Welcome to The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 2. Much like volume 1, I made this list for my sister, a - ahem - middle-aged woman from rural Minnesota whose musical horizons have been somewhat limited. When I say "you've never heard," I'm literally speaking to her. That becomes very relevant in the description for 'Amy's Song,' six titles in. The more worldly of you may have heard a few of these tunes but generally, they are underappreciated. I guarantee that even the most ravenous musicvore hasn't heard a few of these babies.
In The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 1, I mentioned that my sister had not asked for Volume 2. Perhaps technically true, I now recall (with the help of an e-mail trail) that I burned the CD, gave it to her and then forgot about it. I'll have to ask if she's ever listened to it. I know she's been awfully busy every single minute since the Summer of 2007 and may not yet have had a chance.
For the rest of you, I recognize the futility of describing music with only words, but it's all I have. I looked for a widget that would allow me to play samples for you inside the blog but Blogspot doesn't have one. As with volume 1, if I know you personally, I'll be happy to burn a CD for you. Otherwise, use the internet or visit a record store. One or more of these songs could change your life.
Update 11/9/11: When you're done here, be sure to click over to Volume 3.
Deborah Gibson - Butterflies Are Free (1997)
writer: Deborah Gibson
Debbie Gibson had two songs on The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Vol 1. 'Butterflies Are Free' is different enough from the other two that I thought it deserved a slot on Volume 2.
Can Debbie Gibson give us an anthem? Maybe. 'Butterflies' is a love song of sorts, maybe an ode, which starts slowly, almost hesitantly, then builds in mood, volume and intensity. When the choral background singers break out in the final minute, the effect is like a church song where the entire congregation joins in singing along. Not my church, but one of those you've seen on TV.
Marshall Crenshaw - Someday, Someway (1982)
writer: Marshall Crenshaw
album: Marshall Crenshaw
Marshall Crenshaw is hardly a secret but his music is rarely played on the radio. From his first album, 'Someday, Someway' gives us a simple guitar-bass-drums arrangement and impossibly perfect lyrics.
Christopher Cross - Poor Shirley (1979)
writer: Christopher Cross
album: Christopher Cross
Everyone knows Christopher Cross, whether they want to go 'Sailing,' have to 'Ride Like the Wind,' or they get caught between the moon and New York City. From his debut album, 'Poor Shirley' is a catchy tune that might be considered filler compared to the hits, but it's really good in its own right and, as this list was prepared with my sister in mind and her mother's name is Shirley, it's kind of an in-joke, as well as one of the best songs you've never heard. Hi, Mom!
Quarterflash - Love Should Be So Kind (1981)
writer: Marv Ross
Given that Quarterflash - the inspiration for my blog's URL - is considered, by the few people who consider them, to be a sax- and guitar-based pop band, I selected this ballad from their debut album to show Rindy Ross' great singing. It's a slow, achy ballad that is ultimately hopeful.
If you listen to the album in order, this slow, calm ballad leads into an eight-minute, sax-laden rocker ('Williams Avenue') that closes the album. It's as if Marv Ross wanted to slow you down for the penultimate song then whack you upside the ears for the finale. It works.
Kylie Minogue - My Secret Heart (1989)
writer: Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, Pete Waterman
album: Enjoy Yourself
Kylie and I go way back, to an Australian TV show produced in 1985 and imported to our shores by a cable channel a year later. Although she's not entirely life size, I was drawn to her, what with her exotic look and accent - as you know, Australian women have the world's sexiest accent. I did my research on her, which wasn't easy, as search engines in 1987 consisted of index cards and magazine racks at the library.
When Kylie's first single, 'I Should be So Lucky,' arrived at the radio station, I was the only person who knew who she was and how to pronounce her name. Her music is quite subjective, quality never having been a consideration for the Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory, but I liked her first two albums nonetheless. From the second side of her second album, Enjoy Yourself, comes 'My Secret Heart.' It's a mid-tempo pop song told from the perspective of a woman in love with a guy she's never met. I find it refreshing - even after hundreds of listens - to hear such a messed up viewpoint presented in a wall-of-sound mainstream pop song.
Chris Denardo - Amy's Song (2000)
writer: Chris Denardo
You won't find singer/songwriter Chris Denardo anywhere on the internet - he's not a professional musician. He's the husband of my former co-worker Amy Melberg, and he wrote and recorded this song when he was a-courtin' Amy back in the 1990s. While at work in 2006 or so, Amy mentioned that she had a cassette of songs that her husband recorded, was trying to digitize them and was failing miserably. I took the cassette home for lunch and returned with a CD for her in less than an hour. Don't mess with my skills, dude.
Dave Mason - Taking the Time to Find (1977)
writer: Dave Mason
album: Let it Flow
Dave Mason is a great songwriter ('Feeling Alright,' 'Only You Know and I Know'), was a member of Traffic, and was a good friend of Jimi Hendrix but never really hit it big as a solo artist. In 1977, I heard a new single of his on the radio, 'So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away),' from the album Let it Flow. When I saw the album at my local store for $3.99, I grabbed it right away (LPs generally cost $5.99 back then). 'So High' didn't get very high in the top 40, but the album is full of great songs.
I considered one of those songs to be kinda weak: 'We Just Disagree.' It was in a different style than the rest of the album, it wasn't written by Mason, it just seemed odd. So when I heard it on the top 40 a few months later, I was surprised. I wondered why they didn't release one of the good songs as a single. Well, I will defer to the judgment of history and 'We Just Disagree' becoming Mason's biggest hit. I like the song just fine but I assure you it is the weakest song on the album (or close to it).
One of the better songs is 'Taking the Time to Find.' It's a straight-forward pop song that starts with with a simple bass-solo intro followed by a scorching guitar riff that I can only describe as circular. Mason's distinctive voice carries us through two verses and two choruses, then a longer guitar solo using the same circular riff. It's magical. Considering what we were listening to in 1977, I can't comprehend why 'Taking the Time to Find' wasn't the biggest song of the year. Instead, it was never even released as a single. That's why it's one of the best songs you've never heard.
Toto - Holyanna (1984)
writer: David Paich, Jeff Porcaro
I spend a lot of time listening to Toto. There is no single category that would accurately describe all of their music, but one type that they keep coming back to is highly produced power-pop. In 'Holyanna,' they throw a lot of instruments into the mix - all played by top notch musicians - and match that to a catchy tune and irresistible lyrics. Some consider that overkill but I've become rather attached to the style in general and to this song in particular.
'Holyanna' is a peppy pop song complete with horns and plenty of synthesizer. David Paich's vocals cap it off perfectly. Ironically, this happy-go-lucky sounding song is really a scold to a teenager who sneaks out to do who-knows-what instead of her homework.
Amy Holland - How Do I Survive? (1980)
writer: Paul Bliss
album: Amy Holland
'How Do I Survive?' is a funky pop tune, maybe influenced by the waning tide of disco, maybe not. It was a top 30 hit in 1980 so you may have heard it, but probably not. Amy has a cheerful but not overpowering voice. She only put out one other album in the 1980s before retiring to session work, which is a shame. 'How Do I Survive?' is kind of a tease for potentially good future music that never came.
Pat Benatar - Somebody's Baby (1993)
writer: Pat Benatar, Neil Giraldo
album: Gravity's Rainbow
I read somewhere that Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds said that all of the songs he wrote were about women or money and the excess or lack of either. Benatar and Giraldo did not rely on that metier to write 'Somebody's Baby.' It's a sad, uptempo pop song about someone who is no longer wanted by society.
"He used to be somebody's baby
Someone used to hold him close, and rock him gently
He used to be the light in someone's eyes
He used to matter, he used to matter"
The song doesn't say who he is - I sometimes picture a homeless guy, sometimes a prison inmate. Benatar nails the feeling of frustration and waste that goes along with a disposable human being. It's a very sad yet beautiful song.
'Somebody's Baby' was released 15 years after Benatar first hit it big and her voice was as good as ever. I also have her 2003 album and she sounded great then, too.
Dan Hartman - Second Nature (1984)
writer: Dan Hartman, Charlie Midnight
album: I Can Dream About You
From the same album that brought us the classic pop song 'I Can Dream About You' comes 'Second Nature.' From its 100 MPH opening riff to its clean production to its perfect lyrics, 'Second Nature' is an infectiously catchy pop song and I have no comprehension why it wasn't a huge hit.
Hartman died in 1994, cutting short a fabulous producing career. He wasn't the front man very often but when he was - 'Free Ride' ring a bell? - it was magic.
Dire Straits - Setting Me Up (1978)
writer: Mark Knopfler
album: Dire Straits
Everybody knows the hits 'Sultans of Swing' and 'Money for Nothing,' but those songs aren't very representative of Dire Straits. From their first album, 'Setting Me Up' is a good example of their basic four-instrument production, catchy lyrics and Mark Knopfler's unmistakable voice. Knopfler got more complicated as time passed, both with Dire Straits and his solo stuff, but he never got better than the simplicity of the band's first album. Ooh, "Never got better..." Is that a bad thing to say about a guy who's had a brilliant 30+ year career? Hmm...
Donald Fagen - The Nightfly (1982)
writer: Donald Fagen
album: The Nightfly
When I worked at a radio station in the 1980s, I introduced Fagen's two hits from The Nightfly on-air hundreds of times ('I.G.Y.' and "New Frontier') and even mentioned the name of the album on occasion, but I never listened to the entire album until 2002 or thereabouts. Boy, did I miss out. I probably - no, definitely - wasn't ready for jazz in my 20s but I kind of wish I was. The Nightfly is a blues-jazz hybrid and its title track is a peppy ditty told from the perspective of an overnight announcer for a public radio station ("WJAZ, with jazz and conversation, from the foot of Mt Belzoni"). It would be years before I was ready for public radio, too.
With surgically clean production and Fagen's unmistakable voice (the voice of Steely Dan), I could listen to The Nightfly - song and album - over and over. And have.
Gerry Rafferty - Night Owl (1979)
writer: Gerry Rafferty
album: Night Owl
If you lived through the 1970s or listen to oldies radio today, you've heard Gerry Rafferty. His two biggest hits were 'Baker Street' and, with Stealer's Wheel, 'Stuck in the Middle with You.' You've probably only heard those hits, maybe one of his lesser ones. You probably haven't heard 'Night Owl.' I find it to be an infectious toe-tapper without the baggage of being overplayed for 30 years, like 'Baker Street.' With great guitar licks and a steady beat, 'Night Owl' is a good song you've never heard.
Partland Brothers - Soul City (1987)
writer: Chris Partland, GP Partland
album: Electric Honey
'Soul City' is a very funky mini-anthem whose only shortcoming is that it's too short. I like to picture the singer singing the song as he begins a road trip to Vegas or wherever.
"Soul City, that's where we're headed
Dancing and singing til dawn.
Soul City, that's where we're going
And we won't be back until the money's all gone."
It's a feel-good song that could really use a couple more choruses at the end before you want to let the feeling go.
Sarah Shannon - When You Live Life Alone (2001)
writer: Blake Wescott
album: Sarah Shannon
From the first note, a single sustained piano note, to the fade out of a gentle french horn six and a half minutes later, 'When You Live Life Alone' is about as perfect a song as you can get. Operatically trained Sarah Shannon has complete control of her pipes in a song that would befuddle a lesser singer. 'When You Live Life Alone' is a simple song, using a piano, some strings and horns, and Sarah's amazing voice. For the first 80 seconds of the song, all you hear is her beautiful voice accompanied by Blake Wescott on piano.*
A ballad, I suppose, 'When You Live Life Alone' has no verses or chorus. It is more of a missive, maybe a letter, sent to the singer's ex, recapping their relationship - how she was a loner when they met, then she completely gave herself to the relationship, and ends with her realizing he's the one who can't let anyone in. It's a beautiful song and I can't help but get tears in my eyes when I listen to it. I played it for my niece and nephew (ages 29 and 26) when we were hanging out this summer and they were enthralled. I was enraptured, as usual, but they were enthralled.
As amazing a singer as Sarah is, she's only released two albums and neither sold well, but they are a mainstay of my collection. It's hard to categorize her - while 'When You Live Life Alone' is a ballad - sort of - most of her stuff is peppy and lively. She is easily one of the best singers you've never heard.
*Correction [12/4/10]: One of the hazards of blogging from memory is getting details wrong. Blake Wescott wrote and produced 'When You Live Life Alone,' but it was Casey Foubert who played the piano on the song. My apologies to all for the error.
Styx - Haven't We Been Here Before? (1984)
writer: Tommy Shaw
album: Kilroy Was Here
Styx is known mostly for a string of hits sung by Dennis DeYoung, including 'Come Sail Away,' 'Lady, and 'Babe.' Kilroy Was Here was their eleventh album and it contained a career killer named 'Mr Roboto.' While I like 'Mr Roboto,' its video was so overplayed on MTV - and so hokey, what with the robot masks and all - that Styx became a national joke. With the bad, though, we also get the good. Hidden on Kilroy was a little Tommy Shaw gem called 'Haven't We Been Here Before?' You'll recognize Shaw's voice - he was the lead singer on a few of Styx' hits, notably 'Renegade,' 'Fooling Yourself,' and "Too Much Time on My Hands.'
Usually a rocker, Shaw put together a melodic ditty in 'Haven't We Been Here Before?' that is so sweet that I can imagine ballerinas dancing to it. It's a simple, rhythmic tune that he sings gracefully, and it becomes a counterpoint duet with DeYoung at the choruses, the first of which doesn't hit until about two minutes in. Styx has made several beautiful ballads and some classic rock-boppers, but I declare that 'Haven't We Been Here Before?' is their most beautiful song.
The Derek Trucks Band - Baby, You're Right (2002)
writer: James Brown, Joe Tex
album: Joyful Noise
The Derek Trucks Band made an appearance on The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 1 and here they are again. You won't confuse the two songs - they sound nothing alike, a comment frequently uttered when comparing DTB songs. This one is sung by Mrs Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, who also made an appearance on volume 1. 'Baby, You're Right' has a groovin' blues beat and Susan's smooth voice on top. At one point, Susan and Derek are doing a call & answer motif, she with her voice, he with the slide guitar. 'Baby, You're Right' is a great example of some highly talented musicians making great music.
Gregg Allman Band - Evidence of Love (1987)
writer: Chris Farren, Steve Diamond
album: I'm No Angel
The name Allman is well known to rock fans but Gregg had most of his success as a singer-songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, not as a solo artist. He put together his own band for those times when ABB was taking a break. I'm No Angel was a solid offering of the pop-rock genre but didn't produce any monster hits. A 45 of 'Evidence of Love' made it into my hands when the radio station dumped some promo copies on me. As you can imagine, I picked up a lot of music that way.
Kind of slow but no ballad, 'Evidence of Love' features an amazing sax solo by Ed Callie. There's also one other feature I think you'd like. The song is set up as a male-male duet (no gay subtext that I hear, not that there's anything wrong with that) and who is the other singer? None other than Don Johnson. Yes, THAT Don Johnson, who was starring in Miami Vice at the time. Don released an album himself a year earlier, which had a top-ten hit ('Heartbeat'), and a few years later, he'd have a minor hit duetting with Barbra Streisand ('Till I Loved You'). The Allman-Johnson duet won't usurp the Everly Brothers as the best male duet act in Rock 'n Roll history, but 'Evidence of Love' is a solid offering and, with that sax solo, becomes one of the best songs you've never heard.
So there you have it. Seventy eight minutes of The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 2. If you follow through and listen to each of these songs, you'll probably like only half of them - maybe - but what if you really, really like one or two of them? Isn't that the fun of finding new music? Even if it's sometimes decades old?
I'm working on The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 3 and will post it soon. I'm still playing with the song selection, but I can guarantee you no Debbie Gibson next time. Or Don Johnson, for that matter. I thought about making it no music at all by artists who have appeared on Volumes 1 and 2, but there's this cool Quarterflash song from 2008... And, hey, how would you like to hear a song in Russian? It's on its way.
In case you missed it, here is where to find The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 1.