Friday, November 28, 2003

"And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," Jennifer Holliday (7/24/82)
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[Sorry about the mediocre sound quality, but hopefully you get the gist.]

"Early in the Morning," The Gap Band (6/26/82)
Funky and decidedly impolite, the Wilson brothers understood that it wasn't all about bass - in fact, this song's most important instrument might well be the piano in its choruses. Nice'n'nasty is the way to do it, and few in the early '80s did it better than the Gap Band. Wail, Charlie, wail. A-

"Let It Whip," Dazz Band (5/29/82)
Appropriately, when Billboard changed their terminology for the chart (from "Hot Soul" to "Hot Black" Singles), this song and the one which follows were battling it out for #1 (and traded places twice). Funky but polite about it, Dazz Band whipped it better than Devo - and had better basslines, too. Oh, that bassline! B+

"It's Gonna Take A Miracle," Deniece Williams (5/15/82)
A gently lilting, retro-flavored track from Niecy. Pleasant, but bland. B-

"If It Ain't One Thing...It's Another," Richard "Dimples" Fields (4/24/82)
"Everybody's shackin' up
Married folks are packin' up
Country's goin' up in smoke
Where is Noah with his boat?"

Quite possibly the most reactionary knee-jerk record to ever top the R&B charts, this utter conservative piece of shit actually spent 3 weeks at #1 in the spring of '82. How, I'll never understand. Fields was a not-very-talented singer/songwriter from the pop-blues tradition. He never had another hit, and never deserved one, either. The worst #1 single of the '80s. F

"That Girl," Stevie Wonder" (2/20/82)
It's all about the moment at 1:36 into Stevie's last masterpiece single, when the drums start cascading and the chorus of "ah"s comes in atop his stripped-down simply funky tableau: the chorus really does sound angelic, and Stevie sounds tough and forthright, while lovelorn. One of two new, perfect-fit tracks on Original Musiquarium, which not only finely summed up his past decade but made a case for Stevie as one of the artists of the '70s. It was all downhill from here - but how could it not be? A

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

"Call Me," Skyy (2/6/82)
With faux-funk as watered-down as this? Not even collect. C-

"I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," Daryl Hall & John Oates (1/30/82)
Reppin' for the white boys, Daryl & John hit their soulful stride on the Private Eyes and H2O albums, truly mixing up a concoction of rock'n'soul and fucking owning it. Creamy backing vocals from John and one of the best uses of fake-sounding synth drums ever (the key: making sure they actually sound fake) help make this my second-favorite single by H&O (my favorite, lest you wonder, is the same year's "Your Imagination," for completely different reasons). And Daryl Hall could teach legions of contempo R&B "singers" how to use their instruments. A perfect record. A+

"Turn Your Love Around," George Benson (1/23/82)
"Give Me The Night" squared, with sassy horns and George unleashing a little bit of grrrowlin'. He can show you how, you know, and you should let him. A

"Let's Groove," Earth, Wind & Fire (11/28/81)
At 8 weeks atop the chart, the longest-running #1 since 1967 (and that was no less than Aretha's "Respect"), and deservedly so. One of the finest examples of how to make an easy funk groove not the same thing as a lazy one, "Let's Groove" is one of the finest singles by one of the finest bands of their epoch. It fills me with joy, dance and chillout simultaneously. The epitome of smooth. A+

"Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It)," Kool & The Gang (11/21/81)
See, few bands were more successful in the '80s on the R&B charts, and few were as hot-and-cold as Kool & The Gang. There was their appallingly crowd-pleasing, pandering side which reared its head on "Celebration" – though to be fair, K&TG were always crowd pleasers, not exactly the most boundary-pushing of artists – and then the records which showed more of their own personality, such as this one. It’s an easy groove combined with a smooth vocal from James "J.T." Taylor (punctuated with some lovely falsetto "ooh"s). Nothing pioneering here, but nothing vile, either. B

Friday, November 14, 2003

"I Heard it Through the Grapevine (Part 1)," Roger (11/7/81)
How to make a vocoder uninteresting (part 1). B-

"Never Too Much," Luther Vandross (10/24/81)
Absolute heaven, and the stuff that hundreds of "smooth R&B" stations are built of (well, this and the entire Anita Baker oeuvre, but we'll get to her later). Gently swirling disco strings, a funkier-than-you-might-expect bassline, and lots of interesting production – oh, and did I mention The Voice? Say what you will about Luther, but like his idol Aretha he rises and falls on his material. And this is sterling material. I mean, who doesn't want to hear a lover cooing "a thousand kisses from you is [sic] never too much"? When it's coming from The Voice, I'll even forgive grammatical errors – and you know that's real. A

"When She Was My Girl," The Four Tops (10/10/81)
Now, this was a surprise. Nearly a decade past the end of what most would consider their prime, the Tops came back with an easy-rockin', contemporary single that topped the chart and – well, didn't exactly put 'em back on top of the world, but certainly made them (and Berry Gordy) a little cash, and brought a smile to a lot of folks that the Tops were back. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much to recommend it apart from those classic harmonies; it's more than a bit limp in that we're-old-but-still-making-records fashion that so many older artists sadly succumb to. C+

Thursday, November 13, 2003

"Endless Love," Diana Ross & Lionel Richie (8/22/81)
Lovely singing, perfect instrumentation, the stuff Oscar-winners are made of - which is precisely why it so fails to move me. This "Love" is one of the whitest records ever made. D+

"I'm In Love," Evelyn King (8/15/81)
Out of a myriad of by-the-numbers mid-tempo uplifting love records, this one for some reason rose to the top. It's inoffensive, and sadly, easily missed. King had done - and would do - better. B-

"Double Dutch Bus," Frankie Smith (7/18/81)
Part of the reason I've not posted here in a week's time is that I've been racking my brain as to what to say about this frankly bizarre single. It sounds like Wolfman Jack faux-rapping over a very simple sound-of-the-city beat, a kinder, gentler take on "The Message." And then there's the utterly bewildering chorus, if you want to call it a chorus; is it Pig Latin? It's always made me recoil, and its sampling is the reason I never liked Missy's "Gossip Folks." This is a weird record, but not a very good one - novelty at its worst. C-

Thursday, November 06, 2003

"Give It To Me Baby," Rick James (6/13/81)
It's Rick, so it's about sex. It's Rick in the early '80s, so it's funk of the highest order - really, at his peak, only Prince could top his arrangements, his songwriting, his production. What he lacked in pure singing he more than made up for in attitude and personality. Funkateers, take notes. A-

"What Cha' Gonna Do For Me," Chaka Khan (5/30/81)
Easy, breazy, beautiful Chaka Khan. When her material is good, she's unstoppable, and here's a superb example. And dig those descending basslines near the song's end, like whoa! My second-favorite Chaka Khan single, a sumptuous, relaxed french kiss of a record. [We'll get to my favorite, don't worry - what, you thought we wouldn't see Chaka again here?] A+

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Coming tomorrow: one of 1981's two songs earning A+s. Enjoy the high marks while you can, 'cause as we advance through the decade, they're likely to become fewer and fewer. But I can tell you that '82's got at least two, as well, '83 was the year of Thriller, and '84 the year of Purple Rain. You do the math. Of course, '82 also possesses a contender for the worst #1 of the '80s, so...

Oh, and I added "The A-list" to the sidebar. Yeah, I totally stole it from Matos's Boogie Fever, but isn't imitation - or, um, outright theft - the sincerest form of flattery? Yeah, yeah it is. Besides, it's just a downright great idea.

"A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)," Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio (5/16/81)
Yes, "Ghostbusters" sucks (we'll get to it yet, just wait), and it's a damned shame it's his best-known work, because Parker Jr. was a damned fine R&B smoothie, like Jeffrey Osborne with lesser pipes but better songs. This is easy-going midtempo crossover soul at its best - and it's promoting a feminist agenda! B+

"Sukiyaki," A Taste of Honey (5/9/81)
Ick. More proof that Americans should never do foreign-language remakes. As unpleasant as Three Men and a Baby. D

"Being with You," Smokey Robinson (4/4/81)
Back in '81, this sounded painfully romantic. In '03, it sounds like the codependant's anthem:

I don't care what they think about me, and
I don't care what they say
I don't care what they think
If you're leavin'
I'm gonna beg you to stay
I don't care if they start to avoid me
I don't care what they do
I don't care about anything else but
Being with you, being with you

Creepy. Besides that, the only reason this was an R&B hit is because of the vox attached to it. Musically speaking, this is soft rock at its early-'80s nadir; there's nothing remotely soulful about it. And apart from his well-placed trills, this isn't even a very interesting, or notable, performance from golden-voiced Smokey. *Yawn.* C

"Don't Stop the Music," Yarbrough & Peoples (2/28/81)
Clearly made for the radio, and even moreso, the clubs, this is moderately funky, but kinda bland, like it was crafted from a "1980 funk" paint-by-numbers kit. B-

"Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)," Gap Band (2/14/81)
Now, this is more like it. And did you realize there are congas buried in the mix? Charlie Wilson has one of the all-time great voices of funk, able to caress and growl, often in the same song. The Gap Band were one of the finest funk combos of the late'-70s/early-'80s, fairly indestructible and indefatigable, and understood that there was more to funk than a bassline. Their masterstroke, in fact, was having guitars playing the countermelody. This song is a perfect example all around - in fact, it's damned near perfect in and of itself. A-

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

"Fantastic Voyage," Lakeside (1/31/81)
First of all, I'm tempted to blame them for Coolio, but he's not their fault. I'd never really listened to this before I started this project, just assumed I knew it from its near-ubiquitous chorus. I was wrong. A bit too desparate to be loved ("we want you to feel musical pleasure," I mean really), which coincides with it nearly sounding at points like an aural infomercial for "the Lakeside stank" (because "the groove so funky"). Musically, this is good, though not exceptional, but what bad lyrics - and that's bad meaning bad, not bad meaning good. They'll tour Black Expos across the U.S. on the back of this one hit until they drop dead. C+

"Celebration," Kool & the Gang (12/20/80)
Even - especially - listened to in this context, surrounded by its contemporaries, this still sounds like wedding-reception music. Robert "Kool" Bell and his band of merry men have made worse records (and better ones, too). But that doesn't make me like this slice of white-man Holiday Inn "funk" any more. In its conception and execution, it recalls some of the '80s worst, like Journey or even - horrors! - Styx. Manipulative, like a record designed by a marketing firm or focus group; no wonder it was such a massive hit. Docked a grade for feeling so damned oily. F

"Master Blaster (Jammin')," Stevie Wonder (11/1/80)
The year's longest-running #1 (7 weeks) boils down to Stevland Morris getting his reggae jax on - sad to say, more than a bit watered-down. Not any kind of patch on what he'd unleash 14 months hence. B-

"Funkin' for Jamaica (N.Y.)," Tom Browne (10/4/80)
A molten-rubber bassline, the first recorded use of the word "def" in a charttopper, a honey-voiced female singer with some bite and grit in her lower registers, classy disco piano, and even a little rapping. What's not to like? Not a damn thing. A perfect synthesis of disco ideas and funk spirit. A-

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