Friday, April 10, 2009


I’ve had Lisa Hannigan’s song “I Don’t Know” rolling around in my head for weeks now. And then on a recent trip to the Berkshires, I heard Chrissie Hynde on the radio singing “Brass in Pocket”—”gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs” etc.) for the thousandth time at least and suddenly really heard it, realizing how amazing her vocal chops are on this song where before I hadn’t really noticed how unique her control and interpretation is.

Then yesterday, after days of news about gun violence I got to thinking about Cheryl Wheeler’s “If It Were Up to Me” and posted about it.

All that led me to thinking about female singers the other night when I was woken up by a bunch of the Indian guys from the restaurant across the alley from my bedroom, who decided at close to 2AM to pull their cars into the alley and leave them revving while they discussed something very loudly that I couldn’t make out over the noise of the cars.

I actually opened my bedroom window and “Shushed” them saying “My boy’s trying to sleep” although his bedroom’s further back in the apartment away from their noise and he was sleeping to Vince Guaraldi’s A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (an eminently replayable recording which is the mark of a classic) so it probably wasn’t disturbing him.

Anyway, to get back to sleep after they finished their discussion and got back in the cars and pulled out, I started making an alphabet list of favorite recordings (the original recordings) by female singers over the years and found it pretty fun as well as great at helping me fall back asleep. I didn’t get too far that night, so I decided to keep adding to it in my head the following nights when other stuff woke me (the leaks in the lady upstairs’s apartment starting to impact mine, etc.).

So, over the course of a few nights I came up with a lot, though I’m sure there’s plenty I’m forgetting. I’d start by thinking of singers I’ve dug over the years and then try to think of my favorite recording of theirs. I ended up last night getting this far, with only the “Q” unfilled, in what might be described as an alphabet i-pod list of female recordings, if I owned an i-pod:

ALL I WANT Joni Mitchell
BRASS IN POCKET Chrissie Hynde, BIRTHDAY Bjork (first thing I heard her voice on when she started out with The Sugarcubes and blew me, and everyone else away), THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME Gladys Knight (with the Pips of course)
CRAZY Patsy Kline, CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF OF YOU Lauryn Hill (my Jersey hometown girl knocking out our fellow Jersey native Frankie Valli’s hit)
DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE The Shirelles (also Jersey homegirls), DRREAMS Dolores O’Reirdon (w/ The Cranberries), DON’T KNOW WHY Norah Jones
FEVER Peggy Lee (another iconic recording of hers that I love, later in her career, was “Is That All There Is?”—but FEVER is the one that got the censors in an uproar when I was a kid and turned me on to her amazing vocal control)
GUESS WHO I SAW TODAY Chris Connor (her best I think)
HEY JOE Patti Smith (from her first recording, a 45 put out by Robert Mapplethorpe and I think the, unfortunately, defunct Gotham Book Mart when she was still only known as a poet), HOW INSENSITIVE Sinead O’Connor ((FAMINE is my favorite of hers, but it’s more of a rap and doesn’t showcase her amazing vocal skills like this does, but so does PADDY’S LAMENT, and so many others), HOPE AND FAITH Janet Robin (it’s her guitar work on this that nails it)
I DON’T KNOW Lisa Hannigan, IF IT WERE UP TO ME Cheryl Wheeler, I KNOW WHAT BOYS LIKE The Waitresses, I’M LIKE A BIRD Nelly Furtado, I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW Tegan and Sara (the Quin twins, at least I think they’re twins, this is a pretty original take on the eternal teenage perspective)
LITTLE GIRL BLUE Nina Simone (the original, just her voice and her piano, not later overproduced versions or the horrible club remix, ugh!), LAST DANCE Donna Summers (either this or her version of MACARTHUR PARK!), LET IT BE Jill Scott
MOOD SWING Luscious Jackson (not sure which of the women in this band is singing on this, but always dug it, along with their only hit, I think it was, NAKED EYE), MRS. BROWN YOU’VE GOT A LOVELY DAUGHTER Phranc (a friend from my LA days and a great singer, musician and entertainer, if you don’t know yet)
NO ORDINARY LOVE Sade, THE NIGHT WE CALLED IT A DAY Irene Kral (a mostly forgotten now jazz vocalist I first dug in the 1950s)
OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY Dinah Washington, ON AND ON Erykah Badu
PIECE OF MY HEART Janis Joplin, PAPER BAG Fiona Apple [and I forgot my latest favorite, Neko Case's PEOPLE GOT A LOTTA NERVE]
RESPECT Aretha Franklin, RESTLESS Alison Krauss
STRANGE FRUIT Billy Holiday, SMILE Lily Allen, SAD EYES Natasha Kahn (who sings and plays under the name Bats for Lashes, a new discovery, whose voice I love on clean songs like this, but whose musician skills sometimes lead to over produced recordings), SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME Emmylou Harris
TWISTED, Annie Ross (there’s better examples of her amazing range, but this has got to be the all time favorite Ross vocal), TOO MANY CREEPS Cynthia Sley (she was the singer for the Bush Tetras, one of the early punk bands and first all girl one I knew of)
UNSENT Alanis Morissette (most of her stuff is too overproduced for me, but this really allows her voice to shine, and her songwriting skills, or whoever wrote this)
WHEN SONNY GETS BLUE Dakota Staton, WHEN I’M GONE Mary Wells (this one shows off her much underrated interprative brilliance for me), WHITE RABBIT Gracie Slick, WHAT I AM Edie Brickell
X-RAY MAN Liz Phair (and not just for the “X”—it’s a vocally and instrumentally interesting tune)
ZOMBIE Nellie McKay (maybe not her best, but I needed a “Z” and she does do some interesting stuff with her voice in the lower registers on this one, but to hear her at her best, if you don’t know her work, check out WON’T U PLEASE B NICE)


AlamedaTom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AlamedaTom said...

A huge shout-out from here for Chrissie Hynde. I have been a long-time devout Pretenders freak. That's why I was so happy to see that Stephen King picked the Prentenders' "Break up the Concrete" as the best album of 2008 (tied with Buckcherry's "Black Butterfly").,,20243195_10,00.html

By the way, "Brass in Pocket" is a great tune, but I like "Show Me" even better.

~ Willy

Toby said...

Hey Michael,

I worry about your sleep. Why don't you take a tip from Don Delillo and cop some white noise? In the years I spent wandering the country, sleeping in cheap hotels, motels or Y's, I learned quickly that something to quell ambient noise was essential. I carried the loudest possible fan, an extension cord and a three outlet plug, and slept with the roar as close to my head as possible. Now I use a white noise machine and would not consider retiring without it. To wit: I just spent six nights in a corner apartment at 55th and Ninth and didn't lose a minute's sleep. We need you sharp, bro!

Lally said...

Willy, Yeah I always appreciated Hynde but never got the extent of her vocal control and virtuosity.
And toby, I hear you and am grateful for your concern. I have a lot of friends who do similar things, but because I've been raising kids for most of my adult life and a lot of that time on my own, I always want to be able to hear them or anything that might threaten their sleep, bad dreams, etc. Hope it doesn't sound like I;m complaining about waking up sometimes at night, I;m just explaining where the lists generally come from.