Top 10 Traffic Songs
For all of the buzz surrounding frontman Steve Winwood when he helped form Traffic in 1967, the band's not-so-secret weapon was its genre-jumping music. Like many of its contemporaries, the quartet played around with a variety of sounds on its albums: pop, rock, jazz, psychedelic, R&B, folk, blues, prog and even a form of world music. But few groups brought these disparate sounds together as warmly and as fully as Traffic, a troubled group that broke up after their first two albums, reunited, broke up again and took a 20-year break before releasing 1994's 'Far From Home.' The tracks on our list of the Top 10 Traffic Songs come from their first five musically adventurous years.
Traffic's debut single sounds like a lot of other songs that came out in 1967. That is, trippy, dippy and with a lot of sitar. But it's a pivotal recording in the band's career, mainly because it reflected the group's flexibility to give anything a shot. Winwood, not yet 19 years old when 'Paper Sun' was recorded, brings over some of the R&B-inflected vocals he perfected with the Spencer Davis Group.
The opening cut on Traffic's second album is one of the band's breeziest cuts -- all handclaps and stinging guitar -- written and sung by guitarist Dave Mason. It's also after-the-fact indication that the group's creative heads had some different opinions about what sort of band they wanted to be: folk, pop or a straightforward rock one. For the time being, they were a little bit of everything.
Traffic's second album was a difficult one for the group. Mason, who had already quit the band once, was clashing with Winwood and the others about the direction the record was taking. As a result, he left the band and doesn't appear on half of the tracks, including this somewhat heavy spiritual ode influenced by, presumably, too many bong hits. It's a sign of more ambitious things to come.
After Traffic broke up for the first time in 1968 (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Traffic Songs), their record company pulled together a compilation album out of leftover studio cuts and live tracks. For the most part, it's disjointed and soggy. But the bluesy shuffle 'Medicated Goo,' recorded during sessions for the second LP, is a keeper. And like on the 'John Barleycorn Must Die' album (and part of 'Traffic'), Mason is absent.
Traffic never disguised their folk roots -- you can dig up plenty on their debut album. But for their third studio album (which reached No. 5 -- their biggest hit), they cultivated them more than any other style of music, especially on the acoustic 'John Barleycorn,' a traditional folk song arranged as the LP's six-minute centerpiece. More than anything, the cut reveals the band's mastery in an unplugged setting.
Traffic's fourth studio album enlisted some outsiders to assist the remaining original trio, and they brought with them an improvisational spirit that pushed the LP into jammy prog territory. This slinky blues number is the only cut on our list of the Top 10 Traffic Songs to feature percussionist Jim Capaldi on lead vocals.
Other artists -- including Joe Cocker and Grand Funk Railroad -- had better chart success with this jazz-speckled single from Traffic's second album. But the original version, penned and sung by Mason, finds the groove easier than those somewhat labored covers. It features the best performance on record by the guitarist, who left midway through the album's sessions.
Following the release of Traffic's self-titled second album in 1968, Winwood left the band to join the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em supergroup Blind Faith. Mason was also gone, splitting before 'Traffic' was even finished. After Blind Faith broke up, Winwood started working on a solo album, inviting Capaldi and Traffic's flute player Chris Wood to help him out. The project turned into the band's third album, sans Mason. This jazzy fave is a highlight.
One of Traffic's first extended pieces (and the centerpiece of their debut album) features one of their all-time greatest group performances with the original four members. Winwood's terrific mid-song guitar solo -- often credited to Mason -- points to the band's spacious explorations on subsequent albums, by which time he was long gone. But on 'Dear Mr. Fantasy,' their future sounded full of infinite possibilities.
By the time Traffic made their fourth studio album, they were substituting actual songs with sprawling set pieces that incorporated elements of jazz, prog and Grateful Dead-like improv. The highlight is this 11-minute build-up that begins and ends with fades. But in the middle of it all is the group's most elastic groove, structured around its chewiest hook. Traffic pretty much wore themselves out after 'The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,' releasing two more increasingly unstructured albums before disbanding until a 1994 reunion. But for one final moment, they were at their very best.