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Liam

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  1. 34. ‘Nature Boy’, The Nat King Cole Trio (1948) Another song that I assumed I’d never heard of before, yet was instantly reminded of my fore knowledge of it within the opening lyrics. This was Nat King Cole moving from a singing pianist to more of a front and centre vocalist (someone else played the piano on the recording). The selling point of Cole at the time was the quality of his vocals and the clearness of his diction, making him a black artist who was enjoyed by white folk – a difficult thing during this time period. The addition of flutes and strings gives it an otherworldly tone that beautifully fits the lyrics. One of the best songs thus far; it sounds so little like anything that has come before it. 35. ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five (1949) A narrative about a police raid on a New Orleans house party was a perfect slice of Louis Jordan’s take on R&B (or so the book says). Boogiewoogie, a rhythm section, a horn riff and a comic narrative all comes together to create a swinging song. This is also perhaps the first time that we hear an electric guitar within the songs thus far, a herald of the soon-to-arrive rock and roll. Apparently and somewhat ironically, it was rock and roll that caused Jordan to struggle to return to the top of the charts after what had been a decade churning out hit after hit. Its playfulness and bouncing melody make it an easy listen today. 36. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, Hank Williams This was a song that I assumed I’d know the moment I heard it, just due to how I’d heard of the song and the singer before, but seemingly not. The narrative behind Williams’ life (and death) seemed to give this more resonance as he wryly explored the end of his marriage that was in part caused by alcohol and drug abuse. Such heart on sleeve lyrics are engaging even now, whilst it perhaps isn’t surprising to hear that the song was originally intended as poem. The simple, stark arrangement just does enough to make it musical, though the lyrics are the star here.
  2. 31. ‘La Mer’, Charles Trenet (1946) A song that I took a moment or two to recognise (it was eventually reworked into ‘Beyond The Sea’ for Bobby Darin), it is easy to see what the allure of this song is. It is another one that sounds almost Hollywood in nature, with rousing symphonies and a catchy melody providing the background to Trenet’s ode to the sea. It swirls, eddies and builds to a beautiful crescendo. It’s a brilliant little song and it was no wonder that the tune was repurposed successfully in later years. 32.
  3. 28. ‘(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, The Nat King Cole Trio A celebration of a road that apparently linked the south to the more industrialised north, Route 66 is another song that falls into the ‘simple, but effective’ category for me. Not to say that the playing or singing is anything but pure talent, but the conceit of the song itself. A driving itinerary that in listing cities celebrates the different cities along the route doesn’t sound much like the recipe for a good song, yet this was exactly what was created. The bouncy piano melody makes this swing in a way that it becomes hard to avoid tapping a foot or nodding a head. Good stuff. 29. ‘Al gurugu', La Nina de los Peines (1946) Unlike the previous entry, this is a song that I have no prior knowledge of, but ‘The Lady with the Combs’ (Pastora Maria Pavón Cruz) engages immediately with the rawness and power of her voice played out across a flamenco background. Apparently widely regarded as the greatest female flamenco performer of all time, this is a dark and passionate lament for a husband gone to war, one that maintains its tone throughout. This probably would mean more to someone who was a fan of, or knowledgeable of, flamenco, but it is clear to hear how the passion oozes from every second dof the song. 30. ‘La Vie en Rose’, Edith Piaf (1946) Proving that not everyone in music knows what they are talking about, there were some at the time who questioned Piaf’s decision to record and release this song. Full of (perhaps misplaced) optimism and romanticism, that which was looked down upon by the knowledgeable was lapped up by the commoner and it became an incredibly popular song. Piaf’s vocals, coupled with an orchestral score, gives this the feeling of the best of musical soundtrack songs. It isn’t surprising that this song went on to finds its way onto many a film’s soundtrack, as well as generally inspiring media above and beyond that of the music world.
  4. 25. ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, Lord Invader (1943) A social commentary on the sexual proclivities of the American soldiers stationed in Trinidad during the Second World War, this lively song was meant to convey Invader’s less than impressed feelings about the mixing of both cultures in such a fashion. A similar song became popular in the US two years later, though the law eventually found in favour of Invader in terms of copyright infringement. Hidden behind the seemingly cheery melody, the lyrics are biting in their nature and all the more effective for the playful nature in which they are delivered. 26. ‘This Land Is Your Land’, Woody Guthrie (1944) I thought I’d never heard any Woody Guthrie before I started the song – it took me all of about five seconds to realise that this was not the case. Interestingly, Guthrie took parts of the melody from ‘Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine’ by The Carter Family to increase its popularity, whilst it getting sold alongside other songs for minimal money during a time of hardship also meant it ended up in more homes than it might have done otherwise. The simple message, the simple melody and the earnest vocal is what makes it work, as well as the ease with which it can be applied to multiple places, times and generations. 27. ‘Lili Marleen’ (the spelling seems to vary, so going with the book's version), Marlene Dietrich (1945) A song that is all about the context of when it was produced as it was broadcast to Africa Korps troops in 1941, though heard by both German and Allied soldiers who fell in love with the tale of longing (the lyrics taken from a poem written by a German soldier for his girlfriend during the time of the First World War). The popularity of the song carries it onto this list, and this version in particular encapsulates this cross border excitement about the song. Dietrich was German (though anti-Nazi), though ended up singing this song on tours of the Allied forces for several years. The narrative was sweet and Dietrich has enough playfulness in her voice to make it a pleasant listen.
  5. 22. ‘Guantanamera’, Joseito Fernandez (1941) Though it is primarily known outside of Cuba for the Pete Seeger recording, this is a song akin to ‘Mbube’ that I feel most people would have heard to some extent and in some form. Possibly only the chorus itself, if you are me, but that I’m aware of this song implies some wider cultural significance for sure. It was considered one of the biggest tunes in Cuban history and was utilised by Joseito as a tune that introduced segments on radio stations across the 40s and 50s. Simplistic, yet oh so catchy. 23. ‘God Bless The Child’, Billie Holiday (1942) Some more Billie, but you don’t hear me complaining. A rarity in her collection as it was one of the only songs that she wrote the lyrics for; the idea was sparked from an argument she had with her Mum and an old proverb that forming the central lyrical hook. There isn’t a lot more I can add about Holiday that I haven’t already said, though a quote in the book from Joni Mitchell talks about how Holiday made sure you heard and felt every word of the songs she sang. Even within this one, she feels both empowered yet somewhat vulnerable; happy to celebrate being able to stand on her own two feet, yet her melody of her vocals often containing the slightest hint of unease. 24. ‘Stormy Weather’, Lena Horne (1943) As we approach the mid-40s and head into the 50s, part of me is waiting for the moment when musicals somewhat take over the list. This was a song from a musical of the same name that was notable for showcasing many African-American musicians from the time period. Horne herself has an effortlessly beautiful voice, whilst the extended metaphor of the weather as an analogy for her relationship with her man ensures that the song (as the book mentions) unsurprisingly is still covered a lot to this day, particularly by drag queens – the whole tale is a lament to complicated love, with just enough feistiness to make it a real crowd pleaser I can imagine.
  6. 19. ‘Mbube’, Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds (1939) Another song on the list that has its history firmly rooted in the exploitation of the tune for financial gain, this was the song that eventually became reworked into ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ (royalties of $15 million for its use in The Lion King gives a sense of the money earned) whilst Solomon Linda died a pauper. What makes its later iterations good songs is already present in the ‘original’ so to speak, with a simple and catchy melody as a base for Linda’s swooping vocals to play around on top. An interesting opportunity to hear the genesis of a song that is pretty universally known as of this day, even with the somewhat tragic nature of the financial exploitation surrounding it. 20. ‘Java Jive’, The Ink Spots (1940) Perhaps a window into a more sheltered world that was to be swept away by the tragedies of war and the eventual drug/sex excess of the 60s, this is an interesting addition to the list – a celebration of coffee by The Ink Spots. Outside of the band’s popularity during this time period, including tours of the United Kingdom, I don’t quite get why this is on the list…but I really like it. Fuck it. Works for me. The harmonising in particular is great to listen to and as a man who likes a cup of coffee, I salute them. 21. ‘Gloomy Sunday’, Billie Holiday (1941) Within the opening lines of ‘Gloomy Sunday’, the range of Holiday is instantly apparent as she moves effortlessly from the low to the high in her – at times almost seductive – lament for the dead. What’s interesting here is that this song was written by a Hungarian composer called Rezső Seress in the 30s and covered by other artists, yet this is considered the defining version. It even garnered some backlash for added lyrics that implied the song’s protagonist to be contemplating suicide (Seress himself would complete suicide around thirty years later). Never had death sounded so sexy or enticing until Holiday worked her charm on this song, you could argue. Holiday’s vocals are almost alcoholic in their headiness (helped along by the simple, yet effective, arrangement); the woozy smoothness of her lilting delivery is hard not to fall in love with. Probably my favourite song to date.
  7. 16. ‘Strange Fruit’, Billie Holiday (1939) This is a profoundly moving song. I’ve used the poem that formed the lyrics in a lesson on ‘Of Mice and Men’ to talk about prejudice and it is unsurprising that Holliday had some initial issues getting it released. The starkness of the arrangement, the cadence of Holliday and the wailing interludes between verses just add to an incredibly uncomfortable listen, considering the subject matter of white people lynching black people. Holliday’s vocals here still retain their power and even removed from the time of this horrific act, this still is an incredibly affecting few minutes. 17. ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, Judy Garland (1939) In terms of focus, you couldn’t get much further removed from the systemic racism of society than musicals, but here we are with this list. This is also removed from the songs that punctuated the Great Depression era; a song of hope that is perhaps childish and naïve, but it is there and all the more beautiful for it. The vocals and melody work in tandem to create a song that rightly deserves a spot on the list. The number of covers that a song generates isn’t necessarily an indicator of merit, but the timeless nature of the song and its message cannot be underestimated. 18. ‘The Gallis Pole’, Lead Belly (1939) The tone is set early on in this song with the driving guitar (more frenetic and quicker on later recordings if my rudimentary research is anything to go by) leading us into a plea from a man due to hang for his family to provide money or jewels to save him. This is apparently modified from an old English folk song and it mixes some of the finest elements of folk music in my opinion: a tune to clap along to/tap your feet and a story about a man who done wrong. Lead Belly was clearly very talented, with rumours abound that he managed to sing his way out of prison earlier in his life. Doesn’t seem like the most far-fetched story to me.
  8. 13 ‘Can the circle be unbroken?’, The Carter Family (1935) Another song directly influenced by the Great Depression which impacted upon the Carter Family to the point of Alvin and Sara, the husband and wife duo who worked alongside their cousin Maybelle, getting a divorce. They were apparently a significant influence on American bluegrass, but whilst the lyrics of this song are touching – adapted from a hymn, they tell a story of a son at his mother’s funeral – it doesn’t particularly stand out in any capacity compared to what has come before it. Guess it is a simple case of wrong place, wrong time, to enjoy it to the level that is suggested by its placement in the book. Pleasant, yet unspectacular. 14. 'Cross Road Blues’, Robert Johnson (1936) This is a song that is as much about the mythology surrounding it as anything: to what extent was what appeared to be a simple story about a man struggling to catch a lift actually about Johnson selling his soul to the devil for the mastery of the blues? It was a good story to sell a song, though the song itself does a fine job of that itself with its driving, choppy guitar notes and Johnson’s soulful, yet somewhat tortured vocal. It is over before it really gets going in some ways, but arguably more impactful for its relatively short running time. 15. ‘Hellhound On My Trail’, Robert Johnson (1937) If there is a song that is more likely to be an autobiographical take on Johnson’s life, it is this one. Reading around, Johnson’s short life is shrouded in a lot of mystery, but he did travel around a lot and cultivated himself relationships in many different places with different women. The song’s narrative of a man who had to keep moving before the devil got to him was a portent to what killed him if the legend is to be believed. Word told that he was poisoned by a jealous husband having flirted with a woman, though like all of his life, this is just as much up for conjecture. Though not massively different from the first song of his on the list, he definitely does sound more high-pitched in his delivery, selling the idea of the fear that he may soon end up going down below. An interesting cross section of a short-lived career.
  9. 10. ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’, Bing Crosby (1932) A song that very much caught the tone of the time period, ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ came during the time of the Great Depression and told a story of a man who suffered through this moment in history. Written for a musical (Americana), the lyrics cleverly use ideas around railroads and towers, these bastions of industrialisation and perceived development, to add to the sense of melancholy as the narrator speaks of his involvement in the building of these, only to now be begging for a dime. Crosby’s voice is melodious, yet urgent as things progress, finely building a sense of what the character was and what he had become. 11. ‘Mal Hombre’, Lydia Mendoza (1934) Just looking at the thumbnail for the music video, you can tell that Lydia Mendoza was going to be good to listen to. She emanates a sense of cool in an image that translates to her music, especially her singing voice. In a story that translates to ‘Bad Man’ in English, you can imagine her being knowing enough of the type of ‘hombre’ that existed as she busked and toured to speak somewhat from the heart. Like many of the other ones so far, reasonably simplistic in nature but it allows her vocals to shine through in particular. 12. ‘Hula girl’, Sol Hoopii (1934) A song that almost sounds somewhat like a novelty to modern ears, Sol Hoopii was apparently a pioneer in slack-key guitar. This is most prevalent – as far as I understand it – in the solos that fall between the verses. These are actually the finest bits of the song for me, an interesting new wrinkle to the music that I’ve heard thus far and playful in their nature. Outside of the slack-key work, most of the song sounds somewhat dated whilst also oxymoronically having a timeless element to it; the tropes of what we might expect to hear when hearing ‘Hawaiian music’ are all present and correct. A fun addition to the list.
  10. Cheers. Enjoyed doing it so far. This period of time is a black hole in terms of my musical interest so has been a good learning process.
  11. I'll move over three a day until I catch up, so here is the last one for today: 7. ‘El Manisero’, Don Azpiazú & Orquestra do Cassino Havana (1929) This a perfect example of context being everything, as well as my general lack of musical historical knowledge. What I hear is a pleasant, up-tempo song that doesn’t inspire much more out of me then a little bit of a shimmy and a shake here and there. However, this song was seemingly a significant Latin influence on American Jazz alongside its promotion of the rhumba as a style of dance. Good for it – I’ve listened to many a poorer song in my time on this earth. 8. ‘Minnie the Moocher’, Cab Calloway and His Orchestra (1931) The very definition of a crowd pleaser, incorporating a direct address by Calloway from the opening seconds, a tale of a ‘hoochie’ who had a big heart, and a call and response to his backing vocalists that was always liable to get people singing along. It is funny to think that it was his inability to remember lyrics and his subsequent skill in improvising that sparked his career with this song. Still a fun enough listen to this day. 9. ‘Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl’, Bessie Smith (1931) A return to Bessie Smith, though this time the only blues she has is over a lack of sex it would seem. What starts of as a lament to lost love, things take a turn for the sexy when Smith complains about her desire for a hot dog between her rolls. This was apparently an example of the ‘dirty blues’ and it was interesting to hear of a black woman in this time period talking quite openly – though metaphorically – about a desire for sex. A simple music arrangement, a simple sentiment, a simple pleasure to listen to.
  12. 4. ‘Lagrimas Negras’, Trio Matamoros (1928) A key group in the development of Cuban music, Trio Matamoros are more my jam. Not that I’ve listened to a lot of Cuban-style music in my life, but the simple acoustic guitar sounds has always been one that I have personally enjoyed. For a song that is about a break up (‘Lagrimas Negras’ meaning ‘black tears’), the music is somewhat at odds with the subject matter and the delivery of the lyrics. Still, as a combination it works wonderfully, with a catchy melody that eventually builds to a suitably downbeat ending. 5. ‘Pokarekere’, Ana Hato (with Deane Waretini) (1929) The book talks about this song being an unofficial anthem for New Zealand as well as being exploited for political and commercial reasons. Unfortunately for me, it is a mixture of a singing style I don’t particularly enjoy mixed with lyrics that I can’t engage with due to them being sung in Maori. I believe that either one can overcome the other, but with both lacking for me, it makes the song significantly less enjoyable. Both Ana Hato and Deana Waretini (her cousin) are undoubtedly talented, just not in a way that works for me. 6. ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (1929) Having already popped up playing on ‘St. Louis Blues’, we get a second taste of Louis Armstrong though this time he is front and centre, backed by his Hot Five. I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that Armstrong has one of the most distinctive voices in musical history, whilst the instrumental backing introduces and fades us out, yet never seeks to overpower the lyrical delivery. Not that it would be able to – Armstrong’s soulful rumble would be the most important feature of this song no matter what. Simple, yet very enjoyable
  13. There are many a collection of books that talk about the myriad different things you should or could do before you die. Now, most of them involve an element of time that is beyond me (I like a book, but 1,001 Books... would take about a bajillion years), or money that I just don't have (Golf courses, I'm looking at you). However, I thought the best way for me to engage with one of the books was to try and complete one. With 366 days in 2020 and 1,001 things to do, that works out at just over 2.7 things per day. What can I do around three times a day (no rude answers)? Why, listen to music, of course...the clue was in the title of the topic you clicked on to be fair. Working chronologically, my plan is to post my thoughts about the 1,001 songs that you should listen to before you die, according to Cassell Illustrated, the company who created a lot of this style of book. It starts in 1916 and goes all the way up to 2010. Now, I'm not a musician or a music critic, so I'm not professing to this being deep and meaningful insight on each song, but some comment that sums up my thoughts in around 100 words. I'll include Youtube links to all the songs I can find (I'm assuming all of them?) and you can play along at home if you want. Enjoy. 1. ‘O Sole Mio’, Enrico Caruso (1916) This could be the best song in the world to have ever existed, but it won’t ever get past the fact that it was famously adapted for a Cornetto advert when I was younger. This does the song a disservice as Caruso’s voice is very dynamic, especially during the move from verse to chorus. A pleasant way to begin my musical odyssey; one that touches upon something I already was vaguely aware of whilst grounding me in the actuality of the piece of music. 2. ‘St Louis Blues’, Bessie Smith (1925) The first song that I have honestly no foreknowledge of. Smith has a wonderfully soulful voice for singing the blues, though the coronet (played by Louis Armstrong) isn’t always the most welcome addition personally. I appreciate that it is an element of the sound of the genre, but Smith’s mournful lament could have worked without its discordant overlapping of the lyrics. It works best when used as an interlude to bridge into the next section for me. Personal preferences aside, you can see why this might have been a song that earned the songwriter the type of money that effectively would have made him a millionaire during this time period. 3. ‘Allons à Lafayette’, Joe e Cléoma Falcon(1928) In the initial stages of this process, I feel there will be a number of songs that depend entirely on whether I enjoy the genre of the song and all of the conventions that come along with it. This is the first ever recording of Cajun music and whilst I enjoy the jaunty accordion work, I’m less enamoured about the singing. It feels very much of a specific style and place and audience; none of which are me. As a representation of a culture and its music, I can see why it is included, it is just the least of the music I have heard so far. NOTE: I began this on January 1st at another forum - thought people might like it here so am just going to start moving the posts bit by bit into this topic.
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