Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 31: The Black Crowes, "Remedy"

Artist: The Black Crowes
Song: "Remedy"
Album: The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion
Year: 1992

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Often times, the most difficult task for a band can be making a follow up that lives up to the hype after having a massively successful debut. In most cases, the so-called "sophomore slump" occurs, as the band tries to do "too much" and loses sight of why their first record was so successful. This is even more common when the band in question is not playing a mainstream sound, as the second album often moves more towards the popular sound, and is labeled as a "sell out" for this reason. However, there are certain bands that thoroughly understand why people love the music they make, and their formula rarely changes from album to album. After scoring a staggering six hit singles off their 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker, there are few bands in history that had as much pressure to deliver an equally powerful follow-up as The Black Crowes. Amazingly, not only did the group meet these expectations, but they surpassed them, as their 1992 record, The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion stands today not only as one of the most impressive sophomore records, but one of the greatest rock albums in history. In an era dominated by gangsta rap and grunge, the album was a breath of fresh air to rock purists, and the success of the record was driven by the lead single, which had a title that could be taken on many different levels: "Remedy."

The overall impact of the song on mainstream music is simply undeniable, as the single spent an amazing eleven weeks at the top of the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart, powering the album itself to the top of the charts and leading to more than two million copies sold in the U.S. alone. The song instantly proved that The Black Crowes had found many ways to improve on their throwback rock sound that made their debut record so successful, and "Remedy" is a truly joyous musical celebration. Powered by the straightforward and undistorted guitar of Rich Robinson and new guitarist, Marc Ford, the music is so fantastic that it could have fit in just as easily decades earlier when the "jam band" sound was first forming. From the moment the song begins, and the guitar and drums "drop" onto the listener, the band creates an amazingly captivating hard rock groove that is like nothing else in music history. The rhythm section of bassist Johnny Colt and drummer Steve Gorman are equally impressive, yet it is perhaps the piano playing of Eddie Harsch that stands out alongside the guitars. During the bridge sections, Harsch adds amazing fills, and it is his sound that gives the song an "authentic" Southern feel, making it even less like anything else in music. Fusing together the sounds of rock, blues, and even gospel, "Remedy" is one of the finest examples in history of a band moving as a single unit, and this is much the reason the song remains fresh and powerful nearly twenty years after its release.

As fantastic as their music always is, the true soul and spirit behind The Black Crowes always lives in the amazing vocal performance of Chris Robinson. Possessing one of the most instantly recognizable voices in music history, Robinson knows no bounds insofar as vocal range is concerned, and he consistently delivers some of the most high energy and emotional vocal performances ever recorded. "Remedy" is no different, as Robinson moves from preaching to wailing to more "standard" singing, and this diversity in approach makes the song a truly special moment in music history. The song itself is absolutely amazing, as the meaning can be taken on a number of different levels. Though most people see the two most simple, the age old "double meaning" which makes the song speak of either drugs or sex, depending on the listener, there are a number of other meanings that come through, as well as some brilliantly buried lyrical classics. While the Robinson brothers make no attempt to hid the more sexually driven parts of the song, it is lines like, " why's who's who, baby know you too? Tell me did the other children scold on you?" that prove to be some of the finest and deepest lyrics of their generation. As Chris Robinson moves through the song, each change in his vocal approach draws the listener further into the music, and the power and excitement that is created during the run of the song leaves only one choice at the end: listing to it another time.

In an era when "pure rock and roll" was seemingly a lost breed, The Black Crowes held strong to the foundations of rock music and gave the world some of the finest rock records in history. Fusing together the sounds of everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Allman Brothers to The Faces, there was simply no other band of their generation that were quite like The Black Crowes. Perfecting what it meant to have a band move as a single unit, their songs are almost always as lyrically powerful as they are musically superior. Having already established themselves on both ends of the musical spectrum with hits like "Jealous Again" and "She Talks To Angels," there are few bands that have had to endure as much pressure and hype for their second record, and The Black Crowes delivered in full with their 1992 masterpiece, The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion. The albums' lead single, "Remedy" remains a classic of rock music, and its dominance on the charts in an era when the popular trend was a far cry from their sound serves as a testament to the overall greatness of the song as well as the band. Featuring a magnificent interplay between the bands' two guitarists and pianist Eddie Harsch, "Remedy" retains an amazing, deep groove whilst simultaneously standing as one of the finest rock and roll songs in history. Coming as close to true rock perfection as is possible, few will argue that "Remedy" stands alone as not only the finest musical moment for The Black Crowes, but one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

January 30: The Eurythmics, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)"

Artist: The Eurythmics
Song: "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)"
Album: Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
Year: 1983

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They key to success of nearly every hit song comes in the form of either an amazing lyric or an unforgettable guitar riff. It is this element that makes the song immediately recognizable, and often times what makes the artist in question different form their peers. However, there are a handful of pop songs that can be considered absolute "classics" that have achieved similar success with unorthodox sonic approaches, and these songs tend to mark pivotal moments in the history of music. Though they have each gained great notoriety as solo performers, the musical team of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, better known as The Eurythmics, penned one of the most extraordinary songs in history in the form of the 1983 hit, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)." The song itself was a hybrid of a number of different sounds and styles, and it is also the song that introduced much of the world to the unparalleled vocal stylings of Annie Lennox. Powered by what may be the most memorable synthesizer riff in history, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" was, in many ways, the song that gave legitimacy to the "new wave" movement, and over the years it has been covered by countless artists across the music spectrum. The fact that the song is still covered today, as well as remains in regular radio rotation serves as a testament to its greatness, and as of yet, there has still been nothing quite like the brilliance of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)."

The wide ranging appeal of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" can be seen in the cover versions, as everyone from Audioslave to Tori Amos to Reba McEntire has performed the song, and yet the most famous cover comes from a very different artist. More than a decade after The Eurythmics released the song, the song found new life when it was brilliantly covered by the industrial metal freak-show known as Marilyn Manson. The Manson version of the song was far more aggressive, yet its presence and success further proved that the original was nothing short of an iconic song which crossed all musical boundaries. This universal appeal is likely due to the overall sound of the music, as one would be hard pressed to find a more perfect balance of dark moods that keeps hold on perfect pop appeal. The core synthesizer riff of the song is without question one of the most famous musical progressions in history, and the truth of the matter is, this riff was a pure accident. As the legend goes, Dave Stewart was playing a song they had already recorded in reverse, and the riff appeared within the "reversed" bass track. This riff, combined with the programmed drums, is an almost perfect balance between the sounds that had been pioneered by groups like Kraftwerk, mixed with the pop sensibilities of the era. The minimalist musical approach, combined with the fact that the dark feel remains the entire song, makes "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" one of, if not the most unlikely pop hits in music history.

While the music certainly sets the tone for the song, it is the absolutely stunning vocals from Annie Lennox that make the song a true classic. Providing both the melody and harmony parts, the multi-tracked vocals from Lennox are nothing short of iconic, and it is with "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" that the world was blessed with one of its most talented vocalist. Showing that she knew no boundaries in terms of pitch, her performance on the song is without question one of the most impressive moments in music history. Furthering the overall strangeness of the songs' success, though most do not pay them much attention, the fact of the matter is, the lyrics of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" are about sadomasochistic sex. This fits perfectly with the overall dark tone of the song, and the meaning behind the song is solidified in the repeated refrain of, "...some of them want to use you, some of them want to get used by you...some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused..." The fact that a majority of people have overlooked this clearly questionable subject matter for nearly three decades serves as a testament to the overall greatness of the song, as one can see countless examples throughout music history of songs with similar themes being "banished" from radio. The continues success of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" stands as proof that, regardless of one or two things that may be questionable within a song, truly great songs will always overcome such hurdles.

Try as you might, but the fact of the matter is, it is impossible to find a song that even slightly resembles the sound and story behind the 1983 hit, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" by The Eurythmics. Seemingly coming out of nowhere with the song, the duo threw down the gauntlet of pop music and proved that a great song would find success regardless of the style in which it was played. Quickly topping the charts in the U.S., the song was also helped by the equally iconic music video, which featured an androgynous looking Annie Lennox in a fitted suit, wielding a cane. The video remains almost as memorable as the song itself, and one cannot deny the fact that the video helped the group achieve their well-deserved success. The imagery within the video in same ways make the lyrical content a bit more clear, yet there is little question that the risqué nature of the songs' words continue to go over the heads of a majority of listeners. This ignorance of the true nature of the song is largely due to the fact that both musically and vocally, the song is nothing short of phenomenal, and to this day, there has still been nothing similar. The iconic synthesizer riff from Dave Stewart remains fresh and exciting, even after nearly thirty years, and the absolutely glorious vocal performance from Annie Lennox ranks among the greatest in recorded history. Ignoring every "rule" that had been set forth for pop music success, The Eurythmics re-wrote the books in a wide array of areas with their landmark 1983 hit, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)."

Friday, January 29, 2010

January 29: Blind Faith, "Presence Of The Lord"

Artist: Blind Faith
Song: "Presence Of The Lord"
Album: Blind Faith
Year: 1969

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When writing the history of an overwhelming majority of bands, it is a rather simple task, as one easily notes their rise from a "garage band" to fame and recognition. In a small umber of cases, an additional chapter must be made, as one of the artists or band found a later resurgence or perhaps success with a second musical project. Then of course, there is the case of Eric Clapton. In many ways the "King Midas" of blues-rock, nearly every band of which he was a part in the 1960's and 1970's stands today as an integral part of the history of rock music. From The Yardbirds, to the legendary group Cream, to his work with Derek and The Dominos, Clapton's name is without question one of the most highly respected in music history. Yet it was the "one off" project between the latter of these bands which may feature the greatest playing of his career. Based around the Cream core of Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker, the band only released a single, magnificent, self-titled album, and it stands today as a stunning musical feat: 1969's Blind Faith. The album was in many ways, a hasty affair, and the second side of the record contained only two tracks, one of which was the fifteen minute jam, "Do What You Like." Yet even with only a total of six songs, Blind Faith immediately cemented their names as rock legends, and their sound and mood are perfectly summed up in the truly unrivaled and absolutely beautiful song, "Presence Of The Lord."

Though the music throughout all of Blind Faith is nothing short of spectacular, a majority of the initial hype behind the record came from the controversy concerning the cover art (pictured above). Considered "too racy" for U.S. audiences, the cover was replaced by a group photo for its release there, though a single run of the original were pressed and sold within the U.S. Regardless of all of this, one cannot deny the fact that Blind Faith is one of the greatest blues-rock albums ever recorded, and in many ways, one can make the case that this sound was what Eric Clapton had been searching for up to that point. Moving around the core sound of a classic slow blues, yet as it progresses, both the music and lyrics give it an amazingly soulful, almost preaching tone. One can easily feel the frustration and searching for inner peace of Clapton though his guitar playing, and even when he kicks the song into a more aggressive gear, his magnificent wah-infused solo somehow fits perfectly into the song. In many ways, the song serves as a clear precursor to the sound he would perfect with his next project (Derek & The Dominos), yet "Presence Of The Lord" remains one of his finest compositions and musical performances of his career. Similarly, Ginger Baker creates an amazing, grooving backbeat, and the chemistry between these two artists is absolutely clear throughout the entire album. Having played with a number of iconic bands, bassist Ric Grech perfectly compliments both musicians throughout the song, and his deep, "thumping" basslines fill out the overall sound perfectly.

Presenting both ideal vocals, as well as an almost gospel-esque electric piano performance, "Presence Of The Lord" may in fact be the finest moment of the career of Steve Winwood. Smooth and soulful, the electric piano progression gives the album an almost "church like" sound, reflecting Clapton's playing, and the combination of these sounds makes "Presence Of The Lord" one of the most uniquely beautiful musical experiences in history. Similarly, with an ample dose of reverb in tow, the vocals of Steve Winwood are without question some of the most heartfelt and powerful ever written and performed. Pulling stylistic influence from American R&B, Winwood's vocals cap off the "religious" feel to the song, as he puts an almost unfathomable amount of emotion into the lyrics. Written by Clapton, the song perfectly encapsulates the struggle he was experiencing, torn between different bands and attempting to find a musical place in which he could happily exist. The simple, repeating lyrics of, "...I have finally found a way to live, just like I never could before...I know that I don't have much to give, but I can open any door..." remain some of the most soul-bearing and iconic lyrics in history, and the song has been covered by countless artists over the decades. Winwood perfectly captures the essence behind Clapton's song, and the crying, melancholy vocal performance ranks among the finest in music history. In reality, "Presence Of The Lord" was Clapton's only writing contribution to the album, and in many ways, this fact furthers the overall revelation of his state of mind at the time, and makes the meaning behind the song even more powerful.

Though he is responsible for a number of the most beloved songs in the history of music, his work with the very short lived Blind Faith is often overlooked in the overall music history of Eric Clapton. Falling between the end of the supergroup Cream and the formation of the equally impressive Derek and The Dominos, Blind Faith provides a rare glimpse into the internal struggle of an artist trying to find their sound. Almost every song on Blind Faith is a blues-rock classic, yet it is Clapton's sole contribution, "Presence Of The Lord' that is unquestionably the finest moment on the record. Filled with an unparalleled level of passion and frustration, "Presence Of The Lord" presents not only one of Clapton's finest lyrics, but his guitar performance is nothing short of stunning. Turning on a dime from the slow, soulful sound to a heavier, psychedelic solo, Clapton truly channels greatness throughout the song. Similarly, both the vocals and electric piano playing of Steve Winwood are far beyond that of anything else in his career. Truth be told, Clapton would make "Presence Of The Lord" a regular part of the live sets of Derek and The Dominos, and he used a vocal approach very similar to that of Winwood, solidifying how perfectly Winwood captured Clapton's emotions. The rhythm section of Baker and Grech are equally fantastic, and "Presence Of The Lord" is a truly special moment in music history. Though he has created many of the most beloved songs in the history of music, Eric Clapton rarely revealed as much of his soul, nor played as stunning a guitar progression as one finds on the truly indispensable 1969 classic, "Presence Of The Lord."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28: Nas, "One Love"

Artist: Nas
Song: "One Love"
Album: Illmatic
Year: 1994

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In an era when a majority of hip-hop music is little more than over-used, uninspired, uncreative lyrics over bass heavy, poorly-produced music, it is important to remember the rich history of the genre, as some of the most amazing songs in history come from the genre. While it has largely been moved to the back burner, there was a time when, to truly establish your name as an emcee, you not only needed powerful rhymes, but also a creative and unique vocal approach. Much like being able to instantly recognize the tone of a great guitarist, the finest emcees in history have a delivery style that are so unique, that they cannot be mistaken. From lightning fast rhyming to a certain lyrical approach, there are countless aspects that can set an emcee apart from his peers, but there is a distinct group of emcees that have to total package, and they remain some of the most respected performers in music history. Powered by the success of his absolutely mind-blowing 1994 debut, Illmatic, New York emcee Nas instantly became a hip-hop icon with his distinctive voice and unsurpassed lyrical prowess. The album remains a true hip-hop classic, as there is not a bad note or rhyme anywhere on the record, and many of the songs remain just as powerful and fresh today as they were nearly two decades ago. Though the fact that the album is so good makes it hard to pick a "best" track, few would argue that there was a more important and influential song off of the record then the equally iconic single, "One Love."

Finding a perfect balance between hard hitting bass, a head-bobbing beat, and a catchy melody, "One Love" contains one of the most memorable musical backings in all of hip-hop history. Produced by Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, the core of the songs' sound comes from the double bass and piano taken from The Heath Brothers' 1975 song, "Smilin' Billy Suite Part II" while the drum break is lifted from Parilament's 1970 song, "Come In Out The Rain." This combination gives "One Love" a fantastic juxtaposition of a smooth, relaxed, jazzy feeling with the hard hitting, powerful sound of Nas' voice and the break beat. Q-Tip also contributes vocals to the songs' chorus, but it is his work with the songs' structure where he truly shines. Though the song found little mainstream success, the overall impact of "One Love" could not be denied, and it remains an absolutely iconic moment in hip-hop history to this day. Truth be told, "One Love" is so well produced, and the music so perfect, that nearly two decades later, the song remains fresh and largely unrivaled both musically and lyrically within the hip-hop scene. Giving a clear nod to the Bob Marley song of the same name, "One Love" almost answers Marley's rhetorical line from the song, " there a place for the hopeless sinner, who has hurt all mankind just to save his own?" As the song unfolds, Nas is clearly delivering news and hope to his friends in prison via a series of absolutely stunning verses. While the music and beats are absolutely phenomenal, they are somewhat restrained, leaving the focus of the song on Nas' top-notch rhyming style and his truly unsurpassed writing skills.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of what Nas did after the release of Illmatic, the album had instantly solidified his name as one of hip-hop's greatest emcees, and his rhymes on "One Love" are among the best he ever penned. With his smooth, almost relaxed delivery style, the verses seem to simply flow out fo Nas, and he is without question one of the most natural sounding emcees ever. It is almost impossible to name all the artists who took some of their style from Nas, but suffice to say, hip-hop music simply would not have progressed as it did without his presence. Lyrically, "One Love" is nothing short of stunning, as the "letters" that Nas presents give even the most oblivious person an insight into the realities of life for those in jail as well as life on the streets. The opening verse is one of the most chilling and "real" rhymes ever written, as Nas "tells" his imprisoned friend everything from new of his (the prisoner's) new child to a friends' niece getting killed to the fact that his (the prisoner's) girlfriend has been unfaithful. The second verse speaks of many of the same issues, but Nas also reassures this second friend that he himself is looking out for his family, embodying the "One Love" ideal. Yet it is in the songs' final verse that Nas drops one of his most chilling rhymes ever, as he recounts a conversation he had with an :up and coming" thug in the neighborhood. Discussing everything from murder to drugs, Nas almost subtle drops a bomb when he reveals that, "...only twelve trying to tell me that he liked my style..." The fact that Nas portrays someone so young in this light is unlike anything else in hip-hop history, and serves as a final, stunning revelation in this true lyrical masterpiece.

While the West Coast "G-Funk" was clearly still dominating the hip-hop scene, nothing could have prepared the world for the power and impact of Nas' legendary 1994 debut, Illmatic. Containing some of the most revered songs in hip-hop history, there is not an off or dull moment anywhere on the record, and it served as a blueprint for countless emcees that followed. From Q-Tip's absolutely superb musical backing to the overall tone of the song, "One Love" is one of the finest songs on the record, and it is without question the song that would define Nas as an artist. As a series of letters to his friends in prison, one would be hard pressed to find a song that more accurately defines the over-used term "keeping it real," as there is no boasting here, it is simply tales of the truth of what is occurring outside the walls of the prison. With some of the most gritty, yet absolutely mesmerizing lyrics ever penned, Nas finds a strange balance between the hardcore life of the streets and trying to give hope and strength to the imprisoned people to whom he speaks. Making things clearly personal, Nas even name drops fellow rapper Cormega, who at the time was serving his own prison sentence. The lyrics throughout "One Love" are nothing short of devastating, and many of the lines from the song continue to be referenced and "bitten" to this day, further solidifying the songs' iconic status. Easily one of the most pivotal moments in hip-hop history, Nas' 1994 song, "One Love" is a true musical masterpiece and is beyond required listening for every music fan.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January 27: The Specials, "A Message To You Rudy"

Artist: The Specials
Song: "A Message To You Rudy"
Album: The Specials
Year: 1979

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While every genre of music has had different stylistic changes over time, there is perhaps no genre where they are as well defined and as clear as within the SKA style of music. Containing at least three (depending on your opinion) distinct waves of music, the second-wave SKA sound fused together the island sounds of reggae with the established SKA sound, as well as a number of different external styles of music. The three major waves of the SKA sound can be seen as representing the end of the three consecutive decades, beginning with the 1960's, and this is also why each wave has its own unique characteristics. Easily one of the most, if not THE most important band of the second wave of the SKA genre (also simply called "SKA revival") was the seminal U.K. band, The Specials. Their 1979 self-titled debut record is a true classic of music, and the album perfectly captures everything that was happening musically at that time in history. Fusing together the reggae roots sound with elements of SKA, rockabilly, punk, and even a foreshadowing of what would be called "new wave," The Specials, is without question one of the pivotal records in history. The albums' lead track, a cover of Dandy Livingstone's 1967 song, "A Message To You Rudy" stands today as not only one of The Specials' most beloved songs, but one of the most classic songs in the entire history of the SKA/reggae genres.

"A Message To You Rudy" is truly a special song, as it has proved its influence in being covered by artists ranging from Sublime to Amy Winehouse to Barenaked Ladies over the years, yet there is little question that the recording by The Specials remains the definitive version. The Specials are the very definition of everything that it meant to be part of the "2 Tone" movement within SKA, and though many people assume this name was given due to the black and white checkered fashion style, it was actually derived from the fact that a majority of the bands of this style were recording for 2Tone Records. The iconic logo for the label is actually a drawing of a photograph of Peter Tosh, and this further solidified the connection with the reggae sound. On "A Message To You Rudy," The Specials put one of the most amazing personal spins on a song that has ever been heard, as they seamlessly incorporate many sounds and styles into the SKA sound. At the base of the music is the classic "SKA" guitar sound, and this sound is emphasized by the brilliant, light keyboard work of Jerry Dammers. However, there is little question that the key to the fantastic sound on the song is the combination of Rico Rodriguez's trombone and the flugel horn of Dick Cuthell. In fact, Rodriguez also holds the distinction of having played on both this version, as well as the original 1967 recording of the song. It is this smooth, persistent horn progression that defines the song, and would go on to be the key factor in later SKA revivals. Without any "studio gloss," the song embodies the minimalist approach of the punk movement, and the repetitive, simple musical progressions further this connection.

Keeping in line with the stripped down nature of the music, the vocals on "A Message To You Rudy" follow a similar style and progression. Flawlessly mixing together solo vocals alongside group harmonies, nearly every member of the group has their voice somewhere on the track. Handling a majority of the lead vocals on "A Message To You Rudy" are Terry Hall and Neville Staple, and their direct singing-speaking approach is nothing short of perfect on the track. When the rest of the group jumps in, the harmonies are absolutely fantastic, yet there is never a point where the vocals get too loud or too aggressive, giving the song a constant, smooth and relaxed mood. However, though the overall feel of the song is laid back, the truth of the matter is, the lyrics are one of the most direct and clear warnings ever committed to record. The "message" of the song is simple, telling the "Rude Boys" of the era that their carelessness and questionable choices in life will likely land them in jail or in the grave. The "Rude Boys" or "Rudies/Rudy" was a term coined in the early 1960's in Jamaica, referring to juvenile delinquents and then later used as a broader term in reference to second and third wave SKA fans. It is with this knowledge that the lyrics become far more clear, and one can understand the true meaning behind lines like, "...better think of your future...else you'll wind up in jail..." Due to this almost universal application of the sentiment of the lyrics, the song has persevered over the decades, and has been covered or slightly altered across countless genres, proving to be one of the most timeless lyrics ever penned.

Throughout music history, there are a handful of moments in time that have been perfectly captured on recordings. Without question, the 1979 debut from The Specials is one of those, as it encapsulates everything that was happening as the punk ethos began to bleed across into other genres, and the brighter, more reggae driven sounds began to take hold. Taking the minimalist approach that punk had perfected, and fusing it together with the more upbeat, more musical sounds of the reggae movement, the second wave of SKA music re-introduced the music-loving public to one of the most enduring and endearing sounds in history. With their debut record finding great success in the U.K., The Specials remain today one of the most important bands in the development of music, as their sound served as the catalyst for the "new wave" era, as well as the foundation for the third wave SKA movement nearly a decade later. Furthering their revival spirit, The Specials kicked off their debut record with a cover of the classic song, "A Message To You Rudy," and their version quickly became their defining song, as well as one of the songs that defines the entire SKA movement to this day. From the perfectly organized music to the top-notch vocal work, The Specials' 1979 single, "A Message To You Rudy" is unquestionably one of the most enjoyable and most important songs in music history and the song remains just as enjoyable and influential more than thirty years later.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 26: Gladys Knight & The Pips, "Midnight Train To Georiga"

Artist: Gladys Knight & The Pips
Song: "Midnight Train To Georgia"
Album: Imagination
Year: 1973

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Throughout the course of music history, regardless of era or musical style, there are a handful of themes that have persisted. From songs of unrequited love to the joys of the being alive to questions on the overall puzzling nature of life, it is often these universal themes that make even the most remote genres seem not as foreign. Then of course, there are the countless number of songs that tell tales of people aspiring for greatness, but ultimately falling short. While this theme has been famous explored by everyone from Tom Petty to Metallica, there has perhaps never been a finer and more beautiful example of this theme than the 1973 hit from Gladys Knight and The Pips, the unrivaled, "Midnight Train To Georgia." Bringing together absolutely phenomenal orchestration, brilliant vocals, and one of the finest lyrics in history, "Midnight Train To Georgia" would rise all the way to the top spot on the charts, as well as win a Grammy Award and become one of the most cherished songs in the history of music. The song remains the ultimate song for those who have traveled far in hopes of achieving fame in music or movies, and it also stands as one of the most beautiful love songs in history. Having been featured in countless films, most notably in a rather ironic scene in The Deer Hunter, "Midnight Train To Georgia" is without question one of the most perfect and iconic songs ever recorded. Though it was actually originally recorded and released a year earlier by Cissy Houston, it is the Gladys Knight version that remains not only the definitive version, but one of the greatest songs in music history.

In many ways, "Midnight Train To Georgia" fuses together a number of different musical styles, and this is rather reflective of that time in music. Caught between the end of the Motown and soul era, and the beginnings of the disco and rock movements, one can easily see 1973 as one of the most eclectic years in music history. It is very much due to this that there are multiple styles at play, from the soulful vocals to the hybrid of Motown and doo-wop on the backing harmonies to the orchestral musical arrangements, with a subtle layer of funk to top it off. These amazing arrangements are highlighted by the soft cello and violin contrasted with the sharp punctuations of trumpets and saxophones. In many ways, this juxtaposition in sound is parallel in the powerful lead vocals of Knight against the more restrained harmonies and backing vocals of The Pips. The soul of the music on "Midnight Train To Georgia" unquestionably comes from the rhythm section, and the bassline is one of the finest that was NOT written and performed by The Funk Brothers. It is within the rhythm to the song that the sounds of Motown and funk shine through, and this is of very little surprise as the bass player was, in fact, former Funk Brothers player, Bob Babbitt. Also featuring the likes of Randy and Michael Brecker, the musicians found on "Midnight Train To Georgia" are without question some of the finest in history, and it is the combination of their performance with the magnificent vocals that makes the song such a timeless classic.

Having been making hit records for more than a decade, it was almost a bit of a surprise that Gladys Knight and The Pips scored this hit in 1973. Having recently departed Motown Records, "Midnight Train To Georgia" was the final proof that, regardless of "where" an artist was, truly great talent would always shine through. Without question, "Midnight Train To Georgia" is not only Gladys Knight's finest vocal moment, but easily one of the most stunning vocals in all of music history. From the deep, soulful verses to the crying, heart-wrenching choruses, Knight excels across the music scales, and there are very few vocal performances that even come close to the power and emotion. Perfectly capturing the feeling of the lover telling the cautionary tale of her boyfriend's quest for fame and fortune, Knight brings the story to life in vivid fashion. The basis for the song can be summed up in the iconic line, "...superstar, but he didn't get far..." as the narrator chooses to stand with her love, though he initially left her behind. These subtle lyrical interjections from The Pips remain equally as iconic as the lead vocals, and the interplay between Knight and The Pips exemplifies the ideal way in which such a setup should function. Truth be told, the "woo-woo's" from The Pips are perhaps as memorable as the lead vocal, and they were highlighted in one of the most amusing parodies, when in 1976, The Pips performed the backing vocals sans Knight on The Richard Pryor Show. Truly one of the most stunning vocal performances in history, few songs even come close to the perfection found on "Midnight Train To Georgia."

Standing today as one of the most iconic songs in music history, "Midnight Train To Georgia" is perhaps the essential song about the failed quest for fame and fortune. Strangely enough, the song was inspired by a conversation concerning a pre-Charlie's Angels' Farrah Fawcett, though it is in no way a tale of her life. The songs' writer, Jim Weatherly, was said to have had a conversation with Fawcett's boyfriend, Lee Majors, and he said that she was "taking a midnight plane to Houston to see her family," and this served as the beginning of the songs' formation. Though the finished product in no way references the original inspiration for the song, "Midnight Train To Georgia" can be applied to countless situations, and the phrase itself has become a part of the vernacular of society. This crossover into so many different aspects of music and society as a whole serves as a testament to the overall impact of the song, and that is much the reason that it stands today as one of the most important songs in music history. Bringing together musical perfection on all fronts, "Midnight Train To Georgia" contains one of the most beautifully diverse sonic landscapes, and the interplay between the traditional backing band and the string section, punctuated by the bright horns, makes the song one of the most instantly recognizable tunes in history. Capped off by the similarly phenomenal interplay between Gladys Knight and The Pips, "Midnight Train To Georgia" stands today as one of the most magnificent and truly unparalleled recordings in music history.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January 25: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #4"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself. (The volume gets a bit low on one track...sorry.)

1. The Ramones, "Blitzkreig Bop" The Ramones (introduced by Joe Strummer from the "London Calling" radio program, 2000/02/02)
2. Soundgarden, "Rusty Cage" Badmotorfinger
3. Sam And Dave, "Hold On, I'm (A')Coming"
4. ZZ Top, "Waitin' For The Bus" Tres Hombres
5. Dire Straits, "Sultans Of Swing" (original version) Sultans Of Swing (single)
6. Tinariwen, "Oualahila Ar Teninam" Assamakoul
7. The Clash, "Career Opportunities" The Clash (UK)
8. Ray Charles, "Am I Blue (Live)" The 50th Anniversary Collection
9. Beastie Boys, "Pass The Mic" Check Your Head
10. Liz Phair, "Fuck And Run" Exile In Guyville
11. The Damned, "Neat Neat Neat" Damned Damned Damned (Japanese Mastering)
12. Eddie Hazel, "From The Bottom Of My Soul(Heart)" Game, Dames, And Guitar Thangs

Sunday, January 24, 2010

January 24: White Zombie, "Super-Charger Heaven"

Artist: White Zombie
Song: "Super-Charger Heaven"
Album: Astro Creep: 2000 - Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head
Year: 1995

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Over the long course of music history, there has never been a single genre that is so often maligned as that of heavy metal. Often written off as "nothing more than screaming and loud guitars," many people do not realize the amazing variance in sound and undeniable talent that can be found throughout the genre. Like any other style of music, there are a number of different sub-genres within heavy metal, and the genre contains just as many important and indispensable bands as any other style of music. One of the many metal-based bands that forever altered the landscape of music was the band that introduced an entire generation to this more aggressive style of rock: White Zombie. Exploding onto the mainstream music scene with their surprise 1993 hit, "Thunder Kiss '65," White Zombie proved to be one of the most creative and groove-driven metal bands in history. The groups' second major label record, 1995's Astro Creep: 2000 - Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head remains one of the most brilliant metal albums in history, with the album, as well as a trio of singles breaking into the top twenty on the charts. Among these amazing singles was one of White Zombie's most extraordinary musical explorations, and a song that perfectly encapsulated everything that made their music so unique, the albums' final single: "Super-Charger Heaven." Often incorrectly called "Devil Man" due to its chorus, "Super-Charger Heaven" remains one of the most powerful and absolutely phenomenal heavy metal songs in history.

While White Zombie had already found success in the single that preceded "Super-Charger Heaven," the unexpected popular "More Human Than Human," one can make the case that it is "Super Charger Heaven" that is more true to the groups' sound. Mixing together a handful of sound clips from older films, alongside White Zombie's consistently stunning brand of funky, groovy, heavy metal, "Super-Charger Heaven" is one of the most fantastically high-paced, heart-pumping songs ever created. In many ways, it is the groove that sets the music of White Zombie apart from the rest of the genre, and this is also one of the main reasons why the group was able to find more mainstream success. Without question one of the finest bass players of her generation, Sean Yseult is absolutely brilliant on "Super-Charger Heaven," as her bassline give the song a high-octane groove unlike that of anything else ever recorded. The other half of the rhythms section, drummer John Tempesta is perhaps best known for his work with the band Tempest, and Astro Creep: 2000 marks his debut with White Zombie. Yet perhaps the most stunning music aspect of "Super-Charger Heaven" comes from the guitar work of the man simply known as J. Having been the longest-running guitarist for White Zombie, J (real name: Jay Yuenger) presents one of his most powerful and creative guitar progressions. The core riff, as well as his soloing keep the groups' distinctive groove-metal firmly intact, yet he also creates one one of the most entrancing and original pieces in history, and the song is sure to whip any listener into a frenzy.

Yet as fantastic as the music is on "Super-Charger Heaven," nearly every White Zombie song comes down to one thing: the voice of Rob Zombie. There are very few performers of any style or any era that have as instantly recognizable a voice as Rob Zombie, and his powerful, growling scream has rarely sounded as good as it does on this song. Perfectly walking the middle ground between the scream of heavy metal and a menacing, wonderfully evil tone, it is constantly clear that Rob Zombie knows exactly how he wants the sound to be heard and felt, and it is often his vocal work that makes it so. One of the other fantastic aspects of the music of White Zombie is the way in which the lyrics and soundbytes reference many classic films and other moments in history. "Super-Charger Heaven" is no different, as the opening sound-clip is lifted from the original, 1963 version of the film, The Haunting. Later, one of the songs' most distinctive moments is the playing of actor Christoper Lee delivering the words, " is not heresy, and I will not recant" from the 1976 film, To The Devil A Daughter. The strange line of language later in the song is from the same film, and it is in fact Latin that roughly translates to: " are working in your heart, you are not God, never are you in unity and you are common, out of union in despite of God." The actual lyrics to the song fall along these same lines, as when Rob Zombie sings, "...bury me an angel, God I need some inspiration..." it is clearly a reference to the 1971 film, Bury Me An Angel. This brilliant ability to craft such amazing, complex textures into their music, as well as Rob Zombie's unmistakable voice is one of the key reasons why White Zombie remains one of the most highly respected bands in music history.

Standing tall against the idea of "every heavy metal band sounds the same," White Zombie are without question one of the most uniquely creative bands in music history. Taking the darker formula of heavy metal and fusing it together with an uncanny ability to groove, there has never been another band quite like White Zombie. The layers of sound, from the vocals to the music to the perfectly placed sound clips, White Zombie created some of the most original and simply fantastic music that the world has ever heard. Their second major-label album, Astro Creep: 2000 picked up where their previous record left off, and it is a wonderful collection of powerful, yet undeniably groovy heavy metal songs. As a band, White Zombie have rarely sounded better, and from the dizzying basswork of Yseult to the crushing guitar playing of J, "Super-Charger Heaven" perfectly captures everything that makes the band so extraordinary. Though Astro Creep: 2000 would be the bands' swan-song, they would have been hard pressed to end the band on a higher note, as every song on the record is superb, and it is without question one of the greatest heavy metal records ever made. Mixing together the pulverizing, yet hypnotic music alongside the magnificent vocal work of Rob Zombie, there are few songs that so perfectly prove that "not all heavy metal is the same" as White Zombie's 1995 tour dé force, "Super-Charger Heaven."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

January 23: Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood, "Miles Behind"

Artist: Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood
Song: "Miles Behind"
Album: Out Louder
Year: 2006

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Though the mainstream popularity of the jazz genre is certainly not what is was during the 1950's, the spirit behind the music, and the high level of creativity still stands strong in modern times. As the decades have passed, new technology and new styles of music have helped to push the jazz genre into new territory, and there are countless artists who seem to never be satisfied with the status quo of jazz music. Along with this constant quest for a new style, the idea of collaboration with other jazz greats has stayed remained strong, and this helps to create some of the most exciting and original records in the current music scene. Without question, one of the most intriguing jazz collaborations of the modern era occurred in 1997, when the jazz-fusion trio, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, essentially became the backing band for John Scofield's record, A Go-Go. The album was nothing short of brilliant, yet it took nearly a decade for the quartet to again enter the studio, and the resulting record was 2006's Out Louder. A far more collaborative effort, Out Louder is without question one of the most creative records of the modern era, and nearly every song on the album is worth experiencing. However, taking a far more upbeat and aggressive approach than anything they had previously done together, and unlike anything else in jazz at the time, the true genius of Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood comes on the stunning composition, "Miles Behind."

The song itself is unquestionably a nod to the great Miles Davis (minus the trumpet), as the style and spirit of Davis shine through. Sometimes the sound even borders on a heavy metal sound, as it is without question one of the most aggressive and powerful jazz tracks ever recorded. The song serves as notice that Out Louder will be unlike any other jazz record, and it solidifies the fact that this quartet has a chemistry far greater than nearly any other jazz collaboration in history. Master percussionist Billy Martin plays absolutely out of his mind on "Miles Behind," as he files through the songs' high speed pace. Though the pace is very speedy, Martin proves his talent by throwing in a wide range of fills and styles, and his performance stands as one of the finest drumming pieces ever recorded. The balance between the sound of the four musicians is the key to the success of the songs, and when one listens to the bass, this becomes immediately clear. The other half of the rhythm section, bassist Chris Wood, performs equally as well, as he flies all over the fret-board. The fact that Wood is not buried in the mix as most are within the rock and even jazz genre was clearly a conscious move, and the overall sound is nothing short of stunning, as there is even a point where it sounds as if the group is borrowing a progression from Phish's "Down With Disease." "Miles Behind" also serves as clear proof that the team of Martin and Wood are without question one of the finest jazz rhythm sections in history.

Providing one of the wildest and most mesmerizing melodies in the history of jazz music, the pairing of John Scofield's guitar and the organ playing of John Medeski stands as one of the finest jazz pairings in history. There is perhaps no clearer example of how different "Miles Behind" is from anything else in jazz then when one compares Scofield's performance here to anything else in his massive recorded catalog. Though his trademark guitar tone remains intact, Scofield has never played so aggressively, yet even with this heavier approach, the style of jazz, and Scofield's personal touch are never lost. Truth be told, there are countless moments on the song where it seems that Scofield is about to jump into an all-out rock shred, but the fact that the entire group is able to walk that line is the true magic of the song. Playing at an almost unfathomable speed, John Medeski has rarely sounded as brilliant as he does on "Miles Behind." With absolutely mind-blowing solo moments, as well as some of the most powerful chord progressions ever recorded, there has simply never been anything similar to the display of talent and creativity that is shown here from Medeski. While all four musicians clearly share a spirit, it is also unquestionable that the link between Scofield and Medeski is where the true magic lies, and the way in which the two play off one another serves as a musical testament to their place as one of jazz music's finest duos.

Throughout the entire history of jazz music, the idea of giving the style a modern twist, and never staying in the same sound long served as two of the most important elements. Within the modern music scene, jazz has taken a back seat to more rock and pop based music, yet these two elements still stand strong and enable the genre to produce some of the most original and interesting music in modern times. As one of the finest jazz guitarists in the world, John Scofield has solidified his legend in the genre, making some of the most unique and stunning albums over the past thirty years. Similarly, the fusion trio of Medeski, Martin, and Wood have put their own stamp on jazz music, and remain one of the most consistent and creative forces in modern music. Seeming t pick up exactly where they left off nearly a decade earlier, the collaborative effort between the four, 2006's Out Louder, is without question one of the most musically exciting records in recent history. While the album is filled with fantastic songs, none quite compare to the groups' nod to Scofield's former employer, Miles Davis, on the scorching composition, "Miles Behind." With a pace and tone that borders on hard rock or even heavy metal, each group member performs like never before, and the chemistry between these four is clearly beyond that of nearly any other jazz grouping in history. Standing as one of the most impressive and most accessible jazz recordings of the modern era, to truly understand and appreciate the genius behind Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood's "Miles Behind," one must experience it firsthand.

Friday, January 22, 2010

January 22: The Kinks, "You Really Got Me"

Artist: The Kinks
Song: "You Really Got Me"
Album: single/The Kinks
Year: 1964

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Throughout the history of recorded music, there are a handful of musical progressions that were so brilliantly crafted, that they remain truly iconic to this day. Whether it was a stunning saxophone line or a crushing guitar riff, these most memorable of compositions stand as pivotal moments and have shaped the state of music that followed. Yet even though these musical works are often so important due to their complexity, one cannot deny that often times, the intrigue behind a certain song actually lives in its simplicity. This is perhaps no more true than in the powerful, yet rather elementary guitar riff that serves as the main factor in one of the most important songs in history: The Kinks' 1964 hit, "You Really Got Me." Appearing late in the year, the song rocketed up the charts in the U.K., and would later find similar success in the U.S., making The Kinks one of the most popular groups of the "British Invasion." The song, which was actually the third single from the group, would become so popular that the band would re-record the song and it remains the finest moment of their self-titled debut album. Over the decades, it has become one of the most heavily covered songs in history, with the most memorable surfacing with a testosterone-fueled cover on Van Halen's 1978 debut record. Both the original and the Van Halen cover remain in heavy radio rotation to this day, and this is largely due to the truly perfect crafting in every aspect of the song.

Though nearly every aspect of "You Really Got Me" is fantastic, there is little question that the key to the staying power of the song is the iconic guitar riff. This simple musical progression serves as one of the most obvious symbols of "success through simplicity," and in both its form and tone, the riff is easily one of the most influential in music history. The riff, which came out of "playing with" the core riff from the equally iconic "Louie, Louie," would be the first of a number of straightforward riffs that would power The Kinks' next few singles to equal success. Truth be told, the main riff is as much about the progression as it is about the tone, as the more aggressive, almost heavy metal sound was a result of guitarist Dave Davies slicing the cone of his amplifier with a razor blade, as well as poking a hole in it with a pin. The guitar solo on "You Really Got Me" is also the source of one of the most persistent (and false) rumors in rock history, as many have been led to believe that it was played by Jimmy Page. Though Page was involved in the recording of the album as a session musician, this occurred well after "You Really Got Me" was recorded, and Page has denied his involvement in the song, though the rumor persists. However, there is much truth to the fact that the group playing on "You Really Got Me" is not the "real" lineup of The Kinks, as both the drumming and piano/keyboard work on the single were performed by session musicians. Standing as one of the finest drummers in history, Bobby Graham was called in for the track in the place of "normal" drummer Mick Avery. The keyboards were played by either Arthur Greensdale or Deep Purple's Jon Lord, and along with the Davies' bothers, the song remains nothing short of iconic.

With the music having a slightly dirty, aggressive feel that was unlike anything else being done at the time, band co-founder and lead vocalist, Ray Davies, mirrors the style of the music with his fantastic vocal work. Giving the song an amazing swagger, Davies has an attitude and growl to his voice that was a far cry from the clean, friendly sounds that were dominating the music charts at the time. Though he also makes it clear that he has an exceptionally clean and powerful voice during the verses, it is his adjustment during the bridges and choruses that truly set this song apart from others, and in many ways, one can see his more aggressive approach as a pre-cursor to the sounds of both heavy metal and punk rock. Yet much like the music, both the singing style and the lyrics are very simple and straightforward, and this certainly played a key role in the songs' overall popularity and continued musical relevance. Taking the direct approach, the song has no subtlety whatsoever, and it is one of the most perfect pictures of a raw, unhindered infatuation that has ever been penned. Ray Davies did an absolutely brilliant job at capturing the emotion of the early stages of love and yearning, and this is much of the reason why the song has continued relevance more than forty years after its initial release. The fantastic, universal lyric, combined with the absolutely perfect vocal sound of Ray Davies' voice became the blueprint for countless bands from a wide range of genres, and yet this original recording remains fresh and equally enjoyable to this day.

Once called "the track which invented heavy metal," The Kinks' 1964 hit, "You Really Got Me" stands among the most elite songs in music history, and it has earned the description of "perfect" in every single aspect. While in some ways it is impossible to describe why this song "works" and has had so much success, if one steps back and examines each element, it becomes clear why a song that sounded quite different from everything else at the time was able to become such an important piece of music history. The crunching core guitar riff of the song is truly an iconic piece of music, and while it follows the somewhat simple formula that was dominating popular music at the time, it is the distorted, more aggressive sound that made the song absolutely unforgettable. This avoidance of the "clean" sound and feel permeates every aspect of the song, and with a slightly menacing vocal approach, as well as a lyric that can be seen as a perfectly capturing the heat of lust, The Kinks set themselves apart from the more "proper" popular music. The way in which "You Really Got Me" was crafted would serve as the template for their later hits, yet it also played a massive role in the formation of both heavy metal and punk rock in the decades that followed. Though it has been covered countless times over the past forty years, there truly is nothing that can compare to the phenomenal original 1964 recording, as The Kinks truly changed the world with their hit, "You Really Got Me."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January 21: Digable Planets, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)"

Artist: Digable Planets
Song: "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)"
Album: Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
Year: 1993

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

If there is one thing that time has proven, it is the fact that even during times when one form of music completely dominates the ears of the general public, truly great songs still manage to find a way through. This has perhaps never been as obvious than during the early 1990's, when "grunge" and "gangsta" rap music ruled the airwaves. It was during this period that an entirely new sound began to emerge, and while many are quite familiar with the concept of "alternative rock," most do not realize that there was a similar movement of "alternative rap." With groups like P.M. Dawn, digital underground, and countless other artists who demanded more from the rap genre, a new movement of rappers with extremely unique approaches began to take shape. During this time, there was perhaps no other group that so perfectly defined this more conscious, more creative brand of hip-op than Digable Planets, and their debut single, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," remains one of the most important rap songs to this day. Sounding like nothing else did at the time, the song quickly found crossover success and without question, the success of the song and album paved the way for nearly every later performer of the so-called "conscious" hip-hop movement. From the brilliant music to the unparalleled rapping, there are few songs in history that are as uniquely wonderful as Digable Planets' 1993 hit, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)."

While creative uses of sampling was one of the foundations of the entire hip-hop genre, Digable Planets created musical structures like had never before been heard. Recording, producing, and mixing the album entirely on their own, the group was able to fully realize their entire musical vision, and there is no question that this isolation of sorts was one of the keys behind the groups' completely unique sound. Handling nearly all of the production and the man responsible for the music found throughout the album was Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler. On "Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," Butler creates a sonic mood the likes of which had never been heard. Clearly playing off of the idea of "cool" in jazz, Butler crafts an amazingly hip and smooth sound, based off of only three simple samples. Fusing together parts of "Stretchin" by, James Williams, "Foodstamps" by, 24 Carat Black, and "On The Subway" by, Last Poets, Digable Planets manage to recreate the "cool" vibe of the jazz era, yet doing so with an unquestionably modern twist. This more melodic approach was a far cry from the heavy bass, P-Funk based sounds that were dominating at the time, yet the pop appeal was undeniable, as "Rebith Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" served as a refreshing alternative to the countless "clones" that were beginning to overrun the landscape of music. With its smooth, funky bassline and unforgettable horn hook, the song remains one of the most iconic of the era, and it is still instantly recognizable to this day.

While the music on the backing track is nothing short of iconic, the rhymes of each emcee is equally fantastic, and the song features a number of "classic" hip-hop lines. Each of Digable Planets' three members take a verse on "Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," and the high level of lyrical mastery proves to run through each emcee. Not needing to drop any unnecessary curse words, the lyrical prowess of these three emcees was far beyond that of any of their peers at the time, and the number of amazing images and references found throughout the song is nearly immeasurable. Furthermore, the presence of Mary Ann "Ladybug" Vieira on the track marks a major moment for female emcees, as one can make the case that it is her verse that shines brightest. The group makes no attempt to hide their influences, as they name drop everyone from Miles Davis to the film Cleopatra Jones, furthering the jazzy-funk sound and mood of the song. With each group member bringing a similarly clear and straightforward rhyming style, each lyric is packed with brilliant style, and with likes like "...we be to rap what key be to lock..." and the absolutely iconic reference to the aforementioned film, there was simply nothing else previous that sounded quite like "Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)." The fact that the song had so much impact, whilst being far more laid back and toned down than nearly anything else in the hip-hop genre to date, serves as a testament to the true greatness of the song, as well as the extraordinary effort in writing and rhyming of each of the groups' members.

Serving as a massive influence on everyone from The Fugees to Jurassic 5 to nearly every rap group that followed, Digable Planets were one of the most uniquely important groups to emerge from the eclectic musical scene of the early 1990's. Bringing a rapping style and musical approach like nothing else before it, their debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), offered an alternative to the overly-aggressive, increasingly unoriginal "gangsta rap" that was dominating the music scene at the time. The fact that the group created one of the most original and important albums in history without any "major label" help makes the record even more impressive, and one simply cannot overstate the impact that the album had across nearly every musical genre. Presenting a style of hip-hop that was far more intelligent and creative than the profanity-laden "gangsta" style, Digable Planets proved that brilliant lyrics could be just as enjoyable and memorable as any other. Backed by one of the smoothest and most unforgettable musical creations, "Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" remains one of the most iconic songs of the decade, and though others would try, no other song ever reached a similar level of "cool" within the hip-hop genre. Each of the three emcees brings an absolutely phenomenal verse to the song, and this helps to keep the rhymes fresh, whilst similarly giving a wonderful change to the sound of the song. Truth be told, "Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" is about as perfect a hip-hop song as has ever been recorded, and it is much the reason that the song remains just as enjoyable and original more than fifteen years after it first appeared on the music scene.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 20: Dire Straits, "Sultans Of Swing"

Artist: Dire Straits
Song: "Sultans Of Swing"
Album: single/Dire Straits
Year: 1978

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab) -ORIGINAL SINGLE VERSION- (taken from my vinyl, sorry for the few "pops")


There are few traditions in rock music that are as long standing and time honored as that of the so called "bar band." An overwhelming majority of bands spend months to years playing small bars and clubs across the globe in hopes of gaining an audience and reaching international fame. While nearly all of these acts fail at this mission, there are of course a handful that do break through; and yet there is also a group of small bands that are more than content to stay in the smaller venues. In many cases, these bands that enjoy the intimacy of a smaller setting represent everything that is pure about music, and some of these groups stand as the most talented on the planet. Though they are often ignored, they were perhaps no better celebrated than in the sound and style of the first single from Dire Straits, the legendary song, "Sultans Of Swing." While many are very familiar with the second recording of this song (second like above), there are very few that know it is not the original, let alone have heard the first recording of the song (first link above). Truth be told, "Sultans Of Swing" was originally recorded at Pathway Studios in 1978 as part of Dire Straits' now famous five-song demo. It was after hearing this version of "Sultans Of Swing" that executives at Phonogram Records gave the group a deal, and the song was re-recorded for their self-titled debut record. Regardless of which version one listens to, the spirit of the song, as well as the unquestionably high level of talent within the band shines through brightly, and it is much the reason that both Dire Straits and "Sultans Of Swing" remain true icons in music history.

There are a number of differences between the two versions of this song, the most obvious being the far higher overall recording quality of the second version. Obviously due to the fact that they were in a more professional studio, there is a certain level of raw, intimate music power that remains in the first version. Also, the "single" version of the song has a slightly different lyrical arrangement, and the music has small distinctions as well. Regardless of which version you listen to, perhaps the most important similarity is the presence of what is without question one of the finest and most iconic guitar riffs in music history. While many guitarists take a few albums to establish themselves as guitar icons, Mark Knopfler did so instantly, and both the riff and solos on "Sultans Of Swing" remain some of the finest work of his career. Without question one of the most highly respected guitarists in history, Knopfler is absolutely on fire during this song, as his precision and musical creativity here remain largely unparalleled to this day. The way he is able to work with and around rhythm guitarist (and brother) David Knopfler is fantastic, and on the original single, Mark also picks up a few rhythm parts. The smooth, almost jazzy mood of the song is deployed and controlled by the equally brilliant rhythm section of bassist John Illsey and drummer David "Pick" Withers. The fact that the group was able to so perfectly balance so many styles together simultaneously is certainly one of the key reasons they were signed to a record deal, and the truth is, there has never been another band quite like Dire Straits.

Though it is almost impossible to talk about Mark Knopfler and speak of anything BUT his guitar playing skill, one cannot overlook the fact that he is also one of the most uniquely talented vocalists in music history. Possessing what is unquestionably one of the most instantly recognizable voices in music history, Knopfler's speak-singing approach gives the songs of Dire Straits a wonderfully unique feel, and on "Sultans Of Swing," it is no different. In many ways, it is Knopfler's voice that gives "Sultans Of Swing" its "cool" feel, and one can easily tell that there is at least some autobiographical aspect of the song. The lyric of "Sultans Of Swing" is perhaps the finest tribute to an ignored, almost forgotten bar/pub band, yet Knopfler makes it clear that though they play in a bar, they are without question a musical force with which to be reckoned. Containing some of the most memorable lyrics in music history, upon the release of the "second" recording, BBC Radio refused to play the song due to its "high lyrical content," but the single was able to breakthrough on both sides of the Atlantic, proving the amazing power of the sound of Dire Straits. Perhaps the most notable lyrical difference between the two recordings (aside from the rhythm of the words) is the simple addition of the phrase "thank you" during the songs' final verse, and this is what makes the original recording detectable from any other version. With nearly every line of the song now holding an almost iconic status, Mark Knopfler sings flawlessly on the song, and the mood he is able to vocally create helps to make "Sultans Of Swing" one of the greatest songs ever written.

When it comes to a wonderfully vivid picture of a truly special and powerful band, who are more than content to spend their musical lives in their local pub, there is simply nothing that compares to the sound and majesty of Dire Straits' legendary song, "Sultans Of Swing." With his amazing lyrics and flawless vocal delivery, Mark Knopfler is able to bring the listener inside of the club, and it remains one of the most welcoming, yet awe-inspiring songs ever written. Perfectly summing up the mood of the band in question, Knopfler sings, "And Harry doesn't mind if he doesn't make the scene...he's got a daytime job, he's doin' alright..." This attitude of "yeah, we're good, but it's just a thing we do on the side" is nothing short of endearing, and stands in stark contrast to the "fame at any cost" ideal that permeates a majority of the music industry to this day. Over the decades, the song has been covered countless times, with one of the finest coming during live performances of Trey Anastasio's large ensembles (the irony here being his horn section playing the iconic riff). However, while many have covered the song, none even come close to equaling the simple, yet phenomenal sound and mood of the original, and it makes it less of a surprise that it was largely due to this song that the group gained a recording contract. From the fantastic lyrics to the absolutely mind-blowing musical arrangements, few songs come close to the perfection and power of the first single from Dire Straits, the truly unrivaled, "Sultans Of Swing."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

January 19: Janis Joplin, "Ball And Chain" (Monterey Pops '67)

Artist: Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company
Song: "Ball And Chain"
Album: none/Live At Monterey Pops 1967
Year: 1967

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Throughout the history of recorded music, there are a handful of moments where one can say, "that" is the exact moment when the world became aware of the existence of a new band or singer. A majority of the time, by the time a band "makes it big," their early days have been forgotten, so these moments where, even decades later, one can experience these groundbreaking moments, are beyond precious. Case in point, when it came to completely silencing an audience due to sheer power and emotion, the likes of which had rarely been heard, one must point to June 17, 1967 as the exact day that the world became aware of a woman named Janis Lyn Joplin. As Joplin and her backing band, Big Brother And The Holding Company, were closing their set at the Monterey Pops Music Festival, they brought out their final number, a daring cover of Big Mama Thorton's classic, "Ball And Chain." For a relatively unknown act to attempt such a song was significant in itself; but the fact that a "white girl" was going to sing the vocals made the song even more intriguing. Though the festival may be best remembered for Jimi Hendrix's famous guitar burning, when it came to the musical highlights of the three days, there was simply nothing that compared to Joplin's stirring performance in her bands' final number. As video would later show, Joplin's performance quite literally left the crowd in awe, and it now serves as a preview of the greatness that she would bring over the next three years. Truth be told, it was this very performance that earned Joplin and the band their record deal, and she almost instantly become one of the most important people in all of music.

When one looks deeper into the situation, they will find that Joplin and the band actually performed twice at the festival. During their original time slot, the group refused to let the film crew record (a money dispute), but their set was so good, that they agreed to perform two more songs on camera the following day. It was on this second day that the group made their famous performance, as they played "Combination of The Two" and a solo-less version of "Ball And Chain." The rendition of "Ball And Chain" that was performed at the Monterey Pops Festival (linked above) was far different from the version that would be recorded on the bands' debut record, Cheap Thrill, and in many ways, it shows where the band was musically at the time. The song drops in with a wild, sedated, psychedelic lead, before moving into a deep, soulful blues progression. While both Sam Andrew and James Gurley play exceptionally during the brief moments that they take center stage, after the opening progression, there is little question as to "who" is the star of the band. As one would expect, as soon as it becomes clear that Joplin is "in the zone," the entire band takes a step back, and does their best to not let their playing interfere with what remains one of the most moving vocal performances in music history. One can clearly hear the difference after listening to the later, studio recording of the song, and there is a very stark contrast between the two.

While many have tried, there has simply never been another vocalist quite like Janis Joplin. Without question one of the true Queen's of soul singing, few artists from any era have brought as much soul-bearing honesty to their performances. The fact that Joplin would not only go after such a legendary song, but absolutely blow the song away is a testament to her musical prowess, as when one watches the performance, it is clear that she is completely overtaken and committed to the song. Joplin's vocals soar across the musical scale, as her deep, moody notes bring just as much power and emotion as her higher pitched wailing, as she channels the true emotion of the words which she sings. The performance is nothing short of mesmerizing, as there was and is truly nothing one can do during the song except sit in awe of the raw and unrestrained interpretation that Joplin gives. The song itself is as simple a blues song as one will find anywhere, and Joplin's performance proves that it is not so much "what" one sings, but more to the point "how" they are singing the words. Perfectly capturing every bit of feeling and emotion, the frustration, heartbreak, and general melancholy of the song are blazingly brought to life, and Joplin's performance remains the finest rendition of the song more than four decades later. Quickly staking her claim as not only one of the most talented soul singers in the world, but without question one of the greatest vocalists in history, one would be hard pressed to find a more moving or powerful vocal moment anywhere in history then one finds on this recording of "Ball And Chain."

When a musician has contributed so much to the shape of music that they can be referred to simply by one name, the woman they called "Janis" truly ranks among the most important. Serving as the blueprint for a new generation of soul singers, as well as an icon of the new breed of female vocalists, Janis Joplin remains one of the most uniquely powerful singers in history. Taking the stage in a completely fearless and almost unsettlingly aggressive manner, Joplin re-wrote the books on "what" a female singer could do on stage, and everyone from Patti Smith to Madonna to Chrissy Hynde owe their careers to the pioneering style of Janis Joplin. While her studio recordings are certinaly to be treasured, it is the existence of rare recordings such as her landmark performance at the 1967 Monterey Pops Festival that give a clear picture as to why the group was signed so quickly, as well as why their debut album later that year was one of the most highly anticipated releases in history. Joplin quickly grabs the crowd with her stirring and completely engrossing stage presence, and the few crowd images after the performance perfectly capture the moment, as one sees audience members sitting stunned and shaking their heads in amazement. Thankfully, "listenable" copies of this legendary performance exist, as it captures a truly special moment in music history: when with her unparalleled performance of "Ball And Chain," Janis Joplin was introduced to the world, and it would never be the same again.

Monday, January 18, 2010

January 18: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #3"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself.

1. Grinderman, "Get It On" Grinderman
2. Beck, "Tropicalia" Mutations
3. Andrew Hill, "Cantarnos" Black Fire
4. Gogol Bordello, "60 Revolutions" Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike
5. Chuck Berry, "Maybellene" Chuck Berry Is On Top
6. The Clash, "Stay Free" Give 'em Enough Rope
7. Jerry Lee Lewis, "High School Confidential" Live At The Star Club, Hamburg
8. The Minutemen, "History Lesson Part II" Double Nickels On The Dime
9. Gangbé Brass Band, "Noubioto" Whendo
10. Roberta Flack, "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" First Take
11. DEVO, "S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain)" Duty Now For The Future
12. Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Coffee Shop" One Hot Minute
13. Tom Waits, "Little Drop Of Poison" Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
14. Pearl Jam, "State Of Love And Trust" 1992/03/16, MTV Unplugged
15. Muddy Waters, "I've Got My Mojo Workin'" At Newport

Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 17: Ben E. King, "Stand By Me"

Artist: Ben E. King
Song: "Stand By Me"
Album: single (1961)/Don't Play That Song (1963)
Label: ATCO

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Throughout the long history of recorded music, there are an elite handful of songs that are so timeless, so perfect, that one simply cannot think of a time when the song did not exist. These truly special songs transcend generations, musical tastes, and all other barriers, becoming universally loved, and instantly recognizable across the world. Combining perfectly orchestrated music, moving, timeless lyrics, and one of the most honest and beautiful voices in history, there are few songs that are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Ben E. King's legendary 1961 single, "Stand By Me." The name of the song alone brings the vocals and musical hook to mind almost instantly, as in many ways, "Stand By Me" is just as relevant and widely played today as it was nearly fifty years ago. From commercials to internet memes to musical covers by modern day musicians, the song remains in the public eye, and this is perhaps all the evidence that one needs to argue that it is one of the truly special songs in music history. Though it has been covered by countless artists across nearly every genre over the decades, the fact that the original version is still so heavily played serves as a testament to the fact that it is without question still the definitive version, as well as proving that the combination of music and lyrics on that version are nothing short of extraordinary.

The evolution of how "Stand By Me" came to be a single for Ben E. King as a rather strange one, as the song itself had been written years earlier by King, along with the legendary writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. King had never intended on recording the song as a solo piece, but his previous group, The Drifters, passed on recording "Stand By Me," and the song "sat on the shelf" for a few years. Furthermore, King only decided to record the song because he found himself with some extra recording time after the sessions that produced his first solo hit, "Spanish Harlem." Clearly, if one thinks more about this, one can see that there was a very good chance that "Stand By Me" may never have seen the light of day, which in many ways makes the song even more impressive. King had originally played the song only on piano, but after Leiber and Stoller heard the song, they brought the "Spanish Harlem" musicians back to the studio, and they began to record "Stand By Me." These musicians excel brilliantly, and one cannot overlook the fact that the bassline is without question one of the most simple, yet absolutely perfect non-blues "walking" basslines that has ever been constructed. It is this progression, along with the equally fantastic, and equally simplistic chord changes that defined the sound of a generation, and in modern day, such musical progressions are often referred to as "Stand By Me Changes." One also cannot overlook that there are few songs of any popular genre that so perfectly involve one of the most underused instruments: the triangle. Keeping the music quiet and simple, the song is easily relatable, and it also leaves plenty of room for Ben E. King to stun listeners with his soulful, flawless vocal performance.

When one looks back on the history of music, there are truly few people who had as much impact and influence on the soul and R&B sounds than that of Ben E. King. From his earlier days, creating brilliant orchestrations with The Drifters, to his solo work, the way in which he approached his songs, as well as the sensational power of his voice remain virtually unrivaled. On "Stand By Me," his voice truly soars, overflowing with emotion, and creating what remains one of the most beautifully honest vocal tracks in music history. Never pushing too much, King gives every lyric on "Stand By Me" the perfect touch, and this subtle approach is one of the keys to the unparalleled mood and tone found on the song. Yet perhaps the most interesting and somewhat overlooked aspects of "Stand By Me" is the way in which the song feels like a love song, yet it is more about true friendship than anything else. In many ways, one can see this as one of the key reasons for the songs' success, and such a powerful underlying theme, presented in such a beautiful and moving manner surely touches the heart of all who have ever heard "Stand By Me." Again turning to the simplicity of this classic musical masterpiece, the lyrics are straightforward and simple, making them easy to learn and so universal that they can be applied in a countless array of situations. Combining all of these elements together, with the phenomenal vocal work of King, it is little surprise that "Stand By Me" has persevered over the decades and remains equally as relevant nearly fifty years after its initial release.

There is little question that "Stand By Me" is one of the most powerful and memorable songs in the history of recorded music, and nearly every aspect of the song remains unique to this day. Though the music and vocals cannot be ignored, the song is also significant for the fact that it reached the top ten on the singles charts on two different occasions, more than twenty-five years apart. Powered by the 1986 movie of the same name, "Stand By Me" cracked the top ten again, proving that, even in an dominated by hair metal and "new wave" music, classic sounds like that of "Stand By Me" were still as relevant, and an entirely new generation fell in love with the amazing song. This continual relevance is perhaps due to the fact that, while straightforward love songs may become outdated due to the style or lyrical content, "Stand By Me" is truly a song of the deepest friendship, and such a theme is unquestionably universal, and this is much the reason that the song is so well known all across the globe. Anchored by one of the most simple yet memorable basslines in history, and accentuated by a subtle, yet rich string section, the musical side of "Stand By Me" is appealing across the spectrum of musical tastes, as in many ways, "Stand By Me" is in a genre all its own. Capped off by the moving, soulful, yet steady vocal performance of Ben E. King, "Stand By Me" is without question one of the greatest songs in music history, and there is little doubt that it will continue to be relevant and emotionally move listeners for generations to come.