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]