Toronto
9 min

Do you hear what I hear?

From cliché to cool, the best of gay music

Credit: Xtra files

For me the gift of music – if the giver knows your taste – is the best gift. For 20 bucks you can give or receive heartfelt emotion, head-banging escape or booty-wiggling nonsense. It’s all good. But I do feel that to love Björk you should know who Yma Sumac is. People, know your history and open your ears.



Here are 15 cliché titles for you Bette and Whitney lovers and 15 cool titles – the new cliché – for you lovers of Sigur Rós and Patti Smith. These artists have been embraced by homos all over the planet. The 30 albums have been chosen with the idea that they could all be equally enjoyed by both sides of the equation.



Ignorance is not bliss when it comes the tunes. At the end of each CD selection I’ve added one or two titles that you may want to check out if you like what you hear.



I’ll start the cliché choices with Judy At Carnegie Hall (1961). Liza’s mom gets her mojo workin’ on all her classics. She’s funny, sweaty, sexy and her voice is intense and moving. “The Man That Got Away” is stellar. James Brown never rocked the house so solid (2CD, EMI, $29.99). If you love Judy, try The Complete Ella In Berlin: Mack The Knife by Ella Fitzgerald or Sinatra At The Sands by Frank Sinatra.



The Cher Collection: The Way Of Love (1965-’79) features the dark lady at her most poignant. “I Hate To Sleep Alone” is a heartbreaker as are most of the 40 tracks. Try not to cry through “Living In A House Divided.” Ends with the disco anthem “Take Me Home ” (2CD, Universal, $29.99). Also try Aretha Sings The Blues and Mahogany Soul by Angie Stone.



Madonna may have slipped creatively on her last album, American Life, but listen to Immaculate Collection (’83-’90) and Madonna GHV2 (’92-2000) and you realize what a force she is. Every single is right on target, the production is superb, the writing, well, immaculate ($22.99 each,Warner). Try Fever by Kylie Minogue or Smash The System by Saint Etienne.



Nothing says gay like Barbra Streisand A Christmas Album (1967). A Jew singing Christmas songs? Oy the camp! When MC Babs starts her insane speedy version of “Jingle Bells,” you either cringe or more likely a giggling fit ensues. It’s also majestically beautiful (Sony, $9.99). Try Merry From Lena by Lena Horne or Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald.



Director Franco Zeffirelli once divided the operatic world into BC and AC, before Callas and after Callas. She is the diva that all divas aspire to be. May I suggest Maria Callas: The Unknown Recordings (’57-’69) which features selections from Wagner and Verdi. My fave vocal gymnastics comes on “Non piu`mesta” by Rossini. The voice! When she hits that last note… diva (EMI. $26.99). Try R Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder with Jessye Norman or Greatest Hits by Shirley Bassey.



Looking like a rasta rag doll with Siouxsie Sioux eyes, Boy George had a visual power – captivating and re-pulsive. He told Barbara Walters on national television that he would love a young Elizabeth Taylor or Monty Cliff. Wink, wink. He was also a great soul singer, a young Irma Thomas. Culture Club VH1 Storyteller Greatest Hits features all the classics (2CD, EMI, $26.99). Try What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye or The Dionne Warwick Collection.



Seventies disco music must have had more one hit wonders than any other music genre. Donna Summer had several hits, and some of the best. “Love To Love You Baby” is sexier and dirtier than any Peaches ditty. “Hot Stuff/Bad Girls” is a dance classic. She even discoed up “MacArthur Park” and it went number one. Donna Summer: Journey/The Very Best (2CD, Universal, $26.99). Try No More Drama by Mary J Blige or Justified by Justin Timberlake.



ABBA must be in the water supply. They’re in everyone. “Waterloo,” “SOS,” “Dancing Queen” – pop singles don’t get any better. To Sweden’s hit-making foursome from the ’70s, thank you for the music. ABBA Gold (Universal, $24.99). Try Best Of Erasure.



The Pet Shop Boys’ Very from 1993 (EMI, $22.99). Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe go places they never went before. It’s a perfect marriage of techno, disco and pop with a generous supply of wit and emotion. A true “gay” classic with a great version of The Village People hit “Go West.” Try The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths or Greatest Hits by The Village People.



In 1993 kd lang appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford straddling her and shaving lang’s lathered face. She was The Lesbian, defying all; she came out and sold more records than ever. A smitten Madonna said, “Elvis is alive and she’s beautiful!”1992’s Ingenue may be considered her best album but I prefer her work on Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (Warner, $24.99). She’s at her most relaxed on this experimental country album. Her voice has never sounded sexier on “Hush Sweet Lover Hush” and the tender “Sweet Little Cherokee.” Try Retrospective by the Indigo Girls or The Grass Is Blue by Dolly Parton.



Elton John is a musical annoyance now. But in the ’70s he was bald, bi and bedazzling and his song output was astonishing. “Daniel,” “Bennie And The Jets,” “The Bitch Is Back” – all brilliant. Stick with Elton John Greatest Hits ’70-’72 and Greatest Hits Volume 2 ’74-’77 (Universal, $10.99 each). Try Want One by Rufus Wainwright.



Three beautiful black women from Detroit who dressed like Vogue models and sang like angels changed white America’s perception of black folk. TV made them goddesses and their songs are some of the coolest ever recorded. They’re not just for drag queens anymore. The Supremes – Mary, Diana and Florence – bling, bling, bling. The Best Of Diana Ross And The Supremes, ’60-’71 (2CD, Universal $24.99). Try The Writing’s On The Wall by Destiny’s Child or Best Of En Vogue.



Janis Joplin was anything but glamorous, all pimples and feathers, shy and troubled. But on stage… watch out! Pearl (1971) is a raw classic. It features the hits “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz” and “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder).” She’s a raspy, bluesy sex bomb (Sony, $17.99). Try Everybody Got Their Something by Nikka Costa or Brave And Crazy by Melissa Etheridge.



Hate showtunes? Cabaret: The Original Soundtrack Album (1972) will change all that. Oscar winner Liza makes good in her no-holds-barred performance as Sally Bowles. Some Kander and Ebb songs from the original Broadway production have been removed to make way for new ones. “Maybe This Time” and “Mein Herr” are the stand outs. Divine decadence, darling (Hip-O, $26.99). Also try Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville/Original Broadway Cast Recording.



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I start the cool list with David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (1972). Bowie was a self-described gay. “Always have been,” he said. This album is the tale of Bowie’s fictional persona Ziggy. It’s the best rock album ever, way ahead of it’s time. One critic called it, “a cold hard beauty.” Features the songs “Five Years,” “Suffragette City,” “It Ain’t Easy” (EMI, $24.99). Try Transformer by Lou Reed.



The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967) is an eloquent, amateurish and fantabulous creation. Andy Warhol was its producer. He basically let the tapes roll and the band play. Fellini star Nico was added at Andy’s request and the special charm of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” will be forever admired for their warped, entrancing quality (Universal, $14.99). Try This Is It by The Strokes.



Country artist Patsy Cline was a revolutionary. In her later recording sessions with famed producer Owen Bradley she toned down the steel guitars, brought in a string section and the Jordanaires and made some of the most haunting country ballads ever recorded. Her voice was so distinctive, dramatic, compassionate… controlled. “She’s Got You,” “I Fall To Pieces” and “Crazy” – all classic tearjerkers in the best sense. The Patsy Cline Story (1963, Universal, $14.99). Try Shadowland by kd lang.



If I have a diva, her name is Dusty Springfield. A lass from West Hampstead who loved Motown and would later become the “British queen of soul.” Dusty In Memphis (1969) is sooo good. “Son Of A Preacher Man,” “Breakfast In Bed,” “Just A Little Lovin,'” are all sung with sultry sensitivity (Universal, $24.99). Try I Am Shelby Lynne by Shelby Lynne or Love Deluxe by Sade.



Chris Bell was the founding member of Big Star, the much-admired early ’70s rock band. He was a troubled boy, had a hard time dealing with his homosexuality and on Dec 27, 1978, he crashed his Triumph TR-6 into a telephone pole and died. Before his death he was recording tracks for I Am The Cosmos (1978). You can feel his sadness throughout this album, it’s so full of confused emotion. Think John Lennon mixed with Elliot Smith (Ryko, $23.99). Try Pink Moon by Nick Drake or XO by Elliot Smith.



If Dusty is my diva, The Smiths are my Beatles. No band has so eloquently expressed teenage angst or, dare I say it, gay angst in such a way. Every album is grand, but go for the first self-titled 1984 release, The Smiths (Warner, $12.99). “Why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger’s seat?” is one of the many amusing quips from the Mozzer as he of fey voice sings to the jangly, joyous Johnny Marr-composed tunes. The greatest rock band ever. Try Alone by Judy Garland or Galore by Kirsty MacColl.



Everything But The Girl started as a jazz-influenced pop band and emerged into techno divas. I highly recommend the 1999 release, Temperamental. This is a drum and bass album with trite house hooks courtesy of Ben Watt. But Tracy Thorn’s reading of the loner club hopper existence is what gets you. The emotional truths expressed here are incredibly accurate. In “Hatfield 1980” she walks home at night in the emptiness of suburbia, “This is the place I live/ Where is everyone?/ Are we the only ones?” What gay kid couldn’t relate to the lines, “And if I’m going home/I better change my clothes.” Thoughts you can boogie to (Warner, $22.99). Try Car Wheels On A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams.



Remember on AbFab when Patsy’s older sister Jacks came for a visit and there was that crazy pompous song playing in the background? “Cute, cute in a stupid ass way.” Well that was Brit Scott Walker, the enigma in fancy pants, singing the Jaques Brel composition, “Jackie.” It’s one of the many songs of love, death and loneliness on the 1968 album Scott 2. Walker has a deep haunting voice that sings effortlessly through lush strings and grandiose arrangements. Listen to “Plastic Palace People” or “Girls From The Street,” your heart will melt. Some people just don’t get him; those who do worship him (Universal, $22.99). Try The Very Best Of Soft Cell and Viva Hate by Morrissey.



Björk is an otherworldly pixie with the voice of a seeth-ing banshee one minute and a fragile innocent the next. Debut (1993) was her career defining first solo album after leaving The Sugarcubes. Insane instrumentation and song structure with mind-blowing vocals entranced critics and music lovers. A diva from another planet (Warner $17.99). Try Miss America by Mary Margaret O’Hara or Mambo by Yma Sumac.



A John Waters beach party from groovy hell, that’s The B-52’s. Big bouffant hairdos, ’60s girl group screams mixed with a nasally gay robotic chatterbox, Venture’s guitars and cheesy organ. Self-titled The B-52’s (1979) is still a dance party staple. The hits include “52 Girls,” “Rock Lobster” and my fave “Dance This Mess Around,” which includes the lyric, “Why don’t you dance with me/ I’m not no Limburger.” Clever, aggressive pop (Warner, $9.99). Try Emperor Tomato Ketchup by Stereolab or Made In The USA by Pizzicato Five.



Blondie’s Debbie Harry is iconic. She was a bad ass Monroe who wore Stephen Sprouse dresses, Candies shoes and a sneer. Her band melded punk, new wave, rap and disco into perfect pop nuggets. The Best Of Blondie (’77-’81) features “Heart Of Glass,” “Rapture” and “Call Me,” superlative singles from the era. Without Ms Harry there would be no Madonna (EMI, $9.99). Try Best Of The Primitives or 14 Friendly Abductions: Best Of Nina Hagen.



If there is any hip-hop artist that’s pleased the largest cross-section of the gay audience it is Missy Elliott. The 2001 album So Addictive included the impressive bombastic “Get Ur Freak On.” How more spellbinding and smart can a song get? Missy would make bi blues legend Bessie Smith proud. She has a similar playful, open-minded naughtiness. “Who’s That Bitch?!” (Warner, $17.99). Try Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys or Dangerously In Love by Beyonce.



The late great Nina Simone started making records in the late ’50s. They were usually passionate recordings, full of rage and despair, emotional to the max. Nina Simone: The Blues (’66-’68) features Nina in a raw and energetic state as she rips through the rockin’ erotic numbers “Do I Move You?” “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” and “Buck,” a song that features the line, “I like to wash you and kiss you when you’re wet.” The woman is in control (BMG, $17.99). Try The Billie Holiday Story or Boots by Nancy Sinatra.



Glasgow’s Belle And Sebastian seem to have become The Smiths’ heir apparent. They may not be as musically diverse (settling on that light airy vibe), but lyrically singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch is on par with the Mozz. Take the song “The Stars Of Track And Field,” from the debut 1996 album If You’re Feeling Sinister. “Because I met a kid/ Who went through one of your sessions/ In his blue velour and silk/ You liberated.” An album full of buck-toothed girls and closet homos (Matador, $22.99). Try The Smell Of Our Own by The Hidden Cameras or The Wayward Bus by Magnetic Fields.



Last but not least we have Rufus Wainwright’s self-titled debut album from 1998. Tin-pan alley, cabaret and pop converge as Rufus and his piano tell you the tales of love (real and imaginary), family and damned ladies. If Tennessee Williams could be a cute singer/songwriter, he’d be Rufus (Universal, $17.99).