I have long been fascinated with music that was recorded by a single person. As my friend and colleague Dave Kopperman (himself an underappreciated master of this approach) has pointed out, there is the potential for the results to have a synthetic quality. Indeed, at their worst, songs recorded in this manner sound artificial, not to mention wonky due to the virtual inevitability of the artist having limited proficiency on at least one of the instruments. At their best, though, these songs not only avoid these pitfalls but also display as close as one can reasonably get to an unfiltered view of the sounds going through that artist’s own head.
Though I’m long overdue for a technology upgrade, I secretly (oops, secret revealed) love creating songs this way. Rest assured that I would never venture to try to make a jazz recording myself, but the semi-closeted singer-songwriter in me loves having that level of input into the product, even though the results are borne of all the things with which I have limited proficiency. In other words, from a process standpoint, I can see the appeal, even though there are obvious benefits to having a real guitarist, drummer, singer and so on.
As I feel the itch increasing to mess around more with this (a couple years removed from my last wave of such activities), I find myself reflecting on some of my favorite examples.
Before we get to the list, here are the ground rules for inclusion: there have to be at least 3 instruments (voice does count as one), those instruments have to represent at least 2 distinct categories (keyboards/electronics, stringed instruments, wind instruments, percussion instruments) and the recordings have to be the work of one man or woman alone.
So if there are only two instruments (sorry Eddie Harris – I love your piano/saxophone duets), if the instruments are all in the same “family” (sorry Pat Metheny – I love your bazillion-guitar textures; ditto Bobby McFerrin and others with one-person a cappella excursions) or if there is (sorry Andre 3000 – if you had played the bass part on “Hey Ya,” you’d be here) then the track isn’t eligible. I’ve also stayed away from the “Youtube One Man Band” phenomenon, hence the omission of ridiculous talents like Giulio Carmassi and Jacob Collier. And some people are eligible but just got bumped out of the top 10 by others (sorry Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham and Nicholas Payton and others). Without any further ado . . .
1 ) Stevie Wonder: “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”
You knew Stevie would be #1, right? I mean, come on. I can’t necessarily say this sounds like a band (i.e. a bunch of different people), but I can’t imagine this (or anything else, really) sounding any more soulful and organic. The “band” sounds great, but what’s most striking is the rich vocal chorus.
2 ) Steve Winwood: “Night Train” (from Arc of a Diver)
With all due respect to Stevie Wonder, this Stevie gets an added layer of props for covering the stringed instruments as well. Though there are numerous good examples (and almost-examples), I chose this one because in addition to his much-heralded singing and keyboard playing, here we get to observe his wonderful lead guitar work as well.
3 ) Paul McCartney: “Maybe I’m Amazed”
I would make the case that Paul, and indeed this song, set the modern standard for one-man-band recordings. There’s nothing flashy (though the guitar solo is certainly nice – iconic, even), but everything feels totally organic.
4 ) Prince: “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (from Prince)
Prince’s body of work in this vein is significant and diverse – some of it groovy, some of it quirky, some of it flat-out weird. This song is simply one of the classic R&B songs of the late 1970s. Though his virtuosity as a guitar soloist is not on display here, his solid command over the full spate of rhythm section instruments is.
5 ) Joan Armatrading: “Back On Track” (from Starlight)
This recent album was an eye-opener for me, significant given my 20+ year love affair with Joan’s records. She did the drum programming and played bass, guitars and keyboards in addition, of course, to singing. If you can resist this groove, get your backbone checked.
6 ) Sidney Bechet “Sheik of Araby”
Lest you think that this sort of overdubbing began in the late 1960s, here comes Sidney. As Lewis Porter pointed out when I was in graduate school, this recording features Bechet on two saxophones, clarinet, bass, drums and piano. Apparently, he simply played a track and then recorded another track of him playing along with the recording of the previous track and so on until done. Upon discovering this I went immediately and tried doing this myself with a cassette player. Let’s just say it worked better for Sidney than for me.
7 ) Lenny Kravitz”: “When Morning Turns to Night” (from Mama Said)
When I was a freshman in college, there was an ad in the Village Voice soliciting auditions for the keyboard chair in Lenny Kravitz’s band. Though I never wound up doing that (and would at that point have been far too green anyway), For several weeks, though, I did immerse myself in his first two albums (particularly falling in love with his second one), not realizing how much of the deep groove was coming from him alone.
8 ) John Fogerty: “Big Train (from Memphis)” (from Centerfield)
It was really hard not to include Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” here – it’s an absolute classic, and purportedly John Fogerty went into the studio by himself and recorded it right after writing it. I can’t corroborate that story, so I figured it was safer to pick from among the many one-man tracks on his classic 1980s album Centerfield. I chose this one (which I used to listen to on a jukebox at my mother’s favorite luncheonette in New Haven) for his pitch-perfect simulation of a rockabilly band.
9 ) Todd Rundgren: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” (from Something/Anything)
This record (or at least 3 out of 4 sides of it) stands as one of the acknowledged landmarks in all-by-yourself recording. There are numerous strong examples here, but I chose this tune (which I discovered in my mid-teens around the time I heard him live in New Haven) as probably the hardest-rocking.
10 ) Shuggie Otis” “Inspiration Information” (from Inspiration Information)
Shuggie O stands as an interesting and hard-to-categorize figure in pop music history. He was a brilliant prodigy blues guitarist as a kid playing with his dad, Johnny Otis, and he later wrote “Strawberry Letter 23,” later a hit for the Brothers Johnson. Though he never became a star, he played most of the instruments on this “cult classic” album, showing a solid bass and drum groove, convincing keyboards, a pleasing voice and, of course, wonderful guitar playing.