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Perfect Pop – Vol. 5

April 23rd, 2008 7 comments

Thank you for all the comments. I really, really appreciate them. It’s great just to hear somebody say that they are happy to have found a long-forgotten song or discovered a favourite new artist through this blog. The many kind words and encouragement are a most welcome bonus.

It’s also great to see people still getting to read older posts. One comment came in yesterday responding to a Carpenters post I wrote in September, arguing that, contrary to my contention, the Carpenters are great to shag to. I’m afraid my libido would sink lower than Dick Cheney’s reputation among all sane people if in mid-shag the children’s choir of “Sing” came on. Or “Jambalaya”! My correspondent was quite right in pointing out though that Steely Dan is not particularly suitable for erotic exploits either (the Dan are named, after all, after a dildo). So my question today is — oh, you know what’s coming already, don’t you? — what songs make for perfect background music to sex. It’s only fair that I should reveal my current favourite in that department, and in the process spoiling it for everybody by creating a disturbing connotation: Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky album (it sounds like I’m bragging by nominating a whole album and not just a song, don’t I?).

While we ponder perfect sex music, here’s some more perfect pop, with a couple of highly subjective choices.

Love Unlimited – Under The Influence Of Love.mp3
Hmmmm, a contender for the great sex songs category. Barry White had a knack of turning on the laydees as the walrus of luuurve (a talent which spawned such jealousy that at some point it mystifyingly became uncool to like Bazza, and then ironic). With Love Unlimited he found a way for men to discover the sexiness in his music without posing any threat to their heterosexuality. Under The Influence hits every spot, from the glorious vocals to the lush arrangement. You can dance to it, and you can smooch to it. How perfect is that? Genius.
Best bit: “So many guys have tried…” (3:32)

Box Tops – The Letter.mp3
I don’t know if all that is attributed to Lester Bangs in the wonderful Almost Famous is authentic, but this quote makes the point for the Box Tops’ pop perfection: “Did you know that The Letter by the Box Tops is a minute and 58 seconds long? It means nothing. But it takes them less than two minutes to accomplish what it takes Jethro Tull hours to not accomplish!” It’s difficult to believe that singer Alex Chilton was only 17 when the Box Tops’ recorded The Letter. Chilton went on to front Big Star, whose Ballad Of El Goodo is one of my all-time favourite songs.
Best bit: The jet noise (1:32)

Natalie Imbruglia – Torn.mp3
Ednaswap – Torn.mp3
I expect this choice to be controversial (so somebody alert CNN, quick). But the idea of Natalie Imbruglia lying naked on the…er, I think Imbruglia’s vocals, the rich production, and the melody are impeccable. Before Imbruglia scored big with this internationally in 1998, the song had been a hit for one Lis Sørensen in Denmark in 1994, and for Trine Rein in Norway in 1996. For this reason it is generally thought that Torn was a Norwegian effort. It was, in fact, written by members of the LA grunge outfit Ednaswap, whose crap name presumably precluded superstardom. I rather like their acoustic version of Torn, too, as it goes (and I’ll post it here, while I’m at it).
Best bit: The guitar solo (3:28)

T. Rex – Children Of The Revolution.mp3
I’ve said it before: glam rock had a high quotient of pop perfection because it really is amplified bubblegum pop – and bubblegum pop had all the ingredients for great pop singles. Marc Bolan and chums created several contenders for this series. Some may say that Get It On might have been the better representative, or perhaps Hot Love, or 20th Century Boy. My favourite T. Rex song is Jeepster. All valid choices. But Children Of The Revolution is the one T. Rex song I can’t imagine any reasonable pop fan not loving. It’s the complete package: the gut-punching intro, Bolan’s voice as sexy as it ever was, it wastes no time getting from intro and verse to the chorus. In fact, the chorus tends to kick in and out very suddenly, which might be due to poor editing. Whether by accident or intent, the effect keeps the listeners on their toes. And isn’t perfect pop also about holding the listener’s attention? And how exactly did driving a Rolls Royce help Bolan’s voice (though it migh haver helped him had he driven in one on September 16, 1977).
Best bit: Drums and Bolan shouts: “Yea-errrh” (1:11)

Big Sound Authority – This House (Is Where Our Love Stands).mp3*
The Songs That People Sing blog recently featured a post with video clips from Big Sound Authority’s gig at Camden Town, London, in early 1985 (go here; don’t forget to right-click and open in a new tab or window). I was at that concert, and BSA were magnificent. It is an injustice that they did not become bigger — as I said the first time I posted this, “it’s almost perverse”. It isn’t easy to pull off constant changes in tempo throughout a song while retaining a cohesion and, in this case, a rich energy which virtually embraces the listener. This song succeeds in doing so. Playing it to identify a best bit, I noted down five separate moments: another indicator of quality.
Best bit: All instruments stop to let Julie Hadwen roar in the final chorus (3:08)

Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds.mp3
Fine Young Cannibals – Suspicious Minds.mp3
The British music writer Paul Morley posited that a pop song can be thought of as great only if you can imagine Elvis singing it. Well, I think an Elvis song can be thought of as great only if you can imagine Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals singing it, without messing it up. Gift managed just that with Suspicious Minds. Elvis’ version has great drums, which seemed to energise the big guy in his live performances. I don’t really need to justify the inclusion of Suspicious Minds in the perfect pop category. The question is whether other Elvis songs are more perfect. I plan to use only one song per artist, but for Elvis there will have to be two. A pre-GI Elvis number will follow in the next installment.
Best bit: Elvis gets urgent: “Don’t you know-ah…” (2:46)

Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes – I’ve Had The Time Of My Life.mp3*
I’ll repeat what I wrote about this song last July: You can dance to it (dirty or otherwise), you can sing along to it very loudly, it has lots of great little moments, like that bang as the saxophone solo begins (3:27), and the dramatically cascading notes which build up to a crescendo before Medley summarises softly just how good a time he has had, leading to the celebratory climax. The song structure in fact captures the rhythm of sexual intercourse, with the subtle changes of pace and two separate orgasms. Now put Baby in the corner.
Best bit: The celebratory climax kicks in (4:03)

Thin Lizzy – The Boys Are Back In Town.mp3*
To me, Phil Lynott epitomised cool. Until he became a junkie, which isn’t at all cool. And rarely was Lynott cooler than on The Boys Are Back In Town. And those duelling guitars are cool as fuck. According to the sleeve notes, the song was written about a Manchester street gang. It is the delinquent’s version of Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”, with somebody being updated on all the news after a long separation from the gang. What would be today’s equivalent of that? A message on Facebook saying: “Gld ur bak frm jayl LOL Mwah xx oh yr frend ded, soz”?
Best bit: Lynott whispers: “The boys are back, the boys are back” (3:19)

Spider Murphy Gang – Skandal im Sperrbezirk.mp3
In the early ’80s, German pop experienced a revolution akin to the effect of punk on British music a couple of years earlier. But where punk was essentially a rejuvenating movement, the Neue Deutsche Welle (German New Wave) introduced a whole new sound to a musical scene which had been dominated by impeccably-behaved Schlager singers, socially conscious Liedermacher (songwriters) and the occasional iconoclastic rocker, such as Udo Lindenberg. NDW acts sang about subject matter which was rarely heard in German on radio, producing sounds like nothing the fatherland had heard accompanying the mother tongue — and scored big hits. Some NDW exponents were dance orientated, some drew from English New Wave and NYC punk, and many produced hyper pop. The Spider Murphy Gang fell within the latter camp. Skandal im Sperrbezirk — a song about a prostitute whose classified ads are so successful as to leave her competitors on the streets and in the Hotel l’Amour underemployed — was their big hit in early 1982.
Best bit: The “police siren” (2:17)

Spandau Ballet – Gold.mp3
There may be many good reason to hate Spandau Ballet. The name. The jackets. Steve Norman’s mullet. Tory Hadley. Through The Barricades. But, by jove, didn’t they produce some fantastic pop! Hadley had a great voice and knew how to use it (in contrast to his contemporary on ’80s teenage walls, Simon le Bon); Steve ‘Plonker’ Norman played a mean saxophone and percussions (the latter are particularly good on Gold); and Gary Kemp, the weedier of the two brothers, knew how to write a catchy tune. There were other Spandau Ballet contenders for this series: True, Only When You Leave, To Cut A Long Story Short, Round And Round, Lifeline… but none quite approach the drama of Gold.
Best bit: Tony Hadley’s little pause before singing “GOLD” (3:09)

Cece Peniston – Finally.mp3
This 1991 dance track is now most commonly associated with the film Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, which produced an excellent soundtrack. I associate it with a meeting in December 1991 during which I was stabbed in the back by erstwhile friends. After the meeting, Finally played at a party, and it lifted my spirits entirely. Peniston’s chart career was not prolific, and “Keep On Walking” was perhaps the better of her hits. But perfect pop is not necessarily about the “better” song. In few dance tracks of the ’90s did things come together so perfectly while retaining a pop sensibility as it did on Finally, from the House piano hook to Peniston’s vocals which alternately narrate and roar, and to the killer chorus.
Best bit: The gibberish ad libbing which caused the drag queens in Priscilla to do that thing with their tongues (2:52)

Andy Gibb – I Just Wanna Be Your Everything.mp3
Somewhere in this series, a Barry Gibb-penned song had to feature. I was thinking of Guilty, his duet with Barbra Streisand, and naturally several Bee Gees songs. But surely this swinging, sweet and yet dramatic track, which Barry wrote with his little brother (though Andy isn’t credited), represents the pinnacle of his post-’60s songwriting. The cute lyrics, in which Andy pledges everlasting love to his bride, are emphasised by a gentle disco arrangement. The Gibb family falsetto is in evidence, but it isn’t as ridiculously pitched as Barry’s. In fact, even though this song is recognisably a Barry Gibb composition, it doesn’t sound much like a Bee Gees song. This was the first of a hat-trick of US #1s for Andy Gibb (Love Is Thicker Than Water and the very Bee Gees-ish Shadow Dancing followed), the first time a male solo artist accomplished that feat.
Best bit: “To be your eeeev’rythiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing” (2:48)

Four Tops – Reach Out I’ll Be There.mp3
One cannot pick a best Levi Stubbs moment. The singer had so many moments of genius (that cry for Bernadette in the song of that name!), but I’d say that on Reach Out I’ll Be There Stubbs delivers his best sustained performance, practically barking the words, out of breath from being chased by the relentless drums. The urgency of this song is exhilarating and exhausting. As so often, nobody involved in the production thought of the song as a hit; in the event, Motown boss Berry Gordy quietly put it out as a single. Cue a US and UK #1. Diana Ross’ rather different version is worth hearing. And then that horrid rapist of fine soul music, Michael Bolton, covered the song, investing it with as much pus a he could summon from his landlord Beelzebub.
Best bit: No contest, it’s the supercharged intro (0:01)

Dave Clark Five – Glad All Over.mp3
This could be a Beatles song. But consider that this was a hit in 1963: Dave Clark and his four subordinates and the Fab Four shared the influences (listen to the backing vocals in particular). So it’s great fun that when English football club Crystal Palace reached the 1990 FA Cup final (which they went on to lose to Manchester United in a replay), they recorded Glad All Over with a group called…the Fab Four. Many people mistakenly think that the fantastic vocals, which exude so much energy by way of complementing the thumping sound, were performed by the man after whom the band was named. Clark was in fact the drummer (echoes of Conan O’Brien’s houseband here); the singer was Mike Smith who sadly died of pneumonia earlier this year, at the age of 64.
Best bit: “Aw-aw-aw stay” (1:10)

More Perfect Pop

Albums of the Year: 1950s

October 30th, 2007 3 comments

A new series of (more) old music. In an anorak-y moment, I decided to identify my top 10 favourite albums of all time. Variables such as subjective affection and objective quality aside, the challenge with such a venture is to not forget any contenders. So I sorted through my fairly extensive music collection, including stored away vinyl LPs, taking notes for my shortlist. But lots of old favourites have been lost in one way or another: so I trawled lists of album releases for each year on t’Interweb. And thus was born the entirely unoriginal idea of posting my top 10 favourite albums year-by-year on this blog. My monthly 3GB bandwidth limit would not allow me to post full albums, so we’ll have to make do with one or two songs per album.

Before I get bombarded with complaints about notable omissions: I can rank only those albums I actually know. Many artists are represented in my collection by way of compilations. So I can’t list artists of whom I might have a best of double CD sampler and a few individual tracks I have downloaded. My top 10s are also not representative of the “best” albums of the year. Some are, but others will be included simply because I like them, knowing well that they are not as innovative or influential as others I have listed.

I’ll kick off with the 1950s in one post. I have a fair amount of ’50s music, but very few albums. I think my list reflects that. I’ll also deal with the ’60s up to the year of my birth in one post. Thereafter, we’ll go year by year.

1. Frank Sinatra – Songs For Swingin’ Lovers (1956)
This is really Sinatra’s Pet Sounds, the album everybody points to as the definitive Sinatra album (until, in ten years time, the style authorities spot another definitive Sinatra album). I am unsure whether there is such a thing as a “definitive” Sinatra album. If there is, then Songs For Swinging Lovers is as good a pick as any. The concept is obvious, and with the theme being love, Francis is at his most exuberant. Our man did dejected better than most, but Sinatra in love was always great fun. This album also offers much evidence for all that talk about Sinatra’s phrasing. Just listen to You Make Me Feel So Young and imagine how less brilliant singers have interpreted the song.
Frank Sinatra – You Make Me Feel So Young.mp3
Frank Sinatra – Pennies From Heaven.mp3

2. Various – Singin’ In The Rain soundtrack (1952)
If I had to choose one DVD to take with me to exile on a desert island, I might very well pick Singin’ In The Rain. It is the perfect movie (except the ballet sequence is a touch too long. Still, Syd Charisse’s legs….mmmmm). The songs, a hotchpotch of numbers that had long ago appeared elsewhere (and in one case is a shameless rip-off of Cole Porter), range from the sublime — the title track or Good Morning — to standard crooning — You Are My Lucky Star (nonetheless a song I cannot help but croon along to). The orchestral score is very good indeed, but in the company of these exuberant songs, it is somehow intrusive. Stripped down to the show tunes, the album captures the energy of the movie, which is all you can ask from a soundtrack.
Gene Kelly – Singin’ In The Rain.mp3
Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor & Debbie Reynolds – Good Morning.mp3

3. Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (1959)
Ah, I know what you’re thinking: this is Any Major Token Jazz Album. In a way, that would be correct. I used to listen to jazz a lot (mostly fusion of the Grover Washington Jr and Eric Gale variety, though), and now I rarely do. If I feel moved to play some jazz, Kind Of Blue-era Miles Davis is the guy I turn to. The kicker is: when I used to listen to jazz a lot, I rarely listened to Davis (whose Witch’s Brew-era fusion stuff actually turned me off his music), and never to Kind Of Blue, which I didn’t even own. So where to many people Kind Of Blue serves as an introduction to jazz, to me it is a late discovery. And a very happy one. It is the kind of album that you can relax to — a reading album — as well as listen to for those brilliant twists and turns. And don’t let anyone sell that revisionist nonsense about Kind Of Blue lacking innovation, a notion that can be bought only if one thinks that innovation must equal excessive wankery. For that, there are plenty of other Davis albums.
Miles Davis – So What.mp3

4. Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956)
This was part of a series of Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook albums. Previously, she had recorded sets of compositions by George Gershwin, later she gave the songbook treatment to such canons as those of Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Rogers & Hart and the Gershwins again. Her tribute to Cole Porter is the most popular, and rightly so. Much of it has to do with the quality of Cole Porter’s songs: the wonderful lyrical and musical wit of songs such as I Get A Kick Out Of You, the sweet romance of Do I Love You, the articulation of a desperate heart on Night And Day… I could listen to Porter all day, even if his songs are being performed by Alanis Morrissette and Robbie Williams, as on the De-Lovely soundtrack. Happily, that is not necessary — though the soundtrack’s version of Night And Day is quite wonderful — because Ms Fitzgerald has applied her musical stylings to the Porter catalogue. While none of the versions are necessarily the best available interpretations, Fitzgerald sustains a high measure of quality throughout, a consistency which few other singers working with the same material have matched — even Sinatra, at his best a great interpreter of Porter’s music, could get patchy.
Ella Fitzgerald – It’s De-Lovely.mp3

5. Frank Sinatra – In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (1955)
During his Capitol years, Sinatra was apt to produce concept albums. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers was all about being in love, Come Fly With Me (1958) was a collection of travel-related songs, Only The Lonely (1959) was drenched in self-pity. Likewise, In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning paints a mood in line with the album title. Our man is in a reflective mood here, maybe after a solitary night of propping up a bar. Perhaps he is sharing his reflections with the bartender. Life isn’t necessarily bad, but is it really good? This isn’t an outpouring of self-pity, it is introspective. Few of this album’s songs rank among Sinatra’s biggest hits; you’ll find none of them on your average karaoke mix. This is an advantage: as you listen, you don’t wait for the big hits, but buy into the mood of the album, and join Francis in his introspections.
Frank Sinatra – What Is This Thing Called Love.mp3

6. Elvis Presley – Loving You (1957)
By 1957, Elvis was in his pomp. On his third proper album, he was still rockin’ and rollin’, but had also acquired a sense of musical subtlety. His cover of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” might have been a disaster if approached as a rock ‘n roll song. Elvis didn’t, and it isn’t. On “Teddy Bear” (with the excellent backing vocals by the Jordanaires), Elvis’ pleading sounds sincere, the silliness of the lyrics notwithstanding. In this way, the vocals are presaging the rock-pop of the Beatles rather than organic roots of rock, which find expression in songs such as Party and Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do. By now, our boy also had learned how to sing slow songs — not the crooning he’d later subject us to, but the sort of soulful, country-inflected music that let him casually show off his great voice, as on the title track. Elvis would still make a few good albums before going to Germany to do his duty to Uncle Sam, screw underage girls, and return as the Colonel’s cashcow by appearing in a long succession of astonishingly banal movies. Albums like Loving You (itself a soundtrack) remind us of how great Elvis really was before his descend into gimpdom.
Elvis Presley – Loving You.mp3
Elvis Presley – (Let Me Be ) Your Teddy Bear.mp3

7. Miles Davis – Porgy & Bess (1958)
Miles Davis was an objectionable human being. Scarred by his experiences, perhaps, but not admirable in any way but in his artistry. And it was here that Davis (unlike many, I will not refer to the man by his first name as if he was a pseudo-chum; I’d probably not have wanted to be his friend) revealed the beauty inherent in most people, even the obnoxious kind. That beauty rarely shone brighter than on his interpretation of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, a sensitive, almost tender take, aided by Gil Evans’ wonderful orchestration. Take “Prayer”, a song that passed me by entirely on the soundtrack LP my mother used to own. In the hands of Davis and Evans, it gently lures you into its depth, so much so that it comes as a something of a jolt when the thing ends. The standard number of Porgy & Bess, of course, is Summertime. It’s a song that invites, almost demands vocal stylings — it’s hardly possible to screw up singing it. All the more credit to Davis and Evans as they deliver a most evocative interpretation without recourse to the human voice.
Miles Davis – Summertime.mp3

8. Various – High Society soundtrack (1956)
The late ’40s and ’50s were the golden age of MGM musicals. High Society, the musical remake of the great Katherine Hepburn vehicle The Philadelphia Story (1940), did not represent the zenith of the genre. Bing Crosby was nothing on Cary Grant, and Sinatra (an otherwise fine actor) no match for the performance by James Stewart in the original. High Society is to be enjoyed purely for Cole Porter’s incredible songs: Crosby’s languid energy of Now You Has Jazz with Louis Armstrong, Crosby crooning with Grace Kelly about True Love, Sinatra and the wonderful Celeste Holm being sardonically envious about obscene wealth. And then there is the set’s absolute high point: Frank & Bing slaying each other with wit in Well Did You Evah, a duel of two iconic crooners in which neither manages to upstage the other even as they raise the stakes, culminating in that wonderful pay-off line by Sinatra: “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum”. Swellegant indeed.
Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra – Well, Did You Evah.mp3

9. Various – An American In Paris (1951)
The film was not as good as Singin’ In The Rain, except for a few stunning setpieces (the charming street scene of I Got Rhythm, the big production of Stairway To Paradise, the lovely painting montage), but it was this Gene Kelly musical that won an Oscar. Arguably, the majesty of Gershwin’s eponymous symphony contributed to what the Academy might have mistaken for sophistication. It is the combination of Gershwin and the memorable set-piece songs — I Got Rhythm is so infectious, one needs self-control not to copy Kelly’s “aeroplane!” move — that create a hugely appealing album. The musical light-heartedness of songs like ‘s Wonderful provide the cream on the strawberries of Gershwin’s score. Or something.
Gene Kelly & Georges Guetary – ‘s Wonderful.mp3

10. Various – Gigi soundtrack (1958)
The last great MGM musical in the old tradition, Gigi came at a time when the genre was slowly dying. The film itself is a cutting satire on gender and class relations, cushioned of course by the obligatory Tinseltown glamour and conventional resolution. The music is key to the masking of the brutal commentary. Charming old Maurice Chevalier croons about little girls (as one could in those days without being considered a paedophile), the old Vichy collaborator and Louis Jourdan discuss the latter’s sense of disillusionment in It’s A Bore (Gaston, it would appear, was a depressive. Did Collette intend that?), and then there is the sweeping, montage-like title track. To me, the highlight of the film and soundtrack is the aging Chevalier and Hermione Gingold nostalgically recounting a date they had many, many years before. Chevalier misremembers with grand charm every detail (“You wore a gown of gold”), and Gingold corrects him (“I was all in blue”) before tenderly “acknowledging” that the old coot’s memory is indeed accurate. Gingold then recalls what a stud muffin the old man used to be, Chevalier responds with self-satisfaction: “Ah yes, I remember it well”, because that he actually has not forgotten. It is at once very funny and very touching. As a film and as a collection of music, Gigi eclipses that other Lerner & Loewe work, My Fair Lady.
Maurice Chevalier & Hermione Gingold – I Remember It Well (Gigi).mp3