My Year In Music 2016 – The Re-Discoveries and One Major Disappointment
This installment I was to dedicate to those albums that I have heard previously, and either gained a new appreciation for them or just really forgot how much I liked them in the first place. And rounding this out, there is one entry that I wished I could like, but I just didn’t, especially since it was the final official release from that artist.
Prince – The Rainbow Children (2001)
Like many others, when Prince passed away in April of this year, I went the better part of that following week listening to nothing but his music. This included stuff from all the side projects such as The Family, Vanity and Apollonia 6, The Time, Madhouse, New Power Generation, NPG Orchestra, Sheila E and anything else. The death of Prince hit me quite hard to the point that a part of me, 8 months later, is still in mourning.
While I was going through my personal collection, I listened to portions of The Rainbow Children and something struck me. Previously, I had written the album off as overly preachy, too much Jehovah’s Witness ideology and just a little too self-indulgent. While I still hold to the opinion of the first two things I named, I discovered that this was actually a good album.
I had always been a fan of a couple of the tracks on the album (Mellow, Digital Garden, She Loves Me 4 Me), but listening to it beginning to end for the first time in almost 15 years, I discovered a cohesiveness that I overlooked before. While I still (and will always) take issue with his embrace of the propaganda of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, even with that, this is a very well rounded album. There is a lot of Prince’s trademark funk, the stirring slow songs and Prince’s usually infectious melodies and rhythms.
Therefore, I have revisited my previous negative thoughts on this album. After all, once you get done with tracks like 1+1+1=3 and Family Name, you kinda don’t care about the inaccurate theology and the overly preachy overtones.
At least for a while.
Quincy Jones – Big Band Bossa Nova (1962)
As I mentioned in the previous entry, I have had a recent love affair with Latin music. Specifically: Brazilian jazz, samba, and bossa nova. It should come as no surprise that Jones would produce an album that pays homage to those traditions.
I had a couple of tracks off this album but never the complete recording but never heard the entire recording until a few years ago. This was definitely one of those times I asked myself, “Why did I wait so long?”
I’ve always loved Jones’s version of Desafinado, also outstanding on this album are: One Note Sambda, Manha De Carnaval and Lalo Bossa Nova. But of course, most people are familiar with the title track, which was used as the theme music for the Austin Powers movies.
This album just reminds me that Quincy Jones truly had very few peers when it came to conducting and arranging and his genius (yes, I said it) spanned many, many musical genres.
MeShell NdegeOcello – Bitter (1999)
After the release of 1996’s Peace Beyond Passion, I began referring to MeShell as “the funkiest woman on the planet.” Many reviewers over the years had proclaimed her a female Prince. And while I don’t think I would go that far, I will say that she has remained one of my favorite artists through the years.
When Bitter originally came out, I was profoundly disappointed. I even remember having a disagreement with someone in a chat room over this album, expressing how much I disliked it and I think I may have even said at one point that it sucked. I’m man enough to admit I was wrong. I even told the person I had the original conversation with a few weeks ago about my previous mistake in judging this album.
They say that with age comes wisdom. And now, 17 years later, I can safely say this is an excellent album. In many ways, I kinda compare it to Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear, which was largely misunderstood by fans and critics alike, but later gained a reputation as a brilliant piece of music. And this is how I now think of Bitter.
The reason I made the comparison to Gaye is that MeShell has stated that this album was inspired by a breakup she went through with a long-time girlfriend. Except, Bitter suggests it was a breakup she didn’t want to happen.
For me, the top moments of the album come with the tracks Sincerity, Wasted Time, Fool of Me, Adam and Grace. The latter, a somewhat wistful and hopeful pleading, I know view as nothing short of brilliant. Maybe because I too have experienced a breakup with someone I didn’t want to break up with allows me to resonate with the album more. In fact, I can’t listen to Grace and not be reminded of an ex-girlfriend, whom I still harbor positive feelings for. Whatever the reason, I think this easily can be placed in MeShell’s top 5 releases.
Evanescence – Fallen (2003)
Speaking of ex’s, I was introduced to this album by an ex and I always associated it with her. After our breakup, I didn’t listen to this album for some time because, unlike the situation I had with Bitter, I don’t have that many fond memories of this particular ex.
My hard drive crashed a few months ago and I had to reinstall all of my music. During the installation, My Immortal come on, and I remembered that I actually really liked this album.
There has always been something about lead singer Amy Lee’s vocals I have appreciated. And in going back over this album, with songs like Going Under, Imaginary and, of course, Tourniquet, it is her vocals and her intonations in conveying the emotions of what she is singing about that first interested me and which interests me again.
I’m still on the fence about the religious imagery contained in the album. Many have said that Evanescence is a Christian Rock band in disguise. And while I can see where such labels would come from, I also think in part it was used to diminish them as a band, since Christian rock seems to get a pretty bad rap from a lot of rock/pop fans.
Chicago Transit Authority (1969)
I’ve never had mixed feeling about this album. In fact, from the moment I was introduced to it back in the late 90’s, I had considered this a wonderful album. However, I hadn’t listened to many tracks from this album in quite some time.
Over the summer, I randomly decided to play this album and I was reminded how wonderful it was. A lot of people will talk about the horn sections of Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power, both amazing horn sections in their own rights. But Chicago’s horn section I think is quite underrated.
Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? is one of their signature songs, but I think their cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s I’m A Man, with that absolutely AMAZING drum/percussion solo is what sends this over the top for me. And of course, Beginnings, Questions 67 & 68 and Liberation just round out what is just a top notch effort. This album, to me, shows why they were worthy of inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Maxwell – Maxwell’s MTV Unplugged (1997)
When Maxwell first came out, I dismissed him as another pretty boy with an interesting hairstyle and a decent falsetto. I even remember someone years ago, responding to something I had on my personal website, claiming he was equal or better than Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
However, it was his appearance on the Chris Rock show where he performed the Mellowsmoothe version of Sumthin Sumthin that I became a fan. I accidentally ran across his performance of Al Green’s Simply Beautiful (which was pretty decent), I decided to revisit the Unplugged performance.
Let me get the not great stuff out of the way first. His covers of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work and Nine Inch Nail‘s Closer, to me are horrendous. To the point, I really can’t stand listening to them. This time around was no different. I literally cringed when those two tracks played.
But the rest of the performance was great. The obvious influences of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye are ever present through the performance. He amassed an impressive band and between the Urban Hang Suite album and this performance, it is easy to see why neo-soul gained such popularity.
The energy and the urgency of the vocals comes across nicely in this recording. The first 3 tracks, The Suite Urban Theme, Mello Sumthin (The Hush), and The Lady Suite all draw you in. And while he lost me with the two aforementioned tracks I don’t like, I was quickly sucked back in with the remaining tracks.
Herbie Hancock – Fat Albert Rotunda (1970)
In addition to Latin music, I have been catching up on Herbie Hancock’s back catalog. One thing that has struck me is the number of artists that have covered or sampled his music across the years. I did not count on recognizing so many songs and or parts of songs that I have been familiar with for years.
Such was the case with Fat Albert Rotunda. Originally written for Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert special, this marked Hancock’s transition from straight jazz into jazz fusion and jazz funk.
Just about every track on this album is a gem, but Tell Me A Bedtime Story (later expertly covered by Quincy Jones) is paramount among them. I mean, it’s just great! Fat Mama, Jessica and Lil Mama are also excellent and listening to these tracks not only reminded me of what I liked about Fat Albert when I was younger, but also how excellent of a musician that Hancock was and is.
David Bowie – Tonight (1984)
David Bowie was another one of my favorites whom we lost in 2016. After his passing, I spent about 2 days listening to nothing but his music. It is interesting how when someone dies all of the sudden you want to absorb their music when while they were alive, you just took it as it came.
But when I listened to Tonight again, I had a mix of emotions. I know Bowie was not fond of this album, nor were a lot of fans/critics. Me, I always liked it. I even wrote a review on this album when it came out my senior year in high school for a newspaper called New Expression, which was an all-city newspaper in Chicago.
Coming off the success of Let’s Dance, Bowie continue the sound that Nile Rodgers created for him. Many die-hard Bowie fans didn’t like the direction of this album and Bowie himself distanced himself from several tracks on it.
For me, I have nothing but fond memories of this release. Not only was I reminded of being in high school and all the promise that held, but I also remembered the first time I heard Loving the Alien, a song I didn’t fully understand when I first heard it. This track remains in my top 5 Bowie songs. Once I understood the lyrics (a questioning of one’s belief in God), the arrangement of the song with the 4 minute instrumental part just seared it in my brain.
I am also fond of his cover of the Beach Boys God Only Knows, along with the tracks Tonight (a duet with Tina Turner) and the other hit from the album, Blue Jean.
Don’t get me wrong, this album does have it’s problems. And a couple of the tracks sound as if Bowie was kinda phoning it in. But this is one of those albums that will always be special to me, maybe more for the memories it evokes rather than it’s true quality.
The Major Disappointment
Prince – Hit-N-Run Phase Two (2015)
I stopped buying Prince’s music for a number of years and got copies from friends or stuff I could record off the internet. When he died, I decided to buy a couple of albums I didn’t have and a couple of the newer releases. So I bought Art Official Age, Hit N Run Phase One and the release with 3rd Eye Girl and all of them were (to me) unimpressive. I was hoping this one would be different. It wasn’t.
To be honest, I haven’t really enjoyed a Prince album since 2004 when Musiciology and The Slaughterhouse were released. In some ways, it felt like subsequent releases, he was trying to prove that he was still musically relevant by appealing to the masses and trying to get hits instead of just doing what he really wanted to and was truly capable. I had long said that I thought Prince should have stopped playing pop/R&B and started doing jazz albums, where he shined. But what did I know.
I do know this. His last official release was lackluster. Actually, it was less than lackluster. There is nothing on this album that reached out to me and grabbed me. My biggest disappointment was his re-working of the popular bootleg song Extraloveable, renamed “Xtralovable. I mean, it’s horrible. Absolutely horrible. I remember back in the days when I was active in the internet fan groups for Prince, someone said in regards to the reworked version of Endorphinmachine (from The Gold Experience) that had also been circulating as a bootleg for a few years that he “had no right to do that to that song.” I feel similar about the official version of Xtralovable. But it was his music and he could do what he wanted. Too bad it sucked.
The only song that had any sort of promise is Groovy Potential, which perhaps might grow on me over time. And I suppose Screwdriver is okay, but there is something missing from that song that I cannot put my finger on. But overall, for me, this was one of Prince’s most disappointing releases and for this to be his final release, it is a smear on an otherwise outstanding legacy.