The culmination of a remarkable hit streak, Songs in the Key of Life coalesced Stevie Wonder’s vaporous one-world banalities and funk touchstones in a double-album-plus that became a world-conquering smash. It’s not his best album, nor the album to which you’d introduce a skeptic, but the space allows him occupancy of certain corners of black American life in the Carter era. A world-historic singer-instrumentalist had to offer tracks as loose-grooved as “Black Man” and “Joy Inside My Tears,” both of which acted as summa for twenty years of advances and as tombstones for thirty years of stasis. Pieces like “Sir Duke” don’t get beached on their nostalgia, nor do talks with God get obnoxious; only the instrumentals do.
If these rankings rankle, know that I recoil from insistent joy (“Isn’t She Lovely”).
Isn’t She Lovely
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
If It’s Magic
Love’s in Need of Love Today
All Day Sucker
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
Have a Talk with God
Good to Great
Joy Inside My Tears
Knocks Me Off My Feet
I’ll swear New Order took heart from Led Zeppelin’s titling methods. “All the Way”? As vague as “In the Light”? “Broken Promise”? See “Custard Pie.” The second biggest zell-ing Zep album has more than its share of classics, but to glance at the sleeve is to wonder, “Oh, so which is the one with the distorted guitar elongated needlessly for minutes?” or “Which is the one that sounds like a boogie with Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart? Really, the experience of Physical Graffiti comes down to the second side of the first vinyl album — the previous album’s title track, the clavinet-played here-comes-the-hot-step of “Trampled Underfoot,” the interminable lurch of “Kashmir.” AOR radio feasted on this 1975 album for years; you may recognize “In the Light” or “The Rover,” but the titles are sphinx-like in their inscrutability. Continue reading
Purchased after a summer of seeping myself in Beatles lore, The White Album didn’t incarnate what I wanted from the quartet and more. Y’all need to remember 1990 wasn’t a particularly fecund time for said lore, even with World Party, Jellyfish, Crowded House, etc, not to mention a huge Paul McCartney world tour, populating the landscape. For one, none of the available books stressed how fucking weird this album was. Eclecticism for its own sake. Their personal relationships continuing to fray, the three songwriters sought release in the genres — country, jazz, psychedelic rock — in which as individuals they found comfort but were unable to persuade each other of their worth. In the case of the Lennon-Ono axis, they created in “Revolution #9” the equivalent of The Cantos: fragments shored up against their ruin. Their worst album to date needed to be their worst album — no group in pop history to this point had fractured to the point where their influences smothered their collective imagination; yet because John, Paul, and George had reached new peaks as songwriters their influences dominated their individual curiosities enough to translate as Beatles influences. In other words, “Wild Honey Pie,” “Glass Onion,” and “Long Long Long” were Beatles songs because their songwriters sold them as such, forcing their audiences to buy the collective fiction.
I started this post because the Cuban-born family above me played a series of Beatles songs suggesting a playlist. If these fine people, barely intelligible in English, could put “Wild Honey Pie” and “Good Night” on a playlist, why not the rest of us?
Although I respect Randy Newman and play with pleasure several albums, I recoil from the high fructose corn syrup of a vocal attack that’s supposed to convey irony. Harry Nilsson, who recorded an album of Newman, remains his most fluent interpreter; otherwise, give me Ray Charles or Dusty Springfield. Not Three Dog Night turning “Mama Told Me Not to Come” into something worse than Muppets theater.
A few days before I jump into hyperspace drunk as a Bantha to watch The Rise of Skywalker, I wanted to get this ranking out the way. To explain how Star Wars shaped my childhood would waste time; I was one of millions who actually leaned more heavily on the action figures because in the early Reagan era the only way to watch movies again was, well, watching them in theaters or wait until their network TV debuts (which didn’t happen until years after I stopped caring). And the cross-toy mixing uncorked possibilities undreamt of by George Lucas and Disney. How many of my readers made Greedo, Hammerhead, and Snaggletooth into a criminal gang paid bounties by Megatron to hand over fleshling collaborators? You should’ve played in Mr. Soto’s Neighborhood.
I find the collapse of his American chart success after “Oh Pretty Woman” startling and unexplainable. Sure, the material wasn’t up to what he and Fred Foster made into the candy-colored psychodramas, but to think he never charted higher than #21 (“Goodnight”) until 1989’s Wilbury-written comeback “You Got It”!
A magpie whose visual instincts made him an MTV fixture well into the High Reagan era, Rick Springfield is an odd duck, his talents still unappreciated. I distrust power pop, yet “Love is Alright Tonight,” his Hagar cover, and especially “Jessie’s Girl” were taut, snotty delights in the radio doldrums of 1981-1982. Then he discovered the aural correlatives between his music and visuals, adopting synths perhaps three years too late but writing pretty good self-reflexive moves like “Human Touch.” I suppose Hard to Hold went into production at the same time as Eddie and the Cruisers; certainly the notion of a rock ‘n’ roller (who moonlighted as a soap opera heart throb) playing a rock ‘n’ roller had commercial possibilities in 1984, a year when mythologies about rock got power rotation on MTV (“Love Somebody” is as climactic as period Cars). And he kept going. Did you know he scored three top thirty singles in 1985? His last in 1988? His 2004 album, Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance, drenched in psychobabble, happened to be pretty good. Continue reading
The tough older sister of sixties pop, preferring the company of nightclub denizens whom she went home with and who broke her heart; yet she keeps her humor and equipoise. That’s the character Dionne Warwick creates in the songs written by Bacharach-David. Her career needs no defense. She was tougher than her material suggested, and when the popularity of her early material waned she turned to Barry Manilow and Clive Davis — and still triumphed. During the 1980s she hopped around: Barry Gibb, Luther Vandross, Kashif.
Well, ain’t that peculiar — an artist with no meh top tens? That’s Marvin Gaye, who followed an inimitable run as Motown’s premier male singer to a solo run in which his own productions and compositions, full of fire but capable of a tenderness that rarely went louche, maintained a standard. It’s not often said, but I’m just glad that “Sexual Healing” simmers like “I’ll Be Doggone” does.
“As Birmingham art-rockers go, ELO occupied a useful gap between the Moody Blues and Duran Duran, and were probably better at producing sharp, punchy pop songs than either,” Marcello Carlin wrote about Electric Light Orchestral’s 1979 Discovery, one of the many platinum albums they accumulated in the last seventies. Archly orchestral pop with a dash of disco did well in 1978-1979, a period coinciding with peak ELO. I confused their minor singles (“Last Train to London,” say) with Supertramp’s. Although they hit #1 in England with “Xanadu,” their considerable American success didn’t result in a similar touchstone here; to date, they remain the act with the most top twenty singles without a #1.
Which makes me ask: how known a commodity were they in the States? In the era of Foreigner, Journey, and REO Speedwagon, did fans hear the difference between, say, “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Cold As Ice”? Wasn’t “Hold Me Tight” another early Reagan-era rocker (think Frankie and the Knockout’s (e.g. the Gary “U.S.” Bonds comeback and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”) drenched in boomer nostalgia for an early era of un-arch orchestral pop?
Of course, Jeff Lynne was spent as an autonomous entity after 1986’s marvelous “Calling America,” but his subsequent legacy adds up to another interesting story.
Andy Bell could sing Vince Clarke’s melodies and hooks but he was no match for Alison Moyet or Martin Gore in the lyrics department, yet as the list below indicates he and his partner wrote a handful of indelible tunes that people for whom The Eighties remains a signifier of electronic fun will continue humming and streaming absent of context; and Bell’s epicene, quivering vocal lent an average-bloke authenticity to Clarke’s verse-chorus-verse simplicity. Erasure didn’t experiment. There are no Ennio Morricone or John Barry collaborations; they didn’t need them, hence their impressive UK chart run. Fanfares for the common man, let’s say. Continue reading
If “After the Love Has Gone” is their dullest single, then I’m prepared to advance this Maurice White collective as the most consistent and thrilling of the seventies. Continue reading