“Me!” by Taylor Swift and Brandon Urie

It will probably not come as a surprise to my readers to know that I am a devoted admirer of Taylor Swift. That said, up ’til now, I have not been very enthusiastic about the bubblegummy lead singles she’s tended to release during her current Pop phase…if you’ll recall, I panned “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, and was only lukewarm about “Shake It Off”. Of course, “Look What You Made Me Do” was an exception, but then, it was the polar opposite of those songs in terms of style and tone.

This song, on the other hand, is essentially the same upbeat Pop style, just done right this time. With its joyous marching band melody and sunny, unashamedly garish tone, this is simply a glorious, glowing smile in music. The lyrics do at times resemble a children’s song, but they do so just enough to tap into primal innocence without ever becoming infantile, much like the Flaming Lips or Owl City.

I’ve heard a few critics, both amateur and professional, turn their noses up at the song, but then, this is exactly the kind of song the music snobs naturally hate. For the rest of us, this is probably the best lead single of Swift’s career so far, and while it is notoriously hard to predict the sound or tone of a Swift album from the lead single alone, this still seems to suggest a happier, more upbeat album to contrast with the brooding darkness of Reputation.

Now, while the “backlash” against that earlier album that her detractors love to speak of was clearly an enormous exaggeration (“failed” albums don’t generally become year-end bestsellers), I still admire Swift for varying her artistic palette, something she has always done and will no doubt continue to do with her upcoming seventh album.

Verdict: A modern masterpiece. I honestly can’t imagine how anyone could bring themselves to dislike this song.

“Cool” by the Jonas Brothers

I didn’t really think we needed a Jonas Brothers reunion, and the quality of their new material seems to be bearing out that point of view, to the point where even most of the people who were initially excited by the idea are now cringing at the prospect of their new album.

Their first and more successful post-reunion single, “Sucker”, bore the same painful resemblance to the dreadful late-career work of Maroon 5 that Joe Jonas’ solo hit “Cake By the Ocean” did, but their followup single makes it look like a masterpiece by comparison. This is, quite simply, the single most laughably unconvincing boast track I have ever heard in my life.

People have compared it to a Train song, and it certainly has enough bizarre lyrical choices to be one, referencing everything from Game of Thrones to movie stars from two generations ago. That said, Train’s output was usually creative and quirky enough to at least have an amusing side to its awfulness. By contrast, hearing a superannuated boy-band whose idea of wit is “When I grow up, I wanna be just like me” confidently proclaim how “cool” they are isn’t funny at all…it’s just sad.

Verdict: Almost indescribably bad, and already a serious contender for Worst Song of 2019.

“Only Visiting This Planet” by Larry Norman

‘Christian Rock’ has a notoriously bad reputation among mainstream music fans (and one that is not entirely undeserved), but it only really acquired that reputation after the homogenized cottage industry of ‘Contemporary Christian Music’ came on the scene in the Eighties. The early ‘Jesus-Rockers’ of the previous decade were essentially just Hippie Rock’n’rollers that happened to have latched onto Christianity (we don’t really think of the movement in that light now, but the actual number of “Hippies for Jesus” back in the day was larger than you might think). This probably has something to do with the fact that these ‘Christian Rockers’ tended to be far more legit musicians than the bland, whitebread acts marketed exclusively toward the Evangelical cultural bubble that have given the genre such a bad name.

Legendary guitarist Phil Keaggy was a prominent member of the genre in its day (he’s still making records, actually, though he’s now switched to more of a Christian-themed New Age Music sound), as was Barry McGuire (of “Eve of Destruction” fame) after his conversion to Christianity. But of all the classic-era Jesus-Rockers, probably the greatest of them all was Larry Norman, and this, his second album and acknowledged Magnum Opus, is probably the most iconic album the genre ever produced…it was added to the Library of Congress, for God’s sake, an almost unheard-of honor for a Christian Rock album.

Granted, for all its unquestionable artistic merit, a lot of this album’s religious content is iffy at best from a theological point of view—Norman was a premillenial dispensationalist, and therefore by definition a bit of a lunatic. But his work is significant in being pretty much the only valid art to come out of that particular religious movement…we’ve gotten some decent stuff from nonbelievers who were merely co-opting the movement’s mythology as fiction (like The Omen), but from the actual devout, we’ve mostly gotten only terrible B-movies and even worse airport fantasy novels.

Also, it’s worth noting that the song from this album that deals most directly with the ideas of the “Rapture” and the “Tribulation”, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”, strikes a very odd tone compared to, say, the Left Behind series…there’s no triumph here, and virtually no judgment. It just sounds like a grieving, pitying dirge for those ‘left behind’ from a man who believes that God is going to do these things but desperately wishes there was some other way. So it’s hard to object too much on those grounds…indeed, one starts to pity Norman for the sadness his religious worldview seems to be causing him (even if he does appear to have been the first to use the phrase ‘left behind’ in reference to the Rapture on this song).

More to the point, it’s a haunting, beautifully written ballad has all the edge and honesty that modern Christian Rock is so notorious for lacking. The melody is gorgeous and conveys an immense depth of sorrow, and the lyrics are some of the best poetry found in any Rock song this side of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, with such eloquent and memorable turns of phrase as ‘A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold’.

“The Outlaw”, a retelling of the life of Jesus, is arguably even more beautiful in both music and lyrics (though it also refers to Norman’s belief in the Rapture in its final line). The rest of the album isn’t quite up to the level of these two highly polished gems, but it is nonetheless impressive. “Righteous Rocker #1” is a kind of Rock-song paraphrase of the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 (the passage about “If I have not love, I am nothing”), which is a sentiment even many nonreligious people can get behind. “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” is a little more exclusively Christian in its sentiments, but most of the self-destructive behaviors he describes on the verses are not terribly controversial examples of the wrong way to live, and if he thinks he can help these people mend their broken lives, I say more power to him. In any case, both songs have definite inspirational punch to their music and lyrics that can be enjoyed regardless of what the listener thinks of the message. And Norman’s defense of his chosen medium, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”, is a downright danceable Blues-Rock jam that is infectious enough back up the assertions in the lyrics.

Some of the political content on this album may surprise modern listeners used to the Conservative leanings of modern Evangelicals…after all, Christian or not, Norman was still a hippie, and apart from one line advocating prayer in school, his grand political statement “The Great American Novel” would not have been out of place on an early Dylan album. Frankly, “I Am the Six O’Clock News” hardly even mentions religion, opting instead for bitterly biting social commentary about the callousness of the media, and there are two sad, pretty love songs on the album, “I’ve Got to Learn to Live Without You” and “Pardon Me”, that relate to the album’s religious subject matter only subtextually, if at all.

The only song on the album where the more asinine and self-righteous side of Norman’s religious convictions really comes to the forefront is the last track, “Reader’s Digest”. The implied homophobia and transphobia in the first two lines (about Alice Cooper’s crossdressing and David Bowie’s androgynous persona, respectively), while they would probably outrage many modern listeners, are not really that surprising given the album’s historical era and cultural background. Nevertheless, hearing Norman sling insults at pretty much every secular Rocker around at the time, including some comments that have nothing to do with religion and are just juvenile jabs, ends this otherwise wonderful album on something of a sour note.

The album’s title is not mentioned until its closing lines, which also include a reference to the lyrics to Jim Reeves’ Gospel classic “The World is Not My Home” (which may be more familiar to modern listeners from their quotation in the Tom Waits song “Come On Up to the House”), in the album’s third overt reference to the Rapture doctrine. This album definitely has an agenda, even if it’s not the same agenda usually associated with modern Evangelical Christianity, and if you’re one of those people who put ideology on a higher pedestal than art, you might well find that aspect off-putting. Granted, Phil Keaggy’s Christian Rock albums tend to be less confrontational, and they’re certainly better sung (Norman’s biggest liability is his strange, high-pitched vocal sound, which sometimes makes him sound like an Adam Sandler character), but Keaggy doesn’t have Norman’s sheer songwriting chops (and it’s not like Dylan was any great vocalist either). This album has fairly earned its special pride of place in the Christian Rock pantheon. if you’re an open-minded, sensible person who can appreciate the quality of great music and lyrics even if you don’t entirely agree with the message they’re trying to convey, this album is well worth your time.

“Poems, Prayers and Promises” by John Denver

John Denver gets made fun of a lot, and there’s valid reason to laugh at him…he never really grew out of the tree-hugging Hippie phase of his youth, and people like that are naturally going to be targets of ridicule by the time they’re in their thirties and forties (he was 53 years old when he died, after all). Still, he was one of the greatest Soft Rockers of the Seventies (a decade that had far more competition for that title than, say, the Eighties or Nineties), and his poetic eloquence and phenomenal gift for melody have to be respected.

Besides, you have to admire how he transformed the musical influences he started from into something artistically valid. His uncle had been a member of manufactured Pop-Folk sensations The New Christy Minstrels, and Denver took their artificial faux-Folk Music style and used it to make music so legitimate that real Folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary actually wanted to cover his songs.

“Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” had already been a massive hit in Peter, Paul, and Mary’s cover version at this point, but this is the album that really made Denver a star, and it is without question his Magnum Opus. Of Denver’s other three massive hit albums from his peak period, Rocky Mountain High has some beautiful melodies, but is a bit excessively morose, given that its concept is essentially a brooding meditation on the destruction of the environment. His best-selling record, Back Home Again, has some lovely items like “Annie’s Song”, but also some excessively forced attempts to sound “down-home” like “Grandma’s Feather Bed” that are almost embarrassing. Finally, his highest-charting album, Windsong, is just as exquisite melodically as this record, but as its concept is an ode to natural beauty, it is by definition about inanimate things, things that cannot think and feel, and so it cannot compete with this record’s emotional impact.

The most famous song on the album is easily “Take Me Home, Country Road”. This song has always been Denver’s most universally beloved hit: even people who absolutely hate John Denver (and that demographic is larger than you’d expect) are generally willing to make an exception for this particular song. This seems a natural reaction, given the song’s exquisite melodic and poetic beauty, but it is surprising in one regard: among the co-authors credited on this song are two members of the Starland Vocal Band, perhaps the single most despised Soft Rock act in history (and one whose negative reputation is, to be frank, pretty much justified). That the people who can otherwise count the unspeakably vile “Afternoon Delight” as one of their better songwriting efforts could have contributed to this phenomenal Pop-Folk classic is hard to even remotely comprehend, but evidently true nonetheless.

That said, there are several other songs on the album that almost equal “Take Me Home, Country Road” for sheer beauty. Its overall Concept regards being contented and at peace with the cycles of time, as in the exquisitely meditative and profound title track, or the tenderly reassuring love song “Sweet Lady”.

Denver did include one moderately angry uptempo number, the Native American rights anthem “Wooden Indian”, presumably to keep the listener from nodding off from the album’s lullaby-esque overall sound. There’s even an attempt at Seventies ‘Jesus-Rock’ in the Larry Norman vein, “Gospel Changes”. That said, it’s more detached from actual religious conviction than Norman’s work…written less from the perspective of a devout Christian and more from that of an objective observer who sees merit in Jesus’ philosophy.

The material here isn’t exclusively composed by Denver himself: there are also three covers included, but they fit beautifully into the album’s concept. Indeed, Denver’s version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” seems to fit in better with the overall theme on this record than it did on the Beatles album that bears its name. Denver also covers a much more obscure Paul McCartney composition, a quietly melancholy atmosphere piece called “Junk”, and it winds up being one of the most beautiful items on the album.

Denver’s cover of “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, on the other hand, seems to have gained a controversial reputation, given that it takes a very different approach to the song than the original recording. But while Taylor’s original version is a very powerful Folk-Rock ballad, the quieter, more elegiac sorrow on Denver’s version is arguably even more heartbreaking, giving an impression of a lost and defeated resignation that is actually much sadder than Taylor’s still-defiant rendition.

Of course, even the best Denver albums always have a couple of corny moments, and this is no exception. The second hit from the album, the irritatingly naïve “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, is the kind of John Denver song his detractors always point toward in order to make fun of him, and while it fits in well enough with the overall concept, it is still easily the weakest item here.

“The Box”, the other easy-to-mock item here, is a spoken-word piece of very dated Hippie poetry regarding the nature of war. It’s not as painful as it sounds…it’s actually kind of charming in a way, somewhat resembling a much shorter version of Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book. But without the eloquence that his rhapsodic music always brought to his sentiments, Denver’s naïve Hippie worldview is ultimately revealed as the pretentious nonsense that it is—for all its charm and sincerity, there’s no denying that this poem is ultimately an appalling oversimplification of complex issues based on wishful thinking and the desire for easy answers that just don’t exist.

Even with these two lesser tracks, however, this is easily one of the greatest Soft Rock albums ever made, and one Denver never quite equaled as an overall cohesive album statement in all the remainder of his career. It certainly makes for one of the most moving and emotionally satisfying listening experiences I’ve personally ever encountered in any musical field, and to anyone who seeks it out after reading this review, if you don’t cry at least once while listening to this album, I will be extraordinarily surprised.

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“Heads & Tales” and “Sniper and Other Love Songs” by Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin’s first two albums, generally regarded as his best work by serious fans, are essentially companion pieces and were even released together as a two-disc set at one point. For this reason, I thought it only appropriate to cover both of them concurrently.

You know how Chapin has a reputation for being extremely sentimental and even sort of mawkish? Well, that reputation comes from his later albums (particularly Short Stories and Verities and Balderdash), not from these two. His first two records are absolutely brutal, alternating between slit-your-wrists sorrow and crazed, violent intensity. People today would probably not associate Chapin with songs about real-life mass murderers, self-mutilation or bestiality, but all of those topics are covered, in disturbingly graphic detail, on these two albums.

Chapin’s first album, Heads & Tales, is essentially nonstop misery, without a single moment of real happiness. It even manages to make the simple experience of travelling by bus (“Greyhound”) seem like a heartrending tragedy. The album mostly features Chapin fixated obsessively on what appears to be a single failed relationship, with song titles like “Empty”, “Sometime Somewhere Wife”, and “Same Sad Singer”. Even the pretty, wistful songs like “Could You Put Your Light On, Please?” and the quietly introspective “Any Old Kind of Day”, while they certainly show off Chapin’s gift for beautiful melodies, feature a depth of sorrow that his work after these albums never approached even at its darkest.

Heads & Tales also produced Chapin’s first actual hit, “Taxi”. A sadly ironic story ballad about a former couple with deferred dreams meeting by chance in a taxi cab, it managed to become a major and enduring hit despite its seven-minute length making it a bit unwieldy for the mainstream radio format. It’s also the only one of Chapin’s four actual Top Forty hits to get any real respect from professional critics and serious Rock and Folk fans, although there are other songs on these two albums that might have easily earned that level of prestige if anyone had actually heard of them.

The other big centerpiece on Heads & Tales is “Dogtown”, an incredibly disturbing song about the desperate widow of a whaler who dies at sea and her “relationship” with the dog that is her only companion. This isn’t played as a comedy song like Frank Zappa’s “Dirty Love”, either…it’s a harrowing Folk-Blues piece that echoes the sound of the storm-tossed seas and keeps rising to a scream at the end of each section. If you know anyone who dismisses Chapin as merely a purveyor of syrupy bathos, just play them this song and see how they react.

Chapin’s follow-up to that album, Sniper and Other Love Songs, is only marginally happier. Chapin by this point had found a relatively happy romantic relationship, and the opening track, “Sunday Morning Sunshine”, is a sweetly optimistic love song that seems miles away from the despair of his first album. However, after that song the album still consists almost entirely of tear-jerking and/or disturbing tracks, and another song from the album, “And the Baby Never Cries”, paints a much more bittersweet portrait of the aforementioned new relationship.

This album didn’t produce any actual Top Forty hits, but it did produce three songs that became very well-known among Chapin’s fans. The title-song, a ten-minute collage analyzing the motives of real-life mass shooter Charles Whitman, is one of Chapin’s most elaborate and complexly-written songs, going from narrative ballad to fictionalized press coverage to insane inner monologue. I don’t know if Stephen Sondheim or John Weidman are the type to listen to Harry Chapin, but I have to wonder if they had this song’s ideas in mind when they wrote the strikingly similar sentiments in the final scene of their musical Assassins.

“A Better Place to Be”, widely considered among serious Chapin fans to be perhaps the best song he ever wrote, displays a much subtler and more complex sense of irony than the more heavy-handed ironic elements found in other Chapin songs. It’s another narrative ballad, about eight minutes long in the studio version found here, which features a ‘little man’ telling a waitress at a bar a heartbreaking story of a beautiful, lonely woman whom he spent a single night with, only to have her disappear in the morning (“She left a six-word letter saying ‘It’s time that I moved on’”). The waitress is smitten with the man after hearing the story, and the man responds with the same words the woman said to him in his story: “If you want me to come with you/then that’s all right with me/cause I know I’m going nowhere/and anywhere’s a better place to be”. The genius of the song is that we’re left uncertain as to whether the story actually happened, or whether this was just the greatest, most manipulative pickup line in history.

The third song to gain a reputation among Chapin fans, to the point where it’s been dubbed “the Chapin anthem”, is “Circle”, which trades in the same kind of quiet, defeated wistfulness as “Any Old Time of Day” on Heads & Tales. In general, these albums seem to completely contradict the reputation Chapin has earned through songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle”, and they establish his genuine legitimacy as one of the truly great artists of the “Progressive Folk” field. If you’ve always found the excessive sentimentality of his later work something of a turn-off, hearing these first two records might completely change your mind about him.

“Joe’s Garage” by Frank Zappa

Concept Albums and Album Rock Operas, while present to some extent within virtually all subgenres of Rock music, were particularly popular among the Progressive Rock artists, to the point where it almost became a running joke. This is not exactly surprising, as the format proved an ideal vehicle for both Prog-Rock’s characteristic ambition and its practitioners’ fervent wish to be seen as serious artists. After the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, Rush’s 2112, and ELO’s Eldorado, just to name a few of the most celebrated examples, even Frank Zappa, the least pretentious and yet most genuinely Avant-Garde artist in the Prog-Rock genre, seems to have felt the need to jump on the bandwagon with his 1979 two-part album Joe’s Garage.

Zappa had already attempted a sort of miniature Rock Opera structure on two of his earlier albums, Absolutely Free and Apostrophe. The first of these, a seven-minute series of song fragments entitled “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, told the story of an unfulfilled middle-class worker drone who secretly fantasizes about having sex with a 13-year-old girl implied to be his own daughter, which should tell you something about the nature of Zappa’s sense of humor. The second was a completely incomprehensible suite of songs about an Eskimo named Nanook, where each song led into the next, but by the time it ended no-one had any idea how we had gotten from jokes about yellow snow to a religious pancake breakfast event (which is also a good indicator of what to expect on this album).

The honest truth is that most of Zappa’s ‘fans’ are either fans of his trademark filthy comedy songs or of his virtuosic Jazz-Rock noodling…surprisingly few are really enthusiastic about both, which is why most of his albums focus primarily on one or the other. Joe’s Garage is one of the few Zappa albums that makes heavy use of both, a somewhat risky move given his demographic’s divided loyalties.

I’m not sure Zappa’s heart was really into the ‘Concept’ part of this Concept Album: he seemed more interested in using the album’s “story” as an excuse to have fun and make pretty music than in actually creating a cohesive whole. The premise was something of a tired cliché by then within the Rock culture (a dystopian society that has outlawed Rock music), and the plot fell apart in the third ‘act’ in favor of extended instrumental sequences.

Also, the second of the piece’s three ‘acts’ has aged much less well than the other two, mostly because of some homophobic humor about prison rape that, while still funnier than most people would care to admit, does make for somewhat uncomfortable listening today. (That said, I don’t think his brutal mockery of Scientology on “A Token of My Extreme” is likely to make him too many enemies, so not all of the satire has dated.)

But for all the project’s flaws, the overall result is still one of the better Zappa albums…perhaps not on the level of We’re Only in It for the Money or Hot Rats or Over-Nite Sensation, but still on the upper tiers of his extensive catalogue. Some of the music was gorgeous, particularly “He Used to Cut the Grass” and “Watermelon in Easter Hay”, two extended solo guitar pieces which rank with the most beautiful melodies of Zappa’s career. Among the vocal songs, “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” are among Zappa’s funniest novelties. Both are much cleverer than they sound: the former is a contemptuous sendup of how stupid the very idea of a “wet t-shirt contest” really is (“Our big prize tonight is fifty American Dollars to the girl with the most exciting mammalian protruberances!”). Meanwhile, the latter features lyrics quirky enough to liven up its sophomoric subject matter into something genuinely creative (“my balls feel like a pair of maracas/oh, god, I probably got the gono-co-co-coccus”).

Other highlights include the relatively Pop-friendly title-song, a surprisingly sweet tribute to amateur garage bands, and a biting satire of the record industry called “Packard Goose” that makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the album’s story but is so much fun that almost no-one ever complains about it. The album is even a Jukebox Musical of sorts: many of the songs on the album (including the uncharacteristically touching ballad “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” and most of the songs in the second ‘act’) are drawn from material Zappa had written years ago but never put on an album before, and much of the guitar work was actually overdubbed excerpts from his live concerts.

The most bizarre thing about this album is the uncanny resemblance it bears to the album that would pretty much kill the Prog-Rock Concept Album trend, Kilroy Was Here by Styx. I’m sure you all know Styx…they’re the formulaic Arena Rock band that, prior to their disastrous attempt at Rock Opera, was really only notable for their lead singer’s intensely irritating voice. I would have assumed Zappa was trying to parody that album the way he parodied Disco culture with Sheik Yerbouti, except that Joe’s Garage actually came out a couple of years before Kilroy.

Both albums have almost exactly the same premise (a dystopian futuristic world that has outlawed Rock music). Both are centered around a deliberately generic everyman who functions as a stand-in for all of Rock culture. Both feature robotic-sounding narrator figures that turn out to be someone entirely different than they seem (Mr. Roboto turns out to be the titular hero Kilroy at the end of the first song, and the Central Scrutinizer turns out to be Frank Zappa himself at the end of the album). And of course, both get bored with their Concepts partway through and just start performing the kind of songs that the act in question was generally known for, with only the barest attempts to tie them into the supposed plot.

The difference between the two albums, apart from the obvious fact that Zappa was an infinitely better musician, is that Styx’s album is laughably earnest, with the band giving no impression that they have the slightest idea how silly they sound. Meanwhile, Zappa seems to be completely conscious of how ridiculous and trite his story is, and appears to be playing that fact for deliberate laughs. This is a story that requires a robust sense of irony to make it work, and that’s something that Styx just didn’t have, but that Zappa possessed in spades.

As I said, the album, despite its ambition, isn’t really the best work Zappa’s ever done, and the way it blends the two elements of his music that are usually kept largely separate may limit its appeal somewhat. Still, if you’re not easily offended and have a taste for both complex Jazz-Rock Fusion and crude comedy, this album is well worth picking up. In fact, I’d actually recommend it over several of the more famous Concept Albums to come out of the Prog-Rock genre, and I’d certainly recommend it over Kilroy Was Here in a heartbeat.

“In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley vs. “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins

Elvis’ 1969 hit “In the Ghetto” gets included on a lot of amateur “Worst Songs of All Time” lists, and generally gets written off these days as a piece of lugubrious schmaltz. There’s no denying that the song is extraordinarily depressing, and it isn’t exactly subtle about the social message it’s trying to convey. That said, it’s an acknowledged truth that sometimes preachiness and didacticism in works of art are justified in the name of greater good in the real world, and it would be hard to find a situation in which that applies more than this one. Granted, worthy ideological aims don’t automatically transform a bad song into a good one, but the song can hardly be accused of bad craftsmanship. The lilting melody is far more effective for this purpose than the lugubrious sound Elvis usually used for these kinds of songs. As for the lyrics, they are surprisingly penetrating, making particularly haunting use of imagery and repeated, cyclical phrases and humanizing the subject by telling a poignant human story as an example of the suffering it depicts.

Also, you have to remember that just making this song was a sizable risk for Presley. However much of a radical he had been earlier in his career, Elvis still always had one foot in Nashville, and there were still plenty among his fanbase at the time who wouldn’t want to hear their idol sing a song like this. In fact, I venture to suggest that the reason this song gained a negative reputation in the first place is because it makes many people think and feel things they don’t want to think and feel, and declaring it to be just some piece of melodramatic tripe helps neutralize the discomfort it causes them.

However, as I said, worthy motives don’t automatically turn a bad song into a good one, and Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” is a perfect illustration of that. This song deals with exactly the same subject matter as “In the Ghetto”, but that fails everywhere that song succeeded. The music is just dull, morose Adult Contemporary balladry with none of the distinctive qualities Collins’ work had been known for in earlier years, and the song has no real interest in drama, only in proselytizing. At least “In the Ghetto” actually told a story…this song is just a guilt-based harangue about what a bad person you supposedly are. I understand this song had good intentions, but it simply has nothing to offer artistically, and those intentions would have been far more successful if Collins had actually tried to make a good song and not just to send a message. It’s basically a solo “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, only instead of Christmas and Africa, it’s every day and the local homeless.

Verdict: Good for “In the Ghetto”, but “Another Day in Paradise”, however sincere its intentions may have been, is simply a bad song. Of course, neither of these songs even approach the gut-wrenching tragic beauty of the definitive song on the subject, Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land”, but that just indicates that neither Mac Davis (who wrote “In the Ghetto”) nor Phil Collins were world-changing musical geniuses on the level of Wonder at his peak, which should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody. (Granted, Elvis was arguably that kind of genius, but then, he didn’t write the song).

“Some Gave All” and “Trail of Tears” by Billy Ray Cyrus

For some reason, during his Nineties run of inexplicable hits on the Country charts, Billy Ray Cyrus wrote two highly political songs, but from wildly different platforms. The first, “Some Gave All”, was the title track of his debut album, and it was written from the perspective of jingoistic conservatives. Now, odes to the wartime dead are one of Country music’s trademark specialties and something the genre generally does well even in its lowest eras (even Luke Bryan managed to pull one off successfully in “Drink a Beer”), but unfortunately, Billy Ray Cyrus is a moron. As a result, the song’s writing is so over-the-top and melodramatic, and Cyrus’ performance so laughably overwrought, that the result is more unintentionally hilarious than stirring or inspirational.

As for “Trail of Tears”, made several years later on Cyrus’ fourth album of the same name, it represents the bleeding-heart liberal side of Cyrus’ political profile. Again, there’s nothing wrong with writing a Country song about the plight of the American Indian…Johnny Cash devoted a whole album to it, and that album, Bitter Tears, is one of his masterpieces. But this song, in addition to having no tune to speak of, is so shallow in its writing that it comes off as condescending…at times it sounds more like he’s taunting the Native Americans about their suffering than sympathizing with it.

Verdict: Both of these songs are utter garbage, but I suppose I can appreciate the fact that Cyrus was willing to make both Parties look bad by association.

“From a Distance” by Bette Midler

This might well be the single worst piece of Contemporary Christian Music ever written, and that’s not a statement anyone would make lightly. This is one of the most depressing songs ever written, essentially positing an uncaring, unfeeling God who is so distant from humanity that he cannot see their suffering. For all intents and purposes, this is just as bad as no God, but with the additional implied insult that human beings are not even worth caring about.

If this were the intention, I could see the song working…indeed, there is a Tori Amos song, the eerie, haunting “Flavor”, that posits almost exactly the same premise, but is smart enough to realize how disturbing that sentiment is. But everything about this song’s presentation and marketing suggests that it was meant to be inspirational and uplifting, and that apparently the songwriter responsible for it, Julie Gold, was just too stupid to realize the implications of what she had written.

Given all the frankly superb work that Bette Midler has released over the years, it seems a real injustice that the two songs most personally associated with her in the general public’s mind are “Wind Beneath My Wings” and this abomination. It’s not like she wrote this atrocity…she wasn’t even the first talented artist to record it (Judy Collins had already done so), and Cliff Richards would have a hit version in England that very same year. I realize someone has to take the blame for this piece of garbage, but I don’t really see why that person has to be Bette Midler just because her version had the bad luck to make it into a hit.

Verdict: This might be the worst Easy Listening/Soft Rock song of any kind that I’ve ever reviewed, and keep in mind how much of that genre I’ve covered.

“You’re the One” by Greta Van Fleet

I don’t entirely agree with those who say Greta Van Fleet is just a warmed-over imitation of Led Zeppelin. Granted, they are definitely recycling influences from Classic Rock (they’ve never really pretended otherwise), and their vocalist is certainly doing an uncanny Robert Plant impersonation, but their instrumentation has always given me more of a Lynyrd Skynyrd or Creedence Clearwater Revival vibe…more Swamp-Rock or Southern Rock than the harsher sounds of Zeppelin’s early Heavy Metal style. The resulting mix of styles does give them at least some semblance of their own distinct sound, and this particular song, which is more a piece of Folk balladry than their usual Rock sound, certainly shows they aren’t entirely indebted to the Led Zeppelin influences.

That said, I’m not entirely sure why they’re getting as much attention within their field as they are, or why they’re being touted as the ‘leaders’ of the Classic Rock Revival. After all, Halestorm and the Pretty Reckless are both better bands in the same Retro-Rock style that were around quite a while before Greta Van Fleet, and both are still together and recording…Halestorm released a new album just last year, in fact.

While it may demonstrate some small degree of versatility, even this song, while well-played and well-sung, isn’t really all that interesting as a composition, especially compared to songs by the aforementioned other bands in this subgenre.

Verdict: A decent enough slice of retro-Folk Rock, but I just don’t see why it justifies all the attention.