Friday, June 4, 2010

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 1

A few years ago, I was visiting my sister and listening to some music. As you may have read before, I use a random playlist on my iPod, one that excludes songs that have played in the previous four months. Out popped 'Angola' by Ambrosia, a song I had discovered in the early 2000s when I was filling out my music collection. I was surprised that I could go four months without listening to such a wonderful song. I played a little of it for my sister and regaled her in tales of Ambrosia and its main voice, David Pack. From that conversation sprang an idea for a CD.

My sister's main musical tastes were rather narrow - she was all about Elton John in high school and college, then slid over to country as an adult. There are thousands of hours of great music that she has not been exposed to. I decided to put together 75 minutes of good tunes that she hadn't heard but that might appreciate. Thus was born The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 1. The songs are in no particular order and not necessarily the best selection for each artist, but my target listener was a 50-year-old woman from rural Minnesota. It's just a good sample of the wonderfulness of music that is out there.

Update 11/9/11: When you're done here, be sure to click over to Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Ambrosia - Angola (1978)

Ambrosia started the 70s as an experimental rock band but finished a little more conventionally. You've certainly heard their hits 'Holding on to Yesterday' (1975), 'How Much I Feel' (1978), and 'You're the Only Woman' (1980). These songs were written and sung by David Pack, whom you'll hear more about in later entries.

'Angola' is a peppy song, set in the eponymous African country, which, in 1975, was populated mostly by subsistence farmers. The singer, perhaps an American ex-pat, reads the newspaper and finds it amusing to read about people upset about a recession when people in Angola seem happy with minimal creature comforts ("What you call poor, we call prosperity").

After the second verse, lead singer Joe Puerta's perfectly adequate vocals get a harmony accompaniment by Pack's creamy smooth, high register voice (How do you describe David Pack's voice? How do you describe a sunset?) which takes a perfectly good song and turns it into a phenomenally good song.

Kim Wilde - Four Letter Word (1988)

Kim Wilde was a fairly big deal on the other side of the pond in the 80s but only had two hits in the States: 'Kids in America' (1981) and 'You Keep Me Hanging On' (1987). Wilde's voice is kind of weak, even frail, which sounds odd to the American ear, but that trait worked perfectly with the style and content of this particular song, a plaintive up-tempo ballad, making the result somewhat transcendant. In case you're wondering, the four letter word she sings about is, of course, "love."

Steve Winwood - Valerie (1982)

This list was also influenced by a conversation I had with a co-worker, about the same time as my visit to my sister. She mentioned that she had taken a call from a client named Valerie and I off-handedly mentioned that I had two really good songs in my collection named 'Valerie.' I decided to kill two birds with one CD, and share The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 1 with my co-worker, and include both 'Valeries' from my collection.

This version is from Steve Winwood's album Arc of a Diver, which produced the hit 'While You See a Chance.' Winwood gets a little funky here. His signature synth is all over this song and 'Valerie' showcases his high register voice nicely.

Quarterflash - Valerie (1981)

The other 'Valerie' on this list. Quarterflash is often called a one-hit wonder but they had three Top 40 hits and released four wonderful albums. Bandleaders Marv and Rindy Ross are still working today, releasing a CD together in 2008.

Quarterflash's 'Valerie' is no simple song. At first glance it sounds like a college-lesbian experience, but in the third verse, the singer says that Valerie hangs in the student gallery, ala a portrait? I've never put my finger on the true meaning; I just like the song.

Susan Tedeschi - Alone (2002)

Susan Tedeschi is kind of like a female David Pack, with a beautiful, distinctive voice. 'Alone' is a soulful, hopeful pop song - complete with horns - featuring incredibly smooth, powerful vocals. Her normal style is the Blues and she does them well, but with 'Alone,' she's playing above her normal level.

Debbie Gibson - Think with Your Heart (1995)

Debbie Gibson had her biggest success before she was old enough to vote. Maybe because of her bubblegum princess image, she received no attention from the music-loving public after 1991. Shame. I have all of her albums and while I may quibble over some of her song choices and even her musical direction, I will never say anything bad about her voice. 'Think with Your Heart' is maybe the best example of Debbie's great voice. A simple piano ballad with strings, this song rates among the best songs ever recorded.

The Derek Trucks Band - I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free) (2006)

I slept late on March 25, 2006. 7:46AM on a Saturday is late for me. When I got up, I walked through the kitchen and turned on the radio. I listen exclusively to National Public Radio's morning programs, which usually consist of newsmakers being interviewed by deep voiced, serious journalists. Stereotype aside, what came out of my radio that morning was anything but a stolid interview. My speakers erupted with a screaming slide guitar solo that went on for a good minute, then more of a song, the likes of which I had never heard before.

'I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free)' is pretty much a negro spiritual (is that still a term I'm allowed to use?), but was written in 1967. The DTB version adds a powerful blues style to the spirituality and rocks out.

Not all of The Derek Trucks Band's music is to my taste but 'I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free)' certainly is. I now have five different versions by DTB in my collection, including the NPR version that ripped up my speakers on that fateful day in 2006.

Deadstar - Run Baby Run (1999)

Deadstar is an Australian band that had modest, if any, success in their homeland and almost zero in the States. This song came to my attention on the soundtrack of Drive Me Crazy in 1999. Deadstar's lead singer has a very sweet voice, and 'Run Baby Run' is a gentle, even soothing ballad.

Gjallarhorn - Goddess of Spring (2000)

I accidentally discovered Gjallarhorn one day in 2001 when KTCA ran a live performance of 'Goddess of Spring' between requests for money. Gjallarhorn is a band from Finland that sings in Swedish and plays in a traditional folk style. 'Goddess of Spring' is a an uptempo song that blends traditional with amplified instruments and I swear there is an Australian didgeridoo in the mix as well. A very pleasing song, even if I can't understand a word they're saying.

David Pack - Tell Her Goodbye (2005)

Chronologically, I've gotten out of order, because David Pack will appear later with an older song but if you're listening to the CD, the music flows well with this order.

David Pack is an amazing singer. I could just stop there, but... 'Tell Her Goodbye,' from his first complete album in twenty years, is a marvel. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and bass, Pack sings a song with roots in the blues but fits into what some people might call the Smooth Jazz category. Harmonies - fantastic harmonies - are provided by Dewey Bunnell, late of the band America.

Pack's 2005 album The Secret of Moving On is wonderful as a whole; I just wish he'd put albums out more than once every twenty years.

Jim Capaldi - That's Love (1983)

Jim Capaldi did some good group work in the 60s with Traffic and tried for a solo career in the 70s. He never really took off but put out some good material nonetheless. He almost hit it big in 1976 with an up-tempo, happy version of 'Love Hurts,' but had the misfortune of releasing it the same time that Nazareth released their downbeat, power-ballad version.

'That's Love' is your basic Top 40 pop song, with a clean arrangement and good hooks. Steve Winwood plays keyboards. It is, in my opinion, Capaldi's best solo song.

Rush - Spirit of the Radio (1978)

Once again, I remind you that this list was originally prepared for someone who hasn't listened to rock radio since the 70s and whose interest in rock began and ended with Elton John. This staple of AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio is a staple for a reason. It's melodically creative, has great hooks, Geddy Lee's extremely powerful, extremely high voice, and lyrics that say something. The commercialization of radio has only gotten worse since Rush recorded this song over 30 years ago.

Rush is an acquired taste so even if you listen to this song a few times it may not grab you. But if you're looking for a kick ass rock song, 'Spirit of the Radio' should get you.

Oh, about the name. It is officially 'The Spirit of Radio,' but back in my musically formative years, I never heard anyone - DJ, friend, stranger - say the title in the right order. I don't think the title is ever mentioned in the lyrics, so for me, and maybe everyone from Southwestern Minnesota, it will always be 'Spirit of the Radio.'

Benjamin Orr - This Time Around (1986)

Ben Orr was one of two singers for The Cars. It's his voice on the hits 'Just What I Needed' and 'Let's Go.' He released his only solo album, The Lace, the year after the monster success of The Cars album Heartbeat City, which included Orr singing the number 1 hit 'Drive.'

Benjamin Orr's solo style was tamer than the new wave-influenced Cars, more conventional pop. You may have heard The Lace's top 10 hit 'Stay the Night.' My favorite from the album is 'This Time Around,' a gentle pop song sung from the perspective of a guy ready to get things right.

[Update 9/29/10: I just watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High again and was reminded that Benjamin Orr sang lead on The Cars song 'Moving in Stereo.'  It's his voice you hear during the infamous Phoebe Cates bikini scene.]

Bob Welch - Lose Your... + Carolene (1977)

Bob Welch was the singer and guitar player for Fleetwood Mac before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined, so he's not very well known. A lot of his songs tend to sound alike, which is to say the songs feature his voice and guitar and no real frills. This is actually a good thing.

The year that Fleetwood Mac had their unprecedented success with Rumours, Welch released a little album called French Kiss. It had two hits, 'Sentimental Lady' and 'Ebony Eyes.' The remainder of the album was solid, if not terribly innovative. I pick 'Carolene' as the best of the non-hits.

Welch had a small theme in French Kiss. The last song of side one was 'Lose My Heart.' The last song on side two was 'Lose Your Heart.' Wedged in between the other four songs on side two, there was a 42-second teaser called 'Lose Your...' leading into 'Carolene.' Technically, 'Carolene' is a stand-alone song but I can't listen to one without the other.

Charlotte Grace - Picture of You (1998)

Like Deadstar, Charlotte Grace is an Australian who had no success in the States, and whom I found on the Drive Me Crazy soundtrack. I had to buy my copy of this song from a guy in Australia. Worth it. 'Picture of You' is pretty much a perfect song.

David Pack - Anywhere You Go (1985)

This is Pack's third entry on this list, if you include his backing vocals and songwriting on 'Angola.' 'Anywhere You Go' is the title track on Pack's first solo LP. It didn't sell terribly well - I didn't even buy mine at first - I took home a demo copy from the radio station I worked at in 1985 and I haven't stopped listening yet. I've since upgraded to a CD purchased at retail.

'Anywhere You Go' is my favorite song from the album but just barely. It's safe to say this song is a ten while all the other songs are nines.

Pack made a Grammy-winning career out of producing other artists and by listening to the Anywhere You Go album, you'll hear why. The songwriting is top notch, the sound is smooth and the music is played by virtuosos at their peak.

Deborah Gibson - I Can't (1997)

Debbie Gibson couldn't buy a hit in the 1990s or 2000s, but she hit a creative zenith with 1997's Deborah. Ten years after the pop perfection of Out of the Blue, she released an album with soulful maturity. Her songwriting had improved and her production was lush. 'I Can't' was one of maybe three songs that deserved to be hits, but alas, they ended up being some of the best songs you've never heard.

Shannon Curfman - I Don't Make Promises (I Can't Break) (1999)

Shannon Curfman's first album, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions, was released in September, 1999. She received immediate acclaim by blues fans, complimenting the richness of her voice - comparing her to Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow - and her lightning in a bottle guitar playing.

Shannon was born in 1985. The year the album came out was 1999!  Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions was recorded when she was 13; released when she was 14. It sounds, however, from start to finish, like she was a journeyman blues player.

I saw Shannon play 'I Don't Make Promises (I Can't Break)' on a morning news show in 2000 and was blown away by the great music coming out if the teenybopper. I immediately bought the CD and still listen to songs from it as often as possible.

Toto - Rockmaker (1978)

Toto is one of the most amazing bands in music history. Saleswise, they peaked with 1982's Grammy winner for Album of the Year, Toto IV, and Song of the Year, 'Rosanna.' However, they put out consistently good music until they dissolved the band last year.

Toto's first album produced the classic rock hit 'Hold the Line,' which deservedly gets a lot of attention, but 'Rockmaker' was really the sign of Toto to come. Great songwriting, smooth vocals and the balance of Jeff Porcaro's drums, David Paich's keyboards and Steve Lukather's guitars. That formula produced dozens of great songs for Toto over the years.

[Update 9/28/10: I see the potential for confusion about the lead singers of Toto.  They've had, by my count, 10 lead singers on their 14 albums, usually 3-4 singers per album.  The lead singer of 'Rockmaker' is David Paich.  He was also the singer on Toto's megahit 'Africa.'  He is not the lead singer on the familiar hits 'Hold the Line,' 'Rosanna,' 'I'll Be Over You' or '99.'

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volumes 2 and 3 are ready to go, but neither of the recipients of Volume 1 has asked for them. I'll post the song lists for Volumes 2 and 3 sometime in the near future. If you want to hear The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 1 and actually know me, I'll be happy to share a CD with you. Just ask.


  1. Very cool stuff, i'll be sure to check out the ones i don't know... I'm a big Quarterflash fan, and love the Valerie song (and Steve Winwood's too, though his was a hit to some extent)... I have always thought of that angle (the best songs nobody have heard). I have over 4200 songs on my iPod now, after having converted all my cassettes (and many vinyl), to CD, and i often think how many 'great songs' that people haven't heard maybe ever, shuffle in and out for me... Here's my e-mail (, if you want some of my choices...