Here’s an idea that probably looked good on paper. Have Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, tackle some songs that were hits for other modern music royalty on Sings The Great Diva Classics (RCA). Sounds good, right? Oh, but the execution! It’s enough to make the Queen of Hearts declare, “Off with her head!” Things go south, right from the start with Aretha proving she’s no Etta James (or Cyndi Lauper, for that matter) with her reading of “At Last.” “The Aretha Version” of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which interweaves “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” fares somewhat better, although Aretha’s approach eschews enunciation for vocal gymnastics. Franklin sounds like she’s trying to joust with Gladys Knight on “Midnight Train to Georgia” and the combination of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” is another case of a concept losing something in the translation. The luckiest people in the world are those who don’t listen to Aretha wend her way through “People” and nothing will ever compare to the butchery of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” performed in a finger-snapping jazzy rendition. Please don’t let the Snickers commercial that Franklin did in 2010 be the best of her 21st century work.
Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, Cat Stevens was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s. His string of hit singles included “Wild World,” “Moonshadow,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Peace Train,” to mention a few. Anyone familiar with Cat Stevens 1970s out knows that he was an artist who was always searching, so it wasn’t all that surprising when he underwent a religious conversion to Islam, changed his name (yet again) to Yusuf, and went into retirement. Yusuf returned to the land of major labels with his 2006 album Another Cup, and followed it with 2009’s Roadslinger. On the bluesy effort, Tell ’Em I’m Gone (Legacy), credited to Yusuf / Cat Stevens, the singer/songwriter darkens the sky with his cloudy cover of “You Are My Sunshine,” and sings the blues on “Editing Floor Blues,” “Big Boss Man,” “Gold Digger,” and the title tune. There are glimpses of beauty to be found on “Dying to Live” and “Doors.”
There’s a lot to be said about the 25th anniversary 180-gram vinyl reissue of Bonnie Raitt’s multi-Grammy Award-winning 1989 album Nick of Time (Capitol), remastered from the original analog tapes. First, rest assured that it sounds as marvelous and timeless as the first time you heard it, on vinyl or CD (it was originally released in 1989, after all). Producer/musician Don Was (of Was Not Was fame) met the challenge of lifting the longtime singer, songwriter and blues diva out of shocking semi-obscurity and getting her the long overdue attention she had deserved. Sure, Raitt (the son of Broadway actor and singer John Raitt), had released nine albums on Warner Brothers, from 1971 to 1986, gaining a devoted following, skirting chart success and developing a devoted following in the heyday of FM radio, but superstardom eluded her.
The dance music world was dealt a tragic blow when legendary producer and songwriter Frankie Knuckles passed away in March 2014. An artist of epic proportions, openly gay Frankie Knuckles singlehandedly made Chicago’s house music genre a household word, if you will. Just how significant Knuckles’s contributions were was exemplified by his signing to a major label (Virgin) in the 1990s, bringing a formerly underground kind of music to the fore. Both of his albums for that label, 1991’s Beyond the Mix and 1995’s Welcome To the Real World have been reissued “straight from the crates on heavyweight vinyl” by Virgin/UMe. Beyond the Mix opens with the dated hip-hop/house hybrid “Godfather” which bellows 1991. Things improve on “Rain Falls” (which could have used a little more thunder) and the airy treat of Eric Kupper’s “The Whistle Song.” Side two is more consistent, with the “Party At My House,” “Right Thing” and “Workout” triple play. Welcome To The Real World, featuring vocalist Adeva on 10 of the 13 tracks (as well as prominently on the cover alongside Knuckles), contains the huge dance hit “Too Many Fish,” as well as the club sensation “Whadda U Want (From Me).” On the whole, though, the album sounds like the corporate idea of what house music ought to sound like for the masses rather than the foundation on which Knuckles built his own house.
Someone really ought to tell our straight allies (or foes, depending on the day) dancing the night away to thumping electronic beats that dance music is still gay. Gay, gay, gay. Remember that the next time you’re at a mixed-gender wedding and everyone has crowded onto the dance floor to spell out YMCA with their bodies. While we’re on the subject, please express your gratitude to groundbreaking gay disco act, the Village People. Not only did they provide the world with a perennial party favorite, they were also brazenly queer (hello, leather-man and construction worker!) at a time when such images were not all that common in mainstream America. The 11-song Icon (Mercury / UMe) compilation falls short of the superior 1994 The Best of Village People collection (if you can find it, snap it up!), but it does contain essential VP tracks such as “Y.M.C.A.,” “Macho Man,” “Go West,” and important early hits including “San Francisco (You’ve Got Me)” and “Hollywood (Everybody Is A Star).”
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