Top ten time, but none of that countdown shit, cause you’d probably just scroll down to see who finished first at the bottom of the page anyway. I know it and you know it (besides the pic above is a bit of a giveaway) so I’ll save you the trouble. Dig it ...
The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam
The intro feels just like a classic. The Isley Brothers’ Footsteps In The Dark drum sample will give you that; induce the obligatory head nod. Standard. But instead of the sweet and melodic Ernie Isley original riff that you’re expecting to come in (the loop Ice Cube lifted in its entirety for It Was A Good Day), it changes to a lowdown, nasty bass guitar riff, played by Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner, who feeds the sound through a MoogerFooger pedal (pronounced as in he’s a “Moe-ger-Foe-ger”). The desired effect is what you get, like Bootsy’s spacebass is shagging a clavinet, with extra tang. The double clutch funk is joined by more shoulder, the head nod now precariously flirting with whiplash.
Blessed with a tenor, light as a feather, Thundercat harmonizes with himself; soaring high on the bridge like Phillip Bailey has joined the Beach Boys. Just then his cohorts; not Cheetara, Lion-O or Snarf, but rather Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington & Dennis Hamm ride in on the wave effect to offer support. The epic Kamasi Washington blowing his sax beautifully, the warm wash of Dennis Hamm’s piano playing, more Tania Maria (Come With Me) than Yacht Rock, with co-writer/producer Fly-Lo, leading them from above.
Funk beauty, all over a song about a dude getting pissed on Hoffmeister after breaking up with his girlfriend, with its ‘Nobody move there’s blood on the floor/cause, I, can’t, find, my heart.’
This is funk as art, 3 minutes of genius. On a par with Sly, Shuggie, Prince, Betty, Bootsy and D.
Thundercat is loose. Thank funk.
Eryn Allen Kane
The Aviary: Act 1
The word “Soul” has been appropriated. It features in the rhetoric of mainstream journalists and broadcasters desperate to sanctify major label, white-skinned pop crooners with a greater sense of feeling and poignancy. At the same time tagging contemporary r&b and black pop artists (talented cats like the Weeknd) with the term “future soul”, whilst ignoring all adult-orientated soul music unless it directly replicates the sound and styles of “old school” (their term).
Alternative rock stations never had to put up with this shit, turning on their favourite radio station to hear One Direction’s Midnight Memories usurp Radiohead on the playlist. So why has soul been sidelined?
It hasn’t helped that too many proven American soul artists get up and do the dance. Obliging their corporation masters, making music on assignment, in the name of staying relevant, and desperately craving the establishment’s acceptance via a Grammy or by taking-care-of-business, earning the quan that the American dreamers respect.
But if you need reminding that contemporary soul music is not dead, and needn’t be tailored to clear channel but instead is alive and well - with original ideas, melody, chords, horns, hooks, crescendo’s, harmonies, craft and the gospel truth - then look no further than this EP by Chicago based, soul superheroine-in-waiting Eryn Allen Kane.
Only 26, her debut is assured and cultured, seasoned with an authority and skill that you tend to find in artists twice her age and approaching their peak. Kane’s background is in glee clubs and it shows; each song built on a bed of multi-tracked harmonies, with the lead vocal adept at slipping from the sweet to the impassioned, as the mood dictates.
Track by track each of the four songs is imbued with thoughtful, introspective & personal lyrics – not the usual love and relationship fare. Have Mercy is about witnessing her brother beaten by the police and jailed, the message delivered over accapella and finger snaps, betraying Kane’s vocal harmony roots as her vocals testify to the heavens. The catchy Slipping Away wouldn't have sounded out of place amongst Corinne Bailey Rae’s best work.
Bass Song starts with “la-da-dees” and an upright bass, before a jarring guitar and off-beat thump gate crash the chorus. And finally, saving the best 'til last, there’s the E.P. closer Piano Song and a moment, after the vocal and piano intro, when the full horn section kicks in unfettered, Kane allowing the brass space to breathe out, without needless ad-libbing. The whole piece patiently building to the kind of magic found on Aretha Franklin’s Sparkle, when ‘Retha used to sing her face off with her sisters. Only this time it’s all Kane. Aviary: Act 1 is a stunning debut, and the good news is Aviary: Act 2 is out in Feb ...
Rival & Co Records
Nashville based Ghanaian Ruby Amanfu’s voice has the Randy Crawford’s about it, quivering and soulful. Not that she’s particularly well known to soulheds, having enjoyed more of her success in the pop-rock realm - featuring on the duet Love Interruption with the White Stripes’ Jack White a few years back. There is a bit of soul pedigree at the beginning of the bio, having once worked with reluctant soul hero Tommy Sims, though it’s hardly mentioned in the Country music press that have been going cow-shit crazy over her latest project and covers album Standing Still. Recorded in a log cabin in the serene n’ green setting of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee; Ruby and the band (featuring crack session musicians from the Nashville scene) sorted out the Feng Shui first, by putting out the furniture and lighting a few incense candles – swiftly working through a carefully curated selection of covers, inc. songs by Bob Dylan, Brandi Carlie & Texan troubadour Jimmie Dale Gilmore, all designed to appeal to the target audience; straw hat wearing readers of Rolling Stone & Country Weekly.
So what the fudge is it doing at number 3 on our soul/funk list here? Well, despite the clientele there are couple of credible soul cuts. Ruby revisits the Irma Thomas song Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) with aplomb, but it’s the interpretation of Kanye West’s Streetlights that really blows the bloody doors off. Its pedal steel guitar and Wurlitzer backing hit the bullseye precisely, with Amanfu’s vocal rendition rating alongside the last-order laments of Dorothy Moore’s Misty Blue & Gladys Knight singing “Take the ribbon from my hair” on Help Me Make It Through The Night. It also manages to transform one of Kanye West’s most unbearable, autotuned moments from 808 & Heartbreaks into a modern-day classic. Done this well, you wish more artists like Ruby would interpret the contemporary material of their peers and make them their bitch. Just like Aretha, Otis & Donny used to.
“Vega (Stripes On)”
The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
In 2004 it was still the D’Angelo era. We were all expecting his follow up to Voodoo to drop that year – the same four year wait that followed Brown Sugar. But then ATL outlaw Van Hunt rode into town, the new young funkslinger packing soul, ready to make a name for himself. But little did he, or we, know that D would skip town, to a self-imposed exile for further 10 years, leaving a solitary Van Hunt to shoot fish in a barrel as the last cat standing. Only four months after D’Angelo finally released his 3rd studio set Black Messiah, Van was presenting his 5th record The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets. Whilst Mark Ronson’s LazyTown Funk was burning up the pre-watershed airwaves, Van Hunt had presented arguably his finest work. Certainly the fonkiest, with the outstanding Vega sounding like In Time by Sly & The Family Stone with spurs on, dusted off n’ re-worked with new topline and jook joint atmospherics. Equally as good but for different reasons we're the slop anthem Emotional Criminal, purple electro She Stays With Me, the Sunday church after-sermon jam Teach Me A New Language and the string blessed Headroom.
“Change Of The Guard”
To the soul fan - as opposed to the music-by-numbers scholar - as soon as you hit play on the opening cut Change Of The Guard from 3CD box set The Epic, the instantly recognizable influence that blows from the speakers is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Almost like Eli Fontaine, the original tenor saxophonist on What’s Going On - a local session player from the Detroit area who famously “goofed exquisitely” to Marvin’s liking on the title track – was allowed to go off and make the instrumental suite of his (and our) dreams, scoring a 34 piece orchestra and contracting the Andantes backing vocalists to increase their ranks, creating the celestial choir to fly to the friendly sky. The reality though, was this album had been created by a 34 year old dude from Los Angeles, as likely to turn up on a Funk jam or Hip Hop session as he was an instrumental track. That diversity is alluded to by the fusion of pet sounds laced throughout, proving more than just a Mercy Mercy Me knock off (as you’d expect from a project seventeen cuts strong). Featuring the aforementioned Thundercat, and released via Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label, Change Of The Guard is a love supreme, touched by God. A gospeldelic masterpiece that signals a new-woke order.
“Don’t Wanna Fight”
Sound & Color
Brittany Howard sounds like Solomon Burke’s (twin) sista-frum-anutha-mutha in a hijacked slop band. In the rock section on iTunes, you can't tell me a black music classic such as Don't Wanna Fight isn’t soul, isn’t slop and isn’t monstrously funky. Plus there’s also the deep soul ballad Gimme All Your Love to contend with, its tempo shift too unconventional for the safe, cappuccino soulies who wouldn’t want a woman like Brittany rubbing up against cuddly bear Gregory Porter on their Habitat coffee table. Don’t even try and hip them to the technicolour blues of Dunes either, they won’t get it - a fuckin' brilliant funky soul album.
Invite The Light
“I wanted to get Invite The Light out before,” Dám Funk told me back in September 2013, “but there were creative aspects too. I had to stand my ground, but no man is an island and when you make a record for someone else’s label you do have to respect their vision of what’s going on. Making a 15 minute porno soundtrack is not cool you know? But for a while I went middle finger this! But it’s all come full circle, I’ve done the Snoopzilla & Steve Arrington records and now I’m looking forward...” And it was worth the wait. Released two years after that conversation, Invite The Light features - alongside Dám’s newly minted lead vocals (and I’m speculating here, but possibly the reason for the delay?) - Q-Tip, Snoop, Joi & Junie Morrison. Songs like We Continue & HowUGonFu*kAroundAndChoosABusta should ensure that Dám Funk gets a radio playlist promotion in Grand Theft Auto VI, from Worldwide FM to classic funk channel Space 103.2.
“Feet On The Ground”
MEAGHAN MAPLES (C)
Meaghan’s last tweet read:
“i deleted 368 pictures off my iPhone today that was 368 hard life choices made everyone leave me alone ok thanks BYE.”
Don’t click on the website either (www.meaghanmaples.com ), the URL has expired. Yet, in particular, the song Feet On The Ground (only released in May 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign) is outstanding. Sing along melody, patient build up and feel good dance soul, with a commanding vocal. Think Debórah Bond, Jhelisa Anderson or Lewis Taylor, i.e. sheer brilliance. So, I hope Meaghan hasn’t given up, because she’s far too talented. And of course, her recording made this list, which is pretty great huh?
The Jack Moves
“All At Once”
The Jack Moves
Wax Poetics Records
Bittersweet and melancholy falsetto soul. More the Moments than Stylistics - like The Jack Moves have returned from a stint in Vietnam to find that Jody’s been pimping out the mother of their child, and (they suspect) is probably still humping her whilst they’re made to go up on stage wearing a ridiculous cravat and bow tie - this hipster New Jersey duo are right in the corduroy pocket, hitting the 70’s suite spot with expertise.
Kendrick Lamar feat George Clinton & Thundercat
To Pimp A Butterfly
With the nous to corral rising virtuoso’s like the aforementioned Thundercat & Kamasi Washington (before we were all wowed by their latest solo projects), To Pimp A Butterfly transcends the Hip Hop genre whilst remaining uncompromisingly black in origin, seemingly made without concern for crossover acceptance. The mainstream know a sure thing when they hear it (on repeat, on every station) though - hell even Ellen DeGeneres dug it. Full of funk & big band references– e.g. the excellent, swingin’ interlude For Free, like Lightnin’ Rod in full flow – Lamar’s message and delivery is savvy enough to avoid the self-righteous preaching of the conscious-rap bores. Subverting Hip Hop, like Frank Ocean did with R&B, to the point where his targets would rhyme along on the one, in blissful musical oblivion. Sure, the two most heralded cuts King Kunta (a do-over of Down, Down, Down by DJ Quik) and (the DJ Spinna like) These Walls do sound familiar, but opening funk cut Wesley’s Theory, is as fresh a P-Funk creation as you'll hear this side of Outkast. Given a leg up by George Clinton, produced by Ron ‘Flippa’ Colson, Sounwave, Flying Lotus & Thundercat, it’s got Fly-Lo and that bloke again. At the risk of sounding all Mugatu: “Thundercat is so hot right now.”
Also blaring out of the windows of the SJ Mobile in 2015, cranked up and played repeatedly: