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I Gotcha Covered: The Top 20 Best Cover Songs of All Times, Part I.

I guess when you’re as annoyingly obsessed with music as I am, you surrender yourself to the chase: constantly looking for the new sound, the unusual “hook”, a piece of music which speaks to that part of your soul you rarely share with anyone.

You’re also looking to show off to your other rock snob friends, but I’m not supposed to admit to that part.

Anyhoo, I guess that musicians feel the same way. They discover a song so perfect that they wish they had written it. So they do the next best thing: they make a cover of their favorite song. Once in a rare while, an artist comes up with a version even better than the original.

This list is an homage to that most impressive feat.

Admittedly, trying to pick the Top 20 Cover Songs of All Times is a nearly impossible task. And I’m going to assume right off the bat that I’m going to forget a gem or two. In any event, here it goes:

20. “Satisfaction” (Original by: The Rolling Stones) (Cover by: Cat Power)

O.k., I’m not going to be foolish enough to say that CP’s version is better  per se, but man, it’s good. Her take plays out The Stones’ classic with a slow-drippin’, cool kitten sensuality, making the song more of a come-hither call versus Jagger’s teenage boy temper-tantrum version. It’s definitely a more sophisticated cover, one that never got the play it so deserved.

19. “Hazy Shade of Winter” (Original By: Simon & Garfunkel) (Cover By: The Bangles)

While I adore Susanna Hoffs’ voice (although she’s married to Austin Powers director, Jay Roach, but there’s no accounting for taste), I’ve never been a big fan of her Eighties pop band, The Bangles. Songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian” were moronic and I thought their cover of Prince’s “Eternal Flame” was a sappy, PMS mess of a song (and will NOT be seen on this list). But their cover of S & G’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” was pure brilliance, with hefty guitar riffs combined with spot-on harmonies. In other words, it kicks the original’s ass. For those of you who have never heard it, you can find it on the Less Than Zero movie soundtrack. Never heard of that movie? Then you’re a baby who needs to take a film class next semester 😉

18. “Hallelujah” (Original By: Leonard Cohen) (Cover By: Jeff Buckley)

 For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know my deep, deep love for Jeff Buckley. He was a truly elegant musician – with the ego the size of Texas, but whatev – and his untimely death will always leave us wondering what might have been.

Of course, Leonard Cohen was no slouch either. You’ll see MANY of his songs on this list because he is – by far – one of the kings of songwriting. I guess the reason why I prefer Buckley’s version is because his delivery seems more like a battlecry against lost love, and Cohen’s (like all his really) comes off more like the world-weary, almost bored requiem from a jaded, crusty old man. Not so appealing.

17. “Wild Horses” (Original By: The Rolling Stones) (Cover By: The Sundays)

Yes, this is the second song by The Stones on the list, but confession time: I actually am not that into them.  I never got Jagger’s performative appeal and I don’t know how much more phormaldehide Keith Richards can mainline in order to look as if he’s barely alive. But I think they’re decent songwriters, and putting “Wild Horses” into the most able hands of The Sundays illustrates that point. For me, it’s actually a tie between The Stones’ version and The Sundays…both are extraordinarily heartbreaking (in a good way).  But I’ve got to say, I adore Harriet Wheeler’s voice – so much so that I forgive their sellout of this song for a Budweiser commercial.

16. “Nothing Compares to You” (Original By: Prince) (Cover By: Sinead O’Connor)

About half of you who read my blog regularly are too young to remember her, but for all you Generation Xers still reading this, I’m sure you recall that voice, that face…Jesus, I still get knocked out by her video. In an age when video was king and exotic locales, pastel-colored suits, and vacant-eyed models were the standard, this kick-ass chick put a video out with her shaved head, black turtleneck, and a face close up. That was it. And trust me, that’s all she needed. There have been many others who have covered this song, but none have even come close to Sinead’s take. Even Prince – and he wrote the damn thing.

15. “Personal Jesus” (Original By: Depeche Mode) (Cover By: Johnny Cash)

Another confession: it wasn’t until the movie “Walk the Line” came out that I really got turned onto the brilliance that was Johnny Cash (June too, of course). The original was done by techno-pop divas, Depeche Mode. The group got the idea for the song from Priscilla Presley, who in a book described her relationship with Elvis as one in which he played a spiritual role. “Feeling unknown and you’re all alone, flesh and bone, by the telephone, lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.”  Cash might appear to be an unlikely candidate to translate this staple of alternative airplay into his own brand of earthy country and western, but his “Personal Jesus” resonates with the Man in Black’s unique power. Cash did a series of recordings in the ‘90s with producer Rick Rubin, which helped him connect with a whole new generation of music lovers, and “Personal Jesus” appears on one of them entitled, “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”

Look further down the list for another diddy from this album.

14. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (Original By: The Beatles) (Cover By: Eddie Vedder)

Not only is Vedder’s version stunning in its simplicity – not that the original was some kind of frilly complex affair in the first place – but I admire Vedder for the way he uses his celebrity for causes he believes in. And he doesn’t do it in that prancing peacock, Hollywood sort of way – of sitting in an interview with sunglasses on and rattling endlessly about environmental awareness while being chauffeured around in a gas guzzling stretch limo.  Nope, Vedder throws his muscle around in a more dignified, subtler fashion – and for causes such as the anti-war movement, environmental awareness, and for women’s reproductive rights.  He’s a keeper, ladies…a guy with immeasurable talent that’s easy on the eyes and stimulating to the heart, brain, and spirit.

13. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Original By: Nirvana) (Cover By: Tori Amos)

While I still think that the original is better than any cover attempted, Tori Amos’ take on the early nineties grunge classic comes pretty damn close. I think Tori’s a rad chick…not just for humping a piano bench better than a porn star, but for putting out (no pun intended) some of the most intelligent rock music out there (if not, let’s admit, a bit out there at times).

12. “Tainted Love” (Original By: Gloria Jones) (Cover By: Soft Cell)

Okay, let’s be honest with each other.  You didn’t know that “Tainted Love” was a cover, right?  That’s okay pussycat, ’cause neither did I for the longest time.

Gloria Jones recorded songs for Uptown Records, a subsidiary of Capitol/EMI, since she was 14 years old. Included among these was “Tainted Love.” Marc Almond of the duo, Soft Cell, whose cover version of “Tainted Love” reached #1 worldwide, originally heard the song in a nightclub in Northern England. While most of us may not know a lot about her, so strong was Gloria’s following in England back in the day that she was proclaimed the “Northern Queen of Soul.

And it’s still one of the few songs that can make me sing at the top of my lungs in my car.

11.  “Me and Bobby McGee” (Original By: Kris Kristopherson) (Cover By: Janis Joplin)

One of the ways I lovingly tease my husband is to tell him he suffers from “Knight in Shining Armour” syndrome, which should be, but isn’t in the DSM-IV Mental Health Diagnostic guide.  I mention this because I am inflicted with waves of such aforementioned syndrome everytime I’m listening to one of my favorite, deceased-before-their-time, artists. You wish you could go back and save her. Hell, I wished I could have saved them all.

Her cover of Kristopherson’s seminal 70s classic was hers from the start. No one will ever be able to duplicate the intensity and vulnerability she brought to this song. And THAT, my friends, is the definition of the perfect cover song.

The only reason why it’s not higher in my countdown here is because this is one we all know and love. Time to bring some light onto some diddys you may not be as aware of…which brings us to our TOP TEN!

To Be Continued….

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College Rock 101

So yesterday was my first day of classes at Catholic University of America  and I was observing the state of our youth, so to speak.  Cute, nubile freshman boys and girls were bouncing around completely clueless on campus, eager to please and thirsty for something to happen.  But of course, since they picked a church affiliated university, you and I know that they’re going to have to find some action on the down-lo around here. God love them Catholics though…some of my most subversive and downright yummy-dirty moments have been thanks to their tutelage.

But I do feel it’s part of my karmic retribution payment plan to offer these doe-eyed babes some assistance in discovering what part of the college experience is all about…and since I’m married, I can’t go with my first choice of taking some green-eyed, tossled-hair young laddie into my private lecture hall and making him earn some extra credit of the carnal knowledge kind, I’ll settle for bestowing upon them the other  thing I do really well: making music mixes.

Now, I know for many of you college freshmen, you’ve been spoon-fed such lame music acts like the Jonas Brothers, Rihanna, or most anyone from the American Idol syncophant machinery and think you listen to good music. You’re wrong.  Sorry to be harsh, but it’s true. Hey, in my day the music industry was pushing shit like Flock of Seagulls and Millie Vanilli, so don’t feel too bad. 

This was the unfortunate inspiration for lots of…

This at my high school.

Michael Shilling, the music reporter from MSN.com, gave his choices for you (in fact, I swiped this concept from him, thanks Mike) – and he’s certainly dead-on with mentions like Death Cab for Cutie, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, and Sleater-Kinney, but I think I could contribute some more towards your musical education:

10. The Cure

Even though The Cure has been around since the late seventies (believe it or not) they’re best known for their sonorous goth-pop stylings throughout the eighties and early nineties. They’re still making music today, gearing up to release Hypnagogic States this fall, but I’d recommend you start with the album, Boys Don’t Cry, then jump to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me – and then move onto their tour de force, Disintegration – which South Park is famous for being quoted as saying “is the best album ever!” It’s still true. 

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: Because few bands could pull off both electronic pop whimsy and earnest self-importance quite like The Cure.  These guys were Emo before Emo existed, but frankly, they did it with a heck of a lot more sophistation and talent than what I see today. And they still have a sense of humor to top it all off. So put that in your lesson planner 😉

9. Beck

I recently wrote a review of Beck’s latest, Modern Guilt , where I waxed on and on about the virtues of Beck to our musical canon. I’ll leave it to you to click on the link so I don’t repeat myself  🙂  except for this…

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: As I’ve previously stated : ” His tongue-and-cheek arrangements have always seemed to tip their hats to other musical genres such as 60s psychedelic, hip-hop, indie rock (on and on) while still creating something – dare I say – genuinely original in flavor and sound.”  Kids, that’s a rarity in and of itself. So go listen to Mellow Gold, Odelay, Sea Change, Guero – well, all of them.

8. The Decemberists

 

Ok, by now, you’ve got some more musical meat in your belly, and you’re ready for something more.  The Decemberists are an indie folk rock group from Portland, Oregon, known for their clever lyrics steeped in world history and modern fiction. Actually, on second hand, maybe you should wait until you’re a junior or senior in college in order for you to get half the references in this group’s songs.  It gets a bit “out there” at times, but totally worth it. If I could create a new genre for them, I’d coin The Decemberists’ music experimental intelligencia folk rock.  Too much?

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: Because this group is part of a cadre of bands bringing the benefits of a liberal arts education to good use, otherwise known as ‘Lit Rock’.  They’re smart and funny and MADE for the college rock scene.  I guarantee sooner or later, you’ll be up all night, drinking cheap wine with the pretty boy or girl, who is pouring their heart out to you about how they’re sooo misunderstood…then you’ll play a couple of Decemberists’ songs from your iPod dock station (followed by Marvin Gaye or Barry White if you want to get laid) and in the words of Emeril LaGasse – BAM! Works almost everytime…

7. Tie Between Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley

 

It would be so easy to lump these two artists together on the singular issue of their untimely deaths.  And perhaps it’s true that we, as music lovers, worship our fallen princes when this immortal coil is cut before their time. But you know you’re dealing with an important artist when each generation discovers them anew, and feels as if they’ve found the Holy Grail.  Everyone I  love to hang with all count these guys in their top ten of favorite artists, because they’re exceptional songwriters of their times and beyond.

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: Because albums such as From a Basement on a Hill (Smith) and Grace (Buckley) remain timeless classics, and they’re like the Harvard University of songwriting. To use a culinary reference, they’re both like the New American cuisine of the music industry…taking tried-and-true comfort food and pushing the flavor profile beyond its original confinement, yet still remaining recognizable and appreciated. That’s the best way I can explain it.

6. Zero 7

Please accept my most sincere apology for not giving Zero 7 the write up they so aptly deserve sooner.  Hailing from the UK, Zero are a downtempo styled, electronic pop duo comprising Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker. The band’s songs feature vocals from Mozez, Sia Furler, Tina Dico, Sophie Barker, José González, and for the first time, Henry Binns providing backing vocals on the third album, The Garden. There are many rumors about how the band got their name. The main yarn stems from a nightclub the duo visited in Honduras called ‘Zero’ which played only seven songs. Another rumor is that their name came from a nightclub they visited in Mexico, named Zero Siete.

In any event, buy all three of their albums and listen to them in order. And yes, they get better and better with each listen.

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: Because they’re just great, that’s why.

5. The 60s Trinity: Jimi, Janis, and Jim

  

 In the beginning, the music and the drugs were meant to serve as conduits towards higher consciousness. And for a while, it seemed to work for these three.  While there are many other artists who are an integral part of the free-lovin’ 60s hippie movement, Jimi, Janis, and Jim wrote and performed some of the most original and powerful music ever created for the 60s and otherwise.

Period.

Unfortunately, each of them eerily died at twenty-seven years old and never knew when enough’s enough.

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: Because no one played a guitar like Jimi Hendrix (even Clapton was intimidated by him), no one sang the blues like Janis Joplin (except maybe Bessie Smith), and no one tapped into the darkness of the collective unconsciousness with his performances and lyrical arrangements better than Jim Morisson.

4. John Coltrane and Miles Davis

You kids are probably still too young to fully crawl into and appreciate jazz. Heck, I didn’t have my great awakening until my thirties, so I get it.  However, I throw these guys down on the list for two reasons: (1) You should at least have heard of these guys. Nothing’s more annoying to your elders (ahem) than to mention an iconic figure of the 20th century and to have you little lambs just stare at us blankly and ask such nonsense like “who are The Beatles?” So, now you’ve heard of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. (2) I have a kernel of faith in my soul that there’s a few cool kids out there who are ready for jazz. Consider this your grad school.

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education:  Because these two (and others) change the direction of jazz – considered the only genuinely American musical art form, BTW.  These guys steered jazz away from the catchy, b-bop, World War II/Dixie land bubble gum stuff towards a deeper, more introspective, and extemporaneous expression of not only the post-war and segregation African-American experience, but of the inherent ecstacy and turbulence for all of us during the mid-century (well, not me so much, I wasn’t born until disco was king, but you get my long-winded point).

3. 70s and 80s Punk: The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Black Flag, etc., etc…

Personal confession time: I’m not a big fan of punk rock. There’s a few songs here and there from Black Flag, The Clash, and The Ramones that I like, but otherwise, no. I don’t listen to this stuff regularly by any means. Born out of the UK and New York’s underground music scene, punk reflected a larger-scaled fury from the people too poor and overworked to enjoy the decandent spoils of 60s hippy-rock and 70s disco.  Characters like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten yelled and spat and pissed on their audiences, but you got their point.  Not much immediately came of all of it, but it was certainly expressive nonetheless.

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: Because you don’t have to like it in order to appreciate the punk movement, and understand that all the rage and disdain for authority that’s part of this genre served as a backdrop for my Generation X’s irreverent atttitude towards the status quo.  Plus, where do the young um’s think bands like Green Day and Good Charlotte (gag) got their mojo from, hmm? 

 2. U2

Let’s get this other stuff out of the way first. Yes, U2 is about as mainstream and commercial as they get these days. And you know what? Who the fuck cares – why? Because they are one of the only bands in the history of music that I can think of that has continuously produced excellent music and has harnessed its popularity and appeal to sincerely change the world for the better.

Starting off as a quasi-Christian-inspired scruff outfit from Ireland, their early stuff from albums such as War  was pure-hearted protest music.  They’re cleaned up and moved on since then, more apt to sing about the revolutions within our relationships than in Northern Ireland, but they got smart about it.  Instead of just singing – and inevitably capitalizing – on other’s suffering and doing little, these guys keep the preaching at a minimum and are fighting global poverty as real power brokers.  For me, Bono is like the Christ of rock-n-roll, and I love worshipping at his concerts – which are still some of the best live shows I’ve seen.

Why are They Important For Your Musical Education: Because they prove better than anyone I can think of that music and activism can save us all.

1. You

 

Why you? Because in the end, rock-n-roll should be about what speaks to you, what serves as the personal soundtrack in your mental mix tape.  And of course, there’s nothing more rock-n-roll than to tell your predecessors to kiss off. So I’ll take the hint and leave it up to you 😉

Your Friday Fix: The Top Ten Most Underappreciated Musical Artists of All Time.

I can’t help myself: I tend to root for the underdog. And it just kills me when people with talent – for whatever reason – don’t get their due. So without further adieu or babbling, here they are:

10. Willie Dixon

I’m sure most of you are scratching your heads and saying, “who?”  Well, this brilliant songwriter, producer, and double bass player wrote many of the classic blues songs done by many of the biggest blues artists – which, were then re-done by many rock-n-roll artists that you’ve definitely heard of.  Just to prove my point, here’s a list:

“300 Pounds Of Joy” – Howlin’ Wolf
“Back Door Man” – Howlin’ Wolf, The Doors, Grateful Dead, Shadows of Knight, Bob Weir
“Big Boss Man” – Jimmy Reed, Elvis Presley, Grateful Dead
“Bring It on Home” – Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison
“Built for Comfort” – Howlin’ Wolf, Canned Heat, UFO
“Crazy For My Baby”– Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite
“Close to You” – Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Doors, Sam Lay, Rock Bottom
“Dead Presidents”– Little Walter, J. Geils Band
“Diddy Wah Diddy”– Bo Diddley, Captain Beefheart
“Do Me Right”– Lowell Fulson
“Do the Do” – Howlin’ Wolf
“Don’t Tell Me Nothin´” – Willie Dixon – used in the movie “The Color of Money”
“Evil”– Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Canned Heat, Captain Beefheart, Monster Magnet, Derek and the Dominos, Gary Moore, Cactus, The Faces, Steve Miller
“Hidden Charms” – Howlin’ Wolf
“Hoochie Coochie Man”– Muddy Waters, Shadows of Knight, The Nashville Teens, Dion, The Allman Brothers Band, Alexis Korner, Steppenwolf, Motörhead, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix
“I Ain’t Superstitious”– Howlin’ Wolf, The Yardbirds, Grateful Dead, Megadeth, Jeff Beck
“I Can’t Quit You Baby”– Little Milton, Otis Rush, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Led Zeppelin, Gary Moore
“If the Sea Was Whiskey”– Chris Thile
“I Got What It Takes”– Koko Taylor
“I Just Want To Make Love To You”– Muddy Waters, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Shadows of Knight, Mungo Jerry, Grateful Dead, Foghat, The Rolling Stones, Etta James, Van Morrison, Paul Rodgers
“Gone Daddy Gone”– the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano incorporated elements of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” into his track; the former was later covered by Gnarls Barkley
“I’m Ready”– Muddy Waters, Humble Pie, Buddy Guy, Aerosmith, Long John Baldry
“Insane Asylum”– Koko Taylor, Kathy McDonald & Sly Stone, Diamanda Galás, Asylum Street Spankers, The Detroit Cobras
“It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” – Styx
“I Want To Be Loved” – Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones, Sean Costello
“Let Me Love You Baby” – Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Muddy Waters
“Little Red Rooster”– Howlin’ Wolf, Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Luther Allison, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Big Mama Thornton
“Mellow Down Easy”– Little Walter & His Jukes, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Black Crowes, Carey Bell, ZZ Top
“Million Dollar Baby” – Dizzy Gillespie
“My Babe”– Little Walter, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Spencer Davis Group, John P. Hammond, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Othar Turner & The Rising Star Fire and Drum Band
“My Mind is Ramblin” – Rock Bottom
“Nervous” – Willie Dixon
“Pain In My Heart” – Willie Dixon
“Pretty Thing”– Bo Diddley, Pretty Things, Canned Heat
“Seventh Son”– Willie Mabon, Mose Allison, Bill Haley, Johnny Rivers, Sting, Climax Blues Band, Long John Baldry
“Sin And City” – Buddy Guy
“Shake For Me” – Stevie Ray Vaughn
“Spoonful”– Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Shadows of Knight, Dion, Paul Butterfield, Cream, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, Willie King & the Liberators, The Who
“The Same Thing”– Muddy Waters, George Thorogood, The Allman Brothers Band, Sue Foley
“Third Degree” – Eddie Boyd, Eric Clapton, Leslie West
“Tollin’ Bells”– Lowell Fulson, Savoy Brown Blues Band
“Too Late” – Little Milton
“Too Many Cooks” – Buddy Guy, Robert Cray
“Violent Love”– The Big Three, Oingo Boingo, Dr. Feelgood
“Walkin’ The Blues” – Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, John Kay
“Wang Dang Doodle”– Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Grateful Dead, Savoy Brown, PJ Harvey, Rufus Thomas, The Pointer Sisters
“Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” – Willie Dixon
“When The Lights Go Out”– Jimmy Witherspoon, Kim Wilson
“You Can’t Judge A Book By Looking At Its Cover”– Bo Diddley, Shadows of Knight, Cactus, The Yardbirds, Beat Farmers, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tim Hardin, The Merseybeats, Elliott Murphy, Long John Baldry, The Monkees, Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan
“You Know My Love” – Otis Rush
“You’ll Be Mine” – Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan
“You Need Love” – Muddy Waters
“Whole Lotta Love” – Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” was appropriated, without credit, from Dixon’s “You Need Love”. Dixon and his music publisher received credit and royalties, after a 1985 lawsuit was settled out of court.
“You Need Loving” recorded by The Small Faces in 1965, is another uncredited loose version of the song
“You Shook Me” – Muddy Waters, Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin
“Young Fashioned Ways” – Muddy Waters

9. Fleetwood Mac

O.k., before I get started, I must say there was nothing more luscious than Stevie Nicks back in the day. The fact we share a birthday isn’t lost on me either, but – heavy sigh – I never went through my wild haired, fabulous-gypsy girl-tramp phase.  Seeing concert footage of her from the 70s coked up-in-all-her-spinning-glory heyday makes me wish I had.

Anyhoo, I know to some putting them on this list is questionable because they had their time in the spotlight with their multiplatinum Rumours album. But as time has worn on, what seems to stick from that record in all the rock documentaries I see is their soap opera bedhopping rather than the music itself.  Plus, while they’ve never duplicated the beyond-the-stratosphere success of Rumours, they have still been making virtually drama-free music that rocks ever since.

A little caveat though – I got to see the Mac in concert twice: once in the early 80s at the Sunrise Musical Theater in South Florida, and the next time in 2000 at the Concord Pavilion in the East Bay of Northern California. Needless to say what I remember most about the first show was Stevie in all her twirling dervish, witchy woman glory and me developing my first real girl-crush. What I recall about the second show was a sound and a voice as razor sharp as it was twenty years ago, but alas my favorite Coke Queen was not only not spinning, but she needed help from her bodyguards to hold her in place while she leaned down to shake hands in the front row. And she did this punching thing in the air during a lot of the song’s crescendos which I still don’t get. But I love them nonetheless and they deserve a lot more credit in the rock cannon in my opinion.

8. Rakim

Confession time: I really don’t like rap. I know that makes me look like the typical white chick, but so be it, because most of it just ain’t my thing. I have a few exceptions, with one of them being Eric B & Rakim. I heard from those in the know that it’s Rakim that was considered the real talent behind the duo, having the reputation in the rap world be the most gifted MC ever to put his lips behind a mic. The vast majority of the mainstream, however, have never even heard of him. This is a real shame, because he is perhaps the most influential rapper of all time. His work with the Eric B. remains essential listening for any young artist, and became legendary mostly because of Rakim’s skills on the mic. Rakim was the man who introduced many of the complex rhymes and lyrics that would come to dominate hip-hop in his wake, departing from the simple lyrics of his predecessors. It’s easy to see how he became underrated as a solo artist: He’s only released three albums on his own, with the last being released this past March 4th. Since that time, he’s been blowing up the concert scene and adding memorable track after track as a guest artist and soundtrack contributor. He may have started in a duo, but the success and acclaim of his earlier work was mainly due to him, and he certainly deserves to be more than a footnote in the minds of modern-day rap fans.

7. Frank Zappa

O.k., yeah he’s eccentric, to say the least. He looks like a ragged doll, hippy version of Groucho Marx, but once you hear his music you’ll get that he was a musical genius. My favorite track? Definitely a tie between Inca Road and Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy. And BTW, you’ve gotta like a guy whose musical compositions take symphonic orchestras across the country twice as long in rehearsal time to learn than any of their other rock-n-roll tribute concerts (and these guys play Beethoven and Dvorak on a regular basis). Plus, he had Pamela DeBarres – the original rock groupie and inspiration behind Kate Hudson’s character in Almost Famous – as his kids’ nanny. How funny is that??

6. The Kinks

Many years after its release in 1969, Arthur was my introduction to The Kinks, and it remains my favorite Kinks album. I think what amazed me first about Arthur was the extraordinary number of tones and moods the album moves through, with the lyrics and melodies sure, but with Davies’ singing and the band’s playing as well. There’s the giddy fuck-it-all, let’s-have-some-fun laziness of “Drivin'”, the mock comfort turned quiet rage of “Shangri-La”, the rumble-tumble, morale-boosting “Mr. Churchill Says” and the seemingly straightforward costs-of-War lamentation of “Some Mother’s Son”. I say seemingly because, truthfully, nothing is straightforward about this album; it happens to be one of the most emotionally complex albums I’ve ever come across, with subtle variations taking place not just from track to track, but usually several times within each song. It gets to the point where one must rightfully conclude that Davies’ songwriting on Arthur, especially for sardonic wit and uneasy insight, is unparalled by all but Bob Dylan. All of that and there’s a decidedly English narrative told in perfectly sparse storytelling to pay attention to. Gooseberry tarts anyone?

Other notables for the rock-n-roll cannons should include Young And Innocent Days, which deserves its own chapter on yearning. This is succinct, universally evocative songwriting of the highest caliber.

The fact of the matter is it’s all there in Ray Davies’ voice. Not to take anything away from the band, who are spot-on throughout, but the power of The Kinks rests to a large extent on the unique expressiveness of Davies’ singing. And that’s just something I never hear music historians talk about. Which annoys me.

 5. Janis Joplin

My God, her talent. And her heart-breaking story. In fact, her narrative and her larger-than-life persona overrode a style, a voice, and  an expressiveness not really seen in the songbirds of her day.  While Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez were being worshipped and hailed for their ethereal falsettos and waify hippy girl images, here comes Janis barreling down the pike – with Jack Daniels in one hand and a mike in the other.  For me, she represents the real grit of the 60s – a period often caricatured as the “Summer of Love” when it was more often like a bad brown acid trip. And while, yes, her story added to her depth and desperation as an artist, it was also an image she herself got trapped under – living hard and fast in order to keep up with  her own mouth. An image so out of control that they even based a movie on it (Bette Midler’s “The Rose”).  Being an image is lonely business – enough to want to shoot a shitload of heroin in your veins. But see? Her life was much more than her habits and her death, but even I get sidetracked from what was her brilliance was…her music – which brought the soul and pulse and blood back to an anemic musical landscape that was the 60s before Janis and the rest of the boys got our attention.  Women in rock-n-roll in general don’t get enough props, but Janis is especially underappreciated in my opinion.

4. Sonic Youth

I know in music circles, it’s fairly common to name Sonic Youth as underappreciated, but you know why that is? Because it’s true – especially Kim Gordon, SY’s bass player. Some call the band – in particular, Gordon –  “the godparents of grunge” – which I frankly think is beyond idiotic because such banal praise demotes one of the most articulate and intelligent rock performers of all times. Rock critics and historians would have done well to check out her essay in the 1995 anthology of women’s rock criticism, Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap, in which she explains, ”Before picking up a bass I was just another girl with a fantasy. What would it be like to be right under the pinnacle of energy, beneath two guys crossing their guitars, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and male bonding? How sick, but what desire could be more ordinary?” How cool is she? And frankly, it takes such intelligence and insight to be one of the most irreverent and inventive acts in alternative music. I love them. Go buy all their records now.

3. Journey

 

Yeah, that’s right, I said it. Journey is underrated. Largely written off in the early 90’s as the worst kind of overblown American radio arena rock that the emerging grunge bands weren’t, Journey’s career went into a slump that has only just recently recovered. Formed in the early 70’s by ex-Santana band members as a prog rock project, Journey morphed into huge stadium rockers almost by accident. The first three Journey albums are about a million miles away from the band they would become. Mixing guitars and keys to form some serious epics, the first three Journey albums were all but forgotten when singer Steve Perry joined the band in 1978. Neal Schon (guitarist and de-facto band leader) decided that Journey needed a stronger singer, and Steve Perry was hired. His voice didn’t really suit the prog rock noodlings of early Journey so they changed their sound slightly (Infinity, the first album with Perry, sits in that difficult middle ground somewhere between prog and mainstream, and is a seriously underrated album in it’s own right) and a legendary band was born. The rest, as they say, is history. Mainstream rock beckoned, as did the stadiums, but it was the almost constant play on rock radio in the USA that catapulted Journey into the big time. Ok, so a band that gets played on the radio and becomes that popular can’t be any good, right? Wrong.
Neal Schon is a seriously overlooked guitarist with riffs and solo’s aplenty, and Steve Perry has a voice that most rock singers can only dream about. Gregg Rolie’s keyboards add extra melody and they are ably backed by a solid rhythm section in Ross Valory (bass) and Steve Smith (drums). They may have a mainstream sound, and a mainstream appeal, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some strong riffs and serious talent behind Journey’s music, because there is, and that’s all that should matter. Journey are still going with Neal Schon and Ross Valory the only two surviving original members. They have some Filipino guy they found on You Tube and now that ‘classic rock’ (if ever there was a genre label to make me roll my eyes it’s that one) is popular again, Journey look set to take the stadiums by storm all over again. Perhaps now their musical artistry will catch up with their notoriety.

An aside: I hear the new guy is amazing, but call me a purist, but Journey will never really be without Steve Perry. So there.

2. Rory Gallagher


How do I even begin to describe Rory Gallagher? Hmmm, how about like Gary Moore x 10. Yeah, that’ll do.
Rory Gallagher plays the most sublime bluesy rock you’ve ever heard, and as a guitarist is probably number 1 in the top 10 of most influential guitarists you’ve never heard of. Slash has cited Rory as a major influence on his playing, and so have many other guitarists who’s cocks get e-sucked on this forum… anyway, ranting aside, Rory plays kickass blues rock, and that’s all you should need to know to go and look him up and get downloading some of his stuff. Oh yeah, he also played in, and formed, a band called Taste in the mid 60’s, that played some serious rock music. Check out his solo album “Top Priority” from 1979, it’s awesome.

1. George Harrison

 

 Is it George, or is it Jesus???
In the aftermath of the Beatles, John Lennon had classic albums like Imagine and Plastic Ono Band, Paul McCartney had Wings and Band On The Run and Ringo had . . . well, Ringo had Barbara Bach. The silent Beatle’s solo career, like his stint in the most famously analyzed and studied of bands, was dwarfed by the attention paid to Lennon & McCartney. However, that is not to say that George does not deserve mention with his more acclaimed band mates. Harrison’s first true solo effort is unquestionably his most triumphant. The three album set showcases the musical chops that weren’t able to fully flourish with the Beatles. The record’s success comes from its combination of White Album era songs like All Things Must Pass, fresher material like What Is Life and Wah Wah, Dylan covers and collaborations like I’d Have You Anytime and If Not For You and My Sweet Lord’s inadvertently borrowed melody. It is the third album of the set though that is the icing on this cake. Foreshadowing the jamband scene by a good decade or two, the album’s finale had in tow George and the band, which consisted of Eric Clapton and Dave Mason on guitar, Billy Preston and Bobby Whitlock on keyboards and Ringo on drums, working out puzzlingly named extended grooves like I Remember Jeep and Thanks For The Pepperoni. Perhaps he’s not the most underrated musician of all time, but he’s certainly the most underrated Beatle.