Syllabus: Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955

After an eight-year absence, I am back in the classroom as a Contributing Faculty Member in the Department of Music at Dickinson College. This spring I am teaching the course Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955. I decided to organize this course around the notion that since the 60+ years when rock ‘n’ roll emerged as the dominant form of popular music a series of patterns define the most common stories about the genre.


 Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Typically this means the following:

 1955-59: Known as the Golden Age of rock ‘n’ roll when pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Crickets, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis establish the sonic and cultural blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.

1959-63: The era signifies the decline of rock ‘r’ roll’s initial vitality with the emergence of ersatz rock ‘n’ rollers (e.g., teen idols, American Bandstand) and more producer driven pop (e.g., girl groups)

1963-65: Some glimmers of hope emerge including Motown, Surf Music, The Beatles and the “British Invasion,” and folk-rock

1965-69: The mid to late 1960s era parallels significant shifts happening within the social sphere signified by soul music, acid/psychedelic rock, and art rock.

1970s: Pop music reaches a new eclecticism.  The prominence of singer-songwriters (e.g., Elton John, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell) and soft rock (e.g., Bread, The Carpenters) signifies a cultural “cooling” and a turn toward introspection; black pop expands into jazz fusion, funk and lush new territory (e.g., Quiet Storm, Philly Soul); mainstream rock (e.g., Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac) grows more elaborate and commercially robust; bubbling from the urban underground come glam, punk, disco, which dominates the last few years of the decade, and the rumblings of a new urban dance culture called hip-hop.

 Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

1980s: MTV reinvigorates the promotional potential of pop, providing a platform for new wave, British synth-pop and the model for video pop exemplified by Michael Jackson’s triumph with Thriller. Record labels also take a strategic multimedia approach linking movies and soundtracks (e.g., Flashdance, Footloose). The combination of these and an increasingly deregulated economy foster a pop boom. Mainstream pop stars regularly generate multiplatinum sales a trend encompassing everyone from rockers such as Springsteen to video pop divas like Madonna and Whitney Houston to funksters like Prince. Youth oriented styles stimulate innovations including college rock, post-punk music, hip-hop, and New Jack swing.

 MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

1990s: Digital sales technology reveals country music and adult contemporary music as the most popular music in the country, and related acts like Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey dominate commercially. As these more traditional forms thrive, hip-hop and alternative rock become the lingua franca of a new generation of listeners.

2000-09: Musically, the angst laden nature of the 1990s surrenders to teen pop, boy bands, and a new generation of pop divas aiming for a young audience. New hybrids like rap metal emerge, and old ideas with a new twist, such as American Idol’s popular take on the talent show genre define much of the decade. The biggest industrial shift is the rise of MP3 technology and social media. Both make it easier for emerging artists to gain mass exposure without record companies, decentralize record stores as the primary sources of music for consumers, and shift sales dominance from physical albums to single downloads.

2010-present: The digitization of pop has also created an increasingly fragmented musical landscape devoid of a dominant style. Few acts have cross-generational appeal. Diva pop, afro-futurist R&B, EDM and teen pop compete for attention, though certain voices, including Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West have developed strong personae and established a commercial foothold. The story continues unfolding.

 Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.

Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.


Buried within these generic narrative patterns are a host of overlooked artists, subgenres, movements, and innovations that challenge conventional wisdom. The ultimate aim for the course is for students to learn rock’s canonical narrative so they can challenge and deconstruct it in an informed, scholarly way. The continuity between pre-rock music genres, the influences of music originating outside of the United States, the strategies artists adapt to survive commercially, and other topics are rarely included in popular rock histories. By association, certain genres ranging from bossa nova to cabaret music to holiday music rarely figure into these stories though all three genres persist.

 Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

 Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

 Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?

Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?


I am excited to share the readings on my syllabus for the spring 2018 semester. I have structured the class in two parts. Part One, functions as a literature review. Students either lead group presentations focused on readings from canonical texts, or they select readings from a “reader’s choice” menu. These readings complement, counter, challenge, and and/or complicate the themes from the canonical readings. In Part Two, students will focus on an overlooked or underdeveloped part of the rock story and develop final projects that illuminate these missing or overlooked pieces so we can expand the story and appreciate how multiple stories constitute post-1955 popular music.  I hope you enjoy the readings; I am excited to refine the course in future semesters and welcome suggestions for future readings!

Books (Required):

Flowers in the Dustbin: The rise of rock and roll, 1947-1977, James Miller

Rockin in Time (8th edition), David Szatmary

Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA (6th edition), Rebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman


Reader’s Choice Reading Menu (Articles, chapters, and /or essays posted on Moodle)

Students have required readings from the books listed above and will also select readings from a reader’s choice “menu” of reading options drawn from the following:

Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (1999), Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, editors

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2009), Elijah Wald

Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with ‘50s Pop Music, Karen Schoemer

The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates (2005), David Brackett, editor

It’s  Too Late to Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal (1972), Jon Landau

All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America (2003), Glenn Altschuler

Sexing the Groove (1997), Sheila Whiteley, editor

The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond (2003), Ed Morales

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop music from Bill Haley to Beyonce (2013), Bob Stanley

Love for Sale: Popular Music in America (2016), David Hajdu

Rock and Roll: An Unruly History (1995), Robert Palmer

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (2016), Jack Hamilton

The Essential Ellen Willis (2014), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

The Rock History Reader [1st ed.] (2006), Theo Cateforis, editor

Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 (1973), Robert Christgau

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999), Mark Anthony Neal

The Sound of the City: The rise of rock and roll (multiple editions), Charlie Gillett

Right to Rock: the Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (2004), Maureen Mahon

World Music: The Basics (2004), Richard Nidel

Understanding Popular Music Culture [3rd ed.] (2008), Roy Shuker

American Popular Music (2006), Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman

Check It, While You Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop culture, and the Public Sphere (2004), Gwendolyn D. Pough

Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (2007), Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, and Rachel Raimist, editors

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015), Jessica Hopper

Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, (2017), Ann Powers

Popular Music in Theory (1996), Keith Negus

Part One: Exposes students to the canonical contours of post-1950s pop music from rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop, which are typically organized by genre.


Unit 1: Mid 1950s-1964

January 22: Welcomes & Introductions


January 24

What is the “Rock Era?”

ALL: Rodman, 35-45, Key Terms in Popular Music [Moodle]

ALL: Wald, 1-12, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Précis peer review session


January 26

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 4: Crossing Cultures: The Eruption of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 81-123

Group 2: Miller, Chapter 1, 80-94

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 1: The Blues, Rock-and-Roll, and Racism, 1-27


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

“Chapter 11: Producers Answer Back,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 44-49 [Moodle]

“Chapter 20: Langston Hughes Responds,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 80-82 [Moodle]

“Chapter 21: From Rhythm and Blues to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 82-88 [Moodle]

Landau, “Introduction,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 13-18 [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Thesis writing


January 29

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 2, 97-128

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 3, 129-137


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: Rock ‘n’ Roll and Race,” All Shook Up, 35-66 [Moodle]

Sanjek, “Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis?” Sexing the Groove, 137-167 [Moodle]

Morales, “Ch. 9: The Hidden History of Latinos and Latin Influence in Rock and Hip-Hop,” The Latin Beat, 275-301 [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Integrating evidence


Unit 2: Teen pop, girl groups, and Motown

January 31

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 5: The Empire Strikes Back: The Reaction to Rock ‘n’ Roll, 124-48

Group 2: Miller, 138-56

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 3: The Teen Market: From Bandstand to Girl Groups, 55-69


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “The Day the Music Died: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Lull and Revival,” All Shook Up, 161-184 [Moodle]

Schoemer, “Introduction,” Great Pretenders, 1-21 [Moodle]

Stanley, Chapter 9: The Trouble with Boys: The Brill Building and Girl Groups, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 65-73 [Moodle]


February 2

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 8: Motown: The Sound of Integration, 135-46

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): The Civil Rights Movement and Popular Music: “Girl Groups, Male Producers, and Brill Building Pop”; “Motown: The Integration of Pop” 150-163


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “Motown: The First Yen Years,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 143-150 [Moodle]

Wald, “Twisting Girls Change the World,” How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, 213-229 [Moodle]


Unit 3: Mid to late 1960s

February 5

British invasion

Group 1: Miller, Chapter 4, 177-217

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 6: The British Invasion of America, 102-20

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “The British Invasion Occupies the Pop Charts,” 163-68


February 7


Group 4: Miller, 217-31

Szatmary, Chapter 5: The New Frontier, 80-101

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Breaking the Sounds of Silence: New Voices in the Music,” 169-71


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 4: A Rolling Stone,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 99-111 [Moodle]


February 9


Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 10: Fire from the Streets, 170-85

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Black (Music) is Beautiful” 171-75 and “Latino Rock ‘n’ Roll,” 175.


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 3: R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 79-97 [Moodle]

Hamilton, Chapter 4: Being Good Isn’t Always Easy, Just Around Midnight, 169-212 [Moodle]

“Chapter 36: Aretha Franklin Meets the Mainstream,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 164-170 [Moodle]


February 12

Acid rock & the Counterculture

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Rock and Revolution: The Counterculture,” 181-96

Group 4:  Szatmary, Chapter 9: Acid Rock, 147-69


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “The Death of Janis Joplin,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 210-213 [Moodle]

Miller, Chapter 5, 260-70

Willis, “Janis Joplin,” The Essential Ellen Willis, 59-63 [Moodle]


February 14

Art Rock

ALL: Please select two of these three selections from Garofalo, Landau, and/or Brackett and be prepared to discuss them in class.


Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Creativity and Commerce: Rock as Art,” 203-11

Landau, “Rock and Art,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 129-134 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 48: The Aesthetics of Rock (all three pieces below must be read and count as one selection):

·         Williams, “Get Off of My Cloud,” 216-218 [Moodle]

·         Goldstein, “Pop Eye: Evaluating Media,” 218-220 [Moodle]

·         Willis, “Musical Events—Records: Rock, Etc.” 221-223 [Moodle]



Unit 4: The 1970s

February 16:

Soft(er) Rock

Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 13: Escaping into the Seventies, 214-25

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Singer/Songwriters, Soft Rock, and More,” 218-224


Corporate rock/Album-Oriented Rock (AOR)

Christgau essay on Classic Rock:


Heavy metal, blues-rock, psychedelia, etc.

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 11: Guitar Heroes and Heavy Metal, 186-205

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Mad with Power: Heavy Metal,” 234-42


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least TWO):

Hiwatt, “Chapter 23: Cock Rock: Men Always Seem to End up On Top,” The Rock History Reader, 125-129 [Moodle]

Christgau, “Trying to Understand the Eagles,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 265-269 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 20: Pop Gets Sophisticated Soft Rock,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 178-189,


Stanley, “Chapter 45: American Rock (Ooh Yeah),” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,400-408,


Willis, “Randy Newman,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 104-106 [Moodle]

Willis, “Women’s Music,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 142-145 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, “Chapter 60: Jazz Fusion,” 290-298 [Moodle]


February 19

Glam Rock

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “All that Glitters Does Not Sell Gold,” 242-46

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 14: The Era of Excess, 226-45


Soft-Soul/Quiet Storm

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Sweeter Soul Music,” 211-18

Group 4: Neal, Chapter 5: Postindustrial Soul, What the Music Said, 125-29 [Moodle]


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

Christgau, “Bette Midler: The Art of Compassion,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 294-299 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 28: The Sound of Philadelphia: Soft Soul,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 250-259,


Willis, “Bowie’s Limitations,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 38-41 [Moodle]

Willis, “Believing Bette Midler, Mostly,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 93-95 [Moodle]



February 21

Funk and Disco

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Disco: The Rhythm without the Blues,” 271-84

Group 1: Neal, Chapter 4: Soul for Real, What the Music Said, 112-24 [Moodle]



Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Punk: Rock as (White) Noise,” 250-71

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 15: Punk Rock and the New Generation, 246-71


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Kopkind, “The Dialectic of Disco,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 298-308, [Moodle]

Hajdu, “Chapter 10: Punk Versus Disco: Who Needs Love?” Love for Sale, 171-184 [Moodle]



February 23

Rock’s Epitaph?

Group 3: Gillett, “End of a Revolution,” (339-42) and “Goodnight America,” (401-411) The Sound of the City, 1970 and 1984 [Moodle]

Group 3: Landau, “The Cooling of America,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 213-216 [Moodle]

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 5, 270-277, 285-294

Group 4: Miller-Chapter 6: “Rock and Roll Future 10/75,” “Anarchy in the U. K. 12/2/76,” “My Way 8/16/77,” Epilogue: “No Future”


February 26

Class Visit from the DIVA Jazz Orchestra! (Website:

Discussion: Women in the performing arts and music


Unit 5: 1980s & 1990s

February 28

MTV era pop

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 9: Are We the World? Music Videos, Superstars, and Mega-Events, 285-316

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 17: I Want My MTV, 279-94


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Mahon, “Chapter 1: Reclaiming the Right to Rock,” Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Politics of Race, 1-32 [Moodle]

Nidel, “Introduction,” World Music: The Basics, 1-3 [Moodle]

Shuker, “U Got the Look: Film television and MTV,” Understanding Popular Music Culture, 147-159 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Just a King in Mirrors: Michael Jackson,”( 409-414) and “Highs in the Mid-Eighties: Prince and Madonna,” (415-422) Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Globalization and the Rise of World Music,” American Popular Music, 307-313 [Moodle]



March 2


Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 10 (excerpt): “Hip Hop, Don’t Stop,” 333-46

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 23: The Hip-Hop Nation, 350-71


MENU (Choose at least one):

Hajdu, “Chapter 12: Hip-Hop: Beats Want to Be Free,” Love for Sale, 197-209 [Moodle]

Pough, “Bringing the Wreck: Theorizing Race, Rap, Gender, and the Public Sphere,” Check it While You Wreck It, 15-40 [Moodle]

Powers, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 93: R&B Divas Go Retro, 494-498 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” excerpt American Popular Music, 270-289 [Moodle]

Worsley, “Loving Hip-Hop When It Denies Your Humanity,” Home Girls Make Some Noise, 274-299 [Moodle]


March 5

Modern rock/alternative music

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “From Indie Scenes to Alternative Nation,” 370-80

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 21: The Generation X Blues, 322-41


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Cateforis and Humphreys, “Constructing Communities and Identities: Riot Grrrl in New York City,” Musics of Multicultural America, 317-42 [Moodle]

France, 1996, “Chapter 51: Feminism Amplified,” The Rock History Reader, 295-302 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Nevermind Already: Nirvana’s 20th Anniversary Boxset,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 143-145 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Alternate Currents,” American Popular Music, 291-300 [Moodle]



Unit 6: 2000-2010s

March 7


Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “Country into Pop”; “The Latin Boom and Beyond”; “Black Music at the Base,” 381-406

Group 2: Stanley, “Chapter 59: A Vision of Love: R&B,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 536-546 [Moodle]

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 22: Post-Grunge Party, 342-49


Reader’s Choice: Please read one of the readings listed above.


March 9

2000s and Beyond

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 12: Changing Channels: Music and Media in the New Millennium, 417-64


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Brooks, “Amy Winehouse and the (Black) Art of Appropriation,” September 28, 2008, The Nation:

Hajdu, “Chapter 13: Digitization: The Immaterial World,” Love for Sale, 212-235 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 15-20 [Moodle] 

Sanneh, “Chapter 59: The Rock Against Rockism,” The Rock History Reader, 351-354 [Moodle]

Powers, “All the Single Cyborgs,” 312-326, and “Epilogue,” 343-349, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music [Moodle]




Raves & Faves: The Best of 2017

In a cluttered media landscape Riffs, Beats, & Codas does the hard work for our readers by selecting some of the outstanding popular culture offerings of 2017. You are welcome ;-) Covering music, literature, television, and film (briefly), I hope some of my selections inspire you to explore. As always, I conclude with a list some of the notable musicians who have died this year.


Philadelphia based musician Son Little continues defying genre and expectation on his second full length album New Magic. Though Little exists nominally on the contemporary soul and electric blues spectrum, he is an incredibly resourceful musician who employs everything from surf guitar to choral chants to tell a fascinating range of stories. Humorous, literate, and sensuous, New Magic is rife with lyrical and sonic intrigue. Check out the video for the song "Blue Magic" below:


Somi, a Nigerian born jazz-oriented vocalist and songwriter based in New York, soars on Petite Afrique an endearingly personal and poignant collection of original songs. At the outset, on "Alien" she writes from the leans of an “African in New York” who feels eternally alienated from her surroundings. Among her most memorable moments are her impressionistic portrait of intracultural policing on “Black Enough,” and a subtle, incisive depiction of gentrification of "The Gentry." Rich in textures and tones, her lovely voice anchors this ambitious meditation. Learn more about the album's creation below:



Jazzmeia Horn received a thorough music education at the Manhattan School of Music and achieved consistent acclaim at various jazz competitions before releasing her stirring debut A Social Call. She draws her technique and repertoire from various strands of jazz, soul, and gospel, and nods to current social issues. The result is a truly relevant, aptly named portrait of a talented and conscientious young artist with chops, brains, and imagination. Meet the artist in this "trailer" for her album:


Memphis is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s loving homage to her hometown, which is better known as a hub for R&B and gospel than her métier jazz. Bridgewater is a highly versatile and expressive singer who is quite comfortable with R&B whether it be from Stax, Hi Records, or the electric blues tradition. Her reedy voice and supple phrasing are a great fit for her Hi Records style version of “I Can’t Get Next to You” and her version of “Thrill is Gone.” The best cut may be her stirring rendition of the gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord” where she is ably backed by a superb choir. Learn more about Bridgewater's journey making the album below:


Lizz Wright’s smoldering vocal sound is so lovely and measured; she can sometimes lapse into making mood music rather than compelling recordings. Her newest, Grace, represents an advance in her sound. Though she favors moody, minor key ballads she has selected a strong set. Though her vocal approach rarely varies, k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean,” Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” and Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” draw out her strongest performances and make one of her more memorable albums in years.



Cecile McLorin Salvant is the freshest and most acclaimed new voice in jazz since Gregory Porter’s debut. She has a lovely with a rainbow of colors, of which she has complete control. She is very comfortable and confident stretching her voice in multiple directions and always stays on pitch. She also possesses a strong rhythmic sense, a respect for melody, and genuine comedic flair. Many of these skills are on full display on her double album Dreams and Daggers. It is unusual in its blend of studio cuts, live recordings from a series of Village Vanguard concerts, and several pieces with strings. A bit jarring, but she sounds very solid throughout. Thematically, it traces the glories and tortures of female romanticism. Alongside dreamy standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” and “You’re My Thrill” are raunchy classic blues, and tongue-in-cheek songs, mostly composed by Salvant. Though a few of the songs are uneven, overall Salvant is carving out an identity as a jazz singer willing to take risks. She has a winning sense of humor and the chops to write, modernize the blues, and deliver in concert. McLorin Salvant discusses the album below on the TV program The Open Mind:


Paula Cole’s mid-1990s stardom was memorable, especially her intriguing satire “Where Have all the Cowboys Gone,” but her musical roots were actually in jazz. She studied jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music. Professionally, Cole has concentrated on singer-songwriter music for most of her career, which may distort the scope of her talents. However, her occasional interpretations of standards on other artists’ albums and some of the writing on her albums of the 2000s and 2010s indicated the jazz aspect her talents. On Ballads Cole is a very convincing interpreter of an impressive range of material including Bob Dylan, Bobbie Gentry, and songs drawn from the pre-rock songbook. Doing double duty as a vocalist and pianist, she is a steady and assured anchor who gives songs as disparate as “Naima,” “Body and Soul,” and “Ode to Billie Joe” her own flavor.



Books about music

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes

Elaine Hayes’s biography of Sarah Vaughan is a detailed, crisp and clearly organized portrait of the life and artistry of the great Vaughan. Hayes approaches her unique melding of jazz and classical elements into a distinctive style, and places her career in the context of the postwar pop and jazz industry. She also provides valuable social insights into Vaughan’s navigation of the era’s racial and gender politics. Easily one of the finest biographical portraits of a black female musician as a complex artist and a person.

Queen of Bebop cover.jpg

Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch

 Acclaimed jazz pianist Fred Hersch is adept on a variety of keyboards, as his accomplished memoir illustrates. Hersch details how his childhood love of music, fed by a strong sense of personal drive and discipline, resulted in a full time career as a jazz musician, composer, and teacher. As his career developed, he gained confidence in his identity as an openly gay man, in a homophobic society, and as a person living with HIV/AIDS. Hersch shares a wealth of insightful stories about life as a contemporary jazz musician, and details multiple health challenges that disturbed his momentum at times, but failed to deter his progress as a creative artist and as a person.

good-things 2.jpg

Beyond MUSIC media favorites


Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee

 Don Lee uses the life of a nearly famous alt country singer songwriter struggling to say afloat financially and medically, to illustrate important questions about art, life, and spirituality. Returning to the fictional Rosarita Bay setting he employs in his books occasionally, he depicts a small community, beset by financial issues, struggling to survive on the literal level and striving to find meaning in lives littered by disappointment. As per usual, Lee’s crisp prose and deft storytelling lure you into a compellingly familiar fictional world.

lee and lonesome.jpg


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

 Celeste Ng’s second novel is a genuine page-turner about class conflict in Shaker Heights circa the mid-1990s. An artist and her daughter rent an apartment from a well-heeled seemingly progressive white family. The daughter grows increasingly closer to the family’s idyllic life; her mother, who eventually works for the family, becomes increasingly concerned about these bonds. Both are accustomed to a nomadic existence dictated by her mother’s profession. Just as they appear to fall into a stable life routine, a wealth of secrets about the mother spills forth, resulting in fractures, misperceptions, and suburban dramas that seismically displace the semblance of stability.

new little fires.jpg



Beyond Respectability: The intellectual Thought of Race Women by Brittany Cooper

Black feminist scholar Brittany Cooper foregoes the flatly historical encyclopedic accounts of black female writers Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, Pauli Murray, and Toni Cade Bambara by focusing on their intellectual work as philosophies. Cooper masterfully synthesizes their ideas about social progress into functioning social and political ideas that influenced their respective eras. Informing her analysis is explicit attention to the intersectional work they were performing before this concept was more widely known in academic circles, and offering a nuanced critique of how respectability politics has operated historically and contemporarily.  Her writing opens a door for continued exploration of the intellectual output of overlooked figures.  

Beyond Respectability.jpg

 Essay collection

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxanne Gay

Nothing I read this year inspired me to discuss its contents with as many people as Roxane Gay’s Hunger, a memoir of her body detailing her struggles with weight, trauma, and familial and societal pressures. Gay is known for her honesty and bluntness, and her voice is relentless here. In a series of short, mostly captivating vignettes she eloquently reveals the tense hypervisibility and invisibility of being a large, tall black woman navigating a history of sexual trauma in a cruel culture. Gay’s perspective demands your attention and constantly illuminates experiences that implicates us all.

Hunger and Gay.jpg

 Music on TV

She’s Gotta Have It (The Series)


 Spike Lee’s reboot of his 1987 film She’s Gotta Have It into a Netflix series is a superb character study of a black female artist navigating love and sex, friendships, an ever gentrifying Brooklyn, and the eternal struggle of making a living as an artist. Music is a prominent character in each episode. In addition to serving as counterpoint in specific scenes, the source albums get their own screenshot. The series deftly employs a range of artists from Frank Sinatra to Sade to Floetry. The season ending group dance to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” is one of the inspired moments of the 2017 season. Check out Popsugar's link to songs featured throughout the series:

 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Seasons 2 & 3)

CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, starring actress and co-creator Rachel Bloom, is not only the finest musical sitcom on television, but the only one technically. This uniqueness spares other series from having to compete; its continually inspired depiction of love, obsession, insecurity, and neurosis, under the veneer of musical comedy, is incomparable. As the seasons delve more deeply into main character Rebecca Bunch’s complicated psyche, the series continues to present smart, funny, and formally brilliant songs that amplify key moments. From Season Two’s jazzy opening theme “I’m Just a Girl in Love,” which borders on the cute and creepy , to the gleefully goofy duet “We Tapped That Ass” (complemented by a dance routine), the songs flesh out an inspired and evolving concept. Season Three’s ongoing journey through Rebecca’s complicated past continue to unpeel the layers in convincing dramatic, comedic and musical fashion.  

Czyx 3.jpg

 Music on Film


 In Disney-Pixar’s Coco, a young man struggles to adhere to his loyalty to family and his passion for music. Plotwise, a celebration of Dia de los Muertos opens up a (literal) portal to understanding the authentic roots of his family through convening with the dead but not forgotten. Though it is primarily a narrative animated film, music is central to the story’s narrative arc most notably the gorgeous “Remember Me” sung by multiple characters.  Coco is a funny, touching, smart film, and is notable for engaging genuinely with Mexican culture and featuring a Latinx cast.    

Coco soundtrack.jpg

 Notable 2017 Musician Deaths (A Selective List):

Greg Allman (Southern rock singer-songwriter)

Chester Bennington (lead singer of Linkin Park)

Chuck Berry (rock 'n' roll singer-songwriter)


David Cassidy (teen pop singer and actor)

Chris Cornell (rock singer-songwriter and lead singer of Soundgarden)


Fats Domino (rock 'n' roll/R&B  vocalist, pianist and bandleader)


Al Jarreau (jazz, R&B, and pop vocalist)


Tom Petty (rock singer-songwriter and bandleader)


Prodigy (rapper in Mobb Deep)

Della Reese (vocalist, actress, and pastor)


Grady Tate (jazz drummer and vocalist)


Mel Tillis (country singer-songwriter)

mel tillis.jpg







LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 2)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 2! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress. Check out last month's blog for Part 1's discussion of Barbra Streisand, Cleo Laine, and Diane Schuur.


 1968's  Eli & the Thirteenth Confession  is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

1968's Eli & the Thirteenth Confession is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

When I started listening to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro in college I began with her cover album of ‘50s doo-wop and ’60 soul music with LaBelle 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle. I was so enchanted that I bought her first three albums of original material immediately afterward.  Her urgent, wailing sound felt like something I had been craving for years without realizing it. Sadly, around the time I started immersing myself in her serpentine melodies and impressionistic lyrics, she died. At the very least, some trickles of recognition emerged including Time and Love, a tribute to Nyro featuring an array of female admirers, was released with her blessing, and a double disc compilation. Though many people know songs like “Stoney End,” “Time and Love,” and “Stone Soul Picnic,” most people I knew were unfamiliar with her as an artist.

The music industry and critical establishment tend to spotlight a few artists to represent certain genres, and for female singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell emerged as the quintessential singer-songwriter, for achieving both acclaim and commercial success. They applied the same lens to Carole King and Carly Simon, but Nyro is the least commercially successful of all of them even if she is the most original. She was also the most controversial. Nyro has a piercing, full-bodied singing style that many people hear as overwhelming and shrill. Some critics have extended this interpretation of her sound to her music, which has been viewed as pretentious and self-serious.

 Critics are not the primary variable shaping the popularity of singers, but they are tastemakers whose voices partially shaped the late 1960s and informs rock histories and canon making venues like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Nyro finally received a biography in 2002 via Michele Kort’s excellent Soul Picnic, many of her more obscure albums have been remastered and re-released, in 2012 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her (finally), and jazz-pianist Billy Childs released 2014’s well-regarded album of Nyro songs Map to the Treasure which won a Vocal Jazz Grammy.

 Despite these accolades, Nyro remains a kind of shadow figure; it is painful that her only “hit” as an artist was a moderately popular cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof.” Granted, it is a lovely version, but it hardly tells her story. The Mitchell of the 1960s sings in a delicate soprano borrowed from singers like Mary Travers and Judy Collins that is instantly recognizable as a young feminine folk voice. Nyro has a heartier and more seasoned voice that sounds more overtly “white ethnic” but it is hard to place. She borrows more devices and phrasings from R&B but there is something dark, gothic, and sensual about her voice that is not purely traditional soul music but is far tougher and streetwise than folk. I frequently joke with my friends that I have never put Nyro songs on a mix with other singers because when I listen to her I only want to listen to her because for me she constitutes her own genre. Barbra Streisand’s most successful entrée into modern pop was her 1971 hit cover of Nyro’s “Stoney End.” Besides being born Jewish women (Nyro was part Jewish) in New York (Nyro is from the Bronx, Streisand is from Brooklyn), they have few similarities, but critically they are innovative voices whose distinctions from their predecessors was a source of acclaim and disdain.

Just as Streisand was not a Doris Day clone, Nyro was not a compliant polite folkie. She was willing to write about, sex, drugs, mortality, and urban life unfiltered. There is something jarring and disruptive about Nyro, especially if one grew up listening to the polite and highly polished pop music of the early to mid-1960s, like Connie Francis, Joanie Somers, and Andy Williams Vocally she is fearless, unfettered and somewhat wild in her approach to melody and dynamics. As such she is incredibly freeing to listen to; she disrupts almost any conventional notion of pop singing and the unorthodox shape of her songs matches. 1967’s More Than a New Discovery stands out, but Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry push her into even more dynamic and unpredictable vocal twists. Hers is a wholly original sound that needed to be heard. Beyond the sonic qualities were the stories she told about female emotional intimacy and sensuality, and her broader philosophical observations evident on songs like “Poverty Train” and “Time and Love.”  She made it OK for female songwriters to write in code, just as Dylan did years earlier, and like Dylan, she had an unconventional sense of sound and structure. Whereas Dylan’s innovations grabbed attention relatively early in his career, Nyro remains a thrilling discovery.


 Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

In a 1998 appearance on The Rosie O’Donnell Show Tony Award winning actor Jennifer Holliday relayed how Ethel Merman told her she would have to tone down her voice to make it on Broadway. The irony of Merman telling another singer to sing more subtly is fairly ridiculous, but Holliday did not object overtly, she simply stayed true to the dynamic style she introduced to audiences Your Arm’s too Short to Box with God which propelled her to award-winning stardom as Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway. Her signature “And I Am Telling you I’m Not Going” is more than a torch song: it is a gut wrenching inferno. Singing in an almost guttural style, Holliday sang the song four years in a row and solidified herself as one of the greatest finds in musical theater since Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Stephanie Mills. In addition to receiving the Tony Award, she won a Grammy for the pop version, which exposed people without access to Broadway to a vocal style unmatched in intensity. Holliday’s bravura performance of the song, as well as “I Am Changing,” drew from the stylistic well of gospel, musical theatre, and torch song, and ultimately made her one of the decade’s most promising new star. Poised for success she never reached the heights of previous Broadway-cum-pop star predecessors.

 In the early 1980s, the music industry was as racially bifurcated as it had ever been with black singers confined to quiet storm ballads and funk and whites to soft rock and rock with few overlaps. The notion of a “black Streisand” was less than tenable, so rather than relying on Broadway material her Geffen debut featured a mix of relative “radio friendly” songs like the ballad “I Am Love” (an R&B hit) and the dance cut “Just Let Me Wait.” Her follow-up repeated this approach of targeting the neo-disco and adult soul markets. Unlike white Broadway predecessors like Streisand, Holliday needed to cross over from the black market to reach the pop audience and none of her songs performed at this level commercially. Holliday switched from Geffen Records to Arista Records in the early 1990s, but this did not change her fortunes significantly and she has remained a mostly independent recording artist. Sunset Boulevard’s aging, delusional fading silent film actress Norma Desmond believed she was not a successful actress because “the pictures got smaller,” rather than her talents. In Holliday’s case, the situation was the inverse: At the peak of her talents the industry got smaller, increasing the gap between black and white music, and reducing the space for singers with large voices to fit into an increasingly electronic musical landscape. The rise of MTV also increased racial segregation and a byproduct was the erasure and silencing of full-sized black female physiques like Holliday’s body. Though black women’s musicality was integral to the soul music that influenced ‘80s MTV pop stars like Annie Lennox and George Michael few black women had a prominent role on the channel.

Holliday’s talents were too big for the industry; she defied the industry’s emerging new standards and outside of Broadway found limited success in film, television or other arenas during the mid-to-late 1980s. Holliday has reflected on her struggles with weight, depression, and romance. I would imagine the failure of the industry to respond to the scope of her talents may have informed these struggles. In the mid-1990s, Holliday began appearing on television, including a recurring role on Ally McBeal, and in the early 2000s, she was back on Broadway and the dance charts. She has also released albums of gospel songs and standards, and benefited from some of the renewed attention to Dreamgirls that accompanied the 2007 film. These moments indicate clear awareness of her gifts within the industry, but she deserves a sustainable vehicle for her art.  In 2002, I saw her perform in concert in Washington D.C. and was awed by her talent, which included fine performances of the songs of Patsy Cline and Ella Fitzgerald, respectively, as well as her signature showtunes. Holliday, who was only born in 1960, still appears to be performing at her peak, and deserves to be seen and heard.


 A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in  The Bodyguard .

A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in The Bodyguard.

Whitney Houston is one of the most misunderstood pop music icons because our society provided limited space for someone in her position to be understood. As a young black woman who debuted in the mid-1980s, audiences probably expected her to sing funk in the vein of Chaka Khan and Teena Marie, and/or gospel inflected music like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. Though hardly rebellious, Houston defied these racial and gender expectations. Houston’s energetic performances of dance tunes and sultry ballad interpretations indicated a vast aural sensibility. You hear elements of gospel in her voice, but there are also elements of Streisand style belting, Ross like drama, with traces of funk and disco, but ultimately no surrender to a singular sound. Houston does not sound stereotypically “white” or “black.” She sounds multiculturally black, meaning she is grounded in some familiar black idioms and able to illustrate how rich the palette of black music is in actuality.

Tellingly, before her album debuted she sang a version of Home on The Merv Griffin Show. Stephanie Mills originated “Home” in the original production of The Wiz and part of its innovation was its fusion of gospel elements with the control and showmanship of Broadway. The Broadway soul element is a deeply important texture of Houston’s music that a lot of music critics, steeped rock and soul music, miss and fail to appreciate in Houston’s music. Though reviewers always recognized the beauty of her voice, they have always fought the idea that black singers have something more to offer than the most obvious variations on the sound popularized by Franklin. This limits the room for other kinds of black vocal expression, thus by her second album (1987’s Whitney) Houston was maligned critically for making crossover pop (for white people) rather than some notion of  “authentic” black music. The only way such a notion is tenable is if you hold the essentialist view that black expression is finite and exhausted of possibility.

The notion that she was failing her people aesthetically, and by virtue politically, undoubtedly led her to record the rather muddled and unsatisfying album I’m Your Baby Tonight. In an effort to connect more deeply with urban black pop she collaborated with the urban L.A. funk brain trust of Babyface and L.A. Reid on multiple songs. The New Jack Swing title track was a big pop and R&B hit, but none of the other dance cuts made an impact. The album’s most successful cut was its most Houston-traditional: Her rendition of Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore’s anthemic “All the Man that I Need” produced by Narada Michael Walden, a black producer who shepherded most of her biggest hits previously.  Even working with Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder failed to produce magic. The set is a downturn in her career, but she reversed her fortune with the most natural fit: the soundtrack to the soapy melodrama The Bodyguard.  After years of occasional acting cameos and a career of Broadway soul style singing the film’s music provided an appropriate context for her singing, which reached astronomical vocal heights on her propulsive version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and suitably dramatic original songs “Run to You” and “I Have Nothing.” The album’s triumph featured some of her best singing, and set the stage for her similarly accomplished performances on the Waiting to Exhale and Preacher’s Wife soundtracks. Paralleling these triumphs were well-covered personal struggles in her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug addiction that derailed her career transforming her from a formidable voice to a caricature.

1998’s My Love is Your Love, her last great recording, was an agreeable fusion of  her “classic” Broadway soul approach with more contemporary rhythms provided by hip-hop and R&B producers. Her voice was slightly more seasoned and her range was smaller but she still had an appealing sound. The album was her last consistent success, spawning several hits and winning her awards and such, but it was a swan song in many regards. She finally achieved R&B credibility, for what it was worth, but she had already shown herself to be both within and beyond R&B confines.

Critics ultimately have limited access to a singer’s psyche and personal demons. Arguably, the pressure to balance commercial crossover ambitions and to appeal to black audiences was an artificial pressure she inherited and navigated gracefully for many years before it seems to have consumed her. We still struggle to envision female artists beyond the cartoonish “girl next door” and” bad girl” tropes which can leave female artists stranded between being themselves and trying to acquiesce to expectations. Music critics are not responsible for Houston’s death but the faux binaries they employed did not honor her artistic life.


MC rs sgng.jpg

Mariah Carey has always stood apart musically and professionally from most female pop singer-songwriters of her generation, yet critics constantly try to frame her in generic diva terms which diminishes her accomplishments. In 1990, when Carey debuted, videogenic singers with modest voices, like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Madonna, defined mainstream pop.  The primary exception was Whitney Houston whose powerful belting fused dulcet tones with gospel fervor on songs ranging from the fluff of “How Will I Know” to the rafter rattling angst of “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.” In between these extremes were solid singers like Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, Karyn White, and Vanessa Williams, who also had slices of the commercial pop diva pie.

Though some parallels existed between Carey and these singers, including the emphasis on either dance-pop or romantic ballads in her repertory, she stood apart. Her voice had a top range that exceeded even the pop coloratura flights of Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. Her technique, particularly her command of melisma conveyed an authority to her songs that bellied her age. The fact that Carey co-wrote and arranged her songs, was atypical, as was her production credit on the album’s most unique cut, “Vanishing” featuring just voice and piano. “Prisoner” which featured Carey rapping verses to a faithless lover, years before hip-hop soul queens like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill premiered was also a key track buried within the album. In short, she seemed like another diva but a closer look revealed a wider range of colors to her musicality. After her debut grabbed critics’ attention, sold well and won her awards a backlash ensued with her follow-up Emotions. Featuring dance pop co-produced with Cole & Clivilés (the architects of C+C Music Factory) and ballads with a 1960s soul flair, she became a critical target. Suddenly, she was accused of being bombastic, writing “schoolgirl” diary lyrics, and being the result of marketing hype. Her 1992 appearance on MTV Unplugged surprised many people who witnessed her live vocal mettle and had to concede that she was an excellent singer and commanding performer, not a studio concoction. The performance was released as an EP on the strength of her excellent interpretation of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” featuring call and response vocals from Trey Lorenz. This incredibly tender song could sink into saccharine mush in the wrong hands, or collapse under the weight of over singing, but she and Lorenz honor the original while singing with their own flair. I can think of no comparable singer who could have done this better. 1993’s Music Box found her garnering praise for employing her sensuous lower range more prominently, but some critics balked at generic lyrics, while others felt she downplayed her usual dynamism too much allowing the melodies to carry the day too prominently.

Three years and four albums in her critical profile remained confusing. She was either too over the top or not dynamic enough, and though she persisted in writing, producing and arranging her material and demonstrated genuine interpretive skill, she remained framed as a product of marketing. Her 1993 marriage to Sony’s CEO probably did not help with these perceptions. Critics also faulted her for being inaccessible and seemed poised to unmask her when her first tour began with an underwhelming performance in Miami. Carey was apparently a quick study, for her remaining dates impressed critics with her vocal poise and personable stage presence.

1994’s Merry Christmas elicited predictably mixed responses but the rousing closer “Jesus Oh What Wonderful Child” was a gospel masterpiece and “All I Want for Christmas is You” became an instant holiday standard. Carey’s turning point was 1995’s Daydream where she fused a range of musical interests in romantic pop ballads, ‘70s soul, 90s hip-hop, disco, and funk into a mini-masterpiece. She modernized her sound and image and won over new listeners, including critics, with an irresistible fusion of pop and urban music, a path she has pursued successfully since, most notable on 1997’s Butterfly, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi and 2008’s E=MC2. Because the press has turned its attention to her physical appearance, relationships, and alleged diva behavior younger audiences mistakenly view her as a quirky celebrity diva. Her best music is some of the most accomplished and influential pop music of the last 30 years. Carey’s career is uneven in spots, but she is a distinctive vocal artist not merely a generic diva.



LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 1)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 1. Part 2 is coming in November! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress.

Diane Schuur's Big Beautiful Mouth

Diane Schuur has a big, beautiful mouth, capable of buoyant swing, raunchy blues, stirring gospel, and silken ballads and this scares many people, especially music critics. When she emerged in the 1980s as the latest vocal jazz star few critics knew how to assess her properly because she had no direct precedent. The jazz goddesses who preceded her always had a blind spot that stood out precisely because they were so proficient in other arenas. Ella and Sarah’s indisputably beautiful sonic qualities and almost super human improvisational genius offset their ability inability to sing the blues convincingly. Dinah Washington’s confident mastery of the blues and exemplary musicianship were so potent it made it easy for her to passively blend in or blithely sing over bland arrangements, especially in her final years. Carmen McRae’s sharpness distinguished her but it eventually lapsed into a wryness that sometimes undercut the vulnerability of her material. Billie Holiday’s dark history and the physical effects of drug abuse sometimes made it difficult for audiences to hear her skillful musicianship rather than the poignancy of vulnerability. Betty Carter’s radical deconstructions were impressive feats of improvisation that sometimes stretched songs beyond recognition. A swinging interpreter like Maxine Sullivan was sometimes so low key in her laidback approach she could seem emotionally detached.

DSchuur image.jpg

I mention these figures because Schuur has a lesser critical profile, but is worthy of being mentioned with these legends. Schuur has a beautiful voice full of color, range, and flexibility. As a pianist and vocalist, she clearly understands the musical demands of her material. She is also a highly versatile singer comfortable singing romantic ballads, swing tunes, torch songs, Brazilian pop and blues oriented material. None of these qualities is especially controversial but what sets her apart is that she isnot “cool.” Schuur has an exuberant, infectious energy that crackles in concert especially in her absorption of gospel music. Schuur can tap into an almost otherworldly passion in her music that evokes greats like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. She, more than any jazz vocalist of her generation, exemplifies the notion of jazz as a form of soul music. Some of her most outstanding performances, including her interpretations of staples from the black pop music canon like “Amazing Grace,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” and a live version of Franklin’s “Climbing Higher Mountains,” exhibit a simultaneous command of gospel, blues, and R&B virtually unmatched by any singer of her generation.

Audiences have always reacted enthusiastically to her style but critics have dismissed her powerful style as shrill, over the top, and unsubtle.  Some even reframed her as a (mere) “pop” singer with jazz overtones rather than a true jazz singer. These kinds of responses reveal a deeply ingrained bias that women in jazz need to stay quiet and emotionally contained (e.g. the “cool” style of singers like Peggy Lee) or display a kind of athletic virtuosity (e.g. Carter). Both adhere to troubling patriarchal notions. Male critics often praise “cool” singers like June Christy, Chris Connor, Peggy Lee, Julie London, and Jo Stafford for being understated a rather coded term that often seems like shorthand for their ability to reign in an implied female emotionalism that makes critics uncomfortable. The inverse approach praises women for adhering to a highly prized form of overt improvisation critics tend to prize among male instrumentalists. In both instances, critics affirm vocalists who conform to narrow modes of expression.

I appreciate Schuur because she is disruptive. My Schuur conversion moment came in 1999 when she sang a stirring version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” during a live tribute to Wonder at the Kennedy Center. She rearranges the song entirely beginning in an acapella arrangement (backed by Take 6) and building toward a spine tingling climax laced with jazz and gospel inflections. A truly gifted and resourceful interpreter, she takes an ordinary pop song and uses a highly personal set of musical tools to get to the heart of the lyric and illuminate its musical contours. Her musical choices elevate the song into something more beautiful and resonant than ever and does so by balancing emotional intelligence with improvisation, while remaining true to herself and the song.

Cleo Laine: Out of this World

Cleo Laine, a jazz-oriented singer of English and Jamaican heritage, captures you instantly with her colorful and flexible vocal instrument, and penchant for drama. She is not just a gifted singer, but a really compelling presence. Never just a vocalist, she gained fame in England singing big band jazz, setting Shakespeare sonnets to music, and performing in musical theatre. While it is true that she first crossed over in the United States through a highly successful series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1973 (released on 1974, 1976, 1985 and 20001 sets), her studio recordings from 1985-1995 interest me most. They solidify her as one of the more gifted and eclectic singers to emerge in the jazz field, yet she is strangely underrated. As a vocalist, actress, and performer she has never approached her music from a commercial pop or strictly jazz virtuosic improvisational perspective, nor confined her style to a musical theater based approach. Failing to fall easily into these categories speaks more to what makes her interesting than her limitations but critics have tended to praise her sound but dismiss her as too bombastic, stylized, and over the top. When Laine gets excited, she punctuates her renditions with coloratura style trills that amplify the emotion. She and her husband and bandleader saxophonist John Dankworth also performed note-perfect unison scats. Some people heard this as a gimmick; my rejoinder is that she uses this sparingly, and more importantly, I question why she must repress this aspect of her range? Why is trilling less expressive or sincere than other modes? Like Diane Schuur she does many things well and has few precedents, which makes her difficult to classify and easy to condemn. Similarly, her exuberance defies the edict that jazz women would either stay cool or perform radical deconstructions.


Each Laine album from the 1984-95 period offers an interesting facet of her vocal persona. That Old Feeling is a sublime ballads album featuring voice and piano with occasional bass. She scales down her luminous voice to the setting and delivers consistently lovely intimate performances of popular standards. It is comparable to similar sets by Ella Fitzgerald (with Ellis Larkins and Paul Smith) and Tony Bennett (with Bill Evans). 1988 Cleo Sings Sondheim is one of the best showcases of his work in a more jazz-oriented context. Beyond perennials like “Send in the Clowns,” she does justice to “Ah But Underneath,” done in a brassy big band arrangement, perfectly capture the tension of “I’m Calm,” and masters “I’m Still Here.” She follows this fusion of Broadway and jazz on 1989’s Woman to Woman comprised exclusively of songs written by women. This was one of the first collections with this theme and she excels on a broad range of material composed by writers as disparate as Carol Bayer Sager, Billie Holiday and Flora Purim. While there is a jazz element, especially her sizzling take on “Fine and Mellow,” the set showcases a range of smart, melodic popular songs with an adult sensibility. In essence “good music” is not confined to jazz.

1991’s Jazz, featuring luminaires like Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and Toots Thielemans, has my favorite version of Ellington’s “Just a Sittin and a Rockin’” in an exquisite duet with trumpeter Clark Terry, as well as fresh renditions of contemporary standards like “I Told you So” and a funky versionof “Lady Be Good” that somehow works. Some people think her brassy “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is too much; I hear a fine showcase for all the musicians involved. Blue and Sentimental from 1994 features yet another new standard in Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men,” gets down and dirty on “Love Me” and “Soft Pedal Blues,” and generates serious heat on two superb duets with Joe Williams, including a sultry blues “A Cryin’ Shame” and a definitive rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do.” Though she has sung Ellington on multiple occasions 1995’s Solitude, performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra is one of her finest swing showcases. She and the Orchestra harmonize flawlessly on Shakespeare’s “Take All My Loves,” gallop through “Rocking in Rhythm” confidently, and simmer on the Adelaide Hall classic “Creole Love Call” both featuring smart lyrics by Lorraine Feather. I also enjoy her highly personal take on Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” retitled “Cleo’s A Train” which interpolates melodies from multiple Ellington standards into the song’s melodic framework. Laine the balladeer, musical theatre actress, pop song interpreter, blues interpreter, and swinger, emerges in a variety of settings.  These recordings represent some of the finest vocal artistry of their period and defy any singular characterization of Laine. Her artistry is comparable to legendary jazz divas for the rawness of her talent and her singularity.

Barbra Streisand: Reclaiming her legend

Barbra Streisand is the most successful and accomplished vocalist to emerge from the early 1960s and remain relevant. She is also divisive because she is loud, disruptive, and unceasing in her ambition. Though it has been over 20 years since she had a radio hit, her albums regularly top the charts. On average, the self-proclaimed “actress who sings” from Brooklyn, who is in her early 70s as I write this, sells more albums than younger, trendier, and more aggressively marketed acts.

BSAlbum cover.jpg

 Streisand’s legendary endurance is indisputable, but her critical reputation has always been fraught. Writers have frequently devoted more time evaluating her appearance, her psyche, and rumors about her behavior, than her artistry, which as a singer, actress, director, and producer, is formidable across multiple mediums. Musically, Streisand is important for disrupting the polite, demure, and emotionally repressed female pop that immediately preceded her and simultaneously forcing cabaret music to grow up.  Most of the hits that singers like Patti Page, Doris Day, and Jo Stafford popularized in the 1950s were either agreeable romantic ballads or cheesy novelty songs that belied their age and intelligence. Coming out of the big band era, they did not begin their recording careers thinking in terms of albums, but rather in “sides” (singles) thus they are more famous for individual songs than albums.

Streisand, comparatively, debuted in 1963 and her album gained significant critical and commercial attention. Rather than wowing you with double tracked vocals, winning you over with perky optimism, or fading into the background Streisand stood out. The wounded lover performance she delivers in “Cry Me a River” (where she belts “Come on! Come on”!) obliterates Julie London’s placid original performance. Similarly, the way she transforms “Happy Days are Here Again” from a cheery anthem into a dramatic ironic ballad of yearning is genius. In these two songs, she turned mainstream female pop singing on its ear demonstrating that female pop singers could make music that was powerful, subtle, and ironic and still sell. Her debut was a hit and won her the Album of the Year Grammy, one of eight she eventually received.

Streisand’s recording career paralleled her successful run on Broadway, which led to innovative TV specials, and a successful film career. In the musical theatre Streisand’s approach in I Can Get it for You Wholesale and Funny Girl were triumphant performances that provided an alternative toning down the sometimes literal histrionics of Ethel Merman. Though Judy Garland certainly influenced Streisand, she also managed to add some bite to Garland’s stylized vulnerability. Streisand was tough and modern; she secured creative control of her music and her actions suggest that she realized that women could not adhere to the old entertainment scripts of the 1940s and 1950s. Looking back it is not surprising that she emerged in the era of Sex and the Single Girl and The Feminine Mystique because her professional instincts and expressive choices are of a piece with these paradigm shifters.  Streisand’s highly modern feminine expression sustained her through the late 1960s. Though she defied her generation by not singing rock material initially, her ability to push certain elements of pre-rock culture in new directions was innovative making her as radical and enduring as any of the women who gained fame singing soul and acid rock. Though some of her attempts to modernize her sound in the 1970s were clumsy, Streisand singing Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs was more convincing than most of the attempts by pop, cabaret, and jazz singers trying to stay current. Further, Streisand originated several enduring standards from the 1970s including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen,” something few interpretive singers accomplished at the time.

If the 1960s and 1970s were her most innovative and influential eras, she still managed to make impressive forays into post-disco pop (1980’s Guilty), modernize classic and contemporary Broadway songs, and bring a little class to the soft rock/adult contemporary field from the 1980s onward. She accomplished these while venturing into directing and producing films (Yentl, Prince of Tides, The Mirror Has Two Faces), staging acclaimed concerts, and producing successful TV concert specials.  Streisand’s individual ambitions have given her an enduring career, and inspired other artists including those of her generation, such as Diana Ross, and younger singers like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton.  There are generations of aspiring actors, singers, and perhaps director/producers, who view Streisand as a model, and she seems poised to remain the kind of performer younger audiences will continue to discover and share.


Hands off our music! Notes on authenticity, belonging, and cultural appropriation in music of the digital age

In 2001, the late jazz critic Joel E. Siegel reviewed a new Billie Holiday boxed set issued by Columbia Records in the November 9 issue of the Washington City Paper. While he praised the music effusively, he objected to literary critic Farah Jasmine Griffin’s essay on representations of Holiday in literature featured in the liner notes, “Literary Holiday”. The source of his ire was his belief that her argument was  too narrowly derived from identity politics, “Filled with the buzzwords of academic race and gender analyses—Holiday is referred to as the ‘ancestor,’ ‘muse,’  and ‘foremother’ of black women writers—this racially skewed lubrication dismisses representations of writers of other races…or ignores them altogether.” Among the writers he mentions are Elizabeth Hardwick and Alice Adams.

At the time, I was developing my relationship to jazz which I had always thought of as “black music” but he challenged me. Notably, when he argued that, “In her haste to disenfranchise non-African-American writers, Griffin fails to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of Holiday’s songs were composed by songwriters of European descent and that the instruments that accompany her and the tonal system they employ are also of European, rather than African, origin. Holiday’s music belongs to all of us, and Griffin’s attempt to appropriate it as the heritage of a single race is misguided, if not distasteful.” 

His line that “Billie belongs to all of us” shook me because it challenged so much of what I had believed up to that point. I also responded viscerally to the line because I had frequently found the pervasive reduction of Holiday’s art and life to tragedy, and the appropriation of Holiday’s art to perpetuate myths about doomed celebrities, grossly simplistic and exploitative.  Siegel’s observation speaks to the literal fusion, of a European tonal system and the African-American blues aesthetic that is core to jazz’s componentry as a musical genre. He also pinpoints the broader reality that there is something profound in Lady’s Day’s artistry that has enabled her to become iconic as a musician across continents, generations, races, and genres.  

 Billie Holiday is one our most transcendent artists. She belongs to all of us culturally, according to jazz critic Joel E. Siegel. 

Billie Holiday is one our most transcendent artists. She belongs to all of us culturally, according to jazz critic Joel E. Siegel. 

I am not sure if this kind of “transcendent” artist exists anymore. Today’s musical fragmentation means that even performers as popular as Adele, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West, sell only a fragment of a previous generation of musicians. More importantly, their appeal seems very tied to specific demographics, especially in terms of age. We are as far away from a consensus about popular music as we have ever been, and demographic transcendence seems almost antiquated.  

Conversations about the mass culture’s appropriation of cultures, especially ethnic, regional, and working and lower class cultures, has reached an apex of circulation. Young white musical performers like Izzy Azalea, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift are some of the more recent examples. Yet, these conversations originated in the late 19th century when blackface minstrelsy emerged as mainstream popular culture and has extended as regional styles like jazz, R&B, country, reggae, and hip-hop have entered the mainstream. 

 In 2016 the blog site The Root discussed the issue of cultural appropriation among contemporary figures like Justin Bieber.

In 2016 the blog site The Root discussed the issue of cultural appropriation among contemporary figures like Justin Bieber.

We can extract several questions from these debates including the following: In the age of mass production and digitization could any type of musical expression could ever remain contained within a specific culture? How is this desirable and/or useful, if at all? Is there is an ethical way for ethnic/regional/underrepresented cultures to reach mass consciousness without erasing their origins and diluting the music itself? How invested are we in the potentially “transcendent” qualities of music, and does this ever trump affective investments in protecting/preserving/curating regionally/ethnically specific music? These are thorny issues and neither a laissez-faire perspective that all culture is ripe for the plucking or a curatorial identity politics approach seem satisfying.      

To return to the jazz example, unlike regional genres, such as Washington D.C. based Go-Go music, jazz did not remain confined to a specific geography or culture for very long. Nor were its leading practitioners leery of it reaching a mass audience. Though musicians frequently worry about genres suffering from commercialization and dilution, jazz ambassadors like Louis Armstrong welcomed its reign as the most influential musical aesthetic in popular music from the mid-1920s until the mid-to-late 1950s. Many critics, such as the late Amiri Baraka, lamented big band music and “cool jazz” as commercialized distortions of jazz’s blues roots. Arguably, though, jazz had to extend outward from enclaves like Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New York to grow. Otherwise, there would be no bebop, soul-jazz, avant-garde, Latin Jazz, Brazilian jazz, fusion, or other variations. 

When recording technology emerged in the early 20th century, and mediums like records and radio made different types of music accessible to broad audiences, urban music reached rural areas, rural music reached urban areas, and these boundaries altered our contexts for listening.  You did not need to participate in black Protestant church services to appreciate gospel singers; people all over the country who never witnessed the footlights of Broadway hummed show tunes; folks could enjoy country music from the comfort of their homes without ever visiting the South.

The intentionally generic picture I am painting of the way these genres once reached the mass audience seems like a distant memory, but consider the following: If you did not grow up in certain communities in New York and Los Angeles, you are, disconnected, technically, from the cultural environments that produced hip-hop originally.  If this is true of you and you enjoy hip-hop, does this make you a poser? Does this mean you are insincere in your listening practices? Does it compromise your ability to comprehend the music fully? Most reasonable people would say no, or, probably not. The paradox of possessiveness is that artists usually want to be heard by anyone willing to listen.

But, because there is a cultural dimension to hip-hop, (e.g. cultural references, slang, geography, fashion) the relevant issue is how deeply these elements, experienced through consumption, could reasonably extend into the lives of listeners.  Since the late 1990s, many hip-hop scholars have noted the irony of upper middle class white teens consuming graphic forms of hip-hop (e.g. West Coast “gangsta” rap) but lacking cultural connections to the scenarios the music describes. This sensation is elevated when performers from genres outside of hip-hop adapt hip-hop’s musical and/or cultural elements into their music. We can easily dismiss everyday people as posers, but musicians might profit from musical tourism and expand their audience. How do we reconcile the relationship of genuine curiosity to exploitation, and can we expand the terms of the conversation? I return to the four questions above to explore what’s possible.

In the age of mass production and digitization could any type of musical expression could ever remain contained within a specific culture? Once we document cultural expressions (e.g. musical, choreographic, verbal, visual) they are immediately vulnerable to circulation and, by extension, appropriation. Notably, in the context of music, someone outside of the original environment can listen, duplicate, employ, and exploit the expression. They could also refine, embellish and enrich the tradition. There is more than one narrative possibility.

Technologies are integral to documenting and circulating culture. In the “selfie” age, where spectacle and external approval are so salient, one wonders if people seeking to protect/preserve culture are aware of how documenting their expression opens it up to public scrutiny. Exploitation, which I will define as co-optation or adaptation, without credit is one consequence. The local or regional creator of a style may be understandably upset if a style went national or international without acknowledgement of its geographic and/or cultural roots.

Three other relevant issues emerge. First, new music is usually generated by communities of musicians not just one individual. For example, the development of bossa nova (which I discussed in July 2017) occurred among multiple Brazilian musicians jamming together in the “bottle” region of Rio in the late 1950s. This is similar to the bebop musicians experimenting in New York in nightclubs in the early 1940s, and the DJs and MCs whose experiments with breakbeats created hip-hop in the 1970s. No one individual can usually take credit for creating music.

Second, if creators want to contain music to a space, documenting it and performing it means it will be heard and is thus vulnerable to circulation. Professional songwriters copyright their music and have publishing deals to ensure payment when other musicians record and/or perform their music , and when radio stations and other outlets broadcast their music. Though this is an imperfect system, it is one way that musicians have tried to protect their creation. The challenge is both the shady tactics of the publishing industry (e.g. record companies and song publishers offering musicians low royalty rates; corrupt managers adding their names to songs they did not write) and the fact that performance itself cannot be copy written. If there is a visual style and/or performance accompanying a song, it is much harder to control this aspect. A person viewing it on YouTube could easily re-create it, embody it and claim it as their own. The larger question is how creating art means we are seeking some level of reception and even immortality. In the digital age media increases the chance of something gaining exposure, but also makes artistic ownership difficulty to control.

 Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo pose triumphantly at a concert performance.  

Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo pose triumphantly at a concert performance.  

Third, we must also consider the potential for appreciation. There is the benign and valid pleasure we experience listening to something fresh and original. Musicians may also feel compelled to re-create a sound, not necessarily for profit, but because they can hear how it speaks to their musical aesthetic. In the mid-1980s, Paul Simon traveled to South Africa and jammed with South African musicians. He then edited these sessions into tracks and wrote melodies and lyrics that became the 1986 album Graceland. He was not the first Western musician to work with South African musicians but he was the most successful. He heard many overlaps between with rock and roll, gospel, and South African music and achieved immense commercial success and acclaim for his fusion. Many people criticized Simon for breaking broke the U.N.’s culture ban, but he exemplified intercultural values showing the possibility of harmony through music and broadening the audience of the singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He also toured with the group, as well as legendary South African musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, and they actively campaigned against apartheid. Some might characterize him as attempting to be a white Western “savior” but few contemporary musicians have been as successful in helping expose other musicians, illuminating political realities, and recognizing the cultural roots of their music with the same conviction.  

 How desirable and/or useful is cultural preservation, if at all? People who originate from cultures that have been historically subject to genocide, enslavement, holocausts, and other forms of annihilation, tend to be guarded about how their culture travels. Given the technological landscape and illusions that we have reached a post- racial/gay/gender society (we haven’t!) we must ask: What are vulnerable populations trying to protect and/or preserve?

Dignity is one of the foremost concerns for targeted groups. Blackface minstrelsy emerged in the 19th century as the first form of national U.S. “entertainment.” Blackface minstrels were typically white performers, dressed in black face who sang, danced, and performed routines intended to mimic black performers.  At the time, whiteness was crudely conceived as intellectual, organized, and dignified and blackness as the opposite. Many scholars have argued that minstrelsy was a “mask” that allowed white performers to express a buried emotionality that would otherwise be unacceptable. As such, some have interpreted it as a form of appreciation and homage. Comparatively, many black Americans viewed (and still view it) as racist and degrading, in part because it confines black expression to one mode, defined by exaggerated and distorted ideas about black expression. After centuries of enslavement and dehumanization it was perversely ironic for white culture to create and enact a version of blakc culture without recognizing the humanity of blacks. Many black performers have performed in blackface minstrelsy in the late 19th and early 20th century, but this was more for survival than anything artistic.

Gradually, this style, which made people like vaudevillian Al Jolson famous, faded from popular entertainment.  Arguably, it has manifested itself in everything from the cartoon-ish faux-gangster image of Vanilla Ice in the early 1990s to “urban themed” parties hosted by white fraternity and sororities featuring members in blackface. The indignities represented by blackface, which epitomizes appropriation, distortion, and exploitation is a core reason why many genre fans are leery of “urban” culture reaching the suburbs. There is a pervasive sense that those who mimic these emergent aesthetics are seduced by the cultural products but disinterested in the people and cultures that have generated the products. This gap is in many ways a metaphor for U.S. racism.

Cultural appropriation, and the associated indignities, are often a kind of default conclusion we draw when culture we covet seems to emanate from the wrong person or place. The intent of culture making is at stake. Presumably, performers want audiences, and those who do seek out ways to get their music circulated. If this is the case, what are the boundaries between listeners adapting and refining music and merely borrowing it? This feeds into my next question.

 Is there is an ethical way for ethnic/regional/underrepresented cultures to reach mass consciousness without erasing their origins and diluting the music itself? Stealing culture is easy; as is finger pointing.  What is harder and more interesting is discussing what it looks like to pay homage properly and/or to fuse and hybridize effectively. Prior to rock and roll professional songwriters and/or those contracted to write for Broadway and film wrote the most popular songs. These are the kinds of songs that made Holiday, and other legends like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald famous.  In the late 1940s through the mid-1950s a new class of singer-songwriters emerged in R&B, folk music, and rock and roll and it became common for singers to write their own material. Interpretive singers of the rock generation frequently covered music written by songwriters of their own generation, not from the swing era. Then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, a lot of rock generation sinners began recording pre-rock material with orchestras, which evoked the feel of pre-rock music. Many critics applauded this as a sign of generational reconciliation, but others lamented the inferior musicality of the new generation and/or the failure to modernize “old” songs effectively.

A few singers transcended the nostalgic preservation approach and garnered some critical respect. For example, Cassandra Wilson’s 1993 album Blue Light Til Dawn eschewed orchestras and traditional jazz instrumentation, and the typical jazz repertoire for a more stripped down sound with elements of electric blues and R&B. she also chose songs from multiple eras, and wrote original material. The result was a wholly contemporary approach to jazz singing that influenced her peers. She is an example of a singer from the rock generation (she was born in the mid-1950s) who melded her taste with her interest in jazz and blues music. More recently, singers like Joe Jackson who paid tribute to Duke Ellington on 2012’s funky The Duke, and contemporary post-bop singer Gretchen Parlato, have stretched the boundaries of what people might define as jazz by using contemporary, experimental interpretive approaches. They are aiming to innovate and add to the tradition, rather than mimic and repeat easy formulas, and the results are dazzling

 Gretchen Parlato is a great example of a contemporary jazz singer who is aiming to innovate within the tradition rather than duplicate the past.

Gretchen Parlato is a great example of a contemporary jazz singer who is aiming to innovate within the tradition rather than duplicate the past.

 How invested are we in the potentially “transcendent” qualities of music, and does this ever trump affective investments in protecting/preserving/curating regionally/ethnically specific music? These questions return us to the original issue of transcendence. Music is cultural expression, entertainment, and pleasure. Artists want to people to listen, and often consume their music, as well as their persona and their aesthetic.  Artists often seem less bothered by appropriation than audiences and critics. I distinguish this from their anger toward corrupt record labels, managers, agents, accountants, and nightclub owners.  Wanting to be heard and seeking visibility entails vulnerability, but also possibility. No one will ever be able to duplicate someone as gifted and unique as Holiday, or Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, Laura Nyro, or Cassandra Wilson to name a few. We can enjoy their music and take inspiration from it but artists attempt to achieve originality. All artists reflect their influences, but perhaps the most distinguished artists synthesize elements of their influences into something that feels connected yet distinctive. Finding your own language—musically, visually, emotionally—and continually refining it is a consistent pathway our most heralded icons seem to pursue. The examples of mimicry, cultural exploitation and formula I have outlined represent the worst of what happens when artists fail to tap into their roots and create something new.

But there are plenty examples of artists whose careers are defined by this approach from Paul Simon to Gretchen Parlato. Holiday derived her phrasing, her interpretations of lyrics, and her sense of time from absorbing the art of predecessors like Bessie Smith and Armstrong.  While we can hear elements of their influence in her artistry, what we mostly hear is Holiday. She has inspired fine artists like Tony Bennett, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Etta James, Abbey Lincoln, and Carmen McRae, all of whom have recorded tributes. Yet no one would ever confuse her with them, or vice versa and that is the point. They learned from her that each artist has to make a unique imprint to matter. There is no substitute for the real thing.




Essential Voices: 150 Best Albums by Female Artists: A personal list (1974-1992, Part 2)


Court & Spark: Joni Mitchell’s most textured and engaging album is the luscious Court & Spark, which features some of her most notable songs including “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris” and her rendition of Annie Ross’s “Twisted.”

Elis & Tom: Brazil’s finest female singer, Elis Regina, and its finest composer, AntonioCarlos Jobim, joined forces on this sublime bossa nova masterpiece; their renditions of Jobim’s classic shave not been surpassed.

Heart Like a Wheel: A classic and highly influential album featuring sterling renditions of songs popularized by The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Betty Everett, as well as newer songs by The McGarrigle Sisters, James Taylor and Little Feat.

Phoebe Snow: Snow’s voice had a fluid ethereal sound and quirky sensibility that made her stand out from her singer-songwriters in the mid-1970s thanks to originals like “Poetry Man” and “Harpo’s Blues.”


The Changer & the Changed: Cris Williamson was one of the most beloved singers to merge from the 1970s lesbian feminist “women’s music” circuit and this folk-rock masterpiece features beautiful anthems celebrating nature, spirituality, and female sensuality.

Pieces of the Sky: Classic and modern Emmylou Harris was a folkie who grew to love country music through her association with Gram Parsons; her first significant album reveals her excellent taste in music and mastery of classic country (Louvin Brothers), contemporary country (Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton), and rock music (The Beatles).


Dreamboat Annie: Ann and Nancy Wilson translated their love for Led Zeppelin style heavy metal into a potent personal style on their debut, which introduced listeners to their approach on the rock classics “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You.”

First Night: New York cabaret singer evoked the melancholic beauty of Edith Piaf on her stunning debut, highlighted by dulcet performances of “Some Enchanted Evening,” Don McLean’s “Vincent,” and The Fleetwoods’s 1958 hit “Come Softly to Me.”


Rumours: Romantic drama fueled Fleetwood Mac’s rock masterpiece, largely known for Stevie Nick’s “Dreams” and Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop” and “You Make Loving Fun.”


Gail Davies: Davies was part of a new vanguard of female country musicians who wrote, played, sang and eventually produced their own music; her debut is a masterpiece with charming songs like “Grandma’s Song,” “Soft Spoken Man,” and the hit “Someone is Looking for Someone Like You.”

Parallel Lines: Blondie, defined by the voice of Debbie Harry,  found the right balance of dance pop energy and punk attitude here landing at multiple stops including rock-disco (“Heart of Glass”), ‘60s pop homage (“Hanging on the Telephone”), and genuine punk rock (“One Way or Another”).


The Audience with Betty Carter: Bop songstress Carter was the most adventurous vocal improviser in jazz and this set finally captured her dynamic ability to completely transform standards, compose and perform her own original improvisational vocal showcases, and interact like an instrumentalist with her band.

Bad Girls: Donna Summer continued to expand the scope of disco and transcend it rocking out on “Hot Stuff,” sashaying to the dance floor on “Dim All the Lights,” and commenting on fame on the sassy title rack (“Toot Toot, Beep Beep”) and “Sunset People.”

Brenda Russell: Classic soul ballads like “If Only for One Night,” “So Good, So Right,” and “In the Thick of It” originated from the penand voice of singer songwriter Brenda Russell who invites you in with her gentle piano and intimate vocal delivery.

Rickie Lee Jones: Drawing on the rhythms and attitude of the Beats, the improvisational spirit of jazz, and the free flowing style of Laura Nyro, Jones was a fresh voice on her classic 1979 debut, which features her biggest hit, the loping “Chuck E’s in Love.”



Bad Reputation: Joan Jett emerged as one of the freshest new voices in ‘80s rock on this album; influenced by rock ‘n’ roll, glam rock, ‘60s pop/rock, and R&B she defined herself on the gutsy title track, “Do You Wanna Touch (Yeah)” and a rocking cover of “Shout.”

The Pretenders: The Pretenders delighted rock fans with their spunky guitar driven rock spotlighted on “Brass in Pocket,” “Stop Your Sobbing,” and “Kid” which established Hynde as a rock goddess.


Bella Donna: Stevie Nicks took a break from Fleetwood Mac to create her own sound, a sleek contemporary rock sound that was musically accessible (“Edge of Seventeen,” “Leather and Lace,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”) but still informed by her gypsy lyric mythology.


Chaka Khan: Chaka Khan’s most accomplished R&B album is a shimmering funk masterpiece featuring a soaring version of Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There,” a smoking duet with Rick James (“Slow Dancing”), and a stunning “Be Bop medley” featuring lyricized versions of classic bop melodies.

The Key: Rocker Joan Armatrading explores a variety of scenarios related to gender in her muscular voice and contemplative lyric style, in a punchy rock setting with vibrant new wave-ish touches.

Madonna: The legend begins here with spirited, melodic pop (“Holiday,” “Lucky Star,” “Burning Up”) delivered with the right mix of spunk and funk; the videos made her an MTV superstar.


Private Dancer: After spending three decades in the shadow of her former husband/bandleader Tina Turner got the opportunity to interpret a set of quality new songs and contemporary covers that gave her one of the most spectacular comebacks in pop music.

She’s So Unusual: Cyndi Lauper’s eclectic pop masterpiece made mid-1980s pop a more vibrant, eccentric and interesting space thanks to smart, buoyant tunes like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and her luscious ballad “Time After Time.”


Whitney Houston: Houston’s supple voice and soulful phrasing made her the premiere pop singer of the age thanks to her interpretive prowess on dramatic ballads (“Saving All My Love for You”) and her light touch with dance pop (“How Will I Know”).


Rapture: Anita Baker made R&B music for grown-ups on this retronuevo masterpiece, highlighted by the dramatic sweep of “Sweet Love,” and lush, unhurried songs like “Caught Up in the Rapture” and “Been So Long.”

Control: Janet Jackson made the leap from anonymity to stardom on this funky collection of anthems that reflected her budding personal independence (“Control”) and assertive sexuality (“Nasty,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”)

Famous Blue Raincoat: Jennifer Warnes’s honey smooth voice and smart phrasing transformed Leonard Cohen’s famously dour songs into melodic contemporary pop, and yielded a few new classics including the Warnes and Cohen original, “Song of Bernadette.”

Timeless: The soulful Diane Schuur was one of the most exciting new vocalists in vocal jazz in the 1980s and the mastery of big band swing, ballad standards and blues, she demonstrated on Timeless assured listeners the tradition would continue to thrive.


Coming Around Again: Carly Simon reignited her career with the wistful title track and a series of songs addressing the perspective of a woman reaching middle age and reflecting on love, relationships, and the nature of desire.

Female Trouble: Nona Hendryx, best known for singing in LaBelle, is an adventurous musician who pulls together her different sides very convincingly on this entertaining mix of funk, rock, and dance pop.  

The Lion and the Cobra: Sinead O’Connor’s debut is a moody portrait of a complex artist with an intriguing vision of politics, sex, and spirituality beyond the juvenile themes and tiring musical formulas of much 1980s pop/rock.

Trio: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt did what they have always done best; drawing on the best of American music from a variety of era and genres tocreate something special; in this case a beautifully harmonized country-folk masterpiece showcasing the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, Phil Spector (!), Linda Thompson and Parton.


Used Guitars: Marti Jones’s Used Guitars is a sublime meshing of singer, material and arrangements. Influenced by pop, folk, R&B, country and even aspects of punk she synthesizes them masterfully on the songs of Jackie Deshannon, John Hiatt, Janis Ian, Graham Parker, and originals.

Lucinda Williams: Rocking, poetic, and romantic, Lucinda Williams finally stepped away from her country blues and folk influences and found her own voice as a writer on this blazing set featuring original versions of “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” “The Night’s Too Long,” “Changed the Locks,” “Passionate Kisses,” and “Crescent City,” covered later by Mary Chapin-Carpenter Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, and Tom Petty, among others. 

This Woman: K.T. Oslin eschews the co-dependent sentimentality of country lyrics on This Woman by centering women’s desires in songs that reflect the upward mobility, sexual freedom and greater sense of choice available to women of her generation.

Tracy Chapman: Possessing a gift for melody, genuine narrative storytelling prowess and an endearing choked tremolo Tracy Chapman came out of left field to become the new voice of contemporary folk on her superb debut featuring “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”



Absolute Torch & Twang: k.d. lang transitioned from a reverent student of country to one of its most trenchant writers and powerful vocalists thanks to the Bo Diddley-esque “Didn’t I,” the torchy “Pulling Back the Reins,” and the poignant “Nowhere to Stand.” 

Porcelain: A gorgeous collection of sumptuous pop, lite samba, and jazz ballads written and performed by British singer-songwriter Julia Fordham.

Close Enough for Love:  Shirley Horn was an interpretive magician; songs like “I Got Lost in his Arms” and the title song have rarely been sung with such intimacy, and she swings like mad on “Get Out of Town” and “Come Fly with Me.”

Like a Prayer: After five years of hit-making Madonna made her first serious concept album exploring faith, sex, and family on classics like “Like a Payer,” “Express Yourself,”  and Keep it Together.”

Nick of Time: Bonnie Raitt’s nearly 20 years of dues paying paid off on this collection of performances; she captured the nuances of aging on the beautiful title track, along with radio friendly tunes like “Thing Called Love” and “Have a Heart,” and showed her blues roots on album cuts like “I Will not be Denied,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break my Heart Again.”


Mariah Carey: On her eponymous debut, Carey established herself as the new vocal standard in contemporary female pop-soul thanks to a dazzling range, a stunning command of gospel melisma, and a gift for writing and arranging memorable originals like “Vision of Love” and “Vanishing.”

Interiors: Rosanne Cash turned her back on commercial country in favor of the spare and searing confessional music on Interiors which uncovered the emotional layers of her marriage, and her identity.

Lying to the Moon: Nashville songwriter Matraca Berg finally got her chance to sing on her acclaimed debut, which introduced a host of contemporary country classics other singers have interpreted over the years.


Blue Lines: Massive Attack created the blueprint for what became trip-hop and vocalist Shara Nelson was their most outstanding voice, most notably on “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Hymn of the Big Wheel.”

Flying Cowboys: Rickie Lee Jones hit a second creative peak in the 1990s on this genreless mix of vibrant pop tunes, reggae, and folk vignettes.

Unforgettable with Love: After 15 years singing R&B Natalie Cole transitioned seamlessly to vocal jazz on this alternately lush and swinging tribute to her legendary father and the classic music that made him famous. [1991 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]


Blame it On My Youth: Canadian vocalist Holly Cole’s U.S. debut is a progressive blend of Broadway and pre-rock pop with songs by Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, etc. that gels into a thrilling whole; a benchmark of ‘90s cabaret-jazz.

Diva: Annie Lennox redefined herself from the chameleonic front woman of the Eurythmics to the soulful diva of “Why” and “Walking on Broken Glass.”

Ingénue: After mastering country in the late 1980s k.d. lang turned her attention to crafting the smoldering torch pop on this collection of savory tunes, including “Constant Craving,” “Save Me,” and “Miss Chatelaine.”

What’s the 411?: Mary J. Blige’s unique fusion of soul music and hip-hop production birthed hip-hop soul and instantly redefined black pop in the early 1990s.

Check out Part 3: 1993-2017!



Essential Voices: 150 Best Albums by Female Artists: A personal list (1950-1973, Part 1)

I decided it would be fun to respond to NPR’s “150 greatest albums by female artists” list released on July 28, 2017. I enjoyed reading their list; I own about 50 of the albums and love many of their choices. In terms of sheer range, their list has is great stylistic and cultural diversity, and a broad representation of eras. Still, no one agrees 100% with anyone’s list so this is my turn.

I selected albums only and tried to avoid compilations. There are a few albums from the 1950s that can only be purchased in combination with another album; fortunately, this did not compromise the quality of the list. I selected the albums based primarily on quality, as in “Does this album provide an enjoyable listening experience for me, and does it fulfill its artistic aspirations? I also considered, “Does this album feature songs, arrangements, and/or performances that has inspired other artists?” In essence, does it have staying power? Some artists have vast discographies of impressive music and repeat themselves so I tried to consider if the album is merely a good representation of their style or a true advancement? 

To mix things up, I invited two Riffs, Beats & Codas readers to share a selection and their rationales. Checkout their selections in Part  3. I aimed for variety very intentionally so I had to edit myself to avoid overrepresenting prolific artists to provide space for a wide range of artists and styles. For example, I wrote an entire post in 2016 about my admiration for the artistry of Sarah Vaughan, thus I restricted my Vaughan entries to a few representative examples. Viva variety!  

I organized the albums by year. This approach reflects a few things:

·         Most recording artists recorded singles until the mid-1950s when albums were in the process of becoming the dominant recording medium

·         Because of the latter, a lot of important artists (e.g. Bessie Smith) did not record “albums” during their lifetime and/or their best work is featured on compilations

·         The yearly format illustrates the music of the zeitgeist; for example vocal jazz was still mainstream pop in the mid-1950s so the first decade is heavy on vocal jazz and cabaret

·         You can see where I am age-wise by the volume of album/year. There are far fewer albums from the 2000-2010s and more independent music because as I have aged my taste has gotten narrower. I find less and less mainstream pop music appealing which explains the prevalence of music recorded in genres that appeal to older audiences such as blues and jazz.

·         Related to this is the zeitgeist issue. There are albums that have sold millions of copies and are framed as “defining an age” that I find marginal in quality and/or overrated. This is highly subjective, which illustrates the fact that lists reflect personal tastes even when “serious” writers are trying to thing about historical posterity.

·         Finally, every year is not represented. I whittled this down from over an initial list of 290 albums, which tells you a lot about the excellent albums women have recorded in the 67 year (!) period the list covers.

Most performers who sing in languages other than English have limited commercial exposure in the U.S. so there are fewer albums in these tongues than I would like. I listen to many vocalists singing in Portuguese and Spanish, but am not as confident in certain genres as I am in U.S,. styles. I listen to far less music sung in Creole, French, Korean, and other tongues. This reflects my own limitations and larger structural realities. U.S. record companies focus more on crossover acts, especially signers who perform in English and other languages to ensure crossover success, with rare exception. They also often lump diverse artists under the “world music” category, which flattens out difference. By association, many Americans have a limited familiarity with international acts. For example, many Americans know Astrud Gilberto (“Girl from Ipanema”), but know little about other Brazilian female vocalists. Few since Gilberto have really “crossed over” in the States. I hope to devote future attention to the topic.

 I hope you recognize some of your favorites, discover some new artists, and find some head scratching omissions. Enjoy!


Ella Sings Gershwin: After years of singing commercial novelty songs Decca Records let Fitzgerald record a 10-song suite of great songs in a mature style, accompanied by the elegant pianist Ellis Larkins.[Pure Ella, which combines Sings Gershwin with Fitzgerald’s fine 1954’s set Songs in a Mellow Mood, is the only way to purchase both].


Night in Manhattan: Lee Wiley’s cool tone and supple phrasing bring out the emotional richness of ballad standards like “Manhattan,” “I’ve got a Crush on You,” and, “Street of Dreams” on this elegant album. [Recorded in 1951 when albums were only 8 songs, it is only available in a three-fer with exquisite “songbook” albums Sings Vincent Youmans (1952) and Sings Irving Berlin (1952) making it a great value!]


Dinah Jams: The country’s greatest blues singer showcases her ability to improvise with modern jazz musicians in front of an invited audience.

Sarah Vaughan: Bebop’s premier vocalist was able to sing and jam blissfully free from commercial pressures on this sumptuous suite of ballads and mid-tempo swingers with a simpatico small group, including trumpeter Clifford Brown.


Black Coffee: Vocal sensuality Peggy Lee made one of the first “concept albums” on this collection of torch ballads and love songs recorded in an intimate small group jazz setting that flatters her subtle vocal style.

For Those in Love: Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones collaborated on this exquisitely beautiful collection of ballads played by top-drawer jazz musicians and featuring brilliant solos.

In the Land of Hi-Fi: Sarah Vaughan and a big band swing their asses off on blazing versions of “Cherokee” and “How High the Moon,” and transform “Over the Rainbow” into a paragon of sensuous balladry

Something Cool: June Christy sang the anthem of the “cool school” vocal jazz aesthetic with its existential almost cinematic title track; she renders the surrounding songs with equal detail and musicality.


Blue Rose: Rosemary Clooney broke from commercial pop on this program of Ellington-Strayhorn songs, including the wordless title track Ellington wrote for her and the definitive version of “Sophisticated Lady.”

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook: Fitzgerald kicked off her heralded 16 album songbook series on this collection of interpretations that are as funny, sexy, and dramatic as Porter’s revered songs.

Midnight at Mabel Mercer’s: This eloquent program of songs captures the regal mannerisms and intimate interpretive genius of the Queen of New York cabaret Mabel Mercer in her prime.

Pick Yourself Up: The always hip and swinging Anita O’Day transitioned from swing to bop- inspired improvisation seamlessly; here, her cool tone never wavers on these virtuoso displays of improvisational prowess.

Songs of a Love Affair: Jean Shepard recorded the first country music concept album, in this case one organized around the drama of an affair breaking up amarriage; classic country drama!

A Tribute to Andy Razaf: Razaf’s witty, swinging, and diverse songs got their first proper album treatment via the delicate touch of the ever swinging Maxine Sullivan and her band of all-stars.


Odetta Sings Ballads & Blues: Folk singer Odetta began her legend here singing folk songs and spirituals that revived folk music as a vital contemporary genre and inspired generations of performers to explore the genre’s deep roots.

Swingin’ Easy: Sarah Vaughan thrived in a small jazz groups and on Swing she and her bandmates perform definitive versions of “All of Me,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”; she wrote and performed one of the most innovative (and imitated) jazz band anthems of all time, “Shulie A Bop.”


Little Girl Blue: Nina Simone’s debut turned listeners on to her elegant, powerful piano playing and unique vocal style; highlights include the classics “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Love Me or Leave Me.”


Ella Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook: Ella Fitzgerald and master arranger Nelson Riddle give a wide range of popular and rare Gershwin songs a deluxe orchestral and big band interpretive treatment over three discs.


Rockin’ with Wanda: Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson staked her claim as the first lady of rock ‘n’ roll field with stellar cuts like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Mean Man.”


Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: America’s most beloved singing actress gave a bravura performance of her signature tunes in all of her glory at Carnegie and the results were captured on tape. [1961 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]

Out of the Blue: Just when people thought vocal jazz had peaked Carol Sloane wowed everyone with her accomplished debut, one marked by the improvisational skill, musical phrasing and good taste that defined her career for the next 50 years.

Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Favorites: Carmen McRae established herself at Decca records in the mid-1950s, but her finest early album is a salute to her greatest influence Lady Day; like Holiday, McRae is an individual with a high level of musicality who puts a personal imprint on everything she sings. 

Songs I Like to Sing!: Helen Humes began as a sassy young blues singer and sang with Count Basie and big bands before becoming a formidable jazz artist; here she delivers some of the most effortlessly swinging performances of standards like “Mean to Me,” “My Old Flame,” and “St. Louis Blues”  plus the best version of her original anthem “Million Dollar Secret.”


Getz/Gilberto: This lovely mix of instrumental and vocal tunes, sung by Astrud Gilberto, introduced Americans to the seductive sounds of Brazil’s bossa nova tradition notably on the Jobim classics “The Girl from Ipanema,” and “Once I Loved.” [1962 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]

Portrait of Sheila: Inspired by modern jazz, especially Charlie Parker, vocalist Sheila Jordan’s highly influential debut showed her ability to push the harmonic and rhythmic boundaries of popular songs like “Baltimore Oriole” and “Falling in Love with Love.”


Back to the Blues: On one of her final albums, the Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington, reclaimed her crown singing with the incisive bite and radiant sexiness that made her famous.

Barbra Streisand Album: At 23 years old Barbra Streisand contemporized the vocal pop tradition with riveting dramatic versions of “Cry Me a River” and “Happy Days are Here Again” that indicated a startling command of the tradition and a remarkable instrument.   [1963 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]


Nina Simone in Concert: Nina Simone shifted from a jazz chanteuse into an outspoken activist on this exciting live set, notable for the civil rights themes “Go Limp” and “Mississippi Goddamn.”

Wish Someone Would Care: Irma Thomas became the “New Orleans Soul Queen” because she bared her soul on songs like her self-penned title track, and original versions of rock classics like “Time is On My Side,” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Break-a-Way.”


I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin became the Queen of Soul on the strength of “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Save Me,” and “I Never Loved a Man,” and other classic performances that make this the best ‘60s soul album recorded.

More than a New Discovery: No 1960s pop songwriter wrote with the melodic freedom and lyrical intrigue of Laura Nyro whose debut features classics like “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoney End,” “And When I Die,” and “Flim Flam Man” that became hits for other performers, though her versions remain definitive.

Ode to Billie Joe: Bobby Gentry introduced the world to the mystery of Billie Joe McAllister on this moody, swampy southern folk classic.

Surrealistic Pillow: The Jefferson Airplane kicked open the door to psychedelic and acid rock era for a generation thanks to anthemic hits like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” sung powerfully by Grace Slick.

Wildflowers: Judy Collins showcased the purity her crystal clear soprano and her interpretive chops on this folk masterpiece which features classic versions of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” and “Hey that’s No Way to sayGoodbye,” and her enduring original “Since You Asked.”


Delta Sweetie: On this layered mix of blues, country, and folk tunes Bobbie Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”) presents an offbeat, and often dark portrait of Southern life through a dazzling array of characters and scenarios. 

Eli and the 13th Confession: After debuting with one of the most original and frequently covered collections of new songs to premiere in the 1960s, Laura Nyro revealed her inner creative essence in even more personal terms on the slinky melodies, cryptic lyrics and odd harmonies of sings like “Luckie,” ‘Poverty Train,” and “Emmie.”

Lady Soul: Aretha Franklin earned this album’s title easily galloping mightily through “Chain of Fools” and “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and delivering the unspeakably beautiful “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman,” and the majestic “Ain’t No Way.”


Dusty in Memphis: Dusty Springfield morphed from a skillful jack-of-all trades who could handle girl group pop, R&B, and bombastic balladry to a lean interpreter of soulful, coolly erotic anthems like “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Just a Little Lovin’” on this classic collection.

First Take: Roberta Flack pioneered a new fusion of folk, soul, jazz, and chamber pop on her debut which features her and a small band recording now iconic versions of “The First Time ever I Saw Your Face,” “Compared to What,” and “Hey that’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” in one take with Flack on vocals and piano; both the album and “First” became belated hits in 1972.

New York Tendaberry: Laura Nyro wrapped up one of pop’s most stunning trifectas in this lyrically elusive and stylistically kaleidoscopic masterpiece; many singers have mined the riches of “Save the Country” and “Time and Love.”


Blue: How could an album featuring oft recorded classics like “River,” “All I Want,” and “A case of You,” not be classic; Joni Mitchell’s first masterpiece.

Pearl: Janis Joplin’s epitaph is her greatest recording achievement highlighted by her nuanced version of “Me and Bobby McGee” and soulful wailers like “Cry Baby” and “Mercedes Benz.”

Tapestry: Carole King transitioned from a songwriter for hire to a popular artist capable of writing intimate yet relatable songs about her experiences, like “It’s Too Late,” “So Far Away,” and “Tapestry,” all documented on one of singer-songwriter pop’s most consistent and enjoyable albums.


Amazing Grace: You can always hear the gospel in Aretha Franklin’s voice, but she literally takes listeners to church on this stunning album recorded live in a church.

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself: The Staples Singer’s ability to sing secular music and still hold on to their gospel roots shines brilliantly on their definitive hits “I’ll Take you There” and “Respect Yourself” where the mighty Mavis Staples soars.

Give it Up: On her second album vocalist and slide guitar player Bonnie Raitt proved she could rave (the title track), smolder (“Love Me Like a Man”), and mourn (“Love Has No Pride”) with equal authority.

The Great American Songbook: Jazz singer Carmen McRae was a deft interpreter whose subtle improvisational choices put an individual touch on everything, which this album captures wonderfully live; it’s thrilling hearing her work her magic on tunes as varied as “Day by Day,” “A Song for You,” and “Mr. Ugly.” 


Divine Miss M: Bette Midler remade cabaret into a hip contemporary style on her stunning debut, which slows down chestnuts like “Do You Wanna Dance” to draw out their subtext, and speeds up tunes like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to reveal their inherent excess, an interpretive landmark.

Imagination: Gladys Knight and the Pips were performers since their teens, but they reached an acme of excellence on the consistently excellent performances on Imagination highlighted by their signature “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” and “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” among other tight, soulful performances.

Live in Japan: After a few years recording unsuitable pop material jazz legend Sarah Vaughan reminded listeners of her immense improvisational gifts on this spacious double album featuring some of her most thrilling vocals including an epic “Nearness of You” (featuring Vaughan on piano), and a hypnotic rendition of Jobim’s “Wave.”

Maria Muldaur: Singer, fiddler, and folkie Muldaur’s debut defined her as a progressive contemporary interpreter who could bring intelligence and musicality to classic tunes and expose audiences to outstanding contemporary songs by emerging writers like David Nichtern (“Midnight at the Oasis”), Dolly Parton (“Tennessee Mountain Home”) and Wendy Waldman (“Mad Mad Me”).

Check out Part 2: 1974-1992 on the blog!



The story behind the rhythm: Notes on a Brazilian Love Affair, Part 2: Bossa and Beyond

The Birth of Bossa Nova

Brazil experienced a new “Golden Age” in the mid-1950s symbolized by an invigorated national infrastructure, the country’s 1958 World Cup victory, and a growing urban middle class. Brazil’s president, Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61) aimed for “fifty years of progress in five.” The music that best captured the zeitgeist was bossa nova, Portuguese for “new fashion” or “new way.”

Bossa nova grew out of experimental music scene occurring in Rio in the early 1950s. Musicians, like Carlos Lyra, Antonio (“Tom”) Carlos Jobim, Durval Ferreira, Luis Eça, and Baden Powell played chiefly in the "Bottles Lane" area of nightclubs to develop the sound. Poet and prolific lyricist Vinicius de Moraes was also part of the scene. Most bossa nova musicians lived in Zona Sul (South Zone of Rio), and their music reflected the economic and social optimism of the middle class.

 Antonio Carlos ("Tom") Jobim (seated at the piano), and poet, lyricist, and singer Vinicius de Moraes (standing) were some of the earliest composers of what became bossa nova.

Antonio Carlos ("Tom") Jobim (seated at the piano), and poet, lyricist, and singer Vinicius de Moraes (standing) were some of the earliest composers of what became bossa nova.

Bossa was a kind of soft samba played at a slower tempo, with light, soft singing and percussion that is more limited. Musically it fuses samba’s rhythmic complexity with a different beat and harmonic richness associated and classical music and jazz. Bossa nova was shaped by progressive trends in samba, the guitar style of Garoto, and several other musicians including Johnny Alf (Alfredo Jose da Silva), guitarist Luiz Bonfá, and pianist João Donato. American styles like West Coast “cool jazz” also influenced its sound.


 Guitarist and vocalist João Gilberto scored the first bossa nova hit album in Brazil with 1959's  Chega da Saudade .

Guitarist and vocalist João Gilberto scored the first bossa nova hit album in Brazil with 1959's Chega da Saudade.

Samba was the rhythmic base but musicians sometimes drew on the baião, bolero, and marcha traditions in their playing. Harmonically progressive elements, including altered and inverted chords also provided a unique sound. These elements reflect the influences and tastes of some of its key early practitioners notably João Gilberto, Jobim, and de Moraes.

Lyrically songs often had poetic, eloquent lyrics and frequently referenced ethereal themes related to nature and romance. Vocally, bossa nova singers sang gently and quietly, barely above a whisper, in a seductive manner that pulled you into the lyrics. 

The most prominent composer was Jobim who was classically trained by piano teacher Hans Joachim Koellreutter and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Jobim studied classical composers like Brahms, Chopin, and Debussy, and listened to American performers such as Frank Sinatra. In the early 1950s Jobim became a fixture on the club scene and worked as an arranger as he developed his songwriting. In the mid 1950s, he became a music celebrity and had his own television show in São Paulo Bom Tom.  Jobim was a prolific composer who recorded bossa nova and composed classical suites. Some of his most notable composition’s include “Corcovado,” “Triste,” “Wave,” and “Waters of March,” to name a few. He also co-wrote songs with de Moraes, Aloysio de Oliviera, Mendonça, and Chico Buarque.

Forerunners of bossa nova style emerged in the compositions of Jobim and Newton Mendoça. Mauricy Moura recorded “Incerteza (Uncertainty)” in 1953 and “Samba de uma Nota So” in 1954 but the style did not gain substantive exposure until the late 1950s. Throughout his career, he collaborated with a variety of lyricists including de Moraes, Alysio de Oliveira, and Chico Buarque.

The 1958 recording of “Chega de Saudade” a 1956 composition with de Moraes, written for the play Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), was the first bossa nova single recording and João Gilberto’s Chega de Saudade the first bossa nova album. Gilberto was renowned for an innovative guitar technique that including syncopating sung notes against guitar motifs, as well as a slow, hushed and understated vocal style.  By 1959, Gilberto’s album made bossa nova a commercial phenomenon in Brazil. The key breakthrough, however, was the soundtrack to the film version of The Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) which “internationalized” bossa nova via hit songs like Luiz Bonfá’s “Mahna de Carnaval.”

In the early 1960s, bossa nova flourished throughout Rio and a new generation of singers excelled in the emergent style including Leny Andrade, Alkayde Costa, Maysa, Pery Ribeiro, and Sylvia Telles. In the United States, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s Jazz Samba, released in 1962 was the breakthrough bossa nova recording in the U.S. anchored by their hit version of “Desafinado” (“Off-Key”). The mix of jazz and bossa nova was the result of jazz musicians travelling to Brazil and absorbing the music and culture of the “bottles bar” scene of Rio. The initial U.S. boom included bossa themed jazz albums like jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s 1962 album Do the Bossa Nova with Herbie Mann, Quincy Jones’s Big Band Bossa Nova, and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s 1963 album Cannonball’s Bossa Nova. A pivotal marker of the burgeoning bossa nova scene in the U.S. was a November 1962 concert recorded at Carnegie Hall featuring performances by Gilberto, Jobim, Lyra, and Mendes in collaboration with U.S. jazz musicians.

Bossa nova was a hot new sound and reached its widest audience via the success of the charming single “The Girl from Ipanema” sung by Astrud Gilberto, João’s wife, and featured on 1964’s Getz/Gilberto album. Bossa nova quickly grew from an obscure Rio based style to a pop phenomenon. In addition to frequent covers of bossa nova songs by English language singers it also surfaced in pop songs like Eydie Gorme’s “Blame it on the Bossa Nova.” By 1964, the bossa nova style was fading commercially in Brazil amid growing concerns that the freshness of the once vital sound was growing too formulaic and commercial.

Post-Bossa Nova

In 1964, the same year as “Girl” became a massive worldwide hit the Brazilian military staged a military coup, overthrowing President João Goulart. The thriving democracy became a dictatorship and military rule lasted for over 20 years, and. This led many musicians to incorporate political themes in their lyrics in protest. Many musicians associated with bossa nova left Brazil during the 1960s such as Carlos Lyra who recorded political bossa nova and moved to Mexico from 1966-71. Others who resettled included Luiz Bonfá, Oscar Castro-Neves, and João Gilberto who all moved to the U.S. in the 1960s. Many of these figures returned to Brazil eventually.

Some key musical transitions during this time included the beginning of televised Brazilian musical festivals in 1965 and the emergence of what became the MPB (música popular brasileira) sound. MPB is a broad term for musicians who draw from samba, bossa nova, jazz, pop and other styles thus defying easy categorization. Some of the more prominent MPB voices to emerge during the mid 1960s-early 1970s include Djavan, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, and Caetano Veloso. The festivals provided an optimal opportunity for composers to gain exposure. For example, Elis Regina, widely regarded as Brazilian’s finest female vocalist, won the 1965 first prize at the TV Excelsior festival singing “Arrastão” co-written by Edu Lobo and de Moraes.

Though the festivals were very popular they were temporary respite from Brazil’s increasingly unstable government.  For example, in 1965 the Social Democratic Party was abolished and a succession of military men “led” what was essentially a military state. Though the state paid limited attention to artists initially, as young people became more active in protesting military rule the dictatorship interfered more actively, harassing and censoring artists, and eventually screening song lyrics and arresting artists. Out of this context grew tropicália.


 Gal Costa debuted as an MPB artist in 1967, but her 1969 self-titled album was one of several late 1960s albums that embodied the emerging  Tropicália  sound.

Gal Costa debuted as an MPB artist in 1967, but her 1969 self-titled album was one of several late 1960s albums that embodied the emerging Tropicália sound.

Tropicália revolution

A subgenre of the post-bossa nova MPB scene, tropicália was a youth led artistic movement. Though Brazilian musicians recorded rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s the greatest impact of mid ‘60s British and U.S. styles, especially the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and psychedelic rock, was felt among Tropicália’s key voices. These included including Gal Costa, Gil, Veloso, and Tom Zé and members of the band Os Mutantes. Influenced by the late 1960s countercultural youth movements, the avant-garde Cinema Novo, Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic, experimental theater and performance art, the Tropicalistas responded to the fascism of the right and the nationalism of the left with this experimental hybrid of musical and visual style. In 2002’s Tropical Truth Veloso shared the movement’s goal to celebrate multiple facets of high and low Brazilian culture, and blend it with outside cultural influences, like rock.


 1968's classic  Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis  was an experimental collaboration between the most prominent  Tropicália  artists.

1968's classic Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis was an experimental collaboration between the most prominent Tropicália artists.

Some of the key albums that epitomized the style included the following: 1968 collaborative album (Costa, Gil, Os Mutantes, Veloso and Zé) Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis whose cover echoed Sgt. Pepper; individual debut albums by Gil, Os Mutantes, Veloso and Zé in 1968; Rogério Duprat’s single album A Banda Tropicalista do Duprat; Gal Costa’s sophomore set in 1969, a year that also welcomed Tropicália sets from Jorge Ben and Os Brazões who interpreted songs by Ben, Gil, and Zé. In 1969, the government arrested and imprisoned Gil and Veloso, and expelled them from Brazil. They both relocated to London, though they eventually returned to Brazil in the early 1970s.


 Gilberto Gil's 1968 album had a strong psychedelic flavor that reflected the influence of British and U.K. rock on Brazilian musicians.

Gilberto Gil's 1968 album had a strong psychedelic flavor that reflected the influence of British and U.K. rock on Brazilian musicians.

Despite such setbacks several classic albums continued to expand the style in the early 1970s including Os Mutantes’s 1970 album A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado (The Divine Comedy, or I’m Kind of Spaced Out); Veloso’s 1972 set Transa, which mixed Brazilian and reggae elements; and Gil’s Expresso 2222, a blend of U.S. funk and rock recorded in 1972.  By 1973, the movement ebbed, but almost all of the musicians associated with Tropicália have had enduring careers. Costa, Gil and Veloso each have eclectic careers defined by relentless experimentation. Os Mutantes’s Rita Lee went on to a fruitful solo career as Brazil’s “first lady of rock” and members continued performing and recording. Similarly, other MPB era singers celebrated among Brazilians gradually saw their music gain international recognition. For example, jazz musicians and vocalists interpret songs by Lins and Nascimento routinely. Lins’s “The Island,” “Love Dance,” and “Velas” are contemporary standards. Nascimento’s harmonic sophistication, heard on songs like “Travessia (Bridges),” has drawn jazz musicians to play on his albums and cover his songs.

Post-1970s Brazilian pop

Since the military regime’s reign ended and democracy returned in 1985, socioeconomic and racial divides have grown more pronounced.  Contemporary rock music’s greatest impact was reflected in the rise of Brazilian bands that mimicked the style of American and British bands, and the popularity of the inaugural Rock in Rio festival in 1985 which attracted an estimated 1.5 million attendees. Many have argued that rock primarily reflects the tastes of middle-class Brazilians and because Brazilian musicians are content to duplicate established styles, it has not served as a springboard for innovation.


 Bebel Gilberto's 2000  album  Tanto Tempo  was a popular crossover album that modernized bossa nova through electronic produciton elements. 

Bebel Gilberto's 2000  album Tanto Tempo was a popular crossover album that modernized bossa nova through electronic produciton elements. 

The notion of a national music that would unite the country, the way samba once did, seems increasingly elusive in such a culturally fragmented nation. Though contemporary artists like Bebel Gilberto, whose popular 2000 set Tanto Tempo fused bossa nova with electronica, and Ivete Sangalo, a leading voice of the Axé style and the country’s biggest pop singer currently, are beloved, regional genres continue to serve as key sites of musical innovation. Contemporary artists are continually fusing Brazilian musical traditions with elements of genres like funk, hip-hop, reggae, rock, and soul to create new musical hybrids.


 The group Nacão Zumbi, led by the charismatic Chico Science, was one of the leading proponents of the Mangue Beat scene that emerged from Recife in the 1990s.

The group Nacão Zumbi, led by the charismatic Chico Science, was one of the leading proponents of the Mangue Beat scene that emerged from Recife in the 1990s.

Out of the economically depressed communities in Recife, performers like the bands Mundo Livre and Nacão Zumbi pioneered the “Mangue Beat” sound in the early 1990s. The music derived its sound from artists modernizing the African based percussive sound of maracatu fused with elements of hip-hop, rock, and the bedrock of Brazilian music, samba. Chico Science, the lead singer of Nacão Zumbi was an especially charismatic and influential singer who influenced future Brazilian superstars like singer and actor Seu Jorge. Science died from an automobile accident in 1997, but remains a highly revered figure.  Lenine is a Recife native who established himself as songwriter in the 1980s before achieving stardom as a performer with 1997’s O Dia em qu Faremos Contato and he too has succeeded through combining maracatu with rock, hip-hop, and contemporary production.

Brazilian interpretations of hip-hop music have captured the experiences of the underclass in São Paulo. Much like U.S. hip-hop the music resonates for its social function, which has elevated groups like Racionais M.C’s to national prominence. Unlike the U.S., however, hip-hop is not a mainstream crossover genre. The same is true of hip-hop originating from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Performers like MV Bill and MC Playboy gained listeners through using hip-hop as a vehicle to illuminate the realities of favela life. Rio’s musicians also adapted and transformed American funk. Since the late 1980s, funk parties have defined the nightlife in the northern suburbs of Rio especially for young people. The deeply resonant pulsating sounds of Miami bass became especially popular in the 1990s. Because of middle class associations of funk with the lower classes, and a 1992 beach riot between young people, the style grew increasingly more isolated to Rio’s ghettos. There is even an underground version called proibidão (highly forbidden) that is technically illegal but circulated on the black market. Funk balls gradually shifted from spaces of confrontations between rival gangs to free parties with a more relaxed social atmosphere.

In 1993, Rio’s military police “avenged” the death of four policemen, in what is referred to as the Vigário Geral Massacre, by massacring 21 people randomly in the Vigário Geral favela. This dampened the spirits of the community, but an organization called AfroReggae emerged from this tragedy as a positive social project. The organization began as a band that fused Brazil’s core rhythm, samba, with hip-hop, funk, and reggae, and expanded it to include training opportunities for young people to participate in dance and percussion groups.  In Rio, samba persists as a rich source of inspiration for artists like Marcelo D2 who mixes samba and hip-hop. As well as samba revivalists such as the Orquestra Imperial big band, formed in 2002, which has sparked renewed interest in samba from younger generations of listeners.   

In Salvador, the capital of Bahia, samba-reggae has thrived as a dominant musical style since the 1980s. MPB and tropicália legend Gilberto Gil was a reggae enthusiast who integrated the sound into his music and gradually the style caught on, especially in the 1970s when black Brazilians become intentional about celebrating their African heritage. The group Olodum is one of samba-reggae’s leading exponents, and gained international fame performing on Paul Simon’s 1990 album Rhythm of the Saints and on Michael Jackson’s 1996 song “They Don’t Care about Us.” The band also sponsors a percussion school for children (Escola Olodum) and an experimental theatre group (Bando de Teatro). Axé, a style blending samba, reggae, ijexá (a rhythm derived from candomblé ritual music), and frevo (a fast, syncopated marcha originating in Recife) was a style mastered by Olodum. The genre’s forerunner was Luiz Caldas who had a proto-Axé hit with 1985’s “Fricote” that gained broad distribution and popularized the style.  Axe is primarily celebratory dance music, performed at Carnaval, and was later popularized in the 1990s by artists like Daniela Mercury, Margareth Menezes, and Ivete Sangalo who sang in Banda Eva before going solo and becoming Brazil’s biggest pop performer.

 Luiz Calda's 1985 album Magia laid the groundwork for the Salvador based Axé style through the popular single "Fricote."

Luiz Calda's 1985 album Magia laid the groundwork for the Salvador based Axé style through the popular single "Fricote."


Brazilian popular music continues to mine the richness of the country’s African heritage most notably through multiple adaptations of samba. Though no Brazilian style has captured international attention with the sweep of bossa nova, Brazilian musicians have listened widely and found creative ways to respect their traditions and extend them with complementary styles. The result is a continuous interplay of the past and the present, with an eye toward the future.  


Coda: Some of the more progressive voices in contemporary Brazilian pop that I did not explore in depth include the following: Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Marisa Montes, talented solo artists who also collaborate as the band Tribalistas. The recordings of Vanessa da Matas, Mariane de Castro, Zelia Duncan, Seu Jorge, Nando Reis,and Maria Rita are also notable examples of accomplished and respected current musicians.  Happy listening! Special thanks to my colleagues Carolina Castellanos and Luis Apolinario Johnson for their insights and recommendations. Thanks to Carlos Gardeazabal Bravo for sharing the Pitchfork video.

Recommended Resources

Recordings (Formats vary; some are in CD form but many are available digitally and/or via streaming services):

Note: The majority of the recorded output of the musicians I reference above are in print and available for listening. For the sake of brevity, I list a few key albums that represent a genre or subgenre well. Many of these have also shaped my own understanding of bossa nova and post-bossa nova music, though it is an ongoing listening process!

Bossa Nova

·         Chega de Saudade (1959) (João Gilberto)

·         Orfeu Negro soundtrack (1960) (Various artists)

·         Getz/Gilberto (1964) (Stan Getz & João Gilberto f/ Astud Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim)

·         Elis & Tom (1974) (Elis Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim)

·         Antonio Carlos Jobim: The Man from Ipanema (1995) (Antonio Carlos Jobim; box set)


·         Travessia (1967) (Milton Nascimento)

·         Somos Todos Iguais Nesta Noite (1977) (Ivan Lins)

·         Nada Sera Como Antes/Nothing Will Be As it Was (1990; compilation of Regina’s interpretations of Milton Nascimento’s songs recorded from 1966-78) (Elis Regina)


·         Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis (1968) (Various artists)

·         Gilberto Gil (1968) (Gilberto Gil)

·         Os Mutantes (1968) (Os Mutantes)

·         Tom Zé (1968) (Tom Zé)

·         Gal Costa (1969) (Gal Costa)

·         A Banda Tropicalista do Duprat (1969) (Rogério Duprat)

·         Jorge Ben (1969) (Jorge Ben)

·         Os Brazões (1970) (Os Brazões)

·         Expresso 2222 (1972) (Gilberto Gil)

·         Transa (1972) Caetano Veloso

Mangue Beat

  •   Samba Esquema Noise (1994) (Mundo Livre S/A)
  •  Da Lama ao Caos (1995) (Nação Zumbi)
  •  Fuá na casa de CaBRal (1998) (Mestre Ambrósio)
  • Baião de Viramundo (2000)  (Various Artists )
  • Cordel do Fogo Encantado (2001)  (Cordel do Fogo Encantado)
  • Original Olinda Style (2003) (Banda Eddie)
  • Certa Manhã Acordei de Sonhos Intranquilos (2009) (Otto)

Contemporary Bossa Nova and MPB

·         Dia em qu Faremos Contato (1997) Lenine

·         Juventude/Slow Motion Bossa Nova (2001) (Celso Fonseca and Ronaldo Bastos)

·         Tanta Tempo (2000) (Bebel Gilberto)

·         Samba Esporte Fino (2001) Seu Jorge

·         Brazilian Classics (2003) (Eliane Elias; compilation)

·         Cantando Historias Ivan Lins (2004) (Ivan Lins)


Brazilian Hip-Hop

·         Holocausto Urbano (1990 EP) (Racionais MC’s)

·         Raio X Brasil (1993) (Racionais MC’s)

·         Traficando Informação (1998) (MV Bill)

·         Á Procura da Batida Perfeita(2003) (Marcelo D2)


·         Magia (1985) Luiz Caldas

·         A Música do Olodum (1992) (Olodum)

·         Ivete Sangolo (1999) Ivete Sangolo


Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (Ruy Castro, translated by Lysa Salsbury, Acapella Books, 2000)

The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, Revised and expanded edition, Temple University Press, 2009)

Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil (Caetano Veloso, translated by Isabel de Sena, edited by Barbara Einzig, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)


This is Bossa Nova: The Histories and Stories (Directed by Paulo Thiago, 2016)

Brasil! Brasil! Episode Two: Tropicália Revolution (BBC, 2007):

Brasil! Brasil! Episode Three: A Tale of Four Cities (BBC, 2007):

Favela Rising [focuses on AfroReggae] (Directed by Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist; produced by Sidetrack Films and VOY Pictures, 2005)

The Story of Tropicália in 20 albums (Pitchfork, 2017):

Web Resources:

Sounds and Colours website:



The story behind the rhythm: Notes on a Brazilian love affair, Part 1: Samba

Nearly 15 years ago I was listening casually to the lovely songs on jazz singer Susannah McCorkle’s exquisite album Sabia in my car, when the song “Bridges (Travessia)” transfixed me. The nakedness of its emotions, the way its melody unfolded, its subtle rhythmic pull, and McCorkle’s acute delivery of its lyrics felt different from many of the American popular songs I adored. From studying the liner notes, I learned about its composer Milton Nascimento, which led me to pay more attention to other Brazilian musicians such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ivan Lins and Elis Regina. Soon, music originating from Brazil became an obsession.

I began my process by listening to some obvious Brazilian “classic” vocalists, like Astrud Gilberto (“The Girl from Ipanema”), and contemporary singers, like Bebel Gilberto and Celso Fonseca. Many of my favorite American vocalists recorded Brazilian Portuguese language songs in English, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Roseanna Vitro, which helped make the songs more accessible. Some of my favorite singers also recorded in Portuguese including McCorkle and Karrin Allyson.  Listening opened my mind to delving more deeply into the history and context of the music. For example, I learned that the entrancingly melancholic harmonies and bittersweet lyrics I enjoyed in songs like “Bridges” and ballads like “Once I Loved” and “Meditation” exemplified the aesthetics of saudade. I also realized I was murky about the relationship between samba and bossa nova. Speaking with friends conversant in Portuguese and Brazilian culture, I learned that there were generations of post-60s and post-bossa nova Brazilian musicians ripe for discovery.

I willfully took the plunge and began reading more about the roots and evolution of Brazilian pop, which has helped me appreciate the music, the people, the culture and the country beyond the songs. In a sense, I feel like I am falling in love all over again. For U.S. listeners milestones like 1959’s Black Orpheus soundtrack, 1962’s Jazz Samba album, by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, and 1964’s iconic “The Girl from Ipanema” are key moments of exposure to Brazilian pop. However, the story goes back much further.

The Birth and Evolution of Samba

Brazil was under Portuguese rule until 1822. One of the key elements of West African culture that slaves maintained were Yoruba religious and spiritual traditions which morphed into the Candomblé religion in Brazil. 1871’s Rio Branca Law (Law of the Free Womb) aimed to protect the newborn children of slaves but was a stopgap measure until slavery was finally abolished in 1888. Many of those who were enslaved maintained some “Africanisms,” such as music, which led to indigenous song forms and styles like the lundu song form and circle dance, and later the maxixe which mixed lundu with elements of polka and Cuban habanera. Brazil’s first recording was a lundu based composition, 1902’s “Isto E Bom” (This is Good).

Many former slaves migrated from Bahia to Rio, especially the Praça Onze area.  Neo-African cultural elements survived through female elders (“tias”) of these communities. The roots of samba grew out of a community of musicians who socialized at the home of Tia Ciata Ruo Visconde de Inhauma. The musicians who hung out were versed in multiple forms, including lundus, maxixes marchas, choros, and batuques, and ultimately shaped samba. 1917’s “Pelo Telefone (On the Telephone),” sung by Afro-Brazilian musician Donga, was the first officially registered samba composition. Sambas are highly percussive songs where handclapping or drums, and percussion (batucada) carry the main rhythm. Key characteristics of sambas were 2/4 meter with an emphasis on the second beat, a stanza and refrain structure, interlocked syncopated lines in melody and accompaniment, and a responsive interplay between percussion and voices. Two of the most important early samba composers were flutist and arranger Pixinguinha and pianist Sinhô known as the “King of Samba” in the 1920s.

 Sheet music for 1917's "Pelo Telefone" sung by Donga.

Sheet music for 1917's "Pelo Telefone" sung by Donga.

In the Estácio neighborhood of Rio, near Praça Onze, a generation of composers (“sambistas”) emerged who expanded and refined the form experimenting with notes, tempo, harmony, and lyric possibilities. Musicians experimented via Escola de Sambas (“samba schools”) groups of musicians who were the equivalent of musicians’ clubs that composed songs for Brazil’s annual Carnaval celebration. The combination of compositions by composers like Ismael Silva, Bide, Nilton Marçal, and Armando Marçal, and interpretations by vocalists like Mário Reis, Francisco Alves, and Carmen Miranda played an important role in solidifying samba as the national music of Brazil in the 1930s. This was also paralleled by a conscious effort by the highly controversial President Getúlio Dornelles Vargas to unify the nation and build a national culture through media, especially radio. Thus, the government, which had been stigmatized samba for its black roots, appropriated samba for its national identity.

As sambas gained popularity, various samba subgenres and styles emerged including samba-canção which emerged from more upscale neighborhoods in Rio and had a more melodic and harmonically advanced approach than typical sambas. Composers Noel Rosa, Braguinha, and Lamartine Babo, exemplify this style. Dorival Caymmi was the premier singer, songwriter, and musician to exemplify the style, as well as to master many other forms. His harmonic sensibility and advanced gutiar playing shaped the bossa nova that emerged in the mid-1950s. Samba-exaltaçãos, focused on the country’s beauty and richness, also emerged via composer Ary Barroso most famous for writing “Aquarela de Brasil” (“Brazil”). As sambas grew more popular, including being featured in films, and attracting new listeners and composers who blended it with other forms, purists began to rally around traditional samba. In the late 1950s, traditional samba thrived in the morros, the hills surrounding Rio, which also birthed the samba de morro style.  Cartola, Clementina de Jesus, and Nelson Cavaquinho exemplified this approach.

 Composer Ary Barroso wrote many of Brazil's most popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s in the s amba-exaltaçãos  style. His most notable song is "Aquarela Do Brasil" known to English speakers as "Brazil."

Composer Ary Barroso wrote many of Brazil's most popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s in the samba-exaltaçãos style. His most notable song is "Aquarela Do Brasil" known to English speakers as "Brazil."

 Actress and singer Carmen Miranda became the greatest popularizer of Brazilian crossover music via film and Broadway performances in the late 1930s-mid 1940s. She is pictured here circa the 1940s without her iconic costumes and jewelry.

Actress and singer Carmen Miranda became the greatest popularizer of Brazilian crossover music via film and Broadway performances in the late 1930s-mid 1940s. She is pictured here circa the 1940s without her iconic costumes and jewelry.

Sambas transformed Carnaval, which in turn elevated the ongoing development of samba. The samba schools that began in the late 1920s became national institutions and sambas gradually displaced ranchos and marchas as the most Carnaval song forms. Samba de blocos, played by blocos de empolgacaos, typically close Carnaval parades.

The mid-1960s-early 1970s is the “modern” samba era where new generations continued to employ the form as a creative source. Singer/songwriters like Martinho da Vila wrote shorter and more colloquial sambas called samba-enredos. The 1970s also birthed the pagode movement. Pagodes were parties where people played samba, and within these parties musicians incorporated new instruments. Zeca Pagodinho and Jorge Aragão were key pagode voices. Dudu Nobre continued the style for new generations. Vocalists like Clara Nunes, Alcione, and Elza Soares, were also popular and respected singers who continued to maintain samba’s relevance. Other styles included samabandido (“bandit samba”) which depicted life in favelas and incorporated morro-based slang, and pop sambas which replaced the percussive style of pagode with funk rhythms, electronic instruments and more sentimental lyrics.

 Singer-songwriter Martinho da Vila pioneered the samba-enredo form in the late 1960s, and is a popular musician known for exploring Brazil's musical richness, especially its African roots.

Singer-songwriter Martinho da Vila pioneered the samba-enredo form in the late 1960s, and is a popular musician known for exploring Brazil's musical richness, especially its African roots.

 Elza Soares began recording in 1959 and remains an active singer and performer who continues to thrive singing samba based music.

Elza Soares began recording in 1959 and remains an active singer and performer who continues to thrive singing samba based music.

Samba was integral to shaping future Brazilian genres including bossa nova, tropicália and música popular brasileira (MPB). A variety of social and political factors informed the birth of these genres. Next month I will continue to delve into these more contemporary Brazilian musical styles. Until then, please allow some of the samba recordings listed below to enter your ears and move your bodies, and check out some key educational resources.

 Beth Carvalho was one of the pioneering voices in the pagode samba movement that emerged in the late 1970s.

Beth Carvalho was one of the pioneering voices in the pagode samba movement that emerged in the late 1970s.

Recommended Resources

Recordings (Formats vary; some are in CD form but many are available digitally and/or via streaming services):

Early samba


Raízes do Samba (2000, EMI)

Nelson Cavaquinho

Raízes do Samba (2000, EMI)


Noel Rosa (composer and vocalist):

Noel Rosa: Versões Originais Vols: 1-5 (Featuring performances by Almirante, Francisco Alves, Carmen Miranda, João Petra de Barros, Mario Reis, and more, 2014)

Tributo a Noel Rosa Vol. 1 (Ivan Lins, 1997)

Tributo a Noel Rosa Vol. 2 (Ivan Lins, 1997)


Ary Barroso:

Ary Barroso em Aqueralas, Volume 1 (Various Artists)

Ary Barroso em Aqueralas, Volume 2 (Various Artists)

Carmen Miranda:

The Brazilian Bombshell: 25 Hits 1939-1947 (ASV/Living Era)

The Ultimate Collection (Prism Leisure, 2001)

Samba de morro

 Composer Cartola was a composer and performer whose samba de morro songs are covered widely.

Composer Cartola was a composer and performer whose samba de morro songs are covered widely.


Raízes do Samba (2000, EMI)

Clementina de Jesus:

Euo sou o samba (EMI, 2005)


Martinho da Vila:

Focus: O Essencial De Martino da Vila (BMG, 1999)

Memorías de um Sargento de Milícias (BMG, 1971)

Lusofonia (Sony Music, 2000)

Modern Samba Queens

Clara Nunes:

Alvorecer (Odeon, 1974)

Clara Nunes 2 Em 1 [compiles 1974’w Alvorecer and 1981’s Clara] (EMI, 2005)


A Voz do Samba (Phillips, 1975)

Elza Soares:

Eusou O Samba (EMI, 2005)


Beth Carvalho:

De Pé no Chão (RCA Victor, 1978)

No Pagode (RCA Victor, 1979)

Grupo Fundo de Quintal:

Samba e no Fundo de Quintal (RGE, 1980)

Zeca Pagodinho:

Zeca Pagodinho (RGE, 1986)

Millennium: Zeca Pagodinho (Polygram, 1999)

Jorge Aragão:

Verão (1983)

Jorge Aragão: Millennium - 20 Músicas Do Século XX (Polygram, 2000)

Dudu Nobre:

Dudu Nobre (BMG Brasil/RCA, 1999)


Raça Negra:

Banda Raça Negra (RGE, 1991)

 The band Raça Negra is a neo-pagode band that added a modern sheen to the samba style in the 1990s.

The band Raça Negra is a neo-pagode band that added a modern sheen to the samba style in the 1990s.


The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Poplar Music of Brazil (Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, Revised and expanded edition, Temple University Press, 2009)

The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and National Identity in Brazil (Hermano Vianna, University of North Carolina Press, 1999)

Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil (MarcA. Hertzman, Duke University Press, 2013)

Creating Carmen Miranda: Race, Camp, and Transnational Stardom (Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez, Vanderbilt University Press, 2016)


Brasil! Brasil! Episode 1: From Samba To Bossa (BBC, 2007)


Carmen Miranda: Beneath the Tutti Frutti Hat (BBC, 2007):


Mario Reis: The Mandarin (Director, Júlio Bressane, 1995)

Noel Rosa: Noel, o Poeta da Vila (Director, Ricardo van Steen, 2007)


She writes the songs: Recognizing the art of female songwriting

The music industry undervalues female identified songwriters, which is not surprising since our society undervalues women. Though composer-performers like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro, as well as songwriters in country music (e.g. Dolly Parton, Cindy Walker, Tammy Wynette) and jazz (Peggy Lee, Abbey Lincoln),  have inspired tribute albums female musicians are primarily viewed as vocalists. When jazz vocalist Cleo Laine released Woman to Woman in 1988, it stood out because it was comprised of songs written entirely by women. Though she noted in the liner notes that there was no shortage of songs to choose from, critics, historians, and audiences view composing primarily as a male occupation. Interpretive singers in a variety of genres cover songs by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, George and Ira Gershwin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, John Hiatt, and Bruce Springsteen so frequently that it is never remarked upon unless it is a conceptual project by a female singer. For example, Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls (2001) and Leann Rimes’s Lady and Gentlemen (2011) albums both flipped genders. Audiences seem to accept passively the idea that male songwriting lens are somehow universal, but this is patently false and distorted. Because of this perception female writers struggle for visibility and affirmation.   


 Brenda Russell, composer of "If Only for One Night" and "Piano in the Dark," is among pop music's most gifted yet unheralded songwriters. In addition to pop songs she has also written music for the musical version of The Color Purple and soundtracks.

Brenda Russell, composer of "If Only for One Night" and "Piano in the Dark," is among pop music's most gifted yet unheralded songwriters. In addition to pop songs she has also written music for the musical version of The Color Purple and soundtracks.

Intrinsic to these issues is whether there is something distinctly gendered about songs, if not in the music, then in the stories they tell. I am less concerned with literal anthems like Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” or Chaka Khan’s hit “I’m Every Woman” than subtler material. This is a difficult issue because while it’s incredibly essentialist to label a chord progression as “masculine” or “feminine,” especially since these notions are constructs, we can more easily tie gender to certain kinds of lyrics.  Female identified people are more likely to experience certain things socially, and female produced art reflects this reality. For example, we believe the multitude of singers who have interpreted the French ballad “My Man (Mon Homme)” (largely associated with Billie Holiday) because domestic violence against women is so prevalent. Similarly, while sexual assault affects people of multiple genders, it is (sadly) predictable that two female composers, Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, wrote the song “Til It Happens to You” as the anthem to the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault in higher education, which affects women disproportionately.


 Pop music is rarely as vulnerable and feminist in its sensibilities as the searing material on Cash's classic 1990 album. 

Pop music is rarely as vulnerable and feminist in its sensibilities as the searing material on Cash's classic 1990 album. 

Slightly less severe, but still relevant, are the sexual dynamics of intimate relationships. Rosanne Cash’s 1990 album Interiors, largely organized around her troubled married Rodney Crowell, has some of the most searing songs, musically and lyrically, in the contemporary folk-country canon. On “Dance with the Tiger” when she sings “Don’t give me your life/It was a brilliant idea inventing the home/Creatures of habit, American fools/Reaching for the stars while we’re standing on stools” the strains of idyllic American domesticity resonate. Though a man co-wrote the song, and might weigh in on marital challenges, the song feels even more poignant when juxtaposed with “Real Live Woman.” Here, she rejects her perceived role, as subservient to a man’s success and sings (probably to Crowell, who co-wrote the song!) “I don’t want to be a man/I just want to be what I am/I don’t want to hide my light so yours keeps shining.” I can only imagine the dinner table conversation about this song, but its premise is distinctly feminine in perspective.


 Williams's 1988 album featured songs later covered by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless, among others.

Williams's 1988 album featured songs later covered by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless, among others.

I hear similar experiential richness in in Lucinda Williams’s “Passionate Kisses” which was a Grammy winning hit for Mary Chapin-Carpenter in 1992. Women typically push society to view them complexly, hence the protagonist’s plea, “Is it too much to demand/I want a full house/And a rock and roll band.” I cannot imagine a male–identified person singing these verses because women bear the burden of child raising and managing their homes. They deserve the chance to also rock out. What moves me about this song is its plaintive affirmation of women as complete human beings, not just mothers or wives. Similarly, country composer-performer K.T. Oslin, who I have written about previously, has a knack for telling poignant truths about her experience. In 1988’s “This Woman” she is unapologetic about nomadic sexuality, “This woman’s in love with you baby/This woman don’t think you can do no wrong/But I feel it’s only fair to warn you/This woman don’t stay in love long.” 2001’s “Live Close by Visit Often” is equally honest in its jocular and jaundiced declaration, “I'm not lookin’ for a husband/Found out the hard way it doesn't work for me/I need a friend/I want a lover/I have to be alone occasionally.”


 Ida' Cox's 1924 composition "Wild Women" is still covered by musicians in the 21st century.

Ida' Cox's 1924 composition "Wild Women" is still covered by musicians in the 21st century.

Though we primarily associate the singer-songwriter era with the 1970s era onward women have voiced their distinct experiences for over a century.  For example, Bessie Smith’s’ classic migration tale, 1923’s “Far Away Blues,” speaks of black women migrating to the Chicago area only to miss certain elements of the South. “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” first written and performed by classic blues singer Ida Cox in 1924 encouraged women to have fun independently of their relationships, which was unique in the 1920s. Maria Muldaur covered Smith’s song in 2001, and Francine Reed and Saffire The Uppity Blues Women are among the many who have interpreted “Wild Women.” In both instances, a classic message of female experience transcended a single era.


 International superstar Gloria Estefan has written almost all of her material over her 30+  years musical career.

International superstar Gloria Estefan has written almost all of her material over her 30+  years musical career.

Because so many people associate female musicians with vocal performance many may not realize that famous vocalists, such as Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Adele, have written or co-written many, or most, of their recorded output. This does not make them inherently superior to non-writing singers, nor does it necessarily qualify them as feminists. But, it’s possible that the next hit you hear is written by a woman who is writing from a specific, rather than generically “universal” place; one that may require you to listen more intently.


 DeShannon has written many of pop music's most beloved songs including "Bette Davis Eyes," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," "Needles & Pins," and "When You Walk in the Room," among others.

DeShannon has written many of pop music's most beloved songs including "Bette Davis Eyes," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," "Needles & Pins," and "When You Walk in the Room," among others.

30 highly recommended albums for further listening featuring exclusive, or predominantly, female-authored songs, include the following:

1.      The Delta Sweetie (1968), Bobbie Gentry

2.      Eli & the 13th Confession (1968), Laura Nyro

3.      Tapestry (1971), Carole King

4.      Court & Spark (1973), Joni Mitchell

5.      The Changer & the Changed (1975), Cris Williamson

6.      Gail Davies (1978), Gail Davies

7.      Rickie Lee Jones (1979), Rickie Lee Jones

8.      The Wanderer (1980), Donna Summer

9.      This Woman (1988), K.T. Oslin

10.  Lucinda Williams (1988), Lucinda Williams

11.  Woman to Woman (1988), Cleo Laine

12.  Porcelain (1989), Julia Fordham

13.  Have You Seen Me Lately? (1990), Carly Simon

14.  Heartbeats Accelerating (1990), Kate & Anna McGarrigle

15.  Interiors (1990), Rosanne Cash

16.  You Gotta Pay the Band (1990), Abbey Lincoln

17.  Ingénue (1992), k.d. lang

18.  Diva (1992), Annie Lennox

19.  Maiden Voyage (1998), Nnenna Freelon

20.  The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), Lauryn Hill

21.  Bitter (1999), Me’shell N’degeocello

22.  Come And Get Me: Jackie DesShannon Best Of...1958-1980 (2000), Jackie DeShannon

23.  Words & Music, Volume 1 (2000), Jill Scott

24.  M!ssundaztood, (2001), P!nk

25.  Tropical Brainstorm (2001), Kristy MacColl

26.  Ultimate Collection: Brenda Russell (2001), Brenda Russell

27.  Verse (2002), Patricia Barber

28.  Essential Dolly Parton (2005), Dolly Parton

29.  I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005), Bettye LaVette

30.  Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women: Deluxe Edition (2006), Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women


 Jazz singer Cleo Lain's 1988 album features interpretations of songs written by female composers inclduing Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Melissa Manchester, among others.

Jazz singer Cleo Lain's 1988 album features interpretations of songs written by female composers inclduing Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Melissa Manchester, among others.


Ear adjustment: Exploring the untold history of Black Music

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter inaugurated June as Black Music History Month, which President Barack Obama renamed African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009. Though the concept of “black” music could apply to any kind of music performed by black people technically, we usually tend to understand it in terms of genre. Artists associated with hip-hop, R&B, reggae, blues, jazz and gospel are usually the starting point for conversations about intersections of blackness and musicianship. The historical emergence of these genres from black subcultures, ranging from the derivation of gospel from the West African “ring shout” to the post-industrial urban context that wrought hip-hop, defines this iconic association.

Yet, just as blackness as an identity, culture and realm of experience, must be understood beyond conventional wisdom, the music created by black musicians must be understood complexly. Music is a compelling space for uncovering obscure, or forgotten, artists whose stories tell a fuller richer story of blackness than usual.


 Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

 For example, most listeners primarily associate country music with Southern white musicians and audiences. Though many people are aware that artists like Ray Charles and Charley Pride broke color barriers in country music, and Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker has become a solo country star, there’s more to the story. The 1998 three-disc set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music introduced me to important figures rarely discussed in mainstream black music conversations. For many years, I thought jazz musicians were at the forefront of musical integration in the recording industry. In fact, Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, an integrated string band comprised of black fiddler Jim Booker, guitarist John Booker, banjo player Marion Underwood, guitarist Willie Young, and occasional vocalists, did the first racially integrated recording sessions in a studio in 1927.

 The geographic and cultural proximity of black, white and Native American musicians living in the South birthed a more diverse brand of Southern music than most people realize. There was a proliferation of string bands, like the Georgia Yellow Hammers, the Dallas String Band, James Cole String Band, and others, as well as solo performers.


 The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first African-American musician associated with the Grand Ole Opry’s radio program, from 1926-41. He also appeared on the Opry’s 1939 television debut on NBC’s Prince Albert Show. Despite these monuments he was not accepted fully, and experienced being referred to as the Opry’s “mascot” as well as the denial of service at restaurants and hotels when her toured small towns. While racism is a familiar trope in discussions of black musicians of his generation, less familiar is the way blacks who grew up in the Southern U.S. listened to country music and often emulated radio artists. Bailey’s grandfather was a fiddler, and Bailey got his big break after white string band leader Dr. Humphrey Bates recommended him to the producer of the WSM “Barn Dance” radio show, which became the Opry. Though these cross-cultural alliances were not necessarily typical of the industry a gradual cross-pollination took shape especially in the post-WWII era. Many of the musicians included on the set discuss their appreciation for the music and lyrics of country music, viewing it as a parallel to the blues. There are also important voices represented on the set, like Dobie Gray (1940-2011; famous for 1973’s “Drift Away”) and Bobby Hebb (1938-2010; who wrote the 1966 hit “Sunny”), who have defied genre rules throughout their careers and challenged conventional wisdom about the sound of black music.


 Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Folk music is another genre with a strong black presence. The more recent success of Rhiannon Giddens and her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a great link to the past. Before performers like Giddens, and Tracy Chapman, whose 1988 debut was an unexpected pop hit, there was the legendary Odetta (1930-2008). Classically trained as teenager Odetta performed in musical theater as a young adult before turning to folk music in the 1950s. After establishing herself on the nightclub circuit she became a prolific recording artist recording for the Tradition, Vanguard, Riverside and RCA Victor labels. Her recordings and performances, were complemented by her vigorous civil rights activism. Odetta was considered the premier folk singer of her generation and influenced performers like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, and Carly Simon.


 Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Other black superstars of the 1950s who influenced folk performers include Harry Belafonte (1927-present) whose dynamic performances and popular recordings of folk music from Jamaica, Trinidad, Peru, Israel and other countries made him the first world music superstar. He was also integral to introducing U.S. audiences to the South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), known as “Mama Africa”. A gifted singer, composer, and actress, and a fierce anti-apartheid activist, Makeba began performing in the U.S. in 1959 and began a successful recording career on RCA in 1960. She committed her life to her music and her activism and performed until the very end of her life.


Just as the southern rural black experience is rarely discussed, beyond country blues and delta blues musicians, the presence of blacks in the chic, sophisticated world of New York cabarets, a thriving cultural space form the 1930s-1960s is also elided. Cabaret singing is an intimate style of singing performed by stately but highly distinctive, often idiosyncratic singers who frequently focus on the Great American Songbook and obscurities. Well-known black singers like Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and Eartha Kitt have roots in cabaret. There are, however, are many others who never crossed over to mass audiences through TV or film.


 Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

One of cabaret’s most successful performers, Barbra Streisand began her career performing at the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village. But long before her there was Mae Barnes (1907-96) an African-American singer and dancer who was so popular the club was referred to as the Barnes Soir. Combining elements of Broadway, Vaudeville, and jazz in her live performances, and famous for her wit she was highly revered and rarely recorded.

 Mabel Mercer (1900-1984), born to an African-American father and English mother, grew up in Europe before immigrating to the United States in the 1940s. Famous for her perfect diction, rolled “R”s, and incomparable readings of lyrical nuances she was adored by composers like Bart Howard (“Fly me to the Moon”) and Cole Porter. Mercer was the queen of cabaret who influenced singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and held court at legendary clubs like Tony’s, Ruban Bleu, the Byline Room, and others. The St. Regis Hotel named a room after her in 1975; ion 1984 Stereo Review magazine established the Mabel Mercer Award to honor outstanding musicians, and in 1985 the Mabel Mercer Award Foundation was established.

 If Mercer was the Queen of cabaret Bobby Short (1926-2005) was the undisputed King. Born in Danville, Illinois he was a gifted pianist and distinctive vocalist who became a successful child performer in Chicago and then began performing throughout the U.S. and Europe. Known for his throaty voice, vast repertoire, and rapier wit he became a mainstay at the Café Carlyle from 1968-2004, and enjoyed a long recording career at Atlantic Records. He also recorded five albums for Telarc Records from the 1990s-2000s. Other notable black cabaret figures include Josephine Baker, Thelma Carpenter, Jimmie Daniels, and Leslie Uggams.

 Contemporary black performers with a background in cabaret include actor-singer Darius de Haas, Broadway actor Norm Lewis, Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald, and vocalist Paula West. Since cabaret is more of a performing genre than a recording field many cabaret-oriented singers are also actors. Related to cabaret then, is the history of black performers who have excelled in musical theatre on Broadway. This distinguished roster includes Belafonte, who won a 1954 Tony for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Sammy Davis Jr. who was acclaimed in 1964’s The Golden Boy, Eartha Kitt, nominated for Tonys for her performances in 1978’s Timbuktu! and 2000’s The Wild Party, Billy Porter’s role in 2013’s Kinky Boots, Lewis and McDonald, who performed together as leads in 2014’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and  the more recent triumph of actor-singer Leslie Odom Jr. in his Tony winning role in Hamilton.


 Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Classical music is another arena where the contributions of black musicians are often overlooked. In the vocal field female singers Marian Anderson (1897-1993), Leontyne Price (1927-present), Jessye Norman (1945-present), and Kathleen Battle (1948-present) are important figures with popular notoriety. Notable male voices include legendary actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1903-98) who originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess in 1935 as well as the role of Stephen Kumalo in Kurt Weill’s 1949 production Lost in the Stars. Some more contemporary figures include baritone Jubilant Sykes, and more emergent male vocalists including Jamaican born baritone Rory Frankson, lyric tenor Lawrence Brownless, and tenor Issacach Savage.


 Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

In the classical instrumental field there are many black musicians worth discovering such as Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, as well as notable organizations dedicated to diversifying the field. For example, the Sphinx Organization’s focus on training and developing underrepresented young musicians has culminated in the renowned Sphinx Virtuosi comprised of Black and Latino musicians. The website AfriClassical was also begun in 2000 to chronicle the history of people of African descent in classical music.


 Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

 Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Any legitimate effort to explore black history comprehensively requires exploring unheard and overlooked figures. The relevance of Black History Month lies in the ongoing opportunity to expand our understanding of the stories, experiences and achievements of blacks in America. Music is an important dimension for the music itself, and the histories that inform its creation and reception. It is no coincidence that many of the musicians listed above, like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Belafonte, Odetta and Makeba are as well known for their activism as their music. Theirs is a story worth exploring for the way it speaks to a larger richer story of the historical contours of blackness in America.

Additional resources:

AfriClassical website:

"Black Men Storm the Gates of Classical Opera":

Mabel Mercer Foundation:

"Six African American Country Singers Who Changed Country Music":

Sphinx Organization:


Whose history? Re-evaluating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual December announcement of new inductees inevitably stirs strong reactions ranging from “It’s about time!” to “Huh?” The 2017 class includes Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes. Commenting on this list is almost pointless since it represents a pattern: The Hall of Fame is a long standing source of confusion. For example, despite the “Rock and Roll” genre distinction pop singers (e.g. Madonna) and rappers (e.g. Run DMC) have been inducted as performers. Given this loose approach to genre it’s surprising that more performers who straddle genres, like Willie Nelson, are not inducted. 




Since 1986 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted new classes of performers, as well as non-performers, whose innovations and influences shaped in rock and roll, a genre that has existed since 1955. At least this is what people think this mission represents the Hall’s aspiration. If you actually review the Hall of Fame’s stated criteria you learn that innovation is not necessarily its center.

 Here’s how the Hall works: Each year a nominating committee (whose composition and criteria are murky) selects the nominees and circulates ballots to 900 + historians, music industry personnel, and musicians, including all previous Hall inductees. In 2012 this process was opened up to the general public whose ballot is reported weighed equally with the expert/insider ballot. The top five vote getters are inducted from these ballots and history is made.


 In addition to having 25 years of recording history, inductees must demonstrate, “unquestionable musical excellence and talent” and have significantly impacted the “development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.” These are four very different criteria that may explain the diffuse, inconsistent and strangely ahistorical nature of the Hall. Excellence and talent are broad and highly subjective concepts, though they imply remarkable musical technique and skill. Development and evolution speak to performances and/or recordings that have shifted the direction of rock and roll, and subgenres, significantly, which is an interesting challenge for a 60-year-old genre. Among these criteria preservation is the most concerning and conservative since it essentially rewards performers who replicate the rock and roll familiar.

 Delving into the Hall’s stated criteria negates the notion that the Hall is primarily interested in recognizing innovative musicians.  Apparently musicians who are simply “excellent” and “talented” are eligible, and perhaps weighted equally with those who have helped the genre “evolve/develop” and/or those who are fastidious students (imitators?) of rock, thus preserving its essence.

 The criteria above are relatively easy to apply to some of the Hall’s earliest inductees such as Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. Post 1950s popular music really would sound quite different without the influence of these pioneers. Still many of the Hall’s choices continually raise questions about how far the criteria can be stretched. To return to my earlier note, how much innovation has actually occurred in 60s years, as opposed to imitation and repetition?

 Perhaps performers’ inductions should be labelled by the development, evolution and/or preservation criteria? For example, the British punk group the Sex Pistols were inducted in 2006.  The Pistols were created by Malcolm McLaren to make more of a social statement than a musical statement evidenced by their lack of technical proficiency. Though the group caused an uproar in Britain, and excited U.S. music critics, they had little commercial impact in the U.S. and self-destructed quickly after two albums. Few would argue that they were musically excellent. They were musically and socially disruptive. And unquestionably influential to future punk bands in terms of attitude, style and tone. Since they turned punk inside out (briefly) and shaped other groups the development and evolution criteria apply. (In true punk fashion, lead singer Johnny Rotten wrote to the Hall rejecting the induction and the ceremony referring to the genre and the hall as a “piss stain” compared to the band.


 Punk-rock band Green Day was inducted in 2015. Are they pioneers or  better thought of as preservationists of a tradition? (Photo source: Photo credit: Mike Coppola/Getty).

Punk-rock band Green Day was inducted in 2015. Are they pioneers or  better thought of as preservationists of a tradition? (Photo source: Photo credit: Mike Coppola/Getty).

Comparatively, in 2015 Green Day, who were influenced by inductees like the Clash (2002), the Ramones (2003), and the Sex Pistols (2006), were inducted. Green Day is very enjoyable (to my ears), is probably the most commercially successful punk-oriented band ever, and has influenced younger groups like Sum 41. But calling them innovative is a stretch. They’re a preservation group; they mirror the essential style of their punk and rock predecessors with more finesse and pop savvy.

 Reading further, the Hall’s website unpacks musical excellence noting that, “Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills.” Though slightly more detailed, it, too, juxtaposes elements that can easily contradict each other.

For example, the first rock oriented band to integrate a substantial horn section was Blood, Sweat, & Tears. Yet they are not in the Hall of Fame, but Chicago, who replicated B, S &T’s horn driven sound, was inducted in 2015. Chicago has a longer discography, and managed to have more hits—their top 40 radio reign spans from 1970-91 compared to 1969-71 for B, S, & T. But, if influence and innovation were most salient B, S &T would have been inducted before Chicago. In this instance Chicago’s record sales and endurance were deemed more important than their originality.

The history issue is a particular inconsistency for the Hall. To its credit the Hall does induct performers listed as Early Influences including jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong, honky tonk legend Hank Williams, and “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington. But some of rock and roll’s most direct musical influences, such as jump blues singer Ella Mae Morse and white 50s R&B singer Johnnie Ray, are strangely absent. Wanda Jackson, who debuted in the 1950s is the “Queen of Rockabilly,” is particularly odd omissions. She was inducted in 2009 as an Early Influence, rather than as a performer, and decades after the male peers of her generation. 

Sexism also remains a sticky point for the Hall. Rock and Roll has long been viewed as a bastion of male privilege in lyrics, attitude and access. Female musicians have routinely shared horrific experiences of being demeaned, underestimated, and denied as artistic equals (and superiors!) to male musicians in the industry. Sadly, the Hall tends to replicate these patterns.

·         Among the 31 classes of inductees there have been 10 years without any female inductees, including 1986 and, most recently, 2016.

·         Among the 34 female inclusive inductions 15 were for solo performers, 15 were awarded to groups with male and female members, and four were awarded to all-female singing groups. Comparatively, 84 solo male performers and 104 all male groups were inducted. Thus 15% of solo artists in the Hall are female and 85% are male. Among single sex groups 4% are all-female and 96% are all-male. These huge disparities reflect the inherent gender bias of what several people, including musician Peter Wylie and writer Kelefah Sanneh, have termed as “rockism”: the presumption that rock music, understood narrowly, is automatically deemed superior to pop which typically includes genres with more female performers (e.g. disco, girl groups).


 Women are vastly underrepresented among the Hall of Fame's inductees. (Image source:

Women are vastly underrepresented among the Hall of Fame's inductees. (Image source:

Anecdotally speaking some of the oversights are surprising. Despite their impact on 1980s rock Pat Benatar and Tina Turner (solo) are strangely absent from the Hall, yet their relative male equivalent of the era, John Mellencamp is in. Male singer-songwriters like Billy Joel, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and James Taylor have been inducted, but Jackie DeShannon and Carly Simon are missing. Other names that come to mind include Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, The Carpenters, Rosanne Cash, Whitney Houston, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Maria Muldaur, Nina Simone, Phoebe Snow and Dionne Warwick. Some names for future Early Influences might include Odetta, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as Morse.

 I applaud the Hall for recognizing the ways many of the pioneering musicians who emerged in the mid-1950s created distinct new genres and sub-genres, and expanded on them. The gradual mainstreaming of R&B and country elements into the pop mainstream, the rise of youth cultures, and the ways post-1950s music has periodically articulated the sensibilities of members of the social and cultural underclass are important cultural achievements. Ones that have transcended the United States.

 But, in trying to take this music “seriously” the Hall has made regrettable procedural choices that continually taint its efforts including failing to define genre boundaries clearly, relying on ambiguous criteria, and operating from a teleological perspective that rock ‘n’ roll is something that inevitably evolves. The yardstick of time seems inadequate. How far does rock ‘n’ roll stretch? Beyond post-punk/modern rock and hip-hop rock hybrid groups like Linkin Park what does rock innovation look like over the last 25 years? Hip-hop inspired New Jack Swing, Hip-Hop Soul, and the retro-futurist Neo-Soul genre, but, again, what other musical influences will enable R&B to grow into something fresh? Hip-Hop began as urban dance music but broadened its scope to include novelty songs, crossover pop-rap, rap-rock, political rap, gangsta rap, etc. How many Public Enemies or Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliots are on the horizon?

 In its current form the Hall is more accurately understood as a Popular Music Hall of Fame that honors performers in a variety of popular genres who have achieved commercial success and a modicum of critical respect.  This inevitably reflects the interests of the record labels and music industry executives who fund the Hall, as well as popular commercial tastes, rather than something as intangible as innovation.  In other words, it’s a predictable entity that has recognized some great musicians, but rarely challenges conventional wisdom about who matters in pop music or offers alternate ways of thinking about music history.

 The Hall would be more impactful if it organized musicians more strategically. Based on the Hall’s current logic Buddy Holly, Darlene Love, Fleetwood Mac, The Clash, Madonna, and Yes are essentially equals who shaped and influenced Rock and Roll in some amorphous way. Compare this to a system that identified and group performers more categorically. In the context of post-1955 music there are discernible pioneers (e.g.  Berry, Holly, Wanda Jackson, Little Richard, Presley) who established genres and sub-genres; musicians who expanded its formal vocabulary (e.g. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Laura Nyro); and performers (e.g. Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day) who reliably and competently extended established styles.  

 These three areas theoretically prevent one from drawing false equivalencies because there’s an inherent connectedness and historicity to each. This proposed approach also allows us to distinguish the depth of contributions among musicians. The pioneer category would always be a smaller category since few musicians have established actual genres, and the vocabulary category would only be slightly larger. The genre extension category is in some ways the most diffuse because it’s more about competence and endurance than innovation, but still has potential to recognize artists of substance.


The Hall of Fame, and Museum, are well-intentioned but not quite realized endeavors. There are plenty of alternative spaces like the Experience Music Project, The Rock & Soul Museum, and The Stax Museum, as well as other Halls of Fame including the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame and NEA Jazz Masters ceremony.  But, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Museum, are the most prominent sites of rock history. They remain subjects of criticism because people who love rock and roll want its best elements elevated. The “official” nature of the Hall cements what many fans consider to be the elevation of the blandest and most commercially palatable aspects of rock. Further, the bureaucratic nature of both entities belies the rebellious spirit historically associated with rock and roll. Beyond this element, they represent an intriguing paradox: how do you publicly celebrate and historicize an artistic form that began diffusely as a rebellious secret?




2016’s Raves & Faves

During December writers in a variety of mediums (i.e. blogs, websites, and publications) commonly offer lists of the Best in a variety of genres including books, film and music. I enjoy participating in this tradition, but the commonality of the practice does not mean one’s choices must also be common. I love learning about notable art I may have overlooked and the best lists can illuminate these finds. As much as I have loved pop music historically, and as much as I will always relish a great hook and catchy melody theoretically, in practice I’ve mostly broken up with mainstream popular music. This past year Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Drake and Rihanna have dominated the commercial realm and the pop music discourse. Because of the extensive public coverage they receive I feel perfectly comfortable turning my attention to more obscure artists and less obvious music in my recap of the year’s best music.

 In academic terms “popular” (as opposed to pop) music simply refers to broadly accessible musical genres that do not typically require formal training from its practitioners or its audience. Thus blues, country, folk, gospel, hip-hop, punk, R&B, rock and even jazz, (which has sadly drifted into commercial obscurity) are popular genres. Classical music falls outside of this realm because conservatory training is essential to performing it though there are rare exceptions. When music crosses over to a large audience, which typically happens through a combo of promotion and sales, it simultaneously becomes “pop” even if it is stylistically grounded in a tradition. Eminem is stylistically hip-hop but saleswise he represents big pop. 

Pop music is a strangely diffuse/elastic term in the digital music era. The alleged digital democratization of music has actually created a chasm. Radio playlists are more rigid then ever limited the possibility of being exposed to new music that isn’t already earmarked. Since fewer risks are being taken music is more compartmentalized. You’re more likely to hear something off the beaten musical path on NPR or a podcast than a radio station. At this stage ballads, music recorded by singers over 35, blues, folk and jazz genres, and other such characteristics are dated and essentially mean automatic segregation. Brick-and-mortar record stores have been mostly displaced by streaming services, computers, MP3 players and smartphones. If you are not tech savvy and lack the financial means to constantly purchase and update these technologies regularly you have to work harder to discover new music made for and by adults. 

Essentially the music I find myself appreciating most is popular music technically just not commercially popular music. Caveats aside, 2016 has produced some superb new music and music related content in other genres. The year has also seen the passing of many significant musicians, amplifying the importance of keeping our eats open for innovation.

2016’s Finest “Semi-Popular” Music for Adults:


Secular Hymns by Madeleine Peyroux (Verve, 2016): After years of struggling to find her own voice Peyroux has landed firmly in the eclectic pop territory that defines great singers like Ray Charles, Maria Muldaur, and Charlie Rich. Recorded in an English cathedral built in the 12th century Peyroux and her bandmates cook up a rich musical stew featuring inspired interpretations of songs by important American songwriters including Stephen Foster (“Hard Times”), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Shout Sister Shout”), Allen Toussaint (“Everything I Do is Gonh be Funky”) and Tom Waits (“Tango Till They’re Sore”). Peyroux has never sounded funkier or more full of life, and neither have the songs.

Son Little by Son Little (Anti-, 2015): Son Little (Alan Livingston) is a Philadelphia based singer, writer and musician whose eponymous album (released in October 2015) is “beyond category,” to quote Duke Ellington. Little synthesizes electric blues, gospel, and folk music, with elements of R&B and hip-hop into a highly personal sound. For people who find modern R&B too slick and traditional electric blues too old-fashioned he’s a revelation. More than an alternative he offers new possibilities. Most thrilling is “The River” a kind of erotic neo-gospel tune with a thrilling pulse and urgent vocal.

Sting Variations by Tierney Sutton Band (BFM Jazz, 2016): Tierney Sutton, and the Tierney Sutton Band, ranks easily among the most creative vocal jazz artists.  Highly conceptual, she has shifted her focus from familiar pop and jazz standards toward transforming songs from folk music and pop music into jazz vehicles. The Band’s latest coup translates songs by Sting, including his solo work and songs from The Police, into surprising interpretive pieces that reveal their own elasticity and the flexibility of what constitutes jazz. Their dynamic reharmonization of “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” mash-up of “Fragile” with the bossa nova classic “Gentle Rain”, and the lullaby-like approach on “Every Breath You Take” are stunning. An endearing triumph from an innovative group of musicians.

Tillery by Tillery (Tillerymusic, 2016): Rebecca Martin, Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens are progressive solo jazz vocalists who pool their collective talents together on Tillery. They harmonize very seamlessly on a diverse repertoire that includes an endearingly romantic take on Prince’s “Take Me With U” and The Jacksons’ “Push Me Away” and originals. The spacious arrangements, played by an acoustic band (including Martin on guitar, ukulele, and charango; Parlato on charango; Stevens on guitar, and all three on hand percussion; and Pete Ende on piano and keys; Mark Giuliana on drums, Larry Grenadier on bass), have a haunting folk quality. Their vocal blends are consistently tuneful and their individual vocal qualities shine. A genre buster, rather than a predictable vocal jazz album, it is beautifully enchanted.

The Mood That I’m In by Marlene Ver Planck (Audiophile, 2016): Marlene Ver Planck is an 83-year-old interpreter who first debuted in 1955 but the the clarity of her lovely voice and the astuteness of her interpretations is timeless. On this sumptuous ballads collection, the veteran interpreter, backed by a jazz trio with trombone, sax, and flute solos, sings to you with the perfect combination of melodicism, intimacy, wit and rhythm. The title track is a lovely declaration of amorous desire, and the “It Started All Over Again/Second Time Around” medley is delightfully autumnal. Whether you call it cabaret, jazz or a combination, it’s a masterpiece of adult sensuality.

Harlem on My Mind by Catherine Russell (Jazz Village, 2016): Catherine Russell is the best fuser of classic blues and swing jazz sensibilities in vocal jazz. Her latest Harlem on My Mind focuses on songs from or in the spirit of the Golden Age of Harlem Jazz. As always she is a swinging interpreter who emphasizes melody and lyrics with acute rhythmic finesse. She balances familiar tunes like a breezy horn spoked “I Can’t Believe You in Love with Me” and a balmy “The Very Thought of You”, with cheeky tunes like “You’ve Got the Right key but the Wrong Keyhole” a fun Louis Armstrong number she milks perfectly. Russell also brings fresh perspective to solid but lesser-known songs like “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” Like Ethel Waters and Maxine Sullivan she is a quietly confident interpreter who is one with her material and band, and performs with a masterful yet disarming ease.

Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter (Blue Note, 2016): Porter continues to be the deepest soul brother in jazz. Though he is an excellent interpreter, he is at his best as a composer of songs that allow him to tell his story. Take Me to the Alley he uses his commanding yet sweet baritone to sing about relationships (“Insanity,” “Don’t Be a Fool”), social values (“French African Queen”) and spirituality (the title track) seamlessly and sensually.  


Live at Rosy’s by Sarah Vaughan (Resonance Records, 2016): In March Resonance Records issued Sarah Vaughan’s unreleased 1978 concert Live at Rosy’s recorded with her trio Paul Schroeder (piano), Walter Booker (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) at the New Orleans club. In addition to singing signatures like “Send in the Clowns” and “Poor Butterfly” she surprises with a playful version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” a lovely rendition of the ‘70s standard “Everything Must Change,” a swinging “A Lot of Livin to Do” (from Bye Bye Birdie) and hilarious patter. 34 years into her career her she has a slightly raspy patina but her falsetto flourishes and rhythmic instincts are as fresh as ever.


The Complete Trio Collection by Trio (Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt) (Warner Brothers/Asylum/Rhino, 2016): In 1987 country neo-traditionalist Harris, country legend Parton, and eclectic pop/rock star Ronstadt released their passion project Trio featuring three-part harmony interpretations of songs as disparate as Jimmie Rodgers’ “Hobo’s Meditation,” the 1950s rock and roll hit “To Know Him is to Love Him,” and Linda Thompson’s “Telling Me Lies.” Each was unified by rotating lead vocal duties and traditional acoustic string backing with limited drums. The result was an acclaimed and popular Grammy winning album that sounded more like it came from the 19th century than the late’80s. They followed it up in 1999, with Trio II, featuring songs from the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, and Neil Young, among others. Rhino Records has remastered and reissued them together with a third disc called Unreleased and Alternate Takes.  The original 1987 and 1999 albums are excellent introductions to the interplay of bluegrass, folk, and country music. The third disc is a revelation: Their versions of the 1880 hymn “Soft and Tenderly” and Pops Staples’s “You Don’t Knock” are powerful country-gospel. In addition to these gems, and alternate takes, the sets collect previous collaborations in one place including “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Mr. Sandman.” The liner notes are informative and conversational, and the remastering is excellent. Re-listening to these tunes and the rarer material points to a time in country when more artists felt compelled to take risks.

Most Notable Music on TV:

As I discussed in August’s blog (“The other great musical of 2016”) the CW’s acclaimed musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the medium’s most innovative programs. The show’s creative team brilliantly translates contemporary narrative sensibilities, including irony and metacommentary, into a compelling form combining with the verve of Broadway with the accessibility of pop culture. The show’s second season premiered in October 2016 and is even bolder, brasher and truer. I am not alone in my praise: the show has been nominated for multiple industry awards and won two Emmys (for camera editing and choreography), Critic’s Choice, Golden Globe and Television Critics Association (TCA) awards for lead actress Rachel Bloom, and a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series-Long Form.

Most Notable New Books on Music:

Two superb memoirs released this year illuminate the different ways music can shape our sense of self in our respective families.

In Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues and Coming of Age Through Vinyl (Beacon Press, 2016) music critic Rashod Ollison artfully details the solace and meaning of soul music and gospel provided for him during a difficult childhood in Arkansas.  His father lovingly introduced him to the pleasures of classic soul but left a void by abandoning him, his mother and his two sisters abruptly.  These trying circumstances increased pressure on his mother, who struggled financially and emotionally, and had to constantly move the family around. Ollison also contended with homophobic bullying and social isolation. Fortunately, his love of literature and music sustained him, helping him gain clarity about his family, his community, and himself.

Legendary singer Carly Simon grew up in a privileged East Coast family surrounded by parents, uncles, siblings, and friends whose confidence and expressiveness dwarfed the shy Simon who had a was physically awkward and had a lisp. During dinner her mother suggests she sing to overcome her lisp, and as detailed in Boys in the Trees: A Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2015) an emergent musician was awoken. Rather than reflecting on her whole career Simon tells a suppler story. She outlines her family roots, describes her gradual breakthrough in the folk and rock music scene, and reflects on her complex marriage to ex-husband James Taylor, ending her story around 1983. The candor and vulnerability of her best compositions defines her literary approach as well.


BEYOND MUSIC media favorites:

Non-Fiction: Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year American Lost its Mind and Found its Soul (Random House, 2016) is an insightful, meticulously researched, and tightly organized oral history of the 1969-70 period. It easily ranks among the more essential chronicles of a period when progressive movements transformed the nation culturally but struggled to convince a broad swath of culture progressive politics. Bingham’s interviews with a range of first hand participants from the antiwar, black power, women’s rights, and counterculture movements, including actors Peter Coyote and Jane Fonda, activists William Ayers, Daniel Ellsberg, Ericka Huggins and musicians like Stephen Stills, as well as photojournalists and former government agents present a complex and comprehensive view of the sociopolitical magnitude of this pivotal year.   

Essay collection: Acclaimed novelist (Salvage the Bones, Where the Line Bleeds) and memoirist (Men We Reaped: A Memoir) Jesmyn Ward, taking inspiration from James Baldwin’s seminal The Fire Next Time, gathers some of America’s finest poets, essayists, memoirists and scholars to address race in the 21st century on in the wide ranging collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Beyond the diversity of genres itself lies the joyful eclecticism of perspectives assembled. Highlights include Kiese Laymon’s loving depiction of his Grandmamma and the music of OutKast; Emily Raboteau’s visual essay on urban campaigns to increase civic awareness; Kevin Young’s hilariously acerbic takedown of faux-black Rachel Dolezal; and Edwidge Danticat’s “Message to My Daughter,” not to mention Ward’s reflection on the complexity of her DNA. Ward has assembled is a rich and colorful symphony of voices with great potential to transcend the era.


In Moonlight, a spacious, lyrical meditation on identity, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins presents one of the most complex and breathtaking portraits of African American male subjectivity ever filmed. The narrative vocabulary of American films has historically confined black men to a narrow range of stereotypical roles. By comparison, Moonlight provides a refreshingly intimate portrait of black malehood through focusing on the experiences of Chiron a young man who is navigating a complex mix of race, class, and gender social forces alongside other younger and older men in his community. Jenkins, cinematographer James Laxton, and composer Nicholas Britell employ a rich assortment of cinematic visual and aural techniques to tell a lean but purposeful story. The film is anchored by stellar performances from a gifted trio of actors, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who play Chiron at different ages, as well as excellent supporting performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Andre Holland.


Notable 2016 Musician Deaths (a selective list)


Mose Allison (jazz)

Ernestine Anderson (jazz/R&B)

David Bowie (pop/rock)

Otis Clay (R&B)

Leonard Cohen (pop/rock)

Natalie Cole (jazz/pop/R&B)

Glenn Frey (pop/rock)

Merle Haggard (country)

Bobby Hutcherson (jazz)

Sharon Jones (R&B)

Billy Paul (pop/R&B)

Prince (funk/pop/R&B)

Prince Be (hip-hop)

Leonard Russell (pop/R&B)

Toots Thielemans (jazz)

Maurice White (pop/R&B)

Buckwheat Zydeco (zydeco)




Songs for Our Now: A playlist for survival and centeredness

Songs for Our Now: A playlist for survival and centeredness

In the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, where I’ve lived most of my adult life, November is always a transitional month. At times it even inspires a kind of cyclical mourning. As the leaves fall, the temperatures drop, and the landscape’s colors morph from vibrant postcards into barren withered browns we, too, shift in posture and color. In the present moment many Americans are searching for the most resonant emotional chords.   Navigating the changing scenery also means being enveloped by the swirl of emotional uncertainty. We are simultaneously seeking solace and inspiration to cosset us from acute feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness, and ambivalence.

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
(“Autumn Leaves” English Lyrics by Johnny Mercer)

Music is, naturally, an almost undefined, intangible space of reckoning. Certain melodies, words, and tones can cohere into irresistible musical forms that move us unexpectedly.  When the right pitch catches us we feel heard; it grounds us and we are poised for new vistas. In this spirit I offer an anthology of songs that sings to us in this particular moment. I was inspired by food writer extraordinaire Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, a generous collection of interwoven stories and recipes documenting losses in her life that gave her life meaning.  Rather than seeking music that merely enrages or soothes, I have chosen music representing a vast palette of emotions.

“O’ Death” (sung by Marion Williams): For creating room to moan, cry, grieve, and lament.

“Autumn Leaves” (sung by Eva Cassidy): For capturing the bittersweet flavor of fall and the uncertain season ahead.

“I’m not ashamed to sing the blues” (sung by Bobby “Blue” Bland): For those moments when you must express your truth in an effort to transcend it.

“Day Dream” and “Wave” (sung by Sarah Vaughan): For when we need to escape into sonic reverie, the kind only available to us through the most sublimely luxuriant and enveloping voices.

“O Shenandoah” (sung by Rene Marie): For reminders of the beauty of the American landscape even in the ugliest of times.  

“City of New Orleans” (sung by Allen Toussaint): For times when we must remind ourselves of the interconnectedness of communities, cities, and states beyond region.

“I Can See Cleary Now” (sung by Holly Cole): For times when you need beams of hope that sustain you, even if such optimism feels illusory.

Can you hear the words being whispered
All along the American stream
Tyrants freed the just are imprisoned
Try to rekindle the patriot’s dreams
(“Patriot’s Dream” Lyrics by Arlo Guthrie)

“Patriot’s Dream” (sung by Jennifer Warnes): For those seeking a reason to fight for democracy that feels under siege.

“American Tune” (sung by Paul Simon): For when you must press on in spite of it all.

“Ol’ Man River” (sung by Aretha Franklin): For acknowledging the unheralded dignity and sacrifices of hard working people especially those from the social and economic underclass.

“My Petition” (sung by Jill Scott): For when we are longing for eloquent challenges to blind faith.


I want fresh fruit, clean water,
Air that I don’t see
I want the feeling of being safe on my streets
I want my children to be smarter than me
I want, I want to feel
I want to feel, I want to feel free
For real ya’ll
I’m just telling you so you know
I want to, I want to have faith in you
I really do but you keep lying to me
It hurts
(“My Petition,” Lyrics by Jill Scott)

My aim is restorative listening. Please share, re-mix, re-sequence, and listen to whenever and however you choose.


A Gay Old (and New) Time: What do “gay music” and “women’s music” mean now?

Several years ago I made a playlist called A Gay Old Time—a tongue-in-cheek reference to its mix of jubilant pop tunes from openly gay (e.g. k.d. lang, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael) and iconically gay (e.g. Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand) artists. It’s the kind of CD I wanted to play in the car or the office, or at home that might lead a casual listener to say “Those songs are so gay!” in a jocular appreciative manner. I made the playlist as a celebration and nod to the resonance of singers as disparate as Judy Garland and ‘80s British pop group The Communards to multiple generations of LGBTQ listeners.

 An old mix CD still resonates today.

An old mix CD still resonates today.

In the early 2000s when I was working on my dissertation on gay and lesbian musicians I read Christopher Nealon’s fantastic book Foundlings which explores gay and lesbian cultural identity before Stonewall and the politicization of LGBTQ identity. A central thread of his argument is the role culture played in bonding queer people before there was a formal movement. In other words the way a man dressed, the language he used, the neighborhoods he socialized in and, most centrally, the culture he consumed signified to other man that he was “family” before people formally “came out” and identified using terms like gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.

Though I was born seven years after Stonewall this relates to my own story in many ways. When I was in kindergarten I knew I was gay, though at the time people used euphemisms that suggested was an identity necessitating discretion. Looking back this moment of personal awareness was less a point of pride or shame than a moment of recognition. Like many kids I suffered the indignities of bullying and teasing for being “different” for part of my childhood and adolescence from peers, and tacitly from the mainstream society. Rather than consulting with friends and family, who did not relate and would not have been helpful, or seeing a therapist I went to college. There, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a critical mass of people who were open in their intimate identities and secure in themselves and best of all, accepted. One of the ways I bonded with my queer peers was via taste. At the time thumping club music suing by exuberant divas was “gay” as was music from previous generations including disco, cabaret, and torch songs by classic divas like Judy, Bette, Lena, and Liza, among others. Alongside these female icons who were lionized by generations of gay men previously, there were male performers like Elton John, George Michael, Pet Shop Boys, whose were gay and whose music resonated on a variety of levels for the mainstream and for queer men. Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, Freddy Mercury and Queen, and Sylvester were among the other men who fit this even if I didn’t listen to them a great deal.

The notion of “gay music” is limiting in many respects and overlooks the broad appeal of these artists, but it would be a mistake to discount the ways the music referenced above resonated and still resonates for many queer people for reasons beyond identity politics. For me some of the appeal of the great divas and some of the more expressive male vocalist like Mercury is their willingness to break through the box of male emotional suppression. Their art gives listeners permission to experience their emotional lives in an expressive form uninhibited by social limitations.  Through them your sense of being disrupts gender norms by offering different expressive possibilities. I believe gender is very much a social construct of how to be (as do many gender theorists!) and even the most conventional gender normative straight man desires to transcend expectations and delve into more vulnerable and communications forms of expression than they are allowed. Music is a distinct texture that permits these performances. Many men are scared by the idea of admitting they like music marked as “gay” (e.g. dance music, torchy songs) but secretly find immense freedom and pleasure in it because they get to inhabit themselves differently.

 Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

When I was writing my dissertation, which addresses gay and lesbian musicians who began their career prior to gay liberation I explored that life and careers of female musicians like Laura Nyro and Dusty Springfield, and the history of performers associated with the “women’s music circuit like Margie Adams, Cris Williamson, and Holly Near, among others. This also involved exploring the complex relationship younger generations of female musicians have to lesbian feminist politics and the gender politics of the genre which was self-contained, independent and aspired to employ female identified musicians, engineers, promoters, distributors, record label heads, and other personnel.

Many younger women found the music lacking in fun and the politics too rigid and separatist, especially the exclusion of men from the recording process and transwomen from women’s music festivals. These are understandable critiques though we must always look back contextually. Concepts of safety from patriarchy and violence have evolved for many women, and many women who identified with second wave and lesbian feminism have grown more comfortable with the idea that male identified people can be supportive allies. Few social movements endure without evolving and the women of the circuit deserve this critical consideration. Minimally we should appreciate the women’s music circuit as a pioneer of the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) aesthetic and appreciate the space they were trying to create—one that valued women as musical artists before this was fashionable in the mainstream, as well as recognized their unique social struggles.

I remember purchasing Williamson’s beautiful 1975 singer-songwriter album The Changer and the Changed, a classic of women’s music, and thinking it if weren’t for sexism and homophobia she would have been as big commercially as many of her singer-songwriter peers in the ‘70s. Regardless she is “ours” in the sense that she spoke to who many women of the era, and even as a queer man I relate easily to her words and melodies.

Of course queer people listen to more than disco, folk music, torch songs, or showtunes. The world is a big place that belongs to queer people as much as anyone and queer taste is eclectic. It’s only slightly surprising that there are openly gay country singers like Brandi Carlile, Billy Gilman, Steve Grand, Ty Hendon and Chely Wright.  Mainstream culture informs queer lives and the mainstream has been queered. You don’t have to be queer to hear Williamson just open. As a culture we have inched forward in recognizing the fluidity of gender and gradually made may core social institutions more welcoming and inclusive. Though homophobia and genderphobia sadly manifest themselves in many forms on a regular basis for many people they have become less socially acceptable in unexpected places like the military, professional athletics and civil society. Like many of my sistren and brethren I worry that some of the intracultural touchstones that made queerness a poignant open secret for many of us have lost their luster. Rather than relegating them to some less enlightened past I prefer we think of them as part of a cultural continuum. Even though the world changed after Stonewall there was a lot of possibility, but public and clandestine, that occurred before the birth of a formal “named” movement and the threat of exclusion still looms. Though singers like Tyler Glenn, Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, and Chely Wright are “out” now they were not at the beginning of their careers. This is important because it’s a sign that we are not in a post-gay world. Identity still matters, and fears of not being accepted or even of being pigeonholed and narrowcast are surely part of their process and that of other public queer figures. Not to mention the pressure of being viewed as an icon or role model, even if they do not feel confident in their identities or conversant about LGBTQ history and politics.

 Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

This summer I put the finishing touches on my forthcoming book Rocking the Closet: Queer Male Musicians and the Power of the Closet. I conclude the study, which focuses on men from the ‘50s, including Liberace, Johnnie Ray, Little Richard and Johnny Mathis, by interrogating the contemporary assumption that they were closet cases who had to be ambiguous and that today’s musicians are more liberated. The times change but the pressures to confirm to others’ ideas about who and how we’re supposed to behave endures. Their journeys differ than those of Glenn or Ocean, but each case raises questions about how being different can be a source of both intrigue for audiences and frustration for musicians.

 Frank Ocean's 2016 album  Blond  is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

Frank Ocean's 2016 album Blond is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

My A Gay Old Time playlist still makes me smile (and dance!) because it’s an inside joke and a public statement, not to mention a really fun listening experience. What I also enjoy about it is that it, and what it represents, feels as alive today as it did many years ago. When these songs play queer people recognize themselves, many straight people relate to the joy within, and maybe everybody dances in parallel or together. No one is giving up who they are but understanding themselves more complexly.



The Best Years in popular music?

The recent publication of David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year the Rock Exploded garnered attention recently because he argues that, “nobody imagined 1971 would see the release of more influential albums than any year before or since” (2). Of course he’s wrong, but you can read my thoughts on his book via my August 2016 Book Review located elsewhere on the blog. His argument is more than just a list of albums, but it inspired me to think about my favorites years in pop music culminating in the list below. I had a hard time choosing so I divided things into singles and albums for variety. Enjoy!



 The late 1970s is often thought of in terms of the dominance of disco but I can’t think of a year that yielded more memorable pop singles across a spectrum of genres than 1979.  Though disco yielded execrable one hit wonder type hits a number of artists like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees created a consistent group of songs in the style that have endured beyond the halcyon days of disco proving the genre is as capable of greatness as any other genre. Some disco classics from what’s sometimes called the end of disco (it wasn’t) include the following:

·         “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All the Lights”: a pretty perfect trifecta from the Queen of Disco Donna Summer

·         “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” the combustible lead single from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall

·         “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor the quintessential wounded-lover-survival-revenge anthem

·         “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out,” pillowy falsetto laden hits from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown

·         Other classic disco hits: Chic’s “Le Freak” and “Good Times”; Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”; Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”; McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”

 1979 was also the year when more danceable and melodic rock music inspired by element of punk and even disco hit the radio. Blondie scored with the disco rock (rock disco) hit “Heart of Glass” as well as the searing “One Way or Another” and “Dreaming.” The Cars scored with buoyant hits like “Good Times Roll,” “Let’s Go” and “Its All I Can Do.” Joe Jackson asked “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”  and Nick Lowe observed how its “Cruel to Be Kind.”

 In the R&B world, of which many disco hits were co-members, some signature songs included sweet ballads like Earth, Wind and fire’s “After the love is Gone,” The Commodores’ “Still,” and Teddy Pendergrass’s “Turn off the Lights.” There were also funk classics like Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover” and Rufus’s “Do you Love What You Feel.”

Great pop songs also covered a spectrum including the lusciously sung polyrhythmic “What a Fool Believes” (Doobie Brothers), the jazzy boho anthem “Chuck E’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones), and oddball songs like “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (Rupert Holmes). Country was in a syrupy crossover phase (Kenny Rogers anyone?) and a lot of rock was mired in overproduction though songs like Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” stood out from so-called “corporate rock.” 

When people complain contemporarily about the lack of variety on mainstream radio today it’s hard not to point out somewhat nostalgically that during a time when many rock critics felt like pop was losing its way the radio could accommodate songs that represented a broad quilt of tastes.

 ALBUMS: 1984

The LP was originally developed in the late 1940s for “serious” music (e.g. classical music). Then in the early 1950s popular singers released EPs and LPs with more content pushing them from singles artists to albums artists. Singers like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were pioneers who organized albums around themes. Though The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (1967) is often thought of as rock’s first “concept album” this is untrue. Plenty of prior albums were made to tell a story and convey a concept. Regardless the technical and compositional feats of Sgt. Pepper helped solidify albums as the marker of great artists in the rock era. Sure a great single was something to savor but an album showcased one’s artistry more fully.   

 I nominate 1984 as the apex of album making so far. When you survey the popular albums of the era multiple sets register as classics or near classics that defined the sound of the era. Some of the best albums include:

 1984 (Van Halen)

Big Bam Boom (Hall & Oates)

Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen)

Building the Perfect Beast (Don Henley)

Can’t Slow Down (Lionel Richie)

Heartbeat City (The Cars)

Like a Virgin (Madonna)

Private Dancer (Tina Turner)

Purple Rain (Prince)


She’s So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper)

My tastes lean toward the popular but for those who like things with more of an edge this was the year R.E.M released Reckoning and U2 released The Unforgettable Fire. For people who like the poppiest of pop Wham! released Make it Big and Huey Lewis & the News released Sports this year. For those who like it mellow Sade released Diamond Life (Happy now?).

Whereas the early 1980s meandered greatly—few great albums were released between 1980-82 it was such a transitional time in pop—1984 was a highly concentrated burst of albums that introduced new performers, solidified the strengths of veterans, and yielded music a broad spectrum of people enjoyed. Please email me your favorite year in pop music: I would love to know the year, the music, and the rationale.




The other great musical of 2016: Hamilton can’t get all the buzz this year

In January 2016 when I watched actress Rachel Bloom accept the Best Actress Comedy/Musical award at the annual Golden Globe Awards I thought here’s another “hip” show I’ve never heard of that the notoriously fickle Globes are recognizing and never thought about it again. More recently a friend and I were perusing Netflix and watched the first two episodes which were astutely funny and surprising. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not a traditional sitcom in the sense that it is over 40 minutes, had some darkly humorous overtones, oh yeah and it’s a musical sitcom. As with any great musical when emotions exceed reality characters launch into the surreal singing original songs, often with choreography, that are genius formally and as character devices.


 The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be the best musical you're not watching! 

The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be the best musical you're not watching! 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was an idea hatched by Bloom with Aline Brosh McKenna and Marc Webb. Though there have been musical series on network television (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs on the CW) most are forgettable and/or asinine. Cop Rock anyone? Anyone? About a decade ago shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scrubs and Psyche, had musical episodes but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does not treat the musical format as a novelty. It’s intricately woven into the blueprint of the series and fortunately employs gifted singing actors including Broadway actors Donna Lynne Champlin and Santino Fontana.

 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was originally developed by cable network Showtime. For whatever reason the show shifted to the CW making it more accessible to a wider range of audiences. The show’s premise (humorous summarized in a brilliant Emmy-nominated theme song) is that Rebecca is a successful New York lawyer whose happiest memory is dating Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) in a summer camp as teenagers. She is miserable and ruins into him on the streets of New York. After a brief exchange he mentions he is leaving New York to live in his hometown of West Covina, California. Impulsive, desperate, and ready for a change Rebecca decides to quit the firm and move to West Covina. Despite being Harvard educated and about to make partner her divorced parents haunt her as does the reality that the real world she’s trained for is not quite as fun as camp. Embarrassed by her motives she pretends she is in West Covina on a whim which sets her up for some dramatic situations throughout the season. She immediately encounters people in Josh’s social circle and she and her co-worker develop a series of ridiculous schemes, often patterned after romantic comedies, to win Josh over. The problem for Rebecca is that Josh is already in a serious long-term relationship with the vain, unpleasant Valencia.


As the season plays out you get a nuanced understanding of each character. Josh is a happy-go lucky type but he is a suspended adolescent in many ways, and beneath the surface lies uncertainty about his career and relationship. Greg (played by Santino), Josh’s best friend is a dark character who is drawn to Rebecca and grows increasingly frustrated with her playing second fiddle to her emotions for Josh. Greg is intelligent and perceptive but family issues have retarded his progress. Her co-worker and friend Paula (played by Champlin) commands respect at the law firm where they work but is isolated at home with distracted kids and an inattentive husband.  Supporting characters include Rebecca and Paula’s boss Daryl (Pete Gardner) whose divorce leads him to other revelations, and Josh and Greg’s friends “White Josh” (David Hull) and Hector (Erick Lopez).

 Other cool things about the show: The cast is genuinely multicultural, including Indian-American, Filipino-American (Josh is Filipino-American), and Latino characters. Diversity is also integrated into the supporting characters and extras, meaning it actually resembles California.  There is also some sexual diversity, including the rare bisexual character, and ongoing integrations of religious cultures in the show. Tonally, the show has a sense of humor about itself and its characters but there is genuine drama informing the comedy making it that much funnier. Finally there are sublimely ridiculous moments like an arbitration hearing that is suspended by a judge when Rebecca accidentally sends a text to Josh. A hair metal band battle emerges over whether it’s a “Textastrophe” or “Textmergency.”


Musically the show is masterful at pastiche. I can’t think of any TV series that has employed hip-hop so cleverly including spoke-sung raps about winning over parents, the burden of large breasts, and a battle between two self-identified Jewish American Princesses.  You also get a peppy mid-tempo pop tune in the style of Huey Lewis, several jazzy tunes, including the Emmy nominated “Settle for Me,” a bombastic heal-the-world style song sung with a children’s choir, a boy band parody, and a torch song with multiple crescendos among others. Almost every song has a tongue-in-cheek meta-dimension. The songs are not only knowing send-ups of popular genres, but also comment on television itself. Television reached a golden era in the late 1990s-mid-2000s and networks and cable are trying to compete with brilliant shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon Prime’s Transparent. That a smart and innovative program airs on network television is a welcome change from stale line-ups filled with crime procedurals and bland melodramas.


Broadway musicals, and their cinematic offshoots, are a distinctly American genre that defined popular music from the mid 1920s-1960s. Cast albums regularly topped the sales charts in the 1950s and 1960s, popular singers across genres sang the best Broadway melodies, showtunes were on the radio regularly, and singing actors and actresses were mainstays on television variety shows. On Broadway musicals became increasingly more expensive to stage, audiences lost their interest in film musicals in the 1970s, and audiences divided their musical tastes more diffusely than ever in the late 1960s onward. As a result few musicals, aside from megahits like Rent or films like Frozen, spawn hit songs and reach the broader public. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed hip-hop musical Hamilton has won a slew of awards, spawned a popular cast album and is being filmed for public television. Whether it results in crossover songs seems unlikely given the subject matter. Still bravo to Miranda for taking a chance, and bravo to the CW for airing the best musical outside of Broadway. The show is up for several Emmys for songwriting and choreography (airing in September) and the second season returns to air in October.       




“Contagious in His Enthusiasms”: Part 2: Pop, Rock, Country, and R&B edition

Riffs, Beats & Codas Readers: Last month I shared some of my favorite albums in a variety of musical genres in the spirit of being “contagious in my enthusiasms.” Ideally this list comes during a time when folks have a bit more leisure time. My hope is that these lists can help you build your music collection whether you like to just listen, purchase, or both. Rather than aiming for a generic canonical listing I share recordings I listen to often that have shaped my own thinking about certain genres.

This month I focus on Gospel, R&B/Soul, Singer-Songwriter Pop, Big Pop, Rock ‘n’ roll and Rock, and Country. Happy listening!

Gospel and soul music left the church a long time ago: “Race” records were a commercial niche that became “Negro” music, and were then rechristened R&B in 1949. All of these labels are limited, but over the last century Black protestant music has remained a vital source of popular music. Despite the record industry’s attempts to confine black music, and black creative artists, to niches an array of groundbreaking artists.

Gospel is the root of soul and R&B music and their derivatives.  The call and response interaction between the lead singer, fellow singers, and audiences, the use of melisma and blue notes, the use of syncopation, ecstatic gestures like falsetto notes and other musical characteristics of soul/R&B all derive from the black Protestant tradition. My favorite gospel singer is Marion Williams. Though she has the voice and technique to have become a major R&B singer she never went secular and devoted her whole career to gospel. 1992’s Strong Again is a soulful and uplifting collection of songs. You can tell Williams absorbed elements of secular jazz and blues and integrated them into the mix. She does traditional gospel fare like “Just As I Am” and “Oh Happy Day,” originals like “Prayer List,” and some secular covers including Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

The true precedent to rock ‘n’ roll is Jump Blues and the work of Louis Jordan whose prime material is collected on the excellent Let the Good Times Roll 1938-1953, is its pioneer. Jordan was a musicians, bandleader, and performer whose signatures include “Let the Good Time Roll,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and other classics. His music saw no boundaries—swing jazz, blues, gospel, and elements of vaudeville come together in his music. His repertoire is covered widely and devotees like B.B. King and Joe Jackson have recorded Jordan tribute albums.  

 R&B: In the late 1940s-late 1950s popular singers translated the passion and musicality of gospel music and its rituals into secular forms. Hence the birth of soul music. The albums below are either compilations or albums that capture the essence of R&B. 

·         Bobby Blue Bland Greatest Hits Volume 1: The Duke Recordings: A perfect introduction to the songs that made the legendary Memphis singer including “Stormy Monday,” “Who Will the Next Fool Be” and “Chains of Love.”

·         Birth of Soul: Brother Ray Charles’s initial genius flowered during his early recordings for Atlantic Records. This boxed set is the Rosetta Stone of soul featuring seminal recordings like “What I’d say,” “I Got a woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Night Time is the Right Time.” 

 ·         Best of Esther Phillips: Esther Phillips was a staple in the R&B market from 1949-54 performing as “Little Esther.” At that time she was often paired with male R&B singers and recorded with pioneers like Johnny Otis. She took a hiatus from recording to deal with substance abuse issues and came back in the early-60s recording for Atlantic Records from 1962-71 where she scored several R&B and pop hits. In 1971 Phillips switched to Kudu/CTI Records where her material was grittier and less poppy. She left Kudu for Mercury Records where she recorded from 1977-81. Phillips was a very versatile singer with a distinctive nasal voice, and a down-home approach to interpreting lyrics. Best, issued by Rhino Records, focuses on her 1960s recordings when she made her biggest impact with her soulful wailing sound. During her fruitful period at Atlantic Records she recorded hits like the country-soul classic “Release Me,” standards and and several classic live sets.

 ·         Chess Box: At Chess Records Etta James got the songs and arrangements that put her on the map as a major singer. Her finest album at Chess, At Last! Is a classic featuring the epic emotional discovery of the title track, her sexy take on “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” and great performances on “Trust in Me,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” among others. Her Chess work has been compiled numerous times but the best place to go is the superb Chess Box. You get all of her hits, including “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Tell Mama,” key album tracks and rarities, and live performances spanning the early 60s through the early 70s. James adapted well to numerous environments and styles during her Chess tenure including soul, funk, country and the singer songwriter pop of writers like Randy Newman.

 ·         Aretha Franklin: 30 Greatest Hits: This is a flawless double-disc documenting Franklin’s rise to the Queen of Soul. Songs like “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman,” “Save Me,” etc. translated the passion of gospel into a vibrant secular style that made soul the new national cultural language.

 ·         Talkin’ ‘Bout You: Though Schuur is an acclaimed jazz singer she was deeply singers on the bluer end of the jazz spectrum like Dinah Washington and Helen Humes. 1988’s Talkin’ ‘Bout You is an endearing valentine to the interrelationship of gospel, R&B and jazz in shaping singers of the 1950s generation. Schuur confidently tackles Ray Charles, Helen Humes and Dinah Washington signatures respecting their basic blueprint but adding her own brand of soul. She also gives memorable performances of “For Your Love” and “Cry Me a River” alongside several superb originals including the levitating “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon.”

 ·         Simply the Best: Live!: Irma Thomas is the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who originated songs like “Time is on My Side,” “It’s Raining,” “Wish Someone Would Care,” “Ruler of My Heart,” which Otis reading remade as “Pain in My Heart.” 1991’s Live! Is a sizzling set covering the soul master's incredible command of soulful balladry and dance cuts. You get signatures like “Breakaway,” “Time is On My Side,” “It’s Raining” and “Wish Someone Would Care” in vibrant new arrangements. She also cooks on the near testimonial “I Needed Somebody,” a soulful “Oh Me Oh My” and two R&B medleys.  Her performance is sharp, the band is on and the audience is in love. A great career summary and introduction to her powerful style. Thomas is New Orleans royalty, and remains a vital performer.

Pop-Soul: In the early ‘60s black music’s appeal steadily grew in its appeal to a broader base of listeners. Motown’s aspiration to become the Sound of Young America was a concentrated effort to make crossover music that captured the essence of black music elements but also appealed to white listeners especially young people. Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Martha & the Vandellas, and later acts like the Jackson 5 were at the forefront of this musical and cultural movement. The boxed set Motown Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-71 captures the fruits of this substantial effort. Combining elements of gospel, pop, and girl group pop Dionne Warwick translated her gospel background and formal music training into one of the defining sounds of early to mid-60s pop. Her polished but emotive sound blurred the lines between black gospel and white pop into a transcendent and influential popular style via her interpretations of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-Time Greatest Hits highlights the cream of this sizable crop.

Southern Soul: While Motown focused on smoothing out some of R&B’s rough edges the Memphis based label Stax/Volt became the premiere Southern Soul label. Stax was home to Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and various R&B voices. The double disc collection Stax 50: 50th Anniversary Celebration is an excellent overview of the label’s pivotal contributions to ‘60s and ‘70s soul and pop. After you listen to this introductory sampler you’ll definitely want to explore individual artists.

No R&B collection is complete without the graceful exuberance of Memphis Soul singer Al Green. 21 of his finest Hi Records recordings are collected on The Definitive Greatest Hits (Capitol, 2007) including his prime material from the 1970s (e.g. “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness”) and a few selections from the 2000s. 

Electric Blues: Four of my favorite electric and modern blues albums capture the blues in a variety of flavors.

·         B.B. King: MCA’s 1992 boxed set King of the Blues is a superb four disc introduction to the finest post-war blues musician of the 20th century B. B. King. King’s signature voice and virtuosic electric guitar “Lucille” are indelible signatures of contemporary popular music that have deeply shaped R&B, rock, and blues singing, playing and interpretation.

Spanning 1949-91 the set includes several rare unreleased recordings and various singles and album tracks recorded for RPM, Kent, Chess, ABC, Bluesway, and MCA.  King’s vocal tone and fluid playing are evident from the earliest tracks bit it is particularly thrilling to hear his sound grow richer over time as recording technology becomes more sophisticated and he refines his signature sound.  The set also reminds listeners of King’s skills as a composer (“Three O’ Clock Blues,” “Rock My Baby”) and his stylistic range as he tackles jazz standards, R&B, and pop with the same aplomb he brings to the blues.

Disc One (1949-66) showcases his blues roots and his important contributions to the blues and R&B fusions that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. The 1966-69 period covered on Disc Two and Disc Three’s 1969-75 showcase King adapting to contemporary rock and R&B production trends; even amidst slicker settings and trendier material King is firmly present. Casual fans will of course recognize “The Thrill is Gone” but there are abundant riches like “Nobody Loves me But My Mother” and “Ghetto Woman.” By Disc Four (1976-91), led by a live version of “Let the Good Times Roll” with protégé Bobby “Blue” Bland, he has shifted away from composing toward covers, the production is slicker than ever, and there are more collaborations (Bland, U2, Bonnie Raitt) a pattern he continued well into the 2010s.

·         Etta James: Seven Year Itch and Blues to the Bone are two excellent examples of Etta James’s singing in a blues context. Seven is a modern blues set with a strong R&B bent that finds her interpreting songs by Ann Peebles and Otis Redding in her raw, powerful style, and recording classic versions of songs like “Damn Your Eyes.” Blues is a straight up Memphis and Chicago blues with commanding performances of “Got My Mojo Working,” “Dust My Broom” and “You Shook Me” sung by James at the height of her interpretive powers.

·         Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas: Sing It! is a thrilling summit featuring three modern R&B and blues masters: Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas. Joyful, poignant, and soulful it features a range of songs on the spectrum including Bobby Blue Bland’s “Yield Not to Temptation,” “You Don’t Know Nothin’ About Love,” and “Love Maker.”

Philly Soul, Quiet Storm, and Retro Nuevo Soul: In the 1970s black pop diversified to include more conceptual, album-oriented music. Songs were longer, themes were even more romantic, and the production values grew more elaborate and textured. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man are three of the best examples of this shift.

·         The social awareness, lush orchestrations, and the layered vocals of What’s (1971) make it a poignant view of its era and a sonic milestone.

·         Talking Book (1972), which features “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” was Wonder’s first full album-length display of the full range of his talent as an adult performer and opened the door to future classics like Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.

·         Hathaway is best known for his duets with Roberta Flack. His individual albums are all excellent showcases for his deep gospel roots, board stylistic range and his symphonic approach to pop. Extension (1973) opens with the amazing orchestral suite “I Love the Lord He Heard Me Cry” which segues into “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Other highlights include the funky “Come Little Children” and a soulful “Lord Help Me.”   

·         Alongside the rise of artists feel freer to experiment were producing and songwriting teams that were also expanding the palette of R&B. Philadelphia was an epicenter of this change thanks to teams like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and Thom Bell and Linda Creed who blended strings, intricate lyrics, and funky rhythms elegantly. Collectively they wrote and produced songs for The Delfonics, Johnny Mathis, Joe Simon, The Spinners, Dusty Springfield, The Stylistics and others that epitomize the Philly Soul style. The 2008 boxed set Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia is a perfect capsule of this era which spanned from 1969-83 and continues to influence other songwriters and producers.

·         In the early to mid-1980s, after a decade dominated by disco and funk, many R&B singers decided to focus on romantic balladry that harked back to ‘60s and ‘70s romanticism, but still outfitted in sleek contemporary production. Luther Vandross and Anita Baker were the defining voices of this style. Best of Luther Vandross: The Best of Love is a classic collection that illustrates why Vandross was the most influential R&B crooner to emerge in the 1980s. He was an excellent writer of originals like Never Too Much and a superb interpreter of everything from Motown classics to more contemporary songs. The key cut is his epic “A House is Not a Home.” Baker’s 1986 classic Rapture is probably the most influential suite of romantic R&B songs of its time. The set showcases Baker’s thick voice, and a technique informed by equal parts of jazz languor and gospel passion. Songs like “Sweet Love,” “Caught up in the Rapture,” “You Bring Me Joy,” and “No One in the World” defined R&B radio in the mid-80s and inspired the sound of other singers like Regina Belle, Miki Howard, and Oleta Adams.

 Hip-Hop Soul and Neo Soul: R&B continually evolves into different forms. After a decade of quiet storm and new jack music a younger group of singers drew inspiration from classic soul of the 70s and fused this with elements of hip-ho p which led to hip-hop soul and the more retro neo-soul genre. Mary J. Blige’s debut What’s the 411?(1992) was a refreshing blend of urban funk, hip-hop and elements of ‘70s soul that made Blige the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. After five years of releasing very popular albums with gospel and R&B touches Mariah Carey integrated hip-hop elements on her hip-pop-soul masterpiece Daydream (1995) which spawned major singles like “Fantasy,” “Always Be My Baby” and “One Sweet Day” and showcased a funkier and more sensual side of the pop diva. 

Dionne Farris’s Wild Seed-Wild Flower, (1994) which spawned the blazing rock-soul single “I Know,” is one of the earliest examples of a kind of back to basics approach more focused on the beauty of individual voices and more personal lyrics. Farris has a yearning vocal style that works on the funky anthem “Find A Way,” a beautiful rendition of “Blackbird, the a capella ballad “Human,” and the rock song “Passion.” Me’shell N’degeocello, D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu also became leading voices of the style. Five years later singer, writer, and poet Jill Scott debuted with the brilliant Who is Jill Scott? featuring one of the most appealing, cohesive and distinctive bodies of songs including “Getting in the Way,” “A Long Walk,” “The Way,” and “It’s Love.” Former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman Raphael Saadiq released his finest album with 2010’s Stone Rollin’ a dazzling mix of soul, surf music, rock, and funk that pushes neo-soul into new areas stylistically.

Singer-Songwriter pop: Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t mean churning out wan folk songs. The most memorable singer-songwriters create their own universe using a variety of tools. They may inspire others but are too singular to be duplicated.  Joni Mitchell’s experiments with jazz; Laura Nyro’s elliptical melodies and impressionist lyrics; Paul Simon’s explorations of reggae, gospel, South African pop and South American rhythms have all impressed my ears with their original fusions. 

        Roseanne Cash: Interiors (1990): After over a decade thriving in country music Cash broke from the             genre’s chains toward a rawer confessional approach that is searing in its portrait of her troubled                  marriage and liberating in its honesty and wordplay.

 Julia Fordham: Porcelain (1989); Falling Forward (1994): Uncommonly sensual, perceptive and textured singer-songwriter pop Fordham is an incredible synthesizer of styles. Influenced by Joni Mitchell, as well as Sarah Vaughan and Laura Nyro Porcelain was her breakthrough with elements of jazz and Brazilian pop. Falling Forward has a strong gospel influence on anthems like “Hope, Prayer, and Time” and “River,” as well as some incredibly sumptuous simmering ballads.

 Bobbie Gentry: Delta Sweetie (1968): Though “Ode to Billie Joe” made Gentry famous her sophomore album is her strongest work. On this layered mix of blues, country, and folk tunes Gentry presents an offbeat, and often dark portrait of Southern life through a dazzling array of characters and scenarios. 

 Joe Jackson: Night and Day (1982): After making his mark as a new wave angry young man with hits like Is She Really Going Out With Him? Jackson distinguished himself on this stirring blend of jazz, salsa rhythms, and sleek pop. “Steppin Out” and “Breaking Us in Two” are the two big hits from this unusually entertaining set.

 Rickie Lee Jones: Rickie Lee Jones (1979); Flying Cowboys (1991): drawing on the rhythms and attitude of the Beats, the improvisational spirit of jazz, and the free flowing style of Laura Nyro, Jones was a fresh voice on her classic 1979 debut, which features her biggest hit, the loping Chuck E’s in Love. Jones struggled to build from this momentum, then in 1991 her melodic instincts and lyrical focus resulted in the brilliant Flying Cowboys a mix of offbeat rhythms, reggae and sparkling whimsical songs like “Satellites” that reiterate her compelling musical vision.

 Carole King: Tapestry (1971): King transitioned from a songwriter for hire to a popularartists capable of writing intimate yet relatable songs about her experiences, all documented on one of singer songwriter pop’s most consistent and enjoyable albums.

 Joni Mitchell: Court & Spark (1973): For me Joni Mitchell’s most textured and engaging album is the luscious Court & Spark, which features some of her most notable songs including “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris” and her rendition of Annie Ross’s “Twisted.” As accomplished and influential as Blue in its melancholic sparseness is I find myself listening to Court a lot more. The casual beauty of the arrangements and the endearing quality of her singing on album tracks like “Down to You” is consistently delightful.

Laura Nyro: The First Songs (1967); Eli and the 13th Confession (1968); New York Tendaberry (1969): The original “wild child” behind the piano, Laura Nyro’s first three albums feature some of the most original and unusual songs in the American popular music canon. Her lyrics are rife with vivid imagery shaped by vernacular speech and her free flowing diction, wrapped in serpentine melodies and odd harmonies. Nyro was inspired by R&B and soul, but she summons a whole spectrum of music traditions in her approach. Singers like Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Bush and Tori Amos are deeply influenced by her aesthetic.  

 John Prine: Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (double-disc): Hailed as the new Dylan when he debuted in 1970 Prine is a distinctive writer with strong folk and rock leanings whose lyrics to classics like “Angel from Montgomery,” “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” convey an incisive understanding of the scope of human emotions. His skewed perspective and winsome humor have made him one of the most respected and believed rock singer-songwriters.

 Carly Simon: Carly Simon: Anthology: Among her generation of singing composers Simon has the most varied career. She is best known for slick folk-inspired ‘70s hits like Anticipation and Your So Vain, but later triumphs like “You Belong to Me” and “Nobody Does it Better” revealed an increasingly impressive stylistic range. Her subsequent efforts including her movie themes “Coming Around Again” and “Let the River Run,” her efforts interpreting American Songbook fare, and her explorations of operetta and writing children’s books and a memoir speak to an admirable pursuit of expression.

 Paul Simon: Paul Simon Anthology (double-disc): A perfect view of the panoramic repertoire composed by one of our most accomplished composers-performers during his most influential period. In addition to Simon & Garfunkel highlights you get songs like Meand Julio Down at the Schoolyard, Still Crazy After All These Years, Slip Slidin’ Away, Graceland, You Can Call Me Al and tracks from Rhythm of the Saints.

 Allen Toussaint: Songbook (Deluxe Edition) (2013): Toussaint wrote some of rock and soul’s best known songs including “Mother in Law,” “It’s Raining” and “Yes We Can Can” among many others. Though he was primarily known as a writer he recorded many albums of original material. His most memorable is the brilliant Songbook, featuring highlights from his career, recorded live at New York’s Joe’s Pub with Toussaint singing solo with his piano. His voice has never been better, his piano playing is very creative, and his 15 minute “Southern Nights” is a brilliant, seamless fusion of music and storytelling.

 Big Pop: In the 1980s when I was growing up, and I suspect many of you as well, pop artists regularly released blockbuster albums where just about very cut could be a hit single.  These albums offered a grab bag of moods; the melodies were strong, the hooks grabbed you and everyone knew the lyrics. Even prior to the ‘80s big pop was present in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of my favorites:

        Donna Summer: Gold: Dance-pop reaches its peak here. The Queen of Disco defined the genre via         songs like “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff.” But she         translated her power and appeal on ‘80s hits like “On the Radio,” “The Wanderer,” “She Works Hard          for the Money,” “This Time I Know it’s for Real” as well as other hits featured on this excellent two-           disc career summary.

Faith (1987): Wham! was responsible for some of ‘80s pops goofiest and most melodramatic hits. Though it certainly took skill to churn out hit after hit no one expected such a mature and accomplished work from Wham! front man George Michael. The rockabilly swagger of “Faith,” the jazz aura of “Kissing a Fool,” the fierce danceability of “I Want your Sex” and “Monkey,” and the haunting ballads “One More Try” and “Father Figure” are undeniable pop.

Prince: The Hits: Listening to the late Purple One’s collected works reminds you of his panoramic view of the pop music’s possibilities. Inspired by James Brown, Little Richard, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Shuggie Otis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and others but never beholden to them Prince was limitless in his vision. He mastered spare funk (“Kiss”), buoyant pop (“Controversy,” “Delirious”), psychedelic rock (“Raspberry Beret”), epic rock (“Purple Rain”), romantic ballads (“Adore”), gospel style soul (“Nothing compares 2 U”) and challenged essentialist notions of black pop.

 Private Dancer (1984): After establishing herself as the Queen of rock in the Ike & Tina Revue, escaping her abusive marriage, and struggling re-establish herself as a solo artist Turner made rock’s biggest comeback on the brilliant Private Dancer. It takes real emotional nuance and musical skill to finesse a bittersweet song like What’s Love Got to Do With It” that teeters on the edge of cynicism and hope. She also left her stamp on new rock songs like “Better Be Good to Me,” masterfully played the role of an embittered high priced call girl on the title track, and reanimated soul classics like “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “Let’s stay Together” with a contemporary vigor.

 She’s So Unusual (1984): Lauper burst through MTV and pop radio into the pop stratosphere with her funky style, spunky personality and delicious pop offerings. Her solo debut features some of the defining songs of the era including the anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the standard “Time after Time” (which was later recorded by Miles Davis among others), and left-field songs like “She Bop” and “Money Changes Everything.” 

The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (boxed set): This beautiful four disc tribute to the master songwriter, arranger and producer is as much about the infinite melodic and harmonic possibilities of pop as it is about Bacharach. Chronicling his run of hits from the late 1950s-late 1990s it spotlights classic performances by an all-star roster including hischief muse Dionne Warwick, and classy performances Jackie Deshannon, Chuck Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Jerry Butler, Fifth Dimension, Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, Elvis Costello among others.

 Thriller (1982): The biggest pop album ever completely defined the sonic possibilities and televisual reach of early to mid-1980s and elevated Michael Jackson from an incredibly gifted pop-soul singer to an international icon. Every song is a hit, but songs like “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Human Nature” have transcended the decade and become pop classics. Jackson offered something for everyone here and no one has ever topped his populist masterpiece.

Ultimate Hall & Oates: The most popular duo in rock history was a promising ‘70s pop-soul group via songs like Sara Smile and She’s Gone that became a thrilling hit factory from 1980-1985.  Influenced by doo-wop, Motown and the Philly music scene they have excelled in pop, rock, and soul. Their brilliant run of hits, including “Kiss is on my list,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t go for that,” “Say it isn’t so,” “One on One,” “Method of Modern Love,” “Out of Touch” ran in parallel to other iconic pop from Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. Though they are perceived to have peaked in the mid- 1980s they chose to take a hiatus before scoring more hits in the late 80s, early 90s, and 2000s. They remain an active recording and performing group enduring longer than just about any other pop duo.

 Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rock favorites: The rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mid-1950s was the culmination of industrial, technological, and social changes. While sometimes thought of as a revolution it may be more accurate to call it an almost accidental convergence of forces. Alas, American popular music and the culture has never been the same since. Below are artists within various rock subgenres that I enjoy. Think of this as less a formal history than a listener’s guide to some important works inside and outside of the canon:

 Rock ‘n’ Roll

 Chuck Berry: In terms of musicality and originality guitarist, composer, singer, icon and duck-walker Berry is arguably the king of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs captured the intricacies of teenage life and the burgeoning teen consumerism of the ‘50s with a stunning astuteness that still resonates. Berry’s “Maybellene,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Roll Over Beethoven” “Johnny B. Goode,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “No Particular Place to Go” are canonical rock recordings that display the unique synthesis of country, blues, jazz and R&Bthat is rock & roll. These are also anthems that inspired a wealth of followers ranging from heavies like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones—especially Keith Richards who openly acknowledges his depth to Berry—and an infinite number of cover bands and earnest would-be rock ‘n’ rollers striving to learn three guitar chords. Like most rock ‘n’ rollers Berry’s albums tend to be hodgepodges of singles making the abundance of compilations, boxed sets, etc. an ideal way to experience his sound. 2005’s The Definitive Collection is a perfect one-disc distillation of Berry’s best material. The 30 tracks collected (actually 29 if you discount the silly hit “My Ding-A-Ling”) are well annotated and captured in crisp digital sound. The lyrical efficiency, melodic diversity and rhythmic gravity of his songs are impressive in their range and consistent quality. There is also a solid career summary by Bud Scoppa and several iconic photos.

 Buddy Holly: Holly was one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll performers of his era penning classics like “It’s So Easy,” “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” among other classics. His quirky vocal style and perky, lean arrangements were a fresh sound comparable in achievement to Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. His ballad performances also have aged very well including “Everyday” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Original Master Tapes is an excellent presentation of his most important songs. Though it has limited notes it is a perfect introduction to a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer.

Little Richard: The self-proclaimed “Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is at least partially correct: Little Richard’s fierce vocal style, rhythmic boogie-woogie piano attack and flamboyant sexuality are as fundamental to mid-to-late ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll as Chuck Berry’s guitar licks, Buddy Holly’s hiccup, and Elvis’s swagger. After learning piano playing and singing from various mentors Richard Penniman transitioned into showbiz performing with various traveling bands and shows before remaking his image and embarking on a solo career.

After a few tentative commercial recordings his talent fully blossomed at New Orleans’s Specialty Records in the fall of 1955. In the span of two years he recorded some of the seminal sounds of rock including “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Keep a Knockin.’” Specialty’s 25 song collection The Georgia Peach is a perfect single-disc overview of his most vital recordings. In addition to his well-known falsetto laced vocal bursts and rumbling piano the set showcases overlooked his crooning skills on several ballads and impressive composing skills; about half the songs collected are Penniman copyrights.

Wanda Jackson: Guitarist, writer and singer Wanda Jackson is commonly understood as a female pioneer of the country, rock and R&B fusion that spawned rock ‘n’ roll or more simply as the “Queen of Rockabilly.” This sobriquet is tricky since Jackson was actually very strongly rooted in country and has achieved her most consistent commercial success in country--and after her conversion to Christianity—gospel rather than rock ‘n’ roll or pop. Her Capitol LPs and “45s are some of the most important rock ‘n’ roll recordings of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before she transitioned into full-time country and gospel singing.  She gradually returned to secular recordings in the 90s and 00s and occasionally tours.

            Her 1958 Capitol debut (reissued on CD in 2002) is a mixture of traditional country with touches of rock ‘n’ roll. “I Wanna Waltz” and “Day Dreaming” are entertaining if routine country performances that could have just as easily been recorded by any young country singer of the era. They reveal the growing influence of singers like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline on a new generation of female country singers. However on rock cuts like “Long Tall Sally” and “Money, Honey” she sings with a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll grit and fervor. On these cuts she grinds her voice and easily glides into falsetto whoops over rollicking piano rolls, guitar solos and jaunty rock rhythms. Though not an outright rock ‘n’ roll album it represents the transition performers were making from traditional genres to the rock hybrid. The reissue also features six bonus cuts recorded in 1957-58 that complement the tone of the LP cuts. 1959’s There’s a Party is more overtly rock flavored and spirited. Its covers of R&B fare like “Kansas City” and rock songs like Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Really Anymore” furthered her rock ‘n’ roll identity. It too features various bonus tracks that showcase her range as a writer, player and singer. Her best album of the period 1960’s Rockin’ With Wanda is one of the most thrilling rock albums of its era. After establishing herself as a commercial entity Jackson grew into her voice; the set is highlighted by Jackson-penned cuts like the anthemic opener “Rock Your Baby,” and the masochist flirtation “Mean Mean Man” as well as classic rock anthems like “Fujiyama Mama.” The set is a prototypical rock ‘n’ roll set with chugging electric guitars, subtle reverb, and charming affectations like vocal hiccups and percussive pauses. There are also some silly novelties like the pseudo-Calypso number “Dona’a Wan’a.” Among the six bonus tracks are a few standard rock ‘n’ roll ballads with piano triplets and yearning lyrics as well as good originals like the flirtatious “Savin’ My Love.”

            Jacksons’ prime rock-oriented material has been widely compiled including a Bear Family boxed set (Right or Wrong) and various single-disc collections from Capitol and Rhino. Capitol’s Vintage Collections is an excellent 20-song overview of her 1956-61 recordings. The set showcases her visceral brand of rock ‘n’ roll alongside fine renditions of country tunes and ballads. Much of her country and gospel material is out of print.

 1960s Rock

 The Beatles: In six years The Beatles grew from a buoyant teen pop band to blazing innovators whose musicality, whimsy, curiosity and sheer passion helped propel rock into the realm of commercial art. Their initial work (1964-65) employed and inverted familiar forms including rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and pre-rock pop establishing them as pop classicists. A cheeky, self-deprecating sense of humor, dynamic personalities and weird haircuts made them idols and natural film stars (i.e. A Hard Days). Dazzling stylistic range and an early penchant for daring harmonic and rhythmic choices validated their musicianship. Their commercial dominance and prolificness was unprecedented and understandably appealing. After years of enduring bland teen pop and increasingly formulaic girl groups, rock audiences rightfully viewed George, John, Paul and Ringo as a genuine revolution. Their ability to synthesize disparate strands of pop music and forge believable, attractive personae made them instant stars. But their deft attention to the possibilities of albums as artistic suites catapulted them, and rock, to new dimensions of craft and expressiveness. My favorite Beatles albums are Rubber Soul, Revolver, The White Album and Abbey Road.

·         Rubber Soul’s harmonic and melodic richness, textural sumptuousness and thematic eclecticism were among the high watermarks of rock album-making at the time. Classics like “Norwegian Wood,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Michelle,” and “In My Life” are among the best known anchors for a whole set of intriguing, beguiling songs. These songs’ transcendence of rock to the throats of jazz, country, R&B and traditional vocal pop bespeaks the glorious well Lennon and McCartney breached.

·         Revolver has a brighter and more whimsical tone than Rubber Soul but maintained its richness and cohesion. From the character sketch “Eleanor Rigby” to the infectious “Got to Get You into My Life” and “Good Day Sunshine,” to the delectable balladry of “Here, There and Everywhere” a casual brilliance graced their work to such a degree that it would seem unfathomable that they could go further but they did…sort of. The innovations that culminated in Rubber Soul and Revolver reflected growth in the band’s songwriting, arranging and George Martin’s production approach. It was also paralleled by the deepening of their status as icons; the pandemonium incited by fandom led them to retire from live performing which opened the door for even more rigorous studio experimentation and ultimately isolation.

·         The Beatles (aka The White Album) a sprawling double-disc carnival of everything from hard rock (“Back in the U.S.S.R,” “Helter Skelter,” “Revolution 1”), plaintive balladry (“Blackbird”), simmering pop (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”), and contemporary (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) and ersatz (“Honey Pie”) whimsical pop. Recorded amidst group acrimony it is a bit of a mess; some of the songs are slight (“Savoy Truffle”) and a few melodies get lost in the haze but it is a continually interesting and an ultimately vital listen.

·         The focus, economy and brilliance the band exhibited in its initial foray into art rock on Rubber Soul returned in full bloom on Abbey Road, their final recording. One can only listen rather than argue with the openness of “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something”’s simple beauty, the folk aura of “Carry That Weight,” and the unrelenting drive of “Come Together.”  Their official swan song Let It Be yielded several classics in the gospel-ish title track, the majestic “Across the Universe” and “The Long and Winding Road” but is undone by some questionable production choices and inconsistency.  

Credence Clearwater Revival: If you didn’t know any better you might mistake the San Francisco based band CCR, led by singer/writer John Fogerty, for a Southern band. Their thick country-ish accents, earthy themes, and swamp blues feel seem sound straight out of the bayou. Regardless their best material is some of the most creative blues-rock of the 60s and early 70s. Chronicle is a classic compilation of their best ranging from playful anthems like “Down on the Corner,” and “Proud Mary,” to more pointed political commentary such as “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” This is a prime collection of some of the most vital and original music of the decade, as essential as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in breadth and influence.  In the early ‘70s Fogerty, the group’s creative center, left the band which gradually dissolved. Fogerty has gone on to have a successful, if sporadic, solo career.

Classic Rock/Meat and Potatoes Rock

Fleetwood Mac began as a late 60s British blues rock band headed by guitarist Peter Green but by the 1970s it transformed into a half British-half American band that appealed to AOR and pop listeners thanks to skillful, catchy songs, a thunderous rhythm section and the charming vocals of its lead singers. In the mid-70s British holdovers—bassist John McVie, pianist/singer Christine McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood--added guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks to the mix which completely transformed their sound and image. Buckingham was an extraordinarily dexterous guitarist and a skilled arranger/ producer. Nicks had a sexy husk and a mysterious gypsy spirit that inflected her songs.

From 1975-88 this lineup released the popular near-classic Fleetwood Mac, 1977’s classic Rumours, and three solid studio albums in the 80s including Tusk, Mirage and Tango in the Night. Greatest Hits is an excellent single disc collection of the group’s biggest hits and most notable songs of the popular ‘75-88 line up, including “Rhiannon,” “Over My Head,” “Dreams,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Tusk,” “Hold Me,” “Everywhere,” and “Little Lies,” which was some of the most well-crafted, distinctive and enjoyable music of its era. The double-disc The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (WEA/Reprise, 2002) has hits plus live cuts and important album tracks. Both are immensely satisfying overviews.

 Bruce Springsteen: New Jersey bard Springsteen was a cult artist in the 70s, fawned over by critics but lacking major radio hits or a broad audience. Anthems like “Born to Run” crossed him over somewhat but it wasn’t until he and the E Street Bandbegan to develop a national reputation for epic concerts and he began to reveal original social and political observations about post-60s American life that he gained a wide audience. Starting with 1980’s The River, Springsteen began a streak of high charting, best-selling albums that vacillated from rock to sparer, folk-flavored songs.

A vivid writer and masterful synthesizer of styles Springsteen became a bonafide star with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. a mix of rockers and ballads covering everything from post-Vietnam disillusionment, (the title track) to nostalgia (“Glory Days”).Underlying the often raucous songs was a sense of dismay, and anxiety. His studio follow-up Tunnel of Love, which preceded his divorce from actress Julianne Philips, is one of the most probing and incendiary examinations of romantic fantasies and thwarted realities in rock. Ranging from the spare rockabilly of “I Ain’t Got You” to the smooth surfaces of the title track and “Brilliant Disguise” it balances commercial songcraft with soulful revelation in an uncommonly focused and engaging manner.

Lucinda Williams is a guitar based writer who struggled for years until rock, country and folk singers began to cover her material, most famously Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s 1992 cover of “Passionate Kisses.” Influenced by her poet father Miller Williams, country blues singers like Memphis Minnie and rock writers such as Bob Dylan she excels at folk/country-inflected rock songs with eloquent, emotionally immediate lyrics depicting a stylized working-class lens on romance and ambition. Williams earliest recordings, recorded in 1979 and 1980 are largely considered derivative and unfocused however by the late 80s her style began to gel.   1988’s Lucinda Williams, featuring “Passionate Kisses,” “Crescent City,” and “I Changed the Locks,” (all recorded by other singers) is an excellent collection of narrative songs embodying a fine blend of rock, folk, country and blues textures. Several live and bonus cuts are included including her cover of Memphis Minnie’s “Something in Rambling.”

 Punk and New Wave                                                                                                                     The Cars were the craftiest and most enduring of the new wave groups to emerge in the late 70s and reach success in the 1980s. Their songs which drew from Motown, rock ‘n’ roll, girl groups, power pop and even punk were marvelously catchy and compact songs usually about romantic elation or broken hearts. They released some of the most indelible songs of the 80s including “Magic,” “You Might Think” and “Drive.”  Complete Greatest Hits is an excellent one-disc set with everything you need from the group, essential.

 Nick Lowe: British singer-writer Lowe is the best argument for the lasting value of “power pop,” “new wave” and the other myriad of titles for post-punk influenced rock. Lowe is a masterful melodist, an intricate lyricist with a sharp sense of humor and lucid sense of human psychology, and a wide stylistic palette.

·         Jesus of Cool (A CD reissue of 1979’s Pure Pop for Now People restored with its original title and LP artwork) is a punk masterpiece—funny, vulgar, sharp, and insightful. Among its highlights are the swaggering cynicism of the thundering anthem “Music for Money,” and the freewheeling sass of “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.” Punk and new wave have been feeding off of this album’s riffs and attitude for decades, a real classic of its kind.

·         Basher: Best of Nick Lowe features 25 mostly sterling tracks culled from his albums and singles output for Stiff Records and CBS spanning 1976-89. The only major hit was the brilliant “Cruel to Be Kind” but there is joy to be found everywhere ranging from the poignant rocker “Little Hitler” to the hilarious “Time Wounds All Heels.” Alongside the clever themes and memorable melodies are Lowe’s seamless synthesis of country, rock, and lite reggae; like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Lowe is a skilled craftsman who draws from a variety of genres to constitute his musical universe.

Donna Summer: 1979’s Bad Girls hinted at the possibilities of disco and rock on “Hot Stuff” but 1980’s The Wanderer delved into rock more fully than any of her previous albums. Summer got deeply personal with The Wanderer. Disillusioned with stardom yet optimistic about her personal survival, energetic and eclectic but mature and focused the album was a seminal fusion of pop, rock and new wave influences that allowed Summer to separate herself from disco.  The title track hit #3, and “Who Do you Think You’re Foolin’” and the rock ballad “Cold Love” were only moderate hits but while Summer’s disco audience didn’t warm up to the set it remains an excellent set of songs that holds up.

Eclectic Rock

 Marti Jones gained notoriety in the mid-1980s as a progressive interpreter of quality contemporary songs from the pens of rock and folk songwriters like John Hiatt. She and her longtime producer (and eventual husband) Don Dixon built her career on a series of tasteful albums mixing a handful of originals with well-chosen covers. In the early ‘90s she and Dixon focused more on composing. She switched to independent labels in the mid-1990s. Always more of a critical favorite than a popular seller Jones is an underrated talent.

·         1989’s Used Guitars is her strongest album and an excellent introduction to her buoyant, emotionally penetrating style. Like Linda Ronstadt’s triumphant Heart Like a Wheel the album Used Guitars is a sublime meshing of singer, material and arrangements. Jones is influenced by pop, folk, R&B, country and even aspects of punk and synthesizes them masterfully. Her interpretations are seamless expressions of the heart. “Keep Me in the Dark” and “Wind in the Trees” are full of palpable torch songs with a melancholy that creeps gently. “If I Could Love Somebody” is a gentle folk-country lament. “The Real One” soars with choral richness. She differs from Ronstadt primarily in being a songwriter. Her original tunes “Tourist Town” and “Twisted Vines” are melodic, original songs with a fresh point of view. This combination of memorable melodies, vibrant arrangements—courtesy of producer Don Dixon—and expert musicianship is a musician at her peak.

·         Any Kind of Lie features 10 originals and 2 interpretations but they add up to a solid whole. The title track is beautiful, melodic and smart. “Second Sight” showcases her vocal strength quite well. “Cliché” is delicate and understated and “Second Choice” is a moody shuffle with an intimate vocal that illuminates the song’s vivid imagery.  Jones can be an effective writer but her primary strength is interpretation. The best originals stand up to some of her favored writers. Several of the songs required repeated listens to sink in but this is a step forward creatively for Jones and Dixon.

·         1996’s Live at Spirit Square is a lively concert featuring highlights from her all of her albums from mid-80s through 1992. She and her band capture the essence of the material while infusing it with the energy, humor and presence only possible in a live setting. Listeners experience interpretations, originals and Jones’s charming stage persona. 

Modern Rock

Terence Trent D’Arby: D' Arby is a rock-soul trailblazer whose bold and pretentious pronouncements at the outset of his career in the late 80s haunted him for years. This is too bad because he is a skilled, versatile, accomplished, and impassioned musical talent. His star quickly faded but his music is fresh and impressive. 1987’s Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby was one of the most inspired and fiercely original soul albums of the 1980s. D’ Arby's stylistic range and musical prowess present him as heir apparent to great masters of soul and funk like Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke. 1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh was less commercially focused than his debut but is a wide open, masterpiece charming in its ambition. He continues to demonstrate a mastery of and fresh approach to classic funk and soul singing traditions highlighted by the old fashioned soul cry on “I Don’t Want to Bring Your Gods Down.” By the 1990s D’ Arby’s commercial profile faded but he was still as driven as ever.

·         1993’s Symphony or Damn is one of the decade's finest rock albums. It is a sprawling ambitious potpourri of virtually every major contemporary musical style. Sweeping, inspired and relentlessly engaging it is his masterpiece.

·         2003’s Wild Card! recorded under D’Arby’s new moniker  Sananda Maitreya, is a wildly eclectic mix of soul, funk and rock that ushers D’Arby’s style into the present demonstrating his influence on a slew of musicians but possessing a daunting ease and command.

Jennifer Trynin: Even though conventional adult contemporary, dance pop, and country-pop were the dominant genres female singers excelled in during the 1990s one of the era’s enduring clichés was the supposedly epochal rise of the “angry woman” female rock archetype. This moniker includes acts as disparate as Riot Grrrl bands, Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Meredith Brooks and the most commercial extant Alanis Morrisette. Alas the dust has settled on that era and much of this music is nakedly transparent or simply dated. Post-punk guitarist/songwriter Trynin was a near-star until she was eclipsed by more commercial acts. Though it would have been a nice personal windfall for her to have achieved commercial success her relative obscurity makes it easier to appreciate her two albums, Cockamamie and Gun Shy, Trigger Happy with fresh ears. Drawing strands from blues, rock, punk and power pop she is a genuine find with a penchant for rocking, subtle melodies, and a sardonic wit as blush-worthy as Aimee Mann’s.

·         Her independently produced debut 1994’s Cockamamie (later reissued by Warner Bros.) sparked a perfectly understandable bidding war. Trynin specializes in angst-ridden lyrics of love gone awry but with a credibly adult tone quite distinct from the sophomoric adolescent rants of Morissette and her spawn as well as the cheeky sexuality of Phair. She sings with the snarl and guts of someone genuinely pissed. Among its highlights are the rapid fire (1:42 minutes long) you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing “All This Could Be Yours.” As sharp and stinging as a bullet, its damn funny, topped only by the next song “Too Bad You’re Such A Loser” a quintessential modern rock song with a chant-like hook, bits of vocal distortion and slow grind guitars. Lest this seem too glib the set ends with a brief interlude called “I Know How it Feels to Be Down” that suggests she’s still reeling. 

·         The slightly sleeker Gun Shy, actually recorded for Warner Bros. is ostensibly more polished but never glosses over Trynin’s persona. Like her debut it’s a musically eclectic walk through romantic angst but is a bit moodier, more atmospheric and more tempered in tone. Whereas Cockamamie specialized in clipped power-pop the songs here are a bit more measured including the mid-tempo chug of “Washington Hotel” and the downbeat “Under the Knife” and the neo-country flavored, closer “Rang You & Ran”. It’s most searing cut “I Resign” notable for its hook “I-I-I-I Resign…OK,” maintains her debuts bite but it enters the skin more subtly and seductively. Neither album was a hit and Trynin retreated from commercial recording though she eventually wrote a book about her experiences in the biz, and performs in the band The Loveless. 

Country: What originated as a mix of folk tunes adapted from Anglo cultures and Afro-American spirituals grew into a highly varied and adaptable musical genre. Bluegrass and western swing have evolved into honky-tonk, countrypolitan, country-soul, country-rock and a variety of styles that accommodate musicians with a diverse range of talents and interests in the genre’s core of storytelling. Some of my favorite artists include the following:

Hank Williams Sr: Though his life was prematurely ended by alcoholism his songwriting and performing legacy endures. As the premier honky tonker and interpreter of classics like “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Hey Good Lookin,” “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With you,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Williams is the most influential male figure in country music.  His music has been packaged and repackaged incessantly. I recommend 20 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits (Mercury Nashville, 1997) as a great introduction to Williams. He recorded 66 songs during his 30 year life so this is a straightforward way to hear his core songs. There are multiple boxed sets and double disc sets that elaborate on his legacy.

Patsy Cline is arguably the most iconic and influential female country singer of the 20th century. Cline initially aspired to be a nitty-gritty country singer but this approach never quite worked. Her earliest recordings for Four Star Records are collected on the entertaining but tentative The Essential First Recordings highlighted by her hit version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” That classic slice of understated yearning is surrounded by fine performances like “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray” and “Lovesick Blues” plus 50s hokum like “Come on In” alongside some light spiritual fare. Despite uneven material the classic Bradley-Cline style is here in its earliest phase. Short of a boxed set the double-disc Ultimate Collection is the best comprehensive overview of her career at Decca. It mixes signature standards-“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “She’s Got You,” with sleeper tracks and covers of pop standards like “True Love” delivered with her refined phrasing in Bradley’s elegant settings.

George Jones is one of the premier singers of country music and one of modern popular music’s most accomplished and affecting balladeers. The Texas-raised Jones was deeply influenced by Hank Williams Sr. and honky-tonk music, and extends the spirit of honky tonk in his recordings. However after initially establishing himself amidst the rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly era Jones distinguished himself as perhaps the most emotionally penetrating balladeer country music has known.

·         Rhino Records’ 1991 Best of George Jones (1955-1967) collects the cream of his earliest recordings, spanning 1955-67. Before George Jones became country music’s reigning hard-living King of Pain he was a honky tonker with a penchant for uptempo country numbers and novelties like “White Lightning” and “I’m a People.” However as the lush, dramatic “She Thinks I Still Care” attests at heart he was a brooding balladeer whose emotionally astute readings made him country’s master interpreter non-pareil. Shockingly the countrypolitan production values did not detract from Jones’s sober readings. The collection also features interesting numbers like his duet with Gene Pitney. 

·         Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits (Epic), a distillation of his prime 1972-82 Epic recordings, is emotionally haunted and nearly morose. The thing is Jones sings with such subtlety—even when Billy Sherrill’s production choices go overboard—that the emotional force washes over the listener. Jones is a master of mood and timing, and knows exactly how to draw out the emotional core of classic ballads like “The Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Jones gives these seemingly plaintive themes a stunning emotional grandeur and sings them with the disarming sincerity of one with a profound understanding of heartbreak and loss. That many of these were recorded during a period of erratic ‘70s behavior may infuse his performances with realism, but Jones is not a self-pitying warbler; he’s a genuine heart-on-sleeve romantic. Jones continued recording for Epic throughout the ‘80s but his Anniversary features his most essential material.

·         In 1990 Jones signed with MCA and entered the urban cowboy/hat acts ring. The Collection is a fine 12-song overview spanning his 1990-98 recordings. The production is slicker and the songs are uneven but Jones is in good form throughout. As an elder statesman of country songs the defensive “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair,” recorded with 10 other country superstars and the tongue-in-cheek “High Tech Redneck” are metacommentaries on the commercialism of country which has discarded its veterans in favor of courting the pop audience. Less self-conscious is his great version of “Patches” with B. B. King and two duets with Tammy Wynette. The remaining songs are predictable ballads and neo-honky tonk songs sung with effortless precision.

·         1999’s Cold Hard Truth (Asylum) which won Jones a Grammy for the lamentation “Choices,” is considered one of his major recording triumphs. Whereas his MCA recordings were clearly an effort to get him on the radio and translate his style into modern settings Truth is a career defining album. “Choices” is one of the most forthright and affecting reflections on a life full of regrets in popular music. It is complemented by similarly sober ballads like the title track. The set is balanced out by great honky tonk numbers like “Ain’t Love a lot Like That” and “You Never Know Just How Good You’ve Got It” whose jaunty rhythms provide relief but never disguise the set’s reflective tone.

Ray Charles was associated with R&B and soul music but in 1960 he released the first volume of Modern Sounds in Country & Western, a radical interpretative feat that treated songs from honky tonk, folk-rock and countrypolitan like vehicles open to interpretation in many different styles. The result showcases the adaptability and relevance of country music to many interpretive approaches, and audiences.

Willie Nelson: Songwriter, singer, actor, activist and icon Nelson is one of the few modern country singers to transcend genre and achieve relevance as a musician and cultural figure. Nelson began his career as a more successful songwriter than performer. He authored such seminal country compositions as “Crazy” (immortalized by Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Nite Life,” and “Hello Walls” that continue to be covered across genre. In the 1970s Nelson redefined himself as a country “outlaw” who eschewed Nashville slickness and conservatism for a more laidback rock-influenced sound and aura that redefined his career. He recorded two classic “concept” albums for Atlantic before reaching his commercial breakthrough at Columbia Records on 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. There he emerged as one of the finest interpreters of Kris Kristofferson’s songs and translated pop standards into a country idiom. Nelson had a fruitful career at Columbia through 1993 after which he regularly released one-two albums per year for Island Records and Lost Highway.

·         Rhino’s Nite Life, compiling 1959-71 recordings is a perfect introduction. In addition to the original versions of “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips away” it explores Nelson’s impressive eclecticism. He is heard in honky tonk, rockabilly, western swing, countrypolitan and pop settings that highlight the root of his endurance: a deep musicality fueled by a love and grasp of diverse American music.

·         The next step in Nelson-ography is Atlantic/Rhino’s three-disc The Complete Atlantic Sessions which features 1973’s Shotgun Willie (with 12 bonus tracks), 1974’s Phases and Stages (with 10 bonus tracks), and 1974’s Live at the Texas Opry House (with 5 unreleased tracks). Both LPs are “concept albums” with impressive song craft, solid production, and the confident outlaw persona Nelson perfected. Shotgun’s highlights include “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” “You Look Like the Devil” and a superb version of “A Song for You.” The honky tonker “Bloody Mary Morning” is Phases’s most compelling number; amidst the short narrative songs it is a fully formed song that works outside the concept.

·         Nelson’s Columbia albums include albums, concert sets, collaborations and soundtracks. Red Headed Stranger and Stardust are essential introductions to his Columbia phase. Red is a concept album, with storyboard, about a rebel cowboy who kills his cheating woman and her paramour. More ambitious than exciting it features numerous fragments between the album’s musical meat. However this album crossed Nelson over to broad audiences and features the classic “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The reissue includes his version of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It.” Nelson’s gift as an interpreter may exceed his singer-songwriter identity. Stardust is a sublime collection of interpretations that precedes the 80s rock torch boom inspired by Linda Ronstadt. Featuring classics like the sublimely interpreted title track, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and the country radio hit “Georgia on my Mind” it is lean and elegant and with imaginative acoustic arrangements and plaintive, subtle singing.

·         In addition to country and standards, Nelson is an expert interpreter of gospel music. Willie Nelson’s rebellious spirit and roots foundation makes the title of his 1976 gospel album The Troublemaker apt as he and his band put a fresh spin on several classic spirituals including “In the Garden” and “Amazing Grace”. Nelson reorients the material from hymnals to contemporary material with country and rock-flavored arrangements that feel fresh and inspired. The CD reissue also features several live cuts recorded before an adoring audience.

·         The remaining highlights of his Columbia recordings are best heard on the 1995 boxed set Revolutions of Time. Disc One, “Pilgrimage” features highlights from Red and Stardust, laid back live performances, and well-known crossover anthems like “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind.” Disc Two, “Sojourns” collects his myriad duets with Hank Snow, Leon Russell, Ray Price, the Outlaws, and various other collaborators. The set is of wildly varying quality as he is well matched with Snow and Price but on commercial autopilot on his schlocky Julio Iglesias duet “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” The Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard duets fall somewhere between entertainment and slackness.  “Exodus,” the final disc is a retread that traces Nelson’s mellowing into a reliable craftsman; his songwriting is more routine and the production is increasingly slick, especially the keyboards.

·         “Still is still Moving to Me” that ends the boxed set is a thundering anthem with a meaty rhythm that represented the height of his most well-regarded recording of the early 1990s, 1993’s Across the Borderline. On his final Columbia set he and Don Was showcased Nelson’s formidable composing and interpretive skills; he and Sinead O’Connor soar together on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” he gives compelling performances of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and “Graceland” and handles Lyle Lovett with aplomb. “Valentine” is mushy and his duets with Bonnie Raitt and Dylan are routine but the set reiterated Nelson’s deserved legendary stature.

 Dolly Parton is one of country’s most prolific and enduring singer-songwriters. She began as a solo singer in 1967 (her first single was Dumb Blonde) and gained fame on the Porter Waggoner show. As a writer she is famous for crafting memorable melodies and using colorful imagery on songs like Coat of Many Colors, to Daddy, and My Tennessee Mountain Home that have gained her admirers across genre including Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt, Whitney Houston, and Eva Cassidy who all recorded Parton songs.  Essential Dolly Parton is an excellent survey of her career from her early days to her hit-making period to her more recent bluegrass oriented phase.

Emmylou Harris: With her sweet soprano and wide-ranging tastes, Harris is one of the most innovative performers not only in country music but popular music in general. Harris began her career as a folk artist, releasing 1970’s Gliding Bird LP which made little impact. After being heard by the Flying Burrito Brothers—who were in the midst of pioneering what would become “country rock”—she was recruited to sing harmony. Soon after Gram Parsons mentored her and enlisted her to harmonize with him on his groundbreaking LPs G.P. and Grievous Angel. After he died of an overdose she forged ahead as a solo artist. When she debuted on Warner Bros. in 1975 she brilliantly synthesized her taste for rock, R&B and traditional country. However during the 80s and 90s she added a stronger folk element to her records eschewing the slickness of Nashville and pursuing a more personal, distinctive style. By the mid-to-late 90s recordings like 1995’s Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball and 1999’s Linda Ronstadt collaboration Western Wall revealed her to be one of the most dynamic and unpredictable voices in contemporary folk music. She continues to record and tour well into the 21st century, where her talents as a songwriter are catching up with her interpretive skill.

·         The two-disc Anthology: The Warner Reprise Years is an excellent overview of Harris’s career supplementing numerous previous hit collections with additional album tracks and rarities. The best thing short of a boxed set for this gifted, adventurous artist it reveals why she was such a big sensation. Harris has the musicality and range to provide interpretive insight and emotional authenticity to the music of the Louvin Brothers, mentor Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, etc. with astonishing ease. Her own compositions also reveal a budding songwriter who fully blossomed in the 1990s.

·         One of her last straight country records is 1992’s At the Ryman, recorded with the Nash Ramblers is a beautiful, spirited live collection of acoustic interpretations across a variety of genres at a country performance landmark. She and the Ramblers have excellent chemistry and she is a commanding, endearing front lady. 

·         1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is a stark set of songs centered on yearning, longing and spiritual restlessness. Harris has never explored these themes with such sparseness and ache. Beautifully haunting and inspired it set the groundwork for the bold Wrecking Ball.

·         On 1995’s Wrecking Ball Harris covers Neil Young, The McGarrigle Sisters, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, etc. bathed in a gothic, deeply atmospheric production style that presents her voice in a grittily crystalline, weathered style.

K.T. Oslin: In an industry filled with imitators and also-rans Oslin distinguished herself from other 80s country female singers thanks to her mature sensibility and gifted songwriting talents. “80s Ladies,” “New Way Home,” “Feeding a Hungry Heart” are grown-up songs sung by an original talent. Oslin walked the line between pop and country, working with pop producers like Glen Ballard. However in this instance the pop fusion was welcome because it restored narrative depth to modern country and indicated that vocal excellence and modern production were just as relevant in country as they were in pop. Oslin won three Grammies and scored several radio hits in the late 1980s for recordings from ‘80s Ladies and This Woman. Aside from a few obvious keyboard and synthesizer textures the late ‘80s/early‘90s her RCA albums have aged well and still sound relevant.

·         80’s Ladies is a promising glimpse of the artist Oslin quickly became. The keyboard tapestries and peppy drum beats reveal the album’s 80s vintage, and it lacks a clear focus but it’s enjoyable. It begins with a good cover (“Wall of Tears”) and an even better original (“I’ll Always Come Back”) that teeter between familiar heartache and sentimentality themes. Suddenly Oslin’s persona shifts toward more personal career anthems.  These include a woman who embraces her sexual options (“Younger Men”), a sly confrontation to a lover about her enduring sex appeal (“Do Ya”) and the bittersweet title track, one of the decade’s more incisive portraits of female baby boomers. These core tracks are well complemented by solid torch songs and one fun number (“Dr. Dr”).

·         Oslin eschews the co-dependent sentimentality of country lyrics on This Woman by centering women’s desires in songs that reflect the upward mobility, sexual freedom and greater sense of choice available to women of her generation. The songs frequently center on women’s pursuit of relationships that are emotionally (“Money,” “Hold Me”) and sexually (“Round the Clock Lovin’”) satisfying.  Rather than being reactionary or polemical she knows how to construct a believable world of characters in engaging situations including the heartbroken woman seeking respite in a local bar (“Where is a Woman to Go”); women observing changes in social station (“She Don’t Talk Like Us No More”); and a winking sexual invitation for a man to check out her new 4WD truck (“Hey Bobby”). She’s also not afraid to be delightfully snarky whether she’s capturing feelings of regret on “Jealous” or lamenting a bitter breakup on the rockabilly-style “Truly Blue.”

·         1990’s Love in a Small Town is a quirky portrait of love told in loosely connected vignettes of diverse characters. Some of Oslin’s performances, notably the hit “Come Next Monday” and “New Way Home” are so melodic and well-crafted they work well in any context. Slightly quirkier but equally appealing are the charming character sketches on loneliness “Mary and Willi” and lust “Cornell Crawford.”  Elsewhere Oslin showcases her interpretive gifts on a haunting “Love is Strange” and an endearing country-swing version of “You Call Everybody Darling.”  A few of the songs have a late 80s production gloss and broad themes, but this is in many ways a definitive portrait of Oslin’s unique gifts.

·         The excellent 1993 collection Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb spotlights her great sense of humor and her intelligent assessment of love and life. It is the perfect introduction to her eclectic style. All of her best songs are included and two new numbers. It easily places Oslin alongside Rosanne Cash and k. d. lang as one of the most important new voices in 80s country music.

·         After a three year hiatus and a heart attack Oslin came back as something of a closet rocker on My Roots Are Showing. She’s always been an excellent interpreter and the set’s mix of folk, country and obscure pop tunes showcase her gifts amply. The beefy arrangements add perfectly muscular touches to tunes like “Down in the Valley” and “Silver Tongued and Goldplated Lies.” She and her band have a gas on “I’ll See You in Cuba” and she approaches “Pathway of Teardrops” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” with a tenderness evocative of an earlier more contemplative era. Contemporary but not trendy and traditional but never nostalgic this is another achievement in her artistic crown.

·         In 2000 Oslin returned with the eclectic set Live Close By, Visit Often which showed her to still be a vital presence. “Neva Sawyer” is a great character song, a standards medley showcases her versatility and the dance mix of “Come On-A-My House” is an odd but satisfying treat.  Oslin essentially retired from recording and performing after releasing the album. Fortunately her music is readily available.

Dixie Chicks became the most popular girl group ever in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to expertly crafted albums of country that honored the tradition while integrating modern perspectives. After speaking out against the Iraq War the group was shunned by the country establishment In 2006 they returned in a big way with the defiant rock-flavored Taking the Long Way where they willfully abandoned the expectations of country music and released their inner philosophers and rockers via collaborating with producer Rick Rubin and Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, among others. The result is an impressive and often stunning meditation on the plight of renegades and outsiders who eschew communal conventions and take risks.

 The opening track, “The Long Way Around”— a woman who defies her childhood peers by moving away from her town and never looking back—instantly sets the tone. By declaring “No I/I could never follow/I hit the highway” the Chicks are prepared to give listeners a bold and refreshingly honest look at everything the nation defines as common sense by looking beneath the surface of Southern charm and supposed cultural unity in favor of more sobering truths. That they do it with humor, musicality and unflinching insight is important; this is as musically enjoyable as it is lyrically appealing and is balanced with smart romantic fare that softens their message without blunting the force of their urgent material. The album’s centerpiece is the guitar driven “Not Ready to Make Nice” (co-written with Wilson) which pop radio gladly played. The three Grammy Awards the song garnered as a composition, recording and country group vocal was a savvy recognition of a classic anthem and a show of political solidarity. In a moment of political confusion and progressive paralysis the album feels like a manifestation of the challenges artists across various media have experienced in the “War on Terrorism” era.  “Lubbock or Leave It”—with references to Bible Belt culture and anti-heroes, and the fiercely optimistic “I Hope”—a heartfelt wish for children to not be misled by the adults of today—are equally moving anthems that explode the boundaries of country, folk and rock.







“Contagious in his enthusiasms”: A personal list of essential music (Part 1)

One of my weekly highlights is reading Frank Bruni’s columns in the New York Times. Perceptive, compassionate, and good-humored he is a remarkable writer with a great ear for language and a sensible lens on social issues, especially education, religion, and politics. Recently I completed his 2009 memoir Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite, a memoir I purchased at Pomfret Street Books, a fabulous used bookstore in the south west quadrant of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 

 Bruni's memoir inspired some musical memories. (Copyright   ©   Penguin Books, 2010)

Bruni's memoir inspired some musical memories. (Copyright © Penguin Books, 2010)

 As someone who loves food and food memoirs, à la Ruth Reichl, I was really taken by Bruni’s ruminations on his lifelong struggle with food. Growing up in an Italian-American family where an abundance of lovingly prepared food was a sign of love, and hosting large family gatherings was a prestigious annual tradition fostered a love for food that haunted Bruni’s self-image and esteem. Toward the book’s end Bruni recalls how in his early 40s his family began to see him differently once he took control of his life including balancing diet and exercise more discreetly. In an especially lovely passage he describes his brother Harry’s impressive growth into an erudite, culturally engaged, sartorially refined person “contagious in his enthusiasms” (335).

 I love this phrase; it stirred me to think about the ways we translate personal passions into something useful for other people. Music is just one of my many “enthusiasms,” but it figures quite heavily into my everyday life as a source of entertainment and as a structure of meaning. Despite several kind requests I have resisted writing about Prince’s life and death, and Beyonce’s Lemonade album recently because a lot has already been written, and I have other things on my mind. For many people summer is a more optimal time to explore and bore deeper into our passions. There’s something about a gleaming sun and warm breeze that stimulates us more: We read, we listen, we play, we experiment, we discover. This led me to think about sharing personal thoughts on music I deem “essential,” particularly to understanding popular music of our time as well as aspects of our natural culture and character. Bruni’s memoir led me to trace some steps in my musical (as opposed to culinary) past to think through music that helped me to better understand certain eras and genres. I combed through my personal collection and came up with some cool finds. Happy summer listening!........

 Though this is a fairly large list and listening to these recordings will provides a great understanding and feel for the style of music these are personal favorites. Notably, these are albums I listen to constantly that have personal resonance; it’s not meant to be a comprehensive list of every great artist in a particular period or genre.


Vocal jazz is the genre I listen to most commonly. Though people tend to associate jazz with pop music’s glorious past jazz is alive in the 21st century. Folks who have perceived jazz as dated or intimidating in the past should check out some of the recordings offered by contemporary jazz singers below like Rene Marie, Gregory Porter and Tierney Sutton. Many singers are singing original material using the language of jazz, while others are reinventing the jazz repertoire by approaching classic songs with a fresh lens and/or integrating more contemporary songs. Jazz remains fun, inspiring and relevant music. Some of my favorite vocal jazz albums from the last 25 years or so:

 1989: Short Stories (Janis Siegel): Siegel takes a break from Manhattan Transfer and creates a solo masterpiece with the elegant pianist Fred Hersch. The result is an enthralling program of classic ballad performances including songs by Judy Collins, Julia Fordham, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.

1993: Blame it on My Youth (Holly Cole): A progressive blend of Broadway and pre-rock pop with songs by Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, etc. that gels into a thrilling whole. A benchmark of ‘90s cabaret-jazz.

1993: From Bessie to Brazil (Susannah McCorkle): Cabaret-jazz singer McCorkle surveys some of pop music’s most enduring songs from Bessie Smith, Paul Simon, and Johnny Mercer; includes the definitive English language version of“Waters of March.”

1994: Café Blue (Patricia Barber): Pianist-composer Barber found her stride here mixing her moody compositions with everything from a haunted take on Bobbi Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” to a Virginia Woolf poem.

1994: The Lady Wants to Know (Laura Fygi): A sumptuous suite of classic and neo-classic tunes rendered as bossa novas by the enchanting vocals of Dutch jazz singer Fygi and luscious orchestral arrangements.

1995: Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver (Dee Dee Bridgewater): The vocal album of Horace Silver’s signature bop tunes is a funky, bluesy, swinging affair with tender ballads and sizzling swingers by vocal jazz’s top vocal improviser.

2003: A Little Moonlight (Dianne Reeves): A lovely and buoyant 21st century jazz approach to popular standards highlighted by “Loads of Love,” “I’m All Smiles” and “What a little Moonlight Can Do.”

2003: Serene Renegade (René Marie): A soulful tour-de-force, -Marie takes you inside herself. She’s lusty on “Red Leather Shoes”; defiant on “The South is Mine”; and funky and swinging on “A Hard Day’s Night.”

2010: Blow Away (Janis Mann): Mann has a beautifully textured voice and well-honed jazz sensibilities; her hushed phrasing and lean sense of swing wrings out the nuances of her songs.

2011: American Road (Tierney Sutton Band): A daring feat of interpretation that stretches the boundaries of a uniquely American repertoire drawn from the folk, gospel, musical theater, and classic pop traditions.

2011: The Gathering (Diane Schuur): Only a boundary breaker like Schuur could transform a program of country classics into a soulful fusion of jazz improvisation and gospel passion. Like Ray Charles’s country recordings and Willie Nelson’s standards albums this is a genreless classic.

2012: Be Good (Gregory Porter): A near perfect synthesis of the soul and jazz aesthetics Porter reveals himself in a layered and eloquent fashion most notably on his brilliant original anthem “Painted on Canvas.”

Another listener’s dozen: These 12 recommendations provide a great sampler of some of the diverse and accomplished work happening in contemporary vocal jazz. Some other top-tier jazz singers doing exciting work include the following: Cyrille Aimee, Karrin Allyson, Dena De Rose, Kurt Elling, Roberta Gambarini, Kevin Mahogany, Karen Marguth, Catherine Russell, Jackie Ryan, Ian Shaw, Roseanna Vitro, and Cassandra Wilson.


I love eclectic pop singers because they embody the potential for different musical styles and cultures to intersect I have been exposed to a broad range of composers and styles listening to the artists listed below: Before pop music became overly balkanized artists had more opportunities to experiment and explore the music that interested them regardless of commercial expectations. Artists like Nina Simone, Aaron Neville, Maria Muldaur, and Eva Cassidy represent the aesthetic of artists who defy category and make great music without regard to genre. Below I highlight some key artists and the best albums to explore their styles: 

 Eva Cassidy: Born and raised in the D.C. area Cassidy was a regional star who died of melanoma in 1996. Posthumously national and international audiences discovered her far reaching talents. A great place to start is to listen to Live at Blues Alley (1996). She kicks off with a swinging soul drenched “Cheek to Cheek” and never lets up maintaining a similar level of poise and momentum throughout. One can only marvel at her versatility: She cooks on “Stormy Monday”; her “Autumn Leaves” will leave you in tears; and she takes you to church on “People Get Ready,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Oh Had I a Golden Thread.”

k.d. lang: lang is best known for her soaring pop ballad “Constant Craving” which became a Grammy winning pop hit in 1992, but it represents one dimension of her art. Born in Edmonton, Alberta lang began her professional career performing in country and country-punk groups. 1988’s Shadowland showcased her powerful voice and established her as contemporary student of the countrypolitan style perfected by Patsy Cline. 1989’s Grammy winner Absolute Torch and Twang was a progressive country album that revealed considerable songwriting prowess. lang took a stylistic turn toward what she termed “nouveau easy listening” music on her 1992 breakthrough Ingénue (1992) an eclectic suite of yearning songs unified by a mosaic-like quality that gives it an unusual integrity; it’s like block of melancholia rendered in the most sensuous of shades. In addition to “Craving” songs like “Miss Chatelaine” and “The Mind of Love” showcase her range and her luscious voice. lang followed up Ingénue with several albums of original material and made her mark as an interpreter of classic and modern pop songs.

Ronnie Milsap: If you only know Milsap for country hits like “Pure Love” “It was Almost Like a Song,” and “Stranger in My House” his first album Ronnie Milsap (1971) recorded on Warner Brothers will blow you away. The influence of R&B singers like Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland and fellow eclectic Charlie Rich is apparent. He blazes through the torchy “Dedicate the Blues to Me,” and “Not for the Love of a Woman.” He also tackles gospel (“Sanctified”),  rock‘n’ roll (a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”), conceptual pop (“That Cat was a Junkie”), as well as country (Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the story Ends”) masterfully. He found his commercial niche in country but his debut, and the compilation Plain & Simple (1975) tell a fuller story.

Ella Mae Morse: Morse is an overlooked bridge figure whose style brought together country, jump blues, and swing. She is best thought of as a proto-rock ‘n’ roll singer. Morse was a popular singles artist throughout the 1940s recording hits like “Cow Cow Boogie” and “Mr. Five by Five.” Whoever thinks pop was chaste before rock ‘n’ roll needs to hear songs like “Rockin’ and Rollin,’” “Have Mercy Baby” and “Rock Me All Night Long” all featured on the wonderful collection Best of the Rockabilly Years (2013).

Maria Muldaur: Born in New York as Maria D’Amato, Muldaur enchanted by blues, jazz, and folk music. She began her career as a fiddler and singer in the Even Dozen Jug Band, then joined the Jim Kweskin & the Jug band, and recorded two albums with her husband Geoff Muldaur, before divorcing and going solo. Her 1973 debut single “Midnight at the Oasis” featured on her acclaimed solo debut Maria Muldaur put her on the map. She’s recorded over 30 albums. I highlight three albums to introduce you to her art:  Waitress in a Donut Shop (1974) finds Muldaur recording swing jazz under the direction of jazz arranger Benny Carter, interpreting (then) contemporary songs by Kate McGarrigle, Allen Toussaint and Wendy Waldman, and exploring bluegrass and gospel tunes.  By the early 1990s Muldaur focused more on roots music and southern music styles. Louisiana Love Call (1992) is a spirited love letter to the music of New Orleans, featuring NOLA legends Dr. John and Aaron Neville. Muldaur’s performances of the title track, “Creole Eyes,” “Best of Me” “Dem Dat Know” and “Southern Music” will make you want to dance, swoon, laugh and bask. Muldaur’s first full-fledged exploration of the blues comes on the Meet Me Where they Play the Blues (1999). Working with a quintet on most cuts, and a brass band, she brings out the blue in a mix of ballads, swingers, and gospel. In the 2000s she recorded the brilliant blues trilogy, Richland Woman Blues (2001), Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul (2005), and Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (2007).

Aaron Neville: Neville’s mellifluous tenor is one of the defining sounds of modern New Orleans music. Influenced by doo-wop and ‘50s R&B Neville was a regional favorite in the ‘60s who made his mark with 1966’s anthemic “Tell It Like It Is.” In the ‘70s Neville and his brothers performed together as the Neville Brothers and reignited his solo career in the 1980s. After recording two Grammy winning hit duets with Linda Ronstadt he released 1991’s Warm Your Heart. Neville summons a wide range of his influences including spiritual material like “Ave Maria” and the Caribbean gospel song “I Bid You Goodnight,” nods to idols like The Drifters (“Don’t Go, Please Stay”),  material by New Orleans writers Allen Toussaint and Randy Newman, and contemporary pop and soul songs. He continued this eclectic approach on three follow-up albums in the 1990s, and has recorded albums focused on gospel, jazz standards, and classic soul and R&B.

Charlie Rich: Rich scored multiple hits in the early ‘60s at Sun Records, but gained his greatest fame singing polished country ballads like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” in the 1970s. Before he became a star he played in a jazz band and was shaped by blues and gospel music. Feel Like Going Home: Essential Charlie Rich (1997) comes closest to capturing his range. Soul singer, country singer, rock ‘n’ roller, swinger and gospel singer it showcases the breadth of his talents.

Linda Ronstadt: Ronstadt became the most popular singer of the 1970s by virtue of her powerful voice and mastery of song styles. Her fusion of classic pop, country, rock, and folk with contemporary songs reached an early peak on Heart Like a Wheel (1975) a classic and highly influential album featuring her renditions of songs popularized by The every Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Betty Everett, as well as newer songs by The McGarrigle Sisters, James Taylor and Little Feat. She successfully explored this approach for the remainder of the decade before exploring new wave, pre-rock pop, rancheras, and country. Winter Light (1993) which features covers ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s pop-soul, as well as country, folk, and new age pop, is one of her finer mid-career efforts.

Nina Simone: The “High Priestess of Soul” was one of popular music’s fiercest talents. An accomplished classical pianist who fell into singing Simone initially began recording jazz-oriented music material but quickly expanded her repertoire to include bluegrass classics, Yiddish folk ballads, rock songs, gospel, and other forms. Her debut Little Girl Blue (1959) is a great introduction to her early years, as is Anthology: The Colpix Years (1996). But full Simone immersion requires purchasing Four Women: Nina Simone Philips Recordings (2003) a boxed set featuring all of her albums for Phillips. You get a dazzling array of tunes recorded during some of her most politically active years including signatures like “I Put a Spell on You,”  “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Feeling Good,” “Four Women,” “Go Limp” plus songs from composers as varied as Chuck Berry and Duke Ellington.  

Phoebe Snow: Snow’s voice had a fluid ethereal sound and quirky sensibility that made her stand out from her singer-songwriters in the mid-1970s thanks to originals like “Poetry Man” and “Harpo’s Blues,” and fresh interpretations of songs like “Teach Me Tonight” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” Her second and third albums Second Childhood (1975) and It Looks Like Snow (1976) are her most varied albums. For a fuller overview start with Very Best of Phoebe Snow (2001) which features some of her later work and some sizzling rare live cuts.

Jennifer Warnes: Warnes’s honeyed sound is best known to soundtrack fans for duets like “Up Where We Belong” and “I’ve Had the Time of my Life.” Warnes, whose sound has elements of Judy Collins and Linda Ronstadt is an exceptional interpretive singer with impeccable taste, solid musicianship and a broad range. She has had pop, country, and soft rock hits but her most acclaimed work is 1986’s Famous Blue Raincoat a Leonard Cohen songbook. The broadest showcase of her talents, however, is The Hunter (1992) where her gifts as a composer shine alongside her interpretations. There’s jazzy pop, rock ballads, and light R&B as well as a beautiful Acadian style waltz, a neo classical ballad, and other surprises.


Throughout adulthood I’ve developed an appreciation of popular music that preceded rock ‘n’ roll by listening to singers rooted in swing, bebop, big band and cabaret singing traditions. I was intimidated at first, but the more I listened the more I loved much of it and felt compelled to learn about the history of this era of pop music. Understanding 20th century popular music requires close listening to some of the titans, like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra, who redefined how singers approach music and the way we listen. Below are some of my favorite albums from some of the greats. Most are from cabaret, pre-rock pop or genres of vocal jazz including bop, swing, and the cool school. Since singers are often only as good as their material I also include an anthology that was pivotal to my growth as a listener, featuring a wide cross-section of classic vocalists that focuses on the evolution of American popular song. (I’ve arranged the 31 singers by the order in which they began recording).

 Louis Armstrong (1925): Jazz’s Ur text is arguably the work of the Louis Armstrong. Armstrong mastered the cornet and trumpet, authored and perfected the jazz solo, pioneered scat singing, and was most responsible for translating jazz’s instrumental technique—swing rhythm, blues feeling, improvisation—into a vocal style defined by his distinctive gravelly timbre and personalized approach to lyrics. By applying jazz technique vocally and daring to personalize music, especially in his approach to lyrics, he revolutionized popular music. To understand his instrumental innovations, and hear a few vocal selections, I refer you to The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Sony 2000), recorded from 1925-29, which is regarded as the most important recordings of early jazz.

 The Essential Louis Armstrong (Sony Legacy, 2004) tells his story as a vocalist beautifully and thoroughly. Armstrong’s 1945-69 recordings are summarized nicely on the three disc box set Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (Hip-O Records, 1998). You get a cross-section of vocal selections, instrumentals, live performances, a sample of his delightful duets with Ella Fitzgerald, and selections from his latter career including “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World.” Individual albums deserving your attention include Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (recorded 1954; Sony, 2008), Satch Plays Fats (recorded 1955; Sony 2008) and The Great Summit: The Master Takes featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington (recorded 1961; 2001), and Best of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Verve, 1997).

 Helen Humes (1927): A delightful singer who began singing blues as a teenager in 1927 before graduating to singing with the Basie Orchestra in the 1940s. She has a light voice and an exuberant style. She is excellent at swing tunes, ballads and blues. Her best album, Songs I Like to Sing! (1960) includes some of her finest performances including her clever signature “Million Dollar Secret.”

 Mildred Bailey (1928): The first female singer to tour with a big band. Trained as a pianist Bailey had a high, sweet voice and a very natural swinging sound. Adept at ballads, blues, and swing her prime material is on Complete Columbia Recordings Volumes 1 and Volumes 2 (Definitive Records, 2000).

 Billie Holiday (1933): Holiday’s legacy as a musician’s singer and as a tragic figure looms large in American history across generational and genre boundaries. Holiday infused jazz singing with advanced rhythmic and melodic abilities, an adult interpretive sensibility, and keen emotional intelligence. Influenced by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and certainly aware of singers like Ethel Waters she moved vocal jazz and popular music forward. The best way to explore Holiday is to listen to her at different phases.

 Columbia’s Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (2007) explores her earliest work singing novelties and rhythm numbers and growing into a solo leader, as well as her chemistry with musicians like Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. The Commodore Master Takes (2000) capture her in 1939 and 1944 sessions when she recorded signatures like “Strange Fruit,” “Fine and Mellow,” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” Her recordings for Decca (1944-50), focused more on ballads and lusher pop settings, and included “Lover Man (Oh Where Can you Be?),” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Don’t Explain.” Among the flood of Holiday compilations either Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits (Decca Jazz, 1995) or Priceless Jazz Collection: Billie Holiday (1997) provides a good single-disc overview. The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters (2009) also captures her middle period in three discs. Her last significant recordings were recorded on Verve from 1954-59. The label which has reissued the cream of the crop on Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years (1991) Completists will enjoy the six-CD The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes (2005).

 Ella Fitzgerald (1936): Fitzgerald recorded her first sides with the Chick Webb orchestra in 1936. Fitzgerald was originally interested in dancing but she successfully performed a version of “Judy,” inspired by Connee Boswell and won over the audience at the Apollo Theatre amateur night jumpstarting a most distinguished career in jazz. Known for her silken voice, unfailing swing, legendary scat solos, and impeccable musicianship Fitzgerald was the definitive popular jazz singer. Her balanced interpretations made her a composer’s dream, and her warm persona appeal to generations of listeners.  Fitzgerald’s career can be divided into phases: She was the band singer for the Webb Orchestra, taking the lead when he passed in 1939. Fitzgerald recorded prolifically for Decca Records from 1943-1954. She also absorbed the vocabulary of bebop showcased on virtuosic performances on 1945’s “Flying Home” and 1947’s “Oh Lady Be Good.” The Best of Ella Fitzgerald (GRP Records, 1995) provides a 20 song overview of the era. More detailed is 75th Birthday Celebration: The Original Decca Recordings (1993). During her time at Decca she perfected the mellow tone and flawless intonation that defined her later career in the 1950s. Two albums, a 1950 Gershwin set and a set of standards recorded in 1954, showcased her promise as a mature interpreter of standards. They are compiled together on Pure Ella (GRP Records, 1994).

 Her manager Norman Granz helped Fitzgerald become an international star at Verve Records by encouraging her to record high quality material, which she did famously on a series of songbooks recorded from 1956-64 dedicated to the finest American popular composers (e.g. Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc.). Each can be purchased individually or as part of the 16 CD boxed set. Each is a fine album; my favorites: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1956) is the most jazz-oriented songbook; Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959) is the best introduction to Gershwin’s’ superb melodies. She also recorded duet albums with Louis Armstrong, various albums with Nelson Riddle, live sets like 1960’s Ella in Berlin (featuring her hilarious improvised take on “Mack the Knife”), and collaborations with Count Basie and Duke Ellington among others. Among her non-songbook sets I recommend The Intimate Ella a beautiful voice and piano set; for a taste of Ella live I recommend Ella in Rome, Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin, and Ella in Japan; some of her more satisfying eclectic sets include Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie!Ella Swings Gently with Nelson; and Whisper Not. After her stint at Verve she recorded middling country, pop, and holiday material at Capitol Records, and recorded various albums and concert sets for multiple labels to before recording prolifically for Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records in the 1970s and 1980s. Her finest showcase of this period is Ella and Oscar, recorded in 1975 with Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, and the four disc live set issued on Pablo called The Concert Years (Pablo, 1994), featuring her in her element, live settings, from the 1950s through early 1980s.

 Maxine Sullivan (1937): Sullivan began her career in the mid-1930s and scored a hit with a swing version of the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” After recording for about 20 years she took a hiatus from music and returned in the late 1960s. She thrived as a recording artist and performer until her death in 1987. Sullivan is a master swinger who interprets lyrics with understated emotion. She had a deft touch that has influenced generations of singers including Peggy Lee and Rebecca Kilgore. Two of her finest sets include the Harry Warren (“I Only have Eyes for You” “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me”) songbook, Spring Isn’t Everything (1986) and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Jule Styne (1987).

 Lee Wiley (1939): Known as “Southern Comfort” Wiley perfected a sultry, understated style you can hear in singers like Peggy Lee, Barbara Lea, and Julie London. She also composed several classics including “Time On My Hands.” Wiley is best known for being the first vocalist to record songbook albums dedicated to top composers, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Arlen, from 1939-43. Follow Your Heart (2005) (double-disc) is an excellent collection of her songbook recordings and other signature tunes. Wiley also recorded three albums for Columbia Records, and two fine standards albums for RCA in the 1950s, whose highlights are collected on As Time Goes By (/1991). 

 Frank Sinatra (1939): The quintessential saloon singer and consummate swinger, Sinatra’s discography spans from 1939-95. I find his Tommy Dorsey Orchestra recordings a bit dull; his Columbia recordings in the mid-1940s-early 1950s are more enchanting and Portrait of Sinatra is an excellent summation of this era. But his Capitol recordings are where he finds his voice as an albums artist. He excels at dour torch albums and spirited swing sets. Three albums capture him at his best: In the Wee Small Hours (1955): Recorded after a breakup with actress Ava Gardner Sinatra is at his most vulnerable and musical on this legendary suite of torch songs. Songs for Swinging Lovers (1956) is one of the most accomplished and influential swing albums ever. Many a singer has attempted to emulate Sinatra’s swinging versions of “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” “Anything Goes,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” He repeated the torch and swing approach at Reprise Records, but one album that stands out is Frances Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) where he and the Brazilian composer record standards and bossa novas in a spare hushed setting that results in one of Sinatra’s most tender and enjoyable performances.

 Kay Starr (1939): Starr was a regional big band singer with a hearty voice and bluesy sound who became a popular singer in the late 1940s at Capitol records where she scored hits like Bonaparte’s Retreat Side by Side and Wheel of Fortune. Though these got her on the radio her gifts were showcased more fully on a series of albums recorded at Capitol from 1959-62. Movin’/Movin’ on Broadway (packaged together on CD downloadable separately) find are brassy swing sets. Movin’ (1959) has movement theme, and features a strong Count Basie flair especially on songs like “Goin’ to Chicago” and her take on “Sentimental Journey.” She applies this sultry Basie approach to musical theater classics on Broadway (1960) with jazz takes on songs like “On the street Where You Live” and “I Love Paris.” Jazz Singer (1960) is a fun mix of swing songs and ballads; I Cry By Night (1962) is a deliciously melancholic torch album with definitive versions of “More Than You Know” and superb versions of “Lover Man” and “Baby Won’t You please Come Home.”

 Nat “King” Cole (1942): Cole was a pioneer who excelled as a bandleader and pianist in the Nat King Cole Trio, as a popular solo singer, and as a personality on TV and film. His recorded output is readily available. The best distillation of his years leading the Trio and a solo is the 1992 boxed set Nat King Cole. You get the full breadth of his talents as a bandleader, balladeer, and swing singer. As far as individual albums: You can sample his Trio work on The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: Vocal Classics (1942-46) (1996); His best ballads album is The Very Thought of You (1958); Cole swings mightily on the small group jazz set After Midnight (1957), as well as the big band sets Just One of Those Things (1957), Welcome to the Club (1959), Tell Me All About Yourself (1960), and Let’s Face the Music and Dance (1964).

 Dinah Washington (1943): Washington earned the title Queen of the Blues for inflecting all of her work with a blues sensibility. Sassy, funny, and dynamic she had a full life with seven husbands and a legendary reputation for being a no-nonsense performer. Washington’s recordings for Mercury Records and EmArcy are collected on a seven volume boxed set compiled in the 1980s, however a more direct route is the excellent First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story a double-disc compilation featuring ballads, blues, R&B and pop performances in a variety of arrangements. There are also several live cuts.  Her entire recorded output for Roulette Records is also available for download. The single disc The Best of the Roulette Years (1993) is a great introduction to her 1961-63 output. Among her individual albums Dinah Jams (1954), recorded with drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown is her most jazz-oriented performance; For Those in Love (1955) is full of gorgeously rendered ballads; her Roulette recordings are generally weaker but on Back to the Blues The Queen reminded everyone of her deep blues roots on this soulful, haunting, and sexy journey including her epic “Nobody Knows the Way I feel This Morning.”

 Sarah Vaughan (1944): A few years before Fitzgerald began learning bebop from musicians in her band in the mid-1940s Sarah Vaughan had been introduced to the style, and by 1944 she was steeped in the innovative approach which emphasized harmonic improvisation, rapid tempos, and showcased a virtuosity based more in listening than dancing, which was more emphasized by swing. Vaughan was trained in piano and organ as a child, and after winning amateur night at the Apollo was recruited to play piano in Earl Hines’s band. Billy Eckstine recruited her to sing in his band where she perfected her mastery of the style.  Interlude Early Recordings 1944-1947 (2000) and Complete Musicraft Master Takes (The Jazz Factory) introduces her earliest recordings. Interlude emphasizes jazz and features some of her work with Eckstine’s band, including players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; the Musicraft material is lusher and more pop-oriented.  Vaughan’s stint at Columbia Records is well summarized on The Divine Sarah: The Columbia Years 1949-1953 (1990). Here her transition to a popular singer is complete as she bathes ballads like “Deep Purple,” “Black Coffee,” and “You’re Mine You” in her luscious vibrato atop soaring strings.  Some relief is provided by the inclusion of selections from 1949-1950 sessions with jazz musicians.

 Vaughan’s association with Mercury Records, which focused on pop and the jazz subsidiary EmArcy captures her peak. Sarah Vaughan, In the Land of Hi-Fi and Swingin’ Easy are three of the best vocal jazz albums ever recorded, and each showcases Vaughan’s talents as a balladeer, swinger and improviser flawlessly. They have been packed together with two live albums from the’50s as Sarah Vaughan: Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958 (2013). For a sample of her pop side The George Gershwin Songbook (1957)and Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows (1958) display her voice to full effect. Vaughan switched to Roulette Records in 1960. She recorded everything from lush mood albums to a set of light classical fare. Her best includes two voice-and-guitar albums, After Hours and Sarah + 2; a Benny Carter conducted swing set The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan; a Carter conducted torch set The Lonely Hours; and a moody jazz organ set Sarah Sings Soulfully.

 Vaughan’s triumphant return to Mercury was the dynamic live set Sassy Swings the Tivoli. Mercury made various attempts to modernize Vaughan by having her record ‘60s pop songs with mixed results. She could sing anything and make it sound great but her best recording from this period was her last Mercury album, 1967’s Sassy Swings Again, a swinging big band set showing her as skillful and passionate as ever. Vaughan took a break from recording and then returned on Mainstream Records. Her best is Live in Japan a double-disc concert featuring her in total command. In the 1970s she signed with Norman Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records. Highlights were 1977’s I Love Brazil!, and the brilliant small group sets 1978’s How Long Has This Been Going On? And 1982’s Crazy & Mixed Up.  After her death her estate released Soft & Sassy recorded for radio and showcasing her brilliance circa 1961. One cannot state how exciting Vaughan was live. Five live albums showcasing her in all her glory include Sassy at Ronnie’s; Live at the 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival; the Grammy winning Gershwin Live!; In the City of Lights; and Live at Rosy’s released in 2016.

 Mel Tormé (1944): Tormé is a major vocalist, as well as a skilled arranger and composer,  and occasional actor, who never gained the fame of peers like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, but musically his accomplishments are comparable to the most elite voices in the jazz pantheon. Possessing a clear full voice, that seemed to grow in flexibility and range as he aged, a broad repertoire and a gift for epic improvisation he is best experienced on The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985 is a lovingly assembled boxed set featuring his early work in the Mel-Tones, and highlights from his solo singer at Bethlehem, Verve, Atlantic, Columbia, and Capitol Records. The set gives you a taste of him singing ballads, showtunes, swing, and bop; there are also great live performances and a highly informative book.  His range and virtuosity are pretty stunning. The Best of the Concord Years captures some of his finest live and studio performances from 1983-96 and is worth hearing. But the boxed set is the place to start. Some of his best individual albums include Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley (1956) and Lulu’s Back in Town (1956), which rank among the best vocal albums of the 1950s and the 1990 live sets packaged together as Two Darn Hot that showcase him in his element.

 Rosemary Clooney (1947): People associated Clooney with ephemeral ‘50s pop hits like “Come on a My House” and “Mambo Italiano” for decades until she released a string of jazz oriented albums for Concord Jazz from 1977-2002 that demonstrated her stunning maturity and rock solid musicality. Prior to Concord she recorded a classic album with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (Blue Rose) and recorded one of the finest ballad albums ever. 1963’s Love arranged by Nelson Riddle, with whom Clooney had an affair, is the height of rapturous orchestral pop. Riddle’s dramatic arrangements illuminate the lyrics of yearning ballads like “Invitation” and “Someone to watch Over Me” in grand fashion and Clooney’s singing is equally entrancing.  Her Concord output is consistently strong and The Best of the Concord Years is an excellent survey of these recordings. Among her Concord recordings Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (1987) and Do You Miss New York? (1993) are my favorites.

 Johnny Hartman (1947): Hartman is an expert balladeer who sings in a sumptuous baritone. He recorded from 1947-83 and is well-respected by musicians and singers. His most famous album is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963) the only collaboration between Coltrane and a vocalist. Though its only six songs it is a superb master class in the art of ballad singing. Hartman’s renditions of “Lush Life,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “My One and Only Love” have never been surpassed. 1980’s Once in Every Life is nearly in the same class. On this masterful set of intimate ballads, including “I Could Write a Book” and “Wave,” Hartman sings with disarming ease. Though its never been issued on CD you can re-create the album digitally by combining the Hartman selections are featured on the Bridges of Madison County soundtrack and the companion collection Remember Madison County into one.

 Tony Bennett (1950): Since his early recordings at Columbia circa 1951 Bennett has had a national fame as popular singer. His endurance is a testament to robust talent, good management, and his commitment to his aesthetic. The best introductory survey to his career is the 1991 boxed set Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, which was supplanted in 2004 by Fifty Years of Bennett. Bennett signatures like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” are featured as are collaborations with Count Basie, Bill Evans and other jazz luminaries. Once you’ve mastered the basics of Bennett’s first three decades you’ll continue to be impressed by his growth as an interpreter. He experienced a major commercial and cultural resurgence in the 1990s. Almost every album he’s released since the 1990s is worthwhile, and he continues to thrive in the 2010s. On The Art of Romance (2004) his finest album Bennett, at the age of 78, masterfully interprets a repertoire of top tier songs (by composers like Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim) with a signature passion and precision. 2015’s The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, recorded at 89, is also one of his finest. He applies his still mighty voice and interpretive prowess to a suite of some of the most harmonically rich and challenging songs in the canon with aplomb. 

 Cleo Laine (1950): Laine established herself as a big band singer in the 1950s and a stage actress in England before making a U.S. impact with 1973’s Cleo Live at Carnegie Hall concert set. Laine is renowned for her ability to wield her multi-octave voice with absolute control and precision, especially in unison scats with her musical director and husband John Dankworth. Some of the best displays of her prowess include the superb songbook albums Cleo Laine Sings Sondheim (1988) and Solitude, recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (1995), and the dynamic Jazz (1991). Her two best all-around albums are more low-key displays that showcase her range with tenderness. These include the is a lovely voice and piano album That Old Feeling (1984) featuring sumptuous interpretations of classic ballads including the title track, “Tenderly,” and “Once in a While” and Blue and Sentimental (1994) an eclectic triumph with standards, classic blues, duets and contemporary ballads (“Afterglow,” “The Lies of Handsome Men”) that have become new standards.

 Freddy Cole (1952): Nat King Cole’s gifted brother Freddy debuted in 1952 but didn’t find his stride as a recording artist until the early 1990s. He possesses a similar voice to Nat but with a huskier timbre and is also a skilled pianist. In the early 1990s Cole’s association with producer Todd Barkan led to an on ongoing series of excellent jazz albums. Cole is particularly charming live. The most well-rounded and representative sample of his style is The Dreamer in Me: Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (2009). He is a romantic who takes his time with ballads; he swings mightily on mid and up-tempo songs; and he is an excellent blues singer. My favorite track is his spirited hometown homage “On the Southside of Chicago.” 

 Carmen McRae (1954): As an interpreter of music and lyrics vocalist, pianist and composer McRae ranks in the top tier of jazz vocalists. Though she was trained classically she pursued her interest in jazz beginning as a pianist and becoming a singer. McRae idolized Billie Holiday, who recorded her song “Dream of Life” in 1939. McRae herself recorded prolifically at Decca Records in the 1950s and the cream of these is featured on the boxed set I’ll Be Seeing You: A Tribute to Carmen McRae (1995). Two excellent single disc overviews are Carmen McRae Sings Great American Songwriters (1993) and Here to Stay (1992). Each showcases McRae’s voice at its peak and is a marvel of sensible, subtle interpretation. From the 1960s-1980s she bounced around labels recording for Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream Atlantic, Concord Jazz and various independent labels. Her voice has a huskier tone and her interpretations take on a wry edge. The highlight of this period is the concert album The Great American Songbook (Atlantic, 1972) though almost all of her albums feature excellent performances. In her final years she recorded a set of lyricized Thelonious Monk songs and a Sarah Vaughan Tribute album at Novus Records. In 1993 Novus released two lively concert tributes to Billie Holiday, recorded in 1983 at the Blue Note and broadcast on WBGO, as For Lady Day Volumes 1 & 2. McRae is in good voice and she showcases her personality vividly getting bluesy on “Fine and Mellow,” interjecting hilarious asides in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and conveying the range of Holiday’s repertoire balancing well known tunes with obscurities.

 Chis Connor (1954): Connor is associated with the cool jazz vocal style a minimalist approach emphasizing understated emotion associated with Anita O’ Day June Christy and Connor. Connor recorded with the Stan Kenton Orchestra before recording solo several sides for Bethlehem Records and switching to Atlantic from the mid-1950s-early 1960s. Some of her tirumphs included a Gerhswin songbook album and albums of torch songs. Like a lot of jazz oriented singers she struggled in the late 1960s and 1970s but had a bit more success in the 1980s-2000s recording for various labels including Highnote Records. 1963’s At the Village Gate is a thrilling live set in which the normally “cool” Connor, backed by a jazz band, sizzles. “A Lot of Livin to Do” and “Something’s Coming” have never been more exciting. The London Connection (1994) is an excellent compilation of live performances recorded in London in 1990 that finds her swinging hard and approaching ballads as tenderly as ever.

 Etta James (1955): Though James was one of the most successful R&B singers of the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to classics like “All I Could Do is Cry,” “Tell Mama” and “At Last,”  she was influenced by jazz and has always included standard material in her repertoire. In the 1990s James began periodically releasing jazz oriented albums that showcased her still powerful voice in more intimate settings. The best of these is Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994). James delivers poignant renditions of Holiday’s signature ballads in her own style. She infuses torch songs like “Don’t Explain,” “Body and Soul” and “These Foolish Things” with the kinds of nuances that come from a lifetime of hard living and lessons learned.

 Bobby Short (1955): Short was the most accomplished and influential male cabaret singer ever. As a recording artist and the headliner at Café Carlyle for 35 years he developed an international following for his vast song knowledge and vibrant interpretive style. Among the many albums he recorded over 46 years 1987’s Guess Who’s in Town: Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf is his finest. Short is a perfect interpreter of the overlooked composer of classics like “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Black and Blue,” “S’posin,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Short also sings some of his lesser known material and showcases his comfort with jazz and blues on numbers like “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.”

 Johnny Mathis (1956): Mathis pulled off a hat trick when he began his career in the mid-1950s by appealing to youngsters with his buoyant singles like “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” and drawing in adults with his lush moody albums, and distinctive tenor. Of all of his albums (he’s recorded over 70!) 1962’s Rapture and 1963’s Romantically, (which are packaged together on CD) are orchestral suites of ballads that provide the full Mathis experience. 1958’s Swing Softly (packaged with the 1958 ballads album Warm) is one of his most appealing sets. The balladeer lets loose and gently swings on several classics including “Love Walked In” and “Like Someone in Love.”

 Ernie Andrews (1957): Andrews is probably jazz’s most underrated male singer. Soulful, funky and swinging he debuted in the mid-1940s as a teenager with a few singles, but his jazz career took off in 1957. Andrew is a legend of Los Angeles’s Central Avenue jazz scene thanks to his warm, personable approach. Though he has recorded for six decades his albums are hard to find. His 1965 concert with Cannonball Adderley, Live Session! (available digitally) is a masterful performance of funky jazz. It comes closer than any of his records to exposing his full range as an artist. Andrews has an excellent rapport with his audience and sings quite personably. His performance of “I’m a Born World Shaker” is sandwiched perfectly between boastfulness and confidence without sounding abrasively cocky. He mines “I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco” subtly which maximizes its ironic emotional impact.  “Since I Fell for You” and “Work Song” receive gritty, confident performances, and he shows his lighter side swinging easily on “Big City.”  This album gave Andrews anthems and established his combination of soul, funk, wit and swing. The intimacy and energy captured here makes this one of the finest small group jazz sessions of its day.

 Antonio Carlos Jobim (1959): Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim composed sounds that became the bedrock of the bossa nova sound including “The Girl From Ipanema,”  “So Danço Samba,” “Wave” and “The Waters of March” to name a few classic standards. Influenced by classical music, jazz and Brazilian musical traditions Jobim created songs with beautiful melodies, complex harmonies and poetic lyrics that were provided a second wave of songs for interpretive singers. The boxed set The Man from Ipanema is a lovingly assembled history of Brazil’s most influential composer featuring vocal and instrumental exemplars of saudade

 Shirley Horn (1960): A vocalist and pianist known for her cool measured approach to interpreting material, Horn had two distinct career phases. After performing in the Washington D.C. area, and gaining the respect of performers like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Horn gained enough national attention to release several fine swing and ballad sets in the early to mid-1960s.  She then spent almost two decades focusing on her family. Though she recorded for Steeplechase and Audiophile Records in the 1980s, beginning in 1987 her Verve recordings made her a jazz superstar earning her acclaim, Grammy Award recognition, and a new audience. Arguably one of the most influential singers of the last few decades her albums are uniformly accomplished. 1987’s Close Enough for Love is particularly appealing. Songs like “I Got Lost in his Arms” and the title song have rarely been sung with such intimacy, and she swings like mad on “Get Out of Town” and “Come Fly with Me.”

 Andy Bey (1961): Pianist and vocalist Bey debuted with two classic bop-oriented albums recorded with his siblings The Bey Sisters before going solo. After recording and performing only sporadically in the ‘70s Bey made a comeback in the mid-1990s and continues releasing albums every few years.  A master of space and time, he is a sensualist and on American Song (2004) he luxuriates in the melodic and harmonic contours, taking his time redefining classics like “Lush Life” and “Prelude to a Kiss” into spacious arias.

 Carol Sloane (1962): Sloane made a splash in the jazz world in the early 1960s substituting in Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and recording her acclaimed debut Out of the Blue. A superb singer with a lovely vocal tone, advanced rhythmic and improvisational skill, and a savvy understanding of lyrics she struggled to follow-up her initial success. Though she recorded some solid independent sets in the 1970s and early 1980s it was not until she released 1989’s Love you Madly and 1990’s The Real Thing on Contemporary Records that the mainstream jazz world took full notice of her gifts. On both she gives perfect performances of ballads, swings, and bebop tunes in a warm, swinging style. She followed these with several excellent albums recorded for Concord Jazz, DRG Records, Highnote and Arbors Records.

 Sheila Jordan (1962): A longtime student of bebop’s masters, especially Charlie Parker, Jordan paid her dues as a singer learning her craft in the 1940s and 1950s and debuting with the influential 1962 vocal bop classic Portrait of Sheila. An improvisational risk taker, she pioneered the voice and bass format and became an in-demand jazz educators at jazz clinics. She is a thrilling live performer and fearless improviser who has dedicated her career to jazz. I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass (2000) a 1997 concert recorded with bassist Cameron Brown is a great distillation of her essence. She sings signatures, like her the “Bird/Tribute/Embraceable You” medley and her original “Sheila’s Blues.” More than a concert his is a beautiful extension of her storied life.

 Lou Rawls (1962): Before Rawls burned up the R&B charts in the late ‘60s with songs like “Love is a Hurtin Thing” and “Dead End Street,” and crossed over in the ‘70s with sleek disco-soul songs like “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and “Groovy People” he recorded albums in the swinging blues sound perfected by singers like Joe Williams.  Black & Blue/Tobacco Road, recorded in 1962 and 1963 respectively, and packed together, are superb displays of how the blues transcends decades. Black is a very blues-oriented set with Rawls’s modernized renditions of blues standards like “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Kansas City” sung confidently.  Tobacco Road is even bolder and more accomplished with contemporized versions of songs form the black song canon, like “Ol’ Man River” and “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South,” sung with a modern sensibility. He delivers wholly original versions of Southern themed material like Georgia on My mind, “Summertime” and “Tobacco Road” that are stunningly brilliant. Rawls went on to record pop and R&B for Capitol and Epic Records, before returning to more jazz oriented material at Blue Note in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

 Barbra Streisand (1963): Since beginning her recording career in 1963 Streisand has stood out for her big beautiful voice and fresh interpretive sensibility. She established herself with classic pop and showtunes in the ‘60s and integrated more contemporary singer-songwriter pop and film themes into her repertoire in the1970s. Three sets that showcase he talents best include her superb return to musical theater on The Broadway Album (1985) with distinctive contemporary performances of songs from the finest Broadway shows including Porgy & Bess, Showboat, Carousel, Westside Story, The King and I, Company and Sunday in the Park with George. 1987’s One Voice found Streisand returning to live performing with confidence and precision; a great career overview. Her best album is 2009’s Love is the Answer which can be purchased as a single discs with an orchestra or as a deluxe set with a quartet. The quartet is my favorite.  47 years into her recording career the legendary Streisand delivers her most subtle and intimate recording yet featuring lovely renditions of top tier ballads including bossa novas, chansons, pop ballads and classic theater songs.

 American Popular Song: Six Decades of Songwriters and Singers: (CBS Special Products/Smithsonian 1984 (boxed set): A stunning, comprehensive five-CD set, focused on popular songs composed from 1910-55 performed by various singers from 1918-80 is one of the most ambitious collections of “The Great American Songbook.”  The music is accompanied by a superb book, featuring profiles of most of the major voices in American pre-rock style popular singing including jazz influenced singers, cabaret singers, singing actors/actresses, etc. The songs, including major works by composers like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, are among the finest popular songs ever written and are represented by versions that emphasize their original melodies and lyrics. A partial list of the stellar featured artists includes the following: Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, Barbra Cook, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Barbra Streisand, Sophie Tucker, Sarah Vaughan, and Ethel Waters.

 Other exemplary “classic” jazz/jazz-oriented voices: Lorez Alexandria, Ivie Anderson, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, Peggy Lee, Mabel Mercer, Mark Murphy, Anita O’Day, Ma Rainey, Annie Ross, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Scott, Bessie Smith, Dakota Staton, Ethel Waters, Joe Williams.

 Riffs, Beat& Codas readers stay tuned for Part 2: I look forward to sharing my country, R&B, pop and rock favorites in July!