Four years ago today, the world lost an incredible talent. Overcome by depression and drug addiction, Amy Winehouse was well on her way to becoming one of the greats in British music and the World. Her great talent for combining old musical influences with young ideas and lyrics created a very unique space for her music, a space that in my opinion has yet to be refilled.
In honour of her tremendous talent, I decided to do a little post chatting about my favourite Amy songs. Some are originals. Some are covers. Some are demos. All are brilliant.
The Girl from Ipanema
This is the first Amy Winehouse I consciously remember listening to. I was listing to a playlist on Songza that featured contemporary jazz and this song came on. I recognized the song because it’s considered to be a jazz standard but the voice I didn’t recognize. Yet it was her voice that stuck with me. The timbre of her voice was strong and bold yet sweet. There was also something unique about her phrasing that caught my ear and it made me want to learn more about who she was and to find more of her own original music. It’s a cover but it’s so simply and over done. Her improvisations almost act like a second verse which was something that I’d never heard before. I love it.
Valerie – live from BBC Radio One Live lounge
Now I love me some BBC Radio Live Lounge. They always have the coolest covers and the most incredible live performances and this one is no exception. Again, it’s another cover but this time it’s a song from an English indie rock band. Yet what I loved about this song was the old school Motown feel. Admittedly, I learned this was an Amy staple after seeing Bruno Mars cover it at a VMA tribute. BUT I think her version is absolute gold and this one is no different. The power of her voice really shines through not because her notes are so big but because she demonstrates such control over her voice. It’s definitely one of my favourite acoustic performances of hers.
So this song is from the only album of original Amy music that has been released posthumously. I really liked how they respected her original sample and allowed Nas to do his own thing. I think this song is also a prime example of what I’ve called ‘lazy phrasing’. The legato that she uses to go from note to note and phrase to phrase is something that I think she mastered really well. It’s not a percussive and rhythmic style of singing but instead it’s loose and flexible while still sounding like distinct notes. Amy was really good at using this style of phrasing and it’s one of the reasons that I think her voice holds so much appeal.
Love Is a Losing GAme
I realized that there seems to be a ballad theme here but it picks up, I promise. I love the simplicity of the song and the fact that there is no real chorus. It’s tricky to write a song with no chorus and still have it be memorable and distinct without a specific part for people to remember. But she accomplishes this by repeating “Love is a Losing Game” multiple times throughout the song which helps it to stick in the mind plus she uses It’s a sweet yet mournful ballad and an excellent example of brilliant songwriting.
He Can Only Hold Her
This song has got a really great Motown, doo wop feel to it that I just love. PLUS she would sing a cover of another brilliant woman’s song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill when she would sing it live. I think the use of the horns is so great and it makes it sound so full. She also challenges the importance of being a man of upstanding and treating your women right which I can always get behind!
Love Is A Losing Game – Demo
So I always got to give some love to demos. See the thing I love about demos is that they enable you to hear the song before it becomes the completed finished product. This one is no exception. It’s very simple with just her voice and a guitar and it really allows the melody to shine through. You also get to hear some of the original lyrics that were in the song before she made the final version and it certainly gives you something to think about in terms of why certain things were changed. All in all, I love this demo and aside from it being one of my favourite Amy demos, it is for sure one of my favourite music demos.
(There is) No Greater Love
Now this isn’t one of her big singles but it is certainly a special song. One of the things that I like about this song is that there is a sweetness to the lyrics. Many times people only remember Amy as a troubled soul and much of her music centres around turmoil especially within relationships. This one is different. It’s a short but simple love song that is just so sweet. Plus I think the saxophone is just perfect on this song and almost feels like a call and response between Amy and the instrument. It’s lovely.
Stronger Than Me
Okay so this one is the 2nd track on her debut Frank. The guitar carries the song and the beat add a bit of a syncopation to the song. I really like the contrast between the verses and the chorus. The horns and change of melody bring the chorus up then the guitar takes over for the verses. I think the jazzy qualities of her voice shine through on this one as well. The vulnerability of the lyrics are also superb. She’s being honest about how she felt that her man was supposed to protect her and support her and instead it’s really being placed within her lap. She incorporates parts that almost sound like a conversation between two people but she still keeps the introspection to herself and focuses on how she feels about the situation. It’s open and honest which I really appreciate.
You Sent me Flyin’/Cherry
Now yes these are two separate songs. However, on the album they’re combined as one. As I’ve written an entire post singing the praises of Cherry, (which you can read here), for this bit I’ll focus on the former. Now this is most likely one of my favourite vocals of Amy’s. I think this comes from the fact that the timbre of her voice almost sounds like a saxophone in some parts but she still has a lot of control over the bottom and on the higher notes when she climbs. It’s a fun vocal to play around with and try different things with. The song is largely a kind of honky tonk sounding piano which gives the song an old timey feel and the different melodic structures of the verses and chorus again create a really great distinction as well. Even with in the verses, there are different things that make them all separate from each other but still connected on the whole. It’s that ability that makes her one of my favourite songwriters.
Tears Dry On Their Own
So if I was absolutely forced to pick my favourite Amy song right now in this moment, this would be it. You get the change to see the direct Motown influence but taking it and adding her own perspective. I mean you don’t get more direct influence than the music being from the Motown hit, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. It is this fact that caught my attention when it came on a Spotify playlist. I was actually kind of confused because I recognized the music and her voice and at first, it didn’t quite match. But I think that’s what makes the song so brilliant.
Now of course there is the question: is this cultural influence or cultural appropriation? I would focus on the idea that this is actually an example of cultural influence. Why? Because she does in fact have Ashford and Simpson as the writers of the song and she gives proper credit for using the music. Plus, she creates her own lyrics that still work exactly with the music and the rhythm. She builds the lyrics with the different sections and changes the melodies just enough to make them all distinct and yet different. It’s perfect and it never fails to get me to sing and dance!
If I ever had the opportunity to speak with Amy, I would simply want to say thank you. Thank you for being the unique and creative artist that you were. Thank you for telling us stories with your music and allowing yourself to be made vulnerable in your music. You have inspired this young writer to try different things; to not shy away from the older musical influences that make music great but to instead bring my youth to create something new and different. I only wish we could know what you would have created had your life not tragically ended the way it did. Yet even in the short time on earth, you have left your mark and for that I am truly grateful.
Obviously, this list is subjective and I’d love to get your thoughts as well so feel free to pop down in the comments below and share your favourite Amy Winehouse song in the comments below. I’ve also included a Spotify playlist of all the songs so check them out!
Until Next Time,
Peace & Harmonies