Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing)

Music lovers love lists, and I am not immune to this trait. I often wile away time ranking and reranking various songs, albums, artists, etc. One such mental list I keep batting around stems from a feature Playboy ran back in 1999 where it asked musicians to rank the greatest songs of the past millennium. Though Playboy certainly meant for the songs to come from the 20th century, the British guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, a student of musical history, took the exercise quite literally and gave songs dating back to the 11th century. Sadly, Playboy didn't use his list.

Every since I heard of this feature, I have bandied about a list in my mind. Not as broad as Thompson's, I've wondered what my list of ten songs of the past hundred years of popular music would contain. Mind you, this would not be a list necessarily of the best songs (though certainly all of them would be excellent) or of favorite songs, but of ten songs that best represent the past century of recorded popular music.

What a challenge! How many rock songs would I include? Jazz? Blues? Vocals? International? Would I include an Elvis song if I felt a Little Richard song better portrayed the raw energy of early rock? Would I include a song by the Beatles, whom I consider to be the greatest and most influencial rock group of all time, if another song of that era, say "Satisfaction", is better representative of that era? Crosby or Sinatra? Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker? The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols? Would I include anything from the past 20 years?
Obviously due to the difficulties of these questions and more, I've never been able to pin down a firm list. Multiple songs have come and gone from the list (and some have returned again). The challenge of narrowing ten representative songs is just too great, and yet one song has consistently remained on my list's many permutations:

"Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" by Benny Goodman

"Sing Sing Sing", recorded by Goodman in 1937, was written the prior year by the bandleader Louis Prima (quite a musical personality himself — hmmm... perhaps the subject of another blog best known today for his swing hit "Jump Jive An' Wail" and his voice of the orangutan King Louie in the 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book). Though vocal versions have been recorded by many artists including Prima, The Andrews Sisters, and Anita O'Day, it is the Goodman's instrumental version that is the most known.

The song is a high point of the swing era and just sizzles. Goodman's band at the time was a supergroup of sorts with trumpeters Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Chris Griffin (Duke Ellington called them "the greatest trumpet section that ever was"), Jess Stacy on piano, and the incomparable Gene Krupa on drums. The big band swing is followed by a number of outstanding solos including Harry James's blowing session two-thirds through followed by Goodman's fluid clarinet. At the end, Krupa, who has kept a steady tom-tom accompaniment throughout, bursts into a prolonged machine-gun roll with a power seldom seen on swing records. All in all, it's the perfect example not only of big band era swing but also of the brilliant soloing that helps define jazz. For these reasons, not to mention the irresistable groove of the song, "Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" has stayed on my list.

Now if only I could decided whether to put the classic 1936 original on my list or the 12-minute essential live version done at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

Monday, March 8, 2010


While I was watching American Idol with my family the other night, I was delighted to hear one of the early favorites, Crystal Bowersox, perform the beautiful Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Long As I Can See The Light." Creedence songs are not unknown on the Idol stage, though typically consist of poor covers of “Proud Mary” done in Tina Turner’s style. Hearing this latest performance, I was drawn to listening again to Creedence’s solid late 1960s albums. During the course of just over two years, CCR put together a string of six outstanding albums before dissolving in acrimony with a final clunker, Mardi Gras (1972).

Though originally from California, CCR’s great success was capturing a Southern style, feel-good, roots rock sound. John Fogerty, a tremendous songwriter, wrote several great socially conscious songs, although often not as directly as his San Francisco region counterparts. “Run Through The Jungle, which many associate with Vietnam, was actually a comment on gun culture. “Fortunate Son” dealt with jingoist attitudes toward the war.

One of his earliest protest songs was the bleak album closer on the generally upbeat 1969 album Willy and The Poor Boys. I’m not sure if Fogerty has ever provided a clear meaning of the cryptic lyrics. Certainly, given the era, the song title and descriptions of burning lawns brings to mind the civil rights era. Drummer Doug Clifford in a late 2009 interview for Goldmine provides a broader perspective:

“It’s so powerful, and it’s taking a shot at the powers who were running the whole mess at the time. It sort of set the tone for the following albums, I think.”

Regardless of the true meaning, the song itself sounds eerie and, despite limited lyrics, is able to stretch out its themes over six minutes. The minor key blues, the sparse twang of the bass, and Fogerty’s blistering guitar solos all contribute to an atmosphere that is haunting, probably more so than any other Fogerty song. Though “Effigy” is quite a departure from the rest of the album (which also contains “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son,” and “The Midnight Special”), it is a rich piece that reflects that turbulent time and yet still unsettles listeners today.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Playlist of Years

A playlist of songs with years in the titles (and mostly with a year AS the title) leads to some interestingly different styles that actually blend nicely together. Many of these songs have an understandably nostalgic theme. I try to keep my playlists at about one hour (a good estimate for a workout or a bus commute) so obviously some songs were left out. Among the also-rans were New Order's "1963" and Patti Smith's "1959". Also given the George Orwell novel, the year 1984 had multiple candidates; I actually included two, but did omit David Bowie's "1984" (I assure you) not based on quality. I'm a tremendous Bowie fan, so I'm not too concerned as he'll appear in several future playlists I'm sure.

Playlist of Years
1) "1974" by Ryan Adams
2) "1984" by Van Halen
3) "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" by Richard Thompson *
4) "1979" by The Smashing Pumpkins
5) "1921" by The Who (off Tommy)
6) "December, 1963 (Oh What A Night)" by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons
7) "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman **
8) "1941" by Harry Nilsson
9) "1985" by Manic Street Preachers
10) "1970" by The Stooges ***
11) "1977" by The Clash ****
12) "1984" by Spirit
13) "1992" by Blur
14) "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)" by Jimi Hendrix *****
15) "1999" by Prince ******

A Few Notes/Trivial Observances:
* - The synthesized instrumental "1984" (on Van Halen's album of the same name) normally transitions into the synth-opening of their hit "Jump", but here really transitions nicely into Richard Thompson's outstanding ballad of the motorcycle that brings two lovers together. This is one of my favorite Thompson songs in no small part to his incredible acoustic work.

** - Newman's song of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana was made all the more poignant in the wake of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. This song also echoes a government idleness here embodied by President Coolidge

*** - The Stooges interestingly have songs called "1969" (which appeared on their self-titled debut) and "1970" (from Funhouse)

**** - The Clash's "1977" was the B-side of their first single "White Riot" and contains that wonderful punk music lyric "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977"

***** - First of all, the transition from Spirit to the ambient noise on Blur's "1992" to Hendrix really works here. Secondly, as amazing as many of the songs on Hendrix's album Electric Ladyland are, this 13-minute song may indeed be the album's masterpiece, a perfect (and trippy) synthesis of acid-fueled psychedelia, blues and hard rock.

****** - Prince's "1999". Well, duh...even I can't avoid the obvious choices :)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Buy This Next! - Otis Redding Edition

Buy This Next! essentially lists an artist’s key albums in order of how I’d recommend them for acquisition. Perhaps, you’ve heard a couple of songs from an artist or own a greatest hits package; then, try the first album listed. Maybe you own the first two albums listed already; then, try the third album. In a way, I suppose, one could interpret this as a best of-list or a ranking of quality, but such lists tend to elicit such strong emotions (“How dare you rank Revolver above Sgt. Pepper’s! Pistols at dawn, you upstart!”). I mean these lists purely as an exercise in how I would purchase the artist’s albums if I were first getting into that artist. As always, I’d love to hear other’s opinions too

In this age of auto-tuned excesses, it’s a perfect time to revisit the purity of the early soul/R&B singers. Aside from Sam Cooke, no voice mastered the nuances of soul as much as the great Otis Redding. So many greatest hits albums have been released of Redding’s music, but turning to his original albums provides some wonderful listening. In a way, Redding is an easy artist to begin the “Buy This Next!” feature, as he never put out a poor album during his all-too-brief life. Gems can be found on all of them.

Otis Blue – the obvious first choice (though not necessarily my favorite; see #2). Otis Blue is the album that makes all the best-of lists, as it contains “Respect” (written by Redding, though the Aretha Franklin version is most known) and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. It also contains Otis’ frenetic cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and the tremendous opener “Ole Man Trouble”. Essential for all, soul lover or not.

The Soul Album – less well known songs but Otis is in top form here. This album is my personal fave. His phrasing on “Cigarettes and Coffee” and “Just One More Day” is perfect. “Shake” is one of his best Sam Cooke covers, and the old blues song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” sounds so natural in a soul version. Tremendous.

Live Otis – if you’ve ever seen footage of when he performed for the “love crowd” at Monterey, it will be obvious why his live performances are so touted. Redding exudes energy and power; the sweat flies out of the speakers. Several live collections are out there, and most are great. The two released near or immediately after his death are the best. Live at Europe is often touted as one of the best live albums ever, but I prefer In Person at the Whiskey a Go Go which is from a more intimate setting and features his regular touring band.

Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul – despite its unwieldy title and a hideous album cover that would send modern buyers running, this is a perfect album, containing “Try A Little Tenderness” and his excellent cover of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”. Enjoy the tender soul of lesser known songs like “My Lover’s Prayer” and one of the best versions of that old chestnut “The Tennessee Waltz” that you’ll ever hear

The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads – mainly an album of cover songs, but Redding on his second album had become of a master of the cover. Check out his version of Jerry Butler’s hit “For Your Precious Love” and Sam Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love”

Pain In My Heart – His first album, with a number of covers, all serviceable, but no one at this point in Redding’s career would choose his versions of Cooke’s “You Send Me”, Little Richard’s “Lucille”, or Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” over the more known versions. Still, this album contains the great title number as well as “These Arms of Mine” which (despite all the contenders) may be Redding’s most beautiful song

Dock of the Bay – several posthumous collections came out soon after Redding’s tragic death in December, 1967. This one was first, best, and contains his most known song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. Worth checking out though points off for containing three previously released songs. Interestingly contains “The Hucklebuck” which, despite a number of swing-era versions, I still think of as the song Ralph and Norton dance to on The Honeymooners.

So go down the list and enjoy! Redding was truly one of the greatest soul singers ever, and his voice remains today impassioned, moving, perfect

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eli, The Barrow Boy

The Portland group, the Decemberists, tend to have a polarizing effect on listeners. Instead of most indie groups today that either choose to paint lush soundscapes of ambient noise or to use distorted guitars hearkening back to garage rock, the Decemberists use of instruments like the harpsichord, dulcimer, and accordion distinguish them among many of their compatriots. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy,influenced by British folk, creates a unique sound as he weaves tales of odd characters often with a nautical theme. Listening to a Decemberists album is like being transported to a 19th-century fishing village where one is sharing a tankard with a grizzled, mysterious old sailor keeping you captive with his odd tales of the sea. The characters in Meloy’s works are bizarre and strange, like Richard Thompson antiheroes (yet even MORE warped) . Such people inhabit the songs of the Decemberists’ third album Picaresque from 2005: an infanta riding an elephant, an engine driver, a revenge-filled mariner stuck in the belly of a whale. Each tale seems stranger than the next.

Perhaps this is one of the challenges facing listeners in enjoying the Decemberists’ music. After all, at the heart of music in general is the ability to understand the feelings elicited in a song (one reason why so many songs are written about love). How can one possibly understand the experiences of the child of a Chinese trapeze artist or of a harbor town prostitute? In addition, with each song on the album more and more grim and bizarre, at times Meloy’s lyrics can seem a bit contrived. Still, among some haters, consider me a big Decemberists fan.

Among these odd scenarios, the tried-and-true themes of loneliness and unrequited love still resonate in many of these songs. “We Both Go Down Together”, for example, tells of the ultimate fate of two lovers from vastly different backgrounds. One of my favorites, “Eli, The Barrow Boy”, is a story of lost love. It is a brief tale compared to many of Meloy’s songs, and much is left to the listener’s imagination. It’s not really too surprising (if you know the Decemberists’ music) that both Eli, a seller of “coal and marigolds”, and his true love end up dead, but we learn nothing about their romance or exact death. Still, in the song’s haunting beauty, we are drawn to Eli, only imagining the depth of his feelings that carry over to his afterlife.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Perfect Day

While I was watching the Olympics last night, I turned away to get a drink only to hear the sound of a familiar song on an AT&T Commercial. “Is that Lou Reed?” asked my wife correctly. I often wonder how advertising pitches must develop, especially when an idea to use an almost-40-year-old song by a proto-punk monotone singer is suggested. Granted, Reed’s music isn’t completely new to commercials; I remember his appearance on a Honda scooter ad in the 1980s. Still, as someone who knows and appreciates the song, I was delighted to hear it in this format.

“Perfect Day” appeared on Lou Reed’s second solo album Transformer in 1972 a couple of years after he left The Velvet Underground. The Velvets were a tremendously influential band on punk and alternative music though their albums barely dented the Billboard Album charts (their debut on original release made it all the way to #171). Reed’s self-titled first solo album (which he recorded after working as typist at an accounting firm) did no better, making the success or failure of his second album quite crucial.

Enter David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson who were influenced by Reed’s Velvet Underground work. Both would produce Transformerwhich would become a top 40 album in both the US and the UK propelled by the success of the single “Walk On The Wild Side”. The album is a perfect mixture of Reed’s garage rock roots and Bowie/Ronson’s polish – a glam rock classic (Reed’s picture on the cover even fits the mold).

“Perfect Day”, using an uncharacteristically sparse arrangement by Ronson, begins slowly with simple piano and later crescendos using a string accompaniment. Reed’s vocals are atypically tuneful and wonderfully expressive. Of course, I chucked over how the commercial focused on the idyllic chorus (“Oh it’s such a perfect day. I’m glad I spent it with you”) while ignoring both the undercurrent of emptiness (“You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good") as well as the cryptic final repetition (“You’re going to reap just what you sow”). Still, I was happy to just hear this great album track on network television. After all, when sitting with your family watching the Olympics and your wife surprises you by not only pointing out a Lou Reed song but also knowing it’s produced by Bowie, it really is a perfect day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Birds Playlist

Monday Playlist

I've decided that each Monday that I would try to post a different playlist. As I've stated before, playlists fascinate me because 1) I've always been more an "album guy", 2) I enjoy the idea of linking at times completely dissimilar music, and 3) some playlist songs you might never listen to otherwise.

Based on a recent theme at the wonderful Music Gourmets group, this week's playlist will be - Birds. Though one could launch in a number of directions with this broad theme (groups with bird names, songs with the word "bird" in the title), I've decided to have each song naming a different type or species of birds (no Linnaeus titles here, though).

Bird Playlist
1) "Dodo/Lurker" by Genesis
2) "Bluebird" by Buffalo Springfield
3) "Hummingbird" by Leon Russell (live off Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs & Englishmen")
4) "Bye Bye Blackbird" by Miles Davis *
5) "Ostrich Walk" by Bix Beiderbecke
6) "Back at the Chicken Shack" by Jimmy Smith
7) "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (Baretta's Theme)" by Sammy Davis, Jr. **
8) "Albatross" by Fleetwood Mac ***
9) "Blue Jay Way" by The Beatles ****
10) "Fly Like An Eagle" by The Steve Miller Band
11) "Duck Tail" by Joe Clay *****
12) "Cold Turkey" by John Lennon
13)"When Doves Cry" by Prince

One could go on and on with this theme, but I drew the limit at a one hour playlist. Special mention to Faith No More's "Woodpecker on Mars" which almost made the cut (and has an awesome title)

Some notes:
* - Interestingly, jazz music is filled with songs with different types of birds, much more so than pop music. I've included three in order, starting with "Bye Bye Blackbird". Several great versions exist - I go between Miles and Ben Webster/Oscar Peterson for favorite rendition
** - How could I possibly leave out Sammy's ultra-cool theme song from the '70's cop show Beretta. Between this, the Rockford Files, Ironsides, etc, the '70s police/detective genre contributed many great "hip" songs to pop culture
*** - Wonderful instrumental by the Peter-Green led, blues-based version of Fleetwood Mac
**** - I enjoy "Blackbird" more but it's certainly more common that this George Harrison-penned song off "Magical Mystery Tour" named for a street in Hollywood
***** - Joe Clay was a Lousiana rockabilly artist. When he appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1856, Sullivan had him play a version of the Platters "Only You" instead of this energetic song