Chances are, if you met me -- I'm a tall, goofy-looking, middle-aged white guy with a Canadian accent (it's actually North Dakotan) -- you wouldn't think, "Hey, I should get some recommendations on fantastic soul albums from this cat."
Of course, I'm stereotyping myself, and you would be, too. I understand that we all make assumptions, usually based on some level of previous experience, and that's a fairly good guess.
But you'd be wrong . . .
Trust me, after 25 years in record stores, I've discovered a ton of awesome soul albums. Obvious and beyond. Read on and I'll recommend 16 Slices of Sweet Soul Music.
What Is Soul, Geek?
In case you've never read one of my ramblings, here's the deal: I can't write a stinkin' list without some sort of background qualifications.
Call it an attempt to head off potential questions or smart-ass comments. Call it verbosity. What I can tell you is that I like to at least clarify the listing thought process.
So here are the qualifications for this list:
• Must be an album. Greatest hits are for schoolgirls and housewives (that's a quote from The Doors guy on Kid in the Hall)
• Soul = However I define it. Don't give me any shit about R&B vs. Funk vs. Blue-eyed Soul vs. whatever. This shit is soul in my book, and it's my list.
• I own the CD or LP. I can't be rambling poetic about something I don't even own.
The only other caveat I'll add is that I'm not saying these are the 16 greatest soul records of all time, just 21 really outstanding soul albums. The list is made up of new and old, white and black, obvious and not so much. It's not meant to be all-inclusive (after all, it's missing the Godfather of Soul), it's just stuff I wholeheartedly recommend (and have recommended to hundreds of people).
Okay, let's talk about soul. You wanna get up? You wanna feel down? I've got your remedy.
16 Soul Albums You're Gonna Dig
(This is gonna be fun for me, because I make it a point to jam this stuff while I write.)
Charles Bradley: No Time for Dreaming (2011)
Funny how I'm starting out in this decade? Tell ya what, amigo, if I'd played this album for you, you probably wouldn't guess anything this side of 1973. He sounds old, but he sounds new, and he has Daptone label mates' The Menahan Street Band backing him up. It's a great mixture.
JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound: Want More (2011)
Another new one? Oh, settle down, I pulled them from my soul section alphabetically. Anyway, who cares? This is just a fantastic soul album from the Chicago outfit. Driving, cool, funky. "I Got High" is grooving through my brain right now (and I'm listening to the song. Ba da bump). We'd sell it every time we played it at the store. Check out the cool cover of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart".
Chambers Brothers: The Time Has Come (1967)
If you read the Allmusic.com biography on this group of brothers (plus one) from Lee County, Mississippi, and you don't want to hear the album, you're reading the wrong blog. I heard "Time Has Come Today" on some sort of hippie compilation and loved it, but it really didn't prepare me for this album, which covers a ton of different styles and never gets old.
Sam Cooke: One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club (Recorded: 1963; Released: 1985)
Don't know Sam, you little pup? Sure, you do. Throw the Greatest Hits on Spotify (I know I bagged on GH earlier, but sometimes they serve their purpose), and chances are you'll recognize more of the smooth and cool genius than you thought you would. Now hear the difference in his live performances. One of the greatest ever.
Aretha Franklin: Soul '69 (1969. Duh.)
Hey 19, she don't remember the Queen of Soul. I could have listed any one of about five of Aretha's Atlantic albums from the '60s. Hell, I'm still not even sure which one is my favorite. But I know this is pure heaven. Start off with "Ramblin'" and just try to put it down.
Donny Hathaway: Everything Is Everything (1970)
I wish I could assume you've heard "The Ghetto" off of Donny Hathaway's brilliant debut album. Oh, you haven't heard it? Consider yourself chastised and give the song a run. Now listen to the whole album. Outstanding, unique, and by far his best. His voice is just unbelievable.
James Hunter: People Gonna Talk (2006)
How did I hear about James Hunter? Lloyd. My former business partner and cosmic record label rep. You know how you just trust some people? Lloyd's one of those cats for me. He said, "You gotta hear it." I loved it. Don't fuck with Lloyd (see also: Mel Brown's Chicken Fat). P.S.: Skip the reggae-ish first cut and get right to "Smoke Without Fire."
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings: 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007)
The first time I heard Sharon and her band of merry funksters, it was the wonderful anti-Grover Nordquist-type anthem "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes" on the great Impeach the Precedent compilation. I've been in love with her ever since. And by "her" I mean the whole damn bunch of 'em. You gotta see the live show. You gotta feel the power. This is their finest output (although I'm still listening to "Taxes" as I write).
John Legend: Get Lifted (2004)
I still can't believe I like this. I didn't want to like this. It was so hyped up in my business. I've never been able to take Kanye's greater-than-all attitude. (He has 11 credits on the album . . . You sure that's enough, big shot?) So why like it? 'Cause I did. Still do. 'Cause it's excellent. The kid can sing. It doesn't hurt that he seems like a progressive-with-balls (loved him on Real Time with Bill Maher) who gets off his ass and stands for something. A real rarity for today's artists.
Curtis Mayfield: Curtis (1970 -- it was a good year for soul)
Ah, Curtis. Funny I should write about Curtis after mentioning that John Legend stands for something. Curtis had something to say on his brilliant debut and beyond. "Move On Up" is worth a hundred dollars all by itself (especially in its glorious extended version), and the whole album just keeps getting better every time I listen to it. If there's Hell below, we're all gonna go.
Meters: Rejuvenation (1974)
I almost pulled out Fire on the Bayou, which is equally excellent, but I wanted to hear Leo Nocentelli's searing guitar work on "It Ain't No Use," so I went with Rejuvenation. Both albums are wicked, wicked soul from the Bayou. Kristian (my Hoodlums' partner) started playing them in the store early, and I shall be forever grateful for the turn-on. Listen to these two albums, and you will be, too.
Van Morrison: His Band and the Street Choir (1970)
Okay, I confess. This album isn't filed in my soul section. Why? Because, as with Ray Charles, it's hard to know where to file Van Morrison. He's covered so many genres well, er, unbelievably well (I own 17 of his albums). All I know is this is great soul, and if I've got James Hunter on the list, I sure as hell can't leave off Van. Listen to "I've Been Working" and keep going. Then listen to six more Van Morrison albums.
Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackso: It's Your World (1976) "The ground beneath my feet, I know was made for me. There is no any one place where I belong."
And so starts off what might be a desert island album for me (which is a huge statement in record store geek land). Once my ears, and more importantly, my brain, got ahold of the way-out blues songs of Gil Scott-Heron, I was hooked. I still don't know how a guy can be so positive and so pragmatic and so bleak and so loving and so vulnerable and so harsh...
Well, they just don't make artists like this anymore, and he's at his best when he's teamed up with Brian Jackson. This partially live double album is my favorite of seven generally excellent albums between the two.
Temptations: Psychedelic Shack (1970)
This ain't the five dudes in matching suits Temps. Don't get me wrong, I love those dudes, too, but this is a different sort of Temptations. Dial up "Friendship Train" and check out the ripping guitar (I still can't figure out who's playing it) that slides its way through those famous Motown vocals (I'm about ready to bop my way out of this chair). Then listen to the words. Like label-mate Marvin Gaye, they get in their two cents' worth about the social situation as well.
Bill Withers: Still Bill (1972)
Wow, as I roll through this list, it's hard not to be amazed at how many guys in this genre have really great things to say in their songs. Positive stuff. Revealing stuff. If you've heard Bill Withers, you know he fits that mold. Funk. Gospel. Smooth. Warm. His third album covers it all, and it is my fave. Kick back and try it.
Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (1973)
Did I save the best for last?
Like I said, It's alphabetical . . . but it still worked out that way. I love Stevie, and this is my favorite of his string of six brilliant albums. The music says so much. The lyrics say so much (anyone can say Nixon is an idiot, but no one can say it like Stevie in "He's Misstra Know-It-All").
If ever God did manifest himself in a musician, to me, he's in Stevie (and that's a bold statement from the potential founder of The Church of Music). And he's all over this album.
Why Do They Call It Soul, Dad?
I'm not sure who defined the genre in the first place, but as I sit here and write about it, and listen to it (Stevie's mighty "As", the ringtone I hear when my wife calls, is taking me out), I know this much, they got it right.
It goes straight to my soul.
I know I'm missing Bobby and Sly and The Isleys and Otis and Wilson and a bunch more, but hopefully this is a good start . . . for your soul.
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