Larkin Arnold, former CBS Records (Sony Music) senior executive VP, convinced Marvin Gaye to leave his flat in Belgium and sign with Columbia Records; the result would become the soul singer's last album before his untimely death. Of all his number one songs, this album's first release, "Sexual Healing," became his longest running number one single on the Billboard R&B charts (ten straight weeks). With the exception of the guitar, the Washington, D.C. native performed every instrument on this classic hit. Gaye concocted a pioneering percussive sound that was balladic in taste but stimulating in feel. As this project may not be an absolute erotic expression or a socially challenging plea from Gaye like on some of his previous albums, nonetheless, Midnight Love is a classic Marvin Gaye effort. In addition to this project thriving with Gaye's enthusiastic spirit, it has his harmonious background vocals, his stunning vocal arrangements and his creative penmanship, as he wrote all the selections.
Craig Lytle, Rovi
Though Anita Baker got some airplay out of The Songstress, that promising solo debut didn't bring her financial security. In fact, Baker was earning her living as a legal secretary in her native Detroit when she signed with Elektra in the mid-'80s. Elektra gave her a strong promotional push, and the equally superb Rapture became the megahit that The Songstress should have been. To its credit, Elektra made her a major star by focusing on Baker's strong point -- romantic but gospel-influenced R&B/pop ballads and "slow jams," sometimes with jazz overtones -- and letting her be true to herself. Rapture gave Baker one moving hit after another, including "Sweet Love," "Caught up in the Rapture," "Same Ole Love," and "No One in This World." Praising Baker in a 1986 interview, veteran R&B critic Steve Ivory asserted, "To me, singers like Anita Baker and Frankie Beverly define what R&B or soul music is all about." Indeed, Rapture's tremendous success made it clear that there was still a sizeable market for adult-oriented, more traditional R&B singing.
Alex Henderson, Rovi
Luther Vandross has acquired a reputation for releasing solid, quality albums. Whereas some artists, whether intentional or unintentional, release albums with one or two good songs, Vandross makes every recording count regardless if every song is released. This project falls in line with one superb composition after another. From the alluring arrangements to the striking melodies, every song glitters with a delightful spirit. The New York native did a remarkable job on the medley "Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)." Showing his appreciation for the Carpenters ("Supertar") and Aretha Franklin ("Until You Come Back to Me"), Vandross created a masterpiece with the combination of these two songs. It was a number five single on the Billboard R&B charts. "How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye," a duet with Dionne Warwick, is another work of art by the serenading tenor. It peaked at number seven. With a hurdling groove, "I'll Let You Slide" pranced its way to number five on the Billboard R&B charts. From a supernatural lyric to a suspenseful string arrangement, "Make Me Believer" summed up the four releases cresting at 48. Only three selections remain, and all three could have easily charted. This is a splendid album.
Craig Lytle, Rovi
Released in 1981, Breakin' Away is not only a great follow-up to This Time, it all but perfected the effort. With an amazing batch of songs, producer/artist chemistry, and top-level players, Breakin' Away became the standard bearer of the L.A. pop and R&B sound. "Closer to Your Love" comes off as a tougher, more confident version of the songs from the previous album. However, in short order, Breakin' Away assumes its own identity with brilliant results. Everything works so well here that the hit, the pleasing "We're in This Love Together," comes off as the weak link. "Easy," with its gorgeous and subtle Latin flourishes, has Jarreau's purposeful delivery coming off oddly poignant in its joy and beauty. The bittersweet "My Old Friend" has him giving a charming and understated reading with gorgeous synth signatures that speak volumes. Most of Breakin' Away has Jarreau in great spirits and giving one great performance after another, like the powerful and melody-rich title song. Like his best albums, this gives Jarreau plenty of room to exercise his chops. He struts through the funky and elegant "Roof Garden," and on the impressive "(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo a la Turk" he offers great scats and whimsical lyrics. For the final track, Jarreau brings new life to "Teach Me Tonight" and it has a sweeping, dreamy arrangement. Produced by Jay Graydon, Breakin' Away is a great album and informed a lot of Jarreau's subsequent efforts.
Jason Elias, Rovi
Lionel Richie's solo career began while he was still in the Commodores, as he wrote and sang (as a duet with Diana Ross) the theme to the Brooke Shields romance Endless Love, which became a bigger hit than any of the group's singles, thereby setting the stage for his departure and his 1982 self-titled solo debut. He wasn't working in unfamiliar territory, or with new musicians. The Commodores decided to work as their own band, so their producer, James Anthony Carmichael, was able to devote his energy to working on Richie's album. Using the pop-crossover ballad style of "Endless Love," "Three Times a Lady," and "Easy" as their template, the duo turned Lionel Richie into a sleek, state-of-the-art record that, at its best, provides some irresistible pop pleasures. The key to its success -- and the reason it was scorned by some Commodores fans -- is that Richie doesn't even make a pretense of funk here, leaving behind the loose, elastic grooves of his previous bands (a move that makes sense, since his voice never suited that style particularly well), choosing to concentrate on ballads and sparkly mid-tempo pop, peppered with a few stylish dance grooves. The ballads, of course, provided two big hits with "My Love" and "Truly," two numbers that illustrate that he was moving ever-closer to mainstream pop, since these are unapologetic AOR slow-dance tunes. The other big hit, "You Are," is an effervescent, wonderful pop tune that showcases Richie at his sunniest; it's one of his greatest singles. Throughout the first part of the record, the dance numbers are served up and they're very good -- "Serves You Right" has a shiny, propulsive groove, while "Tell Me" jams nicely. After "You Are," the record bogs down with a couple of ballads that are on the wrong side of adult contemporary -- too formless, too hookless to really catch hold -- but they don't hurt the first seven songs, which form a dynamic mainstream pop-soul record, one of the best the early '80s had to offer. It's the sound of Lionel Richie finding his solo voice, and, the next time out, he knew how to use it even better than he does here. [The 2003 reissue of Lionel Richie includes two bonus tracks: a solo demo of "Endless Love" which not only fits perfectly with this record, but is less cloying, and an instrumental of "You Are" whose primary worth is to hear the detail and expertise in the production Richie and Carmichael assembled.]
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
As the lead singer of the Doobie Brothers from 1975-1980, Michael McDonald's soulful voice and skilled writing gave the group classics like "Minute by Minute," "Real Love," and the perfect "What a Fool Believes." After the group's 1980 album One Step Closer displayed a tension that was almost audible, it was no surprise that a split was in the works. 1982's If That's What It Takes is McDonald's first solo effort, and was recorded at the great recording studios like Warner Bros. and Sunset Sound and was co-produced by Ted Templeman and Lenny Waronker. The album's biggest hit, the moody and sleek "I Keep Forgettin'," continues McDonald's unflinching look at heartbreak, and it is more R&B-influenced than the previous Doobie Brothers work. The buoyant "I Gotta Try," co-written by Kenny Loggins, perfectly captures the early-'80s L.A. pop sound. While McDonald's pop acumen is no surprise, If That's What It Takes also offers McDonald the chance to do ballads. The poignant and spare "I Can Let Go Now" has some of his best lyrics. "Losin End," which first appeared on 1976's Takin' It to the Streets, gets recast as an even bleaker rumination with a suitably sorrowful solo from Tom Scott. The melodically complex "Believe in It" has McDonald doing some great, offhanded gospel-tinged vocals. This debut juggles tracks of merit and those of less distinction, but the bright spots make this essential.
Jason Elias, Rovi
Bobby Caldwell is one of only a handful of white vocalists (Van Morrison and Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, to name a couple more) who legitimately transcended the blue-eyed soul tag. Caldwell's genuine mix of R&B and jazz signatures as well as his bittersweet yet buttery vocal tones conjure up images of a smoothed-out version of Chet Baker. On this, his breakthrough album, the native New Yorker scored a hit with the timeless "What You Won't Do for Love" and also polished off another near-classic on "My Flame." While a few of the compositions echo the dying grip of disco and some of Caldwell's vocal arrangements sound more like a hipper version of Tony Bennett ("Can't Say Goodbye"), the crooner does possess the pipes to carry the offering. Caldwell even tries his hand at the experimental on the short but sweet instrumental "Kalimba Song." Time will likely render much of Bobby Caldwell disposable, but at the album's best, the songs do carry a singular sound and contain the power to place themselves in a time period, which may just be good enough for lovers. The cut "What You Won't Do for Love" will always stack up, as even hip-hop producers saw fit to sample the horn riff and bass track a number of times (listen to 2Pac's "Do for Love," for one).
M.F. DiBella, Rovi
At only ten tracks, Greatest Hits is a little brief and doesn't contain much of his earliest material, but it remains a first-rate compilation of Bill Withers' prime hits, featuring "Use Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)," and "Just the Two of Us." The latter-day Legacy compilation is a bit more thorough, but this remains a good basic overview.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi