Every December brings spells of disquiet while I await stupid year-end music lists from any and every music website or blog I've ever glanced at more than twice. It's a shameful state, and sillier than ever now that I'm all but completely estranged from the type of music that Pitchfork Media writes about. Still, this is part of the appeal. After a year of ignoring the Deerhunters and Vivian Girls, I've had a good month to slow down and see if there's anything to the fuss. This hasn't yielded many jaw-droppers, although this hip-hop list included a couple pleasant surprises, and certainly this song has become a good friend to the household.
Myself, I bought maybe half a dozen CDs in 2008. Nevertheless, there were plenty of tracks this year that I really did love - too many to mention, and anyway, the internet needs further appraisal of Portishead's, Move D's, or the Crystal Stilts' new records like Cologne needs more tanning salons. So with 2008 long over, I'm interested in talking about the records I discovered in the past year which weren't from 2008. For today, I'd specifically like to talk about soul, R&B, and stuff that might reasonably be squeezed under such a heading. Some of these might be pretty obvious, and if I had any pride I wouldn't let on about not being hip to them for ages. But heck, if someone as expert as Oliver Wang from Soul-Sides can fess to having just discovered Lorraine Ellison this late in the game, then maybe I can chance a little ridicule.
Ruth Brown - Looking Back
Here's one I feel like I really should've heard years ago, but it took Wong Kar-Wai's akward My Blueberry Nights to bring this song to my ears, where it was appropriately paired with the likes of Otis Redding. Ruth Brown, a longtime powerhouse for Atlantic Records, typically brings to mind a more uptown, jazzier R&B style, but "Looking Back," which I believe dates from 1969, is something else altogether - a great, weary track that just sweats raw, impotent regret. And who doesn't want to hear a little more of that on their morning commute?
The Marvelettes - Someday, Someway
Of course I'm well familiar with the Marvelettes for Motown bangers like "Danger: Heartbreak Dead Ahead," "Poor Little Rich Girl," "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game," and some song called "I'll Keep Holding On." One afternoon I tracked through my too-modest collection of their music, and promptly headed over to iTunes, thinking I could stand to add a cut or two to the roster. I ended up only buying this one, from 1962, but good Lord it's fantastic! Now my favorite Marvelettes track of all time, all spooky keys, crisp guitars, punchy percussion, and cooing vocals that come together for unadulterated Motown magic. I warn that the knees will get weak at the 0:47 mark. Press rewind if they don't blow your mind, as a wise man once said.
Eddie & Ernie - Lost Friends
This reliable duo appears on all four of Dave Godin's essential Kent Soul compilations. They're pretty showy with their vocal range, and sometimes this sort of histrionics eclipses the songwriting, but this Lost Friends CD (also on Kent Soul) features plenty of the kind of achy stories that you'd hafta be pretty steely not to let get to you. The title track, first released on Eastern Records in '65, is the best example of this, a melancholy rumination on what became of friends of yesteryear. If Proust worked in the Brill Building, he might bash out something like this. Granted, it'd probably last a little longer than two-and-a-half minutes, but I stand by the notion regardless.
Anna King - Make Up Your Mind
Visiting London last summer was straight up hard. With so many great record stores, so little mad money, and so brutal an exchange rate, I had to take solace in scrupulous note-taking. I returned to Cologne with a pages-long list, much of which still awaits action. One album I did get ahold of was Anna King's Back To Soul. Anna King toured with and sang backup for James Brown. For this great 1964 deep soul record, He Who Toiled Tirelessly In The Entertainment Industry contributed substantial amounts of songwriting and all the production. There are write-ups out there that'll tell you that this album was a vanity project cobbled together from Brown's tossed-off rejects, but such cynical dismissals simply whither before a powerhouse performance like this one.
Barbara Lynn - Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin')
Barbara Lynn had a powerful voice, but that she also turned in some solid guitar work and did much of her own songwriting is particularly notable for the time. I knew Lynn already for the lovely "You'll Lose A Good Thing" and the rocking "I'm A Good Woman" (mp3 included, because it's just so so good, and also pretty hard to find). There are three or four good CD compilations of her recordings. Unfortunately, not one of them gives a comprehensive overview, but so it goes. "Oh Baby" may be familiar to some for the cover by the Rolling Stones from their Rolling Stones, Now! record. Most of the songs from the Stones' first three records were first popularized by black American soul and r&b artists, and I've a tendency to dismiss them as inferior to the originals. In this case, though, I must concede that they did a great job with the material. Which is not to say that Barbara Lynn's version isn't still definitive. There's an excellent article here that talks a little more about Lynn's run on Tribe Records, which provides more info on her than you'll find most places.
The "5" Royales - Think
I think everybody knows "Think" in some form or another, but this year I finally heard the original 1957 version by proto-soul greats the "5" Royales. It's not near as fiery as James Brown's, say, tending more towards doo-wop, jump, or other earlier R&B stylings. Anyway, it's a thumbs-way-up, and something I figure any soul fan will definitely wanna hear.
Ruby Johnson - Come To Me My Darling
For reasons not worth elaborating on, the stats on my laptop fail to precisely pinpoint when I first acquired which Ruby Johnson songs. Johnson's voice is beautiful - not sweet at all, and almost tough, but haunting. I can never get enough, and have repeatedly gone back to the well for more. Arriving in a slow trickle, some songs reached me as early as '05, but some I first heard this year. Okay, so I'm willing to concede that this particular track may have been on my iPod before the beginning of the year, but certainly any of a number of selections from the I'll Run Your Hurt Away collection would qualify as a favorite find for the year. Put plainly, this is Stax soul at its most incredible, and I sternly recommend the whole record.
Darrow Fletcher - The Pain Gets A Little Deeper
A friend came through with tantalizing tales of an obscure and frantic soul jam called "What Good Am I Without You." When I finally tracked down Darrow Fletcher's music, I found a teenaged showman with at least three great songs to his credit. "What Good" was indeed as exciting as described, and I liked "Infatuation" and "The Pain Gets A Little Deeper" even better. In the latter, a grammar school Fletcher wallows in gloriously naïve heartbreak. But it's to the song's credit that it doesn't become clear that Fletcher is an underage singer until you've heard it enough to start scrutinizing the lyrics. Southern soul with northern danceability, this one's built for Friday nights.
The Donays - Devil In His Heart
The aforementioned Oliver Wang tipped me to this one, a song best known for having been covered by the Beatles. Straight outta '61, this is infectious, rollicking girl-group stuff, and a song that refuses to be played just once. Note that this mp3 is the one I got from Soul-Sides, ripped from the 7". I also have an iTunes mp3 not sourced from vinyl, but I must say that the one from Soul-Sides has a much fuller sound.
Ruby Andrews - You Made A Believer Out Of Me
Another one from Soul-Sides. Q-Tip had an album this year that straight took me back to '98, and one of its hottest cuts was built around a sample from this song by Ruby Andrews. And why wouldn't it be? This piano hook here lingers in a tight, dizzy loop in my head for hours every time I play this song. I figure it was only a matter of time before someone had the good sense to start rhymin' over it. As Mr. Wang's post points out, Q-Tip wasn't the first. I can't imagine he'll be the last.
Billy Thompson - Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
I don't know all that much about this one, except that you can find it on Kent's When A Man Cries compilation, that it was recorded for Columbus in 1964 (along with his "Black-Eyed Girl"), and that an original 45 of this record will set you back a pretty penny. The bottom line for me is that this song, probably because of the horns, reminds me quite a bit of Love's "Always See Your Face," an all-time fave. If it happens that that song has any sentimental value for you, this one'll probably get some extra mileage for you.