Black History Month: Civil Rights & Social Consciousness

What's Going On

Marvin Gaye

Rebel Without A Pause

Public Enemy

Legend (Remastered)

Bob Marley & The Wailers

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

People Get Ready (Single Version)

The Impressions

Young, Gifted And Black

Aretha Franklin

Curtis

Curtis Mayfield
The first solo album by the former leader of the Impressions, Curtis represented a musical apotheosis for Curtis Mayfield -- indeed, it was practically the "Sgt. Pepper's" album of '70s soul, helping with its content and its success to open the whole genre to much bigger, richer musical canvases than artists had previously worked with. All of Mayfield's years of experience of life, music, and people were pulled together into a rich, powerful, topical musical statement that reflected not only the most up-to-date soul sounds of its period, finely produced by Mayfield himself, and the immediacy of the times and their political and social concerns, but also embraced the most elegant R&B sounds out of the past. As a producer, Mayfield embraced the most progressive soul sounds of the era, stretching them out compellingly on numbers like "Move on Up," but also drew on orchestral sounds (especially harps), to achieve some striking musical timbres (check out "Wild and Free"), and wove all of these influences, plus the topical nature of the songs, into a neat, amazingly lean whole. There was only one hit single off of this record, "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Down Below We're All Going to Go," which made number three, but the album as a whole was a single entity and really had to be heard that way. In the fall of 2000, Rhino Records reissued Curtis with upgraded sound and nine bonus tracks that extended its running time to over 70 minutes. All but one are demos, including "Miss Black America" and "The Making of You," but mostly consist of tracks that he completed for subsequent albums; they're fascinating to hear, representing very different, much more jagged and stripped-down sounds. The upgraded CD concludes with the single version of "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go."

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Things Fall Apart

The Roots
One of the cornerstone albums of alternative rap's second wave, Things Fall Apart was the point where the Roots' tremendous potential finally coalesced into a structured album that maintained its focus from top to bottom. If the group sacrifices a little of the unpredictability of its jam sessions, the resulting consistency more than makes up for it, since the record flows from track to track so effortlessly. Taking its title from the Chinua Achebe novel credited with revitalizing African fiction, Things Fall Apart announces its ambition right upfront, and reinforces it in the opening sound collage. Dialogue sampled from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues implies a comparison to abstract modern jazz that lost its audience, and there's another quote about hip-hop records being treated as disposable, that they aren't maximized as product or as art. That's the framework in which the album operates, and while there's a definite unity counteracting the second observation, the artistic ambition actually helped gain the Roots a whole new audience ("coffeehouse chicks and white dudes," as Common puts it in the liner notes). The backing tracks are jazzy and reflective, filled with subtly unpredictable instrumental lines, and the band also shows a strong affinity for the neo-soul movement, which they actually had a hand in kick-starting via their supporting work on Erykah Badu's Baduizm. Badu returns the favor by guesting on the album's breakthrough single, "You Got Me," an involved love story that also features a rap from Eve, co-writing from Jill Scott, and an unexpected drum'n'bass breakbeat in the outro. Other notables include Mos Def on the playful old-school rhymefest "Double Trouble," Slum Village superproducer Jay Dee on "Dynamite!," and Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff on "The Next Movement." But the real stars are Black Thought and Malik B, who drop such consistently nimble rhymes throughout the record that picking highlights is extremely difficult. Along with works by Lauryn Hill, Common, and Black Star, Things Fall Apart is essential listening for anyone interested in the new breed of mainstream conscious rap. [Things Fall Apart, Rovi

Message From A Black Man (Stereo)

The Temptations

What's Going On

Marvin Gaye
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). Jamerson'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. [This 2002 edition of What's Going On includes the B-side versions of "God Is Love" and "Sad Tomorrows" as bonus tracks.]

John Bush, Rovi

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Public Enemy
Yo! Bum Rush the Show was an invigorating record, but it looks like child's play compared to its monumental sequel, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a record that rewrote the rules of what hip-hop could do. That's not to say the album is without precedent, since what's particularly ingenious about the album is how it reconfigures things that came before into a startling, fresh, modern sound. Public Enemy used the template Run-D.M.C. created of a rap crew as a rock band, then brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via their producing team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before. This coincided with a breakthrough in Chuck D's writing, both in his themes and lyrics. It's not that Chuck D was smarter or more ambitious than his contemporaries -- certainly, KRS-One tackled many similar sociopolitical tracts, while Rakim had a greater flow -- but he marshaled considerable revolutionary force, clear vision, and a boundless vocabulary to create galvanizing, logical arguments that were undeniable in their strength. They only gained strength from Flavor Flav's frenzied jokes, which provided a needed contrast. What's amazing is how the words and music become intertwined, gaining strength from each other. Though this music is certainly a representation of its time, it hasn't dated at all. It set a standard that few could touch then, and even fewer have attempted to meet since.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Sam Cooke
Although it isn't as sublime as the definitive The Man and His Music, Greatest Hits still does a good job of rounding up the majority of Sam Cooke's biggest pop hits. Ironically, it doesn't have enough gospel or R&B cuts, skipping over such essentials as "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Ain't That Good News," and "A Change Is Gonna Come" in favor of such pop hits as "Sugar Dumpling." However, it has just enough songs that aren't on The Man and His Music to make it worth exploring for fans who haven't been able to hear some of this material before, since some of these songs have been out of print for years. Nevertheless, it's targeted for the curious and the novice, and even with its omissions, Greatest Hits does provide a reasonably effective overview of his pop career.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Young, Gifted And Black

Aretha Franklin
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, Rovi

Stankonia

OutKast
Stankonia was OutKast's second straight masterstroke, an album just as ambitious, just as all-over-the-map, and even hookier than its predecessor. With producers Organized Noize playing a diminished role, Stankonia reclaims the duo's futuristic bent. Earthtone III (Andre, Big Boi, Mr. DJ) helms most of the backing tracks, and while the live-performance approach is still present, there's more reliance on programmed percussion, otherworldly synthesizers, and surreal sound effects. Yet the results are surprisingly warm and soulful, a trippy sort of techno-psychedelic funk. Every repeat listen seems to uncover some new element in the mix, but most of the songs have such memorable hooks that it's easy to stay diverted. The immediate dividends include two of 2000's best singles: "B.O.B." is the fastest of several tracks built on jittery drum'n'bass rhythms, but Andre and Big Boi keep up with awe-inspiring effortlessness. "Ms. Jackson," meanwhile, is an anguished plea directed at the mother of the mother of an out-of-wedlock child, tinged with regret, bitterness, and affection. Its sensitivity and social awareness are echoed in varying proportions elsewhere, from the Public Enemy-style rant "Gasoline Dreams" to the heartbreaking suicide tale "Toilet Tisha." But the group also returns to its roots for some of the most testosterone-drenched material since their debut. Then again, OutKast doesn't take its posturing too seriously, which is why they can portray women holding their own, or make bizarre boasts about being "So Fresh, So Clean." Given the variety of moods, it helps that the album is broken up by brief, usually humorous interludes, which serve as a sort of reset button. It takes a few listens to pull everything together, but given the immense scope, it's striking how few weak tracks there are. It's no wonder Stankonia consolidated OutKast's status as critics' darlings, and began attracting broad new audiences: its across-the-board appeal and ambition overshadowed nearly every other pop album released in 2000.

Steve Huey, Rovi

The Anthology

A Tribe Called Quest
For those who haven't discovered that A Tribe Called Quest made several of the best LPs in hip-hop history, Anthology is a perfect way to encapsulate the trio's decade-long career into one manageable portion. All of their best and biggest songs are here, from the early neglected joint "Luck of Lucien" to classic jazz-rap from The Low End Theory like "Jazz (We've Got)," and their 45-rpm peak with "Award Tour," all the way to their last big hit, "Find a Way," from 1998's The Love Movement. Yes, anyone who enjoys hip-hop needs to own at least Midnight Marauders and The Low End Theory, but Anthology succeeds in delivering all the highest points from a great hip-hop group's career. The collection also includes the first solo track from Q-Tip, 1999's "Vivrant Thing."

John Bush, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Sly & The Family Stone
Released in 1970 during the stopgap between Stand! and There's a Riot Goin' On, Greatest Hits inadvertently arrived at precisely the right moment, summarizing Sly & the Family Stone's joyous hit-making run on the pop and R&B charts. Technically, only four songs here reached the Top Ten, with only two others hitting the Top 40, but judging this solely on charts is misleading, since this is simply a peerless singles collection. This summarizes their first four albums perfectly (almost all of Stand! outside of the two jams and "Somebody's Watching You" is here), adding the non-LP singles "Hot Fun in the Summertime," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," and "Everybody Is a Star," possibly the loveliest thing they ever recorded. But, this isn't merely a summary (and, if it was just that, Anthology, the early-'80s comp that covers Riot and Fresh would be stronger than this), it's one of the greatest party records of all time. Music is rarely as vivacious, vigorous, and vibrant as this, and captured on one album, the spirit, sound, and songs of Sly & the Family Stone are all the more stunning. Greatest hits don't come better than this -- in fact, music rarely does.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

I Have A Dream

Various Artists

Oh Yeah (Deluxe)

Charles Mingus
After several sessions with Columbia and Candid, Charles Mingus briefly returned to Atlantic and cut the freewheeling Oh Yeah, which has to rank as the wildest of all his classic albums. Mingus plays no bass whatsoever, hiring Doug Watkins to fill in while he accompanies the group on piano and contributes bluesy vocals to several tracks (while shouting encouragement on nearly all of them). Mingus had always had a bizarre sense of humor, as expressed in some of his song titles and arranging devices, but Oh Yeah often gets downright warped. That's partly because Mingus is freed up to vocalize more often, but it's also due to the presence of mad genius Roland Kirk. His chemistry with Mingus is fantastically explosive, which makes sense -- both were encyclopedias of jazz tradition, but given over to oddball modernist experimentation. It's a shame Kirk only spent three months with the band, because his solo interpretations are such symbiotic reflections of Mingus' intent as a composer. Look no further than "Hog Callin' Blues," a stomping "Haitian Fight Song" descendant where Kirk honks and roars the blues like a man possessed. Mingus' vocal selections radiate the same dementia, whether it's the stream-of-consciousness blues couplets on "Devil Woman," the dark-humored modern-day spiritual "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me," or the dadaist stride piano bounce of "Eat That Chicken," a nod to Fats Waller's comic novelties. Elsewhere, "Passions of a Man" sounds almost like musique concrète, while "Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am" nicks some Monk angularity and "Ecclusiastics" adds some testifying shouts and a chorale-like theme to Mingus' gospel-jazz hybrid. Oh Yeah is probably the most offbeat Mingus album ever, and that's what makes it so vital. [The deluxe CD reissue adds three bonus tracks from the session, first released on Tonight at Noon.]

Steve Huey, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Earth, Wind & Fire
Columbia's 1998 collection of Earth, Wind & Fire's Greatest Hits in many ways stands as the group's definitive compilation. Even though there have been more extensive overviews of the group's work, such as the triple-disc set The Eternal Dance, this is the first collection to contain all of the group's biggest hits on one disc. All but one ("Love Music") of the ten songs from 1978's The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire are included, while six of the ten songs from The Best Of, Vol. 2 are featured; the remaining two cuts on the 17-track collection are the minor early single "Kalimba Story" and the album cut "Gratitude." These are fine additions to the album, but the true meat of the collection lies in the hits -- "Shining Star," "That's the Way of the World," "Sing a Song," "Getaway," "Got to Get You Into My Life," "September," "Boogie Wonderland," "After the Love Has Gone," "Let's Groove," and so many others. They might not be presented in chronological order (the only flaw in this otherwise flawless collection), but it's a sheer delight to have all of the hits on one terrifically entertaining and valuable disc.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Discoveries

The Temptations
Another in Motown's digital download series, this volume, called Discoveries, collects a rather random assortment of seldom-heard tracks from the Temptations' impressive and varied portfolio, including the group's version of Edwin Starr's "War," the brilliant "Shakey Ground," and the late-era "Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On," among others, making this a nice glimpse at how deep the the Temptations' versatile catalog actually is.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite

Maxwell
As refreshing today as it was upon its 1996 release, Maxwell's debut set off his career on a high note he's yet to surpass. Wispy vocals groove seamlessly over polished production, tracking a relationship from beginning to end. Bedroom favorites "Sumthin' Sumthin'," "Whenever Wherever Whatever," "...Til The Cops Come Knockin'" and the splendid midtempo "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" set a sophisticated mood. Laying the groundwork for the neo soul movement, Urban Hang Suite's expansive, mellow sound nods to '70s soul, pop and smooth jazz while imprinting its own sexy stamp on the musical landscape.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Distant Relatives

Nas

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

Black Star

20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best Of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

Curtis Mayfield
The Millennium Collection: The Best of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions collects some of the best songs Mayfield recorded with the Impressions and on his own, including "Gypsy Woman," "People Get Ready," "Freddie's Dead," "Superfly," "Woman's Got Soul," and "Choice of Colors." Though a thorough look at Mayfield's talents and innovations is beyond the scope of this album, The Millennium Collection does provide enough of his definitive tracks to make it a worthwhile overview of his work.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Rebel Music

Bob Marley & The Wailers

Unforgivable Blackness - The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Wynton Marsalis
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' soundtrack to Ken Burns' documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is a compelling and rootsy mix of blues and swing. Having worked with Burns on the PBS "Jazz" series, Marsalis' Unforgivable Blackness soundtrack seems like a natural progression of a fruitful partnership. Not dissimilar to such past Marsalis projects as the Jelly Roll Morton album Mr. Jelly Lord, the album features Marsalis in various small-group settings along with such longtime Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra regulars as drummer Herlin Riley, pianist Eric Lewis, saxophonist Wessell Anderson, bassist Reginald Veal, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, and others, including guitarist Doug Wamble, who adds his unique blend of old-time blues, folk, and jazz to Marsalis' own signature updating of '20s and '30s jazz. Although four previously released tracks appear here, two off Standard Time, Vol. 6: Mr. Jelly Lord and two from Marsalis' Reeltime, the majority of the album is newly recorded and all of it sounds of a piece. Ironically, Marsalis' deepest musical influence and aesthetic nemesis, trumpeter Miles Davis, also recorded an album for a film about the troubled boxing champ Johnson, 1970's fusion classic Tribute to Jack Johnson. However, where Davis' album seemed to reflect the counterculture and Black Power movements of the time, Marsalis is more traditionally cinematic in his approach, with each track evoking the pride, urbanity, strength, and tragedy of the legendary Johnson.

Matt Collar, Rovi

Like Water For Chocolate

Common
Common spent the '90s carrying the Native Tongues torch through an era dominated by gangsta rap, earning a sizable underground following. Positive-minded alternative rap came back into vogue by the new millennium, and Common managed to land with major label MCA for 2000's Like Water for Chocolate. The album established him as a leading figure of alternative rap's second generation, not just because of the best promotion he'd ever had, but also because it was his great musical leap forward, building on the strides of One Day It'll All Make Sense. There's production work by the Roots' ?uestlove, neo-soul auteur D'Angelo, the Soulquarians, and DJ Premier. But the vast majority of the album was handled by Slum Village's Jay Dee, and his thick, mellow, soul- and jazz-inflected sonics make Like Water for Chocolate one of the richest-sounding albums of the new underground movement. Common isn't always a master technician on the mic, but it hardly matters when the music serves his deeply spiritual vision and smooth-flowing raps so effectively. The singles "The Light" and "The 6th Sense" are quintessential Common, uplifting and thoughtful, and helped bring him a whole new audience. They're well complemented by the slinky, jazzy funk and lush neo-soul ballads that make up the record. Not everything is sweetness and utopia, either; Common sends up his own progressive image on "A Film Called (Pimp)," which features a hilarious guest appearance by MC Lyte, and spins a gripping first-person tale of revenge on the streets on "Payback Is a Grandmother" (though the tougher "Dooinit" feels a bit forced). The album could have been trimmed a bit to keep its momentum going, but on the whole, Like Water for Chocolate is a major statement from an artist whose true importance was just coming into focus.

Steve Huey, Rovi

People... Hold On

Eddie Kendricks
For his second outing People...Hold On (1972), former Temptations leader Eddie Kendricks expanded his horizons, dabbling with communally conscious soul and making initial forays into dance music that would predate disco. As he had done for Kendricks solo debut All by Myself (1971), producer Frank Wilson contributes several tunes. Among them is "If You Let Me" that kicks off the disc with a bright groove, custom-made for the vocalists' sanguine lead. Things get downright funky on the sanctified "Let Me Run into Your Lonely Heart." The mercurial beat is bathed in distortion and wah-wah guitar that trades back and forth with a syncopated clavinet. All the while, Kendricks shows off his range-free tenor as he effortlessly vacillates in and out of his trademark overdrive falsetto. The sacred influence of "Day by Day" is underscored by some stellar keyboard with organ and piano runs that could just as easily have been heard in a Sunday morning prayer meeting.

The nearly eight-minute "Girl You Need a Change of Mind" is nothing short of an epic precursor to the extended four-on-the-floor numbers that would soon be christened as "disco." In addition to providing an above average R&B groove, Kendricks' new band -- the Washington D.C.-based Young Senators -- are joined by the unmistakable touch of Eddie "Bongo" Brown's rhythmically limber congas. The record buying and radio listening public obviously agreed as the song was edited and issued on a 45 rpm that made it to the Top 15 R&B Singles survey. Returning to the project's thematic motif, "Someday We'll Have a Better World" is a midtempo optimistic number with a plea for a more peaceful co-existence. It even goes so far as to directly reference the violence -- presumably domestic as well as in Vietnam -- when Kendricks pleads for a time when "...we won't have to destroy each other" and "men can lay down their guns." The project's title composition "My People...Hold On" is stunning on a completely different level as the artist reconnects with his musical heritage with a languid and methodical bed over which Kendricks raps, practically begging for sanity within the socially troubled African-American community.

Lindsay Planer, Rovi

Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama

Various Artists

Spirit Of The Century

The Blind Boys Of Alabama
From start to finish this album defies categorical classification. It employs the best of R&B, Afro-beat, folk, and blues while remaining true to the Blind Boys' gospel roots. And with a tasteful selection of material by Tom Waits, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Ben Harper, in addition to their usual array of traditional gospel hymns and folk tunes, it will appeal to generations of listeners. Though varied in its stylings, the album works as a whole due to the high-quality production, arrangements, and musicianship throughout. The traditional "No More," in a slow and soulful arrangement, starts off with a plaintive slide guitar sampling of "Amazing Grace" and sits comfortably beside "Run for a Long Time," which features George Scott rapping over a percussive, groove-filled (à la Danny Thompson on double bass) and harmony- laden reworking of this classic. And the Stones' "Just Wanna See His Face," which is given a jubilee-like treatment that rivals the original, follows up a somber "Motherless Child" with grace and acuity. Other guests include Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, John Hammond on guitar and Dobro, and David Lindley on oud and electric slide.

Travis Drageset, Rovi

Attica Blues

Archie Shepp
Refining his large-ensemble experiments of 1971, Attica Blues is one of Archie Shepp's most significant post-'60s statements, recorded just several months after authorities ended the Attica prison uprising by massacring 43 inmates and hostages. Perhaps because Shepp's musical interests were changing, Attica Blues isn't the all-out blast of rage one might expect; instead, it's a richly arranged album of mournful, quietly agonized blues and Ellingtonian swing, mixed with a couple of storming funk burners. Of course, Shepp doesn't quite play it straight, bringing his avant-garde sensibilities to both vintage big band and contemporary funk, with little regard for the boundaries separating them all. His soloing on tenor and soprano is typically sharp-edged and modal, and his nasal, slicing tone on soprano is featured quite heavily. The stylishness of the slow numbers is undercut with quivering, faintly unsettling dissonances, and the up-tempo funk cuts recall the way Sly Stone's arrangements ping-ponged many different elements off each other in a gleeful organized chaos. That's especially true on the gospel-inflected title song, a monster of a groove that later became a hit on the acid jazz revival circuit (and stands up to anything recorded by straight-up funk bands of the era). In the same vein, "Blues for Brother George Jackson" sounds like an edgier Isaac Hayes-style blaxploitation soundtrack cut. Vocal ballads are plentiful, and Joe Lee Wilson ("Steam," a song Shepp would return to often) and Carl Hall (aka Henry Hull) both acquit themselves well; more debatable are the poetic recitations and the choice of flügelhornist/composer Cal Massey's young daughter Waheeda to sing "Quiet Dawn" (although Waheeda's almost-there intonation "is" effectively creepy). Still, in the end, Attica Blues is one of Shepp's most successful large-group projects, because his skillful handling of so many different styles of black music produces such tremendously groovy results.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Return Of The Boom Bap

KRS-One
The reputation of Boogie Down Productions leader KRS-One began to slip in the early '90s as he spent more time educating than performing. He hit back at his critics with the slamming Return of the Boom Bap, his first official solo release. Leaving behind the detailed production of the last BDP album, Sex and Violence, Boom Bap returns the MC to the spare, gritty territory of Criminal Minded. KRS-One sounds reinvigorated, as well, spitting out his rhymes with fury and intelligence. Although the record isn't as didactic as Edutainment or Sex and Violence, KRS-One hasn't made his lyrics simplistic, nor has he abandoned his cutting, intelligent social commentary. The combination of hard, basic beats and exciting rhymes makes Return of the Boom Bap a genuine comeback for KRS-One, one of the founding figures of modern hip-hop.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Donny Hathaway

Donny Hathaway
With just one exception, Donny Hathaway's second full-length is a covers album, featuring one of the most pop-averse artists in soul music surprisingly offering interpretations of contemporary hit material like "A Song for You," "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," "Magnificent Sanctuary Band," and (most effectively) "Put Your Hand in the Hand," a laidback yet rolling, gospel-choir version of the song he was born to sing. In striking contrast to his debut, Donny Hathaway is a very dark record, and it opens on a particularly low note, with "Giving Up" (a 1964 R&B hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips). Most of Hathaway's performances are slow, piano-led laments, powerfully delivered but with little melodic sway to convert listeners. It's no coincedence then, that the only up-tempo song, "Magnificent Sanctuary Band," is the standout. "Little Girl" is a nice piece of gospel testifying with great male harmonizing on the chorus, and "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" is a solid rendering of a song usually drenched in pathos. Still, whereas Everything Is Everything saw him leading the choir up in the front of church, Donny Hathaway sounds like the lament of a man alone in the sanctuary after services are finished.

John Bush, Rovi

The Score

The Fugees
A breath of fresh air in the gangsta-dominated mid-'90s, the Fugees' breakthrough album, The Score, marked the beginning of a resurgence in alternative hip-hop. Its left-field, multi-platinum success proved there was a substantial untapped audience with an appreciation for rap music but little interest in thug life. The Score's eclecticism, social consciousness, and pop smarts drew millions of latent hip-hop listeners back into the fold, showing just how much the music had grown up. It not only catapulted the Fugees into stardom, but also launched the productive solo careers of Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, the latter of whom already ranks as one of the top female MCs of all time based on her work here. Not just a collection of individual talents, the Fugees' three MCs all share a crackling chemistry and a wide-ranging taste in music. Their strong fondness for smooth soul and reggae is underscored by the two hit covers given slight hip-hop makeovers (Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry"). Even when they're not relying on easily recognizable tunes, their original material is powered by a raft of indelible hooks, especially the great "Fu-Gee-La"; there are also touches of blues and gospel, and the recognizable samples range from doo wop to Enya. Their protest tracks are often biting, yet tempered with pathos and humanity, whether they're attacking racial profiling among police ("The Beast"), the insecurity behind violent posturing ("Cowboys"), or the inability of many black people in the Western Hemisphere to trace their familial roots ("Family Business"). Yeah, the Chinese restaurant skit is a little dicey, but on the whole, The Score balances intelligence and accessibility with an easy assurance, and ranks as one of the most distinctive hip-hop albums of its era.

Ken Burns Jazz-Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
In conjunction with the release of Ken Burns' ten-part, 19-hour epic PBS documentary Jazz, Columbia issued 22 single-disc compilations devoted to jazz's most significant artists, as well as a five-disc historical summary. Since the individual compilations attempt to present balanced overviews of each artist's career, tracks from multiple labels have thankfully been licensed where appropriate. This volume features many of Duke Ellington's best-known standards, including "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo," "Caravan," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Sophisticated Lady," "Take the 'A' Train," and the later-period comeback hit "Satin Doll." For the sake of unity, Ellington's longer-form works aren't emphasized here, nor are extended live tracks like the legendary 1956 Newport Jazz Festival version of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which revitalized Ellington's career. Instead of undertaking the impossible task of recounting that career over a single disc, Ken Burns Jazz concentrates on the Ellington pieces that are burned the most indelibly into jazz history. As such, it's a very strong, cohesive introduction to one of the largest, richest, and most influential bodies of work in American music.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Long Live The Kane

Big Daddy Kane
Even though he spends a good 90% of the album boasting about his skills and abilities on the microphone, and cutting those of other MCs, Big Daddy Kane consistently proves himself a thrilling artist on his debut album, Long Live the Kane, one of the most appealing creations from the original new school of rap. This debut captures the Big Daddy Kane who rocked the house at hip-hop clubs and verbally cut up any and all comers in the late '80s with his articulate precision and locomotive power -- the Big Daddy Kane who became an underground legend, the Big Daddy Kane who had the sheer verbal facility and razor-clean dexterity to ambush any MC and exhilarate anyone who witnessed or heard him perform. There are missteps here, to be sure -- especially "The Day You're Mine," on which Kane casts himself as a loverman over a stilted drum machine and lackluster, cheesily seductive singing (offering a glimpse of the particular corner into which he would eventually paint himself). But there are also plenty of legitimate early hip-hop classics, none of which have lost an ounce of their power, and all of which serve as reminders of a time and era when hip-hop felt immediate, exciting, fresh, and a little bit dangerous (in the figurative, rather than literal, sense), and when hip-hop spawned commercial tastes of the moment rather than surrendering to them. Although his next album would be nearly the artistic equal of the debut -- and, in many ways, even bettered it -- Big Daddy Kane would never sound as compelling or as fresh as on this first effort.

Stanton Swihart, Rovi

Lookin For A Home

Odetta
Harry Belafonte once wrote of blues singer Odetta: "Few possess the fine understanding of a song's meaning which transforms it from a melody into a dramatic experience." Pete Seeger heard this collection and declared, "I've been waiting for this album for 50 years!" In continuing her tribute to the classics, Odetta turns her legendary vocal talents to the songs of Huddie Ledbetter, better known to blues history as "Leadbelly." Like Odetta herself, Leadbelly was far more than just a blues singer. His repertoire ranged from children's songs to folk ballads, protest songs to work songs, gospel to jazz. Odetta tackles a handful of his classics in her own distinctive style, with moods ranging from melancholy and emotional (the mandolin-enhanced, saloon-flavored "Mother's Blues") to spirited and humorous ("When I Was a Cowboy"). Many of these songs have great historical significance, from the old folk tune "In the Pines" (which features Seth Farber's stellar piano accompaniment) to the Jim Crow protest song "Bourgeois Blues" (given a lively, New Orleans-flavored treatment). Fans of Leadbelly's music will also enjoy the liner notes, which go into detail about the origins of each song.

Jonathan Widran, Rovi

Undun (Explicit Version)

The Roots
The Roots' umpteenth album is titled after a Guess Who song mutilated by countless lounge bands since 1969. It incorporates a Sufjan Stevens recording, mixtape-style, for the purpose of starting a four-part instrumental suite that closes a program lasting only 40 minutes. Based on those details, it would not be irrational to think that the band’s well of inspiration might be dry or tainted. While the well might be slightly tainted, it is full. Undun is based on the life of Redford Stephens, a fictional product of inner-city New York who was born in the mid-‘70s and tragically passed in 1999, the point at which the album begins -- with a quiet EKG flatline. Appearances from MCs Big K.R.I.T., Dice Raw, Phonte, Greg Porn, and Truck North, as well as contributions by singers Aaron Earl Livingston and Bilal, flank principal voice Black Thought, yet this is no hip-hop opera or anything close to a typical concept album. The existential rhymes, seemingly created with a shared vision, avoid outlining specific events and focus on ruminations that are grave and penetrating, as if each vocalist saw elements of himself and those he has known in Redford. What’s more, Undun probably shatters the record for fewest proper nouns on a rap album, with the likes of Hammurabi, Santa Muerte, and Walter Cronkite mentioned rather than the names of those who are physically involved in Stephens’ life. (The album’s app, filled with video clips and interviews with Stephens’ aunt, teachers, and peers, provides much more typical biographical information.) Musically, Undun flows easier and slower than any other Roots album. The backdrops ramp up with slight gradations, from soft collisions of percussion and keys (“Sleep”), to balmy gospel-soul (“Make My”), to Sunday boom-bap (“One Time”). There's a slight drop into sinewy funk (“Kool On”) that leads into a sustained stretch of stern, hunched-shoulder productions, highlighted by the crisply roiling “Lighthouse,” that match the cold realism of the lyrics. The strings in the slightly wistful “I Remember” and completely grim “Tip the Scale” are a setup for the Redford suite, which is nothing like padding. It glides through the movements, involving mournful strings, a violent duel between drummer ?uestlove and guest pianist D.D. Jackson, and a lone death note that fades 37 seconds prior to silence.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina)

Terence Blanchard
When director Spike Lee tapped Terence Blanchard to compose the score for his 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, the agony of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was a story they both knew had to be told from a moral standpoint and with cultural credibility. Capturing the hurricane's sorrowful consequences through music would have to take its final shape more from the attitudes of their minds, the devastation they witnessed, and from the inspiration emanating from the people they would meet during the making of documentary. On A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), Blanchard uses every principle he has mastered as a genius jazz trumpeter to relay the impact of the destruction, the frustration, the sadness and the hope for a future. Full of his beliefs, sustained and elevated by the power of his purpose, Blanchard, accompanied by his quintet and the Northwest Sinfonia (which he conducted and co-orchestrated), delivers a powerful explanation of the emotions surging through them during this devastating experience. Opening with "Ghost of Congo Square," an African beat drenched in Blanchard's articulate trumpeting, handclaps, percussion and the chant "This is the tale of God's will" -- the listener is immediately informed about why things beyond their comprehension will undoubtedly happen. The two-minute trumpet-based "Ghost of Betsy"(about Hurricane Betsy) and the plaintive "Ghost of 1927," a tune reincarnating another flood that ravaged New Orleans and sketched out by saxophonist Brice Winston and drummer Kendrick Scott, complete a trilogy of brief ghost interludes interspersed throughout the recording to imply warnings from the past. Blanchard depicts "Levees" as perpetually in flux: the calm before the storm as captured by the string arrangement; the interlude which decries a breakdown in the security of the Crescent City, shifting, changing, crashing from the strength of thousands of waves, blown by all the winds that passed and losing their old forms in the backwaters of time. His horn registers the aftermath of the destruction -- wailing, grieving and weeping. This song is absolutely amazing. Pianist Aaron Parks plays the unforgettable melody on "Wading Through" "The Water," and mournful "Funeral Dirge" form the remaining nucleus of the material from the documentary. Songs written by four members of Blanchard's quintet serve to offer their own perspective of the tragedy, yet all of the music flows seamlessly to create a brilliant, inspired requiem. The music is potent, tragic, and adept featuring full orchestral plunges and Blanchard's stellar trumpet emerging to involve you the way he's involved. "Dear Mom," Blanchard's heartfelt tribute to his mother who lost her home in the tragedy but thankfully survived with her life, closes the recording. The imagery of sadness and frustration is deeply prevalent but Blanchard builds in accents and hopeful rhythmic nuance to give the listener time to catch his breath, leave behind certain memories, and to realize the promise of a brighter future. The music here will leave you in a melancholy, contemplative mood and definitely in awe of the talented musicians, composers, and arrangers who told A Tale of God's Will. This CD was nominated in 2007 for a Grammy award as Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, and Blanchard's improvisation on "Levees" was nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo.

Paula Edelstein, Rovi

The Renaissance

Q-Tip
When the best rapper/producer in hip-hop history spends almost a decade without a record on the shelves (despite his best efforts), it has to be considered a crime -- if not a tragedy. Difficult to tell, though, is why Q-Tip was bounced to five different labels within six years. He never pronounced himself angry about the situation, saying only that he continued to work, reportedly recording three full albums that were never released. (At least one of those, 2003's Kamaal the Abstract, was a reality, since it was only denied a release after promos were sent out.) His long-awaited return on The Renaissance is no disappointment, offering more of the same understated, aqueous grooves and fluid rapping that the Abstract Poetic has built his peerless career on. Although it has a few more message songs than his dance-heavy debut from 1999 (Amplified), many of these tracks are club grooves painted with the same production touches as ten years earlier; his work is still excellent 20 years after his career began, but he seems less interested in spinning four minutes of fluent rap for each track. (Granted, he's carrying this show alone, with no Phife Dawg to take every other verse.) Some of the songs are built with a live group (including guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel), although they usually sound programmed. One thing is for sure: Q-Tip is still a master of pacing and atmosphere, structuring the first half of the record so smoothly that listeners may not notice a transition until the sixth track, "We Fight/We Love," which contrasts the perspective of a man in the middle of war with a woman left alone. The closer, "Shaka," got the most attention leading up to release, since an early version sampled Barack Obama (perhaps coincidentally, The Renaissance was originally scheduled to be released on Election Day). Sounding like a latter-day Midnight Marauders and The Love Movement, and very similar to the unreleased Kamaal the Abstract, The Renaissance is a worthy comeback for the man who's arguably done more to make hip-hop enjoyable than any other figure.

John Bush, Rovi

Illmatic

Nas
Often cited as one of the best hip-hop albums of the '90s, Illmatic is the undisputed classic upon which Nas' reputation rests. It helped spearhead the artistic renaissance of New York hip-hop in the post-Chronic era, leading a return to street aesthetics. Yet even if Illmatic marks the beginning of a shift away from Native Tongues-inspired alternative rap, it's strongly rooted in that sensibility. For one, Nas employs some of the most sophisticated jazz-rap producers around: Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Professor, who underpin their intricate loops with appropriately tough beats. But more importantly, Nas takes his place as one of hip-hop's greatest street poets -- his rhymes are highly literate, his raps superbly fluid regardless of the size of his vocabulary. He's able to evoke the bleak reality of ghetto life without losing hope or forgetting the good times, which become all the more precious when any day could be your last. As a narrator, he doesn't get too caught up in the darker side of life -- he's simply describing what he sees in the world around him, and trying to live it up while he can. He's thoughtful but ambitious, announcing on "N.Y. State of Mind" that "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death," and that he's "out for dead presidents to represent me" on "The World Is Yours." Elsewhere, he flexes his storytelling muscles on the classic cuts "Life's a Bitch" and "One Love," the latter a detailed report to a close friend in prison about how allegiances within their group have shifted. Hip-hop fans accustomed to 73-minute opuses sometimes complain about Illmatic's brevity, but even if it leaves you wanting more, it's also one of the few '90s rap albums with absolutely no wasted space. Illmatic is a great lyricist, in top form, meeting great production, and it remains a perennial favorite among serious hip-hop fans.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Deeds, Not Words

Max Roach
This CD reissue of a Max Roach Riverside date is notable for featuring the great young trumpeter Booker Little and for utilizing Ray Draper's tuba as a melody instrument; tenor saxophonist George Coleman and bassist Art Davis complete the excellent quintet. Highlights include "It's You or No One," "You Stepped out of a Dream" and Roach's unaccompanied drum piece "Conversation." This is fine music from a group that was trying to stretch themselves beyond hard bop.

Scott Yanow, Rovi

Be

Common
Electric Circus cost and won Common some fans. It was very exploratory, especially so for a rap album released in 2002, containing developments -- some of which soared, some of which sank -- that few longtime followers could have foreseen. Listeners either felt Common was picking up fresh, new inspirations, or that he was just being distracted by a whole lot of ill-fitting nonsense. With Be, it seems the MC has realized that not every album that's sprawling and eclectic is as good as Electric Ladyland or Songs in the Key of Life. More notably, he might've been struck with the fact that a high percentage of excellent albums are around 40 minutes in length and are built on a unified sound. Be is "highly" concentrated, containing 11 songs and involving two producers and a small number of guests. It's a 180 degree turn from Electric Circus, and in a bizarre way it's both a progression and a back-to-basics move. Kanye West and Dilla are key to the album's steadiness, rooting the sound in '70s soul and soul-jazz. That's no shakeup, but the two producers deserve some form of award for stringing together a consistent sequence of productions that is never monotonous, dull, or all that flashy. Even lead single "The Corner," heard well before Be's release, falls into the fabric of the album on first listen, as if that were where it belonged all along. Lyrically, Common comes back down to Earth -- the narratives are sharp as ever, the gripes are more like observations than screeds, and the eccentricities need to be teased out rather than swatted away. Be isn't likely to be referred to by anyone as groundbreaking, but it's one of Common's best, and it's also one of the most tightly constructed albums of any form within recent memory. [Some early copies of the album came with a bonus DVD containing over 40 minutes of material.]

Andy Kellman, Rovi

Oh Happy Day

Various Artists
In May 1969, the Edwin Hawkins Singers' original gospel song "Oh Happy Day" peaked in the Top Five of the Billboard Hot 100, heralding a post-'60s trend of religiosity in popular culture that included a "Jesus" movement, other spiritually oriented hits like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "My Sweet Lord," and the musicals/rock operas Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. Four decades later, just in time for Easter 2009, the gospel division of EMI teams up with the gospel label Vector Records to release Oh Happy Day, a collection of pop songs with spiritual roots, newly recorded by pop stars backed by gospel choirs. Thus, 3 Doors Down are joined by Soul Children of Chicago on "Presence of the Lord," the Blind Faith song that also dates to 1969; Robert Randolph teams with the Clark Sisters on Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground"; and Aaron Neville fronts the Mt. Zion Mass Choir on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Another wave of popular religious feeling may not be in the offing as a result, but there are some terrific performances on the disc, notably Michael McDonald and the West Angeles Church of God in Christ Mass Choir's reading of McDonald's new original, "Storm Before the Calm," and Angélique Kidjo's Africanized version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." (Upon release, the album was available exclusively at Walmart.)

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Live In Montreux 1980

Marvin Gaye

From The Plantation To The Penitentiary

Wynton Marsalis
On "Where Y'all At?," the last track off trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' 2007 studio album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, Marsalis delivers a spoken word tirade against everything from the demise of socially conscious hip-hop and misguided politicians to America's commercial and capitalist culture. He asks, "All you '60s radicals and world beaters, righteous revolutionaries, Camus readers, liberal students, equal rights pleaders, what's going on now that y'all are the leaders?!" It's a stunning track that perfectly states what the oft-quoted and often outspoken Marsalis is angry about. While musically he may be a traditionalist, here we find him in a vitriolic, forward-thinking mood. Long an outspoken figure in the jazz world and a lightning rod for debate over what constitutes the so called "jazz tradition," Marsalis is less concerned about the direction of jazz music here and more about the direction of American society. Obviously spurred on by the war in Iraq, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina (which ravaged his hometown of New Orleans), and what he clearly views as a gluttonous, vapid, misogynist and deeply racist American culture, Marsalis has crafted a bluesy, cerebral, soul-inflected album reminiscent of work by such iconic artists as Charles Mingus and Nina Simone. Adding weight to these comparisons is newcomer vocalist Jennifer Sanon, whose Simone-meets-Blossom Dearie style, featured throughout, adds a warm, melodic pathos to Marsalis' stark, spiritual and '50s Beat-influenced songs. This may not be the most musically avant-garde or boundary-pushing album, but it is a deeply personal and grounded creative statement, which is fascinating coming from an artist of Marsalis' stature and mainstream popularity.

Matt Collar, Rovi

Kaya

Bob Marley & The Wailers

Very Best Of Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte

The Way I See It

Raphael Saadiq
When Raphael Saadiq, along with his partners in Tony! Toni! Toné!, wrote and recorded songs like "It Never Rains in Southern California" and "Whatever You Want," he earned himself a lifetime "Do Whatever You Want" card. One could disregard his third solo studio album for being the equivalent of a Civil War reenactment, sounding much more like "instant vintage" R&B than 2002's Instant Vintage. If you want to listen to some '60s and early-'70s soul, play some soul that came out in the '60s and early '70s, right? Save for an intrusive Jay-Z appearance on a bonus version of "Oh Girl," however, this time warp never loosens its grip, unless you cannot help but position the protagonist in "Big Easy" -- where Saadiq "nails" a classic tactic exemplified by the likes of Holland-Dozier-Holland, matching bliss-inducing music with saddening lyrics -- squarely within 2005 New Orleans. ("They say them levees broke, and my baby's gone.") Saadiq, with the occasional assist, wrote each song, and they're all graced with the songwriting, arranging, and production touches of the recordings the man evidently cherishes and knows inside out. Here's where a modern master, backed by living and breathing session musicians (including Funk Brother Jack Ashford), masters the masters with startling accuracy.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Devil Made Me Do It (The Deluxe Edition)

Paris
One listen to The Devil Made Me Do It makes one wonder if Paris recorded the album in a cloistered, cold bunker -- or at least the kind of abandoned warehouse he and his crew marched through during his videos. As with early Public Enemy (a primary inspiration) and the two X-Clan records, the best moments of Paris' debut work on two levels. Plenty of these tracks have dark, sleek grooves beneath them, built on expert beat programming and vicious claws instead of hooks. In addition to this, there's Paris' scholarly, tightly wound rhymes, which are crammed with problack themes -- odds are Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and Bobby Seale's Seize the Time were committed to memory long before they were written. In a sea of early-'90s Afro-centric rappers, Paris was one of the most unique and most talented in his field, his angered voice cutting and tense enough to make any listener squirm in her or his seat. As often as these tracks are peppered with samples of Chuck D, Black Panthers, and Malcolm X, Paris is never outshone. Poignant tracks like "Break the Grip of Shame," "The Hate That Hate Made," "The Devil Made Me Do It," and "Wretched" ("Mindless music for the masses makes ya think less of the one that hates ya") make for a joyless listen, but it's just as riveting as the most provocative and hedonistic gangsta record. [The "Deluxe Edition" of the album was released by Paris through his Guerrilla Funk label in late 2003. The only bonus track added was the "Power of God" mix of "The Hate That Hate Made."]

Reflection Eternal [Train Of Thought]

Talib Kweli

The 3rd World

Immortal Technique