Album Review #26: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba (1960)

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The world of African music has been tragically overlooked by the western world. There’s an entire continent rich with musical styles and sounds that many are only vaguely aware of, and that’s just a shame. For those unfamiliar, however, I would highly reccomend this seminal debut from South African singer Miriam Makeba as a starting point. This record was what opened many previously closed eyes to the world of African music, and what a great record it is. Here, she acts as almost an instructor to the western world, providing a sort of gateway to the music of her continent that much of her audience was barely even aware of beforehand. If you wish to expand your musical horizons, this is an excellent album to start with.

Firstly, the album’s background. At the time of the recording, she was in exile. Her South African citizenship and right-of-entry had been revoked in response to her protesting against apartheid, and her longing to return home is palpable on this recording. The songs may sound almost ridiculously happy, but the traditional instrumentation, melodies and African folk tunes and lyrics permeate with an ironic frustration and anger with the current state of her homeland. On this album, I feel like a point is made to showcase her culture, and not the colonialism-leftover segregated culture that ruled at the time. A perfect example of this is “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” a traditional wedding song of her tribe, the Xhosa. She seems legitimately joyous singing it, a feeling made even more bitter by her exile. She wouldn’t be able to return home until the end of apartheid in 1990.

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Miriam Makeba. Image source: thegatvolblogger.wordpress.com

Context aside, the album is thoroughly enjoyable in its own right. Almost every song is just an absolute joy to hear, with special mention going to “Mbube,” “The Naughty Little Flea,” and “One More Dance.” The cheer is so strong here, if you don’t at least crack a smile, then you are offically dead inside. The instrumentation is simply perfect, with the acoustic guitar, tribal drums, and especially the Belafonte Folk Singers, who provide an album-making chorus underneath most tracks that simply has to be heard.  Charles Colman, who sings (or at least tries to) a duet with Makeba in “One More Dance” is really just the most potent instant-happiness machine I think I’ve ever heard: throughout the entire track as he attempts to deliver his lines, he is consumed by uncontrollable laughter that’s so contagious that you will at least chuckle with him, despite not even knowing what’s so funny. Overall, if you forget about the context the record was made under, this album is one of the strongest feel-good serums you’ll ever find.

Miriam Makeba’s self-titled debut is a landmark in introducing world music to, well, the world. Her ceaseless endeavours to give the music of Africa the exposure it so well deserves were admirable,  not to mention her devotion to civil rights. I give this record my highest recommendation. If you’re even slightly interested, do yourself a favor and listen to it. If you aren’t interested, still listen to it. This album is a joy, plain and simple, and whether you are a complete outsider or avid listener, you can enjoy it just the same.

Favorite Tracks: “Mbube,” “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” “Olilili,” “One More Dance,” “The Retreat Song,” “The Naughty Little Flea”

Next Up: A Date With the Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (1960)

Album Review #25: Elvis is Back! by Elvis Presley (1960)

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Guess who’s back? Spoiler alert: it’s Elvis.

It’s been four years since our last Elvis album on the list: namely, his 1956 self-titled debut, Elvis Presley. While I most definitely respect that album’s place in the music history books, I found it to be a flawed record. It had many memorable songs, but it just seemed rough-around-the-edges, and not in a good way. This album, however, is a far superior record, with even more creative songs, wider selection of instruments, and a much more fleshed-out and completed feel to it. This record really proves Elvis’ ability to improve on past mistakes and evolve his sound, and is by all measures better than his debut.

As the title suggests, this was Elvis’ first album after returning from his time serving in the army. With much more creative control than he had had in a while, the King would produce a set of twelve songs on a whole new level of quality and depth than he had even reached beforehand. On this record he brings an immediately noticable country influence, evident in both the guitars and the baritone backup singers used on many tracks. Funny then, that the album’s best song would feature none of those: “Fever,” featuring nothing but bass, snapping, and Elvis’ effortlessly cool vocals, manages to be the album’s most memorable song despite being the most stripped-back track on the entire record. “Make Me Know It” and “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” are also highlights, bringing to the forefront Elvis’ classic fast tempo rock and roll to fantastic results.

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Elvis in uniform. Image source: aol.com

As always, he can play a mean slow song too. If you’re looking for a more sensitive, tender Elvis, you’ll find it on ballads like “Soldier Boy” and “I Will Be Home Again,” featuring great piano accompaniment, not to mention the country-influenced, Crickets-esque backup vocals. Yeah, they can sound pretty goofy at times, but it honestly just adds to the charm of it all. Elvis consistently proves that he can make slow ballads just as good as fast rock songs (sometimes even better), and these are just some of the best of them on this record alone. He’s versatile, and his albums are all the better for it.

So, if you weren’t swayed by his debut, give his comeback a chance. Even the title seems excited about it, so you know it can’t be that bad. With a perfect 50/50 mix of fast and slow songs, with much more diverse arrangements than his first record, Elvis is Back! is an improvement in every sense of the word. It’s the album Elvis Presley could have been, and really is just a good album regardless of his previous endeavours.

Favorite Tracks: “Fever,” “Make Me Know It,” “Soldier Boy,” “Dirty, Dirty Feeling,” “I Will Be Home Again”

Next Up: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba

Album Review #24: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

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Well, we’re back! It’s been an abnormally long time since my last album review (in no small part due to the recently posted album recap I’ve been working on), but now we return to the reviews themselves. Our first album of the 60’s just so happens to be one of my favorite so far: Joan Baez’s (pronounced BYE-ez, something that took me an embarrassingly long time to realize) debut self-titled album is a masterpiece of acoustic folk. This is made even more impressive considering that not only was it her first release, but that she recorded it at age 19. A lot of musicians don’t even create their best work until twice that age. It’s a top-quality folk record, introducing the decade on a particularly high note.

Interestingly enough for a “singer-songwriter” album (does that label even apply in this context? I’m not really sure), this album consists entirely of traditional songs, which are either in the public domain or simply have no known author. Despite not having written a word of the lyrics, she truly makes each song her own, singing every song with emotion and accompanying her vocals with virtuosic guitar. Despite featuring nothing but voice and acoustic guitar, the album sounds lush, detailed, and almost operatic at points. Her guitar playing is intricate, soothing, and hypnotic. Her voice is equally fantastic: she has one of the most beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard, and coupled with her instrumental expertise, this album becomes what I can honestly say is one of the greatest folk albums of all time.

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Joan Baez. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Even though the songs are traditional, their lyrical content still contributes quite a lot to the album overall. The record starts off strong with “Silver Dagger,” followed by “East Virginia” (a haunting track that, sadly, is only present on reissues, and not on the original release). Now, “lullaby-like” isn’t typically a positive descriptor under most contexts, but not only do I think that’s a perfect way to describe much of the album, but the songs are even better for it. Joan sounds like she’s trying to serenade you to sleep, like a mother would to her baby. So it’s most definitely a calming album, not to mention compelling, moving and emotional. Most of the tracks tell some sort of story, such as highlight “John Riley,” which I won’t ruin for you here. Some other of my favorite tracks include “Donna Donna,” “Mary Hamilton,” and the album’s closing track, “El Preso Numero Nuéve.”

Joan Baez’s self-titled debut is a marvel of acoustic folk. Beautiful singing, excellent guitar playing and classic, age-old lyrics make this album a true record for the ages. While she would later go on to be famous for her activism and political lyrics, this is still an album that deserves to be remembered. Yes, it’s much different from the material she would later become known for, but it is still an outstanding album in its own right. Any fan of folk who hasn’t heard this album is truly doing themself a disservice.

Favorite Tracks: “Silver Dagger,” “John Riley,” “Donna Donna,” “Mary Hamilton,” “El Preso Numero Nuéve”

Next Up: Elvis is Back! by Elvis Presley (1960)