By Joel Francis
O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.
Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.
Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.
Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.
Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.
The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.