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

1974

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.”

1975

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).

 1976

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.”

 1977

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.”

1978

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”).

 1979

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.”

 

1980

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.

 1981

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.

 1983

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.

 1984

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.”

 1985

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”).

 1986

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.

1987

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.

  1988

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.”

 

1989

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.”

1990

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.

1991

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]

1992

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!

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

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!

1950

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].

1951

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!]

1954

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.

1955

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.

1956

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.

1957

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.”

1958

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.”

1959

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.

1960

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.”

1961

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.”

1962

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.”

1963

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]

1964

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.”

1967

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.”

1968

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.”

1969

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.”

1971

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.

1972

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.” 

1973

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!

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

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.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.