By Joel Francis
Cabin fever has taken hold, but let’s not replace it with a real fever. Stay in and stay safe, my friends.
Bob Marley and the Wailers – Rastaman Vibration (1976) Bob Marley had a lot to prove with Rastaman Vibration as former Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer also released their solo debuts that year. But dissonance in the Wailers camp turned to delight for music fans, because all three albums are reggae classics. (We looked at Tosh’s Legalize It yesterday and will likely examine Wailers’ Blackheart Man tomorrow.) Of course, Marley was the biggest star at the time and as such Rastaman Vibration had the greatest resonance. The eighth Marley album, Rastaman Vibration has some of the reggae legend’s best political songs. “Johnny Was” strikes at the casual violence that allows stray bullets to kill innocent bystanders. “Rat Race” calls out a suspected attempted by the CIA to subvert Jamaican politics. The best of them all, though – and arguably Marley’s greatest political song ever – is “War.” As Marley recites Halie Selassie’s 1963 address to the United Nations general assembly the reggae groove behind him simmers, gradually adding backing vocalists and horns. Selassie’s words remain powerful today: “That until the basic human rights/are equally guaranteed to all/without regard to race/this a war.” The song took on added meaning when Sinead O’Connor performed an a cappella version on Saturday Night Live, then tore up a photo of the pope to priests abusing children.
Rastaman Vibration isn’t without light-hearted moments, but songs like “Cry to Me” and “Positive Vibration” are come up short when matched against Marley triumphs “No Woman No Cry” and “Three Little Birds.” The funniest moment in the album comes from the suggestion printed inside the faux burlap textured gatefold sleeve: “This album jacket is great for cleaning herb.”
Marilyn Maye – A Taste of “Sherry!” (1967) Marilyn Maye is a treasure. She started performing around Kansas in the 1930s as a child and had her own live radio show as a teenager. In 1966, Maye was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy (Tom Jones won). Across her seven decade recording career, Maye has appeared on The Tonight Show more than any other singer. To be honest, Maye’s style of jazz/cabaret singing usually isn’t my cup of tea, but after watching her perform at a local jazz festival several years ago I was converted. Her magic and mastery onstage doesn’t completely translate to this album, one of her earliest, but it is a great reminder of an incredible talent from a bygone generation.
The Libertines – Up the Bracket (2002) One of the greatest British punk albums exploded into the garage rock revival populated by the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes and a bunch of other decent bands we’ve all forgotten about. The Libertines stood out in this landscape populated by loud guitars and snotty attitudes by being a bit more in-your-face and noisy without being off-putting or obnoxious (well, OK, they could be obnoxious). Blessed with cover artwork that recalled The Clash’s “White Riot,” they did one better and got Clash guitarist Mick Jones to produce the album as well. The result is an aggressive, tuneful romp with catchy songs that manages to live up to its title, British slang for a punch in the throat.
Prince – Dirty Mind (1980) Before “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Go Crazy” made him a superstar, Prince was a just hard-working funk prodigy hailing from the Upper Midwest (or nowhere, by the standards of the suits on the coasts). After proving that he could handle all the instruments himself on his debut, For You, Prince was hungry for even more control and commercial success on his second, self-titled release. He achieved both goals. Dirty Mind invested all the victories from the first two albums and emerged as the first album Prince recorded in his native Minneapolis with the local musicians previously in his touring band.
Dirty Mind contains all of Prince’s calling cards: carefree pop – “Uptown,” “When You Were Mind” – sexual controversy – “Sister,” “Head” – and a mélange of genres that roamed from new wave to soul and from rock to funk across little more than half an hour. Dirty Mind was the first classic album of Prince’s career and it remains a must-own record today.
John Legend and The Roots – Wake Up! (2010) When this album came out a decade ago, Barak Obama had been sworn in as the first black president in American history and the Tea Party were still calling themselves tea baggers and had yet to take power in the halls of congress. It is important to establish the political context into which Wake Up! was released, because this collaboration between John Legend and The Roots is a very political anthem. The best band in hip hop and the soul crooner selected 11 largely unknown soul protest songs and recast them for this new (Obama) era. As always, The Roots are impeccable and the carefully selected guests add gravitas with their performances. Legend is a capable singer but I can’t help wish that Raphael Saadiq or D’Angelo were helming the project instead. There are several times – particularly during the lengthy version of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and “Hard Times” (a song Curtis Mayfield wrote for Baby Huey, who we discussed back on Day 31) – where Legend’s voice is too smooth and lacks the depth to bring the anger and desperation of the lyrics fully to life. But perfect should never be the enemy of good and Wake Up! is very good indeed. It is also sadly all too relevant.
Blakroc – self-titled (2009) The words “Black Keys” only appear once on this album, in small print inside the gatefold. That’s too bad, because fans of the blues-turned-arena band would probably find a lot to like here. True, Dan Auerbach cedes his vocals to a dozen or so MCs, but the musical guts of this record are the undeniable – and unmistakable – guitar and drums grooves that have powered the duo’s rock releases. The pair provide some very Wu Tang-inspired backing for the RZA and Pharoahe Monch on “Dollaz and Sense.” The collaborations with Diplomat Jim Jones are some of few times when the traditional Keys sensibilities cut through. Jones guests with Mos Def on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)” and appears with Nicole Wray and Billy Danze on “What You Do To Me.” Whether you are a hip hop head or rock fan, there is plenty of gold in Blakroc.