Alec Compton ’22
Arts & Culture Editor
There’s no better time than Black History Month to freshen up one’s knowledge of black music. (Yes, I know it’s March, but I wrote this last month.) Here are some classics I’ve just recently heard and some of my current favourites.
Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You
Nina Simone’s 1965 release is a beautiful vocal blues record with gorgeous instrumentation underneath Nina’s powerful voice. For the time it was recorded what is most striking is how assertive Nina’s lyrics and attitude are. She seems to know what she wants when she’s singing and never lets the instrumentation overpower her, making herself the centerpiece of every song.
Ray Charles, Ray Charles (Hallelujah, I Love Her So)
Ray Charles’s eponymous 1957 album is a smooth R&B record spearheaded by Charles’s stellar vocal performance. Charles croons passionately over stellar blues instrumentals. One of this album’s greatest strengths is its bombastic nature; Charles never holds back in his vocals and the record is all the better for it.
Michael Jackson, Off the Wall
Michael Jackson released this record at the age of 20 and it is still one of the most celebrated, sold, and danced to albums over 40 years later. The grooves on this release are immaculate, each and every track has its own identity, and its one of the most universally agreeable albums in music history.
BB King, Completely Well
BB King tells a track-spanning story of a spoiled love on Completely Well. Each track is part of a narrative of King loving, losing, and getting over someone. It’s a fantastic blues record with some of the best guitar work I’ve ever seen. Very few people deliver vocals with the swagger and conviction of BB King, the King of the Blues.
Prince, Purple Rain
Its Prince’s Purple Rain. Revolutionizing the music landscape at the time, Purple Rain is an incredibly interesting, unique, and supreme album. The instrumentals are so eerie and yet still manage to carry a consistent and familiar groove. Prince’s vocals are stellar, and somehow still go toe to toe with the instrumentals, despite how dynamic they are, they never distract from Prince’s vocals.
Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced
As a guitarist, Jimi Hendrix terrifies me. His genre-defining riffs and solos are an impossible watermark on the craft, and this album is chocked full of them. Complementing the guitar work is Hendrix’s vocals, where—despite him not being a very good singer—he still manages to hold a tune and recognizes that the guitar is the centrepiece of the record. Lyric-wise, Hendrix writes great poetry on some tracks or catchy hooks on another.
What hasn’t been said about Nas’s debut album? It’s possibly the most essential rap album ever recorded, with cornerstone verses and instrumentals that forever changed the genre. What’s truly incredible is that Nas started writing this record at only age 16. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime lyrical talent.
Lemonade is an album that narrates Jay-Z’s cheating scandal from Beyonce’s perspective. Beyonce gives an introspective take on the drama and holds nothing back, bashing her husband for his misdeeds constantly. Beyonce shows an incredible amount of vulnerability on the record, but never seems unjustified in her anger, and always seems to maintain her signature confidence.
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Possibly the most celebrated jazz release of all time. Kind of Blue speaks for itself with its stellar lineup of musicians and structurally breathtaking songs. It creates an atmosphere unparalleled with its stunning instrumentation and earworm horn lines.
Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas’s 2020 album is a great modern R&B album. It’s very raw instrumentation give it the feel of a live album, complimented by Lianne’s mellow but not understated vocal performance. The song writing is watertight and maintains topical consistency throughout the tracklist. I’m very excited to see what Havas does next as she shows much artistic promise.
Photo credit: photo of Ray Charles (David Redfern/Redferns)