The Brazilian Beat Goes On: My Own ‘Top Ten’ List of Present-Day Bossa Nova Classics

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Usually around the close of an old year or near the beginning of the new, top ten lists are eagerly drawn up by writers and reviewers alike (let’s not forget us bloggers, please) detailing everything from the best of this or that blockbuster movie to the worst of this or that ludicrous fashion statement.

The pop-record business is no stranger to these hypothetical stocking stuffers, which may or may not include the old “desert island” gambit, i.e., which song or artist would you take with you if you happen to find yourself stranded on a desert island?

But instead of pushing my own laundry list of items onto the standard format, I’d like to offer a variant to this popular theme: the top ten (or more) songs, over the course of the last 20 years or so, to have reflected the pervasive influence of the classic bossa nova sound in their makeup or design.

To make it even more enticing, my list discounts the contributions of native-born Brazilians, and it arrives not at the end of the calendar year but somewhere in the middle of it — further evidence of its going against the commonly accepted grain.

My biggest problem with these sorts of surveys, however, is what everyone else finds wrong with them: where exactly does one begin, and with whom? Would the list need to be in chronological order by year or alphabetically by song title? Are the songs connected to a specific topic or theme, or just random selections with no discernible pattern or trend?

As you may have probably guessed, there’s an ulterior motive to this sonic exercise: since we already know what Brazilian bossa nova has done for American jazz (and if you don’t, then check out my earlier essay, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”), what, if anything, did the genre do for popular music in general? This is the real meat of the matter. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here they are:

Suzanne Vega (hmvdigital.com)

1. “Caramel” (Suzanne Vega). Let me start with someone I know to be on most every knowledgeable music fan’s wish list, and that is Greenwich Village coffeehouse favorite Suzanne Vega. I saw her a grand total of twice in my life: the first was in the late 1990s, in Brazil, where she made a guest appearance on Serginho Groisman’s teen talk show on TV Cultura; the second a few years ago, in the U.S., on the Sunday-morning television program Breakfast With the Arts.

On both occasions she sang her 1987 signature tune, “Luka,” about a boy confronting parental child abuse. But the song that genuinely stood out from the pack was “Caramel,” a wonderfully laid-back vignette from her 1996 album Nine Objects of Desire (A&M). It has a solid and respectable bossa nova beat (“It won’t do / to dream of caramel / to think of cinnamon / and long for you”), with an equally fine, syncopated guitar accompaniment — not the kind of thing one associates with an American pop song of the period, but not so rare as to be totally off-base. Factor in Vega’s hushed and reflective tone, and a modern-day classic was born.

Even still, I knew I had heard that melancholic turn of phrase before. Sure enough, after having wracked my brain silly for weeks on end, I came up with the answer: that same wistful undercurrent of nostalgia, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, must surely have come from the work of the underrated Rio-born composer Roberto Baden Powell de Aquino, known universally as Baden Powell.

Simply put, it was called “Valsa sem nome” (“Waltz Without a Name”), a song that appeared in the same year as another of his classic renderings, “Berimbau,” and was co-written, in 1964, with Vinicius de Moraes, one of the many afro-sambas they turned out together. Incidentally, “Valsa sem nome” can be heard in its original form on Powell’s 1988 Seresta Brasileira (“Brazilian Serenade”) CD, released in this country on the Milestone/Fantasy label. How’s that for a Brazilian connection?

Everything But the Girl (last.fm)

2. “Each and Every One” and “I Must Confess” (Everything But the Girl). The next items are from the British pop duo Everything But the Girl, headed by none other than (what else?) a girl, the steamy songbird Tracey Thorn, and her multi-talented partner Ben Watt, more or less jazz-lite contemporaries of the better-known brand of vocalism practiced by Nigerian-born Sade and her Grammy Award-winning group.

Their entry, the single “Each and Every One,” from 1984’s eponymous Everything But the Girl (Blanco y Negro/Sire), the U.S. version of their UK debut album Eden, is a stylish second choice for alluring pop vocals of the sixties-era kind, that also became hot with the English after-dinner crowd — an upbeat, up-tempo musical tonic blessed with that unmistakable touch of samba.

Mysteriously, the song that was most clearly defined by its obvious bossa roots, “I Must Confess (I Agree),” found on the original Eden and a choice example of a Brazilian-style throwback to the softer-and-gentler side of Brit pop, was absent from its North American retread, a perplexing bit of mindless juggling by the label and a major letdown for fans.

Sade (yasisland.eu)

3. “Smooth Operator” (Sade). Sensing an opportunity brewing, the doe-eyed Sade (née Helen Folasade Adu) was clever enough to take up the slack in the music charts, subsequently steamrolling her way past the competition during the latter half of the eighties and early nineties with her perfunctory vocal style and smoke-gets-in-your-eyes delivery.

She earns a space on the shelves of smooth-jazz collectors, and on my list, for her infectious chart-buster (“No need to ask”), the knockout number “Smooth Operator,” from her smash debut album Diamond Life (CBS Portrait/Sony, 1984), alongside such showstoppers as “Your Love is King” and “Hang On to Your Love.”

In a similar vein, there’s Promise from 1985 (CBS Portrait/Sony), featuring the serpentine-like “The Sweetest Taboo,” a cut that solidified her hold on Latin-music lovers and other romantics.

Though her voice is closer to the cool side of jazz-pop than to straight-up bossa nova (“Ice Queen” is the term most associated with her persona), the former model-turned-pop diva was inspired by no less than Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, with a smattering of Astrud Gilberto’s breathless naiveté thrown in for good measure. It’s a style that even Suzanne Vega has cultivated, to an extent, on some of her recorded masterworks — not bad for non-natives.

Swing Out Sister (last.fm)

4. “Breakout” (Swing Out Sister) and 5. “Astrud” (Basia). Two other European-based artists, the Manchester, UK trio Swing Out Sister and the Polish songstress Basia (real name: Basia Trzetrzelewska — please don’t ask me how to pronounce it), have been co-equal contributors to the ever-widening Brazilian-music sweepstakes, and share the Number Four spot with their similar stylistic leanings.

The first group out of the gate, Swing Out Sister, comprised of lead singer Corinne Drewery, keyboardist Andy Connell, and drummer Martin Jackson, gained some semblance of notoriety (mostly in Europe and Japan) with their energetic hit single “Breakout,” a horn-heavy, synth-laden production that was also featured on their debut album It’s Better to Travel from 1987 (Mercury/PolyGram).

While both bands were rushing headlong toward the winner’s circle, the sophisticated chanteuse from Silesia grabs the top trophy overall for her fabulous Time and Tide outing on Epic (1987), an enterprising first-try at a promising solo career.

Several of the album’s cuts are worthy of honorable mention, including the effervescent title track, the highly refined “New Day for You,” and, of course, the marvelously catchy “Astrud,” her lyrical tribute to the Ipanema girl herself (“Nobody knows where she came from / The tall-and-tanned-young-and-lovely girl / With a voice as light as air”), a priceless recorded gem by any reasonable definition of the term.

Basia (blogcritics.org)

6. “Third Time Lucky” (Basia). Basia and her musical cohort, producer Danny White, both formerly of the British group Matt Bianco, assembled an even more tantalizing assortment of Brazilian-inflected musical brush-strokes with their third effort, The Sweetest Illusion (Epic, 1994), in particular the fast-paced “Third Time Lucky,” with its Carnivalesque samba-driven sensibilities, and on the melting pop ballad, “Perfect Mother.”

This is Basia at her cocktail-hour best, and the place to start, really, if you want to hear what a foreign-born performer with taste can do with Brazil’s highly exportable pop material. Too bad impatient listeners in the U.S. weren’t lining up to buy it, due likely to the change in musical values after the late 1990s — a fate shared by many veteran vocalists, including Michael Franks and Al Jarreau — leading to diminished airplay for her type of “adult contemporary” music ventures.

My own theory behind this lies with Basia’s English enunciation, or the lack of it: it’s fairly incomprehensible without the printed text. Add to this her soulless rendition of Aretha Franklin covers, and one can only imagine how American reviewers must have reacted to her (not too well, I’m told). She still maintains a fine European presence, where the Brits are not as troubled by her accent as we Yanks appear to be.

Sting (radioromantika.ru)

7. “It’s Probably Me” and “Fragile” (Sting). And speaking of Brits, even the Demolition Man himself, that sturdy-old standby Mr. Gordon Sumner, a.k.a. Sting, got into the act with “It’s Probably Me,” taken from the soundtrack to the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover action vehicle Lethal Weapon III, released in 1992, and boasting the invaluable assistance of rock legend Eric Clapton, on guitar, and jazz-pop staple David Sanborn, on sax.

It resurfaced a year later, with a totally redone rhythm arrangement, on Sting’s excellent Ten Summoner’s Tales (A&M) and joins an earlier achievement, available on …Nothing Like the Sun (A&M, 1987) — the achingly beautiful “Fragile” (“On and on the rain will fall / Like tears from a star / On and on the rain will say / How fragile we are”) — as his two most consistent forays into this area.

Mixing sincere concerns for the environment with a lovely guitar-arpeggio interlude, “Fragile” is the one to get, and his finest all-around effort to date, as it all-but incorporates the basic bossa formula we’ve been hinting at throughout. There’s also a version for the South American market, sung in excruciatingly bad Portuguese, on the otherwise all-Spanish-language Nada Como el Sol…, from 1988 (A&M).

From there Sting wandered perilously close to “lounge lizard” territory, most of all with his below par Mercury Falling (A&M, 1996), a dreary recorded affair whose few highlights do not include the risible “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets,” sung en français, naturellement, and patterned after the exemplary oeuvre of the late Tom Jobim.

“Regret” is the right word for it, all right, as he has yet to fully recover from that misguided conception. Let’s hope his reunion concerts with ex-Police band-mates Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers repaired the damage done to his musical integrity, enough to turn things around for the eclectic songsmith (they have!). He’s worth the investment.

Dido (pictures-art.blogspot.com)

8. “Thank You” (Dido). We now come to my favorite piece — and one of the unrivaled peaks of the present-day, bossa nova-style revival: 1999’s surprise hit “Thank You,” from the album No Angel on Arista, by British singer-songwriter Dido (born Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong).

The song took its time to assert itself initially, but following a brief warm-up period, wherein rapster Eminem sampled a portion of it on his own single, “Stan,” it reemerged in 2001 as a runaway Top Five mega-success, revealing the aptly named Dido to be a first-rate, triple-A, unadulterated pop queen of the front ranks.

Indeed, most of No Angel stays within the expected pop-music confines, with the notable exception of “Thank You,” which wafts in, of its own accord, on a refreshing ocean current. It stirs the mind and the heart (as well as the feet) with its introductory bongo taps, and, to alert fans of Brazilian samba, a neat electronic backing of an instrument called the cuíca (similar in appearance to a drum, but designed to produce a kind of squeaking or “groaning” noise).

There’s Dido’s poetic phrasing to drool over (“My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why / I got out of bed at all / The morning rain clouds up my window / and I can’t see at all”), in addition to her deliciously inviting timbre and sensuous air of assurance.

I must have played this one number a dozen times over in one sitting alone, so enthralled I was with its buoyancy and charm (and with Dido’s vocal resemblance to Sade). It never fails to put a smile on my face every time I listen to it, and it’ll do the same for you — thank you, Dido! The only blemish, really, is the overly loud, programmed drum kit (courtesy of older brother Rollo) that panders too easily to the dubious tastes of the hip-hop generation.

Eric Clapton (amazon.com)

9. “Believe in Life” (Eric Clapton). From the cream of the crop to the bottom of the barrel, that’s what we get with Eric Clapton’s “Believe in Life,” his one (and hopefully only) attempt at a bossa nova connection. But the only connection purchasers need make after having acquired this CD non-entity is with the Returns Department on eBay.

The song is found on his ponderously titled Reptile (Reprise, 2001) — and yes, friends, the party’s definitely over with this bargain basement, pseudo-Brazilian atrocity, as faux a piece of work as any I’ve heard from the bluesman from Ripley. I’m still scratching my head over its banality and blandness next to the topnotch quality of Clapton’s previous output (“Wonderful Tonight,” “Tears in Heaven,” “Change the World”).

Possessed of the most uninspired lyrics he’s ever had the misfortune to dig up (“And when the day is almost done / And there is nothing left to say / You will let me call your name / ‘Cause I love you more than light”), the less I say about “Believe in Life,” the better.

And talk about a lounge lizard’s delight, this Reptile runs both hot and cold (mostly cold) and is, musically, all over the map. My advice would be to look elsewhere for your pop thrills.

Norah Jones (myspace.com)

10. “Come Away With Me” and “Sunrise” (Norah Jones). Just when you thought it was safe to throw out that old compact disc player of yours — especially after repeated hearings of Number Nine above — along comes a talented young artist, of the exalted caliber of Ms. Norah Jones, to lift the spirits and soothe the soul with her much-needed conviction that modern-day pop music is thriving in Lotus Land.

Jones, the daughter of sitar master Ravi Shankar, along with her crack backup band, received six Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist, for her triumphant Come Away With Me on Blue Note (2002).

On this, her premier set of songs, and on the atmospheric title tune, she is miles ahead of her nearest recorded rival, jazz-pop darling Diana Krall (see her recent Quiet Nights on Verve), whose sleepy-eyed readings and mushy diction are a chore to get through. Not so with Norah: she’s completely natural and unaffected throughout, and a sheer joy to listen to.

Even better is her 2004 follow-up, Feels Like Home (Blue Note), with its bouncy opening number, “Sunrise” (“Sunrise, sunrise / Looks like mornin’ in your eyes / But the clocks held 9:15 for hours”) — the colorful and surreal video’s not too bad, either. It holds the attention span, as well as the Number Ten position, thus bringing my “top-ten” best-of list (now a baker’s dozen) to a close.

I know what you’re thinking: that neither “Come Away With Me” nor “Sunrise” is, strictly speaking, legit bossa nova. I concede they’re a bit of a stretch, but bear with me for a moment, as you listen to that sure beat and toe-tapping rhythm, and especially to that irresistible voice and its allure.

Norah Jones is the real deal, all right, and the best we have in this repertoire right now. Despite certain tonal similarities to Dido and to Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachan (with a hint or two of country music’s Lee Ann Rimes), she’s as near to the “Astrud” aesthetic as we’re likely to get. Enjoy her, while you can, or we’ll be forced to give Clapton another spin.

So how did bossa nova fare overall? Not bad, actually. One half expected it to be a whole lot worse off than it was. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but truth be told it’s come along quite nicely throughout the years, given what there is to work with.

As we have now seen, the best songs of this type can be characterized not just by their exceptional lyric beauty but by the singer’s individual attitude toward them, expressed, principally, in the way he or she distances (or does not distance) him- or herself from the source.

To put it another way, it’s one thing to approach bossa nova covers in this arms-length manner; it’s quite another when attempting to do the proper justice to one’s own work. The finished product, then, invariably winds up striking a precarious (and sometimes unsatisfactory) balance between the two. Both are viable options, however, and are based strictly on personal preference, as this list certainly is. The mere fact that there are singers out there, both here and in Brazil, still willing to revisit the genre can be most heartening to us music fans.*

Now if we could only get the producers of American Idol or The X Factor to show some interest in that Brazilian beat… It would be my ideal Fantasy Island dream come true. That’s the only thing worth taking to that fictional atoll in the sky. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Included among the newer generation of Brazilian pop and bossa nova artists are such varied performers as Rosalia de Souza, Ana Carolina, Teresa Cristina, Adriana Calcanhotto, Fernanda Abreu, Celso Fonseca, Patricia Talem, Luciana Souza, and the group Bossacucanova.

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