All-Time Classics #1: Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder (1976)

Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

For the first entry in my All-Time Greats series of album reviews, we’re going to talk about what I personally consider to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded: Stevie Wonder’s legendary 1976 double-plus-EP album Songs in the Key of Life. At just over 100 minutes in length, there is no shortage of material to discuss, let alone highlight favorites from, but I believe that this masterpiece deserves to have every last minute discussed, praised, criticized, and immortalized. Consisting of two LPs and a bonus “A Little Somethings Extra” EP, this record takes the listener on an unparalleled musical odyssey encompassing a cornucopia of musical styles, moods, and ideas. You’ll always discover something entirely new to love about this album almost every time you hear it all the way through, and there is simply so much artistic genius on display here that multiple listens are practically required. This record deserves every single bit of praise and adoration it has received over the years, and no matter how much I write about it, I’ll never really be able to do the music justice. But I might as well try!

The album opens with a slow-burning, soulful peace ballad, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” It’s one of the album’s longer cuts, but every second is pure ear-candy. Beautiful vocal harmonies, subdued percussion, and gorgeous synthesizers populate this track’s patient but powerful runtime, gently easing the audience into the following experience in, dare I say it, wonderful fashion. Alright, I apologize, that was pretty terrible. I will refrain from any name-based puns for the remainder of this review. Anyways, the boundaries between organic and synthetic instrumentation is blurred constantly throughout this album’s runtime, with electronic instruments creating breathtaking, warm and organic-feeling soundscapes on the following tracks, “Have a Talk With God” and “Village Ghetto Land.” The former puts lyrics of faith and inspiration over an incredibly cool, hypnotic, gurgling keyboard track with the usual incredible backup singing, while the second sees Wonder singing solo about life in a poverty-stricken ghetto, calling for action regarding inner-city living conditions and lawmaker’s indifference towards the plights of marginalized populations facing such dire situations. What truly makes the track, however, is the fabulous synthetic string-section providing the track’s instrumentation. Miraculously, Wonder somehow manages to make fake strings work even better than real ones would have, and the result is an unforgettable slice of ear-pleasing and politically charged songwriting that would be the clear standout track on any other album. However, this is Stevie Wonder we’re talking about, so of course this is followed by yet another near-perfect track, the dizzying instrumental “Contusion.” Mike Sembello’s guitar playing on this track is just pure technical perfection, playing complex yet captivating solos and riffs throughout. The wordless vocals that come in about halfway through are also a great touch, making what would have been a nice instrumental interlude into an outstanding piece in its own right. The album then segues into “Sir Duke.” Dear. God. This freakin’ song. I can’t even begin to get across how stupidly happy this song makes me. Hell, it might just be my favorite out of all 21 of this album’s tracks. There are very, very few songs ever written that I would consider perfect, and “Sir Duke” is up there near the top of even that selective group. The lyrics are about Duke Ellington, but honestly I don’t really even care what the lyrics are about; they could be about anything and this song would still be absolute perfection. This is in that rare league of songs that are so damn happy they actually make me cry. I’m not ashamed to admit that this song gets me all choked up nearly every time I hear it. I seriously don’t think any other song I’ve ever heard has actually made me cry real tears of joy before. Maybe I’m just a mess, but this song just gets to me in the best possible way.

Side 2 kicks off with “I Wish,” a cool, groovy ode to childhood with a bassline to kill for. Stevie’s singing is flawless here, but then again, isn’t it always? After this is the calm, subdued ballad “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” We all know this by now, but I just need to say it again: Stevie Wonder’s chorus and hook-writing skills are almost completely unparalleled in the entire world of music. It may seem like I’m hyping his talents up a bit too much, but in all honesty I believe this guy to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I simply can’t stress enough how good he is at writing a moving, captivating, unforgettable song. “Pastime Paradise” is a trance-like rhythmic jam that makes you feel a bit disoriented, but definitely in a good way. I find this album somewhat exhausting to listen to sometimes for the simple fact that every single song is so damn good that there just isn’t any cooldown time. You don’t get a break, because the very next song is just as good, and then the next one after that, and so on. There are just too many incredible songs here. How he managed to write so many songs that are good enough to be any other artist’s defining song of their entire career, and put them all on the same album is just boggling to the mind. “Summer Soft” is one of the defining examples of how exhaustingly enjoyable this album can be to listen to sometimes. This album has a bit of a habit to create an awesome, goosebump-raising moment and then just hold you there, for an extended period of time. For example, in “Summer Soft,” we have the choruses, where he creates this incredible musical moment, and then escalates it, repeatedly, to an almost self-parodic degree, and the result is a song that’s so awesome it’s actually difficult to get through. And finally, the first LP is closed off with “Ordinary Pain,” a calmly depressing number with an energy-filled extended coda delivered by the incredibly vocally talented Shirley Brewer. After getting through these first 10 tracks, you may think to yourself “if I’m just under halfway through this thing, how could it possibly follow this up with anything even remotely up to the standard of quality this first group of tracks has set?” Well… let’s just say the second LP is more than up to that standard of quality. Oh boy, is it. You’re just too much, Stevie. Gimme a break with all this incredible music, man.

stevie wonder rockhalldotcom

Image source: rockhall.com

The second LP is where Stevie really breaks out the big guns. Of the seven tracks on the LP, only two are under six minutes: that being “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” a tri-lingual synthetic keyboard ballad, and “If It’s Magic,” a brief and haunting piece featuring only vocals and harp, played by Dorothy Ashby.  The LP starts with “Isn’t She Lovely,” a tear-jerking, ultra-heartwarming ode to his newly-born baby daughter. The song features an iconic harmonica line and some of the most impassioned vocals on the entire record, with the second half being occupied by homemade tape recordings of his daughter cooing, struggling to form words, refusing to get in the bath, and generally just being absolutely adorable. The following track, “Joy Inside My Tears,” is both one of the album’s most repetitive and moving cuts. The verse-to-chorus ratio on this one is definitely skewed, with a majority of the track consisting of a seemingly endless chant of the main chorus. On paper this may seem like it would get incredibly tiresome pretty quickly, but in execution, it only gets more profound and emotional with each repetition. Every time the chorus begins again, it seems to get more emotionally intense, which results in all six minutes of this track being some of the most deeply riveting you can find on this record. This is directly followed up with the longest track of the album, “Black Man,” at over eight minutes in length. This track features some of the record’s most potent and rousing political lyrics, consisting mainly of a list of scientific, historical and cultural achievements by people of color that have been largely swept under the rug and forgotten by your typical history class. This track somehow manages to make the listener happy and angry simultaneously, with the lyrics feeling like an incredible celebration of these people’s contributions to the world, but also demonstrating that a good number of these people’s names have been for the most part forgotten by the general population. Names such as Daniel Hale Williams, first person to perform a successful heart surgery, Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, and Crispus Attucks, first known person to die for the American flag, are listed off in succession, all with an accompanying unspoken question of why these are not names we are all familiar with. This song is truly a highlight on a record of highlights, standing out even next to the other excellent tracks on display.

Next up are the two sub-six-minute tracks mentioned earlier. While these two are great in their own right, they do still feel somewhat like interludes: simple warmups for the two slices of pure bliss to follow. “As” and “Another Star” are somewhat similar to each other, but by virtue of being back to back to each other, they serve as a sort of combined epic finale to the record. I tend to talk about the two as if they were one long song, because in my opinion they just beg to be listened to together. Both songs are over 7 minutes, and combined they are the ultimate fifteen-minute funky freakout to end the album proper. Don’t even start listening unless you plan on hearing the whole thing, because once you start, the driving, repetitive backup vocals and jamming instrumentals make it utterly impossible to pause. Truly, Stevie couldn’t have ended this journey in a better fashion. There are, however, four additional tracks found on the “A Little Somethings Extra” EP that was included with the album. Overall these tracks are of a high quality, with “Saturn” giving us a cinematic and dramatic ballad, “Ebony Eyes” providing a goofy romp of a love song that doesn’t take itself too seriously, “All Day Sucker” creating an incredible, groovy rhythm that begs to be danced to, and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” ending the selection of bonus content with a relaxing, chilled-out instrumental that evokes a night spent with family, watching fireflies from the front porch. These songs are all great, but I wouldn’t consider them part of the album proper. They’re intended more as a little extra treat after the main course, and I think they serve that purpose beautifully.

A 100-minute album with no filler whatsoever is a rare thing indeed, but Stevie Wonder accomplished that feat and so much more with this masterpiece of a record. I’ve said just about all I have to say about this utter classic, so I’ll end this debut All-Time Greats review with this: yes, this album is long as hell, and yes, sitting down and listening to the whole thing is an undertaking, but I truly believe that every fan of music should take the time to accept this album into their listening repertoire. It’s a multi-faceted, emotional and joyous ride from start to finish, and Songs in the Key of Life gets the highest recommendation I can give.

What do you think of this album? I’d love to know, so please, leave your thoughts in the comments!

Album Review #37: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Nothing quite like having to review a Christmas album in April, is there?

The genre of holiday-specific music has such a stigma surrounding it. I’m not saying I don’t completely understand it. It’s just that through all of the ad-nauseum overplaying of the same three to four standards for almost three whole months every year, it can be hard to remember that, when taken at face value, they’re not at all bad songs. The tragedy of Christmas music is, sadly, that for most people, these songs have been overplayed to the point that hearing a couple notes out of their melody is enough to trigger flashbacks. So in spite of all this, my mission for this review is to give these holiday staples a fair, unbiased assessment, and judge them without any of the knee-jerk reactions they tend to get three-quarters of each year. You ready? Alright, let’s do this.

“White Christmas.” This is a great start to the album, performed by Darlene Love. Her voice is beautiful, and the pulsating, rhythmic instrumentation is excellent. The lyrics aren’t really that relatable for me personally, having to suffer through the hell that is the Midwestern Winter every year, but I can see where they’re coming from. Grass is always greener on the other side, after all. “Frosty the Snowman.” Alright, this one can spark revulsion in a lot of people, and I will admit I personally find it to be one of the album’s weaker tracks, but at least it’s somewhat catchy. It’s not my least favorite holiday standard, but it’s down there. At least The Ronettes’ rendition has personality. “The Bells of St. Mary,” performed by Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans, isn’t that bad, with a pretty impressive vocal performance from Mr. Soxx himself, and an almost angelic chorus backing him. Next up is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,”  performed by The Crystals. I know it’s a pretty tired joke at this point, but I still can’t help but find the lyrics to be somewhat disturbing. Seriously, the lyrics make Mr. Claus out to be some sort of all-seeing Orwellian dictator, and the cheery melodies only somehow make it even more mildly unsettling. Oh well, at least The Crystals have great harmony. After that comes “Sleigh Ride.” I’ll admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for this one. The main melody is just damn catchy, and I can’t deny that this is one Christmas song I don’t mind hearing outside of the typical holiday season. Last on Side A is “Marshmallow World,” which is probably my favorite track off of the album. Performed once again by Darlene Love, it’s just stupidly catchy, with a pretty great saxophone solo to boot. Maybe it’s just because I’ve heard it before the least out of all of them, but this one just strikes me as the album’s highest point.

Phil Spector, eltrochilero(dot)com

Phil Spector looking cool in his producer’s booth. Image source: eltrochilero.com

Side B starts off strong with my second favorite track off the album, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Sung by The Ronettes, it’s got a really interesting melody, with a great harmony from the instruments and backup singers. After that’s The Crystals’ rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which, I’m sad to say, isn’t really anything special. I don’t know why, maybe it’s just how many times I’ve heard it before, but it just doesn’t seem to do that much to set it apart from the slew of other versions by countless other artists. It isn’t bad, not at all, but it just doesn’t stand out to me as much as the songs it’s surrounded by. “Winter Wonderland,” performed once again by Darlene Love, is excellent, with a superb chorus and great plucked strings. Strangely, it seems to have a subtly more lo-fi aesthetic to it compared to surrounding tracks. I’m not sure if it’s done intentionally on Spector’s part, but either way it makes it sound even better. “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” is up next, and The Crystals give their usual great choir-of-singers treatment to it, accompanied by some great percussion, as well as a trumpet interlude. Darlene Love has one last hurrah with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” with probably her best vocal performance of the album, backed by some great instrumental harmony to boot. The saxophones on this one are awesome, not to mention the piano part. Finally, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans reappear for the final time for “Here Comes Santa Claus.” His vocals are pretty good, and the backup singers are alright, but overall, this one just doesn’t stand out as much as the others. The track that precedes it kind of overshadows it, and sadly, I would say that this one is one of the record’s more forgettable tracks. The album is closed off by a nice little spoken word thank-you note delivered by Spector himself, backed by an instrumental “Silent Night.” He seems really proud of everyone involved, and he’s really, really happy you bought his album this Christmas season.

Probably the most significant aspect of this album is its production style. Dubbed the “Wall of Sound,” it was Spector’s trademark. It involved mastering the record so that it sounded like every instrument came together as one, heavy sound, and it was virtually unheard-of at the time. I personally think it sounds incredible, and although the sound can be somewhat polarizing for some, you can’t deny the influence it had on the world of music. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was heavily impacted by this style, even naming A Christmas Gift for You as his favorite album of all time. The style can even be heard in genres and bands decades in the future, with shoegaze bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, many metal bands, and pretty much the entirety of popular music to at least a small extent. Phil Spector’s musical vision changed the whole of music, and no matter what you think of his work, you can’t deny his massive importance.

So, yeah. Now for the elephant in the room. Yep, it’s no secret that Phil wasn’t exactly the most stable person in the production buisness. In fact, he threatened both The Ramones and Leonard Cohen at gunpoint during the production of their respective albums, and working with him was almost never a pleasant experience for anyone involved. This all culminated in 2009, when he was charged with the second-degree murder of Lana Clarkson on his estate. He is currently serving his sentance of 19-years-to-life in prison. So it comes as no surprise that, for many people, enjoying his life’s work can be a little difficult. I generally do a pretty good job of separating the art from the artist, but I have to admit that in this case, even just hearing him speak is a little bit on the uncomfortable side. If you can’t separate the music from the person, that’s totally understandable. I understand that this album is a pretty bad double-whammy of a hard-sell, being an album of Christmas music produced by a convicted murderer. But if you can somehow see past all that, you’ll find a pretty revolutionary catchy pop album. I just don’t blame you at all for steering clear.

Favorite Tracks: “Marshmallow Land,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland”

Next Up: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke (1963)

Album Review #35: With The Beatles by The Beatles (1963)

With the Beatles, The Beatles

This album is hard for me to review. Not because of how ludicrously important it is to music as a whole, (I had no problem reviewing Elvis Presley or Kind of Blue, after all) but simply because of how close and personal it is to me. This right here is, like, all I would listen to as a kid, and as such almost every track holds a deep-rooted nostalgia factor to me. I’ll try to review this record as objectively as I can, but in this instance that will be pretty much borderline impossible. Anyways, as the first of seven Beatles albums included in the book, (but not the first Beatles album, as Please Please Me sadly did not make the cut) this album has a lot of hype to live up to. Thankfully, I would say that it absolutely does.

First off, simply for clarity, every Beatles album I will be reviewing will be the original U.K. release, and not the butchered and gutted North American versions released by Capitol. In addition, going forward, if there are two separate versions of a specific album, I will be reviewing the version with more content. If the two versions both contain tracks unique to each other, I’ll be reviewing a sort of “composite” version containing all tracks, such as, for example, Aftermath by The Rolling Stones or Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Alright, back on topic. This album, or at least the crappy Capitol version Meet the Beatles, was their big breakthrough in America, and hearing the plethora of grade-A pop songs on this record, it isn’t difficult to see why. Right from the get-go, “It Won’t Be Long” explodes with superb guitar hooks and “yeah” chanting, and the follow-up, “All I’ve Got to Do” sports some fantastic vocal harmonies. “All My Loving” is just a hypnotic whirlwind of guitar strumming and harmonized lyrics, and to be perfectly honest, every single track on this album has something going for it. I think my personal favorite would have to be “Till There Was You,” which is really just beautiful. It serves as a nice break from the energetic rock and roll populating the rest of the record.

The Beatles 1963, fanpopdotcom.jpg

The Beatles, c. 1963.

From left to right: John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr.

Image Source: fanpop.com

While this is certainly the better album by a longshot, I think its predecessor Please Please Me deserves a mention as well. It’s looser, less refined, and generally just less developed as With The Beatles, but its collection of tracks is still quite strong; the opener, “I Saw Her Standing There,” is as good as anything on its follow-up, “Love Me Do” is fully deserving of its status as first Beatles hit, and of course their cover of “Twist and Shout” is simply essential. With The Beatles is still the superior album, however. It just seems to know what it’s doing so much more, and each and every melody, harmony, hook and bridge just feels more well-thought-out. Please Please Me is more of a picture of the learning artist than the artist at its peak, and With The Beatles a portrait of the artist that has improved upon itself and truly refined their craft.

In summary, With The Beatles is one of the best showcases of their pure, basic pop-making expertise of their discography. Each song is short and to-the-point, and every hook and melody is memorable and well-written. Later albums would see them drop their mop-top personas and dive head-first into innovation and experimentalism, but if you’re looking for a good picture of their music-making skill in its most basic form, there’s no better place to start than here.

Favorite Tracks: “Till There Was You,” “All I’ve Got to Do,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “All My Loving”

Next Up: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (1963)

Album Review #27: A Date With The Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (1960)

a-date-with-the-everly-brothers

Think about this for a second: without these guys, there’d be no Beatles or Beach Boys as we know them. Would anyone want to live in a world like that? I don’t think so. They were trailblazers in the world of pop-oriented rock and roll, and their influence on future musicians for decades to come simply cannot be measured. All future influence and importance aside, this is a damn strong pop-rock album in its own right. Short and sweet, it crams as many insanely catchy lyrics, choruses and melodies as is possible to fit inside its 27-minute runtime. It’s funny how albums so short can have such huge and lasting impact: Fats Domino, The Crickets and Little Richard, just to name a few, and now we have the Everly Brothers to join those prestigious ranks.

Blending elements of Elvis-style rock and roll with surf rock and Louvin Brothers-esque close vocal harmonies, this record creates a distinctive blend of pop-rock that’s extremely receptive to 60’s prom setlists and extensive radio play alike. Some may use those descriptors as an insult, but I think it really just proves how well the Everly Brothers know their craft. Don and Phil know exactly what to do to hammer a catchy melody or hook into your brain after just a single listen, and their knowledge of the art of pop is immediately evident. Commercially viable does not mean bad, and this album is only one of countless examples.

everly-brothers-yourtoojerrydotblogspotdotcom

Image Source: yourtoojerry.blogspot.com

Despite being a relatively short album compared to typical album runtimes, it actually works in a surprising amount of musical diversity. There’s Surf Rock in tracks like “Made to Love” and one of my personal favorites, “Sigh, Cry, Almost Die.” There’s slow ballads, like “That’s Just Too Much,” “Always It’s You” and one of their most well-known hits, “Love Hurts.” There’s even a hearty helping of blues rock, showcased at its best in “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” with some excellent piano and rhythm guitar. And with all of these suberb tracks, the album isn’t even done yet: there’s still songs like “Lucille,” “Donna Donna,” and of course, “Cathy’s Clown.”

This is an album that simply doesn’t waste a track. Every single one of this album’s 27 minutes is jam-packed with pop-rock perfection, and its short length means that you finish the album wanting more. Don’t be put off by their teenage-heart-throb image or their boy-band aesthetic, because they really do know how to make a good song.

Favorite Tracks: “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” “Sigh, Cry, Almost Die,” “Lucille,” “Cathy’s Clown”

Next Up:  Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith (1960)

Album Review #19: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

gershwin-songbook-ella-fitzgerald

Whew. I’ve gone through the book a few times, and I am almost certain that this album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, is the single longest album in the entire book. At just over three hours in length, it’s an absolute monster of a record (or rather, five records). It’s packed to the absolute bursting point with catchy pop tunes and Gershwin’s legendary instrumentation (arranged by Nelson Riddle), and it is simply an all-you-can-eat buffet for the ears.

It starts off with about 13 minutes of instrumentals, entitled “Ambulatory Suite” and “The Preludes.” Gershwin’s composing and Riddle’s conducting really get a chance to shine here, with almost every second just emanating Americana. Ella’s singing comes in with “Sam and Delilah,” and her delivery is just great. She sings each line with personality and attitude, and just seems to perfectly encapsulate the era with style and swing.

ella-fitzgerald-historydotcom

Image Source: history.com

Normally I like to make a short list of my favorite tracks from each album. Well, that won’t be easy this time: there are 57 tracks here, and they’re all great. So a few songs that I enjoyed, pretty much arbitrarily chosen, are “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” and “Slap That Bass.” I honestly don’t think there’s a single track in this massive album that I didn’t enjoy to some extent. I’ve listened to the whole thing start to finish a couple times now, and each time is just as enjoyable as the first listen. I guess if there’s one negative criticism I have regarding this one, it’s that it is just too overstuffed. I’m not complaining, but I can definitely imagine it being tough to get through for other listeners.

I don’t expect any of you to listen to all three hours of this thing. Even I find it to be best enjoyed when split up into smaller parts. But for those with the time and patience, Gershwin Songbook is a worthwhile listen, and a highly enjoyable one at that. Ella Fitzgerald is ridiculously talented, and this album showcases possibly the highlight of her catalog. So, give it a listen! You might just enjoy it.

Favorite Tracks: “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” “Slap That Bass.”

Next Up: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

Album Review #16: Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)

lady-in-satin-billie-holiday

Lady in Satin is truly a haunting record. One of the most raw, emotional and deeply personal musical recordings of all time, it still manages to leave listeners speechless over a half-century later. It was sadly the final album Billie Holiday would release during her lifetime, as she would die of liver cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism, just a year and a half later at the age of 44. Her voice is damaged and weak in this album,  and while you would think that such a thing would detract from the music, in reality it’s exactly the opposite. She gives one of the most profound and emotional vocal performances I have ever heard in this record, singing every line with the entirety of her heart and soul. This album is truly unforgettable.

I can’t help but make comparisons to a previous album on this list, In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra, released 1955. They are incredibly similar in instrumentation, mood and lyrical content, and while I prefer Sinatra’s album (it’s still #1 on my album rankings after 16 albums!), this album is still a masterpiece in its own right. They share three of the same songs, (namely, covers of “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and “I’ll Be Around”) but despite the many similarities, they remain wildly different albums. Sinatra’s voice is unwavering and flawless, and Holiday’s voice is tattered and broken. Both singing styles compliment the music greatly, but in much different ways. Personally, I prefer Holiday’s delivery, as I find it conveys a whole world of emotion that Sinatra’s only hints at in comparison. Ray Ellis, the mastermind behind Lady in Satin’s brilliant instrumentation, was originally unhappy with her damaged-sounding vocals, but listening to the master tapes later in production, he heard it in a whole new light. He noted that her delivery and performance didn’t shine in opposition to her voice, but rather the two enhanced each other. I completely agree; she really knew how to sing a lyric, and her decades of musical experience shined through and brought this album from average to unforgettable.

billie-holiday

Photo of Billie Holiday, source: MTV.com

My personal favorite of the album’s eleven tracks is “For Heaven’s Sake.” It’s got the usual great vocal delivery, but there’s just so much nuance and subtlety in the instrumentation, such as the brilliantly understated piano in the opening. I almost can’t even put my finger on just what makes this track so good. One of my favorite parts is this high-register background voice that shows up throughout the record (courtesy of Elise Bretton and Miriam Workman). It sounds almost theremin-like, and grants each track an otherworldly, ethereal vibe that just seems to speak to me on a deep, indescribable level. Holiday’s vocals and Ellis’ orchestra work together absolutely flawlessly, and together they create a borderline perfect atmosphere of both gloom and hope. This is a theme carried throughout the album; almost every track deals in doomed love and broken relationships, ruminating on the nature of love in the face of uncertainty and opposition. Some other highlights include her take on the staple “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” as well as the ultra-downer “You’ve Changed.” The album sure gives you a lot to think about, and is a highly emotional listening experience from start to finish.

So in conclusion, Lady in Satin is a masterpiece, plain-and-simple. Billie Holiday delivers one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard on this album, and Ray Ellis’ instrumentation is worth the listen on its own. It’s an album I would recommend to any music lover, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about this one any time soon.

Favorite Tracks: “For Heaven’s Sake,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “You’ve Changed”

Next Up: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)

Album Review #7: Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)

Songs For Swingin' Lovers! cover

The second Sinatra album on the list so far, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is much different from it’s predecessor, In the Wee Small Hours. It’s much more upbeat and cheerful, in contrast with his previous record, which showed a much more gloomy and introspective atmosphere. While I still prefer the former album, this one’s still an outstanding album in it’s own right.

As with the preceding record, the instrumentals are by far the album’s strongest point. However, the album puts less of an emphasis on Disney-score-like strings and more on a jazzy, somewhat uptempo style. Lyrically, it’s also much less of a downer. Instead of focusing on loneliness and bitter break-ups, Sinatra sings about feelings of love and joy. It still has quite a few moments of emotion, however, with particular note going to “We’ll Be Together Again.” It’s kind of difficult to pick stand-out tracks on this album, seeing as they’re all great. Sinatra may not have written his own lyrics, but he still found a way to inject each of his performances with huge amounts of passion. I’m not usually one to exaggerate, but he might just have been the greatest Pop artist of the decade.

Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is quite simply an incredible record. The singing is great, the instrumentation is superb, and it’s just a great listen start-to-finish. I couldn’t recommend this one more.

Next Up: The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)