A lovely summer night -- crickets chirping, night breezes whispering -- time to blast it all open with some rock 'n' roll!
1. This Is Where I Belong / Ron Sexsmith
From This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies (2006)
Probably the best collection of Kinks covers I know, with dynamite tributes from Fountains of Wayne, Fastball, Minus 5, Yo La Tengo; best of all, this was the album that first introduced me to the work of Bill Lloyd and of Ron Sexsmith, both of whom have since landed several albums in heavy rotation on my music players. Ron delivers this early Kinks tune with such earnestness, I just had to hear more. And that's how it all started...
2. Next To You / Tim Easton
From Ammunition (2006)
Here's another bit of serendipity -- I discovered Tim Easton through this track on a New West Records sampler, that I picked up who knows where. Just goes to show you should always listen to those samplers. I love his slightly scratchy voice, the harmonica, the loping rhythm of this track; sometimes the simplest expressions of love ("Just let me be next to you / I want to understand . . . ") are the best.
3. Look a Little on the Sunny Side / The Kinks
From Everybody's In Show Biz (1972)
One of my first Kinks albums, Show-Biz holds a special place in my heart; to me, every track is a winner. Here we get campy Ray mincing about this bouncy little tap dance (that old music hall influence), innocently (HA!) describing the vagaries of the music business. And I do mean vagaries: "Sing 'em the blues and then they ask for a happy tune / And when you start to smile, they say / 'Gimme the rhythm and blues,' and when you / Give 'em the rhythm and blues, they simply smile and say / 'We didn't want to hear you play, we didn't like you anyway.'" Well, that's the Kinks' career in a nutshell, no?
4. Keep This Party Going / The B-52s
From Funplex (2008)
I was really sorry that this recent B-52s CD didn't live up to those great 80s albums. I can't quite figure out why -- this is a fun number (I bet it's a hoot live), but it lacks that extra wackiness that made them the quirky dance queens of New Wave. All the elements are here -- Cindy and Kate's almost offkey harmonies, Fred's lounge-lizard rapping, over an insistent dance-party rhythm track -- but it just doesn't measure up. Thank god we've still got The B-52s, Whammy!, and Cosmic Thing...
5. I'll Follow the Sun / The Beatles
From Beatles 65 (1965)
Okay, I know this now appears on a CD called Beatles for Sale, the British version knocked out in a hurry for the Christmas 1964 sales season. But the American album I grew up with was Beatles 65, and I played that baby so much, the album cover is now only held together with masses of stiff masking tape. And this little folker is one of my top tracks from this album, a standard-issue kiss-off song sung with that special tender Paul McCartney charm. "One day / You'll look / And see I've gone / But tomorrow may rain so / I'll follow the sun." Those odd climbing intervals, that alternation of short lines with a long fluid phrase, and then he reverses it: "And now the time has come / When so my love / I must go / And though I lose a friend / In the end you will know / Oh oh-oh oh.." Sheer instinctive genius.
6. Road Trippin' / Red Hot Chili Peppers
From Californication (1999)
Proving that even a psych-punk-funk bunch of skateheads from California could turn out yearningly beautiful folk-rock -- with strings, even! -- so wistful it'll break your heart. I like most everything of RHCP I've heard, but to me this album stands head and shoulders above the rest. One of my favorite albums of the 1990s. Granted, the 1990s, but still...
7. Love Is an Outlaw / Tom Gallagher
From Age of the Wheel (unreleased)
The early and untimely death of my dear friend Tom Gallagher prevented him from ever getting the audience he deserved. His unreleased album is full of superb tracks like this, with its lazy, loungy beat, plangent guitar riffs, winsome melody, and sage lyrics. I'm happy to email this track to anybody who's curious: it's how we keep his memory alive.
8. Big Boys / Elvis Costello
From Armed Forces (1978)
Another Iconic Album for me. And this song has so many great lyrics, from that opening "I am starting to function / In the usual way" through " to "Worrying about your physical fitness / Tell me how you got the sickness" and "I was down upon one knee / Stroking her vanity." So what if it's more clever-sounding than truly wise? He's drunk on allusive word play, and to me that tempers the Angry Young Man cynicism with his giddy enthusiasm. I love the thrusting bass and drums giving him his marching orders, and those Steve Nieve organ riffs? Perfection.
9. On a Promise / Fine Young Cannibals
From Fine Young Cannibals (1985)
The hoarse soulful voice of Roland Gift, matched with the English Beat's David Steele and Andy Cox -- well, Fine Young Cannibals had all the right elements lined up, that canny mix of R&B and ska and New Wave smartness. "She Drives Me Crazy" is IMO one of the best songs of the 1980s, but it was a pretty solid debut album all around, as this brooding track attests....
10. If I Said / Colin Blunstone
From Echo Bridge (1996)
So what was Colin Blunstone doing all those years between being in the Zombies and being in the Zombies again? Lots of things, but this solo album is perplexingly lovely -- it should have been a big hit. This guy has one of these greatest voices in pop music; it's just heartbreakingly beautiful (yes, and sexy as hell). Sure, he loads it up with reverb and romantic production values, all strings and maracas and a sax solo in the middle eight. It should sound cheesy, but it doesn't, because Colin Blunstone can sell wistful yearning like nobody else in the biz.