50»PUBLIC ENEMY (Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Hank Shocklee, Eric Sadler, et al)
“Blood in the wood and it’s mine / I’m chokin’ on spit feelin’ pain / Like my brain bein’ chained / Still gotta give it what I got”
Anchored by revolutionary-turned-philosopher Chuck D and comic foil Flavor Flav, five-man hip-hop collective Public Enemy was conceived in 1982, released a debut record—Yo! Bum Rush the Show—in 1987 (a score for Rick Rubin’s then-fledgling Def Jam Records), and followed it up with 1988’s mind-shattering It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Packed with cut-and-paste beats and caustic rhymes, Nation of Millions defined hip-hop as a catalyst for social change, offering an unapologetically demanding—both aurally and emotionally—depiction of urban strife. In 1989, “Fight the Power” sliced through Spike Lee’s landmark Brooklyn portrait Do The Right Thing, and Public Enemy became instantly responsible for one of the 20th century’s most resonant protest songs. Nine LPs followed; the streets were never the same again. Amanda Petrusich
GET»“Don’t Believe the Hype” (1988), “Fight the Power” (1990), “By the Time I Get To Arizona” (1991)
“A gardener's daughter stopped me on my way, on the day I was to wed / It is you who I wish to share my body with she said / We'll find a dry place under the sky with a flower for a bed / And for my joy I will give you a boy with a moon and star on his head”
Cat Stevens drowned off Malibu 30 years ago, 1976. Rest in peace.
The day he passed away, a sodden, transformed figure somehow hauled himself from rough surf and collapsed on the California sand. Minutes before, swept away by a capricious rip tide, that struggling swimmer promised the wild blue sky he would dedicate his life to God were he spared from drowning.
The lucky man who emerged dripping from the foam became, in time, Yusuf Islam, son of Mohammed. Formerly a famous pop star named Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam marked the effective end of a brilliant 12-year recording career—40 million albums sold, 12 popular releases plus many anthologies and a memorable soundtrack to Harold and Maude. And for a few magical years, for fans like me, Cat Stevens was the greatest musician in the world.
It wasn’t the first changeover for Stevens, who began life in London as Stephen Demetre Georgiou, Greek and Swedish by ancestry and gifted with the fresh timings and rhythms of each heritage. Stevens crafted songs limned in mysticism, able in a twinkling to carry off a listener to fantastic aural landscapes—Katmandu or Moonshadow-Land or a place where a tillerman sipped tea with the woman who made the rain come. Wild World-ly places where Peace Trains ran on time and Longer Boats pushed ashore, where aggrieved men growled out haunting, soul-searching ballads—“How Can I Tell You?” and “Into White” and “Where Do The Children Play?”
Yusuf Islam also put an end to his predecessor’s skepticism about the whole pop-star scene, an undercurrent always tugging at Cat Stevens’ work… and, clearly, his soul.
Maybe Stevens was really drowning all along—in the celebrity and flashbulbs and starfucking. I saw him perform in 1972 at The Omni in Atlanta, the first event ever held in that colossal concert space, a seat miles away from tiny figures on a distant stage. The first concert words ever uttered in that arena may have held a clue to the conversion that always ticked away inside Stevens… to his whole overwhelmed, drowning soul in the treacherous currents of pop stardom.
“Shit!” Cat Stevens gasped. “It’s big!” Charles McNair
GET»“Here Comes My Baby” (1966), “Father and Son” (1970), “Wild World” (1970)
48»GILLIAN WELCH & DAVID RAWLINGS
“And it’s under my nails and it’s under my collar / And it shows on my Sunday
clothes / Though I do my best with the soap and the water / But the damned old dirt won’t go”
So much for “authenticity.” When two non-Southerners, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, released one of the great country albums of the decade, 1996’s Revival, their thorough recreation of old-time music elicited hushes of awe from music fans, but that trick would’ve worn thin years ago if Welch and Rawlings didn’t have so much else to offer. These songs are poetry—always meaning more than they seem to say, resonating in an expanding circle from the simplest words and images. “I am an orphan girl.” “The night came undone like a party dress.” “I dream a highway back to you.” Time (The Revelator) showed that they can write surreal, Dylanesque dreams without losing that simplicity, and Soul Journey showed that they can rock—and it’s all sung in voices so stoic and passionate that, to borrow a phrase from Guy Davenport, “You can hear mortality whetting its scythe behind every line.” Philip Christman
GET»“I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll” (2001), “Elvis Presley Blues” (2001), “Look at Miss Ohio” (2003)
“Once when we moved away / She came to Romulus for a day / Her Chevrolet broke down / We prayed it’d never be fixed or found / We touched her hair, we touched her hair”
Sufjan Stevens’ first two albums, A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit, only hinted at the songwriter’s masterful skills at instrumentation and arrangement. With his third, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State—the first in his ambitious 50-states project—his abilities were fully realized. A myriad of instruments—including piano, banjo and horns—provides a background for whispery-voiced lyrics of personal history intertwined with geographical storytelling. The album is at once personal and universal. Illinois’ flowing, lush arrangements and lyrics guide the listener on a tour through the state’s unique history, from a haunting portrayal of a killer to references to Superman and Abraham Lincoln. In between those two albums he delivered Seven Swans, a stripped-down, somber statement containing deeply personal tales of faith in the vein of Southern gothic writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. An incredibly prolific songwriter, he’s released five albums in six years, and with an album of Illinois outtakes on the horizon, he’s proving to be a lasting voice in the American musical landscape. Cory d. Byrom
GET»“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” (2005), “Chicago” (2005)
46»DAVID BYRNE (Talking Heads)
“The island of doubt / It’s like the taste of medicine / Working by hindsight / Got the message from the oxygen / Making a list / Find the cost of opportunity / Doing it right / Facts are useful in emergencies”
Beyond the oversized suit and repetitive arm-chopping motions, the art-school, New Wave-punk poster-boy with a penchant for paranoid and postmodern subjects has made his career injecting polyrhythmic grooves with world-music melodies seemingly designed for the philosophical and sardonic urbanite but somehow digestible for popular consumption. With jerky tenderness and stammering authority, Byrne masterfully delivers lyrical salvos on the instability of the human condition better than the rest. Let your mind hum a few bars to “Burning Down the House,” “Life During War Time,” “Slippery People,” “Psycho Killer” or “Wild Wild Life,” and you wonder how this guy escaped being locked up in the nutty bin. But when balanced by the beautiful melancholia of “Heaven,” the cheekiness of “(Nothing But) Flowers” and the best domestic love song ever written, “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” you realize you’ve been privy to the mind of a true original. Jay Sweet
GET»“Heaven” (with Jerry Harrison, 1979), “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” (with Talking Heads, 1983)
“These days I sit on corner stones / And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my
friend / Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them”
At the exhausted end of the 1960s, in the aftermath of Altamont and the dispirited crash of the hippie era, American singer/songwriters abandoned their grandiose plans to change the world and focused on changing themselves. It turned out to be a daunting task.
No one chronicled that struggle more insightfully than Jackson Browne, whose meditative early-’70s country-folk albums perfectly captured a generation bereft of ideals and struggling to find something, anything to believe in. Browne peddled not so much cynicism as confusion, and the uncertainty and self-doubt reached a fever pitch on 1974’s masterful Late for the Sky. It was as eloquent and elegiac an album as ever recorded, full of the heights of poetic grandeur and the depths of personal despair.
The songs turned political in the ’80s, and the age-old desire to change the world reasserted itself. There was great music there, too. But Jackson Browne’s best songs were his early songs, and they still resonate in these uneasy times. They were about his own life, but they speak for everyman. Andy Whitman
GET»“These Days” (1973), “Your Bright Baby Blues” (1976)
“I don’t know why I love you like I do / After all these changes you put me
through / The sixteen candles burning on my wall / Turning me into the biggest fool of them all”
When Al Green soared onto the pop scene in the early ’70s, he glided in as a sex symbol, all “Love and Happiness” and “Let’s Stay Together.” But beyond the voice, the charisma and the tossing of long-stemmed roses into crowds of adoring women, Green was an accomplished songwriter. In fact, he wrote or co-wrote all his greatest hits.
By himself, Green composed “Tired of Being Alone” and “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy).” With his producer and mentor, Willie Mitchell of Hi Records, he wrote “Livin’ For You,” and with Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson Jr., he came up with “I’m Still in Love With You,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” “Look What You Done For Me” and “You Ought to Be With Me.” And he hooked up with house guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges for “L-O-V-E (Love)” and “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).”
Green had written and cut a modest hit, “Back Up Train,” when he met Mitchell in the late ’60s. But he did mostly covers until he told the producer that he’d just written a new song, called “Tired of Being Alone.” It was straight out of his life, Green said. “You can’t just write it like a story you made up in your mind. This is life as it happens, and you can’t write it until it happens.”
Mitchell, who calls Green “one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard,” also marvels at how well—and how quickly—he writes. In 1971, he gave him a slow groove track he’d composed with Jackson, “and it took 15 minutes for him to come up with ‘Let’s Stay Together.’ I’m a good writer,” says Mitchell, “but Al, lyrically, is hard to beat.”
Where does the music come from? “I’d have to say deep down within,” says Green. “That’s the only thing I can come up with. Yeah, it’s a well for music down there, and the only thing I gotta do is try to get it up to the surface so you can get a chance to display it. Sing it. Record it. Then go and perform it.”
Marvin Gaye once said that his songs “just come through me; I’m just like a channel for the music that comes from somewhere else.” Green offered a me-too nod. “So it doesn’t really come from me,” he said. “I’m just a vessel being used for the music. It’s not me, it’s not Willie. It’s us collaborating and doing something we feel is wonderful.” Ben Fong-Torres
GET»“Let’s Stay Together” (with Al Jackson Jr. and Willie Mitchell, 1972), “Love and Happiness” (with Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, 1972), “Take Me To The River” (with Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, 1974)
43»RYAN ADAMS (Whiskeytown)
“Everybody wants to go forever / I just want to burn up hard and bright”
At his best, Ryan Adams synthesizes endless, disparate influences—whether Willie Nelson, the Stones, Elton John, Springsteen, the Dead, the Mats or The Cure—all depending on his latest whims. And he’s done so transparently and in plain view, making no attempt to cover his tracks or hide his sources—a quality his many detractors interpret as a lack of originality or a kind of artistic insincerity.
It’s useful—though their sounds are worlds apart—to think of Adams as the Paul McCartney of his generation: A prolific pen, a seemingly effortless gift for melody, an extraordinary stylistic versatility and flexibility, and an interest in writing within the confines of various pre-existing musical styles, or at least in consistently making musical reference to them. But Adams lends a gorgeous confessional bent to his songs that bares his soul—even while he’s masquerading—in heartbreaking, inspiring, sometimes embarrassing, but always affecting vignettes. Thomas Bartlett
GET»“Come Pick Me Up” (2000), “La Cienega Just Smiled” (2001)
“Well sloe gin fizz works mighty fast / When you drink it by the pitcher and
not by the glass”
When I was little, my father routinely came home “a-drinkin’ with lovin’ on his mind.” My mother hated it, but her quiet, private nature and our rural isolation would allow only one ally—Loretta Lynn—to offer advice and consent. Her lyrics commanded our attention because they accomplished the aims Horace set out for literature: They delighted and instructed.
Ages later, the poet James Weldon Johnson described the best Southern writing as universally shared sensations—love, hope, longing, despair—expressed in a clear, familiar and colloquial voice, rooted in the realities of life, whether Lynn’s at Butcher Hollow or my mother’s on Bend of the River Road.
The trick of great writing is in this transcendence, and Loretta Lynn’s success at loading the universe, eternity and ultimate ideals onto words that may also be bender-specific—applicable to one woman’s heartache after one husband’s thoughtlessness—is what has sustained her as a poet, watchful and alert to the vagaries of a woman’s inconstant self-worth. Kaye Gibbons
GET»“You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” (1966), “Portland, Oregon” (2004)
41»Ray Davies (The Kinks)
“I miss the village green / the church, the clock, the steeple / I miss the morning
dew, fresh air and Sunday school”
The quintessential English songsmith, Ray Davies stands behind only the Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards songwriting teams in the canon of British Invasion-era artists. Forming the famously infighting Kinks in 1963 as one of the many spirited but sloppy R&B bands clogging London, the group would virtually invent garage rock in 1964 with the frenzied power chord romp of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”—a #1 U.K. hit that owed as much to brother Dave Davies’ fuzz guitar as Ray’s leering come-ons.
Davies would quickly move on to the stylistic eclecticism and social satire that would become his creative signature, leaving behind oversized guitar-rock in favor of an increasingly sophisticated mix of English music-hall, showtunes and country. With The Kinks banned from touring in the U.S. from 1965 to 1969 after heated exchanges with television executives and tour promoters, Davies was conspicuously absent from the social upheaval and political sloganeering of the love generation, instead sharpening his focus on a penetrating examination of English life.
From his mocking commentary on bandwagon styles in “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” to biting criticism of the British tax system in “Sunny Afternoon,” Davies wrote with wit and whimsy, often pining for an idyllic English past while expressing bewilderment at ’60s upheaval. A near-unparalleled string of classic albums would follow, each more sophisticated and complex in tone and subject matter, with 1968’s The Village Green Preservation Society offered as a blue-collar epic to rebut The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Davies’ ambitions brought mixed results in the mid ’70s, while his band’s catalog would touch off the first of many Brit-pop revivals. Unable to recapture their momentum, The Kinks dissolved in 1996, leaving Davies to revisit the group’s oeuvre on solo tours and start anew with 2006’s Other People’s Lives. Matt Fink
GET»“Sunny Afternoon” (1966), “Waterloo Sunset” (1967), “Lola” (1972)