“Losing a Year” by Jeff Hanson
Jeff Hanson sounds like a girl. Or sounded like a girl, rather. He doesn’t sound like anything now, because he died in 2009. But before he died, he sounded like a girl, and that is always the first thing anyone will ever tell you about Jeff Hanson. The first time you hear him, you’re positive the name isn’t right or is an ironically named female Jeff. But, he was indeed a dude, and his girly voice wasn’t a whiny Lou Christie falsetto, but soft, angelic and deeply feeling. Imagine if Elliott Smith’s sister got hit in the nuts with a tank of helium, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what he sounded like.
“Losing a Year” is the opening track on Hanson’s eponymous sophomore release, the second of three pretty much perfect LPs Hanson recorded for Kill Rock Stars. The song is an indie-pop epic that starts out barely audible, marked only by vocals and sparse acoustic guitar and builds over its eight minutes to a sweeping and lush piano and strings-driven tale of frustration and regret.
It’s the best song in a phenomenal catalog that was cut far too short by an overdose. And that’s the saddest thing about Jeff Hanson: You would think that at the very least his death would finally garner him the attention he deserved but never got in life, but the news barely registered a blip, and even within indie rock circles Hanson remains largely and tragically unheralded.
“Mighty Little Man” by Steve Burns
Just about anyone could put out a listenable album if they got hooked up with the Flaming Lips’ producer and two of the band’s members, and that even goes for former children’s show hosts. But Steve Burns deserves much of the credit for his 2003 album Songs for Dustmites. The Lips’ influence can definitely be heard throughout the record, but the Blue’s Clues host does a fine job of personalizing it and making the music stand apart.
As a whole, it’s a pretty good album. A little uneven, but clever and admirably ambitious. But the only truly great song is the first track, “Mighty Little Man.” It’s a big, loud, fun pop rock song that’s more Lips-y than anything else on the album, but still manages to sound like something altogether new. It’s also hands down the best rock song from a kids’ show star, though I always felt like Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street could have torn shit up if given the opportunity. Still, the song and Burns’s music career never really caught on, and word has it his follow-up album is just sitting on a shelf somewhere.
“Frank’s 2000-Inch TV” by “Weird Al” Yankovic
“Weird Al” is obviously a legend. For decades he’s owned the parody song in a way few have ever dominated a genre, but parodies only make up about two-thirds of his catalog. For every “Eat It” there’s a “Nature Trail to Hell,” for every “White and Nerdy” a “Christmas at Ground Zero.”
It’s probably because they lack the familiarity factor, but for whatever reason Al’s non-parody songs never get any attention. And that’s a shame, because the guy really knows how to write an original song. Yes, they’re dorky songs about food and going to the dentist, but they’re really well written dorky songs about food and going to the dentist.
“Frank’s 2000-Inch TV” is perhaps Al’s best non-parody song. Not because it’s the funniest, but because lyrical content aside, it’s got fantastic harmonies and a super catchy melody. If you didn’t understand English and you heard this song, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from any other early-90s alternative pop song. It makes me hope Al someday decides to record a non-comedy album.
“Under Pressure” by Boyz II Men
The début single from Boyz II Men was “Motownphilly,” a non-stop-fun pop song that simultaneously showcased the group’s vocal harmonies and epitomized the new jack swing sound. As if that wasn’t enough, the video featured Michael Bivens on the toilet.
Of course, the band 86’d all but the harmonies to embark on a career that would see them become kings of the R&B ballad, outselling every other music group in the world in the 90s and setting and breaking the record for most consecutive weeks at #1 three times. Well, fuck that. They should have never traded Michael Bivens in for Babyface and left Another Bad Creation to carry the East Coast Family torch alone.
They never had another hit with a dance track, but the song right after “Motownphilly” on Cooleyhighharmony was a catchy jam that’s every bit as good as that first single. “Under Pressure” has almost all the same winning ingredients as “Motownphilly,” a killer beat, infectious harmonies and playful interludes. In fact, about the only thing “Under Pressure” is missing is the only thing missing from every other song since “Motownphilly”: A video with Michael Bivens on the toilet.
“Closer” by Jonathan Richman
Most people know Jonathan Richman as the leader of the influential proto-punk band the Modern Lovers or as the goofy singer in There’s Something About Mary. But more than 30 years’ worth of albums prove there is so much more to this guy.
The song “Monologue About Bermuda” tells the story best, but in the early 70s, Jonathan saw a group of 40-something guys performing at a hotel in Bermuda and was so struck by their unabashedness that he turned his back on the pretentiousness of the Modern Lovers, permanently affixed his heart to his sleeve and never looked back.
So he missed out on becoming a punk legend, but he has proceeded to release some of the purest, most joyful music ever produced. His music is so sincere, honest and funny, it’s often mistaken as ironic. But after you listen enough, you realize Jonathan means every word. And few songs exemplify that as well as “Closer,” off his eponymous 1989 L.P., but probably easier to find on the essential 2002 compilation Action Packed.
It’s a sweet song about wanting to get closer to his wife. The lyrics are simple and heartfelt, the melody is catchy, and it features a lyric that sums up everything you need to know about Jonathan Richman. Late in the song, he sings to himself (as he often does), “Hey wait a minute, Jonathan, now don’t get excited,” then shouts his reply as if too overcome to sing, “Yeah, but I am! And I do!” and then resumes singing, “And I never hide it.”