Sir Elton’s Jewel Box

On November 13th Elton John will release Jewel Box, a 148-song collection of curated selections and previously unreleased material. Jewel Box includes favorite album tracks of Elton’s that were not hits, dozens of demos and unreleased tracks, B-sides of singles that never made it to albums, and a set of songs mentioned in Me, John’s 2019 autobiography. You can find all the details at www.eltonjohn.com.

Two tracks from Jewel Box have been pre-released to whet our appetites. “Sing Me No Sad Songs” is a 1969 demo that never appeared on an album or single, but represents an early Elton John/Bernie Taupin collaboration.

“Regimental Sgt. Zippo” was recorded in 1968 and was to be the title track of Elton’s debut album, but that project was never released. I can’t seem to find who’s responsible for this newly created, but very retro, video.

Elton’s debut album was, rather, 1969’s Empty Sky. It was not released in the U.S., and I’d always thought of his 1970 eponymous album featuring “Your Song” and “On the Border” as his debut – but not so! Jewel Box contains a demo version of “Skyline Pidgeon” from Empty Sky. The song was rearranged years later and appeared on the B-side of the hit “Daniel”. Here is the original version, which was was chosen to play through the closing credits of the 2018 Academy Award winning film The Favourite.

Unpacking Jack White’s Set on SNL

Jack White was the musical guest on last night’s Saturday Night Live, and in a possessed six-minute performance he threaded together a full century of music history of mixed genres, as only this musicologist can. The performance starts with lines from the “Don’t Hurt Yourself” collaboration he did with Beyoncé for her Lemonade album, shifted into “Ball and Biscuit” from the White Stripe’s Elephant album, and quoted lyrics from Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus is Coming Soon”, a 1928 gospel song about the Spanish Flu epidemic.

So, here you go with the SNL performance, followed by Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, a live performance of “Ball and Biscuit”, and the original “Jesus is Coming”. The full lyrics to Johnson’s song are straight out of today’s headlines.

White’s second performance last night included a nod to Eddie Van Halen, who passed away on Tuesday. White played his own tune “Lazaretto” on an EVH brand guitar, and did some “tapping” at 2:40 – the stylistic touch Van Halen perfected if not invented.

Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

Rolling Stone magazine’s October 2020 issue features an all new list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  It’s a fresh take on the magazine’s first such list published in 2003.  I pulled out my mint condition copy of that 2003 “Special Collector’s Issue” and sat down to compare the two lists.  And what an interesting comparison it is!

First observation: only two albums released since 2003 made it into the 2020 Top 20, and neither made the Top 10.  The 20th Century musical canon remains strong (further tidbits – only 17% of the albums on the 2020 list are from this century, and nearly one-third of the list is from the 70’s).  Second observation: despite the lack of infiltration of new albums into the Top 20, the 2020 versions of the Top 10 and Top 20 are almost unrecognizable from the 2003 versions.   Only two of the 2003 Top 10 are in the 2020 version, and only eight of the 2003 Top 20 survived to make the 2020 list.  So, why the wholesale reshuffling of the view of 20th Century music?  It’s all about the voters.

The group of voters Rolling Stone assembled to create the 2003 list was dominated by music critics, recording industry execs, broadcasters and the like.  Only 70 or so artists were polled, few of them women and few artists of color.   The 2020 voters included a much more diverse and inclusive pool of over 170 artists, and while older artists and non-artists were still represented, the new list creates a much more balanced picture of the breadth of musical influences that have shaped popular music.

The #1 album of all time?  What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye.  The album was #6 on the 2003 list, behind no fewer than three Beatles albums. Here’s the famous lead single and title track.

Vaulting to #3 from a #30 ranking on the 2003 list is Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I’m not surprised that this masterpiece, which Rolling Stone characterizes as “a still-unmatched standard for confessional poetry in pop music”, got the recognition it deserves once more women singer-songwriters got the franchise.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had only been out for five years when the 2003 list was published, and slotted in at #312. The 2020 list places it at #10. Hill broke all sorts of records at the time with this, her first, solo album: most first week album sales by a female artist ever, most Grammy nominations (10) and awards (5) for a female artist in one night ever. Here’s the #1 single.

Feeling Better with Michael Franti

In this time of high anxiety on so many fronts, Michael Franti has released a new album with songs to help us remember what’s important and to feel a bit better.  Here’s how Michael introduces Work Hard and Be Nice on his website, “Today, we are being called to connect with the hearts of others to literally bring about the healing of the planet. There is no higher calling, and I hope this music helps people know that they are not alone in the effort. Each person’s role makes a difference, and we will create billions of small victories that all add up together.”  The first video from the album is “I Got You”, and enjoy the live-in-the-park performance of “Work Hard and Be Nice to People”.

Franti has been delivering his uplifting vibe for quite some time. Below is “Say Hey I Love You” from 2008. A couple of months after the song’s release, Franti and his band Spearhead were playing Obama inaugural events.

But Franti also has harder message, hip hop bonafides in his past. You may recognize the refrain from “Television the Drug of the Nation”, released by Franti’s first two bands, The Beatnigs and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

By the way, I learned of Michael Franti’s new release on the music blog Eclectic Music Lover. Thanks, Jeff! If you want a daily dose of new music, check out this excellent site.

50 Years On – Jimi and Yusuf

It was 50 years ago Friday that Jimi Hendrix died in London, a bit shy of his 28th birthday.  Jimi’s rapid rise from obscurity to stardom spanned little more than a year.  He had moved to New York in 1966 where Chas Chandler, bass player for The Animals looking for new artists to produce, saw Hendrix playing in a club with his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.  Chandler brought Hendrix to London in September of that year. Chas was especially taken with Hendrix’s cover of “Hey Joe”, and in December 1966 the song was released as the first single by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, reaching #6 on the UK charts.  While Jimi’s fame in Europe was exploding in early 1967, his reputation had not reached the States, that is until he played the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967.  Here is a clip of The Jimi Hendrix Experience playing “Hey Joe” at Monterey.

The Experience’s set at Monterey is one of the most mesmerizing rock and roll performances ever given. I highly recommend tracking down the documentary by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hedges that includes the entire set. Here’s the trailer to whet your musical appetite.

A couple of months after Jimi’s death, Yusuf Islam, then known as Cat Stevens, released his breakthrough album Tea for the Tillerman. This past Friday Yusuf released Tea for the Tillerman 2, on which he gives some of the original tracks fresh treatments for their 50th anniversaries. Thanks for the tip, Helga!

One of the most interesting updates is “On the Road to Find Out”. It is not one of his better known songs, so the arrangement and video allow you to approach it as a brand new piece of music. Check out the Tillerman 2 version and a live performance of the original from 1971.