Playlist of the Month: Wonk

by Pilar Serrano, art by Ariel De La Garza Davidoff

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This is a compilation of cover songs, songs with sampled melodies, and songs that borrow audio snippets to become a kind of wacky miscellaneous treasure chest. While it is true that covers can be a double-edged sword, in some genres like jazz and soul music, reinterpretation and experimentation are the norm. Instead of thinking of them as merely unoriginal, it is also possible to think of them as a means to showcase talent or pay respects to someone else, like Andy Warhol's portraits.

Usually, the version heard first is the one that leaves its mark on the brain's temporal lobe. In some instances, a later version of a song is taken for the original like Eric Clapton's "Cocaine." This track was initially released in 1976 by JJ Cale, one of the founding fathers of Tulsa Sound – a blend of blues, rock and roll, and country that started in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the '50s. Cale's "Cocaine" is rootsy, laid-back, but nonetheless country, while Clapton's take is bold with firm chords and velvet vocals, which all make for a more masculine experience.

Some record labels, famously Motown, often had various artists record and release the same song. Gladys Knight & the Pips released the acclaimed classic "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" in 1967 followed by Marvin Gaye and The Miracles in 1968. Marvin Gaye's version is the most well-known and critically-acclaimed take, ranking number 81 in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Despite this, in the spirit of Wonk, it is Creedence Clearwater's rendition that is included in this playlist. The band just seemed to be having a blast recording it and it is one of the few songs Creedence have ever released without writing.

By contrast, a more experimental track in "Wonk" is Rosalia's "BAGDAD" - a somewhat complicated interpretation of Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River." "BAGDAD" is not a cover; the track stands alone and merely samples the iconic Timberlake melody. The result is a layered, hypnotizing composition in which the artist talks about being tormented by infidelity and falling to hell because of it. The title of the song alludes to a striptease club in Barcelona, the artist's hometown, known for putting on live sex shows. But the song also alludes to Baghdad, Irak's once devastated but still inhospitable capital.

Norah Jones appears twice in the playlist because her versions of Wilco and the Righteous Brothers are two elegant, sober delights. Her acts are simple, sultry, and effortlessly refreshing. As a contrast, find Greta Van Fleet's rendition of "A Change Is Going To Come" – a classic by the jazz-sensation Sam Cooke. Greta Van Fleet's interpretation is probably one of their softest songs, free from any guitar riffs or heavy drumming. Although still faithful to their sound, the band, which came together in 2012, seems to be attempting to send some cryptic message.

Also included in "Wonk" is "Juicy Fruit" by the R&B group Mtume, the inspiration behind The Notorious B.I.G's "Juicy" - the track that established him as an artist and is considered a hymn by many. Mtume's "Juicy" is a funk song about an infatuation with a lover with silky vocals by Tawatha Agee, while Biggie's version is a powerful account of the artist's rise to the top.

The total number of songs in Wonk comes to 29 since the final one is unfortunately not available on Spotify. Instead, the 30th song is hidden in YouTube, home to far more music than your streaming platform of choice. Wonk's 30th song is Kali Uchis ambitious rendition of Bjork's "Venus As A Boy." Uchis' cover is a jazz-infused astonishing triumph from the 25-year old American-Colombian aspiring artist who has already collaborated with the likes of Jorja Smith and Chance The Rapper.

All in all, the songs mentioned in the lines above are only some of the many treasures and precious gems to be found in "Wonk". Comparisons are a delicate matter, and they will be inevitable – but that being said, hopefully, you will find joy in exploring this collection of curiosities.

MusicPhi Magazine