Before we get to the next round of songs, let’s answer a couple of burning questions. Er, let me explain a couple of things. Er…whatever. Just bear with me for a second.
I meant to finish this whole thing last week, but things got hectic with my day job and I didn’t have nighttime internet access (except via phone, which I was not posting from) or…well, time. I realize I’m on no one’s schedule but my own, but still feel bad for posting irregularly.
One thing that’s also responsible for my irregular posting is the fact that I didn’t prepare every installment of this series before starting it. I’ve been doing 2-3 installment blocks, leaving it alone for a couple of days, and coming back. I think it keeps things a little fresher, although I guess it also may give the impression that I’m dragging the fuck out of this series. Some of you may have lost interest. I apologize. Though, again, I’m on no one’s schedule but my own. So…sorry not sorry? Despite the lags in posts (occasionally) this has been a lot of fun to do.
I have given thought to doing a similar list for the ’70s, the ’90s, or another chart entirely. I think I’ve ruled out R&B in the ’90s because by the time we get to the end of the decade, I will have run out of good songs to say nice things about, plus the period when record companies decided to release commercial singles on a less frequent basis (a move that was greedy as shit) led to huge hits that never charted and…a kazillion weeks of Deborah Cox’s God-awful “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” at #1. So, maybe I’ll switch to the pop charts, and the ’80s…or go a different way entirely. We’ll see.
Now, back to the list we’re working on. #30, please…
30. “Outstanding” by The Gap Band (1 week at #1, February ’83 | Amazon)
To say that “Outstanding” has been sampled or interpolated 100 times might be an understatement. The easygoing yet funky groove the Wilson brothers, auxiliary Gap member Raymond Calhoun and their producer Lonnie Simmons came up with is immediately recognizable as the backdrop of ’90s and ’00s hits by BLACKstreet, Da Brat and Ice Cube, to name three. No one can top the original, though. It turned out to be the last gasp of greatness for the Oklahoma trio, though. Although Gap remained somewhat popular through the end of the decade, the star dimmed after “Outstanding,” and rightfully so; their music took a serious dip in quality. Not exactly sure why that happened, but I’d have to imagine that ego and cocaine both have a place at that particular table.
If you’re gonna listen to “Outstanding” (and considering the song’s rank on this list, you can safely say that listening is highly recommended by me,) this is one occasion when you should reach for the extended 12″ version. The intro alone is worth it.
29. “Love Come Down” by Evelyn King (5 weeks at #1, October ’82 | Amazon)
The second of King’s two #1 soul singles, “Love Come Down” was the song of summer 1982.
I can’t say I know what it means for someone’s love to “come down,” though. Can anyone help with song meanings?
28. “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” by Stevie Wonder (7 weeks at #1, November/December ’80 | Amazon)
Stevie was one of the first major American artists to get down with reggae-going back as far as 1974’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” He and Bob Marley had sort of a kinship, and they performed together, but they sadly never got the chance to record together. “Master Blaster” is Wonder’s tribute to the reggae legend (released just a few months before Marley succumbed to cancer) and if there’s one word I can use to describe the song to new ears, it would be “ebullient.”
While Marley’s condition was shrouded in smoke and mirrors for much of his illness, Wonder must’ve known the real deal. So it’s a testament, then, that “Master Blaster” is not the least bit downbeat. I’d bet Stevie hoped it would put a smile on his friend’s face as Bob was struggling for his life. I, for one, hope it did. It certainly still puts a smile on my face.
27. “Fake” by Alexander O’ Neal (2 weeks at #1, July/August ’87 | Amazon)
In 1987, music got no funkier than Alexander O’ Neal’s Hearsay. The Time’s original lead vocalist was the biggest beneficiary of producers Jam & Lewis’s post-Control bag of tricks, and they were used to their fullest extent on “Fake.” Sure, the song owes a little bit to Miss Jackson’s “Nasty,” but Alex’s delivery helps ensure that “Fake” is an attitudinal funk jam that can stand on its own two feet. It’s actually interesting to think of the songs as two sides of a conversation-Janet asserting herself against nasty boys and Alex rolling his eyes and throwing a few sharp barbs her way.
Watching the “Fake” video all these years later, two things catch my eye: Alexander’s massive case of crazy eyes and the fact that he perspired more than any pop culture signpost not named Whitney or Bobby.
26. “I’m In Love” by Evelyn King (1 week at #1, August ’81 | Amazon)
Evelyn “Champagne” King emerged on the music scene in the late Seventies as a teenager. Her full voice belied her age, and songs like “Shame” and “I Don’t Know If It’s Right” brimmed with soul. They were also right in the pocket of the disco scene, and were dance floor sensations. When the disco bubble burst, King was a bit lost at sea. Hard to imagine your glory days being numbered when you’re barely out of your teens. Thankfully, songwriter/producers Kashif & Morrie Brown came to the rescue with an irresistible groove called “I’m In Love,” and the result was the first of King’s two Number One records. It was the first R&B chart topper to be played completely on a synthesizer, making it a good two or three years ahead of its time. It also set the stage for Kashif to become one of R&B and dance’s most in-demand producers for a good half decade or so.
Whoever executive produced Jennifer Hudson’s latest album listened to “I’m In Love” A LOT.
Interesting note: King’s label, RCA, decided to remove “Champagne” from her name before “I’m In Love”‘s release. The two albums that followed the name change were the most popular of her career. “Champagne” returned in 1983, and, oddly, King suffered a dip in popularity, never reaching the un-“Champagne” heights of “I’m In Love” and “Love Come Down” again. I’m not the superstitious sort, but…tell me that’s not odd.
Also-Janet’s “R&B Junkie” sampled “I’m In Love” to awesome results. This shoulda been a smash.
25. “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent” by Gwen Guthrie (1 week at #1, September ’86 | Amazon)
Someone should do an “UnSung” episode on Gwen Guthrie. While she was certainly not successful in a “pop star” sense, she had a solid decade and a half of great work as a background vocalist, songwriter and singer. She recorded a bunch of great music with Jamaican superproducers Sly & Robbie in the early ’80s, and took the dub-wise sound they’d perfected to its apex on “Rent.” A smoking dance track, it joined forces with Janet Jackson’s Control album to make R&B radio safe for no-bullshit women in a way that predecessors like Millie Jackson were never able to.
Look, I don’t hate Beyonce, but call me when she makes a song as witty, as biting, as this one. God knows she’s tried.
24. “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” by Janet Jackson (2 weeks at #1, March ’86 | Amazon)
“Little things are all you seem to give.” I see what you did there, Janet. OUCH.
Who’d have thought Penny/Charlene/whatever the hell her name was on Fame had it in her? Who’d have thought a JACKSON had it in them?
Knowing what we now know about the PR machine and smoke & mirrors, it’s obvious that Janet (and the Jacksons at large) were not as wholesome or innocent as we thought they were at the time.
It’s hard to imagine that a teenage girl who’d just ended a marriage with a drug addicted fuckup and dealt with self-esteem issues and Joseph Jackson as a father wouldn’t be as hard-bitten as Janet appeared to be on Control. Jam & Lewis may have brought the music, but Janet definitely brought the attitude. “What Have You Done For Me Lately” was the first salvo in the barrage of pop culture shots that Miss Jackson would unleash upon the world in the next decade or so, and one of the best.
23. “One More Try” by George Michael (1 week at #1, June ’88 | Amazon)
During the ’80s, only three songs hit the top of the R&B charts that were not by Black artists. All three songs (one of which, Teena Marie’s “Ooo La La La,” appeared earlier in this list and the other to be named in a later installment) are well-crafted, superbly produced, and contain oodles of soul.
I was 11 when George Michael’s Faith album came out, and being a sensitive little kid, there was something about “One More Try” that hit me right in my heart. I didn’t understand the meaning of the song for another decade or so, but the fact that I developed such an emotional attachment without properly appreciating the lyrics speaks volumes to the passion of George’s performance. It also speaks highly to his now-underrated songwriting ability. Guy knows his way around a song better than 95% of artists in his generation.
George got love from R&B audiences from almost Day One, and he was never shy about his debt to American soul musicians, particularly Stevie Wonder. Of course, the fact that Faith got so much love from R&B audiences served as a bit of a sticky situation, as other artists (most vocally Gladys Knight) groused about Black artists recording in a similar vein not receiving the same amount of adulation. I wonder how Gladys feels when she looks at the R&B charts now.
22. “Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)” by Soul II Soul featuring Caron Wheeler (1 week at #1, October ’89 | Amazon)
When did remixes and alternate versions on dance/R&B records go out of control? You could easily point to Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’ (AKA Club Classics Vol. 1) as the first instance of the practice becoming somewhat egregious. I’ve already discussed the album’s title track and its various versions. However, the second track, “Back To Life,” had just as many iterations. In its initial album version, it was almost completely acapella, featuring handclaps and Caron Wheeler’s creamy multi-tracked vocals. It also didn’t feature the words “back to life.” When released as a single, it was given new lyrics, a new melody, and a beat. There were several other extended or remixed versions, and what took some of the confusion/frustration out of the glut of “Back To Life”s was the fact that they were all good. Jazzie B and Caron had a musical chemistry that should’ve led to a longer run of hits for Soul II Soul. Wheeler jetted for solo success soon after “Back To Life” hit, though, and although the two have reunited on many occasions, they’ve never been able to replicate the awesome sauce that you can find in “Keep on Movin'” and “Back To Life.”
21. “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” by The Isley Brothers (4 weeks at #1, April/May ’80 | Amazon)
Twenty-five years after Ronald Isley was exhorting youngsters to twist and shout and twenty years before he was laying the musical smackdown on fools as his Mister Biggs alter ego, he was delivering some of the sultriest jams of his day. “Don’t Say Goodnight” was inspired by Teddy Pendergrass’s massive hit “Turn Off The Lights” (which didn’t hit #1! Craziness!) and I’d say the Isleys ended up with the better song. Ernie Isley’s drums are a highlight: he hits the skins harder than most ballad drummers do, and yes, I realize that’s a double entendre. “Don’t Say Goodnight” might be my favorite Isleys love jam–yes, even better than “Between The Sheets” (which ALSO didn’t hit #1! Craziness!)
Dilla flipped the fuck out of “Don’t Say Goodnight” and then added D’Angelo and Common to complete the only song in his production catalog that I’d legitimately deem “sexy.”