I had my eyes open for this record for some time before picking it out of a bin at Georgetown Records in Seattle, while I was there for Beyonce and Jay Z’s 2014 On The Run tour. Yeah, it was an unforgettable weekend. Anyway, I was looking for this album because, although it’s not Stevie Wonder’s first recording, it was the one that gave start to his unending success.
At the time this was recorded in 1962, the 12 year old genius had been signed by Motown for over a year and had released two studio albums, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, and Tribute to Uncle Ray. Neither of these albums really took off, but this live album gives us a taste of both Stevie’s “jazz soul,” and his love and respect for “Uncle Ray”. The energy of this live Chicago show exudes from the recording, making me feel like it’s my own memory of being there… if it weren’t for the knowledge the “little Stevie Wonder” went on to win 14 Grammy awards before I was even born (and then another 11 since 1982)! A quick note from Berry Gordy on the record sleeve says that the title is not “given to Little Stevie Wonder by Motown… for publicity,” just in case you were wondering. 54 years later, and I highly doubt they’ve been accused of misusing the word genius.
Side One begins with the album’s biggest single, “Fingertips,” which gives the listener a pretty good example of Stevie’s charisma and charm, not to mention his proficiency on the bongos and the harmonica. Also, just as a bit of trivia, that’s none other than Marvin Gaye playing drums on this track. And speaking of Gaye, that’s exactly who wrote the next song on this album, “Soul Bongo,” which continues to features Stevie on the bongos. Side A of The 12 Year Old Genius finishes with “La La La La La,” which pretty much sums up the lyrical content of the album so far. On this song we get another dose of young Wonder’s stage presence as he teases the audience, from the drum set this time. Even if this kid wasn’t blind, 12 years old, and about to grow up to be The Stevie Wonder, I would be impressed with the solid and fun first half of an album.
I’ll admit that sometimes this is where I stop listening. Not because Side B is bad at all, but Stevie turns his attention and energy to his vocals in order to give us a bit of a tribute to his mentor and idol, Ray Charles. The album begins with one of four songs that are all lyrically beyond his maturity and comprehension. Two out of three songs that were made popular by Ray Charles were also written by him, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough different versions of “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” even if it is weird hearing a boy sing about a lady bringing him coffee every morning. Still, “Drown in My Own Tears,” is even more awkward. There is a certain charm in a child singing about heartbreak, but I also find it a little creepy. That being said, for a 12 year old, he can sing.
I mean, the kid sounds just like a young Stevie Wonder.
Considering that I call this blog “On Records,” I’ve decided to take that rather literally, and attempt to write about albums that I have in my own vinyl collection. I will also use this as an opportunity/excuse to take ridiculous pictures of my bonding experience with their cardboard sleeves, like the one below. Of course, in one short month we will take a break to participate in some very fun March Madness brackets, but in the meantime we can take a look at some records that I love, and some that I am a little embarrassed by.
Foreigner’s appropriately titled fourth album is neither of these. This album is one of a handful that I inherited from my brothers when they traded their vinyl for shiny, digitally formatted, compact discs. So, because it is one of my first, it holds some nostalgic value for me, but not in the way that, say, MJ’s Thriller does. 4 is not a record I spin often, which made it perfect for this new project of listening through my collection in order of album title, regardless of artist or genre (which are the two ways I currently have my records organized).
I probably kept this album because I liked the two upbeat singles, “Jukebox Hero” and “Urgent,” and with this listen they are still the two moments I was most excited for. The album kicks off with Nightlife, and I begin to question whether I really want to spend so much time listening to all this White Dude Rock n’ Roll. That is what this is, especially in 1981. Album Oriented Rock is what the genre was (think Alternative of the 90’s, or Indie of the early 00’s), and until Michael Jackson collaborated with Eddie Van Halen for “Beat It,” radio stations wouldn’t play music made by any non-white musicians. I know this isn’t Lou Gramm or Mick Jones’ fault, but generally Foreigner isn’t representative of my go-to music. That being said, the first side of the record has been really growing on me. The tasteful use of synth from pre-solo-career Thomas Dolby highlights Foreigner’s catchy licks and riffs, and their well-used, emotionally manipulative chord progressions. Plus, they had Mutt Lange producing, which is like 1981’s version of Max Martin – he knew exactly how to clean something up and make it sell like an Apple product.
Anyway, back to the beginning. “Nightlife” is at least a good reminder of the era we’re in, and I don’t have to wait long for my favourite (that I share with most 80’s stadium crowds), “Juke Box Hero”. This song is everything that was hopeful about 80’s rock and roll. “Juke Box Hero” is the American Dream. As the song builds in energy, rhythm, and volume, we hear of an everykid, inspired (by a show he can’t even get into!) to purchase a secondhand guitar, who grows up to be a self-taught and self-made rockstar, or “juke box hero.” This is probably one of the most underrated rock anthems of the 80’s, or maybe ever. What I wouldn’t give to go back and see them perform this in the early 80’s with the massive, inflatable wurlitzer that they would blow up at the end of every concert.
But as I said, the rest of this side is pretty solid as well. “Break It Up”, although so dramatic, is exactly the kind of song I would love to lip sync to. “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” is the big ballad of the album that in part sets the tone of the decade, giving permission to other AOR bands to get in touch with their sensitive, romantic sides. “Luanne” is kind of a mix, and mostly I think it’s such an interesting choice to include here. I mean, there are a lot of feminine names that have two syllables, and I don’t know that Luanne was ever that popular a name. Who knows if this song would be more popular today if it was instead titled, “Ashley,” or “Colleen”?
Unfortunately, the best thing about the second side/half of this album is the hit single, “Urgent”. This song alone keeps me flipping the record over, if only because of Junior Walker’s guest appearance. I tried so hard to find a performance of this song with Jr., but it seems that like the video below (around 2:38), they mostly had another guy sax-sync to Walker’s brilliant solo.
I get rather bored with the two Jones’ penned, ego-centric songs, “I’m Gonna Win,” and trope-filled, “Woman in Black,” although the latter one has some great guitar riffs that remind me of Huey Lewis and the News.
The last two songs on the album return to the kind of pop I enjoy from Foreigner. Both “Girl on the Moon,” and “Don’t Let Go,” are fun, and I nod my head to them, but I can’t say that either of them are going to be the reason I decide to give this album a listen. I am not entirely sure whether this is the only Foreigner record I have, but I am quite certain that it’s the last one chronologically that’s any good. I would even venture to say that although some of their other albums have some more solid singles, 4 is arguably their best to listen to in album context.
From 64 soundtracks to just two critically acclaimed masterpieces. Prince’s collection of new material for Purple Rain set a new precedent for soundtracks featuring an artist or band. It was a top seed because it has been recognized time and time again as not only an excellent soundtrack, but a solid album by a straight-up pop/rock music royalty. Still, this was no easy journey. In order to arrive here, Purple Rain had to earn your votes against a New Jack City compilation, The Beatles, Aimee Mann, and finally, the great and beloved Whitney Houston. Most recently it won in an epic battle against surprise upsetter, Catch Me If You Can.
Prince’s contender is O Brother, Where Art Thou, a more recent soundtrack that has been recognized for the way it brought old-timey country into the mainstream and reminded the world exactly why Alison Krauss is the most Grammy-winning female of all time. It competed with the musical soundtracks, having to go up against nostalgic family-favourites such Frozen, Grease, Wizard of Oz, and finally The Sound of Music. In the Final 4, the fight was with the 90’s classic, Romeo + Juliet, but O Brother was still able to prevail, with more votes than any poll in the Soundtrack Madness brackets.
The choice is yours. I’d love to hear the reasoning behind your vote as well, so feel free to say your piece in the comments. I’ll give a play-by-play listen/blog of the champion soundtrack, so check back next week for the winner. I’ll keep this poll open until Sunday, April 19th. May the best album win!
Only 16 soundtracks left, and this will be our fastest round yet, with polls only remaining open until the end of Easter Monday, April 6th, so be sure to get your friends (with similar taste) to vote quickly, and check back early next week for the Elite 8! As always, please remember to vote for the soundtrack album, as opposed to the film of the same name. Now, let’s see those updated brackets and get to it!
Artist Featured Soundtracks
The truth is that I never would have guessed that Magnolia would beat out both Superfly and Shaft to be here. With this kind of track record, it’s about to offer some legitimate competition to Purple Rain, which barely boxed-out The Beatles’ Help! to get this far. At this point either one could deserve to go to elite 8, but you’ll still have to choose between them.
These soundtracks represent more than just their music or even films, but iconic moments in pop music history. The Graduate had no problem offing Shaft, which had only one vote backing it. The Bodyguard came out on top a much closer race with Saturday Night Fever to now face off against the popular Simon & Garfunkel collection. I have to say, I am enjoying how much this match-up sounds like it’s between two actual people.
Neither of these albums had much difficulty beating out Natural Born Killers or The Big Chill respectively. In general, this particular quad of the brackets got a few more voters than some of the others, so it seems some of you might feel strongly about some of these compilations… How do you feel about Trainspotting and Pretty in Pink?
Two dark and eclectic soundtracks are filling out this category and about to get violent. Romeo + Juliet’s music is stylized without a particular genre of modern 90’s music, while the last Quentin Tarantino soundtrack, Pulp Fiction is woven together with a mix of surf rock and 60’s soul tunes.
These are two very different albums with massive followings. Rogers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music has already beat out the top seeded musical, West Side Story, to make it this far. 2001’s Moulin Rouge has had fewer years to work its way into our hearts, but quickens the nostalgic value using beloved pop music from the 70’s and 80’s.
Here is where I will admit that although I have so much love for O Brother, I am feeling a little bitter that it took out my personal favourite, Grease, in the last round. Meanwhile, Wizard of Oz is a longtime favourite for many, but in all fairness, really hasn’t had a strong competitor until now. May the best soundtrack win!
After beating Star Wars, Blade Runner has a another chance to take out a second John Williams’ score in Catch Me If You Can, which is the only remaining 16th seed in Soundtrack Madness! These are two surprisingly strong contenders, and I’m quite sure this could go either way.
The Mission and Chariots of Fire have both been powerful underdogs in this competition, and now face off to make for a very hard decision since these soundtracks appeal to very similar audiences. I suspect this one will be an especially close race.
Thanks for voting, and remember to check back Tuesday, April 7th for results and Elite 8 polls!
Before we begin to vote, a brief caveat is necessary. You might have already noticed that not all the soundtracks in this bracket are strictly musicals. Classic musicals are here in this bracket, along with films that feature songs actually sung by cast members as part of the plot. Albums in this bracket are all made up of songs performed and recorded by the bulk of the film’s cast. Although this means that the songs are even more tied up with the characters that sing them, please remember to vote for the soundtrack itself, and not for the movie, as difficult as it may be to make that distinction.
West Side Story (1) vs. Once (16)
I’m sorry. And the choices do not get any easier from here. With Shakespeare as their muse, Bernstein and Sondheim combine powers to create the album that held onto the Billboard #1 spot for the longest run in history. West Side Story goes up against one of the most beautiful collaborations of the last 10 years that has inspired a broadway musical and given the stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova (who are both musicians before they are actors) a chance to tour together as The Swell Season. I know who I will vote for, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be painful.
Sound of Music (9) vs. Singin’ In The Rain (8)
Two classics that have only grown in their popularity and influence will face off here. It has been hard for me to find a copy of Singin’ In the Rain that doesn’t rely on film clips, which could either hurt or help it depending on how people feel about the broadway style of dance. I thought I had a fair amount of nostalgia tied up with The Sound of Music, but when Julie Andrews walked on stage at the Oscars and people in the room watching with me burst into tears, I realized that some folks have an even deeper attachment. I suppose this will be one type of nostalgia against another.
Blues Brothers (5) vs. The Commitments (12)
Which group of soul-singing white men will you choose: The SNL sketch-turned-revivalist movement that drew a fan base extending way beyond the film; or a collection of covers by Irish youth, creating a fusion of two cultural souls expressing their humanity under oppression? At bare minimum, these are two great collections of reinterpreted soul songs.
Moulin Rouge (13) vs. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (4)
Moulin Rouge is what happens when a compilation soundtrack is performed by the characters. Familiar songs by Elton John, David Bowie and The Police are given a rebirth into a turn-of-the-century Parisian context. It seems somewhat appropriate that the cabaret-set Moulin Rouge goes up against Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the music from a transgender performer that has gained a massive cult following and is now back on broadway with Neil Patrick Harris as its lead.
Wizard of Oz (3) vs. Inside Llewan Davis (14)
I have no idea how to compare these two soundtracks. The Wizard of Oz Soundtrack was released in 1956, seventeen years after the film, and is as classic a musical as this bracket gets. Inside Llewyn Davis was released in 2013, making it the most recent album in the Soundtrack March Madness, though the music is mostly 60’s folk tune covers.
Wild Style (11) vs. This is Spinal Tap (6)
Wild Style is not a documentary, but it acts like a time capsule for early hip hop as both the film and soundtrack are stacked with pioneers like Fab 5 Freddy and the Cold Crush Brothers. Spinal Tap is a mockumentary with a strong cult following, and although the metal band is fictional, the album has found success as both soundtrack and satire.
Mary Poppins (7) vs. Grease (10)
Well these albums certainly hit two very different parts of my childhood, how about yours? Julie Andrews continues to have inexplicable powers over much of the world. Grease takes us back to our youth, regardless of whether we were youth in the 50’s, 70’s or 90’s.
O Brother, Where Art Thou (2) vs. Frozen (15)
Not only is Frozen the most recent album (along with Inside Llewyn Davis) in these brackets, it’s also the only soundtrack to a fully animated film. No other soundtrack in the past ten years has broken so many records both on Billboard and in sales, so it seemed appropriate to give it its chance here in March Madness as well. O Brother is a collection of traditional and modern bluegrass and country songs, many of which are performed by the Soggy Bottom Boys in the film, and it is addicting. It also heavily features Grammy darling (winner of 27 trophies!), Alison Krauss.