The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

This is the inaugural post of a new feature I spontaneously decided introduce to the blog. The Sunday Six is going to present random collections of six songs I like. They can be new or old and include different types of genres. In fact, I hope these posts are going to be eclectic and at least occasionally also venture beyond my core wheelhouse. The determining factor is going to be, well, me and what music comes to my mind when writing these posts.

The introduction of a new feature may come as a surprise, especially to more regular visitors of the blog, who probably recall my repeated comments about lack of time to focus on blogging, particularly over the past several weeks. Since this is unlikely going to change anytime soon, unlike the weekly recurring Best of What’s New, I think The Sunday Six is going to appear less frequently. With that being said, let’s get to the inaugural installment.

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs/And Your Bird Can Sing

Folks who read my most recent installment of Best of What’s New may have picked up I’m quite excited about my “discovery” of Matthew Sweet – well, better late than never! I totally love this cover of And Your Bird Can Sing, which Sweet recorded with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles for Under the Covers, Vol. 1. While they didn’t reinvent the tune, I think the voices of Sweet and Hoffs perfectly blend. Released in April 2006, it’s their first of four collaboration albums that celebrate music they both love. Vol. 1 mostly focuses on ’60s tunes. Given they are fans of The Beatles, the inclusion of a Fab Four tune isn’t a shock. I also like they selected what I would consider to be a deep cut. Mainly written by John Lennon and credited to him and Paul McCartney, And Your Bird Can Sing was recorded for the UK version of the Revolver album from August 1966. In the U.S., it was included on Yesterday and Today, a record that became infamous for its original cover showing The Beatles in white coats with decapitated baby dolls and pieces of raw meat – yikes!

Travis/Waving at the Window

I really dig this mellow pop tune and think it’s perfect for a Sunday. Until yesterday, I had never heard of Travis, a Scottish rock band founded in 1990 in Glasgow. Written by their lead singer Fran Healy (a guy), Waving at the Window is the opener from Travis’ most recent album 10 Songs that was released in October 2020. The pick of this song isn’t as random as it may look. Yesterday’s start of my Matthew Sweet exploration led to Suzanna Hoffs and my curiosity what she’s been up to. It turned out Hoffs appeared as a guest on one of the other tracks on 10 Songs.

Van Morrison/Moondance

Since I “chatted” with Max from PowerPop about his post on Van Morrison tune Astral Weeks earlier today, my favorite Morrison album Moondance has been on my mind. So here’s the title track to get it out of my system! I just totally dig the laid back and jazzy feel of Morrison’s third studio record from January 1970. Like all tracks on the album, Moondance was written by him.

Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band/Turn the Page

This one you can blame on Cincinnati Babyhead, who earlier today posted on Bob Seger’s album Against the Wind. You see where I’m going with this feature – blaming others! 🙂 Turn the Page, one of my favorite Seger songs, was first recorded for the amazing Live Bullet album released by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band in April 1976. It features terrific sax work by Alto Reed, who sadly passed away from colon cancer on December 30, 2020 at the age of 72 years. According to the clip description, this is the official video. While like Live Bullet it was captured at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1975, based on Seger’s announcement, I think the take on the video is different from the album. According to setlist.fm, Seger and his longtime backing band played two back-to-back dates at Cobo (September 4 and 5, 1975), so I assume the take of Turn the Page in the video was captured from “the other show,” i.e., the one that’s not on the album. Are you still with me? 🙂

Sting/Fields of Gold

Fields of Gold is another beautiful and mellow tune that’s just perfect for a Sunday. It also happens to be one of my favorite tunes by Sting. The ex-Police frontman wrote and recorded this gem for his third solo album Ten Summoner’s Tales from March 1993, which I’d probably consider to be his Mount Rushmore as a solo artist.

Cream/White Room

Let’s wrap up this inaugural installment with a bang: Cream and White Room, from their amazing reunion live album Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005, which came out in October 2005. So good! Written by the amazing Jack Bruce with lyrics by British poet Pete Brown, White Room first appeared on Cream’s third album Wheels of Fire from August 1968. It was the opener of the first record on this majestic double-LP.

Sources: Wikipedia; setlist.fm; YouTube

My Playlist: Steely Dan

Together with a handful of other bands and artists I’ve dug for many years, I couldn’t think of a better group to dedicate the first playlist of 2021 than to the amazing Steely Dan. While I’ve covered them on previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve put together a career-spanning playlist.

Before getting to some music, as usual, I’d like to provide a bit of background, for which I’m going to borrow from previous posts. The original masterminds behind Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.

The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a “bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops.” Becker was playing bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later. When they met Dias, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for each of the band’s following seven studio albums: Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980).

Steely Dan: The Very Best Of | Music | Entertainment | Express.co.uk
Steely Dan in 1972 (from left): Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen and Jim Hodder

In June 1981, Fagen and Becker disbanded and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career.

In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited for an American tour in support of Fagen’s second studio album Kamakiriad, which had appeared in May that year and had been produced by Becker. While Fagen and Becker continued Steely Dan tours, it took until February 2000 before their next new album Two Against Nature appeared. One more album followed: Everything Must Go from June 2003.

UPDATED] Walter Becker Estate Issues Statement Regarding Donald Fagen  Lawsuit
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

After the release of Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat in March 2006, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. On September 3, 2017, Becker passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 67.

At the time of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen said on his Facebook page, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing until COVID-19 hit. I was fortunate to see him twice in 2018 and wrote about it here and here. I’m currently scheduled to see him again open air in early July together with Steve Winwood – keeping fingers crossed. Time for some music!

I’d to kick things off with the aforementioned Dallas, Steely Dan’s first single. Like all tracks in this post, the song was co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Sung by drummer Jim Hodder, the county-flavored tune was not included on Steely Dan’s debut album but appeared in 1978 on a compilation titled Steely Dan.

Perhaps my favorite early Dan tune is the rocker Reelin’ In the Years, which first appeared on the band’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill from November 1972. It also became the album’s second single in March 1973. The song’s kickass guitar solo was played by session musician Elliott Randall, which none other than Jimmy Page called his favorite guitar solo of all time.

Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore release from July 1973, was the band’s first album without vocalist David Palmer that saw Donald Fagen sing lead on every tune. Here’s the album’s second single My Old School. While the record didn’t have a hit and couldn’t match the debut’s chart success, it was well received by critics at the time, and My Old School became a fan favorite.

Pretzel Logic, Dan’s third studio album released in February 1974, was the last to feature the full core lineup of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Baxter and Hodder. It also included contributions from many prominent LA musicians, such as future Toto members David Paich (piano, keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), then-Poco bassist and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals) who would later join the Eagles, and session bassist Chuck Rainey. Here’s opener Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which also became the lead single in April 1974.

By the time Steely Dan’s next album Katy Lied came out in March 1975, most of their original members had left. The band essentially became Becker and Fagen who continued to hire top-notch musicians to support their recording sessions. In addition to Paich and Porcaro, the latter included Rick Derringer and Michael McDonald. Katy Lied also became the first Dan album to feature amazing session guitarist Larry Carlton. Here’s Doctor Wu. The alto saxophone solo was played by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.

Next up: Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from The Royal Scam, Steely Dan’s fifth studio album. Both appeared in May 1976. The funky tune features the above noted Larry Carlton whose guitar solo was ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs in May 2008. I also dig Chuck Rainey’s bass work on that tune.

This brings me to Aja, which to me is Steely Dan’s Mount Rushmore. Released in September 1977, this album is pure perfection. While I could have selected any track, I simply couldn’t ignore my all-time favorite Dan tune: Deacon Blues. Even after having listened to it countless times, I still get excited about this song. I think it represents a perfect blend of jazz, pop and rock, and I love the smooth sound. BTW, Becker played bass on this one. But the real standout are the horns.

Steely Dan’s next album Gaucho from November 1980 proved to be a huge challenge to make, which ultimately resulted in the above breakup in June 1981. Driven by Fagen’s and Becker’s perfectionism, the recording sessions used at least 42 musicians and took more than a year. In January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home. Her family subsequently brought a $17.5 million lawsuit, charging he had introduced her to drugs. The case was settled out of court. Shortly after Stanley’s death, Becker was hit by a taxi shattering his right leg. During his six-month recovery, he and Fagen collaborated via phone. Here’s the album’s lead track Babylon Sisters.

February 2000 saw the release of Two Against Nature, Fagen’s and Becker’s first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years since Gaucho. It became one of their most successful albums. In addition to earning a Platinum certification in the U.S., Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2001, including Album of the Year. Here’s the groovy Cousin Dupree, which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track of Steely Dan’s ninth studio album Everything Must Go, the final with Walter Becker, released in June 2003. I think Apple Music correctly notes the lyrics sound like the song is a permanent sign-off: Guess it’s time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We good a few good licks in/No one’s ever gonna know/Cause we’re goin’ out of business/Everything must go.

If Everything Must Go indeed signaled Steely Dan’s final studio album, it wasn’t a total sign-off. Fagen and Becker continued to tour as Steely Dan almost every year thereafter until 2017. Becker’s final performance was on May 27 that year at the Greenwich Town Party in Greenwich, Conn.

Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Steely Dan at No. 15 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

While McCartney III kept me busy yesterday, Paul McCartney’s new album wasn’t the only great new music. Ringo Starr also released a new single. I wonder how many times has it happened before that two ex-Beatles come out with new music during the same week! But wait, there’s more.

How about an indie rock band from LA and a young R&B artist and producer from South Korea? Or a prolific Australian rock band I had never heard of before, which apparently is considered to be one of the most genre-hopping bands of all time.

Last but not least, this latest Best of What’s New installment also features a longtime New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician, who is perhaps best known for having performed the music of Steely Dan for more than 26 years, faithfully capturing the vocals of Donald Fagen.

The Wrecks/Static

The Wrecks are a band from the Los Angeles area, which was formed in 2016. Apple Music’s profile describes their music as exuberant, melodic, emo- and punk-influenced indie rock. The group found early success with their 2016 breakout single, “Favorite Liar,” and after a pair of EPs signed to the Big Noise label for their 2020 full-length Infinitely Ordinary. Hailing from Thousand Oaks, California, singer/guitarist Nick Anderson, guitarist Nick Schmidt, guitarist Westen Weiss, bassist Aaron Kelley, and drummer Billy Nally had barely formed when they chanced on the opportunity for a few covert days in a local studio. In just three hectic days, they recorded their 2016 debut EP, We Are the Wrecks, which featured the catchy single “Favorite Liar.” The song picked up steam online and helped the Wrecks land some key gigs opening for Paramore and the Struts along with festival slots at Lollapalooza and BottleRock. A second EP, Panic Vertigo, arrived in 2018, followed in 2020 by the Wrecks’ first LP, Infinitely Ordinary, on the Big Noise imprint. Static, co-written by Anderson and Schmidt, is the title track of The Wrecks’ new EP, which appeared yesterday. Admittedly, it falls outside my core wheelhouse, but my pop ear can’t deny it’s catchy.

Mike Caputo/Maya Lee

Unless you’ve read my blog for a long time, you probably haven’t heard of New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician Mike Caputo. Mike has been active for over 50 years. According to a bio on his website, A vocalist who plays keyboards and drums, Mike was signed to ABC Dunhill records at 15 years old after playing the Cafe Wha? in NYC in 1967. From that point he performed as a lead vocalist and either drummer, or keyboardist in a variety of local bands in the club circuit. Performing 5 to 6 nights a week playing Pop, Progressive, Jazz, R&B, Funk and his own Original Compositions, led him to more studio experience at Private Stock Records in the 70’s...Mike is also a published writer who wrote lyrics and melody for “A Question Of  Time” by B.J. Thomas from the album “Once I Loved” and “Manhattan Blue” for Rich Cecere’e Big Band. For the past more than 26 years, he has performed the music of Steely Dan, faithfully capturing the voice of Donald Fagen. His current project Good Stuff also features music of Gino Vannelli, Stevie Wonder and Sting, all artists who influenced him. Mike’s also a dear friend, and I’ve been to many of his shows. This doesn’t mean I’m featuring Maya Lee, a song he recently wrote, to do him a favor. In fact, he has no idea what’s coming at him! 🙂 When I saw this tune on Facebook the other day, I immediately dug it. It’s got a great smooth pop jazzy sound – and, yes, I can definitely hear some Donald Fagen/Steely Dan in here. I also really like the bass and guitar work, provided by Scott Hogan and Don Regan, respectively, who are also members of Good Stuff.

Ringo Starr/Here’s to the Nights

It turns out Paul McCartney wasn’t the only ex-Beatle who was busy working on new music during the pandemic. His former band mate Ringo Starr released Here’s to the Nights on Wednesday (December 16), the lead single from his forthcoming EP Zoom In scheduled for March 19, 2021. An announcement on his website notes, As this crazy year comes to a close, Ringo is offering a song of peace, love and friendship – “Here’s To The Nights” available today as a single…Written by Diane Warren, Ringo is joined by his friends, some longtime and some new, including: Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Corinne Bailey Rae, Eric Burton (Black Pumas), Sheryl Crow, FINNEAS, Dave Grohl, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz, Jenny Lewis, Steve Lukather, Chris Stapleton and Yola. Of course, I can see cynics dismissing this as an aging pop star getting a little help from celebrity musician friends. While it’s coming out just prior to the holidays, I don’t think this is about making a quick buck. Instead, I fully buy Ringo’s statement: “This is the kind of song we all want to sing along to, and it was so great how many wonderful musicians joined in. I wanted it out in time for New Years because it feels like a good song to end a tough year on. So here’s to the nights we won’t remember and the friends we won’t forget – and I am wishing everyone peace and love for 2021.”

Miso/Let It Go

Here’s another selection that’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, but there’s just something about Miso, a 28-year-old R&B artist and producer from South Korea. According to a mini bio on last.fm, Miso lived in England during her childhood. Her songs are characterized by a very peculiar modern and soft beat. Her name has often been associated with artists like DEAN and she has worked with CRUSH too – no idea who these artists are. Let It Go, for which Miso wrote both the music and lyrics, is from her new EP Metanoia released December 14. I guess it’s mostly her voice that drew me in. And check out that cool bassline! This tune definitely has something.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard/If Not Now, Then When?

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (what a name!) are an Australian rock band founded in 2010 in Melbourne. Initially, they started as a group of friends jamming together until a mutual friend asked them to play at a show – sounds like the rest is history. The current line-up features Stu Mackenzie (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, flute), Ambrose Kenny-Smith (vocals, harmonica, keyboards), Cook Craig (guitar, bass, vocals), Joey Walker (guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals), Lucas Harwood (bass, keyboards) and Michael “Cavs” Cavanagh (drums, percussion). Their profile on Apple Music notes they have built a reputation as one of the most prolific and adventurous genre-hopping bands of all time. Their debut studio album 12 Bar Bruise appeared in September 2012. And, yes, this band has been pretty prolific indeed ever since, releasing 15 additional studio albums, six live albums, two EPs, one compilation and more than 40 singles. If Not Now, Then When? is their latest single that came out on December 10. This is just a cool tune. The groove and the falsetto vocals remind me a bit of Prince. Check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ringo Starr website; last.fm; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I can’t believe it’s October. What happened to summer? Perhaps on the upside, if time continues to race at its current pace, it also means this year will be over soon and we’re into 2021, which will hopefully bring better times. While it remains uncertain when live concerts can safely resume and some artists have delayed releasing new material, it’s great to see decent new music continues to come out.

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, my favorite music decades are the ’60s and the ’70s. As such, I’ve generally given up on what’s in the mainstream charts these days. Yet, in March this year, rather than continuing to complain about generic and soulless music populating the charts, I decided to pay more attention to new music that’s not in the charts, even if it’s not by artists I usually listen to, and to start the weekly recurring feature Best of What’s New. While finding new music I dig forces me to do some detective work, it’s been pretty rewarding, so I have every intention to continue this quest.

This brings me to the latest slate of songs. It’s a diverse set, featuring great music by an African American singer-songwriter reminiscent of a ’60s folk protest song, rich soul by a dynamite husband and wife duo, a delicious Louisiana music gumbo by a New Orleans-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and folk rock by a prolific Canadian artist. Like is oftentimes the case in this series, I had not heard of any of these artists before. Let’s get to it!

Tré Burt/Under the Devil’s Knee (featuring Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Sunny War)

Tré Burt is a Sacramento-based singer-songwriter. According to his website, Burt was drawn to music from an early age. He was raised with his grandfather’s passion for soul music, like the Temptations, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. A school project on Woody Guthrie opened his eyes to the power of folk songwriting. And he discovered one of his songwriting heroes, Neil Young, through his older brother, Joey. In 2018…[he] self-released his debut album, Caught It From the Rye. The album, which showcases Burt’s literary songwriting and lo-fi, rootsy aesthetic, landed him a handful tour dates and some positive press, but Burt had no idea just how far it would get him: to a spot on the roster at John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. Burt’s first work appearing on Oh Boy is the single Under the Devil’s Knee. Released on September 22, it’s a powerful tune about the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement. To me it has a ’60s protest song vibe. It almost feels like looking at a modern day Richie Havens. Check it out!

The War and Treaty/Little Boy Blue

The War and Treaty is a husband and wife duo of Michael Trotter, Jr. and Tanya Blount. Apple Music describes their style as impassioned soul music that draws on traditional folk, country, R&B, and spirituals, often combining them all. Initially known as Trotter & Blount, they released their debut album Love Affair under that name in 2016. This was followed by the EP Down to the River in July 2017, their first music appearing as The War and Treaty. Healing Tide, the first full-fledged studio album under the current moniker, came out in August 2018. The record, which featured a guest appearance of Emmylou Harris, was well received and reached no. 11 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers Albums and no. 26 on the Independent Albums charts. Blount first became prominent in 1993, when she performed a duet with Lauryn Hill in the comedy picture Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. The following year, she released her solo debut album Natural Thing. Little Boy Blue is a terrific soul song from Hearts Town, the second full-length album by The War and Treaty that appeared on September 25.

Ric Robertson/Louisiana Love Thing

Ric Robertson is a New Orleans-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who according to his website synthesizes the full canon of American music—New Orleans jazz, classic American pop songsmiths, country, modern funk, swampy blues, and R&B to name a few—and births it into something out of this worldRobertson conjures this musical pedigree into a cohesive potion, a finely-tuned sonic concoction with just enough rock n’ roll to kill, just enough blues to keep you alive, and just enough country to make you hold on to love. It’s stirred by Robertson’s distinct voice: sweet, enticing, and contoured with the finely subtle grit of Mississippi River silt and the warmth of vintage vinyl. Robertson’s debut album The Fool, The Friend was released in June 2018. A review in The Big Takeover characterized it as “a fresh and authentic blend of swampy blues, rock and country” and called Robertson “a force to be reckoned with.” While I haven’t listened to that album yet, I agree based on Robertson’s new tune Louisiana Love Thing. It’s from his new EP Strange World that came out on September 25. That’s one delicious gumbo!

Daniel Romano/Joys Too Often Hollow

Wikipedia describes Daniel Romano (born Daniel Travis Romano in 1985) as a Canadian musician, poet and visual artist based out of his hometown of Welland, Ontario. He is primarily known as a solo artist, though he is also a member of [Canadian indie rock band] Attack in Black and has collaborated with [fellow Canadian music artists] Julie Doiron and Frederick Squire. He has also produced and performed with City and Colour, the recording project of Dallas Green [another Canadian music artist]…and is a partner in his own independent record label, You’ve Changed Records. Romano is a prolific artist. His solo debut Workin’ for the Music Man appeared in 2010. He has since released 11 additional solo records, nine collaboration albums and two EPs. An incredible 10 of these releases all appeared this year, including How Ill Thy World Is Ordered, his fourth 2020 album with his backing band Outfit. Here’s Joys Too Often Hollow, a nice folk rocker from that album released on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Tré Burt website; Apple Music; Ric Robertson website; The Big Takeover; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor

In May, I featured Tryin’ to Keep it Together in one of my Best of What’s New installments, a bonus track from Norah Jones’ then-upcoming Pick Me Up Off the Floor. Then, I completely forgot about the album that since appeared on June 12 – until a few days ago, when Jones popped up in my streaming service provider. While the title doesn’t exactly sound cheerful, listening to Jones puts me at ease, especially after a quite busy week. I find there’s something really special about her voice and the warm sound of her music. Both draw me in.

For a long time, I’ve been aware of Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz, though I haven’t really explored her music. Jones was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar on March 30, 1979 in New York City to American concert producer Sue Jones and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. After her parents separated in 1986, Jones lived with her mother and grew up in Grapevine, TX. When reading about Jones for this post, I realized she’s been around for 20 years. That’s kind of mind-boggling to me. I still well remember when Jones emerged in 2002 as a 23-year-old!

Pick Me Up Off the Floor is the seventh studio album by the now 41-year-old singer-songwriter who returned to New York in 1999 and still lives there. It follows her EP Begin Again from April 2019, and is her first full-length studio effort since Day Breaks released in October 2016. According to a song-by-song review Jones did for Apple Music, Pick Me Up Off the Floor is her first album inspired by poetry. Emily Fiskio, her friend and a poet, encouraged Jones to give it try. The two women ended up collaborating, and two of the resulting tunes are on the album.

In this June 8, 2020 photo, singer-songwriter Norah Jones poses for a portrait in Hudson, N.Y., to promote her latest album “Pick Me Up Off the Floor.” (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Poetry “…opened me up to a different avenue of writing,” Jones explained. “Plus, when you read Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to your kids every night, weird rhymes float around in your head.” Apparently, Jones had not set out to make another album. Instead, she recorded tunes spontaneously as they came together. “I was collaborating with different people and just trying to make singles rather than forcing an album. It was very freeing.” Let’s hear some of the results!

Here’s the opener How I Weep written by Jones. “This song began as a poem, and then I sat on it for a few months, unsure what was going to happen,” Jones told Apple Music. “I knew I eventually had to try to turn it into a song, because that’s what I do, so one night, I waited until the house was quiet, and played and sang until it came together.” It certainly did! How I/How I/Weep for the loss/And it creeps down my chin/For the heart and the hair/And the skin and the air/That swirls itself around the bare…The lyrics sound deeply personal, yet Jones’ voice and the string arrangement soften the impact.

Flame Twin, another tune solely written by Jones, injects a dose of blues. I dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who also plays electric guitar. And, of course, there’s more of Jones’ great singing. I also enjoy her piano playing. “This is another song that came from a poem,” Jones stated. “I brought it into the studio one day and was like, ‘Well, let’s see if I could put some music to this real quick and record it.’ And it came together pretty quickly.”

Heartbroken, Day After is one of her favorite tunes on the album, Jones told Apple Music. “I love how it came out with the pedal steel. It’s very mournful and heartfelt. And of course it references something specific, but I like that it’s still open to your own interpretation. It’s interpretable to the listener. So I’m not going to tell.” But again, Jones’ delivery and even some of the lyrics don’t make it an all-out bleak song…Hey, Hey/It’s gonna be okay/At least that’s what I tell myself/Anyway/Hey, hey/Don’t look so sad/It’s not that bad/Or is it?/It might be today…

For writing and recording I’m Alive, Jones teamed up with singer-songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy, who is best known as the lead vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. ” I’ve known Jeff for a long time,” Jones pointed out. “He was one of the first people I thought to call when I wanted to start doing collaboration singles, because I thought it’d be a great way to connect.” The tune’s lyrics have clear political undertones…He screams, he shouts/The heads on the TV bow/They take the bait/They mirror waves of hate…No name calling needed here!

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Were You Watching, one of the tracks Jones co-wrote with Emily Fiskio. “I wrote this song in March of 2018, and it was the very first session I did for anything that wound up on this album,” Jones said. “I knew it needed harmonies and I liked the idea of adding vocals that weren’t me, so I called my friend Ruby Amanfu. She and her husband Sam Ashworth came to New York and did a bunch of harmonies on four or five songs. Then I had this great violinist, Mazz Swift, who I’ve always wanted to work with, come in and add violin. She did a great job. She sounded like she was on the original live recording. It felt perfectly spontaneous.” Nothing to add other than the clip.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This week’s installment of my recurring new music feature presents another combination of younger and older artists. I’ve kept it to four tunes. There’s some folk, jazz, space rock and indie pop. Let’s get to it!

David Gilmour/Yes, I Have Ghosts

At first, I was a bit lukewarm about David Gilmour’s new single, which appeared on July 3. I really dig him as a guitarist and think his solo in Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is one of the most epic rock guitar solos I know. To be clear, Yes, I Have Ghosts is no Comfortably Numb; but the more often I listen to it, the more I like this tune. The lyrics were written by Gilmour’s wife and long time collaborator, English novelist, lyricist and journalist Polly Samson. Gilmour composed the music, which to me is pretty obvious, based on the chord changes. The track was inspired by Samson’s the new novel A Theatre for Dreamers. Interestingly, the song features Gilmour’s 18-year-old daughter Romany on harmony vocals and harp. While that had not been his initial plan and he ended up working with her because of the COVID-19 lockdown, I think the two of them really sound great together. This largely explains why I dig Yes, I Have Ghosts. There is also beautiful violin work by John McCusker. As reported by Rolling Stone, Gilmour’s single is his first new song in five years. Perhaps the beginning of another solo album? Who knows… Meanwhile, I’d be curious how you feel about this tune. Perhaps, give it more than one listen.

Aaron Parks/Solace

According to his website, Aaron Parks is a forward-thinking jazz musician who came to the public’s attention during his time with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Born in Seattle, Washington, Parks began playing piano at a young age and by the time he was 14 had enrolled in an early entrance degree program at the University of Washington. Originally, Parks pursued both science and music degrees; however, his prodigious talent won out and by age 16 he had transferred to the Manhattan School of Music. While there, he studied with noted pianist Kenny Barron…At age 18 he joined Blanchard’s ensemble and subsequently recorded four albums with the veteran trumpeter…Besides playing with Blanchard, Parks has performed with a variety of artists including trumpeter Christian Scott, drummer Kendrick Scott, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and others. In 1999, Parks released his debut album The Promise as a band leader. Solace, composed by him, is a relaxing instrumental from his most recent album Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man, which appeared on May 8. It has a bit of a late night bar background music flair.

Hawklords/Aerospaceage Inferno

Going from a relaxing jazz instrumental to a full-blown space rock attack may be a bit of a leap, but why not? Hawklords initially were formed in 1978 as a spin-off from Hawkwind, a British space rock band fellow blogger Vinyl Connections featured in a recent post. Hawklords’ former Hawkwind members were Robert Calvert (vocals), Dave Brock (guitar) and Simon King (drums), who teamed up with Harvey Bainbridge (bass), Martin Griffin (drums) and Steve Swindells (keyboards). The first active phase of Hawklords only lasted until 1979. In 2008, a new version of the band emerged around Bainbridge, together with Dave Pearce (drums), Jerry Richards (guitar, keyboards), Tom Ashurst (bass) and ex-Hawkwind vocalist Ron Tree. Aerospaceage Inferno is from the band’s latest album Hawklords Alive released on May 29. Written by Calvert, the tune first appeared on his second solo album Lucky Leif and the Longships from September 1975. Calvert died from a heart attack in August 1988 at the age of 43. As reported by Louder, Hawklords’ new live album was recorded during a concert at Live Rooms in Chester, England in May 2019 during the band’s Hawklords Generations Tour.

Alice Phoebe Lou/Touch

Alice Phoebe Lou is a soon-to-be 27-year-old singer-songwriter hailing from Kommetjie, South Africa. According to her website, Lou grew up on a mountainside in South Africa, attending a local Waldorf school that cultivated her innate love of music and the arts. She made her first visit to Europe at 16, a life-changing journey that first saw her taking her songs to the streets. Lou returned home to finish school but as soon as she was able made her way back to Europe, specifically Berlin. Armed with just her guitar, a small amp, a passel of distinctive original songs, and an utterly intoxicating voice and charm, she soon built a devoted fan following, not just in Berlin but around the world as tourists and passers-by from faraway places were so captivated by her music that they began sharing it amongst friends and social media. Lou self-released her debut EP, MOMENTUM, in 2014, followed two years later by her acclaimed first full-length, ORBIT. She has since released two additional albums and two EPs. Touch is Lou’s new single, which I don’t believe is associated with an album (yet).

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Aaron Parks website; Louder; Alice Phoebe Lou website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I can’t believe this already is the 15th weekly post in a row in my recurring feature about newly/recently released music. Frankly, I did not expect that when I started the endeavor 15 weeks ago! This installment includes three singer-songwriters, a jazz funk outfit and a rock & roll band. I had not heard of any of these artists before and surely plan to further explore their music. Let’s get to it!

Sarah Jarosz/Johnny

Sarah Jarosz is a 29-year-old singer-songwriter hailing from Austin, Texas. Wikipedia characterizes her music as Americana, country folk and bluegrass. Jarosz who is of Polish ancestry learned how to the play the mandolin as a 10-year-old and later added guitar, claw-hammer banjo and octave mandolin. While still being a senior in high school, she signed with Sugar Hill Records and released her debut album Song Up in Her Head in June 2009. Written by Jarosz, Johnny is a great tune from her new album World on the Ground, her fifth studio release that appeared on June 5. The record was produced by John Leventhal, who has also worked in that capacity with an impressive array of other artists, such as Michelle Branch, Shawn Colvin and Joan Osborne. I hear some Sheryl Crow in here.

Tim Burgess/Empathy For the Devil

While Tim Burgess has been active since 1989 and apparently is best known as the lead vocalist of alternative rock band The Charlatans, I had not heard of the English musician, singer-songwriter and record label owner before. I generally don’t listen a lot to alternative rock, which at least in part may explain my ignorance. After recording seven albums with The Charlatans, Burgess launched a solo career in parallel and came out with his debut I Believe in September 2003. Empathy For the Devil, which Burgess wrote, is a track from his fifth solo album I Love the New Sky that was released on May 22. There’s just something about this tune that attracted me right away. Check it out.

Jess Williamson/Infinite Scroll

According to her website, Jess Williamson is a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter who makes deeply felt songs that orbit around her powerful voice, a voice that’s strong and vulnerable, big room flawless, quietly ecstatic, and next-to-you intimate...Williamson grew up in the suburbs of Dallas. An only child, she was raised by music-loving parents on a healthy diet of Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, and K.T. Oslin…In her last year of school [at the University of Texas where she was a photography major], following an impulse after seeing Austin’s Ralph White play the banjo at a house show in her friends’ basement, Williamson took up banjo lessons at South Austin Music, and soon after was writing songs and making home recordings. In 2011, the young artist self-released her debut EP Medicine Wheel/Death Songs. Following her relocation to L.A. in 2016, Williamson started work on what would become her first album released with a record label: The 2018 Cosmic Wink. Infinite Scroll is a song she wrote for her latest album Sorceress that came out on May 15. Here’s the official video.

Lettuce/Blaze

Lettuce is something I generally like as a side to a steak or other piece of meat or fish. It also happens to be the name of an American jazz and funk band initially formed in Boston in the summer of 1992 when all of its founding members attended Berklee College of Music as teenagers. It was a short-lived venture that lasted just this one summer, but the members reunited in 1994 when all them had become undergraduate students at Berklee. In 2002, their debut album Outta There appeared. And ever since the band has been, well, out there! Blaze is the opener of their new studio album Resonate that was released on May 8, their seventh studio record. Today, Lettuce are a six-piece, with four of their members remaining from the original lineup. Ready for some cool groove? Wait a moment, no vocals? Jeez, indeed! I don’t know who specifically wrote the track but I just dig when they play that funky music!

Low Cut Connie/Private Lives

“If an alien landed and asked what rock ‘n’ roll is, you could start here.” This is what Low Cut Connie confidently proclaim on their Facebook page. Wikipedia apparently agrees, describing them as an American rock & roll band based in Philadelphia. And I love rock & roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby, to creatively borrow from rock dynamo Joan Jett! Low Cut Connie were formed in 2010. I’m afraid I hadn’t noticed! They self-released their debut album Get Out the Lotion in 2011. After their sophomore, another self-release, the band got a deal with Contender Records that issued their first label release in 2015. Private Lives is a single and the title track of Connie’s forthcoming double LP, which is scheduled for October 13. The cool rocker was written by frontman, pianist and songwriter Adam Weiner, who appears to be the band’s driving force. While it’s the only song I currently know, Low Cut Connie sound very promising to me. Here’s the official video.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jess Williamson website; Lettuce Facebook page; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Stevie Wonder/Innervisions

“Innervisions gives my own perspective of what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together – I did all the lyrics – and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies – this is the way I feel.” (Stevie Wonder, The New York Times, July 20, 1973)

On May 13, Stevie Wonder turned 70 years old. Yesterday, I came across his moving acceptance speech at the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both of these events prompted me to post about one of my longtime favorite artists. Instead of a playlist, which I’m sure I’m going to do at some point, I decided to write about Innervisions. This album from August 1973 may well be Wonder’s equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry or Steely Dan’s Aja, i.e., a career-defining true masterpiece.

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in March 1974

The comment from Wonder in the lead paragraph appeared in a New York Times story that reported about an interesting PR tactic to create some buzz among journalists two weeks ahead of the album’s official release. A group of blindfolded journalists boarded a bus in New York City’s Times Square and was brought to a nearby recording study. Upon arrival, each member – still blindfolded – was assigned an individual guide, allowed to taste various foods, touch various musical instruments and dance to the music of Innervisions, which was playing in the background.

And, yes, Wonder was there as well. Though he was delayed coming in from Texas, but thanks to a police escort from the airport, he just made it in time to receive the group of journalists at the studio for this unusual album preview listening party. “The idea of the blindfolds was to try to give people an idea of what’s happening in my mind,” Wonder explained. “When you look at something, your hearing is distracted by your eye.” While doubt the temporary blindfolds allowed the participants to enter the mind of a musical genius, Wonder and his PR folks certainly deserve credit for coming up with a creative tactic.

Which brings me to Innervisions, Wonder’s 16th studio album. Rightfully, it’s widely considered to be a landmark. According to Wikipedia, it made Wonder “the first artist to experiment with the ARP synthesizer on a large scale”, adding this had a huge impact on the future of commercial black music. Based on this apparently well researched post by The Music Aficionado, it sounds like it would be more accurate to describe Wonder as one of a number of artists who were experimenting with ARP synthesizers in the early ’70s. But I don’t think this context diminishes the significance of the record!

Innervisions also marked an important step in Wonder’s transition away from primarily romantic tunes to musically and lyrically more mature songs. Arguably, that journey began with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s 14th studio album released in March 1972, which some consider the first record of his “classic period” that culminated in Songs in the Key of Life from September 1976.

Stevie Wonder in 1973

Innervisions tackles a broad range of issues, including drugs, racism and religion, and only includes three love songs. In fact, there’s a quote from Wonder I read somewhere and now can no longer find (I hate when that happens!), where he essentially said people no longer want to hear love songs. Looking at this comment today, I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of 1973 America, a country that was struggling with racism, poverty, and a rampant drug epidemic, not to mention a crook in the White House – sound familiar?

Okay, time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener Too High. Like all of the other eight tracks, the tune was written, arranged and produced by Wonder. It’s also one of four songs, on which he played all instruments, in this case a Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums and Moog (synthesizer) bass. I’m too high/I’m too high/I can’t ever touch the sky/ I’m too high/I’m so high/I feel like I’m about to die, Wonder sings, leaving no doubt this ain’t some romantic ballad. BTW, just to be clear, I’m with Paul McCartney here: Nothing wrong with a silly love song!

Next up is what to me is the stand-out track on the album: Living for the City, the cinematic tale of a poor young African American man from Mississippi who innocently ends up in a rotten jail in New York City just after he had arrived to what he had thought would be his big city dream. The tune was also released separately as a single in November 1973, reaching no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping what was then called the Hot Soul Singles chart (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). Songfacts quotes Wonder: “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”

Higher Ground is the first track on the (vinyl) album’s B-side. According to a track-by-track review in Billboard, it’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” Adds Songfacts: Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a “special song” whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment. “I did the whole thing in three hours” he told Q magazine. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” One thing’s for sure: That song, which also became the album’s lead single in July 1973, grooves like hell! Evidently, people noticed. The tune climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was another chart-topper on the Hot Soul Singles.

One of the “lighter” tunes is Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, which has an upbeat Latin vibe. According to Songfacts, Stevie Wonder encourages his lady to be fearless in exploring all life has to offer because he’ll always be by her side. Although he claims to speak fluent Spanish in the intro, saying “Todo está bien chévere” (“Everything’s really great” or “Everything’s cool”), Wonder didn’t really know the language…The Spanish lyric was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman that Wonder met in a record store. He recalled: “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful. And she worked at this record shop – this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’ What can I – I mean, give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘todo esta bien chevere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”

The final tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer He’s Misstra Know-It-All. He’s a man/With a plan/Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Wonder sings. Playing hard/Talking fast/Making sure that he won’t be the last/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he carries on. Makes a deal/With a smile/Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile/He’s Misstra Know-It-All…The above Billboard review calls the song “a cautionary tale about a hustler.” According to Wikipedia, It has been alleged has been alleged that this is a reference to United States’ President Richard Nixon. Considering the album’s context and other songs, this looks like a safe bet to me.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a bad car accident that nearly killed him when he was hit by a log into his forehead. He was hospitalized with a severe brain contusion that caused him to be in a coma for four days. It took Wonder more than a year to completely recover from his injuries. Kind of creepy, especially if you consider his above quote about Higher Ground.

And, yes, Innervisions sold more than five copies. While I didn’t come across specific sales figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, the album reached Gold status in Canada and the U.K. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart, which since 1999 has been called Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. At the 1974 Grammy Awards, the record won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Living for the City captured Best R&B Song. Innervisions is ranked at no. 24 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; The Music Aficionado; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Bob Marley

In my case, reggae is a bit like jazz: I don’t dislike it but listen to it infrequently. When I do, the artist I keep coming back to is Bob Marley. My best friend who I’m fortunate to still call that way to this day got me into Marley with Babylon by Bus. It must have been around 1980 when he bought that excellent live album by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I recorded the double-LP right away on music cassette and it quickly became a favorite. Since I didn’t throw out my MCs and don’t think I ever will, the tape must still be floating around somewhere.

Bob Marley was born as Robert Nesta Marley on the farm of his maternal grandfather in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica on February 6, 1945. While his father Norval Sinclair Marley provided financial support, Bob rarely saw him. Two years after Norval’s death, his mother Cedella Malcolm moved with then 12-year-old Bob to Trenchtown, a low-income community in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. There, Cedella had a daughter with Thadeus Livingston, the father of Neville Livingston who later became known as Bunny Wailer.

Bob Marley

In the late 1950s, a new music genre called ska became popular in Jamaica, combining elements of Caribbean music with American jazz and R&B. By the mid-’60s, ska evolved into rock steady, the predecessor to reggae. The main characteristic feature all three music styles share is the rhythmic accentuation on the offbeat. Based on my understanding, one difference is tempo. While ska generally is fairly upbeat, rock steady has a slower beat, which tends to be further slowed down in reggae. It is that laid back groove of the latter I particularly dig.

In 1963, Bob Marley and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) started taking vocal lessons with local singer Joe Higgs who introduced them to Winston Hubert McIntosh, who became known as Peter Tosh. Higgs also taught Marley how to play the guitar. The trio formed the core of what would become The Wailers. They were soon joined by Junior Braithwaite (vocals), as well as backing vocalists Cherry Smith and Beverley Kelso.

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Bunny Livingston 1964
From left: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Bunny Wailer ca. 1964

In December 1963, The Wailers released their first single Simmer Down, backed by ska group The Skatalites. By February 1964, the tune had hit no. 1 in Jamaica. The band’s debut album The Wailing Wailers appeared in late 1965. Only released on the island, it essentially was a compilation of tunes previously recorded in 1964 and 1965. The Wailers’ first album released outside of Jamaica was their sophomore Soul Rebels from December 1970.

Following the depature of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1974, Marley continued as Bob Marley and the Wailers, with Marley on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. The Wailers at that time featured Aston Barrett (bass), Carlton Barrett (drums, percussion), Bernard Harvey (piano, organ), Jean Roussel (keyboards) and Al Anderson (lead guitar), along with the so-called I-Threes, a backing vocal trio consisting of Marley’s wife Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths – quite an army!

Bob Marley and the Wailers live

In July 1977, a malignant melanoma lesion was found under one of Marley’s toe nails. Due to his Rastafari beliefs and out of concern it would disrupt touring, Marley did not follow the medical advice to have his toe amputated and instead chose less invasive treatment. Unfortunately, it is safe to assume his decision most likely cost him his life less than four years later. On May 11, 1981, Marley passed away at a U.S. hospital in Miami at the age of 36. The cancer had spread throughout his body.

Altogether, Marley released 11 studio and two live albums during his lifetime. His posthumous greatest hits compilation Legend from May 1984 became the best-selling reggae album of all time, with sales in the U.S. and worldwide exceeding 15 million and 28 million copies, respectively. At an estimated total of more than 75 million sold records, Marley also ranks as one of the best-selling artists. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at no. 11 on their 2007 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Let’s get to some music!

I’m skipping Marley’s early stage, since I’m not well familiar with it. Instead, I’d like to kick things off with Stir It Up, a Bob Marley tune that was included on The Wailers’ fifth studio album Catch a Fire from April 1973. It proved to be a good title – together with a supporting tour of England and the U.S., the record helped put the band on the map internationally.

In October 1973, The Wailers released their sixth studio album Burnin’, the last with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. The lead single was the Marley-penned I Shot the Sheriff, which reached no. 67 in the UK and didn’t chart in the U.S. at all – that is until 1974, when Eric Clapton scored a major international hit with a great cover version. It topped the charts in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand, and was a top 10 in the UK and various other European countries. Similar to Cream and The Rolling Stones, who elevated African-American blues artists in the ’60s, Clapton’s cover significantly raised Marley’s international profile.

One of Marley’s best-known tunes is No Woman, No Cry, which he initially recorded for Natty Dread, the first album released as Bob Marley and the Wailers in October 1974. According to Rolling Stone, which included the song at no. 37 in their 2011 list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Marley gave the official songwriting credit to his friend Vincent Ford to help keep Ford’s Kingston soup kitchen running. The most popular version of that song appeared on Live!, the first live album by Marley and the band from December 1975, which captured a gig in London in July that year. That version also came out seperately as a single and peaked at no. 7 on the UK Singles Chart, marking the band’s first top 10 hit in Britain.

Rastaman Vibration was Bob Marley’s first album to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200, climbing to no. 8. Released in April 1976, it reached no. 15 in the UK and no. 26 in New Zealand. Here’s the opener Positive Vibration, another tune credited to Marley’s friend Vincent Ford.

After an assassination attempt in Jamaica in December 1976, which wounded but did not kill him, Marley relocated to London where he recorded his ninth album. Exodus, released in June 1977, elevated Marley to international stardoom and received Gold certifications in the UK, U.S. and Canada. Here’s the infectious Jamming, which also became one of the album’s six singles.

Next up: A fantastic live version of Is This Love from the aforementioned Babylon by Bus, released in November 1978. Marley and his band first recorded the tune for their 10th studio album Kaya from March 1978. Similar to No Woman, No Cry, I think the live version of Is This Love is superior to the initial studio recording. It has always been one of my favorite tracks on Babylon by Bus.

At the end of 1978, Bob Marley made his first visit to Africa, including Kenya and Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafari. He subsequently became a supporter of Pan-African solidarity. This is reflected on his 11th studio album Survival that came out in October 1979. One of the songs, Zimbabwe, celebrates the liberation of the country formerly called Rhodesia.

One of the grooviest Bob Marley tunes is Could You Be Loved, which blends reggae with dance music. It became one of his highest-charting singles in the UK where it peaked at no. 5. While in the U.S. it missed the Hot 100, it reached no. 6 on the Dance Clubs Songs, another Billboard chart. Could You Be Loved was included on Uprising from June 1980, the final album released during Marley’s lifetime.

I’d like to wrap up with two more tunes that came out after Marley’s death. The first is Buffalo Soldier from Confrontation, a studio album that appeared in May 1983. The record was a compilation of unreleased material and singles recorded during Marley’s lifetime. Buffalo Soldier is co-credited to Marley and Jamaican DJ, musician and reggae producer Noel George Williams, who was known as King Sporty. The tune became Marley’s highest-charting UK single peaking at no. 4. It was even more successful in New Zealand where it reached no. 3.

This bring me to the final tune and one of by favorites by Bob Marley: Iron Lion Zion. Originally, Marley wrote and first recorded that song in 1973 or 1974. But it was not released until October 1992, when it first appeared on a four-disc box set called Songs of Freedom. The version I’m featuring here is a remix that was included on Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On, an addendum to the 1984 compilation Legend.

Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Marley website; Rolling Stone; YouTube