This week, a relatively new friend - writer Jeremy Simmonds - brings us his top 20, but with a catch: The top 20 needed to include a dead vocalist. You see, Jeremy became a friend due to a group on facebook we both belong to which concerns itself with deceased musicians. And Jeremy himself is the author of the bible of dead rock stars, The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches, recently updated & reissued for the enjoyment of the living by the Chicago Review Press. Jeremy was kind enough to take the time for a little commentary on each track included. Thanks, Jeremy!
‘DEAD SINGERS’ TOP 20 by Jeremy Simmonds
Jeez, this took some doing, but – at the expense of artists such as Jackie Wilson, Gram Parsons, Alex Chilton, Billie Holiday, 2Pac, Zappa, Summer, Strummer, Holly, Hendrix, Bolan and a wealth of country and reggae artists – here’s a Top 20 compiled of favourite tracks performed by dead singers. (Call me tomorrow, and it’ll all have changed…)
01. TWENTY-FOUR HOURS - Joy Division (1980)
The fragile meets the ugly as Ian Curtis stares into the void in one of the most devastating songs ever written. What might he have become?
02. TROUBLE MAN - Marvin Gaye (1972)
Movie or no movie, this was Gaye exorcising his own early demons. As with many of his great seventies workouts, Trouble Man was largely stunning improvisation.
03. LOVER YOU SHOULD’VE COME OVER - Jeff Buckley (1994)
As languid and compelling a song about unrequited love as you’ll hear anywhere, LYSCO exposes the humility behind Buckley’s often prickly exterior.
04. SPIRIT DITCH - Sparklehorse (1995)
Mark Linkous wrote the sparse, disquieting Spirit Ditch on an eight-track belonging to Cracker’s David Lowery. Accidental genius – like much of Sparklehorse’s output.
05. DON’T STOP ‘TIL YOU GET ENOUGH - Michael Jackson (1979)
Some joy from beyond the darkness: DSTYGE just might be the greatest dance record ever made, its ability to galvanise and animate unlike anything produced since.
06. THIS MASQUERADE - The Carpenters (1973)
Occasionally, over-arrangement swamped Karen’s light, probing tenor – but its unadorned beauty was never better displayed than on Leon Russell’s finest song.
07. BLACK-EYED DOG - Nick Drake (1974)
Perhaps the bleakest three minutes ever committed to tape, Black-Eyed Dog sketches Drake’s fragility and disillusion in one of the last songs he was to record.
08. SHE’S LIKE HEROIN TO ME - The Gun Club (1981)
Jeffrey Lee Pierce fused the energy of first-wave punk with the purity of the blues – how a 31-year-old recording of a dead guy can sound so ‘alive’ is simply a marvel.
09. #9 DREAM - John Lennon (1974)
A Day in the Life receives the nod as his finest Beatles moment, but this remains a favourite from Lennon’s solo catalogue. Familiar yet at the same time strangely alien.
10. A CHANGE IS GONNA COME - Sam Cooke (1963)
That rare thing, an introspective protest song: however, the tragedy of Sam’s untimely passing only enhanced the already overwhelming sense of finality within ACIGC.
11. SUPERSEX - Morphine (1994)
Mark Sandman’s was a weary world of whisky, sleaze and budget motels with busted neon signs, dished up over bass and sax. Supersex coolly captures the whole shebang.
12. LOUNGE ACT - Nirvana (1991)
Did Kurt love his work? Hard to say in many cases, though Lounge Act suggests at someone who just wanted to punch holes through things. But in a good way.
13. BIG-EYED BEANS FROM VENUS - Captain Beefheart (1972)
As much about Zoot’s guitar as it is Beefheart’s mad muse, BEBFV shows Van Vliet edging back toward his swampy roots. (‘His music made me feel sick.’ P J Harvey)
14. SON OF SAM - Elliott Smith (2000)
Elliott Smith’s compositions never sounded as though written for public consumption. Faith borne of resignation was a recurrent theme: sadly, SOS offered us all false hope.
15. NO RAIN - Blind Melon (1993)
Shannon Hoon didn’t seem the reckless type on the sprightly yet contemplative No Rain – and the song itself didn’t sound like anything composed by a pal of Axl Rose…
16. BE-BOP-A-LU-LA - Gene Vincent (1956)
Ian Dury was right – the real birth of rock ‘n’ roll arrived with the brief popularity of tragic Virginia rebel Gene Vincent. This reverb-drenched classic nails his legend.
17. LADY DAY & JOHN COLTRANE - Gil Scott-Heron (1971)
Revolution… is certainly the more important cut, but this work-out never fails to raise the mood. In fact, it’s so good, one doesn’t even have to reach for Billie or John…
18. RIDERS ON THE STORM - The Doors (1971)
Despite Jim Morrison’s descent into poetic self-indulgence, The Doors still had in them one last great album with him at the helm. ROTS was the jewel in its crown.
19. OUT ON THE FLOOR - Dobie Gray (1966)
It took almost a whole decade for this ignored gem to re-emerge as a Northern Soul favourite. Others might plump for Drift Away, but this was Dobie’s best moment.
20. THE BOOK LOVERS - Broadcast (1996)
Founder James Cargill continued to use Trish Keenan’s vocals on the band’s recordings after her 2011 death. This early cut displays her haunting style at its finest.