So, John’s asked me to list five favorite artists. He knows, as a music maven himself, what a chore this actually is. You can tackle it in the “desert island” question sort of way. You can talk about what’s in your CD player or on your iPOD now sort of way. You can discuss artists that have most impacted your own sense of music, particularly if you’re a musician.
I think what I’m going to do is sort of an amalgam of all this. And maybe more. See, my tastes are truly diverse. No lip service there. I listen to pretty much everything quite actively. I don’t, myself, put country music into the CD changer, but I have people in my life who do, so I get a fair dose of it—and there’s plenty to applaud.
But having said all that, I have favorites for personal reasons that kind of straddle all these list motifs. So, I’ll attempt to talk about them somewhat intelligently. I should say that even this list of mine is not stack-ranked.
And one invitation. You could read this and just go on your way. But if you’re unfamiliar with any of the songs/links I’ve included, consider taking a little more time with this post and listening to the music. You’ll get a peek inside my mind. And I think you’ll come away with some cool new favs.
So, here we go:
1. Dream Theater
This is a band comprised of Berklee and Juilliard graduates, and a singer who studied classical voice technique. None of which is something you might expect of a metal band. To be fair, they’re progressive metal. To me, this means that their compositions and orchestrations are considered. While they can jam and rock with the best of them, they’re able to employ real music understanding to convey the emotion and story they want to relate. Awesome!
I did an article recently on Dream Theater which you can read here if you’re interested. To boil it down, there are some key things that matter to me a great deal, and which DT delivers in spades. Great vocals is first among them. I spent many years studying voice. I know the difference. I’m a bit of a snob about it, I’ll admit. And while I can enjoy what I call a vocal “stylist”—someone like Eddie Vedder or Steven Tyler—I don’t consider them great “vocalists” or “singers.” Someday soon, I’ll do a whole post about this. For now, suffice it to say that James Labrie has real technique, real power, and great timber in his voice. I wrote about him here.
The band supporting the voice is also nothing short of phenomenal. They play tunes in odd-time that feel natural and comfortable, using the meter to compliment the emotion. I’ve lately really been digging “Outcry” from their latest album—Epic! Oh, and you should take a moment and listen to this, “This Is the Life.”
And you know, they write epic tunes. I don’t mean long. Yes, they do that, too. But songs that stir the blood, raise the hair on the back of the neck, and make you want to fight for a good cause.
They build real dynamics into their music. If Mozart and Beethoven and Bach and all those cats were around today, they wouldn’t be at the symphony or opera house. They’d be at a Dream Theater show. Listen to Metropolis Part 1, the whole song is a Tour de force, but if you just want to hear the instrumental fireworks, check out about 4:35 to 8:12!
I still remember the day Images and Words released. I put in the CD and drove my Jeep around endlessly, replaying the CD multiple times. Rather life-changing. It all begin with “Pull me Under.”
2. Frank Sinatra
Here’s the thing about Frank: his phrasing. Sinatra’s feeling was that a song was a conversation with his audience. This helps explain how the man sang the same standards that the singers of his generation—hell, even now with guys like Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr.—all sang, but he did it better. Why? Because he delivered the lyrics with unpredictability. He found vocal rhythms for the melodies that you couldn’t anticipate, but that always felt absolutely right. And his genius went further, in that every time he sang the same song, he did it differently.
Some singers try to affect this. They mostly fail.
Sinatra had decent range and power. He absolutely had class and style, too. There was a bit of bad boy in him, where it was suggested he had mafia ties—being Italian and all. But it was his class that always came through. You get the feeling that if he told you something, or made you a promise, he was going to make good on it. Contemporaries of his—guys like Dean Martin and Don Rickles—attest to this. It wasn’t situational with him, the way it is with most music stars today.
The man did V-disc recordings—done during WW II to boost troop morale. When you listen to him talk about it, you hear sincerity. I like Sinatra because of these things, just as I like him for his unparalleled music phrasing.
Some folks will want to point out his failings. Yeah, sure, we all have them. But on balance, this guy is leagues above our generation’s “flavor-of-the-week” pop stars. I remember his closing remarks when he was roasted by Dean Martin and a number of the stars of that era. The entire roast is hysterical. But pick up at about the seven minute mark of this, and you’ll hear a little of what I’m talking about. And a couple of favorite Sinatra tunes of mine: “Come Fly with Me” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”
This band has not achieved the level of success I think they deserve. I need to say that up front. If you’re not into metal at all, you probably don’t know them. But a few things I like about the group: bone-crushing rhythms, a soulful lead-singer, AMAZING backup vocals by their drummer, who I must name—Morgan Jay Rose (more on this later).
I found out about this band when they released their album Animosity. You should all go right now and listen to “Live Again” or “Beautiful.” These few tunes are a good intro to Sevendust.
I’ve seen the band live a few times. The first was an absolute surprise. They were opening for a band, and to be honest, I don’t even remember the headliner—7D blew me away! Singer Lajon Witherspoon just nailed his parts, lending both melody and soul to the hard-driving arrangements.
The last thing I’ll say is that as I think about the music magic system in my fantasy series, I don’t think about sopranos or tenors or mandola players doing sweet or soaring or haunting vocals. Yeah, sometimes those things’ll happen. But most of it has edge. It has anger, bitterness, desperation, urgency, and a coarseness that gives it its power. To hear a bit of how I might often be hearing it, check out time marker 3:04 in “Damaged.” This is Morgan absolutely going to town! Now, to be fair, my music magic system has a host of expressions and outlets and manifestations beyond what is echoed in “Damaged.” But one of the central expressions is much like you hear in this section. So, there you go. Suffer!
4. Thomas Newman and Chip Davis
Okay, I’m cheating. I could have just listed six, but conflating these two makes some kind of sense. I’ll actually start with Chip Davis.
Davis is the founder of Mannheim Steamroller. You likely know them mostly for the bestselling Christmas albums. In fact, I think they are THE bestselling Christmas albums ever. White Christmas is the bestselling single—thanks in large part to Bing Crosby, who very nearly made my list. But Mannheim began with their Fresh Aire albums, of which there are now eight.
So, a few things. In the Christmas music realm, Steamroller has some absolutely magical moments. Even if you don’t like Christmas or Christmas music, listen to this rendering of Silent Night. Pure awesome!
Now, while I’ve admitted this before, I’ll say it again here. As a lad, I would put on the Fresh Aire stuff and write in what can only be described as a creative fugue. I’d listen to something like “Chocolate Fudge” or “The Sky” or (and my oh MY does this ROCK) “The Fifth Door,” and I’d just allow myself to be transported and write what the music suggested to me. But my all-time favorite Steamroller tune, and perhaps my favorite song of all time, is “Red Wine.” This last song is reminiscent of Greensleeves, which is another favorite. But “Red Wine” spurs so many images and emotions. I could talk for hours about it. I’ll spare you.
In any event, Chip Davis is, in my mind, a legendary American music composer. He’s also a real decent guy. I love it when those two things reside in the same human.
Now, Thomas Newman! I first became aware of him when I saw Shawshank Redemption. I was an instant fan. His understated score to that film left me speechless. I mean, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, check out this song: “Brooks Was Here.” If you seen the movie, it has a great deal more emotional energy. But even without the context, this is brilliant songwriting. Since (while I love pounding, driving metal) this tune takes its time, unwinding and leading you down a dusty road toward some revelation. I don’t always buy sound tracks. I bought this one.
I mean, listen to the title theme, “Shawshank Redemption.” Can’t you hear a little Wagner in there? And yet more?
But here’s the thing, Newman has done a ton of other things, and much of it well before Shawshank. Credits include: Revenge of the Nerds, The Lost Boys, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Player. And then after Shawshank: The War, Phenomenon, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Pay It Forward, Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo, Cinderlla Man, Jarhead, The Help. And the upcoming Bond film Skyfall. And this is ten percent of his work, folks.
I’ve talked before about the notion of hope that lies at the center of Shawshank, both in the film and in King’s amazing novella, which I read years before the movie. But you can hear it come to life in “So Was Red & End Titles.” I love this music. Newman is another national treasure. And it doesn’t hurt that Morgan Freeman is in this movie—he’s a top five for me, actor-wise.
Geoff Tate is one of the best rock singers. Ever. I largely moved to Seattle to train with the same guy that trained Geoff. David Kyle was his name. Voice trainer to Tate, Lane Staley (of Alice in Chains), Ann and Nancy Wilson (of Heart), and a host of others I won’t bother to name just now. We all called him Maestro. I have over 500 hours of tapes of him teaching me. Pure gold. And not because of the craft, though that is absolutely top drawer. No, it’s because the man taught me (and every other student) how to be a better person. All kinds of sappy, that. But it’s also the absolute truth. RIP, Maestro.
And Geoff? Well, when I first heard him sing, Queensryche had already put out a few albums. The CD Empire is when I discovered the band. I immediately went back and listened to Mindcrime, and Rage for Order. Oh my. Epiphanies ran rampant through my brain. Here was a guy who had taken classical technique and gone past Bruce Dickensen and Rob Halford and the rest.
Effortlessly soaring vocals. I mean, listen to this “Suite Sister Mary” or “Eyes of a Stranger.” Or consider how far ahead of their time they were in 1986 with this industrial metal sound “Gonna Get Close to You” or “Screaming in Digital” or a real favorite of mine “Neue Regel.” This is all before Trent Resnor and NIN.
It was pretty amazing that their album Empire was nominated for a Grammy, and that they were asked to play perhaps their best-known song “Silent Lucidity” at the Grammys. But probably my favorite song from that album is “Is There Anybody Listening.”
Their follow-on album Promised Land had a few amazing songs you really should hear: “Promised Land,” and this MUST hear tune, “Someone Else.”
Again, I could go on and on. But if you want an even better sense of why Tate is one of our time’s best singers, check out the article I did on him. He changed the way I think about voice. And he led me to David. I’ve a lot to thank him for.
So there you go. Jeez, so many that I’ve left out—both great songs from those I’ve included, and bands/artists I just didn’t have space to include. I mean, I didn’t get to talk about Disturbed, Nat King Cole, Cole Porter, Journey, Wagner, Miles Davis, Alice in Chains, Sting, Gregorian Chants, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Trans Siberian Orchestra . . . you get the idea. Oh, and Two Steps from Hell. On this last group listen to “Heart of Courage!” Really, you won’t be sorry. EPIC!
John, we may need to do a part two sometime soon. This was just too damn much fun!!
Apologies to all the music and artists and bands I didn’t have space to mention. But these things always obviate way more than they’re able to cover, don’t they.
I’m kind of loath to end the post, because I know as soon as I do I’ll come up with things I should have said, mentioned, etc. And I’ll regret it. So, perhaps we’ll find a way to continue.
But I hope you’ve enjoyed this little musical journey. I know I have.
Your Rock Lord,Peter Orullian