The reader may have noticed that all but one of the tracks in my last listing of desert island singles was from the 90s-00s. [The exception being Schnittke, from the 80s, plus some of the afterthoughts tacked on at the end.] How's that for being myopic. So, here are some more fabulous tracks well worth putting on repeat, all from before 1990.
¤ Michael Jackson, Bille Jean. The winner in the best bass line, perky division. [The Smiths' `There is a light' wins the sullen division.] Further, the storyline has substance: when Michael sighs a falsetto `hee', you know he means it.
¤ Ludwig van Beethoven, 9th. There are enough people who think this is the finest work of music ever composed, and who am I to argue. If you're gonna say that this is more an album than a single, then we can go with the bonus track, the choral part of the fourth movement (which many a CD breaks into its own track), after the guy goes `O Freunde!'. The lyrics are dippy, but it's German, so whatever. Amusing facts: the compact disc format holds 74 minutes because one of Sony's goals was to make sure you could fit the 9th onto one CD. It's the anthem of the EU. And, of course, Beethoven was *ucking deaf when he wrote it. Take 74 minutes out of your busy schedule today, find a comfy chair with no reading nearby, and listen to the whole thing. Make sure your neighbors can hear. [Asst additional commentary from my favorite source for asst additional commentary.]
¤ Prince, Purple rain. The movie was a musical in the classic form, like Showboat. The action takes place in a club, so most of the music is in the context of an on-stage performance instead of random breaking into song; the conflict builds throughout the movie, and is basically resolved by a cathartic deus ex machina song---Purple rain. The guitar work shows that Mr. PN of Minneapolis, MN truly knows how to play with only a minimum of wank; notice the little accents he throws in all through the song. [Nelson. The last name he was born with is Nelson. Rolling Stone says he was the top musical moneymaker of 2004.]
¤ Righteous Bros., Unchained melody. It's the title that makes this track stand out over the other songs with comparably inane lyrics. It's their way of saying `we don't care whether we're singing about love or paper plates; just listen to the darn music.' It's common enough for alternatyve songs of the 90s to have a title that seems unrelated to the actual lyrics, but I can not think of a single other example from this far back. Maybe our dear readers can leave a few in the comments below. The structure of the song is simple and well executed. Time goes by so slowly, the mood is set, and finally reaches the falsetto denoument of `I ne-e-ed your love', resolving shortly thereafter. That's all.
¤ Gershwin, My Man's gone now, from Porgy & Bess. Notably, as sung by Cynthia Clarey on the 1993 opera recording (which is sort of the standard and easy to find). This song saved opera for me: the soprano is wailing for a reason (My man's gone now./Ain't no use a-listening/ for his tired footsteps/ floating down the stairs); the high denoument of this one, which goes all the way from the bass in the chorus up to the Cynthia's first soprano, is chilling. Ella Fitzgerald doesn't have the range for this one; just ignore her cover.
Since P&B is covered so frequently, there are a number of greats: from this same recording, Damon Evans's `It ain't necessarily so' is top-notch; Nina Simone wins for best `I loves you Porgy'; Louis Armstrong gets across the innocence of `I've got plenty of nuttin' ' (even though he cutely botches the lyrics). I have a fantasy of one day compiling a complete version of P&B where every track is sung by somebody else. [By the way, here's an interesting article on P&B and race.]
¤ Ragni & Rado, `Easy to be Hard'. This is from Hair: the American Tribal Love Rock Musical. In this case, the Cheryl Barnes version from the 1979 movie, which absolutely puts the broadway musical version of the same track to shame. I think I'm on a histrionic roll here, but at least I included Billie Jean. [I mode-shifted this one too. See gmail account.]
¤ Philip Glass, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, 2nd movement. Yeah, this one is from 1993, so I'm cheating here, but you'll find it in the Classical bin, and most folks think of all classical as being from somewhere around 1825, so they won't notice. I think when I gush about Glass, I mostly have this movement in mind: the minimalist repetition is used as a part of a larger, well-designed structure.
¤ Verdi, Dies Irae b/w Tuba Mirum. From his Requiem; officially two tracks under the standard canon, but they're clearly a single piece. The most slam-danceable piece before the invention of the distortion pedal. No recommendations about version: you can't screw this one up.
¤ Antonio C Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, A Felicidade. This is from the Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) soundtrack, which many music histories credit for making the bossa nova a proper competing-with-the-Beatles craze. First, the lyrics really capture the existential conflict that is the bossa nova, e.g. the opening lines: "Tristeza não tem fin./ Felicidade sim" (Sadness has no end./ Happiness does.) The soundtrack version has constant street noise in the background, including what is basically competing music which sometimes drowns out the subtle guitar carrying the actual tune---further evidence of how completely ahead of its time the bossa nova was in 1959. There are a hundred covers, some pretty hackish (Billy Eckstein).
I'm not entirely sure why I've got so many tracks from shows here (especially if you count Purple rain or even the Requiem). Maybe it's what I remember; maybe it's that larger compositions used to be more important back when people had an attention span and actually listened to records; maybe albums with a larger concept are more likely to survive the decades. You tell me.
Oh, and Good vibrations, but I've already talked too much about this one. See also Cabinessence, of which I've put up a sample on gmail. Leave your own faves from any era below. Thanks.