Year End Roundup

Pat Metheny Group: Better Days Ahead

If a blogger doesn’t blog, is it really a blog?

I’ve started drafting a few things for this space since July, but most of them were political screeds about issues that were discussed better elsewhere. But as we reach the end of an awful year, and the end of the Trump debacle approaches, maybe in 2021, I won’t be totally obsessed with political news, and might find other interesting things to write about here.

Instead, though, I’m going to round up my writing from other sites before tackling my annual TV post.

Most of my writing, as usual, is at Star Maker Machine, where we ran a Great theme in August, and I discussed historical theory and the Gang of Four’s “Not Great Men,” and the TV show The Great, about Catherine the Great, which was great, and will definitely be on my best of 2020 list. Next up was a Count/Counting theme, and I wrote about SCTV’s Count Floyd character, created by the great Joe Flaherty, and Human Sexual Response’s song “12345678910.”

In September, we started hearing about Trump’s attempts to cripple the post office (which may have backfired on him), so we had a Mail theme, and I wrote about the band Letters to Cleo, who faded away after some early success, only to have another moment in the spotlight when they were featured on Parks & Recreation. I followed that up with the 1969 hit by the mostly forgotten R.B. Greaves, “Take A Letter Maria.” The start of a school year that was, for most teachers, students, staff and parents, very different, inspired a Lessons theme, prompting a piece about the underappreciated Paul Carrack’s “Lesson in Love,” and another about “Better Git Yer Learnin‘” by the incredible Our Native Daughters, which tied into all of the BLM protests and marches I attended last summer.

Empty sports venues led to an Empty theme, for which I took a literal approach, with Whiskeytown’s “Empty Baseball Park,” followed by Titus Andronicus’ “The Void (Filler),” which included musings about concept albums and the time I saw the band with my son. In honor of the passing of Eddie Van Halen, we looked at Guitar Heroes, but because I had already written about most of mine over the years, I put our tiny spotlight on Gretchen Menn, a great guitarist who, like my wife and daughter, went to Smith College, but unlike them, plays in an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band, Zepparella (in addition to her solo work).

Many of my theme ideas for Star Maker come to me in the car, when I’m listening to music, which is where the Hidden Places idea came from, and inspired by my hatred of what the soon-to-be former administration did to our government, the imminent election, and seeing the song performed on the filmed version of David Byrne’s American Utopia, I wrote about the Talking Heads’ “Don’t Worry About The Government,” which mentions Washington D.C. (but not in the title–that’s why it is a “hidden” place.”) I’m still worried about the government, but somewhat less so now, after the election.

Speaking of which, our next theme was Joe, because, you know, he won. I discussed Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” which is what, it seems, Biden’s father called him, and also why, maybe, Biden’s warm relationship with his father made him a more empathetic person than Trump, whose father was, by all accounts, the opposite (and by some accounts, a member of the KKK).

Then, it was Thanksgiving. In line with this year’s ass-backwardness, our theme was No Thanks, and I wrote about three things that I was not thankful for from 2020–the incessant lying from the president and his cronies (The Jayhawks’ “Sound of Lies“), not being able to gather with my family (Old 97’s’ “Lonely Holiday“), and my retinal surgery (Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes“). Interestingly, that last one was one of my most viewed posts of 2020, probably because I used a pathetic picture of my post-surgery bandaged eye instead of the typical album cover. So, expect more medical procedure pictures in 2021–anything for clicks, right?

Another Star Maker tradition is the post-Thanksgiving Leftovers theme, where we go back and write something that would have fit a theme from earlier in the year, and I looked back to the Looking Forward theme (which was inspired by things we looked forward to when COVID was just a bad memory) by posting about the Highwomen’s great song “Crowded Table.” Despite the fact that it is a great recent song, and popular in the country/Americana world, it was one of my least viewed posts of 2020. So, if you missed it, check it out.

Our last theme of 2020, which is typically a holiday-related theme, is Pandemic Holiday Songs, and I wrote about Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” which I learned about from Phoebe Bridgers’ recent cover (and which is another post that hasn’t gotten the attention that I’d have expected), and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” first sung by Judy Garland during World War II looking forward to better times in the coming year, and then “jollied up” by Frank Sinatra.

Next up will be our annual In Memoriam theme, with, sadly, way too many choices to write about.

My writing at Cover Me was limited to group pieces, including a Q&A about favorite a cappella covers, allowing me to write about my daughter’s lead vocals with the Smith College Smithereens on Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” We did a 50 Best Leonard Cohen Covers piece, and I wrote about No. 48, Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which should be ranked much, much higher, No. 23, “I’m Your Man,” by Amanda Shires, who has lyrics from two Cohen songs tattooed on her body, No. 21, Lloyd Cole’s fine take on “Chelsea Hotel #2, No. 15, Lera Lynn’s bluesy “I Tried to Leave You,” and No. 5, R.E.M.’s treatment of “First We Take Manhattan,” which would not have sounded out of place on Monster.

We wrote about the 50 Best Tribute Albums of all time, and I wrote about Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young For Charity and Desperate Times: Songs of the Old 97’s. And, as always, we ended the year with a look back at the 50 Best Covers of 2020. I wrote about No. 36, Ben Lee and Sarah Silverman’s (yes, that Sarah Silverman) cover of an Adam Schlesinger song originally sung in a movie by Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, and No. 31, Poolside’s appropriately danceable cover of the Grateful Dead’s disco-era Shakedown Street.

The featured song is “Better Days Ahead,” a jaunty, Brazilian-influenced piece from the Pat Metheny Group. Originally recorded for the Letter From Home album, released in 1989, this version is from the 1993 live album, The Road To You, which I’m posting because it is a little longer and allows Pat and his great band to stretch out a little.

See you in 2021!

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