1) James Brown: Blind Man Can See It (from “Black Caesar” OST)
Determining the best James Brown album is like arguing over what flavor of milkshake is best – people have their personal preferences but you’re not likely to come up with something crappy in the end. That said, you have think that the “Black Caesar” album is going to be in hot contention, ranking among the best blaxploitation soundtracks of the 1970s and one of the few OSTs Brown ever participated so fully in. This album helped produce numerous future classics from Brown’s catalog such as “Sportin’ Life,” “Mama Feelgood,” and “The Boss” alongside a variety of lesser known (but no less quality) cuts such as “White Lightning,” “Make It Good To You,” and especially the incredible “Down and Out in New York.” However, the super-duper-cream-on-top-whole-milk cut is “Blind Man Can See It,” – a song first introduced in the hip-hop generation by Lord Finesse, then blown the fuck up by Das Efx and most recently recycled by Jin. What makes this cut the jammy jam? It’s just the memorable guitar loop that everybody samples – it initially comes in around :45 but the money hit comes after the first four bars when the theme seems to momentarily float away and then comes back hard with a short drum roll. Pure head nod moment for the rest of the song as you just ride out on James Brown’s smoky groove. Makes you say unnnnnnh without the nah, nah, nah, nah.
2) Aretha Franklin: Day Dreaming (from “Young, Gifted and Black”)
I can never pick my MOST favorite Aretha jawn,but right now, “Day Dreaming” has me something bad. The song is just so, well, dreamy which sounds a bit cliche, but how else can you describe the beginning of the song with its floating electric piano, lifting you up into heights unknown? Then the back-up singers start crooning and slowly build the door through which Aretha steps through – “he’s the kind of guy/who’d say/hey baby/let’s get away/let’s go someplace/huh/where I don’t caaaaaarrrrrrreeeeee.” I’m not necessarily into three-somes but damn, I kind of want to hitch a ride to wherever those two are headed. This song is just so gorgeous, not just with the arrangement and production, both of which are rich and full, but the interplay between Aretha and her back-up singers is so beautiful. They begin on the chorus with “hey baby/let’s get away/let’s somewhere/far/baby can we?” and then Aretha answers, “where I don’t caaaaaaaarrrreeeee.” I could spend days in this song and not want to come out for air, water, Tivo, whatever.
3) Alicia Keys: You Don’t Know My Name (from “The Diary of Alicia Keys”)
I’m a little late in getting around to actually listening to this LP and I can thank MTV2’s “Hip-Hop’s Most Entertaining Videos” for introducing me to this song in particular. Let me get the bad stuff out of the way: I know Alicia is trying to capture that old school soul vibe, chatting things up on the song like Barry White, but it just does NOT work here. She goes on for far too long and with some truly inane patter. This isn’t Barry trying to talk someone’s panties off with a deep-throated “hey baby, you feel so good to me, I just want to lay you down and make love to you.” Instead, Alicia is talking about how she uses milk and cream to make Mos Def’s hot chocolate instead of water like her manager wants her too and the absolute WORST moment – talking about how her cell phone is losing reception. I mean, what the fuck is this, a Verizon commercial? Honey just needs to sing and play the piano and leave the stream of consciousness babble to a skit but instead, she goes on for A MINUTE AND A HALF which feels more like half an hour. It’s like going on a date with some super hot girl or guy you just met and then you realize that they just keep talking and talking and talking about nothing and you start inventing excuses about why you have to leave in order to bury a grandparent or maybe darn your socks.
Yet, despite this egregious display of bad musical judgment, the other 4.5 minutes of the song are gorgeous, probably one of the best new soul songs I’ve heard in at least a year, if not more. I mean, maybe Beyonce can make the hotter club cut, but Yonce can’t sing. Alicia can – she can croon, she can warble, she can shoo-be-doop and cop ’em with the best and she’s just so butter on this. Of course, you also have to give ample credit to producer Kanye West, as well as the Main Ingredient whose “Let Me Prove My Love” powers the entire beat. The combined elements creates a song in the best tradition of the Philly Sound, Chi-Lites and any number of other soul legends of the ’70s. The hotness is the piano decrescendo (also from the Main Ingredient) that Kanye carefully sprinkles only on the chorus and its unexpected inclusion adds just the right touch to make the song even more memorable. It says a lot that this song can annoy the hell out of me but I still can’t get enough of it.
One more thing that I’m still trying to work out is why I like how the song opens, with its quintet of descending whole notes. My current theory is that this melodic entry is unexpected. In the original Main Ingredient song, it only comes at the END of a two bar measure but here, Kanye has moved it to the beginning and it’s as if you step into a song already in progress, like walking into a club that’s already popping off with some crazy vibe. You catch up with the song within an instant, but from there on out, those five notes keep coming back and they’re always just a little bit unexpected, a little surprising, like a present you can get over and over again but never gets old.
4) The Beatles: Long, Long, Long (from “The Beatles” aka “The White Album”)
Ok, I already gave this LP props in my album appreciation but I wanted to highlight this song in particular. It’s one of George Harrison’s lone offerings from “The White Album” (his most famous being “As My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and it’s such an interesting, lonesome ballad. It begins so quiet and it mostly is a quiet song except for Ringo’s moments of percussive interruption but the arrangement also moves off in directions you don’t expect it too (especially at the end). Also, I’m no Elliot Smith expert but doesn’t it sound like he cribbed most of his singing career off this one song? I could’ve sworn that this was “Miss Misery” if I wasn’t paying more attention.
5) Eddie Kendricks: Intimate Friends (from “Slick”)
I first became acquainted with this song through Common Sense’s “A Penny For My Thoughts” which samples it and I always wondered what that gorgeous soul cut was. Eventually, I discovered it was Eddie Kendricks who I feel like was never given his propers as one of the illest soulsters of the ’70s. Not like Kendricks is some unsung secret but if you listen to his body of work, he’s definitely in rotation with the finest that decade produced – such a sweet voice with hidden depth. “Intimate Friends” is a later ballad, circa 1977, and it’s produced superbly – crazy cooled out and mellow but heavy and deep like the mind of Farrakhan, the song’s a soul phenomenon. You just want to climb into this, as if the song were a nice flannel blanket and chill there with your girl and maybe some fuzzy puppies or something. Ok, or maybe not. You get the idea.