#MWE July 2020

This month’s theme week was Christmas in July; I also did a set of “X”-named groups. (I like keeping things fun/interesting for myself.) Prince-associated albums this month came from Martika, Ingrid Chavez, and Rosie Gaines, and I had my first listen to the first #1 album by Eagles (and didn’t hate it!).

Best records of July: Nico, the Flamingos, Polaris-nominated nêhiyawak, and Tyrone Davis. And don’t sleep on Cyrus Chestnut’s lovely holiday album.

  1. Martika, Martika’s Kitchen (1991): Her soph solo LP is surprisingly good, solid pop/R&B of its time, w/4 tracks co-written/prod by Prince. Title track is legit funky, “Don’t Say U Love Me” new jack swing (!), and closer “Mi Tierra” feat Celia Cruz! Kinda refreshing.
  2. Dinah Washington, Music for Late Hours (1956): She’s of course an impeccable vocalist, but her vocals on this album – ironic, considering its title – come off as a little, almost, shrieky. Her work with Louis Jordan, or “What a Diff’rence,” I adore. This, not as much. 
  3. Nico, The Marble Index (1969): Now, that’s what I call art-rock! Nico and John Cale’s gorgeously damaged heroin-soaked pre-goth record still stuns, with her voice, harmonium, and heavy strings making something truly original. 50+ yrs later, no one’s caught up.
  4. The Black Crowes, Amorica (1994): Hard southern boogie rock, > their debut & =/> their 2nd. Argument to be made: for the 1st half of the ‘90s, Crowes may have been the best mainstream U.S. rock band. I might be the one to make it. This slays. God bless Amorica. [US flag emoji]
  5. Breeders, Title TK (2002): The spark of their earlier records isn’t here; this just kinda sits, inert, some basic guitar-bass-drums rock, with a largely bored-sounding Kim Deal in front. “Comeback” albums like this make me wonder why some artists even bother. (A: touring.)
  6. Hootie & the Blowfish, Imperfect Circle (2019): An above-average bar band w/ a stellar singer; Darius Rucker’s voice is so warm, I can listen to him sing almost anything. That said, even he can barely elevate these just-ok songs. His solo country material is much better.
  7. Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack …tick…tick…tick… (1970): Apparently the first all-country film soundtrack ever (!), this is Glen Campbell-style pop-country. Good songs, good production, and smoooooth as anything.
  8. Lizzobangers (2013): Yeah, she’s clearly influenced by Missy Elliott – this is a hip hop LP – but also takes cues from late ‘90s backpacker stuff, and (here’s the key) her own off-kilter aesthetic. Long before her 2019 breakthrough, Lizzo was 100% original. Also: bars.
  9. La India, Dicen Que Soy (1994): 2nd salsa LP pairs house-styled vocals w/salsa rhythms hard & soft, & it all works incredibly well. She sings it distinctively, w/mostly strongly feminist lyrics. Also: a bilingual G. Benson cover, + fine duets w/Tito Nieves and Marc Anthony.
    9b. India, Breaking Night (1990): Her debut is a highly overcaffeinated freestyle/pop/house album; India sings her ass off on a bunch of songs that may not deserve her. It’s not bad, but it’s not great, either, which feels weird to say about a record sung by such a presence.
  10. Isaac Hayes, Live at the Sahara Tahoe (1973): It’s possible that during his Imperial Phase, Hayes was nearly the equal of JB and Prince as a bandleader. Rocking a lounge-soul vibe so expertly, his band kills it, and Hayes is a master interpreter of others’ songs.
  11. Ingrid Chavez, May 19, 1992 (1991): 1/2 spoken word (poetry) w/musical backing from Prince, 1/2 dance-pop w/backing from his lieutenants, & frankly, the co-writer of “Justify My Love” doesn’t have much to recommend her. A nothing voice, a not-much-more lyricist.
  12. BeBe & CeCe Winans, First Christmas (1993): The sibling gospel duo’s first holiday album is warm & lovely, w/some secular faves (“Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas”) sprinkled among a mix of religious classics & originals – & an odd cover of “Ooh Child” sung w/their parents.
  13. The Partridge Family Starring Shirley Jones and Featuring David Cassidy, A Partridge Family Christmas Card (1971): The thing about the Partridge Family: your enjoyment of them is directly dependent on how you feel about David Cassidy’s voice. I can’t stand it. Pure butchery.
  14. The Whispers, Happy Holidays to You (1979): It’s on Solar, so you know there’s some disco slip-beats and “pew pew”s, + those lovely Whispers harmony vocals. “Santa/Is Comin’” is smartly re-arranged with a samba beat, & “This Christmas” becomes a ballad. Just gorgeous.
  15. Barbara Mandrell, Christmas at Our House (1984): Mandrell’s a great singer, more soulful than you might expect – but not here; this LP is as white as the driven snow. The whole affair is stiff. Her “Winter Wonderland” doesn’t swing. And “Born to Die” is not an LDR cover.
  16. Destiny’s Child, 8 Days of Christmas (2001): Obnoxiously bad. Originals are embarrassing (title track makes ‘em sound like gold diggers), traditionals feature copious oversinging. “Platinum Bells” attempts to turn “Silver Bells” into “Jumpin’ Jumpin’,” good God.
  17. Cyrus Chestnut, Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols (1996): If you need a largely contemplative, jazz holiday album, Chestnut’s solo piano is just the antidote to a myriad of overproduced Christmas records. Title = truth in advertising, too.
  18. Mitch Miller & the Gang, Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch (1958): Miller’s 2nd #1 LP of ‘58 is more of the same: big chorus singing trad arrs of classics. This was the formula that made him famous, & he stuck w/it – & for what it is, it works. Classy, albeit unexciting.
  19. Joan Baez, Noel (1966): Expected Greenwich Village folk, instead got extremely high Anglican church. Baez sings the entire album in her highest falsetto, and takes on very old school hymns and carols (“Coventry Carol,” “Bring a Torch,” even “Ave Maria”). Not really my thing.
    19b. Josh Groban, Noel (2008): A wee bit more contemporary than I expected; sure, he busts his lungs on stuff like “Silent Night” and (of course) “Ave Maria,” but also welcomes in Brian McKnight and Faith Hill. But also the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, cuz Groban gonna Groban.
  20. MC Lyte, Lyte As A Rock (1988): Her debut album is incredibly sharp. The rhymes & flow are so on point it’s absurd, and the prod (mostly Audio Two, but also Prince Paul, Alliance, and King of Chill) matches Lyte, beat-for-flow. She should’ve been a superstar. 
  21. nêhiyawak, nipiy (2019): This Canadian First Nations “moccasingaze” trio use interesting textures and mix in Native samples and instruments (and Cree singing) on their stellar debut LP; this is no paint-by-numbers indie rock. Cocteaus refs but also Slint, early Pumpkins.
  22. The Flamingos, Flamingo Serenade (1959): “I Only Have Eyes” still sounds as if beamed in from another planet, 60+ yrs later. This is doo-wop (a genre of which I’m not generally fond) at its most elegant and haunting. The songs! The production! The voices! I swoon.
  23. Rosie Gaines, Closer Than Close (1995): An interesting R&B album, w/reggae (incl. a Marley cover), some acoustic soul, a few dancier things. Most songs do a solid job showcasing Gaines’ strong voice. Not great, but good – but CD-era bloat(™) is real.
  24. Eagles, One of These Nights (1975): You can hear them moving from country-rock to more str8fwd rock on this solid set of songs, even w/”Lyin’ Eyes” and the banjo-rooted “Journey of the Sorcerer.” Title track is one of their better singles, too (w/a soulful Henley vocal).
  25. August Burns Red Presents: Sleddin’ Hill, A Holiday Album (2012): How about this: an almost entirely instrumental Christmas offering from a Christian metalcore band. They mix it up, incorporating punk, and even some jazz influences, and keep it v entertaining.
  26. Madame X (1987): Remember Elecktrik Red, the fem R&B 4some presented by The-Dream in 2008? Well, 30 years prior, there was this trio, presented by Klymaxx’s Bernadette Cooper: avant-garde, edgy R&B that no one knew what to do with. Too bad – they were good.
  27. Spirea X, Fireblade Skies (1991): Solid, swirling dreampop that gets a bit samey, with much more acoustic guitar than I’d like. “Speed Reaction” and “Chlorine Dream” are both more Madchester than shoegazey, while “Confusion in My Soul” sounds like mellow Hendrix.
  28. X, Wild Gift (1981): Punk? I don’t really hear punk here, more ‘50s-era rock’n’roll, lots of Eddie Cochran-type licks. Exene’s voice – I’ve gotta say it – is nails on a chalkboard; she mostly sounds like she’s tired, and whining. None of this does anything for me.
  29. The xx, Coexist (2012): A starkly minimalist sophomore LP that is so fucking good. This is the record where I hypothesize that Jamie xx is the 2010s answer, sound-wise, to Tricky (with Romy as his Martina Topley-Bird). This creeps up on you. This is a mood.
  30. Les Nubians, One Step Forward (2003): French sisters’ 2nd album rides a similar groove to their debut, bumping easygoing turn-of-the-century R&B (call it neo-soul if you want), occasionally slipping from French into English. They sound more confident in their native tongue, TBH.
  31. In the Mood with Tyrone Davis (1979): Smooooth Chicago soul from one of its titans. This being a ‘79 album, there’s a few disco-ish rhythms, but this is mostly straight ahead soul music, romantic in nature & expertly written, sung, arranged. Title track is a masterpiece.

Posted in MWE

#MWE May + June 2020

In May, I started doing special “theme weeks,” with the first being devoted to the Beatles, covering them together, all solo, plus Yoko and Sean. YMMV; mine certainly did. (Surprising pick hit: 1973’s Ringo!) Prince-associated albums continued on a near-weekly basis, with selections from Madhouse, Judith Hill, and the Original 7even (which, in Christgau Consumer Guide parlance, is sadly a Must to Avoid).

June saw an interruption of #MWE for almost the entire month, for a couple of reasons.
1. I was undertaking a cross-much-of-the-country trip to my homeland of Indiana for 24 days.
2. Between Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd and ensuing nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality, and my general state of mind, it just felt like a good time to take a social media break.
So June only features four records. That said, three of those four albums are pretty great (all debuts, from Missing Persons, John McLaughlin, and Ari Lennox).

Other Pick Hits: Chicago, Kim Carnes, Womack & Womack, Norah Jones, and of course the late, great architect of rock & roll, Little Richard.

May 2020

  1. Rita Coolidge, The Lady’s Not for Sale (1972): Leon Russell with a “better” voice but much less interesting: no one needs another cover of “Fever,” esp. not the bland way she delivers it. The material’s just okay, and a pretty (albeit rich) voice only gets you so far.  
  2. Pointer Sisters, Contact (1985): The follow-up to Break Out saw them fall off a cliff commercially, and I get why: this sounds cheap & flimsy. The title track, for example, sounds as if made on a Casio keyboard. Only the buoyant “Dare Me” and “Hey You” are fleshed-out.
  3. Quiet Riot, Metal Health (1983): The first-ever US #1 metal album is pretty solid, no more ridiculous than any other comparable crew of glammed-up boys howling over hot lixx. It legitimately rocks, too, with only one ballad, the closer (skip it). 
  4. Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music (1975): This hour of guitar feedback is so fucking glorious and beautiful, my God. I can hear orchestras tuning up, birds, jet engines, and a myriad of other sounds here. This is drone, noise rock, avant-garde music at its highest level.
  5. Madhouse, 16 (1987): The 2nd go-round for Prince’s Eric Leeds-led instrumental ensemble is half Count Basie big band, half James Brown funk. Plus the quiet storm quasi-fusion of “Fourteen” (surprise, it’s my favorite). 
  6. Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (2004): A little jazz, a little country, a little folk, a little singer-songwriter, beautifully co-prod by Jones & Arif Mardin (the man seemingly does this in his sleep). Exquisite arrangements. Sounds simple, but it’s anything but.
  7. L7 (1988): Sludgy metal debut reminiscent of the first Soundgarden album. “Metal Stampede” is indicative of the problems: there’s a fair amount of jokiness that just comes off as stupid, not funny, almost like bad parody. They can play, so why?
  8. Drake, Dark Lane Demo Tapes (2020): Man, he really has problems w/women, doesn’t he? Meanwhile, he’s like a ghost on his own album, trying on styles like sport coats: NYC drill here, Playboi Carti-esque Soundcloud rap there, but is Drake actually present on any of it?
    8b. Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Born Deadly (EP) (2020): A little too much in the way of trap beats for my taste on this 15-min EP, but the dynamic Native sibling duo can rap with the best of ‘em, and keep on doing it here. A tidy holdover until their next full-length.
  9. Jill Scott, Woman (2015): Cushiony typical Jill Scott music from the ‘10s: R&B for grown folks. She sings and writes beautifully, but I have to admit I’d sometimes like a little more grit here & there. Single “Fools Gold” and “Cruisin’” (not a cover) are highlights.
    9b. Erykah Badu, But You Caint Use My Phone (2015): This phone-themed mixtape is gorgeously messy, including covers/re-interpretations of songs by Drake, New Edition, Usher, & Todd Rundgren, along w/some fascinating originals. And a guest shot from her ex Andre 3000!
  10. The Call, Reconciled (1986): On their 4th LP, this rock band of Christians (as opposed to Christian rockers) sound slick & smart, a sweet spot between the Bodeans, Simple Minds, U2. Michael Been was a great frontman. Production matches their earnest, occ. Xian lyrics.
  11. The Beatles, Rubber Soul (1965): The speed of their evolution is amazing. You can already hear, in ‘65, the songwriting stretching/expanding. The likes of “Girl,” “Michelle,” “Run” presage what was to come on Revolver & beyond. I ❤ Ringo’s co-write “What Goes On” too.
  12. Ringo Starr, Ringo (1973): Low expectations = knocked out. “Devil Woman” = “Tusk” 6 yrs early, “Photograph” kills (all 3 of George’s co-writes solid), John’s “Greatest” a great opener, and Paul’s synth squiggles on his/Linda’s “6 O’Clock” fun. Ringo makes it all cohesive.
  13. John Lennon, Imagine (1971): Phil Spector’s prod touches sound ugly (“Soldier,” ick), and this isn’t Lennon’s best set of songs (again, “Soldier,” along w/”Truth” – subtlety wasn’t his metier). & then there’s the incredibly petty “Sleep?” At least “Oh Yoko!” is fun.
  14. Yoko Ono, Season of Glass (1981): The album she made after John’s murder is her most conventional musically, v ‘81 studio rock, but lyrically lacerating: “I Don’t Know Why,” “Extension 33,” “No No No,” omg. Bless her for making art from her rawest emotions.
  15. Sean Lennon, Into the Sun (1998): Self-indulgence, thy name is this debut. Twee folkiness here, faux grunge there, and none of the fun of producer/gf Yuka Honda’s band Cibo Matto. And his voice is so awful-ly thin. How’d he get signed to Grand Royal? Oh, yeah… 
  16. George Harrison, Cloud Nine (1987): Jeff Lynne produced, & you can hear it (v slick). This comeback sounds both just like its era/completely out of time. Songs are mostly strong, & GH sounds great, assured on both vox and guitar. “Fab” & “Shanghai” are the duds.
  17. Wings, Band on the Run (1973): Starts strong w/2 great singles, but the middle drags. “Mamunia” & the self-indulgent “Picasso’s Last Words” are garbage, “Helen Wheels” a fun rocker. This album’s rep is incredibly inflated; it’s ok overall but nowhere near Paul’s best.
  18. Judith Hill, Back in Time (2015): Co-prod by Prince, this has some of his late-era flavor, but since Hill co-/wrote all the songs, it still sounds like her album. That said, you can def smell Prince on it: lots of ‘70s R&B vibes, big horn charts, Sly/JB-esque funk. 
  19. Womack & Womack, Love Wars (1983): Defiantly midtempo R&B (except for slow-burn post-disco smoker “Baby I’m Scared of You”) from a husband & wife duo who know how to write, and sing. Stewart Levine’s deft, light touch behind the boards is a huge asset. Grown folks music.
  20. Here’s Little Richard (1957): More than the songs or arrangements, what makes this pure rock’n’roll is Richard Penniman himself: his attitude, his piano, his singing, his rhythm, his excitement, his “whoooooo”s! He’s so into what he’s doing here, it can’t not move you. RIP.
  21. Kim Carnes, Mistaken Identity (1981): A 1981 El Lay studio pop/rock buffet platter w/a Ronstadt-esque one, some soft pop balladry, a few raw rockers, and the brilliant new wave-isms of singles “Cards” and of course “Eyes.” Consistently interesting, and I do love that voice.
  22. Ray Charles, Friendship (1984): Down-the-middle contempo mid-’80s country duets, w/all male partners except uh Janie Fricke. Hank Jr. sounds bored, the Oaks are boring, Skaggs out of place, & BJ Thomas?! G. Jones, and Willie, stand out. Charles himself is – relaxed. 
  23. The Charlatans, Tellin’ Stories (1997): Fascinating how they somehow pulled off the jump from Madchester to Britpop elder statesmen – this went #1 UK w/3 top 10s! Sturdy, workmanlike rock (better than that might sound!), w/strong lyrics & steadying vox of Tim Burgess.
  24. Rusty Warren, Knockers Up! (1960): Debut album by “blue” female comedian/supper club singer spent astounding 3 yrs on the chart in the early ‘60s. Barely racy by today’s standards. Jokes all concern het married couples having sex (or not), singing is meh. V dull overall.
  25. Gladys Knight & the Pips, That Special Time of Year (1982): For an ‘82 LP, this starts out kinda disco-y, but eventually settles into a more trad soul Christmas album. As always, Knight and her Pips sound warm and familial. Back half, w/2 J. Mathis duets, drags a bit. 
  26. Mazarati (1986): Brownmark’s first post-Revolution band was this ensemble, a more rock’n’roll Time w/3rd-rate Prince knockoffs for material. The man himself co/wrote 3 songs, incl. only hit “100 MPH,” which is ok at best. “Suzy” sounds musically like Rick James/MJ Girls!
  27. Matana Roberts, COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis (2019): An astounding saxophonist (also connected to Chicago post rock) whose free jazz is v challenging & v musical, w/ stand-up-take-notice spoken lyrics and an ensemble that can seemingly do anything. Loud, messy, focused.
  28. Babyface, Lovers (1986): The legend-to-be opened his 1st solo album, charmingly b-list mid-’80s R&B, w/a Stylistics cover! He’s a pro though, and this sounds like it, while also sounding unpolished enough that it’s clearly a debut. The seeds of mega-success, planted. 
  29. Chicago VII (1974): 1st 5 trax of this 15-song double are jazz fusion instrumentals, & pretty great. (Remember, these guys had chops.) Their 3rd consec #1 LP also feat. 3 top 11 pop hits though, & they’re solid, too; “Call on Me” (hit) and “Byblos” (album cut) are superb. 
  30. Cookie Crew, Born This Way (1989): DAISY-age-era (& -styled) hip hop from a female UK duo, with a slight hip-house touch (see: “Bad Girls,” which deserved a D. Summer credit). Totally unmoving overall. RIYL Monie Love (who, frankly, is better).
  31. The Original 7ven, Condensate (2011): Oh, I so wanted the Time’s reunion album to be good, but this sounds like what they are: a group of older guys getting the band back together for one last go-round. The songs (almost all Jam/Lewis) are mediocre, & Morris Day sounds – a little sad.

June 2020

  1. Missing Persons, Spring Session M (1982): This is one hot-shit new wave album. Dale Bozzio’s voice isn’t great, but is interesting, & she knew what to do with it – & the band knew how best to utilize her in front. Singles all great + “U.S. Drag” & “Tears” stand out, too.
  2. [6/28] Teddy & Darrel, These Are the Hits, You Silly Savage!!! (1965): A fascinating relic: 2 anon unknowns mostly covering contempo hits (“Wild Thing,” “Strangers in the Night”) in a campy, gay style. Produced by Mike Curb! Not necessarily great, but important to be heard. [pride flag emoji]
  3. [6/29] Jon McLaughlin, Indiana (2007): This male Sara Bareilles can play, write, sing well. His piano is incredibly musical (on “Industry,” reminiscent of Ben Folds), his voice stronger than most of his Adult T40 peers. Not my usual thing, but a bit of a buried treasure.30.
  4. [6/30] Ari Lennox, Shea Butter Baby (2019): It’s not just her tone and tenor which are like Erykah Badu’s, but her phrasing, too. They’re both, basically, jazz singers, singing R&B. What a sensational set of songs about being a Black woman today: contemporary yet classic.

Posted in MWE

#MWE April 2020

This month’s notes:
No over-arching theme, though I did end up opening the month with a quartet of eponymous debut albums by artists whose names start with “A.” I tossed in a Bill Withers album after his passing. Have started adding in at least one CCM album each month (2nd Chapter of Acts), and a live album as well (James Brown). Still doing a Prince-related title roughly once a week, this month meaning Apollonia, Vanity, Mayte, and Wendy & Lisa. And I’ve decided to move each month’s holiday/Christmas title to, fittingly, the 25th.

April’s finds? Asia’s ’82 debut (the #1 album of its year!), surprisingly, along with a couple of Natalie Cole’s ’70s efforts (killer soul), and the new album by Dua Lipa (cracking pop). 2nd Chapter of Acts are pretty great, too.

  1. Alicia Bridges (1978): This’ll surprise you: her debut is more Muldaur/Heart than Gaynor/Summer (except at the latter’s most rocking), largely solid, late ‘70s bluesy rock/pop w/era-specific touches, and one monster disco x-over single (which is more pop than disco). 
  2. Apollonia (1988): Better than you expect. Mostly R&B of its moment, w/a few curveballs (“The Same Dream” is freestyle!). Her voice is thin but decent. Overall a pretty anonymous record though, and a better singer might’ve made better of these songs.
  3. Asia (1982): No one has ever better spun prog-rock into radio-ready AOR than this British supergroup. The singles are great, but there’s plenty more here: “Sole Survivor” melds prog and pop remarkably, while “Wildest Dreams” even pulls off refs to kings *and* VJs!
  4. Azteca (1972): 17-member Latinx rock band obv modeled on Santana, but they spread their wings further, sometimes better: lowrider soul, gritty funk, & trad Latinx jams, w/both male/female vocals. Their refusal to be pinned down prob what kept them from bigger success.
  5. Megan Thee Stallion, Suga (2020): Tight 9-song album from one of the best new rappers of the past several yrs. Last 2 songs have a lot of unnecessary autotune, and there’s also 2 unnecessary guests – she can carry an album solo. “Savage” and “B.I.T.C.H.” commit murder.
  6. Bill Withers, + ‘Justments (1974): The first word I’d use to describe his music is *warm*. This album is a prime example, rooted in guitar and electric piano, along with that lived-in voice, full of great songs. The man could write, could he ever. “You” is a fave.
  7. Nicolette Larson, Nicolette (1979): She’s a folkier Raitt or poppier Emmylou, but her debut is all over the place, with both of them & her pal Ronstadt as influences. There’s even some near-yachty material. It never coalesces, but it’s all pretty good.
  8. Quincy Jones, Walking in Space (1969): His first CTI record (prod by Creed Taylor) marks a change of direction, starting to really meld jazz w/ R&B & pop influences: not just “Oh Happy Day,” but 2 of the 6 selections are from HAIR (1 w/Valerie Simpson on vox). Perfection.
  9. Stormzy, Heavy Is the Head (2019): Is he the Biggie/Jay-Z of UK grime, taking it fully overground as pop music? Maybe – he’s gymnastically flexible, working w/both harder-edged MCs, and Ed Sheeran and H.E.R. Great rapper. That said, the softer/R&B tracks are a snooze.
  10. Vanity, Wild Animal (1984): You think it’s gonna be bad, but you have no idea. Her voice is amazingly terrible, and these songs are not such an, um, pretty mess (sorry). In all seriousness, this is one of the worst albums I’ve ever listened to all the way through.
  11. The Innocence Mission (1990): Simply put, a goth 10,000 Maniacs. Only IM’s singer sounds classically trained, cold, and a bit shrill. Regardless, this is acoustically-based goth rock, which grows on me – but I still might prefer a different singer. Love the music tho.
  12. Liz Damon’s Orient Express (1970): This Honolulu hotel lounge combo recorded their debut album independently and got lucky enough to receive a national release, and thank goodness: this is gorgeous, of its moment easy listening syrup. Vocals are produced beautifully. 
  13. Bobbi Humphrey, Dig This! (1972): Jazz, right at the moment when much of it was about to become fusion — highlight “Nubian Lady” feels like it, but much of this is straight hard bop from a groundbreaking female jazz flautist who could *play*. This hits my sweet spot nicely.
  14. Beck, One Foot in the Grave (1994): Early acoustic Beck is like the love child of Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson in hell, and I mean that as a compliment. There’s a delightful darkness to much of these folky songs. Hearing him so stripped down is fascinating.
  15. 2nd Chapter of Acts, With Footnotes (1974): This is pretty astonishing, one of/1st Jesus Music albums to really work as a rock record. You can hear Woodstock (diaspora) and “Woodstock” and JC SUPERSTAR in its DNA. The Ward siblings are sensational vocalists & writers, too.
  16. X-Ray Spex, Germfree Adolescents (1978): Punk w/a sax player: how late ‘70s UK! Poly Styrene’s vox are punchy & perfectly paired w/the band. What I didn’t expect was that this album would be so much FUN to listen to. This is an absolute blast.
  17. Teena Marie, Naked to the World (1988): Solid, un-special late ‘80’s R&B w/o the magic of her first couple of albums, though the fire still burns on ballad “Ooo La La La” and athletic “Work It.” Title track drags, as do a pair of duets reuniting her with mentor Rick James.
  18. Mayte, Child of the Sun (1995): Mid/late ‘90s Prince was inconsistent & unfocused, nowhere more clearly than the Europe-only album he made for his wife: the saddest “techno,” clunky elec drums, a regretful cover of “Brick House”… not helped by Mayte’s nothing voice.
  19. Leslie Phillips, Black and White in a Grey World (1985): Earnest CCM from the future Sam Phillips, roughly ½ the rock you can tell she wanted to do, & half A/C pablum forced on her by the label. For something better, check her Benatar-esque ‘83 debut Beyond Saturday Night.
  20. Hank Williams, Jr., Strong Stuff (1983): Great blend of country and southern rock, w/covers of ZZ Top (2!) and Skynyrd, & the E. Tubb and W. Jennings-featuring “Leave Those Boys Alone.” Plus the devastating, surprising closer “In the Arms of Cocaine,” a must-hear.
  21. Natalie Cole, Unpredictable (1977): Tremendous mid/late ‘70s R&B, with soul-disco bump (“Party Lights”), quiet storm balladry (“Peaceful Living”), semi-spoken confessional (“I’m Catching Hell”) and Aretha-esque midtempo (“I Can’t Breakaway”), and every bit of it works.
    21b. Natalie Cole/Peabo Bryson, We’re the Best of Friends (1979): Like a more “current” Roberta/Donny record w/songs penned by each + a few good covers. Their voices don’t always mesh, but both are v strong. The Bobby Caldwell cover, made jazzier, is knife-sharp.
  22. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia (2020): Now, THIS is what I want from pop in 2020. Incessantly upbeat (musically, not always lyrically), infused w/ disco juice & early ‘90s pop-house rush, Lipa does interesting things vocally, esp rhythmically – & it never slows. Also v. [UK flag emoji].
  23. James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963): Yes, it’s good. Yes, Brown sounds superb (best singing he ever did?) and the band is supremely tight. Yes, they’re all getting energy from the crowd. But the greatest live album ever, as many have called it? I don’t hear it.
  24. The Darkness, Permission to Land (2003): Equal parts Queen and Kingdom Come w/dash of AC/DC, this debut is nth power ridiculous, which is a strong part of its appeal – but it’s also a rock-solid hard rock record. Justin Hawkins’ falsetto is a lemon-squeezing motherfucker.
  25. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, That Holiday Feeling! (1964): Even with over ½ the album being standards, this is one horny holiday record; Steve & Eydie, EZ icons, were clearly gettin’ it on under the mistletoe. It’s also a very swingin’ LP, w/ great arrangements & vox.
  26. Wendy & Lisa, Eroica (1990): Their ‘87 debut is one of my all-time top 10, an extraordinary Prince-influenced suite of songs sung & played perfectly. By their 3rd album, things were much more… regular-sounding pop-rock. Nothing wrong, just nothing exciting.
  27. Miles Davis, Doo-Bop (1992): Miles’ final studio record, w/producer Easy Mo Bee, is a mostly successful fusion of that muted Davis trumpet with early ‘90s hip hop beats. Things get ?able when no-name rappers step into the arena, but Miles is 100% solid.
  28. Ferron, Shadows on a Dime (1984): Think of this Melissa Etheridge predecessor, lyrically, as an equal of Bruce Cockburn or Tom Waits: she’s writing pure poetry. Unfortunately her music is akin to theirs, too, kinda dull guitar-bass-drums-voice, very birth-of-AAA radio.
  29. Wendy Carlos, Switched-On Bach (1968): Taken in its time, the technological achievement of this album is astonishing. But musically, today, it’s not v interesting: many of Bach’s most famed compositions played on a Moog. Important but not super entertaining.
  30. Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG (2020): Good stuff, reggaeton that’s much more musical than what I’m used to. Bunny’s nimble, &  flips his style, like a better-talented Drake. “Solia” is the standout. But it’s really, really long: 65 minutes! A double album to my 49-year-old ears.
Posted in MWE

Songs: 4 (all-ballroom edition)

Jennifer Lopez feat. Jack Mizrahi, “Tens” (A.K.A., 2014)
JLo vogues with ballroom MC Jack Mizrahi riding shotgun, and it works. She pays tribute to many of the classic ballroom houses and wisely lets Mizrahi do much of the heavy lifting. But her writers and producers knew what they were doing here: this is a vogue-the-house-down track, incredibly unexpected from a star of her stature, and it smokes.

Teddy Pendergrass, “The More I Get, The More I Want” (Teddy Pendergrass, 1977)
From his first solo album, this closer, co-produced and -written by McFadden and Whitehead (“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”), is a hot-ass Philly Soul disco-funk jam, actually heard during a ballroom scene in Paris Is Burning. Why? Because of its syncopation, almost like a 4/4 beat on top of a 4/4 beat: the beat on this is strong. Pendergrass’ vocal is, too, of course; he was in-fucking-capable of singing poorly. Never released as a single officially, though included on a disco 12″ alongside “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “You Can’t Hide from Yourself” (which got to #7 on the Dance/Disco chart), this is a stealth bomb in TP’s catalog.

Mister Wallace, “It Girl” (Faggot EP, 2016)
This young & hungry Chicago rapper dropped 2016’s best vogue track with “It Girl,” taking a page from Azealia Banks’ musical playbook with a record that builds and builds to its chorus, nearly exploding, and then pulling back carefully before starting the sequence again. They can rap their ass off, and the track itself is phenomenal, all bleepy synth and crashing beats. I was thrilled by how much my colleagues at the Singles Jukebox liked it.

Rageous Projecting Kevin Aviance, “Cunty (The Feeling)” (single, 1996)
The bizarre artist credit aside (this is producer Jerel Black with vocalist Aviance, on a song they co-wrote), this absolute vogue classic was first introduced to me on the astonishing 2012 Soul Jazz comp Voguing & The House Ballroom Scene Of New York City 1976-96, my #2 album of the entire decade. Genderqueer before that was even a thing, Aviance oozes — nay, lives — attitude, and spreads it all over this record, starting with that not-for-polite-company title. You can hear from the way the beats drop that Black and Aviance had the ballroom scene in mind when making this — and for that matter, you can hear it in the lyrics, too. I have a hard time not making “vogue hands” any time I play this. Also, while I posted the “single edit” video above, what you really need is the extended almost-12-minute Club Mix.

Posted in queer, songs

Catalog: Rufus with Chaka Khan

New feature/format/whatever: looking at an artist’s entire ouevre, à la the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Only I’m not looking at that, I’m doing my own grading. Starting with one of the greatest soul groups of the 1970s, Rufus. I’m only covering their work with Chaka Khan at the front, which means this ends with 1983’s swan song Live — Stompin’ at the Savoy, and doesn’t include the trio of Khan-less studio albums prior to that, 1979’s Numbers, 1981’s Party ‘Til You’re Broke, and 1983’s Seal in Red. Because let’s be honest: Rufus is a great band, but without Khan, would we be talking about them today? No, we would not.

Rufus (1973): Greasy southern, Muscle Shoals-style funk via Chicago. You can hear the seeds of what was germinating, but it’s still fairly unformed. 5/10

Rags to Rufus (1974): They weren’t yet polished, still sounding kinda hippie-soulful, like the child of Rotary Connection (it’s there on “I Got the Right Street”) and Sly & the Family Stone (“Swing Down Chariot”), with a soupçon of, kid you not, Chicago (which you can hear easiest in the title track). The smash singles “Tell Me Something Good” and “You Got the Love” best represented their band of gutbucket funk. 6/10

Rufusized (1974): From one of my recent Pop Top 40 columns: “Rufus’s first album with a “featuring Chaka Khan” credit was their second consecutive top ten and is a sublime showcase for the mixed-race funk band from Chicago. “Pack’d My Bags” starts as a jazzy little number before turning into greasy funk on its chorus; “Your Smile” is a ballad that allows Khan to really stretch her vocal chops. In the midst of the ERA era, “I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone)” is a strong statement of feminist intent. And lead single “Once You Get Started” is a fast-dancin’, sunshine-rockin’ groove. [This] is the album where it all comes together for Khan and her band of merry funkateers.” 10/10

Rufus featuring Chaka Khan (1975): Well, I certainly didn’t expect that cover of “Jive Talkin’.” “Sweet Thing” is of course a wonder, but overall this one’s a little too jumpy and aggressive for my taste. 6/10

Ask Rufus (1977): Rufus at their smooth-and-sexiest, with the likes of “Close the Door” and “Everlasting Love” leading the way. Khan shows some real restraint on songs like “Hollywood,” too — you can hear the development in her talents here. 9/10

Street Player (1978): The Chicago cover/title track is unexpected but makes sense, and goddamn, by ’78 they were so well-oiled they could’ve traveled cross-country without a hiccup, if you catch my drift. The back-to-back punch of “Stay” and “Turn” is too bad-ass. 8/10

Masterjam (1979): Produced by Quincy Jones after Chaka sang on his ’78 R&B #1 “Stuff Like That,” and there’s a big fat photo of Q inside the gatefold. Ego much? Weirdly, you can’t really hear much of his sonic fingerprints on this, though “Live in Me” has a little “Give Me the Night” in its DNA (even though the latter came a year later — the key is that it’s written by Rod Temperton, and Q produces it the way he produced all of Temperton’s songs). And there’s a cover of “Body Heat,” interestingly. Overall the album’s kind of unfocused, albeit with a tasty end-of-decade disco/R&B vibe going on overall. 7/10

Camouflage (1981): The final studio album they made together, self-produced, not a big hit, and the only one not on Spotify; make of that what you will. It’s alright, sounds very much like ’81 R&B, and I’m honestly surprised it was a (relative) flop. That said, it’s not a standout, either. On some songs, you can hear how Khan was kinda already checked out of the band. 6/10

Live — Stompin’ at the Savoy (1983): What a way to go out: a de facto hits record recorded live (and including some non-hit gems like “I’m A Woman” and “You’re Welcome, Stop on By,” along with Khan’s solo smash “What Cha Gonna Do for Me”), along with the new studio cut “Ain’t Nobody,” which of course became an instant classic. Sheer perfection. 10/10

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, catalog, R&B

#MWE March 2020

I decided to keep moving forward with #MWE (Music Writer Exercise) after February, because I love the format/challenge of it, for one: summing up a new-to-me album in a single tweet, 280 characters. Including the hashtag, date, album title and artist leaves me with even less real estate to sum up my thoughts. That’s good! And #MWE has exposed me to plenty of great new music, both from others and my own choices (which can come from pretty much anywhere, whether seeing an ad for something in a vintage issue of Billboard or thinking of an artist and asking a friend who’s a fan for an album recommendation).

For March, I did something I saw a lot of in February: I exclusively did albums by African-American artists. Black History Month, which is “officially” February, should by no means be limited to a single month, so this felt like a good plan. I did my best to cover all sorts of genres, from no wave to country, hip hop to jazz. I also decided to start dropping a Prince-affiliated album in once a week, though I started with a trio of such, headed by an album by Prince.

March highlights included my lead-off, the first-ever #1 Billboard album, which turned out to be one of my favorites of the month, along with Anita Baker’s debut, the early ’70s punk (not proto-punk) band Death, and an album just released a few weeks ago, the proper debut by Jay Electronica, which is a scorcher.

  1. The King Cole Trio (1944): The first #1 album in Billboard history is mostly instrumental jazz, piano/guitar/double bass, with Cole singing on only 3 of 8 tracks. It’s also notably tight, yet still swings. I love the absence of drums, which really changes the trio sound.
  2. Prince, HitNRun Phase Two (2015): His last studio album has flashes of brilliance w/killer guitar thru/out. “Groovy Potential” is an ‘80 Prince song w/‘87 production budget, “Black Muse” has a fusion breakdown(!), “Revelation” is a classic soft-focus ballad.
  3. André Cymone, A.C. (1985): Lead single “Dance Electric” was written by Prince, and it smokes. The rest of this 3rd album by former Prince compatriot/bassist Cymone is a sad batch of room-temp funk; Ready for the World did better Prince rips than this. 
  4. Sheila E. (1987): Her first full-length not helmed by Prince, and you can tell. Overall solid, but not exceptional, R&B. I’m a sucker for the generic slow jam “Hold Me,” top 10 R&B, but most of this is utterly unmemorable. And “Faded Photographs” sounds like — Go West?!
  5. Anita Baker, The Songstress (1983): Rapture with a smaller production budget (on indie Beverly Glen) and a little more grit – check the phat-ass bass on “Feel the Need” & “Squeeze Me”! Her voice is of course immaculate, yet still has some delightful rough edges, too.
  6. The Veldt, Afrodisiac (1994): Based on their rep, I expected shoegaze, I expected to hear comparisons to Kitchens of Distinction and Stone Roses. What I instead got was, uh, Hoodoo Gurus. This isn’t great, esp. the vocals.
    6b. Apollo Heights, Black Music for White People (2007): After the Veldt dissolved, the Chavis brothers formed this group, w/their debut (only) album produced by Robin Guthrie. You can hear a hard A.R. Kane influence, only it’s not as musically successful, sadly.
  7. Rufus feat. Chaka Khan, Ask Rufus (1977): Are there any bad Rufus/Chaka albums? Nope. This one’s on the mellow side, & I’ll never complain about hearing Khan sing slow ‘n sexy. Rufus were her perfect foil; hearing her coo against them rules, esp. on “Close the Door.”
  8. Roberta Flack, First Take (1969): I always wondered why this #1 smash appeared on the Jazz Albums chart. Answer: because it’s a damned jazz album! Opener “Compared to What” knocks my socks off; these songs + Flack’s voice and piano are 150% stunning.
    8b. Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (1972): This union is perfection. They turn even “You’ve Got A Friend” & “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” into the most soulful music, & the likes of “When Love Has Grown” & “Be Real Black for Me” are Black love incarnate.
  9. Rapsody, Eve (2019): I like both her flow and these boom-bap beats; this sounds like my kind of ‘90s hip hop. Additionally, this concept album, w/each song named after a notable Black woman & loosely related to said woman, is really strong.
  10. Jesse Johnson’s Revue (1985): Hot, MPLS-soaked drum machine/synth/guitar R&B jams from the former Time guitarist. Opener “Be Your Man” and closer “She’s A Doll” are highlights. You can hear the influence of his former boss (c’mon, ‘85 MPLS) but it’s not overwhelming. 
  11. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gospel Train (1956): The original queen of gospel music and first big-deal female guitarist makes church music sound like rhythm & blues here. Her guitar tone is gorgeous, the band nicely jazzy-bluesy, & this is great no matter your beliefs.
  12. Charley Pride, Charley Pride’s 10th Album (1970): THAT BARITONE, good God. His voice is rich and creamy like full-fat ice cream, and he was made to sing against crying steel guitars. Pride’s 10th album gives him 10 fine songs worthy of that voice, too.
  13. Yola, Walk Through Fire (2019): I thought she was an Americana artist, but musically this is mostly akin to late ‘60s pop (cf. Dusty), with a little ‘70s countrypolitan mixed in. Her singing – her cadences, the way she attacks lines – is reminiscent of Chris Stapleton.
  14. Teddy Pendergrass, It’s Time for Love (1981): His last album released prior to the accident which paralyzed him waist-down is another classy Gamble/Huff triumph (they had a hand in 6 of 8 tracks) as well as another triumph for the then-sexiest singer alive. Perfect soul.
  15. ESG (EP) (1981): Stripped-down no wave funk played economically & smartly by a female quintet: in the early ‘80s, this was v. new, & v. New York City. These songs sound at times more like sketches, but they’re catchy sketches. Nicely lo-fi, too.
  16. Jill Jones (1987): Why was it that, by & large, Prince couldn’t make good albums with/for his paramours? Did his dick get in the way? I mean, lyrics like “G-Spot, G-Spot, where oh where can you be?” do no one any favors, least of all the very thin-voiced Jones. 
  17. Mother’s Finest (1976): Smokin’ hard rock verging on metal at times, with a lead singer (Joyce Kennedy) who sounds like she’s ripping her lungs out on almost every song. “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock & Roll” is the hottest button, but all of it’s hot. & cool. & good. 
  18. Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony (2020): An astounding, everything-I-want-from-hip-hop-in-2020 album, w/ Jay-Z playing Ghostface to Electronica’s Raekwon & sounding better than ever. The production (mostly by Elec), OMG, these flipped samples! This is beats-rhymes-life.
  19. Donald Byrd, Black Byrd (1973): The Mizell Brothers’ first production (they wrote the whole thing too) helped Byrd to practically invent acid jazz. Heard in its ‘73 jazz context, this is a groundbreaking fusion record, upbeat & original, and I unequivocally love it.
  20. Donna Summer (1982): Her only Quincy Jones-prod album (at his peak) is v. uneven, kinda 1/2 Quincy record (James Ingram backgrounds, horn charts) & 1/2 Summer (rockers incl. Springsteen-penned “Protection,” odd cover of “Lush Life”). “Love Is In Control” rules all.
  21. Tina Turner, Tina Turns the Country On! (1974): What a fascinating first solo album. A few misfires (“I’m Movin’ On”), but that perfectly gritty voice sounds great singing Kristofferson, Ronstadt, ONJ, and *especially* the pair of Dylan covers.
  22. Carl Craig, More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art (1997): Lovely, deep techno, no question about it, with the luscious “Dreamland” and “Dominas” as highlights. But this def suffers from CD-era bloat™ and is way too damned long.
  23. Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas (1967): So here’s the thing. This is, of course, lovely, Fitzgerald putting her perfect pipes to a baker’s dozen of classic Christmas hymns and carols. But it’s dull – it doesn’t swing at all, and that’s what she did best. This is too staid.
  24. Morris Day, Daydreaming (1987): Come for the pair of Time reunion tracks written w/prod. by Jam/Lewis (incl. the killer hit “Fishnet”), stay for the B+(ish) contempo ‘87 R&B prod. by Day himself (& written by Day w/his wife). Overall, solid and unextraordinary.  
  25. Zhané, Saturday Night (1997): The R&B duo’s soph (& last) album is a perfectly chill late ‘90s soul groove, RIYL Adriana Evans. The most uptempo song, a cover of Chic’s “Good Times,” doesn’t actually have a v. high BPM. Lovely, classy, should’ve been much bigger.
  26. Death, …For the Whole World to See (2009): Holy shit, they really *were* the first punk band, as these demos from 1973 prove w/o a doubt. This bangs from front to fucking back, with “Let the World Turn” showing some real reach. 10 yrs later they would’ve been on SST.
  27. Ashford & Simpson, Street Opera (1982): First half is a great, timeless R&B album: could’ve come out in ‘78 or ‘86. But the actual “street opera” song cycle of side B isn’t as successful. That said, Nick Ashford’s falsetto, 2nd only to Sylvester’s, is a wonder I always love.
  28. Kid Creole and the Coconuts, In Praise of Older Women and Other Crimes (1985): Past their sell-by date by ‘85, this is schtick (vaguely calypso-ish R&B rhythms with “sophisticated” lyrics) with little to back it up. August Darnell was never great, but this is kinda the pits.
  29. Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (2007): Putting aside its AOTY Grammy (weird), this is a gorgeous piece of work, Hancock easily pulling jazz threads out of Mitchell’s work. Too many vocals, but Tina Turner’s “Edith & the Kingpin” is one of her greatest. “Sweet Bird,” oh!
  30. Mickey Guyton (EP) (2015): A fine, straight-down-the-middle contempo country EP by an artist who should’ve been as big as her peer Kelsea Ballerini, thanks to songs like “Better Than You Left Me” and “Pretty Little Mustang.” I wonder why that didn’t happen? Hmmm… *angry emoji*
  31. Mavis Staples, Time Waits for No One (1989): This is… odd. The Staples Singers doyenne cuts a contemporary R&B record at the end of the ‘80s, helmed by Prince. Think Patti LaBelle’s “Yo Mister,” only highly uneven. Not sure anyone knew what the endgame was here.
Posted in MWE

#MWE February 2020

This month, over on my Twitter, I took part in what’s known as #MWE: Music Writer Exercise. The thrust is simple. Each day of February, you listen to one album you’ve never listened to from front to back, and you review/write about it in one tweet. I’m thrilled to have discovered the hashtag, because not only have I found some interesting writers (and tweeters) through it, but doing this all month has kept my thinking and writing more sharp and focused. So much so that I’m going to keep doing it into March.

I’ve not crossposted my tweets so as to encourage folx to follow me on Twitter, but since the month is over, here’s my Feb 2020 #MWE. The two most rewarding listens were, surprisingly to me, the two albums from the ’60s: Dr. John’s GRIS-gris and Buffy Saint-Marie’s It’s My Way!

Note: sometimes after writing the tweets (which I keep in a Google Doc), changes are made once I’m posting them, so these may not be exactly as they appeared on Twitter. Also, I started a day early, which is why there’s a “day 0,” which is:
0. V/A, The Concert for Bangladesh (1971): I understand that Harrison organized it, but
there’s too much of him here. More Leon Russell, please! More Shankar! More Ringo, even! Acoustic Dylan reigns supreme, “My Sweet Lord” doesn’t, “Gently Weeps” kills.

  1. The Voices of East Harlem (1973): VOEH were an extremely talented vocal group, and their 3rd album is classic ‘73 soul. Produced by Mayfield, Hutson, and Tufo, this unsurprisingly has an Impressions feel to it, albeit with mostly female lead vocals. 
  2. Joan Rivers, What Becomes A Semi-Legend Most? (1983): “When I get depressed, I take some Fresca and throw it on a panty shield. It perks you right up!” Damned if Ms. “Can We Talk?” wasn’t on fire, telling jokes at 100mph. This is what comedy albums should sound like.
  3. Maze featuring Frankie Beverly (1977): The soul legends’ debut album is deeply funky, a little jazzy, and set the stage for everything that would come. Like much of their work, it sounds timeless, and is full of warmth and joy. “Lady of Magic,” OMG. Who needs crossover? 
  4. Billie Eilish, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (2019): Not much a fan of Eilish’s creepy-whispery voice, or her lyrics, esp. “Wish You Were Gay.” What mostly works on this album is her brother Finneas’s weirdo-pop production. But I get why teens respond.
  5. Daryl Hall/John Oates, Greatest Hits Live (2001): Well, not exactly – it’s a show from ‘82’s Private Eyes tour – but it is H&O in the midst of their Imperial Phase. They’re the proverbial well-oiled machine, and surprisingly guitar-heavy. Also: “Mano a Mano”!
  6. Eve, Let There Be Eve… Ruff Ryders’ First Lady (1999): Too many guests, and it’s weighed down by Swizz Beatz’ overly simplistic production. You can hear Eve working hard to be one of the boys, to her detriment. “Love Is Blind,” about domestic violence, stands out.
  7. Tanya Tucker, Can’t Run from Yourself (1992): Released during Tucker’s second commercial heyday (‘86-’94), split fairly equally between ballads (which she sings the hell out of) and uptempo numbers (which she also sings the hell out of). Excellent commercial country.
  8. Buster Poindexter (1987): If you found Bruce Willis’s The Return of Bruno too subtle, have I got an album for you. “Hot Hot Hot” was a fun MTV diversion when I was 16; an entire album of this is wearing. David Johansen should’ve known better – this sounds like blackface.
  9. Macintosh Plus, Floral Shoppe (2011): What Vektroid aka Ramona Xavier does here is meld new age music/textures, glacially slowed samples from A/C-pop-R&B records, ‘80s synths, and a glitchcore aesthetic into something genuinely new & astounding for the early ‘10s.
  10. Klymaxx, Meeting in the Ladies Room (1984): Most songs on this would tip you off to its 1984 heritage, good in the case of the title track and “The Men All Pause,” less so re: “Video Kid” and “Love Bandit.” The band is tight & tough throughout the album. “I Miss You” still sucks.
  11. Elton John/Leon Russell, The Union (2010): The kind of album that used to win AOTY, this T-Bone-produced effort is solid but not what I was hoping for. I wish there were more spotlit Leon and a little less Elton. It’s all a bit too staid, & at 14 songs, too long.
    11b. Willie Nelson & Leon Russell, One for the Road (1979): Now, this is more like it. Both Willie and Leon sound positively jaunty; there’s a giddy looseness to the likes of “I Saw the Light” & “Heartbreak Hotel” (#1 country single!). A rare not-too-long double.
  1. CeCe Peniston, Thought ‘Ya Knew (1994): It’s called staying in your lane: the dance tracks made with Steve Hurley and Soulshock & Karlin for Peniston’s soph album work; the ballads and New Jack Swing (nobody wanted those), not so much. 
  2. Jazz Crusaders, Old Socks, New Shoes… New Socks, Old Shoes (1970): Final album before dropping “Jazz” from name saw the hard bop/soul crew moving into fusion territory, but ironically feat. Joe Sample’s “Jazz!” Wayne Henderson cuts (4) succeed, covers more mixed.
  3. Jane Child (1989): She wrote all 10 songs, played every instrument except guitar, & self-produced – and has never received the credit she deserves, because #OneHitWonder. But a) what a fucking hit, b) this synth-driven pop + some rock guitar *rips*.
    14b. Jane Child, Here Not There (1993): Weirder than her debut, and not in a good way. She cranks up the guitars but lays them atop pop songs more average, and bizarrely, some New Jack Swing. The songs here aren’t as good, either, though “Heavy Smile” is a standout.
  1. Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat (1981): New wave’s first US #1 album. The hits are indelible, Jane Weidlin’s “Automatic” almost Television-esque, & Belinda Carlisle’s emotionally blank vocals are perfect for these songs. None of them would do anything this good again.
  2. Sylvester, Mutual Attraction (1986): Less hi-NRG and more R&B/dance (think contemporaneous Gwen Guthrie), yet it works. “Someone Like You,” a top 20 R&B/#1 dance hit (his last), works a charm, and that glorious falsetto sounds as fine as ever. Lots of syn-drums.
  3. Shirley Caesar, Christmasing (1986): The Queen of Gospel + Christmas album = good call. I’d actually rather have heard her sing a set of 10 hymns, because she kills the likes of “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The originals aren’t as good as she deserves.
  4. Shania Twain (1993): Surprising to hear knowing what was coming, because this is a pretty MOR country record. Strong singing, mostly generic songs. Much of this could be Trisha or Faith, or even a b-list artist, cf. “God Ain’t Gonna Getcha,” “There Goes the Neighborhood.”
  5. Dr. John, Gris-Gris (1968): Not extensively familiar with his music, and WOW. A gumbo (sorry) of zydeco and New Orleans R&B and psych-rock, this debut is a truly original record that still sounds like nothing else, 50+ years on. It’s also very much a *mood*. Superb.
  6. Georgia, Seeking Thrills (2020): An ebullient electro-pop album exhibiting a real assurance in singing, songwriting, and production skills (she did all three all by herself). The former session drummer & daughter of Leftfield’s Neil Barnes is only going up from here.
  7. Gladys Knight & the Pips, Claudine (Soundtrack) (1974): Written/prod by Curtis Mayfield, this is the best + most cohesive Knight/Pips album; Mayfield clearly wrote for both the film and the group’s strengths. “On and On” is funky, “The Makings of You” lovely.
  8. Linda Ronstadt, Living in the USA (1978): She didn’t make a bad album in the ‘70s. Here she slays “Alison” and “Ooh Baby Baby” & rocks out Chuck Berry. A few others are just so-so, but “White Rhythm & Blues” is devastating, and is her voice (and the band) throughout. 
  9. Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (1992): My first front-to-back listen to the crit darlings, and it’s ok, archetypal ‘90s shaggy-dog indie. I don’t hear what people love about them so rabidly, though. The Mark E. Smith influence is obvious. “Two States” is glammy fun.
  10. Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells (2019): Too avant-garde for fusion, this jazz-soul vocal song cycle is defiantly *other* to its credit. Each song’s subtitled w/a body part, from “thoracic spine” to “blood.” It’s… interesting, but I doubt I’ll listen again.
  11. Joni Mitchell, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975): I know that JM is about words first/foremost, but OMFG. & besides stunning lyrics, the way she experiments with music here – using Tom Scott’s combo, ARP experiments on “Shadows and Light” – makes this one of her best.
  12. Judas Priest, Turbo (1986): Good, throbbing hard rock/metal, & who cares if there are synths on it? The songs (esp. side 1) are surprisingly solid, and a just-post-rehab Halford sounds great. I prefer him singing about love/sex over sci-fi/fantasy bullshit, too.
  13. Sylvia, Just Sylvia (1982): It wasn’t just pop getting slushy in the early ‘80s; country went A/C, too. And apart from a few mandolin bars, this is barely a country album outside of its marketing (and the waltz tempo on “I’ll Make It Right With You”). As MOR as it gets. 
    27b. Juice Newton, Quiet Lies (1982): She always read more country to me than Sylvia, but her contemporaneous album doesn’t back me up: acoustic guitars alone don’t make these pop songs country. (But the Brenda Lee cover is.) (The other singles aren’t, tho’ I love ‘em.)
  1. Buffy Saint-Marie, It’s My Way! (1964): On her debut, she sounds unexpectedly like a purer-voiced Yoko Ono. The songs, mostly self-penned, are fucking astounding and brutal, esp. “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “The Incest Song.” The simple production is pure beauty.
  2. Big Daddy Kane, Prince of Darkness (1991): I can listen to Kane rap all day long, between that voice and his ever-clever wordplay. But the production often lets him down here, the Prince-sampling “The Lover in You” a notable exception. @ 61:31, CD-era bloat in effect.
Posted in MWE

Songs: 3

The more I do this format, the more I like it.

Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You” (Infidels, 1983)

His best love song ever. Fight me.

Maurice White, “Stand by Me” (Maurice White, 1985)

I thought I never needed to hear the Ben E. King standard again, but I was wrong, because I hadn’t heard what White does with it. He starts it out fairly straight, but as the song progresses, he EWF’s it up (for lack of a better term) more and more, especially at the 2:24 mark. By the time you get to the end, it barely sounds like the original — and for me, that’s a good thing. From White’s only solo album.

Cliff Richard, “Never Say Die” (Silver, 1983)

Co-writer Terry Britten wrote Cliff’s 1976 smash “Devil Woman,” but you wouldn’t know it from this. (In 1984, he co-wrote the comeback to top all comebacks, Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” but you likely wouldn’t guess that from this, either.) This sounds for all the world like what Brit-funksters Imagination were doing around the same time — how, I have no idea. But I like it. Cliff over-emotes his way through this, but what else is new?

The Jackson 5, “Lookin’ Through the Windows” (Lookin’ Through the Windows, 1972)

I posted the audio clip rather than the Sonny & Cher or Soul Train “performances,” because you have to hear the opening 0:04 — compared to their initial spate of ’69/’70 hits, this is shocking. Those rat-a-tat drums! This is their great leap forward, into Temps-in-’72 territory, honest-to-goodness progressive soul. Even Motown’s teen idols weren’t immune! Not enough folks know this single, which is a shame, because it’s fucking superb.

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Songs: 2

My first such post got me called perspicacious, so that’s reason enough for another!

LL Cool J feat. Boyz II Men, “Hey Lover” (Mr. Smith, 1995)
Call it a comeback if you want: this became LL’s first top 10 on either the pop or R&B chart in five years, and kicked off a mini-renaissance for the rap pioneer; he had a trio of top 10s (on both charts) from his late ’95 album Mr. Smith, which saw him going in a more R&B-influenced direction. This is a real rarity in pop music: a song in which the male protagonist is daydreaming out loud about a woman he can’t have (“It’s a fantasy, you won’t come true/We never even spoke, and your man swear he love you”). LL has traditionally been one of the few A-list rappers to show vulnerability in his songs, and it serves him well here. Boyz II Men, hot off the monster success of II, provide the perfect ballast.

LL Cool J featuring Jennifer Lopez, “Control Myself” (Todd Smith, 2006)
LL’s most recent (and likely final) top 10 single on the Hot 100 was this blindingly brilliant record, produced by Jermaine Dupri (the man has a knack), based around a sample from Afrika Bambaataa’s “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” and featuring a sexy-as-fuck guest vocal from J-Lo. In fact, both LL and J-Lo sound sexy as fuck on this record, which is part of its appeal. Additionally, rooting it in “Perfect Beat” gives it an energy so kinetic it’s nigh impossible to resist. This was one of my top 10 singles of ’06, and it still holds up. Does it ever.

Jennifer Lopez, “Get Right” (Rebirth, 2005)
Riding a gloriously squawking horn riff from Maceo and the Macks’s “Soul Power 74,” this sounded, and sounds, like no other Lopez single – and that’s a great thing. She’s made good singles before and since, sure, but none with the urgency and intensity of “Get Right” – and did you know that Usher co-wrote it? Not to mention its video, which is a blast: Night of 1,000 J-Los!

Shakira, “Did It Again” (She Wolf, 2009)
What’s always attracted me to Shakira’s music is what a weirdo she is – and this single is a fine example. Co-written with Pharrell and co-produced with the Neptunes, the rhythms click and clack and almost run into each other (check out that post-chorus!), with Shakira alternately trying to catch up and pushing them. I love that she can’t be pinned down artistically, that she absolutely does her own thing, even when I don’t care for it (“Hips Don’t Lie,” that awful World Cup song), and bounces back and forth between English- and Spanish-language pop (and occasionally not-pop) at will.

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Songs: 1

The format we use over at The Singles Jukebox — blurbs, sometimes paragraph-length but more commonly 1-3 sentences — suits me well, which is a large part of why I’ve been contributing over there for going on six years. So I thought, well, why can’t I do that with non-current songs, here on my blog? I’m gonna try it and see how it works.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Chitlins Con Carne” (The Sky Is Crying, 1991)
A rare dip into jazz from the late Vaughan, this cover of Kenny Burrell’s 1963 composition shows off a slightly different side of his playing. It’s still bluesy, but his tone here is very reminiscent of Wes Montgomery, deep and gorgeous. I wish we’d gotten the opportunity to see what else Vaughan could do, and might’ve done, given the time.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “From the Beginning” (Trilogy, 1972)
I was recently exposed to this, ELP’s only US top 40 single, via the fascinating album rock station WXYG, to which I was introduced thanks to a recent Ross on Radio column about radio stations which “get it right” as we move from 2019 into 2020. WXYG, from Sauk Rapids, MN, plays album rock like it was played in the ’70s, mixing progressive with more traditional AOR, and dipping into the ’60s without blinking an eye. And as opposed to most album rockers, whose playlists are made up almost exclusively of white cis men (plus Heart), in just the last hour, WXYG has played Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder (“Sir Duke”! — he was actually huge on early FM AOR in the mid ’70s), and Rita Coolidge, along with the likes of Bob Seger, Paul Simon, and Boz Scaggs.

As for “From the Beginning,” it’s a surprisingly understated track from ELP’s ’72 album Trilogy, their highest-charting studio album in the U.S. (it peaked at #5). Built chiefly around a finger-picked acoustic guitar and some weird keyboard whooshes, “Beginning” is actually quite lovely — not the blowhard prog I’m used to from ELP.

Klique, “Stop Doggin’ Me Around” (Try It Out, 1983)
This ’83 cover of a 1960 Jackie Wilson hit was an R&B monster, spending four weeks at #2, while climbing to #50 pop. I’m not surprised; this isn’t remotely a crossover record, instead swathing Wilson’s song in early ’80s retronuevo clothes. It’s kind of a grower.

Laura Branigan, “Self Control” (Self Control, 1984)
Why wasn’t Laura Branigan a bigger star? She was red-hot for about 24 months, from late ’82 to late ’84, notching five consecutive top 20 hits. And then: almost nothing. (She did have the first hit with “The Power of Love,” later made huge by Céline Dion, in 1987, albeit only hitting #26.) Branigan was like a hotter version of Teri Hatcher, a great singer, and cut some great songs (including Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” — go on, fight me), but her career fizzled almost as quickly as it rose. This was co-written by one of the Italian co-writers of her first hit, “Gloria,” and might actually be a better record. I love how purely synthetic it sounds; perfect for 1984.

Hear ‘n Aid, “Stars” (Stars, 1986)
Where Ronnie James Dio attempts to make a metal version of “We Are the World,” only one which includes four minutes of guitar solos. This is gloriously, stunningly terrible, and you must watch the video. Rob Halford looks like he just arrived from a gay S&M club — which isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

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