YELLOW SHOOTS – Single Review: “SIRENS (Mermaid Version)”

Yellow Shoots is the music project of singer/songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Greg Matthews. The Brooklyn, New York-based artist was one of the very first I wrote about, way back in March 2016 when my blog was still in its infancy. His artistic name comes from his experiences with synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway, such as sound, leads to an automatic, involuntary response in a second sensory or cognitive pathway, such as sight. He sometimes sees vivid yellow colors when hearing music (a common form of synesthesia is known as chromesthesia, for sound to color), hence his name “Yellow Shoots.” With his distinctive vocal style and skillful fusing of R&B, soul, funk, jazz, electronic, hip-hop, alternative and psychedelic, he creates his own unique neo-soul sound that envelops listeners in raw sensuality and emotion.

Beginning with his debut single “Pieces” in 2014, the prolific artist has released an extensive amount of music in the years since, including his marvelous Prince-influenced album everything in 2018. One of the singles “make it to the summer” has garnered nearly half a million streams on Spotify. Last May, I reviewed his single “Wonderful Day”, which was featured on his EP Naked, released in July 2020. He’s also collaborated with numerous other artists, most recently last September with fellow Brooklyn singer-songwriter, producer and engineer Johnny Burgos on their single “Fun Tonight”. Now he returns with “SIRENS (Mermaid Version)“, the first single from his forthcoming sophomore LP The Green Album, due for release in July. He programmed synths, played all instruments, sang vocals and produced the track. His brother Jason Matthews did the mixing and Dan Millice did the mastering.

Release via his label La Reserve Records, the song is a totally reimagined version of his 2018 single “Sirens”, a silky and mesmerizing R&B/hip hop song about a long-distance love affair. Yellow Shoots uses the beguiling but dangerous Sirens of Greek mythology as a metaphor for the intense, all-consuming longing that comes from being far away from the one you love. He elaborates “They’re singing you to shipwreck. You put yourself in harm’s way because you’re so in love.” On “SIRENS (Mermaid Version)” he shaves about 30 seconds off the song and dials up the tempo from the previous version’s chill, musically-spare vibe to a faster-paced, more sonically complex track. About the new version, he said “This song is me drawing from my many influences, and not trying to fit into one style.” 

Yellow Shoots’ shimmery, psychedelic-tinged guitar notes take center stage here, as he layers them over a kaleidoscope of lush analog synths and skittering R&B grooves. I love all the colorful synth textures and quirky sounds he adds to the mix, and when accompanied by his electronically-altered falsetto, it all makes for an enchanting and fascinating listen. The more dynamic arrangement lends a greater sense of urgency to the lines he sings in the chorus “blind my eyes, tie my hands, I’ve got nothing left to lose“, symbolizing a complete surrender to lustful desires. It’s a great track.

Follow Yellow Shoots:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud / Tidal
Purchase:  Amazon

G. SAMEDI – Single Review: “Icarus”

There’s so much great musical talent out there that it sometimes makes my head spin. I’ve recently written about quite a few exceptional artists and bands, and today I’m pleased to introduce another – silky-voiced Australian singer-songwriter Sam Dawes, who goes by the artistic moniker G. Samedi. Sam’s actually no stranger to this blog, as he’s also the lead vocalist and songwriter for Sydney band Thunder Fox, who I adore and have featured numerous times. While still actively involved with Thunder Fox, who will be releasing their second album later this year, Sam decided at the beginning of 2020 to record and produce some of his songs as a solo artist. In little more than a year, he’s already released seven singles (the first was actually a double single), all of which are fantastic. His latest is “Icarus“, which dropped April 30th.

Curious about the name G. Samedi, I asked Sam how he came up with that moniker. He told me it’s “just a silly amalgamation of my real name, Samuel George Dawes. People would call me Sammy D at school, I liked the character ‘Baron Samedi’ from James Bond, and it just came together nicely.” Well, I think G. Samedi is an ideal name, as it suggests an air of sophistication and sexual mystery, both of which are characteristics of his wonderfully unique sound.

Drawing from R&B, soul, trip hop, electronic and alternative rock elements, Sam creates moody and sensuous soundscapes for the expression of his bold lyrics addressing the darker and more introspective aspects of love and relationships. Then he delivers them with his distinctive soulful vocals that go from smooth, sultry croons to plaintive falsetto. He writes all his own music and lyrics, records and programs all instruments, sings all vocals, and produces and mixes all tracks. The only think he outsources is the mastering.

“Icarus” is a stunning and fascinating track, featuring a complex, almost progressive arrangement and a colorful array of instruments and synths. The song opens with stirring synths and an almost gospel-like organ, accompanied with tinkling piano keys. I love Sam’s expressive vocals, which sound especially vulnerable as he laments about falling out of love for his partner and the resulting pain he caused her and the damage he did to their relationship, while admitting he still has strong feelings for her: “I still needed her after all / I fell away, wings like Icarus melting on my bleeding lust. I knew I’d fly too close for us.” As the organ recedes, the melody settles into a languid R&B groove, highlighted by a mix of shimmery and gritty guitars and a thumping drumbeat. His layered vocal harmonies are really beautiful too, turning more plaintive and heartfelt as he implores her to reconsider: “I just love you, isn’t that enough?” The song ends with sounds of a droning synth and pounding drum.

“Icarus” is wonderful, and another in an unbroken string of really stellar singles by this talented artist. If you like it, do take a little time to listen to some of his other songs as well on one of the music platforms below.

Follow G. Samedi: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream his music: SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloudYouTube

Purchase: BandcampAmazon

EML’s Favorite Songs – “All Around the World” by Lisa Stansfield

My fellow blogger William, who has a terrific blog a1000mistakes, recently did a series of posts about songs beginning with the word “All” (of which there are literally a ton), and it reminded me of one of my favorite songs “All Around the World“, by soulful British singer-songwriter Lisa Stansfield. The gorgeous song was released in the UK in October 1989 as the second single from her marvelous first solo album Affection, both of which were breakthrough hits for her. It was subsequently released in the U.S. in January 1990. The song was a massive worldwide hit, topping the charts in the UK, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Netherlands, Norway and Spain. In the U.S., it reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the R&B and Dance Club charts. Stansfield received two Grammy award nominations for the song and album.

Stansfield co-wrote the song with Ian Devaney and Andy Morris, former bandmates from her previous band Blue Zone. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, she recalled “I came into the studio, and Ian was messing around at the piano. He had a melody, and I just started singing: ‘Been around the world and I, I, I…’ Everyone laughed but Ian said, ‘Wait, it’s really good, that.’ It just came into my head – it was nonsense, but had a really good feel to it. “I, I, I” became the main hook. We’d no idea how massive it would become.

The song is both sexy and heartbreaking, with lush, swirling strings and a soulful melody creating a sensual backdrop for Stansfield’s sultry, emotion-packed vocals that cut to the core. She’s an incredible singer, and her vocals are utterly convincing in conveying the torment and pain expressed in the lyrics. She brings goosebumps as she alternately coos, purrs, and cries out over the guilt of hurting her former lover, and now that he’s gone, of her desperate search to find him and hopefully win back his love.

I don’t know where my baby is
But I’ll find him, somewhere, somehow
I’ve got to let him know how much I care
I’ll never give up looking for my baby

Been around the world and I, I, I
I can’t find my baby
I don’t know when, I don’t know why
Why he’s gone away
And I don’t know where he can be, my baby
But I’m gonna find him

We had a quarrel and I let myself go
I said so many things, things he didn’t know
And I was oh oh so bad
And I don’t think he’s comin’ back, mm mm

He gave the reason, the reasons he should go
And he said thing he hadn’t said before
And he was oh oh so mad
And I don’t think he’s comin’ back, comin’ back

I did too much lyin’
Wasted too much time
Now I’m here and cryin’, I, I, I

Been around the world and I, I, I
I can’t find my baby
I don’t know when, I don’t know why
Why he’s gone away
And I don’t know where he can be, my baby
But I’m gonna find him

So open hearted, he never did me wrong
I was the one, the weakest one of all
And now I’m oh oh so sad
I don’t think he’s comin’ back, comin’ back

I did too much lyin’
Wasted too much time
Now I’m here and cryin’, I, I, I

Been around the world and I, I, I
I can’t find my baby
I don’t know when, I don’t know why
Why he’s gone away
And I don’t know where he can be, my baby
But I’m gonna find him

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #29: “Bad Bad News” by Leon Bridges

The song at #29 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Bad Bad News” by American singer-songwriter and producer Leon Bridges. The talented Ft. Worth, Texas-based artist is like a breath of fresh air with his throwback R&B style that echoes some of the great soul singers of the 60s like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. It’s a reflection of my advanced age perhaps, but though most of his songs are mellow and low-key, they excite me because they remind me of so many of the artists and music coming out of Detroit (Motown), Memphis and Philadelphia from the early 60s to the mid 70s that I loved.

“Bad Bad News”, from his second album Good Thing, is fantastic, with jazzy guitar, gorgeous brass, crisp percussion and a deep bass groove set to a soulful, hypnotic beat. Add Bridges’ smooth vocals that go from sensual to plaintive, and the result is sonic heaven. He sings about overcoming others’ lack of faith in him, and making it on his street smarts, honesty and belief in himself: “Ain’t got no riches, ain’t got no money that runs long. But I got a heart that’s strong and a love that’s tall. Ain’t got no name, ain’t got no fancy education. But I can see right through, a powdered face on a painted fool./ They tell me I was born to lose. But I made a good good thing out of bad bad news.

Though none of Bridges’ songs have appeared on the stinking Billboard Hot 100 nor even the R&B chart – which is a shocking travesty! – both of his albums have made the top 10 on the 200 Album chart, and two of his singles, “Smooth Sailin'” and “Bad Bad News” reached #1 on the Adult Alternative Chart. “Bad Bad News” spent three weeks at #1 on my own Weekly Top 30 in early summer of 2018.

The sexy video for the song was directed by Natalie Rae, and shows scenes of a woman following a man who she thinks whistled at her through an empty underground subway station and out into the streets at night, when she suddenly becomes overtaken by the song’s sensual grooves. Scenes of her are interspersed with footage of Bridges walking into an auditorium where he encounters a group of musicians jamming, and he then dances around them as he sings the song. At the end, the woman finally catches up to the man and silently confronts him before walking away.

TAFARI ANTHONY – Single Review: “No Good”

I recently learned about Toronto-based singer-songwriter Tafari Anthony when his PR rep reached out to me with his new single “No Good“. After hearing it, as well as listening to his terrific catalog of songs, I’m excited to now introduce this talented Queer artist to my readers. Influenced by some of his favorite artists ranging from Prince and John Legend to Lennon Stella and Charlie Puth, Tafari blends R&B, pop and soul with sultry melodies and deeply heartfelt lyrics to create songs with incredible emotional resonance and depth. His powerful lyrics touch on subjects of love, relationships, life’s hardships and finding self identity and worth in a society where most people feel they need to blend in to be happy. The power of his music reflects the fact that his name ‘Tafari’ means “he who inspires awe”.

Tafari has released a substantial amount of music over the past five years, starting with his debut EP Die For You in 2016. He’s been nominated for a Toronto Independent Music Award and receives regular airplay on CBC Radio, with one of his singles being named one of CBC’s Most Influential Songs of 2016. He has also performed alongside Shangela (RuPaul’s Drag Race) and has performed at Toronto’s Dundas Square and Massey Hall. Within the past year, Tafari was awarded a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto, and was recently selected as one of CBC Searchlight’s top 25 performers in Canada.

This past January, he released his single “Centerfold”, then followed in May with “Live in a Dream’. On October 21, he dropped his latest single “No Good”; all three singles will be included on his upcoming EP The Way You See Me, due for release on November 20. The track was co-produced by Tafari and Alexander “Sandy” Flockhart, engineered by TEFO, mixed by Brandon Unis and mastered by Brad Smith. The beautiful, poignant song is about how some relationships are just no good for us, yet we seem powerless to resist, ending up pursuing them against our better judgement. Tafari confides, “It takes a lot of self-reflection to be able to realize these patterns in ourselves and even more to get out of them once we are aware. Realizing that you crave the unhealthiness of the relationship. Personally, I often let people treat me like shit for way longer than I should – but once I’m done, I’m done.”

He further elaborated on his thoughts to the webzine American Songwriter: “I’m hoping listeners will really connect with this [song]. It is so much easier than you’d think to get trapped in this cycle of a bad relationship. I’ve heard too often from people that when a relationship is going well they feel like it’s missing something and that something is the drama. It gives us this false sense of excitement, when really the constant drama, [analysis,] and need to always be looking for confrontation is not a healthy relationship at all. Hopefully this song helps bring clarity to even one person who is in a situation like this.”

The song has a sensual groove, anchored by a pulsating synth bass beat and accompanied by warm keyboards, finger snaps and some nicely-strummed guitar. Tafari has an impressive vocal range, and here they’re especially lovely and heartfelt as they go from breathy to raw to falsetto, beautifully conveying a sense of sad resignation expressed in the lyrics:

 “We put the good shit down for a rest / ‘Cause goddamn, I love when you stress / See the vein pop right through your head / I guess some would call us a mess / So now we’re standing here, feeding obsession with crippling fear / But I love it dear / Do I need to explain anymore / That’s why I had to leave / ‘Cause you’re no good for me.

Connect with Tafari:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream his music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloudYouTube

Purchase: BandcampWebsiteAmazon

New Song of the Week – ATTALIE: “Homeless”

Singer/songwriter Attalie has one of the most amazing and distinctive vocal styles of any artist I’ve come across. Using her colorfully expressive and soulful voice almost like a musical instrument, she produces exquisite vocal sounds and textures with incredible depth and emotional range. In December 2018, she released her marvelous debut EP Polluted, featuring three excellent songs drawing from soul, jazz, Latin and African music influences, then followed up in April 2019 with a wonderful medley of the three tracks, “Polluted: The Medley“, which I reviewed.

Now Attalie returns with a mesmerizing new single “Homeless“, the lead single from her forthcoming second EP Sigh, due out November 5. The track was co-produced by Attalie and Tshepang Ramoba, and mixed by Kudzie Mutizira. Together, they’ve created a bewitching musical arrangement with soulful piano, guitar and percussion, and highlighted by well-placed flourishes of jazzy trumpet. It’s an utterly captivating backdrop for Attalie’s rich and deeply emotive vocals. 

About the song’s meaning, Attalie explains: “‘Homeless’ represents the loss of direction one faces when confronted with an unexpected turn of events. This can disrupt the comfortability associated with one’s space, further accentuating lack of direction.” Her smoky vocals beautifully capture this agonizing sense of loss and aimlessness, practically ripping at our heartstrings as she painfully laments:

It doesn’t feel like home anymore
It just doesn’t feel like home anymore

A stranger at home, have I become?
A stranger at home, am I?
Homeless, have I become, hey?
Homeless? Am I?
Disconnected, I feel so, disconnected

Have I become? Homeless

Connect with Attalie on TwitterInstagram
Stream “Homeless” on Spotify / SoundcloudGoogle Play
Purchase on Bandcamp / Amazon

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #98: “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna

Rihanna (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty in Barbados) is an international music superstar, fashion designer, actress and businesswoman who emerged on the music scene in 2005 at the tender age of 17. Since then, she’s racked up an impressive string of monster hits and earned numerous awards and accolades. I love many of her songs, especially “Only Girl (In the World)”, “Stay”, We Found Love” and her duet “Love the Way You Lie” with Eminem, but my favorite of all is “Love on the Brain”.

The song is from her eighth studio album Anti, and features a sultry doo wop/R&B vibe in the style of many great R&B songs of the late 50s and early 60s that strongly appeals to my mature music sensibilities. It’s a stunning torch song that beautifully showcases her considerable vocal talents. Though it was a sizable hit, “Love on the Brain” peaked at only #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, a relative disappointment considering how many of her singles reached #1.

The song was originally written by Norwegian songwriter and producer Fred Ball and American songwriter Joseph Angel in late 2013. They wanted an old school soul feel with modern lyrics, and did not write it with Rihanna in mind. After hearing the song, however, Ball’s manager Jay Brown loved it and thought it would be a great song for Rihanna. He sent it to her and she loved it too, adding some additional lyrics to make the song her own. The explicit lyrics speak of a romantic obsession with another person who treats her poorly, but her feelings are so intense that she’s willing to endure whatever hurt and pain he doles out so long as he loves her. Some believed the song referred to Rihanna’s tempestuous relationship with Chris Brown, though she’s never confirmed it one way or another.

Oh, and, babe, I’m fist-fighting with fire
Just to get close to you
Can we burn something, babe?
And I run for miles just to get a taste
Must be love on the brain
That’s got me feeling this way (feeling this way)
It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good
And I can’t get enough
Must be love on the brain, yeah
And it keeps cursing my name (cursing my name)
No matter what I do
I’m no good without you
And I can’t get enough
Must be love on the brain

Baby keep loving me
Just love me, yeah
Just love me
All you need to do is love me yeah
Got me like ah-ah-ah-ow
I’m tired of being played like a violin
What do I gotta do to get in your motherfuckin’ heart?

EML’s Favorite Albums – JANET JACKSON: “Rhythm Nation 1814”

One of the albums I’d want to take along with me to that proverbial desert island is Rhythm Nation 1814, the fourth studio album by Janet Jackson. At the time of the album’s release in September 1989, I wasn’t what you’d call a huge fan of hers, though I’d really liked her hit songs “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, “Nasty” and “When I Think of You” from her hugely-popular 1986 breakout third album Control. In fact, I actually resented her a bit for a short while due to the fact that “Miss You Much”, the lead single from Rhythm Nation 1814, kept my then-favorite band Tears For Fears’ single “Sowing the Seeds of Love” from reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (“Sowing the Seeds of Love” and “Miss You Much” were released a day apart in late August 1989, and both entered the Top 40 on September 9th.) But as Jackson continued to release a succession of superb singles from the album, I got over my juvenile grudge and grew to love it, eventually purchasing the CD.

Rhythm Nation 1814 is a concept album that Jackson’s label A&M Records was initially set against. Like many music labels (and movie studios) who tend to want to repeat what successfully worked before, A&M wanted her to record another album like Control, but she wasn’t having it. Troubled by stories about crime, gangs, drug abuse and other tragedies she saw on the news, she wanted to make an album that touched on socially conscious themes, with a positive message of unity.

Given her popularity and youth (she was 23 at the time), Jackson believed that, through her music, she could reach a younger audience who may have been unaware of what it meant to be socially conscious. She herself was inspired by musicians like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, and U2, however, she felt their music appealed primarily to adults who were already invested in social change. In a 1989 interview with USA Today, she stated: “I’m not naïve; I know an album or a song can’t change the world. I just want my music and my dance to catch the audience’s attention and hopefully motivate them to make some sort of difference“.

For the recording of Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson once again collaborated with songwriters and record producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the geniuses behind the massive success of Control. Jackson does not possess a particularly strong singing voice, so the duo created a sound and style for her that played to her talents and rather limited mezzo-soprano vocal range. Over the course of her career, she’s received criticism for the limits of her vocal abilities, especially when compared with some of her contemporaries like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey who had powerhouse voices. That said, her vocals seem most effective either on strong anthems where she can boldly belt out the lyrics, or on tender love ballads where her soft, sultry purrs work especially well. Also, because her voice did not translate particularly well to on-stage live performances, Jackson enhanced her act with elaborate dance routines. Normally, I’m not impressed by that kind of thing, but in Jackson’s case, I make an exception because of her strong charisma and likability.

The album title was a combination of a theoretical utopian nation inspired by the unifying power of music, represented by “Rhythm Nation”, with “1814” representing the year the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written. The trio co-wrote six of the album’s songs, while Jackson solely wrote “Black Cat” and Jam and Lewis wrote the remaining five. The album was recorded in Minneapolis over a period of seven months, during which Jackson, Jam and Lewis chose to isolate themselves, without interference or involvement by anyone from A&M Records. The album was produced primarily with synthesizers and drum machines, specifically the use of sample loop and swing note and synthesized percussion techniques that had become popular by the late 1980s.

The album contains a total of 20 tracks, 12 of which are actual songs, with the other 8 consisting of interludes lasting anywhere from a few seconds to over a minute. These interludes serve as connectors or transitions between songs or groupings of songs. The tracks were sequenced beginning with those addressing societal injustice and transitioning to songs about love, relationships and sexuality. Musically, the album encompasses a variety of styles, such as new jack swing, pop, hard rock, dance and industrial music, which gave it wider appeal across multiple radio formats. And though some of the tracks sound fairly similar, with rather ubiquitous beats and melodies, they’re still incredibly upbeat and fun.

Although the album’s concept was initially met with mixed reactions, its production values and overall song quality earned it widespread critical acclaim. Rhythm Nation 1814 peaked at #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and has sold over 12 million copies worldwide. Rolling Stone ranked the album at #277 on its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2012. Seven of its singles – “Miss You Much”, “Rhythm Nation”, “Escapade”, “Alright”, “Come Back to Me”, “Black Cat” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” – reached the top five on the Hot 100, making it the only album in history to achieve this. Four of them reached #1, and it’s also the only album in history to produce number one hits in three separate calendar years – 1989, 1990 and 1991.

The album opens with “Interlude: Pledge”, a 47-second spoken word piece where Jackson essentially explains the album’s intent, then launches into “Rhythm Nation”, an electrifying dance anthem with heavy industrial beats built around the punchy bass groove of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. Jackson commandingly exhorts us to come together for justice: “People of the world unite / Strength in numbers we can get it right, one time / We are a part of the rhythm nation.” The song was the second single released from the album and peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

One of the most poignant songs on the album is “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make)”, inspired by the tragic 1989 shooting at a school in Stockton, California. The lyrics speak to the innocence of children, and that hate is something they’re taught by adults. “Escapade” is a joyously upbeat and celebratory anthem that always lifts my spirits, and is my all-time favorite Janet Jackson song. Set to an exuberant hip-swaying dance beat and colorful instrumentals, the hopeful lyrics speak to forgetting one’s problems, letting loose and having a good time: “Come on baby, let’s get away / Let’s save our troubles for another day / Come go with me, we got it made / Let me take you on an escapade.” It was the third single released from the album in January 1990, and the second to reach #1.

The hard-rocking “Black Cat” was a stylistic departure for Jackson, and was produced by Jellybean Johnson, who along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, was a former member of The Time. With its aggressive driving beat and metal rock guitars, it sounds like a song Def Leppard or Mötley Crüe could have done. Jackson snarls the biting lyrics warning a rebellious friend about their self-destructive substance abuse habit. The song was the third single from the album to reach #1.

“Love Will Never Do (Without You)” is another standout, with its strong sensual beat and rousing choruses, not to mention the great trumpet flourishes played by Herb Alpert, who Jackson had previously worked with on his 1987 hit song “Diamonds”. It was the seventh single to be released from the album, more than a year after its initial release, and you’d have thought that by now, interest would be waning. But not at all, as the song would become the fourth from the album to hit #1, in January 1991.

The final three tracks on the album are sensual slow burns, featuring sultry melodies and lush orchestration, with her vocals sounding softer and silkier than ever. My favorite of the three is the gorgeous and bittersweet “Come Back to Me”. I’ve always been a sucker for lush orchestration and soaring strings, and this song has them in spades. Jackson’s gentle vocals are perfect for this type of song, in which she softly laments with a palpable sense of heartache and despair over a lost love affair that she hopes can be rekindled. The song’s arrangement is first-rate and the stirring cinematic strings are really stunning. “Come Back to Me” was the fifth single released from the album, and peaked at #2, held down by Mariah Carey’s monster debut hit “Vision of Love”. So now I found myself rooting for a Janet Jackson song to reach number one!

The album closes on a steamy note with “Someday is Tonight”, a song about submitting to carnal desires. The song is downright sexy, and is to Jackson’s discography what “Love to Love You Baby” was to Donna Summer’s, if you get my drift. She coos and purrs her way through the song, accompanied by sultry beats and strings, and highlighted by Herb Alpert’s smoldering trumpet solo. The song was a precursor to Jackson’s evolving music style that would see her more fully explore sexual themes on her following albums Janet and The Velvet Rope. Both of those albums would receive massive critical and commercial acclaim, with Janet becoming her best-selling album. For me, however, Rhythm Nation 1814 remains her finest work.

EML’s Favorite Albums – STEVIE WONDER: “Songs in the Key of Life”

Stevie Wonder

For as far back as I can remember beginning as a pre-teen, I’ve been a huge fan of Stevie Wonder; one of the earliest 45 singles I ever bought was “My Cherie Amour”. Of all the many albums he released over a career spanning more than 50 years, my favorite is his magnificent masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life.

Born Stevland Morris in 1950, he became blind shortly after his birth (he was born six weeks premature, and the oxygen-rich atmosphere in the hospital incubator aborted the growth of his eyes and caused his retinas to detach, resulting in blindness). Despite his handicap, he was a child musical prodigy, learning to play piano, harmonica and drums as a young boy. He signed with Motown’s Tamla label when he was only 11 years old, and first became known professionally as Little Stevie Wonder. In 1963, his single “Fingertips, Part 2” topped the Billboard Hot 100, making him the youngest artist to ever have a #1 song on that chart. He eventually dropped “Little” from his name, and in 1966 came roaring back as Stevie Wonder with his electrifying hit “Uptight”. From that point on he would practically rule the charts for the next 20 years.

Released in September 1976 when he was 26, Songs in the Key of Life was Wonder’s 18th album. It’s generally regarded as his magnum opus, and the culmination of his “classic period”, which began in 1972 with the releases of Music of My Mind and Talking Book, the latter of which included the song “Superstition”, which featured the distinctive sound of the Hohner Clavinet keyboard that came to define Wonder’s sound. His next three albums produced during this highly creative period – Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life – all won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, making him the only artist to have won the award for three consecutive album releases. In 1976, when Paul Simon won the Best Album Grammy for Still Crazy After All These Years, he quipped, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t make an album this year.”

Surprisingly, Songs in the Key of Life almost didn’t happen. Despite the fact that by 1975 Wonder was one of the most successful music artists in the world, with his three previous albums all critical and commercial successes, he seriously considered quitting the music industry. He’d become interested in humanitarian issues in Africa, and wanted to emigrate to Ghana to work with handicapped children. Fortunately for his music fans, he reconsidered and went on to sign a lucrative new contract with Motown to continue recording more albums.

The album was recorded primarily at Crystal Sound studio in Hollywood, with some sessions recorded at the Record Plant in Hollywood, the Record Plant in Sausalito, and The Hit Factory in New York. According to Wikipedia, during the recording process, Wonder would often stay in the studio 48 hours straight, not eating or sleeping, while everyone around him struggled to keep up. “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak,” he said. A total of 130 people worked on the album, including notable jazz and R&B artists Herbie Hancock, who played Fender Rhodes on “As”, George Benson, who played electric guitar and sang backing vocals on “Another Star”, and Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams, who sang backing vocals on “Ordinary Pain”.

Songs in the Key of Life album

That Wonder’s creative flow kept going til he peaked is an understatement, as he ultimately recorded an astonishing 21 songs, released as a double album and a bonus 7-inch 45 featuring four tracks, along with a booklet containing all the song lyrics and credits. Incorporating a wide range of genres and music styles, including soul, R&B, pop, funk, jazz, gospel, Afrobeat and even classical, Songs in the Key of Life is widely considered one of the greatest albums ever recorded and his signature album. It’s the best-selling album of his long career, and ranks #4 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s most-recent 2020 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2002, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2005 was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The album is Wonder’s celebration of love, a testament to his faith, and his belief in the idea that love can conquer hate. In the booklet that accompanied the album, he wrote: “’Songs in the Key of Life’ is only a conglomerate of thoughts in my subconscious that my Maker decided to give me the strength, the love+love-hate=love energy making it possible for me to bring to my conscious an idea.” Opening track “Love’s In Need of Love Today” sets the tone for the album with Wonder’s heartfelt plea for people to put hate aside and try and love one another, a message that certainly bears repeating today: “Hate’s goin’ round/Breaking many hearts/Stop it please before it’s gone too far.

Some of the album’s highlights are the big hits “I Wish”, a joyously upbeat song that sees Wonder reminiscing on the joys of his childhood, and “Sir Duke”, a jazzy tribute to the legendary Duke Ellington, both of which went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though not released as a single, “Isn’t She Lovely”, a loving ode to his baby daughter Aisha, went on to become one of his most beloved songs. But the album’s full of many more outstanding tracks and deep cuts like the gorgeous love song “Knocks Me Off My Feet”, the enchanting and hopeful “If It’s Magic”, the bittersweet “Summer Soft” and the pleasing multi-cultural gem “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”.

Two of my personal favorites are the spectacular Side 4 epic tracks “As” and “Another Star”, both of which were released as singles but failed to crack the Top 30. The soulful “As” has a beautiful, almost gospel feel, and encapsulates the album’s overall theme of the enduring power of love. Wonder sings “Did you know that true love asks for nothing/Her acceptance is the way we pay/Did you know that life has given love a guarantee/To last through forever and another day.” Wonder goes on to list all the ways his love will endure, then the song immediately segues into “Another Star”. An electrifying eight and a half minute long masterpiece, this song is one of my favorites on the album, and ranks among my all-time favorites of Wonder’s many great songs. I love the exuberant Latin beat, sunny keyboards and soulful guitars, but the highlights for me are the exhilarating horns, head-bopping percussion and Wonder’s jubilant vocals that warm my heart and bring a tear to my eyes. Though the lyrics speak of an unrequited love, Wonder extolls the virtues of his love interest with such joy that you just cannot help being swept up in his bliss. Both songs really showcase his phenomenal songwriting, musicianship and vocal abilities.

Wonder also addressed issues of racism and social injustice on such tracks as “Pastime Paradise”, “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”, the latter two of which he co-wrote with radio DJ, poet, songwriter, producer, rapper, and community activist Gary Byrd. On the brilliant and haunting “Pastime Paradise”, Wonder speaks first to those who remain stuck in the past, clinging to their racist and bigoted beliefs, then to the victims of that institutional racism, bigotry and other forms of oppression, “living in a future paradise/looking in their minds for the day that sorrow’s gone from time.” He admonishes us to start “living for the future paradise”, and “Shame to anyone’s lives living in a pastime paradise.”

On “Village Ghetto Land”, Wonder uses a sedate classical minuet as a lovely musical backdrop that sharply contrasts with the biting lyrics that speak to the harshness of ghetto life: “Broken glass is everywhere/It’s a bloody scene/Killing plagues the citizens unless they own police/Children play with rusted cars/Sores cover their hands/Politicians laugh and drink – drunk to all demands.” The urgent, jazz/funk infused eight and a half minute long “Black Man” speaks to the accomplishments of often-overlooked people of color: “Heart surgery was first done successfully by a black man/The railroads for trains came on tracking that was laid by the yellow man/Friendly man who died but helped the Pilgrims to survive was a red man/Farm workers’ rights were lifted to new heights by a brown man/And the leader with a pen signed his name to free all men was a white man.” The song ends with a dramatic spoken call and response by teachers and students of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble in Harlem, shouting out the names and accomplishments of notable people of color as well as whites.

I’ve already made note of the album’s incredible legacy, but want to elaborate a bit more by referencing some of the accolades other noted artists have heaped on Songs in the Key of Life. Elton John once wrote “Let me put it this way: wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of ‘Songs in the Key of Life’. For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it.” In an interview with Ebony magazine, Michael Jackson called Songs in the Key of Life his favorite Stevie Wonder album. George Michael cited the album as his favorite of all time, and along with Mary J. Blige, he covered “As” in 1999. Michael also performed “Love’s in Need of Love Today” on his Faith tour in 1988, and released it as a B-side to “Father Figure”. He also performed “Village Ghetto Land” at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988. He later covered “Pastime Paradise” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet” in his 1991 Cover to Cover tour.

Rapper Coolio sampled the haunting groove of “Pastime Paradise” on his 1995 single “Gangsta’s Paradise”. Prince called it the best album ever recorded, Mariah Carey has named it one of her all-time favorites, and Whitney Houston also remarked on the influence of the album on her singing. In an interview with webzine CLRVYNT, heavy metal singer Phil Anselmo described a live performance of many of the album’s songs with reverence: “Watching Stevie Wonder and just being in his presence is truly like watching a living, breathing miracle right before your eyes. It really is. It was stunning, and it still stuns me to this day.” (Wikipedia)

Stevie Wonder was unquestionably one of the most important and influential musicians of the 1970s, and Songs in the Key of Life was his greatest triumph in a career spanning five decades.

ANDY STERN – Single Review: “I Don’t Mean To” ft. Greg Blackman

I recently learned about British songwriter Andy Stern when he followed me on Twitter, and reached out to me about his new singles “I Don’t Mean To.” and “It’s Your Love That Keeps Me Going“. Originally from London, but now living in Herfordshire, Andy has long wanted to be a songwriter, and taught himself to play the guitar around five years ago so that he could write songs. In his bio, he explains “I have always loved listening to beautiful melodies written by the likes of Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Barry Gibb and countless others. Melodies that take you somewhere unexpected. I also love the stark, simple messages that Phillip Larkin expressed in his poems; he can make you think, ‘I didn’t realise I felt that till now’. These people have helped me write songs about my own life experiences and observations. As we go through life our perspectives on love and close relationships change. This is what I try to capture in my songs.”

Not being a singer himself, Andy looks for talented singers who are touched by his songs and lyrics enough to want to sing them. As such, he has worked with established British vocalists like Greg Blackman and Roisin Quinn to help bring his songs to life. Greg has a beautiful and soulful voice, and happily sang vocals on Andy’s latest singles. Nick Kozuch programmed additional instruments and produced both tracks, and played guitar on “I Don’t Mean To.”. Daniel Arbiter played guitar on “It’s Your Love That Keeps Me Going”.

“I Don’t Mean To.” is a heartfelt song of apology to a loved one, letting them know you didn’t mean to make things difficult, and hoping they’ll give you another chance:  “You and me know, we know that we don’t get on too easily. It’s nothing new, Me trying too hard to get through to you. Probably drove you away. I don’t mean to.” The song has a pleasing vibe, with strummed guitars, gentle percussion and delicate synths. Greg’s soft, smooth vocals nicely convey the vulnerability expressed in the lyrics.

The second track “It’s Your Love That Keeps Me Going” is a beautiful song of love to someone who’s love has sustained him. The track has an R&B feel that calls to mind some of the 60s and 70s songs by Soul groups like The Originals, The Dells and Heatwave, thanks to its languid doo wop-inspired melody. The instrumental work is really lovely, highlighted by intricate guitars, gentle drumbeats that sometimes border on military-style, and smooth organ. Greg’s beautiful vocals sound especially soulful here, occasionally rising to a sublime falsetto that reminds me of the late Donny Hathaway as he croons “And it’s you, makes me see what a wonderful world this can be. Like you open it up for me. Happiness is a gift that you give to me thankfully. Cos it’s your love that keeps me going.”

I’m impressed by the quality of Andy’s songwriting and lyricism, and really like both of these outstanding singles a lot. To hear more of his songs, check out his Website and one of the music sites listed below.

Follow Andy on Twitter
Stream his music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase:  Amazon