Tom Waits makes incredibly depressing music, for the most part. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t astoundingly beautiful.
His own distinctive, crusty tones sound like they’ve been doused with cheap whiskey and cigar smoke for a decade or 3. The whiskey comparisons come out a lot with critics, although some content themselves with the rather less dramatic “gravelly” adjective.
His tremulous, breathless singing voice is the counterpart to a melodious and sweet guitar here, which plays a sugary little jazz part.
The lyrics are intensely poetic, tinged with a liberal splash of darkness. They speak less to forlorn heartbreak as to bitter regret. As is common with Tom Waits lyrics, the subject matter is gritty, dealing with the sort of outcast who has no romance in them. In other words, real outcasts who get trodden down and ignored by society.
The song is the title track of the brilliant Blue Valentine album, which came out in 1978.
The Cramps were easily one of the biggest pioneers to come out the punk scene. Not only within punk itself, but for the darker, morbid direction they took it. Eventually, this culminated in the wacky and creepy psychobilly scene.
The Cramps certainly have real punk pedigree. They were one of the bands playing at the CBGB bar in the mid-70s, which is pretty much as punk as you can get.
Naturally, their fashion and music styles are somewhat unorthodox. The thing which distinguishes the Cramps from other punk bands at the time, and the thing which resulted in their attaining cult status as the leaders of psychobilly.
“Human Fly” is a slower track than many contemporaneous punk tunes, but have more than enough grit. The twanging rockabilly guitar sets a sinister tone, playing a very simple riff with a delay and some other effect.
The low end is very muddy. I think it might by a bass guitar played with a lot of distortion, and maybe another guitar on top. It sounds great to me though!
The drums are splashy in sound, but add a relentless thump to the track.
Of course, the lyrics are as weird in content as they are in delivery – there’s a horror theme to proceedings.
The tune came out first in 1978, as a single. You can also find it on the 1979 E.P. Gravest Hits, although it was probably most famous because of the Off The Bone singles compilation album, released in 1983.
A track like this is truly timeless. It’s rave gold, with all the right elements to put you in a trance. The rhythm section is faultless, using drum breaks over the top of a 4 to the 4 beat to create a perfect swing.
The bass is lowkey but funky, accentuating the natural rhythm of the drums brilliantly.
The melody is provided by a stellar, euphoric piano riff. A good piano riff like this is what make old school piano house songs so special; they’re so infectious, and so joyous.
Subliminal Cuts is an alias of Dutch producer Patrick Prins, well known for an eclectic range of ravey tracks. Holland has always had a great dance music scene, and it’s producers like him we have to thank for it.
“Le Voie Le Soleil” came out in 1994, which really does seem to have been such a great year for music…
Mr Vegas was a huge figure in the Jamaican Dancehall scene of the 90s. This was one of his massive hits, which remains one of the gold standards of this era.
The lyrics are, naturally, very explicit. But unless you are Jamaican, you’re unlikely to find the song too offensive unless you listen very carefully.
The riddim is called “Filthier”, produced by Danny Browne, which has been vocaled by a range of other artists. Suffice to say, nobody ever came close to the success which Mr Vegas had with this one.
Mr Vegas has a distinctive style of singing, which goes a long way to explain the standout quality of this track. The riddim bangs too, using a offbeat drum, a simple guitar riff, and thumping bass to great effect.
The song was released in 1998 as a single.
How could you listen to this song, knowing that Stevie Wonder played it all himself, and not recognise him as a musical genius?
In fairness, he wrote the song in conjunction with Gary Byrd. That shouldn’t detract from the magic he wrings from just him and his synthesiser…
It’s an intensely powerful ballad, documenting the darkest sides of America’s poorest neighbourhoods – and the way rich people sometimes shrug off the deprivation in their society. The lyrics really don’t hold back at all.
There’s no drum or bass. There’s only a densely layered orchestra of synth strings, played on Stevie’s keyboard. Stevie Wonder’s singing rings out clear over the top, relaying the tragic fate of his community.
“Village Ghetto Land” came out on the legendary Songs In The Key Of Life album in 1976, which is widely recognised as one of the greatest albums ever made.
I’d find it hard to choose my favourite ABBA song. However, I could safely place this in the top five, and would be quite confident of putting it in the top three!
The song just has a transcendent quality to it, particularly on the choruses. Interestingly, the chorus reminded Bjorn and Benny of a church hymn – so they added a discordant chorus effect to amplify that feeling!
The song has a natural groove to it; although the vibe is different from the verse to the pre-chorus, there’s a fundamental funkiness. I particularly like the drums, which are a masterclass in understated disco tightness.
The keyboard strings are luscious, adding a charming grandeur to the song.
The main hook from the backing track is the deftly plucked guitar, which both echoes and embellishes the bassline.
“Lay All Your Love On Me” was released in 1980 on Super Trouper. It was also a hugely successful single!
This is a great example of how cool instrumental surf rock can be. Those echoey, twanging guitars evoke exotic locales, the frenzied drums inject a potent dose of energy into the song, and the bass relaxes into the song like a mai tai cocktail on a warm tropical evening…
It isn’t the longest song, clocking in at around 2 minutes. But it packs a lot into that time, moving from theme to theme quickly without losing the overall feeling.
The Ventures were a very influential band, especially in terms of inspiring guitarists. The interplay of guitars on their songs makes for wonderfully engaging listening, from the wobbling rhythm guitar to the sharp lead guitar.
At the time this was recorded, fuzzy, distorted electric guitars and other effects were not widely used. This gives the track a real vintage quality.
“Blue Moon” was released in 1961, as a single. The B-side was “Lady Of Spain”.
Country music has produced a slew of dark songs with lyrics about fights and murders. More than a few came from Leon Payne (aka Pat Patterson), a blind songwriter who also wrote the weird cult classic “Psycho”.
Sanford Clark released this song as himself, but it is also sometimes credited to “Harry Johnson”.
The song tells of a bar fight, caused by a drunk guy getting too close to the wrong lady, and getting killed for it.
The delivery is stone cold, a fantastic example of outlaw country music. The deep and matter of fact tone of voice used here is perfectly menacing.
The song is arranged around the country core of a simple double bass and unadorned drum part. But the distorted violin adds a darker tone, and of course, the cowboy-esque twang of the guitar.
“It’s Nothing To Me” was first released in 1957, by Loy Clingwood. Sanford Clark recorded his version a decade later, in 1967.
Detroit may have had a hard time in the last few decades, but it has always produced some of the hardest music in America.
A lot of it is electro or techno based, cold and edgy. This would be a good way to describe this one, steeped in Detroit’s freezing Michigan bleakness.
The drums are sharp as icicles on this tune, using classic drum machine sounds. The snares are fast and snappy, the hi-hats even faster…
The rough bassline is a thing of great beauty and magnitude. It forms the centrepiece of most of the song, bar the intro and outro – which are fixated around some eerie synth strings.
The song is sparse and minimal, in classic Detroit style. But compared to their other songs, this has a certain quality to it that makes the track stand out. Probably that bassline…
“Direct Drive” was released in 1995.