Nowadays, there seems to be more music available and fewer curated places to look for what’s out there. I admit I’m not one who tries to keep up with the times, perhaps because I’ve lived in places where the radio didn’t help me through the rough stuff, perhaps because I got so caught up in the older records around the house. That said, on the rare occasion that I’m purposefully looking out for what’s new, I can’t do better than to ask a person. For me, it’s still the best and most influential way to find good music: to get it from someone else’s playlist, from the selection of a fellow human’s hand. So I’m honored, though somewhat perturbed, by having this responsibility in my lap this time. Hopefully, I can try to give back some of what I got over the years. —Madeleine Peyroux
Willie Nelson, “Crazy” from: …And Then I Wrote
How does Willie Nelson sing? Is he possessed by some sixth sense, something or someone that speaks with melody in every breath? I could listen to just Willie’s voice forever, I think. Ironically, it doesn’t matter what song it is. His own compositions are wonderful, such as this classic doozy that brought Patsy Cline into mainstream limelight, the lyrics of which make as much a winning case for minimalism as his vocal style. He might also be a good example of how a singer writes with their own voice in mind, though I doubt he’d admit to it. When I listen to him I feel a rare sort of calm, self-awareness and a simultaneous drenching in melody. That would be the kind of monk I’d like to be when I grow up: one who is silenced by the simple power of Willie’s voice.
Chet Baker, “Do It The Hard Way” from: It Could Happen To You
Another “artiste” who might be lost in some historical lexicon. Chet Baker’s sound is deceptively simple, but every note and every phrase is concisely put together. It is sensual and “cool,” yes, but that is only a small part of the story. Like all masters, his sound lingers on the melody, and his phrasing gives us a character with a background. I think we know who this person is when he is singing, unlike his public persona, which was under the radar and eventually tragic. Another wonderful, swooning, lesser-known track of his is “While My Lady Sleeps.” He’s that calming sound that comes off the waves at dusk, when the day’s work is done and all’s right with the world. A good friend to have, indeed.
Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows” from: I’m Your Man
Well, there are just too many great Leonard Cohen songs to mention. And for the record, pun intended, I think his own versions are stunning, and often better than others’ covers, including my own cover of his song “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” Perhaps some of Cohen’s songs are just too powerful to be pegged by any artist, like “Hallelujah,” which has been so often and so well-covered, perhaps best by the late, great Jeff Buckley. But I chose “Everybody Knows” because I’m not sure anyone else could ever really do it justice. Perhaps one of the old bass singers like Hoppy Jones of the Ink Spots or soul man Isaac Hayes could really strut around those lyrics. But Leonard does it righteously, and the song carries our Western political story across in my favorite way. It’s not outraged at the reality of corruption in the world, as if that were news, and it’s not preachy. It’s pensive, wise and willing to face the news. Literally.
Bob Dylan, “Lay, Lady, Lay” from: Nashville Skyline
Probably like many of us, I’ve lived through different periods of my life alongside different periods of Bob Dylan. Willing to change and grow, perhaps like Picasso, he might be one of the few songwriters and performers who has defined so much for so long and so many. I’m from a later generation, so I discovered his different periods totally anachronistically, but all the more fun because I was discovering something by myself, whether it had already taken the world by storm. This song is one of the very first. My first gift of Dylan on LP was the Biograph set, and this was the first song out of the box. I was 13 years old and had just moved to a foreign country, a suburb of Paris. Men ogled me and other girls my age more openly than they had at home in the states (or so it seemed). And I had seen some horrible mistreatment of my mother by men by that time. So I wasn’t interested in a seductive male voice telling a woman what to do. I was against anything like it. Yet, here is this song and this singer, carrying a masculine message to a woman in his voice without the meanness, the arrogance, the violence that seemed to pervade the male culture around me. It might seem odd to hear me say it, but it was kind of like hope. Now, decades have passed. I’ve been through my first love with many other Dylan records, the bootleg tapes, his 21st century songs and a few incarnations of trying to cover them myself. I just want to say that that message of hope, albeit with a lot of work on my end of the deal, did not disappoint.
Serge Gainsbourg And Brigitte Bardot, “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” from: single
So there are two versions of this song with Serge Gainsbourg. The first, with Brigitte Bardot, was not released for 20 years after it was recorded in 1967. The second was released in 1968 with Jane Birkin, Serge’s longtime partner, and caused a lot of scandal, and it is the most well-known. It’s an essential song on the list for feminists. How do we defy the sexualization of women all around us and still free ourselves from the bondage of puritanism? How do we begin to talk about sex without losing sight of romance and love? And how do we assert our romantic freedom? Well, when you listen to this, you think—I guess we’re working on it! And I want to be clear on a distinction: Talking about something is a part of dealing with it. So when Bessie Smith says, “He knocked me with a rocking chair … that’s just a little love lick dear, ” or Billie Holiday says, “He beats me too, what can I do,” or Jane Birkin utters “oohs” and “aahs” in the octave range of an altar boy as Gainsbourg makes love to her on tape, we are seeing something important take place. We are getting a glimpse at what’s usually behind closed doors, and we’re talking about it in public. Aren’t we getting exactly what we need from these artists? The truth? As a side note, the version with Bardot has something more thoughtful in the arrangement with its heavenly church-organ sound, which sends an even stronger message about the whole concept of love being divine and sacred.
Bessie Smith, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from: Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Oh, my honey! Oh, my honey! Yeah, this had to have been exciting way back in 1920-something when she covered this Irving Berlin tune. She’s called the Empress. Why? I really don’t think it’s just about the blues at all. It’s about something human, something complete in its essence from her. If you can’t hear the magic through the cloudy recording quality, try to picture her presence in the appropriate setting a little bit. Can you imagine a performer today who walks a member of the audience up onto the stage by staring into their eyes? She did that. Do you know of a performer who owns (not rents) a private plane? She owned a train. She was as technically versatile as Whitney Houston (one of the best singers of all time), as soulful as Aretha Franklin (need I qualify?), as dramatically powerful as Billie Holiday and as musical as Louie Armstrong. It’s a shame when we relegate her work to the old catalog of race records in a country where we are starving for American culture on a daily basis.
Joe Cocker, “Delta Lady” from: Mad Dogs & Englishmen
To me, it’s a symphony. Probably much of that is Leon Russell’s brilliance. I just don’t think we hear a band with vocalists, groove and rock energy like this anywhere. This record is so feel-good, I often wondered how it was done. So when I learned it was a last-minute thing, I found it very interesting. You can’t think about what you’re doing too much before you go introspective. Not to say that you can’t be introspective and think about what you’re going to do in preparation. But once you’re doing it, I think you have to be completely freed of purpose and just enjoy yourself. And that’s what I feel when I listen to this, so I’m guessing that’s what these amazing musicians were doing, and doing it all together at once!
J.J. Cale, “After Midnight” from: Naturally
So who is J.J. Cale really? I mean, is anyone really this cool? I believe so. I think he can be that cool because he’s doing everything for the right reasons. It feels like the intention is everything in this music. Even the intentions he masterfully keeps mysterious. When he sings this song, is he singlehandedly seducing every single woman in the world on purpose, or was it just a careless whisper to his own true love? Either way, I couldn’t imagine wanting to play guitar the way I want to now without hearing J.J. Cale—he’s defined so much in so little time and with what seems like so little effort. And I just like to hear that again and again!
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” from: Lady Sings The Blues
I was invited to sing as a guest in a large group of American jazz musicians for a Billie Holiday tribute concert a few years ago in Brazil, as part of a festival that takes place in a mining town deep in the mountains, Ouro Preto, which means “black gold,” a former center for the Brazilian gold rush and, consequently, African slave labor. Naturally, several of Billie’s most well-known tunes were suggested and arranged before rehearsal, including “Strange Fruit,” an important part of Billie’s work. When the charts were passed out, one of the musicians cracked a joke about the title, which caused a few of us to gasp and stare, to which was the reply, “Sorry, I don’t know what this song is.” Out of the following pause, another person exclaimed, “Let’s not do this song.” So a fluent and accomplished jazz musician of my generation was ignorant of a milestone like this one. Up to a point, I wouldn’t blame someone for being ignorant. but I assume that that person is wiser now. We didn’t do it at that festival, and I haven’t heard it covered much. When Billie performed this tune on live television in 1957, she was being harangued by the FBI’s soldiers in the war on drugs, and she would soon be arrested while in hospital just before her untimely death in 1959, 20 years after she first recorded the song, which some believe started the FBI’s agenda against her. That TV performance must be the greatest performance of the song available to us now. Billie Holiday has been called a tragic figure for so long. But look at what she accomplished for the rest of us to savor—racial integration on the bandstand, open discussion of lynching and domestic violence, and iconic musical creativity that influences generations. It’s beyond triumphant and anything but tragic.
Joni Mitchell, “The Fiddle And The Drum” from: Clouds
Joni is another giant songwriter whose repertoire has defined decades of many of our lives in the states. And I don’t say that to distract from her prowess as a vocalist. She flutters over one hurdle to another like a hummingbird, through several registers, always in view of that sweet nectar, phrasing. I chose this song because it is relatively less known these days, (I just discovered it myself) but stands the test of the classics. For all she has given us over the years, from the sound of her voice, to the immense landscape of her ideas, to the strange and perfect guitar voicings underneath it all, there is no one place to focus ourselves on her. But this song, in part due to its being a cappella, but also because it is the most humble of stories, has the most naked approach that I’ve heard thus far.