In the same way that the Beatles were the undisputed kings among 1960s classic rock Desert Island Discs, Stevie Wonder owned R&B in the subsequent decade.
Though the votes were spread out over four albums, Wonder received a commanding seven nods across eight different lists. Marvin Gaye (whose What’s Going On? earned four mentions, including two for first place), the Meters (who found their way onto a pair of lists for Rejuvenation and also powered recognized albums by Lee Dorsey and the Wild Tchoupitoulas), and the Spinners (three votes, for three different albums) were runners up.
Isaac Hayes, Earth Wind and Fire, and Al Green also appear twice, as we continue our search for the perfect earbud companions after our tiny ship was tossed …
1. LEE DORSEY – YES WE CAN (1970): Allen Toussaint submits one of his best-ever batches of songs and the Meters deliver stellar sidemen performances. All Dorsey had to do has be his amiable, loose self.
2. MARVIN GAYE – WHAT’S GOING ON? (1971): Not just one of the deepest albums of R&B, but one of the most poignant records of all popular music.
3. STEVIE WONDER – TALKING BOOK (1972): Any album from Music Of My Mind through Songs In The Key of Life could go on that mythical atoll, but I happen to like the deep cuts on this one just a tad more than on the others.
4. THE METERS – REJUVENATION (1974): The best album by the best New Orleans funk band. Lean and clean production, and the birth of many NOLA RnB standards like “People Say,” “Hey Pocky-A-Way” and “Just Kissed My Baby.”
5. EARTH WIND AND FIRE – ALL ‘N ALL (1977): Here is where EW&F’s sophisticated arrangements, rangy songwriting and tight musicianship reached its apex.
1. AL GREEN – CALL ME (1973) Sublime and timeless, Green’s transcendent vocals take you to the river every time. Elvis Costello summed it up well when asked if he had ever had a religious experience: “No, but I have heard Al Green.”
2. STEVIE WONDER – INNERVISIONS (1973): Containing a consistently strong set of stylish songs, this album runs a resonant gamut. Whether it’s a love song at its most affecting, commentary at its most pointed, or celebration at its most exuberant, Wonder connects at every level.
3. MARVIN GAYE – WHAT’S GOING ON? (1971): Gaye garners his passion and yearning social quests and observations for a dream-like and reflective set of songs deftly complemented by sonorously insistent bass lines and percussion.
4. SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE – THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON (1971): Often ominous and dark, the bumpy ride of Riot nevertheless delivers a fascinating if ramshackle collection reflective of both Sly Stone’s spiraling psyche and of the polarizing times.
5. THE ISLEY BROTHERS – 3+3 (1973): The twisting and shouting were over but the group gets a youngblood infusion with the addition of other Isleys and a new pop-soul crossover appeal, marked by the sinuous guitar work of Ernie Isley.
1. THE TEMPTATIONS – PSYCHEDELIC SHACK (1970): Revolution was in the air, and the Temptations were the first act on the Motown roster to dip their dancing toes into the pool with albums such as “Cloud Nine” and “Puzzle People.” But to these ears, “Psychedelic Shack” is the cream of the acid-fried funk crop.
2. FUNKADELIC – MAGGOT BRAIN (1971): If you can get past the obnoxiously gross cover, this contains some of the most daring and far out designs imaginable. Buried under a hellacious hail of distortion, feedback, paralyzing guitar solos and prickly pandemonium in general, the disc is wild and heavy enough to cause hallucinations!
3. THE STYLISTICS – ROUND 2 (1972): A frilly falsetto, compounded by delicate harmonies and layers of lush textures mark the sweet and warm stylings of the Stylistics. Easily the group’s most realized presentation, “Round 2” produced a pair of hit singles in “I’m Stone In Love With You” and “Make Up To Break Up,” which years later, never cease to curl the toes and tug at the heart.
4. THE SPINNERS – THE PICK OF THE LITTER (1975): Rich with smooth and classy moves, this is indeed the pick of the litter when it comes to Spinners albums. Fueled by lightly battered funk grooves and a whole lot of soul, “They Just Can’t Help It (The Games People Play)” was the track that soared to the top of the charts, but the entire album pulsates with beauty and power.
5. THE BROTHERS JOHNSON – RIGHT ON TIME (1977): Peppered with dreamy psychedelic sensations set to a bluesy funk beat, “Strawberry Love Letter No. 23” checks in as one of the many highlights heard within the set. Cool guitar licks, electrifying vocals and butt wiggling rhythms lead “Right On Time” to be a masterstroke of its genre.
1. MARVIN GAYE – WHAT’S GOING ON? (1971): They should sing these songs in church. What’s Going On? doesn’t simply boast the gospel influence that marks so much of America’s most transformative works in blues and R&B; it actually has the consistently challenging depth and heart-opening heft of sacred music.
2. THE SPINNERS – SPINNERS (1972): These guys once posted a staggering four No. 1 R&B hits in less than 18 months, and they’re all on this album: “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Ghetto Child,” “How Could I Let You Get Away,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” — and, best of all, “I’ll Be Around,” a three-minute burst of exquisite soul glory that simply has to be the best stalker song ever, right?
3. STEVE WONDER – INNERVISIONS (1973): This arrived amidst an almost-unfathomable run of important recordings from Wonder, but it may well be his best — if only because it delves so deeply into the failure of the 1960s, even while constructing a path out of that crushing disappointment.
4. THE METERS – REJUVENATION (1974): The Meters, as much as anyone this side of James Brown, provided a connective bridge (swaying, no doubt) between Motown and the ferociously honest, free-form black music of the 1970s. Yet they never found true fame. No matter. Let it be our secret. Our funky, funky secret.
5. ISAAC HAYES – SHAFT (1971): This hip, relentless soundtrack cemented Hayes’ position as cultural icon: A renaissance man in gold chains, a composer and arranger unafraid of style. He’d wear sunglasses the size of milk saucers while directing a room full of musicians on fiddles and bassoons. Damn right.
1. STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (1976): Not only the best R&B/funk/soul album ever made, it’s also one of the 10 best records of all time by anyone. The album has mainstream pop, jazz, dance tunes, ballads, street-smart urban soul and everything in between. If you don’t like this album, you don’t like Stevie Wonder.
2. STEVIE WONDER – TALKING BOOK (1972): Stevie strikes again. This time he gives us one of his very best songs, the great album closer “I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever.” “Maybe Your Baby” and two huge hit singles, “Superstition,” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” helped make this the standout LP it still is.
3. BOOKER T AND THE MGs – McLEMORE AVENUE (1970): This is essentially the Beatles’ Abbey Road done instrumentally by one of the best R&B outfits to ever lay down tunes in a recording studio. This album proves how good the Fab Four was at crafting fine pop songs and how easily their tunes translate to other genres. It also shows how easily the MGs can interpret other people’s work.
4. ISAAC HAYES – SHAFT (1971): Shaft may have been a mean mother, but so was Isaac Hayes. Most of the music was performed by the legendary Bar-Kays who elevated this double set into a realm that most soundtracks can only aspire to but never reach. It was all overseen by producer, composer, and singer Hayes who, with this LP, reached the widest audience he ever achieved.
5. DIANA ROSS – LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972): Diana Ross sings well but because she’s not a jazz singer her versions of Billie Holiday’s work are more sterile and less earthy than Lady Day’s originals. However, this soundtrack sparked a huge interest in the long passed vocalist’s repertoire. Still, with Holiday long gone, Ross’ versions are the next best thing.
1. MICHAEL JACKSON – OFF THE WALL (1979): Quincy Jones once said that he wanted to showcase Jackson’s hidden, mature talents by gathering quality songs and adding some serious arrangements. He succeeded, as this album launched Jackson’s career as a superstar solo artist.
2. CURTIS MAYFIELD – SUPERFLY (1972): What an ingenious songwriter he was, and how subversive to create an anti-drug album for a blaxploitation film about drug pushers.
3. MARVIN GAYE – WHAT’S GOING ON? (1971): Ignoring Berry Gordy’s edict against releasing any political statements on Motown, Gaye crafted one of the best message albums ever.
4. AVERAGE WHITE BAND – AWB (1974): Who knew that Scotsmen could be so funky? Their sophomore effort produced so many classic jams: “Pick Up the Pieces,” “Person to Person,” and their soulful cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do.”
5. STEVIE WONDER – FULFILLINGNESS’ FIRST FINALE (1974): In my view, this is an underrated opus containing absolutely no filler tracks. Particularly struck by the way he explores spirituality on such exquisite songs as “”Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” and “They Won’t Go When I Go.” What an artistic statement.
1. MARVIN GAYE – WHAT’S GOING ON (1971): Once Marvin comes in with, “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying”, I’m immediately transported into the streets and heart of Detroit and Chicago — I can see it, feel it, smell it — I’m there!
2. AL GREEN – CALL ME (1973): The Reverend Al Green, his music contains such sweet sorrow, but at the same time there is always a permeating stream of hope.
3. THE SPINNERS – NEW AND IMPROVED (1974): I was conflicted with this one as I wanted so badly to include their earlier album Spinners (1973), but I chose this one because of one song, “Sadie”: It’s almost a mystical song in the sense that I’m not convinced that it wasn’t written by something of divine nature. Yes, it’s that good.
4. BLOODSTONE – NATURAL HIGH (1973): I was raised on soul music. My dad would wake me up on Sunday mornings to watch Soul Train with him. He would always sing “Natural High” around the house, and to this day, I’ll still catch him singing it! The song hits you deep — its slow tempo really brings out the full meaning of the song.
5. EARTH, WIND AND FIRE – THAT’S THE WAY OF THE WORLD (1975): The bass line on “Shining Star” is at times just nasty! Nasty, I tell you … in a good way, of course.
1. THE WILD TCHOUPITOULAS – THE WILD TCHOUPITOULAS (1976): OK, so it’s really a Neville Brothers record. And as you might expect, it’s supremely funky.
2. STEVIE WONDER – INNERVISIONS (1973): Oh man, “Living For The City,” a deep groove with a deep message.
3. PARLIAMENT – MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION (1975): The whole record is a funk and R&B reduction sauce. “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” is beyond wicked.
4. TOWER OF POWER – LIVE AND IN LIVING COLOR (1976): In my youth, it took my a while to fully appreciate horns. Then I got this record and my hair blew back like in those old Maxell tape ads.
5. WAR – WHY CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS? (1975): I loved the title track but “Low Rider” knocked me out. It still does.