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 masculine 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”
26. György Ligeti, London Sinfonietta Voices, “Éjszaka – Reggel”, A Capella Works, Sony Classical, 1955 (Hungary)
Ligeti’s twin settings of Sándor Weöres’ short poems, “Éjszaka” and “Reggel” (night and morning) are brief, but dramatic and rich with natural and psychological meaning. He amplifies Weöres’ text. The London Sinfonietta Voices recordings interpret Ligeti’s gestures to full effect; some recordings drag the tempo and sound oblivious to the text. “Éjszaka” is the unanswerable question, the storm, the misfiring human psyche. “Reggel” is the simple inevitability of another turn of the Earth.
“Éjszaka” begins with obfuscation. “Rengeteg tövis” (countless, or so many thorns) is repeated, so soft at first it is barely audible. The first “tövis”, a C, sung by a lone tenor is immediately blotted out by a bass joining in canon, singing his first “rengeteg” an octave below. We hear the chromatic rise in the harmony as other voices join, but the lyric “tövis” is frequently unintelligible, as if the countless number of thorns was more real than any single snag. In the murky, chromatic canon with obscured lyrics of “Éjszaka” we hear early traces of the flowing micropolyphony of later works like Lux Aeterna.
tövis” is repeated, the volume increases steadily, voices are added in canon and the lines collide like waves overlapping one another in a squall, until the voices converge on fortisssssssimo rengetegs in an absolutely flooring sequence. But this is only mid-way through the song, seventy seconds depending on the tempo of the performance and it remains for Ligeti to artfully set impending silence to music. The choir only now completes the first line of the poem. “Csönd” (silence, stillness) is held, a wind chime cluster chord, halting the storm of tövis. “Rengeteg” burbles up to be abruptly silenced by peaceful csönd chords, as “szívem dobogása” (beating of my heart) interrupts the silence in half-step chromatic dissonance. “Éjszaka”, the final word and line of the poem is resolved on a C-major chord, referencing the first “reneteg” sung on C by the tenor, though Ligeti’s chromaticism has undermined any traditional feeling of resolution.
“Reggel” is the easier of the pair to assess. Ligeti sets “már üti, üti már, a torony, a hajnalban” (already striking, striking already, the tower, the dawn) in a quick, forceful canon, dispelling the sinister gloom of the night with the mindless, rhythmic urgency of the morning. Splitting kikerikis from the sopranos and tenors accentuate the rising volume, like the rising sun, of the second line: “Az időt bemeszeli a korai kikeriki” (something like, time is whitewashed, the early cockcrow). The third line, the full arrival of morning, “reggel van! Már üti már! Reggel!” (morning is here! Striking already! Morning!) is delivered in glorious, confident harmony. “Reggel” is confident and simple, it clarifies after the confusion of “Éjszaka.” Ligeti does not ask questions here, nor does he challenge our expectations for the dawn.
Side AA: Anthony Braxton and Max Roach, “Birth”
25. Geinoh Yamashirogumi, “Kaneda”, Akira Symphonic Suite, Victor, 1988 (Japan)
Is this blog your first experience of Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s “Kaneda”? If so, skip to number twenty-four and take in all of Akira when you have an opportunity to do so.
Geinoh Yamashirogumi is a large collective of professional and amateur musicians founded by composer and scientist Tsutomu Ōhashi (aka Shoji Yamashiro). Their work often features vaulted choral arrangements, global folk alongside contemporary pop and art music, and a cinematic, Noh theatricality. All of those elements feature succinctly in Kaneda’s theme, as if Yamashiro and the hundreds of members of the collective decided to stamp their creative essence onto one short song. Outside of the Akira soundtrack, much of their work is only available in the argent unicorn inhabited forests of Discogs imports. If the world were about to end, I would commission Geinoh Yamashirogumi to compose our outro.
“Kaneda” serves as the intro to sci-fi anime epic, Akira (dir. Otomo, 1988). Geinoh Yamashirogumi anchor Otomo’s (occasionally over-inflated) imagery in Indonesian gamelan, offsetting the neon, FM synth waste of Tetsuo and Kaneda’s Neo-Tokyo with ancient rhythm. Here, a bamboo jegog ensemble joins militant stamping feet and drum machines, bursting through a thunder clap that has splintered into a peal of electric noise. The irresistible rhythm plunges us, along with the youthful motorcycle gang, from pettiness into the cosmic limits of the mind.
Chants of “rassera, rassera” are delivered in the same cadence as in the Nebuta festival in Aomori, where participants parade a large float depicting a heroic warrior through the center of the city, imploring bystanders to gather and join in. Ōhashi completed his doctorate at Tohoku University in Sendai, not far south of Aomori. Tetsuo and Kaneda’s epic announcement is not initially appropriate to the flippant, teenage recklessness of their motorcycle battle with The Clowns. Neo-Tokyo appears to be irredeemably post-modern, without meaning, but underneath a current of primordial, generative energy flows. Geinoh Yamashirogumi are absolutely locked into the narrative layers of Akira, sometimes more so than the filmmakers, balancing traditional forms with the modern, using one to amplify the other.
Side AA: Beverly Glenn-Copeland, “Let Us Dance”
24. Dr. Dre, “Let Me Ride,” The Chronic, Death Row Records / Interscope, 1992 (USA)
Including “Let Me Ride” on the list is including three songs at once – the Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, written by Choctaw freedman Wallace Willis in the 1860s; Parliament’s Afrofuturist “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” from 1975, here sampled for the chorus; and Dre’s 1992 G-funk update. Elijah’s chariot immediately following emancipation and the Civil War, The Mothership landing in irreparably segregated Detroit during a period of white flight, and a 1964 Chevrolet Impala cruising South Central L.A. after the Rodney King riots make for three interrelated symbols of African American liberation rising from historical contexts of racial tension, violence and exploitation. “Let Me Ride” doesn’t reference the L.A. riots as frequently or explicitly as some songs on The Chronic – it’s largely boasting – but it’s a masterstroke of music history awareness, giants standing on the shoulders of giants. Dr. Dre only needed to inch George Clinton’s vision of a spaceworthy pimp Cadillac a little further. The six four Impala itself is as layered and multi-generational a symbol as Willis’ biblical chariot. Economist Karl Muth provides a history of the Impala’s rise from object of middle-class access to icon of Black cinema and music here.
Dre’s impossibly gangster nonchalance is as important to the realization of the G-funk aesthetic he touched on N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin as the slower tempos, Moog sine wave tractor beams, and Parliament samples. The Chronic remains perennially appealing because Dre let’s us ride passenger seat in his Impala through South Central L.A. in the early 90s with such a gangster lean, a measured distance, that the environment washes over us and we are able to absorb the violence. We’re taken on a non-narrative montage of creeping OGs, fly bitches, Glocks and TEC-9s, sunset on the Strip, riots, threats around any corner, hydraulic Impalas. Dre kills himself off in the third line but the song continues; it’s a feeling, not a narrative. He immediately follows, “bodies being found on Greenleaf with their fuckin heads cut off,” with the defiant non-sequitor, “motherfucker, I’m Dre!” The violence rolls off of him. Dre’s gangster glare, not reliant on any material/anti-material (medallions) and political pageantry (dreadlocks, black fists), claims realism, it guarantees his survival. And in spite of the ubiquitous violence, it ensures a degree of freedom.
Side AA: De La Soul, “I Am, I Be”
23. Mohammad Rafi, “Aaj Mausam Bada Be-iman Hai”, Loafer, Odeon, 1972 (India)
You’re about to read a book report on a love song. You wont read about love, but about details. The song is about the unequivocal confidence of new love that is always slashed with the dread of that love going unfulfilled. The rest is details.
Superstar Indian playback singer Mohammad Rafi’s “Aaj Mausam Bada Be-iman Hai” from the 1973 film Loafer (dir. Bhimsingh) is my favorite love song. The prolific composing duo, Laxmikant – Pyarelal, wrote the music and directed the orchestra, and poet Anand Bakshi wrote the lyrics. I first heard it in Monsoon Wedding (dir. Nair, 2001) in a sensuous, Almodovar-like scene that cleverly re-applies the approaching, quiet storm lyrics of the original. The song’s scene from Loafer is available on the internet, but watching it wouldn’t add much valuable context to a listener today. Rafi’s recordings remain well known to Indian pop music fans.
Yearning romance pours from Rafi’s voice with the hummed melisma of the line ending “mausam” (मौसम, weather). Rafi’s delivery is not static even as the lyrics are repetitive; he subtly develops his performance throughout the recording, implying a conversation. For example, in the second chorus, “bada” (बड़ा, big, very much) is sung louder, with a more percussive emphasis on the second syllable, hanging the qualifying word out, vulnerable, pleading. The percussive -da further engages the reverb (more on that later) and the word echoes for a moment. The sharply rising melody of the third line of the full chorus, “aane vaala koee” (आने वाला कोई, someone / a storm is coming), is thrilling, briefly pulling us from the main melody’s gentle descent.
Laxmikant and Pyarelal’s varied and wonderfully detailed arrangement contributes as much to the song as Rafi’s performance. The strings pulse in large, simple lines as an alternative to Rafi’s voice. An instrumental section follows the second, third and fourth refrains. Each is distinct in melody and instrumentation. Cascading swarmandal (zither) punctuate transitions from instrumental sections to the verses, breathlessly pausing time in a glissando of notes. Similarly, the accompaniment is dropped out of the mix to highlight Rafi’s vulnerability as verses transition into the refrain. “Aaj Mausam” is bassy, like any properly intentioned slow jam, here provided by drum and periodic upright bass.
Much of the charm of “Aaj Mausam Bada Be-iman Hai” comes from the Bollywood recording aesthetic of the 1960s and 70s – tape compression, (here only mildly) overdriven vocals, slapback reverb applied to everything. I’m infatuated with this recording aesthetic. I suspect Rafi and the orchestra are all being recorded at once with no overdubs, on two or four track consoles with mics carefully positioned for the superb mix we hear. The result is a warm, woozy, self-consistent aesthetic that maximizes relative technological limitations into something every bit as interesting as what the Western studios were producing.
Side AA: Caetano Veloso, “Cucurrucucu Paloma”
22. Abelardo Carbonó y Su Conjunto, “Palenque,” s/t, Producciones Fonograficos Felito, 1982 (Colombia)
I’m generally reluctant to use a marketing term like “tropical” to describe music. It risks the sin of exotcizing that has justifiably relegated mountains of once poshly issued RCA and Philips ethnographica to the mildewed corners of warehouse book stores. The mostly white run, European and North American reissue labels I track for leads on international music occasionally scatter tropical pudding adjectives for silly product taglines.* “Soul-fueled stompers from…” “Astro-Atlantic hypnotica from…” “Cosmic Arab Disco and Searing Dancefloor Bangers…” – actual titles composed as if from a magnet poetry set of African diasporic music descriptors. But here, I’m going to write against my critical instinct.
“Palenque,” Abelardo Carbonó’s buoyant ode to San Basilio de Palenque, the first officially recognized community of free African slaves in the Americas, is supremely tropical. The song is tropical, not in the sense of mid-century marketing exotica, but rather because it engages with the Caribbean and African heritage of Colombia’s northern coast. Guaguancó filtered through soukous guitar. Fela’s Afrobeat and Cuban son refried with currulao and vallenato percussion and breezy psychedelia. Cumbia punctuated by the piercing, crystal clear guitars and the group vocals of classic Hatian compas. Carbonó’s compositions contain traces of diverse stylistic influences, while maintaining a wonky, readily recognizable individuality. His work is like a leftfield, more costeño, cousin to Fruko’s constellation of Afro-Colombian projects out of Discos Fuentes (see Wganda Kenya’s first album, in particular). “Palenque” speaks to several African, Caribbean and Afro-Latin music genres, but only distantly. It is without obvious genre, broadly tropical. As a deejay who attempts to program diverse music, songs like this are pivot points, able to connect many styles, as I’m sure the Picoteros in Colombia know well.
The song’s form is simple. “Palenque” starts when it starts and ends when it fades without much contrived structuring, more like a living glimpse than a dead statement. The progression is four measures of three major chords, G, D, A, D – a progression familiar in highlife or soukous. There is one verse, repeated twice, and a chorus that isn’t more than “Palenque, Palenque” repeated. At the beginning of the verse and in the chorus, the voice is double an octave above. The octave voice is dropped in the second half of the verse, creating a feeling of intimacy with the lone singer as well as a simple timbral variation to break the song’s repetitiveness. The lead guitar arpeggiates the chords of the progression, but there is no guitar solo, no slide freakout as in “Muevela” or “Quiero A Mi Gente.” Jafeth Carbonó’s bass doesn’t waver substantially from its pattern. There is no novel interlude to break up the repetition of the verse. Without ornamentation, asides or departures from the looping percussion, bass, guitar and voices, what remains is pure, unpretentious Afro-Colombian pop.
Even after dozens of close listens (which is not the intended audience experience of this song), I can only make out some of the lyrics in “Palenque,” not enough to force me to reassess the song. The octave voice and the reverb don’t help to clarify, and I believe, if anything, that a self-exoticizing degree of lyrical obscurity is intentional. Elsewhere with Grupo Abharca, Carbonó had obscured lyrics by singing verses composed from a Wayuu dictionary. But this inaccessibility is tongue-in-cheek. It is not elitist. It becomes an invitation to participate.
*One day, I’ll apply scientific rigor to examine this marketing trend.
Side AA: Vashti Bunyan, “Just Another Diamond Day”
21. Donald Byrd, “Places and Spaces,” Places and Spaces, Blue Note, 1975, USA
Behold the feel good party jam of 1975, 2075, 3075, of every seventy-five. Rejoice, for we are human beings alive on the Blue Planet. Donald Byrd’s “Places and Spaces” is a direct injection of pure hope, hope that there are new places to discover or an old place to rediscover where people are doing the right thing. Unlike most summer jams, “Places and Spaces” is not a young song. It’s perspective is that of an experienced man, who has “had a lot of women, seen a lot of land” before coming to understand that life is a renewable fountain.
As with much of what Larry and Fonce Mizell touched in the 70s, Places and Spaces should be considered a Mizell production first and a whoever-the-bandleader-is project second. The Mizell brothers wrote, arranged, performed on and sang most of the album. And that isn’t to diminish Byrd’s contributions; he was Fonce’s teacher at Howard and the nexus of a generation of younger jazz musicians who worked with the brothers. Like the Ravel of jazz-funk, Larry Mizell delivers a plush, soaring arrangement, launching a song that is structurally only two riffs into the stratosphere. What happens to your face when the bass and strings first come in? Go ahead and listen to it again. The funk band rhythm section – drums, bass, guitar – remains the anchor as voices, keys and what I believe is a penny whistle played with bonkers vibrato complement the strings arrangement. Credit the Sound Factory recording and mixing engineers for the crisp and mud-free recording.
Byrd’s hummingbird trumpet is integrated with the arrangement as the soul above it all. It doesn’t appear for more than a minute and acts as an understated counterpoint, dancing around the strings. We are a far cry from the small combo, head-solo-solo-head, format prominent in Byrd’s early recordings with Blue Note. Byrd and the Mizells are taking their cues from the symphonic R&B arrangements that Fonce helped to produce for Barry Gordy earlier in the decade. “Places and Spaces” is the adult “I Want You Back.”
The main riff (C#, D#, G#), over which “place and spaces out there” is sung, is major key, uplifting. The counter riff is a gritty inversion of the primary riff centered around a D#m chord. In this second section, we get the street lyrics with hints of prostitutes, drugs and perhaps a bit of world weariness: “Down on the westside / Where all the girls hide / All you have to do is decide / What you gonna buy? / Sliding toward the east coast / The very steep coast / People getting high.” If the revelry has a sinister, exploitative shade in this section, all that is swept away as the main riff returns and hope is renewed. Later in the song, the two riffs are combined for the outro and the cycle of grit and renewal, grit and renewal is compressed. We leave with a life lesson in hand, “had a lot of women, seen a lot of land, takes a little while, then you understand.”
Side AA: John Coltrane, “Selflessness”
20. Candi Stanton, “Young Hearts Run Free,” Young Hearts Run Free, Warner Bros., 1976, USA
Candi Stanton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” is the single most convincing vocal performance of the modern soul and disco era. Without a doubt, Dave Crawford’s lyrics and accompaniment and Sylvester River’s arrangement are all top notch in an of-its-time way and foundational to the song’s success, but Stanton’s devastating performance elevates the song above its peer disco anthems. I am convinced to my core that she has emotional empathy with the lyrics, and was convinced before I learned that Stanton had been married and divorced twice with five children by 1976. Stanton uses every millimeter of the compressed dynamic range available to a vocalist on a disco hit to lead us through the song’s narrative of disappointed love and faltering self-empowerment, turning each phrase into a musical shot at the unobtainable release from her bad relationship. If you didn’t know, this is what Soul is, an expression against freedom disappointed.
“Young Hearts” deals with the hard compromises of family economics, especially compromises that mothers are often forced to make, in a manner uncommon to disco. (And I am not of the opinion that disco categorically lacks emotional and philosophical heft.) Self-empowerment is a common theme. Consider Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.” Each of those performances is stuck on one emotional register; limited by the lyrics or the vocalist’s empathy, none are as convincing as Stanton’s. “Young Hearts” deflates self-empowerment. It upends the American infatuation with hustling, and reaches into an emotional gray area comparable to somewhere Nina Simone’s best songs go.
The hook is anti-anthemic. It lingers in your head like a pop hook should, but is made ironic by the qualifying “never be hung up, hung up like my man and me.” The hook is sadder, more muted than the “just can’t break away” pre-chorus, where the lyrics proclaim failure in contrast to the music’s heightened, grasping energy. In the pre-chorus, the melody becomes staccato, rises, horns pound the rhythm where, in the first verse, they had only played a fill between lines. A backing choir joins Stanton, echoing “just can’t break away” like the ghosts of every missed opportunity she’s left behind. The brief drama of the pre-chorus makes the deflation of the chorus that much more wrenching, and in retrospect with each repetition, inevitable. The second verse picks up the theme of the chorus, encouraging happiness through self-preservation and self-knowledge. But the release sought in the second verse never occurs. Unable to fulfill her own self-empowered happiness, Stanton passes on a life lesson – focus on yourself before a lover convinces you they are worth compromising over. Even that advice contains a shadow of futility if the co-existence of love and freedom is the sole purview of foolish youth.
Side AA: Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
19. Fela Kuti & Egypt ’80, “Beasts of No Nation,” Beasts of No Nation, Kalakuta Records, 1989, Nigeria
“Beasts of No Nation” was Fela Kuti’s first record after two years imprisonment stemming from a bogus 1984 currency smuggling charge. The side-long, twenty-eight minute recording is a massive, multi-fronted fuck you to the international world order propping itself up through the perceived authority of The Disunited Nations. It’s a fuck you to world leaders who cash in on military conflict, who posture liberalism while legalizing white supremacy, who criticize Apartheid while violently suppressing dissent in their own country. Perhaps with time to reflect as the 1980s burned away and with the increasing stakes of his own political presence following the murder of his mother during the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic compound in 1977, and the undermined Movement Of The People presidential bid 1979, Fela decided to aim big with “Beasts.”
Fela was aware of his role as a voice of the people, a voice of popular dissent. People want a comment on his time inside prison? Look at the “craze” human society under Muhammadu Buhari’s rule outside the prison walls, run by corrupt police and soldiers who kill student protesters in Ile-Ife and Zaria, run by magistrates and judges who convict to curry favor with the regime. He responded to imprisonment not by being silenced, but by further elevating the stakes of his lyrics, targeting the international ruling class. “Basket mouth wan start to leak again.”
Fela Kuti was brilliant at balancing scope and specificity in his lyrics. Consider “Expensive Shit,” which sets a wider criticism of the Nigerian military dictatorship in a story where he swallows a planted joint during an arrest and trades feces with a fellow inmate to avoid prosecution. Or “International Thief Thief,” where Kuti extends a dispute with Decca label owner and I.T.T. executive Moshood Abiola to criticize African sellouts to white slavers and colonialists. Similarly, in “Beasts of No Nation,” he weaponizes South African Prime Minister P.K. Botha’s own infamous response to anti-Apartheid protests, “This uprising will bring out the beast in us,” to undermine Botha’s authority as a world leader, and furthermore to deny Botha’s own humanity. If Botha wants to be an animal, Fela Kuti will take him at his word. Before Fela quotes the origin of the animals-in-human-skin metaphor, he applies it to Nigerian government leaders and the leaders meeting as The Disunited Nations: “many leaders as you see them […] / animal in human skin / animal in putu tie-oo / animal in wear agbada / animal in putu suit-oo.” Reagan, Thatcher, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and the keenly mocked “East West Bloc vs. West Bloc East,” are all targeted.
Fela’s simultaneaous evisceration of Botha’s Apartheid regime and the neo-liberal globalists who continued to accommodate it during the Cold War is the emotional and philosophical crux of the song. His voice swerves off key and breaks in mockery when delivering Botha’s, “This uprising will bring out the beast in us.” He rejects Botha, Thatcher, Reagan and their U.N. pals presumption to “dash [give, gift] us human rights.” As beasts, these “animal can’t dash us human rights.” For human rights are not property to be granted and traded, especially not by those who deny the continued slave trade. And if human rights were property, animals would certainly have no command over them.
“Beasts of No Nation” contains some of Fela’s best horn writing behind the muscle of six saxophones (including two baritone saxes). After years and dozens of listens, I still find the interlocked saxes and trumpets on the outro to be absolutely thrilling. The first, largely instrumental, half features excellent solos by Soji Odukogbe on guitar and Yinusa Akiniobosun on tenor sax. The large backing choirs and ensembles used in Africa ’70 and Egypt ’80 recordings underscore the vox populi status Fela responds to at the beginning of the song. These are all live studio recordings without overdubs. They still feel public and participatory.
Side AA: Mos Def, “Mathematics”
18. Les Rallizes Dénudés, “People Can Choose / Field of Artificial Flowers*,” Heavier Than A Death In The Family, Phoenix, 1977?, Japan
Two truths: loaded and overloaded. Setting off an avalanche with fists, where each snowflake is a microwave at full popcorn with the door smacking open and shut, where the ski lift is tipping into an event horizon, where your limbs are cybernetic cobras squealing cytotoxic squeals to rip the faces off the Lords Of Bullshit, who gradually accrue wealth at the expense of nature.
This 1977ish Rallizes Dénudés recording of “Field of Artificial Flowers,” here incorrectly identified as “People Can Choose” by pirate operation Phoenix Records, is a magnetic field of aesthetic rock. As dead nihilistic as their music appears at first glance, “People Can Choose” pierces through that nihilism to be living, physical music. From the ash of rejected mythology comes a radical music of objective sensory experience. The first minute and forty-five seconds are anthemic, staring down a hurricane with leather pants on, Fucking Rock. Then electric noise ejaculating out of a looping anti-structure. If The Velvet’s White Light, White Heat was a predecessor, “People Can Choose” makes “Sister Ray” sound like Peter, Paul and Mary.
Like most Rallizes Dénudés recordings, “People Can Choose” is unsettlingly effortless. Look up a video of them creating a demonstorm of downer rock and the band appears almost casual, like they’ve given themselves over to the inevitability of the self-perpetuating feedback squall they initiated. Time is distorted; bars, phrases, or the entire song feel as if they occur over the same time. The chug keeps some sense of wheels-spinning progress, but it’s only end is for us to be subsumed by the music for the duration of the recording. The console is so overloaded that the instruments fry into an indiscernible smog of bassy distortion. “People Can Choose” is maximalist and minimalist. It goes nowhere and everywhere. It is the sound of heaven and the sound of hell. It is live music, as bandleader Takashi Mitzutani was never satisfied with sporadic studio efforts to release the recordings. This recording feels unique each time I listen to it.
The story of Takashi Mitzutani’s Les Rallizes Dénudés is all ghosts and folk tales. See this Grayson Haver Currin article for something approximating a history through an account of his attempts to contact Mitzutani in the 2010s. With scant biographical information, It is a stretch to enter a political reading of “People Can Choose” here, but if pressed, I would argue that Mitzutani saw meaninglessness in available social expressions. He responded with a music that engages the physical senses and that defies structural reduction.
Side AA: Tal National, “Say Wata Gaya”
17. T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, “Mi Ve Wa Se,” 7″ single / Echoes Hypnotiques…, Albarika Store / Analog Africa, mid-70s, Benin
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou have been one of the best bands on Earth for the last half-century. Their Vodoun informed, poly-rythmic funk is distinct, served with the twitch of a garage band and the sophistication of a soukous big band. That resplendent, gold mixtape launched into the heart of Alpha Centauri by renowned NASA ethnomusicologist, Carl Sagan, should have been all Orchestre Poly-Rythmo cuts, no fucking around. We’re trying to get floored with advanced spacefarers, right? Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is the only band featured on this list from whom I considered multiple recordings*, because many of their recordings are similarly conceived and consistently devastating. Cranking funk plus virtuoso Afrobeat plus Vodoun ritual rhythm equals an unstoppable, TransAtlantic heartbeat. “Mi Ve Wa Se” is the selection among equally deserving cuts, because rhythmic layers are easier to distinguish.
The song form is a short intro, followed by a groove pattern over which bookending verses, a guitar solo and an organ solo are featured. Each instrument in “Mi Ve Wa Se” – drum kit, congos, percussion, bass, two guitars, blitzed Italorgan – is locked on to the groove, and there is no gradual buildup. The song is full tilt from the moment Eskill Lohento punctuates the intro, “HO!” Longer guitar phrases offset the two note bass line (which may be doubled by the organ). The kit is played with the impossible, multi-limbed timing of Afrobeat originator, Tony Allen. Of the songs on this list, “Mi Ve Wa Se” features by far the best drum performance. The repetition of the patterns reveals the blooming depth of the ensemble rhythm.
Their recordings have been called “lo-fi,” but this isn’t appropriate to “Mi Ve Wa Se,” nor would it be for their Albarika Store recordings. They are densely mixed, but with careful attention to space and application of reverb on the treble voices to separate them from the groundswell of bass and percussion. As a sampling beatmaker, the drum kit here is how I envision my drum samples to sound.
*Hawk-eyed readers will know that I considered two Dick Dale recordings. “Hava Nagila” and “Miserlou” are the same formula. Doesn’t count.
Side AA: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, “Iya Me Dji Ki Bi Ni”
16. Andy Irvine and Paul Brady, “Mary and the Soldier,” s/t, Mulligan, 1976, Ireland
Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’s self-titled, 1976 album is a touchstone of Irish folk. It is the most intimate and focused of the Planxty and Bothy-adjacent projects. (Dónal Lunny and Kevin Burke support throughout.) It’s recurring theme is the exploits and shenanigans of Irish soldiers, with a historical background of Irish impressment into the British military, and the ruptured families and national identity, and geographical displacement that resulted. Ireland has been variously subjected to British rule and exploitation for much of the last millenium. The British Royal Navy recruited heavily from Ireland, including bouts of forced conscription, in times of war. If the military glory went to the British empire, Irvine and Brady have assembled a collection of songs to enshrine the human glory of the Irish soldiers forced to fight. This theme is expounded directly in half of the songs, including the ruthlessly carefree murder of a recruiting British officer on Christmas morning in “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant.” “Mary and the Soldier” inverts the tragedy of a family ruptured by conscription and war, as Mary convinces the soldier to marry her and allow her to journey with him to battle. A farfetched scenario, perhaps, but nevertheless boldly symbolic.
Brady’s measured, well rehearsed, performance of the song is masterful. His hybrid, finger and flat-picked guitar accompaniment is far more difficult than it may seem. Irvine and Lunny’s mandolin and bouzouki rise to join Brady’s guitar in the second and third verses like voices in a tavern Bolero. The verses are interrupted, the gallantry of the soldier trumpeted, by an instrumental section in which Irvine’s harmonica is twinned with Burke’s fiddle. Brady’s timing, and the nuances in the arrangement, squeeze every bit of music out of a simple song with a verse-verse-verse structure.
Along with the studio recording, I’ve included a video of Brady, Irvine and Lunny performing “Mary and the Soldier” in Tallaght in 1976. Brady’s introduction to the song does not do justice to the depth of the material, nor to their subsequent performance.
Side AA: Herb Johnson, “War”
15. Los Jharis De Ñaña, “Mi Nuevo Amor,” Los Creadores del Sonido de la Carretera Central, Masstropicas, late 1980s?, Peru
Before I delve into why “Mi Nuevo Amor” is the fifteenth best song ever recorded, allow me to provide a rundown of Peruvian chicha, underscoring the confluence of cultures that I’ve found flowing through many songs on this list. Peruvian chicha is cumbia rhythm, performed most frequently with guitars as the lead instrumental voice and electric keyboards as a supporting voice. Chicha guitar has a prominent strain of Ventures instrumental rock in it. Electric bass, congas, timbales, cowbell and güiro are all common in the rhythm section, with Cuban and Colombian influences. Chicha also has local influences derived from Andean huayno, and parallel development of the two popular genres has generated mutual exchange. Emcee-like shoutouts to soloists, patrons and hometowns (“arriba las botellas”) are common in both genres. So too are melodramatic lyrics of drowning lost love and domestic misery in cold beer. The predominant guitar tone in chicha guitar since the late 70s, digital clean with gratuitous delay and reverb, is not dissimilar to the tone of the arpa peruana on popular huayno records.
Chicha is the Amazon, it is Lima, it is the Andes, it is Latin America and the towns along the Carretera Central. It is ayahuasca and a bottle of beer (or a glass of chicha). It is bonked psychedelia and everyman radio pop. It is the dream of outer space and the band that plays your uncle’s sixtieth birthday party. The recordings collected by Masstropicas for this micro anthology are Jharis favorites still performed today. They were initially released on cassette, and sound as if remastered from cassette.
Los Jharis (jhari is quechua for men, guys) sit at that precarious apex of analog and digital, where the proliferation of cheap reverb and Casio horn ensemble tones could make an instant relic of the recording, except that these songs never tip over that edge, remaining vitally un-square. Where musicians are still squeezing every human emotion from their novel technology. Where their digital technology hasn’t yet learned to prioritize its own replication. Perhaps Los Jharis accidentally achieved the perfect balance of acoustic percussion and eighth inch tape flutter, the physical snap of the pick attack on Teo Laura’s guitar and the imaginary number echosphere within which Pascualillo’s voice careens. Maybe, thirty years of evolution and a liver full of microplastics later, I hear a point of genesis in these recordings from the late 1980s.
There are several recordings, both live and studio, available of Los Jharis playing “Mi Neuvo Amor.” The one collected by Masstropicas is the masterpiece. The recording begins with a nearly fifty second intro, more than a quarter of the song. The cavalry call of the first few bars is followed by a churning, carousel percussion break before the guitar snaps into the arpeggiation that serves as the main riff. Pascualillo puts everything on the line with his band introduction: “Después de tanto sufrimiento, de tantas envidias, aquí estamos. ¡Los Jharis de Ñaña!” (After so much suffering, so much jealousy, we’re still here.) The guitar is thickened by a synthesizer and a second, wah’d guitar. Then the melody. The stone simple melody that rings in my brain for days, and has me scrunching my face, posturing like I’m striving for video of the week on MTV. How could you not be swept away by the drama in “Mi Nuevo Amor?” Maybe this is how people feel when they throw themselves into a Taylor Swift hook. I don’t know, but if Pascualillo can find love, so can all of us.
Side AA: Wimeanacas Cambodian Band, “Rose Bud”
14. Jimi Hendrix & Band of Gypsys, “Machine Gun (1/1/70),” Live At The Fillmore East, Experience Hendrix, 1970, USA
There are two epochs of music history: before Hendrix and after Hendrix. Electricity had been introduced into music many years earlier – to generate sound, record sound, amplify sound – but only since Jimi has electricity sang. Electricity may have already been our second brain, our fifth limb, our third eye by 1965, but Hendrix gave it a voice, connected it directly to his soul.
“Machine Gun” is a reworking of “Here My Train A Comin’,” an earlier Experience song. The descending riff, vocal descant over the solo, explosion of previously unfathomable guitar ideas after paced, tension building verses are all present. Gone is the last train to freedom theme. Gone is the cocky, dust myself off, not exactly gospel humor. Here, a few more years into the Vietnam War, we have images of “natural born” farmers resisting the destruction of their families by mechanized warfare. Buddy Miles’ .30 caliber drum fill between the sinister, walking bassline hammers home the threat of violence. The violence isn’t from us or for us. It is systematic.
The introduction of the guitar solo, a rising inversion of the previous riff doubled by Billy Cox’s bass is titanic, Balrogian, like an ancient, thirty-story beast leaning back to spew lava over helpless mankind. Hendrix goes full-Guernica over the ensuing solo. I cannot write about his playing analytically. I’d prefer to leave your own creative mind open to what images may come. Jimi’s invention defies words like melody in their inability to describe the anguish and destruction screaming from his Marshalls. Listen and experience. After the solo, the band returns to the descending riff, and we find ourselves in the desolation after the battle. Hendrix ends the song with a quote of “Taps.”
There are many excellent versions of “Machine Gun.” The performance at the Fillmore East from the night before and a performance in Copenhagen nine months later should be sought out. Cox, Miles, and particularly Hendrix waste no notes on the 1/1/70 recording. Unfortunately, I can’t find a stream of the 1970 recording and I don’t want to run afoul of goddamn UMG yet again, so I’ve linked my second favorite recording, the aforementioned Copenhagen recording, performed two weeks before Jimi’s death. The recording I’ve written about, first Fillmore East show, January 1, 1970, can be found on both Live At The Fillmore East and Voodoo Child, The Jimi Hendrix Collection.
Side AA: Pharoah Sanders, “Black Unity”
13. Antoine Brumel (performed by Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel), Missa “Et Ecce Terrae Motus,” Sony Classical, 1506-1510 (recorded 1990), France
If it isn’t obvious by the end of this entry, you should be warned that I lack sufficient knowledge of Renaissance music to argue the greatness of Antoine Brumel’s Earthquake Mass. It is instinct. I have only a spotty notion of the contributions of the major European vocal composers of the time. I’d prefer these entries not be leaden with citations, so I’ll permit myself to remain underinformed for now. RS gut check says Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus is inspired by a higher power, and that is going to have to be proof enough.
I have two recordings of Brumel’s Earthquake Mass. The Huelgas Ensemble recording referred to throughout, and another by the Tallis Scholars. I have heard it performed live once, by the Princeton Chamber Choir around 2012. The Huelgas Ensemble’s recording is a bit muddier, more reverberant, richer with low frequencies, as if the microphones were placed a few feet closer to the choir. Excluding a few audible flutters of turning pages, I have a slight preference for the Huelgas recording, but that is likely only because I am more familiar with how it divides the Mass into tracks. Both are great. Both capture the feeling of voices swelling from a supra-physical place, voices from heaven, that I recall from the Princeton Chamber Choir’s performance.
At that performance in Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ, where I’ve attended a few dozen concerts, I could see the singers, yet heard their voices coming from another place. I knew most of the ensemble personally. My wife sang. And I could only momentarily discern individual voices before they were folded back into the ensemble.
Uncommon (or unique?) for a Renaissance Mass, Et Ecce Terrae Motus is written for twelve parts. Brumel’s immediate Franco-Flemish predecessor, Josquin des Prez, wrote most of his masses for four voice parts. It is far more difficult for the listener to sort out twelve parts. The brilliance of the work is generated by a breadth of voices set in incessantly moving canon. Simple melodies are repeated, layered, embellished, layered, harmonized, layered, to the point where multiple movements of distinct dimension occur at once, like tectonic plates sliding past each other. Overlapping time scales, perhaps spanning Universal Time, the anno domini, and an hour on Sunday morning. In some respects, with it’s static harmonies, Et Ecce Terrae Motus predicts the drones and repeated, shifting melodic cells that would define American minimalism five hundred years later. Or, imagine taking Miles Davis’ solo on “Flamenco Sketches” and stacking all the notes vertically. When infrequent chord changes occurs, they are breathtaking.
Take the Agnus Dei II for example. The meta-motif is a pulsing I-IV-I, that modulates at intervals. Smaller, more elaborate, motifs, sung and repeated by individual singers, embellish the melodies embedded within the I-IV-I progression. Upon modulation, the leading voices feel both like melodic embellishments on the smaller motifs, and a harmonic modulation on the larger motif. Several voices rapidly landing on the same note in succession create an effect like a digital multi-delay or a sequencer playing slices of the same sample. This can be heard from syllable to syllable over qui tollis peccata mundi.
Side AA: Archie Shepp and Algerian musicians, “Brotherhood at Katchaoua”
The entire Huelgas Ensemble recording is not available on youtube, although live performances of the Mass and the noted Tallis Scholars recording are available. This is the Kyrie.
12. Terry Callier, “Ho Tsing Mee (Song of the Sun),” What Color Is Love, Cadet, 1972, USA
Terry Callier’s knack for folding philosophical depth into a soul anthem (see also “Ordinary Joe”) drives “Ho Tsing Mee” to be a standout song of the reflective, politically conscious, orchestral soul that emerged around Mayfield, Gaye, Whitfield, Strong and others in the late 1960s. He does so without resorting to Right On, Right On funk slogans, casting doubt on the efficacy of Hippie-era one liners like, “love is the answer,” as the Vietnam war slogs on. (And I write that as someone who considers George Clinton to be the preeminent American proverb writer.) Callier pushes past slogans with a series of philosophical questions about God, nationality, war, suffering and empathy, connecting systematic observation to personal experience and philosophical abstraction with remarkably efficient language. A1 soul poetry.
These are the questions Terry asks. First, what do you tell a mother who has lost her only son in the Vietnam War? That everything is OK? That it was worthwhile for The Nation? Second, if you can’t change the people’s minds, then how will you change their hearts? Third (and Callier asks the Lord directly, on our behalf), why does God, creator of the universe and shepherd of all conscious beings, allow us to continue to suffer? With so vast a cosmos over which to reign, perhaps He does not hear us weep.
Callier’s existential despair is cast aside with a defiant “HA”, as the song bursts into the ultimate prayer, the mystics’ summation prayer to become one with God. “Make me one with the Father and the Son.” Or, the Sun, if we follow the title, expressing a desire to return to the prelinguistic peace of the natural world in the first verse: “in the beginning, when Earth and Heaven had no names, all’s peaceful, and everything was just the same.” If we are living in “the ending,” as far away from “the beginning” as possible, then only a reunification with God, a turning back to when the Son and the Sun were effectively the same, can save us.
Callier goes beyond expressing a desire to become one with God; he all but demands it in the song’s final, transcendent segment. The pacing of the arrangement by Charles Stepney, developed in stages to hint at the drama of the final segment, along with Callier’s delivery, suggest a complete awareness of the depth of the material. Flanked by thrilling, sixteenth note string runs, the bass and drums are huge. Cymbals are panned across the spectrum in an inflation of the scope of the kit. Callier sings a flurry of note syllables which recall the prelinguistic ambiguity/unity of sun and son, as his voice becomes more distant from the microphone, plate reverb is added, and he seems pulled into Heaven. Like Elijah on the flaming chariot. “Ho Tsing Mee” is both topical and philosophical, mystical and naturalistic, and retains its strength fifty years after the Vietnam War.
Side AA: Caetano Veloso, “If You Hold a Stone”
11. Shabazz Palaces, “Free Press and Curl [extended],” Black Up, Sub Pop, 2011, USA
Ishmael Butler’s first rap in “Free Press and Curl” is a pro-Black supernova, in which he introduces the elements comprising the vision of poetic* freedom developed throughout Black Up. Pro-Black, from the street to the mainframe. Sensual, instinctual, ambiguous over factual, formulaic, commercial. This is some of the best realized Afrofuturist music since Sun Ra’s Astro Black, Pharoah Sander’s Black Unity or Parliament’s Mothership Connection, with Shabazz Palaces lacing their starscape with Nubian ancestry, mbiras, Detroit house, and reappropriated narratives of technological superiority. (Another essay could be written on Shabazz’s ongoing interrogation of our accelerating co-evolution with tech devices. Every beatmaker knows.) All of Black Up, through to the Last Poets quotation, is conceptually coherent. The first three tracks, “Free Press and Curl,” “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum,” and “Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt)” comprise a seven part introductory suite to The Palaces (or The Plush HQ, or the Gangster Star). Following the artists’ lead, I’m taking liberty with the limits of song and track. It would be incomplete to split off “Free Press” from “An Echo” and “(Felt).”
“Free Press” starts with rising voices (the ghosts of a space station you only thought was dead empty), before settling into the main beat – a pulsar of a pitched bass drum, ripping a clave rhythm alongside reversed cymbal swells. (Magnetic conveyor belts extracting the geothermal energy of an unstable moon.) Butler grabs us from the ancient ceremony we’ve glimpsed, with a human-to-the-marrow first line, as if to emphasize that the original people, the ancient voices, are right there, grounded in your neighborhood: “cried with Mooch at Papi’s wake / snuck an extra slice of cake.” Mooch and Papi do not reappear. The history in the lyric is not developed, but who couldn’t empathize with the childlike pragmatism of nabbing extra cake at their grandfather’s funeral while the adults are distracted? The grief is real. So is the cake.
Then comes the statement of purpose that will be woven over the next two tracks, and feature as the framework of the album. Instinct, sensuality and ambiguity are the path to freedom. Freedom is fundamentally poetic truth. “I run on feelings, fuck your facts / deception is the truest act.” Poetic truth (or emotional truth, or sensory truth) precedes the “racist sequences” and linguistic expectations that have been imposed. “You can’t lie to yourself, you can’t lie how it felt.” Shabazz Palaces are like Robert Graves honing in on Poetry, that Eden of a capitalized word. Butler goes deeper in “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” with it’s repetition of, “it’s a feeling.” In case you got crossed in metaphor, the two segments of the track are bridged with a statement of direct sensory experience: “ahh dude, the spicier the food [are you focused again?] / when you chew, fuck their rules.” Let the flavor, the taste, the feeling suffuse your being and bring purpose to every action. First truth, best truth. If you do something as simple as chewing food according to someone else’s rules, how can you consider yourself free? The album cover, with an S and P in arabesque calculator, is literally made of felt. Feel it if you’ve got the hands.
*Briefly, I will never use the word poetry as a euphemism to signify virtual, aspirational or ironic. Poetry is apex culture. Poetry contains our cultural potential, the seed glowing beneath the heaps of stolen narratives and bullshit we call history. Backwards from our original creation myths, forwards as the avant-garde of our language. It is the true experience hidden in the shadows of our nouns and verbs, or as Palaceer Lazarro says, “the diamonds beneath the subtlest inflections.” So if you thought I was fucking around, I wasn’t.
Side AA: Chiwoniso, “Zvichapera”
10. Mor Thiam, “Ayo Ayo Nene,” Dini Safarrar, self-released / Jazzman, 1973, Senegal / USA
Mor Thiam’s “Ayo Ayo Nene (Blessing For The Newborn Baby)” is stomping, joyful, pushed into the red, Afrojazz. The baby is Thiam’s son, R&B star, Akon, then less than a year old, pictured on the back cover, propped up on a marimba with his father. Once you’ve learned the breadth of Thiam’s work as an ambassador of West African culture to the world – ranging from representing Senegal at the 1966 World Black Arts Festival, teaching African studies at Southern Illinois University, and participating in the U.S. civil rights movement, to advising with Disney and the Epcot Center – the Afro American cultural cross-pollination he nurtured becomes apparent throughout Dini Safarrar. Performers include well known members of the jazz avant-garde like Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Charles Bobo Shaw, who would all have been attuned to the collective expression sought on the album. The record was a self-funded release intended to raise money for victims of a drought. Always the people first, whose arts should never be divorced from their food and water.
Musical ideas flow from community collaboration, as ensemble playing and collective groove take precedence over soloists. The song form is simple, unfussy in the best of ways, freeing the group to put down an intercontinental groove. The “ayo ayo nene” melody is repeated, by ensemble vocals or the horns. Then follows a one, two chord vamp, punctuated by a horn riff. Lake, Bowie and John Evens’ horns occasionally spike out from the mix, like flames licking a pot on the cusp of boiling over, but they always remain close to the melody. Accenting the down beat, the horns are as essential to the rhythmic foundation as the percussion. Thiam’s soul scatting drives the group forward. It is an invitation, too, for us to recognize the people on the recording, an invitation to a public celebration.
The recording, produced by performer, promoter, label operator Oliver Sain, is thundering, raucous and distorted. I love it. Its quality perfectly matches the music. The Discogs page for all three editions of the album (original, and the CD and vinyl editions reissued by Jazzman) is littered by connoisseurs bitching and moaning about the distortion on the recording, as if Sain didn’t know how to record a band. The remastering engineer even bothered to apologize. They’re wrong. The recording sounds like the community center next door is blowing the roof of the sucker, and that fits Thiam’s work right on.
Side AA: Celia Cruz & Johnny Pacheco, “Oriza Eh”
9. Haruomi Hosono, “Sports Men,” Philharmony, Yen, 1982, Japan
Haruomi Hosono’s anti love song, “Sports Men,” is a tonal knife’s edge of early 80s post-modernity, on which the socially anxious individual fumbles through the performance demanded by a society of individuals. On which the creative autonomy enabled by the digital technology of an E-mu sampler/sequencer meets the aggregate concrete deck and the sunburnt shoulders of the hotel poolside. On which a rich computer life is confronted with a robust physical life. Isolation meets the spotlight. Genetics confront personal development. The Emulator, Prophet-5, LinnDrum and Roland MC-4 are listed as guest performers, digital colleagues mocking the isolation of their operator. The backing vocals are sampled and keyed in on the Emulator, like a swarm of holographic Hosonos. Hosono, the human, of course, has a long history of successful collaboration (with people). The wonderful, and clearly intentional, irony of “Sports Men,” is that this, the greatest of all sports songs (fuck you, Gary Glitter), was written from the dweeb’s perspective and programmed on silicon.
Hosono strikes a remarkable balance in the lyrics, expressing an emotional subtlety rare in a pop song. Pining love is expressed through a systematic assessment, a ledger rundown, of a woman’s family. This jarringly unromantic device presents us with an outsider looking in at leisure activity, at the class privilege that encourages the conflation of leisure, physical prowess and beauty. Intimidation by the family of athletes is coupled with (slightly rose tinted?) derision. “Your father must have been a vaulter.” A vaulter? Pole vaulting is a niche activity no human should rely upon as evidence of physical superiority. I ran track in school and have never even seen a vaulting pole. Note the sneering pause preceding “vaulter.” Batman and Wonder Woman, shorthand for rich, jacked white people, are set against the singer’s four syllable afflictions – anorexic, apoplectic.
The apparently simple chorus, in which sport is deployed idiomatically against its usual context, is also layered with meaning. “I’ll be a good sport,” means you are going along with something you do not wish to do, or that you are being a graceful loser. As if our singer has preemptively accepted his inferiority. Sportsman is most often used to refer to outdoor sports, like carting around in an ATV while shooting other large mammals. It also carries a leisure class connotation. My dad goes fishing. Donald Trump Jr. is a sportsman. Here, Hosono extends the derision, making an outsider’s sportsball joke. But in that joke is contained his own physical anxiety, an earnest anxiety over his own weakness, in spite of how superficial he knows the family’s beauty and success to be.
Side AA: Steely Dan, “Reelin’ In the Years”
8. Miles Davis, “Black Satin,” On The Corner, Columbia, 1972, USA
Upon its release in 1972, On The Corner was panned by critics, derided by peers, left to languish unsold in record stores. Davis and longtime producer, Teo Macero’s, interest in avante-garde music typified by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s tape experiments, inspired them to push the cutting and splicing used to organize the segments of In A Silent Way, (more) microscopically into rhythmic loops. Critics, having museumed bebop’s head-solo-solo-head format as jazz, in spite of fifteen years of diversion from mainstream figures like Ornette, Coltrane, Pharoah, Roach, and Davis himself, lamented the album’s lack of cohesiveness. Could they not feel the rhythm in their spine? With the subsequent fifty years of popular music development now behind us, we can see those critics were squares with no vision and no history. On The Corner predicts the breakbeat looping, omnivorous sampling, groove focused music of hip-hop and electronic dance music.* The dense percussive loops, heavily effected with stereo pans and reverb, dropped in and out of the mix, sound like they could have been created on an MPC. It acknowledges and centers rhythm, more so than any other Miles project, within the living history of African diasporic music. Every instrument is a percussion instrument first.
Though he was well on the path to fully centering groove by 1972 (you can hear the progress on the ’69-’72 compilation Big Fun), On The Corner‘s funk maximalism is still shockingly nasty the first time you hear it. Betty Davis level nasty. Forget crooning Sinatra, this is the ultimate Manhattan record. People are out on the street doing their thing. You’ll get a glimpse of what their thing is, but the street is too busy to know any one person. You just strut through it like you have a thing worth doing, too. A listener looking for a melodic conversation will be thwarted. They will miss the macroscopic sum of the rhythmic parts.
“Black Satin” is and is not the superior track from On The Corner. There is no superior track. “Black Satin” is the simplest, most direct, most unified idea on the album, for the unfamiliar reader who may not bother to listen to the entire project. (Other tracks, “One and One” and “Helen Butte” for example, seem to originate from jams over the same idea.) Like most tracks on the album, “Black Satin” is pinned down by the bass (Mike Henderson) and drum kit (Jack DeJohnette, Billy Hart, Don Alias, Al Foster). After an intro featuring tabla, sitar and what we would in the year 2000 have called “electronics,” the bass and drums snap in. Cymbals and snare hits careen from channel to channel. The bass drum was either mixed low, or left out entirely to give space to Henderson’s strutting line. A wickedly sinister catcall of a melody, doubled by whistling, is played by filtered horns (Davis, Carlos Garnette, Dave Liebman, Benny Maupin). The wah smears the horns all together, like traffic redshifting away from you down Lexington Ave. As the music progresses, hand claps dripping with plate reverb overrun the snare hits. Badal Roy and James Mtume’s hand percussion bubbles up from the mix, adding another layer of sidewalk urgency. “Black Satin” returns to raga psych in the outro.
I’ve long marvelled at the acoustic space created by Macero on On The Corner and other contemporary Miles Davis albums. Overdubbing and recombining recordings from different takes can make for implausible acoustics. (I’ll write an article one day about albums I believe are marred by implausible acoustics. It is a persistent challenge in sampling records.) Macero creates a purposeful soundscape. Instruments are recorded with physical depth, generally, drums and bass up front, horns in the back, percussion at any depth. Yeah, the snares are disembodied from the high hats. Henderson’s bass pans to the other channel mid-phrase. Clapping, jingle bells, snatches of tabla drop in and out. Macero takes care in mixing to give each sound its own space. As the instruments are panned, dropped and reinserted, they never step on one another’s toes. Even as the rhythm overwhelms, it remains organic.
*By this time, Jamaican producers, more directly influential to the development of early hip-hop, were independently developing the studio production techniques and ethos of remix culture.
Side AA: Ilaiyaraaja, “Ponnana Neram”
7. Sun Ra Arkestra, “Nuclear War,” Nuclear War / Fireside Chat With Lucifer / 12″ single, El Saturn, 1983, Saturn / USA
Sun Ra recorded “Nuclear War” in 1982 for Columbia, confident it would be a hit. The label predictably declined to release a profanity dense, sparsely orchestrated, matter-of-fact statement on mutually assured destruction. (Not that people cursed less frequently before N.W.A., but recall that this was recorded before Run DMC had even dropped a “damn” into a record.) “Nuclear War” is often assessed as an oddity in The Arkestra’s canon, but that isn’t quite correct. Sun Ra’s output had always spanned traditional, contemporary and avant-garde African American music. In “Nuclear War” we hear traditional African call and response, inherited through slave’s field songs, inflamed with the brimstone of a gospel preacher (well, more like your uncle declaiming on a Saturday afternoon), and timed with a loooose, head-nodding jazz funk. Sun Ra lyrics, usually sung by June Tyson and/or the ensemble, are often brief, repeated rhymes meant to invite the people to wake up and observe, in awe, the secret truths brought by the Arkestra. Between street prophecy and mantra. “Nuclear War” feels so singular, because it is so stunningly direct.
If Sun Ra, godfather of Afro-Futurism, were going to come down to Earth, speak right in your ear on one topic, where else would he land the ship but nuclear war? Mass death in a nuclear holocaust demands direct language. “It’s a motherfucker. Don’t you know. If they push that button, your ass has got to go.” What the fuck else is there to say about nuclear war? Wanna discuss multilateral non-proliferation before you die? We’ve already experienced the devastation in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is nothing left to imagine. The Arkestra’s conversation, to which we are invited to participate by the call and response format, is almost banal. Radiation. Yup. Mutation. Uh-huh. ColdWarscifiBondvillainredscareJFKGodzilla – all smoke we raised to help cope with the fact that we’ve finally invented a superweapon to extinguish all life at the push of a button. Before, we had to look toward God for the apocalypse. Now some suit just has to hit the ENTER key on the Alienware stuffed inside the nuclear football.
Side AA: Dinah Washington, “This Bitter Earth”
6. Albert Ayler, “Bells,” Love Cry, Impulse!, 1968, USA
With 1968’s Love Cry, Albert Ayler distilled the ideas he had developed over years – about tone; melodic, harmonic, rhythmic improvisation; avant-garde and nostalgia; structure and freedom; popular music and art music – into the most succinctly stated free jazz of the decade. There is no mumbling on “Bells,” nothing extra. Many of the ideas I’ll highlight were present by 1965’s Spiritual Unity (ESP Disk). Here, the extended improvisations of the earlier record are replaced by embellished melody, and Albert’s saxophone is pinned to his younger brother Donald’s trumpet. The social impetus of the second horn is essential to the music. Donald’s trumpet in particular drives his brother from the introspection of his earlier recordings, (which remain critically important as statements affirming Ayler’s identity as an individual, a creator, and a Black man). Donald plays a simple counterpoint to Albert’s sax, often remaining on a pedal note, or carrying on repeated lines as the sax embellishes. Albert leans into the brassy tone of his horn, joining it easily with the trumpet; some of the most thrilling moments in “Bells” are when the two horns land on the same note. Perhaps a mother feels differently, but no other beings affirm our earthliness more than our own siblings. One could consider “Bells” and Love Cry to be a two horn inversion of the enormous ensemble sound featured on Coltrane’s Ascension (Impulse!, 1966). The impenetrable spookiness that some listeners hear in Ayler’s early recordings is blasted away by the clarity of Love Cry‘s statement. Death and the spirits are not fetishized, but met starkly, with indefatigable brassiness, like a New Orleans funeral band. Love Cry completes the ideas of Spiritual Unity by giving them more direct social context.
Ayler synthesizes an array of influences from the fringes and history of jazz culture. As Bill Laswell once said that Pharoah Sanders should be classified as a World musician first and a Jazz musician second, the same could be said of Ayler (and Milford Graves and Alan Silva). Along with the funeral brass band noted earlier, Caribbean Junkanoo music, the military march and melodies of drum and fife blues, joyful South African, major key melody, and the collective improvisation of traditional New Orleans jazz are all detectable. Ayler’s melodies here are direct, rooted in known, folk patterns. Before we experience their avant-garde-ness, we first experience their familiarity. Perhaps producer Bob Thiele encouraged or pressured Ayler into limiting himself to make his ideas accessible. If that pressure existed, he responded by removing any extended improvisation from Love Cry, compressing improvisation into embellishment and tone. Approachability doesn’t make “Bells” any less progressive, or any less innovative. It permits the counter reaction of freeing the rhythm section to push right up to the brink of structure. It permits Ayler’s influences to shine through, allowing him to make a dramatic and joyful statement rooted in a broad sample of African American cultures.
Graves (drums) and Silva (bass) are remarkably sensitive to Ayler’s rhythm, perhaps more so than any of the other superb rhythm sections he recorded with. The starkness of the Aylers’ lines makes visible Graves and Silva’s performance. The horns play the marching backbeat, freeing the drums to delve deep into the human polyrhythms jutting out from the melody. For all of his expansion Graves’ pulse remains true, physical like the pulse in your wrist. He coaxes melodic lines from his drums to support the melody. Silva switches from arco to pizzicato mid phrase, traversing the entire range of his bass. The variety of the rhythm section’s playing gives the four man ensemble a scope far larger than its actual size.
In entry eighteen, I wrote that “Mi Ve Wa Se” featured the best drum performance on this list. I was wrong. “Bells” does. Between writing and publishing this, I learned that Milford Graves died. He was a deeply inspirational musician, herbalist, martial artist and researcher into the human heart. Any of us could find inspiration and wisdom in Graves and his art. His website is http://www.milfordgraves.com.
Side AA: Louis Moholo-Moholo Octet, “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me”
5. John Fahey, “When The Catfish Is In Bloom,” Requia & Other Compositions For Guitar Solo, Vanguard, 1967
At the public park in heaven, where the United States of America’s dead literary giants mingle and feed pigeons, John Fahey is the guy ambiguously playing for himself, but maybe busking, on a bench by the fence, barely keeping a straight face. Scratch Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Suite off as the hymn of the American sunrise and replace it with “When The Catfish Is In Bloom.” A flat top acoustic is far more American than a chamber orchestra anyway. An acoustic guitar is intimate and lonely. And most of us Americans believe to our core that we can go it alone.
The genius in Fahey’s work is multifaceted, and “Catfish” is rich with these elements. First, borrowing Frank Zappa’s framework, Fahey created his own, conceptually continuous* body of sounds, images, structures and language that is only marginally astray of our shared reality. Shared reality in the United States, whenever there is such a thing, is rarely more than that which is most effectively marketed. Marginally astray is key, in that the uncomfortable proximity of Fahey’s Americana to commercial or mainstream Americana gets him within reach to poke that shared reality in the ribs. The plausibly absurd title gets him within striking distance. Down to the failed pluralization, “when the catfish is in bloom,” sounds like the beginning of a hick fairytale, or something you might hear in a tackle shop off a country road, to which you’d respond, “yessir,” knowing you look like a goddamned department store. Or is the grammatical number even incorrect? The catfish is just as much a natural phenomenon as a quantity of fish.
Fahey’s conceptual continuity extends to the depth of humor and tone, the molecules of emotion. He deftly balances more self-aware emotions like nostalgia, contempt or admiration, with the more primal joy, fear and anticipation. Pace and timing are his best emotional tools, and he plays the guitar like a storyteller. The opening phrases of the song are played with the grandeur of watching the sunrise over a river you’re about to fish, the chords arriving slightly fractured like the first rays of light on the horizon. It is slow, dawning, stately. The beginning ebbs and flows, like the river lapping the shore. Then the fish start biting, and in an arranging approach common in Fahey’s music, the guitar builds in tempo and rhythmic consistency. Melodic ideas are developed and responded to. After the climactic melody coalesces into a staccato march of chords, the song fades out, only to reappear after a brief silence to conclude in the same fashion as it began. Slow, stately, setting. You could read the false ending a few ways, but I’ll leave it as a Faheyian mystery, a wink that things may be more manufactured than they seem.
I’m reminded of a Fahey story, Fish, collected in How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, in which Fahey recalls fishing with Booker (or, phonetically by his own accent, and with his own disapproval, Bukka) White in the summer of 1966. The two pound whisky all afternoon. White leaves to get more whiskey and cola. While he is gone, Fahey catches a massive alligator gar. His struggle with the monster fish triggers a hallucinatory memory of his father sexually abusing him, that ends when White shoots the reeled in gar with his .45. On the surface, the story feels like big fish musicology, gonzo Alan Lomax (who also represented White in the mid-60s). But, like that shallow slough at a bend in the river supporting a monster gar, Fish is profoundly nuanced. It is about more than fishing. It is about Black Southern culture and Blues mythology viewed by a white outsider. It is about letting Booker White’s larger than life persona be as large as it is, while resisting the caricatures that followed him throughout his career. It is shockingly personal. It is about truth and memory, facing fear and healing. Discovering a new father figure. The use of parallels in the story is biblical. Fahey’s story, which, for all we know, may be big fish bullshit itself, is a philosophical complement to Lomax’s direct documentary.
What Fahey achieves in Fish illuminates what he achieves in “Catfish.” He inserts himself, as an idiosyncratic, thoughtful outsider into the greater Blues narrative. Unlike the Pages, Claptons and Richards of the time, Fahey doesn’t appropriate and amplify Mississippi Delta Blues. By the time of Requia, Fahey barely copies at all. His technique is as much Fernando Sor as it is Skip James or Doc Watson, and it is all himself. The scope and length of his instrumental compositions, and his willingness to incorporate tape experiments and found sound are signs of a mature, self-aware concept. “When The Catfish Is In Bloom” is John Fahey’s world fully in bloom.
I’ve learned how to play several Fahey songs. So far, I’ve resisted learning to play “Catfish.” My first album, recorded when I was twenty-four, is full of Fahey’s influence, down to the song titles. The basics of his songs are not difficult, while the emotional and cultural heft of them is nearly impossible to master.
*Conceptual continuity is the self-aware repetition of ideas and structures, images and motifs, throughout one’s body of work. You have to be prolific to achieve conceptual continuity. And, you probably will have to struggle with the commercial viability of your work over and over again.
Side AA: Sonny and Linda Sharrock, “Portrait of Linda In Three Colors, All Black”
4. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, “Frownland”, Trout Mask Replica
I’ve misheard the word ego in “Frownland” as eagle since I first heard Trout Mask Replica. “[…] to find my own land / where a man can stand by another man without an eagle flying.” Eagle screams national identity as in the presidential seal of the United States, the Russian double-headed eagle or the German Bundesadler. Where a man can stand by another man without sharing a national identity and all the militarism that comes with one. All accounts have the actual lyric as ego, forcing me to revise the post-national angle of my reading and to reconsider the song’s position on this list.
I’ll keep “Frownland” at four and let you mull over how good a lyric eagle would have made.
“Frownland” is the most approachable track on Trout Mask Replica, a blazing statement of purpose, an invitation to the alternate, and aesthetically superior, reality in which Beefheart and The Magic Band have replaced The Beatles in popular memory and Safe As Milk is the pivotal record that Sgt. Pepper’s is claimed to be. The lyrics are imperfect, as Beefheart lyrics often are, in a first thought, best thought manner. In another musical setting, certain lines could even be David Crosby, hippie-lite rave up: “take my hand, come with me / it’s not too late for you, it’s not too late for me.” But acid nightmares prowl among relatively trite lines. The listener of Trout Mask Replica is only granted short breaths of generic normalcy before the “black, jagged shadows” appear. The sum message is one of social equality, irrepressible joy and life, but Beefheart doesn’t title the song, “My Smile Is Stuck.” Even “stuck” suggests a demented, clowing resilience.
The cellular (an insultingly simple placeholder for a far more fluid) structure of the song is held together by Don Van Vliet’s voice, a beacon in the rough polyrhythmic seas. “My smile is stuck / I cannot go back to your frownland” is delivered like Howlin’ Wolf overdubbed by a second, wasted Howlin’ Wolf. The vocal is rhythmically and melodically constant, where the guitars hint at riffs only to yank the pattern away as soon as you almost become comfortable. Take the guitars playing in a slippery 7/4 over the first verse before disintegrating into polyrhythm and polytonality vaguely centered around a jarring minor third, as Van Vliet sings the second line. John “Drumbo” French enabled the Trout Mask project by transcribing Beefheart’s humming and untrained piano into the rhythmic ideas that account for the cells in the compositions. Here he drums like Sunny Murray, free and evading pattern, but with propulsion.
Side AA: Aby Ngana Diop, “Dieuleul-Dieuleul”
3. Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity, “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” Everybody Loves the Sunshine,”
Ubiquity’s “Sunshine” and The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” are the two founding documents of neo-soul. Ayers’ masterpiece achieves a balance of space and purpose that few compositions of any genre or origin manage. It manages to not devour itself. Each instrumental part provides ample space for the others to shine. No voice tramples another; no superfluous note is included. Every tone, whether human, acoustic or electronic sounds as natural as sitting sundrunk in the park on a beautiful summer day.
Three and a half seconds into the half minute intro, surely among the most languorous few seconds in recorded jazz, an ARP Odyssey sawtooth line first soars over the piano, drums and bass. Like a fat honey bee, but not a wasp. Major chords are voiced over the second scale degree; minor chords feature the ninth, leaving the progression casually unresolved. Why would you clap a resolution on something as ubiquitous as the sunshine? The lyric, “Bees and things and flowers,” is as open, unresolvable as the slash chord progression in the verses. The crisp snap of the cross stick hits keeps your head nodding. Listen as the tone opens to a full snare hit towards the end of the intro, while the tuned bongos offset the kit with a restrained pattern. The ARP string ensemble rests above the arrangement, permeating everything like sunlight. Phrases are anchored in large acoustic piano chords in case the synths were to threaten the natural balance. Woman and man (Debbie Darby and Ayers) fulfill each other an octave apart. Every tone is right where it needs to be.
Ayers’ lyrics are subtly radical. The first verse proclaims the most obvious, uncomplicated state of being: “my life, my life, my life / in the sunshine.” Sunshine starts and ends each line as the lines bleed into one another. Ayers drops his most poetic contribution to a career-long Afrocentrism: “folks get down in the sunshine / folks get brown in the sunshine.” Dark skin is celebrated, linked with the sun, love, nature, the majority (well, everybody). Ayers frequently comments on black empowerment and environmental preservation from an Afrocentrist (and occasionally futurist) lense, but nowhere else is he so stunningly concise.
Side AA: Sly and The Family Stone, “Family Affair”
2. Koudede, “Hat-iman-in”, Guitars From Agadez, Vol. 6, Sublime Frequencies, 2012 (Mali)
Hisham Mayet recorded Koudede’s group live in 2012, in Bamako at the Toumast Taureg cultural compound, in the initial days of the MNLA rebellion and seizure of the northern Azawad territory from Mali. Koudede went forward with the concert as fellow Taureg citizens fled Bamako. Sublime Frequencies describes it firsthand here: Koudede: Guitars from Agadez Vol 6.
The record of that concert fucking destroys. It is raucous, electric, hypnotic. The audience claps and screams hoarsely, feet from the band. Taureg melodies soar like blazing comets. The band is relentless with triplet guitar riffs locked in with the drum and bass. This is not contemplating the desert sunset music. This is kicking down doors with everything at stake music. If “Hat-iman-in” (she is my heart) is a love song to one woman, that day in Bamako it was performed with a ferocity and abandon that must expand that love to love of home, to love for one’s people. I’ve long been a fan of Taureg music, but my heart has beat in 12/8 since I heard Koudede and it will never go back.
Note, the song titles between tracks three and four of Vol. 6 are flipped. SF’s vinyl pressing, their website and bandcamp pages all replicate the error. I’m referring to the fourth track, incorrectly titled “Nelil-igorsan”. But you could select any of the four songs included in the EP and it would still hold this spot on my list.
Side-AA: Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand”
1. The Jays and Ranking Trevor, “Queen Majesty”, 7″ single, Channel One, 1978? (Jamaica)
The Jays Channel One update of The Techniques update of The Impression’s “Queen and Minstrel” is peak Jamaican popular music. Craftsmanship and nuance thrive in reggae as good ideas are recycled, honed in on, perfected. Song and arrangement, recording process, the human flipping the vinyl, are all acknowledged in the record. (I’ll argue elsewhere that the history and critical assessment of white, Anglophone popular music is overburdened with a need to highlight originality.)
Curtis’ lyrics strike a subtle balance between romantic yearning and class awareness, holding up both sides of the musician’s poverty against his appeal as an entertainer. The bass line will nail you into the ground. Tasteful, dubwise mixing from engineer Jo Jo Hookim keeps The Jays verses hovering just off the pavement. Hookim briefly dries up the vocal reverb immediately before the transition to the deejay, awakening you from the pining reverie, only to send the final “your majesty-y-y” reflecting into the crystal abyss. Trevor starts hot, toasts love and equal rights, keeps both eyes on the dance floor. The Revolutionaries support disappears and reappears beneath his mic like an astrophysical force you can neither resist nor grasp. Trevor and the dub peak at six minutes.
“Queen Majesty” is the site of the greatest fictionalized victory of culture over commerce. Rockers (dir. Bafaloukos, 1978) features a great scene in which Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall forces a deejay playing lite disco out of a booth, and puts on “Queen Majesty”, while Leroy “Hoursemouth” Wallace plays simple to shrug off the police called in response to the takeover.
“Queen Majesty” is seven minutes of perfection resulting from the creativity and craftsmanship of dozens of musicians over fifteen years and of two countries. There have been more original songs written by Mayfield. There have been more soulful harmonies sung. Deejays have rapped more clever lines. Engineers have extracted more profound dubs from the mixing board. But the cumulative, intergenerational sum of “Queen Majesty” is greater than its parts. The recording acknowledges the soul and rocksteady past, dubs into the future, and rocks with the dancehall present. Greatest song ever.
Side AA: Sister Nancy, “Bam Bam”