Monday, November 17, 2008

Top Ten Missing Singers on Rolling Stone List

Not that they didn't get some of them right. Yes, Aretha. Yes, Ray Charles. Yes, Dylan, Springsteen, Janis, Marvin, John, Paul, Bono, and Elvis (although, I’m sorry, Elvis is nowhere near the 3rd-greatest singer of all time). Rolling Stone magazine's “100 Greatest Singers” is a good rough draft of a list. But some editor should have gone to all the panelists who listed certain singers and said, "You must be high." And then pointed out who got left off the list.

How did some of these lesser lights end up on it? Seriously, Karen Carpenter? She might make Lawrence Welk’s top 100. George Jones? Sure, if you’re drunk and not quite finished throwing up. Lou Reed? Great songwriter, a visionary, really, but the man is nearly tone-deaf. Gregg Allman? Don Henley? Stevie fucking Nicks? Come on. Stevie Wonder, yes (and in the top ten, as he should be). But Stevie Nicks, with her one-octave range and all the expressiveness of a cocaine-dusted formica countertop?No. She shouldn’t even make a list of the top thousand singers.

More to the point, what system of judging compiles a list like this and fails to include the following musicians, one breath from any of whom could blow Stevie Nicks’s gauzy little scarves in a whirlwind around her neck and strangle her? Which I’d buy tickets to see.

1. Sting. Ignoring the most instantly identifiable, surest-pitched male voice in pop music for the past 30 years is ridiculous, and reveals how petty jealousy and faddishness affect the judging. When you consider that the judges include such musical luminaries as Courtney Love, Simon Le Bon, and Alice Cooper, it’s easier to understand. But it’s still ridiculous.

2. Diana Ross. There's a connection between these first two. People have complicated, self-involved ideas about divas, projecting their own self-loathing onto them. People like Sting and the egomaniacal Diana Ross have a lot of enemies. But I keep coming back to my original sense of injustice. Diana Ross, or Stevie Nicks? Uh-huh.

3. D’Angelo. Has there been a record since Voodoo (2000) that was any better sung, from top to bottom, back to front? I’m not sure there was one before, either. D'Angelo is a musical genius, worth a half-dozen of the singers on the top 100 list.

4. Peter Gabriel. The best art-rock singer ever. That's damning with faint praise, but you can't put David Bowie on the list and ignore this guy, with his astonishing range and risk-taking. Nobody does that flippy falsetto flourish at the end of a phrase like Peter Gabriel. As Laurie Anderson once said, “I really like the way he yodels.”

5. Shawn Colvin. I don’t know, this just seems like a terrible oversight. Is it that she’s too pretty? Then focus on her man hands, as she wrings amazing licks from her guitar to accompany that bell of a voice. Feel the shiver? She’s manhandling you.

6. Deb Talan. The Weepies are relatively new, but their songs have been used in commercials and they’ve been showing up on TV shows and movie soundtracks. Maybe they're somehow overexposed and unknown at the same time. But this is a list of singers, and no one sings with more clarity or honesty than Deb Talan. And nobody sings harmony like she does, either. Her range, fluidity, and emotional intensity make Stevie Nicks sound like Stevie Nicks by comparison.

7. James Mercer. I think The Shins have been around long enough for everyone to know what an amazing singer this guy is, especially considering that their songs feature some of the most complex melodies since The Beatles. Maybe it’s just that no one knows what the hell he’s singing about. But if that’s the case, how come Thom Yorke made the list? Again, I go back. James Mercer, or . . . Don Henley? OK then.

8. Eva Cassidy. Unlike Karen Carpenter, who'd be playing Six Flags if she were still alive, Eva Cassidy doesn't get sentimental votes for dying young. She deserves to be on the list because her voice kills you.

9. Patty Griffin. If she’d never sung anything but “Mad Mission” and “Poor Man’s House,” she’d still be in my top 100.

10. Louis Armstrong. If you’re going to consider people like George Jones, then musicians with even bigger influence on rock and pop singers should be fair game. In addition to a couple of crossover hits, Satchmo makes the list because he basically invented a whole genre of music, and his voice is one of the great sources of joy and delight in the world.

I could make a whole new list out of pitch-perfect, distinctive singers like Joan Baez, Alison Krauss, K.D. Lang, and Bobby McFerrin (maybe a little too perfect?) and rootsy ones like Keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Cassandra Wilson, Robert Belfour, John Prine, and Ray LaMontagne. The truth is, I like Mark Knopfler more than most singers I could name, despite the fact that he mumbles his way through every song in pretty much the same way. And one night at a coffeehouse open mike, I heard a chubby teenage girl sing a song about her screwed-up life that was one of the most thrilling musical moments of mine. What it is we want from a singer? Emotional truth, right? Joy, heartbreak, frustration, rage, resignation, tranquility, wonder. A sense of true humanity. Transcendence.

I'm tempted to blow the whole Anglo/American thing apart and start with great singers from around the world: Sheila Chandra, Youssou N'Dour, Egberto Gismonti, Maire Brennan, Joseph Shabalala, the late, great Miriam Makeba, the late, greater Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Nicolas Reyes of the Gipsy Kings, who might just be my favorite singer of all time.

But for English-language, find-it-at-the-record-store, popular music, this top ten list should replace the obvious mistakes on the Rolling Stone 100.

I have spoken. Dispatch this post to the offending judges at once. And please add your own entries to the list.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Top (Spulge) Nine Names
for Malia & Sasha Obama's New Puppy

President-elect Obama (I keep saying it, can’t quite believe it yet) gave a beautiful speech on election night, outlining challenges we'll have to meet and giving us a big Yes We Can coda. The only firm promise I recall from the speech, though, was to his daughters, whom he addressed directly, saying he loved them and that they had “earned the puppy that will be coming with us to the White House.”

Update: Malia apparently has a dog allergy. So the Obamas are looking for a non-shedder, like a labradoodle.

Fascinating, the way presidential pooches become public relations tools. It’s like we all have psychic ownership, a vested interest in the pet’s development and well-being. And the dog is unavoidably symbolic.When Bush’s terrier, Barney, bit that Reuters reporter this week, it not only resonated with Bush's relationship to the press but suggested an irritable, undisciplined administration, or perhaps simply a beleaguered one. Vicious? Rabid? The last eight years will have to be put down.

Even if we can’t clearly say what it’s a symbol of, the presence and personality of a pet offer an alternative image of a leader.
Perhaps the most famous: FDR and Fala. Then there was Nixon’s mawkish Checkers speech, which apparently worked with a sentimental sector of the American public. Oh, and Gerald Ford had a big dog that lounged around the Oval Office. Can't remember the name. I think he called it some non-dog thing like Patriot or something. And Clinton had Buddy. Didn't Buddy write a book during the first term? And didn't he hate the Clintons' cat?
I wonder what the Obamas will name their pet? You can submit ideas on Obama’s new transition site, along with your vision for America. (Nice site, really. Check it out.) Or just post 'em in a comment here. A few starter doggy names…

9. Fala
Pros: Rooseveltian, cementing the parallels between Obama's situation and FDR's. Traditional yet exotic-sounding. Gender-neutral. Can be extended into a Christmas carol refrain.
Cons: Derivative. And slightly elitist-sounding, like you’ve just taken a cigarette holder out of your mouth to say it.

8. Not-Barney
Pros: It’s anti-Bush. Suggests that reporters might not get their hands bitten.
Cons: Kind of stupid. Faintly echoes “Smith-Barney,” which could be a downer, reminding us of the financial crisis.

7. Madelyn
Pros: Pays homage to Obama’s maternal grandmother. Easily shortened to “Maddy.”
Cons: Only works for a female puppy. And the name might not make a sharp enough sound to effectively command obedience. Might turn into Mad Dog.

6. Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong
Pros: Literary, from a charming, old Roald Dahl story, “How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen.” Whimsical. Easily shortened to “Fidget” or “Wonky.”
Cons: A little fussy. Again, limited to the bitches. And right-wingers would pounce on “Fidget” or “Wonky.”

5. Captain Najork
Pros: Literary (see previous entry). Military. And an abbreviation from either side (“Cap’n!” or “Jork!”) gives a nice, sharp sound to elicit a dog’s response.
Cons: Strictly male. Also, what is wrong with me?

4. Marty
Pros: Cute. Can be male or female, although it does lean to the former. For a male dog, it's a great name, suggesting MLK without getting aggressively masculine or radical about it. You don’t want Malcolm or Eldridge or even Bill. Marty might also suggest Martin Sheen, the best president we never had.
Cons: No good for a big dog. You’re pretty much stuck with a terrier or a teacup or a weiner here.

3. King
Pros: Classic. A bigger, nobler, more obvious reference to MLK, but also a real, live, good ol’ dog name.
Cons: Only good for a big male dog. And the more you think about it, the less good it seems. This is not the time for a King. If you want to reclaim democracy, name your dog “Thomas Jefferson” or "Lincoln" or “Studs Terkel” or “Joe the Poodle.” Scratch that last one.

2. Hope
Pros: It’s got audacity.
Cons: If the dog dies in office, what a PR nightmare.

And the number 1 name for the Obama puppy is…yours. Post ideas here, and if you come up with a really good one, tell it to the man.