Happy Holidays and Signing Off for 2018

Before I head out for the holidays, I wanted to recommend two holiday tunes for the season.

The first is Katy Perry's "Cozy Little Christmas," which she released as an Amazon Original. The kitschy, sweet tune has a pleasing melody and catchy hook. It's the kind of song Perry has mastered--a mix kooky humor and romance--and a return to form for the pop diva. "Cozy" makes you want her to record an entire holiday record. After a decade in the business, it's the perfect time for her to consider such a project. Check the song out on Amazon.

I'm also infatuated with the Jolly Remix of Leann Rimes' "Joy" medley, most notably featuring her take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The tune is the perfect mix of holiday cheese and hopefulness. In fact, "Joy" is the ideal title for the track because it is downright joyful. I recommend her entire 2018 holiday record. Don't be discouraged that it's a soundtrack for Rimes' Hallmark holiday film, It's Christmas, Eve; the album is a fun and consistent set of holiday tunes.

In the spirit of the season, I wish you happy holidays, dear reader. May you find lots of warmth, joy, and peace. See you in the new year.

My Favorites of 2018: Albums

With a glut of great music, picking five favorite 2018 records was a challenge, so I have included a bonus pick as well. This list features my usual caveat: while I consider artistic merit when I pick my top records for the year, my selections center around what albums I could not resist playing over and over. Perhaps there are records with more critical praise or commercial success, but these are the albums that kept me dancing through my day.

BONUS: 6.  Love, Simon Soundtrack (Various Artists)
Great soundtracks are hard to build, but Executive Producer Jack Antonoff picked a selection of tunes to reflect Simon's optimism and longing. Because the record includes several previously released tunes, it felt unfair to include it any higher on the list, but I played this album non-stop. It's a perfect companion to the film.

5. Bloom (Troye Sivan)
Troye Sivan arrived in a major way this year. After teasing a series of solid singles, he released his sophomore effort, Bloom. Exquisitely produced, these ten tracks are on opus of pop perfection--moving from melancholy ballads like "The Good Side" to ecstatic dance tunes like "My My My!" Bloom is an ode to coming of age, coming out, and falling in love. An instant classic.

4. Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves)
After two excellent major label records, I was unsure how Kacey Musgraves could top herself, but she did with Golden Hour. 2018 marked the return of the romcom to mainstream success, and love was in the air for Musgraves too. Though it features some of her trademark humor, the album focuses on breezy love songs. Highlights: "Slow Burn," "Lonely Weekend," and "Love is a Wild Thing."

3. Dancing Queen (Cher)
Who knew ABBA and Cher would be such a great mix? On this pristine tribute to the Swedish pop group, Cher fused her high camp style with the comfort food of ABBA's pop tunes, and the combination was the perfect balm for a politically challenging year. While many of the productions nod to the 70s originals, Cher's covers have embellishments indicative of her dance-diva aesthetic, such as the house-stylings on "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," which fits nicely alongside "Believe" in her discography. That said, she is at her best with the somber tunes, especially her passionate take on "SOS," her perfect version of"The Winner Takes It All," and her down-tempo interpretation of "One of Us." Dancing Queen  proves Cher is more compelling than ever, and it's a blessing she's still making music.

2. Voicenotes (Charlie Puth)
Before 2018, I paid little attention to Charlie Puth. His tunes felt artificial, and it was hard to differentiate him from other young pop singer/songwriters. Voicenotes reversed my previous feelings. These fun, melodic songs show Puth has an ear for choruses, romantic lyrics, and meticulous production. Some of the tracks lean into his cheesy side (such as the Boyz II Men assisted "If You Leave Me Now"), but even the indulgences play as a strengths because he gives each track a distinct texture. Though he has a gift for ballads, Puth is at his best with upbeat tracks ("How Long," "BOY," "Empty Cups"). Voicenotes is a great record for a party or road trip--the kind of album that makes you sing.

1. Palo Santo (Years and Years)
Though I've listened to the album over and over, Years and Years' Palo Santo surprises me every time. Lead singer Olly Alexander and crew owe a lot to late 80s/early 90s Madonna, as this album mixes religious imagery, dance music, and eroticism. However, the band makes that formula their own, filling their contemporary house tunes with queer imagery. The whole record is a gem, but "Hallelujah," "All for You," "If You're Over Me," and "Rendezvous" give the listener a strong sense of band's aesthetic and achievements with their sophomore album. If you want to dance, buy Palo Santo.

One more post before I escape for the holidays! Next up: a couple holiday music recommendations. Stay tuned!

My Favorites of 2018: Singles

Hello, dear reader! As another year draws to a close, I plan to celebrate 2018 over a few posts. Before I dive into my favorite singles of the year, I must tip my hat to the fabulously queer year of 20-gay-teen. Kicking off with the Love, Simon film and soundtrack (not to mention novel), my year got off to a lovely, romantic start. That was followed by catching up with two queer masterpiece films (God's Own Country and Call Me by Your Name), lots of gay novels (namely mysteries by Marshall Thornton, Nathan Aldyne, Mark Richard Zubro, and James Lear), and, of course, tons of music.

In fact, this year has been one of the best for music in recent memory. I bought more new albums this year than in the two previous years combined. That goes for singles as well.

Speaking of singles, let's get down to brass tacks. Below are my ten favorite singles of 2018. I developed this list based in part on plays in my iTunes library, as well as the tunes' artistic merit.

The 1975 has continued to open up their sound. Though I will not have time to consider their forthcoming LP for my end of year list (I will review it in the new year), I have enjoyed its promo singles, especially this bouncy auto-tune-laden ode to contemporary dating.

9. "Let You Love Me" by Rita Ora
Rita Ora walked a long road to her sophomore album, Phoenix. However, "Let You Love Me" is an example of why it was worth the wait. Ora has an ear for strong choruses and a voice that easily moves from mournful to celebratory.

8. "Want You Back" by 5 Seconds of Summer
After some time away from the spotlight, 5 Seconds of Summer came back better than ever. "Want You Back" worked as the perfect lead single for their Youngblood LP. Though the title track fared better on the charts, I prefer the falsetto chorus on "Want You." If you love this song, you'll love the whole record.

7. "Rocket Girl" by Lemaitre ft. Betty Who
Though she parted ways with her label, Betty Who creatively blossomed this year, dropping a new EP and some awesome collabs. Working as the hook girl for Lemaitre, she captured the sweaty mood of summer 2018.

6. "Kiss the Boy" by Keiynan Lonsdale
Catapulted into the spotlight as Bram in Love, Simon, Lonsdale seized his moment by releasing two excellent singles. This swoony tune about crushing on the boy-next-door is perfect for an actor/singer whose fame will forever be tied to a gay teen romcom.

5.  "High Horse" by Kacey Musgraves
Heightening her signature humor with some disco, Kacey Musgraves created a cross-over tune for your local dive bar, as well as a hip dance club. It's a shame "High Horse" didn't get more mainstream love.

4. "My My My!" by Troye Sivan
Sivan's performance on SNL of this lead single for his second album created quite a stir, as did the video. "My My My!" is the best love song of the year--brimming with lust and romance.

3. "All for You" by Years and Years
Palo Santo brims with delicious house tunes, and "All for You" is the best of the bunch. Listening to it puts a strut in your step. It's undeniably queer and fabulous.

2. "BOY" by Charlie Puth
Charlie Puth took me by surprise. His sophomore effort is underrated, but more on that later. This bouncy, hooky pop gem is masterwork of ear-worm songcraft.

1. "Delicate" by Taylor Swift
Last year I was done with T. Swift, but this slow-jam dance tune is the best track from her repuation era. From the first day it dropped as an official single, I listened to it non-stop.

Stay tuned for my next post about my favorite albums of the year!

Happy Halloween: Horror Movies and Poems

Happy Halloween, dear reader! On this fun, queer, and creative day, I wanted to let you know what I've been up to lately.

First of all, I am continuing to work on a new collection of poems that play with horror movie tropes. In celebration, here is a piece from that manuscript as a small gift for the holiday:

I am sending out poems from the collection and working on an arrangement, as well as revising some new pieces. Hopefully, I will be finishing the book and sending it into the world soon!

Also, I've been watching horror movies. Instead of doing a traditional 31 Days of Horror, this year I pursued a 13 New-to-Me Horror Movie Challenge. As a horror fan, I watch scary movies year round, but I often return to old favorites. Of course, I watched some faves this month (Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Hellbent, The FacultyScream, etc.), but I focused on new films.

Here is what I watched:
1. The Cleanse (2016)
2. The Covenant (2006)
3. The Body (2018)
4. Midnight Man (2016)
5. The Gate (1987)
6. Nightbreed (Director's Cut) (1990)
7. Halloween (2018)
8. The Haunting of Julia (1981)
9. House (1985)
10. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
11. Dracula II: Ascension (2003)
12. When a Stranger Calls (2006)
13. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Biggest Disappointment: The Covenant (2006)
Several of my selections were duds this month, but there is a big difference between a fascinating failure and dull movie. The Covenant is the latter. After a raucous first act of cute guys and a decent premise, the movie falls apart. It has no scares, little humor, and a plodding final act. The swimwear scenes are not worth this tedious watch.

Best Scare: The Haunting of Julia (1981)
Wow. This movie is a masterpiece of atmospheric, ghostly horror. Based on Peter Straub's novel, Julia, and starring a wonderful Mia Farrow, The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle) has been mostly forgotten; it failed to find an audience in England in the late 70s, as well as during a belated '81 US release. Yet, the movie is a true creeper. It got under my skin, and I had a hard time sleeping the night I watched it. Of all the movies I watched this October--even counting the new Halloween--The Haunting of Julia is the film I plan on adding to my collection. I highly recommend checking it out.

Though I will be working late tonight, I do plan on having a cozy wind-down to my holiday. I will be making tea, lighting some candles, and watching Murder, She Wrote Season 2 Episode 6, "Reflections of the Mind." It's a great entry in the series that plays with haunted house tropes, but is ultimately a soft homage to Gaslight (one of Angela Lansbury's first films). There are other great horror adjacent episodes (including a Psycho tribute and the double-episode, "Nan's Ghost"), but "Reflections..." is a nice balance of haunted house and cozy mystery for this time of year.

Credit: Murder, She Blogged

Have a fun and safe Halloween, dear reader!

Troye Sivan's Bloom and the Legacy of the Gay Pop Record

Just in time for the long weekend, Troye Sivan dropped his stellar sophomore effort, Bloom. It's a breezy, synth-laden, and brisk ten tracks cataloging the rush of coming out, as well as the pleasure and heartaches of falling love. It's undeniably gay right from the start, beginning with the opener (no pun intended) about losing his virginity to an older man, "Seventeen." Sivan is at his best when expressing the exuberance and exasperation of romance ("My, My, My," "Bloom," "Plum," and "Lucky Strike"), and what is so wonderful about this record is that it's smart, sweet lyrics carefully describe the feeling of being a queer man in love. It's a remarkable achievement, and one of the best records of 2018. Sivan is well on his way to being a gay pop icon.

Though I love Bloom, it's important to recognize that it falls in a long tradition of queer men writing love songs and creating excellent albums in the process. Not enough of the recent press is acknowledging Bloom's lineage, so I want to pay tribute to important albums that preceded Sivan's.

Below is not a comprehensive list of gay pop records, but I am recommending four albums I adore and return to often.

Patrick Wolf's Lupercalia (2011)

By far Wolf's sunniest album, Lupercalia  starts with a flood of optimism on opener, "The City." What follows is a tribute to Wolf's partner, including an ode to domesticity ("House"), the lovely interlude, "William," and the heartbroken olive branch, "Together." It's an album about the pleasures and worries of two men in love, and it still plays well. Wolf's knack for mixing chamber pop, dance music, and New Wave make Lupercalia a timeless tribute to romance.

Jay Brannan's Goddamned (2008)

It would be impossible to talk about gay music and not talk about Jay Brannan. His first full length album, Goddamned, surfaced in the wake of his appearance in the cult film, Shortbus. In contrast to Sivan, Brannan is interested in mixing folk and pop music, but the album still has a hooky sensibility and it meant a lot me in my early 20s. Songs like "Half-Boyfriend," "Housewife," "On All Fours," and "Ever After Happily" captured what it felt like to be young, gay, and trying to figure out dating and happiness. Brannan has an impressive catalog of records (including the especially stellar Rob Me Blind), but this is the album I return to most often.

Rufus Wainwright's Release the Stars (2007)

Another formative record from my early 20s, Release Stars  plays with camp and melancholy. From the power-pop meets Phantom of the Opera  love song, "Between My Legs," to the lusty "Tulsa," there is so much to love here. Wainwright's slurring delivery lends a sadness to many of his tunes, but his music highlights how extreme feelings like attraction have a bitter-sweet undercurrent.

Bronski Beat's Age of Consent (1984)

If you want to study up on gay pop, the place you need to start is Bronski Beat's Age of Consent. This is much darker record than Bloom, but without this album, we would not have a pop star like Troye Sivan. Consent is the first album by an openly gay band to discuss queer subjects and also be a hit (No. 4 on the UK albums chart, and No. 36 in the US). A lot of the tunes address homophobia ("Smalltown Boy," "Why?," "It Ain't Necessarily So"), but there is love and lust too, most notably "Heatwave" and the sexy "I Feel Love (Medley)," which takes the Donna Summer classic and brings it to new gay heights.

Remembering Aretha Franklin

On August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin, the greatest soul singer of the 20th century, passed away. She was 76.

Ms. Franklin was a staple of popular music throughout the rock era, including well into the new millennium. She is most remembered for her megahit, "Respect," as well as other classics like "Chain of Fools," "Natural Woman," and "Think." However, when I remember her, my memory is shaped by her late 90s presence on VH1, which frequently played her last mainstream Top 40 hit, "A Rose is Still a Rose" (1998). The tune was lead single and title track for her comeback record and an important moment in her career, as it brought the diva to the mainstream and contemporized her sound--a feat masterfully executed by Franklin and her collaborator, Lauryn Hill. Much like Whitney Houston's My Love is Your Love (also released in 1998), "Rose" and its mother record brought an important voice back to the mainstream with a sleek, urban sound, while also playing to the diva's legendary status as an icon and mother of the genre.

In fact, the video for "A Rose is Still a Rose" casts Ms. Franklin as a god-like mother figure offering comfort and guidance to the protagonist, who has been cast aside by her lover. It's a pure delight.

Capitalizing on her return to the mainstream that year, she also headlined VH1's first Diva's Live televised concert--in which she even outshined an in-her-prime Mariah Carey--and sang a standing-ovation worthy version of "Nessum Dorma" at the Grammy Awards, replacing an ill Pavarotti at the last minute. 1998 was a huge year for the her and, in my mind at least, looms large in her legacy.

If you are looking for other contemporary tunes, I also highly recommend Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (2014) and its sister remix record. Though her voice had aged and her upper register thinned by the time she recorded this album, the tunes still have a lot of power. Her take on "Midnight Train in Georgia" is perhaps her finest late-era vocal performance, and her medley of "I'm Every Woman" and "Respect" packs quite a punch.

However, my favorite tune from the album is her take on Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." It's classic Aretha Franklin--dramatic, compelling, earthy, and empowering. I especially like the Wide Boys Club Mix. Ms. Franklin's voice thunders over the dance beats, and there is something uplifting about hearing a woman who weathered adversity and change over a long career sounding so powerful. It gives me chills and makes me want to dance. Clearly, I am not the only who feels this way, as "Rolling" became her final number 1, hitting the top of the Dance Chart. It's a wonderful final chapter to her career of hits. Aretha Franklin was a formidable diva and an inspiration. She will be missed.

3 Essential Listens: Panic, 5SOS, and Keiynan Lonsdale

2018 has proven to be politically brutal (protest and vote, dear reader!), but to give us some hope in this time of strife, artists have delivered the best pop music I've heard in years. I've not felt so engaged with new music since 2013 (which I consider a watershed year). Last month I did a big round-up of tunes that won me over, and this month I want to recommend one single and two great records to keep your spirits up this muggy July.

"Preach" by Keiynan Lonsdale

Since his turn in Love, Simon, I've had a killer crush on  Keiynan Lonsdale, which has been bolstered by his two new singles. Following the sweet "Kiss the Boy," Lonsdale goes full New Age gospel in his testimony to love, "Preach." The song has a stronger vocal performance and sensual under-current. I hope it foreshadows a full-length debut record.

5 Seconds of Summer's Youngblood

Leaving behind the bratty pop-punk of their teens, 5SOS delivered their first "adult" record, Youngblood. Though the album is more melancholic than their most popular tunes, it's full of hooky, addicting pop, including the title track, lead single "Want You Back," and the 80s-tinged "Talk Fast." Perhaps the most interesting song is "Moving Along," which has the phrasing typical of pop punk, but with more mature lyrics about being disaffected and heartbroken in your early 20s. The tune has layered  vocals in the chorus and an unexpected thundering drum machine ripped right from Katy Perry's Witness. The band's willingness to play with electronic textures and interest in reflecting their evolving perspective make Youngblood a worthwhile listen.

Panic! At the Disco's  Pray for the Wicked

Panic! has experienced a curious success over the past 5 years. Though the band dropped its breakthrough hit in 2005, it's garnered the most consistent critical and commercial success a decade into its career (when most acts decline). This success is due to two factors: the bottomless charm of Brendon Urie (lead singer and the only remaining member of the band) and how Urie's singular vision has shaped Panic!'s most recent records. Pray for the Wicked is a grand, flamboyant album brimming with showbiz antics and melodrama. Pray also feels quintessentially queer and Broadway. Perhaps this is because of Urie's stint in Kinky Boots last year and his recent coming out as pansexual. On tracks like the big-band tinged "Roaring 20s," dance-rock "Hey Look Ma, I Made It," exuberant "Dancing's Not a Crime," and piano ballad "Dying in LA," Urie's voice soars. This is the best he's ever sounded on record.