Going back into the catacombs to find another dozen lost classics to feature here is always a labor of love for me. They might be great obscure songs you’ve never heard before, or great songs you heard once or twice many years ago but have long forgotten about. The point is, they’re songs that are well worthy of your attention. Listen up. Maybe with headphones (or just ear buds) if you like.
This time around, I was in a more mellow mood than usual, so I thought I’d let that see where it took me. The result is a list of thoughtful, relaxing tunes that might be just right to accompany your first cup of coffee, or to close out a trying day. We’ll rock out on the next go round. This playlist is for quieter times. I hope you like it.
“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” Dusty Springfield, 1968
Long before he won Oscars in the 1990s and beyond for composing songs and film scores for Pixar movies like “Toy Story,” Randy Newman was a critically acclaimed songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s, writing tunes covered by other artists from Three Dog Night to Barbra Streisand, from The Everly Brothers to Bonnie Raitt. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” was perhaps his most widely covered song from that period, with fine renditions recorded by Judy Collins, Nina Simone, UB40, Joe Cocker and my favorite, Dusty Springfield, on her “Dusty…Definitely” LP in 1968, the same year Newman recorded it himself for his debut album. The music is achingly beautiful, while the lyrics (which Newman has said he doesn’t like much) are alternately hopeful and dark.
“Elton’s Song,” Elton John, 1981
When Elton John first revealed in 1976 that he was gay, it wasn’t exactly a surprise but, coming at a time well before homosexuality was widely accepted, it hurt his career for a few years. Album sales dropped off, and hit singles were few and far between. He put his longtime partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin on the shelf for a spell, instead using Gary Osborne and gay rights activist/musician Tom Robinson. On John’s so-so 1981 LP “The Fox,” Robinson wrote lyrics for a deep track he called “Elton’s Song,” which I recently learned is about the angst and shame of a gay schoolboy crush. I recall finding the music captivating and thinking the lyrics were about a boy who pined for an out-of-reach girl. Either way, a beautiful, poignant piece.
“Hello in There,” John Prine, 1971
Prine, who died last year at 73, wrote and recorded extraordinarily compelling, deceptively simple country folk songs, often with humorous lyrics about daily life and regular folks. “Hello in There,” on the other hand, offers a profoundly melancholy take on aging, and how old people are too often ignored or forgotten in their declining years: “You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder every day, /Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello,’ /So if you’re walking down the street sometime, and spot some hollow ancient eyes, /Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare as if you didn’t care, /Say, ‘Hello in there, hello’…” The song appears on his 1971 debut album and has been covered by Bette Midler, 10,000 Maniacs and others.
“No Regrets,” Tom Rush, 1968
Rush holds a unique place in the canon of singer-songwriters who popularized the confessional style of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He covered the tunes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne before they began their own recording careers (Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves,” Browne’s “These Days”), but also wrote his own lovely, insightful songs. “No Regrets” may be Rush’s best, carried by his pleasantly gruff baritone and subtle arrangement of guitars and light percussion. It’s one of the better songs about looking back on a relationship that’s ending: “No regrets, no tears goodbye, don’t want you back, we’d only cry again, say goodbye again…”
“Toulouse Street,” The Doobie Brothers, 1972
People tend to have one of two impressions of Doobie Brothers music. Either it’s the solid-rocking, guitar-based tunes of founder/singer Tom Johnston (“Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Runnin'”), or it’s the R&B-leaning, keyboard-based songs of the Michael McDonald era of the group (“Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes”). Sometimes forgotten in the analysis of this superb band are the contributions of guitarist/singer/songwriter Patrick Simmons, who brought a sweetly melodic sense to their catalog on songs like “South City Midnight Lady” and the hauntingly beautiful “Toulouse Street.” Simmons’s tribute to the French Quarter district of New Orleans uses gentle acoustic picking, flute and easy-on-the-ear vocals that offer a delightful contrast to The Doobies’ other oeuvres.
“How Deep It Goes,” Heart, 1975
When Seattle-based Heart first won a recording contract, it was with a small Canadian label, Mushroom Records, who chose the lush ballad “How Deep It Goes” as the debut single in early 1975. It received scant attention, but it was included on the debut LP, “Dreamboat Annie,” released in Canada in fall 1975 and the U.S. in spring 1976. Heart quickly became known for a hard rock sound through its successful hits “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man,” carried by the astonishing lead vocals of Ann Wilson. While their hard rock approach remained their forte throughout their impressive career, the group’s mellower songs like the 1985 #1 hit “These Dreams” and the aforementioned “How Deep It Goes” mustn’t be ignored.
“Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison, 1970
While Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness jazz/ folk music on his 1968 LP “Astral Weeks” was a critical favorite, it sold poorly, so once he signed with Warner Brothers in 1969, he charted a new, more accessible course that embraced soulful horns, chorus and a vibrant rhythm section. The first fruit from that tree was the magnificent “Moondance” album, which has been described as “a rock musician singing jazz, fixated on the power of nature.” It’s an overwhelmingly warm collection of songs that merge Morrison’s new R&B style with the orchestrated leanings of his previous work. In particular, “Into the Mystic” evokes what critic Joe Harrington calls a “visionary stillness, a sense of cosmic harmony” through judicious use of sax, piano, guitar and Morrison’s distinctive vocals.
“Johnny’s Garden,” Manassas, 1972
Following the implosion of the CSN/CSNY axis — probably doomed from the outset by outsized egos and too many talented songwriters in one band — Stephen “Captain Manyhands” Stills continued his proclivity to dominate everything he worked on. His solo debut showcased his multiple talents: prolific songwriting, stunning acoustic and electric guitar playing, earthy production and a gruff, soulful voice. In 1972, he recruited ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and several other top-notch session players to form Manassas, who merged blues, folk, country, Latin and rock. As Stills put it, “Manassas reminded me of Buffalo Springfield at its best. They could play anything.” Deft guitar work and sublime melody make Stills’ “Johnny’s Garden” one of my favorites from the group’s classic 1972 double LP.
“Please Be With Me,” Eric Clapton, 1974
After surviving a harrowing period of heroin addiction, Clapton found himself humbled and seeking a stronger spiritual foundation when he reemerged in 1974. His “461 Ocean Boulevard” LP was startling in its abandonment of the virtuoso blues guitar workouts that had marked his days with Cream and Derek and The Dominos. Instead he embraced gospel, folk, reggae and an acoustic-based blues, all highlighted by a plaintive vocal style. Clapton’s chart-topping cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” got all the attention, and I admired the way his band rocked out on guitarist George Terry’s “Mainline Florida,” but I found myself drawn to the serene harmonies and relaxed tempo of the lovely folk ballad “Please Be With Me,” with Eric on dobro.
“For the Roses,” Joni Mitchell, 1972
Joni’s magnificent fifth album was something of a transition. She changed labels, from Reprise to Asylum, and she arranged many of her songs to include Tom Scott’s woodwinds, the first step toward the evolution of Mitchell’s music from folk to jazz, which began in earnest on her next LP, “Court and Spark.” Many of these deeply personal tracks describe various facets of her 1970-1971 relationship with James Taylor, especially “For the Roses,” which examines the down side of fame, both for her and her celebrity lover: “Remember the days when you used to sit and make up your tunes for love, and pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee, /And now you’re seen on giant screens and at parties for the press, and for people who have slices of you from the company, /They toss around your latest golden egg, speculation, well who’s to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so…”
“Good Friends,” Livingston Taylor, 1970
Speaking of James Taylor, his younger brother Livingston has been a very fine singer-songwriter in his own right for decades, content to play in the shadow of such an iconic figure. His similar Carolina-born vocal style is even more nasal, and his aw-shucks approach to whimsical songwriting gives his albums much of their charm. His 1970 debut isn’t the best produced album I’ve ever heard, but Taylor’s original songs are honest and engaging, from the upbeat “Sit On Back,” “Carolina Day” and “Packet of Good Times” to the delicate “Lost in the Love of You” and “Thank You Song.” He wrote the heartwarming “Good Friends” when he was still in high school, and it has been a regular part of his concert repertoire throughout his career.
“End of the Day,” Al Stewart, 1978
From roughly 1967 until 1975, Stewart released six LPs that showed his unique talent for combining folk-rock songs with delicately woven tales of characters and events from history…but no one much noticed. Then came “Year of the Cat,” a #5 album and a #8 hit single in the US in 1976-77, followed by the equally strong LP “Time Passages” in 1978. I played the hell out of these albums and was particularly taken by the guitar stylings of Stewart’s collaborator Peter White, who really shines on tracks like “On the Border” and the lovely “End of the Day,” a lost classic if I’ve ever heard one. It is indeed one of the quintessential songs to play as you’re kicking back in your soft clothes after work watching the sun set.