THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Summer 2017, Countdown)

10) Stevie Wonder Talking Book (1972)

Primo Stevie and a high point of both his career and the Rising. Highlights are many, including “Superstition,” a valid entry in the Greatest Record Ever Made sweepstakes.

And, at this distance, even its mellow, meandering cuts talk louder than they did in the seventies, when Hope was still a prime ingredient and Anger was still righteous. And, of course, it still goes out on the smiling note of “I Believe,” a side which has me thinking about my Favorite Album Closer.

But what speaks loudest today is “Big Brother,” which still says I don’t even have to do nothing to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall, after he’s already told you why.

9) Patty Loveless (1986)

Patty’s eponymous debut. It was basically a collection of mid-charting singles and their B-sides from the early days when Nashville wasn’t quite sure what to do with or make of her.

If it were all there was, it would be remarkable enough to make you wonder why she didn’t quite make it. Sort of like wondering why Kelly Willis or Mandy Barnett or Shelby Lynne didn’t quite make it. As is, it’s still a fine entry. No weak cuts (she didn’t know how to make weak cuts), though only a hint, albeit a strong one, of why she would not end up being cast aside. As usual the simplest explanation is the best. She was Patty Loveless and they weren’t.

8) Glen Campbell The Capitol Years 65-77 (1998)

Just a reminder of how good he was and for how long….and how many directions his career could have gone. His last big hit was from Allen Touissant after all. “Galveston” (reportedly Glen’s own favorite) hits especially close to home these days, when it is clear some poor schlub will always be cleaning his gun until the Empire collapses.

And the “Rhinestone Cowboy”/”Country Boy” one-two punch will always be a knockout.

But he really could have been a Beach Boy, too…Or a folk rock stalwart.

Or both.

7) Free Molten Gold: The Anthology (1993)

A superb two-disc comp that doesn’t quit and showcases Paul Rodgers at his best. For me, this hits the just-right sweet spot between the populist (think Rodgers’ next group, Bad Company, who I still love) and arty approaches (think John Mayall or even Mike Bloomfield, who I also love) to white blues that proliferated in the “molten” decade between 1965-75. This, I could listen to all day, because everything is in place, but nothing feels forced.

And, just when you think all they/he can do is stomp, he/they pull back just a touch…and the sun shines through something other than a  pair of legs in a short dress.

6) The Cars Just What I Needed: Anthology (1995)

Grand overview of history’s most successful Power Pop band (unless Blondie counts). Yes, they go down easier at album length and easier still at single length. And yes, you could argue they never really broke, or needed to break, the mold of their early singles.

But there were an awful lot of great singles in there and it’s nice to have them all in one place so you can just let them roll over you.

How you have a two-disc comp, though–one complete with outtakes, B-sides and previously unissueds which don’t even come close to breaking the momentum–and leave off “Bye Bye Love,” one of their greatest and still in regular rotation on Classic Rock radio, I’ll never know.

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

The greatest album of 1983…or 1984 (when its five hit singles were all over the radio), or the entire 80s…turns out to be the greatest album of 2017, too. I’m thinking of doing a longish piece on either the album or one of the individual cuts so I won’t go on at length here. Suffice to say this was the last time anyone–including Cyndi–was both willing and able to pull off a vision that incorporated nearly everything rock and roll had been up to that point (including Byrds’ guitar, which I finally heard tolling under the maelstrom of “Money Changes Everything” just the other day. (Live link…if you only click on one, etc….no Byrds guitar, just a reminder that she was the era’s greatest live performer, too.)

Then, it was possible to hear it as a direction the future might take. Now, it sounds more like rage against the dying of the light. And anyone who thinks it quits on what used to be the second side just hasn’t been paying attention all these years.

4) Johnny Rivers Secret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology (2006)

Well, there’s definitely an “anthology” theme developing here (don’t worry, it’s not done yet).

This was released fifteen years after Johnny’s Rhino two-discer and, as such, includes generous helpings from his later rockabilly throwback albums.

It seems Johnny was always throwing back to something–he broke out with a Chuck Berry cover in the teeth of the British Invasion, after all, when everybody else was just playing lip service (that’s what an album track amounted to in those days). But across four decades he never failed to add those things that came only from him. The plaintive timbre (never parlayed more effectively than on his jumping “live” cuts). The sharp-edged, no-nonsense guitar lines (ditto). The sense that time keeps turning back on itself, never resting. Not sure how anyone could listen to this all the way through to “Let It Rock” and argue that he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then life is full of mysteries.

3) The Spinners A One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991)

The Spinners are one of the few acts who have been blessed with great comps at every level. Their 1978 Best of is as essential as anything Rock and Roll America produced. Their 2003 box set, The Chrome Collection, contains revelations galore (one of which I wrote about here). And this, a two-disc tweener, is perfect in its own way, since, unlike the other comps, it includes a lot of 12-inch versions of their hits, all of which sustain and satisfy because Philippe Wynne was the greatest improv vocalist to ever stand in front of a microphone (and no, I haven’t forgotten Louis Armstrong).

They made great albums, too. How could they not? They were the greatest vocal group of the 70s, and in the conversation with the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Everlys and the Mamas & the Papas, as the greatest vocal group of the rock and roll era. There’s no way even a box set could fully contain them. But if there were only going to be one Spinners’ comp in the world, I’d have to pick this one, which catches the aspirational aspects of Black America–the still radical notion that black people belong here–like nothing else.

2) Rod Stewart Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings  (2002)

Staggering. 3 discs containing Stewart’s first five solo albums (plus an album’s worth of mostly killer extras–only “Pinball Wizard,” which must have seemed a natural for him, falls flat).

These are the records that made the reputation he has lived on ever since, and, however unfortunate his life and legacy became afterwards, they’re plenty enough to justify four decades of self-indulgent posing and/or epic laziness (take your pick). Everything that stands between you and his decades of excrescence still disappears the minute he pivots in the middle of “Street Fighting Man,” which led his first album, and turns it from a straight country blues (some kind of attempt to reclaim both its musical and political origins) and shows he hasn’t forgot what he learned hanging out in the London Blooz scene….which was how to stomp.

Over these five albums, he never forgot. Over the few years left of the seventies, he mostly forgot.

After that, he permanently forgot.

These are still here.

There is much to forgive, Rod.

I forgive.

1) Burning Spear Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost (1975/76)

This natural pairing of Winston Rodney’s classic reggae albums (more high points of the Rising, arriving just as it became the Falling) is probaly now the natural way to listen…the vocal version of his celebration of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, flowing into the dub version.

Strangely enough, the music is stronger on the original album, where the strident lyrics/vocals sometimes serve as a distraction from what the music would say if the singer could only manage to get out of the way. Garvey’s Ghost, instead of drawing those unspoken (perhaps unspeakable–that might be the singer’s insurmountable problem) truths to the surface they bury them deeper. The dread dissipates and a kind of epic Jamaican make-out album emerges.

Was that the point? Was that the most subversive claiming of the New World’s space a Rastaman could envision? Or did I just dream it?

Sorry, I think I need to get back to listening now.

Til next time…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE: Spinners Up

I haven’t had a new category in a while. I can’t find enough excuses to highlight records I think are great but weren’t big hits in their time. I’m not sure if anything is truly “obscure” anymore, but I’ll pick things that didn’t make the Top Ten anyway. First up is the Spinners’ “We’ll Have It Made.”

A little background: the Spinners had hung around the scene for a decade by 1970. They had reached the Top 40 a couple of times, had a little success in R&B, without being quite quite able to break out.

Motown, their then-current label, teamed them up with a struggling Stevie Wonder (he was in a commercial slump and being strongly considered for contract termination)**. Wonder wrote and produced “It’s a Shame,” on the group and it became both a big hit and one of the era’s most important records, reviving his career, giving him a strong negotiating point with Motown which played a role in their renewing his contract and spring-boarding the change from a fine run of hits, on the order of the Marvelettes or Junior Walker, into an era-defining legend.

“We’ll Have It Made,” also written and produced by Stevie, was the followup to “It’s A Shame.” To my ears, it’s an even greater record–and a key precursor to the sounds he would pursue himself in the decade to come. But, because it didn’t fare nearly as well as its predecessor, it was the Spinners who became expendable at Motown. The label let them go, Atlantic picked them up. Soon they were paired with Thom Bell. The rest is seventies’ soul history.

If this had been more popular?

Who knows.

Like a lot of things that gleam out of the shadows–and a lot of things that will appear under this category–this is the sound of what might have been.

(**Sharp-eyed friend of the blog, Neal Umphred, rightly pointed out that Stevie was actually enjoying a nice run of hits. My bad for sloppy research. Wonder had actually let his own contract expire and was in negotiations with Motown concerning his future with the label. It all worked out and it’s fair to conclude that “It’s a Shame” played a role in giving Wonder a stronger position, which, of course, he ultimately exploited to the fullest. But I definitely should have been both clearer and more thorough.)

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.