Thursday, July 29, 2010


25. Patsy Cline

Even those who don't like country surrender to Patsy Cline. It's a fitting legacy for a performer who herself surrendered to a genre she didn't care for: pop.

Cline's early recordings sound like Judy Garland is trying to be a cowgirl. She provides show tune-style finishes to sweet little ballads. Eventually she figured out the pattern of her hits: more tuned to cocktail dresses than spurs. For better or worse Cline brought country further away from Hank Williams and closer towards the mainstream.

She had been a regular on the Grand Old Opry, but she also brought country women to places they'd not been before: Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and a show in Vegas. For the latter she was willing to undergo another costume change: sequins. But that's why Cline endures; she would adapt to anything so she could get her voice out there. Her tragically premature death at her fame's height leaves the obvious question as to what boundaries she would have crossed next.

Key tracks: Walkin' After Midnight (1957), I Fall to Pieces, and Crazy (1961), which are her best known ballads.
Walkin' After Midnight
I Fall to Pieces

24. Billie Holiday

She insisted people call her 'Lady'. She changed how jazz is sung.

Billie Holiday is well recognized these days for her voice. It wasn't a particularly strong voice. She used that great voice, however, to change vocal phrasing and tempo. Not only that, but she gives herself away with the amount of emotion she imbues in her songs.

For those accomplishments alone she would be a classic. Those developments allow for the careers of plenty of artists as varied as Sinatra (phrasing and tempo) and Joplin (a weak voice getting by on emotion). Further, still, her songs have become part of the American standards collection. Most jazz singers have to cover a Holiday song practically as a right of passage. They can try all they want: they'll never match the Lady's performances.

Key tracks: God Bless the Child (1941), Strange Fruit (1939), and You Go to My Head (1952), which provide a range of interesting takes.

God Bless the Child
Strange Fruit

You Go to My Head

23. John Williams

Williams is the best American film composer. His soundtracks, instantly recognizable, have become the model that most composers try and follow.

It helps that Williams has worked with two of the most successful directors: Lucas and Spielberg. But it's honestly questionable how successful some of those classics would have been without their music. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park - each is immediately identifiable by its music. The music, indeed, is as iconic as the visuals.

Williams has plenty of accolades and achievements to back up his credentials: Kennedy Center Honors, millions of dollars, twenty-one Grammys, and the second-most Academy Award nominations ever. He is the best in his field.

Key tracks: The Raiders March (Indiana Jones Theme) (1981), The Imperial March (1980), and The Theme from Schindler's List (1993), which are instantly recognized the world over.
The Raiders March
The Imperial March
The Theme from Schindler's List

22. Aretha Franklin

Franklin has become more than an artist. She has been elevated into an American icon.

For most of American history Aretha Franklin would have been the absolute antithesis of success. She achieved that success singing and accompanying herself on piano: not exactly an original combination. She achieved that success during the 1960s when talent was abounding and competition particularly fierce. She did it by honestly emphasizing who she was: a talented young black woman.

Franklin blended her gospel roots and impeccable sense of arrangement into an R&B revolution. There had been talented black gospel singers and jazz singers. But she broke through into soul and R&B in a way women previously hadn't. She has become a living national treasure: for many a civil rights figure as elementary as Rosa Parks, for artists an inspiration and high water mark.

Key tracks: Respect (1967), Chain of Fools, and A Natural Woman (1968), which emphasize everything that is associated with Franklin's career.
Chain of Fools
A Natural Woman

21. Sam Cooke

Cooke provided the songs. As soul singers go he was the best.

That's why everyone copied his songs: Redding, Franklin and all the rest. Cooke's songs were some of the best written in the century. His love songs are a cut above. Besides these, 'A Change is Gonna Come' became the civil rights anthem. Cooke was great in that he could be put in a studio with oodles of strings or whip up a crowd on the chitlin circuit.

Two very different documents give a full picture of Cooke's abilities. Portrait of a Legend shows off Cooke in the studio with all of his popular hits. Live at the Harlem Square Club puts him in front of a live crowd with the polish removed and sounding more like James Brown. Cooke's career was cut short far too soon. But his songs will keep bringing joy for ages to come.

Key tracks: Somebody Have Mercy (1963), Cupid (1961), and A Change Is Gonna Come (1964), which allows Cooke to shine in studio and live.
Somebody Have Mercy
A Change Is Gonna Come

1 comment:

Jessica said...

I'm learning Crazy on the guitar. It's got all kind of crazy D7 chords