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Mix: Female Leads Part 2 with Young Mothers

I was asked by the folks at The Spec to put together a list of my top five female lead bands/songs. At first, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to come up with five songs, but by the end of my process I had a list of over 25 to sift through. To do my favorite music justice, I had to shift the format and switch the 10 (really 11) songs, but such is life.

Listen to Zachary Toporek’s picks below…

Artist: Erma Franklin | Song: By The Time I Get To Phoenix
I don’t know a lot, but to me a large part of life seems to be about change and the process of dealing with it (which makes me concerned for Owen from Roar from time to time). When the vibraphone chimes at the beginning of this track, I feel the stomach-flutter-preamble to change that I always get when I leave one thing for another. I felt it when I left Tucson for Phoenix, before every break up I’ve ever initiated, and now as I move from one job to another. Erma, Aretha’s older sister, has an incredible and emotionally-communicative voice, her band smokes with this laid-back soul groove, and there’s a level of sophistication to the production on this track that puts it well within the ranks of the Motown/Tambla family… But to discuss the quality of the individual elements of this song is to miss the point- when you listen to Erma Franklin’s version of this soul standard, you feel what it is to leave, to change. There’s the accomplishment.

Artist: Lily Allen | Song: LDN
Once again, a case of a killer intro. While I find Lily Allen’s music tiring when considered in the full-length format, a handful of her individual songs are priceless as standalones. One of the few things that separates Allen from other perky, contemporary, British female popsters, such as Eliza Doolittle, is her frankness and seeming preoccupation with the darker side of things. While that brashness ends up being applied a little too liberally from time to time (see “Not Big”), “LDN” represents the pinnacle of this style. The track is light and floats past pleasantly, lifting you up along with it. The lyrics add a darker depth to the song without distracting from the elation of the music. Thank you, Lily.

Artist: Karen Dalton | Song: In A Station
If she wanted to, Karen Dalton could sing a song that made you feel as though you were stuck in a terribly dreary dream state – her catalogue proves this. But she was also capable of placing you into a very different dream, a pleasant, meandering one, as she does in her rendition of the Richard Manuel classic, “In A Station.” The recording is smooth and nearly shapeless, gently ebbing and flowing to the “climax,” the moment when she howls, “save me,” with the kind of squeaky authority that only Dalton could summon. Karen Dalton’s voice is not particularly welcoming to new listeners, but this track demonstrates what’s wonderful and powerful about her art, regardless of the fact that it was written by another.

Artist: Mariah Carey | Song: Fantasy
Born from a Tom Tom Club sample and produced to perfection, this Carey hit became so ubiquitous that even my stepfather knows the song 16 years later. “Fantasy” is so lush that you could listen to it a million times without hearing every detail, but the hook is so effective that it could support that many listens, a real rarity in contemporary pop. Even though this song is essentially a single two-bar groove repeated for four minutes straight, the gansta-rap synth sound, incredibly intricate arrangement and “She’s Out Of My Life“-esque introduction give the song depth and staying power. I’d say it’s a real achievement in pop.

Artist: Buffy Sainte-Marie | Song: God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot
I’m not sure I believe in God, and I sure as hell don’t prescribe to any organized religion (at least for now), but I do believe there’s something bigger going on that links us all together in way that we can’t see. This track elicits the majestic, confusing, all-encompassing mystery of the higher power to me. Who knows what the words are really about – I’ve never been able to focus on the narrative at all while listening to the track. It’s the feeling of the recording that communicates that un-nameable sensation and sets it apart from all others.

Artist: Joni Mitchell | Song: Raised on Robbery
I love Joni Mitchell, and there are hundreds of other songs from her catalogue I could have picked that would have done the job, no question. But this song has a handful of qualities about it that not every Mitchell song has. First and foremost, it’s fun. The song rollicks and frolics along in a way that Mitchell couldn’t have achieved without the L.A. Express (don’t forget Robbie Robertson on guitar, to top it all off). Secondly, there’s a bravado to the song that you just don’t get in a lot of her other work. For the first half of her catalogue, you know that Mitchell wants or needs a man, but she makes it seem like she’d do anything for it, that maybe his needs would come before her own. In this track, you get a Joni Mitchell that still wants a man, but now she’s going after him, and in a big way. Mitchell’s always been a very fetishized public figure, viewed almost more as an object than an individual – the very icon of the idyllic California blonde who could set your soul free if you’d just have a little fun. But in this song she breaks that mold and moves from being something to be owned or experienced to being the owner and the experiencer. And that just makes her sexier.

Artist: Martha & the Vandellas | Song: Dancing In The Streets
Do I even need to explain this one? The beat, the voices, the horns… it feels just like what it’s about, having a good time with other people. ‘Nuff said.

Artist: Dionne Warwick | Song: I Say A Little Prayer For You

Artist: Dionne Warwick | Song: Alfie
I know it’s cheating, but I had to list and discuss these two songs as one. The Bacharach/David/Warwick relationship produced some of the most moving music of all time, but even though all of the material is unquestionably similar in the unique melodic arrangement style of Bacharach, there’s still a great deal of diversity in their work. These two songs represent both sides of the coin and compliment each other so well that they belong together in my mind. In their upbeat numbers, there’s a delicious playfulness to Bacharach’s patented muted-trumpet sound and a sweetness to Warwick’s nasal tone that elevate the songs out of the bubble-gum category while still achieving the same effect as other, lesser pop compositions of the time. At the other side of the spectrum, there are songs like “Alfie,” which sees Bacharach stretching out his creative wings far enough to accommodate much more poetic prose from David, not to mention the incredibly emotional performance Warwick achieved on this recording. These were some of the most talented musical minds not only of their time, but any, and these tracks show them at their very best.

Artist: Diana Ross | Song: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Everyone knows the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell version of this song, but lesser known is Ross’s recording. No, it’s is not as upbeat and undeniably catchy as Gaye and Terrell’s, but it does get closer to the true emotion behind this eternally moving composition. Have you ever experienced the kind of love this song is talking about? I have, and, at least for me, it’s not necessary an elating sensation. For me, that kind of love was achieved over years of, admittedly a lot of fun and happy feelings, but much more heartache, tears, and lonely nights spent thinking about that person and the lengths we’d go to for each other, regardless of the fact that we couldn’t be together. I’ll always love the Gaye/Terrell recording of this song, but Diana Ross’s version rings truer for me.

Artist: Katy Perry | Song: Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)
It was hard for me to put this song on the list, but in the end I felt that it belonged there. I spend a lot of time considering the philosophy of pop music, and one of the biggest tenants of pop for me is being representative of the culture it exists within. Not only is the song crazy catchy, but lyrically it encapsulates so many aspects of contemporary American culture: out of control debt, unchecked excess, sexual permissivness, and the ever-present risk of your boss seeing compromising photos of you on the internet. To top it all off, the “T.G.I.F.” chant goes slightly out of time by the end of the section, something you don’t see very often in Top 40 Pop. Oh, I did I mention the bitchin’ faux-saxophone solo too? The song rocks.


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