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Pop Making Sense
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by David Byrne
2013-01-01

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Bettye LaVette


For me, 2012 will be remembered as the year that Whitney Houston and Donna Summer passed away. Favorites returned with new material and newcomers showed promise while radio overplayed the same songs. Let's hope "Gangnam Style" will fizzle out of our consciences shortly, just as "Macarena" did about 16 years ago.

There were many great albums in 2012, including those by Bettye LaVette, Heart, Jinx Titanic and the Ladykillers, Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Neon Trees and School of Seven Bells. But the one that remains my favorite throughout the year is Joan Osborne's Grammy-nominated Bring It on Home. Here, the "One of Us" singer seamlessly remakes blues and soul classics like Ray Charles's "I Don't Need No Doctor" and Otis Redding's "Champagne and Wine." The other top contenders are Ruthie Foster's folk meets blues outing Let It Burn and Meshell Ndegeocello's tribute to Nina Simone, Pour une Ame Souveraine.

Graffiti6 and Dead Sara both had promising debuts. The former toured heavily to promote Colours, while the latter performed at Riot Fest and on JBTV before being selected as Muse's upcoming opening band.

Once again, Chicago hosted many wonderful concerts. Madonna impressed me with her MDNA Tour. I caught Prince on the best night of his three-show run in Chicago. Garbage rocked the house at its sold-out date at The Metro. But I favored the more intimate performances by LaVette, Osborne, Ndegeocello and Foster. The one that rises above the others complete with storytelling, vocal talent, terrific material and humility is British newcomer Emeli Sande, who released her debut, Our Version of Events. How I wish I was able to see Minogue's limited Anti Tour and Bananarama's trek that raised awareness for breast cancer.

Last year, I saw three stage productions that were absolutely fantastic. Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein have a hit on their hands with the Broadway-bound Kinky Boots by blending memorable tunes with a fantastic set, loveable characters and a talented cast. The Black Ensemble Theater had a superb production about a singing competition that salutes R&B's divas with One Name Only. While at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, I saw The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. This unforgettable four-person piece easily could translate onto the silver screen with Queen Latifah in the titular role.

The toughest challenge is selecting the year's best cover. There are so many notable remakes, such as Chromatics reworking of Neil Young's "(Hey Hey My My) Into the Black," Friend Slash Lover's take on XTC's "Dear God," LaVette's rendition of Gnarls Barkley's smash "Crazy," Macy Gray's futuristic spin on "Here Comes the Rain Again" by Eurythmics, Foster's remake of John Martyn's "Don't Want to Know" and Sinead O'Connor's version of "Queen of Denmark" by out artist John Grant. Ndegeocello trumps them all with her homage to the high priestess of soul, Pour une Ame Souveraine, which features Simone's signature "Feeling Good," the haunting "Either Way I Lose" and the seductive "Turn Me On."

Indie artists Angela McCluskey, Bananarama and Gliss released noteworthy EPs, but my favorite is The Grey Area by Friend Slash Lover. This six-track effort has the dreamy "Carry Your Weight" and the upbeat guitar-driven "As Seen on TV" and "S2PD HMN." The Grey Area is a perfect successor to the L.A.-based band's previous EP As American As Ones and Zeros.

Yes, bands still make music videos. The year's best is "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees. Here, the camp clip has zombies preying at a drive-in theater, a nod to Psycho Beach Party. Other notable videos include Boy George's "Video Games," Ellie Goulding's ethereal "Anything Could Happen," Friend Slash Lover's "Unaware" that is filmed on an iPhone and Kylie Minogue's simple yet sensual "Flower."

The year's best remixes belong to Vanessa Daou. The sultry singer-songwriter culminated already existing remixes with new ones to make up the sensational Speak/Easy: The Moonshine Mixes (Joe Sent Me Revisited). These reinterpretations add a new perspective and depth to her opus Joe Sent Me. As a bonus, not all of these remixes are designed for the dancefloor.

Pnau found magic once Sir Elton John allowed the Australian duo to delve into his catalog. Here, Pnau samples the diva's vintage songs to come up with clever creations. The masterpiece from this outstanding collaboration is the uplifting "Good Morning to the Night."

The comeback of the year belongs to Garbage. After a timeout, the band returned in fine form with Not Your Kind of People and a tour loaded with hits.

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound is the band I am most proud of. This local group was the sole focus on an entire episode of JBTV and had high-profile hometown shows the night before Thanksgiving and on New Year's Eve.

This year produced many hits I never want to hear again including fun.'s "We Are Young," Gotye's "Somebody I Used to Know" and Psy's "Gangnam Style." But the worst song of the year is "Scream & Shout" by Will.I.Am featuring Britney Spears. Just a tip to the multi-platinum producer: If you are working with a singer with minimal talent, don't enhance this by making her sound bored. I also am pretending that Mariah Carey never released the teaser track "Triumphant."

Somehow, I never grew tired of the unavoidable pop phenomenon "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jespen or its heartwarming videos on YouTube by various sport teams. Let's just see how I feel about this song sometime this year.

Tony Peregrin contributing


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