2018 in Review: Favorite Podcast Episodes

Are you on holiday break and looking for something to do in your spare time? Well then, check out this list of my 25 favorite podcasts episodes of 2018 for your listening pleasure!  These are arranged in chronological order having been culled from my Podcast of the Week feature:

1. Hang Up and Listen :: The 200 Seventh Graders Versus LeBron Edition

A whimsical year-end look at some sports conundrums such as how many seventh graders would you have to put on the court to defeat LeBron James playing solo.  Or, what would a NFL field or NBA court be like if they were built with the irregularities common in baseball stadiums.

2. LeVar Burton Reads :: “The Truth About Owls” by Amal El-Mohtar

A sweet story about a girl from Lebanon who immigrates to England and finds her place through the study of owls and Welsh mythology.

3. The Memory Palace :: Hercules

With Washington’s Birthday coming up, a reminder that our first President held people in bondage because he enjoyed what their labor provided without having to pay for them.  The story of Hercules, a talented chef, who successfully escaped slavery.

4. The Truth :: Nuclear Winter

 A spooky story set in an outdated nuclear missile silo.  Don’t worry, it’s fictional!

5. Afropop Worldwide :: Roots and Future: A History of UK Dance

Caribbean music traditions and US dance beats come together in the only place they can: the United Kingdom.  A history of jungle, garage, drum & bass, and grime.  This made very nostalgic for the dance tracks of yore

6. The Truth :: The Hilly Earth Society

A stunning one-person audio drama told entirely in voice messages from an angry recluse to a persistent journalist.  There’s a couple of interesting twists at the end, only one I saw coming.

7. Code Switch :: Location, Location, Location

The history of housing segregation and how it underlines every serious social issue in America today.

8. BackStory :: Shock of the New

The history of World’s Fairs fascinates me and this episode commemorates the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with special focus on women’s and African American perspectives on the fair.

9. 99% Invisible :: Curb Cuts

An important history of the disability rights movement and how curb cuts ended up benefiting society in a broader sense than originally intended.

10. Upon Further Review :: What if Tom Brady Never Became the Patriot’s Quarterback?

Backup quarterback Tom Brady became a Patriots legend when he took over for injured starter Drew Bledsoe midway through the 2001 season and lead the team to their first Super Bowl victory. This “what if” podcasts takes us to a world where that never happened in the form of a spot-on parody of a Boston sports radio call-in.

11. Decoder Ring :: Clown Panic

A history of clowns and how they’ve gone from funny to terrifying.

12. HUB History :: Immigration in Boston

Present day anti-immigrant prejudice and hysteria has long historical roots as seen in these three stories from Boston history: the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Chinese tongs in Chinatown, and the destruction of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown.

13. Have You Heard? :: The Problem with Fear-Based School Reform

Do schools work better when they’re “run like a business” and teachers and administrators are forced to work in a culture of fear where they’re expected to get results or else?  Or do we recognize the nurturing mission of schools and support reforms lead by educators who know the children best? And how much of so-called “education reform” is rooted in anti-labor sentiment anyway?  These questions and more are discussed on “Have You Heard?”

14. Hit Parade :: The Feat. Don’t Fail Me Now Edition

The history of the “featured artist” credit on number one singles.

15. AirSpace :: The Ninety-Nines

A group of 99 women banded together to advance the cause of women in aviation in 1929 with Amelia Earhart as their first president. There’s some fascinating stories of the accomplishments of women in this organization that still exists today!

16. Afropop Worldwide :: Skippy White: A Vinyl Life

Checking in with a legendary soul & R&B record shop owner and entrepreneur, Skippy White.  His shop is located in Boston’s Egleston Square, not far from where I live, but this is the first I’ve heard of him!

17. To The Best of Our Knowledge :: What’s Wrong With Work?

Work is bunk.  Find out why employment is meaningless and “work ethic” is just there to control us, along with some more human alternatives.

18. Hidden Brain :: Bullshit Jobs

Another podcast goes in depth on how meaningless work is wearing us down.  I sense a theme.

19. The Memory Palace :: Lost Locusts

The sound design of this podcast really sells the panic and hopelessness of plagues of locusts in the 19th century plains, and a good explanation of why they ended.

20. Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Classic Cartoon Sound Effects

How sounds effects for cartoons are made, reused, and become iconic signifiers.

21. 99% Invisible :: The Worst Way to Start a City

What if a city was born by just having 100,000 people show up at once and claim their spot?  That’s the weird story of Oklahoma City.  Listen to this just for the “Oh, Joe – here’s your mule!” part.

22. RadioLab :: Tweak the Vote

RadioLab explores how ranked choice voting makes elections more representative of the people and more civil in practice.

23. 99% Invisible :: Devolutionary Design

The story of how an image of legendary golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez ended up being used for the cover of legendary rock band Devo’s first album.

24. Code Switch :: The Story of Mine Mill

The history of a radical leftist union that organized miners and millworkers in Birminham, Alabama, bringing together Black and white workers at the height of Jim Crow in the 1930s-1960s.

25. 99% Invisible :: The Accidental Room

The absolutely true story of a community of artists secretly building a condominium in a vacant space within a shopping mall.

Some podcasts are of a specified length focusing on a single topic, a mini-series if you will, and worth listening to in their entirety:

    • Believed – the story of how Larry Nassar sexual abused women and girls at Michigan State University and with US Gymnastics, and the women who brought him to justice
    • Last Seen –– an investigation into story of how the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was robbed of 13 priceless works of art in 1990 that still have not been recovered.
    • Nobody’s Home – an exploration into vacant homes in America’s cities and their effect on the larger community.
    • Slow Burn – forgotten history of the Watergate scandal as it played out at the time.
    • Unobscured – the story of the witch hysteria that emerged from Salem Village in 1692.
    • Upon Further Review – a tie-in with Mike Pesca’s book of the same name which dramatizes alternate universe stories of great moments in sports’ history.

Here are all the podcasts that were recognized as a Podcast of the Week with the number of their appearances:

  • 20 – 99% Invisible
  • 14 – Hub History
  • 11 – Twenty Thousand Hertz
  • 9 – BackStory, Planet Money
  • 8 – Hit Parade, WBUR News
  • 7 – Hidden Brain
  • 6 – RadioLab, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Code Switch
  • 5 – Have You Heard?, Memory Palace, Smithsonian Sidedoor
  • 4 – All Songs Considered, LeVar Burton Reads, Start Making Sense, The Truth
  • 3 – Afropop Worldwide, Decoder Ring, Fresh Air, Household Name, More or Less, Risk!, This American Life
  • 2 – Smithsonian AirSpace, Disney History Institute, Radio Boston, Re:Sound, Scientific American Science Talk, Snap Judgement, Sound Opinions, 30 for 30, Upon Further Review
  • 1 – Anthropocene Reviewed, Believed, Ben Franklin’s World, Hang Up and Listen, Last Seen, On the Media, 60 Second Science, Slow Burn, Song Exploder, The Sounds in My Head, StarTalk, StoryCorps, Tiny Desk Concerts

Music Discoveries: The Beatles Go Solo, part 4

The era of disco and the era of punk rock is upon us!  How will this affect our ex-Beatles as they continue their solo careers five years on from the Beatles’ break-up?

AlbumRock ‘n’ Roll 
Artist: John Lennon
Release Date: 21 February 1975
Favorite Tracks: Stand By Me, You Can’t Catch Me,

The heart of punk rock was a back to basics movement, emphasizing the rebellious simplicity of the 1950s and early 1960s rock and roll.  In essence, John Lennon fits right into this zeitgeist with this album of cover songs from his youth, albeit at the age of 35, he was a bit young for nostalgia.  Playing old rock & roll tunes with some friends seems to rejuvenate his spirit.  On the other hand, he wouldn’t record again for another five years, so it was probably a sign that he was tapped out on creating his own material.

AlbumVenus and Mars
Artist: Paul McCartney and Wings
Release Date: 27 May 1975
Favorite Tracks: Treat Her Gently – Lonely Old People

Paul McCartney is also in a nostalgic mood.  Although he starts with a “Rock Show,” soon the album is delving in to jazz standards, blues, and musical styles.  Or at least McCartney’s interpretation of such.  While most of the individual tracks don’t stand out to me, I do think the overall quality of this album tops all the other Wings recordings to date.  I also ended up streaming the 2014 Deluxe Edition and discovered that the bonus tracks are far better than what was released on the original album.  Why is that?

AlbumExtra Texture (Read All About It)
Artist: George Harrison
Release Date: 22 September 1975
Favorite Tracks: Tired of Midnight Blue

A melancholy album that dabbles in a classic soul album and once again features lyrics griping about somebody else, this time the critics of the Dark Horse album and the ensuing tour. There’s not much to like about this album, except the funny packaging

AlbumWings at the Speed of Sound 
Artist: Paul McCartney and Wings
Release Date: 25 March 1976
Favorite Tracks: Silly Love Songs

Confession: If you asked me at the age of 8 or 9 what my favorite song is, I probably would’ve told you “Silly Love Songs.”

Another confession: I still like “Silly Love Songs.” Written as a response to criticisms of McCartney’s hokey sentimentality, it actual turns out to be an effective pop song about love.  It also appears to be the first ex-Beatles’ song to incorporate some disco, at least in the string arrangement.

This Wings album includes songs written by each member of the band with each band member getting a turn on lead vocals.  Which doesn’t mean it suffers any less from mediocrity than its Paul-heavy predecessors.

AlbumRingo’s Rotogravure
Artist: Ringo Starr
Release Date: 17 September 1976
Favorite Tracks: none

Ringo once again puts together an all-star band to record some mediocre covers and mediocre originals of songs written by the likes of Eric Clapton and all four Beatles.

AlbumThirty Three & 1/3
Artist: George Harrison
Release Date: 19 November 1976
Favorite Tracks: none

Harrison continues to have troubled times – hepetitis, a plagiarism lawsuit, record label problems – but despite all that, this is a cheerful album with upbeat and comic songs.  His friendship with Monty Python cast members plays a part. Too bad the music is rather bland jazz/funk.

Album: Ringo the 4th
Artist: Ringo Starr
Release Date: 20 September 1977
Favorite Tracks:

Ringo eschews his tried and true model, brings in some new artists to record with, and writes many songs himself in tandem with Vini Poncia. And of course Ringo is the first former Beatle who decided to “disco up” his music. I’m surprised it took this long. And it’s as terrible as you’d imagine.

The former Beatles from 1975-1977 are not producing quality output by any measure.  I can’t imagine this music getting out there if they weren’t riding on the laurels of their Beatles’ history.



Book Review: To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Switzerland

Author: Peter Stamm
Title: To the Back of Beyond
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Publication Info: New York : Other Press, [2017]

A family returns from a vacation to their home in Switzerland, and after putting their kids to bed, the father and husband Thomas simply walks away from the house leaving his wife Astrid and two children behind.  The short novel alternates with scenes of Thomas hiking across the mountains and Astrid trying to continue her life and waiting for his return.  This is not the first book I’ve read about a man leaving his family behind which is apparently some male fantasy I don’t share.  It’s unclear if this book is intended as an indictment of toxic masculinity or a celebration. This is a well-written book, but not one I can really review because it depresses and infuriates me so much.

Recommended booksThe Cold Song by Linn Ullmann and The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Title: The Wizard of Oz
Release Date: August 25, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
King Vidor
George Cukor
Richard Thorpe
Norman Taurog
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I watched this movie for the first time in a long time, and well, it’s basically just as I remembered it, which is a good thing.  It’s an adventure, it’s a symbolic journey of self-discovery, it’s a musical, it’s funny, it’s scary.  It looks really fake, but to the point that the painted sets and props are weirdly effective works of arts in their own right.  I was born long after color film was standard but the transition from the sepia of Kansas to the majestic colors of Oz is still astounding. Watching as an older adult, I am also impressed at how the young Judy Garland handles being central to almost every scene. About the only thing that is not good about this movie is that it’s not a good adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book which I also love.  One day, I’d like to see a faithful film adaptation of the movie made too, but this version will always stand alone as its own great thing.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Tommorowland (2015)

Title: Tommorowland
Release Date: May 22, 2015
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company:Walt Disney Pictures

Brad Bird, writer and director of animated films like the Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, brings his utopian vision to live action films. The basic gist is that a group of creative geniuses make an alternative reality called Tomorrowland which is an amalgam of the optimistic views of a space age future that were common in culture circa the 1950s-1980s (it’s never explained how this alternative universe works).  The major characters are George Clooney as an older man who has been exiled from Tomorrowland, Britt Robertson as a teenage scientific enthusiast who is the latest recruit for Tommorrowland, Raffey Cassidy as the Audio-Animatronic who recruits new members, and Hugh Laurie as the villain who desires to make Tommorowland exclusive, and ultimately destroy the real world.

The movie is full of fantastic visuals and great ideas.  But ultimately, it feels hollow at the heart of it.  There’s a preachy vein that we should feel bad about giving up on our optimistic vision of tomorrow, but never gives a reason why, especially since the effort to get to Tommorrowland is full of violence and a Libertarian idea of some people being naturally better than others.  There’s a lot that’s good about this movie, from the acting to the visuals, that it’s doubly disappointing that it misses the mark by so much.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Walt Disney Imagineering by The Imagineers

Author: The Imagineers
TitleWalt Disney Imagineering : A Behind-the-Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real 
Publication Info: New York : London : Hyperion ; Turnaround, 1998.

This is a coffee-table size book with historical plans, concept art, models, and photographs of various works at Disney Parks over the years created by Disney Imagineering.  They work to create 3-D experiences based on animation, landscaping, architecture, and of course engineering, many of which have to be created in house because they’re creating things that have never been done.  I would’ve liked if this book had more behind-the-scenes, how-did-they-do-that detail instead of lots of hokey quotes about “sparks” and “dreams,” but I suppose Michael Eisner didn’t want to give the secrets away.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 22

HubHistory :: When Boston Invented Playgrounds

It seems that places for children to play have always been with us, but someone had to invent the playground and it turns out that Boston played a role in that, starting with piles of sand called sand gardens.

99% Invisible :: Mini Stories

All of these stories are good, but I’m particularly interested in the nostalgic look back at the WPIX Yule Log, a television program that featured a burning log for three hours, which was a HUGE deal when I grew up in the New York City area.s

Scientific American Science Talk :: Meet the Real Ravenmaster

If you’ve ever visited the Tower of London, the resident ravens are a highlight of the experience.  This podcast features an interview with the yeoman warder charged with the ravens’ care.

Movie Review: Big Hero 6 (2014)

TitleBig Hero 6 
Release Date: November 7, 2014
Director: Don Hall & Chris Williams
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

Hiro Hamada is a teenage robotics prodigy who isn’t interested in much beyond competing in illegal robot fights until his older brother Tadashi mentors him and convinces him to enroll in a university robotics program. Hiro succeeds in his presentation of microbots to gain entry to the school, but shortly afterward, Tadashi dies in a fire.  This sends Hiro into a depressive state that begins to be healed when he finds Tadashi’s inflatable healthcare companion robot, Baymax.

With Baymax and a group of Tadahsi’s nerdy friends, Hiro begins to investigate who was behind the fire that killed Tadashi and the mystery of his missing microbots.  What’s great about this movie is that Baymax is not your typical science-fiction revenge fantasy hero.  Designed to care for the sick, Baymax is gentle and encouraging, and even when Hiro retrains it to fight, Baymax retains the programming that prioritizes healing.

In addition to this wonderful central message, and a sweet, cuddly hero, the movie has a lot of spectacular visuals. The setting of San Fransokyo is particularly wonderful, combining elements of those two great cities in a futuristic world.  This a great family film, heartfelt and funny, and much better than expected.

Rating: ****

TV Review: Doctor Who (2018)

TitleDoctor Who
Release Dates: 2018
Series: 11
Number of Episodes: 10

This is going to be tough because I love this show so much, yet I’m going to have to state some unpleasant truths.  This was not a very good series of Doctor Who. The baseline of competency was met again and again, and no episode was truly awful, but this series never seemed to aspire to anything beyond sheer competency.  There are a lot of people involved in creating a television series, but I believe that a lot of the blame for the failures of Series 11 can go to the showrunner Chris Chibnall, who scripted 5 of the 10 episodes, and co-wrote another.  I had concerns about Chibnall going into the series based on his previous work for Doctor Who and Torchwood, but had also admired his work on Broadchurch, at least the first season.

Compared with the previous showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, who each contributed numerous innovations to Doctor Who storytelling, Chibnall did not seem interested in taking many risks in that area.  I should note though, that there was some risk-taking in this series.  For one, this is the first time a woman – Jodie Whittaker – was cast in the role of the Doctor, and while that shouldn’t be risky in 2018, it was nevertheless, controversial.  The consequence though is that Chibnall and company appeared not to want to make any further waves and wrote the Doctor as a very passive character, to the point of criminal indifference, which is not something you want to see paired with your female representation.  The optimist in me thinks that now that the writers have seen how Whittaker performs the Doctor, and with one season under their belt, that they will be willing to take more risks with her character next series.  At the very least I hope they cease writing dialogue where Whittaker is forced to just describe what is in front of her much of the time.  These writers need to heed the advice to show not tell.

Another big risk is that Chibnall chose to cast three different companions, creating the largest Tardis Team since the Fifth Doctor also traveled with three companions in the 1980s.  It was also the first time that 4 major characters were introduced in the same episode since the premiere of the series in 1963.  The consequence of this risk is that there was very little time to develop four new characters and tell new stories at the same time.  Yaz was particularly effected by the crowded Tardis in that the audience never seemed to learn much about her despite her having the potential to be the most interesting character as a foil to the Doctor.  She’s also the most competent character, so her quietly getting things done didn’t leave much time for interesting character beats.  Ryan and Grahams were served better as they had the theme of there growing familial relationship as they mourn Grace to carry them through the series.

Chibnall took risks in how the series is presented.  Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, a series has had 12-to-13 episodes, 45 minutes in length, plus a Christmas Special.  Chibnall cut the total number of episodes to 10, but extended the length of individual episodes to 50 minutes.  The problems of character development may have been better addressed with 2 or 3 more stories.  While previous series usually had some two-part episodes, and at least a semi-serialized nature where the series built on a story arc or theme, Chibnall chose to have all the episodes of series 11 be stand-alone stories, with the exception of an episode 1 villain ineffectively returning in episode 10.  The structure of a Doctor Who episode was modeled on the procedural drama genre of television for the first time.  I can’t criticize that choice because Doctor Who should be able to function in any genre, even if it didn’t work for other reasons.

The series was a commercial success with better ratings than Doctor Who has had in some time.  The argument can be made that more straightforward, stand alone episodes attract a larger number of viewers who can pop in to watch an episode without having to know a lot of the details behind the story.  I’m pleased that Doctor Who is succeeding, even if it’s not the type of Doctor Who I enjoy.  But I would also contend that television viewers – including children – are more sophisticated viewers than they were a generation or two ago and can handle more complex stories and serialization.  Not the least because a large percentage of people who end up viewing this show will do so by bingewatching on streaming services rather than watching each episode as it airs.

Despite my heavy criticism of the show, there was a lot I enjoyed about it.  Whittaker was excellent in portraying the Doctor as funny, compassionate, and a strong leader.  She deserves better material to work with.  I also love all the new companions, they are great characters and each bring something to the team. The production values were excellent for the most part including cinematograpy, sets, costuming, and music.  It was a pleasurable program to look at the vast majority of the time.  While the politics of the show seem to be moving rightward overall, it’s also important to recognize the representation in this series.  Women and people of color are appearing in the show, as well as writing and directing, more than ever before, and telling stories previously ignored in the previous 36 seasons.

Here are my thoughts on an episode by episode basis with links to full reviews.  The number in parentheses is a rating on a scale of 10.

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7) – A good introduction, that swiftly brings together our new Tardis Team with good character beats for each, and keeping Jodie Whittaker on her toes as she resolves both the problem and her new identity.  Sure, the villain is rubbish, but monsters are only secondary to this story and we’re never going to see Tim Shaw again, right?  The biggest downer is that Grace, one of the most compelling characters and a natural for the companion role, dies just as we’re getting to know her.
  2. The Ghost Monument (5) – The first episode introduced all of our new characters, while the purpose of this episode is to reunite the Doctor with her Tardis.  Along the way, the new companions get their “wow, we’re on another planet” moments.  The plot seems only incidental and is discarded once the Tardis is found, setting a pattern of Chibnall-authored stories that are unresolved.
  3. Rosa (7) – The first historical of Series 11 is set in 1950s Alabama and does a great job of capturing the period and the pervasive nature of Jim Crow racism.  The message of the show, that social change occurs only when great individuals like Rosa Parks take small actions (and that they will suffer to achieve incremental changes) seems out of touch with what audiences need from Doctor Who in 2018, though.
  4. Arachnids in the UK  (6) -The return to Sheffield episode does a good job of introducing us to Yaz’s family and setting up an adventure involving giant spiders, and even make us sympathetic to the monsters.  The story once again ends with a feeling of loose ends untied.  And while Doctor Who certainly can’t depict the overthrow of Donald Trump, they could at least offer consequences to a Trump surrogate.
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum (7) – I seem to be alone in liking this space adventure, and certainly think it’s the best Chibnall-authored script of the season.  For one, it actually tells a complete story with beginning, middle, and end.  And the other, all the characters – regular and guest – play a part in the story and have significant character moments.  It’s also funny.  I guess people just don’t like cute monsters.
  6. Demons of the Punjab (8) – This Yaz-centered story travels back in time to visit her grandmother in 1947 during the partition of India and Pakistan.  The personal story of one family set against tragic historical events is definitely the best story of the season.
  7. Kerblam! (5) – Honestly, this story is not as bad as it’s rating.  It’s well constructed and entertaining, and I suppose a good example of Right Wing Science Fiction.  But it loses points because the Doctor being not only indifferent to, but tacitly supporting, the suffering and exploitation of labor is counter to everything I know about the Doctor.
  8. The Witchfinders (8) – Another entertaining historical with Alan Cumming guest starring in a wonderfully hammy performance as King James I.  The Tardis Team have come into their own and work together to solve the problem.  And Whittaker’s Doctor, for once, isn’t hopelessly passive, taking action even when it may be changing history.
  9. It Takes You Away (6) – A strange, entertaining story with a few twists, and a talking frog.  I didn’t think the story was the best, but I did enjoy the bonkers quality of it, and the sign that Chibnall-era Doctor Who was recognizing the previous 10 series of Doctor Who and finding new ways to build on it.
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4) – A total bummer of a finale that seems only to function as a sampler of the worst aspects of Series 11.  The rest of the series looks worse in retrospect because one could no longer believe it was building to something meaningful.

If you have time and desire to read more about Series 11, check out this excellent post from the Movie Blog.

Okay, now we move on to the New Year’s Day Special!  I have high hopes.

Series 11 episodes ranked:

  • Demons of the Punjab (8)
  • The Witchfinders  (8)
  • The Tsuranga Conundrum (7)
  • The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7)
  • Rosa (7)
  • It Takes You Away (6)
  • Arachnids in the UK  (6)
  • The Ghost Monument (5)
  • Kerblam! (5)
  • The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4)

Related Posts:

Music Discoveries: The Beatles Go Solo, part 3

In 1973 and 1974, new albums from ex-Beatles are coming out routinely with each former bandmate putting out two albums during this period. Relationships are thawing among the ex-Beatles but despite hopes of fans, there’s no chance of a reunion, because they’ve all got their own things to do and own demons to excise.

See part 1 for the 1968-1970 period and part 2 for the 1970-1972 period.

AlbumRed Rose Speedway
Artist: Paul McCartney & Wings
Release Date: 30 April 1973
Favorite Tracks: none

Paul McCartney’s second album with Wings finds him firmly immersed in creating cheezy 70s pop music.  The oft-played “My Love” is an example of the paint-by-numbers mediocrity of the album as a whole.  The flourishes that echo the greatness of his best Beatles’ songs just makes this album all the more frustrating, because it’s clear he can do better.

AlbumLiving in the Material World
Artist: George Harrison
Release Date: 30 May 1973
Favorite Tracks: Living in the Material World, Be Here Now, Try Some Buy Some

After a couple years’ absence from recording due to his philanthropic efforts for Bangladesh, Harrison returns with another album exploring his spiritual journey and autobiographical introspection.  The rock band jam sound of All Things Must Pass is replaced by a more orchestrated sound.  Overall the songs are more subdued and there isn’t much variety from track to track. The title track is one of the exceptions, in that it could fit in with the sound of the previous album. Otherwise, I find the calls for global unity cliched and the airing of grievances against the other Beatles tiring.

AlbumMind Games
Artist: John Lennon
Release Date: October 29, 1973
Favorite Tracks: none

John Lennon recorded this album while struggling with US immigration, under FBI surveillance, and in the midst of marital strife with Yoko Ono that would lead to an 18-month separation.  So he had other things on his mind while writing songs about common topics: love songs for Yoko, introspection into his own life, and political anthems.  All of this he’d done before and done better.

Album: Ringo
Artist: Ringo Starr
Release Date: 2 November 1973
Favorite Tracks: Photograph, You’re Sixteen

Ringo’s follows up on his albums of jazz standards and country & western tunes with his first album of pure pop/rock.  Wisely he calls upon his many friends in the music biz to provide the support he needs in songcrafting and recording.  In fact all four Beatles make an appearance on this album!  And I totally called “Six O’Clock” as the McCartney song before I even looked at the liner notes. The album opens with the Lennon-penned “I’m the Greatest,” a fun track that features a John, George, & Ringo reunion.  The other standouts are the hit singles “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen” which I’ve long liked, although the later is rather creepy to be sung by a man in his 30s.  The rest is rather amiable but generic pop, nothing great nothing terrible, but better than McCartney’s albums (albeit I probably have higher expectations for him).

Personal note: I’ve long had a fondness for “Photograph” because it was the #1 song in the United States on the day I was born.

AlbumBand on the Run
Artist: Paul McCartney & Wings
Release Date: 5 December 1973
Favorite Tracks: Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five

Folks, Wings is totally a real band and not Paul McCartney’s vanity project.  It says “Band” right there in the album title and the hit song/suite that leads off the album! I jest, but the trio of Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, and Denny Laine at last pulled of a critical and commercial success.  That means that the hit songs on this album have been played to death!  Alas, there are no hidden gems on this album, just filler between the songs I’ve heard a million times before. “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” is pretty spectacular though.

Album: John Lennon
ArtistWalls and Bridges
Release Date: 4 October 1974
Favorite Tracks: #9 Dream

I get down on McCartney here, but “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” is a song overplayed on classic rock radio that I’ve always found grating, perhaps the worst ex-Beatles’ song of the 1970s (although I have six more years to review).  The other big hit from this album, “#9 Dream,” is eerie and beautiful in its weirdness.  Much of the rest of the album feels bland and uninspired.  Poor John was stuck in a rut.

AlbumGoodnight Vienna
Artist: Ringo Starr
Release Date: 15 November 1974
Favorite Tracks: No No Song

Another collection of tunes from Ringo & friends, with Lennon, Elton John, and Harry Nillson chipping in, plus some select cover songs. Ringo is really stepping into novelty music moreso than ever on this record.  But anything with Billy Preston on keyboards can’t be all bad. You know, I wonder why Ringo didn’t get into scoring films at this time because this sounds like it could be the soundtrack of a cheesy but entertaining family film from the 70s.  Well, maybe not the “No No Song,” but then I again I loved that song as a kid.

AlbumDark Horse
Artist: George Harrison
Release Date: 9 December 1974
Favorite Tracks: It Is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krishna)

Harrison has a new sound that’s jazzier with a little funk. The album was recorded at a trying time when Harrison was divorcing Pattie Boyd (who was having affairs with his friends who nevertheless continue performing with Harrison), he relapsed into substance abuse, and was overcommited to various business ventures.  All of these things become subjects of his songwriting in the tell-all style of early 70s Beatles. Because of overexertion, Harrison injured his larynx while recording this album giving an unfortunate Tom Waits quality to his singing.  There’s not much to like about this album, but I do like the weirdness of the final track “It Is ‘He'” which brings together all the styles and fascinations of Harrison at this time.

Ten years after the Beatles first arrived in America and halfway into the 1970s, each of the Beatles has achieved a #1 song and #1 album, although there’s also a general wave of mediocrity permeating these albums.  On December 29, 1974, while vacationing at the Polynesian Resort at World Disney World, John Lennon became the final Beatle to sign the legal papers officially dissolving the Beatles. The four would continue their solo pursuits.