Sunday, December 19, 2010

Listening: A Retrospective Soundtrack To Live By

As the troublesome decade draws to a close, people are compiling their top-ten lists for various art forms. I’d like to think back instead on a half-century of popular music that was able to, as a traditional gospel line suggests, “rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” Each tune has stuck with me. Not every one of the past 50 years is represented; some supplied multiple selections -- I could barely escape the 1960s, in fact. It wasn’t easy to choose from among so many worthy contenders. My apologies to the Supremes, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Jesse Winchester, Bonnie Raitt and countless others. Disco and hip-hop aside, these are a few of a nostalgic Baby Boomer’s highly subjective favorite things:

1. “Bad Girl” (1959), Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
OK, I’m cheating a little, though maybe that’s kosher since this doo wop smash was released in the fall of 1959, propelling the group to instant fame. When I saw him in a late 1980s solo concert, this was the number that seemed to blow everyone away.

2.“(There is a Rose in) Spanish Harlem” (1960), Ben E. King
The haunting Latina-favored ballad by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector came out just before Christmas.

3.“Walk On By” (1963), Dionne Warwick
She reached a creative peak with this Burt Bacharach weepie that invariably coaxes a few tears from my eyes.

4.“She’s Not There” (1964), The Zombies
As the arrangement builds, its intensity conveys a certain madness brought on by doomed adoration.

5.“Tomorrow is a Long Time” (1964), Ian and Sylvia
Today really is “an endless highway” in their rendition of this Bob Dylan composition.

6.“In My Life” (1965), The Beatles
Only one hit from their spectacular repertoire but, for some reason, I love it more.

7.”Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965), Bob Dylan
Something was indeed “happening here,” as the era cranked up a lunatic momentum.

8. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965), The Byrds
With a nod to Dylan, they definitely took me “disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind.”

9.“Morning, Morning” (1966), The Fugs
Tuli Kupferberg’s tender reverie about loneliness was surprising from a group that also sang “Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side.”

10. “Suzanne” (1966), Leonard Cohen
I may be understandably partial to this name, even though I never had a place by the river.

11.“Nights in White Satin” (1967), The Moody Blues
It’s a primal scream of existential pain that still gives me chills.

12. “White Rabbit” (1967), Jefferson Airplane
A mesmerizing paean to the upside of the drug culture.

13.“Janis” (1967), Country Joe and the Fish
An ode to Joplin and a shout-out to rock ‘n’ roll romance: “Into my life, on waves of electrical sound/ and flashing lights she came...”

14.“If 6 Was 9” (1967), Jimi Hendrix
He sings of resignation to “white-collar conservative” intolerance for his hippie lifestyle and black skin, but the heartache is evident.

15.“In a Station” (1968), The Band 
I‘m always shattered by Richard Manuel’s close-to-the-bone vocals on lyrics like “Out of all the idle scheming/ can’t we have something to feel?”

16.“Hello, Sunshine” (1968), Aretha Franklin
A sweet melody about the transformative power of positive emotions.

17.“Piece of My Heart” (1968), Big Brother and the Holding Company
Janis Joplin borrows from Erma Franklin’s original with wrenching immediacy.

18.“Urge for Going” (1968), Tom Rush
He does justice to Joni Mitchell’s poetic take on autumn with a need to “lock that vagrant winter out and bolt my wandering in.”

19. “Love is Just a Four Letter Word” (1968), Joan Baez
Another Dylan masterpiece, in this case about betrayal.

20.“Darkness, Darkness” (1969), Jesse Colin Young
Who can’t relate to “yearning for the things I cannot see,” I wonder?

21.“Cowgirl in the Sand” (1969), Neil Young
I’m not sure what he means, but it’s lovely imagery just the same.

22.“Into the Mystic” (1970), Van Morrison
At my age, I can believe we were “born before the wind.”

23. “Instant Karma” (1970), John Lennon
Every concept is true, “like the moon and the stars and the sun.”

24.“So Far Away” (1971), Carol King
“Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” A crucial question for our contemporary sense of dislocation.

25.“Wild Horses” (1971), The Rolling Stones
“Graceless lady”? Ouch. Otherwise, a stunning Jagger-Richards examination of desire.

26.“I Scare Myself” (1972), Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
Yes, indeed, it’s “some kind of voodoo”!

27.“Love Hurts” (1973), Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris
An angst-ridden delivery of a classic by Nashville wizards Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who also came up with other great material for the Everly Brothers, such as “All I Have to Do is Dream.”

28.“Hypnotized” (1973), Fleetwood Mac
Songwriter and lead vocalist Bob Welch understood that, “there’s no explaining what your imagination can make you see and feel.”

29.“I Will Always Love You” (1974), Dolly Parton
Way, way, way better than Whitney Houston’s version in the sappy movie The Bodyguard.

30.“On the Border” (1976), Al Stewart
Heed the apocalyptic warnings, like “I think I see down in the street/ the spirit of the century,/ telling us that we’re all standing on the border.”

31.“Give a Little Bit” (1977), Supertramp
I once bumped into these British rockers in a Vermont health food store and they came over to my house for tea.

32.“Slip Slidin’ Away” (1978), Paul Simon
He sums up loss, illusion and human destiny with the refrain, “God only knows, God makes his plan/ The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.” 

33.“Don’t Look Back” (1978), Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger
Smokey Robinson co-wrote this in 1965 for The Temptations and, “if you just put your hand in mine,” it springs back to life with a reggae beat.

34.“Because the Night” (1978), Patti Smith
"Love is an angel disguised as lust.” Wow!

35.“My City Was Gone” (1982), Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders
I’ve never been to Ohio but this lament made the place matter to me.

36.“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (1987), U2
An eternal problem.

37. “Funny How Time Slips Away” (1994), Lyle Lovett and Al Green
In a probable haze of pot smoke, songwriter Willie Nelson sure knows how to cast a spell.

38. “No More ‘I Love You’s” (1995), Annie Lennox
She “used to be woebegone” but never less than magnificent.

39. “The Long Road” (1996), Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Beautiful, mournful cut from the film Dead Man Walking.

40. “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (1998), Billy Bragg and Natalie Merchant
They do Woody Guthrie proud on their Mermaid Avenue tribute album.

41. “Here With Me” (1998), Dido
An ethereal theme song for Roswell, the TV series about teen aliens that unfortunately spawned Katherine Heigl as a rom-com movie star.

42. “Desert Rose” (1999), Sting and Cheb Mami
I’d like to hear more Algerian rai.

43. “Not Ready to Make Nice” (2006), The Dixie Chicks
Three Texas gals with spunk who took on George Bush and his misguided invasion of Iraq.

44. “Gone Gone Gone” (2007), Alison Krauss and Robert Plant
An improbable duo updating a 1965 Everly Brothers chestnut to perfect advantage.

45. “Viva la Vida” (2008), Coldplay
A remarkable chartbuster that gets me cheering for the downfall of empires ancient and modern.

46. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” (2009), Bruce Springsteen
A vivid word picture with specificity and affection for the simple pleasures of youth.

47. “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” (2009), Weezer
Frontman Rivers Cuomo belts out a catchy sardonic single about sex from the Ratitude CD.

48.“The High Road” (2009), Broken Bells
The only dirge I’ve ever heard that addresses the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, but done with elliptical grace.

49.“High in the Morning” (2010), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
A brilliant tale about the downside of the drug culture.

50. “Home” (2010), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros 
In a deceptively old-fashioned country mode, this infectiously energetic, hip band has recorded a call-and-response anthem about bonding. When’s the last time any of us said, “holy moly, me-oh-my”? 

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of  Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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