By Jenny Zou
[Listed chronologically by date of release or recording date.]
1. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939)
Billie Holiday’s husky voice lingers over a dark jazz arrangement in “Strange Fruit.” Originally written as a poem on lynching in the south, the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” retain an ominous and ironic tone: “Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!’
2. “Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk (1944)
It may be the only track I have from Thelonious Monk—being more of a vocal jazz fan—but even I have to respect an instrumental like this. Perhaps one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, Thelonious Monk had a penchant for creating compositions that sounded as if a cat had just walked across the keys of a grand piano, creating some of the most spontaneous yet most enjoyable pieces for whenever.
3. “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” by Dinah Washington (1959)
With her effervescent voice, Dinah Washington has enough talent to make a phonebook sound lyrical. Not only is this particular song a favorite of mine in terms of style and arrangement, it is also an American favorite and was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
4. “I Only Have Eyes For You” by the Flamingos (1959)
The year 1959 was a golden one for doo-wop, as made evident by this perfectly gooey rendition of “I Only Have Eyes For You.”
5. “Angel Eyes” by Ella Fitzgerald (1960)
Jazz might have already been on its way out, but this particular rendition of a jazz standard stands apart from the more upbeat tracks Ella was usually known for (e.g. Mack the Knife, Night and Day, A-Tisket A-Tasket).
6.“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone (1965)
No one can quite cover this classic song as well as Nina Simone can.
7. “Slave Driver” by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973)
“Slave Driver” blends the carefree Caribbean beats of Reggae with Marley’s socially poignant lyrics that bridge the ancestral past of slaves to the modern day plight of impoverished black communities.
8. “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick (1988)
The ’90s came and went, taking along with them a guy by the name of Slick Rick. Like his namesake, Slick Rick was just too slick for audiences and all but disappeared by 2000. It’s a shame. I’ve yet to see another artist that can do a hip-hop ballad quite as well as this one.
9. “At Your Best” by Aaliyah (1994)
Few R&B singers can come close to the effortlessly smooth delivery of Aaliyah. She recorded this at the tender age of 14 and as a first album, it promised a bright future for the young star. Unfortunately, her life was tragically cut short by a plane crash in 2001. This cover (of a song originally by the Isley Brothers) is simply Aaliyah at her best.
10. “The Beast” by Fugees (1996)
One of many great songs from the trio off their only commercially successful album, “The Score.” Considered a quintessential hip-hop album, “The Score” cemented the Fugees’ status in the music industry, welding together a sense of newfound social awareness with mainstream hip-hop appeal. The anti-police track “The Beast” is delivered rapidly, but coolly.
11. “The Healer” by Erykah Badu (2008)
Known for her woman-power anthem “Bag Lady” and her outrageous sense of style, which has included everything from beehive head wraps to afro wigs, Erykah Badu is not the type that plays it safe. Her airy pipes have drawn her comparisons to the likes of Billie Holiday, but Ms. Badu’s music is as unique as her fashion sense.
BONUS ALBUM: “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998)
Fugee group mate Lauryn Hill’s first and only solo effort. Before fading into obscurity in the 2000s, Lauryn Hill was a household name, topping the charts with equally soulful and commercially successful singles. A singer, a rapper, a songwriter and a producer, Lauryn Hill was a quadruple threat that got crushed beneath the weight of her own success.