1. k.d. lang, “Sing it Loud” (2011)
k.d. lang is simply one of the best singers currently breathing. An intrepid boundary-crosser and rule breaker, lang has struggled with record labels from the jump. Her brilliant early work, generally labelled as “Alt-Country” at the time, was not embraced by the rigid Country music establishment. Though she had a significant moment of radio success and cultural presence with Ingenue in 1993, it didn’t last long. Then it was back to fringes, recording when she wanted and what she wanted.
“Sing it Loud” is a truly first-rate adult pop record that few outside her core fan base heard. This is a shame because both the song and the album are delightful—as ingratiating a slice of sensual music as has been created this decade. The song was written by album co-producer and co-writer Joe Pipasia. It is languid and moody; it takes its time; it is sublime.
lang has always been an iconoclast and may have, perhaps, made peace with the mainstream’s cold shoulder, but as a lover of great pop songs and real singing, I don’t mind telling you that I have done no such thing. The failure of “Sing it Loud” to connect with radio at any format reflects the overall sorry state of popular music. k.d. lang is not auto-tuned; she is real; she is exquisitely gifted; and when she sings—be it loud or soft—hers is a voice that must be heard.
2. Robin Thicke, “Brand New Jones” (2003)
“Brand New Jones” was the second unsuccessful single released from Thicke’s debut album (the first was a clever reworking of Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven”). For my money, “Brand New Jones,” a joyful piece of soulful pop craftsmanship, is far more compelling than many of Thicke’s subsequent hits. The album, A Beautiful World, only sold 63,000 units, but in a bit of old-fashioned artist development acumen, the label stuck with Thicke and was duly rewarded for their stewardship.
“Brand New Jones” remains a go-to song whenever I am driving or looking to feel uplifted; I’ll take it over “Blurred Lines” and its blurry provenance any day of the week.
When I first met Christine Russell in the mid-1990s, she was a singer/songwriter fronting a band. This demo was first played for me by my friend Steve Greenberg. I was drawn to its cinematic sweep and powerful message. It’s another one of the demos I’ve hung onto all these years.
If memory serves, Steve actually cut it with Daphne Rubin-Vega (from Broadway’s Rent), but it wasn’t released (or if it was released, it wasn’t a single). I don’t think Daphne really had the right voice for the song. I’ve remained friendly with Christine through the years and watched with admiration as she transitioned to a very successful career as a music publisher through her Evolution Music Partners company, (she looked after the late Gerry Goffin, among many others). A while back I asked her to send me the original demo I fell in love with and it was like reconnecting with an old friend.
Thank you Christine for the gift of this song. It may not have become the hit that it should have been, but it is part of the soundtrack of my life. Your own lyric is as good an explanation for what did not happen: life isn’t fair, but I am only so glad to still be out there pitching it for you.
The sound of “The Stoop,” the title track from Little Jackie’s 2008 S-Curve release, is a giddy mash-up of old school soul elements that adds up to one of the most infectious and likable songs of that year. The label went with a different song as the first single and, as far as I can tell, never got to a second. It’s a shame too, because everyone I’ve played this track for responds instantly. How can you not? “The Stoop” is so exceedingly likable and evocative of a certain urban experience that it really is a no-brainer.
Little Jackie was a group consisting of singer Imani Coppola (best known for her 1997 mid-chart hit “Legend of a Cowgirl”) and programmer Adam Pallin. The song (and album) was produced by Mike Mangini. Go ahead: I dare you to resist “The Stoop.”
5. Marsha Malamet & Graham Lyle, “Real” (demo) (1997)
This story will give you a sense of how much the record business has changed: It was around 1995 and I was up at Warner/Chappell music publishing in L.A. meeting with Creative Director Judy Stakee. I was looking for songs for an Oleta Adams record that I was A&Ring for Mercury Records. Back then, a singer would need a song and you’d go sit down with a creative executive and listen together for a hit. Now there are very few singers, certainly fewer who need outside material, and music publishers don’t bother pitching at all, they mostly sign self-contained bands or “track hacks” who make beats. It’s very depressing.
So Franne Golde was there—a great songwriter (Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further,” The Commodores “Nightshift,” among many, many others)—and we were just hanging out, listening and talking. Judy had to take a call in another room, so Franne sort of took over the meeting. She started by pitching me other people’s songs! It was about the music; getting it right; doing what was best for the artist. This was not about Franne getting the cut. It’s not that people weren’t competitive then, it’s just that there was community and a collegial connection between writers. I think when CD sales and publishing revenue evaporated, so did the sense of community; there was nothing left to share.
The first song Franne played me was “Real,” which was written by Marsha Malamet (Barbra Streisand’s “Lessons to be Learned”) and UK writer Graham Lyle (Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It”). The demo was sung by Sophie B. Hawkins who had two big hits a few years earlier with “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down.” I saved the demo all these years and still love the song as much as I did back then. As far as I know, “Real” was never recorded, but to me it will always be a hit.
Number one in Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Norway. Top ten in the Netherlands, Australia and Sweden. “You Win Again” was an international monster, its glorious stomping sound echoing out of radios all over the world and barreling up music charts in territories everywhere, except in the US where it peaked at a ludicrous number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, the failure of “You Win Again” to replicate its worldwide success in America was a disconcerting portent that something was changing on pop radio here in the states. It wasn’t for the better.
Of course I loved “You Win Again”; a complete first-listen response record crafted with the peerless skill of the brothers Gibb and frequent collaborator, producer Arif Mardin. At the time I remember asking everyone I knew, “Can you explain to me why this song is not exploding here? Do American ears somehow differ from the ears of everybody else in the world?” I was agitated about this as it seemed clear that if American radio just played the song, people here would have the same reaction they’d had, you know, everywhere. A hook is a hook, a hit is a hit, and songs don’t come any hookier than “You Win Again.”
25 years later I’m still marching around my house to this ebullient song, as defiant as I was in 1987 that “You Win Again” should have gone to number one in America.
7. Lady Gaga, “Gypsy” (2013)
Distressing fact: nowadays pop songs are written by committees comprised of mostly untalented “track hacks” who write shitty, unmemorable songs from the beat up, a process from which quality melodies seldom, if ever, emerge. It’s not uncommon to see five or more “writers” on a song (for more on this, read songwriter Shelly Peiken’s incisive piece in the Huffington Post). It is completely impossible to tell who did what (if anything) to deserve the credit other than have a connection to the person whose name is on the CD.
Even though it ostensibly took four writers to craft it, I actually like “Gypsy” from Gaga’s bland and pretentious Artpop album very much and think it should have been a single. The fact that it was passed over for songs that either underperformed and/or had little presence (“Applause,” “Do What U Want,” “G.U.Y.”), tells me they chose the wrong songs for radio. Three albums into her incredible career, Gaga would appear to be at the backlash point it took Madonna about double the time to get to (remember the Sex book and relatively flat sales of Erotica back in 1993?)
Co-written with Red One, Hugo Leclercq, and D.J. “White Shadow” Bear, “Gypsy” could have been Artpop’s Edge of Glory, instead of a footnote to an expensive, bloated record. To my ears, “Gypsy”sounds like Ray of Light-era Madonna, which is to say it’s quite good, indeed. It has a super catchy chorus and Gaga’s vocals are expressive and powerful. Though I did catch Gaga singing it with Kermit the Frog while I was on the treadmill last winter, it seems a terrible shame the song’s hit potential was overshadowed by a series of bad decisions and a duet with a frog.
My unsolicited advice to Lady Gaga is simple: lose the Haus of Gaga posse of wannabe artistes, stop with the ridiculous costumes that distract from your talent, and just make a great pop record. Though she may live for the applause—a depressing admission, even if its true—I predict Gaga is going to find the applause meter in retrograde if she doesn’t start putting the music first.
8. Cher, “I Paralyze” (1982)
Cher switched to CBS Records (Columbia) for her 17th studio album, a commercial wipe-out that initiated a career reboot and subsequent historic transition to film acting. I Paralyze found “The Great One” collaborating with Olivia Newton-John’s writer/producer John Farrar in an unsuccessful attempt to replicate ONJ’s then-current chart successes. Indeed, “I Paralyze” resembles “Magic” from Xanadu, a multi-format number one record from 1980 and one of the biggest career hits for Olivia.
Speaking of Olivia, “I Paralyze” was co-written by another of my favorites, the great Steve Kipner, whose many career hits include numerous Olivia hits (“Physical,” “Twist of Fate,” “Heart Attack”), as well as Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break,” Kelly Rowland’s “Stole” (included in an earlier edition of this feature), and Natasha Bedingfield’s “These Words.” I could keep going but you get the idea: Steve Kipner’s discography is nonpareil.
From this point so many years down the road, who knows why “I Paralyze” didn’t go. Was it a lack of record label promotion or was the timing just off at radio?
Alicia Keys was in the middle of her early aughts juggernaut when she released her second album The Diary of Alicia Keys in 2003. There were four singles released from the album, including two consecutive top-five pop and R&B hits, “You Don’t Know My Name” and “If I Ain’t Got You,” both of which shimmered with back-in-the-day soul feeling. The third single, “Diary,” went top-10 on both charts and the fourth and final single was “Karma,” which went top-20.
If there had been a fifth single it may well have been the delightful “Wake Up.” Like “Diary,” the song was written with Kerry Brothers, Jr. What I love about it is its timelessness: both in structure and production, “Wake Up” could have been released in anytime from the late-1960s on; the quality of existing outside of prevailing radio trends is one of the things that most excites me as a music lover. As if to prove my point, one morning when I was working with Denise Rich, Natalie Cole walked through my office on her way to the kitchen and made a pit stop in my office to sing along with the record. The fact that it sounded so organic in that context told me that the song could have easily been a mid-1970s Natalie Cole recording.
Plus, how can you resist a song written in 3/4 time?
10. Billy Porter, “Never Say Never” (1997)
“Never Say Never” was one of the very best songs on Billy’s debut album, only it didn’t make the album. I remember this as being a particularly painful moment on an overall painful project. The song was written by album producer Peter Zizzo. The co-writer was the amazing Brandon Barnes, who is best known for his sterling work with Brian McKnight, like the memorable and moving “One Last Cry.”
I had held on to the mastered recording on an old DAT tape and longed to hear the song again so much that I paid to have it transferred. There it was, just as I remembered it: soaring vocals, live horns, and a beautiful melody; still stunning; still excellent; and, to my ears, still a song that very much should have been a hit.
Because I was there—I executive produced the record—I can tell you the two reasons why this song wasn’t included, which give you pretty good insight into the bullshit you had to deal with at major labels at that time. Bullshit reason number one: A&M Records didn’t think Billy’s record was black enough or, rather, “Urban” enough to get on R&B radio. Usher had just broken big, so the fear-based thinking at A&M forced us to make Untitled sound more like Usher despite the fact this really had nothing to do with who Billy was musically. He could sing circles around anyone and any record that didn’t highlight his vocals was the wrong record—period. Bullshit reason number two: Ric Wake, who released the record on his imprint DV8 through a distribution deal with A&M, wanted to sprinkle more of his staff writers all over the record making sure that everyone he published was represented. This meant there couldn’t be too much Peter Zizzo, despite the fact that I took Billy to DV8 specifically because of Zizzo. What a disastrous business model that puts money before art and what is right for the artist.
Now, 17 years later, due to the magic of the Internet, here is the glorious “Never Say Never.” At last, good taste prevails.
More Songs That Should Have Been Top-10 Hits:
Vol. 1: or, Has the Beat Killed Melody on American Radio? (feat. Stevie Nicks, Donna Summer, Mary J. Blige, Sting, and More)
You may also enjoy:
The Denim Box: A Time Capsule of Mid-1970s Pop Songs, Including Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby”
kd lang by Sid Maurer