By Joel Francis
Bill Haley and his Comets – Bill Haley’s Greatest Hits (compilation) I hope the flower child on the cover of this album is enjoying Haley’s early rock and roll hits. At just 11 songs, this collection seems a bit skimpy at first glance. Thankfully, it contains all of Haley’s major hits: “Rock Around the Clock,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator.” The other eight tracks are a mixed bag. “The Saints Rock and Roll” is a rocked-up version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A cover of Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” is fun, if inessential. The songwriters of “Skinny Minnie” and “Razzle-Dazzle” put all their energy into coming up with a rhyming title and forgot to write a decent song to go with it. Then there’s “Thirteen Women (and the Only Man in Town),” a bizarre fantasy about being the only man to survive the apocalypse and finding himself with a baker’s dozen willing women. It may be the best non-hit on the album. After all is said and done, 11 songs seems about right.
Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer (2018) The third album from Kansas City, Kan., native Janelle Monae is a triumph. She pays tribute to her late mentor Prince, while also capturing and commenting on the political landscape. To a president who boasts about grabbing women, Monae bluntly warns “if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back” (on “Juice”). To the war hawks, Monae threatens “we’ll put water in your guns/we’ll do it all for funs” (on “Screwed”). The music is as carefree and fun as the lyrics are serious. The hit Prince tribute “Make Me Feel” provides a break from the politics and is a definite highlight, but the album closer “American” plays like another tribute to the Purple One. Against an arrangement that sounds lifted from Around the World in the Day, Monae describes the vision of America she is fighting for. If a dance party happens to break out en route, well, that’s part of the plan, too.
Ramones – self-titled (1976) One, two, three, four and away we go into a new landscape of rock and roll. Part surf, part rockabilly, part girl group pop and all fun. The 14 songs on the Queens-based punk band’s debut album rocket past in less than a half an hour, barely pausing to catch their breath. Many of the Ramones’ best songs can be found here – “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat,” “Judy is a Punk,” “53rd and 3rd” – and what isn’t appears on their next three albums. These songs are so imbedded into our lives today it’s hard to imagine the furor they generated when first unleashed on an unsuspecting world. We’re all the better for it, from the grizzled punkers who gobbed and pogoed to this music back in the day, to the tweener girls who rock Ramones t-shirts. God bless the Ramones.
Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek – Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought (2000) Talib Kweli’s debut with Most Def as Black Star is so well-regarded that fans are still clamoring for a sequel more than 20 years later. Train of Thought established Kweli as a serious thinker and talent on his own. The spirit of the album is best encapsulated by the African proverb Kweli quotes on “Africa Dream”: “If you can talk you can sing/If you walk you can dance.” Working with a pastiche of neo soul, jazz and African rhythms, DJ Hi-Tek keeps the listener’s feet busy. Kweli works just as hard on the cranium, celebrating his ancestry, praising women, critiquing hip hop, contemplating love and so much more. Train of Thought never gets too heavy, though, thanks to Kweli’s deft lyrical flow and Hi-Tek’s soundscapes. This album was my go-to quite a while after it came out. I hadn’t listened to it for a while before today, but was instantly reminded of why I loved it so much. A classic.