Atlantic Rhythm And Blues, Volume 5 (1962-1966) (Atlantic '85) Rating: A
A gritty, sweaty counterpoint to the smooth soul sounds coming from Motown Records, Atlantic boasted an equally stellar roster of performers and songwriters. Always backed by great house bands, artists such as Otis Redding ("These Arms Of Mine," "Mr. Pitiful," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Respect"), Ben E. King ("I (Who Have Nothing)"), The Drifters ("Up On The Roof," "On Broadway," "Under The Boardwalk"), Wilson Pickett ("In The Midnight Hour"), Sam & Dave ("You Don't Know Like I Know," "Hold On, I'm Comin'"), and Percy Sledge ("When A Man Loves A Woman") created timeless masterpieces of Southern soul. In addition, more obscure but worthwhile artists such as Barbara Lewis ("Hello Stranger," "Baby I'm Yours"), Doris Troy ("Just One Look"), Rufus Thomas ("Walkin' The Dog"), Joe Tex ("Hold What You've Got"), and other notables also delivered strong singles that appear here. Simple pop pleasures, intense ballads with heavy gospel foundations, lushly orchestrated ballads, and rock n' roll raveups stand side by side, yet all have that distinctive Atlantic flavor. Tasteful, painstaking productions are matched to phenomenal vocalists, resulting in enduringly great music that makes this collection a must-buy.
Atlantic Rhythm And Blues, Volume 6 (1966-1969) (Atlantic '85) Rating: A+
An even better anthology than Volume 5, Volume 6 showcases brilliant cuts by Aretha Franklin ("I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You," "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," "Respect," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Baby I Love You," "Chain Of Fools," "Think"), Otis Redding ("Try A Little Tenderness," "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay"), Wilson Pickett ("Land Of 1000 Dances," "Mustang Sally," "Funky Broadway," "I'm In Love"), and Sam & Dave (the surprisingly tender "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" and the more typical "Soul Man"). While those soul giants dominate this disc, songs such as the buoyant "Sweet Soul Music," (Arthur Conley), the ethereal ballad "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (Roberta Flack, much later also a major hit for The Fugees), and the majestic "Rainy Night In Georgia" (Brook Benton) are also classics, while tracks by the talented likes of King Curtis, Joe Tex, and Clarence Carter are also enjoyable. These compilation discs (also including Volume 5) are definitive documents of a period that generated a deep reservoir of great soul music, the likes of which we'll probably never see again.
The Best Of The Girl Groups Volume 1 (Rhino '90) Rating: A
I was listening to the early Beatles albums this week and rediscovered what a big influence the sound of "girl groups" was on the band, so I decided to break out this compilation. Covering 1961-1966 (mostly '63 and '64), this collection excludes all Phil Spector songs (but you already have the Back To Mono box set, right?), but that's no big deal given that what is here is terrific. Simply put, songs such as The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack," The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" and "One Fine Day," The Dixie Cups' "Chapel Of Love," and The Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" are timeless classics that if you don't know you should take a class in Rock n' Roll 101 or something, and really there isn't a dud among these 18 tracks while there is many a lesser known gem. For example, The Ad Libs' "The Boy From New York City" is a great doo wop/girl group mix later successfully covered by The Manhattan Transfer, while Betty Everett's "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss)" contains a powerhouse lead vocal along with fun mindless doo wop backing vocals (a girl group trademark, whether it be a "doo lang doo lang" ("He's So Fine") or a "shooby dooby doo wop" (Skeeter Davis' "I Can't Stay Mad At You"). The Jaynetts' "Sally, Go 'Round The Roses" and The Shangri-Las' "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)" are strange and exotic classics with a murkier sound, while Claudine Clark's "Party Lights" is the flip side, being a fun light party tune with high-pitched, almost helium-like backing vocals. Mellower tracks such as The Dixie Cups' "People Say," Skeeter Davis' "I Can't Stay Mad At You," The Jelly Beans' "I Wanna Love Him So Bad," The Shirelles' "Baby It's You," and Evie Sands' "I Can't Let Go" (successfully covered by The Hollies) are pure class, and Cher (!!!) even contributes to the girl group sound on "Dream Baby" (and it's good!). Finally, on the more up-tempo front, The Exciters' "He's Got The Power" has a strong rhythm track and drama filled vocals/lyrics (which some would call sexist, a charge that's often made against the genre in general; but hey, those were more innocent times before the PC police), while The Shangri-Las' "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" is awesome fun, simple as that (Johnny Thunders certainly thought so). Anyway, with the girl groups making a bit of a comeback today (hooray for The Pipettes!), it's worth remembering that for awhile there in the early to mid-'60s these types of songs were just about America's only answer to the British Invasion. It may have went out of style, perhaps because the Vietnam War forced America to grow up (but who really knows why good music goes out of fashion?), and after all girl group songs will always contain teen dramas between girls and boys. Still, stellar songwriters and producers such as George "Shadow" Morton, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich lent their prodigious talents to the genre, which often featured simple but surprisingly adventurous rhythm tracks in addition to wonderful vocal performances. Yes, I need to be in the mood for this type of music, at least this much of his type of music, but whenever I hear these songs they rarely fail to make me feel good and sing along. Note: Dave Marsh included a whopping 11 of these 18 songs in his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.
Can You Dig It? The '70s Soul Experience - Click here for the review.
Gimme Indie Rock V. 1 (K-Tel '00) Rating: A-
It was only a matter of time before K-Tel got around to repackaging the '80s indie/college radio scene, but with this 2-cd collection they mostly got things right. Beginning with the fast and furious 1-2 punch of heavy hitters Husker Du ("Pink Turns To Blue") and Dinosaur Jr. ("Little Furry Things"), this collection also rescues fine songs from lesser known artists like My Dad Is Dead ("Too Far Gone"), Big Dipper ("She's Fetching"), and Savage Republic, whose "Andelusia" sounds like a great, long lost Joy Division instrumental. This compilation features 30 bands and has wide a variety of moods and styles. There are bands with The Fall-influenced guitar jangle clang and average at best vocal styles (whose songs tend to grow on you), early grunge, Neil Young-ian guitar shootouts, weird country folk, obvious offspring of The Velvet Underground, loud psychedelia, and even irresistible pop and epic ballads to choose from. These well-executed discs smartly keep most of the same styles grouped together (at least for a couple of songs at a time), making it flow fairly smoothly. Most of the era's major indie players are represented, too, with R.E.M., Sonic Youth, The Replacements, and the Pixies being the most notable omissions. The collection is far from perfect, mind you, as several songs seem out of place (Black Flag), sub par (Death of Samantha), or reek of novelty (Half Japanese), while other bands (The Fall and The Chills, for example) are represented by songs that are far from their best. I also totally disagree with Scott Becker's snobbish liner notes (is Pitchfork hiring?) that the '70s were a black musical hole, but at least it's still a solid read that sums up the merits of this compilation quite well. In short, his argument is that these discs aren't meant to be definitive portraits but are meant to merely provide a time capsule of a particular time period, when there were legions of great bands who toiled simply for the love of their music and all the other right reasons. As such, Gimme Indie Rock V. 1 accomplishes its mission, and I'd be surprised if, after listening to these cds you don't go out and immediately buy at least a couple of albums by The Feelies ("Slipping Into Something"), Mudhoney ("Touch Me I'm Sick"), Eleventh Dream Day ("Watching The Candles Burn"), The Meat Puppets ("Swimming Ground"), Scrawl ("I'm Ready"), The Wipers ("Nothing Left To Lose"), The Mekons ("Ghosts Of American Astronauts"), or The Vaselines ("Molly's Lips"), if you haven't already. Those are but a few of the bands with terrific songs represented here, and some of the other bands are still going strong over a decade later, such as Yo La Tengo ("Barnaby, Hardly Working") and the Flaming Lips ("Everything's Explodin'"), while others spawned excellent subsequent bands (Galaxie 500 begat Luna, half of Spaceman 3 led Spiritualized, etc.), further demonstrating the ongoing vitality of music that's truly alternative and not merely labeled as such for marketing purposes. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain liked and was inspired by many of these bands (in fact, Squirrel Bait's Peter Searcy bears an eerie vocal resemblance to Cobain), thereby ensuring that the '90s too would be a decade to remember; but for that we'll probably have to wait until Gimme Indie Rock V. 2. Note: Alas, it's now March 2010 and we're still waiting for V. 2.
The Harder They Come (Island ‘72) Rating: A
Simply put, this various artists' soundtrack to the blaxploitation flick of the same name is one of the greatest reggae albums of all-time. Comprised primarily of previously released songs, this historically significant release found success at a time when reggae was first attracting attention outside of Jamaica, and it made Jimmy Cliff an international star while also showcasing excellent songs by other standout reggae artists. It is Cliff who shines brightest, however, as he delivers ultra-smooth vocals on the uplifting "You Can Get It If You Really Want It" and the catchy title track. The album's absolute high point is the classic ballad "Many Rivers To Cross," one of my favorite songs ever on which Cliff turns in a gritty, brilliantly soulful vocal performance. Elsewhere, Scotty delivers the sinuous "Draw Your Brakes," whose hynotic spell foreshadows the trance inducing effects of latter day trip-hop, while The Melodians add the relaxing doo-wop/reggae groove of "Rivers Of Babylon," another slowly flowing song that contrasts with the propulsive, eminently danceable tracks that populate the rest of the album. These include two Maytalls songs, the lively "Sweet and Dandy" and the joyously upbeat "Pressure Drop," both of which demonstrate why group leader Toots Hibbert was often described as "the Otis Redding of reggae." On The Slickers "Johnny Too Times" (lyric: "robbing and a stabbin' and a looting and a shooting") and Desmond Dekker's "Shanty Town" the listener gets vividly transported to the slums of Jamaica, with the former in particular being a likely influence on '90s gangsta rap. In short, with ten top flight tunes and not an ounce of fat, The Harder They Come remains a diverse, highly satisfying reggae collection that sounds just as impressive today as the day it was released. The only question I have is why are "You Can Get It If You Want It" and "The Harder They Come" both included twice, each in seemingly identical versions?
Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971 - Click here for the review.
MTV Buzz Bin (Atlantic '96) Rating: A-
This is a predictable compilation of bands that rose to prominence in the early-to-mid 1990's due to MTV’s Buzz Bin program that showcased up-and-coming “alternative” rock bands. What’s surprising about this allegedly alternative cd is how cutting-edge it isn’t; aside from Us3's jazz-rap "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia"), which samples Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," these are classic rock songs, plain and simple, or at least they likely will be. On the plus side, the album places The Cranberries' “Zombie” in a more fitting context than on No Need To Argue (where its heaviness stood out like a sore thumb), while Blind Melon ("No Rain"), Filter ("Hey Man Nice Shot"), Bush (“Everything Zen”), Stone Temple Pilots (“Plush”), Gin Blossoms (“Hey Jealousy”), Cracker (“Low”), Radiohead (“Creep”), Dave Matthews Band ("What Would You Say?"), White Zombie ("More Human Than Human," my least favorite song here), and Danzig (his hit live version of “Mother”) are represented by arguably their best (or at least their most popular) songs. This is a good value cd of familiar early-to-mid '90s songs that would probably be perfect for breaking out at a party.
No Thanks: The '70s Punk Rebellion - Click here for the review.
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era (1965-1968) - Click here for the review.
Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The 70's (Rhino '97) Rating: A
Always a genre popular with critics but generally possessing little commercial clout, this collection proves the critics correct. It also proves that trying to strictly define musical subgenres is a pointless and nearly impossible endeavor. Rhino Records comes up with a superlative collection of songs, with 18 rough-hewn gems that generally showcase simple but supreme melodies sung winsomely with a youthful enthusiasm. Underground heroes (Todd Rundgren, Big Star, Badfinger, Flamin' Groovies, Cheap Trick, Nick Lowe) are included along with a healthy number of obscure artists (Blue Ash, Pezband, Fotomaker, Bram Tchaikovsky, The Beat) who I presume are represented by their best moments, and what these songs have in common is that even when they're centered around bitter or bawdy lyrics the songs manage to exude a joyful innocence and exuberance. My problem with this collection, and it's a fairly minor one, is its broad definition of "power pop." Many of these songs would be more accurately called "jangly guitar pop," while others clearly don't belong here. For example, Nick Lowe's new wave classic "Cruel To Be Kind," Dwight Twilley Band's rootsy "I'm On Fire," and The Knack's jittery "Good Girls Don't" all have little in common with one another, while there's little power to the pop of Pezband's "Baby It's Cold Outside," Fotomaker's "Where Have You Been All My Life," or The Rubinoos "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." This latter song was done better by the Ramones to boot; ok, it's actually a different song with the same title, and The Rubinoos' song is probably better, but that brings me to another point. I would've liked to have seen fitting bands such as ELO, Sweet, The Undertones, The Buzzcocks, and the Ramones included, but Rhino seems to have purposely neglected better known bands in order to preserve their theory that "power pop" was merely an underground phenomenon. However, despite my misgivings, which includes a few fairly generic offerings, absolutely brilliant songs such as The Raspberries' "Go All The Way," Todd Rundgren's "Couldn't I Just Tell You," Big Star's "September Gurls," Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action," The Records' "Starry Eyes" (probably my personal favorite), and 20/20's "Yellow Pills" make this collection an instant power pop classic. Note: There are also quality Poptopia! collections for the 1980s and 1990s. Note #2: Rhino tried to include Badfinger's "No Matter What" but were unable to secure the rights to what is arguably the definitive power pop song.
Saturday Night Fever (RSO '77) Rating: B+
If you want a soundtrack (and a movie) that epitomized the pop scene of the late '70s, look no further. While that may be a damning comment on the state of music in 1977, upon looking back what is often lost amid the hilarious polyester suits and disco dancelights is that this soundtrack became surprisingly durable, its popularity having dimmed but never completely faded, even enjoying a major '90s comeback. This soundtrack turned disco into a mainstream phenomenon, predominantly because of the Bee Gees, who are represented by classic falsetto dance anthems "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "You Should Be Dancin'," and "More Than A Woman," as well as the heartfelt ballad "How Deep Is Your Love" and the funky "Jive Talkin'." The Trammps' "Disco Inferno" is 10+ minutes of disco heaven, a scorching dancefloor stomper sure to get your booty shakin', while the likes of KC & The Sunshine Band ("Boogie Shoes"), Yvonne Elliman ("If I Can't Have You") and Walter Murphy (the ludicrous "Fifth Of Beethoven") also join in on the daft fun. Other fondly remembered acts include Tavares and Kool And The Gang, though many will be hard pressed to recall the likes of Ralph McDonald and David Shire. Though much of Saturday Night Fever sounds impossibly dated, it still holds its share of special charms, and on the rare occasions that I break this soundtrack album out it returns me to a fondly remembered time and place, frolicking with Tony, Joey, and Double J. under the florescent lights of 2001. Fun stuff, though it's undoubtedly best experienced in limited dosages.
Singles (Epic '92) Rating: A
This already classic soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film is one of those rare records that perfectly captures a time and place, yet is still eminently listenable and enjoyable even after the 100th listen. Gathering various (mostly new) tracks from almost all of the major Seattle "grunge" groups of the early '90s (aside from the glaring absence of Nirvana), it also boasts two catchy pop songs ("Dyslexic Heart" and "Waiting For Somebody") from "alternative" elder statesman Paul Westerberg (formerly of The Replacements), and one song apiece from distant Seattle luminaries Heart (as The Lovemongers, doing an intense cover of Led Zeppelin's "Battle Of Evermore") and Jimi Hendrix ("May This Be Love"). Still, by and large the album's best songs are by bands of the here and now (circa 1992). For example, Alice In Chains starts things off with the deliciously dark "Would?," Pearl Jam checks in with two terrific new BIG ROCK SONGS ("Breath" and "State Of Love And Trust," the latter among my favorite Pearl Jam songs ever) that would've fit perfectly on Ten, and Screaming Trees make their bid for the big time with the explosive "Nearly Lost You." Elsewhere, Mother Love Bone's epic, monumental "Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns," which makes me feel sad for the departed Andrew Wood (who died of a drug overdose in 1990), is what all power ballads should be but so rarely are, and Chris Cornell's Eastern-tinged (i.e. Led Zeppelin-influenced) acoustic solo showcase is exactly the kind of song that I wish Soundgarden would try once in awhile. However, when Kim Thayil's awesome power drill riffs, Cornell's theatrical vocals, and their bludgeoning rhythm section are unleashed on "Birth Ritual" I can understand why they don't. Finally, soon to be alternative superstars Smashing Pumpkins end the album with the lush, droney epic "Drown," a brilliant tune which sounded of a piece with much of their masterful Siamese Dream album. I could do without Mudhoney's cynical "Overblown," but on the whole Singles was remarkably well-executed soundtrack album.
Phil Spector: Back To Mono (1958-1969) - Click here for the review.
Trainspotting (Captiol '96) Rating: B+
This much-hyped 1996 soundtrack, from a film about young Scottish friends addicted to drugs, features an interesting mix of current sounds with some well-chosen oldies. Featuring many extended house grooves and some purer rock n' roll moments, Trainspotting relies heavily on a cast of hot young British bands, including Sleeper, Blur, Pulp, Elastica, and Leftfield. Elder statesmen also appear lending older songs, such as Iggy Pop (the joyous bopper "Lust For Life" and the druggy "Nightclubbing"), Brian Eno ("Deep Blue Day," a lovely ambient song), Lou Reed ("Perfect Day," one of his most beautiful ballads), and New Order (the swooning dance club classic "Temptation"). The best newer songs (i.e. the ones from the '90s) are probably Blur's atmospheric (and psychedelic) mood piece "Sing" and Pulp's charming piano rocker "Mile End." However, most of the album is taken up by overly long dance songs such as Primal Scream's title track, whose echoey trance rock works best as background music or (surprise surprise!) as a soundtrack to taking drugs (not that I'd know, mind you). Other dance oriented songs include Bedrock Featuring KYO's "For What You Dream Of" and Leftfield's "A Final Hit," neither of which are especially memorable, unlike Underworld's "Born Slippy," which is very memorable. Highlighted by sad synths and a rap-like vocal, this overly long and repetitive song nevertheless has much to recommend it, and it's become a U.K. dance club classic. Elsewhere, Damon Albarn of Blur delivers the playful "Closet Romantic," while on the female front Sleeper covers Blondie's "Atomic" and Elastica is typically terrific ("2:1"). Overall, the disparate songs and styles on this soundtrack album mesh together in impressive fashion.
VH1: The Big ‘80s (Rhino '96) Rating: A-
Since I don’t own any albums by a-ha, Men Without Hats, Gary Numan, Nena, Culture Club, Frida, Tommy Tutone, or Dead or Alive, this collection was a good way of obtaining some choice new wave tracks. In addtion to these bands largely remembered for their one (or two) great (or at least good) moment(s), more successful acts usch as The Go-Gos, Squeeze, The Cars, J. Geils Band, Blondie, Steve Miller Band, and Night Ranger also make appearances. Although there's much overlap here with another Rhino series (Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Hits Of The ‘80s, which spans fifteen volumes and which I also recommend if you're a fan of '80s new wave rock and pop), along with a mess of styles (“We Got The Beat” doesn’t exactly seemlessly flow into “Take On Me,” and “Abracadabra” has little in common with Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” for instance), songs such as “The Safety Dance,” “867-5309/Jenny,” (by far the most famous phone number in rock n’ roll!), "Cars," "Tempted," and "Centerfold" are just some of the songs here that always seem to instantly enliven bars and parties with their simple sentiments and catchy choruses. Note: Fans of this first volume will also enjoy the sequel VH1: More Of The Big ‘80s, which includes the likes of Dexy's Midnight Runners ("Come On Eileen"), Devo ("Whip It"), A Flock of Seagulls ("I Ran (So Far Away)"), The Tubes' ("She's A Beauty"), The Stray Cats ("Stray Cat Strut"), The Romantics ("What I Like About You"), and many more besides among its sixteen tracks.
The Wedding Singer (Warner Brothers '88) Rating: A-
I'm not much of an Adam Sandler fan, but this is a great soundtrack. Starting off with a mediocre cover (by the Presidents Of The United States Of America) of The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star" (famous for being MTV's first video), the album then rises from peak to peak. The album captures popular '80s singles by heavyweight artists (The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," David Bowie's "China Girl," Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write The Book"), as well as lesser lights who provided some outstanding moments (Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me," the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now"). The Psychedelic Furs ("Love My Way"), Billy Idol ("White Wedding"), New Order ("Blue Monday") and The Smiths ("How Soon Is Now") are also impressively showcased with songs that are among their best. Its all coheres together as an excellent grouping of like-minded efforts, though the album falters towards the end with several playful but tedious tracks, including dialogue from the movie and a ridiculously over the top Sandler song. However, the album then rights itself with a hilarious update of "Rappers Delight," making this a fun grouping of fondly remembered songs that I don't hear too often anymore.
Woodstock (Atlantic '70) Rating: A-
Though parts of this disc sound impossibly dated, this soundtrack album and especially its accompanying movie defined an era. Although the excessive hippie banter was obviously left in to try and make it as representative of the concert as possible, I find much of it tedious (if mildly amusing at times). Also, some of my personal preferences didn’t make the cut (such as The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival), the sound quality is at times horrendous, and the overall performances are generally hit and miss. Nevertheless, there’s an undefineable quality at work here that makes this a special disc (actually a double disc later expanded by Rhino into a 4-cd box set called Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music [25th Anniversary]). Maybe it’s just the mythical stature of the whole thing - regardless of its considerable flaws, this soundtrack album is still a classic, even if it‘s better appreciated when watched with the visuals in the movie. More likely it’s just that the few performers who were at the top of their game (some of who were virtual unknowns at the time, though not for long) were spectacular: The Who in all their raw splendor, Sly & The Family Stone's unmatchable funk rock, Joe Cocker’s soulful, spastic reworking of The Beatles, Santana’s propulsive, explosive Latin rock, the fleet fingers of Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, and Jimi Hendrix’s monumental shredding of “The Star Spangled Banner” are all images that remain burned in our memory banks 40 years after the historic event.