When a musical artist dies in their prime, it becomes easy to exaggerate their strengths and rationalize their flaws in sentimental retrospection. But Amy Winehouse was the real deal: A truly great songwriter and performer who introduced new ideas to the pop music paradigm.
Winehouse, with the help of a few producers like Mark Ronson, crafted an original sound that reimagined familiar ones: Blues and jazz and Motown and soul were her starting point, not as homage, but as the basis of fresh palate. She did this with such power and strength of voice, that it struck a chord with devoted followers, especially her second and final album, Back to Black, which was a Grammy-nominated triumph.
While it’s not difficult to see her influence in plenty of recent chart-toppers, it feels like borderline theft to listen to Adele. Adele’s voice not only has an uncanny resemblance to Winehouse — except with all the edges sanded off — but she, too, built a trademark retro sound. And I mean this as no offense to Adele, who is absolutely dazzling; she took Winehouse’s fire and made it palatable, no small feat.
Listen to some other throwback smashes, like “All About That Bass” or “Get Lucky” or Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” and it’s not hard to see hints of the blend of retro and modern that Winehouse perfected. And yet, those three tracks (great as they are) have the feel of pastiche, not of urgent originality.
Winehouse made everything she sang her own. It might just be because her personal struggles were so public, but the lyrics she wrote convey a big heart suffering a big hurt. While every one of her singles have enduring charm, I sometimes think her deep cuts and demos (of which there are plenty floating around) are just as compelling. For example, I was speechless the first time I heard this stripped down version of “Love is a Losing Game.” Like Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album, this sounds like a haunted voice coming from the grave, all scrubbed away except for a sheer, unforgettable expressive power.