Lovely Recordings Hosted by Alex Halberstadt

I've learned a lot reading this column, and share these records in the hope they might worm their way into some readers' minds and playlists, as they've wormed their way into mine.

Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace (Atlantic Records, 1972)
Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler once said that the best idea he ever had was to record Aretha Franklin singing with a gospel choir at a church in South Central LA. Franklin claims it was her idea. In any case, she had gotten her start performing for her father’s Detroit congregation and was, in 1972, at a commercial and musical peak—the dynamics and power of her voice were seemingly without limit. Wexler paired her with the resplendent Southern California Community Choir and Atlantic’s sharpest house band. Clara Bow was in the pews; so was Mick Jagger. The excitement in the building sounds unbearable. Franklin stacks crescendo on crescendo, weaves in recent hits by Carole King and Marvin Gaye, and trades choruses with the choir. Then there’s "Mary, Don’t You Weep." "We’re going to review the story of two sisters," Franklin tells us, and by the time we learn that Mary and Martha had a brother named Lazarus, and that he had died "one day when Jesus was away," we know what’s coming. We hear Franklin, as Jesus, raise him from the dead. By the third time she calls his name—"Laaaaazarus!"—the audience is apoplectic, and no one doubts her when she informs us that he "got up walking like a natural man." It wouldn’t surpise me if on that January morning Franklin ressurected some newly departed citizens of Watts, or at least cured several cases of emphysema.

Available from Pono Music

Vinícius de Moraes, Toquinho, Maria Creuza: Chants du Brésil (Iberautor, 1970/2004)
One night in 1956, Vinícius de Moraes—a poet, playwright, critic and diplomat from Rio—was introduced to a little-known piano player named Antonio Carlos Jobim. Together, they wrote dozens of songs that form the cornerstone of bossa nova. Vinícius, nicknamed O Poetinha (The Little Poet), became an interpreter of his own music relatively late in life, when he came to resemble a jaded New York City cab driver. On this studio recording from 1970, he distilled bossa to a handful of unadorned elements: his own affably gruff singing, the acoustic guitar of his frequent collaborator Toquinho and, best of all, the mind-stopping voice of Maria Creuza. (She never attained the renown of Gal Costa or Maria Bethânia, but no one sang this music more beautifully.) Working on a handful of Vinícius/Jobim staples—"Lamento no Morro," "A Felicidade," and of course "Garota de Ipanema"—the three sound like old friends making music for the pleasure of it; Vinícius reportedly sang from behind a table with an ashtray and a bottle of Jack Daniels on it. His take on material by younger songwriters like Jorge Ben and Caetano Veloso is just as much fun. This classic session has been released in many configurations, including some that splice snippets of a live recording onto the studio tracks, but gratefully this French release leaves things alone. In richness and variety, the musical culture of Brazil is rivaled only by that of the United States; few recordings touch its essence like this one.

Available from Pono Music

Mel Tormé: It’s a Blue World (Bethlehem, 1955)
Who would have guessed that God might place an unearthly set of vocal chords into the throat of a pudgy yellow-haired Jewish kid from Chicago? Well he or she did, and the best place to hear them is on this session from 1955, Tormé’s first for Bethlehem Records. Someone with such an extravangant gift could have succumbed to showy banality (see Johnny Mathis), but Tormé searched out great songs and venerated Fred Astaire above all other vocalists for his impeccable phrasing and taste. And so the singer who hung an accent aigu over his made-up surname and possesed an instrument that critic Will Friedwald called "the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have" deployed it with restraint and what the counseling industry now calls emotional literacy. Buoyed by Andre Previn’s charts, Tormé’s versions of "Isn’t It Romantic," "Till the Clouds Roll By" (with lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse!) and "All This and Heaven Too" aren’t simply lovely but definitive.

Available from Pono Music

Sonny Rollins: Sonny Rollins (sometimes known as Volume 1) (Blue Note, 1957)
In the 1950s, Sonny Rollins made a string of records that showcased his relentlessly original improvising in solos that seemed incapable of sounding obvious for even a measure. Among these records there were a handful of masterpieces, but this eponymous session for Blue Note isn’t one of them. It happens, however, to be formally perfect. Rollins made greater artistic statements but never a greater stylistic one. What Volume 1 demonstrates better than the others is the density of tone he could draw out of the saxophone as well as the hard-boiled economy of his phrasing, an economy that finds its truest analogues in the laconic prose of writers like William Maxwell and James M. Cain. Rollins’s playing here has no false or extra notes, no showy runs, no vulgarity. The texture and presence of the mono recording is remarkable even for Blue Note, and the sidemen—particularly Max Roach and the very young Donald Byrd—only heighten the mood. As Cain wrote in The Postman Only Rings Twice, "the devil got his money’s worth that night."

Available from HDtracks

The Vaselines: Enter the Vaselines (Sub Pop, 2009)
Two songwriters from Glasgow—Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee—formed the Vaselines in 1986 and left a grateful world two singles and an album before disbanding three years later. They made the most of their moment—"Molly’s Lips," "Rory Rides Me Raw" and "Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam" happen to be some of the most fun, singable and wonderfully dirty songs in the entire punk canon. The Vaselines weren’t the first to deconstruct the music to its basics—The Television Personalities, The Ramones, and The Young Marble Giants did it earlier—but no one had made a three-chord rock song sound so sexually knowing and funny. Neither Belle and Sebastian nor Nirvana may have existed without them. Kurt Cobain called Kelly and McKee his "favorite songwriters in the whole world," recorded two of their songs, and asked them to open for Nirvana in Scotland, a request that led to a Vaselines reunion, which continues to this day. In 2009, Sub Pop collected the glorious early songs, as well as demos and live tracks, on the tastefully titled Enter the Vaselines. It also contains what may be the most inspired cover ever, of Divine’s scintillating 1988 Hi-NRG hit, which goes as follows: "You think you’re a man, but you’re only a boy/You think you’re a man, you’re only a toy/You think you’re a man, but you just couldn’t see/You weren’t man enough to satisfy me." Timeless!

Available from Pono Music

Merle Haggard: A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Capitol, 1970)
No music makes me giddier than Western Swing. Imagine a jazz band outfitted with fiddles and amplified guitars traveling by bus to play dances across the Southwest for urbanites from Dallas and Tulsa, Mexican migrant workers from El Paso, and field hands from the Panhandle, sometimes in the same week. The bands learned every kind of number that someone was apt to want to dance to—from "San Antonio Rose" to "La Golondrina" to "Darktown Strutter’s Ball"—and to this day remain the most culturally omnivorous ensembles ever heard in America. While the short-lived Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies may have been the greatest Western Swing band of all, it was Bob Wills and Texas Playboys that became the music’s popularizers. After Wills died in 1973, Merle Haggard reunited members of the original Texas Playboys, paired them with his never-to-be-equaled country band, taught himself the fiddle, and recorded himself singing and playing Wills’s parts with a revivalist fervor. But Tribute is more than a tribute to this music of the thirties and forties. Haggard doesn’t just perform "Time Changes Everything," "Stay a Little Longer" and "Roly Poly," but studiously recreates these songs’ meanings and cultural context, which for me come down to what I think of as delight. Delight not in the dictionary sense of "great pleasure," but pleasure experienced in the presence of something obviously true and right, a recognition of man and nature’s perfection.

Available from Pono Music

photo: Edward Burt

My first regular writing gig was contributing record reviews to Art Dudley's sorely missed Listener. Since then I've written Lonely Avenue, a book about the rock and roll songwriter Doc Pomus (available on Amazon), which came out in 2007, and articles for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ and Food & Wine. My favorite thing in my home is the record player—a Garrard 301 that's nearly 55 years old. I'm still trying to get good at the ukulele, but not making any promises.

Share your Lovely Recordings with us!

garrettnecessary's picture

Some of my favorites. Haven't heard the Bossa Nova record yet -- looking forward!

billstry's picture

Love the diversity. Well done!