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Perfect Pop – Vol. 8

May 9th, 2008 3 comments

Here are a few more perfect pop records which brings the number of featured songs up up to 100 (by my rough count).

Stevie Wonder – You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.mp3
This song has been covered a zillion times and by some of the finest singers ever to commit their voices to record (Sinatra, Fitzgerald). And every one of these covers has failed to translate the sweet vitality of the original. It is a shame that this gem of a song has become a muzak staple; few major songs have been as poorly understood at this one. Written when Stevie was just 20, this mid-tempo samba number seems unassuming, until you listen to Stevie’s vocal inflections and, even more carefully, the deceptively simple arrangement. This song needs no big orchestration to fix its simplicity; indeed, strings or a big band treatment poison its sweet intimacy. And this is the key: it is a loveletter, not an epic declaration. Give it an orchestra, and the sentiment is varnished with cliché. All Stevie needs is keyboard, bass, drums and percussions. And the joyous exuberance of his voice (with the help of Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves, who sing the first verse; listen to it over earphones). Stevie sounds like he is in love, because he is: with Gloria Barley, who sings backing vocals here. And isn’t that lovely?
Best bit: “Mmm-mmm-hmmm-mmm (2:22)

Frankie Valli – Can’t Take My Eyes Of You.mp3
The Four Seasons had a number of great pop songs, but Valli’s finest moment came as a solo performer, albeit with the help of his old pals Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, who wrote this song. Can’t Take My Eyes Of You begins as a mid-tempo ballad, unremarkable except for Valli’s beautiful phrasing, frequently lagging half a note behind the beat, enunciating some vowels as if to provide an off-beat percussion. Suddenly staccato notes signal a change in tempo; jolly strings (not unlike those used on many disco records a decade later) suggest that Frankie is going to get quite excited now. And then Valli launches into a giddy chorus. He’s in love all right, but our fears that it may not be reciprocal, hinted at in the first verse (“but if you feel like I feel…”, “You’d be like heaven to touch”) are realised as the chorus tails off, and Frankie gently, anxiously asks: “let me love you”. We return to the mid-tempo verse, and are quite aware of Frankie’s doubts and that the giddiness (thanking God he’s alive) may just be the oxytocin talking.
Best bit: The way Frankie chews the final vowel in touch (2:17)

Jens Lekman – Your Are The Light.mp3
Among indie-pop fans, the Swede Jens Lekman is a semi-deity. He writes catchy, quirky tunes. His lyrics are invariably hugely entertaining, sometimes touching, sometimes off-beat. You Are The Light has a great tune, introduced by a Earth, Wind & Fire-ish clarion call and supported by a beat that seems just a little too fast for the song. The chorus is proper singalong stuff. The melody and arrangement, with its occasional blasts of horn now and harmonica there, are hugely attractive. But it is the lyrics that captivate. In the opening verse, he uses his one phone call from jail to dedicate a song to his girl (who landed him in this predicament in first place) on the radio. Later the cops are “sad” because they can’t prove his act of delinquency. This song has much by way of completely likable charm — which sets it apart from much of contemporary pop.
Best bit: The horn intro (0:01)

Matt Monro – We’re Gonna Change The World.mp3
If Barack Obama was into the British crooners of the ’60s and ’70s, he might well have adopted this as his campaign anthem. Monro, whom Sinatra described as the only British singer, might have been an easy listening merchant, but this song has a socially conscious edge which was not usually reflected in the genre, even in the late ’60s (the song itself was released in 1970). The song tells of three women, two of them going on a protest march, presumably for peace, while another sees the demonstration but doesn’t join. In the punchline, the non-joiner is a war widow, crying in her office over her dead husband. Monro’s chorus suggests that her option is the wrong one as he calls, as if from within the throng of marchers: “So, come with us, run with us! We’re gonna change the world. You’ll be amazed, so full of praise, when we’ve rearranged your world. We’re gonna change your world.” And don’t these words sum up the message Obama has been trying to sell? Add to that a wonderfully jaunty tune – try not be lifted by it – and Monro’s enthusiastic vocals, and you have a perfect campaign pop song.
Best bit: Monro nearly shouts the word “run” in his call to action (2:54)

Elvis Presley – Hound Dog.mp3
Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog.mp3
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote Hound Dog as teenagers for Big Mama Thornton, apparently in ten minutes. Meditate on that for a minute. A couple of teenagers write what will become a timeless classic for an intimidating blues singer, and do the job in ten minutes. The way Thornton sings it is the way the composers conceived it. Hound Dog became a local hit, and inspired a plagiarised response song, which turned out to be the first ever record released by Sun Records, Sam Phillips’ label which would go on to produce Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis Presley. It took Elvis a few years to get around to Hound Dog, which had been brutalised in a series of covers which dismantled the original lyrics and added doggerel to it (such as the rabbit line) to become the nonsense we know today. In the 31rd take we know today, Elvis made no attempt to sing the lyrics, symbolised by the way he chews up the pronunciation of the title. He shouts and sneers through the song with his band rocking to the beat of the handclaps, while the Jordannaires gamely try to instill some civility over the raucous guitar solo. Guitarist Scotty Moore’s final chords are a breath of post-orgasmic release. It seems clear while Hound Dog threatened the USA’s repressed sexual morality: Elvis is fingering America’s daughters right there.
Best bit: Drum roll, Elvis groans something, and a guitar chord closes the song (2:09)

Sex Pistols – Pretty Vacant.mp3
The Sex Pistols were the poster boys for the British punk revolution; more than their music, it was their exploits and, more to the point, their image that made Middle England nervous. They swore on TV; they insulted Her Majesty with a song that was banned from radio and yet reached #2 on the UK charts (some have smelled a conspiracy to keep the Pistols off #1, to the benefit of Rod Stewart’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It); they used a naughty word in their album title (it was later established in court that “bollocks” is a non-vulgar Olde English word) . And now hear how Johnny Rotten supposedly pronounces the second syllable of the title’s second word. Ooooh, the threat. Ooooh, the publicity! The Sex Pistols invented punk as much as Elvis invented rock & roll. In many ways, they were the Spice Girls of their day: a phenomenon managed by a clever svengali, whose music was secondary to the image. That’s why Glenn Matlock, the really talented one, could be replaced by a disorientated thug who’d become the most pathetic junkie in rock history. It was all about presentation. But that also glosses over the music. While the primary sales pitch was the image, the product – the music – was very good too. For all the punk posturing, the Sex Pistols had some fine pop tunes. Other than John Lydon’s hysterically sneering delivery and the nature of the lyrics he sneered, there was little revolutionary about the Pisxtols’ music. Never Mind The Bollocks, a very well produced LP, was a harder-edged, faster version of glam rock, with an additional debt to the likes of the Kinks. Of the handful of hits, Pretty Vacant has was the best pop song. Shook your head at the glam reference? Matlock said the riff was based on Abba’s S.O.S.
Best bit: “And we don’t caaaaaaaahre” (1:44)

Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination.mp3
The Human League’s Dare probably was the most perfect pop album of its era. But when I pondered which Human League song to feature, I kept coming back to Fascination, which was a single release only. An EP featuring to mixes of Fascination came out later (it also included the excellent preceding single, Mirror Man). Fascination kicks off proper with the swirling, horn-like synth hook which runs through the song and, in the intro, instructs the listeners to get on their feet and dance. The band members take turns singing lines, including even guitarist/keyoardist Jo Callis.
Best bit: “…and so the conversation turned, until the sun went down” (1:00)

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3
Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3*
Cobain’s Pixies moment (he admitted consciously copying them) sounds as much as the uncles of grunge as it sounds like an angry glam rock song. Cobain tried to write a pop song, and succeeded. Tori Amos might have fucked it up, but when Paul Anka covered it as a big band swing number in 2005, the pop sensibilities of Teen Spirit revealed themselves from beneath the grime of discontent. The anthem of non-conformity had, by dint of its over-exposure on MTV and radio, acquired the status of conformity; much of what came after – all the “feel my pain” emo gubbins – was no more non-conformist than the industry and its hit machines Teen Spirit was railing against. Anka stripped the song of its suburban rebellion sheen, turned it into a swing song, and perpetrated an act of subversion one hopes Cobain would have approved of: turning on its head the conformity of Nirvana’s own followers. It may not be the best Nirvana song, but it certainly is their best pop song.
Best bit: Apologies for being boring, but it’s the “yay” bits (1:31)

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