For those of you who subscribe to my (old) Sidebar podcast, you may (or shortly will) discover a new episode awaiting you, the first in nearly two years. One of my ambitions for this year is to produce more audio content and while I’m working on a more ambitious podcast idea, I decided, in the short run, to create something that was simple to throw together at home: an annotated playlist.
The conceit is simple: pick one of my iTunes thematic playlists, hit “random,” pluck out the first 10 songs and talk about them. I started with my “Favorites and Recent” playlist, which I use on my phone for either 1) recent digitizations or 2) favorite songs. As such, this particular spin of the wheel yielded some obvious hits but in the future, I’ll likely pick other playlists that are filled with songs off the beaten path.
This is an experiment. I’m basically taking what could have been a 10-song Soul Sides post and turned it into a podcast instead. Maybe people will prefer just reading the same content vs. listening to me yammer on about them. Send me some feedback and let me know your preference. If enough folks like it, I’d be happy to do more down the road.
Ohio Players: Ecstasy (Matthew Africa Edit) (Westbound, 1973/2012)
Jack McDuff: Shadow Of Your Smile (Atlantic, 1967)
Leo Sayer: Magdelena (Warner Bros, 1976)
Chi-Lites: Oh Girl (Brunswick, 1972)
Joni Mitchell: All I Want (Reprise, 1971)
The Ethics: I Want My Baby Back (Vent, 1969)
Francois Rauber: Improvisation (Unidisc, 197?)
The Relatives: More Time To Explain (Archway, 196?)
The Pharycde: She Said (Jay Dee Remix) (Delicious Vinyl, 1976)
The Hassles: 4 O’Clock in the Morning (United Artists, 1968)
Secret Santa: Christmas Medley
This is a reup of one of my favorite “wait, what?” holiday sonsgs: a medley of Christmas carols from a mid-70s LP out of Europe. I like how the announcer tries to explain, in very formal language, how the arranger here makes things funky.
I didn’t include this in my year-end wrap-up because, technically, it wasn’t a discover; I’ve known about it for years, it just took until now to finally track down a copy. As I’ve written in the past, I’m not a heavy library collector by any means but there are a few titles that I’ve chased throughout the years, none more so than this Tele Music title from Tonio Rubio. In terms of sheer bang-for-buck, I’d rank this as high as any library LP out there though for me personally, this is primary a 2.5 tracker.1
“Bass In Action No. 1” is on the short list of “songs that sounded like a hip-hop beat 15-20 years ahead of time.” I mean…c’mon: the slow, lumbering bass line, the drifting electric piano, the way the breakbeat patiently waits to pop in around the one minute mark. It’s straight up proto-trip-hop.
Edit: James Burgos made a great observation: “That track reminds me of [Cannonball Adderley’s] “Hummin‘.” The Rhodes seems like it even quotes some of the horn phrasing.” I think he’s 100% correct; this sounds like a riff on “Hummin.'”
“Latin Leitmotif” is equally delicious, least of all for its phasing effects and that killer montuno that’s played on…actually, I’m not sure what the hell it’s played on. Piano and bass in tandem? (My wife describes it as “a dirty piano” and that works for me). This track is so fun and funky, it makes you wonder what the hell Rubio and the Tele Music crew were thinking (or smoking) when they sat down to tape it.
Like I said, took me years to track down a copy but all good things to those who…
The half track is for “Bass In Action No. 2” which is very similar to “No. 1” except for the added scat singing. ↩
The horns dropping into “Full Salsa” constitute one of my favorite musical moments of the year. The motif returns several times over the course of this long salsa dura jam but it’s all about this opening moment where the arrangement is more sparse, thus setting up the horns to provide an unexpected blast of heat.1
My discovery of Les Vikings stems back to 2015, when I visited Paris’s Superfly Records and became aware of the French Antilles imprint Aux Ondes/Disques Celini. The quality of the Latin music on the label is exceptional, with “Guaganco In Jazz” being one of the most puro Afro-Cuban examples you can find on them.2
I go weak at the knees for practically anything with electric piano, least of all in the service of a good Latin groove. This entire Drum Solos volume is just that: a Latin percussion instructional album that makes heavy use of what I assume to be a Rhodes.3 Nothing here is that complicated, rhythm-wise, but that’s the point: it’s meant to be easy for the amateur percussionist start improvising over which means we get nothing but killer riffs. Same applies to “Medium Cool,” off a library album that’s simply entitled Pianofender Blues (the moment I saw the title and cover, I just figured “yep, I’ll take this.” It didn’t disappoint.
The Pedro Plascencia is an example of another weaknesses: cover songs. I love the sheer ferocity of Plascencia’s playing on here. The arrangement isn’t very different from the original Barbara Acklin/Young Hot Unlimited version but his solo-ing adds that precious bonus element.
Gnonnas Pedro and His Dadjes Band International: Dadje Von Von Von (From The Band of Africa Vol 3. African Sounds Ltd., 1977)
I ordered the Gnonnas Pedro LP on the strength of its Latin elements but the most striking cut on it is closer to the group’s West African roots. “Dadje Von Von Von” has an infectiously funky momentum to it and the guitar does marvelous work on here.
With Cymande, I had the opportunity to interview their founding members on the occasion of their surprise reunion. That gave me an excuse to revisit their catalog beyond the big hits like “Bra” or “The Message,” and the one track I kept coming back to was the mellow, hypnotic “One More.” It’s funny how a song that’s so seemingly simple on the front end can be completely captivating even if it’s initially little more than a slow guitar line played over some lightly chattering percussion.
I ended 2015 on a NOLA-note with Zilla Mayes and 2016 also had its own Crescent City moments. The Rhine Oaks – essentially The Meters trying to sneak from under their Josie contract – create a Euro library record vibe with the mesmerizing “Tampin'” while Willie Harper’s “I Don’t Need You Anymore” is one of the most devastating deep soul sides I’ve heard in ages (more about it here).
I wrote about the Karriem as one of the first posts of 2016 and it’s only fitting to include it on my year-end wrap-up since it’s still one of the best things I heard all year. By sheer coincidence (or is it?) it was reissued for the first time ever this year too.
The Cole 7″ came from the now defunct Soulific Records store in Long Beach (RIP!). I wouldn’t have guessed this was a Jamaican single; it sounds like a crossover track that could have easily come out of Chicago or Detroit but that was deliberate as Cole was a pen name created by Winston Francis when he opted to cut a series of songs that differed from the roots reggae sound he was becoming known for. What’s especially great is the flipside, which is an instrumental that replaces Cole/Francis’s vocals with guitar instead.
These three can all be filed under “reissues I only discovered now.” The Banks, in particular, has been in my crates since it first came out in ’09 but I hadn’t bothered to really listen to it. It’s fantastic, basically a Brothers of Soul song in all but name only (but once I realized that, it was clear why I found the sound so familiar). If I’m not mistaken, the song was never on 7″, not LP, which explains why Ever-Soul (Daptone subsidiary) went through the trouble to reissue it as a B-side.
The Mind & Matter was something I was peeping out at the Groove Merchant and both myself and Cool Chris loved the switch-up that starts around 4:45. A young Jimmy “Jam” Harris was a beast!
Staying on the Numero tip, I think that same trip to the Groove Merchant is what brought me the Master Plan Inc. 7″, which missed my radar back in ’13. This song is so perfect across the board: the funky wah-wah guitars that kick things off, the open break that follows, the falsetto lead, the way the horns accent the track, gorgeous, all of it. I’m pretty sure this was unreleased but had it come out back in the day, you could easily have convinced me this would have become a $1000 single.
These days – until perhaps the end of days – what I’m drawn to is the sweet soul, end-of-night closing cuts. The Pagan I (re)discovered retroactively because of how Kali Uchis sampled it and it was yet another reminder of how Pagan was the greatest of the Latin soul crooners (no offense to my man Joe Bataan, who comes in at a close second).
The Pretenders song is yet another fantastic sweet soul offering on the Carnival label (also see: the Manhattans and Lee Williams & the Cymbals). I’m almost certain that’s Patricia Tandy on lead vocals and dare I say, I think she does a better job singing this one than on the Manhattans original.
I picked up the Larks single because I thought they were the same Larks from Los Angeles that Don Julian lead but I’m now thinking they were an entirely different group (albeit from the same era and with a similar sound) from Cleveland instead. Doesn’t matter – still a great doo-wop influenced tune.
Freedom Suite was one of several Chicano bands out of East Los Angeles that competed in a talent contest, with the top placing groups being included on the Chicanos Explode In Concert compilation. This might just be my favorite LP purchase for the year…I mean, amateur high school bands from East L.A. recording sweet soul tunes? I am all in. (It was hard picking my favorite song off the LP but hearing Freedom Suite cover Robert & Johnny’s 1958 classic was simply irresistible, esp. when they go all polyvocal.
The Sam Cooke was one of those songs I’ve always heard in the background somewhere but it wasn’t until this year that I truly sat with it and added it to my short list of all-time favorite Cooke songs. Also, I love that Journey basically bit it to make “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.”
And lastly, we come to a song that I listened to more times than I could have counted in 2016. I’ve already written about why I sat with so much Mayfield/Impressions this past year and “I’ve Been Trying” was the one song I kept returning to, just to hear that three-voice falsetto stack that comes at the song’s end. Maybe I toss around the word “sublime” too much but this is one case where it’s 100% apt.
I should point out that this song has an earlier section which sounds completely different and I edited it to get to this part of the song sooner. ↩
The great thing about this era of Les Vikings is that it’s not just classic Afro-Cuban tracks but a whole plethora of different styles they played with. ↩
I’m basing this on the bell-like tone. Could be a Wurlitzer though. ↩
Ordinarily, I might chalk up to having these many new artists coming from the same city as coincidence but it feels like Chicago’s music scene is the midst of some kind of glorious moment right now. Musically, the Jamila Woods, NoName and Chance projects share much in common but it’s also about collaboration since every artist above has worked with at least 1-2 other people.
Woods’s “HEAVN” is suitably sublime, given its name, and there’s so many layers of meaning at play here. It’s about love rising within and against violence, history, tragedy, resistance and liberation. All that and an amazing polyvocal hook plus a Cure shout-out for all the ‘80s kids.
The NoName album sounds like it was made with a roomful of children’s musical toys and I mean that as a compliment in the best possible way.
I didn’t love Chance’s Coloring Book as much as others but it had these moments of transcendent magic, especially the on “How Great” when the track shifts from the gospel choir to the sample crafted from their singing. Plus, it made sense to throw it into the mix here, paired with “Ultralight Beam.” I feel like I’ve said this elsewhere but I don’t think The Life of Pablo will improve with time (not to least of which is because of Kanye’s antics) but “Ultralight Beam” stays stunning.
I think we can all agree that 2016 could have used more Kendrick yet even between two tracks, he still managed to leave quite the impression. “Untitled 06” owes as much to Cee-lo as it does KL but together, they create a groove so good that it’s hard to believe this was left on a cutting room floor originally. Meanwhile, Kendrick’s verse on the “THat Part” remix mandolins your mind so thoroughly that you may need a guide to follow every rhyme he layers in there.
I don’t have much more to add that I haven’t already said except to repeat that the very existence of this album feels like a miracle and a gift. This track, in particular, will have me bouncing well into the new year and beyond.
Technically, “Might Be” should be listed as a “discovery” since it’s two years old but as much as I thought Malibu was a solid effort, no Paak song got more rotation from me this year than “Might Be,” after I heard it on Wynter Mitchell’s “Summer of Wynter” playlist earlier this year.
But in terms of current R&B jams, Frank Ocean’s “Pink + White” had me zoning out like practically no other song this year. Even if I agree that Blond felt form-less at times, sometimes, vibe > songs.
Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” goes in a completely opposite direction: a big big sound that wants to raise the roof, burn it down and then get everyone to pitch in to rebuild it. How this wasn’t a smash hit of the summer, I’ll never understand.
But let’s just be real: Beyonce managed to find some next level of dominance that I would never have guessed was possible unlike “Formation” blew in and up. I very much want to see how artists like her and Kendrick perform (literally and figuratively) over the next few years.
It feels somehow wrong to laud 2016 as a great year for retro-soul considering we lost both Sharon Jones and the Frightnrs’ Dan Klein but the sheer quality of output from stalwart labels like Daptone, Big Crown and Timmion was undeniable.1
I’m sneaking the Jack Moves into the 2016 column even though the album came out in ’15 simply because I didn’t come upon it until this year. “Being With You” sounds like some kind of lost track from the Sylvers II album and in general, I loved the group’s take on a particular style of NY/NJ ’70s R&B.
Charles Bradley continues to emote anguish better than almost any other but “Things We Do For Love,” my favorite song off of Changes, was lighter in the tone. He almost sounds…happy here. 😉
The Frankie Reyes is an example of how the simplest of ideas can yield amazing results. Even in an age of digital patches for everything, there’s something to be said about the unique qualities of vintage synths.
Even if The Frightnrs’ album is haunted by the loss of Klein, the world needs more rocksteady grooves and I hope the group continues to deliver in that vein.
Who knew there was a Bolivian-Finnish tradition in music-making? Bobby Oroza is second-generation in that and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from him for the future. (BTW, am I the only one who thinks Oroza and Reyes should collabo?)
Hands-down, this new Lee Fields album is the best thing he’s released with The Expressions since their first collaboration on My World (maybe better) and “Never Be Another You,” is just one of a slew of incredible tracks off of there.
Had to end this with a nod to the late Sharon Jones with the sole new song off of the soundtrack for Miss Sharon Jones! I suppose the title feels bittersweet now but the spirit behind it is what matters and until the very end, Jones’s willpower and vibrancy stayed shining.
I should also acknowledge that some of these imprints are branching into non-soul releases like The Shacks on Big Crown or The Mystery Lights on Daptone. Makes sense and I hope they continue to do so even if my first and forever love will be for their soul output. ↩
Forgot to mention to folks that I’m now doing a test run on columns for BeatTips.com as part of their “Marquee Names” series, looking at key artists and recordings. The first one I wrote was about Curtis Mayfield and I have a shorter piece, up today, about the incredible Rhetta Hughes song, “You’re Doing With Her.”
It’s been a while since I voted in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop poll but for whatever reason, I decided to do so this year even though I didn’t have a literal top 10 (just top 8). The way Pazz and Jop works is that your picks are weighted so this is what I turned in:
Beyonce: Lemonade (20 points)
Frank Ocean: Blond/e (20)
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here (15)
Noname: Telefone (15)
Lee Fields: Special Night (10)
Jamila Woods: HEAVN (10)
Frankie Reyes: Boleros Valses y Mas (5)
Kendrick Lamar: Untitled. Unmastered. (5)
These were, to be sure, kind of spur of the moment for me and if I had more time, I might have rejiggered some of the point values or what have you but overall, these were the albums that gave me the most pleasure in 2016 and/or the ones I felt that were important to be recognized.