The music of Amy Winehouse will live forever.
Simply a legend of modern British music, her sole pair of studio albums resonated with a global audience, culminating in the London vocalist scooping five Grammy awards in one night.
A light that burned too briefly, Amy Winehouse died 10 years ago today – July 23rd – and her legacy is supported by documentaries, books, and the testimony of countless artists who followed in her wake.
Each song, each performance from Amy seemed to be scorched with her presence, reinvigorating older forms and setting trends for others to follow.
Clash writers pick out their favourite Amy Winehouse moments, to honour her life and memory.
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Some Unholy War
Ms Winehouse’s voice was made for steady jazz. The down tempo version of Some Unholy War (featured in Asif Kapadia’s ‘Amy’) is supremely moving. A present desperation in the vocal, haunting backing accompaniment and marching drums drenched in ghost notes. The original version features on her timeless album ‘Back To Black’.
There’s a decisive flexibility in her discography; and a snarling honesty. No nonsense. Amy Winehouse was not bound to any one genre; she could ebb and flow finding the perfect space within the music. ‘Some Unholy War’s lyrical content displays her two sides, a fiercely determined yet complicated young woman. “I’ll battle ’til this bitter finale Just me, my dignity and this guitar case…”
Amy Winehouse was plain talking and true, unafraid to sing about dark and often controversial subject matter. A mouthpiece for the lost, her fervid legacy lives on even a decade after her passing. An undeniable Great.
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Has any song ever so deftly caricatured its singer the way ‘Rehab’ does Amy Winehouse? Her melancholy story arc crisply laid out over three-and-a-half lean minutes. Such incendiary talent. Such a brittle temper. Such mediocre men. The story goes Amy was shopping for Blake’s birthday present in NYC with Mark Ronson when she told him about a time she was asked by her dad to cut down on the booze. The hook line came out fully formed, apparently, making big stars out of both of them.
The song could so easily have been recorded as a ballad – think about it – but praise god for Mark Ronson’s magpie instincts, snaffling all the shiniest motifs from his trunk of Motown and classic soul. ‘Rehab’ is both Amy Winehouse’s defining artistic statement, and her tragic epitaph – grooving along at the speed of a trainwreck, harmonised by a chorus line of her own angels and demons.
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Tyler James and Amy Winehouse – ‘Best For Me’
There is a cruel bittersweetness that comes with retrospection, and this is the case with the collaborative track ‘Best For Me’, co-written for James’ 2005 debut ‘The Unlikely Lad’. The lyric “You saw the best for me / But I never realised…” echoes throughout as the pair showcase their soulful falsettos. There is a unique pain laced within the lyrics as we now know of James’ attempts to help Amy, especially when living together.
The jazz instrumentation falls perfectly as the track hints at a love that is not always easy to come by. James has repeatedly described Amy as his soulmate, and their platonic love lingers in the innocence of the lyrics and in the flourishing fanfare that closes the song.
We see a side to Amy that is not lost in vulnerability, but in acceptance and comforted by it, with her best friend by her side.
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I Hear Love Is Blind
Authentic, raw and unapologetic – ‘I Heard Love Is Blind’ from Amy’s debut album ‘Frank’ is a shining example of Amy’s ability to be both vulnerable and nonchalant in equal measure.
‘Frank’ by name and ‘Frank’ by nature, in ‘I heard Love is Blind’ Amy unashamedly reveals and brushes over her infidelity even though seemingly she was disloyal. She sings “I couldn’t resist him… he means nothing to me…” but maintains she can still be trusted and this “ain’t fidelity”.
She tries to justify her actions by saying ‘he looked like you’ but ends the song with the cutting lines: “Yes, he looked like you, but I heard love is blind…”
Rich in tone, gloriously honest with a retro feel, this song is without doubt one of my favourite tracks from the talented Winehouse.
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Stronger Than Me
In a sign of things to come, ‘Stronger Than Me’, Amy Winehouse’s debut single, won an Ivor Novello for Best Contemporary Song Musically and Lyrically. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Despite being barely 20 years old upon its release, ‘Stronger Than Me’ is an astonishingly proficient track, bringing real nuance into a failing relationship over steady, neo-soul guitar chords. We’d heard plenty of tracks by women proudly claiming their strength and autonomy, but this was something else – Winehouse was unapologetically lust-driven (“I just wanna grip your body over mine / Please tell me why you think that’s a crime”) while also questioning her partner’s maturity and masculinity.
Winehouse laughed off claims the song played into stereotypical gender roles, claiming it was about a relationship where she simply couldn’t get the support she needed. Acerbic truth-telling, an unignorable voice and a closing trumpet solo that sounded like something from a goiden-era Stax single – a star was born.
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Take The Box
Take the Box is truly, devastatingly heartbreaking. Rarely has a song been so specific about the end of a relationship yet felt so universal. The gifts referenced in the lyrics might have been particular to this break-up (“The Moschino bra you bought me last Christmas” and ‘Frank’, referring to a CD of Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’) yet they’re somehow applicable to us all – we might not be returning those exact things, but we’ve all done that sad, final exchange of personal items.
This tale of love’s painful dissolution is told at a snail’s pace – when the percussion finally enters it’s almost a struggle to keep a beat that languid – but it’s irrelevant due to the showstopping beauty of the chord changes. The liner notes of ‘Frank’, Winehouse’s first album, celebrate her love of jazz, blues and classic soul, and ‘Take The Box’ is firmly of that ilk. The progression throughout the track makes it sound like a standard you’d expect to hear Ella Fitzgerald perform and spoke to a maturity and talent that was way in advance of Winehouse’s years.
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Amy Winehouse’s cover of Toots and The Maytals’ ‘Monkey Man’ has been a personal favourite of mine ever since her live performance at Shepherds Bush in 2007. In ‘Monkey Man’ you really get to enjoy Winehouse toy with her vibrato and embrace the liveliness of the reggae and ska tendencies within this track.
In comparison to a lot of her other singles, ‘Monkey Man’ has such an addictive bounce to it, and has always surprised me for its lack of recognition. In such a short-lived career Winehouse has left a remarkable dent within the music industry; with her vocal delivery, her songwriting, and her sharp wit, Winehouse was a star across jazz, reggae, and soul (to list a few).
I will always remember ‘Monkey Man,’ as one of Winehouse’ most memorable career moments, in a life full of them.
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In My Bed
Amy Winehouse’s stunning contralto over a Salaam Remi production never misses, ever. The duo collaborated on both of her studio albums and continued working together right up until her tragic death.
‘In My Bed’ – Amy’s empowering anthem to no-strings sex with the familiar shape of an ex – flips the New Yorker’s beat he built for Nas’ ‘Made You Look’ into a radical, smoky jazz / neo-soul hybrid, loaded with flutes and horns.
The track was a single from Amy’s 2003’s debut ‘Frank’ and features some of her best writing. The chorus is unforgettable, with a liquid flow to it that taps into the production’s hip hop essence. “Oh, it’s you again / Listen, this isn’t a reunion” Amy warns her lover for the night.
It’s a timeless cut, sounding as fresh today as did when it dropped. Listen to it five times before bed and it’ll have you sending that risky text to your ex.
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Fuck Me Pumps
We see Amy’s salty tongue lash out at the “Gucci bag crew” in ‘Fuck Me Pumps’, a lesser-known nugget from her debut album ‘Frank’. Exuding her trademark jazz/hip-hop sound, ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ is a scathing character study that takes us back to the ‘Footballer’s wives’ era of the early noughties.
In this (WAG)gish riposte, ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ contains lyrical gems such as “You can’t sit down right ’cause your jeans are too tight/ And you’re lucky it’s ladies’ night” and “Don’t be mad at me ’cause you’re pushing thirty/ And your old tricks no longer work.”
In the accompanying music video, Amy fights off laughter as she beams her words into the camera, sparkly-eyed and waltzing playfully down Landan Town. I pop this track on whenever I’m getting ready for a night out, armed with a glass of vino and the dream that one day I’ll become Mrs Grealish 69.
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Tears Dry On Their Own
With such a cruelly slim catalogue, examining Amy Winehouse’s work in greater depth becomes difficult. Insight into her methodologies is hard to find, but its worth pairing up the ‘Rehab’ version of ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ with its original arrangement.
Initially a coy, almost sombre piece of 60s leaning pop, the revitalised arrangement carries itself with a swagger dipped in Mark Ronson’s deep love of hip-hop production; there’s a feeling of overcoming emotions, even celebrating them.
It’s as if Amy Winehouse simply would not be shamed, a spirit unbound and free: “The shadow covers me / The sky above, a blaze / Only lovers see…”
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You Know I’m No Good
The second album sealed her legend: the beehive, the boys, the bad behaviour. – If ‘Rehab’ was the (bittersweet) breakthrough single and ‘Back to Black’ love’s funeral march, then ‘You Know I’m No Good’ was confession time.
The pluck and snap of the rhythm section unspools, as an unsparing bar-room scene spills from that whiskey pour of a voice. A chemical haze of lust and suspicion, trussed up in the structures of Ronson’s signature neo-soul.
Lyrically, she spared no-one. Especially herself. She sings of infidelity, jealousy and chased desire – but not through a vale of tears. Seductive and sneaky, conspiratorial and almost sorry: Winehouse never gets her due for opening up her heart and turning out its honest contents, making us feel as she does.
The self-worth exposed by the central lyric (“I told you I was trouble/You know that I’m no good’) a truth that stings knowing what we do now – that trouble can be troubled too.
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Love Is A Losing Game
Achingly honest, no other track better encapsulates the dark allure of Amy Winehouse’s sultry voice and impeccable songwriting than ‘Love Is A Losing Game’. A standout track from the 36-minute album that encapsulated a tumultuous relationship and heartbroken Winehouse, ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ was even covered by Prince in the months after the album’s release. Alluding to the tragic tie between her talent and destructive personal struggles, “Though I battle blind / love is a fate resigned” she crooned, it would be the final single released from ‘Back To Black’.
One year after the album’s release, Winehouse performed the soulful ballad at the Mercury Prize ceremony amid a media storm around her personal life, and debates over whether she would even turn up. But she did, and accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar, sang ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ to a stunned audience.
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Mark Ronson ft Amy Winehouse – ‘Valerie’
Originally released by the Zutons in 2006, ‘Valerie,’ quickly became one of Amy Winehouse’s most acclaimed covers. It’s the karaoke song, the track that everyone sings along to, even if they don’t like it. Featuring on Mark Ronson’s second studio album, ‘Version’, ‘Valerie,’ is a huge album standout and was nominated at the BRIT Awards for the British Single of the Year in 2008. Previously working together on the making of ‘Back To Black,’ ‘Valerie,’ was a huge milestone for both Ronson and Winehouse.
Bluesy, rhythmic and completely addictive.
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What Is It About Men
Often associated with a highly disciplined sound – the taut horns of the Dap Kings, the pared down cool of working with Tony Bennett – the luxurious ‘What Is It About Men’ dropped the tempo, and let her feelings hand loose.
Sung from the heart, it’s gauche neo-soul sound feels like a British response to the Soulquarian adventures; more Erykah Badu than Dionne Warwick, for example, accompanied by wah wah guitar and those heatwave horns. An example of a path less travelled in her career, the pristine vocal demonstrates that Amy Winehouse had so much more to give, so much more ground left to break.
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Between The Cheats
Amy Winehouse made the old, the over-familiar, feel vital and fresh. Part of that ability lay in her vocal – continually look for ways to sing something from a different angle – but a large part of this lay in her emotional attachment to the material.
Take ‘Between The Cheats’ – a kind of knockabout 50s doo wop number, in the hands of virtually anyone else it would become passe. Yet Amy lived this – the divide between art and artist was non-existent at points, cruelly broadcast to the world by a rabid tabloid press. What lingers, though, is her immaculate artistry.
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