5 Albums, Seriously!

You’ve all heard the question “What are your 5 favorite albums?” or this one “You find yourself stranded on a deserted island, what 5 albums do you hope you have with you?” Or even better, “If you could only listen to 5 albums for the rest of your life, which albums would you choose?”  These are seemingly harmless questions at first glance.  However, these questions are quite devastating if taken lightly.  You can’t just answer them too cavalierly, because the future of your listening pleasure is at stake.  You have to think seriously about these things.  Take some time, sit down, rub your chin, go over your music collection, and sleep on it.  Don’t ever rattle off 5 albums on a whim–that would be crazy insane and certain death ten days into your horror if you ever had to actually live out two of the above questions.

So, welcome to my Sunday afternoon.  I was faced with the question “If you could only listen to 5 albums for the rest of your life, which albums would you choose?” My first thought was “Oh this is easy!” I positioned my hand like I did when I was in elementary school to count to 5 . . . and that’s it. That’s all I did.  I stood motionless for a while . . . thinking.  My mind, like some possessed jukebox, began to play snippets of songs I heard over my whole life.  I even imagined a bevy of album covers, which was crazy (the Rufus feat. Chaka Khan album cover with the lips on it popped up most often and I don’t know why . . . really, I don’t).  This was tough because I wasn’t choosing 5 songs or 5 artists, but rather 5 entire albums.  I couldn’t quickly settle on 5.  I was stumped.  I had to get serious. So, I sat down, rubbed my chin, and went over my music collection, ultimately I slept on it.

Over night my mind weeded out all the albums that I would never listen too over and over again. That left me with about 150 albums that I would listen to, well not that many, but plenty.  So the following is my honest and serious attempt to answer that seemingly harmless question.  These are entire albums that I could listen to from beginning to end everyday with out question.  Every song on these albums is perfect in every way.  Check’em out and listen for yourself.

Here they are in no particular order:

1.     Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.  This is hands down my favorite jazz album, which so happens to be the most popular jazz album ever recorded in the history of jazz, period.  With personnel like Cannonball Adderly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, and Bill Evans of course it’s perfect. (My favorite song on the Album: “So What”)

2.     Steely Dan’s Aja.  If you have not listened to this album I feel sorry for you. You need to experience the artistry and obsessive perfection of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker.  This is the best in sophisticated 70s jazz/rock.  I don’t know how else to explain it.  It’s musically complex yet highly accessible.  Since I’m a amateur musician and truly appreciate great musicianship, I’m drawn to this album by the personnel of Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter, and Michael McDonald.  Special shout out to Al Schmitt et al for creating an engineering and recording musical masterpiece.  They set the standard with this album in recording excellence and have the Grammy to prove it. (My favorite song on the Album: “Black Cow”)

3.     Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.  It’s Mike under the direction of Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton, with Louis Johnson, David Foster, George Duke, Pattie Austin, and the C-wind (Seawind) horns; shout out to horn arranger Jerry Hey. What else do you need me to say? (My favorite song on the Album: “Working Day and Night”)

4.     Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (MTV Unplugged Live version). Neo soul at its finest.  Maxwell dives into these song off his first album in epic fashion.  How could he go wrong with writers such as Itaal Shur, Leon Ware, Stuart Matthewman, and Kate Bush, it’s perfect.  I love the freedom expressed in the live recording. (My favorite song on the Album: “Gotta Get: Closer”)

5.     Parliament’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein.  This album contains some of the funkiest soul re-dipped in funk that you have ever heard in your life.  Full of social messages and culturally valuable writers George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Bernie Worrell nailed it.  Not to mention the voices of Glen Goins and Garry Shider are out of this world–these brothers blow in the most funkiest of ways. Special shout out to Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker.  (My favorite song on the Album: “I’ve Been Watching You (MoveYour Sexy Body”)

There you have it, my 5 albums that I could and will most certainly listen to for the rest of my life.  This was rough; because there are plenty more I could easily have listed.  But today, right now, this is it.

Whew! I have a headache!

Justsoulyouknow!

What are your 5?  Hey, hey, hey . . . . take your time. This is serious! Your Willy Nilly-ness could result in your early death!

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Soul and The Business of Music

So, I’m still reeling from the comments made a few weeks ago by Terius Youngdell Nash a.k.a. The Dream when he said, “Blacks can’t do soul records anymore.”  Maybe reeling is too strong of a word and over emphasizes my response to what he said. Let’s just say his statement has kept me thinking about the state of Black music and the music industry for quite a few days now.  My prolonged thinking about his statement is not predicated on if what he said may or may not be true but rather what I hear on the radio in terms of soul music.  I don’t hear it!  You see, for some time, I’ve heard people say that Black music is changing–artists don’t sing like they used to and the music lacks a certain dimension.  The sound that was once front and center in a soul song has now paled in comparison to what was once heard on the radio or is simply missing altogether (think of the vocals and music of Al Greene, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, and Chaka Kahn).  This is indeed what I hear from people of a “certain age,” like myself, who have had the opportunity to witness the evolution of music over the past few decades.  From what I hear on the radio Blacks in fact don’t make soul music anymore.

So, I was thinking, “why is this?” and  “why don’t I hear Blacks singing soul music on the radio anymore?  Something has changed.  Is it that Blacks can’t sing with a soul sensibility anymore?  Let me be clear, when I say soul, I’m speaking of a voice, which possesses the ability to grab your attention and drag you through emotional highs and lows weather you want to or not.

Chaka singing soul

I’m speaking of the kind of voice that contains enough power to fill almost any room without being mic’d and can navigate the chordal dynamics of a live band without getting lost in the sonic and melodic interplay of the instruments.  Furthermore, someone who has a bit of musical acuity must wield this voice.  The person wielding this voice can and will stop anyone in their tracks.  It is hard to ignore.

But wait, surprisingly, this voice does in fact exist.  It can be heard in the small clubs, coffee shops, backrooms, the parking lot of churches, rented halls, weddings ceremonies, funerals, and talent contests from New York, Atlanta, to Austin, and Los Angeles.

Marvin Gaye (David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives)

They are just not heard on the radio.  Why not?  The music industry has changed! There has been a disturbance in the force!  I feel record companies have evolved from small enterprises led by individuals who had real interest in music and music culture to large companies run by executives hell-bent on the promotion and sale of a product with huge profits in mind.  At one time, small enterprising leaders were more often than not willing to take a chance on artists and their artistry.  They recognized “talent” and the importance of developing that talent as well as understood the value of uniqueness.  Today, record companies employ executives who are imbued with a business sense and have no real ground level connection to music and its culture.  They do not take chances; it’s not good business sense.  Today’s record company executive is simply about the product and the bottom line.  A question like “Does investing in this individual, group, or band make fiscal sense given our financial outlook and projections this quarter?” is what ultimately drives today’s record company.  Don’t get me wrong, I know the small record enterprises run by individuals with a connection to the music had a bottom line as well.  They too wanted to make a profit.  However, the drive for a profit did not diminish or compromise the integrity of the music, in fact, these individuals wanted to capture the essence of the music and keep theirs and the music’s integrity intact (think Stax, 50s and 60s Atlantic records and Motown).  Being true to the music and letting the artist explore, expand, and flourish in their musical endeavors made great radio several decades ago.

Moreover, record companies are money-making entities refined and designed to profit and are no longer in the business of developing or showcasing soul music and its culture.  For the large music companies (Universal Music Group, Sony/BMG Music Group, Warner Music Group, and EMI) the music and the artists are strictly a product to be sold.  The ear for soul music no longer holds capital within the large companies.  Record companies function in such a way as to make a quick return on their investments.  Taking time to develop an artist is a no go–artists’ music must be immediately viable.  In order to do this, record companies must continuously seek out the next popular “sensation” to market and sell, which by its very design the product tends to be disposable.  As a result, speaking for myself, in terms of soul music, when I listen to the radio I am subjected to less than mediocre efforts.  Gone are the intelligent soulful hyperboles and any decent poetic aesthetic imbedded in lyrics.  Ultimately, to a certain extent, record company executives become the final arbiter of musical taste of an entire population.  Are you serious?!!!!

In the end, can Blacks do soul records?  Yes, they can.  They can record songs thick with cultural history individual talent and musical skill that will sit you down.  But these recordings will not be found on the radio.  Record companies neither have the ear nor the financial drive for Black soul music. That’s okay, the Dream and I can listen to Internet radio!