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  • Longform: City of Dreams: Music and Politics Meet in the Border Community of McAllen, Texas
    Posted by Matthew Ismael Ruiz on May 25, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Longform: City of Dreams: Music and Politics Meet in the Border Community of McAllen, Texas Photo by: From left: Helado Negro, Xenia Rubinos, and Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz headlined the Dreams festival in McAllen, Texas, a border town that has found itself at the center of America’s immigration debate. Photo illustration by Tyler Comrie; photos by Chona Kasinger. It’s an uncommonly brisk evening in McAllen, a small city in Texas that sits just north of the Rio Grande and, beyond that, Mexico. In the backyard of a bar called Yerberia Cultura, a piñata in the shape of an anthropomorphized border wall is being brutalized by a young woman with a mop handle. The McAllen pop-punk band Fantástico! eggs her on with a customized cover of Khia’s notoriously raunchy hit “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)”: “Do it now, hit it good, hit that piñata just like you should!” The scene takes place in the middle of March’s Dreams festival, a laid-back event where independent-minded local and out-of-town acts share a sprawling patio with a woman selling T-shirts emblazoned with catchphrases like “Your History Books Are Puro Pedo”—that is, “Pure Farts”—and a food stand run by a mom who put her daughter through college with her flautas. The musical lineup at Dreams is inspired, and it likely wouldn’t happen anywhere else. The three artists at the top of the bill have wildly different sounds and live shows, but there’s a common thread connecting them. As Helado Negro, Roberto Carlos Lange records deeply inward-gazing lullabies, protection spells, and guides to self-care dealing with the fear and anxiety of being brown; Xenia Rubinos balances sweet soul with smart bass riffs while exploring her own identity and the Latinx experience in white America; Downtown Boys pay spiritual homage to both Bruce Springsteen and Selena, making aggressively confrontational punk rock spiked with politically charged calls to action. “Representation is super important on these lineups, especially for us down here,” says Dreams organizer and McAllen DIY mainstay Patrick Garcia. “To see these artists, to see their skin, and to see what they are.” Recently, many young bands in McAllen and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley have been emboldened by this kind of recognition, offering their own takes on the Latinx experience, from the prog-metal stylings of DeZorah, to the indie-pop snark of Pinky Swear, to the nimble-tongued raps of Caldo Frio. Despite a deck stacked against them by geography, postcolonialism, and modern politics, the music scene in the Valley is more than just healthy—it’s thriving. Pinky Swear: "Change for Me" (Buy on Bandcamp) Garcia points to Downtown Boys’ first McAllen show a couple of years ago as a flashpoint representative of already shifting attitudes. “People freaked out seeing a brown woman shouting ‘girls to the front,’” he says. “It was like, ‘Whoa, you’re loving us and telling us to take care of ourselves.’ It invigorated the community.” The feeling is mutual. “You’re instantly contextualized—you can’t play here without knowing that you’re in McAllen,” says Downtown Boys vocalist Victoria Ruiz. “You’re able to see people who look like you, and they could be your cousin. It’s so hard to feel that context in a lot of other cities that we play.” So as bands like Downtown Boys tour the country, or the world, they spread the gospel of McAllen as diehards like Garcia see it: A community and culture with more to offer than the two-dimensional narratives of crime and poverty that have proliferated on conservative outlets like Breitbart News, all the way up to the White House. Downtown Boys at Dreams festival in McAllen, Texas. Piñata art by Josué Ramírez. In the Rio Grande Valley, notions of heritage and pride often involve an undercurrent of assimilation that permeates everyday life. For a lot of families, achieving the American Dream means shedding much of the culture they left behind and adopting their new home’s language and ethos of white supremacy. The assimilation may be driven by the innocuous intentions of a parent wanting a better life for their child, but it can foster a subconscious self-loathing that bands like Downtown Boys aim to obliterate as they chant brown pride anthems in Spanish, or when guitarist Joey DeFrancesco goes on a political rant onstage as Ruiz translates it into Spanish in real-time. The band’s arrival in the Valley seemed to dovetail with a burgeoning movement of young people in the scene looking to reconnect with these lost parts of their identity. The traditional regional sounds of the Rio Grande Valley are loosely referred to as Conjunto, ranch music based around a Mexican 12-string acoustic bass guitar. It’s an ever-present part of life in the area, heard at quinceñeras, family barbecues, or even just in the street. Tejano music sprouted up after European immigrants—specifically from Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia—began to settle in south Texas in the mid 19th century, bringing with them their waltzes, polkas, and most importantly, accordions, which would become the style’s defining instrument. Ask a young person in the Valley today what they think of Conjunto or Tejano music, though, and they’re unlikely to identify with it. But filmmakers Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza hope to recontextualize the Valley’s music history with their new documentary, As I Walk Through the Valley, which traces the area’s musical spirit across genres and generations. “Tejano was very punk in its attitude,” says Garza. He goes on to explain how the style was employed as Chicanos in the Valley fought against corruption and marched for human rights in the 1970s. That rebelliousness has fueled independent music in the Valley for decades, through the punk, metal, and hardcore scenes of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but despondent and bored young people in the area are often caught in cultural limbo, unaware that previous generations of kids built their own DIY scenes, and they could, too. “Part of why we’re doing this project, is that we’re cut off from our own local history and narratives,” Vela says of his film. “They’re not taught in school, certainly. Young people are trying to connect with these things, but there’s no unbroken tradition. We’re just trying to piecemeal it together and find some sense of roots, and where they’re cut off.” The U.S. side of the Rio Grande—a border wall can be seen in the distance. Through events like Dreams, Garcia and others are also doing their part to build bridges from the past to the present when it comes to both grassroots music and activism, often using one to propel the other. The McAllen music scene was recently forced to organize to protect its very existence after a white, developer-friendly politician sought to ban outdoor amplified music and all-ages shows in the city’s 17th Street Entertainment District—a ban that would have killed live music at the Yerberia Cultura and, by association, Dreams. A campaign spearheaded by Garcia and veteran local musician Andres Sanchez collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to oppose the ordinance in a single day, ultimately forcing the city commission to back down and rescind it. But other fights rage on. The same forces that keep people from traveling out of the Valley to see or play shows—poverty, geographical isolation, and the border patrol checkpoints on every road leading north and south—make it difficult to access healthcare services such as abortions, or to visit family or seek economic opportunity elsewhere. Some of the same kids screaming “She’s brown! She’s smart!” along with Victoria Ruiz at Dreams can be found escorting women to the sole clinic in the Valley that provides abortion services; some of the same people proclaiming that they’re “young, Latin, and proud” along with Roberto Lange at the Yerberia Cultura were also at an event earlier that day in nearby San Juan, Texas, where community leaders assembled by newly elected Rep. Vicente Gonzalez hosted a roundtable for Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi, directly speaking truth to power regarding issues of immigration, religious tolerance, and environmentalism. Also in attendance at Dreams was Eduardo Canales of the South Texas Human Right Center. He works with law enforcement and local landowners to provide fresh water stations for the undocumented migrants seeking points north along the massive ranches and scrubland that divides the Valley from San Antonio. The bodies of those he can’t save—people that die from exposure or dehydration—he helps recover from private land in hopes of reuniting them with their families. Few issues in South Texas are as charged, however, as access to affordable abortion services. After Texas passed a measure designed to result in the closure of the majority of abortion clinics in the state in 2013, the Whole Woman’s Health clinic on South Main Street in McAllen became the only remaining clinic providing services in the entire Valley—an area that covers almost 5,000 square miles and is home to more than 1.3 million people. Whole Woman’s Health argued the bill was unconstitutional, took their case to the Supreme Court, and won. But the damage was done—many of the clinics that closed have yet to reopen, and Texas’ assault on these clinics continues. At the forefront of that fight in the Valley is South Texans for Reproductive Justice, an organization founded by activists Denni and Melissa Arjona that is committed to evolving the conversation around abortion to include factors of marginalization like poverty and citizenship status that disproportionately affect women of color. For the last few years, the Arjonas have organized a concert called Skank for Choice—featuring Denni’s band Los Skagaleros—to benefit La Frontera Fund, which helps provide practical support to Valley residents who are seeking abortions. Additionally, local Cathryn Torres, a staunch supporter of reproductive justice, produced a show called Justicia, promoting women in hardcore and benefitting La Frontera Fund. McAllen’s lone remaining abortion clinic is often quite literally a battleground, with anti-choice activists maintaining a constant presence in the public spaces surrounding the building and posting massive signs within every possible sightline for patients arriving for appointments. The facility was closed when I visited, but a handful of protesters were still posted up out front, praying their rosaries. It’s gotten so intense that in addition to a security guard, there is a literal wall in front of its doors, limiting the points of access to the facility. When the anti-choicers—typically led by leaders in the Roman Catholic community—mobilize on the clinic, the South Texans for Reproductive Justice puts together counter-actions to protect patients and employees of the clinic, often forming a human barrier. Protestors stand outside of the Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, even when the clinic is closed. If there’s one organization that represents the intersectionality of the Valley’s progressive front, it’s the LGBTQ advocacy group Aquí Estamos, which has strong ties to the music scene and various activist organizations—and few members of Aquí Estamos embody this spirit better than Alexis Bay. Bay, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, is one of the few people I meet in the valley who is not Chicano; their family immigrated from Cuba through South Florida, and moved to the Valley when they were just 3 years old. They spend their days working at a nature center in one of the few preserved plots of wildlife in the area, teaching people about its old growth forests that predate colonialism; the Valley’s positioning as a migration highway makes it one of the premier birding destinations in America. Bay is also involved in the fight for reproductive justice and volunteered to assist South and Central American refugees. “There’s no separating these things, they’re very interwoven,” Bay says of the various organizations and causes they are a part of. “The Valley is a very beautiful quilt in that sense.” Part of that quilt can seem contradictory, and one unavoidable intersection is the role of Roman Catholicism in the culture of the Valley: Members of Aquí Estamos often find themselves volunteering with members of the church at the Humanitarian Respite Center, only to find themselves on opposite sides of the picket line in the fight for reproductive justice. And beyond the awkwardness of working with someone who might hate you for your orientation or thoughts on abortion, there’s also the struggle of Catholicism’s looming role in identity, even for those in the Valley who aren’t religious. “Even if you’re not Catholic, on some level, you’re still probably culturally Catholic—there’s still some imagery that invokes emotion or comfort,” says Bay. “If you go to other parts of the country, they’re more than happy to be like, ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,’ [but here] you still meet Latinx folks that may have a rosary. It still means something to them.” And though progressive activists of all stripes are making advances in the Valley, that’s not to say that Brown Pride has completely taken over: There are still Mexican-American Trump supporters in the area, perpetuating false narratives about themselves. “It’s so strange,” Patrick Garcia admits. “It’s not that I can’t blame them, but when I look at it, I understand they’re in a system of poverty, and to them, success is wealth, and wealth is being offered via this candidate via the rhetoric of false freedom, so they’re going to lean towards that.” Trump piñatas at a shop in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, just across the border. But even if the wall has some supporters in the Valley, of all the activist fronts in the region, the fight for the dignity and human rights of undocumented immigrants seems to have the most solidarity: You can find Catholics, atheists, musicians, grandmas, and grandchildren among the ranks of those advocating for the cause. And it’s likely because many people don’t have to look back too far to find their connection to Mexico or points south, or have a friend, relative, or neighbor without papers. The ham-fisted narratives about drug-smuggling violent criminal immigrants are hard to swallow when you know plenty of normal, hard-working people whose only difference from you is a piece of paper. For an undocumented musician, it’s especially heartbreaking; even as the Valley’s profile grows and the opportunities for local musicians expand beyond South Texas, without papers, the risk of being detained at a checkpoint is often too great to be able to take part. Jesus Reazola is 31 years old and stands some six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a hulking frame that belies a soft-spoken nature. His friends call him Chuy, a common Mexican nickname for Jesus. He plays drums in the band Monstruo Bohemio and raps in a group called Caldo Frio with drummer Carmen Castillo. Castillo’s family hails from Reynosa, Mexico, McAllen’s sister city on the other side of the border, and they crossed when she was barely a year old; she’s since acquired legal resident status. Reazola has not. Carmen Castillo and Jesus “Chuy” Reazola of the McAllen rap duo Caldo Frio. Over tacos at his favorite restaurant in McAllen, Reazola tells me how his family fled from intense cartel violence in Monterrey, Mexico in the summer of 1998 when he was 11, just old enough to remember the journey into the U.S. While Reazola was still living in Monterrey, his mother would make frequent trips into the U.S. to work. (Before drug cartels monopolized the smuggling routes across the border, freelance coyotes—human smugglers that knew the safest routes to cross undetected—could get you across for a reasonable fee.) She told him how, while crossing the Rio Grande, she was swept up in a current and just narrowly escaped drowning, exhausting herself fighting the river’s strong current. “Don’t fight the river, it’s too strong,” she said. “Just float.” When they crossed as a family in 1998, the advice became a mantra: “Flota con el Rio.” Years later, when Reazola was 26 and living in the U.S., he found himself at a party when a fight broke out, drawing the attention of law enforcement. He says that he was trying to break it up, but it didn’t matter—he was rounded up and taken to jail, and when his undocumented status was discovered, he was deported to Mexico, where he hadn’t lived since he was a child. Like a lot of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S., staying in Mexico wasn’t really an option for him; his life, job, friends, and much of his family were in the States. But as the U.S. ramped up its war on drugs, and the smuggling routes became too valuable for the cartels to ignore, the independent coyotes were given a choice: Start working for the cartels, or else. Many chose to flee. People looking to cross without papers faced a similar dilemma: If they were discovered crossing without paying the cartel, they too faced reprisals. Unable to afford the few hundred dollars to pay the cartel, Reazola chose to risk his life crossing with a former coyote, who had fled to the U.S. rather than work for a cartel, crawling for hours to avoid detection. “I was in Mexico for less than 24 hours,” Reazola says. “Me and my friend crossed back as soon as we touched down in Mexico. We didn’t even eat that day.” When they arrived at the Rio Grande crossing, his mother’s words came rushing back to him the moment he stepped into the water—wisdom that likely saved his life. The throughline of those experiences—Reazola mother’s perilous crossing, the family’s flight from Monterrey, and his mad dash back into the U.S. as an adult—became the basis for “Flota con el Rio,” the sixth track on Caldo Frio’s latest album, Aca en el Sur (Here in the South). It’s a bouncy rap song colored with strings and a somber acoustic guitar riff, peppered by Reazola’s rapid-fire flow; he speaks English well, but he raps in Spanish, his first language. Caldo Frio: “Flota con el Rio” (Buy on Bandcamp) When Reazola first told me his story, I struggled with the responsibility of putting him at risk by sharing it publicly. But like many other undocumented immigrants in the U.S., he understands that in order to change policy, you must first change hearts and minds. Undocumented immigrants often struggle for the most basic dignity, for the right to move freely, to be recognized as human. Near the border, this results in a peculiar kind of detention—not in a camp or locked-down facility, but within the hundred-mile floodplain that makes up the Rio Grande Valley. With checkpoints all around, the risk of being deported is too great to justify even small trips—for an artist like Reazola, the idea of even traveling to Austin remains in the realm of fantasy. There can be no tour, no SXSW showcase, no exploration of the country he risked his life to reach. Most of the people I speak with in the Rio Grande Valley are exhausted by the rhetoric of border politics and by national media presuming to speak for them. Some are even taking the issue into their own hands with Neta, an independent news source for, by, and of Valley residents, a place for their voices and stories to be heard, on their own terms. For musical diehards like Garcia, Vela, and Garza, the dream is for the music of the Valley to be recognized for its rich past, present, and future; for the South Texans for Reproductive Justice, the dream is for all people to have equal access to healthcare; for Reazola, the dream is merely to take his art beyond the confines of the low-lying scrublands that he now calls home. All of these are American Dreams, each one worth fighting for. […]

  • Lists & Guides: The Grateful Dead: A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs
    Posted by Pitchfork on May 23, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    Lists & Guides: The Grateful Dead: A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs Photo by: Illustration by Matt Panuska A User’s Guide to the Grateful Dead By Jesse Jarnow As avatars of San Francisco's ’60s-born counterculture, the Grateful Dead have served as an alternative to American reality for more than a half-century. Performing from 1965 to 1995 with guitarist and songwriter Jerry Garcia, the Dead survive through a vast body of live recordings, originally traded by obsessive fans and now preserved on a long string of official releases. Though the band has an epic narrative (told in Amir Bar-Lev’s rapturous four-hour Long, Strange Trip documentary), much of the Dead’s story and significance remains purely musical. Part of the group’s staying power is due to the mysterious vastness that exists outside the bounds of their official studio recordings, a live canon shaped by generations of the still-active Deadhead music trading network. Flourishing in an extralegal sharing economy built around the exchange of concert tapes and psychedelics (the tapes were never to be sold), most of the Dead’s live recordings could only be accessed through profoundly anti-corporate means. Rather than killing music, as an infamous British music industry campaign claimed in ’80s, home taping actually propelled the Grateful Dead to stadiums, as the Dead themselves acknowledged. Profoundly unslick, the Grateful Dead's anti-authoritarian creative tendencies remain palpable in the current era. Self-consciously apolitical and populist to a fault, the Dead built a diverse audience across the political spectrum while continuing to act as a catalyst for young and old seekers, music heads, counterculturalists, and psychonauts. Simultaneously, the Dead produced dancing music, folklore, and lyrics to nourish an extended community that continues to thrive at shows by the band’s surviving members and a national scene of cover bands. Navigating the Grateful Dead’s shadow discography can be daunting, a tangle of different periods and idiosyncrasies. This list of recommended song versions—chronological, not ranked—serves as an introductory survey of the band’s different periods. Loosely, the 37 entries here chart a path from garage-prog (1966) to lysergic jam suites (1967-1969), alt-Americana (1970), barroom country & western (1971), space-jazz (1972-1975), and epic hippie disco (1976-1978), eventually arriving at the more slowly evolving band of the ’80s and ’90s, whose driving creative force sometimes seemed to be their own inertia. It’s the latter era that is most prone to cleave even Dead enthusiasts. It represents a divide between the tighter, more critically accepted earlier band and the beloved-by-Deadheads ’80s and ’90s incarnations, when they were beset by addiction, the technologies of the era, questionable aesthetic choices, and an evolving secret musical language that sometimes made more sense in sold-out stadiums of dancing fans. While the Dead got more popular every year in their later decades—and continued to generate jam surprises and bold performances aplenty—new listeners will likely want to start with the band’s earlier epochs. One can see long-running debates even among our contributors encapsulated in entries for beloved songs like “Jack Straw” and the “Scarlet Begonias”/”Fire on the Mountain” combo, with a contingent of heads here deeply digging the chaotic stadium psychedelia of the later band. The majority of the primary song choices presented below come from the classic years of the ’60s and ’70s; for many songs, Key Later Versions from the ’80s or ’90s highlight further developments for the discerning Dead freak. There, one can hear the band finding new places hidden in the old, mining the mountain range of material they'd generated earlier in their career. Though the band’s proper albums have earned an undeserved bad reputation, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead (both released in 1970) especially contain a small handful of songs for which the studio versions remain almost undisputedly definitive. While songs like “Ripple,” “Attics of My Life,” “Box of Rain,” and several others belong on any list of the band’s campfire standards, they’re left off here in the interest of songs that varied more greatly in live performance. Likewise, Europe ’72, which features elements re-touched in the studio, generated a number of great live tunes served perfectly well the version found on that album, including “Ramble on Rose” and “Brown-Eyed Women.” Though the Dead continued introducing new originals up through their last tours, this list focuses on something like a core curriculum of live Dead. Nearly every selection on this list can and should be argued by anyone with an opinion about live Dead recordings. But these picks are intended to be gateways into different scenic and well-manicured corners of Grateful Dead land for those who haven’t spent much time there, places that might feel welcoming before drumz/space kicks in. From there, the paths are nearly infinite: an enormous live catalog splattered unceremoniously across streaming services (but helpfully listed chronologically at DeadDiscs), the complete fan-curated collection at archive.org (navigable via DeadLists or Relisten.net), a riot of Grateful Dead historical and ahistorical blogs, academic conferences, a nightly slate of #couchtour webcasts, or a live music venue near you. Listen to The Grateful Dead: A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs on Spotify and Apple Music.  “You Don’t Have To Ask” July 16, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Grateful Dead Overly complicated original is highlight of album’s worth of songs scrapped before debut LP. Played in 1966 only. “You Don’t Have to Ask” has all the elements of a great garage band song. It’s got a groovy bass line, excellent reverby guitar solos, great group harmony vocals, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s combo organ cuts right through everything. It’s a zippy little number, guaranteed to fulfill the Dead’s dance-band obligations. But while it’s catchy, it’s also totally fucking bananas. There are several verses, choruses, parts, sections, a bridge or maybe three, chords you don't expect (maybe they were surprised too), modulation up, (spoiler alert) modulation back down, then something else entirely, all at a breakneck speed for them and wrapped up in under four minutes. It kinda sounds like they (Bob) were still learning the song, but they're all really going for it, even if it was destined to be one of approximately an album's worth of originals dropped from the repertoire before the band signed to Warner Bros. in 1967. If there was a version of the Nuggets compilations that consisted entirely of songs written and played by lunatics totally zonked on acid, this would definitely make the cut. –James McNew Lore: Deadhead forensics has determined that “You Don’t Have to Ask” was also known as “Otis on a Shakedown Cruise,” an early song title remembered by band members that seemingly didn’t survive on tape; at least until an attentive listener noticed that—seconds before this version starts—a band member can be heard off-mic asking, “Otis?” Listen: Spotify | Apple Music “Cream Puff War” December 1, 1966 The Matrix, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia Included on the group’s debut LP, a rare original with both words and music by Jerry Garcia and early vehicle for exploratory modal jams. It’s okay if you don’t like the Grateful Dead—even the Greatest American Band Ever isn’t for everybody. But if you’re an ardent Dead hater, I’d urge you to try just this one track. In a dimension where the Dead flamed out in obscurity, “Cream Puff War” would’ve justified their inevitable rediscovery by proto-punk collectors. Attacked with an urgency they’d never again employ, the song is on the garage-ier end of the psych spectrum, with a delinquent Farfisa and uncharacteristically fierce Garcia vocals. Of course, it’s still the Dead, so it’s a little too fussy for true garage-fuzz, with a pile of chords and sudden swerves into waltz time. Played only during the little-documented fall of 1966 and spring 1967, only a single extended version survives, the band consciously searching for new territory and exploring the modal improv mode they would soon make their own. Shelved soon thereafter, “Cream Puff War” remains an interesting thought experiment in Grateful Dead alternate history. –Rob Mitchum Venue: The Matrix was a tiny San Francisco club co-owned by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, where the Dead played early shows and later experimented with side projects like Mickey and the Hartbeats. In some circles, it’s more famous for live recordings of the Dead’s fellow former Warlocks, the Velvet Underground. Listen: Archive.org “Viola Lee Blues” February 2, 1968 Crystal Ballroom, Portland, Ore. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Noah Lewis (arr. the Grateful Dead) The Dead’s first massive jam, a hopped-up jug band rearrangement built on three volcanic improv sections. A dependable mindbender and set centerpiece, whether as an opener or closer, “Viola Lee Blues” outlasted nearly everything else from the band’s 1966 playbook, but disappeared from live shows after 1970.  Legendary Dead tape collector and vault-master Dick Latvala coined the term “primal Dead” to describe the blustery psychedelia at the core of the band’s legend. And few early performances reveal the group’s unhinged nature as openly as this prison-blues chugger, written by Memphis singer/harmonica player Noah Lewis and originally recorded in 1928 by his trio, Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Most Dead versions of “Viola Lee Blues” are a variant on its noisy appeal, including the rare excellent studio jam on the band’s 1967 Warner Bros. debut, yet what makes this show-opener special is power, precision, and compactness. The stand-alone opening chord is a universe. The sound of multiple vocalists screaming out the words betrays an on-stage good time rolling. Garcia’s mountainous arpeggios—using a deeply metallic guitar tone—are a study in Sturm und Drang naturalism; while the hanging pause on which the players reunite is big-band tightness exemplified. A perfect vehicle when secondary drummer Mickey Hart joined in 1967, here the closing jam’s leap into Kreutzmann/Hart-driven hyperspace is a premonition of future Rhys Chatham/Glenn Branca/Sonic Youth punk-jazz explosions. Strap the fuck in! –Piotr Orlov Listen: Archive.org Key Earlier Version: September 3, 1967, Rio Nido Dance Hall, Rio Nido, Calif. Recorded just before Mickey Hart joined the band, the Rio Nido “Viola Lee” is perhaps the best document of the early single-drummer Dead in full flight, with Garcia spinning out endless hypnotic turns.  The Grateful Dead performing circa 1967. Photo via Leni Sinclair/Getty Images. “Alligator” February 14, 1968 Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Phil Lesh, Robert Hunter Non-performing lyricist Robert Hunter’s first contribution to a Dead song became a playful springboard. “Alligator” most often segued into “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks),” a locomotive blues-fuzz groove almost wholly borrowed from Them’s “Mystic Eyes,” and in this infamous sequence into a blistering six minutes of guitar feedback.  Just before what sounds like a drum circle busts out, Bob Weir leans into the mic and says, “C’mon everybody! Get up and dance, it won’t ruin ya!” That bit of tape lifted later that year for the band’s pioneering studio/live hybrid, Anthem of the Sun. Weir’s got the earnestness of a prom chaperon gently chiding a wallflower. And why shouldn’t he? This was an era of raw fun for the Dead, prime Pigpen time, who hoots and hollers through his lead vocal, while Weir implores listeners to “burn down the Fillmore, gas the Avalon,” the two venues competing with the band-run Carousel Ballroom. Heavy competition. After the song relaxes from an early Kreutzmann/Hart drum sesh and the guitar finally returns, it’s sour but funky. Too good for even the shyest of the shy to not move their butts. –Matthew Schnipper Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: April 29, 1971, Fillmore East, New York City, N.Y. The final version of the song is a leaner reptile but with perhaps even more bite, the now-solo Kreutzmann drum segment chomping into a thrilling Lesh/Garcia jam.  “St. Stephen” August 21, 1968 Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Robert Hunter Cryptic lyrics, an elliptical psychedelic bounce, scorching guitar, occasionally a live cannon onstage, and always a Deadhead favorite. For a few years in the late ’60s, “St. Stephen” anchored a suite that also included “Dark Star” and “The Eleven,” together taking up the first two sides of the pivotal Live/Dead double LP. Building sets around the rolling peaks of the suite, individually and together the songs showcased the band’s latest compositional ideas and quickly developing musical interplay. At the center was “St. Stephen.” Featuring some of Robert Hunter’s most lava-lamp-ready turns of phrase (“lady finger dipped in moonlight,” anyone?), ”St. Stephen” is alluringly simple: a bouncy psychedelic standby that may or may not have anything to do with the Christian martyr in its title. At early performances, like this August take at the Fillmore West, it carries the energy of a band falling in love with their own sound, navigating the song’s left turns with aplomb. Bob and Jerry sing the verses together with childlike joy, before things slow down and get foggier, buoyed by spacey glockenspiel. Just a minute later, the whole band bounce back into action with a devilish energy, propelled by one of Jerry’s gnarliest riffs. The darkness shrugs, and the Dead ride on. –Sam Sodomsky What To Listen For: The Live/Dead-era versions of the song end with several verses of a lysergic Irish-sounding jig, both a musical bridge and dramatic energy build before springing into “The Eleven” (with which it’s often erroneously tracked, as here).  Listen: Archive.org  Key Later Version: May 5, 1977 New Haven Coliseum, New Haven, Conn. Revived in slower, elegant form after the band’s 1976 return, “St. Stephen” attained a different kind of grace, sometimes still finding ecstasy (if not quite psychedelic fury) in the middle jam, as on standalone versions like this one, though more often segueing into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”.  “New Potato Caboose” February 13, 1968 Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Phil Lesh and Bobby Petersen One of the band’s most structurally experimental songs sets a poem by band friend Bobby Petersen to music. “It's a very long thing and it doesn't have a form,” Jerry Garcia told an interviewer about the Dead’s “New Potato Caboose” around the time the band started performing it in the late ’60s. The band had been writing original material since shortly after their 1965 formation, but “New Potato” was an indication of their rapidly expanding ambitions. Written by bassist Phil Lesh from a poem by Bobby Petersen, it highlights the former composition prodigy’s studied chops. What Garcia heard as formlessness, Lesh almost certainly designed—in his own hallucinogenic way—as specific movements, interconnected with an elusive dream logic. Sung by Bob Weir with Lesh and Garcia joining for the cascading chorus, Weir sells its mystical (and maybe even proto-Sonic Youth) atmosphere with a stoney, detached edge during this Carousel Ballroom performance. Though they would never write another song remotely like it, “New Potato Caboose” foreshadows the territory they were about to conquer. –Sam Sodomsky What To Listen For: On this classic early bootleg, a Deadhead staple sourced from an experimental radio broadcast on then-freeform KMPX, Garcia’s wild outro solo dissolves into Weir’s “Born Cross-Eyed” and a powerful articulated take of the piece of music Deadheads would label “Spanish Jam.”  Venue: Operated by a consortium of bands including the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Carousel Ballroom failed as a business, and was reopened as the Fillmore West by promoter Bill Graham.  Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  “The Eleven” February 28, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calf. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter The band’s endlessly rehearsed double-drummer mindbender central to Live/Dead. “The Eleven” is the Grateful Dead at their most joyous, all ascending scales, bursts of melody, shouted lyrics, and tricky meters designed to sound as if everything is on the verge of falling apart. Its essence is right there in the title: the song is in 11/8 time, meaning that three bars of 3/4 are punctuated with a quick 2/4 bash before the cycle starts again. The 11/8 frame turns out to be ideal for Garcia and Lesh, who solo in tandem on the best versions of the song. “The Eleven” was shorter, faster, and gnarlier in 1968, and the soloing—the best of which always happens before the brief verses begin—was more clipped. By the week in late February where they recorded the material that wound up on the epochal Live/Dead, Garcia and Lesh were working like two halves of the same musical mind. A Wednesday show at the Avalon Ballroom produced the Live/Dead version, but the Friday night show of that same week, one of four in a row at the Fillmore West, turned out to be the finest single moment for “The Eleven.” Garcia and Lesh are like two dogs barking and nipping at each other while running full-speed across a field, never breaking stride, taking turns being in front. Eventually, the tight three-chord structure would bore Garcia, who felt he’d wrung every idea he could out of the song. The Dead dropped it from setlists forever in 1970. But during this precise moment in February 1969 there are more ideas than they know what to do with. –Mark Richardson What to Listen For: The overlapping three-part vocal is hard-to-sing overload, featuring some of Robert Hunter’s finest lysergic playfulness in Garcia’s trippy countdown part: “Eight-sided whispering hallelujah hatrack, seven-faced marble eye transitory dream doll…” What Else to Listen For: The drums, man! Ideally on headphones. Listen: Spotify | Apple Music The Grateful Dead circa 1968. Photo via Malcolm Lubliner/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. “Mountains of the Moon” March 1, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter The Dead’s first and most psychedelic folk song has more in common with the Incredible String Band than Phish, used as a prelude to the jam centerpiece, “Dark Star.” The peak old-folkie days of the Dead wouldn’t come until the early ’70s, but “Mountains of the Moon” was foreshadowed that era. Debuted in late ’68, the minimal ballad spent the first half of ’69 as the gentle prelude to its deeper astronomical partner, “Dark Star”; the last few notes of the February 27, 1969 version can be heard during the introductory fade-in to Live/Dead. On Aoxomoxoa, some heavy-handed harpsichord emphasizes the faux-Elizabethan melody and faerie-land lyrics, but live, a stripped-down lineup of Bobby on a 12-string, Garcia finger-picking, Lesh burbling, and Tom “T.C.” Constanten on organ made for a haunting lull in their primal phase. –Rob Mitchum What to Listen For: Serving as a spell to put the band and audience in the ruminative frame of mind for the journey to come, Garcia essentially continues his closing “Mountains of the Moon” solo into the “Dark Star” intro, even while switching from acoustic to electric guitar.  Listen: Spotify | Apple Music   Watch: January 18, 1969 Playboy After Dark, Los Angeles, Calif. To see a possibly-dosed Hugh Hefner swaying along to “Mountains of the Moon” with his arm around a Bunny, check out the Dead’s surreal appearance on Playboy After Dark. “Friend of the Devil” May 2, 1970 Harpur College, Binghamton, N.Y. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia, John Dawson, and Robert Hunter Hail Satan! 1970 was a championship season for the devil. The Beatles broke up. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin raised the curtains in the 27 Club. The Kent State massacres compounded the 6,173 body bags airlifted back from Vietnam. And the Grateful Dead unshackled “Friend of the Devil,” the best song ever written about a cuckolded bigamist fleeing from a sheriff’s posse and 20 hellhounds, only to get stuck up by Satan for his final $20. Apologies to ’Pac and Snoop, but this is the most immortal outlaw anthem about attempting to return to your house out in the hills right next to Chino. Written by Robert Hunter with John Dawson of stoner C&W Dead spin-off New Riders of the Purple Sage with Garcia adding the bridge, the acoustic riffs ramble like an undiscovered escape route. Robert Hunter’s lyrics shine a searchlight on a Western anti-hero—Butch Cassidy bargaining with Lucifer—sleepless, ragged, and fatal. But Garcia sings with a weary sweetness on this staple acoustic set. A bouquet in hand, six-shooter behind his back; the poetic conman with insidious alliances, he seduces with his wounded decency, at least until he disappears into a cloud of sulfur. –Jeff Weiss Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  Key Later Version: June 27, 1976 Auditorium Theater, Chicago, Ill. Following the band’s touring hiatus, Garcia was inspired to revive the song in a slower arrangement after hearing a recording of a live Loggins & Messina cover.  “Brokedown Palace” August 30, 1970 KQED Studios, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter Garcia and Hunter’s immortal farewell ballad and cosmic love song with Crosby, Stills & Nash-inspired harmonies. The massive amount of high quality archival audio makes the Grateful Dead’s video output seem minuscule by comparison. Add crummy camerawork and dated psychedelic FX, and you often don’t have too much to look at. Not so for this simple and beautiful take of “Brokedown Palace” on local California TV, which keeps the fancy tech to a minimum. But on the chorus, marked by some of the Dead’s most beautiful earthy three-part harmonizing, Weir and Garcia’s profiles overlap on screen. It’s their own Mamas and Papas or Fleetwood Mac moment: two crooners, a heartthrob and a scruff, in total rhapsody. Sometimes, there seemed to be a disconnect between the band’s solemn sound and the way they made the audience feel. In 1970, the year Garcia and Hunter churned out two albums of instant hippie standards, it paid off, with the Dead in perfect harmony, both creatively and vocally. Everyone onstage and off is blissed out. How nice it is to share. –Matthew Schnipper What to Listen For: Not shown on camera, the high part of the band’s three-part harmony is bassist Phil Lesh.  Listen: Archive.org  Key Later Version: May 11, 1977 St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, Minn. Like almost everything else in May 1977, “Brokedown Palace” sounded perfect, Donna Jean Godchaux’s harmony replacing Lesh’s, who mostly stopped singing in the late ‘70s after straining his vocal cords.  “Turn On Your Love Light” September 19, 1970 Fillmore East, New York City, N.Y. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Joseph Scott and Deadric Malone  A frequent show closer from 1969-1972 and a showcase for Pigpen’s greasy raps and unfurling blues-psych boogies. From 1969-1971, especially, the Dead spent more time jamming “Love Light” than even “Dark Star,” playing it more often and usually for a longer duration as a populist get-the-heads-dancing rave-up to conclude their most far-out sets.  Defying the peak of primal Dead, the gutbucket blues of “Turn on Your Love Light” dominated set lists during the Dead’s most psychedelic era. Usually upwards of 20 minutes (and sometimes over 40), the band vamped between innuendo-filled raps by frontman Pigpen aimed at pairing off members of the audience. While conducting the band’s deft on-the-fly arrangements, Pig would spike the Bobby “Blue” Bland original’s sweetness into something more libidinal and fetishistic. “Well she’s got box back nitties/Great big noble thighs/Working undercover with her boar hog eye,” Pig sang, a bit of mojo jive that one scholar has spent ample time decoding. By September 1970, the Summer of Love had given way to the Autumn of Fuck. Doing some crowd work, Pig whips the audience into a frenzy, perhaps creating the sort of “weird atmosphere” that led one feminist reviewer to feel alienated by the “hippie stag party” later that fall. After the band strikes the final beat, Pigpen screams “Fuck!”—issued as both punctuation and command. This “Love Light” scores 5 fucks—one for each time the word is uttered by the band. –Ariella Stok Listen: Archive.org  Watch: August 16, 1969 Max Yasgur’s Farm, Bethel, N.Y. At Woodstock, as the Dead begin a 36 minute “Love Light”, a still-unidentified rando takes over the mic, soon led away when Merry Prankster Ken Babbs distracts him with a joint.  “Dark Star” April 8, 1972 Wembley Pool, London, UK Listen on Apple Music Written by: Grateful Dead and Robert Hunter  The band’s definitive psychedelic jam epic, with wondrous versions in nearly every era it appeared. In April of 1972, the Dead commenced a major European tour, almost two months long and a definitive musical turning point. Elongated fast ’n’ furious blues jams and Wild West saloon swagger were dosed with jazzier, subtler improvisations, the Dead’s musical shorthand cribbed from the simultaneous soloing of Dixieland music. Introduced to listeners via a short and far-out 7" in early 1968 and the standard side-long take of Live/Dead in 1969, the April 8th, 1972 version is not a “Dark Star” of gaping existential canyons jagged with feedback. The exuberance of the band listening to itself in this half-hour house of mirrors can be heard as Garcia’s Alligator Stratocaster quickly descends from the song’s head, Lesh offering bubbly harmonic counterpoint; accents of cymbals and short drum rolls make Weir’s offbeat rhythmic attacks more potent and clear space for Keith Godchaux to pound out leads on his piano. A collective breath is taken after the first and only verse, until Kreutzmann’s kick drum cajoles the rest of the Dead, including Pigpen behind the organ, to percolate a melody, pause for a brief freak-out, and wrap up the song with sunburst triumph. –Buzz Poole What to Listen For: The charging major key jam that erupts near the end of this version also features a fiery debate about what will follow, eventually sliding perfectly into Weir’s “Sugar Magnolia” and a version of Pigpen’s “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)” filled with crackling heat lightning.  Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: October 31, 1991 Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, Calif. At the unexpected and emotionally charged five-show wake for promoter Bill Graham, the Dead’s staunchest supporter, “Dark Star” became a time machine when novelist Ken Kesey delivered a Halloween eulogy and the band flashed back to the Acid Tests, eight musicians so locked in that you can imagine walking between all the notes. Dark Star Canon (Excerpt): 2/28/69 Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA [Live/Dead, dude.] 2/13/70 Fillmore East, New York City, NY [Taper favorite.] 8/27/72 Old Renaissance Fairgrounds, Veneta, OR [Transdimensional meltdown.] 10/28/72 Cleveland Public Hall, Cleveland, OH [Hyperreal, with so-called bass-led Philo Stomp.] 10/26/89 Miami Arena, Miami, FL [MIDI tour-de-force with bummer Garcia vocals.]  “The Other One” April 26, 1972 Jahrhunderthalle, Frankfurt, West Germany Listen on Apple Music Written by: Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann A high-wire version of one of the band’s premier jam vehicles in nearly every era. After dropping “Cryptical Envelopment” in 1971 (minus a brief ’80s revival), “The Other One” became the jam center of many second sets, its triplet-based gallop providing a tension-laden motif for high energy improvisation, perfect for segues, creating a jam canon second only to “Dark Star”.  Released in 1995 as Hundred Year Hall, the Grateful Dead’s April 26, 1972, show in Frankfurt is a tour de force display of pretty much everything the Dead were capable of at this juncture, from earthy Pigpen-led R&B to country-fried workouts to daring improvisation. The latter is best exemplified by the sprawling, 36-minute wonder that is this night's reading of “The Other One.” Originally bookended by Jerry Garcia’s “Cryptical Envelopment,” by 1972 the song had been both pared down and expanded, providing the Dead with a vehicle for their most untethered—and sometimes most aggressive—jams. Coming out of a rollicking “Truckin,’” the Frankfurt “Other One” bursts into action with Bill Kreutzmann's relentless “tiger paws” rhythm and Phil Lesh's rumbling bass, leading directly into a kaleidoscopic roller coaster ride. Jerry Garcia darts madly around with fleet-fingered, often feedback- and wah-drenched guitar work as pianist Keith Godchaux pounds out Cecil Taylor-isms. Even the usually jam-averse Pigpen gets into the act with a stabbing organ part. Before the Dead finally slip into a gorgeous “Comes a Time,” Bob Weir bellows the now-famed lyrics about their deceased mentor, Beat icon Neal Cassady—and there's no question that his gonzo spirit was at the wheel during this performance. –Tyler Wilcox Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Earlier Version: February 27, 1969 Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calif. Sounding fairly goofed up as they introduce the last portion of the evening’s early set, the band dazzles with a complete version of the “That’s It For the Other One” suite, with Garcia’s spiraling “Cryptical Envelopment” intro and outro.   Key Later Version: February 5, 1978 UniDome, Cedar Falls, Iowa. A reliable source of headiness for much of the Dead's career, “The Other One” was especially good in the late ’70s, as on this explosive 1978 rendition. “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” August 27, 1972 Old Renaissance Fairgrounds, Veneta, Ore. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter/traditional, arranged by Grateful Dead  Grateful Dead-brand sunshine in a can links baroque psychedelia to a folk song the Dead arguably made an American classic. During the ’70s, “China > Rider” was a first-set standard, usually the place where the band would initialize their improvisational chops on any given night. In the ’80s and ’90s, it moved to the second set opener slot, a guaranteed crowd favorite to settle fans back in.  To get the absolute purest dose of what the Dead sounded like, lick your finger and stick it in the middle of any rendition of this classic pairing. For one, the duo nicely charts the main axis of Dead songwriting, with effervescent psychedelia blending into an electrified rearrangement of a traditional American folk song. But more important is the zone between the two songs, so humbly notated with a “>”, where the magic truly blooms. For several glorious minutes, the band exists in a quantum state between the two compositions, navigating that space with an uncanny group-mind. In August of 1972, the Dead played a benefit in sweltering heat for the Kesey family creamery outside Eugene, Oregon. Like most things with the Grateful Dead, what should be a calamity is instead transcendent, with “China > Rider” (the “>” is silent) one of several sublime performances. –Rob Mitchum Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  Key Slightly Later Version: June 26, 1974 Providence Civic Center, Providence, R.I. In 1973 and 1974, the “China > Rider” transition included a theme based on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy”, and this version includes both a rare intro jam and a turn through the descending melody that Deadheads call “Mind Left Body,” after its resemblance to a Paul Kantner song.  “Bird Song” August 27, 1972 Old Renaissance Fairgrounds, Veneta, Ore. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter A fragile goodbye doubles as a perfectly titled lift-off for some of the band’s most lilting and delicate jams. Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead's friend and occasional tour mate (not to mention Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s on-again-off-again lover), died of an accidental heroin overdose in October 1970 at the age of 27. A few months later, the Dead unveiled “Bird Song,” Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia’s touching farewell tribute to the singer. Not so much an elegy as a reminder to—as one of Joplin’s signature tunes puts it—get it while you can, “Bird Song”’s studio incarnation appeared on Garcia’s first self-titled solo LP. But the song really took flight onstage with the Dead in 1972, especially during a show at Veneta, Oregon’s Renaissance Fairgrounds, legendary among tape traders for decades before being officially released in 2013. Following a bittersweet, gently psychedelic verse and chorus, the band slides into a long, meditative modal jam, Garcia’s guitar sounding simultaneously mournful and ecstatic as it soars into the upper register, his cohorts circling patiently below. Bill Kreutzmann, handling drumming duties alone, gives the song a restless, jazzy lope. A sublime ensemble performance, made only slightly less sublime in the Sunshine Daydream concert doc, which features an undulating, naked fan perched directly behind Garcia, getting the sunburn of his life. –Tyler Wilcox What to Listen For: The way Kreutzmann launches the band back into the jam with a fluttering drum fill.  Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: October 1980 Radio City Music Hall, New York City, N.Y. The Dead introduced an unplugged—but no less exploratory—“Bird Song” in 1980, a high-flying highlight of the band’s Reckoning live LP.  The Grateful Dead performing circa 1970. Photo via Robert Altman/Getty Images. “Playing in the Band” November 18, 1972 Hofheinz Pavilion, Houston, Tex. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Bob Weir and Robert Hunter The Dead’s archetypal meta-anthem, with every version from 1972 through 1974 diving into deep, heady, and swinging space-jazz. Part of Bob Weir’s first major batch of original songwriting and included with an abnormally good studio jam on 1972’s Ace, “Playing in the Band” was played as a standalone first set closer in the early ’70s, migrating to the second half of the show in later years where it was often split apart by one or several songs inserted between the song’s beginning and final chorus.  1972 was the year of “Playing in the Band,” played more often than any other song and site of some of the band’s deepest explorations. Bob Weir swaggers his way through the meta lyrics of the three-minute pop form, which then melts on a downbeat directly into the outer reaches of a jam that comes as close as the Dead ever achieved to what jazzheads refer to as fire music. Swelling insistently through several movements, the rhythm section pilots—Billy Kreutzmann approaching Elvin Jones-like intensity and Phil Lesh constructing architectural leads only to explode them with double-stopped, low-frequency bass bombs. Interlaced throughout, Garcia’s strobing guitar creates a zoetrope-like effect of white-hot intensity. When it’s time for re-entry, Donna Jean Godchaux wails as though birthing the chorus’s reprise from her very loins, and one is overtaken in ecstasy by the feeling of having emerged triumphant following a journey into the unknown. –Ariella Stok Listen: Archive.org Key Later Version: November 6, 1979, The Spectrum, Philadelphia, Pa. Keyboardist Brent Mydland had joined the band earlier that year and already his deep rapport with Garcia is on display, while the arrival of new synths provides a whole new sonic space-time-continuum for this “Playing” to tear asunder. Jam July 27, 1973 Watkins Glen Motor Speedway, Watkins Glen, N.Y. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Grateful Dead  Well, duh. But not as duh as you maybe think. Oh, of course the Dead almost always jammed, but it was less often that they produced a piece of improvisation from a standing start. It certainly happened occasionally, but never in front of a larger audience than at the Watkins Glen Motor Speedway in July 1973, which itself held the title of largest concert in rock history until Rock in Rio unseated it in 2001. Sharing a bill with the Band and the Allman Brothers in front of an estimated 500,000 people, the three groups played unannounced public warm-ups in front of the assembling crowd the day before the ticketed event, with the Dead deciding (naturally) to play two warm-up sets. One second they’re tuning, and then a cymbal swell drops them into a fluid musical conversation that hints at songs they haven’t even written yet. Mostly it’s just an easy-going dialog between the quintet where one can hear the the chillest iteration of the band’s single-drummer 1971-1973 peak, Bill Kreutzmann’s free dance holding together star-splatter by Garcia, Lesh, and the gang. –Jesse Jarnow Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Avant-Dead Jam: September 11, 1974 Alexandra Palace, London, UK. A number of 1974 performances featured duet performances by Phil Lesh and proto-noise piece Seastones composer Ned Lagin, some of which segued from Lagin’s “moment forms” into the Dead’s set as the band joined in, including this magical improvisation from London’s Alexandra Palace that flows from modular synth eruptions towards the friendly skies of “Eyes of the World.”   Key Later Version: October 26, 1989 Miami Arena, Miami, Fla. By the ’80s, the Dead’s free jamming mostly isolated itself in the guise of their second set “Drumz/Space” segments, the primary forum for the band’s remaining avant-garde leanings and musique concrete-like MIDI explorations, as on this post-“Dark Star” exploration from 1989. “Weather Report Suite: Prelude/Part 1/Part 2: Let It Grow” November 21, 1973 Denver Coliseum, Denver, Colo. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Bob Weir/Bob Weir and Eric Anderson/Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow Perhaps Bob Weir’s most ambitious composition, sad autumnal folk bursts open into elemental Garcia leads. Played 46 times in 1973 and 1974, Weir dropped the gentler first two segments of the piece when they returned in 1976 with second drummer Mickey Hart, though “Let It Grow” remained consistently in rotation through the remainder of the band’s career, a late first set home for improv.  First played as a complete piece in September of 1973, Bob Weir’s “Weather Report Suite” was a coming of age for the band’s rhythm guitarist and youngest member. First fiddling with the baroque chords of the “Prelude” during earlier jams, the full composition was perhaps Weir’s earthy answer to Jerry Garcia’s “Eyes of the World” for the Wake of the Flood era. In Denver on November 21, 1973, the “Suite” is both fragile and reassuring to start, each instrument falling into place. With subtle interplay between Lesh’s unique lead bass, Garcia’s shimmering slide, and Keith Godchaux’s Fender Rhodes setting up a call and three-part-harmony response, it all moves towards the breaking storm of “Let It Grow.” There, Kreutzmann’s light and lean drums lead tempo shifts in a dynamic and subtle jazz jam, opening up to the wild beyond. –Cori Taratoot Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  Key Later Version: June 24, 1985 River Bend Music Theater, Cincinnati, Ohio. The entire band launches full-throttle into a furious, tight and edgy version, with Garcia finding raging solos in every open space. “Here Comes Sunshine” December 19, 1973 Curtis Hixon Convention Hall, Tampa, Fla. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter  Gang harmonies and bright syncopation made for a song whose original incarnation lasted barely a year. Inspired by Abbey Road-era Beatles, “Here Comes Sunshine” was one of over a half-dozen Garcia/Hunter songs debuted February 8, 1973 at Stanford University, some (but not all) destined for that year’s self-released Wake of the Flood.  Dick Latvala began collecting Dead tapes while working as a zookeeper in Hawaii in the late 1970s, swapping bundles of weed—which he packed into reel-to-reel boxes and cavalierly dispatched through the U.S. Mail—for more and better music. Latvala, who went on to become the Dead’s official tape archivist, picked this show for the inaugural installment of Dick’s Picks, the series of official releases of live shows he curated for the band. He’s said that this particular iteration of “Here Comes Sunshine”—a cheerful song about the 1948 flooding of the Columbia River basin, in Vanport, Oregon—inspired that release, which in turn appropriately finally opened the band’s archival floodgates. As a blind introduction to the Dead’s strange musical alchemy—the ways in which, on certain nights, all five players seemed to operate as a single, glinting organism—it remains unimpeachable. –Amanda Petrusich Listen: Spotify | Apple Music   The Grateful Dead circa 1970. Photo via Chris Walter/Getty Images. “Stella Blue” December 19, 1973 Curtis Hixon Convention Hall, Tampa, Fla. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter An aching, luminous Garcia ballad, home to some of his most soulful singing and guitar playing. Most often, “Stella Blue” was performed as an epilogue to the band's furthest out jam segment of a given night, a tender affirmation of spirit following the symbolic (and actual) psychedelic journey the second set represented to many in their audience.  Even to the most frenzied and infatuated fan, Jerry Garcia can remain an inscrutable frontman. But “Stella Blue”—which, in this version, drifts out of an arch and dissonant feedback jam, ethereal and spooky, like a genie emerging from the neck of a bottle—betrays a specific fragility. This is arguably Garcia at his most human. Stella Blue is a minor character in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, but the song’s lyrics, written by Robert Hunter, feel more personal; they recount a grim existential spiral, in which feelings of hopelessness become increasingly difficult to beat back. Some heads prefer the later, two-drummer versions, but there’s something about the starkness of this one that feels especially moving. “In the end, there’s still that song,” Garcia promises. For a moment, he sounds nearly buoyant. –Amanda Petrusich Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: July 13, 1984 Greek Theater, Berkeley, Calif. Though the band doesn’t sound as if they’re on the same page until Garcia starts singing, the song’s quiet moments (especially its first three minutes) are mid-’80s Garcia vocals at their soulful and imperfect best. “Eyes of the World” June 18, 1974 Freedom Hall, Louisville, Ky. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter A just-exactly-perfect almost-breezy jam for a summer’s day. “Eyes of the World” first appeared live in 1973, as the Dead began to introduce some more jazz-inflected architecture to their open-ended jams—a fruition, in part, of some ear-opening exposure on earlier shared bills with Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. “Eyes” had a catchy main guitar riff (weirdly similar, I’ve noticed, to the one in Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”), a beguiling “lazy gait,” crypto-cosmic lyrics, and—in its first couple years, anyway—a long, raging coda that went through a series of key changes and funky signatures. There are many splendid examples of this coda from 1973 and 1974. But I always go back to 6/18/74. Despite some shrill vocals and Schroeder-y piano, this version has an uncharacteristically crisp beginning (they were more precise when they had only one drummer), and great interstitial Garcia solos. The song’s long, flowering run-out seems almost composed, as their best improvisations tended to do—an impression strengthened a few years ago when a pianist named Holly Bowling performed the Louisville “Eyes” note for note. –Nick Paumgarten Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: September 3, 1977 Raceway Park, Englishtown, N.J. After 1975, the Dead scrapped the coda, and over the course of the next decade, the renditions got faster and cokier, almost to the point of parody—an acquired taste. Along the way, though, there’s 9/3/77. The tempo is just right, and Garcia’s leads catch fire. Key Much Later Version: March 29, 1990 Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y. Fans of later Dead are fond of the of this version featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone, capturing the sextet and guest in full arena-Dixieland toot. “Truckin’” September 18, 1974 Parc des Expositions, Dijon, France Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Robert Hunter  Perhaps the Dead’s most identifiable song, a boogie with an occasional backdoor into the cosmos. A rare autobiographical group composition, “Truckin’” was designed to be a modular Road Song, with Robert Hunter supplying new verses as the band had further adventures—he even wrote some on request in the late ‘70s but the band never sang them.  The Grateful Dead are all about The Road, and “Truckin’” is one of the all-time great Road songs. It got some burn on FM radio in the ’70s and positioned the Dead in a cultural moment connected to R. Crumb and CB Radio. It also gave the group its defining lyric: Without “Truckin’,” headline writers wouldn’t have words to describe all of our long and strange trips. Live, it was a supremely flexible song and one of their most-played, fitting neatly into acoustic sets but also stretching into long inspired jams. Bill Kreutzmann’s shuffling groove is key, chugging and choogling forward with a steady-state insistence not unlike the motorik beat of krautrock. Sometimes Garcia solos in Chuck Berry mode, but in 1974 he was taking it to slightly weirder places. In front of a few hundred people in Dijon, France, their smallest crowd in years, this version finds the song at its jazziest, with mind-bending guitar interplay. –Mark Richardson Listen: Archive.org Key Later Version: October 18, 1978 Winterland, San Francisco, Calif. A rare late-‘70s Phil Lesh vocal spot, “Truckin’”’s ambling country-fried vibe hardened into an edgier post-gas crisis model, led by Bob Weir’s police whistle and a jam peak that turns the “Other One” riff inside out.  “Morning Dew” October 18, 1974 Winterland, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Bonnie Dobson and Tim Rose Ballad about nuclear holocaust transmogrified into showstopping existential soul-folk by Garcia. This folk song about two lone survivors of a nuclear apocalypse entered the rotation in 1967 but really became a Garcia set-piece and gut-puncher once the band slowed it down in the early ‘70s. As the Dead’s premier revelatory ballad, coming after the chaos of a jam or space, it almost always laid ‘em flat, despite its oblique lyrics and simple chord progression. As time went on, Garcia often seemed to pour more into it than pretty much anything else. The song has two crescendos, each building from delicate quiet to cathartic guitar-god keening and fanning. At Winterland, on October 18, 1974, during the band’s last stand before an 18-month touring hiatus, they performed a titanic version that made it sound like they were quitting for real, at the peak of their powers. –Nick Paumgarten Listen: Archive.org Key Later Version: October 12, 1984 Augusta Civic Center, Augusta, Maine. A powerhouse song even when Garcia was in dire health, it somehow suited his husky voice and haunted aspects, as it does on this ragged but glorious heart-tugger from a special evening.  “Uncle John’s Band” October 19, 1974 Winterland, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter A campfire standard with a few tricky chord changes and an ineffable melody lifted from a Greek folk song. The studio recording of “Uncle John's Band,” from 1970’s classic Workingman’s Dead, is a pleasant slice of Americana, centered around acoustic rhythm guitars and vocal harmonies inspired by Crosby, Stills & Nash. While it ultimately became a peaceful call to worship for legions of Deadheads, its lyrical origins are more of a countercultural call to decamp. In this breezy performance from Winterland ‘74—during the “retirement” run filmed for the Grateful Dead Movie—the Latin swing sets itself cleverly against easy hippie fare like “are you kind?” and “ain't no time to hate.” But this is a folk song with teeth. As the song’s jam shifts into a minor key and a fierce 7/4 time signature, Garcia explores both dark and light, running arpeggios up and down the scale, using the jam as a springboard for some of his most explosive playing. “Uncle John's Band” is a time-honored “greatest hit” for a reason: its invitation to drop out and turn on is evergreen. And hard-learned warnings like “when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door,” are as true today as ever. –Gabe Tesoriero Listen: Archive.org Key Proto Version: November 8, 1969 Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, Calif. Before “Uncle John's Band”’s late 1969 debut as a singalong, Garcia played the over-fuzzed melody at the heart of a few jams, and it's hard not to hear it as a pivot point between the band's wilder psychedelic leanings and the oncoming folk boom.  Key Later Version: October 9, 1989 Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, Va. From one of two shows billed as “Formerly the Warlocks,” this smoking “Uncle John’s Band” is way up, Jerry bringing the MIDI-fired pyrotechnics, and two separate B-section jams.  “Crazy Fingers” June 22, 1976 Tower Theater, Upper Darby, Pa. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter  Haiku-like verses and a delicate vibe on the line of hippie-reggae and something more elusive. A product of the band’s extended woodshed period at Bob Weir’s home studio in 1975, “Crazy Fingers”’s quiet reflects the band’s scaled-back approach for their touring hiatus. Debuting as a set-opener during the second of their four appearances that year, I prefer the June 22, 1976 version from just after they returned to the road. The crowd audibly responds as Jerry gently starts to sing, which is, honestly, part of the thrill of listening to live Dead; it’s almost always at least somewhat interactive. Since post-Garcia Dead fans must rely on recordings, every whistle, scream, and even side conversation from an audience-made tape can help bring a set to life. Unlike anything else Garcia and Hunter wrote in its lyrical minimalism, the haiku-like verses are set to a tune that’s a touch dub-like. With a more pronounced island vibe on the Blues For Allah studio version, the delicate jam offered a variety of possibilities, here spiraling inventively upward and eventually back down to “Comes a Time”. Like many great Dead songs, it’s a little dark, a lot introspective, and yet still delicate and somehow optimistic. –Mariel Cruz What to Listen For: A fragile vibe to begin with, “Crazy Fingers” could vary widely, at its best blooming into intricate and quiet improvisations as singular in the band’s catalog as the lyrics. Listen: Archive.org Key Proto Version: “Distorto”, February 28, 1975, Ace’s, Mill Valley, Calif. Developed in the studio during the sessions that eventually yielded Blues For Allah, where the band allowed themselves the freedom to let jams develop, “Crazy Fingers” began life as a piece of music called “Distorto”. “The Wheel” June 29, 1976 Auditorium Theater, Chicago, IL Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Robert Hunter Written without beginning or ending as part of a side-long suite improvised in the studio, “The Wheel” was often heard rolling out of the drumz/space segments. “The Wheel,” a Hunter/Garcia composition written spontaneously during the sessions for Garcia’s seminal 1972 LP Garcia, didn’t see its live debut with the Dead until June of 1976. Driven by the rolling thunder of the drummers, Phil Lesh’s loping bass line, and Jerry’s delicate, haunting guitar work, “The Wheel”—often in its slot coming out of Space—has served as a vehicle for some high-wire experimentation over the years. In this performance from Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre on June 29, Garcia's voice and guitar work positively sparkle. Recalling the bright pedal steel jangle of the excellent studio version, the guitar line builds and spirals upward. Between the plaintive, meditative chants of the verses, Garcia again takes off. In the song’s traditional exploratory outro, Jerry teases a phrase from “The Other One”, galloping into a syncopated double-time jam with hair on fire. Lyrically, “The Wheel” is a call to follow the muse, the shared sense of experience that is the Dead “trip” itself. Musically, it’s breathtaking, as the best Grateful Dead can be. –Gabe Tesoriero Listen: Archive.org  Key Later Version: March 24, 1990 Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, N.Y. Brightly colored by Brent Mydland’s phrasing this version of “The Wheel” drives and pulsates, gathering steam and packing a real wallop in just four minutes and change. “Comes a Time” September 28, 1976 Onondaga County War Memorial, Syracuse, N.Y. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter at their most vulnerable and Garcia’s soloing at its most lyrical. The placement of this beautiful, vulnerable, introspective Garcia song (coming out of a wooly-ass jam at the end of a kinda-too-long “Samson and Delilah” and segueing into “Drums”) is a little weird, I guess. The whole band's playing is sparse and gentle, like everyone's choosing each lonely note they play with deep thought and restraint. Even Phil is barely playing, relatively speaking. Jerry and Donna Jean’s voices sound a little wounded, huddled together on a wobbly perch just above the group. There’s a modest yet lovely guitar break that flutters upward into last verse and a staggering--and surprisingly brief—solo at the end over simple repeated F#m & G chorus tag. It’s filled with anger and yearning, despair and resentment, and a lifetime of pain helping to squeeze out each wiry note. It threatens to unfurl into a litany of emotion, but... then hi-hats, and before you know it Mickey is doing paradiddles on what sounds like a Tasmanian log. Feels like Garcia is changing the subject. Revealing, if you overthink it (like I'm doing); beautiful and blue if you just float along. –James McNew Listen: Spotify | Apple Music What to Listen For: That last guitar solo! Key Slightly Later Version: May 9, 1977 War Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, N.Y. Debuted in 1971, “Comes a Time” was included on Garcia’s 1976 solo album Reflections and soon resurfaced in the Dead’s live sets. Each with a towering final solo, each of the five versions from May 1977 might be celebrated as a national holiday, but especially Buffalo.  “Terrapin Station” May 7, 1977 Boston Garden, Mass. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter Garcia and Hunter’s mysterious folk epic, parable-driven balladry building to a series of near-orchestral peaks. With a few exceptions, “Terrapin Station”’s far-out destination was usually “Drumz” > “Space,” a position of gravitas in the Dead’s setlists, except for a period in the mid-‘80s when Weir sometimes used it to set up his good-time calypso cover, “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”. Halfway through the ‘70s, prog was all but dead: King Crimson had disbanded, Yes had gone off the deep end, and Genesis lost their most forward-thinking member. But then, in 1977, the Grateful Dead debuted “Terrapin Station.” The title track to their glossy ‘77 album and the final epic from Garcia and Hunter, “Terrapin” was a completely different beast from even the lengthiest of compositions that preceded it. Melodic and precise where “Dark Star” was jazzy and open-ended, “Terrapin Station” was a powerful addition to the band’s set during arguably their finest year. Written and recorded as a larger suite, the live versions only included its first few sections, growing luminous on the band’s spring tour. At their Boston show during their legendary run in May ‘77, they performed a careful, confident rendition, propelled by Jerry’s emotive vocals and solos. The band was at their most well-rehearsed here, and “Terrapin” glides with an otherworldly energy, making it a momentous second set opener. Its masterful series of crescendos is maybe the decade’s best proof that the Dead’s gifts for tight songwriting and sprawling musicality were not mutually exclusive. –Sam Sodomsky What to Listen For: The moment the song upshifts from what could be a traditional folk ballad into a grander composition.  Listen: Archive.org Key Proto Version: March 18, 1977 Winterland, San Francisco, Calif. The earlier sections are still finding their form, but a one-night-only performance of “At a Siding,” minus the vocals on the album version, provides an appropriately mystical destination suggested by the lyrics.  Key Later Version: March 15, 1990 Capitol Centre, Landover, Md. On Phil Lesh’s 50th birthday, on a tour many latter day fans hold next to legendary outings like Europe ‘72, the band work the final refrain until it balloons into a world of its own.   “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo” May 7, 1977 Boston Garden, Boston, Mass. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter One of the final songs from Garcia and Hunter’s initial burst of Americana, debuted in late 1972, “Half-Step” took a few years to develop its rushing flow. The song’s spirited tempo and carefree farewells to Southern skies placed it squarely in both first and second set-opener positions as a crowd favorite.  Told from the perspective of a cheating gambler embracing a life on the run, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo” remained intact stylistically and structurally from its 1972 debut through the band’s last tour in 1995. The song found Robert Hunter continuing to portray American dreamers with lyrics both ambiguous and specific, including a line about losing one’s boots that seems to echo Garcia’s own life-altering brush with death in a 1960 car crash, in which he was literally blown from his shoes. In a near-perfect Boston performance on May 7, 1977, Garcia’s voice is sweet and strong. Keith Godchaux brings the Dixieland piano as Bob Weir expertly places his rhythm arpeggios snugly alongside Garcia’s crisp and clear leads. The drummers press hard as Garcia fans power chords in the lead-up to the song’s refrain, the sound of a band riding the rapids together. Pulling back into a three-part harmony, a crescendo dissolves into a version of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” for the ages. –Cori Taratoot  Listen: Archive.org Key Later Version: April 2, 1990 The Omni, Atlanta, Ga. On a transcendent spring night with the band in top form, Garcia soothes and brightens, finding the Band’s “The Weight” and a loving Southern audience in the closing chords. The Grateful Dead performing with the Wall of Sound at the Iowa State Fair circa 1974. Photo via Kirk West/Getty Images. “Scarlet Begonias” > ”Fire On the Mountain” May 8, 1977 Barton Hall, Ithaca, N.Y. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter/Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter A canonical studio-perfect take with its own underground legend, and a whole family tree of beautiful relatives. The “Scarlet Begonias”>“Fire on the Mountain” pairing was introduced in 1977 and soon became a popular mainstay as a second-set opener. “Scarlet,” a lysergic Hunter-Garcia ode to a girl, had been around for several years, and to many old hands was at its freshest in 1974, as a stand-alone first-set morsel of syncopated polyphony: peak Kreutzmann, every instrument ricocheting off the rest. “Fire,” introduced in 1977 by the drummer Mickey Hart, with an uncharacteristically foundational bass line and a taste of calypso, became a springboard for knee-bending Garcia solos. In the early '80s, the song gained muscle with the addition of keyboardist Brent Mydland's B3. The transition between the two was typically an excursive delight with whiffs of Coltrane and Ives. Choosing the best is nigh impossible, in light of all the variables; the crispest “Scarlet” may have been followed by a less-than-transcendent transition or a draggy “Fire.” I and a team of fellow nerds have spent weeks re-listening, and are no closer to a consensus. The most widely canonized version is from Barton Hall, 5/8/77, a surprise actual top 10 hit when it was finally released this year for its 40th anniversary. Overrated, in my book, but it’s as good a starter kit as any: fewer flaws. They played “Scarlet” > “Fire” well and often that month. Each rendition seems to have its partisans. Its propulsive, joyful vigor was perhaps the most consistent manifestation of a band on a hot streak. –Nick Paumgarten Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: November 30, 1980 Fox Theater, Atlanta, Ga. Big sound, sly swagger, regal solos, a complex and careening transition, and a more than respectable “Fire.”   Key Earlier “Scarlet Begonias”: June 16, 1974 Iowa State Fairgrounds, Des Moines, Iowa. An ace example of the standalone cowbell-less “Scarlet” with a puzzlebox jam that contains infinite futures. “Sugaree” May 22, 1977 Hollywood Sportatorium, Hollywood, Fla. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter  Easygoing standard for both the Dead and the ‘70s & ‘80s incarnations of the Jerry Garcia Band for Jerry to get loose in C. “Sugaree,” a platform for soulful Garcia vocals and guitar, is an exercise in contrast, soaring above the emotionally trying narrative of intimate entanglements. When debating about the best versions of “Sugaree” there is always talk of Garcia’s solos, but that implies that the rest of the band lays back. It’s the telepathic double drumming of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart that makes this an essential “Sugaree” on an East Coast tour where all 10 versions of the song feature their own enormous charms. Here, Phil Lesh’s lopey bass climbs around the drummers’ pounding rhythms like a winding vine; Bob Weir, Keith Godchaux, and Garcia are effervescent buds blooming. The song eases into a lullaby rocking before one final emphatic reminder “Just don’t tell ‘em you know me,” sung by Garcia, his voice at its most empathetic. –Buzz Poole What to Listen For: Uncharacteristically uncomplicated lyrics by Robert Hunter, invested with great meaning and intent by Garcia.  Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: June 5, 1993 Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. At over 14 rollicking minutes this “Sugaree” proves that up until the very end the Dead could still produce surprises that wowed even the most jaded head. The whole band is in fine form, and the slight nasal frailty of Garcia’s voice only enhances the lyrical drama.  “Wharf Rat” May 22, 1977 Hollywood Sportatorium, Hollywood, Fla. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter  Epic redemption from Garcia and Hunter, capable of stunning quiet in enormous venues. Despite the fluffy flower-power image of the Grateful Dead, much of the band’s actual catalog is made up of action-packed outlaw tunes of the type usually associated with Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash. Drinking, gambling, gunfights, bastard children, and freight trains are favored subjects, often all in the same song. The slow, stormy Garcia/Hunter hobo tune, “Wharf Rat,” first played in ’71, is from that hard-edged tradition, but it stands out for being a character study rather than a chase scene. A hypnotically curling minor key groove gives way to an even quieter vocal bridge that edges as close as the Grateful Dead gets to gospel. Until, that is, Garcia and co. unleashing a holy squall of redemptive sound and the powerful refrain, “I’ll get up and fly away!”  If that sounds like church to you, say your prayers to 5/22/77, when the band truly maximizes the extreme dynamics of the song. –Will Welch What to Listen For: In just over nine minutes, the Dead go from the quietest quiet to the loudest loud and back again, always with plenty of open space for full Phil Lesh bass maneuvers. Lore: Recognizing a fellow alcoholic in “Wharf Rat”’s August West, a group of Deadheads founded the Wharf Rats in 1984, a group that gathered under yellow balloons at Dead setbreaks, and who remain a fixture at post-Garcia incarnations and even shows by cover bands.  Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower” June 9, 1977 Winterland, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter/Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Robert Hunter Two parts of psychedelic prog followed by an extended three-chord bliss-out. Written during the year the band spent off the road in 1975, “Help on the Way”/“Slipknot!”/“Franklin’s Tower” moves between the peak Dead prog of the suite’s first two parts to the unambiguous major key release one of the Dead’s all-time three-chord jam wonders. Though they nailed a memorably sparkling version at its debut in’75 (building up under Bill Graham's member-by-member introduction) and pushed the instrumental “Slipknot!” to the far reaches during various excursions in’76, the final version from the band's legendary spring ’77 touring season was perhaps the truest map of the suite's tricky paths, space valleys, and infinitely ascending boogie. The penultimate take before shelving the trio (though not “Franklin's Tower”) until the early '80s, Garcia occupies Robert Hunter's existential plea for love on "Help on the Way", extending the elliptical mood right up to the edge of confusion during the ensuing “Slipknot!”. During “Franklin's Tower”, especially on a fan-made mix blending an audience recording with a soundboard, as the band jam through chorus after chorus for the hometown dancers, one can almost feel the balcony shake at Winterland, the former ice skating rink that was the Dead's local venue in San Francisco for most of the '70s. –Jesse Jarnow What to Listen For: Usually played to open sets, “Help on the Way” and “Slipknot” were as tricky and composed as the Dead got, their execution a virtuosic feat by itself.  Listen: Archive.org  Key Later Version: October 8, 1989 Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, Va. During one of two bust-out filled shows billed as “Formerly the Warlocks”, the band picked up “Help on the Way”/“Slipknot!”/“Franklin’s Tower” for the first time in a half-decade and reasserted their older, weirder selves.   Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir performing with the Grateful Dead circa 1976. Photo via Larry Hulst/Gettu Images. “Jack Straw” December 29, 1977 Winterland, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Bob Weir and Robert Hunter Bob Weir’s first great song, cinematic Americana debuted in 1971 that took on a variety of moods over the years. Among Robert Hunter’s most unflinching takes on American frontier ethics, early readings of “Jack Straw” were psychedelic country—Garcia and Keith Godchaux in full Bakersfield mode, Weir’s tenor quavering—but jam-free. In later periods, subtlety could be at a premium, but the instrumental build and interplay could be fierce, with opportunities for Phil Lesh to drop resonating bass bombs. Perhaps the perfect, most balanced “Straw” took place somewhere in 1977, when narration, performance and jam all crackled. This opener to a magically under-rated New Year’s stand burns from the get-go, sacrificing nothing. The drummers’ gallop pushes the music, while Garcia’s lead lines play the part of a majestic dramaturg, even accenting his “one small point of pride” line with gusto. It is Cormac McCarthy-meets-Ansel Adams stuff, and when the twin-guitar power-chords drop into the tale’s denouement—another ballad of the Grateful dead, no less, the folktale from which the band drew their name—the energy is blazing. –Piotr Orlov Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  Key Later Version: January 11, 1979 Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y. “Used to play for acid, now we play for Clive,” Bob Weir sings, referencing their new record company boss, Clive Davis, just before a crackling jam where Garcia’s lysergic-bluegrass guitar burns hot and Phil provides the bombs.   Watch: August 27, 1972 Old Renaissance Fairgrounds, Veneta, Ore. A perfectly executed take of the song’s lean early incarnation, with airy one-drummer dynamics and wide-open three-part vocals from Weir, Garcia, and Lesh.  “The Music Never Stopped” February 3, 1978 Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI Listen on Apple Music Written by: Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow’s classic meta-boogie Of all the Dead’s post-Europe ‘72 live war-horses, few were born as eminently ready for the limelight as Weir’s Blues For Allah gem. (Even its 8/13/75 debut is often praised as perfect.) Yet in late ‘77/early ’78, the band did futz with the song’s arrangement, making all future “Music” jams two-part affairs. Between the end of the lyrics, and the repetitive closing drive on the central melody, there appeared a waltzing build of an interlude, called, by some, “on the bubble”; and when the two parts clicked, end-of-first-set nirvana was sure to occur. Which is exactly what transpired in the familiar confines of the Dane County Coliseum. The reading of the song is fun and taut — Phil chugging, Garcia picking (and cooing a wonderful harmony), Donna Jean and Bob in great voice — but the fireworks alight around 3:12. The first great “on the bubble”! Garcia floats heavenwards, the drummers and Lesh close behind, Weir and Keith soon locking into the rising. The crescendo back into the “Music” theme is flawless, before the Captain leads a stomping boogie towards set-break. So well arranged, it’s hard to call it a “jam.” –Piotr Orlov Listen: Spotify | Apple Music “Estimated Prophet” December 26, 1979 Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow Grateful Dead-style paranoid space-dub weirdness via Bob Weir, a building block for elongated second set jam suites.   Debuted during the well-oiled year of 1977, Bob Weir and lyricist John Perry Barlow’s “Estimated Prophet” captured late ’70s hippie paranoia in the form a of a slinky 7/8 reggae groove. A lope spacious enough for the band’s drummers, it became a platform for the endless avuncular chattering of Jerry Garcia’s Mu-tron-drenched lead guitar, and a reliable entrance to the type of moody, heady psychedelia that was all too often missing from the Dead’s new material in later years. Though one of the few effective homes for Keith Godchaux’s Polymoog synth, it wasn't until Brent Mydland replaced him in 1979 that the song really opened up. On opening night of Mydland’s first New Year’s run, the band pushed almost the 20-minute mark. Garcia’s mid-song solo is dripping and dubby, though the jam itself doesn’t really take off until about 14 minutes in, when Garcia jumps out of 7-time and into the free territories, Weir steps in for co-noodle duty, Phil Lesh drops into a thrilling bassline reminiscent of the Dead’s long-shelved “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)” and Mydland’s keyboards bounce so precisely they sound like modular synth. –Jesse Jarnow Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  Key Later Version: September 22, 1993 Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y. Free jazz saxophone hero David Murray duets with Bob Weir's scat singing and Vince Welnick's plinking keyboards before the main event, howling in a buzzing jet-plane dogfight with Garcia's MIDI-ready guitar in front of a sold-out arena.  “Shakedown Street” December 31, 1984 San Francisco Civic Center, San Francisco, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter The Dead delve into disco-funk darkness with plenty of room for (wait for it) Jerry’s guitar. First song, first set (or second)—translation: it’s party time. “Disco Dead,” sneered some of the faithful at the title cut from the Dead’s 1978 album. Somehow, fans found the idea of boogying to an endless groove untenable when it involved wearing something other than tie-dye. Meanwhile, the Dead’s loose double-drumming never quite fit even with the counterculture-weaned DJs at the birth of disco. But time has shown the lasting potency of both approaches, while the tapes let us hear the sparks when they connect. “Shakedown Street” was the Dead’s most overt funk move yet, aided and abetted on album by producer Lowell George of Little Feat (speaking of white-boy longhairs who liked to get down). Per usual, years of playing around with the groove, not to mention that sneaky descending three-note riff, both tightened and liquefied the music. Leading off with it on New Year’s Eve amounted to a mission statement. So did Garcia fanning out solos, with and without his pedals (check the lovely single-note flurries around 11:00), like he was born to boogie-oogie-oogie, too. –Michaelangelo Matos What to Listen For: At 7:30, Jerry and his wah-wah pedal decide to have a little conversation.  Listen: Spotify | Apple Music Key Later Version: September 22, 1991 Boston Garden, Mass. The Grateful Dead plus touring pianist Bruce Hornsby and the arena energy of the east coast, a more intense fanbase than their more laidback California home.  “Touch of Grey” December 15, 1986 Oakland Coliseum Arena, Oakland, Calif. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter With perfectly wry lyrics, the Dead’s only top 10 single was still a source of musical conversation when played live. Most Dead songs underwent their greatest gestational shifts in performance, but count on the biggest outlier of their career to have evolved differently. Robert Hunter had written “Touch of Grey” in 1980 as, in Garcia’s words, “a sort of dry, satirical piece with an intimate feel” and Garcia decided to rework the melody and a couple of the lines;. “‘We will get by’ said something to me, so I set it to play big,” he said after the song came out. “My version still has the ironic bite of the lyrics, but what comes across is a more celebratory quality.” Debuted by the Dead in 1982, the song’s lyrics changed slightly but parameters remained tight for most of the Dead’s history. But that rousing chorus and chiming melody made it that most improbable of Dead artifacts: a natural hit single. Opening the first Dead show after Jerry’s debilitating coma in 1986, its jolly defiance set the tone for what, improbably, would be the Dead’s biggest year to date. Nearly 20 years after the Summer of Love, the Dead’s first bona fide mainstream radio hit inspired a new generation to hit the road, even as it dodged the sneers of an older cohort that dismissed them as “Touchheads.” –Michaelangelo Matos What to Listen For: The crowd going ape-shit the first time Garcia hits “I will survive” at this and any version after.  Listen: Archive.org Key Proto Version: Robert Hunter solo, October 26, 1982 The Landmark, Kingston, N.Y. Both caustic and optimistic solo, songwriter Robert Hunter’s early version finds its own (almost) equally charming setting for the lyrics.  “So Many Roads” July 9, 1995 Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill. Listen on Apple Music Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter One of Jerry Garcia’s last original songs, debuted in 1992, a powerful late career statement. Part of a final songwriting burst with Robert Hunter, “So Many Roads” was one of several introspective songs that were powerful highlights during the Dead’s uneven last years, including “The Days Between” and “Lazy River Road”. The Grateful Dead’s final show is, inevitably, a rough listen, mostly owing to Jerry Garcia’s audibly declining health – at this point he had just a month to live. Even with Teleprompter assistance, he fumbles over lyrics he had sung hundreds of times. He’s clearly struggling with some of the guitar work, including an utterly botched solo on “Unbroken Chain.” But even in this defiled state, Garcia could dig deep and rise to the occasion. World-weary and allusion-heavy, the band never completed a studio recording of “So Many Roads.” At Soldier Field, Garcia finds moments of quiet grace in the thicket of the latter-day Dead’s clatter, delivering sparkling solos, finally leaning into an extended emotional closing chorus over appropriately “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”-esque backing vocals. And then, as if to break the spell in the most inappropriate fashion possible, the Grateful Dead transition into keyboardist Vince Welnick’s godawful “Samba in the Rain.” Nevertheless, it sounded as if Garcia had, for a little while, eased his soul. –Tyler Wilcox Listen: Spotify | Apple Music  Key Earlier Version: October 1, 1994 Boston Garden, Mass. Even the most hardened '90s skeptics will almost surely by gobsmacked by Garcia's final vocal eruptions, hitting a reserve he never quite possessed even in his youth. &nbs […]

  • Interview: Grizzly Bear Discuss <i>Painted Ruins</i>, Their First Album in Five Years
    Posted by Marc Hogan on May 22, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Interview: Grizzly Bear Discuss Painted Ruins, Their First Album in Five Years Photo by: From left: Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen, Chris Bear, and Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear. Photos by Tom Hines. Ed Droste is reaching over to grab Chris Taylor by the shoulder, imitating his Grizzly Bear bandmate’s motivational role behind their upcoming fifth album, Painted Ruins. “Come on! Snap out of it!” mimics Droste, as Taylor laughs along. This brotherly interaction is happening at Droste’s home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, where it’s a sunny spring day. Droste, bearded and wearing a blue-and-white striped T-shirt, and Taylor, in a lighter blue tee and with his blond hair combed from the side, are huddled together in front of an iPad perched on a pile of books. Visible behind them even over Skype is a mirror reflecting on the living room, which has a black-and-white baby photo of Droste and a wire stand for his fern, peace lily, philodendron, and more. “I’m an anxious person, and plants calm me,” he says. Originally all based in New York, the group has scattered, with singer/guitarist Droste, multi-instrumentalist/producer Taylor, and drummer Chris Bear all living in L.A., and co-lead singer and guitarist Daniel Rossen splitting his time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and upstate New York. All are married now except for Droste, who is recently divorced. Bear, the proud father of a 1-year-old, is the first dad among the group. “We’re four guys in our mid-30s, and the world is going into a really crazy-ass direction,” says Taylor, casually summing up the general context behind the new record. Since coalescing around the current lineup after 2004’s apartment-recorded Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear have developed a distinctive style that blends baroque-pop’s intricacy, the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies, and psych-folk’s finger-picking unease into something thrilling enough to famously get Beyoncé and Jay Z out for a show. Across 2007’s Yellow House, 2009’s Veckatimest, and 2012’s Shields, they refined an approach that was cerebral, but also deeply emotional, and never less than meticulous. “Three Rings,” the first track released from the new record, retains their characteristic ornateness, but the six-minute song is also slow-building and somewhat elusive; proper single “Mourning Sound,” on the other hand, is gleaming and hard-charging, perhaps surprisingly so. Painted Ruins has plenty of both styles, from slinky electro-folk that name-checks a Honda TRX 250 four-wheeler, of all things, on opener “Wasted Acres,” to the horn-enshadowed resignation of closing opus “Sky Took Hold.” Taylor contributed more to the band’s collective songwriting process this time, including his first-ever Grizzly Bear lead vocal turn, on the melancholic “Systole.” Reached separately by phone, Rossen says that his part on “Mourning Sound” was inspired by morning walks upstate, where he also uses that TRX 250 from “Wasted Acres” for hauling firewood with his dog. As for the foreboding march of “Four Cypresses”—which includes the album’s most evocative line, “It’s chaos, but it works”—Rossen says it started as a narrative from the perspective of a homeless person sleeping in the driveway of a place he was staying in L.A., but broadened to encompass his thoughts about the refugee experience and life during wartime. “I never really explained that to those guys,” he admits, referring to his bandmates. Communication within Grizzly Bear may have its limits, but Droste and Taylor present an understanding that seems implicit. After more than a decade together, Taylor says, “There’s that rare kind of intraband wisdom—a more adult approach to problem-solving.” Pitchfork: Why the title Painted Ruins? Ed Droste: Painting crumbling things, or fixing things up—there’s a lot of ways you can look at it. Chris Taylor: It’s more a visual cue, and then your imagination can do the rest. ED: The title came after all the songs were done... CT: … as a way of thinking about it on a very abstract level. You’re not necessarily drawn to storytelling-type songwriting, either. Why is it so important to you to keep things more open-ended? CT: Because the song isn’t really about one thing. Even the music in the song isn’t about one thing or one vibe. It’s intentionally convoluted and kind of cross-referential, across different genres or different decades. It’s not really like: This is a ’90s song about postage stamps. With the four of us all being cooks in the kitchen, there’s just so many other important decisions to be made that, once the song exists, we don’t even really know exactly what’s going on. Ed, you’ve said that you didn’t want your divorce to be a narrative for the record, but how could that not inform your songwriting? ED: Well, it’s impossible to say that it didn’t play a role in any lyrics or emotions behind the songs. But at the same time, there are a lot of other transitions going on in my life that could be similarly compared. And actually, there are songs that might sound like a breakup that are more about recognizing internal conflict within myself. So yes, it’s there, but it isn’t really the core. It’s not quite that simple. Everything that you’ve experienced affects your “emotional landscape,” to quote Björk. You mentioned inner conflict. What kind of internal conflict? ED: This isn’t therapy. I’m afraid that’s where I draw a little bit of a line. Sorry. ED: You can speculate all you want about my inner conflicts, but I’m not going to lay them out on the table for you. Painted Ruins is coming out on RCA rather than your longtime label Warp. At this point, what does it mean to go from an indie to a major? ED: First things first, we recorded and did the whole album without even playing it for any label. CT: It was completely finished before we shopped it around. ED: We didn’t want to sign somewhere and then have some sort of voice over our shoulder telling us what to do. So we did everything with no expectations, having no idea who would want it. Also, major deals are now the indie deals; the deals they present are like flip-flopped. I won’t say who, but one indie came with us with the most crazy [deal]—it was like, “What is this, Warner Brothers in 1992?” CT: Indies are starting to adapt 360 deals, which I don’t agree with at all. ED: I support the music industry. I still buy music. Bless indies, bless record stores, all that stuff. It’s just funny because, especially at our age, you have this idea like, “Oh, going to this label means you’re going to be amongst these people.” Whereas now, considering that most people stream things, the label name is literally almost hidden. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the music business since Shields? ED: Oh my god. The streaming thing. It was already huge but now… I mean, I kind of personally tuned out of the music world for a couple of years and was focused on life. I wasn’t oblivious, but I wasn’t checking and seeing, like, “Who released what now?” I’d slowly live with a record and realize that it came out a year and a half before. But once we were suddenly back to having to deal with it ourselves, I was shocked to hear that, like, playlists are the new radio and all these weird things. I still don’t really stream. Generally speaking, I still buy digital albums and I like to have them with me and sit with them and not have banners of other things being like, “Try this! Check out this mix!” It’s stimulus overload. I like sitting with two or three records for a couple of weeks. That’s still how I process music. I still consume it like an old fart. CT: I only buy vinyl, so I guess I’m the old fart. ED: I just still like to listen to how they want the tracklisting to be. And given that our albums aren’t necessarily like, you listen to it once and you love it, I always want to give an album at least five listens. Because it unfolds upon you. You keep discovering things. I’m buying it and committing to it, and I want to at least give that much of my time and know whether it’s something I want to keep in my regular rotation or not, just like I would hope people would do the same for us. But people can do whatever they want to do. I can’t control it. What do you think is missing from the current pop landscape? ED: I don’t have a problem with the current landscape, per se. It’s always changing, and it’s not necessarily my place to say. But there’s a piece of me—and I’ve been feeling this way for 15 years—that misses the time when, thank god, I was a little 13-year-old and I could turn on the radio and hear “Cannonball” by the Breeders. That just doesn’t happen anymore. It was so cool to hear PJ Harvey and Björk and all these amazing, wonderful personalities doing really avant-garde music on the radio in the ’90s. There’s a lot of pop right now that’s very avant-garde, especially rap, and there’s R&B and there’s a ton of really innovative, amazing stuff. I’m just saying, in the more guitar-heavy world, it would be fun to hear more—let’s get Deerhoof on the radio. […]

  • Lists & Guides: Loveeeeeee Songs: Rihanna’s 52 Singles, Ranked
    Posted by Pitchfork on May 22, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Lists & Guides: Loveeeeeee Songs: Rihanna’s 52 Singles, Ranked Photo by: Graphic by Patrick Jenkins; photos via Ross Gilmore/Redferns via Getty Images, Mike Coppola/Getty Images, Kevin Mazur/WireImage More than any pop star today, Rihanna makes it look easy. But a look at the numbers proves that her career has been anything but that: Across 12 years, eight albums, and 52 singles as a lead artist or equally billed collaborator, she has reinvented and redefined herself in incredible ways. She’s flipped from sunny Bajan princess to take-no-prisoners pop assassin, from EDM chart-topper to bawdy rap slayer, from reluctant center of tabloid scrutiny to a boss fully in charge of her own deeply enviable life. She’s arguably the most influential singer of the past decade. Hell, even Spider-Man tries to be Rihanna at this point. Here's our list of her best radio moments—all of Rihanna's singles, ranked. Embed: “Birthday Cake” [ft. Chris Brown] Talk That Talk Def Jam Recordings, 2012 52 Out of context, “Birthday Cake” isn’t remarkable, with Chris Brown being an R&B star and Rihanna being perpetually in the market for R&B songs and collabs. But this particular collaboration stunk of the thoroughly cynical publicity stunt it was executed as. That “Cake” already lurched between lascivious and predatory, a provocation anchored by “I’mma make you my bitch,” just made its rewrite as a grand Rihanna/Chris sexual reunion sound that much more cold and wrong. But it wasn’t personal, just business—and, in true business fashion, it was killed unceremoniously when Brown’s sales faded and Rihanna got urban-radio cred instead. Happy birthday! –Katherine St. Asaph Listen: “Birthday Cake” [ft. Chris Brown] “Sledgehammer” From the Motion Picture “Star Trek Beyond” Westbury Road Entertainment, 2016 51 Here lies Rihanna’s least successful power-piano ballad, tacked onto a sci-fi epic that doesn’t fit it. (Do they even have pianos in the future? Or sledgehammers?) To be fair, it contains many of the same elements that have garnered Rihanna amazing results elsewhere: As the song opens, her vocal is throaty and compelling and the lyrics moody and confessional, with a magnetic, building tension. But nothing in its emotional or lyrical content justifies the will-to-bigness of the pounding chords and nearly shouted chorus. Even Rihanna seems a bit distant from the galactic importance she’s placing on this song. If the titular weapon was chosen to embody blunt power, the motif that actually stays with you is Rihanna wailing, “I hit a wall! I hit a wall!”—conveying the unfortunate impression that this song was a cry for help from her writing team. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton Listen: “Sledgehammer” “Talk That Talk” [ft. Jay Z] Talk That Talk Island Def Jam, 2012 50 On paper, “Talk That Talk” sounds like a pretty good deal: Jay Z and Rihanna trading sexually charged bars over Stargate production. The track opens with catchy Nintendo synths and trap drums; a Coldplay-ish melody fleshes out the beat as Jay speaks his clout and Rihanna intones, distantly, “Yeah, boy, I like it.” That underpaid-porn-star ennui says it all: As an invitation to be inventively naughty, “Talk That Talk” feels formulaic and tame, employing many of the same bits of ear candy that make “Rude Boy” such a great song without any of that hit’s originality or urgency. –ESH Listen: “Talk That Talk” [ft. Jay Z] “Redemption Song” (For Haiti Relief) [Live from Oprah] Island Def Jam, 2010 49 Rihanna was a longtime fan of “Redemption Song”—she had covered Bob Marley & the Wailers’ song of uplift before 2010, when she released her recording of it as a charity single for Haiti after the country’s devastating earthquake. She talked about the song’s personal meaning during its live premiere on Oprah before delivering a serviceable if largely forgettable performance. Though there’s something to be appreciated in the cross-cultural aspect, aside from charitable contribution, there’s little incentive here to deviate from Marley’s original. –Briana Younger Listen: “Redemption Song” (For Haiti Relief) [Live from Oprah] “Wait Your Turn” Rated R Def Jam Recordings, 2009 48 Over an ominous, marching beat, Rihanna’s chant of “The wait is ova” repeats, uh, ova and ova without much resolution or even excitement. A generic banger every now and then is fine, but “Wait You Turn” never even attains that status. Not canon. –Rebecca Haithcoat Listen: “Wait Your Turn” “Towards the Sun” Home (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) DreamWorks Animation/Westbury Road, 2015 47 As pop anthems with pretensions of grandeur go, “Towards the Sun” is not a bad one, really: It’s a soundscape crafted as meticulously as any lite-FM hit, created for the alien invasion cartoon Home (for which Rih voiced a character). In going high-note-for-high-note with a full choir of castrato voices on the weirdly ascending refrain, Rihanna sets herself a particularly difficult vocal challenge, and she executes it with admirable grace. The hook stands out from her usual arsenal, but it also feels emotionally removed from the real Rihanna oeuvre and the themes she’s explored in it. “Towards the Sun” serves its cartoon concept, and might even inspire a quick falsetto sing-along if you happened upon it, but you’d have to be a truly obsessive Rihanna completist to seek it out. –ESH Listen: “Towards the Sun” “Rockstar 101” [ft. Slash] Rated R Island Def Jam, 2009 46 Every pop star eventually releases something like “Rockstar 101,” collaborating with a classic-rock legend with wildly varying intents and results. (Peak: Kesha and Iggy Pop. Nadir: Mick Jagger and anyone he collaborated with past 2000). While “Rockstar 101” was roundly laughed off at the time, in retrospect, Rihanna demonstrates early signs of indifferent swagger and the genre reclamation she’d repeat more mutedly in “FourFiveSeconds.” The most rockstar move here might be relegating Slash to background squall. It signified that the R in Rated R might as well have been “reinvention”: taking an artist still known for lightweight dance songs into territory that was tougher, rougher, badder. –KSA Listen: “Rockstar 101” [ft. Slash] “Right Now” [ft. David Guetta] Unapologetic Island Def Jam, 2012 45 With a space-age, swelling EDM beat courtesy of David Guetta, this mammoth track seemed ready-made for raking millions soundtracking advertising campaigns. It quickly wound up as the intro music for the 2013 NBA Playoffs and in Budweiser’s “Made for Music” campaign. It isn’t a particularly memorable piece of her catalog, but Rihanna is nothing if not capable of always securing the bag. –BY Listen: “Right Now” [ft. David Guetta] “American Oxygen” Westbury Road, 2015 44 What to do with “American Oxygen”? While it finds Rihanna spreading her wings to address big themes, it too often feels like a self-conscious attempt to write her into the American songbook of patriotic heartbreak—the one boasting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and Jimi Hendrix’ “Star Spangled Banner”—with wobbles and 808 kicks replacing guitar feedback. Although touching on something important—particularly in the line, “We sweat for a nickel and a dime/Turn it into an empire”—the song builds without delivering emotionally or conceptually. Still, Rihanna stretches thematically here, and with her moody vocal around heavy minor chords, “American Oxygen” is the sound of her feeling out a particular mode that she has taken to sublime levels elsewhere: the ambivalent anthem. –ESH Listen: “American Oxygen” “Te Amo” Rated R Island Def Jam, 2009 43 Rihanna loves turning convention on its head, and on “Te Amo,” she imagines unrequited love between two women. The track, which never made much noise in the U.S., finds Rihanna struggling as the object of another woman’s affection. The slick, electro-Latin track was of special interest when the video came out—it features the former Victoria’s Secret model Laetitia Casta as a femme fatale in love with our hero. –RH Listen: “Te Amo” “What Now” Unapologetic Island Def Jam, 2012 42 This song is all about contrasting binaries: delicate piano collides with roaring cymbal and bass as Rihanna’s sweet singing erupts into full belting. Only an artist with a voice as unique as Rih’s could pull off the dueling vocals without sacrificing emotion on either end. Even though it got the single and video treatment, “What Now” still feels criminally slept on. –Briana Younger Listen: “What Now” “California King Bed” Loud Island Def Jam, 2010 41 Possibly worse than any breakup is the torturous period before it, that time spent prolonging the inevitable. It’s one of those feelings only recognizable to those who’ve experienced it, but Rihanna captures it perfectly in this rock serenade, its splashy guitars provide a glittering backdrop for her classic diva chops. For all of her bombastic EDM and pop singles, the softer sides of the singer have provided some of her most arresting moments. –BY Listen: “California King Bed” “Break It Off” [ft. Sean Paul] A Girl Like Me Island Def Jam, 2006 40 The elements of “Break It Off” aren’t rocket science: This is an overtly sexual, eminently danceable club song. The beat is an innovative and deceptively simple trap-soca hybrid that splits the candy-painted synths and 808 palette of the Atlanta club sound with triple-time drums. The chemistry between Sean Paul and Rihanna works; showing her Afro-Caribbean roots always seems to bring something extra from her. None of these elements surpass the best solo work of each vocalist, and as a duet, it’s far overshadowed by Rihanna’s later work with Drake, but each element does exactly what it needs to achieve thrust. –ESH Listen: “Break It Off” [ft. Sean Paul] “Nothing Is Promised” [w/ Mike WiLL Made-It] Ransom 2 Westbury Road/Interscope, 2016 39 The myth of Rihanna is that she does whatever the fuck she wants, when she wants, so her slurred verses on “Nothing Is Promised” snap nicely into that image. Breezing through a Mike WiLL Made-It beat that sounds earmarked for Future—chiming bells, glistening trap drums—she makes like a rapper, loosening her tongue and spitting flossy bars with blurry words cowritten by Future. Also interesting here is the edge to Rih’s voice, which replaces the playfulness she usually employs. “I’m past niggas,” she purrs. “I love you, money.” Two can play at this game, and at least on “Nothing,” it’s cash flow over bros. –RH Listen: “Nothing Is Promised” “Unfaithful” A Girl Like Me Island Def Jam, 2006 38 R&B is full of men trying to atone for their indiscretions and women trying to navigate the aftermath but, every now and then, the tables turn. Twisting this entire dynamic on its face, Rihanna is apologetic but also content to continue with her cheating ways, likening the act to murder. Like her character, her voice is imperfect but redemptive, spilling out over orchestral strings and piano that give the song’s doom and gloom a noble sheen. Infidelity never sounded so charmingly reflective. –BY Listen: “Unfaithful” “Princess of China” [w/ Coldplay] Mylo Xyloto Parlophone Records, 2011 37 If there were a list of unexpected Rihanna collaborations, this one with Coldplay would fall in the top percentile. Their voices blend surprisingly, casually well, content to let the production claim most of the spotlight. The song is executed quite well, considering the combination of otherwise disparate styles. The skittering synths and pulsating bass make this flamboyant breakup song readymade for a finale at Electric Daisy Carnival.  –BY Listen: “Princess of China” “Cheers (Drink to That)” Loud Island Def Jam, 2012 36 Of all the Loud singles, “Cheers” fits best with the Rihanna of today, finding her leaning both into patois and blasé cool. Said cool comes mostly secondhand, via nods to “Ignition (Remix),” “Gin and Juice,” Coyote Ugly, a great deal of product placement and, of course Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” (the latter via a garish, unignorable sample). At least “Cheers” knows exactly what is and doesn’t try to be anything else; toward the end, it cuts to a presumably drunken last-call singalong, the song’s natural habitat. After all, one constant in life is that no matter what shit happens Monday to Friday, there will always be another freakin’ weekend, and people need to drink to something. –KSA Listen: “Cheers (Drink to That)” “Breakin’ Dishes” Good Girl Gone Bad Island Def Jam, 2007 35 Good Girl Gone Bad, to its credit, goes past sexy-baby mode—that clichéd pop star’s sexual awakening narrative—and includes actual and awesome acts of girls going bad. This track itself is slight, with Tricky Stewart and The-Dream on autopilot, but it includes Rihanna rapping about smashing dishes, bleaching and burning her man’s clothes, and torching the house. All this for someone who Rih admits might not actually be cheating (“Man, I don’t know”). It’s Rihanna’s very own “Ring the Alarm,” and almost as bracing. –KSA Listen: “Breakin’ Dishes” “We Ride” A Girl Like Me Island Def Jam, 2006 34 It’s odd now to hear Rihanna on such a bubblegum single—even “Pon de Replay” has swagger to it—but it’s not like it doesn’t work. “We Ride” draws upon 2000s R&B and bubblegum pop to turn a ride-or-die lyric into a wistful, swooning plaint to a less-than-devoted lover, nestling this among wisps of backing vocals, acoustic guitar, and twitchy percussion just this side of trap. “We Ride” wasn’t on Music of the Sun, but it sounds like the sun. – KSA Listen: “We Ride” “Raining Men” [ft. Nicki Minaj] Loud Island Def Jam, 2010 33 The glossy trap sheen and theatrical Nicki Minaj guest verse are excellent distractions from the fact that this is a rip-off of Beyoncé’s “Diva.” Still, plenty of people will forgive rip-offs (ahem, “Fancy”). But while Rihanna’s voice sounds as cozy as a blanket on a dreary day, she’s not saying much, and she’s saying what remains without any real conviction, which is probably why “Raining Men” never cracked the Billboard Hot 100. –RH Listen: “Raining Men” [ft. Nicki Minaj] “Hate That I Love You” [ft. Ne-Yo] Good Girl Gone Bad Island Def Jam, 2007 32 It’s not hard to picture Rihanna and Ne-Yo staring into each other’s eyes as they recorded this sweet duet—their harmonies are heartfelt, and their synergy feels organic. Rih’s voice retains its teenage innocence on this bittersweet love song that ultimately ends up on the softer side. Unfortunately, it largely sounds like a remix of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick,” which takes away from its potential to be a truly standout Rih record. –Briana Younger Listen: “Hate That I Love You” [ft. Ne-Yo] “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” Music of the Sun Island Def Jam, 2005 31 Adroitly flipping Boogie Down Productions’ Bronx patois, Rihanna’s vocal transforms toughness into a breezy, catchy melody—an early indicator of how she would soon balance hip-hop, pop, and her West Indian roots in a way that felt genuine and effortless. Even her slight pitchiness on the song’s bridge feels like growing pains that serve the overall puppy-love vibe. “If It’s Lovin’” still fits firmly into the radio-ready template established by “Pon De Replay,” and it gave us a compelling early glimpse at the woman Robyn Rihanna Fenty would become. –ESH Listen: “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” “Rehab” [ft. Justin Timberlake] Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded Island Def Jam, 2008 30 Instead of leaving it to industry suits, who never miss a Lolita opportunity, Rihanna herself steered the project that sought to sex up her image, Good Girl Gone Bad. Yet she never really had an “innocent” image to sully; even in her early videos, there was a knowing gleam in her eye. It’s why she’s able to pull off “Rehab,” a song that would’ve been a bit mature for any other 18-year-old to record, and why she doesn’t wilt next to Justin Timberlake—no small feat, considering he wrote and co-produced the song, and he was coming off 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. Here Rihanna doesn’t rely on any expected theatrics, playing it straight, which instantly heightens the drama. Singing almost in a monotone, she allows the exhaustion and anguish of addiction to rise to the surface. The song is fine, but the shrewd, early creative control is what’s really notable here, as a harbinger of things to come. –RH Listen: “Rehab” [ft. Justin Timberlake] “Disturbia” Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded Island Def Jam, 2008 29 One of those weird synchronicities: a phrase popularized in a 1961 bestseller about Cold War suburban malaise bubbled up twice, a few decades later, in a Shia LaBeouf film and a Rihanna single. The former went with the suburban angle, but the disturbia on offer from RiRi is straight from the co-writer Chris Brown’s head. Inevitably, it doesn’t entirely hold up; Brown’s subsequent decade shrouds “Disturbia” in now-unavoidable subtext, and Rihanna’s delivery of dense lyrics like, “If you must be falter, be wise” come off as the least convincing philosophical koans in history. But out of this context, “Disturbia” is still plenty disturbing, largely because Rihanna avoids histrionics: inhabiting a remarkably dark dance track without ado, singing about nightmares and monsters as if they’re all too familiar. Even the introductory horror-film scream is low-key. –KSA Listen: “Disturbia” “S&M” Loud Island Def Jam, 2010 28 In which Rihanna re-uses the electro stomp of “SOS” to exult in a different sort of tainted love. Songwriter Ester Dean’s topline may be lyrical fetish dress-up, but it’s perfectly good at it—it’s more explicit, anyway, than anything that arrived years later on the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Grey. Rihanna’s more than game; the song is really more of a bottom thing, but Rihanna unquestionably dominates it, with growly gusto and impish glee. But the less said about the remix, featuring a narcotized Britney Spears, or video director Melina Matsoukas’ porno parody of Chicago’s “We Both Reached for the Gun,” the better. –KSA Listen: “S&M” “Where Have You Been” Talk That Talk Island Def Jam, 2011 27 “Where Have You Been” is a fairly blatant attempt to recapture the club juice of “We Found Love”—producers Cirkut and Dr. Luke even sneak in that Calvin Harris drop toward the end—but it’s really the grown-up version of “Don’t Stop the Music.” There’s no more coyness, no more surprises, just a monomaniacal focus on dancing your way to get what you like. (What the market likes, too: The eh-ehs of the pre-chorus are a clear “Umbrella” nod.) It’s the moment EDM Rihanna reached critical mass, as widely and shamelessly as possible—and with the presence she developed over the past half-decade or so, she made it work. –KSA Listen: “Where Have You Been”  “Russian Roulette” Rated R Island Def Jam, 2009 26 Those of us given to darkness are drawn to the ominous “Russian Roulette” and the revelation of a Rihanna unafraid of her own shadows. The bass resembles a heartbeat, slow and steady despite the growing tension around it, heightened by the dice and revolver accents. Melodramatic? Sure, but the metaphor of falling in love as a game of Russian roulette doesn’t seem that off-base—at least not to someone who’d just been through what Rih had. Her voice quivers ever-so-slightly as she sings, and even though the whole scene is overdone, it captures exactly what it set it out to do. –BY Listen: “Russian Roulette” “FourFiveSeconds” [w/ Kanye West and Paul McCartney] Westbury Road, 2015 25 This one is for everybody who doubted Rihanna could sing. With its stripped-down production, this “wait, what?” collaboration between Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney has no Auto-Tuned nooks or bass-filled crannies in which to hide. Not that Rihanna needs to—hear that little mouse of a squeak in her first lines? The Sunday morning gospel belt over the organ? We rarely hear Rih’s voice in the wild, but those beautiful imperfections make us hope that this won’t be the last time. –RH Listen: “FourFiveSeconds”  “Shut Up and Drive” Good Girl Gone Bad Island Def Jam, 2007 24 Cranked with New Order’s “Blue Monday” sample, “Shut Up and Drive” is familiar, but its popularity also is due to Rihanna’s early, emergent sex-positive identity. Her vocals are thin here and the lyrics—lots of double entendre car talk—are laughably obvious. Yet there’s still a molasses warmth to her voice that’s a welcome respite from the bubblegum blandness of many young, female pop stars. –RH Listen: “Shut Up and Drive”  “Hard” [ft. Jeezy] Rated R Island Def Jam, 2009 23 For many of her fans, Rihanna is at her best when she’s at her cockiest, and “Hard” was an early taste of just how grand the singer’s bravado can be. She isn’t nearly as convincing here as she would later become, but the synth and tinkling piano in The-Dream and Tricky Stewart’s production, coupled with the guest verse by Jeezy, give the song some extra edge. At the time, the belligerence was a gratifying moment for people thirsty for Rihanna to emerge impervious following the fateful 2009 Grammys. Needless to say, her prophetic “that Rihanna reign just won’t let up” line has aged very well. –BY Listen: “Hard” [ft. Jeezy] “Sex With Me” ANTI Westbury Road, 2016 22 That sex sells is old news, but this ANTI bonus track is so deliciously shameless, it should’ve been given priority placement on the original edition. Rihanna is teasing and playful, completely aware of the fantasies she arouses, and she wields her sexuality better than any other pop star. It’s not a gimmick or tool but something she authentically embodies, existing to be manipulated only by its owner as she wishes, and her enjoyment is more than clear. –BY Listen: “Sex With Me”  “Cockiness (Love It)” (Remix) [ft. A$AP Rocky] 21 A$AP Rocky rides a tweaked-out beat by Bangladesh in gloriously jiggy fashion, but it’s Rihanna’s aerobic delivery of a checklist of nearly-unmentionable acts (“suck my cockiness”) that jerks you to attention. Rihanna raps like a cartoon character, her rubber-band mouth stretching out and popping back into place with these sly, sexed-up phrases. It’s risqué and funny and smart and smartass—and, most surprisingly, sexy. –RH Listen: “Cockiness (Love It)” (Remix) [ft. A$AP Rocky] “Man Down” Loud Island Def Jam, 2010 20 “Man Down” will be remembered as one of the moments when Rihanna truly came into her own as an artist. Minting new fans across cultural and generational lines, the song works on many levels. The beat is a note-perfect tribute to the digitized reggae anthems of the ’90s; the lyrics are deliberately constructed as an answer to Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff.” It’s also one of Rihanna’s strongest vocal performances, a case where her natural Bajan patois and slight country twang perfectly frame the emotional immediacy. All these layers, however, hold up the urgent chorus, which, read literally, upends the misogynistic “Gz Up, Hoes Down” ethos of so much modern R&B, boldly articulating a pose that’s since become Rihanna’s resting stance. –Edwin “STATS” Houghton Listen: “Man Down”  “SOS” A Girl Like Me Island Def Jam, 2006 19 Among the most maligned producers of the late ’00s was J.R. Rotem, known for big, unsubtle samples like Jason Derulo’s flip of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” and Sean Kingston’s lifting of “Stand By Me.” But sometimes big, unsubtle samples work, and “SOS”—an early hit for both Rotem and Rih—lifts the stomps of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” but ditches the Northern Soul torch song attached to them. The lyrics in its place aren’t great, with clumsy scansion and over-cleverness (“Feel this way-O-U are…”), so she alternately autopilots and karaokes through them. But the beat is undeniable: It’s the moment critics began to take Rihanna seriously. –KSA Listen: “SOS” “Take a Bow” Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded Island Def Jam, 2008 18 “Take a Bow” is one of the most relatable singles Rihanna has released. It unambiguously captures the way hurt masquerades as anger after a failed relationship. There’s a sense of sorrowful relief each time she sings, “But it’s over now,” and that familiar feeling sticks long after the song ends. Though the naiveté in “Take a Bow” is unimaginable for today’s Rih, it was believable coming from her then-20-year-old lips. Like most of her lovelorn ballads, it’s a rare and humanizing moment for a larger-than-life persona. –BY Listen: “Take a Bow” “You Da One” Talk That Talk Island Def Jam, 2011 17 Rihanna has always been radio-friendly, but Talk That Talk, her sixth studio album, was racier fare: No matter how creatively rendered, no song with the lyric “suck my cock” is making it on the air. The exception is “You Da One,” the sweet, Dr. Luke-produced mid-tempo bouncer. Its lyrics are a little generic, especially considering the album’s other tracks, but its backdrop is a cloudless Caribbean day, and the midnight spell of  “We Found Love” needed that balance. –RH Listen: “You Da One” “Don't Stop the Music” Good Girl Gone Bad Island Def Jam, 2007 16 Good Girl Gone Bad’s fourth single is also its most obvious retread. It pulls the same trick as its spiritual predecessor, “SOS,” plucking a dance cover from the ’80s for even further EDMification—in this case, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” specifically the breakdown from the Cameroonian jazz-funk artist Manu Dibango. But producers Stargate, who would work with Rihanna for years, take Dibango’s block-party exuberance and Jackson’s handclaps and jack up the contrast: a ruthless four-on-the-floor heightened and sharpened from its source material. What would otherwise just be the umpteenth self-referential plea to a DJ becomes driven, even desperate; it's not a night out but a mission. –KSA Listen: “Don't Stop the Music” “What’s My Name” [ft. Drake] Loud Island Def Jam, 2010 15 In a country of prudes and secret porn obsessives, Rihanna’s open embrace of her sexuality is like that first inhale of air after you’ve left a smoggy city. Like Madonna, Rihanna knows there’s power in submission, but she’s comfortable playing both positions in the flirty, R&B-flavored confection “What’s My Name.” (That “oh na, na” cry immediately recalls the “na na, you can’t get me” playground taunt.) Toying with gender roles even more, she flips the rap script and demands Drake say her name. A singsong melody on the hook means everybody kept asking her from them on. –RH Listen: “What’s My Name” [ft. Drake] “Pon De Replay” Music of the Sun Island Def Jam, 2005 14 Ironically, the song that launched one of pop music’s great voices was almost entirely about the beat. Jay Z, who signed Rihanna partially on the strength of her “Pon De Replay” demo, later revealed that he almost passed because he felt the song was “too big for her.” Indeed, with its catchy “Hey, Mr. DJ” hook and a beat that drew heavily from dancehall, “Pon De Replay” seemed destined to be a club hit that would define its singer. And though the track launched an artist of much greater versatility than its “one by one, even two by two” bars might suggest, her effortless facility in riding a riddim also signaled that, no matter how far she roved, dancehall would always be in her DNA. –ESH Listen: “Pon De Replay” “Love on the Brain” ANTI Westbury Road, 2016 13 While much of ANTI is driven by Rihanna’s soulful interpretation of mumble-rap, the retro doo-wop of “Love on the Brain”—reportedly the first song written for the album—fits right in. A classic torch song, it shows off Rihanna’s mature vocal range, swelling from a scratchy, whispering scat worthy of Ella Fitzgerald into gut-bucket blues, downshifting to a whimsical, Prince-worthy bridge. This is so far stylistically from the up-to-the-nanosecond sound of “Needed Me,” you could be forgiven for mistaking RiRi for someone else entirely. –ESH Listen: “Love on the Brain”   “Stay” Unapologetic Island Def Jam, 2012 12 “Stay” may be Rihanna’s most powerful ballad to date. Its spareness allows her to show her full range of idiosyncratic vocal modes, which move from warm, crooning whisper to soaring power-notes imbued with an icy numbness, then break with emotion at just the right moments. Songwriter Mikky Ekko’s shrill falsetto makes an unlikely but extremely effective counterpoint to this virtuoso performance, but even though it’s his song, it’s really her performance. Rihanna feels so comfortable, so in control of her technique, that she delivers a kind of sonic method acting. While the reverent chorus, “I want you to stay” follows a great tradition of ballads, everything here feels new, raw, and honest. –ESH Listen: “Stay” “Loveeeeeee Song” [ft. Future] Unapologetic Island Def Jam, 2012 11 Sleek and star-streaked yet still imbued with warmth, “Loveeeeeee Song” is a modern love duet that deals in that most classic of pairings—the rapper and the R&B singer. In 2012, Future had yet to get his heart broken by a different R&B star, and Rihanna was considering reconciling with Chris Brown, so they were only lovers on wax. Still, both sound like they’ve ripped these feelings up from the very roots, and the pairing of Future’s warbled yodel and Rihanna’s rich, throaty voice is oddly satisfying. That her voice was perhaps so choked with emotion over Brown, less so. –RH Listen: “Loveeeeeee Song” [ft. Future] “Only Girl (In the World)” Loud Island Def Jam, 2010 10 Rihanna’s no-fucks-given image is a relatively recent invention, and “Only Girl (In the World)” is when Rihanna gave all the fucks (in the world). It’s built on the same electro chassis as her late-’00s singles, but twitchier, more anxious, and more suited to pleading vocals; the lyrics are about hugging pillows and setting clingy traps, capped by a loud, belted feelings-bomb of a chorus. It’s the missing link between the house-diva emoting of the ’90s and the big, earnest feelings so ubiquitous in today’s festival EDM hooks. –KSA Listen: “Only Girl (In the World)” “Kiss It Better” ANTI Westbury Road, 2016 9 Emotional turmoil and sensuality are hard to combine in one song, but on “Kiss It Better,” Rihanna ups the ante, effectively flashing conceit and vulnerability in the same breath. She is both asking and expecting that her old lover will return to her side, and her smoky vocals, desperate but measured, make a convincing bid. But for once, Rih isn’t the only star here: Nuno Bettencourt’s mesmerizing electric guitar riff drives the song, recalling the best ’80s rock-pop ballad Prince never played. This is a strong contender for the best break-up-to-make-up song in her arsenal. –BY Listen: “Kiss It Better” “Pour It Up” Unapologetic Island Def Jam, 2012 8 Rihanna, as we now know her, begins here. A collaboration with imperial-period Mike WiLL Made-It, who was fresh off Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” “Pour It Up” takes Rihanna deep into a strip-club grotto in a boat made of money. What seemed like another dreary track on Unapologetic, an album full of them, took on new and very long life on urban radio. And Rihanna—luxuriating in her throaty, commanding lower register and her 360-deal largesse that she damn well earned, thank you—had never sounded more convincing. –KSA Listen: “Pour It Up” “Diamonds” Unapologetic Island Def Jam, 2012 7 Rihanna’s catalog is riddled with songs that reflect her troubled relationship with love, but “Diamonds” is a true diamond in the rough. The Sia-penned ballad put previously unmatched pressure on Rih’s vocal capacity, and she gracefully rose to the occasion. With triumphal but unobtrusive production, the Unapologetic single emphasizes her singing over all else for a result that is equal parts tender and regal. “Diamonds” added a notch of versatility to Rih’s belt for its subtlety and sentimental lyrics—and for someone whose private moments have been on full display, hearing her declare “I choose to be happy” will never get old. –BY Listen: “Diamonds” “Needed Me” ANTI Westbury Road, 2016 6 “Needed Me” is deceptively simple, an anti-tour de force. Apart from its taunting, haunting hook, it is less a song than a wisp of sonic smoke. The minimalist beat is something of a surprise, coming from trap-pop king DJ Mustard, all echoing atmospheric synths and disembodied voices. The verses are verbal daggers spoken melodically (“Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage/Fuck your white horse and a carriage”). It’s all intensely satisfying to listen to, as it takes the themes that run through much of Rihanna’s songs to their logical and inescapable conclusion, articulated with pure confidence.–ESH Listen: “Needed Me” “Rude Boy” Rated R Island Def Jam, 2009 5 Other songs in Rihanna’s catalog better showcase her ever-improving voice or lyrics, but few capture her essence like “Rude Boy.” Released in 2009, almost five years after “Pon de Replay” dropped, “Rude Boy” felt like an introduction to a brand-new artist. Before, she’d played by the rules, but something had snapped, and Rihanna now shook off any regard for other people’s opinions. The sly “Rude Boy” proved she’d been miscast as the sweet pop princess pumping out senior prom anthems like “Umbrella,” and she had come into her own: Strutting out to a clipped, breezy R&B-flecked dancehall track that wriggles down into your hips, she’s cheeky and ballsy, a little bit raunchy, and at complete ease with her sexuality. “Babe, if I don’t feel it, I ain’t fakin’,” she sings. And she hasn’t since. –RH Listen: “Rude Boy” “Umbrella” [ft. Jay Z] Good Girl Gone Bad Island Def Jam, 2007 4 Although it’s arguable that anybody could have scored a world-changing hit with the catchiest song The-Dream and Tricky Stewart ever wrote—including Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige, both candidates for the track—Rihanna is the one who actually did it. (Several nations, in fact, blamed her for ruining their weather in 2007.) Rihanna’s electric-cool interpretation of the melody not only gives extra power to the moments where she lets the warm grain of her voice show through, it moves it completely beyond The-Dream’s signature doo-wop feel, opening up a whole new dimension to the text. Ultimately, the tension between her icy detachment and the girly innocence of the singsong “ella-ella-ay” refrain is what drives the song, undercutting the invitation of the lyric but creating a feeling of soaring untouchability that perfectly matches the theme of Jay Z’s “fly higher than weather” verse. Rihanna renders any other singer of this song unthinkable. –ESH Listen: “Umbrella” [ft. Jay Z] “Bitch Better Have My Money” Westbury Road, 2015 3 Part of Rihanna’s allure has always been rooted in her enviable ability to be a living, breathing middle finger, but “Bitch Better Have My Money” is bad gal RiRi at her absolute baddest. (And that video? A cinematic achievement.) There are no cute metaphors hiding here, only Rih asserting herself like the boss she is. Her voice brash and pitiless as she demands to be paid. The production crashes with urgency; the lyrics, courtesy of the equally badass Bibi Bourelly, are a call to arms. This track will forever ring out in clubs where the ladies are dressed to destroy whomever dares look at them too long, holding their drinks in one hand and flexing all night long. –BY Listen: “Bitch Better Have My Money”  “We Found Love” [ft. Calvin Harris] Talk That Talk Island Def Jam, 2011 2 Most pop songs are more than the sum of their parts, but “We Found Love” is especially so: A peppy, EDM merry-go-round of a Calvin Harris track that became the Calvin Harris track, imitated endlessly (often by Harris himself) until it made radio a hopeless place; a melody intended for nonentities by comparison, like Leona Lewis and Nicole Scherzinger. The event video took the teenage wasteland of “Skins” and spritzed it with a little autobiography, both short-term (Rihanna reportedly dated the video lead for about five seconds) and long (the parallels between the video’s rocky-at-best relationship and Rihanna’s past were not accidental). But as she’s done so often, Rihanna found magic in an identikit place; the song’s repetitive like a pet name is repetitive, a romanticism born of comfort that you can still dance to. –KSA Listen: “We Found Love” “Work” [ft. Drake] ANTI Westbury Road, 2016 1 In many ways, “Work” feels like the song Rihanna has been feeling her way towards throughout her career. Where “Pon De Replay,” her introduction to the world stage, rode heavily on Afro-Caribbean trends, “Work” has spawned its own imitators in dancehall and pop spheres. If “Replay” appealed by stressing Rihanna’s natural Bajan cadence, “Work” finds her feeling out a faded, diasporic patois that screws together rap and Kingstonian slang into a voice that is distinctively hers. If “Replay” achieved infectious catchiness at the expense of lyrical depth, “Work” manages to be both instantly hummable and emotionally subtle; it captures the small triumphs and heartbreaks of real relationships (“You took my heart and my keys and my patience”) and the energy required to maintain them (“Recognize I’m trying, baby/I have to work, work, work”). That one-word chorus is so perfectly Rihanna; it channels the bittersweet joy of surrendering to the moment, in life and on the dancefloor, without discounting the incredible savvy it takes to stay on top. The layered production work from Boi-1da is a revelation, moving lightly from quietly intimate to deep and resonant. Drake here is a bit outmatched by RiRi, compared to their other duets, but he still gets the chance to pick her over her hypothetical twin. It’s a classic, navel-gazing Drake compliment, but also his most illogical—as “Work” proves, no one could ever be mistaken for Rihanna. –ESH Listen: “Work” [ft. Drak […]

  • Longform: Chris Cornell, Searching for Solitude
    Posted by Jonathan Gold on May 19, 2017 at 4:30 pm

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  • Afterword: Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell Was More Than Just a Grunge Frontman
    Posted by Maura Johnston on May 19, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Afterword: Why Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell Was More Than Just a Grunge Frontman Photo by: Chris Cornell performing with Soundgarden circa 1996. Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images. To say that the vocalist and songwriter Chris Cornell, who died late Wednesday at 52, possessed one of the most commanding voices in rock is hardly hyperbolic. His impressive range, which could delve into sub-basement registers and hop-skip octaves with an effortless brio, helped define the otherwise hard-to-categorize music of his main project, Soundgarden, and allowed him to test boundaries—of style, of genre, of notes leapt in a single bound. Soundgarden burst from the mid-’80s Seattle underground with commanding, odd songs that stood apart from their peers—the landing-gear whine at the start of “Hunted Down” doesn’t so much open their first EP, 1987’s Screaming Life, as it announces it, and the songs that follow are spiky and turbulent, although there’s ample room for Cornell’s moans amid the chaos. The records that followed would hew a little bit more closely to rock’s norm, but that was because they were helping define it; while the manic Screaming Life track “Tears to Forget” would have stuck out on, say, their platinum-selling 1996 album Down on the Upside, connecting it to the latter album’s Mainstream Rock chart-topping sulk “Blow Up the Outside World” isn’t too much of a conceptual stretch. A big part of this was Cornell, whose singular approach to vocals became more controlled over time. While he could out-yawp late-’80s “Headbangers Ball” denizens like Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach and Bulletboys’ Marq Torien, he didn’t only fly high; depressives’ anthems like the Louder Than Love dirge “I Awake” and the blues-tinged Superunknown track “Fell on Black Days” deploy his upper register strategically, nodding to the near-numbness depicted in their lyrics. But even Soundgarden’s darkest music was leavened by both wit—calling snippets of backward-masked stomach-churners “665” and “667” on their debut full-length Ultramega OK, which came out during the height of PMRC-inspired Satanic panic, and shouting out the electronic child-amuser known as the See ‘n Say on the head-spinning 1991 track “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”—and a willingness to take chances. They brought 7/4 and 9/8 time signatures to rock and, later, pop radio with the pummeling “Spoonman” and the unnervingly dreamy “Black Hole Sun”; they dove into guitar-nerd territory with the pentatonic scales of “Face Pollution” and got political with the crushing, helpless “New Damage,” which might be the Soundgarden song I’ve had in my head the most for the past four months. “The wreck is going down; get out before you drown,” Cornell pleads on its chorus; in 1991 he told Melody Maker that it was “about how the American people have become unbelievably complacent about the way that the U.S. government is eroding more and more basic human rights.” Soundgarden straddled the gap between hard rock and modern rock, with their omnivorous appetite and in-on-the-joke nature firmly placing them among college radio’s proto-slackers, and their crushing musical assault garnering approval from hard rock devotees no less demanding than Beavis and Butt-Head. “Musically, we were just different than anything else,” Cornell told the Boston Phoenix in 2011. “When it became a genre called grunge, and we were considered part of it, and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were considered to be playing the same genre of music that was stylistically different than the greater world of music—that just didn’t make sense to me. I mean, it didn’t sound to me like it was genre-specific at all, so the only tie-in that I could see was that we were young bands that were roughly in the same area code that were influenced by punk and post-punk music and culture.” When I think of Cornell and Soundgarden, I think of doors being thrown open, and at times disintegrating. Seeing them open for Guns N’ Roses during the L.A. rock kings’ imperial Use Your Illusion period, learning about Sub Pop bands like the Fastbacks and Beat Happening because of my fandom growing to obsessive compilation-collecting levels, figuring out what other musicians’ catalogs they were borrowing from—Soundgarden facilitated all of these “aha” moments. Combing over their cover choices was like thumbing through a well-worn record collection, complete with slight warps that rendered the platters unique. Their version of Devo’s 1980 freakout “Girl U Want” slows the track down almost imperceptibly, Cornell’s devil-on-the-shoulder vocal adding a last-call gravitas to the new wavers’ depiction of boiling-over lust. On their remake of the Ohio Players’ wordplay-heavy groove “Fopp,” Cornell remains faithful to the growl-to-howl trajectory of the original’s vocals, adding a sinewy soulfulness to his bandmates’ slightly chunkier take on the funk legends’ throwdown. Soundgarden didn’t only push outward on their covers; the Cornell composition “Fresh Deadly Roses,” an early B-side, has latticework textures that echoes the Cure’s gauzier moments, while the 2014 rarities compilation Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path brings together a career-spanning collection of found-footage-heavy remixes by the storied Northwest engineer Steve Fisk, whose tape-manipulation exercises and work with the band Pell Mell made him a cult hero. When Cornell went solo after Soundgarden’s first breakup in 1996, his palette grew in ways that were barely hinted at by “Seasons,” the quietly meditative solo track he contributed to the 1992 dating travelogue Singles, or by the blues hymn “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” one of the first songs he wrote for the stunning Temple of the Dog album. His 1999 solo debut Euphoria Morning places his voice amidst starker textures, allowing tracks like the stretched-out ballad “Wave Goodbye”—a tribute to his late friend Jeff Buckley—showing that the power in his voice came not only from its octave-leaping range, but from Cornell’s ability to guide it through complex emotions. (A 2015 reissue restored a single letter to the album’s title, altering it to Euphoria Mourning.) 2007's Carry On is more straightforward and mellowed-out; it also contains his funereal cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which shows off the slightly increased grit in his voice and which would go on to, perhaps improbably, influence the trajectory of singing-competition juggernaut “American Idol.” A year after the album’s release, eventual “Idol” winner David Cook would cover Cornell’s cover, setting up a parade of male hopefuls who would dazzle home viewers with brooding, acoustic-guitar-led versions of past chart-toppers. Cornell then decided to expand his remit with the 2009 album Scream, a collaboration with Timbaland. It was fairly derided upon its release, with the combination of the producer’s then-too-ubiquitous beats, Cornell’s at times low-energy vocal delivery, and some terribly rancid lyrics (“that bitch ain’t a paaaart of me,” he spat ad nauseam on the album’s leadoff track) coming off ham-fistedly. While the handclap-heavy coda to “Get Up” and its follow-through, the 9/11 broadside “Ground Zero,” at least allow Cornell’s smoke-plume vibrato to shine, this genre-busting attempt was admirable on paper, but mostly a miss on record. Soundgarden’s 2010s reformation came from a band that was older and wiser, yet still willing to fray expectations at their edges; 2012’s King Animal, their most recent release, contains stunning Cornell-penned tracks like the weary “Bones of Birds” and the hard-edged, horn-tinged “Black Saturday,” which show how he worked around his voice’s upper register gaining even more grit. In 2015 Cornell released Higher Truth, where his voice stretched out in its sweet spot—”Misery Chain” shows off his still-potent vibrato, while the harmonica-and-choir-assisted “Bend in the Road” is a loose-limbed rumination that recalls blues-rooted Temple of the Dog tracks like “Times of Trouble” and “Four Walled World” as filtered through the jam-session ideal of ’70s rock. On the night before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I went to Madison Square Garden to see Temple of the Dog, and the group’s 24-song set thundered through not only the 10 tracks on their album, but songs by Mother Love Bone, whose lead singer Andrew Wood’s death led to Cornell writing the project’s first two tracks, as well as covers of the Cure (“Fascination Street”), Harry Nilsson (“Jump Into the Fire”), and Led Zeppelin (an absolutely face-melting version of “Achilles’ Last Stand”). Cornell also covered two of his own songs: “Seasons,” with its rolling guitar line causing the arena to seemingly sigh as one; and the gulping “Missing,” which gets an official release today as part of the Singles soundtrack’s 25th-anniversary reissue. “Missing” was part of the Poncier cassette, a collection of tracks written by Cornell in the guise of the film’s slightly dim music-scene hero Cliff Poncier, played by Matt Dillon (director Cameron Crowe said that he’d once envisioned Cornell in the role). Cornell’s voice becomes a guttural plea on the chorus, the lyrics of which sound even more resonant now: Have you seen meCan you hear meDid you think you could win me overI’ve been hard to holdI’ve been hard to holdAnd I’m missing […]

  • Interview: Sufjan Stevens: Spokesman for Sanity
    Posted by Ryan Dombal on May 17, 2017 at 4:15 pm

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  • Podcast: In Sight Out: Stephin Merritt
    Posted by Marc Hogan on May 17, 2017 at 2:15 pm

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  • Rising: The Eclectic Soul Music of Nick Hakim
    Posted by Quinn Moreland on May 16, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    Rising: The Eclectic Soul Music of Nick Hakim Photo by: Photos by Ebru Yildiz It is a miserable day to visit Nick Hakim at his home in Ridgewood, Queens. April showers have extended well into May, and an almost comically torrential rainfall has transformed the charming New York City neighborhood into a giant flood. But inside the 26-year-old’s apartment, which he shares with his partner Naima and two roommates, all is tranquil; the only sign of the storm is an innocent plink-plink tap on a triangular skylight. Hakim’s presence is immediately soothing, though initially guarded. We break the ice by discussing the arduous task of moving from one place to another—his debut album, Green Twins, is his first release since relocating to New York after graduating college, and its emerald-tinted chill shows both a young man and his adopted city in transition. As exorbitant rent prices push artists away, many have warned that New York City is increasingly facing the risk of losing its creative class. Before moving to relatively quiet Ridgewood, Hakim struggled to get by financially in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn while waiting tables and also teaching music at a nonprofit in Boston two days a week. Though he considered leaving the city completely, Hakim remained because of the energy and drive of his local peers, including his band, the jazz collective Onyx, singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, and rising filmmaker/musician Terence Nance. In the end, Hakim learned to utilize his precious free time while gradually carving out his own space in the city. “There’s still a hungry, positive, angry community—angry in a good way,” says Hakim, sitting in his light-soaked home studio. “We use music to fuel that passion for creating and playing shows and making art.” Rather than presenting the stereotypical cooler-than-thou attitude that can exist within NYC music circles, Hakim’s spacey soul embraces his diverse community and upbringing. Nick Hakim: "Green Twins" (via Bandcamp) Hakim’s parents emigrated from Lima, Peru, to New York City in the early ’80s after his father received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at the New School in Manhattan. After about eight years, the family moved to Washington D.C., where Hakim was born and raised. His mother founded two daycares in addition to serving as a social worker in local public schools; his dad’s main gig involved analyzing finances for companies that deal with education in at-risk countries. Though Hakim would not express an interest in playing music until his late teens, he was surrounded by a diverse array of sounds at home. There was the nueva cancion—political folk music—of his mother’s native Chile; ’60s and ’70s touchstones like the Beatles and Al Green; D.C. hardcore bands like Fugazi that were beloved by Hakim’s older brother—though Nick preferred the reggae-infused Bad Brains, especially since one of his teachers performed regularly with the band’s vocalist, HR; and Latino rappers like Big Pun and Fat Joe. In his youth, Hakim was placed into special education classes and often found himself ostracized in school. “I had a lot of learning issues,” he tells me, pouring hot tea into a cup. “When I was in sixth grade I couldn’t tell time and I didn’t know the months in order.” But when he was 17, one of his friends invited him to sing with her church choir, and he began teaching himself to play piano. Everything changed. Suddenly, the kid with the “two-point-something GPA” was accepted at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. While there, he self-released 2014’s two-part EP Where Will We Go, on which he ponders romance’s alluring intoxication, ensuing heartbreak, and eventual death through a dark and frosty lens. Those releases became an unexpected success, racking up millions of SoundCloud plays, leading to opening slots for Maxwell and How to Dress Well, and an eventual signing to indie titan ATO Records, home to Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff. Surrounded in his studio by a poster for Thundercat’s Drunk, a rack of earth-tone clothing, stacks of synthesizers, and an overflowing collection of records, Hakim seems like a humble soul. This humility is reflected in Green Twins’ insistence on finding oneself through a positive relationship with others: “She taught me to make love with patience/Not just thinking about myself/To really feel the other person,” he sings on the funky, seductive “Cuffed.” Unlike Where Will We Go, Green Twins flourishes with a playful sexiness that reveals Hakim’s newfound contentment and confidence. The new album’s vibe is encapsulated in its psychedelic artwork, which shows a lone eyeball peering into a mirror in the midst of a hazy fog. “It’s like looking inwards in a very surreal way,” Hakim says of the image. “There’s a lot of songs on this record that have to do with the things that live inside my subconscious but that I can’t really access until I am asleep.” While making Green Twins, he learned to write down his dreams, and the mysteries of the psyche enter into the record immediately on the title-track opener, where Hakim croons about hidden fears over a dusty beat and swirling keys. Minutes later, he combines faith and lust on the hollowed-out gospel of “Bet She Looks Like You,” where he exalts a lover with the swoon-worthy declaration “If there’s a god I wonder what she looks like/I bet she looks like you.” Considering how drastically music altered his trajectory as a teenager, it makes sense that Hakim never strays too far from it. Even during our conversation, he casually leans across me a few times to tinker with parts of a song on a Moog synthesizer. And as I emerge from his apartment into a shockingly sunny day, I can faintly hear him up the stairs, playing the complete tune for the first time. Pitchfork: How did you end up at Berklee College of Music? Nick Hakim: My decision to go was very conscientious—I was really curious about learning specific things about music and technical work. I literally applied to five schools and I got rejected from all of them, except for Berklee. Coming from a background where I didn’t do good in school, it felt good to get accepted from an institution that was supportive. The first two years I was there were fucking amazing for learning, and I met so many people. What did you study there? Production, composition, advanced harmony. In terms of majors, they had a music therapy major that sounded really interesting to me. I’m all about working with young people. I got a job with the Boys & Girls Club through school, and they gave me money to stay in school because I was a student teacher. I was also volunteering at a juvenile detention center for a year, working with music therapy students—we’d go there with a mic and let them record their raps. I had one student, his name is Anthony. There was a week that I missed, and he was like, “Man, why didn’t you come last week? I wanted to record this.” He was depending on my presence and on me bringing the computer. Monday was music day [in the detention center], but the rest of the days were just like a fucking prison for them. You had some difficulties in school as a kid too, right? Yeah I did. A lot of people do. I was lucky to a certain extent because my mother was always very adamant about dealing with it since she worked in the school system. I was put in special ed in second grade. That means I would take tests in the corner of the class by myself, and I would have to be escorted to the water fountain or nurse’s office to take medication two times a day. I went to three different high schools and I got held back when I left the first—the year I got held back was the year that I started playing and learning music. A big reason why I’m interested in working with young people is because I can genuinely relate to feeling rejected and stupid as young person—feeling like you’re not capable and then feeling depressed because of that and projecting that in a way that is negative and violent. I was very fragile, and when I started getting a little older I started fighting a lot more and doing all kinds of dumb shit. I definitely was not a very happy person and I lashed out and I was rebellious at home and everywhere. What would you say to a kid who is having a tough time at school or home? Everybody has an individualized situation, and just being a consistent and open presence in their life goes a long way. I remember being pressured and not wanting to talk about shit. I look back and I respect and acknowledge the fact that I was lucky, I had a lot of really great teachers. That’s a way of just being a positive presence. I’m trying to learn how to have that kind of space all the time. I don’t know if I can tour and do all this shit and teach all the time, but I wanna teach in spurts. I have a lot of friends who are really involved with their own art and also work with young people, so maybe in the future we can all come together and start a nonprofit organization. […]

  • Lists & Guides: Nina Simone: Her Art and Life in 33 Songs
    Posted by Pitchfork on May 15, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    Lists & Guides: Nina Simone: Her Art and Life in 33 Songs Photo by: Photo by Tom Copi/Getty Images It's After the End of the Worldby Daphne A. Brooks I remember how it ended. A bespectacled, lanky, light-skinned sister sporting two braided pigtails stepped up to the mic. She was rocking garden-green pants and a yellow spaghetti-strap tank top, and she came out late in the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra’s Nina Simone tribute set in New York on June 13, 2003. Armed with a startling mezzo-soprano that dipped into the outer limits of audible desire, she was covering “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” like her life depended on it. Her crooning felt sexy and dangerous and inquisitive as she declared, “I want a little sweetness down in my soul...I want a little steam on my clothes.” The crowd swooned. We were suspended for a moment between the grief of having lost our Nina some three weeks before (April 21, the day that Prince would die 13 years later) and ecstatic remembrance as this then-unknown singer, Alice Smith, summoned the potency of our lost patron saint. “Our Nina”—as she is sometimes called by black feminists who feel especially possessive and protective of her—was a musician whose body of work pushed us and challenged us to know more about ourselves, what we longed for, and who we were as women navigating intersectional injuries and negations of mattering in the American body politic. She was beloved as much for the emotional force of her showmanship as she was for the lyrical, instrumental, and political force of her virtuosity. That night (one I remember so vividly, perhaps, because it was the Friday before my father died), Smith was conjuring that revolutionary, climactic Nina feeling—the erotic kind, which women of color historically have rarely been able to claim for their own, and the socially transformative kind, that marginalized peoples have called upon to bring about radical change. That revolutionary Nina feeling runs like a high-voltage current from her earliest American Songbook covers through her Frankfurt School battle cries, folk lullabies and eulogies, blues incantations, Black Power anthems, diasporic fever chants, Euro romantic laments, and experimental classical and freestyle jazz odysseys. It is the signal she sends out to tell us that something is turning, that we may be closing in on some new way of being in the world and being with each other, or we are at least reaching the point of breaking something open, tearing down Jim Crow institutions. Often enough, it indicated that we were joining her in tearing up those unspoken rules about how a Bach-loving, Lenin- and Marx-championing, “not-about-to-be-nonviolent-no-more” musician and black freedom struggle activist should sound.  Photo by Gilles Petard/Getty Images Soothsayer, chastiser, conjurer, philosopher, historian, actor, politician, archivist, ethnographer, black love proselytizer: She showed up on the frontlines of people-powered mass disturbances, delivering the good word (“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day”) or shining discomforting light on the stubborn edifice of Southern white power (“Why don’t you see it?/Why don’t you feel it?”). And even when illness set in, and exile didn’t soften her grief for fallen friends and their unfinished revolution, she faltered for a time but ultimately stayed the course. She was fastidiously focused, insouciantly exploratory, and ferociously inventive at her many legendary, marathon concerts—Montreux, Fort Dix—the ones in which her mad skills, honed during her youthful years in late-night supper club jam sessions, returned in full. She was epic, our journey woman, the one who was capable of taking us to the ineffable, joyous elsewhere in that “Feeling Good” vocal improvisation that closes out that track.  Today, we return to her more passionately than ever before, looking to her for answers, parables, strategies—not only for how to survive, but how to end this thing called white supremacist patriarchy that some of us had naïvely believed was ever-so-excruciatingly self-destructing. Since her death, her iconicity has grown, spreading to the world of hip-hop (which, as the scholar Salamishah Tillet has shown, frequently samples her radicalism), to academia, where studies of Simone—articles and conference papers, seminars and book projects—pile high, making inroads in a segment of university culture previously cornered by Dylanologists. We take her with us to the weekend marches. Our students cue her up, summoning her wisdom and fortitude during the rallies.   This massive old-new love for our Nina is a way of being, and her sound encapsulates the pursuit of emotional knowledge and ethical bravery. She forges our awakening.  I said as much a few weeks before Nina passed, when I offered a conference meditation on the late Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Lilac Wine,” a song I had kept on a loop during my grad years and one that had taught me a few things about heartbreak and heroism.  Through the voice of that white, Gen X, alt-rock daring balladeer and ardent fan of Nina’s, I could hear Ms. Simone singing to me, “Leave everything on the floor, and face the end triumphantly.” It was a message that she conveyed all on her own when I saw her in 2000 at the Hollywood Bowl—one of her rare, stateside shows in her waning years. That night, she kept a feather duster at the piano, and after each song, she raised it like a conductor’s baton, beckoning an ovation. I remember that it was a gesture that felt cold and distant at the time, a sign of her lasting, antagonistic relationship with her audience—all of which is no doubt true. But in hindsight, I think more about the lessons she was bestowing on us, yet again, that evening. At the close of every number, we were invited to recognize the wonder of her artistry and to listen with anticipation for whatever would come next, the next better world she would create for us and with us—a black space, a women’s space, a free space. All those endings which might lead to new beginnings. Daphne A. Brooks is Professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale University.   Listen to Nina Simone: Her Art and Life in 33 Songs on Spotify and Apple Music.  “When I first heard her music, I just couldn't breathe. The register of her voice is one thing, but then it's combined with her spiritual depth and intellectual and emotional depth. When Nina sings, she is a conduit. Whether it's pure darkness and shame, or whether it's pure light of love and peace, she can deliver you.” Chan Marshall (Cat Power) “I Loves You Porgy” Little Girl Blue 1958 Listen on Apple Music Nina Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, was just a run-through of the material she’d been singing in clubs, in the arrangements she’d already made. They were ready to go. “I Loves You Porgy” became a Billboard Top 20 hit in 1959 and established her career in New York. To hear it is to understand how Simone’s critical consciousness began early and never turned off. She approached the ballad from George and Ira Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bess not as a classical musician, as per her training, or as a jazz or cabaret musician, as she had been called—only as herself. Even on paper, the song is emotionally loaded: a plea for protection to a man the narrator has come to trust. In emotional terms, Billie Holiday’s 1948 version feels optimistic, guardedly bright; Simone’s feels concentrated and gravely serious, almost private, even as she adds trills and rhythmic details to every line. When she sings, “If you can keep me, I want to stay here/With you forever, and I’ll be glad,” there is no way to know what “glad” means to her. –Ben Ratliff Listen: “I Loves You Porgy” “My Baby Just Cares for Me” Little Girl Blue 1958 Listen on Apple Music When Nina Simone cut Little Girl Blue, she was still smarting from her rejection from a prestigious classical conservatory. Throughout the album, she proved her chops by dropping a reference to Bach in one swinging track and improvising with a fluidity that Mozart would have admired, and also by subtly changing a tune that American listeners thought they knew. The standard “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was first made popular by the 1930 musical Whoopee!, and through such lyrics as, “My baby don't care for shows/My baby don't care for clothes,” its singer takes pride in a romantic prowess that can cut across class divisions. The vaudeville star Eddie Cantor performed it onscreen in a brassy, obvious way that fit the era (up to and including his use of blackface makeup). Simone’s reading is more soulful and complex. The tempo has been slowed, but the feel for jazz swing has been powerfully increased. In the middle of the song, over a finger-popping groove, Simone delivers a solo of pellucid elegance. Her vocals draw their power both from blues grit and crisp articulations, and from the way Simone bridges those styles. The way she plays this song, those old “high-tone places” and social codes no longer seem so untouchable—in the presence of such artistry, they only seem embarrassing and ripe for redefinition. –Seth Colter Walls Listen: “My Baby Just Cares for Me” “Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair” Nina Simone At Town Hall 1959 Listen on Apple Music Recontextualizing an Appalachian folk song, Simone transposed a mournful lament with roots in the Scottish highlands to 1959 America, where “black” was imbued with far greater heft. Coming early in her career, “Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair” promised an increasing political consciousness in her music, the intent clear in the cascade of loving, mournful, minor-key piano in the intro and her ever-profound, trembling contralto. The line “I love the ground on where he goes” held particular meaning in 1959, as the Civil Rights Movement was hitting a fever pitch but the racist laws of the Jim Crow South still held strong. Town Hall, where the album was recorded, was in midtown New York. It was the first concert hall she ever played, a venue where she would be venerated for singing her mind. The song arrived at the beginning of her fame but, more importantly, it was an incubator of her mindset to come. –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Listen: “Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair” “Her voice is the voice of the black woman; it’s the voice of the black woman's struggle. It's the voice of the black woman standing up for the black man. It's the female civil rights voice. She was one of the most pioneering women with regard to the feminist movement, and she didn't even try. She just was honest and truthful.” Maxwell “Just in Time” At the Village Gate 1962 Listen on Apple Music Simone's live albums, recorded in clubs or theaters, were fundamental to her work. All of them still feel charged. By 1957, when she was still playing in Atlantic City clubs, she had established a hard line: You paid attention or she stopped playing. By 1959, when she first played at New York’s Town Hall, she graduated in self-definition from club singer to concert-hall singer, which is to say she knew there was a sufficient amount of people who would come to hear her. And in April 1961, when she recorded At the Village Gate, she could bring back that imperial attitude to club dimensions, leading her quartet from the piano.    For about one full, intense minute at the start of “Just in Time,” she winds up her quartet with dissonant, percussive chord clusters. Then she settles into the first verse, sung at confidential level, drawing out her vowels into quavers. Her piano solo is as hypnotic and repetitive as what John Lewis made famous doing with the Modern Jazz Quartet, but smudgier and more emphatic. This is comprehensive skill—singing, playing, bandleading—and the song is all zone: nearing it, then staying in it. –Ben Ratliff Listen: “Just in Time” “The Other Woman/Cotton Eyed Joe” At Carnegie Hall 1963 Listen on Apple Music Nina Simone once dreamed of becoming the first black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, but when she finally made it there on April 12, 1963, she was working in a different idiom. Her set was filled with traditional songs and standards she made her own, including this striking mashup that closes her At Carnegie Hall live album. A staple in Simone’s sets, “The Other Woman” is a deceptively nuanced Jessie Mae Robinson tune with immense empathy for the mistress. It was first recorded by Sarah Vaughan, but Simone elevates the song further with her ability to conjure the loneliness of womanhood better than just about anyone, particularly when her accompaniments run slow and sparse. In performances over the years, the emotional burden of “The Other Woman” seemed to weigh heavier on Simone, as she experienced infidelity from both sides. At Carnegie Hall, though, she segues into the most elegant take on “Cotton Eyed Joe” imaginable, merging folk, jazz, and a touch of her beloved classical. –Jillian Mapes Listen: “The Other Woman/Cotton Eyed Joe” “Mississippi Goddam” In Concert 1964 Listen on Apple Music As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, retaliation from racist whites became more intense, reaching a terrible apex in 1963, when the KKK murdered Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and four children in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Nina Simone’s frustration and desperation is palpable in the biting, cynical way she performed “Mississippi Goddam” at Carnegie Hall—a room full of natty whites, but the rare New York concert hall that was never segregated. Within her voice, unloosed so explicitly for the first time, a sanguine irony formed the tension between its sentiment, the very real possibility of being murdered for her race (“I think every day's gonna be my last”). During her set at Carnegie, which was recorded for her album In Concert, Simone referred to this song as a show tune “but the show that hasn't been written for it yet.” Its frantic tempo reflected the urgency of the moment, a template for protest songs to follow, and the piano chords propelled the song's existentialism with the determination of a steam engine train. It was gonna make it on time, but its destination was still unknown. –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Listen: “Mississippi Goddam” “Pirate Jenny” In Concert 1964 Listen on Apple Music Nina Simone seethes the lyrics to “Pirate Jenny,” taking every ounce of delight in openly threatening her audience. The song, penned in the late 1920s by the German theatrical composer Kurt Weill, is a revenge tale in which a lowly maid fantasizes that she is the Queen of Pirates and that a black ship will soon emerge from the mist to destroy the town in which she has been treated so poorly. In Simone’s hands, it transforms from political metaphor into dark and unchained spiritual catharsis. Her performance devolves from singing to whispering, with raspy venomous verses such as, “They’re chaining up the people and bringing ‘em to me/Asking me kill them now or later.” Accompanied only by piano and timpani, she allows for long pauses, using silence as a psychological weapon. You can all but hear the audience clutching their pearls. –Carvell Wallace Listen: “Pirate Jenny” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” Broadway-Blues-Ballads 1964 Listen on Apple Music Though the unremarkable Broadway-Blues-Ballads followed “Mississippi Goddam”’s overwhelming reception a few months earlier, its opening number, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” quickly emerged and remains a tentpole of Nina Simone’s identity. (Never mind that its lyrics were written by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott, and Sol Marcus.) After years of “inferior” show tunes and “musically ignorant” popular audiences, as she would later call them in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You, Simone was all too familiar with this song’s themes of lonely remorse, of seeming edgy and taking it out on the people she loved, of “[finding herself] alone regretting/Some little foolish thing...that [she’s] done.” Though “Goddam” began a pivotal year in which Simone would refocus her life on civil rights and black revolution, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” would continue to reflect her personal struggles to come, including the bipolar disorder and manic depression that went undiagnosed and self-medicated until late in life. White audiences often saw her as the benign entertainer they wanted to; Simone long struggled to be seen as her whole, complex self. –Devon Maloney Listen: “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood” “To me, she’s the female equivalent to Miles Davis. She was just a walking middle finger; she stood for what she stood for, believed in what she believed in. She was a little dark, a little scary. People were enamored and scared as hell, didn't know what to do with her. She was always telling people what they needed to hear. She was like news to the jazz world.” Robert Glasper “See-Line Woman” Broadway-Blues-Ballads 1964 Listen on Apple Music In the stretch between 1962 and 1967, Nina Simone was at her most prolific, releasing at least two albums per year—and three in 1964. Broadway-Blues-Ballads premiered several songs that became fixtures of Simone’s live repertoire, including the scintillating call-and-response number “See-Line Woman.” Built on the structure and rhythm of a traditional children's song, it tells the tale of four escorts, dressed in different colors that signify what they’re willing to do. In Simone’s rendering, the “See-Line Woman” is something of a femme fatale, who will “empty [a man’s] pockets” and “wreck his days/And she make him love her, then she sure fly away.” Simone’s performance showcases her voice as a powerful instrument, flirtatious and sly, backed by a stuttering hi-hat and flute arrangement that never outshines her vocals. The origins of the tune that inspired “See-Line Woman” remain uncertain, but Simone’s recording leaves little doubt that the song is hers. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo Listen: “See-Line Woman” “Be My Husband” Pastel Blues 1965 Listen on Apple Music The lyrics of “Be My Husband” are attributed to Andrew Stroud, Nina Simone’s second husband and manager—a strong, guiding, sometimes violent hand in her career and her life. (Billie had one. Aretha, too.) The title seems mysterious at first: Is it a proposal, a bargain, or a command? Is she saying “marry me” or “act like a husband is supposed to act”? All of her musical and expressive genius is here. Her breath and guttural sighs seem to say, “This shit is work with an intermittent erotic respite.” Her voice dips, curves, bends, and flies, provides the melody and the rhythm. She demands, she pleads. She is all strength, then absolute vulnerability.   The year Simone recorded “Be My Husband,” death came for both her closest friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and Malcolm X. Spring brought Selma, and Nina serenaded the marchers. In this season of mourning and wakefulness, “Be My Husband” revealed itself to have been all these things: a proposition, a bargain, and a command.  Do right by me, Simone sings, and I’ll do right by you. Love for a man, a people, a nation is struggle—it is work. –Farah Jasmine Griffin Listen: “Be My Husband” “I Put a Spell on You” I Put a Spell on You 1965 Listen on Apple Music History remembers Nina Simone as nothing if not resolute, thanks in significant part to “I Put a Spell on You.” Slinky and confident, with flashes of destructive insecurity, her now-iconic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ blues lament begins matter-of-factly, informative even, then whips itself into the controlled fury of a woman who has made up her mind and is bracing for the inevitable fight. Simone refuses to be taken advantage of throughout, claiming what is rightfully hers: “I don’t care if you don’t want me/I’m yours right now.” Personal meaning aside—in 1965, she was halfway through a marriage—“I Put a Spell on You” also evokes Simone’s relationship with her audiences over the years. Its release, after all, came just as she was finding her own magic: As she wrote in her autobiography, “It’s like I was hypnotizing an entire audience to feel a certain way….This was how I got my reputation as a live performer, because I went out from the mid-Sixties onward determined to get every audience to enjoy my concerts the way I wanted them to, and if they resisted at first, I had all the tricks to bewitch them with.” –Devon Maloney Listen: “I Put a Spell on You” “Feeling Good” I Put a Spell on You 1965 Listen on Apple Music Throughout her life, Nina Simone rebelled against the tendency for her music to be categorized as jazz or blues, as it gave little acknowledgement to her classical training and her fluidity in other genres. I Put a Spell on You cemented her status as a singer at ease with popular music, who could command attention even when her exceptional piano skills played a secondary role. Simone’s version of “Feeling Good” is one of the album’s masterworks, and it became a standard in its own right. From the opening notes of the strictly vocal intro, she looks to nature to describe contentment: birds flying high, the sun in the sky, a breeze drifting on by. When the big band orchestration comes in, the horns and strings transform the song into a sermon of unbridled joy, peaking with a rousing scat solo that can only emerge from the depths of a free soul. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo Listen: “Feeling Good” “Ne Me Quitte Pas” I Put a Spell on You 1965 Listen on Apple Music This song finds Nina Simone’s emotions at their most indulgent, her shivering voice at its most precise. Penned by the Belgian crooner Jacques Brel and originally recorded in 1959, its cloying lyrics “Do not leave me” were meant to poke fun at men who could not keep their hearts in their shirts. On Simone’s recording, however, the work becomes something else entirely: It is an agonizing mediation on the kind of existential desolation that only a broken love can bring. Andrew Stroud, a retired NYPD lieutenant, once held her at gunpoint and raped her; she remained in this relationship for nearly 15 years, during which she recorded most of her defining albums. Here, she expands and contracts, pianissimo to fortissimo, as though the entire song were a series of sighs; when she sings, “Let me be the shadow of your shadow,” in its original French, a cosmic rumble emits from the depths of her heart. The chorus is simply the song’s title repeated, and the fourth one sounds precisely like the last flicker of a candle’s flame. –Carvell Wallace Listen: “Ne Me Quitte Pas” “In this current political climate, I really turn to her for strength, more than ever. She was a black woman who refused to not shine as bright as she wanted to. Her legacy was on her terms, and she left that behind for all women of color. I watch her and think, “Okay, I can't let the bastards get me down.” Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff) “Strange Fruit” Pastel Blues 1965 Listen on Apple Music In 1965, three very important marches took place between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, in protest of laws that prevented black citizens from exercising their right to vote. The third and most successful of these culminated in a concert organized by Harry Belafonte, at which Nina Simone performed. There, Simone—who once declared that she was “not non-violent”—used music as her weapon in the fight for liberty. Pastel Blues was not an overt protest record, but “Strange Fruit” was an unequivocal rebuke of the lynchings that claimed so many black lives. The song was originally popularized by Billie Holliday, who often performed it under strict conditions to avoid backlash over its severe message, but Simone was no longer held back by fear, having already put her career on the line with the similarly frank “Mississippi Goddam.” Over somber piano keys, she recounts the horror of seeing black bodies hanging from the trees like fruit, in one of the most startling metaphors ever set to wax. At the song’s apex, when describing how the bodies would be left “for the leaves to drop,” Simone wails the third word with an anguish that’s as unforgettable as the painful history that the song decries. —Vanessa Okoth-Obbo Listen: “Strange Fruit” “Lilac Wine” Wild Is the Wind 1966 Listen on Apple Music “Lilac Wine,” a woozy torch song, originally appeared in James Shelton’s if-you-blinked-you-missed-it 1950 Broadway musical revue “Dance Me a Song.” In 1953, Eartha Kitt dropped a cover and the song became a standard. Nina Simone’s arch-dramatic reimagining is as exotic and dizzying as the titular intoxicant, veering drunkenly between minor and major keys. Simone slows down the tempo to a dirge-like crawl; her classically inflected piano accompaniment is spare and insistent like a metronome. But it’s her trembling singing that really delivers the devastation: The way she captures crestfallen confusion and inebriated fogginess in her vocal performance is astonishing, and no easy feat. Even more astonishing: The way she balances the song’s damaged gloom with a heaving romantic tenderness. –Jason King Listen: “Lilac Wine” “Wild Is the Wind” Wild Is the Wind 1966 Listen on Apple Music Nina Simone debuted her elegant take on “Wild Is the Wind” on 1959’s At Town Hall—a year after Johnny Mathis scored an Oscar nod for the standard—though it would be another seven years before Simone introduced her ominous studio version. Wild Is the Wind, one of three albums Simone released in 1966, is filled with songs that yearn for understanding and romantic resolution, but few capture the feeling with as much uneasiness as the title track. One minute she’s completely swept away by love’s rapture with classical-piano opulence; the next her vibrato purrs on its lowest setting. The music cuts out. Nina smirks sharply. “Don’t you know, you’re life itself,” she coos. Some annotations of this line end it with an exclamation point, but Simone sings it more like a question. She knows how she feels, but there’s still something uncertain about it, perhaps a reflection of her own turbulent private life at this moment. –Jillian Mapes Listen: “Wild Is the Wind” “Four Women” Wild Is the Wind 1966 Listen on Apple Music While most of her records featured interpretations of songs written by others, Wild Is the Wind is special for a composition penned by Simone herself. On “Four Women,” she deconstructs the shameful dual legacies of slavery and racism in America, narrating from the perspective of four black female characters. Aunt Sarah is forced to work hard and be strong, lest a whip be cracked on her back; the biracial Saffronia exists between black and white worlds, shouldering the knowledge that her father “forced [her] mother late one night”; Sweet Thing is the little girl forced to grow up too fast, who has come to understand her body as something that has a cost. The song is set to a simple melody of bass and percussion, with Simone on the piano, but the tension builds with each vignette. By the time she gets to Peaches, the most vengeful character, Simone is yelling with the fury of many generations, and the instruments crescendo. With “Four Women,” Simone took a stand for black women, whose suffering at the nexus of race and gender discrimination is often rendered invisible. Shortly after its release, it was banned by several radio stations for supposedly incendiary content—a possibility that Simone must have anticipated. But she was a fearless fighter, and the song was her affirmation that black womanhood would remain at the heart of her activism. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo Listen: “Four Women” “One of the tenements of jazz performance is you’re supposed to be constantly learning more and constantly presenting at the furthest extreme of your ability. That's one of the great gifts she gave to audiences: She challenged herself and you. She was demanding. She was a revolutionary. She prodded you and said, “Hey, wake up. You think you can sit back and watch? No. We’re working. We’re fighting. We’re striving.” Esperanza Spalding “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” Silk & Soul 1967 Listen on Apple Music Though urban America was unraveling in 1967, with riots exploding in Detroit and Newark, Simone was being encouraged by RCA Records to go easy on the activism and focus on her career. She released three studio albums that year, the final being Silk & Soul, which was mostly filled with love songs and strings. However, right at the top of Side B was a track that would become an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” written by the jazz pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor. The song’s swinging melody and finger-popping performance belies its message, summarized in the yearning ambiguity of its title. The contrast between the emotion of the lyrics (“I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart/Remove all the bars that keep us apart”) and the upbeat, gospel-based arrangement added depth and power. Out of this tension, the song rang out as a hopeful but realistic vision of emancipation. –Alan Light Listen: “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” “Come Ye” High Priestess of Soul 1967 Listen on Apple Music “Come Ye” is the sparest track on High Priestess of Soul, an album produced with a fairly heavy hand by Hal Mooney. By then, Simone was seen widely as not just a musician but as a kind of power station of black consciousness, with the ability to politicize audiences—even white and American ones. In vocals and percussion alone, this is an original African-American folk song: polyrhythmic, in a single tonal center, played with hand drums. In four verses, Simone gradually raises its stakes until it all ends direly: “Ye who would have love,” she sings. “It’s time to take a stand/Don’t mind the dues that must be paid/For the love of your fellow man.” This is the intersection of cultural memory, passion, and action—medicine, warning, and alarm. –Ben Ratliff Listen: “Come Ye”  “Backlash Blues” Nina Simone Sings the Blues 1967 Listen on Apple Music Simone’s friend Langston Hughes mailed her the lyrics to this song in poem form, and she took immediately to his indictment of “Mr. Backlash,” a personification of white oppression of black America's small gains (and the “black, yellow, beige and brown” among them, equally oppressed). Simone delivered these promises and threats with a slinky blues rasp, forecasting that the person to receive the backlash would be the oppressor himself. Its lyrics also dovetailed with the rise of the Black Panther Party, which had begun exercising their right to open-carry in their efforts to protect the black people of Oakland from police brutality. Simone sang easily, measuredly, with the confidence that one day a score would be settled: “Do you think that all colored folks are just second class fools?” –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Listen: “Backlash Blues” “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” Nina Simone Sings the Blues 1967 Listen on Apple Music In the 1960s, Simone left her first label, Colpix, ended up at Phillips, and then hopped over to RCA Victor. In 1967, she recorded her debut album for RCA: Nina Simone Sings the Blues, a hard-driving, tough-talking collection of originals and covers. On “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” she borrows the basic blues progressions from “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” a 1920s cautionary standard originally popularized by Bessie Smith. But Simone comes up with an original lyric that bypasses social commentary and conjures up bawdy flirtatiousness and lust instead: “I want a little sugar in my bowl/I want a little sweetness down in my soul/I could stand some lovin’, oh so bad/I feel so funny, I feel so sad.” Impressive in her thematic range, Simone had no problem mixing double entendre lyrics about ribald sex and in-your-face politics on her albums: “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” appears alongside her classic civil rights protest song “Backlash Blues.” Songs like this serve as a reminder that the revolutionary activist who can’t occasionally admit to being horny isn’t really the revolutionary activist we need. –Jason King Listen: “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” ’Nuff Said 1968 Listen on Apple Music What and whom are we mourning? How will we mourn, and can we transform the depths of our despair into living in a way that honors what we’ve lost? Nina Simone turns each of these questions over and over from multiple vantage points in this nearly 13-minute performance, recorded on April 7, 1968, at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair, three days after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. She and her band learned the song, written by bassist Gene Taylor, earlier in the day. Shaped by the improvisational urgency and rawness of the moment, the live rendition of “Why?” captures many Ninas: the sermonizer accompanying herself on piano and leading her congregation through the wilderness; the Civil Rights dreamer delivering a delicate jazz tale of a nonviolent folk hero; the anguished pallbearer voicing a funeral hymn; and the master of the black freedom struggle jeremiad who laments, “Will the murders never cease?” before slipping fully into her militant “Mississippi” self. She mourns not just for King but for the numerous slain leaders, martyrs, fellow freedom-fighting artists, and “many thousands gone,” as her friend James Baldwin put it—the black subjugated masses who shape the epic sorrow and weariness of her subdued vocals. This dirge-turned-protest-song absorbs the weight of all these bodies but also defiantly affirms the presence of she who remains on the battlefield. “We’ve lost a lot of them in the last two years, but we have remaining Monk, Miles,” Simone reflects slowly, speaking to the audience. From the rafters, a stentorian voice finishes the list: “Nina.” –Daphne A. Brooks Listen: “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” “The Desperate Ones” Nina Simone and Piano! 1969 Listen on Apple Music Nina Simone never had the widest vocal range or the purest pitch, but she had a once-in-a-generation talent for conveying the meaning of a song through tone and phrasing. With few exceptions, once she sang a song, it was hers, and she was never afraid to make bold choices that could seem downright strange at first listen. Throughout the 1960s, that incomparable voice appeared in many settings, from huge orchestral arrangements to minimal ballads, as she moved confidently from one musical genre to the next. And at the tail end of the decade, she made an album that returned her to the milieu of her first days as a performer. Nina Simone and Piano! closes with “The Desperate Ones,” an oblique song by Jacques Brel that depicts, with heavy romantic imagery, the weariness of the ‘60s youth trying to remake the world. It was always a quiet song, both when Brel sang it in 1965 and after it was translated into English for the 1968 off-Broadway show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. But Simone’s performance takes the hushed intensity to an almost frightening level, showcasing her staggering ability to convey feeling with simple elements. She just barely hints at a melody as she reframes the song’s story as something passed between strangers in a darkened alley. Singing in a raspy whisper, her voice is filled with yearning and empathy and wonder, and the starkness of the arrangement highlights its eerie magic. –Mark Richardson Listen: “The Desperate Ones” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” Black Gold 1970 Listen on Apple Music Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman to have her work produced on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun), was a friend and mentor to Simone, and a key figure in her political awakening. When Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer in 1965, at age 34, the singer was devastated—and when Malcolm X was killed the next month, her radicalization was complete. In 1969, Hansberry’s ex-husband adapted some of her writing into an off-Broadway play called “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” One Sunday, Simone opened the newspaper and saw a story about the production. She called her musical director, Weldon Irvine, to help with the lyrics, and the song—which would be her final contribution to the protest canon—was finished 48 hours later. With its simple, direct message of racial and personal pride and forceful melody, the single was a Top 10 R&B hit and Simone’s biggest crossover success since “I Loves You, Porgy.” It would be covered by Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and Solange, and CORE named it the “Black National Anthem.” Simone even performed the song on “Sesame Street.” –Alan Light Listen: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” “Just Like a Woman” Here Comes the Sun 1971 Listen on Apple Music In the early 1960s, as Simone’s star was rising at New York’s Village Gate club, a young Bob Dylan was scratching at the door of the folk scene brewing across the street, doing parody songs between sets by bigger names. Less than a decade later, Simone had five Dylan covers in her discography, none more necessary than “Just Like a Woman.” In Simone’s hands, Dylan’s half-improvised song about watching an ex-girlfriend walk away became a heartfelt paean to all women. Each once-bitter read from Dylan—“she takes just like a woman,” “she breaks just like a little girl”—was now delivered as an affirmation of female resilience and vulnerability, a human frailty that invited empathy rather than contempt. Voiced by a woman—especially a famously forthright, tenacious one like Simone—the song got  a first-person adaptation; rather than infantilizing the “woman” in question and separating her from the world, Simone’s interpretation closed the gap. Released near the height of her influence as a political artist, it’s a feminist treatment with an inversion that feels contemporary, even half a century later. –Devon Maloney Listen: “Just Like a Woman” “22nd Century” Here Comes the Sun 1971 Listen on Apple Music As Nina Simone tells it in her memoir, by the early 1970s, everything was coming undone for her; she had “fled to Barbados pursued by ghosts: Daddy, [sister] Lucille, the movement, Martin, Malcolm, [her] marriage, [her] hopes…” On its surface, “22nd Century” translates this personal moment of peril into big, broad, metaphorical strokes that wed the apocalyptic with cathartic possibility and radical euphoria. “There is no oxygen in the air/Men and women have lost their hair,” she prophesizes, holding steady at the center of an intoxicating swirl of flamenco guitar and calypso steel drums. “When life is taken and there are no more babies born....Tomorrow will be the 22nd century.” In the future that is Nina’s, things fall apart so that notions of time, space, and the human can be razed and take on new shape. But in this era in which she sought out Caribbean maroonage, there is perhaps an even deeper connection forged by way of this hypnotic, nearly nine-minute odyssey. Covering Bahamian “Obeah Man” Exuma’s stirring, hybrid mix of junkanoo, carnival, and folk, she sticks close to his original recording from that same year and merges her Afrodiasporic revolutionary vision with his:  “Don’t try to sway me over to your day/On your day,” her reaching vocals insist. “Your day will go away.” –Daphne A. Brooks Listen: “22nd Century” “I love how she would be at the piano singing and then she would just start speaking, stand up and dance. I love how she would play the piano and arch her spine backwards. I love the costumes that she'd wear, these Afrocentric, imagined versions of what an Egyptian queen or an Ethiopian princess would wear. I love her radical new black identity.” Corinne Bailey Rae Medley: “My Sweet Lord/Today Is a Killer” “Emergency Ward!” 1972 Listen on Apple Music No artist ever wielded power over an audience as deftly as Nina Simone, but the same can be said of her talent for turning covers into transcendent events. By 1972, she’d perfected—several times over—both delicate alchemies. She used her crowds’ expectations to lure them in before delivering uncomfortable yet necessary truths, all while constructing what one academic, quoting theorist William Parker, called “inside songs”—covers that dig up the song lying “in the shadows, in-between the sounds and silences and behind the words” of the original. That creative electricity is palpable on this gargantuan, 18-minute live jam that takes up an entire side of Emergency Ward!, the record now considered Simone’s major anti-Vietnam War statement. Backed by a gospel choir, she invites the audience in with George Harrison’s then-two-year-old mega-hit, locking into a mesmerizing church sing-along before revealing the Trojans within: David Nelson’s brutal poem about the desperate, decaying hope of the Civil Rights era. Lines like "Today/Pressing his ugly face against mine/Staring at me with lifeless eyes/Crumbling away all memories of yesterday's dreams,” dropped into the rhythm of Harrison’s exaltations, inflate the performance like a hot air balloon, making it the ultimate testament to Simone's ability to turn even a simple interpretation into a political masterpiece. –Devon Maloney Listen: Medley: “My Sweet Lord/Today Is a Killer,” “Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter” Is It Finished 1974 Listen on Apple Music Nina Simone's palate was always broad, but with this reimagining of a Tina Turner barnburner, she used minimalist funk arrangements as a platform for her unleashed vocals—mewling and crawling at alternate intervals, the disgusted cursing of a woman highly over a dusty dude. The openness of the 1970s served her more adventurous impulses well, though by the time she cut “Funkier,” she was fully spiraling into depression and alcoholism. (Who could blame her, with the serrated knife that had been the late 1960s, from Civil Rights to Vietnam?) Her edge showed in this song: Her voice cracks with exasperation, alluding that the predator she sings about might well be the good ol’ US of A. Spent, she wouldn't record another album for four years. –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Listen: “Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter” “Sinnerman” Live at Montreaux 1976 1976 Listen on Apple Music One of Nina Simone’s most recognizable recordings, “Sinnerman” has been repurposed by everyone from David Lynch to Kanye West. What remains in its original form, however, is the pure punk of it. This live recording rides hard on a driving 2/4 backbeat, one that accelerates a full 10 bpm over its 10-minute run. Simone’s backing band is sharp, the rimshots and high hats insistent, the piano work both velvety and forceful. It is a song of apocalypse, of bleeding seas and boiling rivers and the inability to escape God’s wrath no matter where you turn. As a child, Simone learned “Sinnerman” from her mother, who sang it in revival meetings to help sinners become so overwhelmed as to confess their transgressions. Hellfire, brimstone, and damnation were the lullabies on which she was nursed, and it explains her disdain for the fearful. “Sinnerman” is an attack; its hypnotic repetition is designed to induce you to God or madness, whichever comes first. She unleashes her voice, sharp and wide, like sunlight glinting off the blade of a knife. Here, Simone—whose life was as violent and lawless as her music was transcendent—channels heaven and hell equal measure. –Carvell Wallace Listen: “Sinnerman” “Nowadays, I have been seeing more of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ shared everywhere online. Same with ‘Backlash Blues,’ talking about war and wages and equal pay. All those topics have not gone away, so her music is still relevant, and I don't think was ever irrelevant. Younger people are discovering Nina Simone in this way. I consider myself part of that group.” Lætitia Tamko (Vagabon) “Baltimore” Baltimore 1978 Listen on Apple Music Following the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, Simone’s 1978 recording of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore”—“Oh, Baltimore/Ain’t it hard just to live”—was widely circulated on social media, illustrating the continuing endurance and power of her work. The song was the title track from a particularly fraught album that appeared as Simone was living in poverty in Paris and her recordings were getting increasingly rare. She fought so much with Creed Taylor, who had signed her to CTI Records, that she insisted he not only leave the studio, but the country. She finally cut all of her vocals in a single, hourlong session. She did acknowledge, however, that she liked this song, which Newman had recorded the year before. The narrator of “Baltimore” is worn down by the American economy and malaise—“hard times in the city, in a hard town by the sea”—and finally decides to pack his family in a “big old wagon” and send them out of town. Having fled the U.S. years earlier, Simone’s reaction to the lyrics was personal. “And it refers to, I’m going to buy a fleet of Cadillacs,” she said, “and take my little sister, Frances, and my brother, and take them to the mountain and never come back here, until the day I die.” –Alan Light Listen: “Baltimore” “Fodder on Her Wings” Fodder on My Wings 1982 Listen on Apple Music In the early ’80s, Nina Simone was living in France and she was deeply lonely; her family life was strained, and she was suffering from encroaching mental illness. A new song on her 1982 album, Fodder on My Wings, captured with startling intimacy the pain of this period, and she returned to it frequently through the next decade, cutting another studio version three years later (the synth-heavy take on Nina’s Back!) and including it on several live albums, including an awe-inspiring performance on 1987’s Let It Be Me. The title of the song itself is titled “her” wings while the album it appears on uses “my”; the slippery point of view underscores its heavily personal nature, as Simone sings of a bird that traveled the world, from Switzerland to France and England—all places she herself had spent time—and then crashed to earth. “She had dust inside her brain” is the harrowing image the sticks with you, but Simone’s vocal makes a song of weariness and defeat carry an air of defiance, a wise word from someone who survived to tell the tale. –Mark Richardson Listen: “Fodder on Her Wings” “Stars” Let It Be Me 1987 Listen on Apple Music Simone first covered Janis Ian’s searing, mordant meditation on fame during her infamous set at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival; suffering from bipolar disorder, she goes through something like a mental breakdown during the performance. (The scene is a highlight of Liz Garbus’ Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?) This spine-tingling 1987 version—Simone’s best, most coherent rendition—was recorded live at Hollywood’s intimate Vine Street Bar & Grill for Let It Be Me. Written by Ian when she was just 20, “Stars” is a potent critique of star-making machinery: The narrator is both a weary observer of fame, watching faded stars who live their lives in “sad cafés and music halls,” and a tragic figure undone by fame herself. Simone’s embittered, conversational phrasing transforms the song into a cosmically exhausted, stream-of-consciousness rant. She sounds so nakedly weary and afflicted with pathos, you worry she might not even make it to the last verse. But ultimately, Simone’s piano accompaniment builds to a rousing, show-must-go-on climax: “I’ll come up singing for you even though I’m down.” Break out the Kleenex: Few other songs in Simone’s arsenal can make you truly grasp the toll she paid for being alive and giving us her music. –Jason King Listen: “Stars” “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” A Single Woman 1993 Listen on Apple Music In 1993, Nina Simone recorded and released her last studio album, A Single Woman. Living in Southern France, she was lured back into the booth by Elektra A&R executive Michael Alago, who brought major label marketing dollars and seasoned producers and orchestrators. Taken from the 1983 Barbra Streisand film Yentl and penned by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, and Michel Legrand, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” is a powerhouse musical theater showstopper that no one would mistake for a conventional jazz standard. But Simone—who starts the song with an allusion to the Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—slyly reconstructs it as an interior, howling lament for her father, who passed away in the early 1970s while they were estranged. Backed by swelling strings, Simone pulls every ounce of melancholic emotion out of the heart-wrenching lyrics. As the chords ramp up, so does her quivering voice; every time she tackles the song’s falling Middle Eastern vocals runs, it sounds like tears streaming down her face. One of her most dramatic performances captured on record, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” finds Nina Simone working through the despair of her own orphanhood, exorcising her troubled relationship with the men who defined aspects of her complicated life. How fitting that her final album—a musical commentary on what it means to be a mature, single woman living in exile—captures such pure, unadulterated human feeling. –Jason King Listen: “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” Contributors: Daphne A. Brooks, Farah Griffin, Jason King, Alan Light, Devon Maloney, Jillian Mapes, Vanessa Okoth-Obbo, Ben Ratliff, Mark Richardson, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Carvell Wallace, Seth Colter Walls All interviews by Stacey Anderson […]

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