Seven decades. Seven songs.
Christian vocal pop, a dark dissertation on the destitute, and sugary shoegaze are just a part of what makes this week great.
1920’s-50’s: “Don’t Stop Now” by Bonnie Davis (1942)
"Don't Stop Now" was an incredibly important record for Savoy Records, released in the Newark-based label's infancy. The song hit #1 on the R&B charts helping to bankroll future success for Savoy, which went on to release groundbreaking projects from artists like Charlie Parker, Rev. James Cleveland, and more.
The song itself is tongue in cheek to the max, with Bonnie Davis urging her lover to keep on going...whatever that means. Sensually and seductive without trying to hide it, the piano-led ditty is of its time, an era when R&B which was much raunchier than almost anything else being made. Thinly-veiled debauchery aside, "Don't Stop Now" is an all-around fun tune that served as a precursor to Savoy's success in the mid-20th century.
1960’s: “Lovely Lies” by Miriam Makeba
Miriam Makeba was one of the first real pop stars out of Africa and "Lovely Lies" showcases one of the reasons why, her golden voice. Warm and full, Makeba's voice is perfect to tell the tale of a wistful woman wishing for a more well-intentioned partner. If the track sounds more like an American show tune, that may be because it was originally modeled after one. The original version of the song, released by the Manhattan Brothers and Makeba in 1956, seems to take on a fuller sound with more instrumentation and vocal parts.
I prefer this version, as it's just the right amount of forlorn desperation for me. Makeba sells the emotional aspect much better in this version, making for a stronger song overall.
1970’s: “Poverty’s Paradise” by 24-Carat Black (1973)
This song is probably instantly recognizable for fans of Kendrick Lamar, seeing as it was the primary sample for his soul-spilling masterwork "FEAR." from his latest effort DAMN. It's clear to see why the TDE camp thought that this track would work well for such a personal dark narrative, because "Poverty's Paradise" navigates plenty of the same subject matter.
The opening statement "I've never known anything but hunger, I've been hungry all my life. Starved to the bone" encapsulates the mood of the song in an instant. Some might say this song is overdrawn, but I think it's a great parallel for its material. Poverty, after all, is a cycle that's fearfully hard to break and the blues often stay for far too long. 24 Carat Black seems to know that all too well.
1980’s: “Faith Walking People” by Passage (1981)
Is 80's Christian vocal pop some of the cheesiest music on the planet? Yes.
Does that mean that this shit doesn't slap? Not at all, it's still fire.
The arrangement on this gem is picture perfect, with a melody that feels just familiar enough to be genuinely surprised when it doesn't go exactly as expected. Also, the lyrics are surprisingly practical coming from a Christian group, laying gems on emotional intelligence.
"Say goodbye to the feelings, cause the feelings go away/Say goodbye to the people, cause the people never stay/Say goodbye to the future, if it blinds you to today/Say goodbye to the reasoning that's standing in the way"
1990’s: “Temperature’s Rising” by Mobb Deep (1995)
One of the best feelings is hearing a sample and knowing exactly where it's from. Havoc's Patrice Rushen flip isn't too heavy-handed, seeming to play a supplementary role on the track. The bass line and the drums are what really drive this song forward, along with the rhymes of course. The tale of a friend on the run from the law is told through the eyes of the brothers he's left behind, a compelling perspective.
Hood politics are discussed at length, providing insight on what it takes to stay safe and sane. It's my favorite type of rap, storytelling that encompasses a specific moment in time when what used to be routine has now changed, for better or for worse. Jay-Z's "A Week Ago" falls into that category, Kendrick's "Art of Peer Pressure" does as well, both great songs. Being able to magnify the subtle shifts in life that feel monumental is one of the true joys of songwriting, and Hip-Hop has some of the greatest songwriters of our time.
2000’s: “Chocolate Matter” by Sweet Trip (2003)
You know that feeling when your life seems like a movie, and whatever you're listening to instantly becomes the soundtrack? "Chocolate Matter" serves well as montage music, warm enough to be the backing track to your personal highlight reel.
The tune is a shoegaze-ish delight from California band Sweet Trip, the brainchild of the multi-faceted Roberto Burgos. With wistful verses leading right into a delightfully raucous instrumental break, this song transitions quickly. The guitars really soar with an ascending lead part that's perfectly buried in between immensely crunchy chords. I'll always admire people who record and mix shoegaze because they make stylistic choices that constantly befuddle and amaze me.
2010’s: “Ecs” by Abhi//Dijon (2015)
This is quite possibly the smoothest, most laid-back dance track I've ever heard. Honestly, it only feels like a dance track because of the ever-present four-on-the-floor drum pattern throughout the track. With vocals distorted and muddled in typical Abhi//Dijon fashion, the duo craft a house track that's like lying under the stars, at peace.
What draws me to "Ecs" is the attention to detail. Abhi//Dijon often pulls emotion from a very raw place and their music constantly reflects that. For this track, everything seems to be perfectly calculated and specifically placed for maximum efficiency. This isn't a negative since the two pull it off, sounding incredibly polished in their nigh-lofi style. Somehow they made a diamond with all of coal's best qualities, and it has value to spare.