Top 19 of the 2010s: Number 9

That’s right, y’all. Two posts in two days. It’s almost like 2020 again. Actually, scratch that. I don’t want it to be 2020 again. Let’s recap number 19-10 before we get to our next album:

#19: New Amerykah Pt. 2 – Erykah Badu

#18: Lemonade – Beyonce

#17: Laila’s Wisdom – Rapsody

#16: Lonerism – Tame Impala

#15: Choose Your Weapon – Hiatus Kaiyote

#14: Ventura – Anderson .Paak

#13: Stone Rollin’ – Raphael Saadiq

#12: We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

#11: The Electric  Lady – Janelle Monae

#10: But You Caint Use My Phone – Erykah Badu

#9: No Beginning No End – José James

Every album from this point on dominated my life for an extended period of time during the past decade. I can’t say that about any of the albums we’ve covered so far. These final nine albums were my default go-to albums of the decade.

For someone who rarely leaves my musical comfort zone, I spend a lot of time trying to find “The Next.” The next Prince (that’ll never happen). The next Tribe Called Quest. The next Amy Winehouse. The next D’Angelo. If D would give us more than an album per decade I wouldn’t need to find the next one, but that’s his prerogative. He’s earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. These searches of mine end up wasting a lot of my time, but when I find someone like José James it makes the hours spent listening to subpar pretenders worth it. It was on a search for the next D’Angelo one day in 2013 when I came across the album No Beginning No End. I don’t remember the circumstances. It had to be a recommendation on Twitter or maybe a shout out on Okayplayer.com that led me to James, a Minneapolis native. Seriously, name one bad thing (other than the Vikings and an anti-Semitic drunk I saw at a party once in the Twin Cities) that comes from Minneapolis. Impossible.

In José James I didn’t just find the next D’Angelo, for a moment I thought it was the actual D’Angelo. Seriously, listen to the opening track from No Beginning No End, “It’s All Over Your Body” and tell me it’s not damn near identical to the first minute of D’Angelo’s “Playa Playa.” After the brief intro “It’s All Over Your Body” drifts away from an unintentional Voodoo-era D’Angelo tribute and the album establishes a sound of its own. James’s previous work had been jazz-heavy, and NBNE was released on the Blue Note label, so you know it’s going to be jazzy. He also had a stable of Blue Note artists behind him on this album, including greats like Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, and Takuya Kuroda. The album was co-produced by bass virtuoso and veteran of D’Angelo/Soultronics/Vanguard tours Pino Palladino, and everything that guy touches is amazing.

But enough of the D’Angelo comparisons. It’s not fair to either of them, and the comparison isn’t accurate anyway. Let’s start here: James has released three times more albums in 12 years than D has in 26. At least part of what I find appealing about José James is that he’s willing to try everything. Following the neo-soul of 2012’s No Beginning No End, he released 2014’s electric guitar laden While You Were Sleeping. The following year he gave us Yesterday I Had the Blues, an album of Billie Holiday covers. Side note: If any of you can find that on vinyl send me a link. Not an easy album to find. In 2017 he came back with some contemporary R&B on the wildly underrated Love in a Time of Madness. The following year, another cover album, this time a tribute to Bill Withers titled Lean On Me. Dare I say I’d rather listen to José James than Bill Withers? Sorry, I know that’s bordering on blasphemy because Withers is a legitimate legend, but James’s voice is so good and the band is so funky on that album that I prefer it. Finally (for the moment) there’s 2020’s No Beginning No End 2, which feels to me like he took all of the knowledge he gathered in the previous decade and combined it. There’s a little bit of everything on NBNE2, and it was one of my favorite albums of 2020. There’s a live album coming in February 2021 and based on the one track I’ve heard so far, it could be the best yet because he sounds incredible live.

Here’s my hot take on José James: He simply has my favorite voice I’ve ever heard from a male vocalist. Respect to the man he knocked off the throne, Terence Trent D’Arby. Like TTD, James is one of the chosen few with a voice that can’t be imitated. As my 9-year-old daughter, Lucy, likes to say, “That voice doesn’t look like it should be coming out of that guy.” The closest comparison I can conjure is Lou Rawls. Saying he has a God-given gift doesn’t do James justice, though. He has the voice, but he also clearly knows what to do with it. He’s the apex of ability and training. I could listen to José James sing anything, and thankfully he obliges. As I mentioned above, he’s prolific. There are YouTube videos of his singing for days (check out this sick version of “Better Off Dead“) and he frequently makes more music available via social media and his Patreon page. In just under a decade he’s gone from someone I’d never heard of to one of the artists I enjoy most. But, enough of my love letter to José James. Let’s get to awards:

Favorite Song

This album is loaded from top to bottom, but there’s an unbeatable stretch of three songs in the middle of the album starting with track 5, “Come To My Door” and ending with track 7 “Do You Feel.” Sandwiched between those two is my favorite on the album, “Heaven On The Ground” written by and featuring Emily King. Musically it’s a gorgeous ballad with Ms. King’s background vocals providing a dreamy backdrop. Lyrically it’s like if Jodeci’s classic “Come and Talk To Me” grew up and put on a nice suit. The classic “I’m in love with someone but they don’t even know I exist” story. Here’s a bonus treat for anyone still reading: A cool acoustic version of James and King in studio together.

Favorite Lyric

Lay down your sword and gun
Lay down your soldier’s arms
Got to make it right
All we’ve done
Is to war and fight
On and on

Lay down your sword and gun
Lay down your soldier’s arms
You don’t wanna die so far from home
But to take a life, destroys your soul

On an album that’s almost exclusively laid back, the second track “Sword + Gun” stands out. Despite its military march drums, triumphant horns, and tribal melody, “Sword + Gun” is a call for peace. It’s an anti-war song that somehow fits in on an otherwise chill album. It doesn’t hit you over the head. And, because I completely agree with the sentiment, these are my favorite lyrics on the album.

Favorite Slow Jam/Chill Song

Since the obvious answer here is “Heaven On the Ground” since I already chose that as my favorite song on the album, I’m going to go give a shout out to to a song I haven’t mentioned yet, the title track “No Beginning No End.” On the ideal album for pouring a drink and chilling, this is the most chill song of all. It also reminds me of a story…

When I started collecting vinyl about ten years ago I told myself that I was only going to collect the classics. My favorite records. In my mind there was some music that was vinyl-worthy and some that wasn’t. Stevie Wonder on vinyl? Yes. A$AP Rocky on vinyl? No. Not that I don’t like A$AP Rocky. Just not the kind of music I spin on my great grandparents’ old turntable. Then I heard NBNE and I said, “I have to get this on vinyl.” I don’t remember the exact year, but I’m going to say it was 2013 when I got the vinyl. I hadn’t gotten a chance to spin it yet when my family left for our annual holiday party we had with our closest friends. The party was fun, but for some reason the vibe felt off. Something wasn’t right. My homie Tews and I were alone in the driveway enjoying our annual holiday shitlog (cigar) away from the kids discussing how things weren’t right. We got home from the party at about 11:30 that night and for some reason we didn’t feel like going to bed yet. So, my wife and I made a drink, dropped NBNE on the turntable, talked about a million things (mostly the party), and enjoyed José James until 3 AM. Months later we found out that multiple couples at that party – close friends of ours – were divorcing and we never had our beloved holiday party again. Instead of the bitter memory of a strange final night together with that beloved group of friends, I remember it fondly as a good time spent with my wife and the night I fell in love with vinyl and José James’ music. 600+ records later I have Mr. James to thank for my addiction.

Ring Walk Song

This is the second album in a row with no obvious Ring Walk/Hype Song. I’m not even going to attempt to choose one. I’ll cheat and leave this one blank.

Favorite Happy Song

It’s strange that a track called “Trouble” would be my choice for Favorite Happy Song, but that’s what I’m going with. It’s a song about heartbreak, yet the tempo and melody makes me nod my head and tap my foot. The lyrics say “trouble” but the vibe is cool and smooth. Instead of reading what I have to say about it, check out this dope live performance instead.

Song I’d Play if I Was DJing

There’s a caveat here as well: If I was DJing a party there’s not a song here that I’d play to get people on the dance floor. That’s not what this album is going for. However, if I was in a cool bar having a drink and wanted to hear something smooth I’d definitely spin “It’s All Over Your Body.” Cool R&B music at its best. Smooth. Sexy. Tough to beat the cool vibe on this track. And, once again, enjoy an amazing live performance of this song while you’re here.

6th Man Award

Back in the late-2000’s I came across an R&B singer named Emily King. I found her album East Side Story on iTunes and it stood out from most of the R&B I was hearing at the time. She had a unique voice and her album held my attention longer than most. However, I lost track of her after a while, that is, until I saw her featured on “Heaven On the Ground.” As it turns out, she wrote my two favorite songs on the No Beginning No End. That’s more than enough to earn my praise. Her contribution to NBNE takes it from a great album to one of my favorites of the past decade. I re-discovered King’s music and found that she may have been miscast on her first album. Her newer music is still R&B, but more singer/songwriter than pop like her first album. I strongly encourage you to check her out.

That’s it for my #9 album. Arguably the album that made me a vinyl collector and changed my life in the process. Don’t sleep on José James. The live album is coming in February and it’s gonna be amazing. Up next is an artist we’ve seen on this list once already. The #8 album is the vinyl I’ve played the most in the ten years I’ve been collecting. Not the album I’ve listened to the most. I’ve streamed other albums more. For whatever reason when I want to sit down and listen to some music and I look at my wall of records this one jumps off the shelf and on to my turntable more than any of the others. Back with more soon…

6 Comments

  1. Hey! I’m a freelance journalist in Green Bay and I found your blog. I am interested in what you are doing and would love to talk with you. You can email me at thenewcomerwi@gmail.com. I run a new website/newsletter called The NEWcomer that talks about art, culture, and politics in Northeastern Wisconsin. thenewcomerwi.substack.com

    Thanks for your time!

    Like

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