“And I shall watch the ferry-boats / And they’ll get high / On a bluer ocean / Against tomorrow’s sky / And I will never grow so old again”
Down the hall and ’round the corner in another studio, Van Morrison was recording a squeaky white-gospel duet with that weirdly ageless monument to mainstream hit-making, Sir Cliff Richard. I kept creeping off, attempting to hear what was going on.
The Bykers, meanwhile, couldn’t give a toss about Van (or Cliff). As they circled me on their skateboards ’round the shiny pinewood floor of the live room, I berated them for their indifference and expounded loud and lengthy on the god-like godliness of “Gloria” by his first band Them (“The who?” No, not The Who, the Them!) and Sunday-morning student shagging to the second side of Astral Weeks. What about “Jackie Wilson Said?” Or “Listen To The Lion?” What about the one where he’s going on about cleaning windows back in Belfast? And that fantastic little kick he does at the end of his spot with The Band in the Last Waltz movie, when he’s wearing that bonkers sequined jumpsuit and looks like a little rugby ball on legs? Come on, says I, isn’t “Brown Eyed Girl” the only decent thing you ever hear on the oldies station?
They remained unmoved. It was a new world, and Van was doing something very uncool next door. Exhausted by my efforts on his behalf, I wandered off to the gents for a piss and guess who’s peeing right next to me? I peer down and venture an unconvincing, “Alright Van?”
“Aye, alright” he replies. Jon Langford
GET»“Cypress Avenue” (1968), “Sweet Thing” (1968), “Into the Mystic” (1970)
“Headlights staring at the driveway / The house is dark as it can be / I go inside and all is silent / It seems as empty as the inside of me”
Before she was writing songs for The Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris and more than a dozen others, Patty Griffin was a Florida waitress whose husband had left her. I imagine this one instance of hurt as the radioactive spider-bite that turned her into Empathy Woman, a musical superhero who fully experiences the deepest pain of every single character she writes about. How else to explain the transcendent sorrow I feel for the aging spinster in “Making Pies,” the mentally challenged vet in “Chief” and the tormented gay high-school kid in “Tony?” Whether on her most recent, folkier albums or the more rocking Flaming Red, Griffin builds her songs into a climax of vocal gymnastics that would make most of the American Idol finalists sound like baritones mid-puberty. The result brings so much splendor to the sadness that melancholy begins backing into joy. Josh Jackson
GET»“Flaming Red” (1998), “Long Ride Home,” (2002), “Making Pies” (2002)
18»U2 (Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullins Jr., Adam Clayton)
“It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest / It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success / Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief”
From the postpunk of “I Will Follow” to the political anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the atmospheric textures of “Bad” to the chiming guitar-pop of “With or Without You” to the distortion of “Zoo Station” to the dance drone of “Numb” and back to the personal anthem “Beautiful Day,” the biggest band in the world has an uncanny knack for significantly tweaking or wholly reinventing its sound at precisely the time when the band—and rock music—most need it. Led by Bono, these rock ’n’ roll messiahs not only risk but invite aspersions of pretension, hypocrisy and silliness as they rush headlong into the arenas of love, politics and religion. More often than not, these changes have paid off as the band has built a catalog of memorable, meaningful songs rivaling that of any act in popular music. Stadium-filling, anthem-belting masters of bombast, U2 invites us to sing along to the carnage of id v. super-ego. And their songs remind us that frustrations with changing ourselves are never an excuse to stop seeking peace and justice for all. Tim Porter
GET»“With or Without You” (1987), “One” (1991), “Vertigo” (2004)
“Smiles have all turned to tears / But tears won’t wash away the fears / That you’re never ever gonna return / To ease the fire that within me burns”
Judging by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees’ discography, while their peers were coming up with songs like “War,” “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” and “People Get Ready”—timely, socially conscious, important and expected outcries from black people during America’s civil-rights battles—the ’60s appeared to be all bliss to Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Where today’s songwriters and producers see artists from inner-city projects as perfect instruments for rap street stories and gritty hip-hop soul, Holland-Dozier-Holland dreamed higher, imagining the Brewster Housing’s own Diana Ross as just the vehicle for a classic ballad.
In the midst of their Motor City, they heard a symphony. Sonia Murray
GET»“Come See About Me” (1964, The Supremes), “Nowhere to Run” (1965, Martha & The Vandellas), “Baby Don’t You Do It” (1965, Marvin Gaye)
“I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes, I’m living proof of Churchill’s lies, I’m
destiny / I’m drawn between the light and dark where others see their target’s divine symmetry”
As the man’s greatest-hits package Changesbowie attests, David Bowie is synonymous with perpetual transformation, and his career to date embodies the old saying, “the only constant is change.” Beginning as a mod with music-hall roots, Bowie shapeshifted from hard rock to pop, piano balladry to proto-metal, folk to glam, and that’s just the first four albums. His roles as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke are but two outfits in a sprawling wardrobe that allowed Bowie to write beyond himself, beyond this world even, while inhabiting strange, androgynous personas. Lyrically, he was a seeker, drawing on the twisted subject matter of controversial outré writers like Jean Genet and Aleister Crowley, and referencing old Hollywood, Nazism and UFOs. Chameleonic through the decades, Bowie’s open-mindedness has kept his songs rejuvenated and relevant. Andy Beta
GET»“The Man Who Sold the World” (1970), “Ziggy Stardust” (1972), “Breaking Glass” (with Dennis Davis and George Murray, 1977)
“If I made you feel second best / Girl I'm so sorry I was blind / You were always on my mind”
My Texas granny used to lean into her long stereo cabinet (remember those? of course you don’t) and pull out an album she wanted to play for me… “Jo-anne Baez,” she’d say, and I would cringe for Joan’s sake. My granny was nothing like a liberal but, by God, she had a Vietnam War-era protest album by Jo-anne… I mean, Joan Baez. Which is how I relate to Willie Nelson’s body of work. Everybody has something by Willie because Willie has something for everybody. It’s not a please-all-the-people-some-of-the-time routine that he’s cultivated. It’s a please-himself-all-the-time, high-water mark that makes young, ambitious cultural ambassadors like myself pay attention and take notes. Because being from Texas gives you permission to be all over the map. And even if it’s a losing battle in the current Culture Wars, well sir, when they outlaw creative freedom, only outlaws will be free. Michelle Shocked
GET»“Crazy” (1962), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (1973), “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” (1980)
“I’m so glad that he let me try it again / Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole
world of sin / I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then / Gonna keep on tryin’ /
Till I reach my highest ground”
Nineteen Grammy awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. Thirty Top Ten hits, including 9 #1 singles. Induction into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame. Kanye West refers to his work as the benchmark. And if Kanye’s endorsement isn’t enough, President Bill Clinton—while honoring Wonder for his 1980s work to have Martin Luther King’s birthday recognized as a national holiday—credited him with composing “the remaining passages of Dr. King’s legacy.”
Born Steveland Judkins in Saginaw, Mich., in 1950, Wonder has been a fixture in popular music since he was 11. Blind from birth, he took up harmonica at age five, began piano at six and was playing drums two years later. He recorded his first hit when he was 12; at 17, he co-wrote “Tears of a Clown” for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and wrote and produced The Spinners’ hit “It’s a Shame.”
His songs have not just been fixtures in popular culture but have also helped define this culture. Of the trio of ’70s albums that catch Wonder at his pinnacle—Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976)—the latter has always been my personal favorite. It’s his defining achievement, ranging stylistically from boogie-woogie (“Sir Duke”) and jazz fusion (“Contusion”) to lyrical ballads (“If It’s Magic”) and baroque pieces (“Village Ghetto Land”). Its lyrics praise love, but also decry racism and poverty, while still finding time to celebrate Wonder’s musical heroes. “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo,” he sings, “and the king of all, Sir Duke.” For me, Ellington has now ceded the throne. David Wright
GET»“I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will be Forever)” (with Yvonne Wright, 1972), “Higher Ground” (1973), “Sir Duke” (1976)
“The arc of a love affair / His hands rolling down her hair / Love like lightning shaking till it moans / Hearts and bones”
Simon’s best songs function like conceptual performance art—songs about writing songs (“Song about the Moon”), songs about silence (“The Sound of Silence”), songs about being swallowed by songs (“Jonah”), songs about chants sung as prayers (“Rhythm of the Saints”), doo-wop refrains as incantations of remembrance (“René and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War”) and songs about color photography (“Kodachrome”). “The Late Great Johnny Ace” is a song about John Lennon’s murder. Its central metaphor is a posthumously signed glossy photograph of an R&B singer who committed suicide in 1954. During Simon’s live performance of the song in Central Park, a crazed fan rushes onstage. Simon dodges him, pauses a beat, and finishes the song: “And every song we played was for the late great Johnny Ace / Yeah yeah yeah.”
Paul Klee said, “Art plays in the dark with ultimate things and yet it reaches them.” Paul Simon said, “To overcome an obstacle or an enemy / To dominate the impossible in your life / Reach in the darkness.” Curt Cloninger
GET»“I Do It For Your Love” (1975), “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns” (1980), “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” (1983)
12» MICK JAGGER & KEITH RICHARDS (The Rolling Stones)
“I saw her today at the reception / In her glass was a bleeding man / She was
practiced at the art of deception / Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands / You can’t always get what you want … But if you try sometimes you just might find … You get what you need”
When you’re going head-to-head with Lennon and McCartney, you’d better bring your A-game. That was the challenge Mick Jagger and Keith Richards faced in 1964 when The Rolling Stones began their transition from scrappy R&B cover band to self-contained writing/performing unit, as The Beatles had done before them. Ironically, Jagger and Richards were goaded into the job of writing songs by manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who had visions of royalty statements dancing in his head. To say that these neophytes rose to the occasion would be something of an understatement. “Tell Me” the first recording to bear the Jagger-Richards credit, became the Stones’ first U.S. hit, initiating a songwriting partnership that has lasted a jaw-dropping 42 years.
The nature of Jagger and Richards’ towering achievement has been as unlikely as its longevity; after all, how could two skinny English kids possibly have turned into the last half-century’s most skillful, influential perpetuators of American roots idioms, from Delta blues to stone country? Inspired by Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Sam Cooke and other avatars, the partners came into their own in ’65 with “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (the latter setting the standard for rock singles), and they registered no drop-off for the next decade and a half. It was an unprecedented run of consistent brilliance anchored by four consecutive masterpieces—Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St.—each crammed full of classics.
Now in their 60s, Mick and Keith’s heyday is a distant, smoky memory; their songs dead flowers pressed beneath plastic in the scrapbook of rock ’n’ roll. But last year they showed they can still make the leap from craftsmanship to inspiration. “Back of My Hand,” “Rough Justice” and “Let Me Down Slow”—from 2005’s A Bigger Bang—are sterling new examples of the Stones’ distinctive brand of rugged sophistication. With Mick and Keith continuing to strike the occasional spark, I’d wager that the Stones aren’t done rolling just yet. Bud Scoppa GET»“Gimme Shelter” (1969), “Wild Horses” (1971), “Rocks Off” (1972)
“Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old / Africa is far too hot / And Canada’s too cold / And South America stole our name / Let’s drop the big one / There’ll be no one left to blame us”
Randy Newman’s meticulous craft is as close to songwriting perfection as we’re likely to hear in our lifetimes. And I’ll fightcha ’bout it.
Granted, this position is tough to defend among folks who associate Newman with “Short People” and Miracle-Whip Hollywood soundtracks or among leavened critics who acknowledge his skill but pigeonhole him as a mordant quirk, ironic heterodyne or top-flight Wainwright coughing 100 floors above Loudon in the tower of song.
These criticisms sell the Short Person short.
Newman’s been compared to Beckett, Bresson, Hemingway, Carver, Rothko, Palahniuk, Wolfe, Little Orphan Annie—all practitioners of minimalism, immediacy, insight, repetitive clothing. While compatriots rejected the constraints of musical forms, Newman welcomed them. He tossed popular Rococo frippery and dug deep into understanding the court of substance. He crafted bonsai, even as didactic bloats with fatty stools—Billy Joel, Harry Chapin, the Superman-cape-spitting guy—topiaried the “singer/songwriter” category into “eat-your-own-vomit.”
The very morning that Grand Funk’s “Closer to Home” hit the stands, alongside it was “Nilsson Sings Newman,” a musical chest of miniature timepieces.
Care to guess which endures? Selah.
To understand Newman’s Oscars, consider his family—his uncles Emil and Alfred, both also Oscarists. Consider that Newman’s “Masterman & Baby J” beats “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” at its own game, a full decade prior. To understand “Short People,” consider that the song, divorced from Newman’s Menippean oeuvre, makes as much sense as Smiles of a Summer Night divorced from Ingmar Bergman’s.
Far more important, consider that his oeuvre ranges astoundingly.
Remember Kurosawa’s Ran? The single universe in a grain of sand?
Cue Newman’s “Birmingham.” Listen for the three syllables that nail it.
Get ’em, Ran.Ken Askew GET»“Sail Away” (1972), “Louisiana 1927” (1974), “Political Science” (1998)