You know, I feel I've developed pretty good radar for what good music is in my 40-plus years of listening to great stuff. I was into Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when I was 13.
I bought the Sex Pistols first album when it came out, along with Elvis Costello's stunning debut "My Aim is True," "Talking Heads '77," "London Calling" by the Clash and even Gang of Four's wonderful debut, "Entertainment!"
I think I might have been the only guy in the Ohio Valley buying and worshipping these albums, but I eventually did meet a few other like-minded comrades into "different" music at the time.
I also read a lot about music, and discovered Van Morrison's timeless "Astral Weeks" as a teenager and got into Randy Newman after hearing the quirky and funny "Short People" on the radio. I thought it took a lot of guts to sing like you were garbling marbles, but I've always been attracted to "damaged" voices in pop music, so his style was right up my alley.
I liked the song so much I went and bought the album - his classic "Little Criminals." There I discovered Randy Newman was a whole lot more than a one-hit wonder, and everything about him, including his utterly unique piano voicings to his sardonic, biting lyrics, were peerless. There are few modern songwriters that can wed lyrics and music so seemlessly, and Randy Newman's work was a whole lot different than what I was listening to at the time.
While Newman could deliver venom sweetly, he also was a surprisingly empathetic writer of love songs, and most of his tunes were from the viewpoint of characters he treated with a mix of contempt and pathos. Newman's style was entirely cinematic, and that's no surprise considering he came from a family of music score writers for film and the stage.
It makes sense Newman inherited from his musical relatives by osmosis and his upbringing a familiarity with long-"dead" American musical styles such as Vaudeville and ragtime with a hint of stride. Great stuff.
It also took a witty imagination to write songs with great, provocative titles such as "Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father" and "Albert Einstein's Impersonation of Sigmund Freud in America." You've just got to love a guy with a sense of humor like that, and I did. I listened to "Little Criminals" until I wore out the grooves on the record, and then I listened to it some more, all the while laughing and delighted by Newman's audacity and subversive wit.
Then I got into Newman's other great albums, including the classic "Good Old Boys," his mocking yet reverential concept album about life in the deep South, full of characters you could love and loath at the same time. It occurred to me after hearing this record that Randy Newman was a genius, even if he wasn't prolific.
I would hear Newman's distinctive style here and there, including his '80s hit "I Love L.A.," the theme song to the TV show "Monk" - "It's a Jungle Out There" - and "You've Got a Friend in Me" for Pixar Studios. In fact, Newman has spent the majority of his career since the '80s writing movie scores.
So, I've spent half a column or more explaining my love of Randy Newman's music, and recently I've had the opportunity to be reminded of why I consider the best release of 2011, "Randy Newman Live with the BBC Orchestra in London."
The album, recorded in 2008 but just released in November, features Newman with the top-notch orchestra performing at St. Luke's, an 18th-century Anglican church in front of an adoring audience. The album, released on Nonesuch - one of the handful of indie labels that seems to love what they release - also comes with a DVD film of the concert, complete with Newman's wry, in-between-song commentary and 23 of his best loved songs.
I'm familiar with most of them, although I'd forgotten just how good Newman can be. He begins the show with a backhanded compliment to his European audience with the sad but funny "The Great Nations of Europe," a startlingly blunt account of the 16th-century Europeans that explored the new world, up-ending the world of the indigenous people there:
"Columbus sailed for India...found Salvador instead...He shook hands with some Indians there...And soon they all were dead...They got TB and typhoid and athlete's foot, diphtheria and the flu...'Scuse me, great nations comin' through...
"Now, they're gone, they're gone...They're really gone...You never seen anyone so gone...Some bones hidden in a canyon...Some paintings in a cave...They're no use tryin' to save them...there's nothin' left to save..."
And the chorus:
"Hide your wives and daughters...Hide the groceries, too,,,The great nations of Europe comin' through..."
Now, what makes this funny is the slightly mocking Elizabethian feel of the music and arrangement. But, like a lot of Newman's scathing view of history, religion and politics, there's price to pay for European adventurism:
"Where you and I are standing...At the end of a century...Europes have sprung up everywhere...As you and I can see...But there on the horizon is the possibility...That some bug from out of Africa might come for you and me...Destroying everything in it's path from sea to shining sea...Like the great nations of Europe in the 16th century."
Wow! Home run, Randy. I still laugh every time I hear that line.
But his tender side is here as well, as in his portrait of a loser redneck in love with his wife, in "Marie":
"You looked like a princess the night we met...With your hair piled up high...I will never forget...I'm drunk right now baby...But I've got to be...Or I never could tell you...
What you meant to me...You're the song that the trees sing when the wind blows...
You're a flower, you're a river, you're a rainbow...Sometimes I'm crazy...But I guess you know...I'm weak and I'm lazy...And I hurt you so...And I don't listen to a word you say
When you're in trouble I just turn away...But I loved you the first time I saw you...
And I always will love you, Marie..."
Other great Newman songs on the disc include "Mama Told Me Not to Come," "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," "I Miss You," "A Real Emotional Girl" and his humorous and slightly bitter explanation for the failure of Marxism in "The World Isn't Fair." Religion and politics don't escape Newman ire, either, as on "Political Science (Let's Drop the Big One)" and God's Song (That's Why I love Mankind)."
I can tell when something is really good when I got obsessed with listening, and right now I'm in complete awe of Randy Newman. Fellow songwriter Paul Simon has called Newman America's best songwriter, and who am I to disagree?
And that's why "Randy Newman Live with the BBC Orchestra in London" is my pick for best album of the year.
Nest week I'll give a shout out for the honorable mentions of 2011.