Albums

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Soul - Released January 1, 1974 | Polydor

Distinctions The Qobuz Standard
Brown's early-'70s run of classic singles and good-to-great albums is still impressive. Hell was the double album released a year after the gold selling The Payback. To some, the title might put this effort in the realm of kitsch, but in many ways Hell was one of Brown's strongest albums. The album was the pinnacle of his work as the Minister of the Super New New Heavy Funk. From the tough and nimble Latin rhythms of "Coldblooded," and "Sayin' It and Doin' It" to the title track, all are prime pre-disco Brown. "My Thang" is probably as hard and unrelenting as he got without spontaneously combusting. The biggest surprise of Hell is that no matter how odd the song choices seemed, practically everything worked, excluding a few key songs of course. Both "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Stormy Monday" don't belong in James Brown's catalogue, let alone the same album. Ballad-wise, Brown fares better. "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You" has him getting all warm and fuzzy as he inexplicably throws in an "I'm hurt, I'm hurt" for good measure. That song, as well as the weepers "A Man Has to Go to the Cross Road Before He Finds Himself" and "Sometime," were produced by David Matthews who could always get good ragged yet poised vocals from Brown. Although Brown did roll snake eyes on all of side three, he did leave Hell on a good note. "Papa Don't Take No Mess" is laid-back, funky jazz that's worth each of its 13-plus minutes. Despite a few detours, Hell is worth listening to. ~ Jason Elias
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Soul - Released December 21, 1993 | Rhino Atlantic

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Soul - Released December 21, 1993 | Rhino Atlantic

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Soul - Released October 6, 1992 | Rhino Atlantic

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Aretha Franklin's career was in a down period in the mid-'70s when she collaborated with Curtis Mayfield to sing his compositions for the film Sparkle. The film proved a non-event, but for Franklin it marked a return to glory. Once again she was the Queen of Soul, doing the chilling, spectacular leaps, cries, whoops, and shouts that defined secularized gospel in the late '60s. The title cut was a sizable hit, while "Something He Can Feel" became an anthem. Mayfield's lyrics and production shouldn't be overlooked; he added just the right amount of background trappings, and the Kitty Haywood Singers provided Franklin's best continuing backgrounds since the Sweet Inspirations. ~ Ron Wynn
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Soul - Released July 13, 1993 | Rhino Atlantic

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Soul - Released January 1, 1967 | Polydor

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If "Cold Sweat" was a revolutionary single in 1967, clearly pointing the way to funk music, the Cold Sweat LP at least promised to be something new in James Brown's catalog as well. Where Brown's albums had been collections containing his current single and miscellaneous older tracks, this one proclaimed on its cover, "All New," "Great Songs," "Never In," "An Album." This was not quite true. While half of the tracks had been recorded during the first half of 1967, the other half (though previously unreleased) dated from 1964. That wasn't the main problem with the album, though. Having taken a giant step forward with "Cold Sweat," Brown spent the rest of the album stepping back, covering standards such as "Nature Boy" and "Mona Lisa" (associated with Nat King Cole), "Fever" (Little Willie John), "Stagger Lee" (Lloyd Price), and other oddities, including "I Loves You Porgy" from Porgy & Bess. Brown was never anybody's idea of a smooth ballad singer, and this material was all the more incongruous when packaged with his most remarkable slab of funk yet. ~ William Ruhlmann
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Soul - Released January 1, 1970 | Polydor

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Soul - Released January 1, 1968 | Polydor

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Soul - Released December 9, 1994 | Rhino Atlantic

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Soul - Released February 14, 1989 | Rhino Atlantic

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Soul - Released January 1, 2009 | Universal Music Enterprises

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Soul - Released February 24, 2009 | Arista

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This is her first album with Arista after ending a 13-year, largely successful stint with Atlantic Records. By as early as 1973, Franklin's album turnout became spotty as late-'70s entries, Sweet Passion and La Diva came and went quickly. For Aretha, Arista label president Clive Davis drummed out a certain amount of fanfare for this initial effort, and for the most part it was deserved. Aretha attempts to pull out all of the stops, which is suitable for a major artist coming to a new label. The best moments here reestablish Franklin as a phenomenal singer, not just an icon. The brilliantly sung "United Together" and autumnal "Come to Me" have both Franklin and producer Chuck Jackson seemingly like they'd recorded together for years. What undoes Aretha is a few overproduced tracks of dubious distinction. The too busy cover of the Doobie Brothers "What a Fool Believes" fails Franklin, skimming past the song's lyrical. Her gospel-fueled childhood recollection "School Days" and a discofied cover of "I Can't Turn You Loose" are both ingratiating and potentially nerve racking. This effort was meant to reestablish Franklin, and it was more popular than most of her late-'70s Atlantic albums, but this could have been better. ~ Jason Elias
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Soul - Released January 1, 1971 | Motown

Distinctions The Qobuz Ideal Discography - The Qobuz Standard
What's Going On is not only Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, it's the most important and passionate record to come out of soul music, delivered by one of its finest voices, a man finally free to speak his mind and so move from R&B sex symbol to true recording artist. With What's Going On, Gaye meditated on what had happened to the American dream of the past -- as it related to urban decay, environmental woes, military turbulence, police brutality, unemployment, and poverty. These feelings had been bubbling up between 1967 and 1970, during which he felt increasingly caged by Motown's behind-the-times hit machine and restrained from expressing himself seriously through his music. Finally, late in 1970, Gaye decided to record a song that the Four Tops' Obie Benson had brought him, "What's Going On." When Berry Gordy decided not to issue the single, deeming it uncommercial, Gaye refused to record any more material until he relented. Confirmed by its tremendous commercial success in January 1971, he recorded the rest of the album over ten days in March, and Motown released it in late May. Besides cementing Marvin Gaye as one of the most important artists in pop music, What's Going On was far and away the best full-length to issue from the singles-dominated Motown factory, and arguably the best soul album of all time. Conceived as a statement from the viewpoint of a Vietnam veteran (Gaye's brother Frankie had returned from a three-year hitch in 1967), What's Going On isn't just the question of a baffled soldier returning home to a strange place, but a promise that listeners would be informed by what they heard (that missing question mark in the title certainly wasn't a typo). Instead of releasing listeners from their troubles, as so many of his singles had in the past, Gaye used the album to reflect on the climate of the early '70s, rife with civil unrest, drug abuse, abandoned children, and the spectre of riots in the near past. Alternately depressed and hopeful, angry and jubilant, Gaye saved the most sublime, deeply inspired performances of his career for "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," and "Save the Children." The songs and performances, however, furnished only half of a revolution; little could've been accomplished with the Motown sound of previous Marvin Gaye hits like "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "Hitch Hike" or even "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." What's Going On, as he conceived and produced it, was like no other record heard before it: languid, dark, and jazzy, a series of relaxed grooves with a heavy bottom, filled by thick basslines along with bongos, conga, and other percussion. Fortunately, this aesthetic fit in perfectly with the style of longtime Motown session men like bassist James Jamerson and guitarist Joe Messina. When the Funk Brothers were, for once, allowed the opportunity to work in relaxed, open proceedings, they produced the best work of their careers (and indeed, they recognized its importance before any of the Motown executives). Bob Babbitt's playing on "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" functions as the low-end foundation but also its melodic hook, while an improvisatory jam by Eli Fountain on alto sax furnished the album's opening flourish. (Much credit goes to Gaye himself for seizing on these often tossed-off lines as precious; indeed, he spent more time down in the Snakepit than he did in the control room.) Just as he'd hoped it would be, What's Going On was Marvin Gaye's masterwork, the most perfect expression of an artist's hope, anger, and concern ever recorded. ~ John Bush
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Soul - Released January 1, 1981 | Motown

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Marvin Gaye's In Our Lifetime came after 1978's confessional and meandering double album Here, My Dear. Although this better set does seem effortlessly conceived, it wasn't that simple. Gaye originally envisioned a "party" album and almost released one called Love Man. After some consideration, Gaye nixed the idea and aimed for an effort that would spotlight his religious concerns. Thankfully, In Our Lifetime splits the difference between the two mindsets. The first single from the aborted Love Man shows up here. "Ego Tripping Out" works as both a parody of the "love man" with a few autobiographical flourishes as he sings, "Got a sweet tooth/For the chick on the floor." Slowly but surely the religious matters do surface here. The buoyant "Praise" has a blithe riff inspired and/or lifted from Stevie Wonder and has Gaye getting his message across without being preachy. Although no song is especially brilliant here, the level of Gaye's musical sense and his vocal prowess carry him throughout. The unfinished and non-Gaye-approved "Far Cry" has lyrics that are steam-of-conscious and are barely decipherable. The mesmerizing "Love Me Now or Love Me Later" has Gaye examining both good and evil with equal skill. The last track, the title song, has Gaye back in the party frame of mind and has great horn charts and a propulsive beat. In Our Lifetime is one of his finest later albums and captures him as his craft was maturing and becoming more multifaceted. ~ Jason Elias
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Soul - Released December 21, 1993 | Rhino Atlantic

Distinctions The Unusual Suspects - The Qobuz Standard
It's nearly impossible to single out any of Aretha Franklin's early-'70s albums for Atlantic as being her best, particularly given the breadth of her output during this era. In terms of albums rather than singles, it's probably her strongest era, and if you count live albums like Amazing Grace, choosing a standout or a favorite record isn't any easier. Yet of this stunning era, Young, Gifted and Black certainly ranks highly among her studio efforts, with many arguing that it may be her greatest. And with songs like "Rock Steady," that may be a valid argument. But there's much more here than just a few highlights. If you really want to go song by song, you'd be hard-pressed to find any throwaways here -- this is quite honestly an album that merits play from beginning to end. You have upbeat songs like the aforementioned "Rock Steady" that will get you up out of your seat moving and grooving, yet then you also have a number of more introspective songs that slow down the tempo and are more likely to relax than rouse. And if that wide spectrum of moods isn't enough reason to celebrate this album, you get some unlikely songs like a take on "The Long and Winding Road." Plus, you also have to keep in mind that Franklin was in her prime here, not only in terms of voice but also in terms of confidence -- you can just feel her exuding her status as the best of the best. Furthermore, her ensemble of musicians competes with any that she had worked with on previous albums. So even if this isn't the greatest Aretha Franklin album of the early '70s, it's certainly a contender, the sort of album that you can't go wrong with. ~ Jason Birchmeier
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Soul - Released December 13, 1994 | Rhino Atlantic

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A nice, if at times overbearing, mid-'70s Franklin set. She was still singing with the stunning delivery, amazing timing, and majestic soul that highlighted her late-'60s releases. Her version of "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" is the only one that might be superior to Stevie Wonder's great original, while "I'm in Love" and the title cut are prime Franklin. ~ Ron Wynn
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Soul - Released March 22, 2005 | Rhino Atlantic

Distinctions The Unusual Suspects - The Qobuz Standard
Among Aretha aficionados, Amazing Grace has long been considered one of her high-water marks, since it captured her glorious return to her gospel roots in front of a live audience. The original 1972 album contained just 14 tracks, culled from two live performances with the Southern California Community Choir, Ken Lupper, and the Rev. James Cleveland at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Fans have long wished for the release of the two complete concerts -- which is exactly what Rhino's Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings gives them. Over the course of two discs and 29 tracks, every performance Franklin gave that January, along with comments from Cleveland and solo tracks from Lupper and the Choir, is unfurled, and if anything, the music is even more impressive when heard complete and unedited. Of course, the nature of this set makes it of interest primarily to dedicated fans, but they'll likely be delighted by the entire package. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Soul - Released January 1, 1973 | Universal Records

Distinctions The Qobuz Ideal Discography - The Qobuz Standard
Originally released in 1973 as a sprawling two-LP set, The Payback was one of James Brown's most ambitious albums of the 1970s, and also one of his best, with Brown and his band (which in 1974 still included Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney, Jimmy Nolen, and Jabo Starks) relentlessly exploring the outer possibilities of the James Brown groove. Stretching eight cuts out over the space of nearly 73 minutes, The Payback is long on extended rhythmic jamming, and by this time Brown and his band had become such a potent and nearly telepathic combination that the musicians were able pull out lengthy solos while still maintaining some of the most hypnotic funk to be found anywhere, and on the album's best songs -- the jazzy "Time Is Running Out Fast," the relentless "Shoot Your Shot," the tight-wound "Mind Power," and the bitter revenge fantasy of the title cut -- the tough, sinuous rhythms and the precise interplay between the players is nothing short of a wonder to behold. And even the album's lower-key cuts (such as the lovelorn "Doing the Best That I Can" and "Forever Suffering") sink their hooks into the listener and pull you in; quite simply, this is remarkable stuff, and even Brown's attempts at lyrical relevance (which were frankly getting a bit shaky at this point in his career) are firmly rooted enough to sound convincing. The Payback turned out to be one of James Brown's last inarguably great albums before he hit a long fallow streak in the mid- to late '70s, but no one listening to this set would ever imagine that this was the work of an artist (or a band) about to run out of gas. ~ Mark Deming
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Soul - Released January 1, 1969 | Verve

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James Brown recorded the pet project Gettin' Down to It in Cincinnati, OH, at King Studios, between December 1968 and March 1969. Although you can't tell by the album's title, it reflects Soul Brother Number One momentarily stepping back from the fiery racial and political atmosphere of the times. Following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots sparked by that event, and his calming effect on it, Mr. Dynamite replaced "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" with his love of standards utilizing the melancholy phrasing of his favorite male vocalist, Frank Sinatra. Aided by the acoustic piano trio led by Dee Felice, Brown tackles such romantic chestnuts as "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life," "It Had to Be You," "Willow Weep for Me," and "All the Way." Although laid-back could be applied to the album's overall tone, these 12 tracks are by no means "mellow." After all, this is James Brown! For instance, "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," clocking in at 7:40, combines pianist Frank Vincent's percussive vamping with James testifying as if he had this tune confused with "Ain't It Funky Now." While the disc is made up of mainly standards, that doesn't stop Brown from including two of his compositions, "Cold Sweat" and an instrumental take of "There Was a Time," reworked to fit the album's easygoing mood with jazzy elements intact. Even though there aren't any bonus tracks, this Verve reissue does include the original packaging and liner notes with Marc Eliot's insightful addendum tacked on. A curious entry in the James Brown catalog, Gettin' Down to It is a savory listen. ~ Al Campbell
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Soul - Released January 1, 1970 | Polydor

Distinctions The Qobuz Ideal Discography - The Qobuz Standard
This live outing from Brown's seminal 1970 J.B.'s lineup features Bootsy Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Bobby Byrd, and many more. While it's a cut below Love Power Peace in documenting this lineup live, Brown and his band still smoke, tearing into extended versions of funk classics like "Sex Machine" (nearly 11 minutes), "Brother Rapp," "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," and "Mother Popcorn," plus a healthy quotient of earlier soul material sprinkled in between. ~ Steve Huey

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Soul in the magazine