Pop Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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Britney Spears

Britney Spears’s oeuvre is filled with songs about taboo attraction—pop confections that freeze the moment when lust becomes a dangerous obsession, or, more often, when she realizes that whoops, she’s led another poor man down the road to ruin.

Most of these transgression tales are audio soft porn, with melodies as threadbare as the outfits la diva Spears wore in the big-budget videos. Not “Toxic.” Though the message is totally typical—she knows better, but she’s addicted to that dangerous kiss—the means of conveying it are unique, a blur of Bollywood strings and last-roundup cowboy guitars and chittering electronic beats. Over these shifting elements, Spears sings the hypnotic refrain in a twisting swirl that screams, “Somebody help,” because these feelings inside are careening out of control. For once, she’s actually believable.

The most successful of the pinups who followed the Madonna handbook to pop stardom in the ’90s, Spears hadn’t had a Top 40 hit in three years when she began recording her fourth album, In the Zone, which appeared in late 2003. Like her previous albums, this one relied on a cluster of producers, and for “Toxic,” which became the album’s second single, she turned to the then-unknown Swedish team of Bloodshy and Avant. The duo organized the song into episodes—the brief “verse” section features Spears in a breathless falsetto, followed by a moment of odd electronic buzzing, followed by the psychedelic patchwork of that sticky chorus. Though the sounds in some sections are pretty far-fetched—one wonders whether Spears even knows that the strings here are a winking reference to the soundtracks of countless Indian movies—when combined like this, they lead to something far more electric than the average naughty-girl pop song.

RELEASED: 2003, Jive.
APPEARS ON: In the Zone; Greatest Hits.

How Great Thou Art

Elvis Presley

Some speculate that Elvis Presley’s sedate performance of “Peace in the Valley” on the Ed Sullivan Show in January 1957 was a type of media atonement, to make up for his incendiary hip-swiveling appearances the year before. That may be true—who knows what calculations were going on in those frenzied days when the Memphis rocker was just becoming a star—but it shortchanges the devout Presley’s sense of himself as an artist. The future icon had an abiding love of gospel and a keen sense of how to make it his own. The sacred works stand among the most stirring, plainly beautiful material in his massive catalog.

Presley (1935–1977) once boasted, “I know practically every religious song that’s ever been written,” and, beginning with an EP connected to the Sullivan appearance, began documenting a songbook of hymns, spirituals, and up-tempo jubilees featuring traditional gospel quartet singing. How Great Thou Art is his second full gospel collection, and it covers quite a range: Supported by pianist Floyd Cramer and the vocal groups the Imperials and the Jordanaires, Presley does a few brisk revival-meeting tunes (“So High,” “Run On”), several pieces set in a medium-tempo rocking-chair pulse (“Farther Along,” “Where Could I Go but to the Lord,” both enriched by Cramer’s plinking asides), and the obligatory trembling rubato hymns (the title track, one of Presley’s all-time best).

Presley was completely at home singing religious songs. The warm, full voice that launched rock and roll grows bigger and fuller as it glides effortlessly through these expressions of faith. There’s no hype, no sales pitch. Just a servant sharing the glory of what God gave him.

GENRES: Gospel  Pop. RELEASED: 1967, RCA.
KEY TRACKS: “How Great Thou Art,” “Run On,” “Where Could I Go but to the Lord.”
FYI: Presley’s four Grammy awards were all connected to his religious records.

Solitude Standing

Suzanne Vega

My name is Luka, I live on the second floor.” Thus begins New York pop-folk songwriter Suzanne Vega’s disquieting story of a city kid’s attempt to deal with a volatile (and seemingly violent) home situation. Vega focuses not on the details of the kid’s plight but on his awkwardness. She sketches his brave front—and the way it barely hides his fear, his sense of being overwhelmed.

The song, one of several radio hits on Solitude Standing, sparked nationwide discussion about the domestic abuse of children. One reason it touched a nerve is its undeniable catchiness. Vega goes for exuberant refrains cushioned by cooing background vocals—if there ever was an effective counterbalance to a bleak and disturbing scene, this runaway musical optimism is it.

“Luka” is but one highlight of the entrancing Solitude Standing, the follow-up to Vega’s critically lauded 1985 debut. Where her first collection centered on meditative acoustic guitar and lots of breathless words, this one, made with the help of downtown New York musicians, presents Vega using colors and shades and shadowy orchestrations. The album ranges from pure pop to almost ambient meditations, and every track resonates differently. The title tune alternates between a steady rock pulse and ethereal free-falling passages that seem borne from a daydream. “Calypso” is a gorgeously liquid homage to undersea explorers, while “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” floats effortlessly between 3/4 and 4/4 time to sketch a Newark street scene.

Solitude Standing yielded another improbable hit—the cinema-verité “Tom’s Diner,” which Vega sings a cappella. This song, which was remixed by the British producers DNA first without her permission then with her blessing, became a massive club hit the following year. It has now been redone over thirty different ways, by Destiny’s Child, Lil’ Kim, and others. When audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was developing the MP3 audio format for computers, he used the original “Tom’s Diner” as a test, explaining that if he could get the program to translate Vega’s warm voice, it could translate anything.

GENRES: Pop, Folk.
RELEASED: 1987, A&M.
KEY TRACKS: “Solitude Standing,” “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry,” “Calypso.”