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Top Ten Songs Of All Time: A list of songs I like to sing to!
Oh no, not another Top Ten list!
Love 'em or hate 'em, Top Ten lists are by their very nature extremely difficult to write - the mind is a fickle beast and what constitutes someone's best-liked tunes one week will undoubtedly change before the next hour, day or week is up. There's so much good music by so many talented artists that a definitive Top 10 is practically impossible - you'll always forget about a track or two that should have been in your list but only remember them as soon as the original line-up is committed to print. What I've done, therefore, is to mentally recall the ten tracks I couldn't bear to be without at this very moment - my "Desert Island Discs", if you like, except for the fact that there's ten records instead of eight, and I don't have to think of a book and a luxury item! :)
Those of you who have read my reviews on Ciao will no doubt know that I'm a fan of various contemporary female singer-songwriters, most of them not being exactly household names. Lack of public exposure, of course, doesn't rule anyone out, but I'll have to work a bit harder to explain why I like some of the tracks I list, because I suspect not many will have heard of them! There are a few famous ones in there, though, so don't worry, you'll know some of them - it's not all about the current artists I listen to, I've also included a few oldies and goodies! Hopefully there will be one or two surprises in the list, though - my tastes have in the past ran from the sublime to the ridiculous!
Feedback is always welcomed on my reviews - thanks to everyone who has already commented on the ones I've done to date. It's comforting to know that people enjoy reading them as much as I like writing them. If you don't like them, or think I've made a mistake anywhere, please let me know anyway - I'm all for constructive criticism as well.
So to this Top Ten - I've noted other reviewers listing a few items that didn't quite make their own cuts, so imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, and because it seems like a good idea, I'll do the same. Honourable mentions therefore should be awarded to the following songs:
Stephanie Kirkham - "Garden of Dreams" (from the album "That Girl", 2003) The Wreckers - "Rain" (from the album "Stand Still, Stay Pretty", 2006) Blondie - "Atomic" (from the album "Eat To The Beat", 1979) Claire Holley - "Henry's" (from the album "Dandelion", 2003) Charlotte Hatherley - "Behave" (from the album "The Deep Blue", 2007) Alice Peacock - "Into The Light" (from the album "Alice Peacock", 2002) Visage - "Night Train" (from the album "Visage: The Singles Collection", 1983) Karine Polwart - "Four Strong Walls" (from the album "Faultlines", 2003) Hue & Cry - "Labour Of Love" (from the album "Seduced And Abandoned", 1987) Belinda Carlisle - "You're Nothing Without Me" (from the album "Live Your Life Be Free", 1997)
So to my Top Ten, and no real surprises as to the first artist if you've read my most-commented on review to date?.
01. Gemma Hayes - "Back Of My Hand" (from the album "Night On My Side", 2003)
"But there's something in your ways That keeps me vying for a connection And I know you feel the same It's become a two-way addiction"
I could easily have a Top Ten completely filled with tracks by Gemma Hayes, but that would be a fairly boring read so I'll restrict myself to the one I definitely like best and can't go a couple of days without hearing. It's safe to say that she's my favourite artist and yet hardly anyone I know has heard of her. An Irish lass, she put out "Night On My Side" to critical acclaim (and a Mercury Music Prize nomination) but fell foul of a record company reorganisation and was dumped by her label, just as her follow-up album "The Roads Don't Love You" was released, Gemma having practically no say in how it was promoted or publicised. She put out her third CD, "The Hollow Of Morning", last spring on her own label but because of this it did not get the widest possible exposure. A fourth album, possibly an acoustic one, is due out sometime soon, but she's a self-confessed perfectionist who can't let go of something until she's tinkered with it to the Nth degree, so who knows when it will be released.
"Back Of My Hand" was released as a single from the "Night On My Side" album and received some limited airplay on Radio 2 in the UK, Terry Wogan playing the song on a few occasions (never missing out on a chance to promote an Irish artist) and Richard Allinson inviting her onto his show for a live session where it was included. I haven't heard it played anywhere else since 2003, although I know that some Irish radio stations play her material every day.
Not only is this song in my Top Ten, but it would be probably my favourite song of all time - I like it that much. That is probably the most certain thing about this particular list - the rest are subjective but this track wouldn't ever be excluded. Why do I like "Back Of My Hand?" People occasionally get a personal "connection" with an artist, either via listening to a CD or seeing them at a gig - it might be a chance look in their direction whilst they're on stage, or a line in a particular song that hits you at a vulnerable moment, something that resonates perfectly with an event or point in your life. For me, the lyrics of the first two verses suddenly struck a chord on a personal level (I'm not going into further detail) and that got me hooked. If that's all it was, though, then this song wouldn't feature in the Top Ten - what sets it apart for me is that I believe the track was written and performed by an artist who knew no bounds when it came to creating wonderful music, and who had a label (at the time) prepared to give her the freedom and latitude to grow as a writer and a musician.
In addition, Gemma's vocals trod a fine line between fragility and strength - her voice was gorgeous but hinted at a softer core. There's nothing particularly different about this song in terms of arrangement, in fact its simply a straight-up, old-fashioned number about unrequited love, recognising that the object of your affection has someone else in mind and that you're prepared to let them go - but it's performed so beautifully, earnestly and honestly that I couldn't not love it to death. There's just this sinking feeling running right through the song that makes it so real - as though I'm experiencing the words. Each of the three choruses is sung three different ways, a little emphasis added to a different part of the final word each time, one of those little nuances that escapes people. Gemma seems to have a talent for filling the spaces that other artists forget about - yet since there's absolutely no justice in the world, this single never got the publicity or the wide exposure it deserved.
I could have picked "Hanging Around", "Let A Good Thing Go" or "Lucky One" from the same album, or the sublime "Making Waves" which was only available on the US version - but I'll stick with this choice.
I'm always conscious of the fact that, given half a chance, I'll bang on about how good Gemma Hayes is, but make no apologies for this. Don't take my word for it, though - check out some of her songs for yourself and see what you're missing (or look up my reviews of her albums on Ciao!). The video for this song is also on Youtube - no-one really knows what the imagery is all about, mind you!
The following nine songs aren't in any particular order - I don't have the mental capacity or the will to try and put them in anything approaching some kind of priority!
Check out this song on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMh-Y2IWJZc
02. Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run" (from the album "Born To Run", 1975)
"We gotta get out while we're young 'Cause tramps like us Baby we were born to run"
I was all of eight years old when this song was released. Obviously I didn't appreciate it back then, since I only started getting into music three or four years later when punk and new-wave started, a time when The Police and Blondie started to pique my interest. However, just before Brucie-mania swept the UK during the mid-1980s, I bought a copy of "Born To Run" on cassette (which just shows you how long ago this was). Tracks like "Thunder Road", "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and "Jungleland" simply blew me away, but by far the most accessible and enjoyable song on the album was the title track, which eventually seemed to be an analogy between cars and women - though this was completely lost on me at the time. Springsteen himself has said its actually about something much simpler - getting out of Asbury Park, where he had been playing small clubs and bars whilst trying to make a name for himself (his previous two albums - "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." and "The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle" - weren't commercially successful).
There's one of the greatest, most recognisable guitar riffs ever on this song - only equalled in my opinion by the much simpler one on Blondie's "Atomic". It was recorded in the summer of 1974, well in advance of the other ones on the album, and apart from Springsteen's guitar tracks, included David Sancious on keyboards and Ernest "Boom" Carter on drums - both however were replaced by the time the remainder of "Born To Run" was recorded. A slightly different advance copy of the song had been released to various progressive rock stations at the end of 1974 but more work was done on the track prior to the album coming out in August the following year.
Echoing halcyon days of 57' Chevys tearing down the roads, country-boy losers at the wheel, the song definitely scores big time when Clarence Clemmons gets stuck into his seventeen-second long saxophone monologue - the sax solo can often seem somehow out of place in a song but it's a seamless transition here. This is followed by Springsteen's fatalistic delivery of
the line about wanting to die with his love in an "ever-lasting kiss" - once he rips into the "1, 2, 3, 4" count, you're just waiting for the tingle to start moving down your spine.
"Born To Run" has all the feel of a last-chance gasp, where Springsteen was giving everything he had - and more - to the performance, and that's not wide of the mark. Even the lyrics reflect this - consider "the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive" line - it's not just about hot-rods and girls. He considered this to be his final shot at making anything of his music career. There's simply so much heart and soul, sweat and tears included in this song that it's impossible not to find it absorbing. Sweat and tears maybe, but you also come away feeling that the performance itself on this song was somehow effortless, since it sounds so easy and perfect - a dichotomy that I can't resolve to my satisfaction. For me, he finally comes alive as an artist: I did go out and buy "Greetings From Asbury Park N.J." some time later but it's not a piece of work I can truly get into - I know that his second album is similar (although it contains songs that remain something of a concert favourite), yet there's such a sea-change on "Born To Run", where he seems to finally discover his commercial mojo, albeit without selling out to the bean-counters, said change making the songs so likeable and memorable. There's not a bad song on the entire album - even "Backstreets", "Meeting Across The River" and "She's The One" are cracking tunes, but "Born To Run" simply aces it in every department.
If you have never heard this song, look it up and do so now - you're clearly lacking something in your musical education!
03. Tina Arena - "Sorrento Moon (I Remember)" (from the album "Don't Ask", 1994)
"But the stars don't burn that brightly Every season surely slips away But you baby, you're the reason why I chose to stay"
This song often features on Terry Wogan's Breakfast Show - at least once a month or more, and he never fails to make some wry comment along the lines of the artist having "a stupid name". That might be so, but one of my "guilty pleasures" in terms of music is listening to Tina Arena's "Don't Ask" album from 1994, and in particular the track "Sorrento Moon", which only reached No.22 in the UK Top 40 two years later. I gave up on using the charts as a yardstick for what I should like to listen to when I was still a teenager, though, so the fact that it wasn't more popular is immaterial to my appreciation of the song.
Born Fillipina Arena in Australia, her family called her "Pina", which eventually turned into her stage name "Tina". (Terry Wogan would have just loved "Fillipina Arena"!) "Don't Ask" was her second album after the raunchier, disco-diva 1988 debut "Strong As Steel", a style of delivery which she was never particularly comfortable with. The follow-up, "Don't Ask", became Australia's biggest selling album in 1995, and remains that country's biggest selling album by a female singer to date - outselling even Kylie Minogue, which I find hard to believe. Since 2003 she has released two French-language albums and "Songs Of Love And Loss", which was released in two parts a year apart.
Back to "Sorrento Moon", though - I'm not sure if listening to Tina Arena was ever considered fashionable but I'm not bothered. I suspect she's one of Australia's best kept secrets, one with a unique, rather powerful voice and an athletic one, possessing plenty of range. There's a Latin tinge to the percussion on "Sorrento Moon" which is obvious from the beginning, the remainder of the accompaniment being largely confined to just piano and strings - there's a bass guitar in there somewhere but you'd hardly know it. Some top session musicians were involved in the recording - John Pierce on bass and Pat Mastelotto (XTC, The Rembrandts and King Crimson) on percussion and drums - which only adds to its quality. Tina herself is also fairly restrained, the arrangement allowing her to display a much softer side to her delivery, in keeping with the song's slower tempo, although there are sections where she's able to show much more range and emphasis, especially in the choruses. Backing vocals from Tina and Marilyn Martin pitch in and add a multitude of layers at just the right moments to give the song a lift towards the choruses, whilst Tina herself gets to stretch a little bit at the concluding fade-out. Technically, she's perfect in voice and doesn't resort to warbling unlike some artists I could mention.
Why do I like this song? It's inoffensive, just this side of twee, not quite sugary and parodying but almost there, yet all these characteristics make me just want to sit back and wallow in the moment when I hear the song on the radio. Tina Arena has, to my ears, one of the most perfect voices ever - not everyone will share this opinion but I'm sticking by it! I bought the album on the strength of this single being included in the line-up and ended up loving pretty much everything else on it - when I'm in need of a bit of cosseting by a wonderful voice, this goes onto the CD player, and I have a happy knack of summoning up the chorus when I'm in need of a mental lift.
Whilst "Sorrento Moon" isn't by far the strongest track on "Don't Ask" - that accolade probably goes to "Chains" - it's certainly my favourite, and remains a song I can listen to again and again. And it's now going to have to be dug out of the pile of CDs next to the PC - curses! :)
To see the video, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4ghkusH5hk
04. Lamb - "Wonder" (from the album "Between Darkness and Wonder", 2003)
"Lately I find myself amazed At all around me Everything I see Like all of life's ablaze with light That suddenly I see Only now I see The wonder, the wonder of it all"
Lou Rhodes has one of "those" voices - you know, the type that brings shivers to your spine and goose-bumps to your skin because she's just so damned expressive. Her vocals are never one-dimensional - listen hard enough, and you'll pick up on how breathy, husky and yet coy she can sound, often all in the space of the same song, whilst at other moments there's a particular catch to her voice that seems to take on a life all its own. With the "Hipoptimist" Andy Barlow added to the mix, his inventive brand of drum and bass brought Lamb to the forefront of the 1990s trip-hop crowd - yet "Wonder" is one of their much more restrained tracks.
A friend lent me "Between Darkness And Wonder" shortly after it was released in 2003 and I knew I had to get a copy for myself. In a former life I was quite the fan of electronica - New Order, KLF, 808 State and Portishead amongst others being the flavour of the day. Whilst by the turn of the century I'd largely moved onto my current staple diet of female singer-songwriter material, I wasn't averse to returning to this sort of thing if the mood took me. Lamb seemed to have a foot in both camps, plus there was enough variety among their style of music to lift them beyond the usual electronic repetition, samples and wizardry I'd been accustomed to. There's also a liberal sprinkling of quirky bits and pieces spread throughout the album, plenty to stimulate my interest. Whilst most of the songs on the album were pure joy to listen to, "Wonder" struck me as belonging on a higher plane of existence.
"Wonder" differs from much of the other tracks on "Between Darkness And Wonder" due to the gentle, restrained and almost subdued arrangement, plus Lou's vocals don't have to fight against the maelstrom of Andy's drum and bass scenarios - excellent though the latter are on other tracks, the backing seems distinctly secondary to her here despite being an integral part of the whole. Then again, very little would outdo Lou Rhodes - she's got one of those "once heard, never forgotten" voices, one that is close to angelic here, especially when she's up against an ethereal-sounding, multi-layered choir (no less than five singers contributing to this), which provides the backing vocals throughout the song. Despite being firmly pushed into third place behind Lou and the choir, the accompaniment demands recognition since its augmenting rather than competing with the vocals - Andy's use of strings (viola, cello and harp) seems to lift the song higher during each successive rendition of the title whilst the instruments finally come to the fore at the end. It is seemingly much slower than many of the other tracks on the album, meandering along at its own relaxing pace, almost ballad-like for Lamb.
Given the title of the track, both Lou and Andy have managed to infuse a generous amount of awe into this song - you can almost imagine yourself sitting back, wild-eyed, listening to the wonder of it all. Unfortunately Lou Rhodes left to pursue a solo, more folk and acoustic-based career a couple of years ago - she's said that she can't ever envisage returning to the electronic side of music again, so I doubt we'll hear the likes of Lamb again - a great shame. I still haven't heard either of her two solo albums so I think they'll have to be purchased sometime soon.
See what you think: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TRfF9zT8Xs
05. Eilen Jewell - "High Shelf Booze" (from the album "Letters From Sinners And Strangers", 2007)
"I always said I'd be his slave Before I would be his dog But now he's got me rambling around And sleeping in a hollow log A hollow log, a hollow log Sleeping in a hollow log"
If you'd told me twelve months ago that I'd class an album that sounds as though it was pulled kicking and screaming from the 1950s as one of my greatest finds in recent years, I'd probably have questioned your sanity. I suppose I should therefore be questioning my own now, since I rank Eilen Jewell's "Letters From Sinners And Strangers" as one of the best albums I've bought in years. Yes, the songs sound as though they hail from the golden age of rock and roll, yet they've got some modern twists about them, and (with the exception of guitarist Jerry Miller) are performed by a group of under-30s.
Eilen (rhymes with "Healin'") was born in Idaho and grew an appreciation for old-time music - moving to the Boston area she fell in with a tight-knit group of like-minded musicians and formed a band, recording her debut album "Boundary County" in 2005 and then "Letters" in 2007. The latter was released to much critical acclaim in America, reaching the Americana Radio Chart Top 10 and being included on "best of 2007" lists published by various critics and reviewers. Me? I'd heard good things about the album and Amazon, true to form, suggested it as a recommendation based on other ones I'd picked up in recent years - although sooner or later pretty much everything labelled as "Americana" gets thrown at me - so I'd been aware of the CD since its release. It wasn't until I heard Eilen and the band live during August last year that I became a convert, though.
I've recently reviewed this album for Ciao (so you can read at length what I thought about the remainder of the songs on it), but my highlight - and also a track I couldn't visualise not hearing every so often - is the absolutely wonderful "High Shelf Booze". What sets it apart from the others (and you could just barely squeeze the thickness of a credit card through the differences) is two-fold - namely guest musician Alec Spiegelman's delicious clarinet work throughout, combined with Eilen's gorgeous, bluesy yet equally restrained vocals. The song caresses the ears rather than assaults them, a jaunty little affair that brings a smile to my face and yet taunts me until I start singing along with it. Alec's clarinet work is simply superb - there's no other way to describe it, seeing how he sets the scene immediately in the intro then goes on to underpin the song during its crucial moments.
There's no doubt a nod or two to one of Eilen's influences, namely Billie Holiday, in her delivery - someone I can also relate to since I've enjoyed listening to the latter's music on occasions since my teens (I've never particularly followed the crowd in terms of what I want to hear!). Whilst there's plenty going on here with the clarinet, percussion and Eilen upfront, it scores by not trying to pack everything in together - the musicians are given plenty of room to shine individually, and you're able to appreciate their efforts rather than try to separate the wheat from the chaff. I didn't need any excuse to play this song once again whilst writing this review!
Whilst there are some truly excellent songs on this album - "Heartbreak Boulevard" and "Rich Man's World" could have easily filled the other slots in my Top Ten - "High Shelf Booze" just shades it because it's sheer fun to listen to. I'm also spoiled rotten because I remember the live version Eilen and the band performed last year at a tiny venue in the depths of rural North Yorkshire - an incredible night!
A slower live version without the clarinet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWUeRHrJ_ac&feature=PlayList&p=D48C0AEBF2D32 F13&playnext=1&index=4
06. Van Morrison - "Moondance" (from the album "Moondance", 1970)
"And all the leaves on the trees are falling To the sound of the breezes that blow And I'm trying to please to the calling Of your heart-strings that play soft and low"
Northern Ireland's famous musical export "Van the Man" recorded this song for his album of the same name back in 1970, but it wasn't released as a single until seven years later. I'll be honest: the song first came to my attention as a pubescent teen whilst watching (for the time) the famous shower scene with Jenny Agutter in the film "An American Werewolf In London", where it was used as one of the moon-themed tracks, and for a while I suppose that I associated "Moondance" with that particular scene, but subsequently I began to appreciate Van Morrison's song on its own merits. Whilst I admit to not knowing a great deal about the artist's back catalogue beyond the songs on his 1999 "Best Of" album, which I bought with the express intention of owning a copy of "Moondance", the single, I do like this track.
There's an easy-going, inviting jazz-themed swing to "Moondance" which practically seduces you into listening from the get-go. In fact, it's the heavy emphasis on the piano and electric bass that struck me first, something that to me sounded a lot like "I Wish I Knew", the famous theme to Barry Norman's "Film [insert year here]" programmes. If anything, though, "Moondance" sounds extremely sophisticated - Van Morrison himself is on record as saying that it was something Frank Sinatra wouldn't have been out of place singing. His voice stretches and wails, yet there's something attractive about his performance, and when Jack Shroer's saxophone solo eventually kicks in, you know that there's something magical occurring. He really does seem to transport you to this mystical autumn night he's raving about. "Van the Man's" vocals have a flute over-dub towards the end, the latter being allowed a little flourish that simply puts the icing on the cake for this song.
Sophisticated this song might well be, but it's also very accessible - Jenny Agutter might have got a lot older in the years since I first heard "Moondance", but the latter remains timeless.
07. Propaganda - "Duel" (from the album "A Secret Wish", 1984)
"The first cut won't hurt at all The second only makes you wonder The third will have you on your knees You start bleeding, I start screaming"
Claudia Brücken had arguably one of the most distinctive voices heard in the Top 40 during 1985 when "Duel" became a reasonably-selling hit single. Although the song was an odd little tale of suicide, it has to be put in prospective with the time it was released - the Cold War was still ongoing, "Threads" had painted an ultra-depressing view of how Sheffield would be destroyed in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union the year before on telly, the miner's strike hadn't been long finished and millions were still unemployed in the UK. Thatcher's children seemed to take to this song like lemmings - it became the band's best-selling single in this country, reaching No.21 in the spring of 1985. And I loved it.
German new-wave synth-pop Propaganda were formed back in 1982 comprising Ralf Dörper, Andreas Thein and vocalist Suzanne Freytag. They were soon joined by classically trained musician/composer Michael Mertens and the young, spiky-haired vocalist Claudia Brücken. Paul Morley signed the band to ZTT, the label owned by Trevor Horn (of "Buggles" fame). They went for the Abba look, Mertens being consigned to the background - he became in effect the invisible member for a time until Thein left the band at the end of 1984, although this would be a twisted, post-industrial hell Abba. Due to Horn having to spend most of the label's budget on the newly-signed Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Propaganda was placed on the "back burner", sound engineer Steve Lipson being drafted in to produce "A Secret Wish" - the subsequent delays meant that "Duel" wasn't released until April 1985.
"Duel" was a much more pop-orientated song than the band's first single, "Dr Mabuse", a sprawling nine-minute long affair redeemed however by an excellent rhythm section and some rather pretentious-sounding background vocals. Whilst more "poppy", "Duel" retained the stereotypical German precision that Propaganda were famous for - from the opening synth beat and hollow bars that follow the rather deceptive piano intro, it's as though the writers and performers never put a foot wrong. Claudia's vocals are very distinctive, a half-nasal, half-throaty roar combined with millimetre-perfect diction - yet this weird combination makes for an unusually likable sound. The ever-present drum beat never gets tiring and the staccato piano break becomes an interesting diversion from Claudia's vocals, which frankly never get above second gear for most of the time. For a pop song, at nearly five minutes it's a fair bit longer than the usual "three minute wonders" of the time, but doesn't sound anywhere near that length - despite the unhurried pace, it seems to blast along at a rate of knots. Of course, for an eighties synth hit, there was the required industrial-sounding break to show off what the electronics could do, this particular song coming complete with mock horns, trumpet wails and something at the conclusion that sounds remarkably like a lion roaring, but this was simply par for the course back then. When the staccato piano returns as a lead-in to the last chorus, it's a complete joy to sit back and listen to, and Claudia finally then gets to show a little of the power she demonstrates on some of the band's other tracks.
Whilst unusual, "Duel" wasn't anywhere near being a truly remarkable tune - yet I defy any radio station playing 80s music to keep this song off their playlist for more than a week at a time. Century FM's "Skooldaze" seems to have it on every other weekend and I still love to hear this - for me, it pretty much sums up those days. The BBC picked it as the theme to their BBC2 "Rally Report" programme back then - the programme makers clearly had taste (unlike those responsible for choosing the much more distorted "Jewel" version of the song - also on "A Secret Wish" - as the theme for Channel 4's American Football show at around the same time!).
Found a copy of the video on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6w_q58CFfAo
08. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - "Ah Mary" (from the album "This Is Somewhere", 2007)
"Call her a bully, she'll blow up your whole damn playground Pour her a drink and watch it go straight to her head She'll take you so high she'll cover her eyes as you fall down Then in the morning, don't be surprised if you're dead"
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals self-produced and promoted their first two albums, namely 2004's "Original Soul" and the following year's "Nothing But The Water", the latter receiving plenty of critical acclaim and the band being given several nominations in various award ceremonies. Their brand of blues, soul and rock music seemed to strike a chord with many people although most of their success was down to a lot of hard work promoting the band through the Internet and via word of mouth. For their third album, "This Is Somewhere", they managed to obtain a deal with Hollywood Records and this granted the CD a much bigger impact when it was released in 2007. The album itself came to my attention last year - and the extremely impressive highlight that was "Ah Mary".
Most of "This Is Somewhere" has one foot entrenched in folk, a rootsy blend of blues, soul and even in places gospel-acquainted tracks that are a delight for the ears. However, the opener "Ah Mary" has the other foot firmly planted in hard-charging rock, Grace's young but seemingly jaundiced and world-weary vocals matched with an absolute power house of a backing band, giving the song almost an anthem's theme. Listen to it the first couple of times and you'll be forgiven, nay, virtually encouraged to believe that it's just a straight-up rocking little tune with a gorgeously-talented voice at the helm - yet concentrate on the lyrics towards the end and if you're astute enough, you'll notice the insidious change from "Ah Mary" to "America", and the message therein becomes all too clear. It's a political themed song, sure, but one which creeps up on you, and one that works on a straight-forward, rockier level without the political undertones.
Everything's deceptive about "Ah Mary" - beginning with the delightful little piano and acoustic guitar intro that lulls you into a false sense of security. Even Grace's voice comes across as mellow, suggesting the barest hint of sweetness. All the while, though, there's the growing feeling that she's caged in some way, waiting to break out - as she reaches the first chorus, Grace simply growls. The power and fury - no doubt honed during the almost constant touring the band did between albums - is unleashed to a crescendo, aided and abetted by her band who likewise raise their game. Nothing is strained beyond the bounds of audibility, but everything is taken to a new level, before it all collapses back down to the relative tranquillity of the second verse. The rollercoaster ride soon starts all over again, though - this time to stay. You're then treated to an exquisitely-performed and extended electric guitar break, topped off by Grace's exuberant vocal whoop and for a finale the chorus is repeated, albeit at a furious, break-neck level.
Quite simply, "Ah Mary" is a song I could never envisage becoming tired of hearing. It's got so much energy, power and punch from everyone concerned that I'm surprised it hasn't been played more on the radio - but no doubt the underlying political elements put paid to that.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njJjCuuqYKk - the band are however much more subdued here.
09. Michelle Branch - "Find Your Way Back" (from the album "Hotel Paper", 2003)
"What if I said what I was thinking? What if that says too much? When everybody's got a reason I feel like giving up"
If there was any justice in the world, Michelle Branch would be as much of a household name as Britney Spears, though she's let her music do the talking rather than relying upon her body to sell records, and thus has stayed in relative obscurity, despite two absolutely killer solo CDs (2001's "The Spirit Room" and 2003's "Hotel Paper"), plus her collaboration with Jessica Harp as The Wreckers, with the 2006 album "Stand Still, Look Pretty" - a complete change in genre to a more countrified-sound, but still very memorable. Whilst her solo debut, "Broken Bracelet" (1999) didn't exactly set the world on fire, she had the makings of some excellent material there, and possessed the determination to put things right. A re-vamp of several songs on that album led to their inclusion on "The Spirit Room", which was released to wide critical acclaim if not huge commercial success and publicity. I used to compare Michelle Branch to Vanessa Carlton, and whilst their output is slightly different, you can tell they love to sing - it's not about the fame or fortune or the attention-seeking, it's about the craft.
With Sheryl Crow providing back-up vocals on one track (doubtless payback for Branch supporting her in the same capacity on the more famous artist's early tours), the third album "Hotel Paper" only served to create more fans and spawned a series of critically acclaimed singles if not huge amounts of publicity and commercial success for Michelle Branch - although her inclusion on Santana's 2002 single "The Game Of Love" did bring her name and vocal talents to a much wider audience, the latter reaching the American Top 5 that year. This was certainly how I came to hear and appreciate Michelle Branch as a solo artist - I loved (and still love) this song, knew about Carlos Santana but hadn't heard the name Michelle Branch before: a brief search brought up her first two albums (I ordered "The Spirit Room" straight away and loved it) and it wasn't long before "Hotel Paper" was being announced for release.
If "The Spirit Room" was full of excellent pop songs, then "Hotel Paper" is chock full of them, almost to bursting point. Forget the other young American girl singers from the time - this lass had (and still does have) talent, and bags full of it - plus she was no slouch on the guitar, having self-taught herself from the age of fourteen. Combined with her strong, powerful and confident vocals, this should have set her up as one of the female singer-songwriters of her generation - but set against the publicity machine of Britney and her competitors, the remarkably down-to-earth Michelle Branch had no chance as she relied solely on her music to gain support. Like many of the albums I've chosen tracks from for this Top Ten of mine, picking a favourite from "Hotel Paper" is an incredibly difficult decision - but "Find Your Way Back" just shades the rest in terms of being the one that I seem to mentally conjure up at the oddest times - then can't do without actually listening to!
"Find Your Way Back" starts off as a very unassuming song - just like stablemate "Tuesday Morning", it begins with a reasonably muted guitar/drum combination, which leads straight into Michelle's breezy, summery-sounding yet slightly restrained vocals - she doesn't feel inclined to warble, strain or wail at all, or needs to - it's simply a refined performance throughout. Whilst Michelle's nowhere near perfection as a vocalist, she puts in plenty of effort and the result is an honest, even lovable voice. Recreating the sound, feel and vitality of "Everywhere" from "The Spirit Room", it might be viewed by listeners as something of a support track on this album because the singles are so good, but listen carefully and you'll pick up on the elements that make this artist such a great find for those prepared to search her out. Whilst it didn't become a single taken from the album, it's no less a song for this - in fact, it's one I come back to again and again, often at the expense of the others which are much more "immediate" hits. This is a slow burner, but the end product is very rewarding - and she's foregone the synth stuff to concentrate on "proper" instruments! Right at the climax, Michelle virtually whispers the line "I used to get away with so much", followed by just the right amount of pause for dramatic effect (you always know a great artist by their amazing use of virtual silences) before the instrumentation kicks in again and she's raising her voice for the finale - lovely stuff.
Apparently Michelle is on the point of releasing a fourth solo album - hopefully this will be the one that catapults her into semi-stardom. On the strength of "Find Your Way Back", she deserves it.
A bad copy (soundwise) is on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmeSn6yVJiw&feature=PlayList&p=35592401621FE BD1&playnext=1&index=22
10. X-Ray Spex - "Identity" (from the album "Germ Free Adolescents", 1978)
"When you look in the mirror Do you see yourself? Do you see yourself on the TV screen? Do you see yourself in the magazine? When you see yourself Does it make you scream?"
X-Ray Spex were never ones to outstay their welcome - they released just a single album, namely 1978's "Germ Free Adolescents", from which a handful of extremely punchy singles were taken (some of them released on fairly lurid-coloured vinyl), before the band members decided to go their separate ways - the album they released after briefly reforming in 1995 sank without trace. As punk bands went, they were definitely unconventional, so that says a lot about how different they actually were. Take the main band members, for instance - apart from a fairly ugly trio of blokes who played drums, bass and guitar, there was the equally unattractive Poly Styrene (real name Marian Elliott - "if someone said I was a sex symbol, I'd shave my head tomorrow") on lead vocals and Lora Logic (real name Susan Whitby) on saxophone - the latter a truly unusual instrument to be found in a punk band. However, Lora's sax became an instantly recognisable and integral part of X-Ray Spex's output - and she was apparently still at school, studying for her O-levels at the time. The name of the band came from Poly Styrene's market stall in Beaufort Market, London, which she closed down at the beginning of 1977 to concentrate on performing. This was a girl who frightened Johnny Rotten - clearly she was a force to be reckoned with.
"Germ Free Adolescents" contained a whole line-up (no less than sixteen tracks worth) of anti-consumer themed material, from the frantic opener "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo", through "Warrior in Woolworths", "I Am A Poseur" and "I Am A Cliché" to the risqué-sounding but largely misunderstood closer, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" - the latter being banned from radio playlists after its release by Virgin. Most of the songs were short and punchy, utterly eligible vehicles for Poly Styrene's discordant vocals and Lora Logic's unforgettably vibrant if not always technically perfect sax playing. It's hard to pick a favourite track from the album since they're all very ear-friendly - I know that's not too believable for a punk band but it's true, but I've managed to select one that I don't really think I could go without hearing for a few weeks - I give you "Identity".
"Identity" was allegedly written by Poly Styrene after she encountered a girl trying to slit her wrists in the toilets of a club she went to one night. It's a slightly less anthemic song than some of the other tracks on "Germ Free Adolescents", more of an out-and-out pop song in terms of arrangement, but that doesn't mean that the band sacr