Kieran Moore – Jokes about the Tin Thing’s nipples and Scooter cage dancing aside, we all know that sometimes the Muppets are better when they’re a little more “grown up”. Miss Piggy lusting after her male co-stars is a classic bit and The Muppets (2015) often got its near-the-knuckle humor just right. On the flip side of that is the Muppets’ tremendous body of work aimed squarely at youngsters. With shows like Sesame Street and Bear in the Big Blue House the gang teach a wide curriculum of both academic and social lessons whilst remaining fun and interesting to watch. 1998 finds us firmly in the latter camp.
After the Muppet Show characters’ whirlwind few years they took a much-needed break in 1998 and the Sesame Street guys were more than willing to pick up the slack. So today’s chart is rated as “G”; not just for general viewing, but also for great, groovy and good to the last song!
10 – Just Happy to Be Me – Elmopalooza
If you’re old like me you’ll remember that time in the mid-90s where everyone heard “Killing Me Softly” and “Ready or Not” and rushed out to buy The Fugees’ album, “The Score”, only to realize that most of it was nothing like those singles! For the record, I think both of those songs are absolute classics. And so is this. The Fugees add a nice swagger to this Franklin Roosevelt cover and this is definitely an occasion where the newer version improves on the original. The band really makes this their own. The past few charts have been really difficult to rank and once again it was close for 10th place so I’d like to give a shout out to “Nothing to be Afraid Of” from Bear in the Big Blue House. It just missed out by the narrowest of margins, which is made even worse when you consider there were just two points between it and the song that made it to 5th place!
9 – Mambo I, I, I – Elmopalooza
I guess before I go much further I should explain what an Elmopalooza is to the uninitiated! Back in 1998 as Sesame Street headed into its 30th season it was decided the show should celebrate its musical heritage by charging some well-known celebrities with creating covers of classic tracks. There was an album, special and subsequent video. Speaking of the album, coming from the far and distant shores of the UK, the first I really knew of Elmopalooza was relatively recently (maybe 5ish years ago) when I found a copy of the CD for sale in my local gas station. Needless to say, that CD was in my car for quite a while. This is Gloria Estefan’s track and I love its Latin rhythms. I suppose I’m not spoiling anything to say you’ll hear more from Elmopalooza as we go on and as you’ll see, there’s a Sesame Street song to match from just about every musical genre going. Does anyone else think Gloria Estefan is the copper piping of the music industry?
8 – Girls of the World – Sesame Street
Our first Sesame Street song proper sees Zoe, Rosita, Betty Lou and Prairie Dawn telling us all just how awesome it is to be a girl. This song owes a huge debt to “I’m a Woman” in style and content, but it just occurred to me that the release of this song would have coincided with the time the Spice Girls and their message of “Girl Power” was everywhere. Wherever or however the reference came to be it’s fair to say the late 90s were a time when sexual equality was a big deal. This number does exactly what Sesame Street does best and takes a topical message and puts it in a format kids can easily understand. It brings me great joy to know that even 20 years ago Sesame Street had enough female characters to make a song like this possible. Take that The Muppet Show. I have to say I love Prairie Dawn. Compared to Rosita or Zoe she could be seen as little more than a girly whatnot, but Fran Brill gave her so much character she just shone whenever she was on screen.
7 – Slimey to the Moon – Sesame Street
It’s almost a chart 1-2 for a man who owes his life to Miss Piggy (Tony Bennett), as he appeared in my 1996 chart too. As much as I love Mr. Bennett’s singing, I have to admit this is really here because of the awesome pun in the title. I’d happily buy whoever came up with this genius idea the beverage of their choice, and then a small tropical island so they can drink it in peace. Sending Oscar’s pet worm Slimey into space was a recurring theme throughout season 29 of Sesame Street and plenty of airtime was given to the subject of space exploration and the cosmos above, below and around us. It’s impossible not to watch this now though and think of how different things might have been if Big Bird had been sent into space. That’s a chilling story. Thankfully this all turned out much happier and after a period of readjusting to normal Earth life Slimey went on to have a glittering career (and leave a glittering trail wherever he went!)
6 – Caribbean Amphibian – Elmopalooza
If you’re looking for an appearance from a classic Muppet Show character on today’s chart you just found it! Kermit’s credit as a Sesame Street character is as close as you’re going to get. This is one of my favorite Elmopalooza tracks and when I first listened to the CD I mentioned earlier it was one of, if not the, standout song for me. I guess it’s partly because I love the original so much. This has done the exact opposite of the Fugees track from earlier in that it hasn’t deviated from the source material too much. Jimmy Buffett is a fun addition here and adds some island authenticity to Kermit’s fun lead vocal. From “Kokomo” to “Sweet Vacation”, Kermit loves to get totally tropical every now and again – is it possible to get sand between your flippers?
5 – That’s My Name – Bear in the Big Blue House
This jaunty number does such a good job of introducing many of the characters from Bear in the Big Blue House I’m actually surprised it comes from the show’s second season and not its first. Last week I praised Noel MacNeal for his wonderful singing and performance as Bear, but this song showcases the rest of the cast so it would be remiss of me not to mention them now. I think the casting of Bear in the Big Blue House is probably one of the best examples of the Hensons getting it exactly right. As well as Noel, the regular cast also included Peter Linz, Vicki Eibner, Tyler Bunch, Tara Mooney and Lynne Thigpen as well as several other talented Muppet stars. All of them are superb in their roles. I think I’m slowly falling in love with Treelo; he brings such joy to every time I see or hear him.
4 – Gospel Alphabet – Sesame Street
Sesame Street may have presented the alphabet more times than I’ve eaten hot dinners, but not all versions are created equal and this one really is something special. Gospel is one of my favorite types of music. I think it’s because whether it’s a devotional piece or a rundown of 26 letters, everything is sung or played with utter conviction. When was the last time you heard a piece of Gospel music that was a bit “meh”? The first part of this song has a lazy, hazy blues feel that brings to mind sunny days with meadows and butterflies in a world where everything is just so. And then the whole thing twists round 180 degrees and becomes a rousing barnstormer of a number with gut-punching precision as letters are spat out like watermelon seeds. The supporting Muppets do a fine job, but Patti Labelle is the star here. Without a doubt she’s a phenomenal singer and this is all the proof you’ll ever need.
3 – I Love Trash – Elmopalooza
I said earlier that there are a lot of musical styles presented today and this song and the previous one show just how diverse they are. Steven seems perfect for this song. His screechy rock vocals are grimy, rough and jagged and evoke the idea of trash perfectly. Steven is quite clearly a great singer so it’s hard to equate his voice with garbage and dumpsters and junk, but that’s exactly what happens here. At first I was disappointed Oscar didn’t make a cameo here, but I’m just not sure he would have worked. Steven is perhaps a little too manic in his passion for Oscar, who is more laidback and, well, grouchy. This song didn’t appear in the Elmopalooza special and was an album only track. In some ways I prefer that as it lets the track stand on its own merits allows my imagination to fill in the visual gaps.
2 – Zig Zag-Dance – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
This is a track that 100% benefits from its Muppet cameo. Count Von Count is perfect here. I must admit although I know of the existence of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones I don’t know much about them so I have no idea if this is their signature style, but they certainly do this jazzy, big band dance vibe well. This feels like a real blast from the past and in that sense could any Muppet have been more appropriate than one who was arguably alive when this musical style would have been all the rage? All the performers here are clearly having fun and that’s carried over into the song. I find it impossible to listen to this and not want to get up and cut a rug. I’m picturing big pants, big hats and girls flying under guys’ legs and around their heads. It’s jive-tastic!
1 – Songs – Elmopalooza
Before deciding this number deserves top spot I actually considered disqualifying it because it leans so heavily on other songs, but as you can see it clearly won me over in the end. This is the culmination of the Elmopalooza special and acts as a potted history of some of Sesame Street’s most famous songs. There are a handful of notable exceptions, but many of the characters get to perform their signature pieces. We get Rubber Duckie, ABC-DEF-GHI, I Love Trash and C is for Cookie. Above all though I’m really pleased the street’s human residents aren’t forgotten. All to often in these retrospectives they are overlooked in favor of the Muppet characters and it would have been very easy to have replaced People in Your Neighborhood with Doin’ the Pigeon or Song of the Count. After saying in a recent chart that I often find Muppets with legs jarring, I absolutely love the final staging here with several “stand up” guys present. This whole thing is a joyous celebration of a show entering its pearl anniversary year and a perfect way to end this chart.
As you can see 1998 really was a different year in many ways from the previous few as attention was firmly turned away from Kermit & Co. However, in other ways it’s simply a continuation of what went before. Once again celebrities are clamoring to get onboard with the Muppets and music is at the heart of that.
The Sesame Street characters are embedded in the national psyche and many of today’s songs can claim the same. We really have to thank not just those that worked with the Muppets in 1998, but also anyone that wrote music for the show up to that point. Without them, 1998 wouldn’t have been half as amazing as it was. So thank you for teaching us to love trash, Zig Zag dance and be happy being ourselves. Thank You.
Up next is 1999 – a year when Mopatop found himself some customers, Elmo found himself in Grouchland, and Gonzo simply found himself.