Fresh New Tracks Vol. IX

It’s been a while since my last installment of Fresh New Tracks, and truth be told, I’ve been rather hesitant to do more of these posts, as I suspect a lot of artists don’t appreciate sharing the limelight with others. That said, there’s just so much great music being released nearly every day, and my time to write posts and reviews is limited, so combine them I must.

For my latest installment, I’ve chosen new singles by three of my favorite indie artists, all prolific musicians who possess really beautiful singing voices – Australian singer-songwriter G. Samedi, American singer-songwriter The Frontier, and Canadian-American singer-songwriter Shimmer Johnson. I’ve previously featured each of them on this blog numerous times, and love their new songs so much that I have to share them.

“Rearview” by G. Samedi

Sam looking cool as always

G. Samedi is the music project of Sam Dawes, a remarkably talented and dangerously charismatic singer-songwriter from Sydney, Australia. He’s also lead vocalist and songwriter for the wonderful soul/funk/jazz/pop band Thunder Fox, who I’ve written about several times as well. He has a distinctive soulful and silky vocal style that effortlessly glides from smooth, sultry croons to a plaintive falsetto and back again. 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. 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.  

While still actively involved with Thunder Fox, who will be releasing their second album next month, Sam began recording and producing some of his songs as a solo artist in early 2020. In less than two years, he’s released an astonishing 10 singles, one of which, “Icarus”, I reviewed this past May. His latest is “Rearview”, which dropped October 16th, and it’s another stunning & dreamy track. I love all the colorful instruments and sounds he incorporates into the song, highlighted by sparkling synths, enchanting organ, and a mix of shimmery and gnarly guitar notes. As always, his layered vocals are smooth, sensuous and incredibly emotive.    

Connect with G. Samedi: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

“On the Other Side” by The Frontier

Jake sharing a moment with his trusty sidekick Atlas

Regular readers of this blog know I’m a huge fan of The Frontier – aka Jake Mimikos, who’s based in Fairfax County, Virginia. Jake is an enormously talented guy with a kindness and sense of humor to match, and I’m quite fond of him both as an artist and human. Since 2015, he’s released an impressive amount of music both as a solo artist and as a band under The Frontier moniker, and we’ve been following each other on social media for nearly that long. Drawing upon elements of pop, folk, rock and electronica, his music is always incredibly pleasing and flawlessly crafted. As with many singer-songwriters, Jake’s songs are often inspired by personal experiences, and deal with love, relationships and loss. He prefers to write lyrics that are honest and straightforward, as if he were having a conversation with a friend. I’ve loved all of his songs, and have featured several on this blog, most recently “Shattered”, which I reviewed this past July. Two of his singles, “Dark Places” (from 2019) and “Can We Go Back” (from earlier this year) reached #1 on my Weekly Top 30, while “Sleep” (released in late 2020) reached #2.

On October 15th, he dropped his latest single “On the Other Side”, a beautiful song with heartfelt lyrics directed at a former romantic partner that’s hurt him, and who he now wants to try and get over: “Gotta get my head right, gotta get you out of my mind. Tell me what it feels like on the other side.” About the song, Jake told the blog Cool Top 20The music for this song came to me, oddly enough, when I was creating a video on Tik Tok. At the time, I was just messing around and posting little videos of me playing with my looper pedal. One of the loops I created had this really cool lead part over this simple progression. When I heard it I knew instantly I wanted to develop it a bit more and turn it into a song. You can hear the lead guitar part over most of the song in the background. It’s really simple, but to me it was the coolest thing hearing it come together.” It sounds very cool indeed Jake!

Connect with The Frontier: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

“Starts with You” by Shimmer Johnson

Shimmer working her magic

Let’s kick the mood into high gear with a hot new dance-pop song, “Starts with You” by Shimmer Johnson. Originally from Edmonton, Canada and now based in Los Angeles, Shimmer has an incredibly beautiful and resonant singing voice. Her clear, pitch-perfect vocals are strong, but with a raw vulnerability that beautifully conveys the subtle yet powerful emotions expressed in her heartfelt lyrics, enabling us to connect with her songs on a deeply personal level. In addition to her amazing vocal talents, she’s also a fine guitarist and pianist, and has collaborated with several songwriters and producers to create an impressive repertoire of outstanding songs over the past few years. She started out singing Country songs, but eventually transitioned to a more adult contemporary pop sound. 

I’ve featured Shimmer several times on this blog, most recently this past June when I reviewed her powerfully moving single “It’s Fate’s Turn”. Her latest single “Starts with You”, released on October 15th, sees her venture into dance-pop, and I absolutely love it! Co-written by Shimmer, her husband Corey, and Ted Perlman, the song features an infectiously upbeat dance groove guaranteed to have even the biggest wallflowers on their feet and swaying their hips. It’s essentially a song of love that starts off with the singer feeling a bit unsure about her new lover’s intentions: “All alone feeling emptiness. She’s leaving. He won’t see me. What I need, I can’t breathe” but ends up with her feeling happy and secure: “He does see me. What I need to be free (Feel this moment). He helps me see all the things I can be.” I love the funky little Nile Rodgers-like guitar riff and Shimmer’s smooth, breezy vocals. It’s a great track that’s already one of my favorites of her many songs, and I’m certain it will be a hit.

Connect with Shimmer:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

EML’s Favorite Songs – “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas

Though we’re officially only one week into Summer 2021, it’s already turning out to be an exceptionally hot one for a large swath of the U.S., and around the Northern Hemisphere. Temperature records have been shattered in many locations, including here in the Coachella Valley of Southern California where I live. On June 17th, the temperature in Palm Springs reached 123 degrees, setting a new all-time record high for June (after hitting 120 two days earlier). In the normally temperate Pacific Northwest, Portland, Oregon set a new all-time record high of 108 on June 26th, with Seattle also breaking their all-time record with 102 degrees. Those new records look to be short-lived, as they’re forecast to be broken later today!

(Late update: they were indeed broken on the 27th, as high temperatures reached 112 at the official airport station in Portland, and 104 in Seattle, then broken again on the 28th, with temperatures soaring to an unbelievable 116 in Portland, 117 in Salem and 107 in Seattle!)

These crazy-hot temperatures got me thinking about one of my favorite songs from the 1960s, “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas. Originally formed as the Del-Phis in 1957 by Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams, (and briefly renamed The Vels in 1961-62), the act was redubbed Martha & the Vandellas in 1962 after Martha Reeves replaced Williams as lead vocalist (and later to Martha Reeves & the Vandellas as Reeves gained prominence). “Heat Wave” (also known as “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave”) was written by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, who also penned numerous hits for the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops and many others. It was the second hit song they collaborated on with Martha & the Vandellas, following their first hit “Come and Get These Memories”.

“Heat Wave” features a gospel backbeat with jazz overtones, accompanied by Reeves’ brassy doo-wop call and response vocals that came to exemplify the style of music later termed as the “Motown Sound”. The rousing instrumentation was performed by in-house Motown musicians the Funk Brothers. The lyrics compare the intense, burning desires of romantic love to hot temperatures experienced during a heat wave.

Appropriately released in July 1963 – during what is often the hottest part of summer – the single was a breakthrough hit for Martha & the Vandellas, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart. It also earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording for 1964, making the Vandellas the first Motown group ever to be nominated for a Grammy Award.

It’s a great song and a timeless classic that’s endured to this day. It was later covered by such artists as Linda Ronstadt (who scored a top five hit with it in 1975), The Jam (in 1979) and Phil Collins (in 2010). The Martha and the Vandellas version was featured in the 1970 film The Boys in the Band, in a scene where several of the characters perform an impromptu line dance to the song. It was also used in the 1976 film Carrie and 1979’s More American Graffiti. And in the 1992 film Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg sings the song as part of her Vegas nightclub act saluting ’60s girl groups.

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.

NEON TAPEHEAD – Single Review: “Know What I Want”

I’m excited to introduce the delightfully-named electro funk band Neon Tapehead, the very first music act from Russia to be featured on this blog. Drawing inspiration from R&B, soul, funk, electronic, early House and nu disco influences ranging from Rick James, Kool and the Gang, The GAP Band and Whitney Houston to Bruno Mars, Chromeo and Lizzo, the Moscow-based group combine nostalgic elements of old-school analog synthesizers with modern music production techniques to create their own sophisticated style of stylish and upbeat music. Making this wonderful music are Dmitry Ursul on lead guitar and synths, Aleksandr Kovalchuk on drumsDmitry Votintsev on bass, and Maya Shonia on lead vocals. On November 13, they released “Know What I Want“, the lead single from their forthcoming debut EP Never Say Never, due out on December 4.

Neon Tapehead have spent the last few years honing their craft by releasing a number of terrific singles and remixes, and performing live shows in Moscow, where they were discovered by U.S. independent music label NexGen Music. The band’s first release on the label, “Know What I Want” is about the girl who knows what she wants even if her acts or wishes are illogical or inconsistent. About the song’s creation, the band explains: “This song was written and produced with influences of 80’s Electro Funk and Early 90’s house with a slower tempo. We tried to mix different elements of these styles into the one song. The main meaning behind this song is that you shouldn’t be shy with your wishes or goals. Just ask yourself about what you want right now and then go and get it! Brrr POW!”

“Know What I Want” is a feast for the ears, with a sensual vibe and funky dance groove that aims straight for the hips. The silky smooth synths and crisp percussive beats form a captivating backdrop for Maya’s soulful vocals that seduce us with her sultry croons and devilish purrs. It’s a terrific song that hearkens back to some of the great dance-funk and R&B songs of the 1980s.

The band has produced a beautiful video of them performing the song on a golf course outside Moscow. In most cases, I generally prefer videos that show an artist or band performing their song, rather than some silly narrative or plot line, so this video is right up my alley. The band provides some background about the video’s creation: “The music video was shot on a golf field in the suburbs of Moscow. It took some time and stress to organize the session but we made it happen. We were adamant about wanting to use the open space for a live video. The sound of the video is an actual live recording, so as far as we know we are the first Russian band to have recorded a funk song on a golf field in real-time! We were lucky because the wind had stopped blowing just before we started the recording and shooting, so it was easier to use to mix and master the sound later.”

The introduction scene including Maya riding the golf car took a lot of takes because it was the first time that Maya had driven a vehicle of any kind – it was not a stand in actor!  The trickiest part was to stop the car in the right place in front of the camera and walk to the microphone before the verse starts. We also had to be constantly aware of the Sun’s position which appeared to want to move towards sunset in double-time, so we tried to shoot this video as fast as possible.”

Connect with Neon Tapehead:  WebsiteFacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream their music:  SpotifyApple Music

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 – #100: “Dang!” by Mac Miller feat. Anderson .Paak

Because literally no one is reading my decade-end post 100 Best Songs of the 2010s for reasons that escape me – unlike my five-year-old post of the 100 Best Songs of the 2000s that still picks up 5-15 new views every single day – I’ve decided to post each song from the 2010s list, individually, at the rate of one per day. I worked very hard on that post, painstakingly writing about each of the 100 songs, and this will enable me to hopefully bring a bit of attention to each song by sharing my pithy discussions as to why I think it deserves to be considered among the 100 best of the decade.

I’ll begin at #100 – “Dang!” by the late Mac Miller, featuring Anderson .Paak. The untimely death of Mac Miller (born Malcolm James McCormick) was one of the more heartbreaking and unfortunate losses suffered by the music industry over the past decade.  Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Miller was a musical genius of sorts, learning to play the piano, guitar, drums, and bass by the age of six. As he entered his teens he decided he wanted to be rapper, and started recording and releasing mixtapes at 15, becoming prominent in the city’s hip hop scene. By the time he reached 21, he was presented a key to the city by the mayor of Pittsburgh, and had a day named in his honor. He was such an amazing talent who produced an impressive catalog of music by the time of his death at 26, and we can only imagine what more great music he would have given us.

The first single from his fourth studio album The Divine Feminine, “Dang!” is ear candy from start to finish, featuring not only Miller but also the wonderful Anderson .Paak to sweeten the mix. Over a thumping retro-soul groove and shimmery synths, .Paak delivers the hook in his smooth, soulful croon: “I can’t keep on losing you / Over complications / Gone too soon / Wait, we was just hangin’ / I can’t seem to hold on to, dang!” Then Miller enters the scene, delivering his flow with swagger tinged with just enough vulnerability to reveal his consternation over the fragile state of his relationship. Initially boasting of his sexual prowess: “Yeah the dick ain’t free, I don’t give no fucks”, he later concedes love ain’t so simple: “Can’t concentrate, you always on my brain. If it’s love then why the fuck it come with pain?

The sweet, colorful and sexy video produced for the song is superb.

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.