0406: “He Called Me Baby” by Candi Staton

If you never delved too deep into the catalog of music that was produced out of Muscle Shoals in the ’60s and ’70s, Candi Staton might never have appeared on your radar. To be sure, what did come out of Muscle Shoals instantly became canon and would be tough for anyone to break through and reach the same atmosphere: “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge, “Slip Away” by Clarence Carter, “Wild Horses” by the Stones, “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Love You” by Aretha (Fame Studios is where Aretha became Aretha), The Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Staton was the Diana Ross of the Muscle Shoals roster—silky, sultry, powerful and loaded with presence. “He Called Me Baby” is one of Staton’s masterworks, a deep cut that deserves the reverence that a song like Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” has. The music is powered by a guitar, bass, and horns that rivals the best of what came out of Stax and Chess Records studios. The music is night-driving music. In a bar alone examining your life but it feels cinematic music. Introverted and alone on the couch at night when you’re sad but you also want some groove too music. Something that makes you think of slow dancing but you don’t have a partner music. This is one of the best R&B songs of the ’70s, a decade that is overloaded with great singles. If you want to delve further into the Muscle Shoals sound, this song is an excellent first step.

0313: “54-46 Was My Number” by Toots & the Maytals

What separates Toots & the Maytals from almost all of the first generation of Jamaican ska, reggae, and rocksteady recording artists is Toots Hibbert. Set against a traditional sound is a man whose voice is so distinctly Jamaican while also sounding so thoroughly like an amalgam of Otis Redding and James Brown. Toots possesses a raw, full-throated, fiery preacher’s voice, which seems to go against the expected construction of how ska, reggae, and rocksteady should sound but he is more than capable of making it work because, like a small town preacher, he knows what notes to hit. If you’ve never heard a Maytals song (and there’s a good chance that you haven’t because they are criminally overlooked in the US for the most part), “54-46 Was My Number” is an excellent introduction to Toots’s voice and the band’s music. The song starts with Toots yelling “Stick it up, mister!” and some back-and-forth calling with other members Henry Gordon and Nathaniel Mathias. The melody that kicks in after this is some of the best reggae ever produced; this summer drinking and summer dancing, complete with the daydreams of being on a Jamaican beach kind of melody. Bob Marley may be the face of the reggae genre but bands that preceded him like The Maytals hold the raw, connective power to it. The Maytals are credited with naming the genre. This song is an excellent example of why they were ahead of their time.

0311: “Sister’s Coming Home/Down at the Corner Beer Joint” by Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson’s voice is unmistakably country, but the ease and the cadence of it separates him from the rest of the pack as far as I’m concerned. Everything about his voice is natural and authoritative, soft and crooning, slightly weathered and wise. He doesn’t have to play up twang or masculinity or exaggeration—he’s Willie Nelson, for fuck’s sake. He wrote “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, started the Texas outlaw scene, wrote some of the greatest country ballads ever, pulled off some of the most unexpected covers, and became a cult-hero spokesman for smoking weed long before the rest of society caught on to it, all while having the humorous Everyman persona you’d expect from a guy that played the same guitar at live shows for about forty five years. There was always something fundamentally unchanging about Willie Nelson even while he was being a chameleon. Throughout everything, though, is his voice. The warm, campfire voice that in my book no one has ever come close to sounding like. The other country icons may have more gravel or whiskey or smokiness or performance to them but Willie’s has a je ne sais quoi to it that connects directly to me, much like how Frank Sinatra’s voice comfortably sits above the other iconic crooners of the Tin Pan Alley sound.

Needless to say, Willie Nelson will make a few appearances on this site going forward and in trying to figure out which song to write about first I had to go with the one that made me realize just how great he is. For most of my life I pretty much avoided country music. When I was growing up there weren’t really any country stations in Chicago and I grew up on classic rock, then R.E.M., then Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails anyway. Phases and Stages was my first full album introduction to Willie Nelson and while, yes, “Bloody Mary Morning” and “Heaven and Hell” and “Pretend I Never Happened” are all masterpieces it was “Sister’s Coming Home/Down at the Corner Beer Joint” that just knocked me out on first listen. The music is great—the first part of the song utilizes a fiddle in the best possible way, the second part has a piano shuffle that would sound at home on a Pigpen-era Dead track—but his voice… just listen to his voice. Nelson was 40 when he recorded this album but his command of every little syllable makes him sound like a 40 year-old with 70 years of recording experience. It’s all just so effortless. He’s not singing that loud but he’s surrounded by some pretty polished music, and still his voice stands in the foreground with ease. When I heard this song, a light clicked on. I got it. I got why Willie Nelson is a cult hero and a mainstream icon: he’s a charming outlaw with a voice that paints a picture of an America that is both familiar and new.

Just like Sinatra.

0309: “Beautiful” by Carole King

Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? ‘Sure.’ […] The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, ‘then’ what do we do? […] Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

— David Foster Wallace

Everything in moderation. Irony is an enormously useful tool for shattering illusions and expanding a national social discourse. As Wallace notes above, the ’50s and ’60s were so ludicrously steeped in a religious and conservative brand of morality and virtue that irony was really the only antidote.[1] But when irony is taken to an extreme it stunts and shrugs its shoulders at discourse. This is not to be confused with saying that snark and cynicism are automatic bad endpoints, just that it needs a proper place and context if you’re going to take it further down the scale. You know when irony has gone too far when it treats genuine emotions as sentimentality that should be discarded. From liberating to enslaving, as noted above. And then the antidote for that brand of irony becomes a shared emotional feeling rooted in something that only great art can point to. It might be cliché but when I’m starting to feel cynical I reach for things like Renoir paintings or Michael Paterniti’s “Thuman Munson In Sun and Shade” or Keats.

And Tapestry by Carole King.

The album starts with “I Feel the Earth Move” and ends with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—the former a staggering catchy masterpiece, the latter finds her wearing the dress that she made—and everything in between is gorgeous songwriting set to beautiful music. “It’s Too Late” is one of the most honest songs ever penned. The slow buildup of “I always wanted a real home with flowers on the window sill/But if you want to live in New York City, honey, you know I will/I never thought I could get satisfaction from just one man/But if anyone can keep me happy, you’re the one who can” on “Where You Lead” is poetic love set to pitch-perfect melody. In the wrong hands, Tapestry would be red meat for the cynics—a sappy object with no overreaching themes or metaphor of the time of war and distrust and corruption from which is was born. And certainly a song like “Beautiful” in the wrong hands could seem downright laughable, this song about inner beauty and how maybe love can end the madness (and if not, maybe we can try). The reality is that the clichés, especially the sentimental ones, are rooted in truths. When Carole King sings about waking up with a smile on your face and people are going to treat you better if you show all the world the love in your heart, yeah, on your more overcast days, this proposition seems like annoying bullshit but it is, in fact, ultimately true. Confidence, feeling loved, being in love, reciprocal kindness: these are things we actually strive for, even when they seem like corny artifacts in our jaded hours. “Beautiful” is slotted near the midpoint of the album, its down-to-earth reaffirmations a totem of how well the album’s ability to connect to listeners on a personal level (ten million albums sold in the U.S. alone is no fluke).

Irony can truly be a great and teachable thing, along with its cousin, snark. But nothing beats great art rooted in emotions one can feel; it is an antidote against the ugliness of the world. “Beautiful” is one such antidote.

[1] This brand of moralism and virtue still exists today, especially in sportswriting and reporting, where the conflation of morality and victory—and dime store sins and defeat—is still being peddled by Grantland Rice’s worst purple prose disciples. Thank the stars for Deadspin.

0116: “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” by AC/DC

Is it a good time for bagpipes in a rock song? When isn’t it a good time for bagpipes in a rock song? “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” is the opening track on AC/DC’s second album[1] and it is quintessential straight-up modern rock. Angus Young’s riffs are probably only second to Keith Richards in terms of being recognizable. As soon as you hear an AC/DC track you know exactly what you are going to get: stripped-down, outstanding foot-stomping rock that you can bang your head to, scream the lyrics to, and/or gather on the dance floor at a wedding (god bless rock n’ roll, truly). But what this song really shows is the glaring lack of bagpipes in rock music. I’m not advocating that bagpipes become as common as a keyboard or a tambourine in rock tracks, but the bagpipe is an attention-grabbing instrument. On the hockey podcast I listen to Marek vs. Wyshynski Jeff Marek once said that one of the reasons he loves ’70s rock is because the prevailing philosophy of that decade was basically “But will it work? I don’t know, but try it.” This goes a long way in explaining drum sets the size of a school bus, synthesizers, and concept albums. Will it work? Who knows? But try it. Will a bagpipe work alongside an Angus Young riff? In theory it probably shouldn’t but god love those bastards for trying it because it worked in spades.

[1] The band’s first two albums, High Voltage and T.N.T., were originally only released in Australia. An international version of High Voltage was released a year later, which contains songs from their first two albums.

[Editor’s note: below is the full playlist of hour one.]

0115: “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed

Lou Reed didn’t invent the notion of injecting a literary style into songwriting, but with The Velvet Underground he both developed a narrative style that would be emulated so often that it now seems totally ordinary (“Candy Says,” “Lisa Says,” “Sweet Jane,” “The Gift” to name a few) and he introduced frank references to heroin, addiction, trans people, sadomasochism, and general chaos in ways not previously seen before in rock—this was in stark contrast to the airy and spiritual references to the LSD culture of the time. With Reed at the helm, The Velvet Underground only released four albums—the first two, with violist John Cale, were so avant-garde for their time that they basically invented the roots of punk; the last two, without Cale, focuses more on songwriting and a more typical rock structure (“The Murder Mystery” being the giant exception).

Reed’s debut solo album Lou Reed consisted of 8 unreleased Velvet tracks and 2 original tracks (the original tracks were recorded with Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe of Yes). It was his second solo album Transformer, released six months later and co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, that brought Reed into a bigger spotlight and made him into a folk/cult hero. The album contains the cult hits “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love” (though I think the outtake recording of the latter with the Velvets is much better), but the instant classic track is “Walk on the Wild Side.”

“Walk on the Wild Side” is by any metric a perfect song—it’s catchy but in an unusual way for a pop song, with its violin, its saxophone, and its stand-up jazz-sounding bass; its construction is odd but the result sounds oddly familiar (Reed and Bowie were masters at this), which cements its timelessness. It is a continuation of Reed’s Velvet years in that it is a short story constructed song about the outcasts and characters from the early Factory days of Andy Warhol, and of New York City in general, that he personally witnessed, while also acting as a bridge point to the more experimental and decidedly non-mainstream catalog that would define Reed’s catalog until he died a few years ago. Reed has always had a singsong style that, in the wrong hands, would add too much remove from its subjects and themes. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for him to write and sing about taboos and hard drugs: his voice lent itself to being a don’t-give-a-shit cool kid testing your limits with subject matter but there was always a humanity to it that could make one care about this perspective, to be curious about it in ways that transcended any surface level coolness about it. If Lou Reed had become a journalist instead of a singer I would not be surprised if he would have wound up being like David Carr. Someone consumed with giving you everything he had with a story and be unflinching about it.

A song with a title of “Walk on the Wild Side,” if I never heard the music yet, would signal to me some amount of energy contained within it. I would probably think of something like “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, especially considering the year of release. I would assume that a guitar solo occurs. And then if, having still not heard the song, I learned that it references a trans woman, fellatio, a hustler, and hard drugs I would have assumed that the music would have attempted to hit you on the head with a hammer so as to line up with the taboo subject matter. Instead, Reed begins the song with “Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.” with the cadence of a midnight disc jockey set to a mellow and matter-of-fact soundtrack with which these character vignettes are comfortably enveloped by. Even when Reed breaks the fourth wall about the colored girls before the choruses it all seems so natural.

The best art is when the artist takes you places you’ve never been and you don’t question it. Their impulses and their details make sense in ways that no one was able to show you before that moment. When I was growing up “Walk on the Wild Side” was not played very often on the radio but when the classic rock station would randomly play it always stopped me in my tracks. Amongst the numerous replays of “Kashmir” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (I mean, they’re good songs but seventeen times a day? C’mon) here was this song… this great little short story of a song with a sound so different to my ears. He sounded like the coolest guy in the world to me in a totally normal way. I could tell without seeing a picture of Lou Reed that he didn’t look like Jimmy Page, or a ’70s one-hit wonder guy like Terry Jacks. He sounded like a dude who was cool in ways that Page and Daltrey and Lennon weren’t. The Beatles reinvented pop, the Stones reinvented rock, Dylan reinvented songwriting—Lou Reed reinvented everything else.

0113: “Stay With Me” by Faces

Goddamnit Rod Stewart could sing. If you were born after 1980 chances are you may only know Rod Stewart as an elder crooner, and as the guy who sang “Maggie May.” If you were born after 1980 chances are you may only know Ronnie Wood as Keef’s backup guitarist with The Rolling Stones but goddmanit that guy could play lead. If you were born after 1980 you may not know the name Faces but you almost certainly have heard the song “Ooh La La” (which Ronnie, and not Rod, sang lead vocals on) and “Stay With Me,” even if you did not know the band name that produced them. Regardless of when you born you may not know the name Ian McLagan but goddamnit that guy could play any instrument in the genus keyboard. The ass-kicking rock ability of “Stay With Me” is on par with any A- song from the catalogs of The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Stooges, which, let’s be honest, is one of the highest compliments one can write about a rock song. Stewart sings and shouts with a raspy freewheeling energy, Wood unleashes towering riff after towering riff, and McLagan plays up his moments with a Wurlitzer that make for some of the most memorable keyboard use in a rock song in all of modern history. Not to minimize the efforts of Ronnie Lane (bass) and Kenney Jones (drums), who, goddamn, work up some magic on this track too, but this song is defined by the wizardry of Stewart, Wood, and McLagan. Their power is at the forefront here and it is inescapable. “In the morning/Don’t say you love me/’Cause only kick you out of the door” Stewart sings to open the track in communion with Wood’s otherworldly guitar riffs and McLagan’s Wurlitzer. This is one of the best rock songs of the ’70s, amongst a murderer’s row of rock songs from that decade (see: what Keef and Mick Taylor did a year later on Exile on Main Street before Ronnie Wood replaced Taylor). Goddamnit Rod Stewart could sing.