasteful guitar and piano arrangement.  A lovely album.

So there you have it! Sixty-one albums. There are undoubtedly another thirty or forty that I might have chosen at a different time, but this collection would serve me quite nicely if I were forced to downsize my collection to a paltry sixty-one. In a week or two I’ll do a recap, with a graph of years represented and some of the albums I considered that didn’t quite make the cut. Happy New Year!

20 More Desert Island Albums

Thirty down with another twenty below. This list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. Here are my first thirty entries, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)
The Pursuit of Happiness - Love Junk
Big Country - Peace in our Times
Pink Floyd - The Wall (sides 1 and 2)
Pink Floyd - The Wall (sides 3 and 4)
Randy Newman - Little Criminals
Randy Newman - Bad Love
Bad Examples - Kisses 50¢
Paul Simon - Suprise
Off Broadway - On
Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark
Lloyd Cole - Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe
Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going!
The Who - Quadrophenia (sides 1 and 2)
Gabriel Kahane - Where are the Arms
Supertramp - Crisis? What Crisis?
Supertramp - Breakfast in America
R.E.M. - Automatic for the People
Yes - Close to the Edge
Elton John - Madman Across the Water
Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Up to speed? Okay - here are my next twenty selections in detail:

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones (1979).  Wow, what a debut.  I’m not sure how an unknown singer managed to nab Steve Gadd, Dr. John, Randy Newman, Jeff Porcaro, etc. to accompany her, but having first-class musicians to backup your debut sure doesn’t hurt!  Jones’s next two albums are also wonderful, but listening to them front to back, her debut is the standout, with nary a weak track to be found, offering a wide ranging output: playful, nostalgic, desperate, loving and chilling.  “Last Chance Texaco” and “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” are favorites of mine.  That’s another release from 1979.  More to come!

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel (1985).  Just a few years post-Who, Townshend returns with an excellent solo effort, a sort of story (though I’ve never followed it) taking place in a section of London in the 60s, Townshend surrounds himself with a terrific cast of musicians and focuses on short, melodic songs without getting too bogged down in the story it’s supposed to tell.  Instead, we’re simply left with a solid set of songs, with “Crashing By Design” the highlight.

Aimee Mann – Music from the Motion Picture Magnolia (1999).  Mann’s first solo effort in 1993 has a few of my favorite tracks ever, but six years later her soundtrack to a film that left my jaw on the floor upon first viewing hits the nail on the head.  Once in a while a soundtrack is so inextricably linked to a movie, the opening chords of a song like “Wise Up” is enough to send chills down the spine and transport one right back to the film.  Mann has such a knack for writing lyrics that so perfectly describe a character, it’s easy to overlook the labor that Mann must expend to finish a song.  Either that or she’s just plain brilliant.  Maybe both.  But this is a great album filled with wonderful characterizations.  The soundtrack also two Supertramp songs and a few other cuts, but the album stands on Mann’s contributions alone.  Jon Brion produces and adds his tasty flavoring throughout.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti, Sides 1 and 2 (1975). 

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti, Sides 3 and 4 (1975).  Funny how some songs grate on you after decades of being overplayed while others sound as fresh and urgent as the first time you heard them.  For me, Led Zeppelin’s sixth album is full of the latter.  I’ve never gotten tired of hearing the ball-busting intro to “Kashmir.  If I were a professional baseball player, that would be my song when I came up to bat.  (Think it’s weird to fantasize about being an MLB player?  Yeah, fair enough.)  “Ten Years Gone” is among the most beautifully-crafted songs ever produced, with Page’s multiple guitar tracks interweaving perfectly into a sublime climax.  With just the right balance of rockers and softer tracks, long and short, blues-based and folk-based, Physical Graffiti is one of the best albums in rock history.

Genesis – A Trick of the Tail (1976).  My favorite Genesis albums have shifted over the years.  Wind and Wuthering and Selling England by the Pound used to be tops, but these days if I am to pick a few albums by one of my top two favorite prog-rock bands, one has to be the first album with Phil Collins on lead vocals.  I’ve never been one of those goofballs who claim that Genesis after Peter Gabriel isn’t worth the time of day.  This album is a kick-ass clinic on all things prog, from shifting time signatures, obscure and fanciful lyrics and deft musicianship, but unlike many bands in this genre, Genesis manages to achieve all the essential elements while crafting beautiful melodies over challenging harmonic structures, with just enough lyrical universality to entrance the listener.  Take “Mad Man Moon,” a preeminent track composed by keyboardist Tony Banks.  I couldn’t tell you exactly what the song means or what Banks intended, but it seems to tell a tale of a man who leaves his loved-one in search of glory, and winds up in a desert, where he keenly observes how no matter where you live, the grass appears to be greener elsewhere.  Nothing miraculous there, but beautifully stated over absolutely sublime chord changes, with a mid-section of subtle percussion and piano.  It’s just a perfect, standout track on a standout album.  Only the unfortunate “Robbery Assault and Battery” keeps this album from being flawless.

Ben Folds Five – Ben Folds Five (1995).

Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001).  Just like I can’t overstate the importance of Supertramp to the 11 year-old me, I can’t tell you how revitalized my interest in music became when I first heard Ben Folds Five on WXPN, Philadelphia.  Finally, a pianist with edge, wit and chops, with a kick-ass drummer and bass player to boot.  This music influenced my own compositions in a big way, much like Randy Newman had just a few years before.  The debut album holds up oh, so well, and so do the second and third albums, but if I have to choose one from Ben Folds Five, it has to be the one that put them on the map, with “Philosophy,” “Underground” and “Boxing” the highlights.  And a mere six years later, Ben Folds releases an almost perfect solo effort, with some of this most exciting and moving pieces to date.  “Still Fighting It,” “Gone” and “Not the Same” are my favorites.

Marc Cohn – Burning the Daze (1998).  You know him for his pseudo hits, “Walking in Memphis” and “Silver Thunderbird,” and while his debut album is undeniably solid, it’s his third album that grabs me and doesn’t let go.  Oddly, Cohn plays virtually nothing from this release when he performs live, and one gets the feeling that he’s lost all affinity for it.  This collection of songs is deep and dark, delving into the insecurities and baggage that humans carry with them on convoluted paths, with “Lost You in the Canyon” a standout, a song whose lyrics about disconnection from a loved one could be applied to society as a whole twenty years later

Rufus Wainwright – Want One (2003).   To date, this is Wainwright’s crowning achievement, a fifty-eight minute single release absolutely packed with memorable tunes, lush arrangements and lyrics that are utterly empathetic to the human experience.  “I Don’t Know What It Is” is one of my favorites tracks ever, “14th Street” is a gem, and “Dinner and Eight” brings me to tears if I’m in the right sort of mood (or, perhaps, the wrong sort of mood).  Wainwright sometimes aims high and misses the mark – which is entirely forgivable – but with Want One he hits the bulls-eye.  In the age of streaming, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear highly-produced (i.e., expensive) albums like this being recorded anymore.

Sara Bareilles – Kaleidoscope Heart (2010).  Hey, I stand by this, so back off!  Bareilles is ridiculously talented, a pop-melodist extraordinaire, and I love that her lyrics are both vulnerable and strong, providing a great role model for youth and elders alike, male or female, but there’s no denying that she played an important musical role in my daughters’ upbringing.  “Uncharted” and “Let the Rain” are standouts.

Billy Joel – Turnstiles (1976).  I wasn’t aware of just how good an album this is until a few years ago.  I knew all but two of the songs, but hadn’t realize they were all from the same album, self-produced by Billy Joel after relocating back to New York after a stint in LA.  Joel is a consummate lyricist, and the greatest pleasure in listening to his songs – aside from impressive melody – is picking up on lyrics like “Now as we indulge in things refined/We hide our hearts from harder times.”  None of Joel’s albums is perfect, and Turnstiles is no exception, with “All You Want to Do Is Dance” the clunker on Side A, but the other good stuff is so good, I’ll allow it.

Paul McCartney – Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005).  Tug of War and Flowers in the Dirt aren’t nearly as good as I remember them, Back to the Egg is a favorite with just a few too many weak points, Ram may be in vogue with the critics but it really doesn’t measure up, and Band in the Run is undoubtedly a worthy contender, but for me McCartney’s 2005 release is the most solid album from start to finish, and it’s one that speaks to me more lyrically than the nonsensical words on some of his other releases.   I’ve written about Chaos and Creation before, but suffice to say that it’s a great effort with beautiful melodies that are much more complex than they appear to be at first glance.  My one gripe is that I’d love to have more backup vocals – I can actually hear where they should go and what they should be – but producer Nigel Godric opted for a sparser album.

Steely Dan – Gaucho (1980).  Aja is probably their crowning achievement, but I’m kind of tired of the tracks, and I don’t really like “I Got the News.”  Instead, I choose the smooth-jazz follow-up, Gaucho, an album that makes me want to drink a dirty martini in a high-class nightclub.  Polished beyond belief – you can read stories about the lengths that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went to to get the sounds they wanted – it still breathes humanity and musicianship.  “Babylon Sisters” and the title track are my favorites here.

Joe Jackson – Get Sharp! (1979).  One more from 1979!  Joe Jackson has put out so much great material in so many different genres over four decades, I feel a little bad for picking his very first effort, but there’s simply no denying its magnificence.  From top to bottom, Jackson effuses sarcasm and wit with enough insight and substance to keep it from getting downright cranky, and he wades into the waters of so many different musical feels – the breakdown of the title track, the manic anxiety of “Got the Time,” the reggae feel of “Fools in Love” – that it never gets redundant.  My favorite lyric: “Happy loving couples/in matching white polo-necked sweaters/reading Ideal Homes magazine.”  Fantastic!

Joe Jackson – Blaze of Glory (1989).  Just a decade later Joe put out his most ambitious record to date, the fifty-seven minute-long Blaze of Glory that he played in its entirely when I saw him in September that year.  Each album side plays uninterrupted, beginning with the idealistic outlook of a young man who eventually grows disillusioned and who has to scratch and claw his way to an unsatisfying, but inevitable, consolation.  Bold and beautiful, the only unfortunate aspect of the album is the highly produced and electronically triggered snare and tambourine sounds.  When I saw him live these sounds were prerecorded (or triggered somehow), the drummer literally avoiding playing the snare.  It sure was the 80s!  I found this album on vinyl a few years ago for something like $8 and was ecstatic.

The Hush Sound – Like Vines (2006).  I was turned onto this band after some of its members who attended my town’s local high school rehearsed in my neighbor’s garage, but this isn’t some homer fascination with a local band.  The Hush Sound is serious shit, having produced three albums and gone onto do other musical projects both individually and together.  With a beautiful melding of male vocalist Bob Morris and female vocalist Greta Salpeter, the band produced fabulous dynamic changes from sweet piano waltzes to ballsy guitar rockers and was on regular rotation throughout much of my children’s upbringing.  Greta’s voice and influence grew as the band went on (she was all of 17 when the first album was recorded), but it’s this second album that balances both singers’ influences in perfect harmony.  I see on-line and on Spotify that “Wine Red” has been remixed into a positively horrendous dance tune, a black spot for anyone with musical taste.  If you take the jump, find the original CD avoid this egregious affront to music lovers.

Simple Minds – Once Upon a Time (1985).  Two years before The Joshua Tree, I felt like this Scottish band was accomplishing what U2 was still hoping to achieve: a consistent, powerful album with mass appeal and a unifying sound.  One Upon a Time is nearly perfect, with each of the first five tracks absolute juggernauts.  When they performed “Ghost Dancing” at Live Aid in Philadelphia, I’m not sure the American audience quite knew how blessed they were.  The band’s next album, Street Fighting Years, a whopping four years after, was such a disappointment, it gets my vote for worst follow-up to a magnum opus ever.

10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987).  This could have gone either way: the band’s 1987 release or its last with singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant, Our Time in Eden.  The latter packs more punch in parts, but the former album marked a clear delineation for me when I purchased it at Tower Records on Mass Ave in Boston instead of Toto’s seventh album.  I chose something new, something progressive, instead of the usual fair I’d been accustomed to.  I’ve never turned my back entirely on classic rock bands, but this purchase opened the door to Elvis Costello, Innocense Mission, and on and on.  This is a terrific release.  I’m ashamed to say – or maybe the U.S. education system should be ashamed – that I didn’t know who Jack Kerouac was in 1987, so that upon hearing the second song on the album – my favorite – I didn’t know who or what Merchant was singing about.  I just knew it was good.  Just as this album opened up musical doors, it also opened up literary doors, as On the Road was soon part of my library.

James Taylor – Never Die Young (1988).  James Taylor is an American treasure, but he’s laid a few eggs in his time, and few of his albums are terrific from front to back.  I thought I might pick Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, but then returned to a tried and true album that I listen to regularly: Never Die Young.  Aside from the fact that I have a personal relationship with this album – my wife and I danced our first dance as a married couple to “Sweet Potato Pie” – there’s just a lot here to like: the quirky “Valentine’s Day” that I fondly recall Taylor playing it at a concert back in 1996, and an ostensibly silly song like “Sun on the Moon” that’s actually quite poignant, speaking to the rat race that many of us choose to engage in.  The only tune I could do without is the last on the album, “First of May,” which is kind of ironic, as this track was the sole representative of the album on JT’s most recent tour.  Go figure.  Probably played better live.

So there you are! One more entry and I’ll be finished with my list of albums I can’t live without. Stay tuned as we ramp up into the new year.

20 More Albums I Can't Live Without

A quick recap from my last entry: this list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. So far, I’ve chosen 10 albums, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)

Without further ado, here are my next twenty picks in detail:

The Pursuit of Happiness – Love Junk (1988).  Probably not a perfect choice in the midst of the #MeToo movement, as much of this album could be categorized as misogynistic or at the very least demeaning to women, but for fun, angry and edgy melodic power-pop, you can’t get much better that this gem of a debut album by this Canadian power pop group led by Moe Berg.  Pop songs like “She’s So Young” are countered nicely with the bitterness of “Hard to Laugh” and playful “I’m an Adult Now.”  Solid throughout, and a perfect selection when you’re feeling angry or joyful alike, as long as you don’t practice what the lyrics preach.

Big Country – Peace in our Time (1988).  Another release from ’88, this album produced by Peter Wolf of J. Geils fame was regarded negatively at the time.  True, the opening track “King of Emotion,” with its heavy cowbell and a cheesy chorus, has Wolf’s fingerprints all over it, but it’s still fun, and there’s plenty of deeper, socially-conscious songs that one expects from this Scottish quartet, and the musicianship is impeccable.  With sharp, clean production – as opposed to, say, the muddied sound of their sophomore effort, Steeltown – this release still sounds in the present.  The song “In this Place” absolutely kills me.

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  Funny, because I know Pink Floyd fans who shell out big money to see The Australian Pink Floyd who could take or leave The Wall.  For me, it is quite simply the greatest achievement in rock and roll history.  Yeah, you heard me.  More universal than Tommy or Quadrophenia, with its theme of isolation even more relevant today than when it was first released, it’s a moving, heart-wrenching journey.  Favorite track: “Mother” in addition to the seminal “Comfortably Numb.” Among my biggest regrets is not seeing Roger Waters’s initial arena tour of The Wall in 2010 (I also failed to see the stadium tour, but with less regret).  That’s another release 1979.  There are more to come.

Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977).

Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999).  When reviewing top albums lists by various publications, three other Newman albums are often mentioned: 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I think the best of Newman was still to come when those early 70s albums – as good as they might be – made a splash with critics and fans alike.  Newman’s Bad Love is his masterpiece, a perfect blend of sardonic, witty, funny, poignant and heartbreaking songs (“I Miss You” absolutely kills me).  You simply can’t do better.  Likewise, Little Criminals has it all, (and even has Newman’s one and only hit, “Short People”) and sounds fresher and more urgent that his preceding albums of more notoriety.

Bad Examples – Kisses 50¢ (1995).  This Chicago band led by Ralph Covert, who later went on to quite a successful career writing music for kids, is one of those unsung power pop bands that recorded in the wrong decade, as grunge was in full-force in the 90s, when subtlety in composing and production wasn’t exactly in vogue.  The band’s second album is a great listen, full of melody, wit, changing moods and excellent guitar work.  My favorite moment is the second half of the chorus for “Trying to Prove that the Earth is Flat,” when the energy picks up a touch with a fabulous double octave guitar line, but the whole album is solid, with “Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare” and “The Mask of Mona Lisa” standout tracks.

Paul Simon – Surprise (2006).  When looking back on Simon’s consistently strong output, I kept coming back to one of his lesser-known albums, Surprise, a project that gave Simon a reinvigorated sound thanks to the sonic landscapes created by Brian Eno.  This album sounds fresh, exciting and fun, and there’s so much going on here lyrically that it warrants repeated listens.  I find much of Simon’s earlier output to sounds tired these days.  Even Graceland lacks the energy I’d expected to hear upon revisiting it recently, and aside from the title track, none of the lyrics speak to me.  Simon is one of those rare artists who’s managed to put out high quality recordings even into his 70s, though I find his last two studio albums of original material to be good, not great.  If I have to pick only one Paul Simon album to listen to these days, it’s Surprise.

Off Broadway – On (1979).  Another entry from 1979, this may be the best power pop album ever, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre: captivating melodies, tight arrangements, heightened energy, crunching guitar and slick harmonies and production.  The B section of “New Little Girl,” the chorus of “Bad Indication,” the verse of “Money’s No Good,” the unique voice of Cliff Johnson (except when he channels Buddy Holly) – it’s pure pop perfection.

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974).  I like a lot of Joni Mitchell’s output between 1968 and 1976 or so.  After that, she loses me, but I know people who feel that’s when her music gets really interesting.  For me, that middle period when she became a little less folky and a little more jazzy and bluesy is the sweet spot, and Court and Spark is a perfect melding of those genres, with her lyrics still self-reflective but more universal: who hasn’t been at a party feeling a little insecure?  Who hasn’t wondered whether the rat race in the U.S. is too much and who longed for an easy life in Paris?  Side one of this album is spectacular; side two gets a little bogged down, but not enough not to choose this as my favorite Mitchell album.

Lloyd Cole – Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991).  I had no clue who Lloyd Cole was when I found this cutout at Musicland, and although I’ve investigated his music before and since this release, nothing else reaches the heights of this album.  Divided into two parts – a rock side and a more romantic, melodramatic side (with orchestral parts arranged by Paul Buckmaster) – track after track offers great grooves with Cole’s infectious baritone cooing acerbic wit and melancholy, and Blair Cowan’s tasty organ parts really stand out.  My favorite track is “Pay for It,” whose riff is so simple but oh so irresistible, I could listen to this one happily for hours on end.  The intro and outro of “Half of Everything” also stand out, a beautiful blending of rock and orchestra.

Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982).  Yeah, I know.  I suspect that of all the albums I pick this will be the one I get the most flack for.  This album is notable for being the very first album I ever heard on CD.  My brother set up the player in our basement in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and we watched the CD spin through the semi-transparent door with hints of a green laser reflecting off the mirrored surface, and soon began the opening tom rhythm of “I Don’t Care Anymore.”  Fantastic.  It’s this track and two other dark songs that really make the album work for me: “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and, especially, “Thru These Walls” which highlights an angry and creepy side that’s fun to explore in music as long as it’s not overbearing.  Collins does a nice job of intermixing moods, whether sinister, fun or sappy.  Yes, “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” goes a bit over the top with its schmaltz, but it’s a well-crafted song, and I especially like “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away.”  Cheesy?  You bet!  But I’ve always been a fan of cheese, as long as it’s good.

The Who – Quadrophenia, sides 1 and 2 (1973).  This is without a doubt The Who’s magnum opus, their musicality and storytelling reaching new heights, with all four band members making stunning contributions.  The first two sides are pure perfection, with the title track and “The Punk and the Godfather” my favorites.  The second two sides never held together quite as well for me, though they certainly have their high points, but when I’m being (self) forced to limit my selections, that disc has to go.

Gabriel Kahane – Where are the Arms (2011).  A short Sunday morning segment on NPR clued me into Kahane, and it was a lovely bit of happenstance for me, because this album is utterly captivating.  Not unlike Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters and Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, this album builds off the heritage of classical song, but unlike Costello and Wainright (and Kahane’s more recent efforts), this collection infuses more modern elements into the songwriting and production, including some kick-ass guitar and drum performances that keep the album from getting bogged down under its own weight.  The upshot is a song cycle of moving, complicated and mysterious tunes with beautiful melodies and infection grooves.  The brass breakdown on “Calabash & Catamaran,” alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 is absolutely brilliant.

Supertramp – Crisis?  What Crisis? (1975).

Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979).  I can’t overstate how important this band was to the young version of me, insecure and creative, the youngest child of separated parents.  Hodgson’s lyrics were the empathetic voice I craved, though I can’t say for sure that I understood them all at the time.  Listening to Supertramp nearly forty years on, the band’s output still holds up.  I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of Davies’s and Hodgson’s respective oeuvres, one cynical and cranky, one spiritual and nurturing, and together they were greater than the sum of their parts.  Crime of the Century might be their most revered album, but weak production, overexposure and a so-so second side keep this out of the top for me (for today, at least).  Crisis? What Crisis? still excites me.  Back in the day I learned the piano solo to “Another Man’s Woman” note for note, and “A Soapbox Opera” and “The Meaning” are Hodgson at his best.  Davies only has four songs on the album, but they provide just enough edge to keep the album from sounding overly saccharine.  As for Breakfast in America, Davies raises the stakes to match his writing partner’s output note for note.  “Gone Hollywood” is the perfect opener, “Child of Vision” the perfect closer, and just about everything in between reaches the same level.  Another fantastic album from 1979.

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992).  One year after their enormous Out of Time, the band wisely changed directions again, releasing a quirky yet moving collection of melodic tunes with lush string arrangements provided by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.  Like other semi-experimental albums such as The White Album and Tusk, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and “Star Me Kitten” may not be brilliant, but in the context of the album they work effectively. Then you add some dark, intriguing songs like “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Try Not to Breathe“ and some truly exceptional tracks like “Nightswimming,” Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and, well, you’ve got yourself a gem. R.E.M.’s best.

Yes – Close to the Edge (1972).  This is where things get a bit tricky, because I could easily add five Yes albums to my list, but I probably have to limit it to two.  I’ll continue to struggle to determine what else cracks my top albums list, but one I know that has to be on there is the band’s fifth studio album, the last with drummer Bill Bruford and the second effort with Rick Wakeman on keys.  Close to the Edge probably gets my vote for the best prog-rock album ever.  From the side-long title track with distinct movements, to the bombastic climax of “And You and I” and the blistering “Siberian Khatru,” you just can’t get any better.

Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971).

Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).  Elton holds a special place in my memory, his music lingering in the background for much of my childhood.  When I was twelve I finally purchased his greatest hits album and a piano book of his music, and they were both life-altering, allowing me to finally start enjoying playing the piano instead of trudging through yet another Michael Aaron book.  Elton John could do little wrong from 1970 to 1976, but there are two albums that stand out.  Although I’m really tired of “Tiny Dancer,” Madman Across the Water is an excellent LP, consistent, with not a bad track to be found.  Even songs titled “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches” hit the mark, and the closing song, “Goodbye,” is so marvelously melancholy, it’s rivaled only by the bittersweet finale of what I consider to be Elton John’s best album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  The highs on this album are very high – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tower of Babel” – and even the lesser tracks are excellent.  My only gripe about this autobiographical album is the insanely overpowering drum track with slap-back echo on “Better Off Dead,” an otherwise great track.  I have no idea what producer Gus Dudgeon was thinking. The last song, “Curtains,” is tear-inducing and happened to finish off season one of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Whoever chose that song for the series deserves a medal.

That’s it for now! Next week I’ll add twenty more selections.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved