Dave Stewart (Photo: Robert Sebree)
The latest project from the Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart is NBC’s “Songland,” the network’s new singing competition series on which he serves as co-creator and executive producer. Airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET, the show is celebrating a ratings peak this week and an appearance by Meghan Trainor on next Tuesday’s episode.
Stewart compiled a playlist of favorite songs for USA TODAY that have captivated him in his career as a singer, songwriter and producer, featuring classics from Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse and more.
“What’s Goin On” – Marvin Gaye
A genius piece of writing and performance at a time when Marvin had been at an all-time low and to come out with such a moving song about the insanity going on in the world yet with such compassion. And that string arrangement is to die for!
“A Day in the Life” – The Beatles
A wonderful introduction to British surrealistic songwriting from the biggest band in the world leading us all down the merry path to freedom in recording. Experimentation at its best for the time with George Martin doing an audio version of Burghs cut ups only with an orchestra.
“Village Ghetto Land” – Stevie Wonder
Stevie playing a pastiche of uptight chamber music to juxtapose against his lyrics about the desperate state of half the world living in poverty. His voice sings out with pure honesty yet you can hear the edginess and frustration. Probably why he chose to make it sound like a quasi-classical piece.
“A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke
To write a song as positive and strong as this at a time when people like Sam Cooke were being thrown out of hotels and restaurants just because of the color of their skin is remarkable. The soaring melody he opens with, ”I was born by the river,” let’s you know great things are coming next and they do as the song is a 10.
“Tangled Up In Blue” – Bob Dylan
I’m a huge Dylan fan so it’s hard to choose, but “Tangled up in Blue” and the strange story Dylan tells in this throwaway delivery always had me wondering. Full of impactful imagery, it’s like watching a movie that was never made. The complex internal rhyming and weird cadences just tumble out like freestyling, but they are deep and mysterious: “I muttered somethin’ under my breath/ She studied the lines on my face/ I must admit I felt a little uneasy/ When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe/ Tangled up in blue.” Phew.
“Isn’t It a Pity” – George Harrison
I adored George as a great friend and mentor. This song and all of his songs are so genuine, the simple lyrics spell out what confused George every day, but the melody against the chord changes really drives it home. The sound of George’s voice and the slide guitar playing alone make me want to cry, but the sentiment of this song, there’s no way to escape those tears.
“California” – Joni Mitchell
I got the album “Blue” as soon as it came out in 1971. I was 19 years old and had never been to California. I was from the frozen North East of England and made it down to London. When I played the album the first time, I couldn’t believe how brilliant every song was and her voice against the dulcimer, guitar or piano created magic every time. “What a brilliant artist,” I thought.
Then I got into each song and lyric (back then you had good ol’ vinyl sleeves to read lyrics and stuff), but I mostly stared at the cover, Joni in blue. But “California” became a golden color literally pouring out of the speakers, the way she describes each scene during her trip in Europe like tiny vignettes, but you get every nuance (all true, I’m sure).
Joni once explained to me why she wrote “River” on the same album and how she wanted to make it into a movie. When I close my eyes, all her songs are movies. I was desperate to be in Laurel Canyon.
“Wild Horses” – Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones released “Sticky Fingers” the same year as “Blue” by Joni and many other incredible albums like “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie. Can you imagine being 19 years old and all these albums are out and pouring out of the radio? “Sticky Fingers” is an amazing album and, like all Jagger/Richards songs, totally timeless as is the Stones’ music.
“Wild Horses” was an unusually sensitive song on the album and somehow to this day really “gets me.” Watch the live version on Copacabana Beach in 2012. I think playing to 2 million people live, Keith’s 12 string guitar still sounding amazing as does Mick’s voice and the whole band. It’s amazing to think that a great song can last forever and they wrote so many of them (as did most of the artists I chose for this piece).
“Back to Black” – Amy Winehouse
This song is so raw and honest, it’s a tragic song that led to even more tragedy. The writing is up there with Nina Simone, Laura Nyro, Carole King and other great female writers. I only wish I could hear what she would have been writing now.
“Suzanne” – Leonard Cohen
This was released when I was 15 years old and had started to play the guitar. I chose songs to learn, mostly blues songs or Bob Dylan songs. Then I heard “Suzanne” with the simple fingerpicking and his voice like a big male cat purring those words into your ears. I hadn’t fallen in love yet or even noticed many girls around, but when I heard that song I knew I was going to meet someone half-crazy, fall in love and eat oranges or whatever else he suggested. In fact about three months later that was the song I played at a folk club in Sunderland and it did the trick!
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