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Posts Tagged ‘pop’
28 Apr

Week 207: “Happy” by Pharrell Williams

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Since last summer, this song has been everywhere. Movies. Commercials. The grocery store. I’m pretty sure I even heard it in a funeral home once.

And yet, I’m still not sick of it. Somehow, it’s still able to deliver on its promise of genuine, uncomplicated happiness.

I think Pharrell has managed to strike the delicate balance between all the ingredients of a song about happiness. For the visual types out there, I will try to explain what I mean with the following homemade (and hastily made) Venn diagram:

Through scientific research, I found that Pharrell Williams has balanced all the ingredients of a good happy song. I also found that drawing circles is harder than I thought.

Through scientific research, I found that Pharrell Williams has balanced all the ingredients of a good happy song. I also found that drawing circles is harder than I thought.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Everything’s understated. The drums aren’t huge. Pharrell never belts out the vocals. And the bass and keyboards are just poking their heads in, like someone who’s tip-toeing in late for a meeting.

2. The backup vocals. Especially when they start to cascade at 1:50.

3. The 24-hour video. A great concept, nicely executed, and not obsessed with its own coolness.

Recommended listening activity:

Whatever makes you happy.

03 Feb

Week 195: “You Go To My Head” by Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday’s 1952 recording of this song is the one that’s usually included on her “best-of” compilations, but this recording, made in 1938 when Holiday was just 22, is the version I like best.

The later version is great, but in a very different way. Listening to the two versions side by side, you get a sense of what 14 years’ worth of hard living can do to a singer’s voice. Not that her voice sounds bad in the 1952 recording – it’s full of the colour and character and soul that Holiday was always known for. But it does sound weighed down. Troubled, maybe.

Nobody could have guessed it at the time, but when Holiday made this recording in 1938, she was already halfway through her life. Plenty of people have wondered where her career might have led if she had lived a bit longer, and maybe that’s why I like the earlier recording. It sounds like it’s full of possibility and promise.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Holiday’s unmistakable voice. Not just its tonal quality, but the way she enunciates. At 1.19, the word “temperature” comes out as if she’s not just singing it, but stirring it with an olive-tipped toothpick.

2. The lyrics, by Coots & Gillespie, do a nice job of comparing the effects of love with the effects of drink. Not exactly deep, but fun and clever. (Side note: Coots & Gillespie are the same songwriting team that gave us “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”.)

3. The more I read about Holiday’s difficult life, the more I hear this not as a love song, but as a tragic biography of the singer herself, blessed with incredible talent, but haunted by her past and cursed by a relationship with alcohol that would eventually kill her. I’m certain that this heart of mine/Hasn’t a ghost of a chance/In this crazy romance.

Recommended listening activity:

Drinking water out of a wine glass.

25 Nov

Week 185: “Look Into My Eyes” by Janelle Monae

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In an era when so many artists rely on shock value to turn heads, it’s almost more shocking when someone like Janelle Monae comes along and turns heads without relying on hypersexuality.

If you’re unfamiliar with this genre-defying, era-blending, snazzy-dressing, alter-ego-having, vocally gifted, business-savvy genius…well then, I’m happy to introduce you.

She’s an artist who seems to exist in the past and the future all at once. Her ability to create immediately catchy pop gems makes her perfect for the mp3 age. Meanwhile, her ability to create high-concept albums connected by a continuous story arc places her more in the context of The Who, Pink Floyd, David Bowie.

On this particular song, she builds a wonderful loungy atmosphere worthy of a James Bond theme song from the late 60s.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chord progression keeps you guessing. It’s not crazy enough to alienate your ears, but different enough to be interesting.

2. The triangle. It doesn’t show up too often, just every few bars to sprinkle a bit of fairy dust.

3. I love the way the backup vocals echo her on lines like “love is fantasy” at 1:00. My dream in life is to have a group of backup singers follow me around all day to emphasize important things I say.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting fitted for a tuxedo.

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15 Jul

Week 166: “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields (as covered by Patricia O’Callaghan)

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The best-known version of this song is probably Peter Gabriel’s version, which was made so popular by its inclusion on the show “Scrubs” that many people assume it was Gabriel who wrote it. In fact, it’s from The Magnetic Fields’ sprawling, ridiculous, and possibly genius triple album “69 Love Songs”.

Not to be grumpy, but I don’t really like either version. I find Peter Gabriel’s take a bit cheesy, an overdone reaction to the deadpan tone of the original.

Thank goodness for Canadian opera/jazz singer Patricia O’Callaghan. For me, her version hits the “Goldilocks point” between the too-sweet and too-sour flavours of the other two. Simple, playful, and just sweet enough, it’s everything a relationship should be.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. Clever and honest. Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merrit originally conceived “69 Love Songs” as a musical revue, a tongue-in-cheek look at the love song itself. So if “the book” he’s talking about is meant to symbolize every love song, romantic comedy, and grocery-store paperback that modern society has produced, then I agree; some of it is just really dumb.

2. The double bass. It’s a great companion to O’Callaghan’s voice, and the way the two of them interact makes me imagine a carefree couple strolling hand-in-hand.

3. The melody. The prettiest are (fittingly for a love song) the held notes on “I” and “you”.

Recommended listening activity:

Doing something ordinary with someone who is extraordinary.

20 May

Week 158: “Manhattan” by Rodgers & Hart (as performed by Ella Fitzgerald)

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The term “staycation” may not have surfaced until 2003, but the dynamic songwriting duo of Rodgers & Hart captured the idea perfectly with this 1925 gem.

The song tells of the exploits of a young couple who decide against vacationing in a faraway place, but instead “save their fares” and explore their own backyard. They indulge in New York’s simpler (aka cheaper) delights – Mott Street! Delancey! Baloney on Coney Island! – and turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.

Staycations are highly recommended. No passport, no lineups, baggage optional. Admittedly, if you’re seeking adventure in your own backyard, those who live in Manhattan are at a clear advantage over most of us. But I love the song’s message; some of life’s best adventures are free, and right around the corner.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Lorenz Hart’s clever lyrics. My favourites are in the first and last lines. In the first line he rhymes “Niagara” with the first half of the word “aggravate”, and in the last line he gives himself the chance to throw in a New York accent by rhyming “spoil” with “goyl”.

2. While the tempo of other versions are more foxtrot-friendly, this one is ideal strolling speed.

3. The voice and strings are very far forward in the mix, but the drummer is back there somewhere, about 50 feet in the background, waiting for the session to be over so he can go chill in his hammock.

Recommended listening activity:

Pretending your bike is a train, and embarking on a glamorous trip across the continent.

12 Nov

Week 131: “Settle Down” by Kimbra

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Southern Hemisphere Month here at BSOTW continues with New Zealand’s eccentric Kimbra. You may remember her from her contribution to this song, but there’s much more to this fascinating pop songstress than body paint and partial nudity.

In fact, she reminds me of Janelle Monae in a lot of ways: she’s pop enough to be catchy, but different enough to be interesting. Her videos often have a 1920s esthetic, and her musical maturity is incredible, given that she’s barely in her twenties.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. She uses her voice in wonderful ways. At various points in the song, her voice does the job of percussion, bass, strings, and a horn section.

2. She proves that pop doesn’t have to be fluff. While other singers her age contemplate what words rhyme with “baby”, Kimbra deals poetically with relationships, domesticity, and the gap between childhood fantasy and adult reality.

3. She gave it a video that’s as interesting as the song. It’s got creepy dolls, imagery straight out of Mad Men, and kids who can do the Charleston. What more could you want?

Recommended listening activity:

Predicting your future by playing MASH.

08 Oct

Week 126: “La Vie En Rose” by Yves Montand

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Here are five things that I didn’t know about the iconic French crooner Yves Montand:

  • He’s not French. (He was born in Italy.)
  • His name’s not Yves Montand. (It’s Ivo Livi.)
  • His speaking voice was imitated to create a Looney Tunes character. (The skunk, Pepe Le Pew.)
  • He had a fling with Marilyn Monroe. (And several other women.)
  • He died of a heart attack. (On the set of a movie about a man who dies of a heart attack.)

I have to admit that this style of music isn’t something I could listen to for days on end, but this song has a special history. It was Edith Piaf’s signature tune, and it was thanks to Piaf that Montand made it in the entertainment business; she discovered him, made him part of her act, even had a brief affair with him for good measure.

As you know if you’ve seen any of the various movies about her, Edith Piaf’s life was pretty tragic. The love of her life died in a plane crash two years after she wrote this song. She never recovered, and she spiraled self-destructively downwards until succumbing to liver cancer at the age of 47.

Montand, who idolized Piaf as his mentor, recorded and released this version of her song in 1964, the year after her death.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The tempo. Like a lot of songs of its era, this one strolls along like a sloth through honey. It’s got the great no-hurry feel of an aimless walk along the Seine.

2. The lyrics. As I said before, Piaf’s life was hard. Her parents abandoned her. She was blind from age three to age seven. She was raised for a while in a brothel. With this in mind, the joy in her lyrics, along with this track’s title (which translates to something like “Life Through Rose-Coloured Glasses”) makes it feel like an anthem to optimism.

3. The end. Before finally resolving, the last cadence shifts unexpectedly to a “borrowed chord“- a flat six. The Piaf version doesn’t do it, and I think it adds something slightly unsettled, yet pretty, to the song’s final moments.

Recommended listening activity:

Buying a baguette.

17 Sep

Week 123: “Pour Que L’Amour Me Quitte” by Camille

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Camille is strange.

But it’s a good strange. It’s the kind of strange that draws you in against your better judgment. Like the lure of a hole in a fence around a construction site. Or the pull of a person who, according to your friends, is no good for you.

As a singer, Camille sounds alternately like Bjork, Coeur De Pirate, Sarah Slean, Bobby McFerrin, and occasionally an angry pterodactyl. And I mean that in the best possible way; she uses her voice in such a variety of ways that there’s something in her work for everyone. This song features her “soft and friendly” voice, which is nice for people like me, who shy away from angry pterodactyl music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The sustained note. If you listen closely, you can hear her voice holding a B throughout the whole track. And if B is your favourite note, you’re in luck: the note is held for the entirety of “Le Fil”, the album that this song comes from.

2. The arpeggios. They’re the only thing dictating the song’s tempo or chord structure, and the way they dance around the sustained B is lovely.

3. The ambiguous meaning. Most internet translations/interpretations suggest that the song is about letting go of love, but whether she’s singing from the wreckage of an ended relationship or the death of a loved one remains unclear.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting new laces in an old pair of shoes.

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30 Jul

Week 116: “You Only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra

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This time last year, I recommended clearing your schedule and watching all the James Bond movies. If you still haven’t gotten around to doing that, I’m a bit mad at you, but it’s okay. Instead of re-stating the benefits of making your way through those 22 bits of movie magic, I’ll just ask you to listen to this fun little song by Nancy Sinatra.

This track was the theme for the fifth Bond installment, in which 007 finds himself womanizing, shooting bad guys, and delivering snappy one-liners in Japan. After recording a demo of this song featuring vocalist Julie Rodgers, Nancy Sinatra was brought in to record the final version. Sinatra, already famous for singing “These Boots Were Made For Walking” and for having the last name Sinatra, was evidently a bit nervous about recording the song; she needed 25 takes to finish a song that requires about 2 minutes of singing.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening violin line. It’s positively gigantic, emerging from the song’s first few seconds and attacking your ears like a fire-eagle bearing down on a mouse. If you’re a Robbie Williams fan, you probably recognize the melody. (If you’re not a Robbie Williams fan, don’t worry; you’re not missing much.)

2. There’s a hint of east-Asian influence. Composer John Barry found Japanese music “elegant”, and wanted his soundtrack to echo that elegance. This was the mid-1960s, so the probability of musical stereotyping was high, but thankfully, Barry kept his parallel fifths to a minimum (you can hear some at 0:20) and managed to create a song that was a tribute to, rather than a caricature of, Japanese music.

3. Nancy Sinatra’s voice. It’s not as powerful as your typical 20th-century singer’s voice would be, and that may be the reason she was so nervous to record it. But I like her tentative approach to the song, whether she meant it to sound that way or not. It’s endearing. She’s not belting it out like Shirley Bassey on “Goldfinger”, but singing as if she’s holding back just a little bit. A reluctant diva.

Recommended listening activity:

Purchasing an item of clothing that is way more glamorous than what you usually go for.

28 May

Week 107: “She Went Quietly” by Charlie Winston

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When I was six, I had a girlfriend named Natalia.

Of course, when you’re six, you have no idea what a girlfriend is. All you know is that this person is fun to be around, their clothes and hair are different from yours, and people giggle at you when they say, “she’s your girl-friend!”

Natalia and I had some great times together. We’d collect rocks on the playground, run around in no particular direction, and my brother would read us scary stories, which I really liked because Natalia would hold my hand when she got scared.

Eventually, our friendship ended when Natalia moved away. I don’t know where she went, only that it was “two highways away,” and that I would never see her again. I remember watching her wave goodbye from her car and wondering to myself how long “never” was. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t fully understand it, because it probably would have been more painful that way…but being six, it didn’t affect me much. It just meant that I had to collect rocks by myself for a while.

And now, for lack of a better segue, I’d like to tell you about a sweet little song on the subject of girls leaving, by British songwriter Charlie Winston.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Ambiguous lyrics. On the surface, it seems like the song’s main character just up and left one day, leaving her old life behind with little more than a goodbye note. But if you listen to it as a suicide song or a break-up song, there’s room for those interpretations as well. Maybe when she returns at the end, it’s just in the narrator’s mind, or in a dream, or maybe he’s just okay with her being gone.

2. Sparse instrumentation. By the time the second chorus is over, part of me expects a string section or a gospel choir, but Winston keeps it simple. And I love the little “oooh” that he throws in at 2:30.

3. Like the main character’s departure, the song ends quietly. No big final chorus, just a half-verse that ends on a tiny “sorry”.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching the rearview mirror as something fades into the distance.

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