My current mandate as pop-culture writer does not exactly include pop music, since the Beacon Journal still has a music critic -- two, in fact, since Elaine Guregian's expanded cultural beat includes classical music. But if you have read my columns and my blog over the years, you know that I still use my ears. In fact, my Christmas swag included CDs by Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles and The Pretenders.
I have been suitably delighted by all of the above, but this isn't meant to be an album review. Rather, it's an explanation of why I love certain singers, even when their work isn't the best they might accomplish.
Since I've already mentioned him, I'll start with Sinatra. I admit that, when much younger, I didn't appreciate what Sinatra accomplished. Because his great artistry is as a mature vocalist, I think I had to mature enough to appreciate what he was doing. (I also had to get closer to adulthood to begin to get country music, but part of that resistance was cultural; country was the stuff that absurdly-outfitted, big-haired people played on syndicated shows that roadblocked Saturday afternoons on TV when I was longing for something to watch. Still, country is the stuff of a different post.)
Maturing let me catch the swing, sense the joy, feel the melancholy, especially in the saloon songs. I have a jazz encyclopedia that does not include a section on Sinatra, and it's incomprehensible to me, especially when listening to some of his live work (that holiday CD was a collection of Vegas performances) where he can bend a lyric or twist a note in a way that seems absolutely fresh and apart from the melody being plowed by the band. Tony Bennett's an admirable singer, and one who also understands jazz, but there's far less drama and surprise in his work. Bennett asks for your attention, Sinatra at his most potent demanded it.
I, of course, heard and obeyed.
For a long time, like many Sinatraphiles, I was a Capitol-era snob, rejecting the Reprise performances. Over time, though, I've found virtues there, too. But when I want Sinatra to kill me, it's those old, sad Capitol ballads that do the job.
There were misfires along the way, of course. Sinatra's occasional ventures into contemporary pop from the '60s and beyond were for the most part disappointing. (I do like the way he rolls out ''sweeeet'' and bites off the ''t'' in ''Sweet Caroline.'') The duets albums are occasionally interesting but still designed more as tributes to the old man than actually standing toe-to-toe with him in song. And his death leaves possibilities only in the imagination. Would have loved to hear him take a crack at Coldplay's ''Fix You'' -- the old-folks video circulating online is haunting, and that's amateurs -- or to try something akin to Johnny Cash's last recordings.
Still, when you dip into the actual body of work, there is so much that is unbelievable.
Some things to look for: ''My Funny Valentine,'' ''One For My Baby'' (of course), ''Embraceable You,'' ''I'm a Fool To Want You,'' the ''Fly Me to the Moon'' on ''Sinatra at the Sands.'' ''The Lady Is a Tramp,'' ''I Get a Kick Out of You,'' ''Witchcraft,'' ''I've Got You Under My Skin,'' ''Mack the Knife'' (with props to Darin and Armstrong).