Hello everybody, Deegan is here, and I’m back with another entry of my encyclopedia. Before I start, I just want to mention that Kanye’s newest album is dope. I got Tidal specifically to listen to it, and I don’t regret it. Every song is great, and it’s a tangled masterpiece, check it out if you can. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Today I’m writing about the letter C.
For the first time in this blog, I’m going to write about a solo artist as opposed to a band. That solo artist is the one and only Curtis Mayfield. He was basically the Renaissance Man of soul music in the ‘60s and ‘70s – an amazing singer, great songwriter, special guitarist and unique record producer, he could do it all. He sang almost exclusively in falsetto, with a paradoxically fragile but strong voice. He wrote pop hits, film soundtracks and generational anthems. His guitar style was understated yet incredibly soulful, and his playing influenced Jimi Hendrix. He produced much of his own work, creating and refining a new sound in soul music. He was an influential and amazing artist.
Curtis Mayfield began his career in a group called The Impressions, who had many hits in the ‘60s. He was the lead singer and chief songwriter. Their songs were mainly poppy soul songs, but some of them had Gospel influences. These influences came through most in some of their most popular songs, which became civil right anthems. One of these is “People Get Ready,” which is a slow Gospel songs with lyrics that address racism and the rising Civil Rights movement. It’s a stunning song, with a beautiful flowing and sparkling guitar part and a melody like a prayer. Their other pop songs were very good and well-written as well, but his solo career is where Curtis began to shine.
When he went solo in 1970, Curtis Mayfield started off by releasing a string of phenomenal albums. The first of these was Curtis, which began his move from pop soul music to a harder, funkier sound. It features two great funk singles and some softer, beautiful soul tracks. The first single was “(Don’t Worry) If There Is A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go,” which was the first sign of his new sound. It starts with a rallying cry and a scream, then it transitions into his new, signature sound. It’s a sound that combines hard rhythms from the drums and guitar with horn and string sections, forming a grand sound that, with Curtis’ singing, is funky but sweet too. The other single was “Move On Up,” which is a personal favorite. It has a more cookin’ rhythm than the other song, and it has a horn line that is one of the catchiest things he did. It was also sampled by producer Just Blaze in Kanye West’s hit “Touch the Sky.” The rest of the album is filled out by more grand soul music, however no other track has quite the funky rhythms of those two other songs. His second album, Roots, is much the same way. However, no song quite combines the funk with the ornate like “Hell Below” and “Move on Up” did, and it has more of the softer soul sound. His full length-combination of these two sounds came on his next album.
Superfly, Curtis Mayfield’s third album, was where everything came together. It was written as a soundtrack for the movie of the same name, so it was able to comfortably combine the more cinematic aspects of his sound with the harder sound he was honing. And here it’s not just on a few tracks, it’s a sound that spans the whole album. It combines this with some of his best and most socially conscious lyrics, talking about drug addiction and how it can destroy one’s life and other hard subjects. The grooves and the melodies come together perfectly, and overall it’s his masterpiece. There’s no track that stands out more above any of the other amazing songs, but Mayfield had hit singles in “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly.”
After this album, Mayfield started releasing music more sporadically, and he passed away in 1999. But what he recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s with The Impressions and on his own is so monumental and amazing that it doesn’t matter. If you want something with the grooves of James Brown and the sweet pop sensibilities of The Temptations, please do yourself a favor and listen to Curtis Mayfield.
Along with the works of Curtis, there are many other great albums that start with the letter C:
- Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens: Sufjan is a veteran of the indie folk scene, and he’s been around for years. However, it wasn’t until this album came out last year that I started listening to him. And lordy, what an introduction. It’s a very spare album, focusing of Stevens’ voice and guitar. However, it’s still a very full, grand and beautiful statement about the death of his mother and his isolation from her. If you’re a fan of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver or other indie rock folkies, check out this album and some of Sufjan’s other stuff.
- channel ORANGE – Frank Ocean: This was one of the first albums I ever bought. I think I bought it back in 2013, around the time it came out because of all the hype surrounding it. I didn’t really dig it back then, I just really vibed with “Thinkin Bout You” and “Super Rich Kids.” But in the last year, I revisited it and absolutely fell in love with it. The highlight of the album and the climax is definitely “Pyramids,” a story connecting the past and present strifes of black people through two different sections. It flows very nicely from track to track. Frank Ocean sings beautifully all over the album, encompassing all emotions from joy to anguish. And unlike most modern R&B albums, it doesn’t put the lyrics on the backburner for the groove. The lyrics poetically tackle topics such as betrayal, intimacy and Ocean’s homosexuality. Check this out if you dig The Weeknd, Miguel and other hip-hop influenced R&B.
- Coming Home – Leon Bridges: While technically a new release, this is not modern R&B at all. This is old school soul, influenced primarily by the smooth stylings of Sam Cooke and the rough-and-ready skank of Stax records. However this isn’t just old school to tap into nostalgia: Bridges uses this sound to convey his feelings and make music that appeals to him as well as others. Each song here channels a different groove from ‘60s soul. “Coming Home” channels the ballads of Percy Sledge; “Smooth Sailin’” is like a lost Otis Redding soul rave-up; “Lisa Sawyer” is like a jazzy Sam Cooke deep cut. My personal favorite song on here is “River,” and if you’ve yet to see it, watch his performance of this song on SNL. It expands the beauty of the album version and is a much watch in my book. If you like some of the other vintage bands around right now like Alabama Shakes and Nathaniel Rateliff, give this album a listen.
- Crowded House – Crowded House: Here is simply a great pop album. After the dissolution of his former band Split Enz, Neil Finn formed Crowded House. He quickly recorded this album, filled with sunny pop songs and huge hooks. It had great songs in “Mean to Me” and “World Where You Live” and hits in “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” and “Something So Strong,” but I’m sure you’ve heard its biggest hit. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a great ballad and one of my favorite songs. This whole album has a great sound, and the songwriting is great for the first half, but then it slightly begins to slow down for the second half. This album is for fans of ‘80s pop music or pop music in general.
Here are some songs that start with C as well:
- “C.R.E.A.M.” – Wu-Tang Clan: One of the all-time dopest beats, with one of the most quotable hooks ever. Absolute dopeness.
- “Can I Kick It?” – A Tribe Called Quest: ATCQ’s first hit, featuring a flip of Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side.” There’s also a dope J. Cole remix I like, but I’m going with the original here. What do you say when I say, “can I kick it?” “Yes you can!”
- “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” – Frankie Valli: a pretty pop hit, that’s still a huge song. One of my favorite melodies I’ve ever heard.
- “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” – Vampire Weekend: One of my favorite little guitar riffs, and all around a nice little song with some African percussion and a Peter Gabriel reference.
- “A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke: One of my all-time favorite songs, an absolutely beautiful masterpiece. It was also an anthem of the Civil Rights era.
- “Comin’ On” – The Hot Sprockets: I saw these guys at Irish Fest two years ago, and I fell in love with their music. This is one of my favorite songs of theirs.
- “Common People” – Pulp: A slow building song that ends with a huge climax. This was one of the biggest hits of the Britpop era, and for good reason: it’s an awesome song.
- “Coney Island Baby – Live Version” – Lou Reed: The original from the album of the same name is very good too, but this version from later in his life lets the narrative shine a little more. One of my favorite live Reed cuts.
- “Confessions Part II” – Usher: A jammin’ song about a guy who got his mistress pregnant, based on the life of his producer. Great R&B jam.
- “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” – Todd Rundgren: A pleading power-pop song with great guitar licks and a great chorus. Overall a great song, especially if you liked Big Star from last time.
And that’s it for C. Thank you for reading, and if you want to check any of this stuff out, again, I have a playlist on Spotify here. See you guys later with the letter D.