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The perfect summer soundtrack

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07/15/2010

It’s summertime in Chicago: the perfect time for grillin’, chillin’, and One Tree Hillin’. Okay, so I’ve never actually seen One Tree Hill, but it sounded good. Summertime is also the perfect time for great music; and anyone who’s ever seen an outdoor concert knows that certain music just sounds better this time of year. Further, entire albums can have a distinct “summertime” feel. Granted, certain albums, notably anything released by Jimmy Buffet, force the good summer vibes so hard-core that it makes you long for Chicago in February. (I like cheesy tunes as much as anyone, but “Cheeseburger In Paradise” is the musical equivalent of a hangover. It lasts way too long, there’s usually vomiting involved, and you wonder why life can be so cruel at times.) All you Buffet fans who say, “dude, you’ve got to see him live to get it” can relax: I have. The show was okay but the Buffet crowd is weird. I recall seeing a teenager dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shot-gunning his dad’s Miller Light, singing along to every word of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw.” It’s always a classy scene in Tinley Park.

Every summer, there seem to be a few albums I go back to year after year to serve as my soundtrack to the season. In fairness, all of them are great all year round: only a few have any direct tie to the season. (In some of these cases, I might have gotten into this music in the summertime, and therefore they maintain a direct connection to summer.) Regardless, in the grand tradition of lazy-yet-still-hopefully-entertaining journalism, I now present a list of my favorite summertime albums/CD’s/mp3s/8-tracks to you, gentle Oy! reader.

A few thoughts before I begin.

1) Greatest Hits albums were not allowed while compiling this list. They’re too easy and I feel like including them would be cheating. And I walk around feeling guilty enough as it is.

2) I’ve picked one album from each of the last five decades, to help vary the list; and also because my tastes tend to lie more in the classic rock realm. Truth be told, it still tilts that way. Accordingly, if at any point this month you’ve uttered the phrase, “That song is totally my jam” when Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” comes on the radio, you might not agree with this list. Yeah, I like that song too, but what exactly does “that song’s my jam” even mean? What makes a song your jam? Sounds pretty selfish to me.

3) You may quibble with my argument that certain albums or songs sound more like “summer” than others. Sure, it may appear to be an inherently subjective claim, but please keep in mind that everything I write transcends mere opinion and is actually 100% correct and factual.

With that said, I now present for you the first (and I’m guessing last…)

TJ’S TOP 5 SUMMERTIME ALBUMS:

2000s: Wilco—Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Perhaps not the most daring or complex album by this astonishingly underrated band—certainly, a case can be made for “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” as their “best”— but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album which better captures the mellow, sunny, laid-back feel of a beautiful summer afternoon in each and every track. As both a songwriter and singer, Jeff Tweedy seems clearly inspired by a beautiful day on every song, and the result is an album that accomplishes the rare feat of being relaxed and “easy” without ever becoming dull. I can’t help but believe that if this album had been released in the 1970’s, it would be one of the best-known albums in rock. But in an era when the pop music chart is dominated by all kinds of auto-tuned awful, this album remains little known outside of the realm of Wilco fans. One listen and you’ll know why that’s the kind of travesty we haven’t seen since the term “hanging chads” was politically pertinent. 
Key Songs: Impossible Germany, Sky Blue Sky, Either Way

1990s: Ben Folds Five—Whatever And Ever Amen (1997)
If there were any justice in the world, the masses would know Ben Folds best songs the way they know the best songs from Elton John and Billy Joel, the two piano rockers to whom Ben is most often compared. As a piano player myself, I have gravitated to Ben Folds ever since I first heard this album in the summer of 1997. Perhaps that’s why it has such a strong summer connotation to me in the (hard-to-believe) 13 years since its release. (My God: thousands of teenagers have been bar/bat mitzvahed since this album was released! How is this possible? Has “Seinfeld” really been off the air that long? Has it been that long since the Bulls were good? Am I really at a point in my life where a call to the “Hair Club For Men” is a viable option?) The upbeat songs really kick, and the ballads are among Ben Folds’ best. He’s made other great records, but no other Ben Folds release feels more perfect for a hot, sunny day than this. (Plus, this record scores major Oy! points for utilizing a klezmer band on the song, “Steven’s Last Night In Town”. L’Chaim.)
Key Songs: Kate, Battle Of Who Could Care Less, Selfless, Cold, & Composed

1980s: TIE: U2—The Joshua Tree (1987), Huey Lewis & The News—Sports (1983)
The 80’s were a strange time for music. It was an era driven by record company executives whose formula to making a hit record was roughly spend lots of money, supplant actual drummers with drum machines, and make sure everyone involved (including the drum machines) had lots of cocaine. There are exceptions, however, including these two albums that were among the most popular of the decade. U2’s “Joshua Tree” is probably their most famous album, and the one that took them from being a great college-radio band to one of the most popular bands of all time. Twenty-three years later, it still holds up as Bono & the Edge’s masterpiece, so it’s no coincidence that the songs have remained among the band’s most enduring. This album makes perfect sense when played around sunset; indeed, when the crickets creep in on the album’s penultimate song, it’s as if all of the colors of summer have emerged from your speakers. Who cares if you’ve heard these songs hundreds of times? You’ve watched the sun set many times too, and that never gets old. Same goes for this album. 
Key Songs: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “With or Without You”, “Running To Stand Still”

I won’t waste your time proclaiming the greatness of Huey’s “Sports” album, lest I sound like the guy in “American Psycho.” (Though, in fairness, I am holding an axe as I type this. Please don’t ask me if I have a rain coat.) I will tell you that it’s the right of any man in their mid-30s to love and appreciate this album and its greatness without having to explain oneself. Granted, the fact that a buddy and I saw Huey perform at Ravinia in the summer of 1996 and had such a good time that we got lost in the Ravinia parking lot for what felt like days, may have something to do with my perhaps overwrought Huey-respect. (That friend, who grew up a few blocks from Ravinia in Highland Park, will be reminded of this for the rest of our lives.) Point is, the album is great, and anyone who tells you it isn’t probably listens to an inordinate amount of Flo Rida. For those of us born around the mid-1970s, it’s a summertime party album. Sad, but true.
Key Songs: “If This Is It”, “Walking On A Thin Line” “Heart Of Rock & Roll”

1970s:  Stevie Wonder—Innervisions (1973)
After The Beatles and Bob Dylan, a great case can be made for Stevie Wonder as being one of the most important artists of all time; an obvious first ballot Hall of Famer. His streak of 1970s classic albums alone puts him on the very short list of all-time greats, but then when you consider the early part of his career, you realize that seemingly everything he ever recorded is a standard.  That’s not easy to do. “Innervisions” is perhaps Stevie’s most political album, one that takes on the urban decay of America, anger about Vietnam, and in one of the best songs on the album, Richard Nixon.

As a musical extension of its politically charged nature, the album deftly portrays a sweltering, humid, summer day in urban America; and it’s not always pretty. One of his mist enduring songs, “Living For The City”, includes a short sketch depicting a wide-eyed country type going to live his dreams in New York City. As he gets off a Greyhound bus, and is immediately (and unknowingly) caught up in the chaos and trouble of street life, the song just sounds boiling hot. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish in a strictly aural medium where the time of year is never explicitly mentioned. But that’s a testament to the brilliance of Stevie, and that’s how magnificent this particular release is. If this isn’t in your collection, it should be downloaded immediately. Put it on during a long, hot day and you’ll know what I mean.
Key Songs: “Golden Lady”, “Living For The City”, “Higher Ground”, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”

1960s: The Beach Boys—Pet Sounds (1966)
The Beach Boys, thanks to co-founder Mike Love’s heavy hand (and the absence of the brilliant Brian Wilson), have been reduced to little more than a state fair “oldies” act in the last 20 years; slogging out the same hits year after year to adoring fans who probably should lay off the Big Macs and/or see a dentist.  Don’t confuse that image of the Beach Boys with this, their finest and most accomplished album. It’s telling that after hearing this album in 1966, Paul McCartney felt challenged and inspired enough to come up with an obscure release called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” (Indeed, McCartney has often remarked that his favorite song of all time is this record’s gorgeous Brian Wilson composition, “God Only Knows.”) For those of you who are rolling your eyes at the prospect of hearing the “Oldies 104.3” friendly-yet-way-overplayed Beach Boys standards, (“Surfin’ USA”, “Help Me Rhonda”, etc…) know that this might be their least hit-filled record. It’s one where the sum of its parts is far greater than its individual songs. (In fact, it wasn’t until many years after its release that it became widely regarded as a “classic,” because at the time of its release it wasn’t deemed as accessible as other Beach Boys releases) The themes of love and heartbreak show that Brian Wilson—who in complete control of this album—had grown up and was beginning to push the musical boundaries which would ultimately drive him INSANE. (That the album was not a huge smash would send Wilson into a depression from which he’d never fully recover.) But it’s the document of a musical genius at work at the top of his game; and its influence is still unquestionably reaching modern bands. (It’s tough to imagine the Fleet Foxes without this record.) Best of all, those delicate harmonies and melodies that were hallmarks of the Beach Boys summer sound are here in large doses, making this a definitive summer listen, and awfully close to musical perfection.
Key Songs: “God Only Knows”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Caroline, No”

RUNNERS UP: 
Every single Beatles album (though “The White Album” with its themes rooted in nature, is particularly summery), Bob Marley—“Kaya,” Beastie Boys—“Ill Communication,” Marvin Gaye—“What’s Going On,” Steely Dan—“Katy Lied,” Guster—“Keep It Together,” Led Zeppelin—“IV,” Neil Young—“Harvest,” The Police—“Synchronicity,” Rolling Stones—“Tattoo You,” Van Morrison—“Astral Weeks.”

T.J. Shanoff is a writer, director, and musical director at The Second City. T.J.’s Second City show, “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” will be revived in a limited engagement this August at the  Metropolis Theater  in Arlington Heights.

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