Archive for the ‘Suzanne Vega’ Category

When the history of 2020 is written, what will be said? That Rolling Stone released a remastered rendition of its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list? No, of course not – but it is a distraction from the machinations of the tinpot despot, so I’ll run with it. 

For those counting at home, this Top 500 is the magazine’s third stab at an all-encompassing album countdown. It first released a Top 500 in 2003, which was slightly tweaked in 2005 for a book, and then substantially reworked in 2012. The lists received just criticism, however, due to the artists being predominately white, male and rock-oriented. Artists of color, for example, made up a little more than a fifth of the featured acts, while women were less than 10 percent. As a result, this time around, the editors started from scratch. The introduction notes that “tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten” before explaining that Top 50 lists were solicited from “more than 300 artists, producers, critics, and music-industry figures.” The lists were tabulated and weighted, forming the basis for the 500, which was then kept in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls’ porch until September 22nd, when it was posted to the Web.

The main headline, I suppose, is that the list is indeed more diverse. Artists of color account for 33 percent of the 500, while women account for almost a fourth. (Note: my estimates are rough.) Also, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is now No. 1, supplanting the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which trips all the way out of the Top 20 to No. 24; it’s now deemed the third best Beatles album, behind Abbey Road (No. 5) and Revolver (No. 11). To my ears, What’s Going On is a vinyl paradox, forever timeless and timely; it’s never not relevant. I consider it one of the greatest albums of all time, so have no issues with its placement.

I also have no major issues with the overall order. These lists are not of “all time,” but of their time; they reflect the zeitgeist of the moment, and that moment is generally set by those younger than me. That said, the list is an ethnocentric enterprise, with its selections limited to albums that impacted U.S. music fans. For example, unless I missed one or both, the Jam and Paul Weller are MIA despite their success and influence in the U.K.; and the Stone Roses’ stellar debut, which routinely places at or near the top of U.K. best-album lists, ranks No. 319 here. The results also skew heavily towards Baby Boomer favorites, with 46 percent of the 500 hailing from the 1960s and ‘70s (less than in 2003, but still a lot), but that shouldn’t be a surprise – that’s when the album as an art form was at its zenith (now, too often, it’s little more than Spotify fodder). Also, I’d wager many of those polled first heard them (or songs from them) while driving with their parents, so there’s a nostalgia factor involved, too.

I do find the inclusion of recent albums to be annoying. As I explained in my post on NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums by Women list, the main reason for excluding a recent album is that “we don’t know whether it will, as most great albums do, grow stronger through the years or fall from favor.” It’s the difference between infatuation and love.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Albums AWOL from Rolling Stone’s Top 500. They’re all past “essential” picks of mine; I’m listing them in alphabetical order. I should note that they hail from my personal Top 25 Albums off All Time list, where they share space with several hundred other albums. (As I joke somewhere, there are a lot of ties.) Also, they all hail from the 1980s, as the decade gets short-shrift in the countdown…

1) The Bangles – All Over the Place (1984). The Bangles rose from the ranks of the Paisley Underground to score some big hits by mid-decade, yet they’re routinely overlooked in these sorts of overviews. But, as their full-length debut ably demonstrates, they were nothing short of wondrous.

2) The Jam – Snap! (1983). I find the inclusion of compilations somewhat suspect on a list of all-time greatest albums, but if those are the rules of the road, then Snap! deserves inclusion. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest best-of compilations of all time.

3) Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’N Roll (1981). As I say in my recap, “The pages of history textbooks are filled will legions of folks who shaped the world, but – academia being what it is – many important people receive cursory mentions or none at all. Like Joan Jett.” In short, she turned the world on with her guitar.

4) The Long Ryders – State of Our Union (1985). The Long Ryders never got their just due in the U.S., yet are a crucial link in the Americana timeline, one bridge (of several) between Gram and Uncle Tupelo. As I note in my piece, this album “integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck.”

5) Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing (1987). Tracy Chapman’s debut is rightfully in the Top 500, though arguably too low at No. 286, but the artists who set the stage for that album’s mega-success during the “hair metal late eighties” (as RS stereotypes it) aren’t included. Suzanne Vega’s first two LPs were integral albums that helped shape the soundscape of the mid- and late ‘80s. This, her sophomore set, reached No. 11 on the album charts; and the single “Luka” reached No. 3. It’s a perfect album.

Friday morning, I tapped play on Suzanne Vega’s An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, which captures a New York-themed concert at the legendary Café Carlyle, a small club inside a ritzy residential hotel located on the Upper East Side, the Hotel Carlyle. Accompanied by guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist Jeff Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards, she leads an aural tour of the Big Apple that provides insights into lives large and small, from icons Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to a little boy named Luka.

Recorded on March 14, 2019, the 16-song set is essentially a collection of poetic and provocative spacetime soliloquies with melodies that are equally evocative and strong. The songs are imbued with a sense of place, in other words, as well as of the characters who populate it. “New York Is My Destination,” which she wrote for her one-woman play based on the life of writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967), is a great example:

The show mixes her best-known numbers with lesser-known album tracks, and features a tribute to an artist who changed her life when, at age 19, she saw him in concert – her first live show, no less – at Columbia University, Lou Reed. In the introduction, she explains that he “really turned things around for me in terms of songwriting and songs and rock ’n’ roll. I mean, that show really showed me what rock ’n’ roll was.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, she expanded on that intro: “[E]ncountering his music changed my way of writing songs. Suddenly I knew I had complete freedom as a songwriter and nothing was forbidden.” I hear another influence beyond subject matter: the specificity of her lyrics. Like Reed, she delivers deft portraits and scenes by honing in on minute details that speak volumes, and often does so with a journalist’s reserve. “Tom’s Diner,” delivered here in an arrangement reminiscent of the remixed DNA rendition, is a case in point.

“Anniversary,” which she wrote a year after 9/11, is another example; her restraint feeds the song’s strength. As it happened, it began to play just about the time I left home on 9/11 itself, which is when I learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “Thick with ghosts, the wind whips round in circuitries/Carrying words as strangers exchange pleasantries/Do they intrude upon your private reveries?” left me slack-jawed. Life may move on, but the souls of the departed are with us, still.

(The above performance, by the way, isn’t from this album, but from last week; she uploaded it to YouTube on Friday – the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.) 

In any event, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories is a strong career summary of an oft-overlooked trailblazer; Vega, as I’ve noted before, was instrumental in the resurgence of folk-flavored music in the 1980s, a time when it seemed to have lost an audience, and then helped forge a new path in the ’90s with an electronica-folk hybrid. If you’re unfamiliar with her music, the album is an excellent entry point; if, on the other hand, you’re well versed on all things Suzanne, you’ll want to listen to it a few dozen times, if not more. It’s a sterling set.    

Earlier this week I found myself glued to an episode of CNN’s The Eighties. For those unaware of the historical documentary series about the 1980s, each installment surveys one topic. The first episode, for example, is titled Raised on Television and navigates the decade’s TV landscape; the second episode, The Reagan Revolution, recalls Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The episode I caught, titled Video Killed the Radio Star (after the Buggles song), dove deep into the era’s music.

The hour-long survey, which is probably closer to 40 minutes once the commercials are stripped out, nailed most of the decade’s most important events and artists. MTV. Duran Duran. The Go-Go’s. Thriller. Born in the USA. Madonna. Purple Rain. Live Aid. The Bangles. College rock (though I don’t think they used that term). Hip-hop. U2. Heavy metal. The PMRC. But a few important developments and artists were missed.

The resurgence of folk-flavored music in the latter part of the decade was one.

In retrospect, the Fast Folk anthology/magazine series set the stage and gave a platform to many up-and-coming singer-songwriters, even if most music fans never heard of it. (I did due to spinning folk records on Penn State’s student-run radio station at the time, WPSU.) Of the new artists it featured, perhaps the most important was Suzanne Vega, whose self-titled 1985 solo debut was and remains a landmark album. Although it sold modestly, it demonstrated that there was a market for literate lyrics coupled to stirring melodies.

One highlight: “Marlene on the Wall.” (To quote my wife just now, “I love this song.”)

Vega’s 1987 sophomore set, Solitude Standing, equaled the debut in artistic quality and did even better sales-wise, with the single “Luka” surprisingly making it to No. 3 on the pop charts. A few months later, the folk-rock sounds of 10,000 Maniacs bubbled to the fore: “Peace Train,” “Like the Weather” and “What’s the Matter Here?” from In My Tribe all found a home on MTV and college-rock radio. A year later, Tracy Chapman’s brilliant debut smashed even more barriers. In time, the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and dozens of others followed. I’m leaving many artists out of the mix, obviously. The “folkabilly” stylings of Nanci Griffith predated Vega’s urban-centric debut, and are – artistically – as important. Later in the decade, James McMurtry gave a new face to Texas troubadours; and, somewhere in there, the Washington Squares put a delightful ‘80s spin on folk trios.

But Vega’s 1985 debut was the foot-in-the-door for all of the folk-flavored artists who followed. In a better world, it would be as celebrated as, say, Madonna’s Borderline or U2’s Boy, as – like those albums – it helped shift the established musical paradigm. Her lyrics are true poems set to song, forever eschewing generalities for specifics, and her melodies mesmerize.

Going back to my radio days: I often played two back-to-back tracks on this album for no other reason than they were among my favorites of the time: “Some Journey” and “The Queen and the Soldier.” Like many of her songs, they are simultaneously passionate and dispassionate. They’re true works of art. 

Another highlight hints at the rhythmic wonders Vega would more fully explore in 99.9F°: “Neighborhood Girls.”

Few works of art, in and of themselves, upend the established order of things. They are part and parcel of a larger scene, and it’s that totality that overthrows the status quo and ushers in a new age. So, rather than share a hyperbolic claim about its importance, I’ll say that Suzanne Vega’s solo debut helped re-focus the landscape away from synth-driven dirges and ponderous power ballads and to the power inherent in quiet tunes. It, along with Solitude Standing, In My Tribe and Tracy Chapman’s debut, paved the way for the generations of folk-flavored singer-songwriters since. 

If you’ve never heard it, seek it out. And if you have? Play it again.

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Released on April 1st, 1987, Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, is a near-perfect gem that time has yet to – and will likely never – tarnish. Its poetic power is matched by mesmerizing melodies with perfect arrangements. 

The opener, “Tom’s Diner,” is one highlight.

The first time I heard the song wasn’t on the album, however, but via a Fast Folk LP a year or two earlier while deejaying the Folk Show on WPSU. It’s a different recording, but still a cappella, and still a richly detailed portrait of an everyday occurrence – catching coffee inside a diner before heading to work. “There’s a woman/on the outside/looking inside/does she see me?/No she does not/really see me/cause she sees her own refection.” It captures humanity at its essence.

The song became an unlikely hit a few years later after two British deejays added a Soul II Soul beat to an unauthorized remix that Vega’s record company then embraced and officially released.

The remix isn’t on the original album, however. Instead, the LP continues in the vein of the original “Tom’s Diner,” featuring a succession of vivid pictures of life internal and external. One of the most memorable is “Luka,” which reached No. 3 on the pop charts – a true surprise given its subject matter. She based it, she’s said, on a real little boy she knew, though she doubts he was abused. (And here’s some trivia: Shawn Colvin provides backing vocals on the song.)

The title tune is another brilliant turn, with Vega’s poetic lyrics equaled by the deft backing of her band, who – as with many of the album’s other songs – are credited as co-writers. (Side note: I never knew there was a video for the song until this morning. It’s quite cool.)

Along with offerings by Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs, the album helped spur the folk-rock/urban folk/singer-songwriter resurgence of the late ‘80s and early ’90s.

“Night Vision” is another favorite:

The track listing: