I spend a lot of time listening to music. Here are five of my favorites songs:
MADAME GEORGE by Van Morrison
If I'm doing a favorite music blog, I have to start with Van Morrison. There may be better songwriters (Bob Dylan), better singers (Ray Charles), or better performers (Bruce Springsteen) than Van, but no one's music pleases me more in its totality than the Belfast Cowboy's.
And if there's one of Van's albums that I listen to more than the others, it's "Astral Weeks." So much has been written on this famous album that I hesitate to add my words to the maelstrom. If anyone hasn't read Lester Bangs' gut-wrenching essay on "Astral Weeks" – perhaps the most famous essay in all of rock criticism -- here is a link.
For me, "Astral Weeks" is one of the few rock albums that stays fresh and new, no matter how many times I listen to it. It's played with real urgency and passion: the words, the melodies, Van's vocal. And playing almost against Van is a band with some of the best jazz players in New York at the time: Richard Davis (Eric Dolphy, etc.) on bass, Connie Kay (from the Modern Jazz Quartet) on drums, Jay Berliner (Charlie Mingus) on guitar, etc. The conflict is electric and brings the music to life.
In an album of great songs, "Madame George" is the centerpiece. The lyrics have the tang of reality, the feeling of an experience actually lived. The listener feels that Van is telling some deep, private secret. Even cranky Lou Reed said, "Van Morrison got it right once, on 'Madame George.'"
Here is a live version from the now-famous Hollywood Bowl shows in 2008 that recreated "Astral Weeks":
I was there with my family, and it was something very, very special.
CHOCTAW BINGO by James McMurtry
I listen to a lot of country music – only the good country music, please -- and one of the best things that country music does is tell stories. There have been a lot of wonderful story-telling songwriters -- most obviously Tom T. Hall "the Storyteller" -- but this propulsive yarn about the crystal meth trade in the Ozarks by Larry McMurtry's son is an absolute stunner.
"Strap them kids in / Give 'em a little bit of vodka in a cherry Coke / We're going to Oklahoma to the family reunion for the first time in years"
This song has everything: "bad-ass Hebrews" ... "a great big ol' hard-on like a old Bois D' Arc fence post" ... "sister twisters" ... "a drifting jugline" ... "them Rolling Stones lips up there in bright pink neon" ... Uncle Slayton "back in the thickets with his Asian bride." Few songs are as fun as this one.
Here is a live version, with the late, great Ian McLagan from the Faces on keyboards.
From the son of the author of "Lonesome Dove," this one does Daddy proud, letting a great American epic just flow.
SONG TO THE MOON by Anton Dvorak
From the opera "Rusalka," the Song to the Moon is one of those arias I can listen to, over and over again. There is so much passion and heart and melody in this aria that I often stop what I'm doing when it plays and just listen.
Recently I was re-watching the movie "Driving Miss Daisy" and I had forgotten that they used the aria, right at the end of the movie's "first act" – to let the movie breathe. The audience now knows that Miss Daisy and Hoke are going to be friends; all is right with the world. Time for a bridge of gorgeous music. It was a brilliant choice.
Many singers make a specialty of this magnificent song – it's Renee Fleming's signature aria – but I prefer this rendition by the late, beloved Slovak singer Lucia Popp.
She sings this aria with such love and tenderness. Her early death was a great loss.
I used to make CD compilations for fun, and this one is the very first cut on "Tiny Goddess's Favorite Arias."
LOSING MY MIND by Barbara Cook
I've been a fan of Stephen Sondheim's work almost my entire life. WEST SIDE STORY premiered in 1957 when I was six years old. (I remember how excited my parents were when they saw it.) Since then, I've listened to Sondheim's work – and seen some but not all of his musicals – with regularity, deep appreciation, and awe. "Gypsy," "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum," "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday In the Park With George," "Into the Woods," etc – any ONE of them would be a career. Instead, they're all Sondheims.
I've read both of his books – FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT (the titles from one of his key songs from about the artistic process and artistic life) – and I highly recommend them to any artist, no matter what medium. The care and scrupulousness with which Sondheim approaches his art/craft have important lessons for any artist. I love smart, and Sondheim is super-duper-ooper smart.
OK, he doesn't have as many rock-solid standards as Richard Rodgers or George Gershwin or Irving Berlin, but this certainly is one of them. An absolutely perfect song: the first verse begins, "The sun comes up" ... the last verse begins, "I dim the lights."
This is Barbara Cook, great American singer, from the famous 1985 Lincoln Center concert version of "FOLLIES"
Sondheim said that he wrote it, trying to match up against the great Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin torch song "The Man That Got Away." I think it's a draw.
I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES by Louis Armstrong
I don't listen to as much jazz as I used to (except for Keith Jarrett solo records, which I listen all the time when I write. I'm listening to one right now: "Vienna.") But I used to listen to a lot of jazz and went through huge listening binges as I discovered for myself the genius of Charlie Parker ... and Art Tatum ... and John Coltrane ... and Lester Young ... and Coleman Hawkins ... and Duke Ellington, etc. One of the biggest surprises for me – and it shouldn't have been, but I was young and dumb – was the music of Louis Armstrong.
When I was young, Louis Armstrong was "Satchmo," a vaguely embarrassing, grinning figure, out of date in a more militant era. His "Hello, Dolly!" record was a huge, inconvenient hit, right in the middle of my beloved Beatles era.
What I didn't know then was that Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest musicians in American history. For starters, he invented/popularized the jazz solo. He invented/popularized scat singing. But it's the glory of the actual music in the grooves that still excites. His records with the Hot Five and Hot Seven are the Rosetta Stone of jazz.
This wonderful song – music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ted Kohler -- is from January 26, 1933, by Louis Armstrong and Orchestra, on RCA (after the Hot Five and Hot Seven era.)
At 1:51 begins one of Armstrong's most celebrated solos. It's just bursting with joy and vitality and the pure white light of Life.
It's what I listen to music for.
That's five songs. It could have been five others, say, "Cyprus Avenue" from ASTRAL WEEKS ... "Lake Marie" by John Prine ... Maria Callas singing "Casta Diva" from NORMA ... the "If I Loved You" duet from CAROUSEL ... and Satchmo singing "Stardust." (That last one was Woody Allen's reason for living in STARDUST MEMORIES.)
This was fun. I'm going to do this again.