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Pop Making Sense
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by David Byrne with Tony Peregrin
2014-01-07

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Steve Grand. PR photo


As another year passes, we saw noteworthy success stories, more mediocre music from certain pop stars and a return of beloved favorites in 2013. The artist of the year is the duo Tegan and Sara. The out Canadians crossed over into mainstream with the album Heartthrob, performed at Lollapalooza, and kept their lesbian identity intact in the videos "Closer" and "I Was a Fool." "Closer" marks the twins' first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis prove that hip-hop can be great without objectifying women, bragging about material things or demeaning others. The pair's "Same Love" ranks as the song and the video of the year. Macklemore wrote this about his gay uncle and the unnecessary gay slurs in hip hop. Lesbian singer-songwriter Mary Lambert provides the heartfelt chorus on "Same Love." The video tells the tale of a gay couple overcoming adversity and remaining in love.

There are many other remarkable music videos in 2013. Steve Grand became an overnight sensation thanks to "All-American Boy." Passion Pit's humorous "Carried Away" caught my attention every time. Dita von Teese sizzles with sex appeal as a confined housewife in her collaboration with Monarchy, "Disintegration." Janelle Monae and Miguel's "Primetime" has on-screen chemistry and android go-go dancers, while "Safe And Sound," by Capital Cities, shows the duo duplicating many dance trends.

I cannot pick just one album as a favorite. New releases from Vanessa Daou, Moby and Pet Shop Boys top my list. There were excellent efforts from the Mazzy Star and Natalia Kills, plus great albums by LGBT acts like John Grant, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Vicci Martinez and Tegan and Sara. There were impressive debuts in 2013 from Avicii, Sky Ferreira, Heaven, Laura Mvula and London Grammar.

The best music-related film and soundtrack belong to the brilliant documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. Here, the back-up singers to legends finally get their time in the spotlight. The veterans' discussion of Lou Reed's "Wild Side" pulled my heart strings, as did the scene where Merry Clayton considered whether to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Let's hope for an Oscar nomination. 20 Feet from Stardom comes out on DVD on Tuesday, Jan. 14.

This summer, I saw Cherie Currie at Northalsted Market Days. This was the concert of the year for me. During the opening number, "American Nights," I said to my brother, "I never thought I'd hear this song live." Currie's set contained favorites from her days with The Runaways as well as new material, her version of the glam rock classic "Roxy Roller" and a cover of David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel." The performance was tight as well as upbeat, and Currie kept the crowd engaged. The big draws at Northalsted Market Days failed to do such, making Currie stand out even more.

Chaka Khan's concert was so good, I saw her twice. The icon was commemorating 40 years in the music industry. Cyndi Lauper's tour provided a time capsule by featuring all 10 songs from her 1983 solo debut She's So Unusual in their original arrangements.

During Sinead O'Connor's concert, an attendee yelled out, "Today gay marriage was passed in Illinois!" O'Connor gave a thumbs-up while coolly wearing her sunglasses—an image forever imprinted in my mind. The controversial artist then said, "That is a wonderful reason to celebrate" before going in the harmony-driven number "In This Heart." O'Connor's set list focused on her 2012 album, which nicely complemented the magnificent material from her illustrious catalog.

I might lose credibility by admitting that 2013's strongest remix is Cedric Gervais' reinterpretation of Lana Del Rey's "Summertime Sadness." The remix is dramatic and works well with the accompanying video. Gervais' version is up for a Best Remix Grammy.

My choice covers are from two of my longtime favorites: Martha Wash and Pet Shop Boys. On her new EP, Something Good, Wash tackles Aerosmith's "Dream On." This is a slight departure for the vocal powerhouse, who is known for her club hits and soulful ballads. Wash pulls it off effortlessly. Pet Shop Boys' Electric contains a remake of Bruce Springsteen's "The Last to Die." Although the "Born to Run" superstar wrote this about a war veteran, the electronic duo's version feels like a firsthand testament about the AIDS epidemic.

The year's best book is James Arena's First Ladies of Disco: 32 Stars Discuss the Era and Their Singing Careers. The divas provide outstanding accounts of the decadent disco days. Arena lovingly dedicates the title to his mother, who picked up albums for him from all over the world.

When I have to declare the worst songs of 2013, I think about what Will.i.am worked on. His pairings with Britney Spears and Justin Bieber are embarrassing and soulless. Other disappointments include Sarah Brightman's tepid covers of Sia's "Breathe Me" and Sigur Ros' "Glosoli."

Pitbull and Ke$ha's "Timber" is an unneeded resurrection of the Rednex's "Cotton Eye Joe." The video does not have a continuous shot that lasts more than two seconds. The storyline and the choreography are lost with the constant scene jumping.

Another awful clip is Kanye West's "Bound 2," featuring Kim Kardashian. I still am surprised they did not name their child Modesty.

Other songs from 2013 that I never want to hear again are Demi Lovato's "Heart Attack," Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and anything by Miley Cyrus.

There are new releases due in 2014 from Against Me!, Blondie, Kylie Minogue, The Pack a.d. and Lisa Stansfield.


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