Mainstream Rock: Steve Winwood, “Higher Love” (1986)
David Lifton: You couldn’t get a more perfect crossover record than this in 1986: A classic rock legend duetting with an R&B diva on a modern-sounding piece of synth pop-soul. I loved “While You See a Chance” from 1980, so it was good to hear him back on the charts, and shortly after that, I began learning about Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group.
Beau Dure: I don’t begrudge Steve Winwood his ’80s success, but “While You See a Chance” is a worthier song than this.
Ted Asregadoo: I’m not sure if it’s the buildup of toxins in my body due to overexposure to this song, but it seems that ever since “Higher Love” came out, I have not been able to escape it. It might be the fact that I spent 11 years working at an Adult Contemporary station where this song never went away, but I can’t even appreciate it for any of the reasons stated. It’s sludge to me.
Dw. Dunphy: I just had to smile when this came out. Many of Winwood’s contemporaries who were still in “the biz” were so far away from where they once were, in style, in sound, and then he just shows up as soulful, youthful and cool as ever. He did it yet again this past winter at the Clapton / Winwood shows. Clapton, brilliant though he may be, looked ancient next to Steve.
The whole Back in the High Life album is darn near perfect, especially “Freedom Overspill.” You’ll get nary a snarklette from me on this.
Ken Shane: For me, Steve Winwood has rarely missed a step in a career that goes back to the mid-’60s. He was called Stevie then, and why not, since he was only about 15 when he made his debut with the Spencer Davis Group. The first time I heard that voice on “Gimme Some Lovin’,” I knew that he was going to be a talent to reckon with, and I’ve enjoyed all of his work since then.
Arc of a Diver had me falling in love with his sound all over again, and then along came “Higher Love,” which just jumped out of the car radio speakers. Funky, upbeat, jubilant, Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan …
Jeff Giles: I didn’t like this song when it was popular, but now that I’ve had 20 years to let Winwood’s late ’80s beer jingles wear off, I can appreciate his late-period stuff for what it is — solidly written, impeccably performed, grown-up rock & roll. And there’s never anything wrong with a little Chaka, is there? Still, I prefer “Back in the High Life” to this — I was too young to really hear it when it was popular, but it’s just a devastatingly beautiful song.
Jon Cummings: I retroactively downgraded my opinion of this song a bit in light of the whole Winwood/Genesis/Michelob fiasco — I took the whole “let’s write songs with the word ‘tonight’ in the title so we can get paid” thing pretty hard. Still, it’s a nifty little pop confection, and it was great to see that Winwood still had his mojo and could still top the charts. 1986 was such a great year for geezers…see also Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s So, and even Paul McCartney’s Press to Play.
Mike Heyliger: This is the first Winwood song I was conscious of, and I still can’t get enough of it. Very upbeat and summery. And he did the right thing by hiring Chaka to put some stank on it. Actually, 1986 appears to be the year of Chaka appearing on just about every album by a male Brit vocalist over 30. She did the vocal arrangements for Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” and she also appeared on a song for whatever album Bowie had out at that time (“Never Let Me Down”?). Then she released her own album that year and it flopped. Oops.
David Medsker: Who wasn’t thrilled to see this become a smash hit? And as it was pointed out earlier, 1986 was a good year for geezers. Along with Gabriel, Macca and Winwood, even the Moody Blues and Monkees scored big hits that year. This, of course, would never happen today.
Anyway, I loved Russ Titelman’s white-boy-funk production, Chaka’s backing vocals, and Winwood’s hair. Strange to think he was a mere 38 when this came out, though. Damn, I’m older than that now. Oh, I’ve wasted my life.
Modern Rock: Fuel, “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” (2000)
Giles: As raw and emotionally honest as anything by Boston. Velveeta with chords.
Beau: I maintain that Fuel has some decent songs. I even have a CD of theirs. Not this one, where they started to get a little repetitive.
Mike: What do they call this? Post-grunge? I call it completely generic and anonymous. Throw this up against any Creed song or “Hanging By a Moment” by Lifehouse-they all sound the same, right down to the constipated growling.
Ken: The best thing I can say about this is that it was a welcome break from “Shimmer.” It’s not that I dislike either single or the band, but in those days I was hanging out with friends who were in various cover bands. N.J. is the cover band capitol, in case you weren’t aware of that. Every cover band played “Shimmer” every night, and when “Hemorrhage” came along, they played them both. This is just a case of being overdosed on these songs. I wonder what happened to the band. They sure disappeared quickly after two pretty big hits.
Jon: This is a pretty good song for its genre — nice chorus, particularly. But the cookie-cutter nature of so much post-grunge modern rock was exposed after Chris Daughtry sang this song on American Idol and he later was offered the lead-vocalist slot with Fuel. Any one of a dozen or more already-established bands could have done the same thing. So of course Daughtry says no, has the good sense to hire a band and name it after himself, and becomes a gazillionaire with music that sounds an awful lot like Fuel and a dozen other bands.
Ted: I think I was on another planet when this song was released because I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard it. It’s forgettable, by the numbers alt rock that came out in 2000. Now I know why Daughtry said no to the lead singer gig with Fuel: he had his own by the numbers alt-ish sound pop rock to produce.
Medsker: I did a very good job sheltering myself from bands like Fuel and Hoobastank in the early part of the decade. To this day, I couldn’t name a single one of Fuel’s songs, either by name or sound. So here goes…
God, I hated videos like this, with the overacting musicians and the vein-popping singers. Look at that drummer POUNDING those skins. Clown. As for the song, meh. Part of the Rob Thomas Effect, where safe and non-threatening suddenly meant good. Those were dark, dark times.
Dunphy: The only thing I thought of when reading this song title was a skit from the long lost Spitting Image TV show where puppet Ronald Reagan says something about his heavy metal group Cerebral Hemorrhage. I’m loathe to admit an American Idol made a smart move, but I suppose Chris Daughtry did… dammit…
Adult Contemporary: Sheryl Crow, “All I Wanna Do” (1994)
Ted: My god what an earworm this song was. I wasn’t too thrilled with the lead single, “Leaving Las Vegas,” but once “All I Wanna Do” starting getting massive airplay, it was enjoyable for about a week. Then slight fever started, followed by a dryness of the throat. The song then penetrated my red blood cells. I became dizzy and began to experience an itchy rash, followed by muscle spasms and drooling. Soon my entire digestive system collapsed and I was plagued by uncontrollable flatulence. By the time I was hospitalized, I was quivering piece of jelly.
Ken: Her first album was a breath of fresh air, and this first single was certainly interesting. Unfortunately, I can only listen to this in the context of her entire career, which on the whole, I’d have to call disappointing after an audacious debut.
Jon: I like the story of this song — how she cribbed much of the lyric from a Wyn Cooper poem she found in a used-book store, raising Cooper’s profile dramatically based on his songwriting credit. A quick Wikipedia search notes that Don Dixon more recently recorded a song, “40 Words for Fear,” also featuring a Cooper lyric. All of that said, was any single song of the 1990s more overplayed than this one? Hard to believe it only made #2 (fuckin’ Boyz II Men). Anyway, since moving to L.A. I must admit that I’ve once or twice looked for bars that sit across the street from carwashes on Santa Monica Blvd. I guess I didn’t look too hard — but Santa Monica Blvd. is a pain in the ass.
Dunphy: I know people love this song, and Crow’s white trash songbird status, but I always felt she was in conflict with herself, trying at once to be too clever and then just trying to be a little down-home and skeevy (“I like a good beer buzz early in the morning”) as both ethics clash. It works for some, but not for me.
And I’m still having moral difficulty with Miss Poopy Pants after that one-square toilet paper tirade, saving the world one turd at a time.
Mike: I’ve always had a soft spot for Sheryl Crow, although “All I Wanna Do” is my least favorite of the four singles from Tuesday Night Music Club. A little too much free-association and not enough actual singing. Hey, did you consciously toss two Grammy-voted Records of the Year in here on purpose?
Beau: I’m really going against the crowd this week, apparently. I like some of Sheryl’s later stuff, but I think this one’s kind of flimsy. Maybe it’s because I’m no fun and therefore can’t relate to it.
But I’m always defensive about Sheryl’s later stuff because some wind-up ex-jock commentator ripped her on an NFL playoff broadcast, saying it was inappropriate to start a song in hard-working Pittsburgh with the line “My friend the communist.” Yeah, Mr. Fratboy Pundit, did you listen to the rest of the verse?
Giles: I’m a David Baerwald fan, and picked up a copy of this album based on his involvement. I was disappointed, to put it mildly, then baffled by her enormous success — and then when I found out about what a glory-hungry bitch she is, and how her dishonesty on a Letterman appearance left Baerwald on the outs with John O’Brien at the time of O’Brien’s suicide, that was the capper. I can’t listen to any of her shitty music without thinking dark thoughts.
Lifton: Oh, crap. Looks like I’m going to have to be the schmuck who defends the unpopular popular song this time around. Yeah, this got overplayed like crazy, and she didn’t handle her initial jolt of fame too well, but I still think this is a good song. I like how she thinks she’s having fun when she’s surrounding herself with miserable LA drunks. They’re the same losers in “Piano Man,” but at least Billy Joel didn’t choose to hang out with them.
And it rips off “Stuck In The Middle With You.”
R&B/Hip-Hop: Aaliyah, “Are You That Somebody?” (1998)
Medsker: Wow, a dance video that doesn’t cut every nanosecond. You mean we can actually watch them dance? That’s just crazy.
The song seems harmless enough, but I never got into that whole 70 BPM thing. I can see that it’s tailor-made for choreography, but how do you dance to this in a club? That’s just too damn slow.
Dunphy: The legend of Aaliyah is based only on her early death and the R.Kelly speculation. While she was a competent performer, there was nothing in her catalogue that screams out “legacy” and, I do believe, that I couldn’t pull one of her tunes out of my memory right on the fly. Not one.
Jon: I like the sound effects here, but this is a prime example of the 100%-melody-free fare that has made R&B music largely intolerable for the last 15 years. Speaking of 15 years, that’s how old Aaliyah was when she married R. Kelly. Gross. She’s dead, so I’ll speak no more ill of her. As Timbaland productions go, however, I’d rather listen to that bleepy-bloopy OneRepublic song 100 times than hear this once more.
Mike: Lord forgive me, but someone’s gotta say it: Aaliyah was overrated. Yeah, her voice was pretty, and I respect her for not giving in to over-the-top wailing in the vein of every other female R&B singer in the Nineties, but she was a B+ singles artist at best, and her albums were all mediocre. That said, this is one of my favorites from her, it’s probably one of Timbaland Mach 1’s best productions (before he discovered the Human League and all his productions started sounding like Arthur Baker circa 1983) and the video is cute.
Giles: I could take or leave most of her stuff, but this is one instance where I think Timbaland did right by Aaliyah. Yes, it’s missing a real melody, but the production is otherworldly in the best possible sense of the word. And to think this was tagged onto the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack.
Ted: This was the year that I felt completely out of it when it came to music, but this song kind of renewed my interest in R&B. I found the phrasing of lyrics and the odd sense of rhythm really captivating. Plus, the song made good use of a baby laughing. Take THAT, Tellybubbies, with your “Laughing baby” sun and that cute, adorable Noo-noo.
Hot 100: Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, “Somewhere Out There” (1987)
Ken: Okay. I’m a sucker for these big romantic ballads, and you have two great voices on this one. Plus, if I remember correctly, there was a little mouse involved in this somehow.
Medsker: Ah, the Fievel the Mouse song. I love Ronstadt’s voice as much as any, but I never liked any of these pop versions of the animated songs, not one. “A Whole New World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Go the Distance” (Michael Bolton, shudder)…blah. I get cavities just thinking about them. The version of this that’s in the movie, though, is heartbreaking.
Jon: This song makes me want to light every match in an oversize pack, letting each one burn…until Fievel is reduced to a pile of ashes on the bar. Still, as drecky La Ronstadt duets go, at least this is better than the horrible, horrible “Don’t Know Much (But I Know You’re Using Too Much Gratuitous Vibrato)” with Aaron Neville.
Giles: See, now these were the days when a vocalist could cut three back-to-back albums of American Songbook classics and still find her way back to something resembling a modern sound. She did it just in time, too — one look at Ronstadt in her mom jeans during this era was enough to let you know that she was headed out the back door at Top 40 radio. Elektra must have known, too, judging from the Maddie Hayes-style soft focus they slathered on her when it came time to release Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.
Dunphy: Wheee! Moonlighting reference! I swear, I was pretty young when that show was on and I thought Cybil Sheppard was cursing me with early-onset glaucoma.
There are only two mouse songs that readily come to mind – this one and Radiohead’s “Knives Out” (“Squash his head, shove him in your mouth.”) And where the song is poignant in the movie’s somewhat sentimental and manipulative context, this ballad bombast has all the emotion of friggin’ “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine DeShe-bot.
I have no problems with pop interpretations of cartoon musicals. That’s just how they sell the soundtrack, but who got the word about sad, separated mice and immediately said, “…and you Woo, Woo, Woo on Blue Bayou”?
Ted: All those guys who were lusting after the 1977 Linda Ronstadt were in for a big surprise 10 years later when this video starting getting airplay. I’m sure we could compile a list of moments when famous boomers turned a corner and became yuppies. And if such a list were ever compiled, I think this video would be in the top 10. Forget about the hair, just look at those glasses! “You’re a yuppie, you’re a yuppie, you’re a yuppie. Linda, you’re a yuppie.” (Sorry about that — I thought I was Bill Murray on SNL for a moment.) Where was I? Oh yeah, “Somewhere Out There.” As a song, it serves the purpose of forcing an emotional connection with the film, but hearing it after all these years makes we want to go back an listen to those mid-’70s Ronstadt albums, ’cause I forgot what a great voice she has.
Beau: The Linda Ronstadt episode of the The Muppet Show is charming. She comes across as easygoing and sweet.
Obviously, she has a great voice. But I still feel like she only picks good material once a decade or so. All due credit for giving Warren Zevon some recognition and royalties, but she’s not convincing on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.”
Mike: Shoot me now. This song brings back bad memories of choir class in middle school. We had to sing this, “Cherish” by Kool & the Gang, and…I forget what else, but even at 10 years old, this song was too sappy for my liking. I’d trade this and the rest of Ingram’s and Ronstadt’s catalogs for one “Yah Mo B There” and be satisfied that I did the right thing. And I’ll admit that I’m not up on my Ronstadt as much as I should or could be, but didn’t she cover some Elvis Costello stuff at some point? The thought of hearing her sing “Alison” makes me throw up in my mouth a little, which is why I must now go search for it.
Medsker: “Mr. Plow is a loser and I think he is a boozer…”
That’s my favorite Linda Ronstadt song outside of “You’re No Good.”
Lifton: I prefer the Spanish version of Mr. Plow. She really gets back to her roots on that one.