Listen to this song by precocious Kiwi singer-songwriter Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by pop radio fans as Lorde. It’s “Royals”, her smash single as taken from 2013’s Pure Heroine, her debut full-length record. “Royals” released in the summer of 2013 as the forerunner to the album.
When “Royals” hit the airwaves, it defied the very rigid format of commercial radio on a number of fronts; it was not traditionally arranged to the exact specifications of a hit song in 2013, and it enjoyed radio play on pure pop stations as well as alternative stations. It remains to be a singular musical statement that stands out among the great sea of commercial pop music that continues to play things safe when it comes to the way the music is made, how it’s presented, and even its subject matter.
To that last point, this song reveals itself to be something of a generational anthem that calls the assumptions of pop culture into question directly. But it isn’t as simple as being a song about rejecting the lust for fame and riches. This song is more complex than that and not without its cultural trip hazards, either. Read more
Listen to this track by jazz-rock innovators with a rotating line-up Weather Report. It’s “Birdland”, a bona fide hit single as taken from their 1977 album Heavy Weather. The record was a smash success, selling loads while also impressing the reviewers at Downbeat at the same time.
In particular, the album showed off the dynamics of the band and where they’d pushed the boundaries of jazz as a form, coupling it with many strains of music that included rock, funk, and electronic music. This is perhaps a reflection of the group’s leadership under keyboardist Joe Zawinul and his “partner in crime” saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men had come up in other bands in the sixties under Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis respectively, with each of those being musicians who also sought to escape the rigidity of jazz as a form in order to put across musical visions using a wider palette. This certainly set the stage for Zawinul and Shorter to do the same.
Here on this song and on the rest of the record, this is evident. But it’s not just about redefining the boundaries of jazz in terms of texture and style. It’s also about form, with a specific element for which jazz is known largely left out of the equation. Read more
Listen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills. and former Jayhawk and then-future husband Gary Louris. This record was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.
“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it. Read more
A recurring theme in my walk through The Beatles’ discography and therefore their history too, has been the mythic quality of their story. For me and for many fans, The Beatles are more than just a rock group. They were a generational ideal, or at least representatives of what talented people could do when they came together to form a common identity.
When we think of any band we love, this is often the common denominator; that in the making of art, mortality is subverted somehow. The Beatles went beyond the realm of the musical in this. They were cultural paragons, and collectively a symbol for that which can potentially change the world for the better. That’s a lot of pressure on four musicians in their twenties. It couldn’t last. Nor did it.
It’s been noted by both McCartney and Starr that when The Beatles recorded Abbey Road, they weren’t doing so with the idea that they’d never record together as a band again, as bad as things were getting by 1969. Maybe in retrospect it just seems like it. But there is something of the journey to Avalon about this record. Read more
Listen to this track by eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.
By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.
Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.
Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself. Read more
Listen to this track by mighty Motown hit machine Diana Ross & The Supremes. It’s “Someday We’ll Be Together”, a smash hit single from 1969 and found on their LP Cream Of The Crop.
The song has the distinction of being the last number one single on the R&B charts of the 1960s, while also being the first number one single of the next decade, too. It was also the group’s swan song, with Diana Ross leaving for a solo career by 1970. This gave the song’s refrain a kind of weightiness that seemed to go beyond the story depicted in it.
The song had actually been recorded previously in 1961 by doo-wop group Johnny (Bristol) & Jacky (Beavers), the team who also wrote it. Bristol oversaw the Supremes recording too. You can hear him singing backup, although that session was meant to be a demo with Bristol’s interjections as vocal encouragement in order to get the right take. When Motown honcho Berry Gordy heard it, he liked Bristol’s backing that offset Ross’ lead voice. Ironically for a swan song of a massive pop group like the Supremes, or “Diana Ross & The Supremes” as they became known, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson aren’t featured on the track. This was indicative of the state of the union of the group at the time. Besides that though, this song always struck me as a swan song of another kind; that of childhood itself. Read more
Listen to this track by jam-oriented power trio supergroup Oysterhead. It’s “Oz Is Ever Floating”, a cut off of their sole (to date!) album The Grand Pecking Order from 2001. The song was a highlight on their associated tour around that time, having played it on their Late Night with Conan O’Brien appearance, among other musical locales.
The band was comprised of some very heavy hitters, instrumentally speaking. On guitar and other (sometimes very bizarre) stringed instruments was Phish head boy Trey Anastasio. On bass was Primus main mover Les Claypool. On drums was Stewart Copeland, sticksman for The Police and well-known film and soundtrack composer by the beginning of the century. His film and TV work was his day job, involving very meticulous processes and meetings with directors in order to satisfy its demands. Not very rock ‘n’ roll.
It would take a brash proposal to get Copeland out of film-and-TV-score land, and to get him behind the kit again, a role he’d virtually ignored for almost a decade.
Listen to this track by British folk-rock-with-sophisti-pop leanings singer-songwriter Tom Robinson. It’s “War Baby”, a 1983 single which also appeared on his album Hope and Glory released by the next year. That full-length record is also known as War Baby: Hope and Glory in some quarters.
This single performed exceptionally well on the British charts, reaching number six and serving as a positive turn in Robinson’s fortunes. By 1982, Robinson had moved to Germany in a fit of low feelings in part brought about by debt and by the end of his former musical outfit Sector 27. It was a significant move. Relocating to a new country and social context shook up his worldview, bringing out certain geopolitical dynamics in his music. This was particularly when doing shows in Berlin, a place known for the infamous wall that bore its name; a physical metaphor for the cold war itself.
This political edge is very evident on this song, which is about war and about love at the same time. Maybe too, it reveals just how similar love and war are emotionally speaking, or at least how disturbingly interchangeable they can be. Read more
Listen to this track by canny pop song strategists and performance art doyens The KLF, featuring the First Lady of Country herself, Tammy Wynette. It’s “Justified & Ancient”, a tune that features on their 1991 album The White Room and on its own as a single version. After this song was released with notable chart showings all over the world, there were no more singles from the group at all. In fact, they deleted their own catalogue in the UK!
The KLF was a meta pop group more so than the real thing. The whole project seemed to be an active parody of the pop industry process, inventing a whole vocabulary and mythology around itself. The “band” was made up of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, both of whom were on the British music and theatre scenes at various levels since the mid-1970s. They started this project under the name JAMs (that’s Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu) by the late eighties.
By 1991, this single referenced their history and was something of a closed circle for them as their last ever single connected to the JAMs/KLF project. It certainly had a positive impact on Tammy Wynette in a very measurable way, while also being indicative of an approach to pop music as art where Drummond and Cauty were concerned all around. Read more