Kieran Moore – To paraphrase Prince – I was dreamin’ when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray; cos’ tonight I’m gonna charty like it’s 1999.
I may have taken a few liberties with those lyrics, but the sentiment still stands. 1999 was a party year and an exciting time to be alive – full of hope and expectation for the future. To a certain extent that was true not just for those of us following the Gregorian calendar, but also the Muppets as well. As we waved goodbye to the 20th century we waved hello to two feature films, a TV special and several television shows. How creatively successful those ventures were is a topic that Muppet fans may never agree on, but either way things were moving forward into a bright new millennium.
Speaking of moving forward, who wants to travel to a faraway land for song number 10?
10 – Welcome to Grouchland – The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland
Elmo doesn’t think he’s on Sesame Street anymore and I have to concur. For all their complaining, however, the residents of Grouchland seem to like to sing as much as their Sesame Street counterparts. I have mixed emotions about this film. It could be a generational thing, but when I compare it to …Follow that Bird I can’t help but think this movie is lacking in almost every department. But this is where it gets complicated – I was 21 in 1999 so I’m not really the target market for this movie. BUT, why shouldn’t I be? …Follow that Bird proved that a Sesame Street movie can survive as a family film without the need for characters to spend an entire subplot trying to keep rowdy kids entertained. BUT, it does keep kids entertained so it’s doing just what it set out to do and according to Kermit that’s a dream worth pursuing so I’m confused. What I do know though is that I like this song and in particular Jerry Nelson’s contribution.
9 – Legend of the Winter Berry – Bear in the Big Blue House
I’ve always known that Bear in the Big Blue House was a much-loved show, but over the last few weeks thanks to the reception my other charts featuring Bear have received I’ve come to realize the scale of the adoration and it’s HUGE! With songs like this I can see why. This has always been one of my favorite “Bear” songs and I must admit I sometimes find myself humming its catchy chorus. I don’t think there’s a duff moment anywhere here – the slow verses tell the story with beautiful instrumentation to augment the lyrics and then the dance-along chorus comes in with its rich, warm festive feel. The folksy vibe really evokes the music we might associate with a Regency/Victorian Christmas. – I could imagine this being played at Mr. Fezziwig’s party. Noel MacNeal is brilliant, but you knew that already.
8 – Celebration – Muppets from Space
After that brief televisual intermission we are back in theaters with 1999’s other Muppet movie offering. Opinions on Muppets from Space vary from “Best. Muppet. Movie. Ever.” to “Worst. Muppet. Movie. Ever.” I’m afraid if I’m honest I’m in the latter camp. Not that I don’t like it; just that it’s my least favorite Muppet movie. My biggest bugbear is that it tries to answer the eternal question that no one wanted an answer to – what is Gonzo? Another thing I dislike is the lack of Muppets singing, so this number is a real bright spot in the movie for me. This scene at least gets right what the cleaning scene in The Muppets (2011) got wrong by having its classic tune performed by Muppets. Bill Barretta is great as the lead singer here; with a growly vocal that in essence we’ve come to know as Dr. Teeth. It’s not exact, but it’s pretty close. It’s interesting to see Clifford in the background here (in what would be one of his last ever filmed appearances) just as Scooter is coming back into the fold. I feel a conspiracy theory coming on…
7 – Together Forever – The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland
This song, as presented here, is only one half of a larger piece that includes Elmo singing to his blanket. I did consider the whole track in this ranking, but this second section is really the standout moment. It’s incredibly clever how the music builds using all of the objects and sounds you might find in a Laundromat from banging drums to water pipes to bubbles popping. I especially like the scatting socks! I’ve noticed that the music of …Elmo in Grouchland is very heavy on the percussion and I guess this is the best example of that side of the soundtrack. All that “drumming” builds to a riotous, joyous crescendo with the whole Sesame Street gang combining to form a happy, cleaning chorus. This feels very much like the huge party we know life on the street can be and sets up the rest of the movie brilliantly.
6 – Just Listen – Bear in the Big Blue House
This song really deserves to be more of a Christmas classic than it is. I can only think the fairly specific lyrics in the first verse are what have kept that from happening. Disney could be doing a lot more with Bear in the Big Blue House and finding a way to use its music would be a good place to start. I’d love to see this appear on a “Green Album” style concept piece. 18 years on I think the target audience for the show would be about the right age to appreciate something like that. As for which of today’s stars could sing this I have no clue – I’m too old for the popular hit parade – but this would make a lovely ballad for someone. Just Listen is the only track to usurp The Goodbye Song from its place at the end of every episode and you can see why. It’s beautiful.
5 – Furry Happy Monsters – Sesame Street
It’s possible I’m biased when it comes to this song as I love the original REM track, but I don’t think so – this really is a great number. I don’t know where to start here, there’s so much good stuff! I guess we’ll talk about the actual song first. I really like the arrangement of the music here – it feels marginally more folksy than the original and I think it suits the track nicely. Also Christopher Cerf’s lyrics are clever and witty making this the perfect song to talk about emotions. Next up are REM themselves; they’re clearly having a blast and interact well with the characters onscreen. It makes such a difference when the guests are into it as much as the Muppet performers. Finally, we have the Kate Pierson Muppet and Stephanie D’Abruzzo, who put in a fantastic performance that’s so watchable.
4 – Shadow’s Lullaby – Bear in the Big Blue House
Long-time readers will know that I love this song so much it’s been number one in the past and always ranks highly in my wrap up charts. This really is one of my favorite pieces of music from any Henson production ever. It’s beautifully simple and simply beautiful. Tara Mooney is a wonderful singer and when mixed with Noel MacNeal could melt my heart with her tender voice. Unfortunately, I’ve struggled to find a decent copy of the song as it appears in the show so you can see the wonderful puppetry and effects that go with it, but there are foreign language versions available and I recommend you watch one to see for yourself how well this is performed. Peter Linz is an absolute star who is finally getting the recognition he deserves. As Shadow’s performer he brings old school shadow puppetry to the masses in a clever and interesting way. I’d like to think Jim Henson, who was such an advocate of puppetry in all its forms would be very happy indeed.
3 – Brick House – Muppets from Space
I actually hummed and hawed over whether this sing should really be eligible for today’s chart, but we’ve had plenty of songs featured before where the Muppets aren’t singing in lieu of a guest star doing the honors instead. I guess ultimately this is the same except The Commodores aren’t actually in the room with them. Going back to what I said earlier, would I expect to include “We Built this City” in my 2011 chart? The answer is probably “no”. I guess this track makes it on charm and cool visuals. In a movie that often seems devoid of that special spark of Muppetness the 70’s and 80’s films had we find this beacon of joy, full of fun character moments and great visual comedy. Everywhere you look there is something new to see and I’m constantly spotting things I hadn’t seen before. The range of characters is also excellent with Scooter, Rowlf and Bean all appearing. Finally, the “Happiness Hotel” style ending is a big old nostalgic hug for someone who grew up on The Great Muppet Caper like me.
2 – Take the First Step – The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland
We’re back in Grouchland for our number two song. I mentioned earlier that the music from this film is very percussion-based and here we get a pounding beat combined with a world music vibe. This song might hold a special place in my heart because I can’t hear it without thinking of my first ever trip to Walt Disney World which, coincidentally, was in 1999. As part of the resort’s millennium celebrations this type of music was used in several parades and shows, in particular the Tapestry of Nations parade at Epcot. Hearing this song transports me back there every time. I’m going to be bold and say I think this might be Steve Whitmire’s best musical performance throughout his whole Muppet career and that includes his time as Wembley and Kermit. It’s a gutsy, full-strength performance that seems to come from a place within him I didn’t even know existed. If you’d told be this was Kevin Clash I’d have believed you 100%. It’s a shame this song is hidden away and not heard more, but that seems to be a recurring theme this week.
1 – I See a Kingdom – The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland
Just to prove how different I am from the great and bountiful leader who runs this site, when he produced a chart based on the songs from Sesame Street movies this was in 10th place. Today I’m here to show him just how wrong he is by making it number one. (If you need more evidence of his fallibility – he doesn’t like “Bless Us All” Note from the editor – Ugh, what a dull song. This one’s just as bad). I think this has a superb, empowering message and reminds viewers that looks can be deceptive. It’s a simplistic sentiment that Sesame Street has offered many times before, but when it’s done as well as this I think it can be repeated as often as they like. Both this song and the previous one have important points to make which means they work within the context of the movie and away from it. With very minor lyrical changes this could be a great pop song in its own right. Vanessa Williams is an accomplished actress and singer and that shows here. While this role didn’t win her an Oscar (ironically enough), the soundtrack album did win a Grammy and this performance is definitely worthy of it. Great music, great message and great performances – what’s not to love?
So there we have it. 1999 truly was an awe-inspiring year. Almost every song on this list has some sort of moral or inspirational message (and the other is just plain fun) and that really was reflective of the collective mood of the planet at the time. As the Muppets hurtled full speed into the new century we gleefully went a long for the ride. The 90s were a rollercoaster of emotions for Muppet fans – there were incredible highs and devastating lows and 1999 could almost be seen as a microcosm of everything that happened. We had triumphs, tribulations and trash. So 1999 I salute you. And I also salute everyone who worked with the Muppets that year – you all did some amazing work. Thank You.
Join me next time as we venture blinking into the year 2000. Not much has changed and we don’t live under water. Instead we’ll head back to Sesame Street for some fun and games and see what happens when the Muppets get scary… Oooooohhhh!