Sunday, February 13, 2005

Grammy's Unsung Songwriters

Tonight you are invited to celebrate the 47th Grammy Awards, which like other such media ceremonies is political – as in Democrat Party political – and a lagging indicator of cultural excellence. The prizes seem inspired less by artistic merit and more by the perceived need to satisfy quotas and IOUs, plus the winners are often predictable, safe choices from mainstream radio.

I haven’t listened regularly to Top 40 since the advent of punk, which begat new wave, which begat alternative, which begat the slow death of the most vibrant and interesting trend in rock ‘n’ roll over the past thirty years. I still watch music videos regularly, 99% of which are oldies showcased by the VH1 Classic shows We Are the ‘80s and Alternative, a throwback to MTV’s late lamented 120 Minutes.

Clearly I am not the typical Grammy Awards viewer.

This year I will be watching for one very special reason: Brian Wilson, whose truly legendary album Smile is nominated in the categories of Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Engineered Album, and Best Rock Instrumental Performance. In his heyday, Brian was notoriously competitive and still might value one or more Grammy Awards, but Ray Charles’ final release is nominated in two of the three categories and the Recording Academy loves to honor the recently deceased. Furthermore, the Academy recognized Wilson February 11, 2005, as its MusiCares Person of the Year and presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to the Beach Boys in 2001, factors Academy members may have considered while casting this year’s votes.

One reason the Grammys have a credibility problem is that Wilson’s daughters Carnie and Wendy received more Grammy nominations in their defunct trio Wilson Phillips than their father has as a solo artist and with the Beach Boys, whose only nomination was for Kokomo from the soundtrack for the movie Cocktail, a throwaway song for which Wilson was not in any way responsible as he had already left the band he founded and fostered. Wince.

The show I wish I could see was Friday night’s Academy tribute to Brian Wilson by fans including Darlene Love, Neil Young, Earth Wind & Fire, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Backstreet Boys. I’m guessing the highlights were Jeff Beck’s guitar performance of Surf’s Up/Surfin’ USA and the Barenaked Ladies’ medley of their own Brian Wilson and Brian Wilson’s ‘Til I Die. Sigh.

Another reason the Grammys lack credibility is that year after year the Recording Academy nominates dead artists, lip-synchers, rappers, and has-beens, while overlooking some of the most gifted and prolific songwriters in modern popular music. As comedian Red Buttons might say, Neil Finn, Martin Gore, and Paddy McAloon “never had a dinner.”

Alone, with his brother Tim or with his erstwhile comrades in Split Enz and Crowded House, Neil Finn has written and performed the most gorgeous instant classics since Lennon and McCartney: One Step Ahead, I Got You, Message to My Girl, Don’t Dream It’s Over, Into Temptation, Love This Life, World Where You Live, Weather with You, Whispers and Moans among many others of note. The Finn Brothers’ latest collaboration Everyone Is Here was one of the finest recordings of 2004.

Martin Gore is the creative force behind Depeche Mode, the new wave band that elevated synthesized music from a Kraftwerk-like novelty to high pop art. De Mode’s string of catchy pop confections is especially impressive due to their nearly exclusive use of synthesizers and relatively spare arrangements. You can listen to almost any of their albums and imagine them as a lush orchestral production or performed unplugged with an acoustic guitar or piano. Unlike many of their contemporaries, their tunes transcend the kitschy electronica of the 1980s. Catch up with Depeche Mode, so to speak, and check out the song craft of People Are People, Blasphemous Rumours, Shake the Disease, Question of Lust, Enjoy the Silence, and Policy of Truth.

Unlike Finn and Gore, who scored high on the American charts, Paddy McAloon’s Prefab Sprout received little airplay here but attained success and acclaim in his native England. In 1991 Rolling Stone magazine compared him to Brian Wilson as examples of songwriting elites. Unlike Wilson, whose genius is in the music and production, McAloon wrote the lyrics and music but left the production mostly to Thomas Dolby, who did not always display Paddy’s jewels to their best advantage. His catalog is ripe for discovery by some enterprising musician, maybe a keyboardist, to bring to the pop audience. My recommendations are too numerous to mention, but here are a few: When Love Breaks Down, Appetite, Horsin’ Around, Desire As, Life of Surprises, Tiffany’s, Pearly Gates, Wild Horses, Jordan the Comeback, Ice Maiden.

Yes, I’ll watch the Grammys this year. By next week I will have forgotten who won and who didn’t. When I listen to my favorite music, I won’t care.

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