Everyone knows we're all about the iPod (or the 8-track) around here. And we're not alone. Just ask the rock snob at the London Times, the happy couple who chose the iPod over the wedding singer, or the Dutch artist that gave the iPod a woody, sure to produce a "bulge in the pocket." (thx, Dave.)
Yep, we sure do love the iPod. And occasionally, when we're in a generous mood, we'll even toss the keys over to visiting authors and ask them for a few listening recommendations.
Today we're lucky to have Danyel Smith stop by and share her musical musings. Smith is an uber cool hip-hop journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Spin and The New York Times. Yes, we brought in a ringer. She's also the author of the San Francisco Chronicle-bestselling novel, More Like Wrestling. Her second novel, Bliss, was released last month.
Special Guest DJ, Danyel Smith
It's all about vocalists for me today ... and I'm heavy on the 1970s. I was born in 1965, so the below music either rocked my pre-teen world, or it seeped in my 'tween subconscious, courtesy of my mother and grandparents. I like hits. I used to adore radio. I've been a music packrat and writer for years now, but I'm not the type to go out of her way to find rare recordings (okay, the Chapter 8 cut is a bit rare). I write reviews, but I love the Billboard charts. A hundred years ago, I worked at the music trade magazine, so I feel like I know the secret algebra.
But it's not all math. Pop and R&B and jazz hit songs are magical. They have a supernatural capacity to appeal to masses of people at the same time -- and for long periods of time. The following songs were recorded before the music business became a club of conglomerates with the marketing arms of a King Kong-sized octopus. I've no illusions about these songs being "innocent," or organic. They were pushed by enthusiastic, if not major labels. But the music biz was different thirty years ago. It wasn't better. In fact it was barely less sinister than it is today. But the recording industry was smaller. And the idea of selling records was, in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, more of a riddle. How can we make a hit? was a Rubik's Cube of a question. These days, there's some magic involved, but hits are mostly made, sprayed and displayed until we finally submit. Perhaps to spite The Big Music Machine, I remain enchanted by many of today's songs -- a surging voice, a perfectly-stretched note, a shocking bit of musical truth. I find my sultry, bass-y oases, and chill there with Erykah Badu and Mariah Carey and Jay-Z and Joshua Redman. But here's to some old souls. Coming fresh off the MTV Video Music Awards, it's that kind of day.
1979's “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl,” from Chapter 8. The small-time Michigan soul band featured Detroit-native Anita Baker before she went solo. The song is not so different from Baker's '80s pop-R&B recordings like "You're the Best Thing Yet," and the excellent "You Bring Me Joy," but here she’s more … new. She's on key, exceedingly sensual, and smoky. Better background vocals, too. The simple song is just more pretty than boom-bastic and Quiet Storm-y. Baker is deliciously earnest, and sounds like she’s singing to a real person (a great, under-appreciated quality in pop and soul music). What’s more plaintive then someone crooning, Please/ Let me be your girl? For me, in the eighth grade, this song was the height of honest communication and romance. Wontcha let me be your girl? Who could say no?
1979's “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” from McFadden & Whitehead. The Philadelphia songwriting/production duo came up under Otis Redding, and ended up working with everyone from The Intruders to The O'Jays to Archie Bell & the Drells. "No Stoppin'" rarely fails to make me upbeat. Rarely fails to make me feel like no matter what's going wrong, I can pull it together and get to work. Plus it's the ultimate Philly Soul finger-snapper and booty-shaker. And if you’ve ever/ Been held down before/ I know you/ Refuse to be/ Held down anymore. You know! SOUL. And this song is one-hit wonder soul, too, which is damn near witchcraft. It’s like, everything the duo had in them is in this one song. Yes, it’s too often on the radio, but when you listen to it by choice, instead of because you're caught in freeway traffic, it takes on a whole different meaning. We’re leaving those negative people way behind!
“Teach Me Tonight,” the fabulous Dinah Washington's 1954 version. One of the four greatest jazz vocalists of all time (up there with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn), Washington's voice is clear and meticulous but completely hot. Did you say/ I've got a lot to learn? Washington's voice is a crystal bell. So many people have recorded this song, but Washington’s version is the absolute best -- and that's saying something when you've got Fitzgerald and Liza Minelli and Sammy Davis Jr. and even Cheryl Ladd (!) in the mix. Sammy Cahn's lyrics are almost too quietly sexy to bear. One thing isn’t very clear/ My love/ Should the teacher stand so near/ My love? It gives chills. The precision in her delivery. It aches with lust that wants OUT. Graduation's almost here/ My love. Washington is soulful and sharp and moving. Not one extra note. Not one false one.
“You Belong to Me,” from Martha's Vineyard girl Carly Simon. This is upper-middle-class blue-eyed soul at its best. The song was written by she (lyrics) and former Doobie Michael McDonald (the Doobie Brothers' version is good , too), though they supposedly never spoke the whole time the song was coming together. "You Belong" is the first track on Simon's 1978 Boys in the Trees: You don’t have to prove to me/ You’re beautiful to strangers/ I've got loving eyes/ Of my own. Then her warbly voice sings out passionately and illogically: Tell her/ Tell her/ Tell her/ That I love you. Gets me every time. Hmm. Simon's song bookends nicely with Baker’s “I Just Want to be Your Girl." The hungry beginning of a love intense — and then Carly brings you to a desperate near-end.
Bonus track: "Seems I’m Never Tired of Loving You," from Nina Simone. "Of all the major singers of the late 20th century, Nina Simone was one of the hardest to classify." What else do you need to know? Don’t even think about it: just listen.