May 28: Solomon Burke, D’Angelo, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Cee-Lo Green, Otis Redding, The Temptations

This week in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, we’re checking out some of the more soulful numbers from the collection. Of course I’ve already written about some of the all-time great soul singers – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown – so let’s see what else this storied genre has to offer us.

Solomon Burke, ‘Rock ‘N Soul’

Presumably named to indicate a fusion of rock’n’roll and soul music, this 1964 cut has a full side of tracks heavily indebted to doo-wop, its 6/8 balladeering the sort that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Elvis record (regular Presley songwriters Leiber and Stoller contribute a track here). The second half feels more up-tempo, but there’s not much here that leapt off the speakers into my heart. A man I knew nothing about, Burke later became a preacher: not the only reverend on this week’s list.

D’Angelo, ‘Brown Sugar’

Less concerned with getting you to the bedroom than assuming that you’re already there, D’Angelo takes parts from Stevie, Marvin and Luther and blends them with ‘Illmatic’-ish smoky drum samples and electric piano. It’s a superior take on the sort of refined, minimal sound that Boyz II Men or Blackstreet were purveying at the same time (along with also-ran UK acts like Mark Morrison or Conor Reeves).  Not unduly concerned with changing tempo, D’Angelo does nonetheless incorporate some Santana-ish guitar on both ‘Me And Those Dreaming Eyes of Mine’ and (not that one) ‘Smooth’,  while this is surely the only shag album to have a track about being cuckolded (he doesn’t take it well: it’s called ‘Shit, Damn, Motherfucker’).

Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’

Last time we met Aretha it was on the sassy ‘Lady Soul‘. This album, a couple earlier in her career, opens with ‘Respect’ but generally is heavier on the piano and more restrained in nature, with a smaller-sounding band adding to the intimacy. There’s some swelling Hammond on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, some rock guitar on ‘Save Me’ and some waltz-time electric piano on ‘Soul Serenade’. I preferred ‘Lady Soul’ but the time flew by on this one too.

Al Green, ‘Let’s Stay Together’

Of course the title track, which opens the album, is one of the all-time great soul songs, with unshowy musicianship and a beautiful voice. It sets the tone for the album’s tales of love and heartbreak, with a laidback, brassy feel that was ideal for the sunny Sunday evening I listened to it on. The second half highlight is Bee Gees cover ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’. This is Al’s only appearance on the list: none of his secular or religious stuff otherwise features. There is another Green on the list though…

Cee-Lo Green, ‘…Is The Soul Machine’

“I can sing, I can rap, I can act”, boasts the Totoro lookalike and muumuu wearer on an album that features far too little of the singing and much too much of the rapping. Green’s flow and verbosity suits rap fine, but his Macy Gray falsetto just doesn’t sound right spitting bars, particularly when he has such a great singing voice (as seen on ‘Crazy’, ‘Fuck You’ and so on). Indeed the Soul Machine seems like an informed attribute rather than a demonstrated one, as the music is mostly unremarkable turn-of-century rap fare produced by usual suspects like Timbaland and the Neptunes. There’s even a turn by Ludacris. A good audition for Oogy Boogy in a ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ remake but not an essential album.

Otis Redding, ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’

I only really knew Redding for ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay’, the mainstream soul sound of which doesn’t demonstrate any of Redding’s funk, energy or passion. This album, on the other hand, covers all of those. ‘Respect’ also shows up here – turns out it’s a Redding original, and who knew? – as does ‘My Girl’, another song I only knew from its more famous Temptations version. There’s plenty of lust and urge in these songs, ably backed by a band featuring Booker T and the MGs on rhythm and brass and Isaac Hayes on piano. Probably my favourite album this week.

The Temptations, ‘Cloud Nine’

Early on in ‘Cloud Nine’, we get a clumsy version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, which seems to have been around a few Motown acts before Marvin Gaye’s definitive version. That’s nothing compared to the madness of ‘Runaway Child, Runnin’ Wild’, which stretches funk clavinet, country guitar picking and a child crying for his mother over nine minutes. The label must have found out what they were up to in the studio after that, though, as the second half of the album is more conventional fare. The overall effect is kind of forgettable, although perhaps it was a bigger deal in context and did kick off a quartet of psychedelic soul albums released by the band, influenced by Sly Stone (the first track especially).

Next week: It’s time for another look at the most common artists on the list.

Status update: 520 of 1001 (52%), 481 remaining.