30 December 2008

"tom's diner" || suzanne vega || 1987

A song that is incredibly fascinating in it's simple beauty, "Tom's Diner" is one of those songs that everyone on Earth has surely heard once in his or her life.

The track was originally recorded in 1981 and released in the January 1984 edition of Fast Folk Magazine. It was completely a cappella (only vocals and no music, for you n00bs). This single charted only in the UK and Ireland. She did, however, perform as the musical guest in a May 1987 episode of Saturday Night Live.

A cappella tracks are very ballsy moves by artists. They obviously require a vocal precision that is above that of the average singer. Vega's performance is most definitely solid, though. She delivers a memorable melody, a flawless vocal performance, and a narrative that non-native-New-Yorkers will find intriguing, and that natives will find familiar, but not banal.

Incidently, Tom's Diner is a real place, called Tom's Restaurant, at 112th Street and Broadway in New York City. Tom's is also famous for acting as the facade for Monk's Diner, the restaurant of choice of the main characters on Seinfeld.

This track scored its highest success in 1990, when it was remixed by the group DNA. Now a club-friendly downtempo house song, it took the charts of several countries by storm, including landing at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. This is the version that most will recognize.

Vega's voice is just so perfect for this song. It's flawlessly written and flawlessly executed. The DNA remix just took something that was perfect and made it perfect in a different world.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia that I found during my research for this post: The original track helped perfect the MP3! A computer scientist named Karlheinz Brandenburg was working on the compression techniques used in the MP3 file format to keep the file size small, without losing the quality of the music. According to this article, he heard a radio playing the song when he was working one night and decided that if his compression algorithm could work on her voice without making her sound bad, then he'd have a quality algorithm. The article notes, "When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega."

28 December 2008

"amarillo sky" || jason aldean || 2006

I honestly still can't figure out why I'm so moved by this song. It doesn't have anything to do with Aldean's voice, or really even much to do with the music, although the guitar buildup at the end of each chorus is nice. No, this is definitely a lyrical love.

This song is so striking to me because it offers the perspective of a struggling farmer, which is never offered in the kind of music that I normally listen to. The farmer is doing everything he can to raise his crops and achieve a profit, but he can't seem to do it. He's in desperation because he fears for his financial future.

And really, in a situation like that, who can you blame? Mother nature? Should you abandon the farm and find more lucrative work? Shutting down the farm seems like it would be more work than actually watering each acre of your farm by hand.

Clearly, I know nothing about this lifestyle. However, I most certainly appreciate a well-written song about pain, and that's what this is. Aldean does a fitting vocal delivery, and even though I'm not a fan of his voice, it does work well for this song. The guitar buildup that I mentioned earlier also adds to the desperate feelings that one gets when listening. It really makes you feel the poor farmer's struggle.

Plus, it's nice to hear a modern country song that isn't about religion, America, or lists of things that give the artist country cred.

Listen to this track in our new playlist, located in the right sidebar!

17 December 2008

the roxanne wars

I've contemplated making a post about this mid-'80s hip-hop anomaly for quite some time, and this recent post in my affiliate Kyleigh's Rare And Obscure Music blog made me decide that the time is right.

In 1984, hip-hop group UTFO released a single called "Hanging Out." The B-side was a track called "Roxanne, Roxanne," and the comical and very true-to-life nature of the song made it more popular than the single that it was intended to carry. A music video was shot for the song, and a young woman named Adelaida Martinez was cast in the role of "Roxanne."

The song is about the vocalist's failed attempts to catch the attention of "Roxanne," whom he dismisses as "stuck up" and "a crab." The single wasn't a shot at any actual person named Roxanne; it's just a silly mid-'80s hip-hop record.

Here's the story of the first Roxanne response record, as legend has it: One day, 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden was walking down the street and overheard producer Marley Marl talking to radio deejay Mr. Magic. The two were discussing UTFO and how they'd recently cancelled a performance that Magic's radio station was promoting. (As a radio deejay myself, I completely understand why Magic would have been frustrated by such a maneuver.) Gooden told them that she'd make a record to get back at UTFO, and they accepted her offer. The result was a single called "Roxanne's Revenge," produced by Marley Marl and recorded by Gooden under the name Roxanne Shanté, released in late 1984:

Strong words for such a young girl, but the record was instantly noticed, because controversy always begets popularity. Notice that the beat is lifted directly from UTFO's song. That's because Shanté recorded the song in Marley Marl's bedroom, right over the instrumental cut of UTFO's song on their record. (Due to copyright infringement, the song was re-recorded with a different beat and cleaner lyrics and re-released in early 1985.)

The next player in this game was none other than Adelaida Martinez, who played "Roxanne" in UTFO's original music video. Donning the monkier The Real Roxanne, Martinez worked with UTFO to release a single also called "The Real Roxanne." Rather than directly lashing out at Shanté, The Real Roxanne's single was more of a response to UTFO's original single, told from the fictional Roxanne's perspective:

These three records seemed to open the floodgates for countless other emcees to take shots at either of the Roxannes. Here's one of my favorites, a track by an emcee who called herself Sparky D, entitled "Sparky's Turn (Roxanne You're Through)":

Totally fearless attack on the Roxannes. This is the stuff that emcee battles are made of.

Both Roxannes issued a second battle single (sort of). Here is Roxanne Shanté's, which was called "Queen Of Rox (Shanté Rocks On)":

The Real Roxanne's second single didn't really come from her, but from UTFO. It was called "Roxanne, Roxanne Part 2: Calling Her A Crab," and I can't find a copy of it to post here.

The Roxannes then turned focus to their respective careers. You can read about The Real Roxanne's career in this post in Kayleigh's blog. Roxanne Shanté released a couple of hardcore gangsta rap albums, but nothing too impressive. The Real Roxanne doesn't do music anymore, but the respect that she earned herself lives on in the rap community. Roxanne Shanté is still at it, releasing her latest album just two years ago.

One final note: Check out this very hilarious entry to the Roxanne series by rapper Ralph Rolle, which gives us a whole new spin on the Roxanne story: