Mystikal – Let’s Get Ready (2000)
It’s amazing what context can do to a listening experience. For a dozen years or so, I’d always thought of Mystikal as a flash-in-the-pan MC who rode a legendary Neptunes beat to fame, his voice a grating, angry growl tailored to please a DMX-infused marketplace. But then I heard “Hit Me,” a leaked single from his forthcoming record that makes a serious argument that Mystikal is carrying the torch of James Brown with more wit, energy and raw ability than any artist around. My expectations thusly altered, and my ears hungry for whatever Mystikal I could get my hands on, I picked up Let’s Get Ready, his breakout 2000 release. And while no cut on here can touch “Hit Me,” it is an insane adrenaline rush from beginning to end, that voice I once saw as an annoyance making me feel I could punch my fist through a brick wall, the beats blunt and dirty, as relentless as a hurricane. Mystikal’s new album is apparently called Original, and it’s slated to come out in June. Until then, Let’s Get Ready will keep my heart pounding just fine.
Aretha Franklin – 30 Greatest Hits (1985)
I recently had the honor of interviewing Aretha Franklin in advance of her show at a local casino (which I also reviewed), and in the name of psyching myself up and keeping the butterflies at bay, I spent the week beforehand listening to her 30 Greatest Hits in my car. It’s still the best collection of its kind, zeroing in on Aretha’s classic Atlantic years with no glaring omissions. Of course, it’s tough to screw it up when you’re talking about one of the most prolific and evergreen periods of any artist, ever. When “Respect” strutted its way onto my speakers, it sounded as fresh and imaginative as the first time I heard it – no matter how many commercials or Bridget Jones movies try to rob it of its essence, “Respect” will never gray. It’s the ultimate unkillable pop song and a gender role gamechanger to boot. Then there’s the knee-buckling pleas of “Ain’t No Way,” the swooning romance of “I Say A Little Prayer,” the slow-building gospel reverie of “Spirit In the Dark” … I won’t mention all 30. If you haven’t heard this stuff, I’d suggest stopping everything in order to fix that problem.
Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God (2013)
At one point in “A New Life,” the most immediately beautiful tune on Jim James’ proper solo debut, the moonlighting My Morning Jacket frontman delivers the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near” with NPR-ready elocution, painstakingly pronouncing the “t” in “stardust.” It’s not your typical rock singer diction to be sure, the sound of a man who isn’t writing pretty lyrics to sound cute or sensitive – he believes in this stuff, with evangelical fervor. The album title gives you a good idea of the ground James is covering here – a cosmic theology of love, forgiveness and the passage of time that’s certainly headier (and a bit flakier) than My Morning Jacket’s last few records. Musically, it has the homespun feel of a solo record, be it one with the occasional crackling vibraphone sample, huge Eastern melody, and sweeping string arrangement. Then there’s James’ Neil Young/choirboy voice, still as expansive and expressive as ever, making the clunkiest passages feel like mantras. Regions feels a bit less substantive than it wants to be, but it’s still more intriguing than anything James has been a part of since Z, the last time his music was pointed heavenward.