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Culture Re-View: 5 of her best for Amy Winehouse's 40th birthday

Amy Winehouse performs at Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2007.
Amy Winehouse performs at Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2007. Copyright Brian Kersey/2007 AP
Copyright Brian Kersey/2007 AP
By Jonny Walfisz
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14 September 1983: Amy Winehouse’s birthday.

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Today would have been Amy Winehouse’s 40th birthday. Although the Queen of Camden died tragically in 2011 at the young age of 27, Winehouse’s legacy is of a truly unique talent that still shines through via that unmistakable voice.

Born on this day in 1983, Winehouse grew up as part of a Jewish northwest London family. Jazz was always close to her family and she quickly embraced the form herself, studying at the creative BRIT School and joining the National Youth Orchestra.

Winehouse’s discovery was, in part, due to record companies looking for more strong female vocalists in the wake of Lauryn Hill’s success. Her debut album ‘Frank’ was released in 2003 to immediate critical acclaim and decent commercial success. Her follow-up album ‘Back to Black’ in 2006 incorporated the jazz elements of ‘Frank’ with a 60s girl group soul sound to a new level of success.

Winehouse’s vocal stylings and songwriting, paired with industry hotshot Mark Ronson’s production made ‘Back to Black’ an international sensation. It was critically acclaimed winning Winehouse five Grammy Awards and is one of the UK’s top-10 best selling albums of the 21st century.

Despite the myriad career successes, Winehouse’s personal life was far from rosy. Her struggles with addiction were only exacerbated by a vindictive paparazzi culture that publicised her every move. Gigs started to go downhill, but she continued performing right up until her death on 23 July 2011.

While it's easy to focus on the tragic circumstances that led to her death, in life Winehouse was a witty, loving and incredibly talented woman. For her 40th birthday, here are our favourite tracks.

5. Rehab

The iconic first single from Winehouse’s second album. For many, this is the song that is most closely associated with the singer. At the time, her drug issues were already well known. It’s a testament to the singer’s sheer breadth of charisma that the song hasn’t turned completely maudlin. Instead, Winehouse rocks its anarchic message through glorious horns and swing rhythms.

4. Fuck Me Pumps

From Winehouse’s debut album, ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ is filled with all of the qualities that would define both her subsequent work and much of the next decade in British music. Her vocals are conversational, cheeky and confident. It’s a song for a new generation of jazz singers, of which Winehouse was the apotheosis.

3. Valerie

Producer Mark Ronson’s pop maestro star was in its ascendancy after his work on ‘Back to Black’. His refit of the Zutons’ track is plastered with all of Ronson’s typical brass section reverie, but it’s the pure strength of Winehouse’s voice that made this cover transcend its source material. In lists of covers that eclipsed the original, few deserve the top spot like this.

2. Tears Dry On Their Own

This entry was the hardest choice on the list. There’s so much on ‘Back to Black’ that would absolutely deserve to be recognised. From the seductive catharsis of ‘You Know I’m No Good’ and its tale of a broken couple and their broken relationship, to the swaggering depiction of unrequited love in title track ‘Back to Black’, the whole of Winehouse’s second album deserves a mention here. Instead, we’ll settle on ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’. Sampling a Marvin Gaye chord progression, Winehouse presents another sad story, this time through the lens of Motown and pop. It’s heart-breaking and celebratory in equal step. Only a tightrope walker like Winehouse could pull it off.

1. Love Is a Losing Game

It couldn’t be anything else. The song that Prince took to covering, that George Michael hailed as one of his Desert Island Discs, and the final single from her unparalleled ‘Back to Black’ album. Through three simple stanzas, Winehouse is universal and specific in her heartbreak. ‘Love Is a Losing Game’ felt like a jazz standard the moment it was released. Completely engulfed in classical skill while unmistakably Winehouse’s own, it’s that rarefied thing in the arts: utter perfection.

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