15/10/2019: “Jackie Blue” by The Ozark Mountain Daredevils

The intense folk vibes coming off of this provide a counterpoint to the Electric Light Orchestra-esque catchiness. As the name suggests, the band are from the South, and that Southern Rock heritage shines through here.

The almost falsetto vocals are provided by Larry Lee, the drummer – the first time he had sung lead vocals for the band.

The slightly psychedelic feeling of the song is down in large part to the wah-ing electric piano, and the reverb heavy guitar. Both of these add a nice emphasis to the song, which remains relaxed even as the pace picks up.

The song was originally about a drug dealer, but was changed to be about a shy girl who never leaves her room. It would’ve been a very different song otherwise…

The song was released in 1975, a single from the album It’ll Shine When It Shines. 

11/10/2019: “Lihue” by Nohelani Cypriano

Having never been to Hawaii, I suspect I have a rather idealised version of what it is actually like.

Social problems aside, I do imagine Hawaii is an embodiment of this song, which is relaxed, tropical and full of soul.

Aside from the slightly squeezed “Hawaaian paradise of love” line, this song is just amazing.

Nohelani Cypriano has a great voice, which is well served by the concoction of synth instruments on this funky masterpiece. There’s even some exotic sounding birdsong!

The squealing keys are perfect for sun-drenched funk, and although this song is laid back, it’s still eminently dance-able.

The bassline is particularly brilliant as well, which stands the song in good stead as a boogie classic. It was pretty obscure, but has been dug out and given a new lease of life in recent years.

The song was originally released on Nohelani, in 1979, but has been re-released as a single in 2014.

10/10/2019: “I Wish That You Were Mine” by The Manhattans

The Manhattans are a R’n’B group who mainly operated from the early 60s to the late 80s – a good run, especially as their original lead singer died in 1970. Many of the original members have died in the last few years too, of mainly age related causes.

Their music though, is eternal. Some of the greatest R’n’B and soul classics of the 20th century are by them, with a few big hits recorded by the band.

“I Wish That You Were Mine” is about two people having an affair with each other, with their partners none the wise. The song is set in a bar, where the two are meeting secretly.

The song is classic, dusky vocal driven R’n’B, slow and powerful. The backing vocals have a gospel quality to them, adding a dreamy air. The instrumental has a sparse guitar lick, a tasteful glockenspiel and a ethereal trumpet.

The song came out in 1973, on There’s No Me Without You.

01/10/2019: “Lluvia De Primavera” by Bebu Silvetti

There can’t be many pieces of disco which are more beautiful. This song has all the sublime majesty of jazz, the warmth of soul, the movement of funk.

The sound isn’t electronic, in any appreciable sense. The strings are lush and full, slowly and masterfully creating a sense of calm.

The bassline is similarly unrushed, picking out notes with care, projecting a supremely self-assured serenity.

The guitar in the background is pretty lowkey, gently strumming a vibrant rhythm alongside the rest of the song.

The crucial element here is the piano, which underpins much of the track and providing the captivating hook. It’s probably the boldest melody on display.

The tune is not without its subtleties, with some wonderful, soft choral vocals at the more alluring sections of the song.

The song was released originally in 1975, but a longer version was released in 1977 and became a minor hit. The title is “Spring Rain” in Spanish – and that’s what it brings to mind. Stunning.

29/09/2019: “Blue Valentines” by Tom Waits

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.

28/09/2019: “Human Fly” by The Cramps

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.

25/09/2019: “Village Ghetto Land” by Stevie Wonder

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.

14/09/2019: “Into The Valley” by The Skids

There’s something quite special about this. It feels like a timeless tune, propelled along by energy and youth rather than any particular virtuoso musicianship.

Scotland isn’t known for its punk. The country punches well above its weight musically, but punk rock tends to be associated with New York and London, not Fife!

The song isn’t too hardcore, anyway. After a quick but legendary intro with a gritty bass and reverberating guitar, the singing starts. The melody doesn’t even change.

It’s got to be said, the lyrics aren’t super inspiring. “La la la lala la lala la” makes multiple appearances. Apart from that, it isn’t that easy to tell what the words are…

The song is apparently about Scottish lads joining the army and going off to fight.

“Into The Valley” came out in 1979, and is now one of history’s most classic guitar riffs…

29/08/2019: “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack

A lot of people will be familiar with The Fugees’ 1996 take on this. In fairness, Lauryn Hill does a great job with it.

This version isn’t even the original. That honour goes to Lori Lieberman, who recorded the song in 1971. The writers are Charles Fox & Norman Gimbel.

But there’s something undeniably lovely about this. The electric piano glides gently over the warm and serene bassline. A guitar whispers in the background, flickering around the piano like a candle on a beach.

And her voice – incredible. The choruses have soulful backing vocals which create a truly heavenly effect. It’s much more strident than the original, but not as hard as the hip hop version. Almost a perfect balance!

Roberta Flack’s cover of the song was released in 1973, and went to number 1 for 5 weeks, far outselling the earlier version.

26/08/2019: “Astral Travelling” by Pharaoh Sanders

Along with Alice & John Coltrane, and possibly Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders is behind the evolution of the cosmic jazz style, deeply spiritual in an ineffable way yet utterly entrancing.

“Astral Travelling” is a cool name, no doubt about it, but you could say it’s not a particularly creative choice; it’s like naming Moonlight Sonata “sad and serene song”. That is to say, the song does what it says on the tin!

The percussion is incredibly diverse and engaging, adding various rattles and exotic flares to the ordinary jazz drum set. The drumming is naturally of a very high standard.

The bass pretty much does its own thing, swaying between a couple of notes harmoniously. Of course, it always matches Lonnie Liston Smith’s shimmering rhodes piano, so that the two instruments create a beautifully lush soundscape between them.

When Pharoah Sander’s saxophone flits into the scene, the other elements accomodate it perfectly, then the track becomes warm, sultry and mellow.

The song is the first on the 1971 album Thembi, which was recorded in two parts, with roughly a year in between sessions.