Gospel and soul music left the church a long time ago: “Race” records were a commercial niche that became “Negro” music, and were then rechristened R&B in 1949. All of these labels are limited, but over the last century Black protestant music has remained a vital source of popular music. Despite the record industry’s attempts to confine black music, and black creative artists, to niches an array of groundbreaking artists.
Gospel is the root of soul and R&B music and their derivatives. The call and response interaction between the lead singer, fellow singers, and audiences, the use of melisma and blue notes, the use of syncopation, ecstatic gestures like falsetto notes and other musical characteristics of soul/R&B all derive from the black Protestant tradition. My favorite gospel singer is Marion Williams. Though she has the voice and technique to have become a major R&B singer she never went secular and devoted her whole career to gospel. 1992’s Strong Again is a soulful and uplifting collection of songs. You can tell Williams absorbed elements of secular jazz and blues and integrated them into the mix. She does traditional gospel fare like “Just As I Am” and “Oh Happy Day,” originals like “Prayer List,” and some secular covers including Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
The true precedent to rock ‘n’ roll is Jump Blues and the work of Louis Jordan whose prime material is collected on the excellent Let the Good Times Roll 1938-1953, is its pioneer. Jordan was a musicians, bandleader, and performer whose signatures include “Let the Good Time Roll,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and other classics. His music saw no boundaries—swing jazz, blues, gospel, and elements of vaudeville come together in his music. His repertoire is covered widely and devotees like B.B. King and Joe Jackson have recorded Jordan tribute albums.
R&B: In the late 1940s-late 1950s popular singers translated the passion and musicality of gospel music and its rituals into secular forms. Hence the birth of soul music. The albums below are either compilations or albums that capture the essence of R&B.
· Bobby Blue Bland Greatest Hits Volume 1: The Duke Recordings: A perfect introduction to the songs that made the legendary Memphis singer including “Stormy Monday,” “Who Will the Next Fool Be” and “Chains of Love.”
· Birth of Soul: Brother Ray Charles’s initial genius flowered during his early recordings for Atlantic Records. This boxed set is the Rosetta Stone of soul featuring seminal recordings like “What I’d say,” “I Got a woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Night Time is the Right Time.”
· Best of Esther Phillips: Esther Phillips was a staple in the R&B market from 1949-54 performing as “Little Esther.” At that time she was often paired with male R&B singers and recorded with pioneers like Johnny Otis. She took a hiatus from recording to deal with substance abuse issues and came back in the early-60s recording for Atlantic Records from 1962-71 where she scored several R&B and pop hits. In 1971 Phillips switched to Kudu/CTI Records where her material was grittier and less poppy. She left Kudu for Mercury Records where she recorded from 1977-81. Phillips was a very versatile singer with a distinctive nasal voice, and a down-home approach to interpreting lyrics. Best, issued by Rhino Records, focuses on her 1960s recordings when she made her biggest impact with her soulful wailing sound. During her fruitful period at Atlantic Records she recorded hits like the country-soul classic “Release Me,” standards and and several classic live sets.
· Chess Box: At Chess Records Etta James got the songs and arrangements that put her on the map as a major singer. Her finest album at Chess, At Last! Is a classic featuring the epic emotional discovery of the title track, her sexy take on “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” and great performances on “Trust in Me,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” among others. Her Chess work has been compiled numerous times but the best place to go is the superb Chess Box. You get all of her hits, including “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Tell Mama,” key album tracks and rarities, and live performances spanning the early 60s through the early 70s. James adapted well to numerous environments and styles during her Chess tenure including soul, funk, country and the singer songwriter pop of writers like Randy Newman.
· Aretha Franklin: 30 Greatest Hits: This is a flawless double-disc documenting Franklin’s rise to the Queen of Soul. Songs like “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman,” “Save Me,” etc. translated the passion of gospel into a vibrant secular style that made soul the new national cultural language.
· Talkin’ ‘Bout You: Though Schuur is an acclaimed jazz singer she was deeply singers on the bluer end of the jazz spectrum like Dinah Washington and Helen Humes. 1988’s Talkin’ ‘Bout You is an endearing valentine to the interrelationship of gospel, R&B and jazz in shaping singers of the 1950s generation. Schuur confidently tackles Ray Charles, Helen Humes and Dinah Washington signatures respecting their basic blueprint but adding her own brand of soul. She also gives memorable performances of “For Your Love” and “Cry Me a River” alongside several superb originals including the levitating “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon.”
· Simply the Best: Live!: Irma Thomas is the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who originated songs like “Time is on My Side,” “It’s Raining,” “Wish Someone Would Care,” “Ruler of My Heart,” which Otis reading remade as “Pain in My Heart.” 1991’s Live! Is a sizzling set covering the soul master's incredible command of soulful balladry and dance cuts. You get signatures like “Breakaway,” “Time is On My Side,” “It’s Raining” and “Wish Someone Would Care” in vibrant new arrangements. She also cooks on the near testimonial “I Needed Somebody,” a soulful “Oh Me Oh My” and two R&B medleys. Her performance is sharp, the band is on and the audience is in love. A great career summary and introduction to her powerful style. Thomas is New Orleans royalty, and remains a vital performer.
Pop-Soul: In the early ‘60s black music’s appeal steadily grew in its appeal to a broader base of listeners. Motown’s aspiration to become the Sound of Young America was a concentrated effort to make crossover music that captured the essence of black music elements but also appealed to white listeners especially young people. Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Martha & the Vandellas, and later acts like the Jackson 5 were at the forefront of this musical and cultural movement. The boxed set Motown Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-71 captures the fruits of this substantial effort. Combining elements of gospel, pop, and girl group pop Dionne Warwick translated her gospel background and formal music training into one of the defining sounds of early to mid-60s pop. Her polished but emotive sound blurred the lines between black gospel and white pop into a transcendent and influential popular style via her interpretations of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-Time Greatest Hits highlights the cream of this sizable crop.
Southern Soul: While Motown focused on smoothing out some of R&B’s rough edges the Memphis based label Stax/Volt became the premiere Southern Soul label. Stax was home to Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and various R&B voices. The double disc collection Stax 50: 50th Anniversary Celebration is an excellent overview of the label’s pivotal contributions to ‘60s and ‘70s soul and pop. After you listen to this introductory sampler you’ll definitely want to explore individual artists.
No R&B collection is complete without the graceful exuberance of Memphis Soul singer Al Green. 21 of his finest Hi Records recordings are collected on The Definitive Greatest Hits (Capitol, 2007) including his prime material from the 1970s (e.g. “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness”) and a few selections from the 2000s.
Electric Blues: Four of my favorite electric and modern blues albums capture the blues in a variety of flavors.
· B.B. King: MCA’s 1992 boxed set King of the Blues is a superb four disc introduction to the finest post-war blues musician of the 20th century B. B. King. King’s signature voice and virtuosic electric guitar “Lucille” are indelible signatures of contemporary popular music that have deeply shaped R&B, rock, and blues singing, playing and interpretation.
Spanning 1949-91 the set includes several rare unreleased recordings and various singles and album tracks recorded for RPM, Kent, Chess, ABC, Bluesway, and MCA. King’s vocal tone and fluid playing are evident from the earliest tracks bit it is particularly thrilling to hear his sound grow richer over time as recording technology becomes more sophisticated and he refines his signature sound. The set also reminds listeners of King’s skills as a composer (“Three O’ Clock Blues,” “Rock My Baby”) and his stylistic range as he tackles jazz standards, R&B, and pop with the same aplomb he brings to the blues.
Disc One (1949-66) showcases his blues roots and his important contributions to the blues and R&B fusions that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. The 1966-69 period covered on Disc Two and Disc Three’s 1969-75 showcase King adapting to contemporary rock and R&B production trends; even amidst slicker settings and trendier material King is firmly present. Casual fans will of course recognize “The Thrill is Gone” but there are abundant riches like “Nobody Loves me But My Mother” and “Ghetto Woman.” By Disc Four (1976-91), led by a live version of “Let the Good Times Roll” with protégé Bobby “Blue” Bland, he has shifted away from composing toward covers, the production is slicker than ever, and there are more collaborations (Bland, U2, Bonnie Raitt) a pattern he continued well into the 2010s.
· Etta James: Seven Year Itch and Blues to the Bone are two excellent examples of Etta James’s singing in a blues context. Seven is a modern blues set with a strong R&B bent that finds her interpreting songs by Ann Peebles and Otis Redding in her raw, powerful style, and recording classic versions of songs like “Damn Your Eyes.” Blues is a straight up Memphis and Chicago blues with commanding performances of “Got My Mojo Working,” “Dust My Broom” and “You Shook Me” sung by James at the height of her interpretive powers.
· Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas: Sing It! is a thrilling summit featuring three modern R&B and blues masters: Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas. Joyful, poignant, and soulful it features a range of songs on the spectrum including Bobby Blue Bland’s “Yield Not to Temptation,” “You Don’t Know Nothin’ About Love,” and “Love Maker.”
Philly Soul, Quiet Storm, and Retro Nuevo Soul: In the 1970s black pop diversified to include more conceptual, album-oriented music. Songs were longer, themes were even more romantic, and the production values grew more elaborate and textured. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man are three of the best examples of this shift.
· The social awareness, lush orchestrations, and the layered vocals of What’s (1971) make it a poignant view of its era and a sonic milestone.
· Talking Book (1972), which features “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” was Wonder’s first full album-length display of the full range of his talent as an adult performer and opened the door to future classics like Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.
· Hathaway is best known for his duets with Roberta Flack. His individual albums are all excellent showcases for his deep gospel roots, board stylistic range and his symphonic approach to pop. Extension (1973) opens with the amazing orchestral suite “I Love the Lord He Heard Me Cry” which segues into “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Other highlights include the funky “Come Little Children” and a soulful “Lord Help Me.”
· Alongside the rise of artists feel freer to experiment were producing and songwriting teams that were also expanding the palette of R&B. Philadelphia was an epicenter of this change thanks to teams like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and Thom Bell and Linda Creed who blended strings, intricate lyrics, and funky rhythms elegantly. Collectively they wrote and produced songs for The Delfonics, Johnny Mathis, Joe Simon, The Spinners, Dusty Springfield, The Stylistics and others that epitomize the Philly Soul style. The 2008 boxed set Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia is a perfect capsule of this era which spanned from 1969-83 and continues to influence other songwriters and producers.
· In the early to mid-1980s, after a decade dominated by disco and funk, many R&B singers decided to focus on romantic balladry that harked back to ‘60s and ‘70s romanticism, but still outfitted in sleek contemporary production. Luther Vandross and Anita Baker were the defining voices of this style. Best of Luther Vandross: The Best of Love is a classic collection that illustrates why Vandross was the most influential R&B crooner to emerge in the 1980s. He was an excellent writer of originals like Never Too Much and a superb interpreter of everything from Motown classics to more contemporary songs. The key cut is his epic “A House is Not a Home.” Baker’s 1986 classic Rapture is probably the most influential suite of romantic R&B songs of its time. The set showcases Baker’s thick voice, and a technique informed by equal parts of jazz languor and gospel passion. Songs like “Sweet Love,” “Caught up in the Rapture,” “You Bring Me Joy,” and “No One in the World” defined R&B radio in the mid-80s and inspired the sound of other singers like Regina Belle, Miki Howard, and Oleta Adams.
Hip-Hop Soul and Neo Soul: R&B continually evolves into different forms. After a decade of quiet storm and new jack music a younger group of singers drew inspiration from classic soul of the 70s and fused this with elements of hip-ho p which led to hip-hop soul and the more retro neo-soul genre. Mary J. Blige’s debut What’s the 411?(1992) was a refreshing blend of urban funk, hip-hop and elements of ‘70s soul that made Blige the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. After five years of releasing very popular albums with gospel and R&B touches Mariah Carey integrated hip-hop elements on her hip-pop-soul masterpiece Daydream (1995) which spawned major singles like “Fantasy,” “Always Be My Baby” and “One Sweet Day” and showcased a funkier and more sensual side of the pop diva.
Dionne Farris’s Wild Seed-Wild Flower, (1994) which spawned the blazing rock-soul single “I Know,” is one of the earliest examples of a kind of back to basics approach more focused on the beauty of individual voices and more personal lyrics. Farris has a yearning vocal style that works on the funky anthem “Find A Way,” a beautiful rendition of “Blackbird, the a capella ballad “Human,” and the rock song “Passion.” Me’shell N’degeocello, D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu also became leading voices of the style. Five years later singer, writer, and poet Jill Scott debuted with the brilliant Who is Jill Scott? featuring one of the most appealing, cohesive and distinctive bodies of songs including “Getting in the Way,” “A Long Walk,” “The Way,” and “It’s Love.” Former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman Raphael Saadiq released his finest album with 2010’s Stone Rollin’ a dazzling mix of soul, surf music, rock, and funk that pushes neo-soul into new areas stylistically.
Singer-Songwriter pop: Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t mean churning out wan folk songs. The most memorable singer-songwriters create their own universe using a variety of tools. They may inspire others but are too singular to be duplicated. Joni Mitchell’s experiments with jazz; Laura Nyro’s elliptical melodies and impressionist lyrics; Paul Simon’s explorations of reggae, gospel, South African pop and South American rhythms have all impressed my ears with their original fusions.
Roseanne Cash: Interiors (1990): After over a decade thriving in country music Cash broke from the genre’s chains toward a rawer confessional approach that is searing in its portrait of her troubled marriage and liberating in its honesty and wordplay.
Julia Fordham: Porcelain (1989); Falling Forward (1994): Uncommonly sensual, perceptive and textured singer-songwriter pop Fordham is an incredible synthesizer of styles. Influenced by Joni Mitchell, as well as Sarah Vaughan and Laura Nyro Porcelain was her breakthrough with elements of jazz and Brazilian pop. Falling Forward has a strong gospel influence on anthems like “Hope, Prayer, and Time” and “River,” as well as some incredibly sumptuous simmering ballads.
Bobbie Gentry: Delta Sweetie (1968): Though “Ode to Billie Joe” made Gentry famous her sophomore album is her strongest work. On this layered mix of blues, country, and folk tunes Gentry presents an offbeat, and often dark portrait of Southern life through a dazzling array of characters and scenarios.
Joe Jackson: Night and Day (1982): After making his mark as a new wave angry young man with hits like Is She Really Going Out With Him? Jackson distinguished himself on this stirring blend of jazz, salsa rhythms, and sleek pop. “Steppin Out” and “Breaking Us in Two” are the two big hits from this unusually entertaining set.
Rickie Lee Jones: Rickie Lee Jones (1979); Flying Cowboys (1991): drawing on the rhythms and attitude of the Beats, the improvisational spirit of jazz, and the free flowing style of Laura Nyro, Jones was a fresh voice on her classic 1979 debut, which features her biggest hit, the loping Chuck E’s in Love. Jones struggled to build from this momentum, then in 1991 her melodic instincts and lyrical focus resulted in the brilliant Flying Cowboys a mix of offbeat rhythms, reggae and sparkling whimsical songs like “Satellites” that reiterate her compelling musical vision.
Carole King: Tapestry (1971): King transitioned from a songwriter for hire to a popularartists capable of writing intimate yet relatable songs about her experiences, all documented on one of singer songwriter pop’s most consistent and enjoyable albums.
Joni Mitchell: Court & Spark (1973): For me Joni Mitchell’s most textured and engaging album is the luscious Court & Spark, which features some of her most notable songs including “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris” and her rendition of Annie Ross’s “Twisted.” As accomplished and influential as Blue in its melancholic sparseness is I find myself listening to Court a lot more. The casual beauty of the arrangements and the endearing quality of her singing on album tracks like “Down to You” is consistently delightful.
Laura Nyro: The First Songs (1967); Eli and the 13th Confession (1968); New York Tendaberry (1969): The original “wild child” behind the piano, Laura Nyro’s first three albums feature some of the most original and unusual songs in the American popular music canon. Her lyrics are rife with vivid imagery shaped by vernacular speech and her free flowing diction, wrapped in serpentine melodies and odd harmonies. Nyro was inspired by R&B and soul, but she summons a whole spectrum of music traditions in her approach. Singers like Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Bush and Tori Amos are deeply influenced by her aesthetic.
John Prine: Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (double-disc): Hailed as the new Dylan when he debuted in 1970 Prine is a distinctive writer with strong folk and rock leanings whose lyrics to classics like “Angel from Montgomery,” “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” convey an incisive understanding of the scope of human emotions. His skewed perspective and winsome humor have made him one of the most respected and believed rock singer-songwriters.
Carly Simon: Carly Simon: Anthology: Among her generation of singing composers Simon has the most varied career. She is best known for slick folk-inspired ‘70s hits like Anticipation and Your So Vain, but later triumphs like “You Belong to Me” and “Nobody Does it Better” revealed an increasingly impressive stylistic range. Her subsequent efforts including her movie themes “Coming Around Again” and “Let the River Run,” her efforts interpreting American Songbook fare, and her explorations of operetta and writing children’s books and a memoir speak to an admirable pursuit of expression.
Paul Simon: Paul Simon Anthology (double-disc): A perfect view of the panoramic repertoire composed by one of our most accomplished composers-performers during his most influential period. In addition to Simon & Garfunkel highlights you get songs like Meand Julio Down at the Schoolyard, Still Crazy After All These Years, Slip Slidin’ Away, Graceland, You Can Call Me Al and tracks from Rhythm of the Saints.
Allen Toussaint: Songbook (Deluxe Edition) (2013): Toussaint wrote some of rock and soul’s best known songs including “Mother in Law,” “It’s Raining” and “Yes We Can Can” among many others. Though he was primarily known as a writer he recorded many albums of original material. His most memorable is the brilliant Songbook, featuring highlights from his career, recorded live at New York’s Joe’s Pub with Toussaint singing solo with his piano. His voice has never been better, his piano playing is very creative, and his 15 minute “Southern Nights” is a brilliant, seamless fusion of music and storytelling.
Big Pop: In the 1980s when I was growing up, and I suspect many of you as well, pop artists regularly released blockbuster albums where just about very cut could be a hit single. These albums offered a grab bag of moods; the melodies were strong, the hooks grabbed you and everyone knew the lyrics. Even prior to the ‘80s big pop was present in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of my favorites:
Donna Summer: Gold: Dance-pop reaches its peak here. The Queen of Disco defined the genre via songs like “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff.” But she translated her power and appeal on ‘80s hits like “On the Radio,” “The Wanderer,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “This Time I Know it’s for Real” as well as other hits featured on this excellent two- disc career summary.
Faith (1987): Wham! was responsible for some of ‘80s pops goofiest and most melodramatic hits. Though it certainly took skill to churn out hit after hit no one expected such a mature and accomplished work from Wham! front man George Michael. The rockabilly swagger of “Faith,” the jazz aura of “Kissing a Fool,” the fierce danceability of “I Want your Sex” and “Monkey,” and the haunting ballads “One More Try” and “Father Figure” are undeniable pop.
Prince: The Hits: Listening to the late Purple One’s collected works reminds you of his panoramic view of the pop music’s possibilities. Inspired by James Brown, Little Richard, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Shuggie Otis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and others but never beholden to them Prince was limitless in his vision. He mastered spare funk (“Kiss”), buoyant pop (“Controversy,” “Delirious”), psychedelic rock (“Raspberry Beret”), epic rock (“Purple Rain”), romantic ballads (“Adore”), gospel style soul (“Nothing compares 2 U”) and challenged essentialist notions of black pop.
Private Dancer (1984): After establishing herself as the Queen of rock in the Ike & Tina Revue, escaping her abusive marriage, and struggling re-establish herself as a solo artist Turner made rock’s biggest comeback on the brilliant Private Dancer. It takes real emotional nuance and musical skill to finesse a bittersweet song like What’s Love Got to Do With It” that teeters on the edge of cynicism and hope. She also left her stamp on new rock songs like “Better Be Good to Me,” masterfully played the role of an embittered high priced call girl on the title track, and reanimated soul classics like “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “Let’s stay Together” with a contemporary vigor.
She’s So Unusual (1984): Lauper burst through MTV and pop radio into the pop stratosphere with her funky style, spunky personality and delicious pop offerings. Her solo debut features some of the defining songs of the era including the anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the standard “Time after Time” (which was later recorded by Miles Davis among others), and left-field songs like “She Bop” and “Money Changes Everything.”
The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (boxed set): This beautiful four disc tribute to the master songwriter, arranger and producer is as much about the infinite melodic and harmonic possibilities of pop as it is about Bacharach. Chronicling his run of hits from the late 1950s-late 1990s it spotlights classic performances by an all-star roster including hischief muse Dionne Warwick, and classy performances Jackie Deshannon, Chuck Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Jerry Butler, Fifth Dimension, Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, Elvis Costello among others.
Thriller (1982): The biggest pop album ever completely defined the sonic possibilities and televisual reach of early to mid-1980s and elevated Michael Jackson from an incredibly gifted pop-soul singer to an international icon. Every song is a hit, but songs like “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Human Nature” have transcended the decade and become pop classics. Jackson offered something for everyone here and no one has ever topped his populist masterpiece.
Ultimate Hall & Oates: The most popular duo in rock history was a promising ‘70s pop-soul group via songs like Sara Smile and She’s Gone that became a thrilling hit factory from 1980-1985. Influenced by doo-wop, Motown and the Philly music scene they have excelled in pop, rock, and soul. Their brilliant run of hits, including “Kiss is on my list,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t go for that,” “Say it isn’t so,” “One on One,” “Method of Modern Love,” “Out of Touch” ran in parallel to other iconic pop from Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. Though they are perceived to have peaked in the mid- 1980s they chose to take a hiatus before scoring more hits in the late 80s, early 90s, and 2000s. They remain an active recording and performing group enduring longer than just about any other pop duo.
Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rock favorites: The rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mid-1950s was the culmination of industrial, technological, and social changes. While sometimes thought of as a revolution it may be more accurate to call it an almost accidental convergence of forces. Alas, American popular music and the culture has never been the same since. Below are artists within various rock subgenres that I enjoy. Think of this as less a formal history than a listener’s guide to some important works inside and outside of the canon:
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Chuck Berry: In terms of musicality and originality guitarist, composer, singer, icon and duck-walker Berry is arguably the king of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs captured the intricacies of teenage life and the burgeoning teen consumerism of the ‘50s with a stunning astuteness that still resonates. Berry’s “Maybellene,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Roll Over Beethoven” “Johnny B. Goode,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “No Particular Place to Go” are canonical rock recordings that display the unique synthesis of country, blues, jazz and R&Bthat is rock & roll. These are also anthems that inspired a wealth of followers ranging from heavies like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones—especially Keith Richards who openly acknowledges his depth to Berry—and an infinite number of cover bands and earnest would-be rock ‘n’ rollers striving to learn three guitar chords. Like most rock ‘n’ rollers Berry’s albums tend to be hodgepodges of singles making the abundance of compilations, boxed sets, etc. an ideal way to experience his sound. 2005’s The Definitive Collection is a perfect one-disc distillation of Berry’s best material. The 30 tracks collected (actually 29 if you discount the silly hit “My Ding-A-Ling”) are well annotated and captured in crisp digital sound. The lyrical efficiency, melodic diversity and rhythmic gravity of his songs are impressive in their range and consistent quality. There is also a solid career summary by Bud Scoppa and several iconic photos.
Buddy Holly: Holly was one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll performers of his era penning classics like “It’s So Easy,” “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” among other classics. His quirky vocal style and perky, lean arrangements were a fresh sound comparable in achievement to Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. His ballad performances also have aged very well including “Everyday” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Original Master Tapes is an excellent presentation of his most important songs. Though it has limited notes it is a perfect introduction to a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer.
Little Richard: The self-proclaimed “Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is at least partially correct: Little Richard’s fierce vocal style, rhythmic boogie-woogie piano attack and flamboyant sexuality are as fundamental to mid-to-late ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll as Chuck Berry’s guitar licks, Buddy Holly’s hiccup, and Elvis’s swagger. After learning piano playing and singing from various mentors Richard Penniman transitioned into showbiz performing with various traveling bands and shows before remaking his image and embarking on a solo career.
After a few tentative commercial recordings his talent fully blossomed at New Orleans’s Specialty Records in the fall of 1955. In the span of two years he recorded some of the seminal sounds of rock including “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Keep a Knockin.’” Specialty’s 25 song collection The Georgia Peach is a perfect single-disc overview of his most vital recordings. In addition to his well-known falsetto laced vocal bursts and rumbling piano the set showcases overlooked his crooning skills on several ballads and impressive composing skills; about half the songs collected are Penniman copyrights.
Wanda Jackson: Guitarist, writer and singer Wanda Jackson is commonly understood as a female pioneer of the country, rock and R&B fusion that spawned rock ‘n’ roll or more simply as the “Queen of Rockabilly.” This sobriquet is tricky since Jackson was actually very strongly rooted in country and has achieved her most consistent commercial success in country--and after her conversion to Christianity—gospel rather than rock ‘n’ roll or pop. Her Capitol LPs and “45s are some of the most important rock ‘n’ roll recordings of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before she transitioned into full-time country and gospel singing. She gradually returned to secular recordings in the 90s and 00s and occasionally tours.
Her 1958 Capitol debut (reissued on CD in 2002) is a mixture of traditional country with touches of rock ‘n’ roll. “I Wanna Waltz” and “Day Dreaming” are entertaining if routine country performances that could have just as easily been recorded by any young country singer of the era. They reveal the growing influence of singers like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline on a new generation of female country singers. However on rock cuts like “Long Tall Sally” and “Money, Honey” she sings with a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll grit and fervor. On these cuts she grinds her voice and easily glides into falsetto whoops over rollicking piano rolls, guitar solos and jaunty rock rhythms. Though not an outright rock ‘n’ roll album it represents the transition performers were making from traditional genres to the rock hybrid. The reissue also features six bonus cuts recorded in 1957-58 that complement the tone of the LP cuts. 1959’s There’s a Party is more overtly rock flavored and spirited. Its covers of R&B fare like “Kansas City” and rock songs like Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Really Anymore” furthered her rock ‘n’ roll identity. It too features various bonus tracks that showcase her range as a writer, player and singer. Her best album of the period 1960’s Rockin’ With Wanda is one of the most thrilling rock albums of its era. After establishing herself as a commercial entity Jackson grew into her voice; the set is highlighted by Jackson-penned cuts like the anthemic opener “Rock Your Baby,” and the masochist flirtation “Mean Mean Man” as well as classic rock anthems like “Fujiyama Mama.” The set is a prototypical rock ‘n’ roll set with chugging electric guitars, subtle reverb, and charming affectations like vocal hiccups and percussive pauses. There are also some silly novelties like the pseudo-Calypso number “Dona’a Wan’a.” Among the six bonus tracks are a few standard rock ‘n’ roll ballads with piano triplets and yearning lyrics as well as good originals like the flirtatious “Savin’ My Love.”
Jacksons’ prime rock-oriented material has been widely compiled including a Bear Family boxed set (Right or Wrong) and various single-disc collections from Capitol and Rhino. Capitol’s Vintage Collections is an excellent 20-song overview of her 1956-61 recordings. The set showcases her visceral brand of rock ‘n’ roll alongside fine renditions of country tunes and ballads. Much of her country and gospel material is out of print.
The Beatles: In six years The Beatles grew from a buoyant teen pop band to blazing innovators whose musicality, whimsy, curiosity and sheer passion helped propel rock into the realm of commercial art. Their initial work (1964-65) employed and inverted familiar forms including rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and pre-rock pop establishing them as pop classicists. A cheeky, self-deprecating sense of humor, dynamic personalities and weird haircuts made them idols and natural film stars (i.e. A Hard Days). Dazzling stylistic range and an early penchant for daring harmonic and rhythmic choices validated their musicianship. Their commercial dominance and prolificness was unprecedented and understandably appealing. After years of enduring bland teen pop and increasingly formulaic girl groups, rock audiences rightfully viewed George, John, Paul and Ringo as a genuine revolution. Their ability to synthesize disparate strands of pop music and forge believable, attractive personae made them instant stars. But their deft attention to the possibilities of albums as artistic suites catapulted them, and rock, to new dimensions of craft and expressiveness. My favorite Beatles albums are Rubber Soul, Revolver, The White Album and Abbey Road.
· Rubber Soul’s harmonic and melodic richness, textural sumptuousness and thematic eclecticism were among the high watermarks of rock album-making at the time. Classics like “Norwegian Wood,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Michelle,” and “In My Life” are among the best known anchors for a whole set of intriguing, beguiling songs. These songs’ transcendence of rock to the throats of jazz, country, R&B and traditional vocal pop bespeaks the glorious well Lennon and McCartney breached.
· Revolver has a brighter and more whimsical tone than Rubber Soul but maintained its richness and cohesion. From the character sketch “Eleanor Rigby” to the infectious “Got to Get You into My Life” and “Good Day Sunshine,” to the delectable balladry of “Here, There and Everywhere” a casual brilliance graced their work to such a degree that it would seem unfathomable that they could go further but they did…sort of. The innovations that culminated in Rubber Soul and Revolver reflected growth in the band’s songwriting, arranging and George Martin’s production approach. It was also paralleled by the deepening of their status as icons; the pandemonium incited by fandom led them to retire from live performing which opened the door for even more rigorous studio experimentation and ultimately isolation.
· The Beatles (aka The White Album) a sprawling double-disc carnival of everything from hard rock (“Back in the U.S.S.R,” “Helter Skelter,” “Revolution 1”), plaintive balladry (“Blackbird”), simmering pop (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”), and contemporary (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) and ersatz (“Honey Pie”) whimsical pop. Recorded amidst group acrimony it is a bit of a mess; some of the songs are slight (“Savoy Truffle”) and a few melodies get lost in the haze but it is a continually interesting and an ultimately vital listen.
· The focus, economy and brilliance the band exhibited in its initial foray into art rock on Rubber Soul returned in full bloom on Abbey Road, their final recording. One can only listen rather than argue with the openness of “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something”’s simple beauty, the folk aura of “Carry That Weight,” and the unrelenting drive of “Come Together.” Their official swan song Let It Be yielded several classics in the gospel-ish title track, the majestic “Across the Universe” and “The Long and Winding Road” but is undone by some questionable production choices and inconsistency.
Credence Clearwater Revival: If you didn’t know any better you might mistake the San Francisco based band CCR, led by singer/writer John Fogerty, for a Southern band. Their thick country-ish accents, earthy themes, and swamp blues feel seem sound straight out of the bayou. Regardless their best material is some of the most creative blues-rock of the 60s and early 70s. Chronicle is a classic compilation of their best ranging from playful anthems like “Down on the Corner,” and “Proud Mary,” to more pointed political commentary such as “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” This is a prime collection of some of the most vital and original music of the decade, as essential as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in breadth and influence. In the early ‘70s Fogerty, the group’s creative center, left the band which gradually dissolved. Fogerty has gone on to have a successful, if sporadic, solo career.
Classic Rock/Meat and Potatoes Rock
Fleetwood Mac began as a late 60s British blues rock band headed by guitarist Peter Green but by the 1970s it transformed into a half British-half American band that appealed to AOR and pop listeners thanks to skillful, catchy songs, a thunderous rhythm section and the charming vocals of its lead singers. In the mid-70s British holdovers—bassist John McVie, pianist/singer Christine McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood--added guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks to the mix which completely transformed their sound and image. Buckingham was an extraordinarily dexterous guitarist and a skilled arranger/ producer. Nicks had a sexy husk and a mysterious gypsy spirit that inflected her songs.
From 1975-88 this lineup released the popular near-classic Fleetwood Mac, 1977’s classic Rumours, and three solid studio albums in the 80s including Tusk, Mirage and Tango in the Night. Greatest Hits is an excellent single disc collection of the group’s biggest hits and most notable songs of the popular ‘75-88 line up, including “Rhiannon,” “Over My Head,” “Dreams,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Tusk,” “Hold Me,” “Everywhere,” and “Little Lies,” which was some of the most well-crafted, distinctive and enjoyable music of its era. The double-disc The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (WEA/Reprise, 2002) has hits plus live cuts and important album tracks. Both are immensely satisfying overviews.
Bruce Springsteen: New Jersey bard Springsteen was a cult artist in the 70s, fawned over by critics but lacking major radio hits or a broad audience. Anthems like “Born to Run” crossed him over somewhat but it wasn’t until he and the E Street Bandbegan to develop a national reputation for epic concerts and he began to reveal original social and political observations about post-60s American life that he gained a wide audience. Starting with 1980’s The River, Springsteen began a streak of high charting, best-selling albums that vacillated from rock to sparer, folk-flavored songs.
A vivid writer and masterful synthesizer of styles Springsteen became a bonafide star with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. a mix of rockers and ballads covering everything from post-Vietnam disillusionment, (the title track) to nostalgia (“Glory Days”).Underlying the often raucous songs was a sense of dismay, and anxiety. His studio follow-up Tunnel of Love, which preceded his divorce from actress Julianne Philips, is one of the most probing and incendiary examinations of romantic fantasies and thwarted realities in rock. Ranging from the spare rockabilly of “I Ain’t Got You” to the smooth surfaces of the title track and “Brilliant Disguise” it balances commercial songcraft with soulful revelation in an uncommonly focused and engaging manner.
Lucinda Williams is a guitar based writer who struggled for years until rock, country and folk singers began to cover her material, most famously Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s 1992 cover of “Passionate Kisses.” Influenced by her poet father Miller Williams, country blues singers like Memphis Minnie and rock writers such as Bob Dylan she excels at folk/country-inflected rock songs with eloquent, emotionally immediate lyrics depicting a stylized working-class lens on romance and ambition. Williams earliest recordings, recorded in 1979 and 1980 are largely considered derivative and unfocused however by the late 80s her style began to gel. 1988’s Lucinda Williams, featuring “Passionate Kisses,” “Crescent City,” and “I Changed the Locks,” (all recorded by other singers) is an excellent collection of narrative songs embodying a fine blend of rock, folk, country and blues textures. Several live and bonus cuts are included including her cover of Memphis Minnie’s “Something in Rambling.”
Punk and New Wave The Cars were the craftiest and most enduring of the new wave groups to emerge in the late 70s and reach success in the 1980s. Their songs which drew from Motown, rock ‘n’ roll, girl groups, power pop and even punk were marvelously catchy and compact songs usually about romantic elation or broken hearts. They released some of the most indelible songs of the 80s including “Magic,” “You Might Think” and “Drive.” Complete Greatest Hits is an excellent one-disc set with everything you need from the group, essential.
Nick Lowe: British singer-writer Lowe is the best argument for the lasting value of “power pop,” “new wave” and the other myriad of titles for post-punk influenced rock. Lowe is a masterful melodist, an intricate lyricist with a sharp sense of humor and lucid sense of human psychology, and a wide stylistic palette.
· Jesus of Cool (A CD reissue of 1979’s Pure Pop for Now People restored with its original title and LP artwork) is a punk masterpiece—funny, vulgar, sharp, and insightful. Among its highlights are the swaggering cynicism of the thundering anthem “Music for Money,” and the freewheeling sass of “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.” Punk and new wave have been feeding off of this album’s riffs and attitude for decades, a real classic of its kind.
· Basher: Best of Nick Lowe features 25 mostly sterling tracks culled from his albums and singles output for Stiff Records and CBS spanning 1976-89. The only major hit was the brilliant “Cruel to Be Kind” but there is joy to be found everywhere ranging from the poignant rocker “Little Hitler” to the hilarious “Time Wounds All Heels.” Alongside the clever themes and memorable melodies are Lowe’s seamless synthesis of country, rock, and lite reggae; like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Lowe is a skilled craftsman who draws from a variety of genres to constitute his musical universe.
Donna Summer: 1979’s Bad Girls hinted at the possibilities of disco and rock on “Hot Stuff” but 1980’s The Wanderer delved into rock more fully than any of her previous albums. Summer got deeply personal with The Wanderer. Disillusioned with stardom yet optimistic about her personal survival, energetic and eclectic but mature and focused the album was a seminal fusion of pop, rock and new wave influences that allowed Summer to separate herself from disco. The title track hit #3, and “Who Do you Think You’re Foolin’” and the rock ballad “Cold Love” were only moderate hits but while Summer’s disco audience didn’t warm up to the set it remains an excellent set of songs that holds up.
Marti Jones gained notoriety in the mid-1980s as a progressive interpreter of quality contemporary songs from the pens of rock and folk songwriters like John Hiatt. She and her longtime producer (and eventual husband) Don Dixon built her career on a series of tasteful albums mixing a handful of originals with well-chosen covers. In the early ‘90s she and Dixon focused more on composing. She switched to independent labels in the mid-1990s. Always more of a critical favorite than a popular seller Jones is an underrated talent.
· 1989’s Used Guitars is her strongest album and an excellent introduction to her buoyant, emotionally penetrating style. Like Linda Ronstadt’s triumphant Heart Like a Wheel the album Used Guitars is a sublime meshing of singer, material and arrangements. Jones is influenced by pop, folk, R&B, country and even aspects of punk and synthesizes them masterfully. Her interpretations are seamless expressions of the heart. “Keep Me in the Dark” and “Wind in the Trees” are full of palpable torch songs with a melancholy that creeps gently. “If I Could Love Somebody” is a gentle folk-country lament. “The Real One” soars with choral richness. She differs from Ronstadt primarily in being a songwriter. Her original tunes “Tourist Town” and “Twisted Vines” are melodic, original songs with a fresh point of view. This combination of memorable melodies, vibrant arrangements—courtesy of producer Don Dixon—and expert musicianship is a musician at her peak.
· Any Kind of Lie features 10 originals and 2 interpretations but they add up to a solid whole. The title track is beautiful, melodic and smart. “Second Sight” showcases her vocal strength quite well. “Cliché” is delicate and understated and “Second Choice” is a moody shuffle with an intimate vocal that illuminates the song’s vivid imagery. Jones can be an effective writer but her primary strength is interpretation. The best originals stand up to some of her favored writers. Several of the songs required repeated listens to sink in but this is a step forward creatively for Jones and Dixon.
· 1996’s Live at Spirit Square is a lively concert featuring highlights from her all of her albums from mid-80s through 1992. She and her band capture the essence of the material while infusing it with the energy, humor and presence only possible in a live setting. Listeners experience interpretations, originals and Jones’s charming stage persona.
Terence Trent D’Arby: D' Arby is a rock-soul trailblazer whose bold and pretentious pronouncements at the outset of his career in the late 80s haunted him for years. This is too bad because he is a skilled, versatile, accomplished, and impassioned musical talent. His star quickly faded but his music is fresh and impressive. 1987’s Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby was one of the most inspired and fiercely original soul albums of the 1980s. D’ Arby's stylistic range and musical prowess present him as heir apparent to great masters of soul and funk like Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke. 1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh was less commercially focused than his debut but is a wide open, masterpiece charming in its ambition. He continues to demonstrate a mastery of and fresh approach to classic funk and soul singing traditions highlighted by the old fashioned soul cry on “I Don’t Want to Bring Your Gods Down.” By the 1990s D’ Arby’s commercial profile faded but he was still as driven as ever.
· 1993’s Symphony or Damn is one of the decade's finest rock albums. It is a sprawling ambitious potpourri of virtually every major contemporary musical style. Sweeping, inspired and relentlessly engaging it is his masterpiece.
· 2003’s Wild Card! recorded under D’Arby’s new moniker Sananda Maitreya, is a wildly eclectic mix of soul, funk and rock that ushers D’Arby’s style into the present demonstrating his influence on a slew of musicians but possessing a daunting ease and command.
Jennifer Trynin: Even though conventional adult contemporary, dance pop, and country-pop were the dominant genres female singers excelled in during the 1990s one of the era’s enduring clichés was the supposedly epochal rise of the “angry woman” female rock archetype. This moniker includes acts as disparate as Riot Grrrl bands, Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Meredith Brooks and the most commercial extant Alanis Morrisette. Alas the dust has settled on that era and much of this music is nakedly transparent or simply dated. Post-punk guitarist/songwriter Trynin was a near-star until she was eclipsed by more commercial acts. Though it would have been a nice personal windfall for her to have achieved commercial success her relative obscurity makes it easier to appreciate her two albums, Cockamamie and Gun Shy, Trigger Happy with fresh ears. Drawing strands from blues, rock, punk and power pop she is a genuine find with a penchant for rocking, subtle melodies, and a sardonic wit as blush-worthy as Aimee Mann’s.
· Her independently produced debut 1994’s Cockamamie (later reissued by Warner Bros.) sparked a perfectly understandable bidding war. Trynin specializes in angst-ridden lyrics of love gone awry but with a credibly adult tone quite distinct from the sophomoric adolescent rants of Morissette and her spawn as well as the cheeky sexuality of Phair. She sings with the snarl and guts of someone genuinely pissed. Among its highlights are the rapid fire (1:42 minutes long) you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing “All This Could Be Yours.” As sharp and stinging as a bullet, its damn funny, topped only by the next song “Too Bad You’re Such A Loser” a quintessential modern rock song with a chant-like hook, bits of vocal distortion and slow grind guitars. Lest this seem too glib the set ends with a brief interlude called “I Know How it Feels to Be Down” that suggests she’s still reeling.
· The slightly sleeker Gun Shy, actually recorded for Warner Bros. is ostensibly more polished but never glosses over Trynin’s persona. Like her debut it’s a musically eclectic walk through romantic angst but is a bit moodier, more atmospheric and more tempered in tone. Whereas Cockamamie specialized in clipped power-pop the songs here are a bit more measured including the mid-tempo chug of “Washington Hotel” and the downbeat “Under the Knife” and the neo-country flavored, closer “Rang You & Ran”. It’s most searing cut “I Resign” notable for its hook “I-I-I-I Resign…OK,” maintains her debuts bite but it enters the skin more subtly and seductively. Neither album was a hit and Trynin retreated from commercial recording though she eventually wrote a book about her experiences in the biz, and performs in the band The Loveless.
Country: What originated as a mix of folk tunes adapted from Anglo cultures and Afro-American spirituals grew into a highly varied and adaptable musical genre. Bluegrass and western swing have evolved into honky-tonk, countrypolitan, country-soul, country-rock and a variety of styles that accommodate musicians with a diverse range of talents and interests in the genre’s core of storytelling. Some of my favorite artists include the following:
Hank Williams Sr: Though his life was prematurely ended by alcoholism his songwriting and performing legacy endures. As the premier honky tonker and interpreter of classics like “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Hey Good Lookin,” “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With you,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Williams is the most influential male figure in country music. His music has been packaged and repackaged incessantly. I recommend 20 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits (Mercury Nashville, 1997) as a great introduction to Williams. He recorded 66 songs during his 30 year life so this is a straightforward way to hear his core songs. There are multiple boxed sets and double disc sets that elaborate on his legacy.
Patsy Cline is arguably the most iconic and influential female country singer of the 20th century. Cline initially aspired to be a nitty-gritty country singer but this approach never quite worked. Her earliest recordings for Four Star Records are collected on the entertaining but tentative The Essential First Recordings highlighted by her hit version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” That classic slice of understated yearning is surrounded by fine performances like “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray” and “Lovesick Blues” plus 50s hokum like “Come on In” alongside some light spiritual fare. Despite uneven material the classic Bradley-Cline style is here in its earliest phase. Short of a boxed set the double-disc Ultimate Collection is the best comprehensive overview of her career at Decca. It mixes signature standards-“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “She’s Got You,” with sleeper tracks and covers of pop standards like “True Love” delivered with her refined phrasing in Bradley’s elegant settings.
George Jones is one of the premier singers of country music and one of modern popular music’s most accomplished and affecting balladeers. The Texas-raised Jones was deeply influenced by Hank Williams Sr. and honky-tonk music, and extends the spirit of honky tonk in his recordings. However after initially establishing himself amidst the rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly era Jones distinguished himself as perhaps the most emotionally penetrating balladeer country music has known.
· Rhino Records’ 1991 Best of George Jones (1955-1967) collects the cream of his earliest recordings, spanning 1955-67. Before George Jones became country music’s reigning hard-living King of Pain he was a honky tonker with a penchant for uptempo country numbers and novelties like “White Lightning” and “I’m a People.” However as the lush, dramatic “She Thinks I Still Care” attests at heart he was a brooding balladeer whose emotionally astute readings made him country’s master interpreter non-pareil. Shockingly the countrypolitan production values did not detract from Jones’s sober readings. The collection also features interesting numbers like his duet with Gene Pitney.
· Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits (Epic), a distillation of his prime 1972-82 Epic recordings, is emotionally haunted and nearly morose. The thing is Jones sings with such subtlety—even when Billy Sherrill’s production choices go overboard—that the emotional force washes over the listener. Jones is a master of mood and timing, and knows exactly how to draw out the emotional core of classic ballads like “The Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Jones gives these seemingly plaintive themes a stunning emotional grandeur and sings them with the disarming sincerity of one with a profound understanding of heartbreak and loss. That many of these were recorded during a period of erratic ‘70s behavior may infuse his performances with realism, but Jones is not a self-pitying warbler; he’s a genuine heart-on-sleeve romantic. Jones continued recording for Epic throughout the ‘80s but his Anniversary features his most essential material.
· In 1990 Jones signed with MCA and entered the urban cowboy/hat acts ring. The Collection is a fine 12-song overview spanning his 1990-98 recordings. The production is slicker and the songs are uneven but Jones is in good form throughout. As an elder statesman of country songs the defensive “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair,” recorded with 10 other country superstars and the tongue-in-cheek “High Tech Redneck” are metacommentaries on the commercialism of country which has discarded its veterans in favor of courting the pop audience. Less self-conscious is his great version of “Patches” with B. B. King and two duets with Tammy Wynette. The remaining songs are predictable ballads and neo-honky tonk songs sung with effortless precision.
· 1999’s Cold Hard Truth (Asylum) which won Jones a Grammy for the lamentation “Choices,” is considered one of his major recording triumphs. Whereas his MCA recordings were clearly an effort to get him on the radio and translate his style into modern settings Truth is a career defining album. “Choices” is one of the most forthright and affecting reflections on a life full of regrets in popular music. It is complemented by similarly sober ballads like the title track. The set is balanced out by great honky tonk numbers like “Ain’t Love a lot Like That” and “You Never Know Just How Good You’ve Got It” whose jaunty rhythms provide relief but never disguise the set’s reflective tone.
Ray Charles was associated with R&B and soul music but in 1960 he released the first volume of Modern Sounds in Country & Western, a radical interpretative feat that treated songs from honky tonk, folk-rock and countrypolitan like vehicles open to interpretation in many different styles. The result showcases the adaptability and relevance of country music to many interpretive approaches, and audiences.
Willie Nelson: Songwriter, singer, actor, activist and icon Nelson is one of the few modern country singers to transcend genre and achieve relevance as a musician and cultural figure. Nelson began his career as a more successful songwriter than performer. He authored such seminal country compositions as “Crazy” (immortalized by Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Nite Life,” and “Hello Walls” that continue to be covered across genre. In the 1970s Nelson redefined himself as a country “outlaw” who eschewed Nashville slickness and conservatism for a more laidback rock-influenced sound and aura that redefined his career. He recorded two classic “concept” albums for Atlantic before reaching his commercial breakthrough at Columbia Records on 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. There he emerged as one of the finest interpreters of Kris Kristofferson’s songs and translated pop standards into a country idiom. Nelson had a fruitful career at Columbia through 1993 after which he regularly released one-two albums per year for Island Records and Lost Highway.
· Rhino’s Nite Life, compiling 1959-71 recordings is a perfect introduction. In addition to the original versions of “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips away” it explores Nelson’s impressive eclecticism. He is heard in honky tonk, rockabilly, western swing, countrypolitan and pop settings that highlight the root of his endurance: a deep musicality fueled by a love and grasp of diverse American music.
· The next step in Nelson-ography is Atlantic/Rhino’s three-disc The Complete Atlantic Sessions which features 1973’s Shotgun Willie (with 12 bonus tracks), 1974’s Phases and Stages (with 10 bonus tracks), and 1974’s Live at the Texas Opry House (with 5 unreleased tracks). Both LPs are “concept albums” with impressive song craft, solid production, and the confident outlaw persona Nelson perfected. Shotgun’s highlights include “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” “You Look Like the Devil” and a superb version of “A Song for You.” The honky tonker “Bloody Mary Morning” is Phases’s most compelling number; amidst the short narrative songs it is a fully formed song that works outside the concept.
· Nelson’s Columbia albums include albums, concert sets, collaborations and soundtracks. Red Headed Stranger and Stardust are essential introductions to his Columbia phase. Red is a concept album, with storyboard, about a rebel cowboy who kills his cheating woman and her paramour. More ambitious than exciting it features numerous fragments between the album’s musical meat. However this album crossed Nelson over to broad audiences and features the classic “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The reissue includes his version of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It.” Nelson’s gift as an interpreter may exceed his singer-songwriter identity. Stardust is a sublime collection of interpretations that precedes the 80s rock torch boom inspired by Linda Ronstadt. Featuring classics like the sublimely interpreted title track, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and the country radio hit “Georgia on my Mind” it is lean and elegant and with imaginative acoustic arrangements and plaintive, subtle singing.
· In addition to country and standards, Nelson is an expert interpreter of gospel music. Willie Nelson’s rebellious spirit and roots foundation makes the title of his 1976 gospel album The Troublemaker apt as he and his band put a fresh spin on several classic spirituals including “In the Garden” and “Amazing Grace”. Nelson reorients the material from hymnals to contemporary material with country and rock-flavored arrangements that feel fresh and inspired. The CD reissue also features several live cuts recorded before an adoring audience.
· The remaining highlights of his Columbia recordings are best heard on the 1995 boxed set Revolutions of Time. Disc One, “Pilgrimage” features highlights from Red and Stardust, laid back live performances, and well-known crossover anthems like “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind.” Disc Two, “Sojourns” collects his myriad duets with Hank Snow, Leon Russell, Ray Price, the Outlaws, and various other collaborators. The set is of wildly varying quality as he is well matched with Snow and Price but on commercial autopilot on his schlocky Julio Iglesias duet “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” The Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard duets fall somewhere between entertainment and slackness. “Exodus,” the final disc is a retread that traces Nelson’s mellowing into a reliable craftsman; his songwriting is more routine and the production is increasingly slick, especially the keyboards.
· “Still is still Moving to Me” that ends the boxed set is a thundering anthem with a meaty rhythm that represented the height of his most well-regarded recording of the early 1990s, 1993’s Across the Borderline. On his final Columbia set he and Don Was showcased Nelson’s formidable composing and interpretive skills; he and Sinead O’Connor soar together on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” he gives compelling performances of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and “Graceland” and handles Lyle Lovett with aplomb. “Valentine” is mushy and his duets with Bonnie Raitt and Dylan are routine but the set reiterated Nelson’s deserved legendary stature.
Dolly Parton is one of country’s most prolific and enduring singer-songwriters. She began as a solo singer in 1967 (her first single was Dumb Blonde) and gained fame on the Porter Waggoner show. As a writer she is famous for crafting memorable melodies and using colorful imagery on songs like Coat of Many Colors, to Daddy, and My Tennessee Mountain Home that have gained her admirers across genre including Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt, Whitney Houston, and Eva Cassidy who all recorded Parton songs. Essential Dolly Parton is an excellent survey of her career from her early days to her hit-making period to her more recent bluegrass oriented phase.
Emmylou Harris: With her sweet soprano and wide-ranging tastes, Harris is one of the most innovative performers not only in country music but popular music in general. Harris began her career as a folk artist, releasing 1970’s Gliding Bird LP which made little impact. After being heard by the Flying Burrito Brothers—who were in the midst of pioneering what would become “country rock”—she was recruited to sing harmony. Soon after Gram Parsons mentored her and enlisted her to harmonize with him on his groundbreaking LPs G.P. and Grievous Angel. After he died of an overdose she forged ahead as a solo artist. When she debuted on Warner Bros. in 1975 she brilliantly synthesized her taste for rock, R&B and traditional country. However during the 80s and 90s she added a stronger folk element to her records eschewing the slickness of Nashville and pursuing a more personal, distinctive style. By the mid-to-late 90s recordings like 1995’s Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball and 1999’s Linda Ronstadt collaboration Western Wall revealed her to be one of the most dynamic and unpredictable voices in contemporary folk music. She continues to record and tour well into the 21st century, where her talents as a songwriter are catching up with her interpretive skill.
· The two-disc Anthology: The Warner Reprise Years is an excellent overview of Harris’s career supplementing numerous previous hit collections with additional album tracks and rarities. The best thing short of a boxed set for this gifted, adventurous artist it reveals why she was such a big sensation. Harris has the musicality and range to provide interpretive insight and emotional authenticity to the music of the Louvin Brothers, mentor Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, etc. with astonishing ease. Her own compositions also reveal a budding songwriter who fully blossomed in the 1990s.
· One of her last straight country records is 1992’s At the Ryman, recorded with the Nash Ramblers is a beautiful, spirited live collection of acoustic interpretations across a variety of genres at a country performance landmark. She and the Ramblers have excellent chemistry and she is a commanding, endearing front lady.
· 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is a stark set of songs centered on yearning, longing and spiritual restlessness. Harris has never explored these themes with such sparseness and ache. Beautifully haunting and inspired it set the groundwork for the bold Wrecking Ball.
· On 1995’s Wrecking Ball Harris covers Neil Young, The McGarrigle Sisters, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, etc. bathed in a gothic, deeply atmospheric production style that presents her voice in a grittily crystalline, weathered style.
K.T. Oslin: In an industry filled with imitators and also-rans Oslin distinguished herself from other 80s country female singers thanks to her mature sensibility and gifted songwriting talents. “80s Ladies,” “New Way Home,” “Feeding a Hungry Heart” are grown-up songs sung by an original talent. Oslin walked the line between pop and country, working with pop producers like Glen Ballard. However in this instance the pop fusion was welcome because it restored narrative depth to modern country and indicated that vocal excellence and modern production were just as relevant in country as they were in pop. Oslin won three Grammies and scored several radio hits in the late 1980s for recordings from ‘80s Ladies and This Woman. Aside from a few obvious keyboard and synthesizer textures the late ‘80s/early‘90s her RCA albums have aged well and still sound relevant.
· 80’s Ladies is a promising glimpse of the artist Oslin quickly became. The keyboard tapestries and peppy drum beats reveal the album’s 80s vintage, and it lacks a clear focus but it’s enjoyable. It begins with a good cover (“Wall of Tears”) and an even better original (“I’ll Always Come Back”) that teeter between familiar heartache and sentimentality themes. Suddenly Oslin’s persona shifts toward more personal career anthems. These include a woman who embraces her sexual options (“Younger Men”), a sly confrontation to a lover about her enduring sex appeal (“Do Ya”) and the bittersweet title track, one of the decade’s more incisive portraits of female baby boomers. These core tracks are well complemented by solid torch songs and one fun number (“Dr. Dr”).
· Oslin eschews the co-dependent sentimentality of country lyrics on This Woman by centering women’s desires in songs that reflect the upward mobility, sexual freedom and greater sense of choice available to women of her generation. The songs frequently center on women’s pursuit of relationships that are emotionally (“Money,” “Hold Me”) and sexually (“Round the Clock Lovin’”) satisfying. Rather than being reactionary or polemical she knows how to construct a believable world of characters in engaging situations including the heartbroken woman seeking respite in a local bar (“Where is a Woman to Go”); women observing changes in social station (“She Don’t Talk Like Us No More”); and a winking sexual invitation for a man to check out her new 4WD truck (“Hey Bobby”). She’s also not afraid to be delightfully snarky whether she’s capturing feelings of regret on “Jealous” or lamenting a bitter breakup on the rockabilly-style “Truly Blue.”
· 1990’s Love in a Small Town is a quirky portrait of love told in loosely connected vignettes of diverse characters. Some of Oslin’s performances, notably the hit “Come Next Monday” and “New Way Home” are so melodic and well-crafted they work well in any context. Slightly quirkier but equally appealing are the charming character sketches on loneliness “Mary and Willi” and lust “Cornell Crawford.” Elsewhere Oslin showcases her interpretive gifts on a haunting “Love is Strange” and an endearing country-swing version of “You Call Everybody Darling.” A few of the songs have a late 80s production gloss and broad themes, but this is in many ways a definitive portrait of Oslin’s unique gifts.
· The excellent 1993 collection Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb spotlights her great sense of humor and her intelligent assessment of love and life. It is the perfect introduction to her eclectic style. All of her best songs are included and two new numbers. It easily places Oslin alongside Rosanne Cash and k. d. lang as one of the most important new voices in 80s country music.
· After a three year hiatus and a heart attack Oslin came back as something of a closet rocker on My Roots Are Showing. She’s always been an excellent interpreter and the set’s mix of folk, country and obscure pop tunes showcase her gifts amply. The beefy arrangements add perfectly muscular touches to tunes like “Down in the Valley” and “Silver Tongued and Goldplated Lies.” She and her band have a gas on “I’ll See You in Cuba” and she approaches “Pathway of Teardrops” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” with a tenderness evocative of an earlier more contemplative era. Contemporary but not trendy and traditional but never nostalgic this is another achievement in her artistic crown.
· In 2000 Oslin returned with the eclectic set Live Close By, Visit Often which showed her to still be a vital presence. “Neva Sawyer” is a great character song, a standards medley showcases her versatility and the dance mix of “Come On-A-My House” is an odd but satisfying treat. Oslin essentially retired from recording and performing after releasing the album. Fortunately her music is readily available.
Dixie Chicks became the most popular girl group ever in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to expertly crafted albums of country that honored the tradition while integrating modern perspectives. After speaking out against the Iraq War the group was shunned by the country establishment In 2006 they returned in a big way with the defiant rock-flavored Taking the Long Way where they willfully abandoned the expectations of country music and released their inner philosophers and rockers via collaborating with producer Rick Rubin and Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, among others. The result is an impressive and often stunning meditation on the plight of renegades and outsiders who eschew communal conventions and take risks.
The opening track, “The Long Way Around”— a woman who defies her childhood peers by moving away from her town and never looking back—instantly sets the tone. By declaring “No I/I could never follow/I hit the highway” the Chicks are prepared to give listeners a bold and refreshingly honest look at everything the nation defines as common sense by looking beneath the surface of Southern charm and supposed cultural unity in favor of more sobering truths. That they do it with humor, musicality and unflinching insight is important; this is as musically enjoyable as it is lyrically appealing and is balanced with smart romantic fare that softens their message without blunting the force of their urgent material. The album’s centerpiece is the guitar driven “Not Ready to Make Nice” (co-written with Wilson) which pop radio gladly played. The three Grammy Awards the song garnered as a composition, recording and country group vocal was a savvy recognition of a classic anthem and a show of political solidarity. In a moment of political confusion and progressive paralysis the album feels like a manifestation of the challenges artists across various media have experienced in the “War on Terrorism” era. “Lubbock or Leave It”—with references to Bible Belt culture and anti-heroes, and the fiercely optimistic “I Hope”—a heartfelt wish for children to not be misled by the adults of today—are equally moving anthems that explode the boundaries of country, folk and rock.
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