Blues, Power Rock, Balladeer, Gospel, Folk, Slide Guitar extraordinaire? Use any of them to define Ben Harper. From the soulful, acoustical live release of Live from Mars to his newest studio-polished White Lies for Dark Times, Ben Harper unleashes a fusion of virtually every musical genre with an impetuous verve that belays his soft-spoken nature. His eclectic mix of genres developed in his grandparent’s Folk Center and Museum.
Harper’s discography is the perfect summer companion for any road trip, night on the beach, or tubing down the local river. However, with a library of twelve albums and over 150 songs, where does one start to build the “perfect” Ben Harper compilation? So without running through a Nick Hornsby diatribe about the perfect mixed tape, a’la High Fidelity, here is a list of essentials for burgeoning and long-time Harper fans.
10. Steal My Kisses (Burn to Shine 1999)
Steal My Kisses is a quintessential track on any of Harper’s best hits. SMK is most likely his slickest made-for-radio tune. The vocal harmonies and sliding bass rhythm mixed with beat-boxing and a record-scratching DJ in the background make this song catchy and easy to find you bobbing your head to. Although I wouldn’t normally put this on my top-10 Harper list, it has to be included to give the new Harper fan a picture of the beat Ben experimented with right before Y2K.
9. Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now (Welcome to the Cruel World 1994)
Slide guitar, a folksy feel, and a great story about daddy losing mommy to another woman, what else can one ask for. It’s a love story of not quite romantic normalcy, but a great song nonetheless. Mama’s Girlfriend shows Harper’s lighter side and shows he can write some light lyrics. Most of his songs are “think pieces” (thanks, “Almost Famous”), but Mama gives us a break from thinking and allows time for a few laughs and toe-tapping delights.
8. Burn One Down (Fight for Your Mind 1995)
Remember black-light lit rooms in college, that pungent earthy smell wafting through the air, and some guy in a beret playing a bongo while you bob your head and ask for someone to put Marley back on the tape deck. Well Fight for Your Mind and the advent of CD players changed most of that. Burn One Down became the new college hipsters anthem with an earthy, reggae, roots vibe. However, it also gives listeners a good feel for the quiet vocal range of Harper. His breathy tunes and quiet angst make themselves felt in this ganja-loving romp.
7. Roses from My Friends (The Will to Live 1997)
This is a young lyricist Harper at his best and his most melancholic. We get to witness Harper’s ballad voice at it’s best. The song is not one of his happiest, nowhere close, but it’s hauntingly one of his best. The song likens back to Prince’s Purple Rain or Bono’s With or Without You. It is so different from the rest of their repertoires it becomes iconic and all-defining. He uses all of his talents and stretches the limits of the Innocent Criminals, but the stretch launches them into other artistic heights.
6. Excuse Me Mister (Fight for Your Mind 1995)
In his younger days, Harper, along with Rage Against the Machine and any other number of bands, were quite interested in social justice. Excuse Me Mr. is one of the better social activist tunes from the mid-nineties. Excuse Me Mr. is the maturation of Jesus Jones and Living Colour anthems. And luckily for listeners one of the least intrusive. However, it is included here because it is a turning point in Harper’s musical experiment. His lyrics take a more polished tone and his ear for musical arrangement begins to sharply develop from beach-type music to complex layers of blues and gospel. For me it marks Harper’s rise from college radio musician to serious artist.
5. Bring the Funk (Diamonds on the Inside 2003)
Come on, really? Any song titled Bring the Funk is either a success or a farce. With it’s inclusion on Harper’s top-ten, I’ll let you take a guess. Harper should make the Godfather of Punk, George Clinton, as proud as any real-life godfather can be. Harper begs the listener to Bring it, bring it, bring it, bring it, yeah. You better, because Harper brought it and you won’t be able to sit still while he whines through the chorus.
4. In the Colors (Lifeline 2007)
This is fusion Harper. Great lyrics, the odd piano accompaniment, blues guitar, rock bass, and a subtle high-hat, snare combination. In the Colors is a great make-out song and even better writing tune. In the Colors has a melancholy rhythm, but somewhere in there, maybe the lyrics, maybe Harper’s voice, there is a sliver of hope that has you pulling for the pining the lover. You almost want to ask the young lady, “Please dance with him, already.”
3. Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating (Both Sides of the Gun 2006)
Bluesy Harper at his best: hands down. Picture Robert Johnson screaming at the talking heads of the news station du jour, while strumming away on a static-feedback riddled amp and you start to get the picture. Kurt Cobain at his best couldn’t make a song rage with such intensity. In fact, as I listen to it and read this, maybe it should be number one or two.
2. Please Bleed (Burn to Shine 1999)
Ever had an especially hard breakup and you wished you could find the best words or song to scream in the face of your tormenter? Look no further. Please Bleed is that song and it is hands down Harper’s best angst ballad or driving rock. It’s hard to tell. The song switches rhythms like the manic, vanquished lover’s mood. One second it is all butterscotch and sunsets, the next it’s dirty alleys and blackouts. Please Bleed is Harper at his best. However, although I listed the studio version from Burn to Shine, the best version is found on Live From Mars, where you feel Harper’s rage.
1. Shimmer & Shine (White Lies for Dark Times 2009)
Is it possible Harper is getting better with time? The switch to his new backup band easily and emphatically answers the question: YES. Shimmer & Shine jumps of the IPod with a powerful and chest rattling drum solo that capitulates into a driving and riff laden guitar solo. Shimmer & Shine should prove to be Harper’s most successful single and White Lies for Dark Times should clean house at the Grammies. For a top-ten list, White Lies for Dark Times will rewrite the order given here, but it wasn’t fair to take the entire album and neglect his standards. But it does.