Thursday, December 2, 2010

I'm Craving Harmony

You know how sometimes you get a song stuck in your head?  (Nowadays it's fashionably - and rather grotesquely - called an "earworm.")  For the last few days I've been relentlessly harmonizing with myself on this:

Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills & Nash

I'm such a sucker for vocal harmonies.  From 50s doo-wop to the rock arias of Queen, give me layered voices and intricate chord structures any day.  They get lodged in my brain and work themselves out only by being sung, loudly and repeatedly (with apologies to anyone nearby).  And yes, I'm one of those annoying people who will sing the harmony line, my voice dipping and soaring and not following the main tune.  It took me a long time to realize that not everybody can sing harmony, that some people don't even understand quite what it is.  I do it almost unconsciously; it's the way my dad used to sing along to the radio, so it's the way I sing along, too. 

But I do it mostly to older songs, because there's not a lot of harmony on the radio these days.  Beats rule popular music right now; a hit song is more likely to be built around its rhythm than its melody, and you can't have strong harmonies without a strong melody.  I like a good beat as much as the next person - lately, when "Helplessly Hoping" isn't playing in my head, it's probably going to be Taio Cruz' "Dynomite."  There's as much room for artistry in the rhythm track as there is in the vocals, I think; if that weren't true, rap and hip-hop wouldn't exist as the vital genres they are.  It's just that, if you're a lover of vocal tapestries, the relentless Auto-tuning that tends to accompany those rhythms is uninspiring at best and downright depressing at worst.

The most recent song to which I've sung harmony is Muse's "Uprising," on that fabulous chorus - listen.  And even that constitutes only a small part of the entire track (although it makes the song, in my opinion).  Are there artists creating music with strong vocal harmonies?  I'm sure there are - I don't claim to listen to everything out there, and I suspect there's music out there that would melt my ears except that it's not pop-radio friendly and/or in a genre I don't listen to, e.g., country. 

So here's what I'm going to do:  I'm going to list some of my favorite harmony-rich tracks, and I'm going to invite my faithful readers to suggest recent songs that would satisfy my craving for vocal harmonies.  I hope you educate me, and I hope you'll sample some of my suggestions, because they're awesome music.  Fair deal?  OK, then.  (I'm not giving links to all of these songs, but you can Google any of them and instantly get a link to an iLike or Rhapsody file, OK?)

These are not in any particular order of preference, and certainly don't comprise an exhaustive list!

"More Than Words," Extreme - This is the most recent radio hit I can think of that includes really great harmonies. This song came out of absolutely nowhere in 1990.  Here was a minor hard-rock/hair band that suddenly broke through in a huge way with this exquisitely harmonized ballad.  And these are impeccable harmonies - gorgeous ear candy set against an acoustic backdrop.  No wonder lead singer Gary Cherone seemed an attractive choice to become the lead singer of Van Halen.  It didn't work out, but everybody's heart (and ear) was in the right place.

"Seven Bridges Road," The Eagles- I usually switch stations when an Eagles song comes on, because I've heard them all so many times that I don't feel the need to actually listen to any of them.  But there are a few exceptions, and this amazing live a capella song is definitely one of them.

"Somebody to Love," Queen - Queen, of course, produced so many songs with unbelievably dense, rich harmonies.  I love this one for its pseudo-gospel feel and soaring melody.  A close runner-up would be "Play the Game."

"Let It Be Me," The Everly Brothers - The undisputed kings of two-part harmony, Don and Phil Everly have voices like twin angels.  I could have chosen any of a dozen of their songs, including their 1984 comeback hit "On the Wings of a Nightingale," that are just as good.  I like this one because of the juxtaposition of the harmonized verses and the melody-driven bridge.

"Dance the Night Away," Van Halen - Yes, Eddie Van Halen had shreddin' guitar licks and David Lee Roth was a big clown in tight pants.  But what I loved about early Van Halen was their tightly-woven harmonies.  There was something about their vocal mix that purely embodied the intensity and emotion of rock and roll.  And without those things, it's just noise.

"In My Room," The Beach Boys - How do I even pick one Beach Boys song?  No one - no one - did harmony better than Brian Wilson.  Go find "All Summer Long," "I Get Around," "Sloop John B," "Heroes and Villains," and "Good Timin'" if you don't believe me.

"And Your Bird Can Sing," The Beatles - If you're only a casual Beatles fan (a concept wholly unfamiliar to me), this track may be somewhat obscure.  The Fab Four, of course, rule harmony in rock and roll.  The word "hand" in "I Want to Hold Your Hand" should tell you all you need to know about that.  But listen to this entire freaking song for some of the greatest vocal harmonies you'll ever experience.  Promise.

"Deadbeat Club," The B-52s - Lovely, lovely harmonies on this tune, and (I'm sorry to say) the only track on this list featuring female voices.  I would love someone out there to correct me and add to the x-chromosome portion of the Harmony Hall of Fame.  Please?

"Never Been Any Reason," Head East - You know:  "Save my life, I'm going down for the last time."  Awesome hard-rock harmony.  What the hell happened to music like this?

"How 'Bout Us?" Champaign - Exquisite.  A pretty big hit when it came out in 1981, but today may be one of the more obscure songs on this list.  The definition of "shimmering" harmonies.

I could list many, many more (from The Five Satins to Simon and Garfunkel to the Indigo Girls to Straight No Chaser).  But you get my drift, I hope.  And I hope you'll seek out some of these artists and their songs, if only to see why I get so pumped up over vocal harmony.  Do make suggestions in the Comments field if you like; when it comes to music, knowledge is more than power, it's ecstasy.  Or just sing along to some of these.  I don't care if you can't carry a tune; if music is life, than singing is breathing, and I encourage everyone to breathe deeply.

1 comment:

  1. And this is exactly why my kids know way more than they should about life... I seek out the music, and sometimes forget about the exact words. Muse is one of our favorites for the car pool lane, and now Bruno Mars too, although perhaps I really should censor certain songs. Nah on second thought, we are all music junkies... we will just use the lyrics as discussion points when the mood strikes.


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