My essay on Janet Jackson’s complete discography is up for reading now on Blogcritics, where it was first published. To celebrate the return of the R&B legend, look back with me across the 10 albums that built Jackson’s legacy from the ground up. Keep in mind, this freelance gig was a one-time deal as I’m still busy with preparation for my book currently. More details on that next month.-QH
Category Archives: R&B
Theories of new leadership for the R&B female vanguard at the outset of the 2000’s rumble on today. After Aaliyah’s untimely death, a vacuum opened and many rushed to fill it―Beyoncé ascended quickly.
Though there have always been the zeitgeist figures of any genre, usually it’s those under the surface of said genre that carry its current along. Singers like Mrs. Carter look to those currents for inspiration―often they translate their breakthroughs to a wider audience. The politics of this exchange will invoke ire, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Amerie Rogers was, and is, a strong current in modern R&B’s ocean.
Amerie snuggled in between hip-hop and neo-soul with her first album All I Have (2002). But, a decade ago many questioned if the voice behind that record was just an extension of its producer Rich Harrison. It was a misconception Amerie refuted with her sophomore LP.
The biracial vocalist―Amerie is of Korean and African-American descent―was the requisite “army brat” due to her father’s vocation with the United States government. By the time Amerie was exiting her teens, she had traveled extensively and would secure her higher education (via Georgetown University). However, music, literature, art and fashion remained her passions; she placed herself in a position to meet music heads of industry to pursue her dream.
Neophyte producer Rich Harrison, fresh off assignments for Mary Blige―Mary (1999) and No More Drama (2001)―crossed paths with Amerie. The pairing had instant creative chemistry and Amerie’s debut All I Have (Columbia, 2002) was born. Held aloft by its single “Why Don’t We Fall In Love?” (U.S. R&B #9, U.S. Pop #23) in the summer of 2002, Amerie made a splash with urban radio and its record buyers.
All I Have was a good starting point for Amerie and work slowly began on its follow-up. In the interim between Amerie’s first and second albums, Harrison ventured out for more production job opportunities. Harrison’s take on “go-go music,” its roots owed to the clubby Washington, D.C. flavored go-go, had found another voice to wield it, Amerie’s Columbia label mate Beyoncé.
“Crazy in Love,” lifted from Beyoncé’s platinum busting Dangerously in Love (2003), made Harrison an overnight R&B knobtwirler hot property of the period. The reappropriated go-go vibe almost became cemented to Beyoncé’s sonic identity, despite Amerie fronting it just a year earlier.
Unmoved, Amerie reenlisted Harrison and set forth to achieve a sophomore strike.
Amerie quietly went about writing 10 of the 11 cuts that comprised her second LP, Touch―international versions boasted “Man Up” (with Nas) and an ambitious Diana Ross cover (“I’m Coming Out”).
This dramatic turn-around was a large leap of progression as Amerie had no writing input on Touch’s preceding record.
Amerie and Harrison steered Touch with additional production / writing from a wealth of mainstream and underground talent: Bink!, Lil’ Jon, The Buchanans, Red Sypda, Dre & Vidal, Cory Rooney, Sean Garrett and Bryce Wilson (formerly of Mantronix and Groove Theory). Touch split its sound across uptempos and downtempos.
The former batch were led by the gorgeous, but percussive “1 Thing”. Utilizing a brainy interpolation of “Oh, Calcutta!” by The Meters, Amerie took back the sound she put on the scene. Yet, “1 Thing’s” melodic femininity held a confidence and control (vocally) that heretofore she had not shown.
Subsequent shakers were meaty (the title song, “Not the Only One,” “Talkin’ ‘Bout”), but they lacked that sweet underpinning which made “1 Thing” addictive. Thankfully, later elevated excursions on her third and fourth records juggled production and performance energy evenly.
The latter category of ballads is where Touch highlighted Amerie’s refined taste in samples: “All I Need” (Jean Carne’s “You Are All I Need”), “Rolling Down My Face” (Roy Ayers’ “Searching”) and “Can We Go” (Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Evil). Amerie reinterpreted them all with a refreshing spin. In particular, “Can We Go” (the sole Harrison penned number) was a cascading duet with crooner Carl Thomas that captured Amerie’s sensitive side superbly.
With the stated 11 tracks, excusing an unnecessary “1 Thing” remix with Eve, Touch platformed Amerie’s own personality.
“1 Thing” ushered in the “new Amerie” to critics and record buyers. It was a hit: U.S. R&B #1, U.S. Pop #8, U.K. #4.
“1 Thing” became Amerie’s signature tune and netted a Grammy nomination for “Best Female R&B Vocal Performance” in 2006. Additionally, it was one of the inaugural digital singles to be awarded with a platinum certification by the RIAA.
It didn’t hurt that “1 Thing” was the theme to the Will Smith rom-com ‘Hitch’ giving it a larger pop audience. Its parent recording Touch landed on 4/26/15 to favor on the charts: U.S. Billboard 200 #2, U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop #1, U.K. #28.
Critically, Amerie’s maneuver to take hold of her artistic affairs paid off.
Vibe Magazine’s Angie Romero opined:
The brash soul samples, horns and hard club beats on the lead single, “1 Thing,” are an excellent preview of Touch’s sonic flair.
Rolling Stone writer Bill Werde elaborated further:
Currently booming from jeeps in a neighborhood near you, Amerie’s “1 Thing” is an early front-runner for “song-of-the-summer” status. Amerie is all grown up on her second effort. And in this case, growth is good.
The corresponding music video for “1 Thing” also announced a visually alert Amerie. Her love of high fashion and pop culture (notice the nod to the Elvis Presley ‘68 Comeback Special’ concert) were very much present. She wasn’t just a pretty face, her ideas for conception, creation and execution extended from the lyric notepad, to her closet and the director’s chair.
Directed By: Chris Robinson and Amerie
Touch reached gold certification in the United States with 406,000 copies moved as of it last certification in June 2009. It spun off two additional singles during its original lifespan in 2005: “Touch” (U.S. R&B #95, U.K. #19) and “Talkin’ ‘Bout” (U.S. R&B Bubbling Under #2). The LP garnered Amerie a “Best Contemporary R&B Album” Grammy bid in 2006 along with the aforementioned “1 Thing” nomination.
Amerie should have had an easy ride with Columbia Records because of Touch’s victory. Sadly, trouble had already appeared during the second record’s formative period .
The label wasn’t ready to cooperate with Amerie’s new outlook for her career; the singer later revealed that Columbia had fought her on the decision to move forward with “1 Thing” as the album’s first single. The other selections pulled from Touch received little-to-no push. The exquisite LPs that followed Touch had stalled sales because of major label indifference: Because I Love It (Columbia, 2007) and In Love & War (Island / Def Jam, 2009).
Since abdicating from A&R politics after her fourth record, the singer / songwriter / producer / arranger has been hard at work on her fifth LP, Cymatika. The long player’s title draws from the term cymatics, the scientific study of visible sound and vibrations. Various pieces have been shared by Amerie from the forthcoming effort since 2011; last year’s “What I Want” was the most exciting taster thus far.
Amerie scaled cerebral heights with her third and fourth albums, but it all began with Touch. Amerie’s chrysalis instituted there allowed her to be reborn as one of those mentioned driving currents in modern R&B. Her influence is very present in the women of that genre. Listen closely. Ranking: Semi-classic
[Editor’s Note: Touch is readily in print, digitally and physically. For current information on Amerie, visit her official website.-QH]
Spiceworld (Virgin, 1997): My desire to grasp “the groove” combined with curiosities for musical epochs gone by when I encountered this album. Further, my appreciation for character in a voice―not just a voice―stemmed from this LP. Spiceworld also proved that producing good music didn’t guarantee fair appreciation from music critics―popular music politics aren’t always just. The Spice Girls were the reason I picked up a pen to write about music and give voice to artists / fans who didn’t have one.
Kylie Minogue (deConstruction, 1994): Kylie Minogue made me relearn everything I thought I knew about pop song structure at the time. The “suites” that were fashioned on the album weren’t laborious, instead they formed their own patterns. In regard to the actual texture of the music and Minogue’s voice, it was the right blend of maturity, evolution and exploration that captured me.
The Wanderer (Geffen, 1980) Donna Summer never fit into the traditional slot that black women were meant to stay in―musically speaking or otherwise. I was enamored with The Wanderer, but it would be years before I would hear its influence on other women (Madonna, Kylie Minogue) that I favored too. I’ve often remarked that this record was the first “dance-pop departure” vehicle that set that standard that dance-pop was not the only mode pop operated in. Summer didn’t just create that model, she stamped it with this album.
Human (Epic, 2008): Personally, this album has been an emotional companion for me since its release; in the context of Brandy’s legacy I think it was her most consistent thematically. Human had Brandy putting her own experiences to a sonic backdrop that was timely (production wise), but still had that “Brandy feel” to it. I am not sure that she’ll ever top this record.
Human Being (Warner Brothers, 1998): What a songwriter, but due to him being someone of color he was marginalized on both ends of the music spectrum. It’s a shame, because Seal’s ability to work within a soul framework without losing pop’s melody stood second-to-none. This album was darker and maybe that’s why it received such a cold shoulder at the time. I’ve always loved its stormy appeal.
Hat Full of Stars (Epic, 1993): Hat Full of Stars crossed folk, R&B, dance and alternative; Lauper’s style on this was very New York and it made the record sound big, especially listening as a teenager in the summer of 2002 when I copped it. Her songwriting was never better, you can really hear it on “Who Let in the Rain,” “Feels Like Christmas” and “Someone Like Me”.
Colour By Numbers (Virgin, 1983): An album that always comes immediately to mind as living up to its hype. I loved how sharp the music on this was, but not so slick that it didn’t leave room for Culture Club’s character. “Black Money,” an ultimate tearjerker, I realized I had to “grow into” with life experience to appreciate.
Shoot From the Hip (Polydor, 2003): I like that even when her first record painted Bextor in a corner creatively, she made another album that pushed back against pop being tagged as, you guessed it, dance-pop. There are some floor fillers here, but they don’t sacrifice the arc of this album pulling from other places for its inspiration.
Am I the Kinda Girl? (Polydor, 1996): I remember the first time I heard this album and I was just blown away. The way the 1990’s alternative tunage interacted with 1960’s pop was gorgeous. That something this refreshing wasn’t more broadly known continues to sadden me.
American Life (Warner Brothers, 2003): A lot of people incorrectly pegged American Life as Madonna trying to admonish others when she was examining herself. Musically it was her third in a four part electronic quartet that concluded with Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005). Granted Confessions was warmer at its surface, but American Life won me over as the last great ballad vehicle for Madonna.
Northern Star (Virgin, 1999): The visceral space Melanie C occupied fascinated me as a teenager. I don’t want to say this was a soundtrack to my angst, but that’s slightly accurate. The longing, the curiosity and how the LP bared its fangs…wow. Its underlying sensitivity spun well on the title piece and “Closer”. They’re just gorgeous recordings.
Playing Possum (Elektra, 1975): Never understood the critical drubbing this got. Even though I enjoyed the two previous Richard Perry produced predecessors, Playing Possum was curvier. Its sex appeal was seductive and comforting;Simon was brainy (and busty) when it came to her wordplay on this set.
From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic, 1998): From the Choirgirl Hotel was my introduction to Tori Amos a decade ago. Having had this as an entry point, it set the bar Amos repeatedly met as I began trekking through her albums. I loved how succinct Choirgirl was, its combination of electronic and classical music enthralled.
The Visitors (Polar, 1981): ABBA really outdid themselves with this album. Pop acts are supposed to stay behind the lines of “inoffensive” and “innocuous,” but ABBA went noir with The Visitors. Man, you have everything from the personal to the voyeuristic on this effort and it’s (still) superbly catchy.
Catch as Catch Can (RAK, 1983): Catch as Catch Can’s charm is somewhat unidentifiable. Just as strong as the two previous RAK era albums that came before it, Catch held glossier grooves and assured vocal performances. It was the ideal cap to that first part of her sound.
Amanda Leigh (Storefront, 2009): I really loved that this was the summation of Moore’s Coverage (2003) and Wild Hope (2007). Amanda Leigh placed its affection directly in the pocket of 70’s pop and a keen ear will hear her many influences―notably the Carpenters. Moore as a singer made this album a real treat as she wore a variety of hats depending on the song being handled.
Food & Liquor (Atlantic, 2006): My first hip-hop record. I have to be honest, it was my hormones that drew me to Lupe Fiasco; once his music hit my ears, I was a fan. His usage of samples and how he built his stories around them was beautiful. I had never heard hip-hop sound mournful and emotional―yet, there was this devil may care approach in how the songs were expressed.
Midnight Lounge (Avitone, 2003): Jody Watley has one of the most progressive bodies of work in R&B. From album-to-album, Watley preserved her persona while refining her sound. When I heard Midnight Lounge, its mix of soul and electronica was effortless; the record was revolutionary for Watley and R&B music.
Neon Nights (London, 2003): Where dance and pop intersected best in the last 15 years; Dannii Minogue’s Neon Nights was the record I danced to when I started (gay) clubbing. Outside of its obvious nostalgia, the LP has held up in the ensuing years―especially when compared to the plastic EDM peddled now.
Parade (Warner Brothers, 1986): Coming off of Around the World in a Day (1985)―Prince at his most pop―the Minneapolis titan managed to rope back in his black base without sacrificing his roving (genre) eye. This album was free, sexy and practical too. He kept churning out some serious master jams, but this LP remains at the summit of Prince’s output.
[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]
20 Y.O. (Virgin, 2006): Control (1986) or Damita Jo (2004) easily could have made this list. But 20 Y.O.’s veteran precision was just too strong to ignore. It was a great vocal showcase in Jackson’s discography―it didn’t hurt that the first half of the album was black dance music done to the nines. Despite its silly title, this was adult R&B with a pinch of youthful spirit.
The Boss (Motown, 1979): Dress rehearsal for diana (1980)? I think not. Ross’ second-to-last Motown album had her slip into disco with soul. Jams like “It’s My House” and hushed valentines like “I’m in the World” bore Ross’ interpretive streak like no one’s business.
Alma Caribeña (Epic, 2000): The album that opened me up to non-English music. Recalled certain critics observing that Estefan’s voice supposedly shone better in her native tongue. I enjoyed Estefan in-and-out of English myself. However, there is some truth to their statement as the liveliness present on Alma Caribeña poured from every note played and sung.
Sol-Angel & the Hadley Street Dreams (Geffen, 2008): Who would have thought that Solange could pull this rabbit out of popular music’s hat when she did? Her fix on a vintage / modern vocal attack kept my ears glued to this in the late summer of 2008.
Head Over Heels (Virgin, 1995): The musicianship for this? Grade A, top shelf and every other adjective you can plug in. Even if on you don’t like Abdul’s voice―which was exceptionally versatile on Heads Over Heels―the arrangements on the LP were so intelligent. You had jazz, you had hip-hop, you had funk all wrapped together. You just don’t hear that kind of diversity on pop albums anymore.
X-Static (RCA, 1979): X-Static. The frenzied send-off to Hall & Oates’ patchwork 1970’s era before their 1980’s dominance. That isn’t a knock, Hall & Oates jumped around to every conceivable sound on their initial albums. I adore genre jumping, it’s so pop. Anyway, X-Static was funky and playful―definitely a record for those that like a myriad of music.
Somewhere in My Lifetime (Arista, 1979): God, this woman’s voice. It’s phenomenal. She has many different phases in her discography, but her “bright period” was exceptional on Somewhere in My Lifetime. The right amount of jazz and disco on this offering was a welcome backdrop for a Saturday afternoon.
Everything Must Change (Warner Brothers, 1976): Crawford’s voice possessed kick, but she never fell into gratuitous singing. She complemented the crisp production at play throughout this piece with patience. Everything Must Change made no (sales) ripples, but was a true hidden treasure when I found it.
A Funk Odyssey (Sony, 2001): In light of the “disco revival” that has been raging over the last three years, many forgot that Jamiroquai spearheaded it as far back as 1996. I think they hit their stride with it on A Funk Odyssey. Though their acid jazz had disco at its roots, this was full blown floor killing music.
Off the Wall (Epic, 1979): The greatest black dance album ever? For once I can actually agree with the masses on this score. Michael Jackson kept making great music post-Off the Wall, but the joyousness evinced on this LP wasn’t present in his later output.
The Bliss Album…? (Island, 1993): My Dad played this album a lot in the car when I was kid; it would be years before I realized how ahead of the curve P.M. Dawn was with The Bliss Album…?. Truly a black alternative brainchild, it pains me how this act has been relegated to 1990’s nostalgia. This record, along with their other three LPs, are the best alt-soul spinners you’ll hear.
The Bridge (Arista, 1995): Much stronger and wider in its scope than what Ace of Base hinted at with The Sign (1994). When people ask me what my favorite “follow-up” album of all time is, I answer with The Bridge. The world music textures on this transported me to places unseen, their goal I assume. Though I think they improved even more with Flowers / Cruel Summer (1998) and Da Capo (2002), the magic and mystery of The Bridge lives.
Free Me (Universal, 2004): I knew when this record dropped it was going to change the game―for British pop and the overall Spice Girls legacy. Bunton was not the only Brit to dip into the mod-pop pot, but she wore it well. Beautifully sung and produced, Bunton’s second album reset what a former Spice Girl could do artistically (and commercially).
Filth and Dreams (Mercury, 1999): Mentioning 1960’s pop revivalists, Swing Out Sister arguably stamped that movement. What I liked about Filth & Dreams was its modernity mixed with retro pop appeal. While Swing Out Sister were no strangers to melancholy, they courted a solemn air on this project. Personally, I thought the gravitas was pretty.
Older (DreamWorks, 1996): Though Michael wouldn’t come out for another two years, Older played close to the confessional hilt. Michael adjusted the temporal frequency for Older to add hip-hop textures on “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel,” which suited Michael well like his previous black music forays.
Echoes (RCA, 2011): For my money, Will Young was the real deal when it came to reality show produced talent. The first winner of ‘Pop Idol’ in England, Young took quick creative control of his music. His fifth album caught my attention and I went back to discover his other stuff. But, Young’s understated blend of blue-eyed soul and pop with Echoes made my ears very happy in late 2011.
Notorious (EMI, 1986): Starting with this funky entry, Duran Duran became a group based in the sound of the period―even if it was not what critics or fans wanted. Slimming down to a trio didn’t halve Duran Duran’s abilities, not to my ears. If anything the division gave them clarity to dress up and get down.
Touch (Motown, 1971): The 1970’s were very kind to The Supremes from an artistic stance. As the album format dawned at the start of that decade, The Supremes shifted away from the singles approach and became a “back-to-front” recording act. Touch was was an ideal play for a rainy day or a bright morning.
Heart Station (EMI, 2008): The clean production lines on this album were fantastic, and there was a reason why. The LP had taken and applied everything Utada learned from 2002 through to 2006; that stretch of time contained her bravest music recorded. As a result, Heart Station was aware of its structure, but not impeded by it. Utada’s lyrics and vocals synced up and painted a picture of a woman that was in complete control of her artistic expression.
Hejira (Asylum, 1976): Mitchell’s guitar took on many different shapes on Hejira. I’d never known the guitar to possess that kind of versatility displayed―most of the instrumentation was centered on it during the LP’s run time. It was an album that put the listener on a journey through Mitchell’s aural soundscapes of love and life.
[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]
The Renaissance (Universal, 2008): It was such an agile record at the time of its release; buoyed by a spirit of playfulness with just a dollop of social consciousness―Q-Tip mesmerized me in 2008. This album was the last hip-hop album that I personally felt was an event when it debuted to public consumption.
Long Gone Before Daylight (Stockholm, 2003): Next to No Doubt, The Cardigans were the most versatile alternative pop outfit hustling in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Like most Americans I had been won over with “Lovefool”. Many years later, when I was in a very unhealthy relationship, I turned to this album for solace. The blend of the wounded lyrics and the country / folk music tones were a salve.
Mesopotamia (Warner Brothers, 1982): An EP from their post-Wild Planet (1980) period and pre-Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986) LP―its playing (and sonic) expanse gave it the feel of an album. Mesopotamia had The B-52’s get a little more linear, but much to my joy they stayed wacky as ever.
Walking with the Night (Expansion, 2010): “Remember the Love” danced through my television speakers as the theme to ‘Noah’s Arc’ 10 years ago and I was hooked. Evans straddled jazz, hip-hop and sweetfaced R&B like no other singer I’d experienced. When I came across this LP, it deepened my affection toward the singer’s penchant for modern soul with a classic rinse.
White Lilies Island (RCA, 2001): Like a lot of people in the late 1990’s, I knew Imbruglia from her debut Left of the Middle (1998). White Lilies Island contained more of Imbruglia’s spirit and it translated in the performances contained on the long player―if someone was stuck on “Torn,” the album surpassed that right away with “Wrong Impression”.
Scream If You Wanna Go Faster (EMI, 2001): Splashy, sensitive and smart―no one really made pop the way Geri Halliwell did. That juggling act between frivolity and reflection led me to keep Scream If You Wanna Go Faster close. As the years have gone on, especially in light of how far pop continued to fall, its abilities haven’t dated.
The Curse of Blondie (Epic, 2003): This was the very first Blondie LP I ever bought. Its lead single “Good Boys” piqued my curiosity with the punkers. Needless to the say, the record delivered the goods and though they had others winners in their discography, Curse remained my favorite.
Me Myself I (A&M, 1981): Getting into Joan Armatrading was a real pleasure. Much like another act featured on this list (Hall & Oates), you could divide Armatrading’s catalogue into (almost) two distinct sides. The folky, jazz-lite ’70’s stuff and the power pop, reggae inflected ’80’s material. Me Myself I was the pivot point between the two periods and is required listening for anyone curious about her.
Chaka Khan (Warner Brothers, 1982): For a bit, this record was unattainable due to being out of print and costly. Once I was able to finally snag an affordable copy―I think I paid $40 for it in 2010―the purchase was more than worth it. Khan had a sleekness to her R&B that managed to be forward thinking, but approachable. “Bebop Medley” changed my life, no lie!
Food (Ninja Tune, 2014): Always loved Kelis, but nothing prepared me for what she had up her sleeve last year with Food. Despite being preceded by the thoroughly impressive Flesh Tone (2010), that Kelis could revamp the R&B she began with so naturally with a lyrical poise…just extraordinary.
Blowout Comb (Pendulum, 1994): If you like music, you will like this album. A combination of sampled and live instrumentation, fantastic flows and a subtle theme really made the Digable Planets second (and sadly) final album hit a home run.
Emerald City (Epic, 1986): The dark sensuality of Emerald City moved me 10 years ago. Critics and fans alike wrote the long player off unfairly in 1986; Teena’s only mistake was the music was a year out of fashion when the record debuted. Outside of that, she was at her mightiest.
The Love Movement (Jive, 1998): Tribe never crafted a dud out of the five studio albums they recorded between 1990 through 1998. Sadly, The Love Movement received the brunt of criticism for their cooler technological advancement that started with its predecessor, Beats, Rhymes & Life (1996). I enjoyed how ahead of the curve Tribe sounded.
Under Rug Swept (Maverick, 2002): Morissette went from strength to strength post-Jagged Little Pill (1995)―mind you, one must be an objective Alanis fan to see that. Under Rug Swept sported a “less is more” approach than the record before it, so in my mind I heard Morissette in peak form as a result of her restraint. Probably only matched by Flavors of Entanglement (2008).
Firecracker (Geffen, 1997): “I Do,” my favorite Lisa radio jam, was only one of many joints on Firecracker. As an album, Loeb’s second effort expounded on her initial vibe with a few frills. I thought the fusion fizz of “Dance with the Angels” was a surprise tucked away on the album unexpectedly.
The Hush (Mercury, 1999): One of my favorite blue-eyed soul albums. The Hush cemented Texas’ transformative sound and presented their lead vocalist Sharleen Spiteri sublimely.
Vows (Warner Brothers, 2012): Pop had me down for so long that Kimbra seemed like a mirage when a good friend introduced us. Kimbra’s music was smart without affectation and soulful. Just a slice of her aural fantasia in the opener “Settle Down” did not prepare me for the rest of Vows and its muse.
The House (Dramatico, 2010): The House was a great compromise that pushed established Katie Melua-isms into new spaces. “The Flood” ranked as one of the and sadly overlooked singles of this decade; yet, that song only skimmed the surface of the remainder of the LP’s contents.
Mad Love (Asylum, 1980): Linda Ronstadt aligned herself with the various AOR formats of the 1970’s, but eschewed trends that sullied other contemporaries. I had the jones for Mad Love because Ronstadt acclimatized perfectly with new wave―a sneak move considering her aforementioned habits. But damn it man if she didn’t put it to work for her!
Wendy & Lisa (Columbia, 1987): These women weren’t eye candy, they were musicians who influenced Prince’s most fertile era from 1982 through 1986. When they struck out alone, they fell right into their own thing. The coolness of Wendy & Lisa was unstudied, but articulated. Plus I mean, how many people could name a song “Honeymoon Express” and have the song live up to its title?
[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]
Ice Cream Everyday (Blisslife, 2013): When you hear the word intimacy, you don’t think of it as something beyond soft or restrained. Amel Larrieux’s music was always intimate, yet could be groovy, downtempo and anything else imagined. Ice Cream Everyday embodied that stated sentiment―a record that revealed something new anytime I came back to it.
Tropico (Chrysalis, 1984): Reinvention was a great look on Pat Benatar. The rockier bits she was known for previously were fine, but hearing Benatar on “Diamond Field,” “Painted Desert” and “Love in the Ice Age” made me ecstatic! Her versatility flexed its muscles to show she wasn’t just a spandex clad wet dream.
Infinity Within (Elektra, 1992): That Deee-Lite were dismissed as one-hit wonder fluff made no sense; their second record is where the groove really got it in for me. The way Deee-Lite lined Infinity Within with vintage funk and contemporary dance scored major points. Not to mention the album was socially conscious and deflated the oft cited balloon that pop couldn’t pack a message.
Statues (Echo, 2003): Moloko threw me for a loop when I started getting into them. Their first two records were acerbic and crazy, not too many cuts had replay value outside of a handful. Their third album, Things to Make and Do (2000), bore a maturity that took root on their fourth (and last) LP, Statues. The album split itself between heartbreak and hedonism, but with Moloko that wasn’t surprising.
Scoundrel Days (Warner Brothers, 1986): “Take On Me” was a great song, but arguably an anomaly for these gentlemen whose work was often introspective. Scoundrel Days extended on a-ha’s synth-pop styling, but the songwriting kept me rapt with attention. “Manhattan Skyline’s” draconian atmosphere was a slice of what to expect on Scoundrel Days for the uninitiated.
Fantasy (Ode, 1973): Tapestry (1971) clouded the view for a lot of great records from Ms. King. Fantasy, a lush song cycle, was one such recording. I loved it at first spin. The segue between “You Light Up My Life” and “Corazon” drove me bananas (in a good way).
Because I Love It (Columbia, 2007): To go from being a producer’s palette to her own woman, Amerie had the goods. Her cerebral R&B was lovably fussy on Because I Love It. I copped the album as an import at the time, so it was pretty cool to have had this when so many people were unaware she had a junior long player forthcoming in the U.S.
So Natural (Arista, 1993): The logical successor to Real Love (1991), Stansfield’s overlapping of soul and pop was unrivaled. Without hesitation, I maintain that So Natural was the “ballads beast” of her output; she put down some sultry, and sensitive, songs. It wasn’t all downtempo though― “Little Bit of Heaven,” a lost U.K. single from the LP, got the most play from me back when I bought So Natural.
Return of Saturn (Interscope, 2000): Reading about this album now, it’s unfathomable that it was a commercial misfire. Then again, No Doubt was always in the shadow of Tragic Kingdom (1996). That said, the band made an album that clutched the feelings encapsulated by that weird junction in the lives of all young adults.
Electric Circus (MCA, 2002): When I stumbled across Electric Circus, it blew me out of the water. It was hip-hop, but at the same time it took to task what hip-hop was supposed to sound like. The instrumental vignettes between the actual tracks were appetizing too.
The Magic Garden (Soul City, 1967): What endeared me to music from this time was its evocative nature―but that it wasn’t consciously trying. Artists were not afraid to feel and relate that to the album format (slowly burgeoning at this point). The 5th Dimension went on to do more commercially accesible stuff, but The Magic Garden was effusive.
Energy (Planet, 1978): From slapper-era jazz to (then) modern funk music, the Pointer Sisters were studied in diversity before they even got to Energy. They furthered that axiom with this, an album of rock-and-roll covers that possessed enough R&B to maintain that audience. Astonishing.
the id (Epic, 2001): The wilder pace hopping on this bad boy was so much fun! Gray’s albums were engaging affairs; her idiosyncrasies on the id made it difficult not to love the record, sort of like that wild aunt / relative we all know. Gray left some room for quieter moments too.
Nine Objects of Desire (A&M, 1996): Vega as an artist was (and is) voracious; her musical appetites never knew any border. When I heard Nine Objects of Desire, I was taken aback with how jazzy it was, but the slinkiness suited her. Vega’s canvas on the long player had breadth, so it was not a monotonous album by any stretch.
A Little Spice (Virgin, 1984): Looking at its historical context, A Little Spice was pitched between post-disco and hip-hop. The record slotted neatly in between those extremes to produce an uptown / downtown sound that got both sides of the Atlantic moving.
Brenda Russell (A&M, 1979): Russell was member of a group of women who connected jazz and R&B at a time when they were not adjoined. Russell’s earthiness and melodies combined splendidly on “You’re Free” and her inaugural (and superior) take of “If Only For One Night”. It was apparent that jazz and R&B were better together than apart thanks to Russell.
Savage (RCA, 1987): I remember reading about Savage and how people just didn’t get what the Eurythmics were doing with it. As the years passed after acquiring Savage, its neurotic behavior grew on me. Underneath their tech beat a human heart and that made the record relatable, even in its madder moments. Plus, “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” just rocked.
Homogenic (One Little Indian, 1997): Homogenic was a majestic statement of heartbreak colored in varying hues of anger, resentment and self-examination. I didn’t “get it” when it hit my ears at 15, it wasn’t until I was 22 and had experienced more personally. Arriving back to the stormy album in lieu of that, of course it clicked.
Brave (Epic, 2007): What’s not to love about Brave? Jennifer Lopez was in great voice throughout the album’s run time; the production was muscular without overpowering her too, something she had struggled with in the past. It was good pop music in a time when pop was becoming increasingly rare to find.
La-La Means I Love You (Philly Groove, 1968): My Dad’s music is what I’ve affectionately termed this kind of soul. It’s Philly, it’s creamy, it’s romantic, it’s heartbreaking. The trio’s vocalizing was crisp, nothing out of line or messy.
Vitamin C (Elektra, 1999): Vitamin C was one of the pop records that shaped my view of intelligent pop. An example was “Girls Against Boys”―a deeper cut on the LP―it mixed French spy pop and hip-hop, no lie. It’s amazing to think that Colleen Fitzpatrick, the woman behind Vitamin C, has gone into the corporate sector of the entertainment industry.
Stronger Than Pride (Epic, 1988): The dreaded “they used drum machines, how could they?!” album. Never understood what the big deal was. The group simply added another layer to their already progressive sound. The songwriting and arrangements were livelier and not turgid as they had been on Promise (1985)―my least favorite record by Sade.
The Grind Date (AOI, 2004): Not too dissimilar from the other hip-hop records (quality wise) accounted for on my list, this LP bursted with tunage too. Literally, the debut side of The Grind Date jumped at me through my speakers. Also, not that I have anything against longer albums, but this one did not overstate itself. It was just enough.
Fame (Island, 1978): Ah, Grace Jones and disco―people either loved it or hated it. Fame took the gold with its well-thought out seguing and a capable Jones at the vocal wheel. Fame captured this abbreviated span (by critics, fans) and acted as a good entry for anyone curious about a pre-Nightclubbing (1980) Grace Jones.
Pennies in a Jar (S-Curve, 2011): I kept seeing these online ads for Nikki Jean back in 2011; each one played up what she had in common with all of these different artists. Later, I realized Nikki Jean had taken up the task to write with the artists they mentioned in the advertisements―Carly Simon, Burt Bacharach, etc. I was hesitant to label the album as “throwback” then, though Jean’s affection for classic pop was obvious. Interestingly, the LP held a modern vitality that made it relevant to listeners in 2011 and beyond. And that voice…!
Wildest Dreams (Parlophone, 1996): Tina Turner got boring after Private Dancer (1984). With Wildest Dreams, Turner was involved in song selection and its presentation, it showed. Cut at a time when adult pop was seen as sexy and youthful (ironically), Wildest Dreams was Turner giving face on the wax.
Travellers in Space and Time (Elephant 6, 2010): Though The Apples in Stereo had been around as early as 1992, they gradually came up out of the indie-pop scene to establish their in foothold in music . This record saw them decked out in white boy disco threads, as such it got serious spin time in my car during 2011 and 2012.
Take It Off (Atlantic, 1981): Chic founder Nile Rodgers pretended (and still does) that Chic post-Real People (1980) just stopped. Chic pushed back against the disco backlash with three more records between 1981 and 1983. Yes, they were commercial failures, but musically the quintet had not lost their touch. Everything great about the group’s tailoring, production wise, remained but with an ’80’s R&B twist.
Atlas (Sonic 360, 2003): Half asleep one night in 2013, I woke up to this band playing on ‘Guitar Sessions’ named Kinky. Thought the name was sexy. I got up, jotted it down and went back to sleep. Several months later, I had been overcome by this Mexican five-piece band. Atlas, more than any of their other (epic) LPs, brandished Kinky’s electro-rock, dance and Latin feel.
A Love Supreme (MCA, 1994): Sadly, Ms. Moore has recently become known for reality tv spats; once upon a time she released an unsung R&B long player in need of exposure. A Love Supreme managed an―I hate this term―old school appeal, but was new school in how it positioned itself (sonically). To say Moore was in good voice is an understatement to her gift.
Octopus (EastWest, 1995): Their legacy was storied by the time they reached Octopus, but the trio that came to define The Human League turned in a sharp offering here. What made me admire Octopus was its peerless production. The kind of music they were making may not have been “in,” but it was fresh. When their sound did come back “in,” the album evinced how late the rest of popular music was to The Human League’s party.
Folklore (DreamWorks, 2003): Built on the feel of Whoa, Nelly! (2000), the arc of Folklore was broader, bigger and better. But, with words like “Paint my face in your magazines, make it look whiter than it seems! Paint me over with your dreams, shove away my ethnicity!” heard on the lead single “Powerless (Say What You Want)” the LP wasn’t destined for a charmed sales life.
All Over the Place (Columbia, 1984): My favorite harmony group, hands down. Their love of the Beatles was apparent, but they brought their own California sass to the proceedings. A lot of folks go on about how “unpolished” this record was over their second LP Different Light (1986). I think that Different Light may have been a bit more eager to please, but All Over the Place possessed mighty pop hooks too.
Islands (EMI, 1984): Nothing gets me going in music more than a group that could defy expectations. Though Kajagoogoo’s tale as a one-hit wonder was set in stone, their second LP Islands refuted that. Jazz and new wave intertwined on the LP and would have made contemporaries like Culture Club a bit envious.
Butterfly (Columbia, 1997): Mariah Carey was like chemistry, too much of one ingredient could spoil the overall taste of the dish. Butterfly got the formula right: hip-hop, grown-up soul, pop melodies. All of it joined by Carey’s voice and her imaginative pen. She came close to orbiting this album at least twice, but it’s doubtful it will be eclipsed.
Shadowland (Warner Brothers, 1988): Country and pop were genres lang weaved throughout her three decade career seamlessly. Shadowland leaned closer to the former. Like any of lang’s country albums, its torchy root is what stayed with me. As a singer, lang’s chops could never be questioned and made the spread available on Shadowland bountiful.
Traveling Like the Light (Capitol, 2010): Getting dressed for work one day and I heard this guitar lick that was like sunshine coming from my tv. I bounded out of the bathroom to catch Ms. Brown do her thing on “Shark in the Water,” a single from Travelling Like the Light. Clear, beautiful pop. In 2010. By a black woman. Black pop singers, like in the non-R&B influenced style, weren’t (and aren’t) common; it was love at first listen. Her subsequent album lived up to the single’s promise too.
Lionheart (EMI, 1978): Her initial pair of albums were my staples. Her singing worked wonders over that airy, late ’70’s pop aesthetic. I knew that Lionheart was considered the rush job of the two records by the majority, including Bush. For me, it was an ideal companion to The Kick Inside (1978).
1 Fille & 4 Types (Epic, 2003): Ms. Dion’s French material stayed on the excellent tip; 1 Fille & 4 Types concerned itself with mannered music, usually acoustic based. Dion, in a calmer space, allowed herself to emote gradually and authentically. If there was a spike of bombast, it was welcome as a natural progression.
4 (Columbia, 2011): Never in a million years would I have pegged myself as a fan of Mrs. Carter. But, thanks to 4 and its (actual) craft, Beyoncé cured the cynicism that kept her at bay from my ears for close to an entire decade. The culprit that got me to pay attention to 4 was its spunky single “Countdown”―arguably my favorite song by Mrs. Carter.