I was asked to write a list of Ten Essential Songs – not the 10 Essential Songs by the way, just ten that I felt were important to me. It was for Rip It Up. Back when that was (still) a thing. Anyway, I’ll share it here now in the interests of archiving, or something…
(I love these songs – still. And always).
1. What a Fool Believes by The Doobie Brothers – I’m no huge Doobie Brothers fan, but I am a Michael McDonald fan. And that’s what this song is all about. So much so that the song’s co-writer, Kenny Loggins, released a version of this tune at almost exactly the same time and that’s ghastly. Something in this song is magical – well, many things. Chiefly McDonald’s voice but also the Steely Dan-meets-Fleetwood Mac sound of the rhythm section and it’s one of those perfect pop songs for me, bottled joy. I grew up with the Minute by Minute record too – still own my parents’ copy, always take it with me in the DJ crate, only ever play this song from it.
2. Some Girls by The Rolling Stones – The last really great (necessary) Stones album, and the title track is the key cut for me. This has that strange but perfect Stonesy swagger, that mercurial mix of blues and pop and rock (and there’s that disco-tinge to this record overall). But what is the key to the Stones? Is it the space between the hi-hat and snare drum that Charlie Watts leaves? Is it Keith’s rhythm guitar playing? Is it Mick’s strut and spit, his confidence, his snarl? Yes, it’s all of those things – and this song is a perfect blast where you’ll hear every one of those things every time.
3. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg by The Temptations – Nostalgia plays a huge part in any list for me, but here’s a song I’ve carried in my head most of my life. Here’s a song that meant the world to my parents before I came along. Here’s a song that still lights my fire whenever I hear it and as soon as that rolling drum fill kicks in. The needle goes down and the pure joy fills the room. Any place is a happy place when this – the sound of Motown, the sound of a great world – is playing.
4. Right Place Wrong Time by Dr. John – The good Doctor is here backed by The Meters. The whole album (In The Right Place) is filled with essential songs, essential grooves, but this is the one for me. Then again I could pick a dozen Dr. John songs for starters and tell you they’re all essential. And I’d be right. No chance I’d be wrong.
5. Stevie Wonder, You Haven’t Done Nothin’ – Stevie Wonder aimed this one fair and square at President Nixon. He resigned two days after the song was released. You could almost believe that was the power of Stevie Wonder at that point in time, Fulfillingess’ First Finale was just one of four incredible albums released in a hot two-year streak; albums where Wonder played most of the instruments, produced, wrote and harnessed a brutal, infectious form of funk and soul music. The Jackson 5 sang backing vocals on this track, Michael was listening close to Stevie’s phrasing. You’ll hear a trick here, a little vocal tic that MJ would carry over to his own career. And here’s proof – one of many examples – that Stevie Wonder was often the funkiest drummer you could hear. He did that here without even offering up a backbeat. It’s all in the strut of the hi-hat, he beats it hard. Like it owes him money.
6. The World Before Columbus by Suzanne Vega – Some days I’m sure that Suzanne Vega writes the best emotional love songs in the world. Tautology you would think: emotional love songs. But so many love songs hang vapid, empty. Here Vega gives us yearning – comparing the loss of a love with the world before Columbus discovered it – the colours grey, the land flat, she sails to the edge and falls looking for her love. Add some of the best musicians you could ever hope to hear (Elvis Costello’s rhythm section, Tchad Blake, trumpeter Dave Douglas, the great Jerry Marotta and her husband of the time Mitchell Froom on keys and production) and you have a song I could never be without, one I hear in my head whenever I need to. Simply gorgeous, from the much underrated 1996 album, Nine Objects of Desire. Almost every song on that album could be on this list – the way she works up a great couplet, “Do you know where friendship ends and passion does begin?/It’s between the bindings of her stockings and her skin” – or “…when the gin and tonic makes the room begin to spin”, clever, funny, playful, she’s always one of my favourite songwriters.
7. Kiko and the Lavender Moon, Los Lobos – So many people still think of Los Lobos as just the band from the La Bamba movie; not that there’s anything wrong with that. Instead, though, they’re a band of kickass musicians that have, across 40 years, served up twisted takes on blues and rockabilly and Tex-Mex and they’re masters of all styles. I like this one because of the mood that’s conjured, the players all sitting back, harnessing a groove that taunts, all slow-burn style. They can wail. All of them. Here they just build the mystique. They’re about the finest band in the world as far as I’m concerned – I’d love to see them live one day. That’d be a dream.
8. My Life Is Good by Randy Newman – I love Randy Newman, and it’s a shame to think there are people out there so sure that the Family Guy parody sequence is clever. Newman’s sent himself up better in his own songs! Here he plays the world’s biggest arsehole to devastatingly dark and hilarious levels of intentional non-awareness. His cynicism, his way with a word, his ability to transcend the basic singer/songwriter ego approach and disappear so deep inside the song – it’s a kind of confidence and an approach that almost no one else can do. His catalogue across the 1970s and into the early 1980s is peerless.
9. Kid Charlemagne by Steely Dan – It’s easy to miss the point of Steely Dan, to figure it’s just clever-for-clever’s sake, or that it’s alienating or too slick. The songs are sharp, the playing is amazing, and there are these deep, dark, weird, lurid crime-capers and evil little characters lurking in all of their songs. Here’s one that you could dig because of the kick-ass guitar solo alone, or you could just enjoy a song about acid and the sixties counter-culture. Or both. Steely Dan songs are always modulating, so much movement, so many ideas – I love them all but I could never be without this one.
10. Saving Up by Sonny Day & The All-Stars – I heard this song as a kid, loved it. Returned to it when a Sonny Day Collection was served up for review many years later. I played this song over and again, and something clicked – I went, “geez, Bruce Springsteen should cover this, it sounds just like the sort of song he’d make”, it has a happiness to it that Bruce sometimes channels. Turns out Springsteen wrote it! That’s why it sounds like A Bruce Springsteen Song. That feel-good aspect is what I dig about this, another example of the joy that music brings, that music evokes, that comes directly from feeling plugged into the source. And saved as a result.