New Songs For 2016

Every year I try to add new music to the collection. Nowadays I rarely listen to the radio (either broadcast or satellite) for inspiration. I tend to research new music by reviewing end of the year “best of” lists. This year I branched a little more than usual, trying songs suggested from a number of sources.

Over the last few years, NPR Music has been my most reliable source. My tastes are diverging from Rolling Stone Magazine’s favorites; their sensibilities seem to be changing into the greater mainstream of popular music. Review sites such as Pitchfork have wildly different criteria for musical evaluation than I do. Virtually no modern popular music on the radio interests me. I am offended by the lack of diction and inferior mixing that make singing so hard to understand, the loss of melody as a musical component, and the reliance on electronics as a substitute for instrumental virtuosity. It all sounds less human to me.

All of which makes the selection of new songs a very interesting aspect of the project. I have no obligation to include any artist, and am perhaps more free than ever to choose based on my my opinion. This is a topic I plan on exploring in detail sometime. New songs must adhere to the same criteria as all others. They should be well appreciated if called up in a random iPod shuffle. Some effort is made to include different sounding or innovative music, though today there isn’t much in terms of unexplored territory. Many songs I choose tend to fill holes in my personal music education. The last few years seem to include songs by female country songwriters, where there is a wealth of talent. Or maybe I’m just going country in my old age. Overall, modern music has seemed to have completely abandoned the uptempo swing of yesteryear.

I have added 58 new songs for 2016. This is a typical number of songs in recent years, a little less than half of the overall average (11,000 songs in about 100 years). Great songs grow on you over the years, so songs are rarely given a high rating to begin with. It is a rather sedate group of songs, by my standards. If a certain song appeals to you, then consider further research into that artist. My list for new songs will always be woefully incomplete; they are educated guesses. My focus is generally on older music.

It was a big year for working on the collection. In August I completed standardizing and verifying all the song data, a tiring grind which led to a mild post-effort depression that took several months to battle out of. I think I’m ready to start back up again, with an outline for a general essay on collecting the music, and a compilation of lists of specific types of songs. Like the greatest songs with hand claps, or best one-hit wonders. Happy New Year to everyone. I’m hoping to keep making progress on this big project.

2016 Songs

Little Movies, Aaron Lee Tasjan
Memphis Rain, Aaron Lee Tasjan ★★★
Real Bad Lookin’, Alex Cameron ★★
Am I Wrong, Anderson Paak ★★
Celebrate, Anderson Paak

Time Moves Slowly, BADBADNOTGOOD ★★
E.V.P., Blood Orange ★★
Three Kids No Husband, Brandy Clark
There Goes My Love, Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms ★★
Opposite House, Cass McCombs ★★

I Am Not Afraid, Charley Crockett ★★
Irene, Courtney Marie Andrews
Wine And Peanuts, Daniel Bachman ★★
Watermelon Slices On A Blue Bordered Plate, Daniel Bachman ★★
Lazurus, David Bowie

Can’t Think, Dawg Yawp
The Government Road, The Del McCoury Band
Falling To Believe, Doug Tuttle
What It Means, Drive-By Truckers
Lord It Over, Dylan Golden Aycock

Looking Up, Elton John
Someone In The Crowd, La La Land (Soundtrack)
Ivy, Frank Ocean ★★
Nothing More To Say, The Frightnrs
June Too Soon, October All Over, Glenn Jones

Mr. Fool, John Scofield
Christmas Makes Me Cry, Kacey Musgraves
Present Without A Bow, Kacey Musgraves
This Girl, Kungs & Cookin’ On 3 Burners
Diamond Heart, Lady Gaga

Humble & Kind, Lori McKenna ★★
Dust, Lucinda Williams
Bitter Memory, Lucinda Williams
Emotions And Math, Margaret Glaspy
You And I, Margaret Glaspy

Moth Into Flame, Metallica
Vice, Miranda Lambert
Tin Man, Miranda Lambert
Me & Magdalena, The Monkees
Tragedy, Norah Jones

It’s A Wonderful Time For Love, Norah Jones
Pining, Parker Milsap ★★
Human Performance, Parquet Courts
I’ve Got To Use My Imagination, The Rides
Never Come Home, Robbie Fulks ★★

Aunt Peg’s Old Man, Robbie Fulks
Drivin’, Robert Ellis
Weirdo, Sammus
What’s It Gonna Be?, Shura ★★
Bluebird Of Delhi, Slavic Soul Party! ★★

Cranes In The Sky, Solange
Easier Said, Sunflower Bean
Every Time I See A River, Van Morrison
Caledonia Swing, Van Morrison
No Woman, Whitney ★★

The Three Of Me, William Bell
Fly Away, Yola Carter ★★
A Change Of Heart, The 1975

A Couple Of Charts

Thorough analysis of the collection makes a modest assessment of the contents possible. I have created two charts, which break down the collection by year and genre.

Songs By Year - High Quality

This graph can be used to develop a historical perspective on popular music. A sharp spike in the number of songs between 1963 and 1973 suggests this is the greatest period in modern music history. Although the right shoulder of the graph is broader and taller, the spikes during 1927-1928 and especially 1937-1940 may be the next most important. The robust inclusion of songs after 1980 reflects a continued quest to find great songs; the modern era of music making is characterized by great talent, with limited frontiers to create truly novel music. There are few major innovations after about 1970. In addition, older music is devoid of the electronics and perfect production techniques sapping its soul. Arhoolie Records founder and collector extraordinaire Chris Strachwitz has spent a life’s work objecting to what he calls Mouse music, the incessant polishing to make the people’s music palatable to the masses. My collection contains thousands of songs he would consider too smooth and trite, but my goal is a balanced perspective highlighting the artistry inside and outside the so-called mainstream.

iPod Collection - Songs By Genre

I have the raw data available, but for this blog entry, it felt right to post the pie chart without the numbers. In general, the collection has grown organically to this point, though during the last couple of years I made a concerted effort to add more jazz.

Characterizing songs by one genre is simplistic. Some songs are true hybrids of classic styles. In many cases genre selection is arbitrary, and the default choice is often the general descriptor “Pop”. The genre data is still a bit sketchy, but the proportions shown are about right.

The days of growing the collection organically and without specific intent are essentially over. The search for new music will be informed by the existing data. I am motivated to add songs to categories that are slivers of the whole pie, and I don’t like the yearly breakdown spiking so sharply around 1968. The data suggests the mining of new songs will best in those less explored areas. As always, I’ll read what the experts say, give the songs a test drive, and add them if they bring breadth and artistry to the collection, and if I like them.

Poking Fun At Self

Recently, Brian Wansink and Aner Tal of Cornell University School of Applied Economics and Management, revised their study called “Blinded with science: Trivial graphs and formulas increase ad persuasiveness and belief in product efficacy”. The abstract is shown here:

“The appearance of being scientific can increase persuasiveness. Even trivial cues can create such an appearance of a scientific basis. In our studies, including simple elements, such as graphs or a chemical formula, increased belief in a medication’s efficacy. This appears to be due to the association of such elements with science, rather than increased comprehensibility, use of visuals, or recall. Belief in science moderates the persuasive effect of graphs, such that people who have a greater belief in science are more affected by the presence of graphs. Overall, the studies contribute to past research by demonstrating that even trivial elements can increase public persuasion despite their not truly indicating scientific expertise or objective support.”

This study was mentioned in a 2014 article titled “7 Ways To Fake Credibility To Build Your Confidence”, by Ms. Samantha Cole in Fast Company Magazine. The article includes this chestnut of an observation:

“Doing everything yourself isn’t a sign of masterful work ethic — it’s a symptom of mistrust, unhealthy perfectionism, and a precursor to burnout.”

— Samantha Cole

Seven Ways To Fake Credibility, by Samantha Cole – Fast Company. October 24th, 2014

It’s not easy for an introvert to let others help do the work, nor do I have the resources to pay for an assistant. This project evolved from a desire to create something of value using my knowledge, and strengths as a “table maker” and lifetime music enthusiast. The last nine months of poring through the data was taxing, and perhaps no one could do it exactly the way I wanted it done. The point of the exercise is to report the perspective of one person who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the sixties and seventies, so I could analyze my own biases, and slowly reveal a diverse list of recommended songs. I resist the temptation to produce the full list, as I hope it has market value as an appendix. The next step is to write a well researched essay on how I built the collection, and how to best build your own — building the perfect iPod collection. In addition, I will develop a variety of descriptive lists to highlight various aspects of the collection. For instance, favorite albums, or favorite solos.

The data and methodology aren’t scientific, but the sample is large enough that I can tell a good story. Most of all, the music soars and makes me feel wonderful.

The Perfect iPod Collection blog is more or less complete. I will modify some existing posts to reflect the current song listings, and edit selected posts for content and grammar. If I can figure out how, I may recirculate a few of my favorite posts to the top of the stack.

The quest for new music is unquenchable, and soon I’ll return to reading reviews and adding songs. I am particularly keen on adding more traditional songs from both foreign and domestic sources, and finding classic versions of much beloved standards. I doubt it will be an all-encompassing activity like the last few years. I’m ready for a more balanced existence, with a chance to devote time and energy to the next big thing.

Revision 1 Complete – Time To Enjoy The Music

Greetings. I’ve spent the last nine and a half months reviewing the list of songs and standardizing the song data. I will now impose a moratorium on new additions, and declare the current collection as Revision 1. This is the largest project I’ve worked on; after years of regular writing and evaluating, I redoubled my efforts and pored through the song data with great purpose. It feels great to be finished, coupled with both exhaustion and a gnawing doubt that it was unimportant work.

Similar to the evolution of the artist profiles, the scope of the effort increased once I delved in. I expected to identify song composer(s) and year of the recording date. By the time I was midway through, I was citing the original disc or CD, and replacing inferior files with higher quality ones. In some cases iTunes has loud, crisp, remastered files, and in others I reloaded my own CD at the 320 kbps maximum data rate. By comparison, songs downloaded during the initial 2005 effort were downloaded at 128 kbps. The collection is still only 84 GB in size.

Over the last couple years, I removed hundreds of songs, while adding well over a thousand new songs. As a result, the average rating has dropped once again. New songs rarely impress on the first or second listen; if they “make the cut”, songs usually receive one or two stars to start, and then sometimes move into the upper echelon of all-time favorites.

Despite the lower average rating, the quality of the collection is much improved, with far greater variety. The shuffle function now yields a delightful cross section of the people’s music.

5-star songs: 82
4-star songs: 623
3-star songs: 1814
2-star songs: 4296
1-star songs: 4111
0-star songs: 23

Total number of songs: 10949
Average song rating: 1.92

Most songs rated zero stars are either short musical segments, cartoon songs, or commercial interludes. Only two full-length songs earn the coveted zero — William Shatner’s classic “Spleen / Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, and one newcomer, Marcia Strassman’s “The Flower Children”. Best remembered as the wife on the 70s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter”, Strassman’s impassioned performance seems in direct conflict with the hippie movement. Zero quatloos for the newcomer!

The Flower Children
Marcia Strassman
Uni 55006 (45)
Jerry Goldstein – Tim Hudson – Russ Regan

Internet Research

The effort to complete the recording data was remarkably successful. Gracenote is a Bay Area company that maintains an open source database of CD music info. Theoretically, when you download songs from a CD, the recording data is automatically transferred along with the song file. However, the data is often incomplete or incorrect, and there is no standardized formatting of data. Starting with a hodgepodge of incomplete data, I relied on Internet resources and my own album data to fill out each field. About halfway through, I decided it that in many cases, it would be cool to use the original 45 or 78 rpm single data as the identifying album. Composer data is presented using first and last names of all composers of a given song. Each co-composer is separated by one space and a short dash. For example, “John Lennon – Paul McCartney” is the most common credit for composer. All words in song and album titles are to be capitalized.

After reviewing and researching almost 11,000 entries, the recording year for only 28 songs was not identified. Even more remarkable, the composer(s) could not be found for just 7 songs. About half of the unfinished data is for old Mexican songs. In a few cases, recording year was interpreted from the album release date; if an album was released late in a year, and no specific recording information could be found, I assumed the recordings were made the same year.

I recently added Bad Moon Rising to my short list of 5 star songs. It is a simple, swinging and prophetic little song.

“I hear hurricanes a blowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.”

Bad Moon Rising
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Fantasy 622 (45)
John Fogerty

My friend Peter P. is a fellow Benny Goodman fan. We were going to try and meet in Michigan next month, but he would have to travel from his home near Toronto. His wife is quite inform these days, so Peter decided he needs to stay home. One of Peter’s favorite Goodman songs is “Where Or When”. Here Goodman’s small band backs Peggy Lee on Christmas Eve, 1941, three weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and America entered World War II in earnest:

Where Or When
Benny Goodman & His Sextet
OKeh 6553 (78 rpm)
Lorenz Hart – Richard Rodgers
Vocal chorus by Peggy Lee.

I use NPR as a primary source for new music. As a result, my modern song choices tend to be outside the mainstream. Here Caitlin Canty performs “Get Up”:

Get Up
Caitlin Canty
Reckless Skyline (LP)
Caitlin Canty

2015 – Another Year Deeper Into The Project

Happy New Year. 2016 will be another year marked by fear, tumult and political activism. We are beginning to experience “limits to growth” caused by dwindling natural resources, especially oil and water. Hopefully, you and your family are warm and well-fed, and have friends and laughter in your lives.

Status Report

I spent most of my time this year editing and improving artist profiles. As the year wore on, I got kind of bored with the editing process, not to mention frustrated by how sloppy the early profiles were. My progress slowed to a crawl, and I finished editing “96. The Eagles” in early November. The first ninety-six profiles are in pretty good shape, but I still have another sixty profiles to edit, and another fifteen or so to create. At this point no guarantees I’ll finish everything. Next year I’ll probably choose selective profiles to work on, anything to stay motivated.

In November I began working through the entire music collection, and adding accurate, formatted data for each song. In particular, I am adding or verifying the composer(s), year of recording and musical genre, while also verifying which album each song represents. In addition, I am making sure I have a good, clean recording of that song. Back in 2005, the first few thousand songs were burned from my CD collection using a lowest sampling rate. Many of these songs have remastered, improved version available on iTunes.

This is the first time I’ve gone through the collection song by song, and I’m enjoying it. It has given me the opportunity to better understand the collection as a whole. Also, I’m trying to relax a bit, and not pressure myself so much to create a finished product. I am removing about 2-3% of the songs, while adding hundreds more for consideration. Working my way alphabetically by artist, I have reviewed just over 4000 songs, about 37-38% of the collection. I expect that it will take me three or four months to complete this exercise, at which point I will have an attractive, concise database for further analysis and discussion.

Song Ratings

The average song rating is falling, while the quality of songs in the collection is improving. The rating criteria has gradually changed. Compare the breakdown of ratings since the last update at the end of 2012:

On September 13th, 2014:

Total Songs: 9646 songs

5 star songs: 77 (0.7%)
4 star songs: 679 (7.0%)
3 star songs: 2136 (22.1%)
2 star songs: 3996 (41.4%)
1 star songs: 2736 (28.4%)
0 star songs: 19 (0.2%)

Songs Currently Under Review: 21

Average Song Rating: 2.10 stars
Total Length/Size of The Perfect iPod Collection: 24.9 days/46.7 GB

On December 31st, 2015:

Total Songs: 10519 songs

5 star songs: 76 (0.7%)
4 star songs: 639 (6.6%)
3 star songs: 1912 (18.7%)
2 star songs: 4082 (39.9%)
1 star songs: 3495 (34.2%)
0 star songs: 14 (0.1%)

Songs Currently Under Review: 300

Average Song Rating: 1.99 stars
Total Length/Size of The Perfect iPod Collection: 27.3 days/55.8 GB

Since September 13th, 2014:
1733 songs added to the collection. Quite a few of these are higher quality versions of existing songs.
860 songs removed from the collection.

The average rating per song has continued to decrease. Five years ago it was about 2.4, but as I add new songs to the collection. They are generally assigned a one or two star rating. The quality of the collection is clearly better, and the rating criteria has changed. A one-star song is a song with significant merit, but I also want to keep the size of the collection relatively small. Nevertheless, I think the average rating has gotten too low, so I make efforts to grade a bit higher, even though the song ratings seem less important as the collection evolves.

Over the next year, I will keep “filling holes” in the collection, adding songs from various genres and eras that need better representation.

2015: New Music

I don’t keep up with new music very well. I’m too busy researching old music, and there’s so much new music to choose from. Every year I pay attention to NPR and Rolling Stone Magazine reviews, though I am finding Rolling Stone’s opinions diverging from my own. I place a high priority on traditional instruments in small band settings, where each musician’s voice can be heard. I like a wide variety of sounds, and a syncopated beat. So when 25, Adele’s new CD, with its highly orchestrated sound, earns five stars from Rolling Stone, I’m beginning to think Rolling Stone has lost their way. Adele is a lovely woman and a powerful singer, but her music sounds overproduced, lacks variety, and does not swing. I fear that this great talent will go the way of Whitney Houston and other great modern singers — into the hands of big business, where her talents will be underutilized in the pursuit of maximum profitability. I can only stand so many tearjerker ballads; give this woman a small, swinging band whose talent competes with that big voice, free her from the confines of songwriting royalties, and turn her loose. No more Whitney Houston nightmares of unrealized potential.

Currently I have added fifty-one new songs released in 2015. It doesn’t sound like many, but 10500 songs spread over a ninety year period averages out to about 110-120 per year. As I find more songs, it is likely that the number of 2015 songs will increase. For comparison, there are about eighty songs from 2014. Given my age (57), and the goal of collecting a broad cross-section of music, modern songs are added to fill holes, something that sounds fresh and different.

Late last summer I spent the day working with a pair of brothers who are sons of a good friend. They both like modern rap/hip-hop music, and after work, I asked them to pick twenty-five songs they thought were great. After listening to each song several times, I kept seven, including three by Kendrick Lamar. My primary objection to most of these songs was overuse of the N-word. I sent them a letter afterwards, thanking them for the suggestions, but making a case that songs where “n*****” is used over and over excludes me. It is socially unacceptable for me to use that word, I don’t want to use that word, and I don’t want to hear it over and over again. Besides, it’s lazy poetry, like fucking saying fuck all the time. Kendrick Lamar appears to be exceptional in this regard, by not relying on the N-word and the same tiresome subjects. Rap music can be cool, but like all music I like compelling lyrics, a melody, and fine music. The self-deprecating tradition of referring to one another as “n*****” is centuries old. I’m allowed to not like it. Perhaps more on this subject in a dedicated post.

Here is a short list of favorite songs released in 2015:

No One Is Alone, Anthony de Mare ★★
The Blade, Ashley Monroe ★★
I Buried Your Love Alive, Ashley Monroe ★★
Mar (Lo Que Siento), Bomba Estéreo ★★
Stepsister’s Lament, Cecile McLorin Salvant ★★

Whiskey And You, Chris Stapleton ★★
The God Of Loss, Darlingside ★★
Before The World Was Big, Girlpool ★★
Speed Trap Town, Jason Isbell ★★
Over And Even, Joan Shelley ★★

King Kunta, Kendrick Lamar ★★
Amor De Lejos, Los Hijos De La Montaña ★★
El Tamalito, Los Hijos De La Montaña ★★
Stories We Could Tell, The Mavericks ★★
Pardon Me, The Mavericks ★★

Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind, Rhiannon Giddens ★★
Should Have Known Better, Sufjan Stevens ★★
Biscuits, Kacey Musgraves ★★

For me, the artist of the year is Rhiannon Giddens, the former lead singer of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a traditional folk band known for playing old-time music. In essence, the band dropped the name and started to support her as the lead attraction. Here Ms. Giddens sings “She’s Got You” at the Grand Old Opry, my favorite new video of the year:

Another highlight for 2015 is Mono by The Mavericks, a veteran country rock band. In this nice audience video, the band plays “Stories We Could Tell” in Grass Valley, CA last May.

Cecile McLorin Salvant has a growing reputation as a great young jazz singer. Here she is in 2013, singing the traditional coal mining song “John Henry”:

There’s a nice country music renaissance. There are some fine young female songwriters out there. In this official video, Kacey Musgraves sings, “Mind your own biscuits and live will be gravy.”

I’ll be back in a few months with some good statistics, and maybe something interesting to say about it.

Finishing The Blog Taking A Long Time!

It’s been two months since the last new post. I am busy with warm weather activities, but still spending some mornings editing old artist profiles — adding pictures, updating video links and song lists, and improving the writing. Some of the old posts are pretty good, and some are a mess. In some cases, I’m adding a few biographical details; in others I’m eliminating thoughts that no longer seem relevant or important. Every now and then I’ll add a new personal connection.

In the new “Artist Rankings” section, if the artist’s name has an active link, I’ve reviewed and edited the profile, and am satisfied with it. Eighty-eight profiles have been reviewed (or were deemed OK), so I have seventy-four more profiles to edit, and fifteen new profiles to write (see previous post for the list of new profiles). I’ll probably edit the existing profiles first. Currently I’m editing about three profiles per week, so it’s easy to see how this process might take six to eight months, plus another three or four months to write the new ones.

I wish it was more exciting right now. The blog evolved over the years, until I found a formulaic approach I like. So I’m making the various profiles into an interactive picture book, reminiscent of the picture books I enjoyed as a child. As always, thanks for checking in.

Finishing Up The Blog

The Perfect iPod Collection blog is nearing its logical conclusion. I began the project almost seven years ago, and started the “big countdown” of my favorite artists a year later. Over the next six years the profiles became more elaborate, as I refined the typical artist template with pictures, videos, and a list of significant contributors. I am deeply indebted to YouTube and Wikipedia; without them, the blog would be woefully inadequate.

Though much time was spent creating the profiles, the majority of time was devoted to research, and the effort to create an integrated, small library of mostly 20th Century music. I’ve spent far too much time with it lately; there should a greater sense of pride when I study and listen to it, but there are many days when the mind is tired of acquiring and evaluating music. I’ll never stop the process of perfecting the little library, still only about 50 GB in size, but I need to pick a stopping point for writing about it. Over the next few months, here is what I hope to accomplish:

1. I recently ranked the artists a second time, with their updated ranking dependent on both number and quality of songs. The artists are ranked by number of stars awarded. In the case of a tie, the greater number of songs prevails. The updated rankings can be found on a new page called Artist Rankings, which will provide a link to each artist profile. The first fifty profiles are edited and linked; once an existing profile is upgraded and edited a final time, I will provide the link on this page. Some of the old profiles are quite brief. They will never be very informative, but I can add a few links, a picture and, if available, update the video links and song lists.

2. The Wish List page is no longer relevant. I will replace it with a Links page, with a few relevant links.

3. I will eliminate most early posts, most are which talk about recently added songs, or are early attempts at artist profiles. I’ll keep a few favorites. If you have a favorite old post, please let me know. I’ve cleaned up the Index page to reflect the change.

4. There are fifteen artists remaining, with ten or more songs that merits an artist profile:

Chet Baker
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Stanley Turrentine
Nick Lowe
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mark Knopfler
Wes Montgomery
Jeff Beck
Dizzy Gillespie
Charles Mingus
The Guess Who
The Smiths
Albert King
Sam & Dave
The B-52s

I will eventually complete these, though I may prioritize other interests and writing projects.

5. Finally, I need to finish off the project with a significant analysis and general discussion of the results, which will also be completed in due time.

6. It would be nice to figure out how to get some recognition, and perhaps a little money with this project. There are 177 artists with ten or more songs, and their music comprises 55% of the total collection. Perhaps there is a market for the song list, either alphabetically or by artist. It’s impossible to compete with the All Music guide and Rolling Stone magazine, and their teams of expert analysts; perhaps there’s a place in the world for a charming, individually created list. I’m not convinced that knowledge of music theory is a prerequisite for this exercise, nor do I feel great writing is essential. This exercise also belongs in the realm of collectors and categorizers. It’s vital to value the opinions of other experts, especially the musicians who cover their favorite songs, and follow the lineage of the great songs to their origin. Ultimately, the ratings became somewhat unimportant; either a song is either in the collection, or not. At least that’s how I do it.

Ratings Breakdown, April 14th, 2015:

5 Star Songs: 76 (0.8%)
4 Star Songs: 641 (6.4%)
3 Star Songs: 1959 (19.6%)
2 Star Songs: 4002 (40.1%)
1 Star Songs: 3287 (32.9%)
0 Star Songs: 17 (0.1%)

Songs Currently Under Review: 42

Average Song Rating: 2.01

29. Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan)

Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was a jazz singer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Holiday had a very difficult childhood; her mother Sadie did not maintain steady relationships, and often left home to find work. Young Eleanora dropped out of school after the fifth grade, and was working in a Baltimore brothel when she heard Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five’s recording of “West End Blues”, sparking a lifelong passion for music, and an aspiration to sing, and be known as Billie Holiday. By 1930, she and Sadie had moved to New York City, and when Sadie took a job at a Harlem speakeasy popular with the local jazz musicians, Billie seized the opportunity to sing from table to table for tips. Soon the young Holiday was performing in uptown Manhattan clubs.

Holiday’s big break came when jazz enthusiast John Hammond attended one of her club performances. Twenty-two years old at that time, and hailing from a prominent New York family, Hammond was a correspondent for Melody Maker magazine, a local disk jockey, and a generous benefactor to jazz musicians, offering them the opportunity to record music during the difficult years of the Great Depression. Hammond was enamored with Holiday, and arranged her first recording session with Columbia Records in November, 1933. John Hammond’s role in the development of popular music is hard to overestimate. Not only did he serve as the catalyst for the integration of black and white musicians, he was also the greatest talent scout in pop music history.

Holiday’s first two songs generated modest interest, and earned her a second recording session in 1935, which yielded the hit song “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”. Over the following seven years, Holiday, regularly paired with New York City’s finest jazz musicians, produced a dazzling body of work considered a pinnacle of popular song interpretation.


Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) (1915-1959), singer

A Short List of Important Contributors

Lester Young (1909-1959), tenor saxophone
Teddy Wilson (1912-1986), piano, arranger

William “Count” Basie (1904-1984), piano, arranger
Benny Goodman (1909-1986), clarinet
Buck Clayton (1911-1991), trumpet
Freddie Green (1911-1987), guitar
Walter Page (1900-1957), double bass
Jo Jones (1911-1985), drums
John Kirby (1908-1952), string bass
William “Cozy” Cole (1909-1981), drums
Cootie Williams (1911-1985), trumpet
William “Buster” Bailey (1902-1967), clarinet
Johnny Hodges (1906-1970), alto saxophone

Billie Holiday Songs – Excellent Website/Discography
“The Hunting of Billie Holiday”, by Johann Hari, Politico Magazine, January 17, 2015

Singing With Style

Most music historians consider Billie Holiday the greatest female jazz singer, though she possessed an ordinary instrument in terms of range and volume. She fits nicely within my criteria for singing prowess; I prefer plain sounding voices who subtly augment a song, and shun vocal histrionics. Billie Holiday also advanced the art of jazz singing beyond women like Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker, by mastering the use of the microphone to bring out these subtleties.

“Billie Holiday sang blues only incidentally. But through her phrasing and conception, much that she sang seemed to become blues. She made more than one thousand records — among them about seventy with Teddy Wilson. She made her most beautiful recordings with Wilson and Lester Young. In the intertwining of the lines sung by Holiday and the lines played by Young, the question of which is lead and which is accompaniment, which line is vocal and which instrumental, becomes secondary.

Charm and urbane elegance, suppleness and sophistication are the chief elements in the understatement of Billie Holiday.

When Billie opened her mouth to sing, the truth emerged. Her voice expressed the damage and vulnerability of her soul with an almost masochistic honesty, from desire and lust, to joy and optimism, to doubt, sadness, and pain. Her mouth was like an open wound, she wore her heart on her tongue. And when she sang about loneliness, she drew the listener into her loneliness.

Billie Holiday didn’t just sing sad or happy songs. That’s what women singers in popular music normally do: sing sad and happy songs. In Billie Holiday’s singing, on the other hand, contradictory emotions and feelings exist simultaneously, blending with each other while contradicting each other. Or, as rock singer Bryan Ferry remarked, “Her style sings of hope…her message is despair.”

— Excerpts from “The Jazz Book”, Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Gunther Huesmann Link to “The Jazz Book”, by Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Gunther Huesmann Link to “The Oxford Companion to Jazz”, by Bill Kirchner

In this 1935 film short featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Holiday makes a brief appearance at the 4:45 mark:


Billie Holiday is an important omission from the original artist countdown list created in August, 2009. Back then I wasn’t hip to Holiday’s contributions, and only had eight songs in the collection. I suspected it was an oversight, and would require some research to rectify. Back in the early nineties I remember marveling at the Rolling Stone Album Guide’s Third Edition, 1992) five star ratings for all nine volumes of Columbia Records’ “The Quintessential Billie Holiday” collection, a level of consistent respect given to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and perhaps one or two other artists. Over the years I picked up a couple of the Quintessential collections, plus a Commodore Records retrospective to acquire a copy of the protest song “Strange Fruit”. It was only last year that I started the process of creating a representative collection of her music.

My appreciation for her music grows. My interest started with the six to eight-piece jazz bands, and her famous collaborators. I love small band swing jazz, a modernized form of dixieland music; though rhythmically less complex than the Latin and rock syncopation that evolved, the swing rhythm lends itself well to fluid improvisation and clear storytelling. Holiday sings clean and crisp, and adds subtle accents. Her voice does not attempt to dominate or overwhelm. Music analysts often liken Holiday’s style to one of the horn players in the group. Her all-star counterparts do the same, and one gets the sense that the group behaves as a single team, marching forward in step, each voice important to the whole. Classy, restrained and powerful, Billie Holiday interpretations of Golden Age songs created a template for future developments in popular music.


That an abused or neglected person often makes bad decisions about the company they keep is well known. Billie Holiday had a weakness for handsome and abusive men, particularly those who trafficked in heroin. She started using around 1940 or 1941, and struggled with alcoholism and heroin addiction for the rest of her life. She was arrested in 1947 for heroin addiction, and as a result, lost her New York City cabaret card, her primary means of income and support. She was persecuted her whole life one way or another: for being black, for being female, and for being an addict. Her tragic downfall is well documented; through the fifties her health deteriorated, though she continued to perform and record beautifully, albeit with diminishing power. She developed cirrhosis of the liver in 1959, and was arrested for drug possession while on her death bed. Holiday died on July 17th, 1959, just forty-four years old.

Although I devoted more than a hundred hours this past year listening and researching her music, it feels like more investigation is required for the best complement of songs. To close, here’s my favorite Billie Holiday song. In order, the soloists are Benny Morton (trombone), Billie Holiday (vocal), Teddy Wilson (piano), Lester Young (tenor saxophone), and Buck Clayton (trumpet).

When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling,
The whole world smiles with you.
When you’re laughing, oh when you’re laughing,
The sun comes shinin’ through.

But when you’re crying, you bring on the rain,
So stop your sighin’, be happy again.
Keep on smiling, ’cause when you’re smiling,
The whole world smiles with you.

— “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)” by Larry Shay, Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin

Billie Holiday Song Notes:

1. Most of the recommended songs can be found on the Columbia Records compilation called Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles.

2. “Strange Fruit”, “Billie’s Blues” and “On The Sunny Side Of the Street” can be found on Commodore Records compilations.

3. “Lover Man” can be found on Decca Records compilations.

4. “Body And Soul”, “Fine And Mellow”, “What’s New?” and “I Loves You Porgy” can be found on Verve Records compilations.

Billie Holiday Songs:

When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You), Billie Holiday ★★★★★

Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday ★★★★

I Must Have That Man, Billie Holiday ★★★
They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Billie Holiday ★★★
The Very Thought of You, Billie Holiday ★★★
Gloomy Sunday, Billie Holiday ★★★
God Bless The Child, Billie Holiday ★★★
These Foolish Things, Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra ★★★

Loveless Love, Benny Carter & His All-Star Orchestra ★★
St. Louis Blues, Benny Carter & His All-Star Orchestra ★★
Body And Soul, Billie Holiday ★★
Body And Soul (Alt), Billie Holiday ★★
Billie’s Blues, Billie Holiday ★★
On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Billie Holiday ★★
Lover Man, Billie Holiday ★★
More Than You Know, Billie Holiday ★★
Long Gone Blues, Billie Holiday ★★
Easy To Love, Billie Holiday ★★
My Last Affair, Billie Holiday ★★
Me Myself And I, Billie Holiday ★★
Mean To Me, Billie Holiday ★★
Easy Living, Billie Holiday ★★
My Man, Billie Holiday ★★
I Cover The Waterfront, Billie Holiday ★★
Trav’lin’ Light, Billie Holiday & Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra ★★
The Way You Look Tonight, Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra ★★
Pennies From Heaven, Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra ★★
I’ll Never Be The Same, Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra ★★

I Loves You, Porgy, Billie Holiday
What’s New?, Billie Holiday
Fine And Mellow, Billie Holiday
I Wished On The Moon, Billie Holiday
Miss Brown To You, Billie Holiday
I Cried For You, Billie Holiday
This Year’s Kisses, Billie Holiday
Moanin’ Low, Billie Holiday
A Sailboat In The Moonlight, Billie Holiday
Sun Showers, Billie Holiday
He’s Funny That Way, Billie Holiday
You Go To My Head, Billie Holiday
I Can’t Get Started, Billie Holiday
Ghost Of Yesterday, Billie Holiday
Swing! Brother, Swing!, Billie Holiday
Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Billie Holiday
Solitude, Billie Holiday

Related Songs:

Body And Soul, Coleman Hawkins & His Orchestra ★★★
Body And Soul, Louis Armstrong ★★★
Body And Soul, Benny Goodman Trio ★★

Careless Love Blues, Josh White Trio
Careless Love, Ray Charles ★★★
Careless Love, Ottilie Patterson & Chris Barber’s Jazz Band ★★

Easy Living, Wardell Gray ★★
Easy Living, Bill Evans ★★

God Bless The Child, Blood, Sweat & Tears ★★★
God Bless The Child, Stanley Turrentine ★★★

I Can’t Get Started, Bunny Berigan ★★
I Can’t Get Started, Lester Young Trio ★★
I Can’t Get Started, Dizzy Gillespie

I Cover The Waterfront, The Inkspots

I Cried For You (Take 1), Benny Goodman ★★

I Loves You, Porgy, Bill Evans ★★

Lover Man, Dizzy Gillespie & His Orchestra ★★
Lover Man, Sarah Vaughan ★★

Mean To Me, Nat Adderley

On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Lionel Hampton ★★
On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt & Sonny Rollins
On The Sunny Side Of The Street, Louis Armstrong

Pennies From Heaven, Count Basie ★★
Pennies From Heaven, J. J. Johnson ★★

Sailboat In The Moonlight, Ruby Braff ★★

Solitude, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ★★

St. Louis Blues, Bessie Smith ★★★
St. Louis Blues, W. C. Handy

Swing! Brother, Swing! (Live), Count Basie ★★

These Foolish Things, Benny Goodman Sextet ★★★
These Foolish Things, Nat King Cole Trio ★★

They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Ella Fitzgerald
They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Frank Sinatra ★★

The Very Thought Of You, Al Bowlly ★★★
The Very Thought Of You, Dodo Marmarosa & Gene Ammons

The Way You Look Tonight, Frank Sinatra ★★★★
The Way You Look Tonight, Fred Astaire ★★

When You’re Smiling / The Shiek Of Araby, Louis Prima ★★★
When You’re Smiling (Live), Van Morrison ★★

You Go To My Head, Lee Konitz ★★
You Go To My Head, Louis Armstrong & Oscar Peterson