(from l-r, Alton Ellis, Edwin Starr, Labi Siffre, The Impressions
Joe Bataan, Stevie Wonder, the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band
Bobby Matos, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Skye 7″)
(This post began life on Side Dishes and has “evolved” since).
I had a strange realization the other week: 2008 might be the first year where I spent more time listening to older music than new music. This hasn’t been out of nowhere – it’s been a long-term shift but it hit me, when I was trying to come up with the standard “Top 10” list that I’m not even sure if I actually listened to 10 new albums in ’08.
Not just that: even the new music I did like tended to overwhelmingly be music that sounded like it was from another era – Raphael Saadiq, Solange Knowles, Mayer Hawthorne, etc. For real – if there was one big presence in my 2008 year-in-review, it was Motown! Not only do quite a few Motown artists fill up my “old music I discovered this year list,” amongst the new artists, several of them ride off the Motown sound and one of them (Q-Tip) is actually signed to Motown.
I turned 36 this year but why do I feel like my tastes are that of a 66 year old?
On one hand, your tastes are your tastes and if that’s the direction I’m leaning, maybe I should just shrug and enjoy it. I don’t have the professional pressure to have to stay as current as my colleagues do but as I said last year, I also don’t want to be a born-again baby boomer (even though my fascinating with the 1960s has only grown this past year).
So here’s my New Year’s Resolution For 2009: I shall listen to more new music and ideally, not new music that sounds like old music. (We’ll check back a year from now and see where I’m at).
This all said, here’s Part 1 of my year-in-review, beginning with old music I (re)discovered.
Edwin Starr: Running Back and Forth
From War & Peace (Gordy, 1970)
I get music recommendations from all sorts but no one is more influential than my friend Hua who has probably put me up on more of my more recent “new favorite songs” than any other single source I know. It helps that he has kick ass taste as well as a circle of friends in NY who have equally good taste and so I get some of these recommendation second, even third hand but heck – I ain’t too proud!
Case in point: this lesser known single off Starr’s big selling War and Peace album. It’s easy enough to forget that there was any other songs from that LP given how successful and iconic the “War” single became but when I first heard “Running Back and Forth,” I had a proverbial jaw-drop over how good it was and that it’d be from the same album. This song oozes with classic Motown production strengths of its era (RIP Norman Whitfield!), especially in its brass and the driving push of the sound bed. Seriously, try to piece apart all the little bits of the music; it is dense yet comes off sounding clean and simple. In contrast to Starr’s forceful polemicizing on “War,” here, he’s in classic love man mode, trying to kick some game. (Bonus points for the Sam Cooke nod on the bridge).
Labi Siffre: A Little More Line
From S/T (Pye, 1970)
This British singer, songwriter and poet has a voice you can’t soon forget – it’s not the most powerful, nor the most dynamic – but it is so distinctive and soothing, it stays with you long after the song’s end. I especially love how this song builds from an almost hymnal opening only to swell in size and sound with the string orchestration and some killer work on the drums. Siffre’s entire catalog from the ’70s is classic material (even if many of you probably have never heard of him). This was from his debut album and it’s just as good of a place to start as any to enjoy his gifts.
Alton Ellis: What Does It Take To Win Your Love
From Sunday Coming (Coxsone, 1971)
There is something humbling discovering this song the year of Ellis’ death. My awareness of him preceded his passing but I had been giving Ellis’ cover of Jr. Walker’s hit much spin in the first part of the year that when Ellis passed away in October, I found myself coming back to his catalog again and again. Ellis was arguably reggae’s finest soul man, not just with his covers but also original compositions.
The Impressions: I’m Loving Nothing
From This Is My Country (Curtom, 1968)
In a year of Obama’s ascendency, there are no doubt more apropos songs from the Impressions’ catalog but the song of theirs that will haunt me is “I’m Loving Nothing.” Its beauty seems almost profane given that this is all about the death of love. Not something you’d want as a first dance at your wedding but doesn’t it sound like an embrace rather than slow turn away?
Bonnie and Shelia: You Keep Me Hanging On
From 7″ (King, 1971). Also on New Orleans Funk Vol. 2.
King is best known as the home of James Brown for many of his pivotal funk productions of the late 60s but at least for this single, the Cincinnati-based label picked up a slice of NOLA funk thanks to this excellently produced tune from Wardell Quezerque. One of my new favorite femme funk tracks, “You Keep Me Hanging On” reminds me a lot of the snap and sass of Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” Hang with it.
Ray Barretto: Pastime Paradise (Good Parts Edit)
From La Cuna (CTI, 1981)
Gotta thank my man Rani D for hepping me to this Barretto song. As big of a fan I am of the late master’s work, I had never listened to anything he did past the early ’70s and I was mightily drawn to how good this cover of Stevie Wonder’s song is. The sound of this song is just so gorgeous, especially the first few minutes but I did have to admit I wasn’t quite as enamored with the vocals…and cheesy sex…and bad, Santana-wannabe rock guitar. So I just cut all that out and left you with a 1/3rd length “best of” edit from the song. Like Bobby B. – it’s my prerogative.
Joe Bataan: Ordinary Guy (7″ version)
From 7″ (Fania, 1967)
“Ordinary Guy” has been Joe Bataan’s enduring hit for over 40 years but this version, which only appeared on 7″ single, isn’t well known and when I first heard it, I was instantly enamored. It’s not entirely clear what Fania’s thinking was but they brought in pianist Richard Tee to give the song a a subtle new dynamic, most obviously heard in how different the new intro is. Tee’s piano has a strong presence, especially with an arrangement that sounds very much like the beginning of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Precious Love.” This is probably my favorite version of the song, precisely for that intro which gives the tune such a rich, soulful feel to it.
Bobby Matos: Nadie Baila Como Yo
From My Latin Soul (Phillips, 1968)
I’ve owned Bobby Matos and Combo Conquistadores’ incredible My Latin Soul album for years, but I had somehow totally overlooked the incredible charm of “Nadie Baila Como Yo” (nobody dances like me). It wasn’t until I heard the Boogaloo Assassins play it at their shows that I was reminded of how damn good it is; it’s since become, easily, one of my favorite Latin songs ever. Love how it changes up from a guanguanco into a son montuno and has those beautiful keyboard chords anchoring.
Skye: Ain’t No Need (Unity Mix)
From 7″ (Ananda, 1976)
When I was out in New York earlier this year, Jared at Big City Records slipped a reissue of this 45 into my hand and I was hooked (and then later, managed to procure an original from the Groove Merchant). Sometimes all you need is a good groove and this obscure disco single from the mid-70s delivers a one helluva great groove that just goes on and on and on. Under other circumstances, I’d find the whole thing repetitious but somehow, I don’t tire of it. Ever. (I created this “Unity Mix” which combines the original mix and disco mix in a simple edit).
Stevie Wonder: Send Me Some Lovin’
From I Was Made to Love Her (Motown, 1967)
Heck, I could have filled this list with Stevie Wonder songs I’ve been rediscovering but “Send Me Some Lovin'” has stood in front of that line. I love the small touches of funk to the arrangement, especially those pianos at the very beginning. This has a fantastic groove to it and you put Stevie’s distinctive vocals on top of that and you have an unbeatable combination.
Songs that are technically new (i.e. that just came out) but are based on older recordings:
Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band: Express Yourself (alternate version)
From Puckey Puckey: Jams and Outtakes, 1970-71 (Rhino Handmade, 2008)
This was a real gem from the Puckey Puckey anthology that I wrote the liner notes for. It’s a completely alternate recording of the Watts 103rd’s big hit, “Express Yourself.” Compared to the original, this one is far more languid, like the group was nearing the end of their recording day and just wanted to something to chill out to, maybe smoke a bowl to (as they were known to).
Final Solution: I Don’t Care
From Brotherman (Numero Group, 2008)
Provided – their name was terrible. No one wants to think of the Holocaust while groovin’ to sweet soul – but even if the Chicago band formerly known as the Kaldirons probably could have chosen a better name for themselves, at least the music speaks for itself. The album – a soundtrack for a blaxploitation film never made – has an interesting backstory all its own but for now, all you need to know is how damn good “I Don’t Care” is. Especially when paired with that melancholy but heavy guitar melody by newcomer Carl Wolfolk, there’s something sublime about how the group’s falsetto voices come coasting in on top of the track. It’s a mix of slow-building drama with an angelic set of voices, lending a gospel-like quality to the music’s otherwise dark undertones.
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (DJ Day Edit)
From 7″ single (MPM, 2008)
This single just came out a week or so ago and it finds California’s DJ Day reworking an alternative version of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” in a way so clean and organic that even Motown fanatics would swear it was a lost tape from the label’s vaults. I don’t know why it sounds so perfect with the season but there’s something warm and comforting about this that makes you want to wrap yourself in it.
Nina Simone: Gimme Some (Mike Mangini Remix)
V/A: Verve Remixed 4 (Verve, 2008)
Frankly, this song had three killer remixes that I found almost equally commendable including Diplo’s remix of Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul” and the smoky Chris Shaw remix of Sarah Vaughn’s “Tea For Two”. But if I had to pick amongst that trio, this Nina Simone reworking took the slimmest of leads, possibly because it’s so damn happy (which is not an adjective I often associate with Her High Priestess. Seriously though, this whole album is nice.
1. Patti Drew: Stop and Listen
2. Joubert Singers: Stand On the Word
3. Ceil Miner: Stardust
4. Aaron Neville: She Took You For a Ride
5. New Holidays: Maybe So, Maybe No
6. Nick and Valerie: I’ll Find You
7. Pedrito Ramirez y su Combo: Micaela
8. Bobby Reed: The Time is Right
9. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: If You Can Want
10. Tammi Terrell: What a Good Man He Is
PART 2: NEW(ISH) MUSIC (to follow soon!)