As Joan Armatrading embarks on the USA portion of her last extended tour, I’ve been thinking a lot about her legacy (and listening to a lot of her music). At least in this country she is vastly underappreciated, at least for an artist of her magnitude. She is a great singer, songwriter and instrumentalist (especially on guitar) and the excellence of her songs is matched by her longevity.
I can’t think of a pop/rock artist of whom I can say I enjoy their output comparably at any point along a 40 year career as a recording artist. Sorry Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney et al, but Joan’s got it. Maybe Bonnie Raitt, but because Joan writes all her own material one could make the case that the feat is all the more remarkable. In any case, I’ve been a fan for roughly 25 years, beginning in high school with growing attached to “Drop the Pilot,” doing further research after hearing Bobby McFerrin’s version of “Opportunity” and then seeing an hour-long live performance on the A&E Network that included numerous great Joan-penned songs plus a performance of “Moondance” that I don’t think she ever recorded in the studio and that is also the only time I think I’ve heard her do a cover song (after all, when you wrote “Love and Affection” and “Show Some Emotion,” who needs to do others’ tunes?). Over that time, I just keep finding one expertly-crafted song after another.
In service of this prolific excellence, I made sure that the Top 10 covered 10 different albums, and even that still neglects some excellent records entirely.
1 ) “Down to Zero” from Joan Armatrading
If I could really sing, this is the kind of song I would want to sing, at times gentle and at times anthemic, with soul and irresistible melody throughout.
2 ) “Drop the Pilot” from The Key
Joan’s biggest hit in the U.S. and the first one I heard. I probably heard it 30 times before I even tried to figure out the clever lyrics, as the infectious melody and propulsive groove were enough for me.
3 ) “Willow” from Show Some Emotion
Joan has always had a way with emotionally compelling slow numbers, and this one is possibly her best-loved song in that vein. This is perhaps the most memorable song on an album full of truly wonderful songwriting.
4 ) “Tall in the Saddle” from Live at the Royal Albert Hall
This fairly recent live recording turns the already sweeping song from over 30 years prior into a bona fide whisper-to-a-scream epic.
5 ) “Something’s Gotta Blow” from Into the Blues
This song closes out Joan’s award-winning blues album and her funky piano work is second in prominence only to her stinging lead guitar.
6 ) “In These Times” from Lovers Speak
For any number of reasons, this inspiring ballad hasn’t taken its place in the pantheon alongside “Lean On Me” and “Let It Be” and so on, but it melts my heart whenever I hear it.
7 ) “Me Myself I” from Me Myself I
Early-80s funky rock at its best here, buoyed by Marcus Miller’s bass work and Joan’s delightful singing.
8 ) “Kissing and A Huggin’” from Steppin’ Out (Live)
Okay, maybe I’m cheating a little on the self-imposed “10 different albums” rule, as this live track is a performance of a song from Show Some Emotion, one of the most hard-swaggering love lust songs in 1970s rock. And, not surprisingly, the live version swaggers plenty hard too.
9 ) “Stronger Love” from The Shouting Stage
Late-1980s production with lyrics of mature love. That doesn’t sound very good on paper, but my goodness is this a great album. This particular song revolves around synthed-up piano and soprano saxophone – props as well to the gnarly “Words” and the title track, featuring Mark Knopfler’s guitar.
10 ) “Back On Track” from Starlight
As of this writing, Starlight is Joan’s most recent record, and it’s the first where she is the sole musical contributor – on Into the Blues she plays everything but the drums, and here she goes one further by doing drum programming. The whole album is terrific, but this slyly funky song has stuck with me the most.
Honorable Mention: “Never Is Too Late” from Show Some Emotion
Okay, I’m totally cheating here, but this song is one of my favorite examples of reggae-infused rock and quite high on my “why doesn’t anyone know this great song?!” list.