Song 340: David Bowie, “Oh! You Pretty Things” (1971)

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For all of David Bowie’s innovative and insanely creative records, from the abstract, fragmented Low to the noisy, chaotic Aladdin Sane, my favorite Bowie album is the staunchly old-fashioned Hunky Dory. Many of its songs are straight out of Tin Pan Alley, with soaring strings and pianos that merrily chug along. In my opinion, it’s Bowie at his very best, despite the lack of innovation.

The first track is “Changes,” an undeniably good song that I’ve simply heard too many times to truly appreciate. To me, Hunky Dory starts with its second song, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” Ostensibly a song about mankind being replaced by another, supernaturally better species, it’s also about aging. Considering Bowie was only 24 (!) when the album was released, it’s a pretty insightful view of generational exchanges. It’s hard to tell where, if anywhere, Bowie falls on the thematic spectrum: is he the un-pretty one making way for the “homo superior,” or the beautiful one telling the old people that he’s not going anywhere? (I think we all know that David Bowie was, and always will be, the latter, but it’s an interesting question from a songwriting perspective.)

I wasn’t too familiar with the chronology of the David Bowie discography until today, and I didn’t realize that Hunky Dory is so early in his chronology. That makes sense, of course—despite the album’s greatness, there isn’t too much adventure to it, and it predates both the Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke eras of Bowie’s career. It’s heartening to know that Bowie sees Hunky Dory as an important step in his evolution, or at least that’s what he said in a 1999 interview:

Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, “Good album, good songs.” That hadn’t happened to me before. It was like, “Ah, I’m getting it, I’m finding my feet. I’m starting to communicate what I want to do. Now: what is it I want to do?”

The answer: everything.


Song 337: T. Rex, “Cosmic Dancer” (1971)

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I’m always surprised to be reminded that T. Rex’s Electric Warrior came out in 1971. It doesn’t sound to me like it’s only a couple years removed from the sixties; with its thumpy and reverby rock, it sounds more to me like the glam-fabulous mid-seventies. But I guess that’s because the album one of the first examples of the genre.

On the other hand, in many ways, Electric Warrior sounds nothing like any era. There aren’t many singers who sound like Marc Bolan, for one thing. Then there’s the combination of sweetness and dirtiness that results in a kind of weird, unsettling kind of rock. You don’t know if you can entirely trust it, but you also don’t see why you shouldn’t. Bolan’s delivery is convincingly genuine, but it’s also off-putting in its lightness. It’s all just a little bit strange.

Case in point: “Cosmic Dancer,” a beautiful song about what it’s like to be an artist. Throughout the song, Bolan asks himself—and you, the listener—if he’s an outlier. “I danced myself right out of the womb/Is it strange to dance so soon” he wonders. Later, he asks, “Is it wrong to understand/The fear that dwells inside a man/What’s it like to be a loon/I liken it to a balloon.” You get the sense that Bolan isn’t too happy with either his artistic sensibilities or his direct knowledge of man’s true nature.

I might not think about the song’s sadness without those lush strings, which lend the song a heightened drama. They’re my favorite thing about “Cosmic Dancer,” and they elevate the song from plaintive folk ballad to operatic existentialism. It’s all gorgeous, and it’s only the album’s second track. No wonder Electric Warrior, with its similarly beautiful cover, is so beloved.


Song 222: Rod Stewart, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” (1971)

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Every Picture Tells a Story sounds great on vinyl, but not for the usual reasons. My particular used copy  is beat to shit, and each play reveals a new imperfection, another crack or hiss.

Those flaws fit the record, which already sounds well-worn and a little broken. There’s something charmingly old-fashioned about it, like Rod Stewart has shown up on your doorstep as a one-man band, eager to entertain you and maybe get a few coins thrown in his hat. The instrumentation—mostly acoustic guitars, fiddles, and the occasional electric guitars for jangle—certainly encourages that effect. Then there’s that cover, which makes the album look like a faded, forgotten book.

There are so many great songs on this album, from hits like “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe” to lesser-known tracks like “Seems Like a Long Time,” but I chose “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” because it stops me in my tracks every time I hear it. Bob Dylan wrote it in 1962, but his original version didn’t see official release until 2010. I didn’t notice until today that Stewart’s version doesn’t feature any drums, that it’s propelled only by the rhythm of the acoustic guitar, helped along by an electric slide and that bittersweet violin.

This may sound like pure snobbery, but I think it’s a shame that Rod Stewart decided to, well, give up creatively. His work with the Faces, as well as much of his early solo music, was so inspired, so full of life. That he now releases album after album of watered-down covers is such a bummer. His Unplugged record seemed to mark a reminder, to himself and his fans, that amazing things can happen when he’s surrounded by the right songs and some acoustic guitars. Too bad it didn’t stick. (Though I’ll admit that “Downtown Train” and “Broken Arrow” are among some notable exceptions.)


Song 192: Bobby Womack, “Fire and Rain” (1971)

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“You know everybody’s got their own way of doing anything. Like, take this particular song for instance. It’s been done by many, but I’ve gotta do it my way.”

That’s how Bobby Womack starts this version of James Taylor’s signature song, “Fire and Rain,” and he wasn’t kidding. It’s not a revision of the song, but Womack changes the melody here and there, adds vocal flourishes, and changes its instrumentation from folk-rock to slow-burn R&B (provided by the legendary musicians of Muscle Shoals). I’m usually a stickler when it comes to covers—change the melody? Why would you change that?—but I love this rendition, which was released only seven months after Taylor’s.

You can tell that Womack understands what Taylor was going for in this song, a lament about the plane crash that killed his friend. He trades Taylor’s emotional detachment for a sadder, angrier response. It’s how you might imagine Taylor singing the song after a few weeks, after the shock of the accident has worn off, and the unfairness of the situation has set in.


Song 119: The Who, “Baba O’Riley” (1971)

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When people have the Beatles vs. Stones debate, all I can think is: The Who. Not because I want to be contrarian, and not because The Who is better than those two bands (they’re not), but because when I need a shot of adrenaline, it’s them I want to hear. And usually this song.

The Who was a funny mixture of personalities. Pete Townshend took himself very seriously, Keith Moon didn’t take himself seriously at all, and Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle always just seemed focused on getting the job done. But they all worked incredibly hard, and unlike the Beatles and Stones, it showed. Not that this is a bad thing: they let it show, to engage us.

My favorite Who song is “Baba O’Riley,” that three-chord warhorse that, despite endless radio play and everyone calling it “Teenage Wasteland,” has lost none of its power after 42 years. The original title was, in fact, “Teenage Wasteland,” and it was part of Townshend’s Lifehouse project, a long-in-development rock opera/concept album/film that never got off the ground. Much of Who’s Next ended up using Lifehouse castoffs, which explains why “Baba O’Riley” refers to a character named Sally. In the abandoned story, Sally is married to a farmer named Ray (hence the song’s opening line, “out here in the fields, I fight for my meals,” though some sources say the last word is “farm”), and they go to London (“we’ll travel south cross land”).

Townshend has said that the chorus was inspired by watching the audience while playing at Woodstock: the drugged-out crowd was reveling in its obliviousness. I don’t know how that fits with the verses, but for some reason, it doesn’t bother me. To say that this song works is an understatement. Like so many of the songs I’ve written about, it works in spite of (or maybe because of) its simplicity.


Song 77: Jean Knight, “Mr. Big Stuff” (1971)

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Here’s another one that we’ve all heard so many times, in all kinds of places—on the radio, in commercials, in movie trailers, at the grocery store—and it’s hard to hear it for what it is. But something, I don’t remember what, made me hear it a few years ago, and I realized: I love this song.

I know, this seems like is a strange song to love. Tolerate, sure. Like, even. But love? Listen again, though. Those chunky guitars ticking away, that thumping bassline bounding around underneath like a friend corroborating Jean Knight’s assessment. It’s excellent.

This song has an instance of one of my favorite musical concepts: the “four” chord with the “five” note in the bass. In this case, you hear the guitar playing an A-flat chord while the bass plays a B-flat after she sings “bit by bit” (and in similar spots in later verses). You can compare this combination to what the guitar and bass do in the intro and the chorus, which is that they play the same note. I’m not sure why the A-flat/B-flat combination is so interesting to me, or what it adds to this song. Maybe the slight difference between the two notes, that single whole step, just sounds striking to the ear when played in such a funky lockstep. (King used the combination many times; she has said that many people refer to that combination as a “Carole King chord.”)

Anyway, enough theory. This song is fun, sure, but it’s also an example of the tightness and concision of Stax’s best tracks, and it’s masterfully performed by everyone involved (especially by Knight, who provides equal parts musicianship and attitude). So excellent.


Song 39: Joni Mitchell, “All I Want” (1971)

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The summer before I started college, I got really into a few records: Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth, Radiohead’s The Bends, and Blue by Joni Mitchell.

I don’t remember why these were the big ones, but I haven’t gotten attached to many albums the way I did with those three, that summer. I remember driving around on the Cape, listening to them on the way to camp, my job at the local farmstand, and friends’ houses. They don’t sound much like each other, but they work with each other in a strange way.

Blue is one of the most perfect records ever. Every song is incredible, and the first song, “All I Want,” may be my favorite in the collection. Relationships are a hard business, and the frustration about what you’re trying to do and communicate, versus what you actually do and communicate, can be immeasurable. I may want to shine like the sun and shampoo you, but I’m undone by jealousy. So it goes.

Of course, that’s not the only way it goes, but Blue is an unnaturally sad group of songs. It’s got moments of happiness, but it was written when Mitchell, in her own words, “had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”

Lucky us.