Thumbnail photo by Ryan Jay.
Seven Decades. Seven Songs.
You knew Stevie Wonder was coming.
1920-50's: "Me and the Devil Blues" by Robert Johnson (1937)
Released in 1961, this song was originally recorded in 1937 by one of the most influential bluesmen to ever pick up a guitar. Robert Johnson was among the first musicians to be accused of selling his soul to the devil, and this record definitely didn't help in the slightest.The lyrics are darker than dark, with Johnson starting off his day with Satan at his door.
Having lost his wife to childbirth, Johnson became a nomadic musician roaming from street corner to juke joint in the south. He never gained much fame in his life, and the hardships he faced were reflected in his lyrics. What strikes me most about this song is how casual he sounds, this obviously wasn't his first walk with the devil.
1960's: "Sinnerman" by Nina Simone (1965)
The High Priestess of Soul sings of Armageddon on this 10-minute epic, recorded live in 1965. Nina's driving voice tells a tale akin to the book of Revelation and the churning bass and drums help convey the urgency of her words. When the track breaks down into a chorus of handclaps Simone plays a solo that's ragged and imperfect, fitting the pleading verses.
Near the end of the track, as done in so many Simone performances, the band drops out and let her do her thing. You can hear the years in church pews and the time spent at Julliard in equal measure as she shows off her impeccable technique, both learned and innate. Quite honestly the end times probably won't sound this good, but who can fault Simone for making beauty out of it?
1970's: "Slippin' Into Darkness" by War (1971)
The diverse, flexible funk band from California were looking at a world that seemed increasingly dark. The early 70's were a time where the illusion of American exceptionalism and honesty seemed to dissipate faster than you could say "Pentagon Papers". The slow-burning start to the track sounds like a Wednesday night prayer meeting, with voices rising and falling, begging for better days to come.
War sing about "darkness" on the track without ever specifying what that "darkness" is. It could be anything from depression to poverty, but the ambiguity allows the listener to fill in the blanks for themselves. That might be the darkest part.
1980's: "Overjoyed" by Stevie Wonder
My introduction to Stevie Wonder was in middle school through The Definitive Collection, so I wasn't well educated on the different eras of his career. While In Square Circle is one of the best albums outside of his classic period, to me "Overjoyed" was just another song on a compilation album. I remember being in awe of the strings on the track, to me they sounded like they belonged on a movie soundtrack.
Once I got a little older and started (really) listening to the lyrics, it dawned on me that this was one of the most romantic songs I had ever heard. It sounds like everything the movies tell you that love should be, so I had no business putting it on replay in 7th grade. However, I can't say I regret it.
1990's: "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" by Missy Elliot (1997)
An iconic music video aside, have you really listened to this song? Like, sat down and closed your eyes and just listened to it? For as great as the video is, I feel like it distracted from the absolutely insane beat that only Timbaland could think of.
The pizzicato string plucks (from a great sample) don't sound like they should fit at all, there's various filter sweeps through the song, thunder, and crickets chirping through the WHOLE song. I wish I was a fly on the wall when Missy first heard this beat. Honestly, who knows how she turned this into a classic? I'm just glad she did.
2000's: "This Just In" by Peven Everett (2006)
Peven Everett is a truly special talent, who's an expert on trumpet and piano as well as a superb vocalist. Educated at Berklee College of Music, Everett's played with jazz legends like Betty Carter and the Marsalis brothers. In an uncommon switch, he became known for his vocals on house tracks, like the timeless "Gabrielle" by Roy Davis Jr. More recently he was featured on the last Gorillaz album, performing with the group as well.
On this solo cut, Everett opens up a world completely of his own, bathing the listener in undiluted soul. While the background vocals are amazing through the whole track, around 3:25 Everett hits some short sweet notes that made my soul leave my body. The vocal control needed to make such brief notes so distinct and crisp is immense. Plain and simple, Everett is a master at work.
2010's: "Look Mama I Made It" by Injury Reserve (2016)
Arizona rap trio Injury Reserve are killing the underground right now, and they might not be underground for much longer. Their full-length debut Floss was well reviewed and catapulted them to a new prominence. But honestly, I don't care about all that...do you hear that sample?
That's a John P. Kee song, and a classic at that. This song was an integral part of my childhood, it's prime church cookout music. Imagine my surprise when I first heard it flipped like this. While the beat is hard, the bars are even harder. It's peak motivation music, hype but personal enough to relate to. You're doing yourself a disservice if you skip over this song.