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Column: Tops of the pop: Retiring critic remembers the best from 37 years of pop-culture watching

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 11/27/2022 Karla Peterson
(U-T Photo Illustration / File photos / Getty Images) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune (U-T Photo Illustration / File photos / Getty Images)

My first-ever byline in the San Diego Union was on a 1985 review of Aretha Franklin's "Who's Zoomin' Who" album, which included the Top 10 smash "Freeway of Love." My last byline will be on this very story, as I trade 37 fast-lane years in journalism for the great wide open of retirement.

But before I hit the highway, please join me on a tour of the best moments from my decades as a music critic, TV critic and pop-culture columnist. Whether or not you were also in the Jack Murphy Stadium crowd when Metallica's stage banner caught fire, or on the edge of your couch as Adam Lambert blazed his way through "American Idol," I hope my little road trip brings back some good times of your own. Just because they're in our rearview mirror doesn't mean they're gone.

Thanks to all of you who have shared your pop-culture thoughts with me over the years. We didn't always end up at the same place opinion-wise, but I would not trade the journey for anything. Beep, beep!

Rocking around with you: Top concerts

BEST BIG SHOWS

You can do without dry ice. You can survive without strobes. Combustible drummers are not compulsory. But you cannot put on a massive concert in a giant venue without artistic vision, musical muscle and passion that can be seen from the back row and felt from the parking lot. Here's to my favorite giant slayers.

Metallica and Guns N' Roses (9/30/92, Jack Murphy Stadium); U2's "Zoo TV" tour (11/10/92, Jack Murphy Stadium); Peter Gabriel's "Secret World" tour (7/23/93, San Diego Sports Arena); Pearl Jam (10/25/2000); Janet Jackson's "All for You" tour (9/26/01, San Diego Sports Arena)

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL

There is no hiding in the club. No fibbing, either. Which is why it was always such a gift when some of pop's most talented artists came to some of San Diego's most intimate venues. All of these fine folks deserved big love from huge audiences, but anyone who was there knows how lucky we were to have these very special stars to ourselves.

Marti Jones (9/3/89, the Bacchanal); Marianne Faithfull (4/22/90, the Bacchanal); Bob Mould (5/20/91, the Belly Up Tavern); Whiskeytown (2/4/98, the Casbah); Rosanne Cash (8/2/94, the Flash Cafe); Hole (11/8/94, SOMA); Neil Finn (7/2/02, 4th & B); Wilco (9/12/02, 4th & B)

STARS, NO DUST

If there is anything better than an evening spent in the first-class company of rock 'n' roll pros, I'm not greedy enough to ask for it. At a point in their careers when they could have been cruising, these icons found new sparks in old tunes and never took the power of the music or the love of the fans for granted. Standing ovations to everyone forever.

Rickie Lee Jones with Lyle Lovett (7/7/90, SDSU's Open Air Theatre); Hall and Oates (7/20/97, Humphrey's); Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (8/18/99, Coors Amphitheatre); Tina Turner (4/28/2000, San Diego Sports Arena); Elton John (12/9/01, SDSU's Cox Arena).

SUPER 'SCENE'-STERS

During its epic 25-year run, the annual Street Scene outdoor music festival was a homegrown miracle that blessed attendees with a mix of rock, soul, jazz and world-music that was as rich and sustaining as a cup of steaming gumbo. Picking just a few faves from the glorious pack is practically impossible, but here goes. Hold my beer, would you?

World Party (1990); Dave Alvin (1994 and 1995); Alejandro Escovedo (1996 and 1998); Richard Thompson (1994 and 2000); Beth Orton (1998); the Goo Goo Dolls (2003); De La Soul (2003); Patti Smith (2004).

SOME ENCHANTED EVENINGS

"Am I really here?" "Are they really up there?" "Is this as special as I think it is?" These are the thoughts of a longtime music fan experiencing a performance that was even greater than I expected and more indelible than I could have imagined. I would applaud all of these again, but I'm still too busy pinching myself.

Leonard Cohen (7/8/93, Humphrey's); Paul Westerberg (7/22/93, Oceanside Pier); Bruce Springsteen solo (10/22/96, Civic Theatre); Smashing Pumpkins (4/23/99, Spreckels Theatre); Randy Newman (9/26/2000, East County Performing Arts Center).

Screen fabs: Top TV

CROWN (CABLE) JEWELS

In the days before streaming services left us up to our over-subscribed eyeballs in options, waiting for HBO to drop the latest episode of its latest addictive drama was a drama unto itself. In that golden TV age, HBO was the Brinks truck delivering riches to our doorsteps almost faster than we could bank them. Amazingly enough, the pop-culture booty keeps on coming. Behold, the TV treasures!

"The Sopranos" (1999-2007); "The Wire" (2002-2008); "In Treatment," seasons 1-3 (2008-2010); "Fleabag" (2016-2019); "Insecure" (2016-2021); "Succession" (2018 to present); "I May Destroy You" (2020)

BEST OF THE NETS

It's hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when network TV did not play second- (or third) fiddle to anyone. In fact, it wasn't even "network TV." It was just TV, and a lot of it was just as smart, funny and award-worthy as whatever those cool cable kids were cooking up. Here's to the the classics, commercials and all.

"The Office" (2005-2013, NBC); "30 Rock" (2006-2013, NBC); "Ugly Betty" (2006-2010, ABC); "Parks and Recreation," (2009-2015, NBC); "The Good Wife" (2009-2016, CBS); "This is Us" (2016-2022, NBC)

SINGULAR SENSATIONS

I always had a soft spot in my viewing heart for oddball shows that were too honest, nutty or ambitious to survive in the wild. Only "Halt and Catch Fire" got the full run it deserved, even if the audience never quite materialized. Its three compadres had short, underappreciated lives, but they were a delight while they lasted.

"Aliens in America" (2007-2008, the CW); "Better Off Ted" (2009-2010, ABC); "Men of a Certain Age" (2009-2011, TNT); "Halt and Catch Fire" (2014-2017, AMC)

STAR POWER

It takes an army of talented people to launch a TV series, but the march to victory goes a lot faster when the star is a talent of major proportions. These shows might have gone on without their singular stars, but I can't imagine how. And the spoils go to:

Timothy Olyphant in "Justified" (2010-2015, FX); Tatiana Maslany in "Orphan Black" (2013-2017, BBC America); Gina Rodriguez in "Jane the Virgin" (2014-2019, the CW); and Rami Malek in "Mr. Robot" (2015-2019, USA).

Good times: Random pop-culture memories

SUNNIEST SPOTLIGHT

In our great acoustic-music boom of 1994, the up-and-coming Jewel Kilcher was queen, the coffeehouse was king, and standout singer-songwriters like Gregory Page, Steve Poltz of the Rugburns, Lisa Sanders and Cindy Lee Berryhill made the San Diego music scene buzz with creativity that was stronger than a double espresso and sweeter than a blueberry scone the size of your head. Writing about these fine folkies was blast, even without the beans.

CRAZIEST ROAD TRIP

True groupie confessions on the tour bus. Crazed fans in a Kansas City mosh pit. A moment of vocal-cord reckoning in the parking lot of a St. Louis dive bar. These and other rock-star scenes played out before our sleep-deprived eyes when photographer Eduardo Contreras and I spent a few eventful days in 1999 following the men of Poway's blink-182 as they did an unadvertised tour of the Midwest the week their zillion-selling "Enema of the State" album came out.

The low-budget tour came to a sudden end when bassist-vocalist Mark Hoppus lost his voice, but the band's career soon roared into overdrive. When I ran into Hoppus at an MTV event the following year, he said, "I know you! You were there for the worst day of our career!" Sweet journalism dreams are made of this.

BEST GROUP PROJECT

He insisted he was "one of the weird kids" at Mt. Carmel High School, but in 2009, singer Adam Lambert was the toast of San Diego and perhaps the pop-culture stratosphere. That was the year Lambert brought his considerable style and stupendous lung power to "American Idol," where his run for the crown became the most thrilling show in town.

By the time he finished second to Kris Allen, Lambert had performed before a super-pumped student audience at his alma mater, been celebrated civically during "Adam Lambert Day," and appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly under the headline, "The Most Exciting 'American Idol' Contestant in Years," and the subhead, "And Not Just Because He Might Be Gay." The empathetic theater kid from North County didn't win "American Idol," but devoted San Diegans would never see him as anything but a champ. Covering his adventure was an ink-stained joy.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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