Here's an interesting paradox: some of the best pop music isn't very popular at all. Robert Christgau has written about this phenomenon. He coined the term "semi-popular" to describe music that is 'pop' in a formal, aesthetic sense more than it is in a commercial or sociological sense.
For this post, I gave myself an assignment. I would scour my music collection and pick the best example I could find of a pop music album that is (1) stunning; but (2) little known. I offer: What Up, Dog?, released by the Detroit band Was (Not Was) in 1988.
Was (Not Was) is an unusual group. The two founder-members are Jewish musicians Don Fagenson and David Weiss, both multi-instrumentalists. They command an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop song forms and styles, and they have a rare, Steely Dan-esque gift for composing acerbic songs that are rich in social observation. In a brilliant stroke, because they are confessed non-singers, the Brothers Was use two black soul/funk vocalists to sing their deeply weird songs. The resulting clash of sensibilities, played out against often sunny pop arrangements, results in a strangeness and tension that no number of repeat listenings can dispel.
Over the years the group has assembled a large and unusual roster of guest lead singers including Mel Torme, Ozzy Osbourne, Leonard Cohen, Kim Basinger, Marshall Crenshaw, Frank Sinatra, Jr., Mitch Ryder, and Doug ("My Sharona") Fieger. The singers in each case are slyly pitted against lyric material that is often completely at odds with the expectations we bring to these performers.
Here for you to sample are three tracks from the album: "Anytime Lisa" [mp3], "Wedding Vows in Vegas" [mp3] with Frank Sinatra Jr. on lead vocal, and "Somewhere in America There's A Street Named After My Dad" [mp3].
And now can I ask you to suggest: one or more albums, from your collections, of great pop music that isn't very well known?
-- A highlight of the new issue of Artforum is a Nagisa Oshima overview essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Also in the issue: P. Adams Sitney on Temenos 2008; Bruce Jenkins on Bruce Conner; and Amy Taubin on Wendy and Lucy and Ballast.
-- At his site, Rosenbaum has a piece called "Bushwhacked Cinema".
-- David Hudson has a post and podcast from the NYFF panel on film criticism last weekend.
-- Zach on Jon Jost and Irving Lerner (among other things).
-- Rob at Daily Plastic revisits the Coens' Burn After Reading upon encountering other critics' praise of the film.
-- Catherine Morris at Bookforum on three new books on Yvonne Rainer, one of them by the artist herself.
-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on older British cinema.
-- New pieces galore at Moving Image Source including David Schwartz interviewing Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell; and three Oshima essays (so far) by Chris Fujiwara, Mike Atkinson and Joshua Land.
-- The new issue of Offscreen magazine is devoted to French cinema.