Country market

One of the defining characteristics of pop music is its transitory nature. No one sits still for long with the next big thing nipping at their heels. As a result, the music tends to lack any substantive sense of permanence, and the values it projects are a moving target.

Look no further than the original pop masters, the Beatles. In less than 5 years, the Fab Four went from shaggy but clean-shaven crooners to mustachioed psychedelic messengers, then bearded socialist peaceniks. I don’t doubt there were conscience awakenings taking place, but the Beatles were also savvy enough to devise a go-to tactic of the pop playbook — always keep your audience guessing. It gave them a strategic advantage over bands like the Dave Clark Five, who were every bit their equal in 1965 but dated relics by the end of that decade.

In soul music, Marvin Gaye underwent a similar evolution that separated him from “safe” Motown acts like Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. And in rock, punkers pushed beyond the comfortable boundaries established by legacy bands such as the Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But some audiences don’t want to be kept eternally guessing. It’s no surprise then that a considerable number of abandoned masses gravitated to the Eagles-led country rock revolution and its successor in modern country. Amid the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, country remained steadfastly committed its core values. As its name indicates, it draws upon a vision of rural America where life centers on family, faith and patriotism. Throw in an undercurrent of rowdiness, and there’s a winning formula.

Let me be clear: Country artists are in my estimation as musically engaging and innovative as their pop, soul and rock counterparts. But their marketing strategy is unique and, I would add, quite ingenious. In a pop cultural landscape that’s subject to a dizzying pace of change, they offer a slice of permanence. To be sure, the music has evolved into various interesting hybrids that Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize, incorporating pop, hard rock, soul and even hip hop. But the message remains firmly grounded in country’s rural roots. Even its impish rebelliousness — a necessity in all pop-oriented music — is framed in the larger paradigm of traditional American life.

Modern country’s ascendance into the mainstream somewhat mirrors that of NASCAR, with both institutions slickly presenting rural sensibilities in ways that resonate with urban audiences. In referencing a simpler past, the themes echo a universal yearning for the good times. You don’t have to be a redneck to relate. Lyrical references are heavy on beer-drinking and truck-driving and, other than mild patriotism, light on politics.

It’s a legitimate point then that country music, as a social force, favors cohesion over challenge and too often stands up for the status quo. But it’s that way by design. These are not, as some derisively suggest, dumb hicks. Country artists know what their audiences want, right down to the cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves. A case in point: This observation I made of two concerts Kenny Chesney played at Lambeau Field, four years apart.

 

Chesney is selling a good time, and a big part of the pitch is the packaging, a big part of which is familiarity. There’s a reason you’ll find McDonald’s hamburgers and Budweiser beer to be identical in Rhode Island and Wyoming. Like those companies, Chesney understands his market. Is it hokey? Well, he sold out Lambeau Field — twice — something only a few acts in the world can do.

Again, this isn’t a knock on the merits of country music. I simply marvel at its grasp of essential marketing. Other artists do it — think KISS wearing the same masks/outfits they wore in the 1970s, or Journey going to great lengths to replicate former singer Steve Perry’s vocals. Whatever your view of artistic integrity, popular music, country or otherwise, is a business, and experimentation invites commercial risk. While the Beatles may have won critical accolades for their adventurous later albums, it was their early output that sold millions of records and filled concert venues. By its association with a more conservative fan base, country has been able to bottle and sell, with its own distinctive twang, the spirit of pop music at its peak.

Hitwomen

Say what you will about “token” minority appreciation months — I always seem to learn something by indulging the concept. For instance, in honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d run down a short list of the female recording artists who have expanded my musical horizons, and I found myself naming name after name after name. After name. It turns out they’re not a subset of popular music. They’re an integral part of it, pushing songs up and down the charts, innovating, regressing, occasionally blowing our minds, and yes, occasionally flopping. It occurs to me that the story of women in pop music is really just the story of pop music. They’ve been playing right along with the men, and although I didn’t know it, I’ve been listening the whole time.

As I said, whittling my favorite female artists down to a list of 10, or 50, or 100 is a ridiculous exercise. But since I want to pay tribute to women whose music means the most to me, I narrowed the field to those who wrote the music they recorded, highlighted by the one song that epitomizes their talents. Make no mistake: These are musical giants by any measure. Consider the five I’ve named here not as a listing of “best women in music,” but a sampling of the very best artists in pop music who happen to be women.

Jackie DeShannon, “When You Walk in the Room” (1963): She’s best known for recording Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” but Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Jackie DeShannon was no slouch with the pen, composing the classic “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and co-writing “Bette Davis Eyes,” later a chart-topping hit for singer Kim Carnes. “When You Walk in the Room” echoes many of the female-oriented hits of the early 1960s — notably the Carole King/Gerry Goffin penned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — that regarded love with a tentative shyness and anxiety of a teenager*. To cite individual lines does an injustice to the entire piece, which paints an agonizing portrait of a lovesick wallflower whose world lights up when the man of her dreams enters her room. Painfully, she keeps her distance, observing from afar what she believes is unattainable. It’s heartbreakingly sweet, an ode to teen awkwardness that presumably fades in adulthood.

*It should be noted The Searchers covered “When You Walk in the Room.” Like most great love songs, the lyrics are not specific to gender or, for that matter, sexual orientation.

Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris” (1974): I was never big on Joni Mitchell as one of the folk mothers of the ’60s, but her influence on the genre is undeniable. Her “Woodstock,” covered famously by both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, became a touchstone for a generation defined by that legendary music festival. In the 1970s, Mitchell moved toward fuller, jazz-infused instrumentation that produced such hits as “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris.” The latter recounts an excursion to Paris she made with friend David Geffen, during which the ascending record executive, accustomed to dealing with “dreamers and telephone screamers,” was able to forget his cares, if only briefly. One can imagine Geffen letting his responsibilities slide away on the Champs Elysees to the refrain of “I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favors, no one’s future to decide.” That Mitchell nailed him so precisely is a credit both to the depth of their relationship and her songwriting mastery.

Liz Phair, “Mesmerizing” (1993): For a few albums in the 1990s, Liz Phair was so original, so genuine and so refreshing. I’d never heard anyone like her. She talked about sex, love, relationships, marriage, divorce and children in absolute frank terms. She gave the listener unfiltered access to what was on her mind, turning from schoolgirl sweet to shockingly filthy in the same stanza. Her 1993 debut “Exile in Guyville” carries so much interesting baggage, as titles such as “F–k and Run” and “Divorce Song” indicate, but “Mesmerizing,” in which Phair lyrically empties both barrels in a blaze of defiance and hurt, showed me a new way of recording music. It’s sparse, with little more than an electric guitar, a hint of percussion and her world-weary voice. But it holds up. Phair grew more polished in follow-up albums, including the excellent “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” but slowly fizzled into obscurity the further she strayed from the cut-to-the-bone sound that made her so, well, “Mesmerizing.”

Carole King, “It’s Too Late” (1971): Carole King is a no-brainer for this list; it’s just a matter of which song to single out. Luckily, as hugely productive as her years with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin were, those were collaborative efforts and don’t count here. Her extensive solo catalog doesn’t make the job a whole lot easier, but given the enormous impact of her landmark 1971 album “Tapestry,” let’s start there. Even then, with a loaded track list that includes the wrenching “So Far Away,” I basically had to flip a coin to arrive at “Too Late.” First off, I’m a sucker for major 7 chords, which she throws liberally into both songs. The tiebreaker then is the latter’s unique appraisal of why a relationship failed, best summed up in the line, “Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool.” Maybe it’s the female perspective. Maybe it’s just great writing. Either way, there’s a keen understanding that breakups aren’t always about what went wrong or who’s at fault. Sometimes unhappiness and foolishness just happen.

Stevie Nicks, “Silver Springs” (1977): As part of the rock ‘n’ roll soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks had a treasure trove of intraband relationships and dalliances to mine for writing material. She did not waste them, crafting soul-baring songs like “Gold Dust Woman,” “Sara” and “Landslide.” How it was that “Silver Springs” led an orphaned existence as a B-side left off the group’s 1977 “Rumours” album will forever be a mystery to me, as it’s one of her finest efforts, both as a writer and singer. Aimed squarely at bandmate and ex-lover Lindsey Buckingham, “Silver Springs” explores betrayal, musing over what could have been before devolving into the obsessive ranting of a stalker. If it’s not clear from the line, “And can you tell me was it worth it/Really I don’t want to know,” how emotionally devastated this woman is, the refrain seals it with “I know I could have loved you but you would not let me.” Nicks alternately voices pleading, scorn and finally desperation as she pledges to “follow you down till the sound of my voice will haunt you.” And haunt it does. It’s rare to see heartbreak so powerfully written. It’s even rarer to see it so expertly illustrated.

A change in tune

In his 2012 autobiography “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend relates a revelatory tidbit from the recording of the Who’s breakthrough hit “My Generation.” According to Townshend, the song’s multiple key changes were added at the suggestion of a producer who felt it would otherwise be too monotonous.

That’s saying something for a cut that’s 3 minutes, 18 seconds long. But it shows a canny understanding of the lightweight nature of pop/rock hooks. Good ones immediately catch the ear (and hopefully produce a sale) but often lack staying power. A key change — or in the case of “My Generation,” three key changes — can enable recording artists to extend the 10-15 second essence of their song to a marketable 2-3 minutes.

In most pop music, the general idea of a key change is to elevate emotional impact. It’s not so much a change in tone (from talking to shouting, for instance) as a change in landscape. It’s like staging the scene of a film on a busy city sidewalk, then having the actors recite the same lines in the middle of a forest. While conventional filmmakers typically don’t have that option, songwriters do. After a key change, a song will move through the same chord structure but at an altitude that sheds a different light on the vocals or instruments. Done well, it forwards a sentiment that other songwriting techniques can’t. It can convey new levels of joy — think The Carpenters’ “Close to You” — or profound sadness, as in Classics IV’s “Traces.” Either way, the effect on the listeners is liberating. The first two verses establish a set of parameters before the third shifts them to a new plane. Limits, once comfortable but quickly confining, suddenly become possibilities.

It’s a powerful songwriting tool, and the temptation to overdo it is natural. Last spring, as “research” for a feature I was writing on Barry Manilow, I listened to a dozen or so of his best-known love songs and found that every one of them employed a key change. Manilow was savvy at recognizing, like the Who, when the droning of a refrain needed a kickstart. Unlike the Who, the consistent need for that crutch did not spur Manilow into more sophisticated songwriting. It became a standard part of his playbook, and that of subsequent romance-heavy pop artists like Air Supply.

But it’s not just schmaltzy acts doing it. My Manilow experiment prompted me to monitor more broadly the music I hear at home, in the car, even at the grocery store, and it’s amazing how often key changes occur. Just last week I caught an episode of late-’70s TV sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and amazingly, the opening theme song climbs a half-step between the first and second of its two short verses. I have to admit, it works. And why wouldn’t it? After all, “WKRP” was a series dedicated to the classic AM radio era, an era defined by catchy pop hooks that, from “My Generation” to “Mandy,” made their way up the charts thanks to a boost up the scale.

When a demo will do

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay

Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album “Nebraska” was a singular phenomenon. The release represented a thematic reversal for Springsteen’s career, both in its lyrics and sparse musical arrangement, but in a greater sense that arrangement signaled a stunning break from conventional wisdom with its rejection of traditional studio production techniques.

Springsteen recorded “Nebraska’s” tracks on a simple 4-track cassette device in his New Jersey home. The intention was to re-record these cuts with his band for the next studio album, but Springsteen decided to stick with the original demos, which would become the defining sound of a dark and barren album. It was a gutsy move for the Boss, who would quickly resume full-throttle studio productions with 1984’s  more commercially viable “Born in the U.S.A.” For one album, listeners were treated to a rarity in rock ‘n’ roll — 40 minutes of a man and his guitar (and harmonica) fully exposed against a stark and depressing lyrical landscape.

I’ve often wondered why albums like “Nebraska” are the exception rather than the rule. True, a demo recording is a first draft of sorts, but you could argue it’s the truest representation of the artist’s vision before a production team refines the song into something more palatable to public consumption. “Nebraska’s” rough edges comprise its greatest charms and in many ways outline the themes the album explores. The uneven mixing and flat instrumental and vocal tones exude a sense of loneliness and distance — and at the same time an intimacy — that fits the mood of the album, which is perhaps why Springsteen chose to go this route. A full album of, say, Britney Spears demos probably wouldn’t work out so well and would be better off in the hands of a skilled producer.

Occasionally I’ll hear demo versions of well-known pop hits that slip out of the vaults, either unintentionally or via official “stripped down” re-releases. Some leave me amazed at the voodoo that studio engineers do so well in turning a humdrum guitar-and-vocal piece into something truly remarkable. But more often than not, I’m disappointed at the intrusion of so much polish at the expense of the heart and soul of a song put forth in the artist’s original recording. When to turn on the studio magic and when to lay off is obviously the artist’s call, in consultation with his or her producers and/or collaborators. But my suspicion is that commercial concerns weigh heavily into these decisions, leaving me only to wonder how “Nebraska” would sound had Springsteen not had the audacity, and more importantly the clout, to follow his instincts.


Here’s an example of a highly polished, fully produced recording in John Lennon’s original studio release of the single “Woman,” from 1980’s “Double Fantasy.” The acoustic guitar is softened, presumably to suit the mood of a love song, and the voice is equally sweetened to puppy-love levels better suited to a high school dance.

Now listen to the “stripped down” version re-released in 2010. It’s technically not a demo, but a “remastered” version of the above studio recording that focuses on a simpler arrangement. The guitar isn’t so effected, and the voice, though not always in perfect tune, is pure John Lennon. This is probably more faithful to his original conception of the song, if not the demo he would’ve provided to the producer.

Tuning in

What can art teach us about politics? More than you’d think. Signals offered in creative expression can tell us a lot about the mood in the real world. But you have to be listening.

Clearly I wasn’t, and many of us weren’t, when Donald Trump pulled off his stunning victory in last month’s presidential election. Few pollsters, media analysts and pundits on the left or right saw it coming. Count me among them. Right up through the early evening of Nov. 8 there was no doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.

Well, there was a small blip that, in retrospect, might have been a clue for me. That came in July, when rabble-rousing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore predicted a Trump win in what I dismissed as Moore’s typically outlandish political pessimism designed as a call to arms for complacent liberals. As an unapologetic partisan, Moore blurs the line between art and politics, but I’ve seen enough of his films to acknowledge his unique grasp of blue collar America. “Roger & Me” cataloged the human cost of Michigan’s disappearing industrial economy at a time when most of the media were focusing on the tech-driven economic revival of the 1990s. While terrorism and security dominated headlines in the early 2000s, “Sicko” called attention to what would become the defining policy debate of Barack Obama’s presidency — health-care reform. From the perspective of 2016 blue collar America, neither economic transformation nor crippling health care costs have been adequately addressed by leadership. Despite his annoying penchant for spinning the documentary form into screed, Moore has demonstrated an effective finger on the pulse of a disaffected constituency that was likely to buy into Trump’s vision and, as it turned out, was instrumental in delivering crucial swing states for the Republican.

In the aftermath of November’s election, Moore’s prophecy forced me to recalibrate my antennae for this constituency. It’s not an alien one, in fact quite familiar — generally (but not exclusively) white, lower educated, rural-based and highly vulnerable to the forces of globalization. It’s a group of people with whom I’m well acquainted through the music of John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Like Moore, both artists embrace liberal politics, and both have an uncanny understanding of the issues affecting this demographic. Listen to “Pink Houses” and you’ll hear the despair of people for whom America represents a failed promise. Given Mellencamp’s political leanings, I’d assumed his descriptions to be grounded in a liberal vision, but listening more closely, those lyrics outline a displaced class of people — high school educated industrial laborers and farmers — for whom a Trump presidency is a plausible alternative.

Springsteen has long billed himself as the voice of the working man, and nowhere was that voice more authentic than on his landmark “Born in the U.S.A.” album. The songs document the symptoms, on a human scale, associated with the demise of the manufacturing sector that once fueled the Rust Belt. But what they’re really about is a loss of a way of life. Where do people who took a union job out of high school at the local factory fit into an economy that suddenly requires new skill sets or new education levels? The hard answer, of course, is they don’t. They must adapt, and it’s those who haven’t who are susceptible to the Trump message. You can argue that it’s beyond the power of any president to control or roll back economic transformation, but it’s not a matter of choice for the characters in “Born in the U.S.A.” The world changed, and they feel abandoned. The implicit social bargain of blue collar America has been broken. As Springsteen says in “My Hometown,” “Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.”

It goes without saying the clues offered here could never tell the whole story of the 2016 presidential race. There are too many complex forces in play in any election to lazily point to a few movies or songs as definitive social barometers. But after an event that many of us swore we didn’t or couldn’t see coming, let me be the first to admit that I missed — or disregarded — signals hiding in plain sight within the pop culture. After all, I’d been hearing it for years. I just wasn’t listening.

‘Faithfully’ yours

One of the perils of achieving “classic rock” status is the brand that carries you — your sound — can also imprison you. Listeners come to expect a certain package that makes you you, and if you deviate, you’re not you. Make sense?

Rare is the classic rock act that’s able to zig when it’s expected to zag. Fleetwood Mac famously did it with its jarring “Tusk” album to follow up the radio-friendly smash”Rumours.” Lou Reed did the same with the near-career killer “Metal Machine Music.” And Bruce Springsteen shook up his rousing, full-throttle catalog with the barren collection of demo cuts that comprised “Nebraska.”

But a band like, say, Journey, isn’t capable of such leaps. In its 1980s heyday, Journey had lots going for it, churning out a mix of rock songs and ballads performed with a deft balance between Neal Schon’s screaming guitar and Jonathan Cain’s keyboard hooks. Tying the two together was arguably the band’s biggest asset — Steve Perry’s soaring vocals. Whether at a school dance or on the boombox behind the gas station counter, it was through Perry that you immediately identified a Journey song as a Journey song. It was the one feature the band could not afford to lose.

But that’s exactly what happened. Between the usual “creative differences” squabbles and Perry’s increasing struggles to keep his vocal range as he aged, Journey reluctantly parted ways with its singer on the expectation that he could be replaced. It was easier said than done. The band muddled through two decades of lineup shuffles and comeback attempts before hitting the jackpot with Filipino cover singer Arnel Pineda.

Even for casual or non-Journey fans, the story is an amazing one, and worthy subject matter for the PBS Independent Lens documentary “Don’t Stop Believin’.” After years of getting by with temporary Perry soundalikes, Schon and Cain scoured through YouTube to discover their gem in Pineda, whose vocal resemblance to Perry was uncanny. He successfully auditioned, joined the group on tour and cut a new album with them. With Schon and Cain as sharp as ever on their instruments, Pineda provided the final piece of Journey’s wayback machine, bringing fans as close to 1983 as they’ll ever get.

But, as tends to be the case with Independent Lens documentaries, there’s more to this story. We see how Pineda, a considerably younger and less experienced musician, fits in with the band. Schon and Cain tutor their prized protege with the detailed attention of Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. It’s not so much a partnership between co-equals as a business arrangement. It’s clear from the outset — Pineda will enjoy wealth, fame, even some degree of musical development, but with the ironclad condition, and one he willingly accepts, that he must sound like Steve Perry. If he can’t deliver, night in and night out, he’s done. And surely even Schon and Cain realize that without Pineda — or miraculously discovering yet another Perry soundalike — they’re finished as well.

So while “Don’t Stop Believin'” highlights the degree to which a rock group’s brand controls its identity, the deeper philosophical question is the surrender of one man’s identity to another’s. What’s it like to know that one’s raison d’être is to be someone else? By outward appearances, Pineda seems well adjusted to this reality. It certainly beats the alternative of singing covers at Filipino karaoke bars. But it’s a chilling conclusion that his fortunes — and Journey’s — forever answer to the tune called by Steve Perry.

Out of sync

I’d like to think my musical tastes align with broader conventional wisdom. I don’t know why that should be; perhaps that’s a discussion for another day. For whatever reason, it’s important to me that what I like is what most people accept as high quality. If I’m raving on about Buddy Holly, the Clash or Radiohead, my hope is the majority of music fans wouldn’t quibble over the validity of those choices. If I’m lecturing some poor saps at a party about the massive legacies of hallmark albums put out by the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, they’re not likely to dispute it (although they may quietly slip out of the room while my back is turned).

But there are a few notable instances where I get it wrong. Cases where I question artists so universally beloved that to question them unthinkable. Or when I heap praise on music generally regarded as unworthy of any. There’s no explaining such blind spots, other than to accept that we all have them, and that’s when we say “there’s no accounting for taste.” There really isn’t, but I’ll still take a crack at it. Here goes:

Artists I should like but don’t

Bob Dylan: He writes nice songs. They usually tell stories and express angst. But when I’m on the receiving end of the party lecture, having the word “genius” thrown around so liberally is hard to take. Please. The man owns some of worst rhymes in history. Exhibit A from “Hurricane”:

We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple mur-der on him
He ain’t no Gentleman Jim.

Genius, apparently for some, consists of endless repetition. Play me “Like a Rolling Stone” at your own risk. If I have a sledgehammer or some other blunt instrument within reach, your stereo will be dismantled faster than you can say “no direction home.” (Don McLean fans, beware: “American Pie” elicits equally violent impulses from me.) This isn’t to say Bob Dylan is terrible (although sometimes even his own fans admit he is). He’s a talented singer/songwriter with a knack for capturing the zeitgeist. So are umpteen other singer/songwriters from his era. Sorry, Dylan fans, I’m just not seeing the genius factor.

The Band: The parts are there, but, at the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious, they just don’t move me. Perhaps this is what happens when a band of mostly Canadian musicians tackles Southern U.S. roots rock. Or a former backup band ventures forth with no clear frontman or established lead singer. But I’m swimming upstream on this one. The Band has two associations that have cemented its legacy — with Bob Dylan and his aforementioned demigod status, and with Martin Scorsese and his legendary concert documentary “The Last Waltz.” Clearly they’ve got the goods, but I’ve yet to hear a Band song with a hint of a spark.

Van Morrison: There’s that moment at a wedding reception when the DJ spins “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and every brown-eyed (and blue-eyed) girl in the room tries to haul you out of your seat for a dance. “Don’t you like dancing?” they shriek incredulously. No, it’s not that. I just can’t stand this song. Sorry! Ditto for “Wild Night,” “Tupelo Honey” or “Moondance.” But this one’s on me. Van Morrison has an ability to make people (mostly women) swoon at a frequency that I’m not hearing, and that’s aggravating. So I sit in my chair with arms folded while giddy females sweat themselves silly and shout “who’s the killjoy?”

Green Day/Foo Fighters: For millennials too young for the original punk revolution, or even the second one of the early ’80s, this is all they know of that music. That’s a shame. Both Green Day and the Foo Fighters have built careers recreating that sound so faithfully, they could almost be mistaken for cover bands. Younger generations wouldn’t recognize this, but for those of us who grew up on the Ramones, Clash and Sex Pistols, there’s nothing like the real deal.

All right, that’s enough negativity. Let’s get on to the fun part.

Artists I shouldn’t like but do

B.J. Thomas: Full disclosure: One of the earliest songs I can remember as a kid was “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” Unfair association? Well, I liked it then, and I love it now. There are a lot of songs from my formative years that have long since been discarded from my brain’s “favorites” folder. Not this one. And from before my time, there’s the David/Bacharach classic “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” featured with such odd contrast in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that, amazingly, it works. Thomas could belt it out for the romping “Hooked on a Feeling,” then tone it down on”Rock and Roll Lullaby” with a touch so soft it’ll make you cry. Speaking of vocal range, you’d better bring it to take on the Beach Boys, and Thomas shows he’s got the goods with his version of “Don’t Worry Baby.”  Heck, his “Growing Pains” theme song was probably the best part of that otherwise forgettable ’80s sitcom.

The Spinners: I don’t know why these guys don’t enjoy the royalty status bestowed on fellow Motown alumni The Temptations, Four Tops, Diana Ross (and the Supremes), the Jacksons or Marvin Gaye. For a period in the ’70s (after they left Motown), the Spinners seemed incapable of putting out a bad single. “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “I’ll Be Around,” “It’s a Shame,” and “Then Came You” featured the catchy hooks and upbeat vocals that defined the soul pop sound of that era. They stumbled badly with the disco mashups “Working My Way Back to You” and “Cupid,” but I’ll forgive them that for somehow, impossibly, crafting “Rubberband Man” into a good song.

Pat Benatar: On the surface, she was adeptly marketed as a petite beauty with a big voice and a spitfire attitude, but beneath that, she put out some pretty good music. Husband Neil Giraldo brought guitar chops that separated her sound from the Kim Carnes and Bonnie Tylers of the day. She splashed onto the scene with “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Heartbreaker,” and “Fire and Ice” is a quintessential early-’80s track, but I believe her music got better later in her career. “Precious Time” and “Sex as a Weapon” in particular deviate from the well-worn course of material expected from pop singers, and, not surprisingly, they hold up better in retrospect.

Stereolab: Many years ago I was playing a Stereolab CD on a drive with a friend through Door County. It was just driving music, in the background as we talked. In the span of a few songs she became less chatty and increasingly irritated until she insistently demanded I shut the radio off. We drove on in silence. Yep, Stereolab will do that. Musical loops repeating endlessly can get to you if you let it. Somehow I can handle it, in a way that I’m not able to with Bob Dylan (see above).  There’s a natural rhythm, like the clicking of the tracks when you’re riding a train, or a dog barking in the neighborhood. If you focus on it, it’ll drive you nuts. But if you let it slip into the background, there’s some sort of enhanced experience you’d be missing with plain silence.