Two Holiday Recommendations and Signing Off for 2017

Well, dear reader, it's becoming a holiday tradition for me sign off from the blog in November. Much like 2016, this year presented a lot of social and political challenges. I am looking forward to holiday celebrations with family and friends. I also want to break from the blog to focus on some writing projects that need my love and attention as I look forward to 2018.

Before I sleigh away for the season, I wanted to make two holiday music recommendations. As you know, holiday music brings me a lot of joy and these are the projects on my mind this year.

Whitney Houston's One Wish: The Holiday Album

Surprisingly, One Wish is Houston's only holiday release. Though she often took long gaps between records, Houston's voice is such a good fit for the seasonal fair I am always curious why her label never encouraged more Christmas recordings from the singer. Perhaps Houston had limited interest in the material. Regardless, her holiday album is a pleasant throwback record that capitalizes on the  sound of her synthesizer-based 80s records. She delivers the material with enthusiasm, selling even the melodramatic and gaudy tracks--especially the title track, which was a modest hit.

Looking at the record in the context of her personal and professional life also enriches the album. One year prior (2002), Houston released the least successful album of her career--the abrasive Just Whitney--and struggled through its disastrous "crack is whack" press junket. Following those debacles, Houston took a step back, traveling to Israel on a holy pilgrimage. After that journey, she recorded and released One Wish, and it marks the dawn of a spiritual and creative reawakening for the singer.  Though I Look to You (2006) wouldn't arrive for another three years, One Wish and I Look are sister records, focusing on Houston's strengths as a soul singer whose gospel background allowed  her to breathe personality into Adult Contemporary fair.

Houston is still in great voice on One Wish. Her belting has some ragged edges, but all in all her delivery is energetic and flexible. Some tracks are playful and fun, like her funky take on "Deck the Halls," but the best material is her interpretation of hymns, including a lovely "O Holy Night" and tour-de-force "O Come O Come Emanuel."  Many listeners forget about One Wish, but check it out if you want a traditional holiday record. It's an album about returning home to heal--a sensibility many listeners may find comforting this season.

"Santa's Coming for Us" by Sia

Now that I've recommended a classic, I want to praise something new. The lead single from Sia's upcoming Everyday is Christmas, "Santa's Coming for Us" has already snatched the crown for the best new holiday pop tune. It's quintessential Sia--melodramatic, playful, a little off kilter. The track is mix of Cyndi Lauper's quirky Merry Christmas... Have a Nice Life and Mariah Carey's high-octane classic, "All I Want for Christmas." I am excited for her album's release on November 17th. How often do we get a record of ten holiday originals? Merry Christmas, indeed.

And with that, I wish you a beautiful holiday season, dear reader. I hope to see you back here, happy and healthy in the new year. May we all find some joy and hope this season.

My Top 10 Songs of 2017

This year has been especially good for pop singles. To curate this list, I reviewed what tracks from the past year received the most plays via iTunes on my devices. Interestingly, I think the "most played" metric works as a fair representation of not only my favorite songs this year, but also the scope of tracks 2017 offered.

As you'll notice, many of the tracks on my list are not the biggest hits of the year, but more and more I find the most interesting pop tunes (for me) do not conquer the Top 40 (though several of these songs were hits, some charting in high positions).

Also, I am going to use these songs to discuss what I found interesting about pop music this year, rather than my usual "Favorite Album of the Year" review. While I liked a lot of albums this year (especially Shania Twain's Now and Kesha's Rainbow), none stuck with me enough to call a "favorite." Albums came and went, while I had these singles on repeat. In that spirit, these tracks are what I can muster for a "Best of 2017" list.

10. "She's Like the Wind" by Calum Scott
Though the Dirty Dancing remake fell flat, Calum Scott's cover of Patrick Swayze's hit faired much better. The tune speaks to 2017's preoccupation with nostalgia--longing for a simpler, happier time--mixed with some dance melodrama.

9. "Cut to the Feeling" by Carly Rae Jepsen
Unlike some of the moodier and low-key fair on this list, this tune is a sugar rush of optimism and romance. Jepsen is at her best--youthful, hopeful, and looking for a happy ending. Aren't we all?

8. "The Cure" by Lady Gaga
Gaga hasn't been this good in ages. Many artists went back to basics in 2017, and for the Queen Monster that meant sturdy dance pop. "The Cure" has a combined simplicity and energy missing from her two previous albums. Hopefully, this song marks a return to form for her next record.

7.  "Green Light" by Lorde
Speaking of melodrama, Lorde best captured complicated love with this moody tune about night life and heartbreak. When this single dropped, it took me by surprise--perhaps more so than anything else this year.

6. "It Ain't Me" by Kygo ft. Selena Gomez
Another pop song about complicated love set against an evening cityscape, "It Ain't Me" captures both Gomez and Kygo's strengths--her approachable voice and his knack for clean, catchy production.

5. "Up All Night" by David Archuleta
I have a night theme running! Another tune about late night romance! What I like best about Archuleta's "Up All Night" is how it balances his usual boy-next-door sweetness with the excitement, lust, and hope of new possibilities. It's the best track he's released--less sanitized and more dynamic.

4. "Praying" by Kesha
Kesha came back in a big way. If 2017 has a classic record, it's her Rainbow. "Praying" was a watershed moment for 2017 because it was a cultural intersection for the reinvigoration of US feminism, longing for rebirth and strength after the presidential election, and, of course, Kesha's return to music after a protracted and painful hiatus. Post Harvey Weinstein revelations, its themes are even more prescient.

3. "Love is Love is Love" by LeAnn Rimes
Speaking of politics, LeAnn Rimes' "Love is Love is Love" is the most triumphant pro-LGBTQIA anthem of the year. It's hopeful message of equality helped the song become a dance hit, as well as a theme for the Human Rights Campaign. No wonder Rimes headlined NYC Pride 2017! The old school but still important message of "Love is Love is Love" helped lighten my year.

2. "Chained to the Rhythm" by Katy Perry
Perry's Witness was an interesting transition in her career--a hiatus from her bubble-gum confections for personal and political reflection. "Chained to the Rhythm" was the perfect first single for her album because it highlights some of Perry's social concerns while leaning on her pop brilliance. "Chained" works as satire because its light disco setting keeps the track afloat. It's one of Perry's best singles and earned its peak spot at  No. 4 on the Hot 100.

1. "Your Song" by Rita Ora
Rita Ora has never received a fair shake in the US. Similar to Kesha, her career has also been plagued by label issues, though of a different nature. It's too bad, because Ora has released consistent and catchy singles. Written by Ed Sheeran (and featuring him on backing vocals), "Your Song" has the best chorus of anything on this list. Ora sings "Don't wanna hear sad songs/I only wanna hear love songs," and perhaps the reason this tune was my most played of the year is because it spoke to my hunger for art about hope and love.  This year, I needed songs to lift me up, and, even more than her peers, Rita Ora delivered.

Men and Music B-Side Project Conclusion

To celebrate the 1st birthday of my poetry collection, Men and Music, this series will share "b-sides" not included in the collection but written during the same period, as well as the stories behind the poems. 

Welcome to the end of my Men and Music B-Side Project. It's been a pleasure sharing these poems with you and revisiting some work that had flown under the radar.  For my last piece, I wanted to share "October," which was published in A Quiet Courage last year. 

I think this poem represents the haphazard way creativity works."October" is not like the poems in Men and Music--it's softer, quieter, and written from a more anonymous perspective. While working on the book, I occasionally grew tired of the confessional, personal "I." When that happened, I would set the book aside and work on more hushed poems like this one.

Having finished Men and Music and shared so much "personal" work through this project, I feel drawn back to writing pieces like "October." On this chilly fall day in New York City, I close my B-Side series with this piece about autumn, the nostalgia of memory, and the stories we tell about the people we love. I wish you a joyous season filled with warm drinks and poetry. Take care.

Men and Music B-Side Project 4

To celebrate the 1st birthday of my poetry collection, Men and Music, this series will share "b-sides" not included in the collection but written during the same period, as well as the stories behind the poems. Check back each Monday for a new poem!

While I was working on Men and Music, I spent three summers hanging around Ithaca, NY. My boyfriend worked summer stock at the local theater, and I spent the season cooking meals for theater techies and stage managers, going to plays, drinking a bit more than I should, enjoying the natural landscape, and writing poems. There are a few poems written about and during that time in Ithaca (namely "'Teenage Dream' Karaoke" and "Crime") in the book. Like those pieces, "The Stars" brings me right back to Ithaca whenever I read it, and it brims with an optimism and wonder that filled those summers of waterfalls, beer, and musicals. Honestly, I am not entirely sure why I cut the piece from the final draft of the book, except that the rhyme in the last three lines felt a bit heavy, and the piece slowed the collection down. Upon revisiting "The Stars," I think I'm happier with it now, especially as a snapshot of a happy time in my life.

Men and Music B-Side Project 3

To celebrate the 1st birthday of my poetry collection, Men and Music, this series will share "b-sides" not included in the collection but written during the same period, as well as the stories behind the poems. Check back each Monday for a new poem!

This week's b-side poem is cozier than the last. "The Buddha Says Joy is a Choice" was written as a conclusion for Men and Music, and it was one of the first poems to test out what would become the collection's title. In fact, this poem helped me move from a draft of the book simply titled, "Joy," to the draft that would eventually be published. I ended up pulling the phrase "men and music" from this poem because it worked so well as the title for another piece in the collection. I also dropped "The Buddha Says" from the final draft of the book because I wanted a less conceptual poem to end the collection--one less focused on the speaker. However, I would have never arrived at the book's title without this poem, and though I think "The Buddha Says Joy is a Choice" doesn't completely work on its own merits, I find its sentiments comforting.

Shania Twain's Comeback with Now

I am surprised by how much I like Shania Twain's new record, Now, released after a 15 year hiatus filled with personal strife. The album reminds me a lot of Whitney Houston's I Look to You, which also found its star making a return after a bitter divorce and health issues that altered Houston's voice. Twain's voice has changed too, because of age and complications due to Lyme disease, but she knows how to use her instrument to compelling effect, even if that instrument is a little lower and thinner in tone.

On I Look to You, Whitney's gravel tones leant the darker material more weight, as well as made the tunes about triumph all the more powerful. Twain's voice has a similar effect here, lending heft to the ballads, while also making the joyful moments all the more compelling. Like Houston, Twain's voice and style shaped 90s pop music and paved the way for other stars to follow. (Without Twain, Leann Rhimes, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Kacey Musgraves may not have had such successful careers). She mixed pop and country aesthetics with a large dose of sex appeal to become a blockbuster hitmaker.

Those instincts are further honed on Now. With each track written by Twain, the album showcases her expert craftsmanship. Each tune is melodic and appealing, colored by surprising productions. "Home Now" mixes banjo with bold bass drum, sounding like both a country tune and ripe for a dance remix, and "Light of My Life" takes a moody guitar ballad and uses a bright chorus of layered vocals to open up the song, letting the hook breathe. "Poor Me"--perhaps the most heartbroken tune on the record--also uses layered vocals and a drum machine to create a windy, stormy production that suits the unsettled mood. On the flip side, the first single, "Life's About to Get Good," is a perfect slice of bubblegum optimism built for the dance floor. Whether singing about her broken heart or picking up the pieces with a big chorus, every track highlights Twain's perseverance.

In the video for Now's second single, "Swingin' With My Eyes Closed," Shania Twain slinks into a room in a gauzy black dress. You can see her mid-drift, and she flirts with camera. The backing track for "Swingin'" mixes country banjos, reggae, and dance music--Twain up to her old tricks of genre-blending--and when the chorus hits, she sounds sassy and powerful. It gave me chills the first time I watched it, because, in many ways, Shania is still the same--energetic and musically adventurous--and yet she's more compelling this time around. On Now, she sounds liberated, and that makes the record a triumph.

Men and Music B-Side Project 2

To celebrate the 1st birthday of my poetry collection, Men and Music, this series will share "b-sides" not included in the collection but written during the same period, as well as the stories behind the poems. Check back each Monday for a new poem!

Oh boy, this poem is such a tough one to talk about. I wrote "Easy Rider" in 2010 as part of a series of poems that would form the backbone for the first half of Men and Music. Ten of these poems, including "Easy Rider," were published in Assaracus in 2011. I am very proud of this piece because it took a lot of work to get its structure, voice, and rhythm right.

However, I always find "Easy Rider" challenging for the way it plays with fact and fiction. For example, when I wrote this poem, my brother had just received his motorcycle license and I refused to ride his bike. I had also experienced a bad break up the previous year, and that relationship had a messy conclusion. Yet, it's not quite right to assume I am the speaker, because I don't hunger for danger like the guy in the poem, though I empathize with that impulse among gay men.

"Easy Rider" is an example of the biggest challenge facing the semi-autobiographical "confessional" poet: the reader is going to think you are the poem's protagonist, no natter what you say.  I am shy about "Easy Rider"--it's my edgiest piece of work--but it's like that friend who always speaks her mind, even when it may cause conflict or change. Sometimes she  makes you uncomfortable, but you often admire her bravery too.