Thursday, December 30, 2010

10 FAVORITES (17) - Holidays PART IV: Religious Christmas Carols

Joy to the World! As the Holiday Season comes to an end with the New Year, I want to finish up my Holidays Edition of 10 FAVORITES. As promised, this will be the best Christmas Carols that derive from religious traditions. Now, having been raised Catholic, most of these Carols are songs I heard every Christmas in church growing up. One thing I have noticed about most of these carols is that a lot of them are very difficult to sing well. Sure, you could sing some these carols slightly off-key and still be quite adequate, but the real test of these carols is if you can nail every note (which is why I tried to find the best versions of the songs on the web). So here they are:


What Child Is This? (Or really, Greensleeves)
A beautiful song with the poetic imagery of the manger scene set to the music of the famous "Greensleeves."

We Three Kings (Of Orient Are)
This song was always fun to sing because of the "Star of Wonder" refrain and it was a good way for the kids in church to learn the story of the Magi.

The First Noel
This song was always on the stereo for me growing up. My cousin's middle name is "Noelle" (because she was born a few days after Christmas) and so every time they got to the "Noel" chorus, I always thought they were singing about her! (Sometimes kids think anything!!!)

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
This is such a fun song, especially when you get to the "Comfort and Joy" line. I've heard different arrangements and the one below (by the dynamic Annie Lennox) is one of the best.

The Little Drummer Boy
I used to call this song the "Rum Pum Pum" song. I love the way it builds and builds in its melody and then goes back down (just like a little boy's emotions and excitement). Below, I just HAD to use the famous duet between the disparate Bing Crosby and David Bowie (I believe everyone has seen this duet!)

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The best versions of this song are when choruses of people are singing it (much like at the end of It's a Wonderful Life).

Silent Night
Quite possibly the most famous and most enduring Christmas Carol of all-time, but it is NOT #1. It still is a good song, but it is also quite deceptive. Some people think it is an extremely easy to sing, when actually it is an intricate melody that is very hard to get just right (believe me, it was difficult to find a really good version of the song and I figured I couldn't go wrong with Beyonce!).

Do You Hear What I Hear?
Like "The Little Drummer Boy," this song rises and rises and as it rises, the subject of each verse gets grander and grander. It goes from a lamb to a shepherd boy to a king to the people. And it is really good when the song is belted (like below by Whitney Houston, back when she was the Whitney we loved!).

Angels We Have Heard On High
Songs about angels, as I said earlier, are best when sung by large groups of people. Don't get me wrong, there are good solo versions of this song. But the "Gloria" chorus is really served best when multiple voices and octaves wash over the melody.

O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fidelis)
When I was young, I first heard the english version of this song (which is the one almost everyone knows). But, growing up Catholic, I just HAD to hear the latin version as well. And that version is really quite beautiful (especially when sung by voices like the Three Tenors!).

O Holy Night
This carol almost rivals "The Christmas Song" as my favorite carol of all-time. It is yet another song that builds until a glorious climax. Because of the range of the song, it is also notoriously difficult to sing. It is best when handled by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Placido Domingo, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand and (below) Josh Goban.

There you have it: THE 10 BEST RELIGIOUS CHRISTMAS CAROLS. Hope one of your favorites is on here. Next week, to celebrate the New Year, I will cover the most important Pop Culture moments of 2010. Until then:


Thursday, December 23, 2010

10 FAVORITES (16) - Holidays PART III: Traditional Christmas Carols

Christmas time is here! And to follow my favorite Christmas films and my favorite Christmas TV specials, I feel it is time to devote 10 FAVORITES to the best Christmas Carols. Now, it being Christmas, there are a lot of religious overtones that seep into the holiday traditions. So, rather than run from the religious part of the holiday, I shall embrace it for next week's list. I will devote two week's worth of 10 FAVORITES to Christmas Carols: next week will be religious themed ones, while this week I will focus on traditional ones (that may or may not have a Christian background). Of the latter, there are several which come to mind as potential favorites. But, alas, I had to whittle the list down to ten (sort of!). Here they are:


A TRIPLE TIE - Frosty the Snowman AND Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer AND Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
These three songs do go together for me as they also share their titles with the successful Rankin & Bass animation specials from the late 1960's (of which I spoke about last week!). I loved hearing these songs growing up because they reminded me of the specials I adored.

The Chipmunk Song
Sure, this song can be extremely annoying, especially if you don't like the high-pitched voices of the titular characters. But this song does have remarkable staying power. We always remember that the Chipmunks, like any other child, want Christmas to happen then and now. And, of course, Alvin is more concerned with his want of a Hula Hoop!

I'll Be Home For Christmas
Some christmas carols are elaborately labored on with intricate melodies and poetic lyrics. Then there are those that are very simple and seem to be written from the words inside a Hallmark card. Usually, I don't like the latter kind. But with this song, it just gives me that warm Christmas feeling we all yearn for around the holiday season.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
I believe this is every child's favorite Christmas Carol, or at least it was when I was young. The gifts which the true love gives to the singer (which mostly consists of birds and entertainers) are so fun for the children to say (and imagine!). The carol has made way for several parodies and several good versions (the best being below with the late John Denver and the Muppets, ba dum bum bum!)

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Written by Tin Pan Alley writers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for the Hollywood musical diva Judy Garland (in the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis), this song is (to me) the power ballad of the Christmas season. Of course Garland's version is the definitive, but several artists (ranging from Frank Sinatra to Rod Stewart) have covered the song with decent results.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Yet another simple song to appear on the list. It also can be a very annoying song. But I cannot deny the reluctant charm this song has. Plus, I've always wondered what "figgy pudding" is.

White Christmas
I love most of the songs by the great Broadway (and Film!) composer Irving Berlin. This one has become his most famous and his most enduring (ironic, considering that Irving Berlin was Jewish!). Below, is the finale of the 1954 film White Christmas (which was on my Christmas films list) featuring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney.

The Carol of the Bells
I love the lush melody of this song. The song can be fully orchestrated (like by John Williams in 1990's Home Alone) or be played by nothing but the titular instruments (see the Claymation Chistmas!). The song is beautiful as an instrumental or with its lyrics (especially when sung by a great choir, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir below).

Deck the Halls
What would Christmas be like without a little Fa La La La La La La La La La? That's all that needs to be said!

Silver Bells
This Christmas Carol's placement may surprise a lot of people. It is a little known ditty these days (yet it was extremely popular when I was growing up). I think what I love most about this song is that the imagery in it is very urban ("City sidewaks," "People passing," etc.). And (as a metro area-raised guy) it just appeals to me on that level.

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)
Written by jazz/pop singer-songwriter Mel Torme, and famously recorded by the legend that was Nat King Cole (quite frankly the definitive version!), this song completely embodies the imagery and emotional quotient of the season. It is my absolute favorite Christmas Carol and, for me, it just is not Christmas unless I hear this gorgeous tune.

So, there you have it: THE 10 BEST TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS CAROLS. Next week, I will list my favorite religious ones. As we go into December 25th, please keep the lessons of these songs in your hearts as you gather with your friends and families.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

10 FAVORITES (15) - Holidays PART II: Christmas Specials

'Tis the Season to be Jolly! This week's Holidays Edition of 10 FAVORITES is devoted to the television specials we all grew up adoring. Now, I am not talking specifically about the many many many variety shows and music specials devoted to Christmas. That is another list all to itself (maybe next year!). The TV specials listed below were either animated or marketed towards children (and their families). There are many different animated/children's programs that deal with the Holidays. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are just average. And some are just horrendously awful. But there are those that even transcend goodness into absolutely enjoyable and made my Christmases just a little bit brighter growing up. These are the ones that I believe are the best of the bunch.


Mickey's Christmas Carol AND Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
I already talked a little bit about Charles Dickens' classic story when I discussed by favorite Christmas films. And so of course there are many brilliant TV adaptations of the tale (both made-for-TV movies and various spoofs of the tale). These two always seem to go together for me because I saw them around the same time (even though Mr. Magoo's pre-dated Mickey's by about 15 years or so). I saw Mickey's first and absolutely loved how the House of Mouse team managed to cast each character perfectly (i.e. Mickey as Bob Cratchitt, Donald Duck as Nephew Fred and Goofy as Jacob Marley). In Magoo's, I love the irascible and frustratingly blind character as Ebeneezer Scrooge mainly because of his voice actor, the great Jim Backus (known to us all as Thurston Howell III from Gilligan's Island), was so right for the role.

Robbie the Reindeer: Hooves of Fire
From the masters at Aardman Animation Studios (the people behind Wallace and Gromit) and the BBC, this clever tale about Rudolph's son joining the Reindeer team at Santa's Workshop is witty and heartwarming. In this (the first of three specials), Robbie is new to the Workshop and is immediately disliked by Blitzen (deliciously voiced by Steve Coogan). Blitzen challenges him to a race in a sort of Reindeer Olympics and Robbie has to prove himself worthy of replacing the legacy of his famous father.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
The animation of this special (and others like it) used to creep me out but now I look at this show with respect for what the team at Rankin and Bass Animation were able to do with stop-motion animation. The movements are very choppy and static but for the time when this special was made (1970), it becomes more fascinating and, therefore, more marvelous. The story is about how Santa Claus came to be Santa Claus, with the fabulous greedy villain of Herr Bergermeister. The voices, which include Mickey Rooney as the titular hero and Fred Astaire as our narrator (and singer of the title tune!), are so heartwarming and pleasantly delightful.

Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Special
Claymation seemed to be all the rage in the 1980's and the early 1990's. So it was bound to happen that master Claymation artist Will Vinton (the man behind The California Raisins) would try his hand at making a few specials, including this enjoyable Christmas one. Because there was no specific Claymation series on at the time (just various specials), this show took the form of series of music videos (this is the early MTV generation after all) introduced by two dinosaur critics (that vaguely spoofed Siskel & Ebert). Some of the best sequences include a doo-wop style rendition of "We Three Kings" and a cleverly done "Carol of the Bells" featuring an orchestra of Claymation bells (led by Quasimodo, who else?!?!)!

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
I have previously discussed my love for Sesame Street when I listed my favorite songs from the seminal children's program. By the early 1980's, the show had been on for over a decade and, it being the 1980's, marketing was coming into play and the powers that be at PBS decided to create this delightful Christmas special. The story revolves around how Big Bird wants to stay up on the rooftop to wait for Santa, because Oscar the Grouch told him Santa does not exist. It is filled with memorable songs and moments including an opening sequence where full-bodied versions of Ernie, Bert, the Count and Cookie Monster are Ice Skating!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Yet another classic Rankin and Bass stop-motion animation special. This one is more fascinating because of the story (which was based on the classic song and 1939 poem) includes a journey to the Isle of Misfit Toys and escaping an Abominable Snow Monster. The characters including Rudolph, Hermey the Elf, the greedy and befuddled prospector Yukon Cornelius and, of course, narrator Sam the Snowman (voiced by the great Burl Ives) are all delightful and bring a smile to everyone each year it airs.

A Garfield Christmas
Garfield was one of the most famous comic strip characters and his lazy, lasagna-loving style was brought to television in the 1980's. The various specials (including a Halloween one and a Thanksgiving one) were so successful that they led the cartoon cat to getting his own Saturday morning cartoon series in the early 1990's, Garfield and Friends. The Christmas one was the first one and was one of their best mainly because we got to meet Jon Arbuckle's hokey and silly family, including Jon's Grandma (who was such a delight that she was brought back for the Thanksgiving special).

Frosty the Snowman
This 1969 Rankin and Bass Christmas special (based on another great holiday tune!) was not stop-motion (like the Rudolph and Santa Claus ones were later), but yet whole-heartedly enjoyable. Jimmy Durante took the role of narrator this time around and comedian Jackie Vernon voiced the titular Snowman who greeted everyone with "Happy Birthday!" The story is of how Frosty came to be with the help of the magical top hat of a selfish, greedy magician (voiced by the comic character actor Billy de Wolfe). The comedy is so hilarious (sometimes unintentionally so) and the characters are really delightful, especially de Wolfe's mean and childish magician.

A Muppet Family Christmas
Who doesn't love Muppets?!?! And what is better than the Muppets? MORE MUPPETS!!!! In this phenomenal special, the Muppets we love from The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock came together to make this Christmas one to remember. It was great that Jim Henson was able to gather his family together one more time before his untimely death in 1990. Highlights from this special include the opening (where the Muppets sing "We Need a Little Christmas" from the Broadway musical Mame), the Electric Mayhem's take on "Jingle Bell Rock," Kermit and Robin meeting the Fraggles of Fraggle Rock, and the grand finale where the entire Muppet family takes part in a medley of Christmas Carols.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
When it comes to TV Christmas specials, there are really only two that we can consider THE ULTIMATE ones. This one is the first of those two (take a guess at number 1 people!). Dr. Seuss' brilliant creation of the mean Grinch who lives atop the mountain in Whoville and despises the noise of Christmas is a true classic. Everything from Boris Karloff's narration and characterization of the Grinch to the songs (which include the delightful "Welcome Christmas!" and the delicious "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch") make this one of the best Holiday specials in TV history (and FAR better than the disappointing 2000 film version featuring Jim Carrey).

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Does this one really surprise anyone? There is no kind of animated special like the kind by the Peanuts gang. Charles Schulz created some of the most beloved characters including Charlie Brown, his sister Sally, his best friend Linus, Linus' sister Lucy and Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy (who became the virtual mascot of my childhood!). And for Christmas (back in 1965), they did everything right. The writing was so clever (mimicking Schulz' style so well) and the story was so completely Charlie Brown. Everybody always felt, at one point in their life, like Charlie Brown: a boy who truly believed he couldn't do anything right. His small tree is so endearing and sweet that we just want to root for him. And who could forget Vince Guaraldi's jazzy and nostalgic piano score?!?!

So there you have it: THE 10 BEST CHILDREN'S TV CHRISTMAS SPECIALS. Each one is a treat for anyone trying to get into the Christmas mood. Is it really a surprise that Charlie Brown and the Grinch would top the list? If it is, and one of your favorite specials wasn't mentioned, don't hesitate to let me know. Next week, I will discuss my favorite Christmas Carols and there are plenty to choose from.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

10 FAVORITES (14) - Holidays PART I: Christmas Films

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas! And in honor of the season, I am devoting the entire month's 10 FAVORITES lists to the Holidays (Christmas, New Year's, etc.). Everything from Movies to TV Specials to Songs to Traditions will be covered this month. Today, we will look at the best Christmas movies. Now, these are movies that the Holidays just wouldn't be the same without them. As I discussed earlier when I talked about my 100 FAVORITE FILMS of all-time, It's a Wonderful Life was listed at #38. To many, myself included, this is the ultimate Christmas movie. So therefore, today's list WILL NOT include an Honorable Mention, since It's a Wonderful Life would most assuredly be #1 (but I already discussed it, so there is no need to rehash that). Today's list will be a TOP 10, but just move everything down one when you add the Frank Capra-Jimmy Stewart classic.


Prancer (1989)
This would be the Honorable Mention spot with It's a Wonderful Life on the list. It has been a long time since I have seen this movie, so I don't remember everything about it, but I do remember really loving it. It's a hokey story about Santa's titular reindeer who gets injured and a bunch of young kids have to protect him and help him make his way to the North Pole. In a way, I guess it is like a Christmas version of E. T., which is another of my Favorite movies. I also remember charming performances from Sam Elliott and the great Cloris Leachman, both of whom make the very worst movies better.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)
I know this film does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of Christmas movies, but this formulaic 1990's rom-com (one of the better ones of the genre) does use Christmas (and New Year's) as a good backdrop to the simple story. Sandra Bullock, who at the time was becoming the ultimate "Girl Next Door," gives a very charming and lovely performance as Lucy. Lucy is a lonely subway booth worker who (through various misunderstandings!) becomes part of a family at a time when she needs it most and (of course!) falls in love in the process.

White Christmas (1954)
For those screaming "WHY?!?" about now, this one we can blame on my mother and grandmother. They really liked this film and, therefore, I grew to like it. Although it is not the strongest story (it is, after all, a film built around the popularity of the great Irving Berlin song), it has fantastic Irving Berlin musical numbers and charming performances from the leads (especially Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, who was a favorite of my mother). But even the simplistic and formulaic story (the ol' "Let's put on a show!" game) has a way of making me smile and becomes quite enjoyable after yearly viewings.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Charles Dickens' brilliant and classic novella is one of the most frequently adapted stories in media history. And there ARE several film versions to choose from when compiling a list like this (I chose two, the other one is in a bit). When looking at Christmas Carol adaptations, I have great respect for the filmmakers who do their best to stick to the world Dickens himself lived in. Check out the 1951 film Scrooge starring Alastair Sim or the 1984 TV film version starring George C. Scott for the best straight Dickensian adaptations. But this one adds an element that I absolutely love (and anyone who knows me, understands): MUPPETS!!! Michael Caine brilliantly plays Scrooge surrounded by Kermit and company inhabiting several classic Dickens characters. This film also means something as it was the first Muppet project worked on after the death of their ingenious founder Jim Henson (and it was directed by his son, Brian).

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Produced by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, the use of stop-motion animation is a technical wonder in and of itself. Burton used it again 10 years later on Corpse Bride and Selick used it fairly recently on Coraline (both of which were good, but not as good as this brilliant musical marvel). In this story, Holidays are separate villages that reside in hollow trees in a secluded wood. And in the town of Halloween, the Pumpkin King Jack Skellington is growing dissatisfied with his yearly scares and happens upon the village known as Christmas Town. He devises that he, too, can have this wondrous thing called Christmas and proceeds to take it over with the help of his Halloween pals. The film is quite enjoyable with plenty of frights and twists on the two different Holidays' traditions. And Danny Elfman's musical score is just as good as a traditional Broadway score (Elfman even provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington).

Home Alone (1990)
There are many reasons to dislike this film (the multiple sequels, the annoying catchphrases, Macaulay Culkin's rise to stardom, etc.), but this movie is a really fun film to watch (especially if you're a kid!). I mean, what kid doesn't want to be left at home for a day or two by themselves. It's a like a kid's wish come true. Culkin's role as Kevin McAllister is charming (even though irritating at times) and he fights off the burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) with pluck and ingenuity (a little too much for an 8-year-old in 1990, but it works). The heart of the film lies in the determined performance of the highly underrated Catherine O'Hara as Kevin's mother. When she realizes she has left her 8-year-old son at home alone, she does everything she can to make her way home to Chicago. And no one gets in between a determined mother and her child, not even terrorists!

Scrooged (1988)
This is the second Christmas Carol adaptation to make the list and this one represents the best of the modern adaptations (where they take Dickens' characters and transplant them into an updated setting). Here, Bill Murray plays TV executive Frank Drebin, a very Scrooge-like boss who goes on a wild adventure through his past, present and future. Murray is his usual comic delight but the supporting performances help make this film more enjoyable especially Alfre Woodard (as Murray's Cratchit-like assistant), Carol Kane (as the flighty and violent Ghost of Christmas Present) and Karen Allen (as Murray's do-good, former love-interest).

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This film (the original and NOT the sappy 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough) is the one that makes me want to believe in Santa Claus. It is another classic Christmas film, much in the same vein as It's a Wonderful Life. Kris Kringle (played to Oscar-winning delight by Edmund Gwenn) takes the Santa job at Macy's to help out during the Christmas rush. To the consternation of many who don't like the fact that he keeps telling people he is the real Santa, they want to put him on trial (OH NO, Santa Claus on trial!!!). It is a charming film with real heart and features great performances from Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara and a young Natalie Wood (as O'Hara's daughter).

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Ah, there is nothing like family at Christmastime! And there is no family quite like the Griswold family. Chevy Chase and ensemble make this chaotic Christmas so hilarious to watch that you might feel slightly better about seeing your own family around the holidays. Plus, its great to see Randy Quaid before he went all crazy-nuts (at least, I think it was before!).

A Christmas Story (1983)
This is just a great, great film. It has so many moments in it that are so enjoyable that I look forward to seeing them every year. Based on journalist Jean Shepherd's anecdotes about his childhood, young Ralphie (charmingly played by Peter Billingsley) is a typical kid in the Mid-West in the early 1940's and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder beebee gun. The story follows Ralphie through his days (and daydreams!) leading up to Christmas as he yearns for that gun and begs his parents (played perfectly by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin). If you have not seen it, it is a must-watch.

Now, many of you may be crying foul that I did not mention films like Elf or The Polar Express or The Santa Clause. And, to be perfectly honest, these were decent Christmas movies I just did not care for. But I do recognize that when it comes to the aforementioned films, I may be in the critical minority. Also, others may be offended that I failed to talk about Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, both of which are great action films that make good use of the Christmas backdrop. But, there is a reason. Action films and Christmas movies, for me, just don't automatically go together (which is probably why those films were able to use the backdrop so well), so they did not make MY list. I probably have mentioned enough films here for a rival blog (or one of my friends) to make a list of "Christmas Movies I SHOULD have on the list!" But I will leave that up to them. Next week, I will talk about my favorite Christmas TV specials. Enjoy and...


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

10 FAVORITES (13) - Sesame Street Songs

Many of those who are around my age or older can pretty much agree that Sesame Street is one of (if not THE) greatest children shows of all-time. And lots of us have memories of the seminal series ranging from the colorful Muppet characters, the frantic animations and the clever writing all wrapped up in the lessons teaching young children (from Nursery Rhymes to the ABC's). One of the most important elements of the show was music and, in particular, songs. They didn't just use "The Alphabet Song" or "Twinkle Twinkle" when it came time to teach children (both onscreen and off). They had brilliant songwriters who managed to capture the energy and fun of music and combine it with the joys of learning. But what are the best songs the now 41-year-old series had to offer? Today's 10 FAVORITES offers up the best songs that I heard as a child growing up watching Sesame Street. Now, when I say the songs I heard growing up, that leaves out a lot of the songs produced after 1990 (which is around the time I stopped watching the series regularly). So, in advance, I apologize to those of younger generations who may not be familiar with the songs featured in today's list. Most of these songs first made their appearance on the show in the 1970's and were reurun several times throughout the following decade (the 1980's, which is my domain!). So, with that out of the way, here are:


The Sesame Street Theme Song
Once you hear this bouncy tune, it is hard to forget it. It always made me happy because I knew that my favorite show was beginning. But it has been pointed out by several of my generation that it is a rather frustrating song. It doesn't really tell you "How to get to Sesame Street." It keeps asking but never answers. Yet the imagery of "Sunny Days" and "Smiling Faces" is so inviting that you just know where "Sesame Street" is.

SONG #10
Rubber Duckie
First appearing in their inaugural season back in 1969, this song is really the one that made their music department famous. Who ever would of thought that a song about a guy and his favorite bath time toy would be a hit record? It helps that Jim Henson's performance as Ernie is so endearing that every child wanted a Rubber Duckie!

Yet another song from the first season, this was a great twist on the classic "Alphabet Song." Big Bird, who in the early years was more like a goofy teenager rather than the 6-year-old we know and love, is talking about the most amazing word he has ever heard. What he doesn't know is what that word really is, but Susan is on hand to explain. Take a look:

Some of you may be saying "Hey, this is from The Muppet Show!" But what some of you may not know is that this fun and jazzy song got its start in 1970 on Sesame Street and was revamped in 1976 for the first episode of The Muppet Show. It is a little jarring if you are used to the latter version, but still the song is just as good as it ever was.

How Do You Do?
I was saddened earlier this year to hear of the death of the jazz legend Lena Horne. So I immediately went on YouTube to find the clip of the first time I saw her, which was this beautiful song she sang to Grover. It is a wonderful song that helps children learn how to meet people (great for kids on their first day of pre-school or kindergarten!). Fairly simple and yet it is extremely poignant and catchy. Plus, it's Lena Horne!

Born to Add
I loved this song as a little kid. I loved it even more as I got older and realized that Sesame Street was a master at parody. As a child of the 1980's, I am a total fan of Bruce Springsteen and the poetry he weaves in great rock tunes (if you don't believe me, just listen to "Born to Run"). So this great song has an even better meaning for kids as they get older and understand that from great things can come great parody.

What's the Name of That Song?
This song has become a favorite of mine more recently because I almost forgot about hearing it on record growing up. But thank you to YouTube (and the Old School Sesame Street DVD's)! It's a silly idea for a song but Muppet songwriting legend Sam Pottle (The Muppet Show Theme) managed to give us a catchy tune with lyrics that say exactly how you feel when you cannot remember the name of a song you cannot stop humming.

Bein' Green
It is Kermit the Frog's eternal anthem. It is a beautiful tune about understanding that you are different and liking yourself for who you are. Everybody (especially these days) needs to sing this song to themselves. There are several versions Kermit (and others) have done over the years, but the two definitive ones come from Sesame Street. One, is the first appearance (back in 1969) that has just Kermit sitting in the swamp singing the tune. The other, done about a year or two later, has Kermit singing the song with the late Lena Horne (where the powerful meaning was never stronger). Below, is the first version.

Sing After Me
Another great frequent guest on Sesame Street who is sadly no longer with us, was the late Madeline Kahn. Ms. Kahn was a phenomenal comedic actress and performer who we all remember from such hilarious film roles like Lily Von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles (for which she earned an Oscar nod!). But this was my first knowledge of her: The lady who sang this fun and silly song with Grover on my favorite show! The interaction between Frank Oz's Grover and Ms. Kahn is absolutely delicious. Together they make a perfect team.

C is For Cookie
I do not care what parents or advocacy groups say today, this song is AWESOME! What better way to help kids learn how to spell than to combine it with one of their favorite snacks? By the time I got to school, I certainly knew how to spell "Cookie" and Sesame Street is very much responsible for that (at least in part).

I absolutely love this song! It is so simple that it is complex. I know that sounds weird but it's true. The song first appeared on the show in the early 1970's and was sung by a bunch of kids. Every year, the show would drag this song out but always find some new way to do it, which made it enjoyable for the audience. My absolute favorite version (which is below) is where Olivia (played by the late Alaina Reed Hall) gorgeously sings the song as Linda (a seminal character herself) shows the audience the beauty that is American Sign Language. Every time I hear this song, no matter what version, I just want to get up and "Sing!"

So there you have it: THE 10 BEST SESAME STREET SONGS. I hope your favorite was on here! Special shout out of thanks to the people at for allowing some of these clips to be available on YouTube. If you would like to see more of these kinds of clips, just head on over to the video section of their website where they have several classics available for viewing. Next week, I begin my month-long devotion to Christmas things (Movies, Specials, Carols, etc.). Enjoy!

Monday, November 29, 2010

10 FAVORITES (12) - Villain Actors

First of all, let me apologize to all those who read my blog regularly (if there are any!) and were hoping last week for a new 10 FAVORITES list. Thanksgiving week was a bit of a distraction and things slipped away from me. As a gift to the disappointed readers, I will do two lists of 10 FAVORITES this week (one today and one tomorrow). And next week, I will begin another month-long Holiday edition of 10 FAVORITES (all related to Christmas and New Year's, of course!).

The first of this week's two 10 FAVORITES lists is about actors, but not just any actors. There are many actors who can play all sorts of roles. But there are a limited amount of actors who can play the villains (and play the villains well, I might add!). Yes, there are several specific characters who are villains that we know and love (some people freakishly so!), but it is the actors who make characters like these so good. And some of these actors make their careers out of playing nasties, baddies and thieves (OH MY!). Today, I devote this list to:


Mark Strong
This actor has only fairly recently been snapping up all the good villain roles, fighting Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes and Russell Crowe in Robin Hood all within the last year alone. He first came to my attention in the 2007 so-so fantasy film Stardust, in which his vicious Septimus (below) was a secondary villain to that of Michelle Pfeiffer (someone who also plays villains quite well, see my view of Batman Returns).

David Warner
The great character actor David Warner has almost always played a baddie. In one of his first films, 1963's Tom Jones, he played Albert Finney's nasty and cruel cousin, Bliful. Since then, he has played villains in BOTH film and television including the 1978 miniseries Holocaust (as Michael Moriarty's wicked Nazi commander) and the 1982 cult classic TRON (as the mean corporate raider, his game counterpart Stark and the voice of the evil computer itself). Below is his appearance as a Cardassian interrogator torturing Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) on a 1992 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Miranda Richardson
Ladies, don't hate me, but Ms. Richardson is the ONLY woman to make this list. Maybe someday I will do the "Best Villain Actresses" to make up for it. And sure, women can be just as mean and villainous as the boys because Miranda Richardson is ample proof of that. Her performance in the great NBC miniseries Merlin as the wicked Queen Mab (below) is absolutely delicious. She followed that with a role in the miniseries Alice In Wonderland as, who else, the Queen of Hearts. Whether it is playing the aggravating Rita Skeeter in Harry Potter (not really a villain, just annoying to Harry) or the arrogant mother of Queen Victoria in The Young Victoria (with Mark Strong!) or a murderer in Sleepy Hollow (SPOILER!), she is just one of the best Villain Actresses and worthy to be on a list with the guys.

Christopher Lee
Ah, the great Christopher Lee has had such a career (and a resurgence in the last decade!). He has played evil wizards (in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and evil Jedis (in the Star Wars prequels). He also had a legendary career in the Hammer Horror films of the 1960's and 1970's as Count Dracula (below). He was the first to tackle the role after Bela Lugosi had made the character so iconic. And, if nothing else, it is his deep tenor speaking voice that makes him so well known and so fitting for a villainous role (see The Last Unicorn where he voices the embittered old king).

Robert Mitchum
My mother was never a fan of the late Robert Mitchum and, based on some of his film roles, there was good reason! He played the evil Max Cady in the original Cape Fear and terrorized Gregory Peck (who was always Atticus Finch to me!) and his family. He also played the corrupt and wicked Reverend in Charles Loughton's The Night of the Hunter (below), which is considered his best and most famous role by many critics.

Christopher Walken
This is probably everybody's favorite crazy bad guy. The timber of his New York-style voice can sometimes make the ickiest of characters feel nervous. Even in one of his earliest stage roles, the Broadway production of the play The Lion In Winter, Walken played the nasty French dauphin. There truly is no one like him and there never will be. Take a look at him as a vicious (Sicilian) mobster brutalizing the late Dennis Hopper in Quentin Tarantino's violent and crazy True Romance.

Gary Oldman
I've said this before and I will say it again: Gary Oldman is one of the most underrated actors. Recently, he has been playing more good guys rather than the bad guys we love him as (see him in Christopher Nolan's Batman films as Jim Gordon or as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films). But his roles as nasty and wicked bad guys made audiences realize how good an actor he is. See him as Punk's bad boy Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy or as the vicious Senator politically attacking Joan Allen in The Contender (and those aren't the worst of the baddies he's played). Of course, who could forget him as the title character in Francis Ford Coppola's retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula. And then there is his dastardly role as a terrorist on Air Force One in, well, Air Force One (below), which is one of the finest performances of his career.

Tim Curry
If anyone has made a career out of playing character parts that are mean, dastardly, shady or even flat-out villains, it's Tim Curry. There really isn't much more to say about him. Just take a look at his long list of credits on IMDB. Or, better yet, just look below at his tour-de-force performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. His version of the classic "Sweet Transvestite" has never ever EVER been matched. He is forever linked to this role, whether he likes it or not!

Vincent Price
Probably the ultimate master of horror, Vincent Price just dripped with elegance and villainy in any role he played. His credits are too many to list, so like Tim Curry above, go to IMDB and take a look at the long list (literally, almost all horror films and villains!). His iconic laugh is so chilling, it even begins the trailer for one of his most famous films, House on Haunted Hill, the classic horror flick in which Price invites several people to his macabre mansion where things "go bump in the night" and beyond (below).

Ralph Fiennes
One of the best actors around today, Ralph Fiennes has a powerful presence and clear voice to match. Though he is great as a romantic leading man (Wuthering Heights and The English Patient), it is evil and nasty villains that we really love him for. Just remember him as a mob boss after Colin Farrell in In Bruges or the voice of the Pharoah Rameses in the highly underrated animated musical The Prince of Egypt (he even sang!). But it is two villainous roles that Fiennes will forever be noted for. The first he did way back in 1993 for Steven Spielberg in the masterpiece film Schindler's List. His Nazi commander Amon Goethe is one of the most bone-chilling and psychologically masterful performances ever captured on film. However, it is his role as Harry Potter's wizard nemesis Lord Voldemort that Ralph Fiennes will be remembered. As Voldemort, Fiennes brings the same chills and cunning he brought to Schindler's List (just look below at the trailer for the last movie, sorry no clips as Warner Brothers is very protective of the Potter franchise).

Alan Rickman
Hard to believe that Professor Snape would be higher than Lord Voldemort, eh? But Alan Rickman has been frightening (and delighting) audiences as villains ever since playing the evil Hans Gruber in Die Hard in 1988. Since then, he has amassed fans from films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (below, where he is the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham) and Sweeney Todd (as the cruel judge Johnny Depp's Sweeney is after with a vengeance). And, of course, as Professor Snape in ALL of the Harry Potter films, well let's just say he makes being mean look so good.

So, there you have it: THE 10 BEST VILLAIN ACTORS. It should not be a surprise that almost all of them (save Christopher Walken and the late Robert Mitchum) are British. Maybe "the Brits" just do bad better than "the Yanks." Tomorrow, I will give you all another of my 10 FAVORITES, but it will be a much happier subject: Sesame Street!