Living legacies: Reflections on “Old School” 80s R&B

In the mid-1990s many emerging black popular singers consciously evoked elements of the 70s soul recordings of Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Donnie Hathaway, Minnie Riperton, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder. Among these were Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Dionne Farris, Maxwell and Me’shell N’degeocello. By the early 2000s music writers applied the term “neo-soul” to Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, John Legend, Alicia Keys and others who also drew on previous soul traditions.

 Arguably, the fusion of contemporary pop with the earthy soulfulness of the 70s was already occurring in the 1980s. Post mid-80s “Quiet Storm” and pre-early 1990s-hip-hop soul multiple vocalists wove together elements of classic soul and modern R&B to forge a distinctive style. Regina Belle, Miki Howard, Freddie Jackson and Stephanie Mills are among those performers who helped their listeners draw on the past while still looking ahead to the future. Each possessed a rich, highly expressive voice comparable to their influences, and were able to excel in the production styles of the time. Though their “pop” radio appeal was moderate their success on R&B stations was consistently strong: From 1985-90 Belle and Howard had six top 10 R&B hits; Jackson had 15 top 10 R&B hits; and Mills, who had begun having hits in 1979 but had a mid-80s upswing, scored seven top 10 R&B hits. The fact that they rarely scored top 40 pop radio hits is less about talent or the promotional skills of their record labels than ways deep cultural segregation infuses the music industry. The fact that black artists have to “crossover” speaks volumes about how the social construct of “race” distorts our sense of what counts are art, commercial or otherwise.   

 

Vocalist Regina Belle is part of generation of post-Quiet Storm/pre-hip-hop soul R&B singers often overlooked. 1989’s  Stay with Me  (Columbia) is one of her most accomplished vocal showcases.

Vocalist Regina Belle is part of generation of post-Quiet Storm/pre-hip-hop soul R&B singers often overlooked. 1989’s Stay with Me (Columbia) is one of her most accomplished vocal showcases.

 In the early 1990s hip-hop soul, led by Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Faith Evans, and eventually neo-soul, rendered 80s R&B superstars as old-fashioned. Recently, I was catching up with the music of some of these artists and was continually surprised by how well their best music has aged. I was also perusing episodes of UnSung. The series, which airs on the cable network TV One, focuses on black popular singers of the past who have been unheralded or nearly forgotten by younger audiences. Given the ephemeral nature of American popular music, and the commercial gaps between black artists and the “pop” radio market there are perpetual fears of black art being forgotten so the series performs an interesting service for aficionados and novices of black popular music.

 

Belle, Howard and Jackson have each been the focus of an episode. Mills, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance in The Wiz on Broadway, won an R&B Grammy in 1980 and had five #1 R&B hits from 1986-89, declined because she felt that she had been heralded. Listening to her soulful performances on ballads such as 1986’s “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,”1986’s “I Feel Good All Over,” and 1989’s “Home” (from The Wiz), neither of which crossed over to the pop charts I would say she remains underrated.

 Other R&B artists who might also fit comfortably into this space include Will Downing, Howard Hewett, Mica Paris and Vesta. Below, I focus on Belle and Howard whose are the most interesting artists among this group and whose discographies have remained most active among their peers.

 

Miki Howard, notable for soulful songs such as “Come Share My Love,” and “Love Under New Management,” gained fame in the mid-80s and remains a recording and performing artist.

Miki Howard, notable for soulful songs such as “Come Share My Love,” and “Love Under New Management,” gained fame in the mid-80s and remains a recording and performing artist.

Regina Belle   

 Watching the TV One UnSung episode on Regina Belle reminded me of what a splendid vocal artist she is and how the music industry never quite knew what to do with her. Her rich tone, fluid phrasing and emotional intelligence should have secured her a career comparable to other black female crossover artists of the time, including Anita Baker and Whitney Houston, to name two. Like them, she is someone who had to attain some commercial footing at “black radio” to reach a wider audience.

 Unlike them, however, she only had one major crossover hit, her duet with Peabo Bryson on “A Whole New World.” That song hit #1 and won the singers a Grammy as well as Oscars for its composers. As wonderful a song and recording as it was it did not reveal anything new about her talents. The only difference was the commercial machinery behind it. Columbia was content to promote Belle as a R&B singer with some adult contemporary appeal but left it at that.

 I decided to listen to her four Columbia albums recently to delve into what led her to move on to other labels. Three albums in (1993’s Passion) I figured out a few issues: While her singing never fails to engage, Belle emerged in the New Jack era, so her up-tempo songs have a dated feel that does not distinguish them from other dance pop from the time. In this regard she is a follower rather than a leader. More importantly, Belle is a balladeer, not a funkmaster. I’m not questioning her rhythmic drive so much as what seems to flatter her luscious tone and fundamental sensual delivery. Listening to her first albums, the R&B radio hits “Show me The Way” and “So Many Tears” have memorable melodies and flatter her voice. She knows exactly how to illuminate their melodic qualities and lyrical ideas.  The ballads surrounding them are less memorable and the light funk/dance cuts feel obligatory. Related to this, issue, which also surfaces on 1989’s Stay with Me, is the tendency to bog Belle down with one too many interchangeable “pillow talk” ballads drenched in a generically bombastic pop-soul style. The glittering keyboards, thundering drum machines, and outsized vocals get repetitive when every song has the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure. “Baby Come to Me” and “Make it Like it was” were understandable hits—she sings them with outstanding exuberance that separates them from the mundane material around them.

 Listening to Belle, I always long to hear her sing something in front of an acoustic band. Given her musical training in wind instruments, piano and voice—she has the chops, but the commercial formulas limit her to R&B and pop conventions. Whereas Baker was able to find a satisfying place between pop/soul and jazz Belle never quite makes the sensuous, jazzy mood album, like Rapture, that made Baker the most sophisticated R&B oriented singer of her generation. The bigger picture is the shift in black pop away from making music for adults to straining to capture everyone including teens. As a result, artists who excel making sensuous adult music try to branch out to funk and dance pop and flop. For example, the rap solo on “Tango in Paris,” is dated and distracting. 1995’s Reachin’ Back is a fine tribute to 70s Philly Soul, but its audience was primarily classicists of 70s R&B—a small audience. Too small for her to maintain her recording contract. 

 Belle’s timing also coincided with other changes in black pop. Blending New Jack and hip-hop, Mary J. Blige authored the hip-hop soul (“New Jill Swing”) sound. Mariah Carey’s Daydream, which featured “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” was the hip-pop-soul blueprint. Black bohemian and neo-soul artists like N’degeocello, Farris, and Badu, also forecasted what became somewhat of a revolution in R&B toward a more organic and idiosyncratic soul music beyond love songs and dance cuts. Belle, who was always more of an interpreter than songwriter, was of a different generation and sensibility.

 1998’s Believe in Me was Belle’s attempt to reclaim a more contemporary R&B identify but it was a tame affair especially compared to Lauryn Hill’s triumphant solo debut, which overshadowed most albums released that year. Even Whitney Houston got hip on 1998’s My Love is Your Love.  This is Regina, released in 2001 on the smooth jazz boutique label Concord/Peak, felt like a bit of a retreat. She recorded the kind of ballads that made her an R&B star but even the inclusion of hip-hop elements made it feel like it was recorded in a bit of a time warp.

 In 2004 Belle finally released Lazy Afternoon the kind of album her fans have always felt she was capable of recording. Belle’s sense of standards spans from stalwarts like “the Man I Love” to ‘70s soul (“For the Love of You).” The result is a polished and engaging set of performances that avoids sounding retro or succumbing to watered down fusion or smooth jazz. It’s a refreshing change that finds Belle at her peak. Singing “Corcovado” and “Fly Me to the Moon” was hardly a commercial strategy in 2004 but the fact that she was able to record the album on a major label spoke to what was possible.  

 Four years later Belle turned to her first love, gospel music on 2008’s Love Forever Shines, which was followed shortly by serious health issues. Belle returned with 2012’s Higher, another gospel set and revisited secular R&B on 2016’s The Day Life Began on Shanachie, a record label home for many R&B veterans. Belle remains a remarkable singer in search of an audience.

 

Belle’s most recent album, 2016’s  The Day Life Began  (Shanachie Records), finds her singing in great voice.

Belle’s most recent album, 2016’s The Day Life Began (Shanachie Records), finds her singing in great voice.

Miki Howard

In terms of an aesthetic vision and success with black audiences Chicago native Miki Howard (b. 1960) is the most successful and consistent singer among the underrated R&B divas. She never achieved a big crossover single but has always seemed content to resonate with her core R&B audience, even if her talent warranted even greater exposure. When she emerged in 1986 on Come Share My Love not only was her sultry, gospel trained voice intact, but she knew the kind of songs she loved to sing and stuck to her interests continually. In listening to Howard, I hear few compromises in the material she chooses, her vocal technique, or the aesthetic she advances—notably the interconnected relationship of contemporary black music to the gospel and jazz traditions. The desire to “crossover” often stifles performers to the point of desperation. Too many of the talented divas I discuss in this section have bland discographies weighed down by mediocre albums with nary an interesting song. Comparatively, Howard is a dynamic presence with such a surefooted sensibility and radiance, that she could never be read as dull or dispassionate.

 A good point of comparison is the biggest black female vocalist of Howard’s era when she recorded for Atlantic and Giant Records, Whitney Houston. Houston, two years younger than Howard, debuted as a solo singer in 1984 at 21 and her debut mixed bubbly dance pop with emotive ballads. Howard debuted at 25 and projected a sultrier, more adult image. Though Howard’s first hit was actually written for Houston “Come Share My Love” feels so intrinsic to Howard’s sensual persona that it’s hard to hear anyone else sing it. It’s not a great song, but she makes it work. Even more radical for the time was Howard’s choice to interpret the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Imagination” live with an orchestra. This is about as far away from cheesy dance pop as you can get. More importantly it reflected Howard’s genuine affection for her jazz predecessors (in this instance Jimmy Scott).  Like so many black vocalists she saw little distinction between genres and sang from a more timeless place than typical black pop of the era.

 Her follow-up continued in this fusion of contemporary and classic sensibilities. There’s solid new material, like the alluring waltz “Baby Be Mine,” and a sizzling duet with Gerald LeVert (“That’s What Love Is”), as well as a loving nod to Earth Wind and Fire on “Reasons” and to her hero Billie Holiday on “You’ve Changed.” Whereas many pop and soul singers treat standards as quaint museum pieces Howard employed contemporary instruments alongside strings and her gospel phrasing is used effectively enough that the songs sound contemporary, as they should.

 From 1986-89 New Jack Swing, the marrying of R&B with urban beats derived from hip-hop production, reshaped the sound of commercial R&B. The style suited young dance acts like Bobby Brown and Guy but was not always the best for the traditional voices of adult R&B to excel. Yet Howard was hip enough to make it work. Her first R&B #1 hit was the propulsive “Ain’t Nuthin’ in the World” which was squarely in the black mainstream and credible for a singer known more for ballads. Even more intriguing was her nod to Aretha Franklin on a sleek interpretation of “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” which juxtaposed New Jack rhythms and textures with Howard’s soulful wails in the main vocal and background. It reached #3 and succeeds on every level.

 

On 2008’s  Private Collection  (Branika Records), Miki Howard continues to showcase her soulful approach to pop, soul and jazz-oriented songs.

On 2008’s Private Collection (Branika Records), Miki Howard continues to showcase her soulful approach to pop, soul and jazz-oriented songs.

1989-90 was a great time for Howard’s career. The album Miki Howard is her finest and most successful album. It peaked at #4 on the R&B albums chart and spawned three big R&B hits including the two already mentioned, and “Love Under New Management” her best performance on record. The “neo-soul” tag (discussed elsewhere in this section) was a late-1990s term for young R&B singers with a penchant for classic soul, but “Love” was a forerunner to this sound. It begins with a swirling saxophone and steady beat that instantly establish the sultry journey to come—a woman discovers true love. From the brilliant title to the sage-like tone, to the call and response vocals, to the vernacular lyrics (“There’s nothing like someone who can take care of business”), to the spoken “rap” during the bridge this is classic soul writ large performed with expert finesse. 

 In 1992 Howard gained visibility portraying Billie Holiday in Spike Lee’s epic film Malcolm X. Unlike many soul singers who primarily model themselves after soul divas like Aretha, Tina, and Gladys, Howard leans more toward jazz singers particularly “blue” jazz singers like Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Etta Jones. Holiday is the clearest idol for Howard. Vocally Howard has a bigger voice and is far more extradited. She also favors Holiday’s smoldering ballads over her swing material. Their root commonality is their attraction to torchy, melancholic material. Howard’s gift is her contemporary outlook on the Holiday repertoire as one relevant to today. By working with modern arrangements and instruments Howard takes the risk of singing the material in her language which is bold considering the conformity rampant in contemporary R&B of the time. Howard’s Holiday tribute album is mixed (more on that later) but I appreciate her moxie. At a time when hip-hop soul was on the rise it was iconoclastic to go against the grain and follow her heart.  

 She also switched to Giant Records in 1992 and released Femme Fatale an interesting cross-section of Howard’s persona. She could have easily built on the momentum of Miki but chose to open her album with modern takes on “Good Morning Heartache” and “This Bitter Earth.” As always, she sings them in a modern vocal style that melds gospel inflections with jazz oriented phrasing. By doing so she “introduces” the songs to younger ears and legitimizes them as living melodies. She juxtaposes these with nods to ‘70s soul fare including a duet on the Teddy Pendergrass-cum-Philly Soul classic “Hope We Get Together Soon” and a funky mash-up of Sly Stone’s “Thank You” and “Dance to the Music.” These seemingly different eras, jazz, funk and Philly Soul sit comfortably beside each other in Howard’s universe. Howard balanced these classicist tendencies with smart commercial material including her second number one R&B hit “Ain’t Nobody Like You” a sultry, smart adult groove tune and the funky “Release Me.” Like her previous album these are contemporary songs perfectly in tune with the time, but with room for Howard to be herself. The remaining material on the album is listenable pop-soul.

 1993’s Miki Sings Billie: A Tribute to Billie Holiday is a muddled experiment. Perhaps Howard feels so close to Holiday that it’s hard to establish a critical distance. This might explain a version of “I’m a Fool to Want You” drowning in electronic keyboard/synthesizer textures and tinny electronic drumbeats. Whether it’s intended to sound contemporary or a reflection of early ‘90s production cost-cutting the gloss distracts from what is mostly a solid vocal performance.  This is a letdown given her past success with standards. “Don’t Explain” is less produced but her opening ad-lib about her equal access to the temptation of cheating seems too liberated in relation to the song’s fundamental resignation. “Yesterdays” is sung as a mid-tempo swing ballad then goes into double time then slows to mid-tempo then a ballad tempo; a different but not emotionally satisfying approach.

 As expected, she handles torch songs well including “My Man” which features a few embellishments and a potent “Solitude.” Some of her choices betray expectations quite nicely. The opener “What a little Moonlight Can Do” starts as a sultry ballad then a big band swing instrumental break comes in before returning to Howard’s ecstatic vocal. This approach differs enough from typical jazz versions that it’s memorable even if the arrangement seems a bit big for such a slight song. Though she usually leans toward Holiday’s torchier fare she has a lot of fun on a big band version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” that she modernizes lyrically, and captures the fundamental levity of “My Mother’s Son-in-Law” with a similarly brassy arrangement. 

 Howard has often defined herself as a jazz singer, but R&B remains at her core. She lacks Holiday’s gift for subtly improvising melodies, is sometimes lacking in humor and is not always very emotionally subtle. Her gutsy, on-the-nose style is enjoyable, but she is more of a jazz stylist than an improviser. This set make me long for a big band jazz album, but this seems unlikely soon.

 Miki Sings Billie was her least successful endeavor commercially and she struggled for years as a result of industry politics and substance abuse. In 1996 she released the Can’t Count Me Out an uneven release that goes overboard showcasing her colors. She starts off with a solid cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing about You” with harmonies from Chaka Khan and Terence Trent D’Arby, follows this up with a lovely Brenda Russell and Ron Spearman tune “Sunshine” and spirals in to odd territory, like an overwrought guitar laden rendition of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” (!) and some middling R&B. The best performance is a straight ahead version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” refreshingly free of clutter. This independent release was barely released and did not restore her to glory. Five years later she released Three Wishes, which I have not heard. It garnered a 2011 Grammy Nomination for Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. She followed this up with a pop-soul cover album, Pillow Talk: Miki Sings the Classics, for Shanachie Records.

 In 2010 TV One aired a Miki Howard episode of UnSung. Compared to predecessors like Phyllis Hyman, Howard had a remarkable commercial run and seems to have had fewer struggles recording the material she desired. Still, I find it unfortunate that Howard, who remains a gifted singer, had to release her 2008 album Private Collection independently in an era when singers with lesser voices and no discernible aesthetic thrive at major labels. This was followed in 2015 by Live in Concert. Her sultry, gospel flavored approach to R&B, and her jazz orientation, has firm roots in black popular music traditions that never go out of style. Even if she is not in the mainstream commercially her musicality makes her part of a chain of formidable soul singers with talents that transcend the current pop moment.  

 Recommended listening:

 Regina Belle

Stay with Me (Columbia 1989)

Baby Come to Me: The Best of Regina Belle (compilation) (Columbia/Legacy 1997)

Lazy Afternoon (Peak 2004)

The Day Life Began (Shanachie Records 2016)

 

Miki Howard

Miki Howard (Atlantic 1989)

Very Best of Miki Howard (compilation) (Atlantic/Rhino 2001)

Live Plus (Warlock Records 1996)

 

COPYRIGHT © 2019 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Aging fiercely: Mariah Carey’s Caution and the new realities of pop music

The hottest selling R&B album in the nation currently belongs to…Mariah Carey. No, it’s not the 1990s it’s the 2010s and Carey still matters.  Carey has spent a lot of time perched at the top of the charts but at 48 she’s defying the typical music industry logic. Her determination to remain an active recording and touring artist is quite remarkable considering all the sexist and ageist rhetoric that relegates women over 40 to the has-been heap. 

 

Mariah Carey’s 2018 album  Caution  is an acclaimed and popular set that has garnered favorable reviews and healthy sales.

Mariah Carey’s 2018 album Caution is an acclaimed and popular set that has garnered favorable reviews and healthy sales.

Almost 30 years ago, when Carey first rose to prominence, the industry measured success by multiplatinum album sales, propelled by multiplatinum singles launched by traditional delivery systems—music videos, radio and select promotional appearances.

 

If her newest album Caution goes gold or has a single radio “hit” even her harshest critics would consider her truly back in the game. This may seem odd, but it tells you a lot about an industry that eats its young after they age and has struggled to avoid obsolescence. After decades of overcharging for CDs the digital revolution has altered the consumer landscape. Few artists are selling albums that go gold or platinum. How did we reach such low expectations for impact?

 

Around the time Carey experienced a generation gap (end of the 1990s) young people were discovering Napster and hip-hop was growing more insular. By 2001’s ill-fated release Glitter radio was more consolidated, and the short-lived teen pop and Latin pop bubbles were growing increasingly tired.

 

Just as Carey’s status of as the queen of 1990s pop seemed destined for other singers, she nearly fulfilled the prediction with the underwritten, overproduced and fussy Charmbracelet. The MC comeback trail actually began with 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. MC changed her aesthetic to leaner, more groove- oriented material and brilliantly synthesized elements of contemporary hip-hop and neo-soul without surrendering her almost baroque vocal style.

 

This happy balance generated four genuine hits and earned her newfound respect in the modern R&B world. Frankly, in terms of female vocal icons R& had few contemporary heroes left besides Carey, Mary J. Blige and the slightly younger Erykah Badu.

 

Though 15 years into Carey’s career was only a ripple compared to Streisand, Franklin, LaBelle, Warwick, Ross, Turner and other veteran vocalists, rare was the ‘90s pop star who thrived in the mid-2000s. Despite the increasing defragmentation in pop music—including the emergence of streaming services, the growth of YouTube and the nichification of pop (which deepened the adult and teen listening divides) 2008’s E=MC2 was a hit. It debuted at #1 and spawned a #1 pop single. Since then, the hits have been less fewer, but the albums have grown more distinct.  Memoirs, Elusive, the new Caution and even Merry Xmas II You are distinctly Carey. She remade herself into a persona—that of the maturing star who is gleefully adolescent at times and expects to be understood as a survivor/veteran/legend.

 

Distractions like the reality show or even public fiascos like the New Year’s Eve lip syncing debacle never fully erase her primary public identity as a recording artist whose best ideas typically emerge in recording studios rather than film studios or tv soundstages. In the era of “branding” certain moves solidify her brand as that of an idiosyncratic human, in stark contrast to the polished and well-behaved Carey of the early 1990s.

 

Carey and Ty Dolla Sign perform “The Distance” on  The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon  in November 2018. In the mid-1990s Carey pioneered the R&B and hop-hop fusion that persists today.

Carey and Ty Dolla Sign perform “The Distance” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in November 2018. In the mid-1990s Carey pioneered the R&B and hop-hop fusion that persists today.

Caution makes the case for Carey as comfortably accomplished by lowering the keys, scaling down the production and aiming for a more casual listening experience. Upon first listening few cuts will grab you the way hook driven pop music does typically. Rather, the record insinuates itself into your consciousness gradually. After listening a few times, you will find certain melodic fragments, rhythmic phrases, vocal passages and lyrics reverberate. It’s an unusually subtle element we do not usually associate with pop-soul divas. Everything is tightly produced—whereas before her vocal runs and the burnished production made every sentiment crystal clear, here she whisper-sings and phrases seductively with a laser sharp consistency.

 

For most of the album you must listen closely to understand and unpack what she’s saying. Despite the title of her last album the diva here is elusive. For once, you as a listener must do a little work to understand what have become increasingly personal blues. Critics have attributed all kinds of subtexts to her lyrics; whether this speculation is accurate is less notable than the fact that Carey has enough of a life and presence for there to be subtext.

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In 1990, Carey was one of many mainstream voices competing for attention including Paula Abdul, Anita Baker, Michael Bolton, Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, MC Hammer, Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Vanessa Williams among others. Several of these artists periodically release music on major record labels, but most have branched into other ventures, retired or faded from the mainstream. Understood in this light, Carey’s ability to stay current and yet still be her own artist is remarkable. Caution debuted at #1 on Billboard’s R&B albums chart, #1 on the separate Hip-Hop albums chart, and #5 on the Pop albums chart.  Once again Mariah is on top.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Aretha’s Rainbow: Notes on Aretha Franklin’s music beyond ‘soul’

The loss of a musical and cultural titan as mighty as Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942-August 18, 2018) naturally inspires critics, writers, bloggers, journalists and fans the opportunity to reflect on her legacy. I have listened to a wide range of Ms. Franklin’s music deeply over time and this month I discuss her remarkably underrated musical range and adaptability.

 

The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

We have commonly known Aretha Franklin as “the Queen of Soul,” a recognition of her talents as the most influential singer in Rhythm & Blues (R&B). But her ascent to this role was not inevitable. She has always had the talent and drive to move in any musical direction of her choice. Franklin grew up the daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin a prominent minister and civil rights activist. As a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid) Aretha’s exposure to gospel music was the outgrowth of being raised in a church environment, especially during a time when the church played an even more prominent role as a social and spiritual force in the lives of African-Americans. Her father regularly interacted with luminaries in the gospel world such as singer Clara Ward, who nurtured Aretha, so her emergence as a young gospel recording artist at the age of 14 is understandable.

In the 1950’s gospel music was far more segregated from secular music than it is today. Most popular black singers of Aretha’s youth, including jazz vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and R&B singers who preceded Franklin, such as Ray Charles and Etta James, began their musical training in a church environment. Many singers, such as Roy Hamilton, Sam Cooke, and Washington achieved commercial success on the gospel circuit, before deciding to make the leap to secular music and “cross over.” Crossing over was such a major issue that many of gospel’s most accomplished voices, including Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Shirley Caesar, always made it a point to note that they had opportunities to sing secular music but refused.

 

Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin’s ambitions, however, went beyond the circuit. Signed by John Hammond to sing at Columbia Records, her stint from 1961-66 is represents her complicated musical identity. While gospel vocal techniques, including the selective use of bent notes, melisma and call-and-response type arrangements, deeply inform Franklin’s singing, her taste in material extends well beyond the secularized gospel material known as R&B songs to include blues and pre-rock pop music from Broadway and film. Though she conveys a vocal intensity and emotional vulnerability best understood as “soul” her Columbia recordings tell a fuller story of her musical interests.

Her 1961 Columbia debut album Aretha (in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo) featured original songs such as “Won’t Be Long” with a strong flavor recognizable to R&B fans, but she also interpreted “Over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz) and “Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy & Bess). These interpretations are distinctly Aretha-fied but cannot simply be understood as “soul” or “R&B. Like many musicians of her generation she absorbed a wide range of influences and these are as essential to understanding her career as hits like “Respect” and “Think.”

 

Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Columbia paired Franklin with many different arrangers and producers in search of commercial hits and this proved difficult. Franklin’s taste in material included a penchant for creatively reimagining tried and true standards (“Love for Sale”) and more contemporary (“If I Had a Hammer”) songs sung in jazz settings such as the superb jazz set Yeah!!! which could have made her the outstanding jazz vocalist of her generation. But she also enjoyed singing dated “showbiz” songs including “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” made famous by Al Jolson in 1918 (!), and a flashy version of the pop warhorse “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.” These kinds of songs, combined with period era touches such as strings and background choirs, found her at odds with changes occurring in popular music in the mid-1960s. This includes the transition of rock ‘n’ roll from dance-oriented music to more serious and sophisticated “rock,” the growth of R&B into “soul,” and newer variants in jazz such as “soul jazz” and the avant-garde.

 

Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Stuck in a commercial rut, she had not found consistent success in the pop, jazz and cabaret vein of Columbia and overtly sought a label that could help her secure hits on the radio and the record charts. At Columbia Records, she had 12 top 100 singles, with only one, the rather unfortunate “Rock-A-Bye,” hitting the pop top 40. Considering the social and racial segregation of the 1960’s she was more popular on the “black” singles charts where she had 8 top 40 songs though few were major hits. Atlantic Records, under the guidance of producer Jerry Wexler, helped Franklin realize her ambitions by providing more leeway to select songs, paly piano and arrange her material. From 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” onward she grew into a creative and commercial acme that went until about 1974. Had her career been assessed by the first singles she released from 1967-68, which includes (in order): “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby)Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Think,” she would have had the greatest streak of winners of any singer of her time. What’s so amazing is that she continued to produce more classics, on an almost routine casual basis, including her versions of “I Say a Little Prayer,” (1968) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971) and original compositions such as like “Call Me” (1970) and “Daydreaming” (1972).

 Though the late 1960’s-early 1970’s is Franklin’s prime “classic” period this does not mean everything she recorded was classic. Franklin became an artist before albums were assembled as meticulously as they eventually became in the late 1960’s era of rock “concept” albums. Essentially her albums were compilations of potential singles and whatever was recorded recently. This shifted with 1969’s more conceptual big band jazz set Soul ’69 and on the gospel extravaganza 1972’s Amazing Grace. I mention this because even as her albums became more uneven in the early 1970’s there was still at least a handful of classic individual performances which is more than could be said for most artists. No matter how uneven an album, such as 1974’s Let Me in your Life, might be there was a classic performance like “Until you Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” that reminded you why she stirred so much excitement in 1967. Except for 1976’s Sparkle soundtrack the mid-to-late 1970’s was a commercial nadir as Franklin searched for suitable material to apply her naturally potent voice, a search complicated by the expanding strands of black pop which included quiet storm, funk, disco and Philly Soul.

 

1985's  Who's Zoomin' Who?  was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

1985's Who's Zoomin' Who? was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

Searching once again for “hits” Franklin took a cue from Dionne Warwick’s success at Arista Records and signed with the label. Many critics have noted how this era pales with her classic period. I respond to this in two ways. First, any artist’s peak would pale in comparison with Franklin’s late 1960s-early 1970’s hot streak. At Atlantic she as able to synthesize nearly all her disparate influences and interests into a cohesive style that was rooted in gospel but drew from a panoply of American music strands. Second, like most major artists Franklin faced a generation gap and major industrial and technological changes in the music industry. Franklin was 25 when “Respect” became a hit and nearly 40 when she had her first Arista “hit,” the ballad “United Together.” Franklin was not going to revert to the jazz and pop she began with as much of this material had been interpreted continually by a wide variety of singers since the 1910’s and she was interested in authoring new hits. Further, she was entering into an industry more defined by electric production technologies (e.g. synthesizers), personalized audio delivery systems (e.g. Walkman’s) and promotional outlets such as MTV, as well as a narrowing of radio programming menus.

In this more codified and demographically focused market Franklin made a noble effort to employ her still rich voice and sharp pop instincts to remain a vital pop figure. For someone of my vintage (ahem, mid-1970’s) I knew songs like “Respect” and “A Natural Woman,” as they were too iconic (and played on oldie stations) to not know, much like “Unchained Melody” or “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” I also experienced Franklin’s performances of 1982’s “Jump to It,” 1983’s “Get it Right” and the monstrous 1985 radio and MTV hit “Freeway of Love.” As a young listener, I was both aware of Franklin as a revered singer with a rich past and as a contemporary artist whose hits such as “Freeway,” “Sisters Are Doing It Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” were as good as pop got in the mid-1980’s. This was new music and it was commercially viable and genuinely exciting. Sustaining the commercial success of these hits eventually became harder as Franklin’s fusion of gospel technique and sleek modern production styles competed with hip-hop, New Jack swing, modern rock, and other emerging styles. The quality of material she recorded for Arista from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s finds her locating ways to adapt her sound to the times. Sometimes this resulted in a sublime fusion, such as 1994’s “Honey” and 1998’s “A Rose is Still a Rose,” and sometimes it resulted in her “oversouling” on slight material or straining too hard to sound “hip.”

 

1998's  A Rose is Still a Rose  was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

1998's A Rose is Still a Rose was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

Franklin’s efforts to remain current has inspired controversy among many musicians and critics. For example, several of her past producers such as Wexler and arranger Clyde Otis, wanted her to skip the contemporary pop music scene and focus on being a jazz-oriented singer. Yet Franklin has never felt like a singer seeking to be confined to one style. She took risks “crossing over” from gospel to secular music and transitioning from the jazzy pop style of the 1960’s to the more overt “soul” approach of the late 1960’s.  Most musical artists are lucky to excel in one style and she found a credible voice in multiple styles and eras. As such, her missteps must be considered in the context of their creation and the transitory nature of pop music.

 

While many of her peers may have been associated with a defined time in the past and lauded for their endurance, she strived to achieve ongoing relevance. A talent like hers transcends charts, sales and awards. Her spectacular performances at the 1997 VH1 Divas Live concert, at the 1998 Grammys singing “Nessun Dorma” and stopping the show with “A Natural Woman” performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, attest to a highly cultivated musicality and showmanship. Though many singers think “soul” is only about raw emotion Franklin has deep roots that helped her balance the emotional and technical needs of her material. Her versatility, improvisational skill, musical technique and sheer heart are uniquely her own.

************************************************************************************************************

Please enjoy these two playlists I compiled via Spotify:

1961-74:

https://open.spotify.com/user/vls008/playlist/6JtD03J7GmCk6I3RzUGHpy?si=HcT4MnSWSCm7GoYwBgbLFw

1980-2003:

https://open.spotify.com/user/vls008/playlist/6JtD03J7GmCk6I3RzUGHpy?si=HpPb9AFXTqOOhD0PcXqFwg

 

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Me, you and Mariah: A re-introduction of sorts

I resented her at first. Like many people listening to pop radio in the summer of 1990, I recall the soaring notes, the skillful gospel inflections, and soaring chorus of “Vision of Love.” The talent on display was undeniable. Yet, after growing up with the mellifluous tones of Whitney Houston did we really need Whitney II?

Many a diva had tried, and mostly failed, to imitate the power and technique Houston wielded and I was unwilling to relent. Further, there was the matter of race. Though Whitney received a lot of criticism from black people for “sounding White” and “lacking soul” we were proud of her achievements. She was not just the ultimate black diva of the era—she was the ultimate diva, period. She crossed over in a way no black female pop singer (even Diana Ross and Donna Summer!) had done before her, and I (we) felt very protective of her legacy.

MC vision single.jpg

Gradually, the details about this new diva Mariah emerged. Though Columbia Records marketed her as a pop artist, and was thus tacitly “white,” she was biracial actually. She had a white mother and an Afro-Venezuelan father and honed her talent listening to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the Clark Sisters and other legends mostly associated with African-American music. She was also open about her black, and white, cultural roots with an emphasis on the black musical influences.

Though she was open about her heritage, as a white-appearing singer she was still “suspicious” to some listeners and critics. She had more immediate pop access than many more phenotypically black singers, and as a Columbia Records artist she certainly had more marketing muscle behind her than a lot of other talented soul divas. Regina Belle, a black vocalist signed to Columbia had not really crossed over to the pop audience by 1990. Mikki Howard was still primarily known to the black R&B audience. Veteran divas like Randy Crawford and Phyllis Hyman, who began recording in the mid-1970's, were still striving for greater recognition. Who was this new voice and why was she so special?

For me, these questions remained present, but became less relevant as I continued listening. After “Vision” came lovelorn ballads such as “Love Takes Time” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and the sassy dance tune “Someday.” By 1991, Mariah was the most successful female singer in pop. She won two awards at the 1991 Grammy's, beating out Houston, Bette Midler, Sinead O’Connor, and Lisa Stansfield for Female Pop Vocal Performance, and was a commercial phenomenon. The moment that solidified my interested were her almost ridiculous coloratura notes at the outro of her 1991 dance-pop hit “Emotions” the lead single from her new album Emotions. I had never heard any pop singer reach those heights technically, and on an emotional level, there was something about her exuberance and passion, and virtuosity, that spoke to my 15-year-old ears.  More hits from the album followed, and though I did not watch her 1992 MTV Unplugged episode when it first aired, she and Trey Lorenz’s soulful remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” mightily impressed me. To re-record such a classic and balance respect for the original with a personal flair was hard to pull off and they did it. My understanding is that even Michael Jackson was a fan.

Emotions single cover.jpg

As high school was ending I began developing other musical affinities including savoring new voices like the sultry tones of balladeer Toni Braxton and the modern girl groups Xscape, Jade, and SWV, whose debut I listened to incessantly on my black cassette player. Still, Carey’s voice always hovered somewhere in the background. My brother lent me his copy of Music Box, which had songs like the fluffy confection “Dreamlover” and the “inspirational” songs like “Hero” and “Anytime You Need a Friend.” If the lyrical themes were too literal, the singing and arrangements were gorgeous. Theoretically, based on demographics, I was supposed to be enjoying Tupac Shakur or Nirvana, but Mariah compelled me more. I remember combing the liner notes and being impressed by her level of creative control. Not only was she the singer, but also a writer, arranger, and producer. This seemed so different from what I remembered about other singers like Houston, Braxton, and Celine Dion. 

The summer before leaving for college, I interned at the local daily newspaper and saved my money well. Within my first semester at Emerson College, I had spent hundreds of dollars on cassettes tapes of the pop music I loved from childhood including Houston, Carey, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Taylor Dayne, etc. I shopped mostly at Tower Records, but when my money ran low, I went to great used record stores in Boston, like Mystery Train and Newbury Comics. I was doing my own music education and Carey was part of my curriculum. That winter she released Merry Christmas, whose lead single “All I Want for Christmas is You,” I adored. It was one of the few seasonal songs I could stand to listen to beyond the season. My college friends, many of whom liked more outré music, seemed puzzled by my adoration. When you were in college in the mid-1990s you were supposed to like edgier, darker, more ironic music, but I was adamant that Carey was special. Even when she was obvious, or overwrought, I still forgave her.

In summer 1995, I returned to the internship and continued spending my salary disproportionately on music. I finally bought the MTV Unplugged EP. As impressive as the Jackson 5 cover was, I was impressed by her lean live arrangement of her live version of “Emotions” and transported by the way she and her background singers soared on the Carey and Carole King written soul ballad “If it’s Over.” The audience, whoever they were, applauded righteously. A few months after this purchase, Carey released “Fantasy” in a pop version and a remix featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (O.D.B). It was the second song to debut at #1 on the singles chart (after Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”) and signified something new for Carey. After five years of wholesomeness, there was something funkier and even a bit trashy about the juxtaposition of Carey with O.D.B. I bought 1995’s Daydream the night of its release from Tower and could not wait to run to my dorm room and listen to it, as well as review the liner notes. Shortly after, I reviewed Daydream very positively for the college paper The Berkeley Beacon. I also noticed other reviews, such as Time magazine’s Christopher John Farley noticing something younger, sexier, and more interesting about Carey.

Mc if its over.jpg

Daydream was an artistic and commercial apex for Carey spawning three number one hits, earning her multiple awards and nominations, including six Grammy nods, and even a spot on a few year-end Best-Of lists. After five years, she was finally earning the critical respect I felt she deserved. I also felt vindicated in my tastes; even people who loathed pop, and Carey specifically, warmed up to songs like “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby.”

1997 began my scholarly interest in Carey. Right before departing Boston for graduate school in Ohio in late August 1997 news emerged that she and her husband, Sony Music President Tommy Mottola, were separating and her forthcoming album Butterfly was the first product of her newfound freedom. Carey, who always seemed upbeat and inaccessible, suddenly seemed more human and vulnerable than ever. Though she led with the hip-hop inflected single “Honey,” promoted via an escapist video of Carey escaping to an island, dancing with a group of sailors, and jumping into the arms of another man at its conclusion, the album was not exactly hip-hop. Mostly she used the ballad form, her greatest strength, to reflect on her childhood (“Close My Eyes”), racial insecurity (“Outside”), and heartache (“Whenever You Call”), co-written with her collaborator Walter Afanasieff. She also managed to blend her style with younger artists including the brilliant “Breakdown” recording with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the taut “Babydoll” co-written with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Though the album featured hip-hop associated personnel, the album is mostly downbeat. Lyrically, it is also richer in detail and the songs flow into each other with far more deliberateness than her typically singles-oriented albums. There are some meandering melodies, and at times, she barely enunciates, but it feels like her most personal work yet.

I wrote about Carey’s gospel influences in a music course I was taking and built from this blueprint by presenting papers on her music at academic conferences. I decided Carey’s life warranted deeper exploration and made her the focus of my Master’s thesis.  I collected a formidable archive of articles and images, watched her commercially released videos, and became a Carey “expert.” I was simultaneously meditating on the political economy of popular music. She was the rare female pop figure to possess such high levels of creative control. And as a biracial performer she was in an odd position: Though she was marketed as a pop singer with a soulful sound that could appeal to fans of black pop, she had fought with Columbia about integrating more hip-hop into her music and was defeated. That is, until she had earned enough commercial clout to do so; and this apparent “gamble” paid off.  She was a racially ambiguous singer typically read as “white,” who gradually integrated blacker urban influences into her music, as pop music itself was becoming more influenced by hip-hop. Though Mary J. Blige is understood as the queen of hip-hop soul, “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” blended hip-hop, R&B and pop in a quietly transformative way. After Carey’s success in this style Houston embraced it on 1998’s My Love is Your Love, and even Celine Dion started adding R&B touches to her albums.  

Since the late 1990s, Carey’s influence on other singers has grown more apparent (e.g., Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson) but her struggle to remain relevant has also emerged. Butterfly debuted at number one and had two number one hits but was not the colossal success of her previous albums in sales or in airplay. 1999’s Rainbow just missed the number one pop albums spot, and though she had two big pop/R&B hits from it the set was also perceived as a downturn in sales.  Her experience is similar to other female pop singers who regularly enjoyed robust sales and airplay in the 1990's such as Janet Jackson. In the 2000's Carey struggled personally and professionally to uphold her previous image. Midway through the decade she had a “comeback” with 2005’s Emancipation of Mimi, but has struggled to maintain its momentum as she has matured and as the record industry has adapted to the digital revolution, changing demographics, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores and competing forms of media influence.

MC we belong mtv.jpg

Carey emerged in the midst of “big pop” a period when pop stars regularly sold multiplatinum albums that spawned multiple singles, mostly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. This was the era of mega-selling albums such as Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, Like a Virgin, Purple Rain, She’s So Unusual, Whitney Houston, No Jacket Required, and Faith. She filled a void on Columbia’s roster and provided the label with a reliable commercial anchor who could compete with Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna and other chart-makers of the early 1990s. She proved herself to be musically adept across age, format and taste cultures during several transitions in pop music. As a relatively self-contained musician, typically in tune with musical trends, her instincts served her well for over a decade. After over 25 years of recording, she has had to confront the artistic quandary for big pop stars:  Their talents gave them an audience, but as audiences shrink and tastes change, they have to figure out how, and if, their talents can keep them in the spotlight. The alternatives are to try to adapt to changing tastes and/or to relinquish the spotlight and simply make the music they want to make rather than competing with contemporary pop.

Pop fame is a remarkably addictive temptation. Legendary performers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan all had fallow periods when they tried to stay current. Their natural abilities often clashed with attempts to cover rock material and they eventually returned to the kind of music that made them famous. 

Carey has to figure out how viable she is for present and future audiences.  As a listener I distinguish her career from more traditional divas like Houston and Dion who have always depended more on outside material and producer/executives’ instincts to shape their sounds. She also differs from singers like Jackson and Madonna whose careers depend more heavily on their personae and performing abilities than vocal precision.  Arguably, two promising approaches that continue to constrain her are ambition and risk. First, though pop is full of pretentious “art rock” and “concept albums” that go nowhere, I rarely sense Carey developing her albums conceptually. Beyond writing well-crafted love songs and scoring hits, it is not clear if she is thinking on the conceptual plane that musicians as varied as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, U2, or Stevie Wonder have employed. She seems capable to this listener but I am not sure if she believes it.

Second, Carey might benefit from looking at the payoffs for some of pop music’s risk takers. A few examples:

·         After six years of albums featuring orchestras and show tunes Barbra Streisand made peace with modern pop on 1971’s Stoney End and Barbra Joan Streisand adding Carole King, John Lennon, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson to her repertoire alongside of Harold Arlen and Jules Styne. Though she is not a rock singer by any stretch, she modernized her sound finding some folk-pop, R&B, and soft rock that gelled with her sound. She mostly maintained her audience and gained new ones.

·         Donna Summer quickly became the “Queen of Disco” around 1976, and she gradually grew beyond its confines adding conceptual dimensions, and other stylistic influences that peaked on 1979’s Bad Girls. But her finest album was actually 1980’s The Wanderer, a moderately popular but thoroughly accomplished album with touches of rock, new wave, pop, and even gospel that redefined her sound and career for the 1980s.

·         Linda Ronstadt completely upended her image in the 1980s by performing in Pirates of Penzance and La Boheme in New York, recording three standards albums with Nelson Riddle and recording what eventually became a trilogy of Spanish language albums. Though her record label was highly reluctant, she had earned the audience and profits to more than justify these experiments, which ultimately transformed her singing. 1987’s Trio and 1989’s Cry Like a Rainstorm illustrated her enduring commercial appeal even after seemingly abandoning mainstream pop.

·         Madonna had a succession of hit albums and singles from 1983 forward and from these successes came 1989’s Like a Prayer. Though it is clearly aiming for “seriousness” her conceptual reach indicated greater artistic ambitions than being an MTV provocateur. The album’s genuine explorations of religion, sexuality, and family propelled her from an entertainer to an artist and afforded her newfound critical respect without diminishing her commercial appeal.

 

As odd as it seems to reference albums recorded from 1971-89 this is part of my larger point: Pop musicians of Carey’s generation rarely deviate from established formulas. Daydream was definitely a progression in its blend of hip-hop elements with pop/soul, and Butterfly was even more experimental in many respects. But, there is an element of daring missing from Carey’s repertoire that would help her grow artistically and enrich her critical stature. Whether audiences will follow is less relevant than her potential to lead.

mc cbs.jpg

 MARIAH CAREY, SERIOUSLY?

To enjoy listening to someone like Mariah Carey is a kind of badge of vulgarity, right?

She seems so obvious, so commercial, so pop, so excessive, so shameless, so over-the-top, so obsessive, so slick. Respectable people are not supposed to take pop divas like Carey (and forebears like Whitney Houston, or followers like Kelly Clarkson) “seriously.” Carl Wilson’s brilliant 2007 book on Celine Dion (reprinted and expanded in 2014) Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste is one of the best analyses of this subject of musical taste.

In rock and pop critical circles, “Serious” is a term reserved for male singer-songwriters in rock, soul, hip-hop and certain subgenres of country. “Serious” is mostly for music that is not “pop” except when it is. The critical community champions rock and roll for its cultural revolution of bringing black influenced culture to the mainstream. Yet, up until the 2000's, the demographics of rock criticism were incredibly homogeneous and conservative. Few non-white males had the opportunity to gain the national prominence or critical respect of Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh to name a few rock critic superstars.

As such, rock criticism’s’ insularity has narrowed the discourse of the aesthetic expressions respectable in mainstream popular music. Rockers, country outlaws, gritty soul men and hip-hop are OK. Women can also enter this club as long as they adhere to these archetypes. When critics accord female pop singer respect, they often write in tones of shock and condescension. Who knew she could do that.

Women who are angry and gritty are admitted to the canon, but other kinds of expression—vulnerability, optimism, ambivalence, buoyancy, sensuality—are harder to trace in the language of pop/rock criticism. The easiest way to address “pop” is to dismiss it as ephemeral drivel. Kelefan Sanneh has addressed this in her 2004 critique of Rockism in the New York Times, and it bears repeating (“The Rap Against Rockism,” New York Times, October 31, 2004, Sec. 2, pp. 1, 32). I disagree with the Rockist perspective on pop, and I have devoted much of my previous writing exploring the kinds of singers and genres critics often dismiss as light, trivial, and irrelevant to notions of “art.” Within this, I have located reservoirs of artistic richness and depth easy to dismiss if you are never encouraged to look.

Among these overlooked figures, Carey fascinates me because her vocal palette, range of skills, and facility with synthesizing influences is highly unusual in the pop world. My observations may sometimes seem defensive or even feature moments of appreciation, but my reading is not a defense or an appraisal. I am raising the question of why it might be useful to examine Carey critically, for I have seen little that convinces me that she is unworthy of study. I will state upfront that she is not conceptual in the vein of a pop artist like Madonna, nor is she renowned as a “performer” in the vein of singer-dance-performer extraordinaire Michael Jackson, to name two pop figures frequently subject to cultural criticism. Some of her contemporaries, notably Mary J. Blige, have stronger “personae” than she has ever mustered. Regardless, I still find her compelling; I always want to know what she it up to presently and next.

Buried within her discography are hundreds of special moments that set her apart. Her 2003 double-disc Remixes is as important to understanding her as her Greatest Hits collection. Her singles and her albums (in the digital era) regularly feature bonus cuts that include unreleased songs or interesting remixes that suggest all kinds of artistic frequencies beyond what you might hear on the radio or watch on a video channel. In the 1990's, she may have seemed like the most conventional, middle-of-the road (MOR) formulaic pop diva, but she was actually a champagne cork ready to be released. Things slowly seeped out on 1995’s Daydream, a pivotal recording where she began to split from MOR goddess to a more modern and believable singer. She aged backwards, embraced hipper styles and grew more sensuous abandoning the kind of wholesomeness that made her songs anthems of beauty pageants, proms and weddings.

Despite the misbegotten notion that she suddenly became “black” when she thought it would sell more records there are few pop singers of her generation more influenced by classic “black” American musical styles—especially gospel and jazz. At her best, her melismatic control, fluid phrasing, call and response arrangements and instrumental choices brilliantly signify to her musical predecessors. Within these, she has also integrated traces of hip-hop seamlessly. The little scat passages in “Dreamlover” and on the dance remix of “Anytime You Need a Friend” hint at vocal prowess yet unleashed. Her background vocal arrangements on songs like “Vision of Love,” “If It’s Over,” “Jesus (Oh What a Wonderful Child),” “I Am Free,” “Outside,” and “Fly Like a Bird” could easily make her a stellar full-time gospel arranger.

Carey’s challenge is the “hint” element. The raw talent is there and when it comes together, it is as brilliant and accomplished as any contemporary post 1980's popular music. Her struggle to pull it all together consistently is part of the appeal. She has accumulated an abundance of micro level ambitions that surface in fragments and patches, rather than the whole we favor in the albums era. I am faithful/hopeful her records have suggested what she can do but that more is to come.

From 2001-2004 she risked becoming a 1990's relic; then in 2005 she turned things around with The Emancipation of Mimi. 2008’s E=MC2 was less impactful though it spawned the requisite big hit (“Touch My Body”) and debuted at #1. Too bad, because in many ways it is a more idiosyncratic and distinctly personal album. If Emancipation re-established Carey as a commercial force in the digital era, E=MC2 allowed her more personal freedom. Rocker Ryan Adams had a very revealing interview that spoke to the odd frequencies she was operating in.

According to Adams, “I feel like Mariah is loosening up, finding herself again. This is a woman who makes amazing albums. She got panned for Glitter, but she was just taking a stab at her 8 Mile, Purple Rain and Xanadu. With The Emancipation of Mimi she figured out how to dig back into songs and jams and not overdo it vocally. Her pride probably got hurt, she had something to prove, she went nah, watch this, I’m going to emancipate myself — and the record demonstrated this. E=MC2 (Island) is a very sexy, cool record. She’s funny, the beats are great, a lot of slow jams. She’s not a pop star; she writes her own stuff, and she really collaborates. Her sampling ideas are well informed; she’s very involved in her recording process. Her records are masterpieces” (“A Dash of Metal and A Whole Lot of Mainstream,” New York Times, October 26, 2008, AR29).

 Though Carey does not need Adams to affirm her, he is a restless eclectic in the manner of Elvis Costello, who has certainly soaked up a lot of pop music in his day. Similarly, Ben Folds, wrote, “She’s got the most amazing voice. Although the production on her new album, The Emancipation of Mimi (Island), may turn some off, I find the sheer talent involved reason enough to listen. I love classic soul ballads like “Mine Again” and “Fly Like a Bird.”' I also like that she's using her voice on this album more like a male singer might, like Prince. She could show off and belt but she’s evolving and doesn’t seem to need to prove herself every bar, so you get the Interpretation of an amazing singer” (“Arty, Twangy and Carey,” New York Times, May 8, 2005, p. A17). 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel is even weirder—there are traces of humor, regional slang, and allusions that defy the stereotype of Carey as a pop-soul simpleton. Her most recent studio album, 2014’s wildly eclectic Me. I Am Mariah. The Elusive Chanteuse, was not a big hit, but it also unpeeled some musical and personal layers.

I share all of this because I am working toward a book of cultural criticism on Carey. My interest in exploring Carey’s career as a book project is not to redeem, condemn, preserve or other finite functions, but to illuminate tones and layers people are not hearing. Her racial and ethnic identity, her relationship to different musical genres, the media’s framing of Carey’s professional relationships with men and women, and other related themes, are areas I am excited to explore. I hope this preview leads you to reconsider the familiar.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

The Best Years in popular music?

The recent publication of David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year the Rock Exploded garnered attention recently because he argues that, “nobody imagined 1971 would see the release of more influential albums than any year before or since” (2). Of course he’s wrong, but you can read my thoughts on his book via my August 2016 Book Review located elsewhere on the blog. His argument is more than just a list of albums, but it inspired me to think about my favorites years in pop music culminating in the list below. I had a hard time choosing so I divided things into singles and albums for variety. Enjoy!

 

SINGLES: 1979

 The late 1970s is often thought of in terms of the dominance of disco but I can’t think of a year that yielded more memorable pop singles across a spectrum of genres than 1979.  Though disco yielded execrable one hit wonder type hits a number of artists like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees created a consistent group of songs in the style that have endured beyond the halcyon days of disco proving the genre is as capable of greatness as any other genre. Some disco classics from what’s sometimes called the end of disco (it wasn’t) include the following:

·         “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All the Lights”: a pretty perfect trifecta from the Queen of Disco Donna Summer

·         “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” the combustible lead single from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall

·         “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor the quintessential wounded-lover-survival-revenge anthem

·         “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out,” pillowy falsetto laden hits from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown

·         Other classic disco hits: Chic’s “Le Freak” and “Good Times”; Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”; Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”; McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”

 1979 was also the year when more danceable and melodic rock music inspired by element of punk and even disco hit the radio. Blondie scored with the disco rock (rock disco) hit “Heart of Glass” as well as the searing “One Way or Another” and “Dreaming.” The Cars scored with buoyant hits like “Good Times Roll,” “Let’s Go” and “Its All I Can Do.” Joe Jackson asked “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”  and Nick Lowe observed how its “Cruel to Be Kind.”

 In the R&B world, of which many disco hits were co-members, some signature songs included sweet ballads like Earth, Wind and fire’s “After the love is Gone,” The Commodores’ “Still,” and Teddy Pendergrass’s “Turn off the Lights.” There were also funk classics like Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover” and Rufus’s “Do you Love What You Feel.”

Great pop songs also covered a spectrum including the lusciously sung polyrhythmic “What a Fool Believes” (Doobie Brothers), the jazzy boho anthem “Chuck E’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones), and oddball songs like “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (Rupert Holmes). Country was in a syrupy crossover phase (Kenny Rogers anyone?) and a lot of rock was mired in overproduction though songs like Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” stood out from so-called “corporate rock.” 

When people complain contemporarily about the lack of variety on mainstream radio today it’s hard not to point out somewhat nostalgically that during a time when many rock critics felt like pop was losing its way the radio could accommodate songs that represented a broad quilt of tastes.

 ALBUMS: 1984

The LP was originally developed in the late 1940s for “serious” music (e.g. classical music). Then in the early 1950s popular singers released EPs and LPs with more content pushing them from singles artists to albums artists. Singers like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were pioneers who organized albums around themes. Though The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (1967) is often thought of as rock’s first “concept album” this is untrue. Plenty of prior albums were made to tell a story and convey a concept. Regardless the technical and compositional feats of Sgt. Pepper helped solidify albums as the marker of great artists in the rock era. Sure a great single was something to savor but an album showcased one’s artistry more fully.   

 I nominate 1984 as the apex of album making so far. When you survey the popular albums of the era multiple sets register as classics or near classics that defined the sound of the era. Some of the best albums include:

 1984 (Van Halen)

Big Bam Boom (Hall & Oates)

Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen)

Building the Perfect Beast (Don Henley)

Can’t Slow Down (Lionel Richie)

Heartbeat City (The Cars)

Like a Virgin (Madonna)

Private Dancer (Tina Turner)

Purple Rain (Prince)

RUN-D.M.C (Run DMC)

She’s So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper)

My tastes lean toward the popular but for those who like things with more of an edge this was the year R.E.M released Reckoning and U2 released The Unforgettable Fire. For people who like the poppiest of pop Wham! released Make it Big and Huey Lewis & the News released Sports this year. For those who like it mellow Sade released Diamond Life (Happy now?).

Whereas the early 1980s meandered greatly—few great albums were released between 1980-82 it was such a transitional time in pop—1984 was a highly concentrated burst of albums that introduced new performers, solidified the strengths of veterans, and yielded music a broad spectrum of people enjoyed. Please email me your favorite year in pop music: I would love to know the year, the music, and the rationale.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

“Contagious in His Enthusiasms”: Part 2: Pop, Rock, Country, and R&B edition

Riffs, Beats & Codas Readers: Last month I shared some of my favorite albums in a variety of musical genres in the spirit of being “contagious in my enthusiasms.” Ideally this list comes during a time when folks have a bit more leisure time. My hope is that these lists can help you build your music collection whether you like to just listen, purchase, or both. Rather than aiming for a generic canonical listing I share recordings I listen to often that have shaped my own thinking about certain genres.

This month I focus on Gospel, R&B/Soul, Singer-Songwriter Pop, Big Pop, Rock ‘n’ roll and Rock, and Country. Happy listening!

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.

 1960s Rock

 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.

Eclectic Rock

 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. 

Modern Rock

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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