On Billy Joel

It’s time to talk about Billy Joel.

I have a hard time with Billy Joel. On the one hand, he’s had a long career of writing and singing a lot of catchy songs that I find pleasant to listen to. And, for a lot of those songs, I can enjoy them unambivalently: “Downeaster Alexa”, “For the Longest Time”, “Storm Front”, and especially “River of Dreams”… nice job. No notes.

And it’s true that a lot of his songs are very Boomer. This is not a quality that I look for in a song, but I can’t deny that he comes by it honestly. We all belong to one generation or another, and if it shows up in our art, then it does, and there’s no point complaining about it. So when he gives us “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “I Go to Extremes” or “My Life” or “Goodnight Saigon”, that’s all right, I can take it as it comes.

My big problem with Billy Joel is the misogyny that often shows up in his lyrics. His songs, in aggregate, suggest to me a specific kind of whore-madonna dichotomy in his portrayals of women, where women can be callous, man-eating bad girls who it’s dangerous to get involved with, as in the songs “She’s Always a Woman” or “Big Shot”. Or they can be innocent good girls who need to be kept on a pedestal until they’re ready for the dangerous love of notorious streetwise tough guy Billy Joel, as in “Only the Good Die Young”, “That’s Not Her Style”, “You May Be Right”, and “Uptown Girl”. Even “Tell Her About It”, which isn’t actually all that bad, participates in this to some extent: “A nice girl wouldn’t tell you what you should do”.

But even those aren’t the worst of it. I didn’t mention “An Innocent Man”, the #notallmen of rock songs. And I didn’t mention “Just the Way You Are”, in which the singer says *the most horrible things* to a woman whom he claims to love and we’re supposed to hear it as romantic. It’s just gross.

So that’s where I was with Billy Joel for a long time. But recently I figured out something else about him: Billy Joel is no damn nostalgist.

My time as a Legion of Super-Heroes fan has taught me to distrust and disdain nostalgism. It’s not a positive force. It eats creativity and blocks necessary progress. (Note that when I talk about nostalgia, I don’t mean appreciating things about the past, or having affection for the cultural artifacts of the past. I mean thinking things were better Back Then and that we should go back to that.)

One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me”, a song which takes the position, so far as I can parse it, that, while the current music scene may be shallow and crass, it isn’t actually any different from what it used to be. “Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It’s still rock’n’roll to me.” This is around the same time that Bob Seger’s reaction to the same conditions was, “Don’t try to take me to a disco / You’ll never even get me out on the floor / In ten minutes I’d be late for the door / I like that old time rock’n’ roll.” Of the two attitudes, I’ll take Joel’s.

Or look at “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which is obviously an easily mockable song, and certainly one in which Joel indulges in a lot of old memories. It’s easy to look at what gets listed and what doesn’t and conclude that Joel thinks that about seven times as many things happened from ’46-’69 as happened in the ’70s and ’80s. But let’s not forget the basic point of the song: yeah, there are problems now, but there were problems Back Then too, and it sure looks like there are going to continue being problems, so we’d better deal with it. Again: that’s not nostalgia.

And, finally, we have “Keeping the Faith”, which ties it all together. First, it’s an *extremely* Boomer song, one that describes teenage experience in the ’50s/’60s in detail, and gives them religious significance. Second, it manages to *not* participate in the misogyny mentioned above: the lyric “I thought I was the Duke of Earl / When I made it with a red-haired girl / In a Chevrolet / Oh yeah / We were keeping the faith” may have a rite-of-passage element to it that isn’t great, but it does cast the girl as an equal participant in the enterprise at least. And, most of all, Joel gives us the concluding thought that, no matter how good a time he had Back Then and how much he likes to think about it, “the good old days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

In short, Billy Joel is a land of contrasts. Thank you very much.

If I Ran the Christmas Countdown

A few years ago, I counted down my top 25 Christmas songs. I’ve expanded the list a lot since then, and changed it, and this is what it looks like now. It’ll probably change again next year.
Note that I’m not saying that these are definitively the best Christmas songs. I’m also not saying that they’re not. What I am saying is that if you set me to come up with a top 100 list, this is what I’d come up with. Artists specified if there’s a definitive version or a best version, not if there’s not.
I hope you see something on here you don’t know, but like!

100. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
99. Every Year so Different (Cornershop feat. Trwbador)
98. Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings)
97. Elf’s Lament (Barenaked Ladies)
96. The Snow Miser Song/The Heat Miser Song (The Year without a Santa Claus OST)
95. Here Comes Santa Claus
94. Hard Candy Christmas (Dolly Parton)
93. Underneath the Tree (Kelly Clarkson)
92. WTF AMP (Letters to Cleo)
91. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! OST)

90. Purple Snowflakes (Marvin Gaye)
89. Pretty Paper (Roy Orbison)
88. Away in a Manger
87. Angels We Have Heard on High
86. Snoopy’s Christmas (Royal Guardsmen)
85. Holiday Everything (Phil Marlowe)
84. Fairytale of New York (The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl)
83. O Christmas Tree
82. Do You Hear What I Hear
81. Christmas Vacation (Mavis Staples)

80. The Holly and the Ivy
79. It Came upon the Midnight Clear
78. There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In (Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello)
77. Silent Night
76. Christmas Night in Harlem (Louis Armstrong)
75. Donna and Blitzen (Badly Drawn Boy)
74. Close Your Mouth It’s Christmas (the Free Design)
73. Do They Know It’s Christmas (Band Aid)
72. My Favorite Things (The Sound of Music OST)
71. My Little Snowflake (Prozzak)

70. White Christmas
69. Christmas is All Around (Billy Mack)
68. O Little Town of Bethlehem
67. Run Rudolph Run (Chuck Berry)
66. Joy to the World
65. O Come All Ye Faithful
64. Christmas in Hollis (Run-DMC)
63. The Christmas Song
62. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon and Yoko Ono)
61. Up on the Housetop

60. The Little Drummer Boy
59. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
58. The First Noel
57. Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree (Brenda Lee)
56. Winter Wonderland
55. We Three Kings
54. Green Christmas (Barenaked Ladies)
53. Father Christmas (the Kinks)
52. Christmas Wrapping (the Waitresses)
51. Huron Carol

50. Hallelujah Chorus
49. I Guess There Ain’t No Santa Claus (Barry Manilow)
48. Jolly Old St. Nicholas
47. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
46. Santa Baby (Madonna)
45. Good King Wenceslas
44. 2000 Miles (Pretenders)
43. Holly Jolly Christmas
42. Christmastime (Oh Yeah) (Barenaked Ladies)
41. Lost Winter’s Dream (Lisa Mychols)

40. The Twelve Days of Christmas (John Denver and the Muppets)
39. I Saw Three Ships
38. Last Christmas (Wham!)
37. Another Christmas Song (Stephen Colbert)
36. Power Pop Santa (the Pointed Sticks)
35. Making Christmas (A Nightmare Before Christmas OST)
34. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas (Gayla Peevey)
33. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
32. Linus and Lucy (A Charlie Brown Christmas OST)
31. It Snowed (Meaghan Smith)

30. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
29. Silver Bells
28. Deck the Halls
27. Carolina Christmas (Squirrel Nut Zippers)
26. Blue Christmas
25. Christmastime Is Here (A Charlie Brown Christmas OST)
24. Cool Yule (Louis Armstrong)
23. Five Pound Box of Money (Pearl Bailey)
22. Christmas in Killarney (Barra MacNeils)
21. Oi! To the World

20. At Last I’m Ready for Christmas (Barra MacNeils)
19. Welcome Christmas (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! OST)
18. The Closing of the Year (Wendy & Lisa)
17. Sleigh Ride
16. What’s This? (A Nightmare Before Christmas OST)
15. F##k Christmas (Eric Idle)
14. Jingle Bells (Barenaked Ladies)
13. Jingle Bell Rock (Randy Travis)
12. Marshmallow World (Kim Stockwood)
11. We Need a Little Christmas (the Muppets)

10. White Wine in the Sun (Tim Minchin)
9. Christmas Comes But Once a Year (Christmas in Carrick) (Barra MacNeils)
8. Step into Christmas (Elton John)
7. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (Roy Wood and Wizzard)
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!/Count Your Blessings/We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Ray Conniff Singers)
5. O Holy Night
4. Carol of the Bells
3. All I Want for Christmas Is You (Olivia Olson)
2. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Darlene Love)
1. Christmas Dream (Mistletones)

On Little Willie John

It’s just possible that some of you out there aren’t fans of R&B music from the ’50s and early ’60s. I mean, I don’t know why you wouldn’t be, but I admit the possibility that you aren’t.

And if not, you probably haven’t heard of Little Willie John.

Little Willie John is the great forgotten R&B singer. In terms of talent, he was right up there with Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and… well, maybe not quite James Brown and Ray Charles; let’s not get crazy. But he got thrown in jail and eventually died there, and over the years his fame shrank rather than grew.

His most famous songs are “All Around the World” and “Fever”, and he had other great ones like “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Leave My Kitten Alone”, but my favourite is one that was used in the Lone Star* soundtrack, “My Love Is.” I like it because it’s quiet and simple, but gives the impression of being inexorable and even a bit ominous.

Anyway, I was recently reading Susan Whitall’s biography* of John, and one of the things I learned from it is that, before he died, John recorded one last album worth of material which wasn’t released for legal reasons… but that it’s now available on CD. (Nineteen Sixty Six: The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions.) I ordered it, received it today, and have listened to it. And it’s awesome.

Seriously. I would have gotten it just for the sake of completeness; after all, they aren’t making any more new Little Willie John music these days. I’m not surprised I like it, but I am surprised at how good it is, and how different from his other stuff. It’s less R&B and more… more soul or blues, or both, or something. I wonder what he would have sounded like if he had survived into the 1970s.

* Recommended.