Sunday, January 8, 2012

10 Songs About The Power Of Music, Part 1

Every now and again, we like to mix things up at “You Must Hear This Album.” This time, we’re spotlighting 10 notable songs about songs, in two installments: melodic odes to music itself, the very thing that inspires us, excites us, comforts us, and informs us. Music accompanies us through all of our rites of passage: when we get married, when we graduate, when we drive to work, and when we celebrate. It’s the soundtrack of life, and as such, this writer believes music to be essential to life and deserving of a little praise. These featured songs and artists, while not representative, definitive, or even "cool," (to wit, some great songs that didn’t make the cut: “Where It’s At,” by Beck, “Sultans of Swing,” by Dire Straits, “I Dig Rock-andRoll Music, by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and “Still Rock-and-Roll To Me,” by Billy Joel, etc.), are certainly worthy of searching out. Accordingly, the songs are not listed in any particular order, but taken together, represent a harmonious sampling of our collective dependence upon musical expression, one of our greatest treasures.

We’ll begin the first installment with “We Will Rock You,” by Queen. This 1977 double-sided #2 smash hit (“Rock You” was the “b-side” to “We Are The Champions”) was inspired by the band’s desire to involve their fans more in their rock shows, being moved on one occasion by an audience singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the band for an encore. An understandably powerful moment for the lads. Not only is “Rock You” the band’s singular promise to their fans, but the song has transcended the music world, morphing into the standard rallying cry at athletic matches of every variety. And who can resist the catchy, “stomp, stomp, CLAP! stomp, stomp, CLAP!” hook that permeates the record. Instantly recognizable. Instantly classic. Powerful. Punchy. Perfect. Just like the band.

I Love Rock and Roll,” by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. Joan Jett and The Blackhearts performed the definitive 1982 version of this song, written by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker, from the British band, “Arrows.” Jett’s iteration spent seven weeks at number one that summer and featured one of the cheesiest/coolest music videos in the early days of the medium (was I the only pre-teen who worried that Jett might be a biter?). Just watching the video made me suspect my parents weren't telling me everything (turns out, they weren't). The song was ubiquitous on the radio that spring, and for me, turned into summer’s invocation; it was so visceral and rebellious and kick-ass; the perfect jolt in the arm this 11 year-old needed as I prepared to matriculate into a new school the next town over. It was my go-to song that summer and into the fall, until this little album titled, Thriller, came out that November...

“Drift Away,” by Judson Spence. While it’s deservedly best-known incarnation was released in 1973 by the late Dobie Gray (#5), who sadly left us in 2011, “Drift Away” has received numerous treatments over the decades, covered by such heavy-hitters as Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, and the Rolling Stones, to name a few, but my all-time favorite version comes from a relatively unknown artist who debuted in the late 1980’s and whose lifespan on the pop charts was short-lived. Judson Spence’s reading of the 1970’s classic demonstrates a gifted interpreter of rock classics; I wish he would have done an entire album of these. And fortunately, Spence’s version is actually available today on iTunes. It’s featured on the soundtrack to the late-1980’s television program, “The Wonder Years.” The album is an inoffensive tribute to music from the late 1960’s / early 1970’s, featuring originals from the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as well as covers by Julian Lennon and Debbie Gibson, who closes the set with an amiable tune about what it feels like to grow up in the suburbs. Fitting for the program. Fitting for the soundtrack.

Sing,” by Carpenters. Richard Carpenter reportedly regrets recording this Grammy-winning hit song (#3 in 1973), seeing it as trifle, compared to their other recordings (as well as a waste of time, given the precious few years of recording they ended up having during Karen’s lifetime), but nonetheless, this Sesame Street classic stands as a tender tribute to the inspirational power of music, and while targeted at children, it’s message transcends age and time: everybody has a theme song and shouldn’t be afraid to sing it out loud (what’s yours?). What’s mine, you ask? Naturally, it’s “Warm It Up,” the 1992 #13 hit by Kris Kross.

Music,” by Madonna. You may not remember this, but in the late-1990’s, many folks had written off the Queen of Pop. Apparently, with the late-90’s rise of grunge and the short-lived girl singer-songwriters (I’m looking at you, Jewel, Fiona, Joan, and Alanis) the “Material Girl” had apparently outstayed her welcome. With the love-it-or-hate-it Erotica album, in 1992, and the all-over-the-place Bedtime Stories, in 1994 (and the Evita debacle in 1996), the Madonna hit-machine seemed to have blown a gasket. But late in the dingy decade, Stella got her groove back, releasing the dazzling one-two punch of the Ray Of Light album, in 1998, and Music, in 2000. The title song on the latter album is a sassy, dance floor lolly about the transcendence of music. Favorite line referencing our need for music: “It's like ridin' on the wind and it never goes away, touches everything I'm in, got to have it everyday.” Well said, your “Madjesty.”