The voice is pained and passionate, the voice of a fan of the TV series who, the melody convinces you, wants more than anything in this world for the show to mean as much to you as it does to him. Why? Because, you find out in a verse you’d rather not have understood, this man has nothing in his life but a choice between “RoboCop” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” — whatever’s on tonight. The chorus seals the song: “If you ever gave a damn for Sonny Jim/I know you will — remember him.” It’s in the rise and fall, the shining light that, for some reason, 26 years after the show went off the air, isn’t out, even if like me you never watched it, or heard of Sonny Jim. A heroic guitar solo seems to carry its own double inside itself; it’s uncanny, and like all great guitar solos: not an interlude, but the story translated, elevated, pushed out in front of itself like a life the singer will never live.
The ’60s Cambridge folkie Geoff Muldaur led the assemblage. He looked like the kindly town pharmacist; when he opened his mouth a dynamic version of Noah Lewis’ 1928 “Minglewood Blues” came out like a tiger. “You’re going to be killing a lot of people tonight, aren’t you?” fiddler Richard Greene asked Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family, who was one of only four or five people under 40, or maybe 50, on the stage. “That’s what I do best,” she said sweetly. Sparks writes lyrics about murder and clinical depression for her husband, Brett, to sing; she introduced the Blue Sky Boys’ 1936 “Down on the Banks of the Ohio” as a song in which “a woman is slaughtered to ensure the river remains full.” “This record sounds like it came from Mars,” Greene said, kicking off Floyd Ming and His Pep Steppers’ 1928 “Indian War Whoop” (a new version orchestrates Baby Face Nelson’s arrest in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). It sounded just like Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call,” which in “Mars Attacks!” makes all the Martians’ heads explode.
The 14-person band was heading toward cuteness when Garth Hudson, late of the Band, began to play. He was everywhere at once. As soon as you thought you caught a tune — “Home Sweet Home,” “Shenandoah” — it vanished. He was an avant-garde pianist in a 1915 grind house, forgotten girlie flicks and “In a castle dark” epics turning profound under his fingers. And then, like a sermon, came a low, thick, unbending voice from the back of the stage, insisting on the Great Depression as God’s will, punishment for sins unknown, even uncommitted, and insisting on the only solution, which was suicide. “I’m going where there’s no Depression,” as the Carter Family sang in 1936, on their way to heaven. “There’ll be no hunger, no orphan children crying for bread/No weeping widows, toil or struggle.” The singer was Maud Hudson, and when, with absolute dignity, she reached the lines “No shrouds, no coffins/And no death,” you realized the song was calling for nothing so small as the end of a life, but for the end of the natural order: the end of the world. The end of the singer, and the end of you.
3) Britney Spears and Bob Dole for Pepsi-Cola (April, all networks)
Britney cocks her hips and implies she’s about to burst out of her top. The 1996 Republican nominee for president, sitting in a comfortable chair with a comfortable dog at his feet, checks her out. A teenage fast-food cook stares at a TV with his mouth hanging open. The Dole dog barks; “Easy, boy,” Dole says. He’s stupefied, but you can tell the Viagra is no longer doing the trick for “erectile dysfunction, what we call ‘E.D.’” — and that the other E.D., Elizabeth Dole, is out of the picture. Sex was never in the picture; they were a power couple. But now there’s no power and E.D. (“America’s Most Influential Woman”) is doing Success Magazine’s “Success 2001,” opening for “William Jefferson Clinton.” No matter what you think of Britney Spears, you can be happy she doesn’t have to do this yet. As if anyone has to.
4) Martin Luther King Jr. for Alcatel (April, all networks)
” … live out the true meaning of its creed,” says the man standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963 — by the magic of digital technology, or a stand-in, speaking to an empty plaza. The racist dynamic in the United States resulted in the construction of King as an iconic figure whose function was to marginalize and silence all other actors and voices in the civil rights movement. His posthumous function was to marginalize and silence the movement itself, either as part of the nation’s true history — as opposed to Black History Month — or future possibility. But the emptying of King as even a symbolic figure, literally deprived of his audience until, it’s suggested, Alcatel can round it up, can be credited only to his legal heirs. I like seeing what songs can stand up to being made into commercials; the song King sang that day in Washington can’t. The contradiction is too great.
5) Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,” in “Living With Music — Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings,” edited by Robert O’Meally (Modern Library)
The late novelist and critic vs. punk, in 1962: “For all its velocity, brilliance and imagination there is in [Charlie Parker's music] a great deal of loneliness, self-depreciation and self-pity. With this there is a quality, which seems to issue from its vibrato-less tone: a sound of amateurish ineffectuality, as though he could never quite make it. It is this amateurishness-sounding aspect which promises so much to the members of a do-it-yourself culture; it sounds with an assurance that you too can create your own do-it-yourself jazz. Dream stuff, of course, but there is a relationship between the Parker sound and the impossible genre of teenage music which has developed since his death.” Following that, Ellison takes up the question that really interests him: if Parker was “Bird,” what kind of bird? A robin, he decides, as in the old, impenetrable, happily sadistic song “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” best heard in the 1931 version by Geechie Wiley and Elvie Thomas (on “Mississippi Blues — Vol. 1, 1928-1937,” Document).
6) Howard Sounes, “Down the Highway — The Life of Bob Dylan” (Grove)
Sounes is a graceless writer with no point of view, but he’s talked to most of the people who’ve talked to everyone else and a number of people who haven’t. Such as William Zantzinger, the drunken Maryland landowner who in 1963 caned a 51-year-old black hotel worker named Hattie Carroll. She died; he got six months and, thanks to Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a name to live in infamy, if not a story to dine out on the rest of his life. “He’s a no-account son-of-a-bitch,” Zantzinger says of Dylan. “He’s just like a scum of a bag of the earth.”
7) Kasey Chambers, “The Captain” (Asylum)
It’s no wonder the young Australian singer can “reduce Lucinda Williams to tears,” as it says on her album; on “Cry Like a Baby,” she sounds just like her. But on this tune, which trailed the April 15 “He Is Risen” episode of “The Sopranos,” Chambers leaves you stranded, unsure what the song is about — not a problem Williams has ever had. A little-girl voice pulls against a dark, quiet, jagged guitar hiding in the deliberate beat, and the music turns up innocence, self-loathing and corruption — and the face of, as you listen, daughter Meadow, wife and mother Carmella, and finally husband, father and boss Tony.
8) Mark Knopfler, “What It Is” (Warner Bros.)
There’s nothing here that wasn’t on Dire Straits’ “Making Movies,” and that was more than 20 years ago. Not even the claim to experience in the laconic, thrown-away title phrase, the claim to have seen too much. It’s that there isn’t anything like it on the radio, and won’t be until the next time Knopfler digs these sighs and riffs out of his basement.
9) Fred Eaglesmith & the Flying Squirrels, “Ralph’s Last Show” (Signature Sounds)
On a two-CD live album, “Mighty Big Car.” “Elvis had one, so did Hank/That don’t look like money, that look like a bank.”
10) McSweeney’s No. 6 (McSweeney’s)
The inclusion in the literary journal of a CD with 44 tracks, most by They Might Be Giants, is more than apt; TMBG take McSweeney’s to places mere writing could never get. “This CD was going to be left blank,” it says right on the disc, “because it was a pretty thing when blank, but then we remembered how likely you were to leave it atop your stereo, uncased, and thus how likely it was that you would then forget what this CD was, exactly whose music was on it (in it?), and then you would maybe even go and record over it — songs by other bands even — using some terrible new software, and in doing so make us all feel sad. So we put some words on it. This. Hi.” This is, in fact, the opposite of writing, just as TMBG, whose concept is the word “clever,” is the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll. This is posing within seven layers of irony, which is to say it means exactly what it says: Aren’t I adorable?