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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)
  • Cymande: One More (From Cymande. Janus, 1972)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I’m basing this on the bell-like tone. Could be a Wurlitzer though.