Carole King – ‘Tapestry’

There are albums that define careers, even those as incredible as Carole King’s. One of the most successful songwriters of all time, having written dozens of hits for other artists including the classic (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman for Aretha Franklin and Pleasant Valley Sunday for The Monkees, both in 1967. Tapestry is her masterpiece, a stunningly blissful album, totally alluring for anyone with a heart, and particularly one that’s fragile.

In the early ‘70s the likes of Neil Young, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Randy Newman were writing deeply personal, introspective songs. There was a certain Laurel Canyon vibe in 1971, post-hippy and spiritual, songs capturing real life, acoustic with sparse musical arrangement. Tapestry, with Carole King living there at the time, captured that vibe perfectly. Unlike other troubadours like Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Tapestry’s lyrics were straightforward and unembellished. Carole King had a supreme gift in her ability to use simple phrasing, and the same talent to nail a sentiment, to capture the fragility of romance, relationships and love.

“Stayed in bed all mornin’ just to pass the time
There’s somethin’ wrong here, there can be no denyin’
One of us is changin’, or maybe we’ve just stopped tryin’
And it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it
Somethin’ inside has died, and I can’t hide
And I just can’t fake it, oh, no, no”

– It’s Too Late

From my teens and into my early twenties and largely influenced by the music I’d been listening to, I was becoming more reflective and ruminative, still dealing with shyness despite having a fairly lively social life. Tapestry struck a personal chord. That Laurel Canyon scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was primarily a stoned, laid-back amalgamation of blues, country, psychedelia and folk. It was the original Americana, and with the likes of The Doors, CSNY, Frank Zappa, Mamas and the Papas and Joni Mitchell all doing their thing, it was an era and musical landscape I dived into.

Tapestry is lyrically unguarded, bleeding the warmth and spirit of the early ‘70s, stripping back any fuss to fully expose the intense emotion and vulnerability. Carole King’s ability to write a near perfect album is matched by the overwhelming sincerity in her vocals and the jazz-tinged warmth of the production. For me this was, and still is an album almost impossible not to love.

Fleetwood Mac – ‘Rumours’

Prior to the tail end of 1987 my knowledge of Fleetwood Mac was limited to say the least. Quite a few of their most popular songs were familiar to me, many of which I liked, but I’d owned nothing so had yet to pay them my full attention. That was about to change. Rumours was about to get personal.

Some artists or albums bring back memories of certain people, and Rumours is definitely one of those. A one-year relationship was the launch pad for a lifetime of love for an album flooded with personal trauma. It took me quite a while to be able to listen to Rumours and absolutely love it for the stunning album it is, rather than the associated memories, but if anything these songs hit me harder now than they’ve ever done.

Let’s ignore the drugs, apart from to say there’s no better album recorded under an ocean of booze and snowstorm of coke. Despite the intense and fractious themes, Rumours is so much more than a break-up album. Yes, pain is ever present, but so is love, and the songs are all the more powerful for their brutal honesty.

Rumours may be full of sorrow, but the album is also full of majestic songs that never fall far from perfect. Yes, I love songs that make me cry and I’ve shed plenty to Christine McVie’s epic, Songbird. Knowing that these songs were written amongst, and about, intense breakups within the band, makes them all the more magnificent.

Lindsay Buckingham wrote Go Your Own Way about Stevie Nicks. Buckingham on lead, Nicks on backing vocals…
“Loving you isn’t the right thing to do
How can I ever change things that I feel?
If I could, baby I’d give you my world
How can I when you won’t take it from me?”

Stevie Nicks wrote Dreams about Lindsey Buckingham. Nicks on lead, Buckingham on backing vocals…
“But listen carefully
To the sound of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering
What you had and what you lost”

I’m not sure what it says about me but much of my favourite music is the saddest and most despairing. Since a very early age I sought emotion from music, I couldn’t care for gimmick, for fake, for music that lacked soul. Music could move me in many ways, and Rumours hits heavy with the sheer genius contained in the songwriting; the melody, harmony, production and best of all it hits you where it hurts most. The heart.

Stevie Wonder – ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’

Stevie Wonder. Where do you start? I think I remember my first vinyl purchase was The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. At 12 years-old Little Stevie Wonder was an absolute dude, shining like a star on drums, bongos, keyboard and harmonica. Having binged on soul and Motown for a few years, I was totally aware of Stevie’s genius, and had worn out the grooves on Looking Back, his triple LP anthology that was a thorough compilation of ‘60s Stevie. Next was another comp, Original Musiquarium I, which upped the ante, showcasing his golden era during the ‘70s. But still the best was yet to come.

Songs In The Key Of Life was Stevie’s masterpiece. Preceded in the ‘70s by four absolute classic albums, it was an almost impossible ask to go one better, but Songs In The Key Of Life is more than an album, it’s a work of art, a visceral musical discovery, a perfect illumination into melody and musicality. Two years in the making, Stevie was still just 26 years old when it was released, and whilst the likes of George Benson, Herbie Hancock and dozens of jazz and soul musicians contributed, this was totally Stevie, having written, arranged and composed everything and performed more than one man should ever be capable.

Songs In The Key Of Life covers the same kaleidoscopic range of musical styles and it does human emotions, but you’re never in doubt as to Stevie’s sentiment; an appeal for love and humanity in a world of growing inequality and injustice. Stevie is at his absolute best in all senses. I Wish, Sir Duke and As show Stevie at his funkiest and most soulful, but whatever the song or style here it’s sense of joy and grace are completely overwhelming. Love is ever present, and whilst the whole double-album is an uplifting euphonic rollercoaster, I remember the LP one, side two just blew me away, and hey, Stevie’s drums are the highlight, oozing effortless soul.

Now, I Wish is a stone cold classic, and Summer Soft is an absolute beauty but I just couldn’t get enough of Knocks Me Off My Feet. There are three tracks on the album on which Stevie plays everything, and this is one.

“I see us in the park
Strolling the summer days of imaginings in my head
And words from our hearts
Told only to the wind felt even without being said
I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet”

I love everything about this song, but what killed me was Stevie’s drumming; it feels like he’s making love to the hi-hat, caressing it with such perfect subtlety… “I don’t wanna bore you with it oh but I love you, I love you, I love you”. Oh Stevie, you got me.

Songs In The Key Of Life was, and still is one of my all-time favourite albums. There are artists who inspire you to become a better person simply through their music. Stevie Wonder does that more than any other.

Sweet – ‘Blockbuster’

To make it clear, this compilation will not be a list of my favourite music, more a list of musical memories which have had an effect on me; music which, when I think back, had a dramatic change to the way I thought or behaved. Music which has inspired me. No doubt much of this will indeed be my favourite music. That said, I would not put Blockbuster in my all-time top 100. Probably not my top 1000, but whilst it’s far from being void of melody and skill, its appeal to me is indeed, purely based on nostalgia.

When this hit Top of the Pops I was 7 years old. Why did I like it so much? Well, for a juvenile it was easy to sing along to, containing perfect lyrics for a boy of my age, but equally, if not more importantly for me was the fact that I looked like the lead singer, Brian Connolly. Obviously I didn’t but my bright blonde hair was exactly the same colour, which was enough.

I think I first started really enjoying ‘pop’ music around this time and I think this was my first ever ‘favourite’ single; in fact I think Sweet were the first band I remember liking and considered my favourite. Songs like Wig-Wam-Bam and Ballroom Blitz perfectly encapsulated the Glam-Rock era, which with the likes of Bowie and Bolan had two bona fide iconic figures, but hey, I didn’t look like either of them in 1973 so I was stuck with Blockbuster instead of 20th Century Boy or Life On Mars. Hey ho. Arguably, glam-rock was possibly the start of style over substance, challenged only in that respect by those gorgeous new romantics.

I remember watching this on Top of the Pops and the sense of awe and excitement that resulted. It’s a rip-roaring Glam stomp. It’s as naff as hell and one of those tunes which rockers would dance to with shoulders bent forward and thumbs through their belt loops. Or was that restricted to the Quo? I remember singing, not dancing. “Aaaaaaah, aaaaaaah. You better beware, you better take care, you better watch out if you’ve got long black hair!” I had to start somewhere.