“Captain Jack”, Billy Joel
Does anyone write epic seven-minute pop narratives of suburban angst like Billy Joel? Perhaps I have a soft spot for Joel because, like him, I was a Long Island kid with big dreams of the creative life. But it’s also a bit more than that. One of the most contested of contemporary singer-songwriters, Joel’s prolific 30 year run of Top 40-meets-Tin Pan alley throwback-meets-classic rock records has nonetheless produced some of the sturdiest and most popular songs pop radio has seen. Sure, he’s ripped off The Beatles to no end, from harmonic structures to phrasing (then again, who hasn’t, though Joel seems to have been criticized for it more than anyone). Sure he’s descended into some obvious moon-June rhyme schemes that don’t always hit the ear all that elegantly. Yes, there were moments where we wore his pop star insecurities like a defense shield against the rough-and-tumble rock hierarchy that sometimes treated him like just a suburban commuter to the serious big-city world rock-stardom. But for all his critics, he’s lasted longer than most and the fans understand. And they understand very well that it’s because of records like this one: “Captain Jack”—from Joel’s Piano Man album—is a finely etched portrait of suburban malaise, a true-feeling investigation into the complicated rhythms of post-war American masculinity. But it’s also just a terrifically rendered song, almost short story-like, drenched in melodrama and sadness. Set against a typical melodic Joel piano line, with a tension-filled chorus backed by some nice high-stakes guitar work, the lyrics recount some fraught moments in the life of a druggy fallen middle-class kid trying to find his way, blending Joel’s gift for conversational detail (“Your sister’s gone out, she on a date/You just sit at home and masturbate/Your phone is gonna ring soon, but you just can’t wait/For that call…”) with his epic sense of narrative structure. By the time the crashing organs are punctuating the final choruses, bathing Joel’s growling vocals in grand emotion, you can feel Joel reaching out to connect with the listener the way the kid in the song needs to connect with his dealer, for the hopeful headiness of that next high. “Captain Jack” will, indeed, make you high tonight, or anytime you hear it.
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“Faith”, George Michael
Who knew what to expect from the former Wham! pretty boy when the shiny British duo—which relied so heavily on a slick Euro take on the Motown sound and big 80s dance pop—split up and went their separate ways? Did we think he’d drop an album of such burnished crowd-pleasing beauty that he’d place 6 singles in the Top 40 and suddenly begin to be thought of as a versatile artist getting mentioned in the same breath as Elton John and Michael Jackson? Some might have but I certainly didn’t, and I was a big George Michael fan. Sure, Wham! had given us some ear-candy treats, none more notably great than the funky, blue-eyed soul of “Everything She Wants”, but I really didn’t think George Michael had more greatness in him. Then I heard “Faith”, and selfish pop fan that I am, I was convinced he’d made it just for me…It had all the things I love in a pop record mix: Acoustic guitar? Check. Hand claps? Check. Ultra harmonic background vocals? Check. Running time less than four minutes long? Check. This was pure pop polish with an edge raw enough to inch the man closer to real, honest-to-goodness, honestly-sincere singer-songwriter territory. Of course it helped that he ripped off the right sorta rock sound, wrapping his velvet vocals and radio-ready lyrics in a tight rockabilly-meets-Bo Diddleyesque swirl of guitar and drum. And, by golly, it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time: This was 1987 remember, and the big radio hits were either big slabs of loud over-emoted pop-rock anthems like “Living on a Prayer” and “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight” (both of which I love by the way) or slickly-produced crossover r&b like Whitney’s “So Emotional” and Club Nouveau’s “Lean on Me”. Other than maybe Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”, there wasn’t a lot of nuance in the air; bombast ruled the day. But George seemed to know that a little ditty that sounded slightly old-wave might make him seem slighty ahead of things and still catch the kids where their dancing hips met their romantic yearnings. “Faith” was just sign of things to come.
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“I Wish”, R. Kelly
When I interviewed R. Kelly in 2007 about his then-upcoming release Double Up, I was eager to find out how much legendary crooner Sam Cooke had influenced the singer-songwriter, if Cooke—perhaps my all-time favorite male vocalist—had been a conscious touchstone for Kells’ style and approach to vocalizing. This is what he told me when I asked about “I Wish” (to my mind, his most Cooke-ish moment of them all): “I usually don’t hear my influences til the song is over with. While I’m writing I’m so into what I’m hearing on the radio in my head that I’m just, like, ‘Wow I can’t wait to finish this so everybody else can hear what I’ve just heard.’ Once it’s done it’s like ‘Oh man, that riff right there is like some Same Cooke shit!” Then, sitting there in that Chicago hotel room, coincidentally getting his hair braided as we we’re talking, he sings some “I Wish” lyrics—“Come on and braid my hair”—to make his point. I’ve always contended that R. Kelly was the true songwriting heir apparent to brilliant r&b songwriter/producers like Gamble and Huff and gifted singer-songwriters like Stevie and Marvin. Even when dabbling in over-the-top sex jams like “Bump and Grind” there was still always this incredible melodic sensibility and sturdy song construction that betrayed Kelly’s obvious commercial imperatives. Kelly’s best songs—and “I Wish” is one of his best, one of the best r&b records of the past 20 years—are scarred and bruised paeans to joy and pain, hinting at extremely complicated emotions. “I Wish” wins so much because its sad loping, acoustic rhythms perfectly match the song’s lyrics of loss, blending Kelly’s gift for colloquial expression that doesn’t pander with his dramatic renditions of outsize emotions. There is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to some moments: the gospel chorus, the kids’ shouts, the expansive and commingled references to the deaths of his mother and two friends which inspired the song. But Kelly somehow balances all of it, using his best Cooke influences and wedding them to his own rugged elegance. The best popular music stands the test of time not just because of a great chorus or fabulous vocals; sometimes good old-fashioned craft can turn a song in a timeless moment. “I Wish”—sad, hopeful, elegiac, and defiantly of the streets—is crafted like the best of them. Mr. Cooke would be proud.
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“Nothing Can Come Between Us”, Sade
The first time I heard Sade’s dulcet tones I was sitting in the nasty kitchen in Perkins Hall at Brown University, with a bunch of other 17-year-old freshmen, trying to act grown. See, that Friday night, instead of going to the Ratty (the dining hall), we decided to cook in our dorm, so there we were, eating pasta and drinking wine, with the evening’s soignée entertainment consisting of a boombox playing some new artist whose name many of us were pronouncing as if a “Marquis de” came in front of it. It was Sade’s first album, Diamond Life, which took us all by storm that night, and in me, created a lifelong Sade fan. Flash-forward a coupla years and I’m driving back to Providence from NYC with my friend Gordon, and we sing along, many many times, to what would end up being maybe my favorite Sade recording: “Nothing Can Come Between Us”. I think I love this song so much because, not only does it seem to be about a close friendship as well as love affair, it displays Sade’s playful side without losing the elegance and lush emotion so much of her music trades in. And also (mainly?) because of the incredibly indelible backing vocals of Leroy Osbourne, especially that sexy-as-hell “yeah, yeah” that he interpolates into the second chorus like a suave little eighth-note of love. This song is the closest Sade’s ever come to a full-on duet and with its samba-like rhythm and in-the-pocket bassline it gives the sorta-meandering Stronger Than Pride album a firm and meaty anchor. As beautifully as Sade’s lead vocals caress her typically lovelorn lyrics, there’s also a roundelay of haunting improvs and choral shouts accompanying the vamp that closes the song, giving it even more power and resonance. This is the kind of record you have to play three or four times in a sitting; it makes you happy, it sounds like heaven, it’s sublime.
Listen to it here:
“Missing” Everything But the Girl
Before hearing this record, I never thought I’d ever dance to a song by Everything But the Girl. One of my favorite bands through college, they were the group I turned to for sad, pretty songs about love, lost and found, when my own inchoate emotions confused me about, well, everything. I luxuriated in their blend of jazz-inflected folk and soothingly melodic pop, appreciating more than anything Tracey Thorn’s sad-as-can-be vocal expressiveness. But then one day in late 1995, I’m in the backseat of a Town Car, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, and suddenly the radio speakers are popping with a familiar-sounding lyric, only this time mixed into the bass and thump of a crazy house beat. I soon found out that EBTG’s little song from their 9th album Amplified Heart had been re-mixed by legendary club producer/DJ Todd Terry into this scorching-hot house track. Not only had the pulse and tempo of the song gotten bigger and deffer, the lyric, and the plaintive vocal that expressed such outright sexual and romantic longing, seemed to take on even more urgency. Had there ever been a house jam with so much heartache and longing in its grooves? Of course the simplicity of Thorn’s lyric (“like the deserts miss the rain”) made “Missing” perfect for the Terry re-mix—we tend to sing along with the track when we dance, and these lyrics seemed made for sing-along status—and Terry exploited every nuance of the lyric’s hesitant, heartbroken emotion to fill in the beats with extraordinary effects. Then again, Terry had always been adept at taking the drama quotient of any of his deep house cuts as high as the crowd could take it (check out classics like “Bango (To the Batmobile)” or “A Day in the Life”). And as much as I’d enjoyed the song as the album version’s guitar ballad, it wasn’t until after hearing the re-mix of “Missing” that I started to wonder something about the object of affection Tracey Thorn sang about: who exactly was this “you” who “could be dead” and was always “two steps ahead” of every one else? What kind of number had he done on homegirl to cause her to get on that train and walk down his street, again and again and again?
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“Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?)” Diana Ross
I recently found out that Diana Ross—in my mind, the greatest female pop star of all time (and before some of you get all up in arms by that statement, know that I put Chaka and Aretha in another category)—has never won a competitive Grammy award. I know someone like me is supposed to be sophisticated enough to know that awards don’t always go to the ones who deserve them, but I still think Diana’s been robbed. Never more so than with this gorgeous ballad—which wasn’t even nominated (though it was nominated for an Oscar). Composed by Michael Masser and Gerald Goffin, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” is the theme song of Mahogany, Diana’s second film, and in my view it stands the test of time in a way the movie doesn’t, although the movie has a certain melodramatic 70s charm and a rare true black love story that renders it watchable still, after 35 years. Diana’s first number one pop single a few years after “Touch Me in the Morning”, “Do You Know” has a kind of ethereal wistfulness that benefits even more from Diana’s sincerely light touch. No one in the rock era ever wrapped her vocals around orchestral high-pop balladry like Diana Ross, and her ability to sell the lyric—obviously about a protagonist who didn’t have half the drive and ambition Diana does—speaks volumes about both her innate song sense and underrated acting ability. “Do You Know” plays like a sad soliloquy of regret etched with romantic hope, and Miss Ross’s careful but passionately rendered delivery transforms it into one of the most elegant sorrow song you’ll ever hear on the radio. Yes, it’s a Lite-FM staple now. Yes, it borders on the sentimental. But it’s still ear candy of the highest order, performed by a diva at the top of her powers—years before she’d show us just how much more she had to give. There’s a reason Luther Vandross considers Diana Ross an influence: anyone interested in sheer tone could do way worse than study the vocal stylings of Diana Ross.
Listen to it here: