My favorite songs: “Late Nights and Early Mornings”

This song is the single greatest Prince rip of all time — yes, even moreso than “Oh Sheila” — and it’s not just due to the highly effective way that Marsha Ambrosius uses the Linn drum here. No, it’s also the song’s subject matter (sex, of course) and the way she teases it out, very much a la “Do Me Baby.” This isn’t just a song about sex, it’s a sexy song about sex. Oh, and her falsetto? Total Prince, too.

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Posted in 2010s, my favorite songs, R&B

My favorite songs: “Sanctified Lady”

I recently had a moment of reckoning with Marvin Gaye’s “Sanctified Lady.” I was driving north up the California coast on US 1, from Santa Cruz (which I call home) to San Francisco (where I lived for 9 years and still have friends). The windows were down, this song was cranked, I was singing along and occasionally laughing — because the song’s lyrics are in many ways ridiculous. And then the chorus comes in, after the second (?) bridge, and starts singing about all-caps “JESUS!” Because Marvin wants a woman who’s a freak in the sheets (he sings the title phrase as “sanctified pussy” numerous times throughout the song) but also really, really loves Jesus. No: JESUS!

I laughed aloud and said something along the lines of, “Marvin, mister, you had some issues!” But then I stopped myself, almost immediately, and said: waitadamnminute. I’m a churchgoing freak in the sheets, so why can’t (couldn’t) Marvin openly call for that, albeit on a much more public scale? (To be fair, “Lady” was an outtake from the Midnight Love sessions, so maybe he didn’t intend for it to be heard?) (OTOH, who are we kidding?)

I needed to hear that message, I needed to call myself on that shit. And I especially needed to do so in the service of this sensational, body-rockin’ anthem. I love the ur-cheesy simple synths that Marvin’s brother-in-law Gordon Banks added, I love the silly vocoder at the song’s start, and bringing in the Waters to do the backing vocals is genius. Semi-minimalist ’80s R&B? I’m here for that all day. And when you add in that it’s Marvin Gaye singing about how much he wants a “girl” to “suck,” etc., and to be a “good ol’ church girl”? I mean, c’mon, how obviously great does this song have to be? Now, I just need to find a guy with the same qualifications for me as Marvin had for his ladies…

Posted in 1980s, my favorite songs, R&B, RIP

Give me your body: the best of Queen

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58% on Rotten Tomatoes is frankly higher than I expected for Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, as most reviews I’ve heard or read have been scathing. But there’s one good thing in all this hubbub over the film: it’s making people talk about the brilliance of Queen again. And that’s something we should never stop doing, because holy fuckballs they were great, one of the best rock bands of the quarter-century 1970-1995 (which was also my first 25 years, though to be honest I didn’t pay them much attention until the Wayne’s World-led revival of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1991).

First of all, stop reading this, take 25 minutes, and watch their 1985 Live Aid performance again. (I can only assume you’ve seen it. And if not, why not?!) The highlight for me is “Hammer to Fall,” which the band absolutely rips into. But I mean: the entire performance should be shown to every single aspiring rock star as Exhibit A in HOW TO DO IT. One of the greatest live sets of all time, period.

The copious amount of live material by Queen that’s been released in the past decade-plus is actually a blessing, I’ll argue. They were really in their element in concert, and I love hearing all the nuances across the shows. Plus Freddie was the greatest rock frontman of all time; Mick can suck it. I’m particularly fond of the Live at Wembley Stadium double, recorded just a year later at the same venue as Live Aid.

As for their studio work, don’t sleep. My top 25 list is basically singles; I’m a singles guy. Why is my #1 Queen song 1982’s “Body Language,” from their much-maligned (and unfairly so) Hot Space? Because it’s simultaneously ridiculous and totally believable. Freddie sounds committed — he did love his sex songs — and the spare funk groove fucking works. Said album provides a trio of songs to my list; it’s time to re-evaluate it, folks. Also: yes, they did good work after it — through the ’80s, in fact.

1. “Body Language” (Hot Space, 1982)
2. “Hammer to Fall” (The Works, 1984)
3. “Under Pressure” (Queen & David Bowie) (single, 1981)
4. “Killer Queen” (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
5. “One Vision” (A Kind of Magic, 1985)
6. “Radio Gaga” (The Works, 1984)
7. “Another One Bites the Dust” (The Game, 1980)
8. “Fat Bottomed Girls” (Jazz, 1978)
9. “I Want It All” (The Miracle, 1989)
10. “Somebody to Love” (A Day at the Races, 1976)
11. “Tie Your Mother Down” (A Day at the Races, 1976)
12. “Seven Seas of Rhye” (Queen II, 1974)
13. “You’re My Best Friend” (A Night at the Opera, 1975)
14. “Staying Power” (Hot Space, 1982)
15. “Don’t Stop Me Now” (Jazz, 1978)
16. “A Kind of Magic” (A Kind of Magic, 1985)
17. “Bohemian Rhapsody” (A Night at the Opera, 1975)
18. “The Show Must Go On” (Innuendo, 1991)
19. “Back Chat” (Hot Space, 1982)
20. “Sheer Heart Attack” (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
21. “Who Wants to Live Forever” (A Kind of Magic, 1985)
22. “I Want to Break Free” (The Works, 1984)
23. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (The Game, 1980)
24. “Thank God It’s Christmas” (single, 1984)
25. “Flash” (Flash Gordon Soundtrack, 1980)

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, best of, rock

On Aretha: 2 duets

On Monday, The Singles Jukebox tributed Aretha Franklin. I had a pair of entries that I meant to get in, but didn’t make the deadline. Here’s the first, on two of her ’80s duets.

“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (Duet with George Michael) (1987)
“It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” (Duet with Whitney Houston) (1989)

The first a global #1 smash in 1987, the second an R&B-only hit two years later (interestingly, both peaked at #5 on the Billboard R&B chart) these songs have a lot in common, apart from their differing chart fortunes — proof that you never can tell what’s going to be a hit and what won’t. Both are duets Aretha recorded with artists who a) were younger than her, b) were hotter than her (in commercial terms, at their respective times), c) preceded her in death. Arista Records impresario Clive Davis just loved, in the ‘80s, to pair Aretha up with artists who were, or who he perceived to be, hotter than her, to help give her singles added relevance/charting potential. Davis also loved Narada Michael Walden, who was essentially Davis’s pet pop/R&B producer for much of the decade, helming lots of tracks for Franklin and for Whitney Houston (his two top priorities at the label).

“It Isn’t,” which only made it to #41 on the Billboard Hot 100  — when Houston was in the midst of her Imperial Phase — is a cluttered, overly busy production, full of orchestra hits (the song opens with one) and synth handclaps. It’s a New Jack Swing production by someone who wasn’t really equipped to make New Jack Swing, and for that you can blame Walden. For the song, however, a fairly silly catfight between two women over a man (like a much lesser version of Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”), you can blame Albert Hammond and Diane Warren; it sounds like an attempt at “hipness” by a couple of songwriters who wouldn’t know it if it hit them in the face. All isn’t lost, though, thanks to the banter and “battling” between the divas singing it. Much of the song was clearly recorded with both Franklin and Houston on the mic simultaneously, as evidenced by their back-and-forth at the song’s end. Genius.com provides a handy guide to what it calls the “Spoken Interaction.” Here’s an excerpt:

A: You know, I realize that you’re under pressure
W: Yes, I am
A: And that you are suffering from delusions, but uh
W: Well
A: Don’t be ridiculous
W: I’m not
A: Get Real!
W: You better get real!

It’s clearly playful, though, as Whitney’s heard not only saying “That’s Aretha” after a bit of Franklin’s scatting, but pointing out “Well you know that’s what you are,” in response to Aretha referring to herself as “the queen.” Franklin seems to bring out a playfulness in Houston that had already vanished by the end of her second album cycle; don’t forget that Houston’s mother Cissy was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, who backed up Franklin on a number of her Atlantic singles, so there was already a relationship there.

In contrast, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” did something else: its intent, ostensibly, was to elevate Franklin, but it ended up doing that instead for her duet partner, Michael. The single was released as the second official single from Franklin’s 1986 album Aretha, and it did something that not only none of her Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Singles did, but none of her singles, period, had done on the Hot 100 in two full decades: it went to #1. Michael was in the midst of his transition from Wham! heartthrob to international superstar (“I Want Your Sex” would follow “Waiting” into the top 2 just four months later), but Franklin would never hit the US top 10 again. However, artistically speaking “Waiting” made the world look at Michael in a new light, as a soul/ful singer who could actually keep up with Franklin. (Her duet with Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” two years prior, simply sounded like Annie Lennox was attempting the impossible, to outsing the Queen of Soul.) The song’s video is a joy, as well, with the pair initially singing to each other on video screens (first verse), then in front of old videos of each other (second verse), not appearing together until 2:33 in. The exultation on Michael’s face is obvious, to be singing with the Queen.

Walden produced this one as well, but went for a much more classic sound, featuring revved-up (synth) guitars alongside bass (from Randy Jackson!), drums, and Simmons percussion. Accordingly, it’s held up much better across time, as is still heard on Classic Hits radio stations the world over. On both records, Aretha herself sounds incredible, wailing yet still controlled (she was the master of that vocal technique) and always 100% committed to servicing the song’s lyric. You can hear her giving her all on every single record she ever made, good or bad. And she brought different things to each duet partner, because a singer like Franklin couldn’t help but bring out things in other singers; that was part of her brilliance. Rest In Power, Queen.

Posted in 1980s, pop, R&B, RIP

Single file

There’s a bunch of great singles out right now, across numerous formats. Some I’ve blurbed for The Singles Jukebox, and some I’ve missed. Here’s a brief round-up.

 

Welcome back to the pop world, Aubrey! I mean, obviously he’s not been gone — “God’s Plan” just spent 11 weeks atop the Hot 100, felled only by Drake himself — but that was more of that bullshit Soundcloud/streaming ecoverse sadcore rap. “Nice for What” is a jam, a banger, a gonna-sound-awesome-on-the-radio-all-summer-long HIT. I’ve never responded to New Orleans bounce music before, largely because there’s not enough there there for my tastes. But finally, here’s N.O. bounce married to a real pop song, with verses, chorus, and ohmygod that sample from Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” which underpins the whole thing. The video’s glorious, too. Faux-feminist or not, this kicks. (Also, read what Chris has to say about why it’s #1.) [9]

 

More gorgeous deep house from Mondo Grosso, mixing in a touch of Timbaland ca. ’98 on the verses (which remind me of some of his most spatial work for Aaliyah). Aina the End, out of her comfort zone, sounds perfect against Mondo Grosso’s textures. Everything about this rings true. [10]

 

Everybody knows that Carrie Underwood sings big, but she really kinda outdoes herself here. This is a stellar slice of Nashville feminism penned by Underwood herself with three of the town’s greatest songwriters, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna (talk about a murderer’s row), also co-produced by Underwood, and it balances tenderness with just the right touch of bombast. This is a declaration of intent from the biggest woman in contemporary country music; she’s not fucking around. Neither is this song. [9]

 

Moby gets a “feat.” credit because this is basically A$AP Rocky spitting bars over a huge chunk of “Porcelain.” And that alone — from a major-label-signed platinum-selling rapper — makes this some avant-garde shit. [8]

 

Posted in 2018, new music, reviews

Hot hits: March/April 2018

Been listening to a lot of early ’70s music lately, most of it previously unknown (or at least not terribly familiar) to me. And this song, Carly Simon‘s first single (from her debut album) — goddamn, how lacerating. The musical version of an Albee or Pinter play, this paints an entirely unappetizing portrait of marriage in the early ’70s. And it made it to #10 pop! Produced by Eddie Kramer (!!!), this is arranged perfectly, and Carly sounds gorgeous. But these lyrics, which she wrote, are just phenomenal.

Slim Jxmmi is just okay for my money, and Juicy J is coasting hard these days, but goddamn, I can listen to Swae Lee sing anything — I mean, c’mon, he’s the reason that French Montana’s “Unforgettable” became such a big hit in 2017 (650M views and counting!) (well, Swae + that killer beat). The groove on “Powerglide” just bumps and bumps and bumps, too. And don’t forget: Juicy J is an Oscar winner, which will never not make me happy.

The first time I heard Matthews’ Southern Comfort‘s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (thanks, iHeart’s Classic American Top 40 channel!), I didn’t recognize the song until about the second pass through the chorus — that’s how unique their arrangement is. #1 in the UK, top 30 in the US, and the best take on the song.

One of the best uses of Morris Day’s, uh, unique gifts, in the service of a great Prince, er the Time single.

Toni Braxton‘s Sex & Cigarettes might be my favorite album of the year so far, and this single is a perfect exemplification why: those creamy, deep vocals by Braxton, with complimentary production and lyrics that play to her strengths (she’s often best singing from a place of pain, akin to MJB).

Posted in 1970s, new music

Caught up in the rapture: my TURNING THE TABLES ballot

Ann Powers has done the world a huge service by spearheading the TURNING THE TABLES project at NPR Music; the canon of “great albums” is bullshit with only token female representation, and Powers and her compatriots are doing their damnedest to right some of that wrong. To close the first year of TURNING THE TABLES, they want to know what everyone else thinks are the greatest albums ever made by women.

My list only includes no albums released since 2000, which I recognize is potentially problematic. But in coming up with my list, I went with the albums I go back to time and again and wear out over and over. That’s not to say there are no great albums made by women in the past quarter-century — see below — but for me, none of those have yet made grooves in my soul like these 10.

About the albums that did make my list: Grant changed the game for CCM with Unguarded; Wendy and Lisa’s debut proved to the world just how much Prince got from his lieutenants; the anti-Anita Bryant benefit album Lesbian Concentrate is proto-riot grrl with acoustic guitars and in some cases more sexual politics; Ndegeocello’s soph effort is a remarkably realized vision that pointed the way to what would come from her; Rapture is the only quiet storm album you need. As for my #1, Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed is written, produced, mixed, engineered, recorded, and performed by women, and it truly dumped a lot of notions of what women in music could do, right upside down. These are beautiful songs by and for women, and “women’s music” such as we know it wouldn’t exist without this landmark record.

1. Cris Williamson, The Changer and the Changed
2. Anita Baker, Rapture
3. Meshell Ndegeocello, Peace Beyond Passion
4. Diana Ross, diana (1980)
5. Various Artists, Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems
6. Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace
7. Wendy and Lisa, Wendy and Lisa
8. Amy Grant, Unguarded
9. Joni Mitchell, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm
10. Mary J. Blige, Mary

And a further five from this century:
1. Carly Rae Jepsen, E*MO*TION
2. Meshell Ndegeocello, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape
3. Mary J. Blige, Strength of a Woman
4. Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From
5. dumblonde, dumblonde

Posted in lists