Listening exclusively to hip-hop this past year has led me to rummage through my music library, in search of a different sound, a different feeling. Kanye West’s and Jay Z’s song, Otis, off their joint album, Watch The Throne, serves as the catalyst for my recent infatuation with soul music. Although this track falls under the category of rap/hip-hop, the first minute or so is purely Otis Redding, a sample from one of his biggest hits, Try a Little Tenderness. In his own version of the track Redding’s vocals are throaty and intense, his energy pulsating through the sung words. Hip-hop is dominated by beats, while soul is slow and purposely draws out heavy emotion. The two may seem like polar opposites, but they intertwine more than what the common listener might believe.
Soul is constantly sampled in contemporary R&B as well as hip-hop, reinventing itself decades later in a way which pays tribute to the past generations of artists and their multitude of work. The elements of soul in the 50’s and 60’s appear in modern music production, proving that it is always changing and evolving. Lauryn Hill’s most successful and ground-breaking album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill combines bits of pop, soul and R&B. Her stirring performance of Killing Me Softly With His Song alongside her former band, The Fugees, marked a pivotal moment in music for young female artists, along with claiming her spot as an independent force in the music industry. The original performance belongs to Roberta Flack, her execution more mellow and soft.
Music continues to unfold itself in various ways, reappearing in snippets of songs or contemporary production. Soul is a genre which will remain timeless, the impassioned performances of the artists distinguishing it from any other genre. Finding it necessary to share the insight I have gained the past few weeks listening to just this, I have compiled five soul albums which I believe are essential to starting your morning right.
- Otis Blue (1965) -Otis Redding
A heartfelt collection of originals and covers, Blue exhibits Otis’ ability to create his gritty renditions of songs other artists have attempted to remake themselves. His covers stand strong by themselves, the execution of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction just as emphatic as Mick Jagger’s style, yet performed with his unique twist. The Memphis Stax Label, which many popular soul artists such as Otis, Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MG’s were represented by, exhibited this exact type of sound which Otis emanated in this album. The company gained popularity for their internationally known rhythm and blues musicians. Sam Cooke’s original, A Change Is Gonna Come, leaves quite a momentous impression on the listener, Otis’ voice wavering with passion as he sings the song which would become an anthem of the civil right movement.
Essential track: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
- Curtis (1970) – Curtis Mayfield
Former member of the band The Impressions, this album marked Curtis’ assertion as a solo artist, completely in control of his musical vision. Opening with the irresistibly groovy (Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Going to, Curtis sheds light on the realities of racism and violence, whilst expressing his spiritual view of the world. A personal favorite of mine, The Makings of You, the combination of his incredibly sweet voice and uplifting melody make the listener feel as if they are soaring. Soul holds the power to convey the full range of human emotion, from sorrow to immense joy. Curtis takes this one step further and unearths the biases held against black beauty, Miss Black America devoted to honoring black beauty and black women. We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue, a mature political and personal statement that sounds almost majestic with Curtis’ layered voice and the sweeping instrumentals. All pieces carefully compiled as part of Curtis’ vision make this album one of the most influential to ever exist.
Essential track: Makings of You
- Let’s Stay Together (1972) – Al Green
The very first measure of the album foreshadows the effortless flow Al Green emulates in his fourth and most acclaimed album, Let’s Stay Together. Green’s vocals work in complete harmony with the instrumentals, the dips and pitch changes of his voice in tune with the organ and trumpets. To have the ability to blend two separate components of music to an impeccable consonance is no easy feat, but Al Green does just that. How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, a cover of the Bee Gee’s, is lush with light vocals, the relaxed percussion and addition of the stylized gospel singers in the background creating an almost romantic tone. Green’s voice I associate often with Otis Redding, the similar emotional expression and seductive crooning present in their singing style.
Essential track: What Is This Feeling
- I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967) – Aretha Franklin
Releasing three extremely successful albums within the span of one year, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You opens with the stone soul classic, Respect. This cover continues to stand tall as a symbol for female empowerment through time, marking Aretha’s prominence in a world which was not yet familiarized with her distinctive sound of church and pop. Gospel music has had a significant influence in the realm of soul, but Aretha channels this energy in a particular style. I Never Loved A Man exposes Aretha’s courage as a black woman in control, her vulnerability appearing in fragments throughout the album. Gone are any doubts Aretha may have had as a musician, the production on this album fully fledged to display her brilliance.
Essential track: Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)
- Songs In The Key Of Life (1976) -Stevie Wonder
The sweet and melodic hums in the first track of Stevie’s most ambitious, longest, and well-rounded album set the expectations for what is to come. As mentioned before, soul conveys the full range of human emotion within a transcendent listening experience. Stevie takes pieces from every corner of his life and transforms them into a reflective musical masterpiece. There are two halves of the album, both serving their individual purpose in the artist’s creative work, the latter delving into Stevie’s monumental life experiences, such as the birth of his daughter in Isn’t She Lovely. Gliding strings are heard in Village Ghetto Land, a more dissonant sound as Stevie sings about the ramifications of poverty in the village streets.
Essential track: I Wish