Her smooth tones and songs that touched upon jazz, R & B and pop turned her into a star and a major influence on a generation of singers, including Lauryn Hill. And to think, Roberta Flack might not have had a hit record if not for Clint Eastwood. Flack’s debut album came out to nice notices and dismal sales. But the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was used in the movie where Clint plays a DJ — Play Misty For Me — in 1972, which led to it becoming the smash hit that got Flack’s career going. From there, she had other hits, including the massive “Killing Me Softly”, along with some great duets with Donny Hathaway. She’s still active today, having just released an album of Beatles songs that is getting good reviews. Let’s pay tribute to this genre blender by grabbing your iPod or MP3 player, hitting shuffle and sharing the first 10 tunes that come up.
Sam Cooke — Fool’s Paradise (Night Beat): Cooke is one of the consumate pop singers, as is illustrated on this excellent performance from what is considered his best studio album. Cooke’s phrasing is impeccable, as he wrings every bit of emotion out of this cautionary tale, without ever overdoing it.
Robbie Fulks — Never Could (Couples In Trouble): A bouncy country-folk song that provides a respite from the grim tales that dominate this outstanding album from Mr. Fulks. I am consistently in awe in his effortless command of traditional American musical genres, as this song sounds utterly timeless.
Yello — Stalakdrama (Stella): This instrumental has an appropriate title, as it sounds like it could be part of the score for a movie. I think this is one of Yello’s more impresive compositions, as it really makes good use of dynamics and has some engaging melodic themes.
The Undertones — Hypnotised (Hypnotised): While many fans and critics think that The Undertones’ debut album was their peak, I think their next two albums were equally good and showed a remarkable progression in compositional skill. The title track from their second album is a compelling example of that progression. While it certainly has some of the hallmarks of their peppy hook filled pop, those are contrasted by a genuinely contemplative and moody guitar figure that leads into and out of the verses. This gives the song more depth and dimension, as it musically illustrates the swirl of feelings Fergal Sharkey is singing about.
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians — Heaven (Gotta Let This Hen Out): For all of his quirks, Robyn Hitchcock has composed a number of songs that could have been hits in a more just world. This is a live version of one of those songs, which originally appeared on his album Fegmania! This is a pulsing jangle rocker that has a much more straightforward lyric than many Hitchcock songs, and a killer chorus. While Robyn has rarely been content with merely whipping up perfect pop songs, this is one of the prime examples of easily it seems to come to him.
The Cramps — New Kind Of Kick (Bad Music For Bad People): This compilation is Exhibit A in the case for The Cramps as a ridiculously great band. While their roots were in rockabilly, they quickly expanded to taking on some great garage rock sounds, as shown on this fuzztone guitar laden tune. Lux Interior is typically salacious and the drumming is awesome. Classic.
The Move — My Marge (Great Move! The Best of the Move): This compilation only covers the tail end of The Move’s career, when Jeff Lynne left fellow Birmingham, England band The Idle Race, and joined The Move. This is a Lynne/Roy Wood collaboration, a nostalgic shuffle akin to some of Paul McCartney’s more grandmother friendly tunes like “When I’m 64”.
* Tom Waits — Hang Down Your Head (Rain Dogs):* While Tom Waits began waving his freak flag on the previous album Swordfishtrombones, and hasn’t put it away since, he certainly seemed to recognize when he had a straightforward tune that did not require grunting or odd percussion. This track is really just a great pop tune, with light drumming, an accordion and fabulous guitar playing, and a wonderful vocal from Mr. Waits.
The Hang Ups — Party (Second Story): This Minneapolis guitar pop band tended towards jangly numbers that were a bit Big Star influenced. But this song is clearly inspired by the great latter day work of The Kinks, and these guys do their inspiration proud.
The Smithereens — Top Of The Pops (From Jersey It Came!): A relaxed pop tune that the band couldn’t have spent much more than 10 minutes coming up with the music, and then added some lyrics. The song is certainly catchy, but I always wonder if it would have been better at a slightly faster tempo.