I am just past thirty-three and a third years old in April of 2020. When I turned thirty I considered posting a list of the thirty best songs – an aesthetic portrait written in the FM radio language of national bank holiday weekends. I couldn’t narrow the list to thirty, so the article was never written.
Thirty is a sports number, square and statistical. Thirty three, like the rotations per minute of an LP, close enough but perpetually unfulfilled/unsquare is a glittering number. I’ll write the list now, a list of my thirty-three favorite recordings in my collection. Genre and format are open. Abbey Road or bootlegged from the back of a bar. High fidelity or bedroom Tascam. Any recording in my collection, excluding my own projects, is eligible.
As I look back at my initial, sprawling list from the fall of 2016, many of my selections have changed. They’ll change again in a few years. I’ve included an AA side for each entry, an alternate reality list to nuance the definitive airs of the project, but more because music can illuminate other music in ways that words cannot. So, these are the thirty-three greatest recordings ever.
33. Jax Transit Authority, “Life Is A Miracle,” 7″ single, Eagle Music, 1978 (USA)
“Life Is A Miracle” is juiced, balls out, gleeful modern soul from Jacksonville, FL from a band that never recorded anything else and clearly dug the O’Jays. I’m not sure if the vocalist is a woman or young Jeff Floyd, but they’ve peaked where warmed up frays into hoarse. Lead instrument is bass (for your face). The kit is thick and compressed. Guitar and piano chew and spit spacetime like rhythm locomotives. The lyrics are whatever, except that LIFE IS A MIRACLE and you best not forget it.
Side AA: Stevie Wonder, “As”
32. Josephine Foster and The Victor Herrero Band, “Los Cuatros Muleros,” Anda Jaleo, Fire Records, 2010 (Spain / USA)
Foster, her husband Herrero and company were surely intended by God, during their lives on Earth, to interpret the popular songs collected by Federico García Lorca a century prior. Whatever further good they do is gravy. They recorded two albums, Anda Jaleo and Perlas, of such songs in the early 2010s that sound as if they were tracked in the side room of a bar with a pickup band. Autoharp, Herrero’s Portuguese guitar, hand percussion, charmingly male backing vocals from the band contribute timbral depth around Foster’s utterly unique voice. I can barely understand Foster’s delivery, which feels appropriate for Andalusian folk. Note how far out front and center the castanets are in the mix – a nod to García Lorca’s 1931 recordings of the same songs with La Argentinita.
As with other songs in Foster and Herrero’s García Lorca project, “Los Cuatros Muleros” is frequently performed and recorded. Search the internet now and you’ll find “Muleros” dressed up in coattails, presented in the dead classical stylings of REPERTORY FOLKLORE. Or Ana Belén’s mall-at-Christmas, jazz arrangement. Foster and Herrero’s rollicking “Muleros” breathes folky, youthful impatience back into the song; skip with the young woman as she eyes her mule driver with pride. The backing vocals take the role of the muleros, echoing Foster’s lead. Herrero’s densely rhythmic guitar is thrilling. He plays a simple, powerful chordal solo between repeats of the verses. They end the song gently with a final, romantic, a capella repeat of “de los cuatros muleros.”
Side AA: The Amazing Blondel, “Spring Season”
31. Obeid Al Juma’a, “Instrumental Mejwiz”, Dabke – Sounds of the Syrian Houran, Sham Palace, 2014 (Syria)
The mejwiz (mijwiz, مجوز) is a small, double pipe, single reed wind instrument made from bamboo. It features throughout the Levant as a lead instrument in dabke. It’s about the size of your forearm and it’s the hugest fucking instrument on the planet. No Minimoog, no wall of Marshalls, no bagpipes, no post-industrial soundscapes, no bleakest of black metal poured it on as huge as this. Big respect for Rizan Said (reportedly a skilled reed player himself), but the mejwiz-like tones programmed into his Triton don’t pierce skull like Juma’a’s pipe.
“Instrumental Mejwiz” features the holy power trio instrumentation of mejwiz, digital frame drum and human hype. The “huh huh hyuh” hype preceding the introduction of the mejwiz lead, the on-beat clapping, the ululations, “hi-yahs” and chatter, leave no doubt this party is off and running and your PA should already be in the red. The staccato punch of the sequenced frame drum allows space for the gliding buzz of the mejwiz, produced with a circular breathing that might make Pharoah Sanders smile, to saturate the recording.
The recording presented by Sham Palace as “Instrumental Mejwiz” seems to be an alternatively mastered, edit of this twenty minute recording: Dablat Maa Al Mijwiz or Dabkat Lebnaniyeh (available as an .mp3 on SLAMazon).
Side AA: Alice Coltrane, “Om Shanti”
30. The J.B.’s, “Doing It to Death”, Doing It to Death, People, 1973 (USA)
If I were to make a list of the best song titles, it would just be a list of James Brown titles.
Brown and the J.B.’s won music. Groove is more important to the people than smartypants chord changes. Brown’s funk permeates popular music recorded around the world over the last sixty years. You think you’re going platinum on extended harmony and the circle of fifths? Fuck all that. Groove is grit. Groove is finding meaning in the repetition of getting up to go to work every day, taking care of business. Brown had crowned groove King Shit long before 1973, but I’m including “Doing It to Death” over other equally funky options because here the J.B.’s rub it in.
There is one chord change in ten minutes of “Doing It to Death,” a modulation from F minor down to D minor. Brown calls out to bassist Fred Thomas, letting him know he feels so down he needs to get into doggy D. They chat up the modulation to D for a full sixteen measures, but you’re so deep in the funk that the change is still breathtaking. Like falling into a ditch while you were gawking at something beautiful and landing on your feet. They didn’t need the change. They could have just repeated the pattern to death, and you still would be dancing, but there you go.
Every musician plays their part in setting up the groove; no one oversteps. Check Jimmy Nolen’s clave pattern on guitar. Cheese Martin’s guitar lays off, then completes Thomas’ basslines an octave above. Jabo Starks dotted eighth note pattern on the bass drum swings the rhythm along. The setting of the bass drum against the clave makes the rhythm extra stank. Fred Wesley drops an all-time, no fuckin around, trombone solo with dramatic backing from the horns. Brown plays ringmaster, bringing in soloists, dropping eminently quotable one-liners and soul grunts. His introductions of Wesley and Maceo Parker’s solos are my favorite moments in the song.
“Doing It to Death” introduced sax legend Maceo Parker to J.B. fans. The band gives him a royal, teasing welcome and the opportunity to stretch out with solos on both alto sax and flute. “Is that Maceo? Is it who? Maceo, you know, like Maceo, won’t you blow? Ohhh!”
Side AA: Little Richard, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”
29. Franco & T.P.O.K. Jazz, “Azda”, Franco & L’O.K. Jazz, Pathe, 1971 (Congo)
It is credit to Franco Luambo and le Tout Puissant O.K. Jazz’s musicianship that they turned a longform jingle into a hit that resonates fifty years later. AZDA is short for Association Zairoise d’Automobiles, a Kinshasa Volkswagen dealership that paid Franco for a dedication. “Nakosomba na nga Ve We na AZDA” means, “I will buy myself a VW at AZDA.” That’s it. No political challenge for post-colonial Africa, no Simaro Lutumba poetry, no wry comment on married domestic life. Just bourgeois commerce. But, goddam, the music is exhilarating (and I don’t speak Lingala).
“Azda” begins with a lick from guitar masterblaster Mose Se Sengo (aka Fan Fan).* Fan Fan’s guitar playing is ace throughout, single handedly elevating the song to exalted, top-33, status. The O.K. Jazz discography is a trove of guitar genius, from solos to densely braided ensemble playing, and the lead lines from “Azda” shine among it all. Ninety seconds into the recording, the horn section explodes and O.K Jazz kicks the trotting rhumba aside for a quicker tempo. The lead vocal is answered by a large backing ensemble’s infectious, rising “Ve We, Ve We, Ve We,” in turn answered by the ever more prominent lead guitar. The full tilt, sebene section over the last two minutes, features one of my favorite guitar solos, with Fan Fan repeatedly folding a lick he’s used as a fill throughout into an onslaught of sixteenth note, double stops. (The amp tone and phrasing here are influential on my playing.)
*I believe that Mosese is the lead guitarist on “Azda,” although I can’t verify it and histories of the band are murky. It may well have been Franco, who wrote the song. Kenyapage.net – a Kenyan rugby and Franco mega-fan blog, from which most internet biographic information on O.K. Jazz is derived – has Fan Fan leaving Franco for former O.K. Jazz vocalist Vicky Longomba’s band in 1971 or 1972. On LP, “Azda” was first released on a 1973 compilation. ’73 and ’74 are the most commonly provided release dates for the song. Discogs entries list 7″ single releases of the song as early as 1971. A commission from a car dealership is unlikely to have sat in the can for a few years. In any case, the guitar sounds like Mosese to me. He plays ahead of the beat, with an inimitable crispness (even for soukous guitarists). The clean and extremely loud, mid-saturated tone of the lead on “Azda” is consistent with Mosese’s recordings later in the 1970s.
Side AA: Arsenio Rodriguez, “El Divorcio”
28. Dick Gaughan, “The World Turned Upside Down,” Handful of Earth, Topic, 1981 (Scotland)
Gaughan’s uptempo version of the second part of Leon Rosselson’s “World Turned Upside Down” brings an uncluttered, laser-focus to Rosselson’s stirring lyrics about the Diggers’ mid-seventeenth century experiment in agrarian socialism. 1649 was a politically active moment in British history, with the abolishment of the monarchy and founding of the Commonwealth of England as a republic under the wing of Oliver Cromwell. New ideas for governance abounded. The Diggers attempt to build a peaceful, agrarian, ecologically sound society on common land at St. George’s Hill near Surrey (now, ironically, one of the world’s most exclusive private estates), continues to be a touchstone for socialists and anarchists. Rosselson’s telling of the Diggers’ expulsion from St. George’s Hill has been recorded by dozens of artists, and I’ll hold that Gaughan’s is the best.
Gaughan’s pacing is superb. His skilled flat-picking punches the lyrics home without distracting. Rosselson’s whistling attacks on the landlords – the sin of private property, the bedazzling clergy – are delivered with the simmering restraint mastered by the best protest balladeers (see Woody Guthrie, Paul Brady). Gaughan doesn’t emote away the gravity of the song. You experience him singing in the present to audiences in 1981 and even more so in 2020, as environmental degradation threatens the “common treasury” provided by Earth, capitalism consolidates wealth in the hands of the few, and human lives are led further and further from nature. He packs so much history and vision into under three minutes of song. You’re inspired, then flattened by the tragedy of how little has changed in five centuries, then perhaps reinspired to continue the Diggers’ peaceful struggle.
Side AA: Eddie Palmieri, “Revolt / La Libertad Lógica”
27. Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, “Hava Nagila”, King of the Surf Guitar, Capitol, 1963 (USA)
Speed kills; let us rejoice! Dick Dale’s two heaviest recordings, “Hava Nagila” and “Miserlou”, are turbocharged versions of Middle Eastern party folk songs from the early 20th century. Dale’s family on his father’s side was Lebanese. His guitar was influenced by the oud and tarabuka his uncle taught him to play. The Del-Tones’ “Hava Nagila” gets the nod on whim, but either could have been included here. Both are completely unhinged, breakneck rock that might have lost themselves in their own velocity if not for the familiarity of the melodies and the absolute control with which the band plays.
Dale’s guitar intro, dripping from an oceanic spring tank, drops like a meteor and explodes into the melody. He continues tremolo picking on the tonic through two measures before starting the melody, as if he needed a moment to wrangle an out of control firehose. Each pick attack twitches at the base of your skull. By the time Dale jumps high up the neck, your face is peeling back from your maxilla and you’re fucking plastered against the wall. The sixteenth note snare hits emphasizing the second (sometimes between the second and third) beat are pure gogo. We’ve hit risk taking velocity, so for our own safety, the Del-Tones wrap up the song at a crisp two minutes. Dale exits on the same chromatic avalanche on which he arrived.
Once, I deejayed a Jewish friend’s wedding. I played some blah-ass, wedding deejay version of “Hava Nagila.” To the guests’ credit, they raised chairs and went for it. I’ve always regretted not flipping that party from stun to kill with Dick Dale’s recording.
Side AA: T. Rex, “20th Century Boy”