Recently, I was confronted with a hypothetical scenario in which the choices were, ‘Spend a year in jail, or Spend a year without music’. It didn’t even take me a full minute to reply that I’d have to get my mind right for that year in jail, because music is life. It’s my life, like a classic Mary album. It’s my lifeline. It’s one of the only things in life that can connect you to your best and worst moments. It’s what sparks memories, and what makes our hearts beat faster.
So this month, in honor of Black Music Month, I’m sharing ten of my favorite songs. These are tracks that, when the first beat drops, I stop what I’m doing and give it my full attention. Every time. I’ll do it in no particular order, although if I chose to list them in order, the first song listed would definitely be my #1. Here we go…
I Like, Guy
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with this song. It was on the campus of the business school I attended back in 1988. My friend Corey had just gotten Guy’s debut album and let me borrow the cassette. Once I placed it in my Walkman and pressed play, I was mesmerized. The entire album was dope, but it was this song, the first song on Side 2, that had me rewinding the tape over and over again. For weeks. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Corey ever got that tape back.
T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You), Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth
Of COURSE it’s the horns. All of them. The magic that Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth sprinkled on this classic track will never be matched. No, for real. The duo made great music in the early 90s, but THIS song was their masterpiece. Their opus. A tribute to their friend and the engine that fueled their Mount Vernon neighborhood, Troy Dixon aka Trouble T-roy of Heavy D. and the Boyz. I promise I can listen to this song on a continuous loop for days on end. Whew.
A Song for You, Donny Hathaway
Donny Hathaway might just have the most authentic voice ever known to music. When he sings ANYthing, you not only feel it, you feel like you’ve lived it. So this song, a love letter to the person he loves, is the most authentic, since it literally speaks from his heart. It’s a pointed message that unfurls every single sentiment. Every emotion. It’s everything.
So Into You, Tamia
There are probably plenty of lists that contain names of underrated singers. And if we’re being honest, this young lady’s name should be at the top of every one. Her voice is enchanting and entrancing, projecting a special type of force that gives everyone that hears it chills. And this song, with the way her voice rides the wave and the way your body can’t help but sway, is built specifically for this artist. An instant classic.
Just Because, Anita Baker
I know a lot of people like a lot of other songs by Anita, but for me, this one is my spirit animal. To love someone “just because you’re you”? Listen, that’s the type of love I want. And it’s spelled out so beautifully by one of the most unique artists to ply their craft during our lifetime. It’s special. She’s special. Just because…
Another Star, Stevie Wonder
The living legend that is Stevie Wonder has spent his entire life crafting musical art. He’s filled many albums with his unique gift, creating classic material that is loved by millions. Including me. I love almost everything he’s ever done. But if we’re being honest, he snapped on this track. Like, spazzed out. This ranks as musical perfection in my opinion, in my heart, and in my muthereffin’ crew. Yes, lawd.
I Call Your Name, Switch
I don’t have much to say about why I love this song besides the words Bobby DeBarge. His voice, b. So unique. So controlled. So divine. And to know he’s talking about the kind of love where you just have to speak the person’s name to feel a certain kinda way? Yeah, man. I’m all in.
Off The Wall, Michael Jackson
There’s always some type of debate that goes on with Michael Jackson fans as to which was the better album: Off the Wall or Thriller? For me, it’s OTW alllll day. It was one of the first times we got MJ by himself, asserting control over his material and his career. And while there were bigger hits on the album, it’s THIS one that always makes me move. I love it so much, it’s one of my staple karaoke songs. Of COURSE my voice cracks when he goes high, but still… what’s a little crack between friends? Wait… Forget I typed that. Just know I love the song.
If It Isn’t Love, New Edition
Playing this song at any gathering where Black people are prominently featured is like taking a sort of roll call. Under the right circumstances, a slew of folks will pour to the dance floor to form a choreographic Voltron, flawlessly executing the moves the group made iconic in the official video where Ralph rocked a Jheri curl AND stirrups and remained the sex symbol of his era (Hey, I don’t make the rules). From the prelude to the refrain to the synchronized foot stomps and hand motions, this song will go down as one of the best in their discography. And one of my favorite tracks of all time. I love it? What? Heh.
Around The Way Girl, LL Cool J
Everything about this track makes me smile. The artist, James Todd Smith, grew up right around the corner from me, which is not only relatable but also gives my hometown a kind of street cred that can’t be faked. The song is about the ladies that grew up in our neighborhood, from the earrings to the baby hair. These girls really DID where Bobby Brown buttons on their denim jackets and really did wait for the bus and hang out on basketball courts. It literally describes my formative years. You know, except I wasn’t a rapper and couldn’t wear Kangols because I had a long face. But I identify with it so much, it too is one of my karaoke staples. So much so I’ve performed it on stages from Bronzeville to Brooklyn, Detroit to DTLA. Classic, man. Classic.