Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

It took me some time to appreciate the genius of Marvin Gaye. Of course, like most people growing up in the 80’s, I had been inundated with various Marvin Gaye duets and songs on the oldies stations my parents would play. It was only after listening to a cover of I Heard It Through The Grapevine by The Slits in my late teens that I decided to seek out the originals. And what a treat that was. What’s Going On marked the dawn of the 70’s for Marvin Gaye. In fact, the song was deemed too political and was almost not released. Fortunately, Marvin stuck to his guns and refused to record or release anything else unless this song was released as a single. January 20, 1971 saw the official release of the song – it had been recorded 6 months earlier. The song is directly inspired by – and addresses – police brutality as witnessed by Obie Benson of the Four Tops. Vocally, it is one of the best performances of Gaye’s career. His voice pulls off the trick of sounding relaxed, emotional, and pained – sometimes within the same sentence. Musically, this is classic soul – infectious beats and a strong, strong melody. Lyrically, it is timeless – and modern. Unfortunately so. “Don’t punish me with brutality / Talk to me / So you can see / What’s going on”. On the full album, the song segues into What’s Happening Brother – the songs tied together lyrically with the beat acting as a segue between the tunes. Embedded below is a live performance of both masterful songs.

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DJ Jazzy Jeff – M3

It’s hard not to think of DJ Jazzy Jeff as the partner of The Fresh Prince – aka Will Smith. The late 80’s and early 90’s featured a near constant stream of radio and MTV hits from the duo. Once Will Smith broke into television, he made sure DJ Jazzy Jeff – aka Jeffrey Townes – had a constant presence on his hit show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The Fresh Prince started putting out records under his new name (some of them still featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff), and DJ Jazzy Jeff put out two critically acclaimed records and an impressive amount of mix tapes. The last decade or so has found Jeff DJ’ing throughout the world, producing records, and reminding the world that he is one of the world’s premier DJ’s – setting moods, scratching, and mixing with an expert ear. M3 marks his 1st album in 11 years and is the final chapter of the Magnificent trilogy. It just may be his finest solo work yet.

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Bruno Mars – Count On Me

Count On Me (Bruno Mars)

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

A few days ago I found myself at a life celebration for a little girl in my community who had been stricken down by a rare form of cancer at age 7. There were over 1000 people in attendance and it was a beautiful show of solidarity, strength, and love. The little girl’s older sister played a beautiful song accompanied by acoustic guitar, dedicated to her sister. Me being me, I’d never heard it before. The song (if you haven’t guessed) was Count On Me by Bruno Mars. The songs played at the life service were songs that the little girl had enjoyed during her too brief life. In that context, I had to evaluate how I perceive things just a bit. I imagined kids singing and laughing along to this song, life’s realities far from mind. So, when I got home from the life celebration, I sought out the song that had been played. And what I found was a joy to listen to. Life affirming lyrics that espoused loyalty, a catchy melody, and perfect acoustic guitar. “If you’re tossin‘ and you’re turnin‘ / And you just can’t fall asleep / I’ll sing a song beside you / And if you ever forget how much you really mean to me / Every day I will remind you”. The song was the 5th single released from the 2010 album Doo-Wops & Hooligans and was a bigger hit in New Zealand and Australia. I should probably explore more of what Bruno Mars has done, though I’ve shied away since he seems to be everywhere. I’ll tell you what though – as great as the original version is (embedded below), it is only the 2nd best version I’ve ever heard. The best was at the life celebration a few days ago, a sister lamenting the loss of her younger sister singing her heart out. It is a moment I’ll never forget.

Charles Bradley – Changes

Changes

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

The upcoming final tour by Black Sabbath (I’m attending the February 2016 show in Tacoma, WA) had me playing all the Ozzy albums and creating playlists of my favorite songs. I kept coming back to the song Changes from 1972’s Vol. 4. A sad ballad inspired by (former) drummer Bill Ward’s divorce, it stands out from the doom metal the band is known for. As great as the original is, the song was covered in 2013 by soul singer Charles Bradley to stunning effect. The original featured a sparse production which helped highlight the sad nature of the lyrics. Charles Bradley takes that and builds on it – he adds a deep rhythm section to the tune, making it a perfect transition to a soul stunner. Bradley sings his heart out – in fact, if a listener heard this version 1st they probably wouldn’t believe you if you told them Ozzy Osbourne had sung this originally, 44 years ago. When talking about heartbreak, the direct approach has always spoken to me – and this song’s lyrics take the cake: “I feel unhappy / I feel so sad / I lost the best friend / That I ever had / …I’m going through changes”

Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine

bill withers

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

You might know Bill Withers from his hit songs Lean on Me and Just the Two of Us (the latter sampled by The Fresh Prince in 1998). Those songs gave the listener a positive vibe, the feeling that everything will be OK. 1971’s hit single Ain’t No Sunshine delivers the exact opposite vibe – depression & hopelessness. The song appears on Withers’ debut album, Just As I Am and was also the b-side to the single Harlem. Disc jockeys preferred Ain’t No Sunshine and played it repeatedly in ’71 and ’72, sending it to #6 on the charts along with over 1 million units sold. The song features the most soul baring vocal performance of all time, the lyrics exploring the depths of the narrator’s despair since his woman left him. Check out these lyrics: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone / Only darkness every day”. The middle section of the song features Withers’ saying “I know” 26 times in different vocal affectations. He originally had planned on adding in lyrics to that section, but all the musicians loved it the way it was. Musicians on the record? They included Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield, CSNY), Donald “Duck” Dunn (Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, many more), Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & the M.G.’s), Jim Keltner (John Lennon among many others), along with other accomplished session musicians. The band isn’t overbearing or showy – they lock into a groove that never overwhelms Bill Withers’ vocals. This is without a doubt, a perfect song.

Shuggie Otis – Strawberry Letter 23

StrawberryLetter

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

Sad to say, but I first became aware of Shuggie Otis with the 2001 David Byrne assisted reissue of 1974’s Inspiration Information. The CD cover hinted at some hip world of unheard acid jazz soul power and the music followed through on that promise (though the 2001 reissue cover wasn’t the original sleeve). As much as I loved the entire record, the track that I had instantly had to play over (and over) again was “Strawberry Letter 23”. The song was originally a part of Shuggie’s 1971 record, Freedom Flightbut was tacked onto the reissue as a “bonus track”. The song effortlessly encapsulates exhilaration, melancholy, and longing all within the span of its 4 minute run-time. The music breezes along on a ridiculously catchy groove making the moment when everything fades away with Shuggie singing “If you arrive and don’t see me / I’m going to be with my baby / I am free, flying in her arms / Over the sea” resonate all the more deeply. The track has been covered by quite a few acts (notably, The Brothers Johnson version hit #5 and is the version most people have heard). It was also featured in the Quentin Tarantino film Jackie Brown as well as the hit TV show Six Feet Under. This is one of those songs that gets under your skin the 1st time you hear it and never wears out its welcome. The lyrics quoted just above hint at the way the words effortlessly flow in poetic fashion. Truly, a masterpiece in words & music.