Today we pay tribute to one of my first favorite singers, Jim Croce. I got an AM clock radio (with a light up dial!) as a first communion present and it was tuned to the Top 40 stations and on a lot. Which meant I heard a lot of Jim Croce. He had a nice voice and could alter it to fit the mood of his song, singing with tenderness on love songs like “Operator”, while jiving on the song I loved, such as “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”. His Life and Times album was my favorite of my dad’s 8-track tapes, where I heard his mix of love songs and story songs, often from a working class perspective. This perspective was earned – he did a stretch in the National Guard to avoid going to Vietnam and worked various trucking and construction jobs. And he drew from that environment in his music. Moreover, as I revisited his music as an adult, buying a 50 song compilation that had pretty much all of his studio work, I appreciated his facility with country, blues, pop and classical music. Songs like “Time In a Bottle” and the amazing, non-single “These Dreams” show a composer who combined directness and economy with subtle sophistication. His death in a plane crash in 1973 robbed pop music of someone who still had scads of untapped potential. Thankfully, his recordings still have the warmth and vitality they had 40 years ago. In honor of Mr. Croce, please grab your iPod or MP3 player, hit shuffle, and share the first 10 songs that pop up.
Jarvis Cocker – Heavy Weather (Jarvis): A ballady number from the Pulp frontman’s first solo record. What I love about Cocker is how he incorporates so many different aspects of classic pop and rock of the past in his sound without sounding like a dilettante. This is classic melodic pop-rock with touches from both ‘50s and ‘60s rock, but played in thoroughly modern fashion.
LCD Soundsystem – New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down (The Sound of Silver): On LCD’s second album, James Murphy showed more breadth, as illustrated on this letter to his hometown. It actually isn’t too far off from something Jarvis Cocker might do, but with better vocals and more biting lyrics - it’s a classic building ballad that leads to some stinging rock guitar.
Blur – London Loves (Parklife): Parklife may be the best Blur album, because it full of clever ideas and new wrinkles on classic Britpop sounds. This song mixes some slinky electronic sounds with a riffy guitar chorus (with the guitars tamped down a bit). It’s a little funky and a little poppy with a big hook in that chorus.
The Isley Brothers – Make Me Say It Again Girl (Part 1 & 2)(The Heat Is On): When the Isleys modernized into a funk band, they knew they had to balance hardcore stuff like the classic “Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)” (yes, all the songs on this album are two parters). So they took advantage of Ronnie Isley’s smooth voice to include some languid, dreamy love songs. This is summery, mellow and lovely.
Beachbuggy – From the South (Sport Fury): The Beachbuggy formula: a simple repetitive riff, an equally repetitive rhythm (with two drummers) and ridiculously simplistic lyrics. Add expert recording by Steve Albini and you have a should-have-been-a-classic debut album. This song fits the template perfectly and never fails to get my head boppin’.
The Chameleons – Mad Jack (Strange Times): The Chameleons carved out their niche amongst ornate post-punk bands such as Echo & The Bunnymen and The Sound. They shared a similar heft, but Mark Burgess was such a distinct frontman (as were Ian McCulloch and Adrian Borland) and they developed a melodic sense that melded to their big sound to make songs that sounded not quite like anybody else. The guitar work on this number is great and it has one heck of sing-a-long hook.
Kid Creole & The Coconuts – Bongo Eddie’s Lament (Doppleganger): This is a track from a concept album where I never bothered to suss out the concept. Maybe it would add to the enjoyment of a typical genre blending effort from the kid, but I enjoy it enough as it is. This song seems midway between Broadway and tropicalia, maybe leaning a bit more towards the latter.
Van Halen – Mean Street (Fair Warning): Fair Warning is arguably the heaviest Van Halen album (though their last effort with David Lee Roth also might stake a claim for that title). I don’t know if David Lee Roth is the most convincing tough guy, but he has swagger, and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar does a lot of heavy lifting in making this song sound mean.
Johnny Cash – I Walk The Line (The Legend): One of the greatest love songs of all time. Perhaps the best Johnny Cash song of all time. A song I will never get tired of.
They Might Be Giants – Meet James Ensor (John Henry): A pithy little fan letter from John Flansburgh to the great Belgian painter. This isn’t funny, as it is a straightforward portrait of the man, and that adds to the charm.