It seemed like a good idea in the meeting ...
When we decided to do this a few months ago, we were all enthusiasm and bright ideas. Excited by the city's musical legacy--which many people aren't even aware of--we thought we'd try to highlight some of the best moments and sounds in Philadelphia's cultural history. And what better way than a list? People love lists.
So we sent out an email that said, "We have decided to take on an almost insurmountable task: We're going to try to pick the 100 Best Philly Albums of All Time." At the time, we didn't know how insurmountable that task really was.
The email was sent to dozens of people--radio DJs and program directors, club DJs,music critics, record store owners, heads of major music-related organizations, musicians, promoters, booking agents, songwriters, website owners, zine makers and people who are simply obsessed with finding that one thing on vinyl they haven't been able to find for 15 years.
It was an interesting and motley group, and most wrote back with idiosyncratic lists. The only instruction was to limit selections to artists from Philadelphia or to albums that were recorded here. We were tempted to include some people--like Nina Simone--who were tenuously connected to the city. But we decided to be a little more stringent--in our own way. Dusty Springfield never lived in Philly, but the album we list here, A Brand New Me, was recorded in Philadelphia with Gamble and Huff, which gave it a distinctly Philly sound.
Some names were on every respondent's list: Coltrane, Bowie, the Roots, Dead Milkmen. Others were relative obscurities that showed up once or twice: Sweet Stavin Chain, for instance, or Good God.
The range led us to an important resolution: Rather than produce a definitive list, we decided to come up with a quirky assemblage. Our hope in creating this catalog is that you'll discover things you didn't know before, and return to things you may have forgotten.
Check out our honorable mentions box for those who almost made it. Maybe next year ... Oh, wait--there won't be a next year. I think we've learned our lesson. (Liz Spikol)
A Love Supreme / Impulse!, 1964
Perhaps not as easily accessible as Coltrane's breakthrough classic Blue Train, which established the tenor titan as both a great improviser and a great composer, A Love Supreme revels in all the power and majesty that we now associate with John Coltrane, the jazz legend who got his professional start in Philadelphia. A trancelike and economical yet profoundly satisfying recording that clocks in at a mere 33 minutes, A Love Supreme contains standards like the massively swinging "Part Two--Resolution," with its hypnotically repetitive melody, the blissful "Part Three--Pursuance" and the hymnal Latin-induced "Part One--Acknowledgement" and its prayerful sleepwalking chant, "A love supreme, a love supreme." Backed by the equally profound quartet of drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Philly-born pianist McCoy Tyner (see No. 16), Coltrane traverses A Love Supreme as both seer and common man, meshing his unparalleled passion and technique with music that swings ferociously yet introspectively, foreshadowing the far galaxies his music would eventually inhabit. Unlike such later 'Trane albums as Sun Ship and Interstellar Space, A Love Supreme appeals to both the sheets-of-sound crowd and Blue Train diehards alike, the album bridging styles, intensity levels and thematic material in a remarkably cohesive and powerful statement of genius.
Back Stabbers / Epic/Legacy, 1972
This album, which lands on most every soul fan's list of top 10 albums ever, is considered by most R&B aficionados Gamble and Huff's best work. Unlike Motown groups like the Temps and the Tops, the O'Jays had edge and a sense of immediacy. When they sang about back-stabbers, they weren't just complaining about haters--they were indicting them. They could sound lush and funky and romantic too, which is what gave their albums an operatic feel. Back Stabbers came early in their career and established them as the consummate '70s R&B group. You couldn't help but get aboard their love train, and once there, you wanted to stay. The best thing about the O'Jays--and this album in particular--is how both they and it have aged: smoothly and gracefully.
3. Marian Anderson
Spirituals / RCA, 1999
Rumor has it that singer Marian Anderson will be featured on a stamp soon, and it's no wonder. The famous contralto was a pioneering African-American interpreter of opera and concert singing, and fought discrimination that sometimes barred her from performing. Though she was familiar with a wide classical repertoire, this album--which consists of recordings she made between 1936 and 1952--highlights what she was able to do with traditional American religious music. It includes standards like "Trampin'," "Go Down Moses," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," but there's nothing standard about the way Anderson handled the material.
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide