Ah, Autumn. The perfect time to wistfully smoke a cigarette while staring into the ground. What’s that Frankie? You’re wondering where she is? Damn man, sorry. Haven’t seen her around. You’ll get over it, bro (probably).
I had a bit of a Sinatra phase this year. Lovely stuff, and it felt appropriate during the lonely summer months of 2020. If you ever felt like you couldn’t see your S.O. because they were in another state and it wasn’t feasible to travel during a global pandemic, or you couldn’t go to your favorite restaurant or see friends for the same reason, don’t worry! Frank understands. He’s been lonely. He’s been through it. He’ll tell you all about it.
Yes, Where Are You? is depressing, but also comforting. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic praised its “luxurious sadness”. Want to cry diamond tears on your 24k gold pillow? This is the album for you. As soon as those first string notes open the title track, you’re wrapped up in the sad glory of traditional pop’s greatest singer.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I love music without drums. No drums! And hey, no piano either, so no percussion to be found. Standards become lullabies. But if you’re snoozing by the end of the sublime “Laura”, Sinatra bellowing “New York, NEW YORK!” at the beginning of “Lonely Town” might wake you up. No, this isn’t that New York song. In fact, most of these standards were unfamiliar to me prior to listening. The notable exceptions were also recorded by Miles Davis: “Autumn Leaves”, which Miles performed live frequently in the early 60s, and “There’s No You”, which appeared on the underrated Blue Moods.
Where Gordon Jenkins orchestrated the Where Are You? sessions, the bonus tracks (13-16) were recorded with Nelson Riddle, who conducted two of Frank’s most acclaimed works – In the Wee Small Hours and Sings for Only the Lonely. I’ve read reviews that characterize Jenkins’ arrangements as “dour” and “overwrought” compared to Riddle’s work. Frankly (heh), I can’t tell the difference. Where Are You? sounds lovely to my ears, and it’s perfect for this time of year.
Mariah Carey is snarky. After Eminem repeatedly dissed her and then-husband Nick Cannon, she made “Obsessed“, a smash hit that still ranks among the most popular songs in her extremely successful catalog. And she wasn’t afraid to bite back at Em: “See, the difference is, my song is on the radio and his, you have to search for it,” she said in 2009.
Of course I knew the brilliant “Obsessed” back then, but I just discovered Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel earlier this year and my first thought was, “how did it take so long for me to hear this album?” I’ve followed The-Dream for the past decade as a big fan, so it surprised me that until 2020 this album, almost-entirely penned and produced by The-Dream, somehow Mandela effect-ed its way from seeming nonexistence into my ears. And – surprise! – it’s her best work.
Most Mariah full-lengths are scattershot. And that’s ok! She’s made a lot of music, and plenty of it is top-notch. But for every “Vision of Love” or “Fantasy”, there’s usually some sappy filler that lines the rest of the album. Memoirs, however, hits over and over.
Much of Memoirs sounds exactly like what Dream was doing on his first three albums (AKA The Love Trilogy), and that is a good thing. “Candy Bling”‘s beat is almost identitcal to “I Luv Your Girl”; the screwed “lovin’ on my mind” vocals on “Ribbon” recall the same effect on “She Needs My Love”; the whole album is filled with ay-ay’s and oh-oh-oh’s that are hallmarks of Dream’s sound. No complaints there.
What separates the album from being just another Dream record is, of course, Mariah herself. Besides contributing her iconic vocals, the female voice in her songwriting is the antidote to what we hear excessively on Dream’s solo albums, namely the licentious tales of an extremely horny guy. Take “It’s a Wrap”: over a silky piano line, she begins, “Yet another early morning and you walk in like it’s nothing / Hold up, hold up, hold tight / Ain’t no donuts, ain’t no coffee / See, I know you seen me calling and calling / I should crack you right in your forehead”. Damn, MC. Sass is a consistent lyrical motif in this album, and she pulls it off. For the last few songs, however, Mariah changes her tune and goes full ballad mode, covering Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”. She pulls that off, too.
In fact, Carey’s cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is” got the nod of approval from Foreginer’s Mick Jones, and broke the record for longest-running number 1 on the charts… in Brazil. It’s a euphoric end to her tightest album. I only wish that Spotify had a version of the album without the bonus remixes, so that I don’t have to hear a ridiculous techno mix of “Obsessed” every time the main album ends.
Laura Nyro is one of my favorite artists ever, and one of the more underrated singer-songwriters of the fruitful 60s and 70s period when such musicians were found in abundance. More deeply rooted in R&B than the Laurel Canyon artists like Joni Mitchell, yet jazzier and more expansive than the great Carole King, New York’s Nyro imbued pure emotion into her music from a young age.
As a teen, she enjoyed tripping on cough syrup and listening to John Coltrane records – and if you don’t believe me, consult Michele Kort’s biography Soul Picnic. I would venture to assume that some of this mind-altered consumption to jazz influenced her masterpiece New York Tendaberry (1969). But that would come later.
The First Songs, however, are exactly that. A reissue of Nyro’s debut More Than a New Discovery (1967), all 12 of these songs were recorded in 1966 (by an 18/19 year old Nyro!). I highlight this reissue for several reasons: it’s more ubiquitous (it’s the version you’ll find on streaming services), it’s the one I own on LP, and it has a better tracklist.
The songs themselves are fairly straightforward: breezy, classic piano pop and R&B, all penned by the brilliant young Nyro. My favorites are the ballad “He’s a Runner,” with its catchy chorus and Stevie-esque harmonica accompaniment, and the sublime “Buy and Sell”. “Lazy Susan” is perhaps the best indicator of what was to become Nyro’s signature style: a lush song with several unexpected changes in rhythm and structure, as well as an emotive vocal performance (hear her almost gutturally bellow “black-eyed Sue” in the middle of the track).
Not unlike Carole King, Nyro initially made it in the industry via the success of her songs being performed by other artists. The 5th Dimension went number 1 with “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1968, and Blood, Sweat & Tears made it to number 2 on the charts a year later with their cover of “And When I Die”. Here you’ll find the original compositions in all their tender glory. As I mentioned above, Nyro would go on to make even greater music, but The First Songs holds a special place in my collection and my heart.
The great Joni Mitchell has a number of classic albums under her belt, and is perhaps best known for her melancholy masterpiece Blue (1971), surely one of the best singer-songwriter albums in an era chock full of them. But a year later, she wrote and recorded the underrated For the Roses, an intimate and poetic look into the demise of a celebrity couple, decades before the internet made the ups and downs of such relationships so transparent.
Nearly every song on For the Roses concerns the fallout of her romance with James Taylor. As Laurel Canyon mainstays, the fact of Mitchell and Taylor’s relationship in the early 70s is unsurprising. They sang, recorded and loved together, and Mitchell even accompanied Taylor for some of the filming of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the seminal road movie in which he starred. But it was not to last. As Taylor’s stardom increased, so did his roving eye, and his infidelities eventually brought an end to their affair. Fed-up and heartsick, Mitchell abandoned LA for a cabin in the wilds of northern British Columbia:
At a certain point, I actually tried to move back to Canada, into the bush. My idea was to follow my advice and get back to nature. I built a house that I thought would function with or without electricity. I was going to grow gardens and everything. Most of For the Roses was written there.
-Mitchell, 1989 interview with Rolling Stone
Living in solitude and wrapped up in books on philosophy and the nature of human existence (Thus Spoke Zarathustra was never far from reach), it makes sense that “Banquet”, the first track on For the Roses, addresses inequality and the search for meaning among people. Using a banquet as a metaphor for what is divvied up among the social classes, she sings “Some get the gravy / Some get the gristle / Some get nothing / Though there’s plenty to spare”. “Some turn to Jesus / And some turn to heroin,” she adds. This is her first dig at Taylor, who picked up the habit early on in their relationship.
“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” continues this theme, telling an ominous tale of James trying to score smack. “Let the Wind Carry Me”, on the other hand, sounds like freedom. One can sense the openness Joni explored in the wilds of Canada in the song’s jazzy strides into the sublime. It’s similar to what Laura Nyro had accomplished a couple years earlier on tracks like “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp”. Lyrically, Mitchell analyzes both her mother’s disapproval of her youthful ways, and her own internal desire to raise a child. But this feeling “passes like December / I’m a wild seed again / Let the wind carry me”. Despite internal and external constraints, her own freedom is paramount.
I can’t quote every line that touches upon her relationship with Taylor, but it is remarkable to hear how stark she is about it. “See You Sometime” is heartbreaking: “Why do you have to be so jive? / OK, hang up the phone / It hurts / But something survives / Though it’s undermined / I’d still like to see you sometime.” The pain of a broken love is sustained in the sound. “Blonde in the Bleachers” examines Taylor’s inability to stay monogamous from his perspective, while “Woman of Heart and Mind” is biting:
You come to me like a little boy And I give you my scorn and my praise You think I’m like your mother Or another lover or your sister Or the queen of your dreams Or just another silly girl When love makes a fool of me After the rush when you come back down You’re always disappointed Nothing seems to keep you high Drive your bargains Push your papers Win your medals Fuck your strangers Don’t it leave you on the empty side?
According to Mark Bego’s biography Joni Mitchell, Rolling Stone took a deep dig at her in their year-end 1972 issue, bestowing her the “Old Lady of the Year Award”. Bego writes, “It included a chart intimating that she had slept with half of the music business. Mitchell was represented as a pair of lips pursed in a kiss. Lines were drawn to the names of Graham Nash (identified as a broken heart), David Crosby (broken heart), and gay David Geffen (erroneously identified with kisses). Also on the list were supposed lovers like her band member Russ Kunkel and her buddy Stephen Stills.”
The double-standard in rock, where men became legendary for their exploits with groupies, and women were chastised for sleeping with multiple people, was extremely apparent. The sexist distinction hurt Mitchell and severed her ties to Rolling Stone for many years. To me, it also shows how strong she was in making an album about her side of the story in a time where this was the press’s response. Almost 40 years later, I can only thank her for doing so. Transmuting all of her pain and heartbreak into a cathartic and profound collection of songs, Mitchell gave us an all-timer in For the Roses.
In a 1987 interview for Musician, speaking on her retreat from fame, the interviewer asks, “Could you find a place in yourself where you could sort things out?” Joni replies:
One day about a year after I started my retreat in Canada I went out swimming. I jumped off a rock and into this dark emerald green water with yellow kelp in it and purple starfish at the bottom. It was very beautiful, and as I broke up to the surface of the water, which was black and reflective, I started laughing. Joy had suddenly come over me, you know? And I remember that as a turning point. First feeling like a loony because I was out there laughing all by myself in this beautiful environment. And then, right on top of that was the realization that whatever my social burdens were, my inner happiness was still intact.
John Holt was one of the great songwriters in Reggae, and you are probably familiar with his work whether you’ve heard his name or not. As a teen in 1967 he wrote “The Tide Is High” for his vocal group The Paragons, which was more famously covered by Blondie 13 years later (“I’m gonna be your nuuuumber oooone…”). Destined to be covered, the young Holt went solo in 1970 and recorded many cover songs himself.
“The best selling single artist Trojan album of all time” according to the monumental label (whose compilation albums include a mind-blowing collection of some of the best rocksteady, dub and dancehall reggae ever), 1000 Volts of Holt is comprised of all cover songs. Lushly orchestrated in Jamiaca, Holt tackles such diverse artists as The Ronettes (“You Baby”) Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”, a hit in the UK), Jobim (“Girl From Ipanema”) and Roberta Flack (“Killing Me Softly”). Its most genius moment comes halfway through “I’d Love You to Want Me”, when Holt switches up the rhythm mid-chorus to sing the chorus of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. I live for reggae brilliance like this.
Holt followed up 1000 Volts with 2000, 3000, and yes, 4000 Volts of Holt. Gems are scattered throughout (notably 2000 Volts‘ “I Will” [Beatles], which was sampled heavily on Jay-Z’s “Encore”), but 1000 Volts is the best selection and a very accessible collection for Reggae neophytes and fans alike. If you dislike heavily orchestrated music, these albums might be too saccharine for your taste, but I would recommend them to anyone else. Holt continued a productive music career for many years and passed away in 2014.
One may be forgiven for dismissing Sade’s Stronger Than Pride as something of a transitional album between Promise and Love Deluxe. Both albums are tighter than this one, with better songs and a more expansive sound. But what speaks to me here is the subtlety. The atmosphere imbued in every track of Stronger Than Pride is like water to me. There was a period of time in 2017 where I listened to this album every night, and it comforted me from the first second.
The title track is a sublime ballad, while “Paradise” is one of few upbeat tracks on the album. These two are highlights, but I love the second side of the record most. “Keep Looking” recalls the rhythms of Sade’s classic debut Diamond Life, where “Clean Heart” and “Give It Up” are more easygoing but with no less impact. I have a soft spot for songs with no drums, and the penultimate “I’d Never Thought I’d See the Day” fits the bill. “You shed a shadow on my life,” begins Sade over an ambient keyboard melody which acts as a platform for her to show off her vocal prowess.
Stronger Than Pride is almost perfect. Its weak spots are “Turn My Back On You”, which plods on for too long without much substance, and the instrumental closer “Siempre Hay Esperanza”, which would be eclipsed by Love Deluxe‘s much-stronger (also instrumental) closer “Mermaid”. But these tracks hardly negate the brilliance on display here. It’s not the Sade album I’d recommend to a beginner, but don’t underestimate it. Give it some patience and you’ll fall deeply in love.
If this one slipped under your radar at the time then don’t worry, because I missed it too. But in 2018, Lykke Li’s sound changed for the better. Since the retro rock hit of “I Follow Rivers” in 2011 and the lowkey followup I Never Learn in 2014, the Swedish singer relocated to Los Angeles, had a baby, and made the best work of her career.
“For the first time in my life, I was actually inspired by what was happening right now in music. Before, I would only listen to old shit and just kind of reminiscing of the past,” she told The Fader. And working in the present with pop producers brings a much-welcomed direction to her sound.
Malay stands out as a key component of so sad so sexy. The producer who crafted much of Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE and Blonde, as well as 3 tracks on Lorde’s Melodrama, was at the helm of production on 7 of the 10 tracks on this album. Sonically, we hear echoes of Frank’s futuristic, ambient beats. Structurally, the songs are uninhibited in their display of emotion, like Lorde’s “Sober”.
I first discovered this album last summer when Li released the follow-up remix EP still sad still sexy. The “sex money feelings die” remix features Lil Baby, and the existence of a collaboration between the two seemingly disparate artists caught my attention. Surprisingly, the combination was not bizarre at all. Since Lykke Li is no longer stuck in the past, she is using her talents as a songwriter and singer to make some of the most outstanding pop music of the present.