Image: Pino Pascali at Camden Arts Centre

I am a writer and the music I invariably choose to listen to is vocal. That is, words combined with melody that tell a story, depict a state of mind or compose an atmosphere. I don't play music while I'm working. One reason is practical: to find my own prose I like to be surrounded by as much silence as my circumstances can offer. But, in another sense, I am surrounded by music all the time. If I'm not consciously listening to a recording, then often there's a song playing involuntarily in my head. In whatever form it reaches me, music
is seldom in the background: it's a foreground presence. Words or phrases overheard can remind me of a song; pretty soon the melody is running through my mind. I can't help but sing with it. This doesn't happen all the time: if it did I'd probably be justifiably prescribed behavioural therapy and anyone sharing my life would be looking for counselling. But I'll say I feel fortunate to have been given deep and consistent pleasure by music throughout my life. And the benefit seems only to get deeper.

I'm not listing what I am playing now (because I'm writing; sorry). Instead, I'm offering a playlist of individual songs I especially like to hear.

Nancy Wilson and Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley – Save Your Love for me (written by Buddy Johnson)  

Memories are short and Nancy Wilson is not a name as well remembered as it should be. Everyone should own the album she recorded with Adderley in 1961. The bass and piano intro (let's name names: Sam Jones on bass and Joe Zawinul sensitive on piano) to Save Your Love For Me, followed by Nat Adderley (the Cannonball's brother) being beautifully restrained on cornet, are exquisite and haunting. The song is by Buddy Johnson and he is among my favourite songwriters.


The Kinks – Sunny Afternoon (Ray Davies)


I've liked Ray Davies's story songs since I first heard them on the radio in the 1960s while I was growing up in London. This song beats "Waterloo Sunset" – the most resonant anthem for the capital to come out of that decade – into my Top 10, but only just. Both are immediately recognized by their instrumental intros but what tips the verdict towards Sunny afternoon are stronger personal childhood memories. I picture myself listening to the song during a long school holiday; there's a sun loungers, shady trees, cool breezes and I'm sipping chilled Coca-Cola (I wasn't yet a teenager, remember). Another thing about The Kinks: the magenta and black PYE labels of their 45rpm singles were a favourite of mine.

Charlie Rich – I Feel Like Goin' Home (Charlie Rich)  

How often does the sentiment of this song echo my own mood? A magnificent song, in many ways, it is about giving up in the face of incessant unequal struggle. Okay, it's a self-indulgent message, some will argue, but we need that sometimes; songs echo our needs as well as fantasies. I suppose the theme is pretty well established in Country & Western ballads but it strikes me that this song reaches a level above particular idioms. Also, Rich was a very good pianist; he brought R&B, jazz and blues phrasings into his playing, and that's apparent here.


Liane Carroll – Picture In A Frame (Tom Waits)


Waits's poignant love anthem has a full message in few words. Repetition amplifies the effect of a line. The melody gives the lyric a lot of space. It is fully celebrated here by Carroll, surely Britain's gutsiest jazz singer and the most vocally dynamic. Like Waits in his recordings, Carroll provides her own piano accompaniment.


Carmen McRae – Blame It On My Youth (Oscar Levant/Edward Heyman)

This sublime hymn for the naïve loser in love was written in the 1930s by the hard-bitten Oscar Levant with words by Edward Heyman. The first six lines or so constitute the song's verse. Songs from the golden age of popular song came supplied with verses that, in a later era, were routinely dropped from recordings. Verses were treated like a grumbling appendix: considered unnecessary to the wellbeing of the body of the tune, they were best cut out. Sometimes that was the case but often the view was mistaken, as the verse here proves.

Donny Hathaway – A Song For You (Leon Russell)  

Another love anthem and another simple but memorable intro. Many singers covered this song in the 1970s but Hathaway's treatment enhances significantly, with its searing urgency, Russell's melody and lyric about the gratitude that follows affection and one's inadequacy in the presence of love.


Frank Sinatra – I See Your Face Before Me (Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz)


I could happily list only Frank Sinatra recordings among my Top 10 songs. A desert island would be bearable if a set of Sinatra CDs washed up on the shore alongside me. (Please, Fate, make it the Capitol recordings.) Sinatra was an outstanding interpreter of lyrics. Words mattered to him and, at a time of great readers of the standard repertoire of popular song (a lengthy list with Nat 'King' Cole, Louis Armstrong, Mel Tormé, Mark Murphy, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Anita O'Day at its elevated pinnacle), Sinatra's poetic instincts were, for me, probably the most consistently imaginative and
compelling of all. I think this song is an outstanding example. A beautiful minor-key ballad to start with, the combination of Sinatra, arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle and an orchestra of leading classical and jazz soloists and sidemen makes this version astonishingly authentic. It was recorded during Sinatra's 1950s peak with Capitol Records that gave birth to the finger-snapping image. But there was this other side to him, too.

The Box Tops – The Letter (Wayne Carson Thompson)  

The freshness and urgency of this song always pleases me. And another brief, simple, signature intro. The debut recording of the very gifted Alex Chilton.


Frank Sinatra – All Or Nothing At All (Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence- 1966 version)


Sinatra again. He was an exponent of Swing, the pre-war, white by-product of jazz, and he was the last commercially successful exponent of it, effectively making it the enduring Sinatra sound. By the time of this recording, the 'Sinatra style' of seemingly effortless forward drive, voice and orchestra pulsing onward with more than a hint of danger, had been at a most dynamic high for over a decade. This may be among his last truly great sides. Again arranged by Riddle, the tempo builds and pounds inexorably behind Sinatra's well-paced vocal phrasing, reaching a peak of excitement after the bridge. Once it breaks, the song slows into a subdued close. It's post-something.


Simon & Garfunkel – The Dangling Conversation (Paul Simon)


A great lyric by Simon, it wedged itself into my pre-adolescent mind, along with its gentle, persistent melody. "It's a still life watercolour, of a now late afternoon, as the sun shines through the curtained lace, and shadows wash the room… Yes, we speak of things that matter, With words that must be said, "Can analysis be worthwhile?", "Is the theatre really dead?"' I enjoy those last, lightly mocking lines.


The Beatles – Help! (John Lennon/Paul McCartney)


One more, if I'm allowed it. I know exactly where I am when I hear that first 'Help!'


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