Posts Tagged ‘soul’
07 Jul

Week 217: “I Can’t Stand the Rain” by Ann Peebles



Watching a good thunderstorm is one of the best things about the summer. But like a lot of summer things (camping, UV-rays, people who love the World Cup), over-exposure is tiring. Too much rain can be a real downer, so here are some things to try if you find yourself caught in an overly-rainful stretch of weather this summer.

  • Re-read your favourite childhood book.
  • Watch this documentary.
  • Watch this movie.
  • Pick a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and show up at their house with some cookies.
  • Jump in some puddles.
  • Make some rain art.
  • Go for a long walk without an umbrella and enjoy getting wet.

And of course, there’s no better way to enjoy the rain than with some tea and a bit of classic soul music. Anything from the Hi Records catalogue will do, but if you’re looking to stay with the rain theme, Ann Peebles’ 1974 album “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is the way to go.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way the guitarist opens the song by imitating the sound of rain.

2. The way the bass lick creeps up chromatically at the end of each phrase.

3. The way the horns sit in the background to make room for Ann’s awesome voice.

Recommended listening activity:

Parading on somebody’s rain.

19 May

Week 210: “Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding



To me, this song is simultaneously relaxing and eerie. Relaxing because, well, who wouldn’t want to be sitting on a dock, wasting time? But it’s eerie because of the backstory.

By the late 1960s, Otis Redding was successful enough to be touring in his private plane. One foggy day, his good friend James Brown advised him not to fly, since conditions weren’t great. Redding and his band took to the air anyway, and the plane ended up crashing into Lake Monona in Wisconsin. Only one passenger survived, and Redding’s body wasn’t found until the lake was searched the next day.

At the time of the accident, this track had been recorded but not released. So you’ve got to figure there must have been plenty of discussion about when to release it. And you’ve got to imagine that somebody would have thought that opening the song with the sound of waves was a bit eerie, considering the circumstances of Redding’s death. But the sound effect is still there, and as lovely as the song is, it creeps me out just a bit.

Anyway, the song went on to reach #1, a first for a posthumously-released record.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chords in the verse slowly rise and fall, like the tides that Redding is describing in the lyrics.

2. If you listen carefully, you can hear a bird that tweets quietly at 0:55, and again at 1:50.

3. Otis’ whistling at 2:19, which he did because he hadn’t yet come up with lyrics for the final verse. They decided to keep the whistling, because sometimes a whistle is worth a thousand words.

Recommended listening activity:

Planning a (road) trip.

17 Mar

Week 201: “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers



The first time I heard this song was in this classic scene from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.

I had no idea that it was the same voice that sang Lean On Me. For all I knew, Will Smith wrote it as an excuse to do something funny on his show. But now that I’m 20 years older and (?) wiser, I can hear this song for what it is: a simple, soulful song about wanting to be with someone who’s far away.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. I love the way it starts. Voice, bass, and a hint of acoustic guitar in the background.

2. I love the way the second verse lights up with the big strings and those funkyfunky drums.

3. I love the way everything drops out but the drums and the voice for that classic “I know, I know, I know…” The Fresh Prince may have  kicked the jukebox at that point to stop the record from skipping, but I could listen to it forever.

Recommended listening activity:

Waiting patiently.

25 Feb

Week 146: “Bag Lady” by Erykah Badu


There are two versions of this song, and I couldn’t decide which version to post, so we’re going to do this the “choose-your-own-adventure” way. Here’s the situation:

You’ve just gone through a difficult break-up, and are worried that the emotional baggage you’ve been left with won’t allow you to move on with your life. Do you skip work and spend the day curled up under a blanket with a bottle of wine and a trashy novel? Listen to version 1: 

Do you dance your anger away while throwing out anything that reminds you of your ex? Listen to version 2:

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. (Version 1) The soft but militant marching-drum. Smooth and purposeful at the same time.

2. (Version 2) The harmonies and handclaps. Feels like you’re partying with at least 5 Erykahs.

3. (Both versions) The repeating guitar line. If I hear it in the morning, I’m whistling it all day.

Recommended listening activity:

Having a two-course meal in which both courses are dessert.

31 Dec

Week 138: “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke


New Year’s is about change. And change is a big, complicated, mixed bag of emotions.

No song captures the fear, excitement, or inevitability of change better than Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come”. So for that reason, no matter what kind of a year you had in 2012– whether it was a tough year, a wonderful year, a heartbreaking year, or just a year of waiting for something– I encourage you to use this song as a starting point for 2013.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s conflicted. Cooke wanted to make a shift from singing innocuous pop songs to documenting the growing civil rights movement in the US, but feared alienating his white fans. You can hear his fear of taking a first step in the line, “It’s been too hard living/But I’m afraid to die/Cause I don’t know what’s up there/Beyond the sky.”

2. It’s determined. There isn’t really a chorus, but every vocal line ends with the resilient phrase, “It’s been a long time coming/But I know a change is gonna come.” The horns at 1:22 give a hint of a march, adding to the feeling of persistence.

3. It’s hopeful.  “There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/but now I think I’m able to carry on.” Cooke was shot at a motel in Los Angeles a week before this song was released as a single. But somehow I don’t see it as tragic; he succeeded in steering his career in a new direction regardless of what his fans would think. He recorded the song he wanted to record, and its wide recognition as one of the greatest protest songs of all-time has left him a well-deserved legacy.

Recommended listening activity:

Realizing that it’s not too late.

20 Aug

Week 119: “At Last” by Etta James


The opening bars of “At Last” are as recognizable as any opening bars to any song. Harry Warren, who wrote it in 1941, was so enamoured with the melody that he would sometimes draw the melody when signing autographs.

Twenty years later, the song itself would become a “signature” for Etta James, whose rendition of Warren’s classic has outlived versions by Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole, Ben E. King, and approximately 8 million others to become the definitive version of the song.

Sports teams often “retire” jerseys of their best players, so that no other player will ever wear a certain number; I often think that the same thing should be done with this song. A staple of movies, weddings, and people who think they can sing well enough to warrant a YouTube channel, nobody will ever do “At Last” better than Etta. Let’s retire it and give it the dignity it deserves.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. James’ voice is powerful without being overly decorative. For some reason, when people cover this song, they feel the need to embellish every note as if they’re singing the national anthem while suffering a bad case of the hiccups. Etta James doesn’t need to embellish.

2. The music fits the lyrics perfectly. The sweeping strings and the slow tempo make it sound like the entire band is breathing a collective sigh of relief.

3. At 2:05, the strings do an unexpected “doo…be-doo…be-doo…be-doo”, that creates the image (in my head, at least) of a happy couple skipping hand-in-hand through a field of tulips. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s a love song, so it’s allowed.

Recommended listening activity:

Using a tube of toothpaste as a microphone.

25 Jun

Week 111: “Stare and Stare” by Curtis Mayfield


I’ve searched high and low for an analysis of the lyrics to this great tune, but without any luck. So here’s my interpretation:

It’s 1971. Three years have passed since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and despite all the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement in the US, inequality and hatred still bubble beneath the surface. The 60s are quickly fading into memory, and nobody knows (cares?) where the movement should go next.

Mayfield (whose songs while a member of The Impressions in the 1960s became civil rights anthems) compares this social paralysis to people sitting silently on a bus, staring at each other, staring at the floor, staring at nothing. Lines like, “there’s no one here we can trust” indicate a country that’s still not at ease with race relations, while the great line, “a sister standing and no one seems to care” serves the double purpose of symbolizing a movement that has lost its way, and echoing the legacy of Rosa Parks.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. His voice. Very distinctive, very mournful, perfect for this song.

2. The wah guitar. With its high-pitched whine, it almost sounds like its singing a duet with Mayfield.

3. The drummer wants to groove at the end, but can’t seem to find the beat. It’s the perfect anti-climactic ending to a song that seemed to be gaining steam…especially if the song is about a human rights movement that was running out of steam.

Recommended listening activity:

Giving someone your seat.

21 May

Week 106: “Up on the Roof” by The Drifters


Life in an apartment building has its pros and cons.

During my four-year tenure in a ten-story building, I experienced all the various downsides to upstairs living: the faulty heating, the strange smells, the landlord who never fixes anything, the neighbour who plays “Kiss From A Rose” at full blast at 3:30am. But there was one pro that outweighed all these cons: the hatch that led to the roof.

I’m not sure why it was never locked, but I’m glad it wasn’t. My girlfriend and I would go up there on evenings when there were fireworks, or when the airshow was on, or when we just felt like looking out across the neighbourhood. There was something nice about looking out at the city and checking off the various landmarks in your head. Just to make sure they were still there.

I often wonder if the release of this song in 1962 led to an outbreak of covert rooftop picnics.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The lyrics. They send the message that you can take a vacation without leaving home, and I like that.

2. The backup singers. I can’t think of another song where the catchiest line is sung by the guys in the background; the only line they get to sing is the repeating “Up on the roooof”, but it’s the best part of the song. A victory for backup singers everywhere!

3. The strings. Much like in “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King (a former member of The Drifters, as it happens) there’s a screaming string section solo towards the end. Violins don’t get many opportunities to rock out.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting a fresh perspective.

07 May

Week 104: “Never Can Say Goodbye” by The Jackson 5


Having only been alive for about 6 months during the 1970s, I can’t really say that I “miss” that decade, but there are some things the seventies gave us that I think made the world a better place. Those things are, in no particular order:

  • Shirts with big collars
  • The afro (especially in basketball)
  • Star Wars
  • Orange as a good colour choice for anything
  • The Jackson 5

Considering that the album Maybe Tomorrow features three of those things on the cover alone, it’s a must-buy for anyone who has fond memories of the 70s. In fact, anyone who wants to hear the evolution of popular music from 1970 to 1979 can do so by listening to The Jackson 5’s catalogue; they ran the gamut from soul to funk to disco as the years went by and popular tastes changed.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The glockenspiel, especially its little chromatic up-and-down at the beginning. It’s the type of sound they use in movies as the screen goes blurry and we dissolve into a dream sequence.

2. The bassline. It reminds me of this one, and it works as the song’s key shifts from minor to major.

3. Michael’s voice. With everything else that happened in his life, it’s easy to forget why he got famous in the first place: he could flat-out sing. Listen to this song and realize that he was 12 when it was recorded. Do you know any 12-year-old who can sing this well? Or do anything this well, for that matter?

Recommended listening activity:

Going out for a relaxing mid-afternoon rollerskate.

16 Apr

Week 101: “Beneath It All” by The Slakadeliqs feat. King Reign & Shad


Name your own price here.

The Slakadeliqs are not actually a band, but one man, the talented and extravagantly-named Slakah the Beatchild. Having spent years producing other people’s music, Slakah adopted the Slakadeliqs moniker on his 2012 release, “The Other Side of Tomorrow”.

It’s the type of album that only someone with a producer’s mind could create; sonically fascinating, with hints of just about every genre you could imagine. This song alone has bits of folk, soul, and hip-hop floating under its soothing surface. It’s reminiscent of “Hallelujah” by k-os, but perhaps even more hypnotic.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The strummed guitar in the first verse is so soft, as if the guitarist is wearing gloves. Along with the glockenspiel and the harp, it gives the song a really fragile feel.

2. The switch to 7/4 time as the song hits 3 minutes. It’s hard to think of another song that has a rapped verse and 7/4 time.

3. The repeated chord progression in the final section. After a fairly normal descending set of chords, we get a bizarre major chord on the fourth degree of the scale thrown in, adding to the urgency of the song’s last minutes.

Recommended listening activity:

Tracing your hand and writing a poem inside the shape it leaves.

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26 Mar

Week 98: “Lucky Old Sun” by Aretha Franklin


You wake up late because you accidentally set your alarm for “PM” instead of “AM”.

You throw together a quick breakfast, consisting of the last pulpy dregs of orange juice from a near-empty carton, and the dusty remnants of cereal from the bottom of the box. Forgot to get groceries on the weekend.

You try to make up for lost time by taking a different route to work that you somehow figure might be faster. It isn’t.

You arrive at work to find a desk piled high with stuff that really has nothing to do with you.

You have 837 new emails, all your pens have been borrowed, and you’re pretty sure you forgot to lock the door when you left the house.

You struggle through a day of solving other people’s problems while convincing yourself that your own problems can wait.

You take the heat for poor decisions made by somebody else.

You play nice with people who don’t deserve it.

You spend an hour thinking it’s Wednesday, then realize with utter shock that it’s only Monday.

You wonder what you did to deserve this awful day.

Then you come home, and you listen to “Lucky Old Sun” by Aretha Franklin.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Aretha’s voice has the power and maturity that you need to make this song work. She was 19 when she recorded this. NINETEEN. Yet she manages to tap into the soul and emotion of someone who’s toiled at their job for decades.

2. I love the way she stays behind the beat of the song, as if she can’t quite get up the energy to sing the next line.

3. When she really lets it rip at 2:21, she almost sounds like a J5-era Michael Jackson.

Recommended listening activity:

Falling asleep in your work clothes.

12 Mar

Week 96: “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack


Like most people who were in their teens in 1996, I figured that this song was written by Lauryn Hill. Even though the Fugees’ version will always have a special place on my iPod, and even though I still find it hard not to chime in during the chorus with an enthusiastic “…One time!” I’ve come to realize that the original is the superior song.

Roberta Flack is an amazing person. She entered university at the age of 15 on a full music scholarship. She was teaching English and Music by age 19. In 1973 and ’74, she won consecutive Grammy Awards for Record of the Year, a feat that only U2 has been able to match. The second of those awards was for this song, and it was well-deserved.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The ghostly backup singers. Not sure if they recorded the vocals in a cave, or if they just put loads of reverb on it after the fact, but we’ve got the world’s most phantom-esque backup singers here, perfect for a song about unrequited love.

2. The bass. It took a few listens for me to notice, but at several moments in the song, the bassist is almost plucking the strings like you would on a normal guitar, playing chords rather than a single note at a time. Give a listen at the end of each chorus, and during the song’s final minute.

3. The bridge at 3:22. This was one of the highlights of the Fugees’ cover; I remember being at parties where conversations would stop at this point in the song while everyone joined forces in a massive singalong. Lauryn Hill definitely brought some flair to it, but I really like Flack’s more laid-back approach, especially when she hangs on to that note at 3:39.

Recommended listening activity:

Humming just quietly enough so that you’re the only one who notices.

09 May

Week 52: “Georgia On My Mind” by Ray Charles


If you’ve been feeling stressed lately, do yourself a favour. Grab your calendar, iPhone, Trapper Keeper, or whatever you use to make appointments, and schedule a time to lie in the sun somewhere with this song in your ears. I’m serious. The second the weather gets nice in your part of the world, you need to schedule a meeting with a hammock, your favourite drink, and Ray Charles. The muscles in the back of your neck will thank you.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The world’s most laid-back back-up singers. It sounds like a choir that’s just re-gaining consciousness after dental surgery. Listen to them at 0:39 and I’m sure you’ll be able to imagine them in the recording studio, draped over pianos, slumped in chairs, too chilled-out to bother snapping their fingers. It’s awesome.

2. Sleepy strings. The strings have several great moments in the song, notably the opening few bars, but my favourite part comes at 1:17, as he sings, “Her the arms reach out to me”. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the strings do a rise and fall that is strikingly reminiscent of the James Bond theme song.

3. Ray Charles’ performance. The song was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell thirty years before this particular version was released, and various others have recorded it, but Ray Charles does it better than any of them. I especially like his brief falsetto coming back into the verse at 2:45.

Recommended listening activity:

Eating a peach.

21 Feb

Week 41: “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King


A lot of recent entries on this list have been hidden gems by lesser-known bands, so this week we’re going with a classic.

“Stand By Me” was written by King with help from Mike Stoller, who also wrote “Hound Dog”, “Love Potion #9”, and “Jailhouse Rock”, among many others. Apparently, King wrote this one for The Drifters, but they passed on the song, so he recorded it himself in 1961. Nothing against The Drifters, of course, but that particular decision was not what you’d call a good business move.

Interestingly enough, this tune was a top-ten hit twice; first in the early 60s after it was released, and again twenty years later when it appeared on the soundtrack for the film of the same name. Twenty years after that, it was back, this time as the main sample in the decidedly inferior “Beautiful Girls” by auto-tuned quasi-reggae singer Sean Kingston.

So if history is anything to go by, it’ll be back in the top ten sometime around 2027. Until then, let’s enjoy it in all its 1961 glory.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The bassline. How can a song be so groovy and so beautiful at the same time? When you hear the first few bars, it’s hard to decide whether you should start dancing or making out. Throw in the triangle hit on every fourth beat, and that catchy little “ffft!” noise, and the song’s a success before King has sung a single note.

2. The back-up vocals. I didn’t notice them until recently. Ben E. King’s voice is powerful and awesome in this song, but when the softly humming choir starts up just after the first minute, it’s the perfect contrast.

3. The string eruption at 1:54. Okay, it’s a bit melodramatic, and makes the song sound a bit supermarket-ish. But with King belting it out for most of the song, one of the instruments had to step up and belt back at him. I like to imagine the lead violinist standing up at this point, putting his violin behind his head like he’s Jimi Hendrix, and just going to town.

Recommended listening activity:

Bringing someone breakfast in bed.