By the time this issue hits stands, it will have been just over a week since Soul Train impresario Don Cornelius was found dead by a self-inflicted gunshot in his Encino, California, home. The legendary host of Soul Train was instrumental in bringing black music into prime time, and though the show went off the air in 2001 (Cornelius had given up hosting duties in 1993), the Soul Train brand carried on in the form of BET's Soul Train Awards.
The award show was good to soulster Raphael Saadiq in 2011. His tune "Good Man," from his stellar album Stone Rollin', received a nod for Record of the Year, and he won the Centric Award. Saadiq's ties to the program stretch back even further: His R&B combo Tony! Toni! Tone! performed on the show in the '90s.
Saadiq is just one of the artists who exemplify the kind of music Soul Train brought into American living rooms. The retro-soul genre is overflowing with vibrant work right now, from can't-call-them-retro-because-they're-too-old-school artists like The Bo-Keys, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Charles Bradley to FM powerhouses like R. Kelly (whose 2010 release, Love Letter, was a career highlight) to scrappy young bands like The Alabama Shakes. Their forthcoming debut LP on ATO Records has all the makings of an instant classic, particularly on the Southern-fried "You're Not Alone," which owes as much to the beefy tone of Southern rock as it does classic Muscle Shoals groove.
One can only speculate what demons influenced Cornelius' tragic decision, but fears that the music he loved was fading couldn't have had anything to do with it.
The line between classic and retro is a fine one, though, and Saadiq remains one of the finest tightrope walkers in the business. Saadiq made his devotion to finely tuned songcraft clear with Instant Vintage (2002), but Stone Rollin' undoubtedly is his finest offering — muscular and psychedelic on songs like "Heart Attack" (dig those fluttering mellotron lines) and "Go to Hell"; sweet on gems like "Movin' Down the Line" and "Day Dreams"; and boldly funky with "Good Man." The expressive music is less self-consciously retro than on Saadiq's last outing, The Way I See It (2008), which was fine, too, though an appearance by Jay-Z on the bonus remix of album standout "Oh Girl" proved just how much the record required a time-machine sensibility to enjoy it as a whole.
At its best, Saadiq's work shares much in common with D'Angelo, the prodigal son of soul. This year has seen that artist's re-emergence, with a demo cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" and videos of recent performances from his "European D-Tour" being greeted by fawning from fans and critics.
Like Saadiq, D'Angelo's work succeeds not because it ignores the sounds of hip-hop and modern R&B, but because it utilizes those textures to enhance classically rooted songwriting. Rumors suggest that D'Angelo's long-delayed James River finally will see release in 2012 (drummer Questlove says the album is 97 percent complete). Saadiq worked on the album, and if the duo's last collaboration, 2000's majestic classic "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," is any indication, 2012 will be remembered not only as the year one soul icon passed away, but the year that artists passionately demonstrated that his kind of music would live on.