10) Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (1998)
One good theory of American music (okay, mine, but that’s not the only reason I like it), is that white music tends to preserve order and black music tends to challenge or disrupt it. The over-arching geniuses of the twentieth century’s three fundamental American music movements (it’s too constricting to call them genres or even styles) all achieved their preeminence by complicating this theory to the point of obliteration. What Elvis did for rock & roll and James Brown did for hip hop, Louis Armstrong did for jazz and this set concentrates on the orderly side. The brilliance of his 20s-era playing and early 30s-era singing is mostly reined in over three discs that cover the rest of his career (a later live version of “Black and Blue” proves he could smooth the rough edges off of anything), but that only goes to show how far genius can take you. Not the first Armstrong I’d give somebody who didn’t know what he was about, but it fills an essential niche.
9) Various Artists: The Funk Box (2000)
Speaking of James Brown, he kicks off this 4-disc set from Hip-O with a couple of early 70s tracks that prove just how elemental and elementary his basic vision was. Everybody else spent the next decade trying to catch up and, while there’s plenty of fine music here, it sort of falls between the cracks. Apparently, the licensing was limited to a couple of labels so too much that’s essential is missing for it to be a definitive history of Funk as it reached the mainstream. And, unlike the label-specific What It Is!, it’s not quirky enough to amount to an eccentric vision. Really good then, no weak tracks. But I find it a little four-square in the matter of representing funk’s reach, and a little meager in representing the power of its full punch.
8) Cyndi Lauper: Twelve Deadly Cyns…and Then Some. (1994)
Cyndi Lauper sang like she had been put in the world to disprove my main theory: white music that challenges and disrupts everything. One of the great 80s comps (and one of the few that can stand with the great 60s and 70s comps), a concept album made from a conceptual career, beginning with a reimagining of her already incendiary Blue Angel-era cover of Gene Pitney’s (yes, already incendiary) “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and winding its way through America’s turn to imperial darkness to arrive at a sadder, wiser remake of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Come on Home.” Nobody ever swore she’d “take it like a man” with more conviction. It still lifts me.
7) Otis Redding: Pain In My Heart (1964)
I was able to get hold of a box set of Otis Redding’s complete LPs thanks to some gift certificates. This was his first and the first time I’d heard it complete. It reminded me of the Beatles’ first UK release from 1962: shafts of brilliance shooting out from a hardworking set of principles. Should it be a surprise that he was of yet only a functional rock and roller but already a brilliant ballad singer? Well, I can’t stay I was too surprised. Either way, I’m looking forward to the rest.
6) The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974)
The Stones didn’t need to wait for the 80s. They gave up on the world right here. Not that the better half of it can’t still knock your teeth out if you aren’t on your guard. Who thought they could pull off “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”? Surely not anybody who remembered them trying to take on “My Girl.”
5) Various Artists: Doo Wop From Dolphin’s of Hollywood Vols. 1 & 2. (1991)
Two volumes, forty-nine sides, dozens of lost gems, not a hit in sight. Proof of how deep the ocean was, once upon a time.
4) John Mellencamp: Words & Music (2004)
Possessing nothing like the vocal power or ingenuity of Al Green or Patty Loveless, Mellencamp sold more records than either with a similar act of faith in a Fallen Land. What Green did for Black America and Loveless for Appalachia, Mellencamp did for Heartland America–pointed a finger and told the truth. This mixes his occasional didacticism with his frequent populism and his pervasive romanticism over two discs that get the shape and size of his career just about right. The remastering makes it sound and feel like he and his band are sitting next to you, which suits their ethos just fine and gives this a disorienting feel the match the times being transcribed.
Stick it in the CD player and drive.
3) Ohio Players: Funk on Fire–The Mercury Anthology (2002)
Industrial funk from Mellencamp’s Heartland, a generation earlier. Outside of the go-rillas you know so well (“Fire,” “Who’d She Coo?,” “Love Rollercoaster”) it still strikes a match because their great theme was celebrating black women as the epitome of desire–and, in “Far East Mississippi,” recognizing how deeply interconnected such celebrations are with the worst forms of oppression. They don’t ‘low no skinny dippin’ in far east Mississippi you know.
And we all know the reason.
2) Prince: The HIts/The B-Sides (1993)
He made a lot of good albums, but his ethos still lends itself to a generous comp. This is that. Something always jumps out and this time it was “Alphabet Street.” Barely remembered among the stream of radio riches here, it would have been a career definer for almost anyone else. He was too narcissistic to really celebrate anyone but himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn a lot from the Ohio Players and James Brown and, who knows, maybe even Pops Armstrong and John Mellencamp. Cyndi Lauper certainly learned a lot from him: everything except how to guard herself. This is the sound of a genius unto himself, letting us in on secrets a more open-hearted man would have taken to his grave. He’d have made a great spy.
1) Manfred Mann: The Best of
I spent years trying to get hold of this. It was one of those easily available yet somehow elusive collections: I ordered it at least three previous times only to meet with “just sold the last one” or “sorry we sent you the wrong version” or “why won’t this disc play.” The curse is now over!
And the verdict: Spottier than it should have been. 26 tracks and no “With God On Our Side” (where they wasted Dylan)? No “John Hardy”? Come on! But the dozen best that are here still make me ask why exactly the Hollies, Moody Blues, Dave Clark Five, Zombies, are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mann, who made great records with three different bands for more than a decade, and Mike Jones, who could sing every one of those bands under the table, have never even been nominated?
On that note:
Til next time.