Song 359: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (1990)


Like most people my age, I saw Home Alone too many times as a child. It came out around my 11th birthday, and my dad bravely took me and a group of my friends to see it. It was, of course, ridiculous in every way, but I always liked it for the family Christmas stuff, and for none of the silly burglar stuff. I actually think it’s a pretty good movie without Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern mugging for the camera.

I was also obsessed with the Home Alone soundtrack, which remains surprisingly good. The score, with its theme “Somewhere In My Memory,” is much better than a movie like Home Alone requires (how director Chris Columbus convinced John Williams to compose the score, I’d love to know). The album became one of the things I’d listen to constantly at Christmas, and one of the reasons is Mel Tormé’s version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which, to me, is the only version there is.

I actually know nothing about Mel Tormé, other than his best-in-the-business nickname (the goddamn Velvet Fog) and his indelible appearance on Seinfield. But I love his smooth and subtle approach to this song, because “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is best sung with subtlety. Sure, it gets a little lofty by the time you hang a shining star upon the highest bough, but its power is generally in its sense of peace and quiet.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” first appeared in another movie: Meet Me In St. Louis. The movie’s star, Judy Garland, didn’t like some of songwriter Hugh Martin’s lyrics—specifically, the big bummer “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York.” He wisely listened to Garland’s criticism and came up with some more lyrics that don’t refer to your possible imminent demise. (On second thought, maybe Garland was the wise one here.)

Despite there being so dang many of them, Christmas songs are hard to get right. For the traditional kind, you need to be heartwarming and sweet without being overly saccharine. I think “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” balances those two extremes perfectly. It’s so good, and so appropriate for every occasion, that it closes a movie about a pre-pubescent foiling two burglars with household objects. That’s pretty amazing.


Song 317: Traveling Wilburys, “If You Belonged to Me” (1990)


The term “dad rock” seems to get thrown around a lot these days, seemingly applied to every band from Wilco to Dawes. If an indie record has a touch of country and some well-placed electric guitar, chances are one of your favorite media outlets has slapped the moniker on it like a warranty label on a lawnmower.

But let’s face it. That term, at once loving and derogatory, should be reserved for one band and one band only: The Traveling Wilburys. Was there ever a band assembled more perfectly for the tastes of my generation’s dads? Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, pear-shaped and gray-bearded, shuffling around and singing about being pear-shaped and gray-bearded. It is the very definition of baby boomer dads. Not fathers. Dads.

And why not? The band—which was reduced to a quartet between its two albums, following Orbison’s death in 1988—was lovable and self-effacing, well aware that they were older than everyone else on MTV. They probably had no expectation that they’d even be allowed on MTV, but there they were, singing about how the “end of the line” was approaching. They also won a Grammy. Ah, the eighties.

My favorite Traveling Wilburys song is “If You Belonged to Me,” which finds Bob Dylan in fine form. It’s an age-old concept—“You’d be happy as you could be if you belonged to me,” goes the chorus—but it’s also typical Dylan. “The guy you’re with is a ruthless pimp,” he sings in one verse, “everybody knows. Every cent he takes from you goes straight up his nose.” Like the best Dylan songs, it’s prickly but not alienating; in its gentle ribbing of the subject, it’s “Like a Rolling Stone” Lite.

I’m not always a fan of Jeff Lynne’s production. He’s done some great work—Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and especially “Free Fallin’,” for one thing—but I generally find it too polished, too fussy, too shiny. It’s an odd fit for the Wilburys, a band whose informality was central to their appeal. But I love his work here, especially on that “ruthless pimp” verse, on which the mandolins chug while the drums thump and clack like a train. It’s an ingenious combination.

So now that I’m becoming (more) pear-shaped and graying, has my love of the Traveling Wilburys grown? Yes. There’s something to be said for knowing how old you are, and though I’m still a ways from the fiftysomething Wilburys, I’m a dad with a receding hairline, and my love for puns and middle-of-the-road rock songs finally has a logical place. I’m growing into my age, just like a Wilbury.

Song 279: Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)


“Nothing Compares 2 U” is one of those songs that immediately brings back memories from my childhood. Before I was old enough to say cliché things like that, such sentiments always sounded ridiculous to me, but no: that’s exactly what happens. It’s amazing how evocative a song can be.

I don’t have memories of sitting around and listening to this song, but I do remember that it was everywhere: MTV, the radio, friends’ (and my sister’s) boomboxes. It was a song that everybody knew and loved, and after not hearing it for many years, I’m glad to have found that it hasn’t aged a day. I love that even Prince’s castoffs are amazing.

The only thing that sounds dated is that cold percussion, but even that seems to serve a larger purpose: this song may sound epic in some parts, but it’s also startlingly intimate (a tone emphasized by its iconic video), and the drums make O’Connor sound as sad and desperate as the song’s narrator. Overall, the production (credited to O’Connor, Nellee Hooper, Chris Birkett, and Sean Devitt) is perfect. I love the song’s strings, which are subtle but gorgeous, and the background vocals, which sound like an amateur choir, are an ingenious inclusion. It all sounds like it’s a melodrama in the narrator’s head, like she’s the star of her own movie.

O’Connor has some other good work in her catalog (I’m particularly fond of her album Faith and Courage), but “Nothing Compares 2 U” remains her most famous song for good reason.

Song 216: Bell Biv DeVoe, “Poison” (1990)


“Poison” was one of the first contemporary pop songs I was ever aware of. I was 10 when it came out, and though I didn’t understand what it was about, I knew it sounded like some other “New Jack Swing” groups at the time: Color Me Badd, Another Bad Creation, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Boyz II Men (not that I knew what New Jack Swing was, either).

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had a hand in assembling Bell Biv DeVoe (whose members emerged from Boston’s New Edition), which makes sense: You can hear the DNA that the trio shares with Prince and Janet Jackson, and you can tell that, like those artists, BBD was interested in using their forebears to build something new. Helping out with “Poison” was Hank Shocklee, whose production team The Bomb Squad had just finished Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, a record that featured “911 Is a Joke,” “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” and, of course, “Fight the Power.” Not a bad team to have on your side.

Though Bell Biv DeVoe is a very different group from Public Enemy, you can hear The Bomb Squad’s influence on this song, mainly in the blend of funk, jazz, and hip-hop that sounds chaotic but completely organic. As the quote on the cover of Poison explains, “Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it.” Yup.

I love this song’s production, especially that beat, with horn blasts and snare hits that immediately send me back to fourth grade. It’s no wonder that, when BBD performed this song with NKOTB (!) for the Boston Strong Concert, the crowd went apeshit.

Song 6: LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990)


There are many reasons this song shouldn’t work, but I think it all comes down to this: if you have to tell everybody how hard you are, you probably aren’t very hard. But “Mama Said Knock You Out” works like gangbusters, partly because of that beat (provided by superproducer and hip-hop legend Marley Marl), but mostly because LL is just so damn convincing.

LL Cool J released Mama Said Knock You Out as a response to accusations that he’d gone soft, hence the track’s famous opening line and the song’s overall feel of … overcompensating. Again, that overcompensating (“Watch me bash this beat like a skull!”) shouldn’t work, but it does. I’m not sure how to explain it. All I know is that it’s the best song in the world for running, getting ready for an exam, or, really, anything.

Now go tell Sunday who’s boss!