Soul, Funk and Disco

Land Of The Loops “Bundle Of Joy” (Up, 1996)

Seattle-based indie label Up Records put out some overlooked gems during its 1994-2008 run. One of the finest and quirkiest is Bundle Of Joy by Land Of The Loops (aka East Coast musician/producer Alan Sutherland). Deploying beats, bass lines, and synthy FX as well as guest singers and an array of samples, Land Of The Loops created a wonderful hybrid of bedroom indie-pop and hip-hop. Bundle Of Joy is probably Sutherland’s peak.

The aptly titled “Welcome” starts as a kooky collage, before some of the fattest, funkiest beats ever to appear on an Up release (is that Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”?) enter the fray. These beats engage the delayed, dulcet vocals of Simone Ashby in a cagey duel in a cut as minimal as early Run-D.M.C. Ashby resurfaces on the phantasmal, disorienting “Burning Clutch (five-speed dub),” her vocals recalling the dreamy tenor of Dorothy Moskowitz of the United States Of America. What a heady trip.

Speaking of guest vocalists, Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis appears on “Growing Concern,” delivering her trademark child-like vocals over an easygoing funk charmer, bestowing a distinctly PNW innocence to the album. She also adds darling singing to the sparkling, stuttering funk of “My Head (leaks)” and to “Cruisin’ For Sentient Beings,” which is powered by a classic, urgent break (close to Skull Snaps’ “It’s A New Day,” but not it) that you’ve heard on at least a dozen hip-hop tracks. Nevertheless, the results are fresh.

More evidence of Sutherland’s kaleidoscopic vocal sampling trickery occurs on “Mass Ave. And Beyond,” on which he sprinkles enchanting bleeps and bloops over a starkly funky foundation, and “I Dream Of Ghosts,” which evokes the eerie, spacey dub of early Seefeel, thanks to the sampled angelic sighs. Perhaps LOTL’s best-known track, “Multi-Family Garage Sale (bargain-bin mix),” presents ludicrously bubbly and loping suburban funk with a staccato female vocal sample, snippets of children talking (“Don’t leave me”; Where are we anyway?” etc.), and beats not unlike those in George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” No wonder Miller licensed the track for a beer commercial. I bet Sutherland significantly upgraded his studio after this transaction.

Other highlights include “Help For Your Aching Back,” a swirling, psychedelic workout that might should be playing in hipper chiropractors’ offices, and “Day Late & A Dollar Short,” a fantastic sampladelic agglomeration of Buddhist monk chants, children jauntily singing, twangy guitar from the James Bond theme, archetypal sci-fi analog synth emissions, and very rugged, funky beats. Play this in a DJ set and watch people lose their shit—while looking befuddled.

Discogs prices for Bundle Of Joy have jumped up in recent years. It seems odd that no label’s reissued this wonky wonder since its first issue 23 years ago, but perhaps this review will nudge somebody into doing that. (Gotta dream big!) -Buckley Mayfield

Marva Whitney “It’s My Thing” (King, 1969)

It’s My Thing is the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a female-fronted James Brown album. The fact that it was cut in 1969 when the Godfather Of Soul and his crack band the JBs were absolutely on fire during one of their creative peaks means that It’s My Thing is an essential document of hard-hitting soul and funk and the occasional bravura ballad.

The album kicks off with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ über-funky and precise “It’s Your Thing,” buttressed by Whitney’s brazen vocal sass and the JBs’ ultra-tight funk churn and roaring horn surges. There’s a good reason this song’s been sampled over 70 times, including by Public Enemy, N.W.A., Ice Cube, and EPMD. “It’s My Thing” is so good, it needed a second part on this record. Speaking of oft-sampled tracks, “Unwind Yourself” has had its opening break sampled by the 45 King for the club smash “The 900 Number” and by Aphex Twin for “Taking Control,” among many others. This dance-floor heater struts with a massive swagger.

On the tight, punchy, and greasy R&B of “Things Got To Get Better (Get Together),” Whitney proves she’s an overwhelmingly passionate diva to whom you’d better bring your A+ game if you want a chance of getting together with her. In a similar vein, “What Kind Of Man” flexes classic, boisterous soul on which Whitney shows she’s the epitome of the assertive soul diva. “You Got To Have A Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat)” is a paean to productivity and industriousness, with numerous extravagant shout-outs to Maceo Parker and it foreshadows the killer groove from Brown’s “Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing.”

Some anomalies include “In The Middle,” an extremely cool funk instrumental written by saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and Bud Hobgood that you wish were at least twice as long as it’s 2:45 and the heart-on-sleeve ballad “If You Love Me,” which is the only time I’ve heard a sitar on a James Brown production. The fleet and nimble “I’m Tired, I’m Tired, I’m Tired” is one of Brown’s most moving and eloquent compositions, a soulful condemnation of racism and a plea for racial justice. On the sentimental, strings-enhanced ballad “I’ll Work It Out,” Marva sings her huge heart out. She just lays it all out there, demonstrating that she’s damn near the equal of her mentor.

(It’s My Thing has been reissued several times over the decades, with the last legit-looking one coming from the UK label Soul Brother in 2015.) -Buckley Mayfield

Minoru Muraoka “Bamboo” (United Artists, 1970)

Recent years have seen several labels—Light In The Attic, Palto Flats, Jazzman, We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want, et al.—reissuing obscure gems from Japan. England’s great Mr Bongo imprint also has gotten into the act, most recently with jazz shakuhachi player Minoru Muraoka’s Bamboo coming out this summer. That’s a relief, as original copies of this idiosyncratic 1970 crate-digger’s classic go for hundreds of dollars.

Six of Bamboo‘s nine tracks are covers, and the quality varies among them. Jazz musicians covering Beatles songs was practically law in the ’60s and ’70s, but few artists have attempted to interpret the sentimental 1964 ballad “And I Love Her.” Minoru exoticizes the somewhat sappy melody and takes this middling cut from A Hard Day’s Night to a higher level. Similarly, Minoru does interesting things with the oft-covered folk ballad “The House Of The Rising Sun.” His is probably my favorite rendition—partially because there are no overbearing vocals, just four or five instruments burnishing a poignant melody that, it turns out, is ideal for the shakuhachi’s timbre.

Minoru also excels at archetypal lightweight mid-’60s pop such as Bacharach/David’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” and Tony Hatch’s “Call Me,” an EZ-listening standard made famous by Chris Montez and Petula Clark. Minoru transforms these overfamiliar melodies into something more touching through his serene blowing. The latter is the epitome of suave coolness in Minoru’s hands and mouth. These covers display Minoru’s instinct for tackling songs that have been frequently interpreted and injecting them with elements of distinctiveness. You can also hear this when he bathes Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in a holy penumbra; it’s unbearably touching and somehow more powerful for not having a singer, even one as gifted as Art Garfunkel.

Perhaps Bamboo’s finest cover is that of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” It’s a fantastic version that illuminates and slightly accelerates Dave Brubeck’s famous, sprightly rendition. Like every song here, “Take Five” gains a sheen of freshness thanks to the airy coolness of the shakuhachi, a flute-like instrument popular in Japan. The unexpected robust and rapid drum solo three-fifths of the way in is a nice homage to Brubeck drummer Joe Morello.

Minoru’s originals rule, too. “Nogamigawa Funauta” is a gorgeous, courtly piece in which Minoru’s shakuhachi wafts and spirals into sacred space, twining around some phenomenal koto ornamentation. (The koto sounds like some magnificent compromise between a banjo and a harp.) “The Positive And The Negative” bears incredibly funky drum and bass breaks, which have made this track a holy grail for hip-hop producers. Lord have mercy, the beats are rotund on this one. Above the irrepressible grooves, shakuhachi and koto engage in a celestial dance, a mellifluous dream soundtrack. The other original, “Soul Bamboo,” sounds like one of the inspirations for DJ Shadow’s mystical-funk masterpiece, “What Does Your Soul Look Like?”

It’s so great to have Bamboo back in circulation at a reasonable price. Don’t sleep. -Buckley Mayfield

Norma Tanega “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” (New Voice, 1966)

Though she had a single that reached #22 on the charts in 1966 and wrote songs for British pop-soul diva Dusty Springfield (with whom she also had a long-term romantic relationship), Norma Tanega has remained an obscure cult figure. Call me an optimist, but I think that situation might be remedied by Real Gone Music’s recent green-vinyl reissue of Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog, a delightfully quirky folk-rock record that quickly charms its way into your heart—especially that chart-dwelling title track alluded to earlier. I mean, RGM only produced 1,000 copies, but maybe this review will tip the scales in Tanega’s favor. (HAHAHAHA.)

All kidding aside, you gotta love the moxie of opening your debut album with a song title “You’re Dead.” Tanega grabs you from the get-go with a matter-of-fact voice that’s somewhat flat yet alluring, like Bobbie Gentry (or indeed Springfield), with a lower timbre and less breathy flamboyancy… or like Buffy Sainte-Marie without the stentorian vibrato. Tanega’s music is urgent, stripped-down folk-rock that gives Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs’ songcraft a run for its trenchancy. “Treat Me Right” is upbeat folk with gospel-vocal call-and-response uplift. “Waves” and “Jubilation” form a diptych of feel-good, intimate anthems that celebrate coupledom, in waltz time.

The dramatic orchestral pop of “Don’t Touch” features a chorus paraphrasing that of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” It should’ve been a hit! What did become a hit, “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog,” is simply one of the greatest songs of the ’60s, a lolloping melody that makes you want to tear off all of your clothes, wad ’em up, and throw ’em in the air. Mutedly euphoric, the song sounds like Martha & The Vandellas gone folk, and it reflects Tanega’s genius for surprising song structures and idiosyncratic harmonica tones. “A Street That Rhymes At Six A.M.” offers another Motown simulacrum, but in off-kilter folk mode. So damn fresh.

For variation, there’s “What Are We Craving?” (a stomping, martial tune with Nico-like vocals), “No Stranger Am I,” (an Astrud Gilberto-esque saudade folk tune in an odd time signature), and “Hey Girl” (a cover of the 1870s Appalachian folk standard “In The Pines,” which was made famous by Lead Belly… and then more famous by Nirvana and Mark Lanegan). Oddly, the album closes with its most conventional track, “I’m The Sky,” whose jaunty poppiness recalls the 5th Dimension.

Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog is one of the most welcome reissues of the year. The fact that the latest edition of it already has sold out bodes well for its rehabilitation. Now get to repressin’, Real Gone Music. -Buckley Mayfield

Chicago “Chicago VI” (Columbia, 1973)

If you were conscious during the ’70s, you couldn’t help being aware of the music made by the unimaginatively named band Chicago. It was in the air like perfume and cigarette smoke and summer breezes, dominating the airwaves with soulful, jazz-inflected rock and heart-melting ballads. Some of those ubiquitous hits were damned good, some tilted the schmaltz meter into the red. But it was all impeccably played and produced and usually housed in gatefold sleeves, and it somehow appealed to hip folks and squares.

By the time the seven dudes in Chicago had reached their fifth album, VI (odd, I know, but they were called Chicago Transit Authority on their first LP), they were surefire chart-dwellers who had their shit down pat. But they weren’t averse to bringing in some outside help for this one, tapping Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira (Sérgio Mendes, Marcos Valle) to accentuate the rhythms. The results on VI, though, are a mixed bag, which you can expect when you have four songwriters angling to get ideas expressed.

The album begins unpromisingly with “Critics’ Choice,” an acerbic, Elton John/10cc-like ballad that dissects said critics’ negative traits. But that meh start quickly gets whisked down the memory hole as “Just You ‘N’ Me” enters earshot. Yes, it’s a warm power ballad you’ve heard 18 million times, so it’s curdled into an innocuous bauble that reminds you more of shopping for deodorant in a chain drugstore rather than as one of the classiest, slinkiest, and most earnest love songs ever to top a chart. It helps that composer/trombonist James Pankow pulls a “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” sucker punch that elevates the track to a much higher level.

Keyboardist Robert Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” is horn-heavy funk-rock with a festive, Dr. John-like air, enlivened by Terry Kath’s sizzling, snarling guitar solo. Kath’s lone writing credit, “Jenny,” sounds like the Band’s earthy roots rock, but with more rhythmic complexity. The album’s best deep cut is Pankow’s “What’s This World Comin’ To,” whose boisterous, busy funk rock bumps somewhere between Funkadelic and Grand Funk Railroad. I wish Chicago explored this vein more often. Similarly deep and not oversaturated by radio, “Rediscovery” is a midtempo funk jam with low-key jazz chordings, as Kath channels Eddie Hazel’s fluid, wah-wah squawk.

Like a lot of smart groups, Chicago saved the best for last. No exaggeration: Peter Cetera and Pankow’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” stands as one of the greatest pieces of music ever. This magnum opus has about five or six distinct parts, and each one is dazzling. The song begins like a fairly typical inspirational, casually strolling rocker, but you can sense it’s going to build to something much more majestic. Sure enough, about halfway in, “Feelin’ Stronger” accelerates into a magnificent chug and then things just get insanely sublime from there on out. The massed, swaggering horns, the crazed, galloping drums and mad tom-tom fills, the “YEAH YEAH YEEEEAAAAH,” the soaring backing-vocal vortex, Cetera’s aerated “We get stronger today” refrain that rides till the fadeout… Put the coda on in a loop in your brain while running and you’ll never fail to break your personal record. Trust me… I’ve tried it. -Buckley Mayfield

Grand Funk Railroad “E Pluribus Funk” (Capitol, 1971)

E Pluribus Funk is probably the greatest album ever to be packaged to look like a silver coin. Admittedly, there’s not a lot of competition for that honor, but still… respect is due. Speaking of which, Flint, Michigan’s finest never have received much of that stuff from critics, but Grand Funk Railroad’s extravagant commercial success (multi-platinum records, hit singles, selling out Shea Stadium in 72 hours, etc.) shouldn’t detract from you enjoying their genuine strengths.

Produced by Terry Knight, E Pluribus Funk is an unabashed par-tay record. Being as it’s made by dudes from the central part of a centrally located Rust Belt state, the album pummels with a ferocity that comes from folks who have to endure six months of shitty weather per year. (As a native Detroiter, I speak from bitter experience.) Whatever was fueling drummer/vocalist Don Brewer, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Mark Farner, and bassist Mel Schacher in 1971, it was pretty potent.

Opening tracks don’t get much better than “Footstompin’ Music.” This uptempo boogie bomb does what it says on the tin, pretty much running head-to-head with the Bohannon funk burner of the same title. Put this on at a party and watch rivalry turn into revelry. “People, Let’s Stop The War” is tough-as-hell funk-rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on the crucial Chains And Black Exhaust compilation of black psychedelia. The sentiment—see the title—may be simple-minded, but it was righteously on point during the Vietnam conflict. “Upsetter” is burly, uproarious party rock that’s very clever with maracas (no, it doesn’t sound like Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire”), while “I Come Tumblin’” peddles rugged, churning rock that’ll whip you into a sweaty frenzy, if you’re open to its rude, thrusting nature.

That’s a hell of a side 1, so side 2 can’t help seeming a bit lacking in comparison. The best thing I can say about the middling hard rock of “Save The Land” is that it must’ve burned a lot of calories during the recording of it. For better for worse, the bombastic hard rock of “No Lies” sounds like a blueprint for Guns N’ Roses circa Appetite For Destruction. The LP ends with “Loneliness,” a pensive, strings-augmented ballad that sometimes tilts into bloated melodrama as it strives for a momentous climax. Nevertheless, it’s a bold tangent in this context and is pretty ambitious for GFR.

Given its fantastic, circular packaging and dynamite first side, E Pluribus Funk merits space on your shelf. File it next to Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. -Buckley Mayfield

Dick Hyman “The Age Of Electronicus” (Command, 1969)

Even some of the best Moog albums have a fair amount of cheesy camp elements littering them, and Dick Hyman’s The Age Of Electronicus is no different. While Robert Moog’s invention tends to time-stamp music with as much finality as Auto-Tune has done in this century’s first two decades, some of the former material has endured beyond cheap nostalgia thrills. And that includes this cover-heavy opus.

Now a spry 92, Hyman was 42 when Electronicus came out, and he’d established himself as a jazz pianist who once played with Charlie Parker. Dick also was the in-studio organist for the stunt game show Beat The Clock, which sounds like a very fun gig. So, dude has chops. He applied his dexterity and ingenuity to the then-novel Moog synthesizer with both virtuosity and opportunistic glee.

Electronicus boasts the obligatory Beatles covers (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Blackbird”), two Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts (“Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions”), Hair show-stopper “Aquarius,” an interpretation of James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and merely one original. Sure, Electronicus smacks of Moog-hysteria cash-in, but Hyman’s inventiveness with this familiar and relatively eclectic material raises the record high above most of its counterparts now moldering in bargain bins.

The album starts with one of the Beatles’ most insufferable tunes, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and Hyman squirts chintzy Moog sauce all over the gratingly ingratiating dud. Thankfully, this poor start’s obliterated by the über-funky “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” which has more freaky libidinousness than you’d expect from suit-and-tie-wearing, middle-aged white guy who likes to twiddle nobs. Yeah, I’ll still drop this heater into DJ sets. “Blackbird”’s solemn beauty survives Hyman’s wonky timbres and insistent, synthetic pulsations—barely. I bet McCartney dug it.

“Aquarius” is “Aquarius”; it’s hard not to smirk when any version of it is playing. Hair-raising it isn’t. However, “Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions” strut with alpha-male bravado while flaunting extremely flute-y tonalities. Hyman finds a quite annoying setting on the Moog for the folk standard “Both Sides Now,” so I usually skip over it. The sentimental Bacharach-David movie theme “Alfie” fares a bit better, but is still inconsequential. However, the lone Hyman composition, “Kolumbo,” is an epic excursion into complex, swarming oscillations and delayed percussion. It’s by far Electronicus‘ most serious and psychedelic effort. I wish Hyman would’ve unknotted his tie and frolicked in this direction more often.

One good thing about Electronicus: It hasn’t become a hipster totem nor received a fashionable deluxe reissue, so you can still find used vinyl copies for under $10… for now. -Buckley Mayfield

Cabaret Voltaire “Eight Crepuscule Tracks” (Interior, 1987)

If you’re looking for a relatively easy, affordable way to get into Cabaret Voltaire, you should check out the Eight Crepuscule Tracks compilation. Gathering cuts from the English electronic group’s fecund 1981-1983 phase, this collection spotlights Cab Volt’s inventive industrial electro excursions. Think Throbbing Gristle, but with more danceable grooves and a greater propensity to sample American evangelists and menacing authority figures.

Composed of Richard H Kirk (who went on to a prolific solo career as a techno maverick), Stephen Mallinder (creator of the excellent 1982 LP Pow-Wow), and Chris Watson (who became a renowned field recordist), Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire began in the mid ’70s as experimental synthesists and collagists whose esoteric explorations you can hear on the 3xCD Methodology box set. By the time we get to the material on Eight Crepuscule Tracks, Cab Volt had morphed into a sinister outfit who want to make you twitch on the dance floor even as they’re inducing serious paranoia in listeners. They would go on to get even funkier and more techno- and house-oriented in the late ’80s and ’90s. But for my money, the early ’80s remain Cabaret Voltaire’s peak era.

The “Sluggin’ Fer Jesus” trilogy that opens Eight Crepuscule Tracks sets an ominous tone that epitomized Cab Volt’s enigmatically unsettling sound at that time. The first part’s an urgent, desolate shuffle that could be considered dance music, but it’s actually more of a soundtrack for a panic-stricken search for escape from a sinister plot. Part two’s a throbbing industrial nightmare scenario that would segue well into Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” or “Discipline.” “Fool’s Game – Sluggin’ Fer Jesus (Part Three)” features a slurred, ill rap by Mallinder over a malignant strain of electro-funk laced with queasy synth horns. Electro-funk is typically party music, but in Cabaret Voltaire’s hands, it’s a soundtrack for running through back alleys in terror. They loop a white American man shouting, “We’re sick and tired of hearing about all the radicals and the perverts and the liberals,” as Mallinder’s bass methodically describes a tight, head-nodding groove that works on a subliminal level.

“Yashar” is a galloping slice of Middle Eastern-inflected dystopian disco that will appeal to Severed Heads fans. The track’s innate paranoia intensifies every time the movie-dialogue sample, “There are 70 billion people over there.” “Where are they hiding?” surfaces. “Your Agent Man” pits unnerving, warped funk with automaton vocals, as it reflects the recurring CV theme of surveillance and espionage. Think Throbbing Gristle’s “20 Jazz Funk Greats” melded with Gil Mellé’s pestilential Andromeda Strain soundtrack.

“Gut Level” and “Invocation” make excellent diptych of eerie, percolating funk, with the former full of urban-aggro movie dialogue and the latter augmented by solemn monk chants looped into a liturgical drone. The comp climaxes with “Theme From ‘Shaft’” as CV convert the 1971 blaxploitation-funk smash hit into a hazy, cold-sweat chiller-thriller score. With the vocals pitched down to a creepy mutter, it’s practically Residents-like. I wonder what Isaac Hayes thought of it… if indeed he ever heard it. -Buckley Mayfield

Steve Miller Band “Circle Of Love” (Capitol, 1981)

You’ve probably seen this album 593 times while rifling through bargain bins without thinking much about it; no way it could be as wonderful as Fly Like An Eagle, amirite? Well, I certainly zipped right by it for many years. Until one day I didn’t. I finally let my curiosity about the sidelong track on side two get the best of me and… sometimes your instincts lead to positive outcomes. Such was the case with me investigating the 18-plus-minute “Macho City.”

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. First we have to dispense with side one, which is pretty disposable. “Heart Like A Wheel” is happy-go-lucky rock harking back to ’50s innocence and sincerity. This sort of regression just sounds depressing to me. Miller gives the traditional song “Get On Home” the synth-sheen treatment that commonly afflicted early ’80s records. It’s an inconsequential bauble. So is “Baby Wanna Dance,” a doo-wop-inflected, early-Beach Boys ditty that suffers from the same insipid cuteness as “Heart Like A Wheel.” “Circle Of Love” is an innocuous love song that bears a slight resemblance to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac (non-Lindsey division). So far, so uninspired.

But all of that tedium is worth it for “Macho City,” which begins as if it were “Fly Like An Eagle” on amphetamines, working up a frothy head of disco steam. Miller’s stilted spoken-word “rap” disparaging various forms of military machismo lands awkwardly, but that eventually subsides and the band locks into a jam that’s as far out as anything the hugely popular guitarist/vocalist has ever done.

While Miller limits his contributions to some sparse e-bow sighs and a few psychedelic, flanged riffs, bassist Gerald Johnson and keyboardist Byron Allred are the track’s real standouts. The former fingers out a staunch, Holger Czukay-esque funk foundation with drummer Gary Mallaber (including an homage to the famous riff from David Byrne-Brian Eno’s “Regiment”) while the latter produces a series of whooshes and drones that wouldn’t sound out of place on your favorite kosmische krautrock record from the ’70s.

“Macho City” closes with a few minutes of rain and thunder sounds. I bet Capitol execs were not happy with that, but this decision does make it easy for DJs to segue out of and offers a respite for listeners to wonder what the hell they just heard: classic-rock fixture Steve Miller creating an epic club classic that went on to be spun by underground disc jockeys such as David Mancuso. Nobody saw that coming. -Buckley Mayfield

Earth, Wind & Fire “Open Our Eyes (Columbia, 1974)

The first popular Earth, Wind & Fire album, Open Our Eyes went gold and topped the R&B charts, but Maurice White and company still hadn’t made the leap to superstardom. That would come in 1975 with That’s The Way Of The World, with its hit singles “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” and the title track. But the Chicago group’s fifth LP, Open Our Eyes, represents their last stand of stripped-down funk and R&B before their act inflated to a soul revue for stadia. As such, it’s an interesting transitional work and a solid entry point into the EW&F universe.

White front-loaded the LP with two hits. “Mighty Mighty” is the better of the two: fleet, flinty, feel-good funk that hints at the supernova soul to come soon after. Very much in the vein of early-career Kool & The Gang, the song boasts a chorus (“We are people of the party/party people of the sun.”) that can’t help lifting your spirits. It reached #4 on the US R&B chart, #29 on the singles chart. “Devotion” is a silky Commodores-like ballad that verges on innocuous, although Philip Bailey’s supple falsetto and equally smooth backing falsettos are undeniably sweet. This one reached #33 on the singles chart.

Co-written by Rotary Connection mastermind Charles Stepney, “Fair But So Uncool” rolls out some bittersweet midtempo funk that could’ve comfortably slotted onto Sly & The Family Stone’s Fresh, while “Kalimba Story”’s strutting, coiled funk showcases the titular instrument’s enchantingly wonky metallic timbre. The album’s zenith comes on “Drum Song,” a deep, sinuous, kalimba-enhanced afro-funk jam that sounds nothing like future big-budget EW&F smash “September.” The slow, sleazy funk of “Tee Nine Chee Bit” is the closest EW&F ever came to emulating early Funkadelic and Ohio Players, and therefore is great. The closing title track surprises with its slick, Latin soul-jazz and bubbly scat singing, somehow bringing to mind Santana and early Chicago.

Obviously, Earth, Wind & Fire released a lot of amazing music after Open Our Eyes, but they definitely lost some of the gritty charm exemplified by the best moments of this important 1974 record. -Buckley Mayfield

Weather Report “Sweetnighter” (Columbia, 1973)

Here’s the Weather Report album most loved by club DJs. The grooves these fusion virtuosi wrangle on Sweetnighter run hot, long, and thick.

From the get-go, keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz” proves Weather Report aren’t messing around. Swift, swaggering, and suave, this is epic blaxploitation-film funk. The auxiliary percussion by Dom Um Romao (chucalho, bell, tambourine) and Muruga (Moroccan clay drums) really lifts this undulating python of a track to the next level of groove trigonometry. Another Zawinul-penned marathon, “125th Street Congress,” comes out of the gate growling and prowling, its loping, chunky funk ready to dazzle your legs for 12 freakin’ minutes. Miroslav Vitous’ bass is gravid and funky enough to get Miles Davis to strut (and he never danced) while Romao’s panoply of percussion toys get a serious workout. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Non-Stop Home” features phenomenally intricate and unconventionally funky drumming from Eric Gravatt and Herschel Dwellingham (think CAN’s Jaki Liebezeit circa Ege Bamyasi) while he blows an unusual melody. Wayne’s other composition, “Manolete,” boasts complex polyrhythms in a festive, almost prog-rock configuration. It’s one of his most anomalous and interesting tracks.

But Sweetnighter is not all dance-floor heat. Weather Report get sublimely moody here, too. Take Zawinul’s “Adios,” for example: It’s a beautiful, desolate, twinkling meditation clearly left over from his days composing with Miles Davis’ electric-era groups, especially circa In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. On Vitous’ “Will,” the group creates a shaker-heavy fantasia, its languid, Latin jazz introversion all subdued sublimity and subliminal slinkiness.

Make no mistake: Sweetnighter is one of the brightest jewels you can still find in bargain bins. -Buckley Mayfield

Dennis Coffey And The Detroit Guitar Band “Evolution” (Sussex, 1971)

Even if you’ve never heard Evolution in its entirety, you’ve likely heard bits and pieces of Dennis Coffey And The Detroit Guitar Band’s debut LP sampled in dozens of hip-hop tracks. Head over to whosampled.com and gawp at the profusion of producers who’ve used Coffey and company’s extravagant funk and lysergic guitar tones to punch up their own cuts. (“Scorpio” alone has been sampled or covered 104 times.)

So, yeah, Evolution can safely be considered a foundational building block of hip-hop. The album’s essentially divided into freaky psychedelic funk heaters and simmering mellow joints that still possess traces of funk in their trunks. In the latter style you’ve got “Summer Time Girl,” “Sad Angel,” “Wind Song,” “Garden Of The Moon” (the last sampled by P.M. Dawn for their track “Even After I Die” from their stellar 1991 debut LP). These songs spotlight Coffey’s nuanced melodic chops and unerring ability to write carefree tunes. It helps that he enlisted fellow Motown session badasses like Bob Babbitt (bass) and Jack Ashford (percussion), as well as Rare Earth’s Ray Monette (tenor guitar) and Joe Podorsek (baritone guitar).

As lovely as those pieces are, though, you go to Evolution for the pure, uncut funk. Album-opener “Getting It On” busts out the gate with guitar pyrotechnics that portend extraordinary action over a taut funk rhythm; Coffey gets off a wild wah-wah solo near the end foreshadowing many other moments here. Sampled by Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and nine others, “Getting It On” is a potent way to start an album.

“Impressions Of” is the epitome of blaxploitation-flick funk. Bolstered by chikka-wakka guitar and laced with interludes of crystalline languidness, it makes you want to sprint 100 yards in 9 seconds flat. “Big City Funk” is exactly what it says on the tin. Thankfully, that big city is Detroit, and its innate funkiness is world-class and filthy as hell. Then there’s the radical makeover of “Whole Lot Of Love” [sic], which funks the fuck out of the Led Zeppelin metal-blues classic. Genius.

The record’s climax (and Coffey’s career peak), obviously, is “Scorpio,” one of the unlikeliest American hits ever, though eminently deserving that status. Very few instrumentals make the top 10 in the US, and the fact that there’s an extended drum/conga solo in the middle of the song further distinguishes “Scorpio” as an anomaly. Babbitt’s bass solo also is a master class in maximizing funkiness with minimal gestures. It’s no surprise why this track’s become a fixture in breakdancing circles.

As a lad growing up the Detroit area, I’d hear “Scorpio” on the radio and become transfixed by its galvanizing dynamics and percussive audacity. How could this be happening on a medium as humble as radio? It’s still a mystery—plus, Sussex was an indie label. (For additional appreciation of “Scorpio”’s greatness, go YouTube its airing on Soul Train. You won’t be sorry.)

In case you haven’t gathered by now, Evolution is a funk classic with sizzling psychedelic flourishes, and it still turns up occasionally in the wild at reasonable prices. Grip it with gusto. -Buckley Mayfield