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Houston's Very Best Songs Ever

...otherwise known as the H-Town 20

By that time the pint-size dynamo was already grappling with joneses for both heroin and whiskey, twin monkeys that never left her back until her death of liver failure in 1984. But along the way she would leave behind some of the finest recordings of the '60s and early '70s, and stake a strong claim as the greatest female vocalist Houston ever produced.

Philips ran the gamut from gutbucket blues to big band jazz to soul-country to pure pop to British Invasion rock — both the Beatles' "And I Love Her" and the Stones' "As Tears Go By" were in her repertoire. She was at her best when, much like Ray Charles, she combined all that in one song.

And there was that voice. Man, that voice, equally capable of Lady Day vulnerability, Etta James fire, and the sophistication and hard-bitten diction she learned from her heroine Dinah Washington. Like Nina Simone, Phillips had the rare ability to match a nasal, razor-sharp edge with supple, full-throated phrasing, albeit without ever sounding as kittenish as Simone. (There's an echo of that style, albeit a faint one, in Amy Winehouse.)

Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun called Phillips a singer of "extreme soul" who "thrilled you no matter what she sang." When Aretha Franklin edged out Phillips for a Grammy in 1972, legend has it the Queen of Soul deemed Phillips the more deserving of the two and handed the statuette over. One day Phillips will be rediscovered — mark our words. — J.N.L.

7. "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me"

The Geto Boys

We Can't Be Stopped

1991

In 1991, in the eyes of then-young Hip-Hop America, rap was still a bicoastal game. Sure, Miami's 2 Live Crew had enjoyed a couple of hits, but those nasty party jams were mere novelty records.

The Dirty South had not yet begun to truly fight. "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" would change all that. Not only would the song top the Billboard rap charts and crack the top 25 in pop, but it would also demonstrate that Southerners could rap about something other than sex.

Over a melancholy, insistent jazz guitar riff culled from "Hung Up on My Baby," an Isaac Hayes instrumental, the paranoid, borderline psychotic rhymes of Bushwick Bill, Willie D and Scarface set a new standard in true gangsta poetry. Often tabbed by national critics as one of the top rap songs ever, "Mind Playin' Tricks..." surfaces often in the work of other masters. The Notorious B.I.G. would nod to the song in the lyrics of his hit single "One More Chance," while Scarface's "I had a woman down with me..." lines bubble up in the effervescent mix behind Andre 3000 on OutKast's "She Lives in My Lap." — J.N.L.

6. "Turn On Your Love Light"

Bobby "Blue" Bland

Here's the Man!!!

1961

Joe Scott, Duke-Peacock's in-house conductor/arranger /music director, epitomized the word "sublime." There's never so much as a sixteenth-note out of place in his creations, and "Turn on Your Love Light" is a flawless example.

The up-tempo gospel-drenched rave-up erupts out of the blocks with a trumpet fanfare over drums and Teddy Reynolds's prominent piano riff; seconds later Wayne Bennett's electric guitar interlocks with Reynolds's keyboards and Bland comes swooping in with his alternately scratchy and silken baritone, singing blue words that don't jibe with the joyous abandon of the music: "Without a warnin', you broke my heart, you took it darlin' and you tore it apart."

At about the one-minute mark, all falls away save for the sanctified funky beats of not one but two drummers who pop and crash away as Bland, by now pleading, croons that he gets a little lonely in the middle of the night, and he needs you, darling, to make things all right. An impeccable sax solo leads into Bland's trademark "squall," and he roars, redeemed on the fade-out "I feel alright!" Rarely can two minutes, 40 seconds be better spent. — J.N.L.

5. "La Grange"

ZZ Top

Tres Hombres

1974

Marvin Zindler's passing this summer raises an interesting question about ZZ Top: If the flamboyant newsman's investigation hadn't led to infamous Fayette County brothel the Chicken Ranch's August 1973 closure, would "La Grange" have still appeared on the Lil' Ol' Band from Texas's 1974 album Tres Hombres? Maybe, even probably, not. And then what? No Worldwide Texas tour... no Degüello... no "Legs" video? Though other Tres Hombres songs are better — "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" rocks harder, and "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago" is a better blues — "La Grange" was the first domino to fall, the song that made ZZ Top's bones, so to speak. It quickly became a staple of the emerging FM radio format known as Album-­Oriented Rock and reclaimed the blues for American rock bands when Brits like Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones had all but stolen them away. Said to be lifted wholesale from John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun," "La Grange" is in fact unique to ZZ Top, if only for the trio's vacuum tightness and Billy Gibbons's leering vocals. Honestly, it can be worked up by reasonably talented musicians in a couple of hours — which some band out there is probably, hopefully, doing this very moment. — C.G.

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