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.

 

 

January 8: Nick Drake, Aretha Franklin, George Harrison, Fela Kuti, Love, Lou Reed, Dusty Springfield

Happy New Year everyone! Since the last update, there’s been a new version of the 1001 Albums book released, adding ‘Blackstar’, FKA Twigs and The War on Drugs among others but finding no room for ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’: the full list from that version is here. I’m going to persevere with the list I’ve been working from, rather than drive myself insane by trying to combine or reconcile the lists. We’re still likely to have a late 2018 finish date for this project, by which point there’ll probably be another revision!

This week, we’re easing back into it with some of the albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing. Excitingly, we’re far enough through the project that this includes artists I hadn’t heard before I started doing this, such as our first artist…

Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon’

While ‘Bryter Layter‘ had seen Drake working with a full band for pretty, John Cale-ish arrangements, it was only under sufferance from the minimalist guitarist, and he stripped his sound back to basics for ‘Pink Moon’: the album is just him, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The record is alarmingly intimate as a result: on ‘Things Behind the Sun’, for example, the tempo wobbles, a string is mishit, there’s a split-second of hesitation. You can almost hear his fingers against the soundboard. The starkness would be about as exciting as a bare wall painted magnolia, but Drake is such a good singer, writer and guitarist that it overcomes the austerity. Just three albums into his career, this was it for Drake: he never recorded anything else and died of an overdose two years later. His whole canon is on the list.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

The First Lady of Soul was a prolific recording artist: this is her fourteenth album, and features a dozen musicians, including her sisters and Whitney Houston’s mum on backing vocals. It has two of Aretha’s best-known songs, ‘Chain of Fools’ and Carole King’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’, but almost anything on this album could have been a single. Her passionate delivery – sometimes delivering sassy put-downs, sometimes full of romantic yearning – sets her apart from the pack, but she’s also matched by raunchy horns and soulful keyboards from the backing band. It’s Franklin being good, what a surprise.

George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’

My goodness, but this album is long. A treble album recorded with Ringo, Badfinger and Clapton among many others, this first post-Beatles collection features Harrison compiling a selection of songs rejected by the Beatles or about them and adding some new jams on top (literally: the third album is an interminable series of jams). I love Harrison’s Beatles contributions – the cool Indian elements, the blistering solos, the dour compositions – but he was never a strong lead singer and that’s made more clear when faced with producer Phil Spector’s “just add everything” approach, which swallows the songs whole. The album’s distinguishing feature is Harrison’s slide guitar, which rises above the overegged pudding, but overkill is a pretty good summary of the record generally.

Fela Kuti & Africa 70 & Ginger Baker, ‘Live!’

Burned out from touring and partying, Cream drummer Ginger Baker fled to Nigeria for a change of scene, where he spent his time getting high with Fela Kuti. While Kuti had a very good drummer of his own in Tony Allen, Baker appeared on a couple of albums including this one. His appearances on the B-side are dynamic percussion-heavy grooves, while the rest of the album is a fun, loose, fluid collection, as you’d probably expect given the live setting.

Love, ‘Da Capo’

Forever Changes‘ is in the pantheon but I think I prefer ‘Da Capo’, a more ragged, weird offering which offers harpsichord solos and (on ‘Seven and Seven Is’) pre-thrash rock. Unsurprisingly it sounds very much like a mid-60s record, as with ‘Forever Changes’, but it keeps you guessing more frequently. It ends on a bummer though, with the deathless ‘Revelation’, where guitars and saxes wail away for nearly twenty minutes. Like most 18-minute jams, it’s best enjoyed by avoiding it altogether. The good news, of course, is that it’s the last track and you can always press ‘stop’ before you get there.

Lou Reed, ‘Berlin’

The Velvet Underground are one of my favourite bands but Reed’s solo work has always felt patchy to me: even when he was vibing with the Spiders from Mars on ‘Transformer’, the songwriting was rarely good enough for a full album. Reed was still riding the commercial crest of ‘Transformer’ on this, his follow-up, so in a typical move he decided to make it one of the most depressing records ever. The album’s overly upbeat first half isn’t much to shout about but, when the band cut out 60% of the way through ‘Oh Jim’, the stark grimness of the mostly-acoustic second half becomes a compelling Mike Leigh nightmare as the heroine Caroline’s life spirals into the vortex. Nice to see the Velvets’ prettiest song, ‘Stephanie Says’, brought back to life here, although renamed ‘Caroline Says II’, it’s a brutally damaged version telling of Caroline’s domestic abuse and isolation.

Dusty Springfield, ‘A Girl Named Dusty’

Springfield’s first solo album is mostly a collection of classy pop songs written by the likes of Kander/Ebb, Bacharach/David, Carole King (her second appearance this week) and Holland/Dozier/Holland that were more famously sung by others: ‘My Colouring Book’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ’24 Hours From Tulsa’ (!) feature. It’s not as if you can argue with Dame Dusty, one of the all-time great vocalists, but this album serves more as a look at what fantastic songs were doing the rounds in the early 60s, rather than as a statement of Dusty’s individual greatness. Her own definitive canon was still to come.

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the albums which, according to Listchallenges.com, are the least-heard on the list.

Status update: 381 heard (38%), 620 remaining.