Song: Out of the Blue
Band: Roxy Music
Country Life came out in 1974. Among its many stellar tracks was this sophisticated number oozing a cool, almost clinical sleekness, for which frontman Bryan Ferry shares songwriting credits along with the band’s guitarist, Phil Manzanera. This is 70s British so-called art rock at its glossy finest - svelte, assured, daring yet terribly stylized - a stream of glistening esoterica punctuated with raunch and flash, ending with a wild run of heavily flanged electric violin courtesy Edwin Jobson.
This cut exemplifies a particular era of the band’s history - shortly following the departure of Brian Eno (who would go on to forge a career as a hugely influential musical alchemist, collaborator and producer), and still 8 years away from the silken pop orchestration of Avalon. The band was beginning to hint at the abandonment of its more avant-garde roots, moving steadily towards something more conventionally cohesive and Ferry-dominated - an equally accomplished mode perhaps, one far more accessible to the masses. But here - on Out of The Blue? We’re perched on the knife edge of cool.
Song: Buggin’ Out
Band: A Tribe Called Quest
Style and pizazz for miles. A sinuous bass line and killer snare carries the load over which the Queens NYC boys rap out a positive flow in this driving, unstoppable tune. From their brilliant second album, The Low End Theory, this is confidently creative, decisive, smart-stepping rap with richly musical hooks… it comes across every bit as freshly immediate, insightful and relevant as it was back in 1991. This vital collective has always been about street smarts, a sense of humour and a compelling mastery of doing massive things with minimal elements. Straight-up vocal delivery and an infectious vibe - it’s pure forward momentum. I dare you to listen to this or We Got The Jazz (from the same disc) and not start to groove.
Song: I be Blowin’
Band: De La Soul (featuring Maceo Parker)
This sensuous instrumental hails from De La Soul’s third album, 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate. Here the brilliant Long Island hiphop act puts the rap aside and goes straight for an expansive, quietly exhilarating vibe. Flutes, and alto sax pulsate over a silky minimalist percussive stream - it’s jazz lounge before the term existed as a marketing schtick. A cut effortlessly sophisticated and chilled, thanks largely to Maceo Parker’s soulful contribution.
Band: Sigur Rós
This mesmerizing contemplation is from 2006’s Heima, a documentary film and double DVD set - the Icelandic ensemble’s indelible tribute to its home country. It’s an unmistakably heartfelt, intensely musical meditation; hence this achingly luminous track, suffused with an almost unbearable presence and an abiding crystalline stillness. I wish I knew what the lyrics mean - the English translation I came across was poetically enigmatic - but no matter, the net effect is that of sublimely musical transcendence. The video elements are exquisitely fused with the aural flow; the interplay of live band performance and children playing on a beach of black sand is as magical as the music.
Song: Ron Carter
Artist: Bill Frisell
Ron Carter is a weighty instrumental from the American guitarist’s 2001 Blues Dream album. This tribute from one jazz great to another exemplifies Frisell’s ability to effortlessly straddle different musical genres, gleefully blurring the lines. With a steely edge and an implacable momentum, this arrangement of horns, bass and understated percussion is daringly sparse yet more than enough to get the vibe across. By turns menacing and ambivalent, there’s something profoundly elemental happening. Though he can play just about any kind of genre you care to think of, here Frisell’s electric guitar is both raucous and refined, searing yet understated. His economical phrasing packs maximum punch and the expressive tonal delicacies his hands coax out of the fretboard are a real treat.
Artist: Hannah Georgas
Robotic is from the Ontario native’s second album, 2012’s Hannah Georgas. The singer/songwriter has been been based out of Vancouver ever since leaving for BC to attend university. She has an exquisite pop sensibility matched to an audacious compositional approach. Her bandmates cook with a certain judicious precision - an ensemble emphatically economic and vital in its expression.
Not much else to say, really - Robotic is an infectious gem of a tune from a brilliant pop album bursting with dynamism and surprising gravitas.
And what a great, sweetly distinctive voice.
Song: Silver Wheels
Artist: Bruce Cockburn
This track’s from the celebrated Canadian artist’s seventh studio album, 1976’s In The Falling Dark. It’s from his more overtly Christian era, before notions of doubt and grey washes of complexity set in. It’s also before he earned a widespread (notorious, even) reputation for environmental activism and social justice. The occasionally staid earnestness of this period is tempered by the crystalline sound of his virtuoso guitar playing and free-spirited prolificness. As a guitarist, Cockburn rarely gives over to flashy self-indulgence; this cut is no exception. The track is anchored by a simple acoustic riff serving as a spine for what is literally a driving song, one about the endlessly unwinding road, the transitions and zones of demarcation from country to city, the influence of homo sapiens on the natural world - inevitably, haunting questions of morality. In other words, it’s a classic Cockburn tune.
Though his later works would become more overly political even relatively earlier songs like this one reflect the same fundamental concerns and questions seething under the surface. Lyrically Cockburn is masterfully on point and evocative. Fred Stone’s unexpected and invigorating flugelhorn solo break intervenes before Cockburn again dives back into the cauldron, spitting out a breathless reel of rapid lyrical observations playing against that steady, lonely, looping acoustic spine. You can almost feel the pavement rushing underneath as you listen.
Band: Melody Gardot
With Melody Gardot's fourth album, 2015’s The Currency of Man, the American stylist strays away from the comparatively genteel comfort zone of her previous outings, expanding her repertoire and taking some creative risks. Not everything works equally well but kudos to her for pushing her boundaries and venturing into new territory. Preacherman’s scintillating atmosphere and gristly edges owes much to the superb instrumentation and slinky, deft production. Elastic guitars and sonorous saxophones lead the charge. There’s still the assured Gardot gloss in abundance, but there’s also a gritty organic foundation anchoring the track and Gardot’s phrasing more frequently delves into choice theatrical instances of raspy emotional rawness. Great official video below - gives the song a sobering added dimension.
Song: E-bow the Letter
This haunting lament comes from REM’s 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It’s a bittersweet tribute to River Phoenix, who had died three years earlier at the age 23 of a drug-induced heart attack at the notorious West Hollywood nightclub, The Viper Room. Mead Michael Stipe’s lyrics come across like a desperate letter too late to save his friend from a dangerous drug dependency. In a series of hallucinatory vignettes the lyrics flow in a suspended string of poetic free-associating visions. The E-bow refers to a simple electronic sustaining device guitarist Peter Buck used to give his guitar a fluid, droning tone, provide an atmosphere both morose and menacing. Balancing out all the daunting negativity are the luminous backing vocals of Patti Smith, injecting siren notes of sweet mystery and transcendant deliverance. It’s a pretty amazing tune.
This sweetly mysterious tune comes from the now-defunct Toronto band’s 2011 album Metal Meets. Casey Mecija's winsome, softly rounded vocals are a big part of the draw, immersed within deliberate, mid-tempo pacing and an smoothly nuanced arrangement. It’s a track resonating with the sorrow and longing of homesick souls. The title refers to an overseas Filipino - either one who is abroad indefinitely as a citizen or permanent resident of a different country, or a Filipino citizen abroad for a limited period, such as on a work contract or an international student. The term also applies to care packages such people send back to family and friends back home. Either way, it’s all of a piece - this is a pensive track about loyalty, compassion and the pull of memory.