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Jethro Tull's 'Aqualung' At 50: Ian Anderson On How Whimsy, Inquiry & Religious Skepticism Forged The Progressive Rock Classic

Jethro Tull in 1971

Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

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Jethro Tull's 'Aqualung' At 50: Ian Anderson On How Whimsy, Inquiry & Religious Skepticism Forged The Progressive Rock Classic

Ian Anderson wasn't sure if Jethro Tull's fourth album, 'Aqualung,' could beat the last three. But the 1971 album turned out to be their masterpiece, consolidating Anderson's feelings about homelessness, love, God and an overpopulated Earth

GRAMMYs/Mar 20, 2021 - 12:28 am

By now, Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" has been lampooned by everyone from Ron Burgundy to Tony Soprano, but the song's import goes many layers deeper than throwaway jokes. It arguably could save the world.

Sure, everybody remembers that thunderclap six-note riff and leader Ian Anderson's snarling portrait of a disreputable street dweller, "eyeing little girls with bad intent." What happens next in the song is less discussed.

Over tranquil acoustic strums, Anderson sings of the itinerant character not with disgust but with almost Christlike compassion. He paints a detailed portrait of his daily routine. He takes pity on his loneliness. Most tenderly, he addresses him as "my friend."

Fifty years after Aqualung was released on March 19, 1971, it's safe to say this attitude hasn't been evergreen. In an era of quick demonization, most wouldn't try to understand Aqualung's plight or even give him the time of day. 

"I felt it had a degree of poignancy because of the very mixed emotions we feel—compassion, fear, embarrassment," Anderson tells GRAMMY.com of the title track. "It's a very mixed and contradictory set of emotions, but I think part of the way of dealing with these things is to try to understand why you feel those things."

This spirit of open, honest dialogue imbues the entire album, which Anderson wrote and he, guitarist Martin Barre, bassist Jeffrey Hammond, keyboardist John Evan and drummer Clive Bunker performed. On "My God," "Hymn 43" and "Wind-Up," Anderson analyzed organized religion and its connection to God—or lack thereof.

"I don't believe you/ You've got the whole damn thing all wrong/ He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays," he proclaimed in "Wind-Up." Some foreign governments banned the album or bleeped out offending lyrics; Bible Belters burned it.

Is this how we should deal with offending art or those we find repugnant? To Anderson, the real solution begins with turning off social media and having authentic conversations. (Yes, even with those we can't stand.)

GRAMMY.com gave Ian Anderson a ring about the writing and recording of Aqualung, his complicated relationship with religion and why "ranting and raving on Twitter... does no good for anybody."

Where was Jethro Tull at the dawn of the decade, between 1970's Benefit and Aqualung?

On tour in the U.S.A., a great deal of the time. The songs for Aqualung began—not all of them, but many of them—in Holiday Inns and similar premises through the Midwest of America. The song "Aqualung," I remember writing in a hotel. We had moved on to having separate rooms by then, so it gave me some privacy to write songs and I always had a guitar with me.

So, I remember calling Martin Barre and saying, "Hey, come up to my room. I want to run through a new song with you." He came to my room with his electric guitar—no amplifier, so I couldn't really hear what he was playing—and I showed him the essential riffs and chords through "Aqualung." He didn't imagine, as I did, how it would sound if it was plugged into an amplifier turned up to [chuckles] number 11.

I said, "Trust me, trust me. Play this riff and it's going to be a big thing." I had an acoustic guitar and he wasn't plugged in, so you had to have faith and try to use your imagination. But as a record producer, that's what I was supposed to have, so I figured I would be able to demonstrate the drama and the contrast in the song when it came to playing it on stage.

I think "My God" was another early one that was written—and, in fact, performed—during the summer of 1970. It had slightly different lyrics, but it was one of the first songs that was complete for the Aqualung album. Many of the rest followed on toward the end of the year, and some of them were written pretty much in the studio or around the time of the recording sessions. So, it was varied.

"Mother Goose," I remember that. That was pretty early on. That was in the summer of 1970 as well. So, it spanned a period of time, really, from the summer of '70 through to the end of the year, writing the music and recording. It was an experience, being an album that suffered a little bit from production problems in the then-brand-new studio that Island Records had built from a converted church. 

It wasn't a great place to work in. The big room, the big church hall was not a nice sound. Led Zeppelin were in the studio underneath in the crypt, which was much smaller and cozier and had a very neutral sound. That was a much easier place to work in. They had it pretty blocked out for their session. We were in there maybe just once—we managed to get in to record there. 

But, yeah, it was a tricky album to make, and at the end of it, I wasn't really sure if it would be well-received, but it did OK. In the months and, indeed, the years following the release, it did much more than OK. It wasn't a really slow album, but it was a slow burn. It created a stir, but it was particularly in the year or two following the release that it became a flagship for Jethro Tull throughout the world.

Ian Anderson and Martin Barre in 1971.

What was the germ of the idea behind the title track? I understand you and your then-wife wrote it together, but what compelled you to write about a homeless person so poetically?

A photograph that she had taken. She was studying photography in London at the time and came back with some photographs of homeless people in the south of London. One particular one caught my eye and I said, "Let's write a song about this guy." Not trying to imagine much about his life, but more in terms of our reaction to the homeless. 

I felt it had a degree of poignancy because of the very mixed emotions we feel—compassion, fear, embarrassment. It's a very mixed and contradictory set of emotions, but I think part of the way of dealing with these things is to try to understand why you feel those things. Some of them are reasonable, perhaps, and some of them are unreasonable. 

But the song itself was one of the probably only two occasions I can think of in my life where I wrote a song with somebody else. Actually, that's not quite true—there were two or three very early songs I co-wrote with Mick Abrahams, our guitar player in the first year of Jethro Tull. But that's not something I normally do. I'm very private as a songwriter and find it much easier to be in isolation—in intellectual quarantine.

Aqualung is full of cynicism about organized religion. In past years, you've performed in churches and been involved in their preservation. But back in 1971, where was your head regarding that subject?

Oh, very much the same as it is today. I have a natural cynicism and questioning about all aspects of organized religion. It doesn't stop me from ultimately being a great supporter of Christianity in all of its many flavors. I thoroughly support the church, especially as we go through—I mean, 50 years ago, congregations were beginning to suffer, but the church still had pretty good attendance. 

These days, it really is an enormous struggle in a very secular world to give people the options. So many churches these days are financially at the tipping point of having to fail or go bankrupt. Some of the cathedrals in the U.K. I played in to raise money for them have been literally at the point of having to close them down, just because of lack of support and, ultimately, lack of a congregation.

I mean, there are some fairly well-off, big cathedrals that charge entrance fees because they are historic buildings or very grand, but the lesser cathedrals and most churches don't have any income except for the generosity of visitors. Of course, that mainly means the regular congregation leaving some money, and sometimes, a legacy from somebody who can afford to leave money behind for posterity. 

But it costs a lot of money to keep these places going. Even a little village church may still technically be open, but they only have a service once a month because they don't have a permanent priest. They have maybe a priest who looks after several different parishes and travels around taking it in turns to do a Sunday service.

It's tough times, and I'm very much in support of the idea that we should have that freedom to go into those historic buildings, which most of them are. In America, perhaps, not so, because you're a very young country. But a little village church somewhere could be a thousand years old.

It goes back, really, to Norman times. A lot of churches built in, say, 1100 or 1200, maybe they've changed a little bit along the way architecturally or the building of a new tower or chapel or whatever, but many of them really are between 500 and 1,000 years old, and that's something I think is something worth hanging onto while they still exist. Because one thing's for sure: we aren't going to build any more.

The Victorians did. The Victorians built a few big Gothic churches that were in the style of grand European churches, and so there are a few cathedrals in the U.K. that were built in 1700 crossing into 1800. By the mid-1800s, there was a revival in Gothic architecture, so the cathedrals that follow into the mid-1800s through to the turn of the century tend to be quite grand buildings. But I often feel they lack the buzz. They lack the atmosphere and the special spiritual charge of the truly ancient cathedrals.

To me, what you're saying is reflected in "Wind Up." In that song, you're not bilious toward faith as a whole. Rather, you seem almost defensive of the essence of it—God, or the idea of God.

Yeah. I don't think we want to overstate it, but I remember the first time I went to the Vatican when I first traveled to Italy. I lasted about five minutes because I just found it so opulent and over-the-top. 

Catholicism does celebrate everything to do with art and gold-plated ornamentation. I found it very hard coming from a Protestant background in the Scottish-English churches, which were more Lutheran in their origins. Simpler, without a lot of ornamentation. So, I found Catholicism overwhelming and too obsessed with grandeur. 

I don't feel that way any longer. Many of the churches in Europe that I've visited and managed to go perform in are indeed Catholic churches. I'm perhaps more relaxed about the way in which people celebrate that because a lot of relatively poor, ordinary people see this as a symbol of the thing they can never aspire to having in terms of their own surroundings. That opulence, that grandeur gives them some comfort and tuning-in to the greatness of God, as they are taught.

But I'm not a believer. I must say. I'm not somebody who has faith, as such. I don't believe in certainties. I believe in possibilities and, occasionally, I believe in probabilities. So, if you were to put me on the scale of agnosticism of one to 10, you could probably put me down for a six, maybe a seven on a good day, in terms of confidence about there being that absolute cosmic power that we call God. 

While I greatly value the Bible, I view it as a gateway to spirituality in the same way that Islam is a gateway to spirituality and Hinduism and the world's great religions. They shouldn't be seen as absolute in terms of detail and being the only way to the truth. 

I find more acceptance in the idea that they are all different doors entering the same great building. You can come through the side door, the front door, the back door or descend from the rafters. There are lots of ways in. That's how I see religion. I place value on it, but I don't like it being pushed to me as a message of absolute certainty. 

As a child at school—14 years old, or whatever I was—I began to have feelings about the way I was being taught in regard to religion that expressed themselves in songs like "My God" and "Wind Up," for example.

And a lot of Aqualung's power lies in how it deals not only with big subjects, but small, almost mundane ones. "Wond'ring Aloud" portrays this quiet, domestic scene. What was going on in that song?

Well, it's as simple as it is. I don't very often write love songs, as such, and that is. It's a simple, calm, domestic, comfortable, cozy-warm-blanket kind of a song. A bit of a rarity for me. I tend to be more in social realism, in terms of subject matter, but I do stretch to the more whimsical, surreal songs like "Mother Goose." And songs where I'm actually giving you a little more of an insight into my own emotions.

But mostly, I'm writing about people in a landscape—almost like actors on a theater stage. I don't do close-ups of people. I don't do pure landscapes without people. I like to study people in the context in which I see them. And that comes probably from my earlier years studying painting and drawing and, indeed, photography. I see things with the eye of a photographer or a painter, and then I put them to music and words.

That perfectly encapsulates "Locomotive Breath," which sets characters against a wider landscape of capitalism run amok. Which is a theme you returned to later on with "Farm on the Freeway."

Well, the subject matter, yes, indeed. Things evolve, things change. We carry on with our expansion in terms of population and global economics. It's the reality that we have to face. 

But if there's one thing I think "Locomotive Breath" is about, it's more about population growth rather than anything else. It's talking about the material world, but as a result of a growing population, one which seemed, back in 1970, to be out of control. And if it seemed like that in 1970—well, goodness, it seems a lot more so now! 

Think about it this way. When I was born back in 1947, compared to now, the population of Earth has grown quite a bit. And if you were to ask the question, "Well, how much? 50%? 100%?" you would be surprised, I would expect, for me to tell you that since I was born, within the lifetime of one person—hopefully well within the lifetime of one person, in my case!—the population of planet Earth has slightly more than tripled. That should give pause for thought. In onegeneration, three times the population.

It clearly can't go on. There are signs, of course, that population growth in the so-called civilized Western world is slowing down. That the growth is below the threshold of sustainability, in the sense of fertility rates falling well below two through most of Europe. 

Perhaps not in America, where people like to have big families and brag about them. But in the pragmatic world of European countries and many countries elsewhere that are not technically part of Europe but within that great landmass, you see populations diminishing because people choose not to have large families. 

And so many women decide, given that they have a degree of freedom and the ability to be part of the choice, which they certainly didn't have 100 years ago. Now, they do, and they choose to have one child. Maybe two. Sometimes no children at all. So, on average, that falls to somewhere around 1.6 in the fertility rate on average around Europe.

But of course, in countries, particularly in Africa, we see that the fertility rate is somewhere up around five, six, seven. It continues to explode and brings with it, of course, overpopulation in some areas and the desperation to migrate from those areas to areas where people feel they have a better chance of survival and doing well. Add in climate change to that, and we have a recipe for mass migration in the next 50 years that will dwarf anything you've seen so far.

I would think Canada will be thinking of building a wall between the U.S.A. and Canada to stop you horny Americans from getting in!

Jethro Tull live in Germany, 1971.

Overpopulation was on your mind 50 years ago, and it still is. So were these themes of love and whimsy and religious hypocrisy. Then and now, did audiences have an accurate read on what you were trying to convey with Aqualung?

I don't really think I've ever given a great deal of thought to what audiences think or even what they want. It's not something that has ever driven me. It's an afterthought if, indeed, it's a thought at all. 

I do remember finishing the Aqualung album. After the very last session, it was so late in the night it was early morning, and the keyboard player John Evans and I went into a little cafe near Basing St. in London where the studio was, that had just opened, to do a very early breakfast. 

I remember saying to John, "What do you think? Do you think this is going to play well with our audiences and record-buyers and fans and the media?" He scratched his head and said, "I have absolutely no idea." I said, "Well, I'm a bit nervous, you know. I have my doubts it's going to hit the mark."

It was a bit nerve-wracking for the next month or two until the album was released. I did have my doubts that it was going to be a step upward from our previous album, Benefit. Either it was going to be the beginning of a new ascent to greater, loftier success, or it was going to be the beginning of the downhill slide. 

I felt it was an important album and it was relatively well-received at the time of its release in the U.K, but not overwhelmingly so. I think some of the subject material put some people off. But it was important that over the next year or two, it really did consolidate the onward surge of Jethro Tull's success in global terms. 

I mean, not global. It never did anything in China! But throughout Eastern Europe and Latin America and other places, it caught on.

But throughout Eastern Europe and Latin American places, it caught on. It might have taken a few more years to have penetrated. But Aqualung, by the mid-'70s, had become a very important and popular album throughout the European landmass, including Russia, and places where culture was very much not permitted. 

So, along with everything else, our music was banned in several countries, and it was only heard by people prepared to smuggle in bought, black-market copies, and make illegal tape copies to listen to. I do sometimes feel a sense of awe, really, in the degree to which people grew up, listening to Western rock music in defiance of the law. And potentially, a breach that would put them in prison. Or indeed, in Pinochet's Chile, even worse. 

So I thanked Mikhail Gorbachev personally when I met him some ten, 12 years ago, for being the man behind Glasnost and Perestroika. On his watch, Jethro Tull and The Beatles were the first acts from the West to be officially released on the Russian state record label Melodiya.

Was the record banned for its religious commentary? What was the deal there?

In some places, it was. For example, in Spain, in the final dying moments of Franco's fascist regime, it was indeed banned from the radio. Some words were bleeped out as well. I remember in the Bible Belt of the U.S.A., people were burning copies of Aqualung.

Jesus.

In the Evangelical South, it was seen to be sacrilegious and attracted a fair amount of attention. It had a little bit of notoriety attached to it. But, in Russia, it was just Western music generally. As indeed in some of the world's other countries, it was forbidden, verboten, because it was Western, decadent rock music, and it could seduce the youth and cause mayhem, madness, upheaval and revolution. 

But in Gorbachev's time, I think he wisely released that it was time to gently release the safety valve and create a bit more freedom. And while, of course, he had nothing whatsoever to do with saying, "Oh, we'll release Jethro Tull. I've always liked them!" That's not what happened. It was just, he created an atmosphere where that could come about. 

And so, I think we saw the end result is not only a growth of popularity and accessibility of Western rock music, but it also encouraged many of the homegrown rock bands to actively and more publicly pursue their dreams without fear of arrest. Which is a good thing.

Ian Anderson imitating the Aqualung cover art in 2011.

That level of censorship is alarming to me. Because it's not a record of blunt, ugly atheism; it's yearning and nuanced on that subject. Do you feel this one-dimensional attitude has taken hold in the 21st century as well?

I think I find that one-dimensional attitude liberally dispensed around the Old Testament of the Holy Book. That's what people go for. They like things black-and-white, and simple and direct, and they like a little bit of fear and diatribe and retribution thrown in. It's what happens.

But, of course, in our much more accessible world in terms of media, and social media in particular, people are able to express views instantly, loudly, even if sometimes they might regret them. And black-and-white is the order of the day, so everything is polarized and divisive. 

And I think, America, perhaps, more than any country in the world is an absolute demonstration of that, in terms of the way politics have divided a nation. And the degree to which people might have had a genuine and positive and valuable feeling of loyalty to their country, it's become so split and polarized that I think past ways of looking at it have now become very hard to grasp. 

Being a two-party system unlike Europe where there are many parties—and obviously, coalitions come about as a result of the failure of any party to achieve a massive level of superiority. In your country, it's essentially two parties, first past the post, and that's it. But, in fact, it's not it because, of course, you then contest the election result, and claim it was stolen. 

So, it's a tough world these days, and I think we have a real problem on our hands, collectively. Not just in the U.S.A., but collectively, as a result of populist politics and the divisiveness that seems to go with it.

If we're not allowed to unpack and examine these complicated subjects as you did on Aqualung, we're going to have a sad, withered society. How do we restore nuance to the public discourse so we're not firing professors over tweets?

I think it is exactly by that. By having conversations as opposed to ranting and raving on Twitter, which does no good for anybody. I think it's about listening to other peoples' points of view and trying to understand them, even if don't agree with them. If you don't arrive at an agreement, at least you've hopefully had a conversation and let people know how and why you have the views that you do.

Because to some extent, it is about the media environment. As you say, societal norms that you've grown up in.

Is the problem that we often smear the person or write them off before the conversation begins?

Yeah. I think you've got to give people a chance, and sometimes you have to be discrete, and you can't always say what's on your mind.

I think my views of the Republican Party are of something a little bit more traditional, conservative, discrete, and gentlemanly. You can't actually describe the U.S. Senate in those terms today!

It's a little bent out of shape, and I personally think it's going to take a lot of calming down. People have to calm themselves down. But sore losers like Ted Cruz, or indeed Donald Trump, they're not going quietly into the background, they only see further opportunities to be exhibiting their extreme views, and trying to grab a bit more power. So, it's a scary world.

Ian Anderson live in Berlin, 2018.

I have a bit of a soft spot for George W. Bush. I felt he had a kind of gentlemanly spirit about him and a restraint. I don't know if you've ever read his book after his presidency was over. I'm assuming he didn't sit there and write every word himself, but it seemed very much the genuine sentiments of somebody who had, at least, painstakingly done it through a series of interviews. Or perhaps he had typed a lot of it out himself; I really don't know. 

But it was, I think, a mark of the man, that he demonstrated a degree of his own failings, his dependence, as a U.S president, on listening to the advice coming from people around him. Obviously, notably Rumsfeld and Cheney. He didn't badmouth them, but you could tell from his book that he was circumspect, I think, in hindsight, about some of the things that he was given to work with. 

He wasn't a great president, but he certainly wasn't a bad one. The world would be a much better place, right now, with George W. Bush as U.S president, than the previous one. And we are at this point, now, where we've got your oldest president—or to become president—the oldest man in historical terms to probably serve only a single term, before he has to hand it over to younger blood. 

But boy, did he inherit the second-worst gig on planet Earth right now! In a pandemic year, or two, to try to gradually bring America back to some kind of prosperity, and a degree of normalcy, against all the odds. And everybody's waiting to find every potential failing to try and make him look ineffectual. It's the second toughest gig on planet Earth.

And in case you weren't going to ask me, "Well, who's got the worst gig on planet Earth?" I'll tell you. It's Frank! Pope Francis! It's a really rough time to be the Pope. Because you're presiding over what appears, to many, to be a sinking ship. Catholicism throughout the world is losing ground rapidly, and his role can't be to overturn things at a single throw. It's got to be gentle and gradual.

Just like the U.S president has to work with the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Pope has to work with his cardinals, and indeed, throughout the world, with a lot of people who view him as being far too liberal. So, it's a tough gig, and I don't envy his role at all. Nonetheless, I think he's definitely, in my world, a great improvement over the last few.

You just laid out nuanced portraits of complicated, often vilified figures. To me, that spirit of conciliation runs deep in Aqualung. And Steven Wilson's excellent remix [from 2011] means we can commune with that message more directly than ever.

I'm not sure that it demonstrates itself as well as it might, when you listen to it only on Spotify, let's say.

What Steven has done, being a sensitive and careful person, with great respect for the music as it was originally unveiled, all that time ago—not just our music, but other people that he's worked with, on remixing. What he does is to clarify, to put a little sparkle into the audio by cleaning everything up, to get rid of all those hums and buzzes and clicks and bits of spurious noise between passages of music that the analog world couldn't do.

In digital terms, you can create so much more transparency with the old analog tapes, if you just patiently go back, tidying everything up, so that you hear what you hear, only when it has something to say, rather than being 24 tracks of crumbling, rumbling, spurious tape noise and hiss.

But he doesn't mess too much with either the stereo layout of the instruments or, indeed the balance of the instruments. He takes the original mixes as his model and refines it with great care and discipline, and above all, I think, respect for the original work. It's at its best when you hear it in a high-quality digital format, but for most people, of course, it's an MP3, or it's streaming from some platform. 

You probably still discern the differences, but it's at its best when you listen to it in higher quality. Even a very well-cut and -pressed vinyl album has a certain quality about it, these days. Much better than it did, back when I used to do it, in the '70s. Even though they're still using 1960s Neumann cutting lathes in the studios of the world, are still cut, master lacquers, for the industry. Even though it's ancient equipment, it's better understood, and it's maintained meticulously by people who are invariably music fans.

These days, you go into a cutting room, there's no smoking, there's no everything, it's air-conditioned, clean air, no dust, no mess, nothing to potentially ... It's more like laboratory conditions. And I saw that, actually, in Japan, when I went there, to JVC studios, in the early days of quadraphonic sound, and cutting the very first quadraphonic albums. Everybody was wearing face masks and white coats!

And I loved doing it back then; back in the early '80s. But the reality is that, these days, people take it so much more seriously, to get a good, clean, tidy cut. And they can do it. But, in the '70s, George "Porky" Peckham, one of the most famous cutting engineers that I used to work with, cut all the Led Zeppelin albums, as well as Jethro Tull, and a whole host of... everybody, I suppose, at that time. 

He always had a cigarette in his mouth, and he would lean over the master lacquer, peering through the microscopy to check the grooves, with ash dropping onto the master. So it would probably be true to say there are probably some Led Zeppelin albums where you can't smell George Peckham's cigarette, but you can hear it! Little bits of ash that found their way into the groove and had got pressed!

That's all I've got, Ian. Thank you so much.

Well, nice to talk to you. Take care. Hopefully, in months and years to come, the music industry will be back to some kind of positive and fruitful level of activity again in the U.S.A. We're nowhere near that yet, that's for sure. Maybe six months from now, I think, you should be, hopefully, in a position to begin to do concerts again.

We have a U.K theater tour booked in September, which I'm hopeful we will be able to do. But, every week that goes by, we cancel or postpone concerts into 2022, which we've already postponed since 2020. We're having to push them even further away since they're not going to be feasible for the next three or four months. 

We'll try and keep optimistic, and hope that we can all get back on the road.

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Mary J. Blige

Photos: (L to R): Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; KMazur/WireImage; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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Songbook: How Mary J. Blige Became The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Through Empathy, Attitude And An Open Heart

With 14 albums and nine GRAMMYs under her belt, Mary J. Blige puts no limitations on the music she creates. Explore her extensive catalog of hits, soundtrack favorites, stunning covers and impactful remixes.

GRAMMYs/Jan 30, 2023 - 06:26 pm

Mary J. Blige’s tireless work ethic, extraordinary singing talent and soul-level relatability are the secret ingredients to her longevity as a recording artist. Her discography includes nine GRAMMY wins and 37 nominations, and the multi-hyphenate artist continues to demonstrate that there's no limit to her creativity.

Blige is nominated for six awards at the 2023 GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year and Best R&B Album for Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe). The title track is nominated in three categories: Record Of The Year, Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song, and "Here With Me" is up for Best R&B Performance.

Good Morning Gorgeous encapsulates the true self-love Blige felt after healing from divorce, abusive relationships and depression. As she explains on an album interlude "good morning gorgeous" is the affirmation Blige now says to herself in the mornings — and, for the first time, she believes it. And when it comes to the odds of adding to her GRAMMY wins on Feb. 5, it’s safe to wager that Blige thinks they’re sound.

"Bet on me, why not?" Blige sings in the chorus of the album’s "On Top." "Don’t act like I never left on top."

For her resonant musical messages, Blige has been crowned the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. But  she’s also an industry professional who deftly sets and iterates on trends, keeping even her earliest releases relevant and exciting. 

Blige became a record label boss when she released Good Morning Gorgeous as a joint venture between Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment and her own Mary Jane Productions. She’s a frequent executive producer of her albums and multimedia projects and is set to executive produce two fictional films for Lifetime in 2023 through her production company Blue Butterfly. Real Love and Strength of a Woman are both named for her songs. Real Love is described as a romantic drama set in an upstate New York college. 

After more than 30 years of recording, Blige has amassed an acclaimed and extensive discography of consummate original classics, deep soundtrack cuts, scene-stealing covers and remixes. Press play on the Amazon Music playlist above and use the below guide as a diving board into a career full of the empathetic pain, healing, promise and happiness that she has shared with unflinching honesty and vulnerability.

The Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul

Blige was living in a housing project in Yonkers, N.Y. when the late Andre Harrell signed her to his Uptown Records, which released her 1992 debut album, What’s The 411? Harrell coined the nickname Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to describe the fresh way Blige's music melded rap beats with R&B hooks.

Harrell and his then-intern Sean Combs gave her a rugged style to match her music, with boots and baseball caps instead of heels and sparkles. Young women from the inner city saw themselves in Blige's aesthetic and in her rawness.

Yet admiration for Blige’s powerful vocals and unique tone grew before her name was ever recognized. Blige was first heard as a backup singer for Father MC’s 1990 hit "I'll Do 4 U" and, the following year, her own single "You Remind Me" (from the Strictly Business soundtrack) gave Blige some street buzz to lead into What’s The 411? The hip-hop swagger of "Real Love" — which samples "Top Billin'" by Audio Two, a beat highly familiar to New York City fans at the time — served as her formal introduction to the world and remains a calling card decades later.

The My Life Era (Extended Mix)

Contrary to the music industry’s sophomore slump stereotype, Blige’s second album is a seminal work. 1994's My Life became career-defining, and an album that she has subsequently reflected on to show her growth.

The album is a reflection of her volatile relationship with singer Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey, Blige explained in Mary J. Blige’s My Life, a documentary she executive produced for Amazon Studios in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary. Throughout, Blige keenly pairs heights of happiness with depths of her despair on songs like "You Bring Me Joy," "I’m Goin’ Down," "I Love You" and "Be Happy." 

"The whole 'My Life' album is, 'Please love me, don’t go, I need you,'" she said in the documentary. Combs, then known as Puffy, continued: "When she made that album, she was fighting for her heart." (Combs and Harrell served as executive producers of My Life.)

Blige and Combs never collaborated quite so closely again, though they remained friends. Combs didn’t produce 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1), but he appears in a telephone skit to open the album, similarly to how he did on My Life. The sequel features guest stars such as Nas, Beyoncé and Drake.

Though her earlier works hinted at the potential, My Life most firmly established Blige as a beacon for hurt hearts everywhere. In a 2021 interview with Trevor Noah, Blige described how childhood physical and mental abuse, as well as her relationship with Hailey, led to substance abuse and depression. When she used the songs on My Life as a way of saying she needed help, "four million people responded and said, ‘'We need help, too.'"

Covers, Collaborations And Remixes

Cover songs have been an acclaimed — and long-lasting — part of Blige’s career ever since she sang "Sweet Thing" by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan on What’s The 411? Blige released her hugely popular version of Rose Royce’s "I’m Goin’ Down" in 1994, which reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, and she beat Beyoncé to the punch in 2000 with her take on Maze’s "Before I Let Go."

But her ascension to rock star status has a lot to do with her scene-stealing covers of songs of stadium-level acts. Blige has delivered epic versions of songs by Led Zeppelin ("Stairway To Heaven") and Sting ("Whenever I Say Your Name"), and when she collaborated with U2 on a new version of "One," there’s an audible battle with Bono as to whose song this is now.

Blige collaborates with rap, R&B, rock, country, electronic and classical artists with equal ease, and her discography includes work with late legends, including "Holdin’ On" with Aretha Franklin and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s "As" with George Michael. She won her first career GRAMMY in 1995 for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for "I'll Be There For You / You're All I Need To Get By," a collaboration with Method Man that covers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

A dance music collaboration with London duo Disclosure called "F for You" in 2013 helped to catalyze an entire album from the Capital of England called The London Sessions. The 2014 album features a second collaboration with Disclosure ("Right Now"), a cameo from UK garage DJ/producer MJ Cole ("Nobody But You") and guest vocals from Scottish singer Emeli Sandé ("Whole Damn Year").

Blige has long understood the potency of both hip-hop and dance music remixes, which remain a part of her single roll-outs. Over the years, she created a remix album of songs from What’s The 411?, and in 2002 released club-focused reworks of songs from No More Drama, Mary and Share My World on Dance For Me

Blige's remixes also pay homage. On her cover of First Choice’s "Let No Man Put Asunder," Blige honors singers who came before by featuring guest vocals from the group's lead singer, Rochelle Fleming.

Her Rap Alter Ego

Blige has rapped a few times on her albums, beginning with a verse in "Love," from 2001’s No More Drama. She won her first solo GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 2003 for "He Think I Don't Know" from No More Drama. By the time she rhymed on "Enough Cryin’" and "Take Me As I Am" (both from 2005’s The Breakthrough), her rap alter ego had a name: Brook Lynn.

Her cadence caught the ear of her friend Busta Rhymes, who recruited Blige for his "Touch It (Remix)" the next year. "The haters plot and they watch, lookin’ all pale/While I’m on a yacht overseas, doin’ my nails," she raps alongside Busta, Missy Elliott and Rah Digga.

Brook Lynn took a hiatus for a few years after that, but she came back blazing in 2011. "Homegirls love me and we be ridin' Phantoms/Mad chicks hate me 'cause I be writin' anthems," she rhymes on "Midnight Drive" from My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)

The Soundtracks

Since "You Remind Me," her first Top 40 entry, appeared on the soundtrack to Strictly Business, Blige has written stunning original songs such as "I Can See in Color" for Precious (2009). She has also licensed other hits to dozens of movies.

After years of contributing to soundtracks, Blige created her own as executive producer and performer of the soundtrack for Think Like a Man Too (2014), which includes a cover of Shalamar’s "A Night to Remember" and guest appearances by Pharrell Williams and The-Dream.

Blige has been cast in several acting roles since she guest starred in an episode of The Jamie Foxx Show in 1998 and has played fictional characters as well as real life figures Betty Shabazz (Betty and Coretta) and Dinah Washington (Respect). She received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for her work on 2017 film Mudbound.

More than 30 years into her recording career, Blige appears happy, energized and ready to add more hits and heartfelt anthems to her songbook.

Songbook: A Guide To Whitney Houston's Iconic Discography, From Her '80s Pop Reign To Soundtrack Smashes

20 Albums Turning 50 In 2023: 'Innervisions,' 'Dark Side Of The Moon' 'Catch A Fire' & More
Clockwise: Stevie Wonder 'Inversions', Pink Floyd 'Dark Side of the Moon', the Allman Brothers Band 'Brothers and Sisters', Al Green 'Call me', David Bowie 'Alladin Sane,' Roberta Flack 'Killing Me Softly'

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20 Albums Turning 50 In 2023: 'Innervisions,' 'Dark Side Of The Moon' 'Catch A Fire' & More

1973 saw a slew of influential records released across genres — many of which broke barriers and set standards for music to come. GRAMMY.com reflects on 20 albums that, despite being released 50 years ago, continue to resonate with listeners today.

GRAMMYs/Jan 24, 2023 - 04:08 pm

Fifty years ago, a record-breaking 600,000 people gathered to see the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and the Band play Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. This is just one of many significant historical events that happened in 1973 — a year that changed the way music was seen, heard and experienced.

Ongoing advancements in music-making tech expanded the sound of popular and underground music. New multi-track technology was now standard in recording studios from Los Angeles to London. Artists from a variety of genres experimented with new synthesizers, gadgets like the Mu-Tron III pedal and the Heil Talk Box, and techniques like the use of found sounds.  

1973 was also a year of new notables, where now-household names made their debuts. Among these auspicious entries: a blue-collar songwriter from the Jersey Shore, hard-working southern rockers from Jacksonville, Fla. and a sister group from California oozing soul. 

Along a well-established format, '73 saw the release of several revolutionary concept records. The EaglesDesperado, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Lou Reed’s Berlin and the Who’s Quadrophenia are just a few examples that illustrate how artists used narrative techniques to explore broader themes and make bigger statements on social, political and economic issues — of which there were many.

On the domestic front, 1973 began with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. Internationally, the Paris Peace Accords were signed — starting the long process to end the Vietnam War. An Oil crisis caused fuel prices to skyrocket in North America. Richard Nixon started his short-lived second term as president, which was marked by the Watergate scandal. 

Politics aside, the third year of the '70s had it all: from classic- and southern-rock to reggae; punk to jazz; soul and R&B to country. Read on for 20 masterful albums with something to say that celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2023. 

Band On The Run - Paul McCartney & Wings

Laid down at EMI’s studio in Lagos, Nigeria and released in December 1973, the third studio record by Paul Mcartney & Wings is McCartney’s most successful post-Beatles album. Its hit singles "Jet" and the title cut "Band on the Run" helped make the record the biggest-selling in 1974 in both Australia and Canada.

Band on the Run won a pair of GRAMMYS the following year: Best Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus and Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical. McCartney added a third golden gramophone for this record at the 54th awards celebration when it won Best Historical Album for the 2010 reissue. In 2013, Band on the Run was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame. 

Head Hunters - Herbie Hancock

Released Oct. 13, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters was recorded in just one week; its

four songs clock in at just over 40 minutes. That the album was not nominated in the jazz category, but instead Best Pop Instrumental Performance, demonstrates how Hancock was shifting gears.

Head Hunters showed Hancock moving away from traditional instrumentation and playing around with new synthesizer technology — especially the clavinet — and putting together a new band: the Headhunters. Improvisation marks this as a jazz record, but the phrasing, rhythms and dynamics of Hancock’s new quintet makes it equal parts soul and R&B with sprinkles of rock 'n' roll. 

The album represented a commercial and artistic breakthrough for Hancock, going gold within months of its release. "Watermelon Man" and "Chameleon," which was nominated for a Best Instrumental GRAMMY Award in 1974, were later both frequently sampled by hip-hop artists in the 1990s.

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. - Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen, 22, was the new kid in town in 1973. This debut was met with tepid reviews. Still, Greetings introduced Springsteen’s talent to craft stories in song and includes many characters The Boss would return to repeatedly in his career. The album kicks off with the singalong "Blinded by the Light," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 100 four years later via a cover done by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. This was the first of two records Springsteen released in 1973; The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle arrived before the end of the year — officially introducing the E Street Band.

Innervisions - Stevie Wonder 

This Stevie Wonder masterpiece shows an artist, in his early 20s, experimenting with new instrumentation such as TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra) — the world’s largest synth — and playing all instruments on the now-anthemic "Higher Ground."

The song reached No.1 on the U.S. Hot R&B Singles Chart, and Innervisions peaked at No. 4. The album won three GRAMMYS the following year, including Album Of The Year. Wonder was the first Black artist to win this coveted golden gramophone. In 1989, Red Hot Chili Peppers kept the original funk, but injected the song with a lot of rock on their cover — the lead single from Mother’s Milk.

The Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink Floyd

Critics perennially place this Pink Floyd album, the band's eighth studio record, as one of the greatest of all-time. The Dark Side of the Moon hit No.1 and stayed on the Billboard charts for 63 weeks.

A sonic masterpiece marked by loops, synths, found sounds, and David Gilmour’s guitar bends, Dark Side of the Moon is also a concept record that explores themes of excessive greed on tracks like "Money." Ironically, an album lambasting consumerism was the top-selling record of the year and has eclipsed 45 million sales worldwide since its release. The album’s cover has also become one of the most recognized in the history of popular music.

Pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd - Lynyrd Skynyrd

This debut release features several of the northern Florida rockers' most beloved songs: "Gimme Three Steps," "Tuesday’s Gone" and "Simple Man." The record, which has since reached two-times platinum status with sales of more than two million, also includes the anthemic "Free Bird," which catapulted them to stardom. The song with its slow-build and definitive guitar solo and jam in the middle became Lynyrd Skynyrd's signature song that ended all their shows; it also became a piece of pop culture with people screaming for this song during concerts by other artists.

Houses Of The Holy - Led Zeppelin

The first Led Zeppelin record of all originals — and the first without a Roman numeral for a title — Houses of the Holy shows a new side of these British hardrockers. Straying from the blues and hard rock of previous records, Houses of the Holy features funk (“The Ocean” and “The Crunge”) and even hints of reggae (“D’Yer Mak’er”). This fifth studio offering from Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham also includes one of this writer’s personal Zeppelin favorites — "Over the Hills and Far Away.” The song was released as the album’s first U.S. single and reached No. 51 on the Billboard charts. Despite mixed reviews from critics, Houses of the Holy eventually achieved Diamond status for sales of more than 10 million. Interesting fact: the song “Houses of the Holy” actually appears on the band’s next record (Physical Graffiti).

Quadrophenia - The Who

The double-album rock opera followed the critical success of Tommy and Who’s Next. Pete Townshend composed all songs on this opus, which was later adapted into a movie. And, in 2015, classically-scored by Townshend’s partner Rachel Fuller for a new generation via a symphonic version (“Classic Quadrophenia”). The story chronicles the life of a young mod named Jimmy who lives in the seaside town of Brighton, England. Jimmy searches for meaning in a life devoid of significance — taking uppers, downers and guzzling gin only to discover nothing fixes his malaise. With sharp-witted songs, Townshend also tackles classicism. His band of musical brothers: Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon provide some of their finest recorded performances. The album reached second spot on the U.S. Billboard chart.

Berlin - Lou Reed

Produced by Bob Ezrin, Berlin is a metaphor. The divided walled city represents the divisive relationships and the two sides of Reed — on stage and off. The 10 track concept record chronicles a couple’s struggles with drug addiction, meditating on themes of domestic abuse and neglect. As a parent, try to listen to "The Kids" without shedding a tear. While the couple on the record are named Caroline and Jim, those who knew Reed’s volatile nature and drug dependency saw the parallels between this fictionalized narrative and the songwriter’s life.

Catch A Fire - Bob Marley & the Wailers

The original cover was enclosed in a sleeve resembling a Zippo lighter. Only 20,000 of this version were pressed. Even though it was creative and cool, cost-effective it was not — each individual cover had to be hand-riveted. The replacement, which most people know today, introduces reggae poet and prophet Robert Nesta Marley to the world. With a pensive stare and a large spliff in hand, Marley tells you to mellow out and listen to the tough sounds of his island home.

While Bob and his Wailers had been making music for nearly a decade and released several records in Jamaica, Catch a Fire was their coming out party outside the Caribbean. Released in April on Island Records, the feel-good reggae rhythms and Marley’s messages of emancipation resonated with a global audience. A mix of songs of protest ("Slave Driver," "400 years") and love ("Kinky Reggae"), Catch A Fire is also notable for "Stir it Up," a song American singer-songwriter Johnny Nash had made a Top 15 hit the previous year. 

The New York Dolls - The New York Dolls

The New York Dolls burst on the club scene in the Big Apple, building a cult following with their frenetic and unpredictable live shows. The Dolls' hard rock sound and f-you attitude waved the punk banner before the genre was coined, and influenced the sound of punk rock for generations. (Bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and KISS, cite the New York Dolls as mentors.) Singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren — who found time to release A Wizard, A True Star this same year — produced this tour de force. From the opening "Personality Crisis," this five-piece beckons you to join this out-of-control train.

Aladdin Sane - David Bowie

This David Bowie record followed the commercial success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars. Many critics unfairly compare the two. A career chameleon, with Aladdin Sane, Bowie shed the Ziggy persona and adopted another alter-ego. The title is a pun that means: "A Lad Insane." For the songwriter, this record represented an attempt to break free from the crazed fandom Ziggy Stardust had created.

A majority of the songs were written the previous year while Bowie toured the United States in support of Ziggy. Journal in hand, the artist traveled from city to city in America and the songs materialized. Most paid homage to what this “insane lad” observed and heard: from debauchery and societal decay ("Cracked Actor") to politics ("Panic in Detroit") to punk music ("Watch That Man"). Top singles on Aladdin Sane were: "The Jean Genie" and "Drive-In Saturday." Both topped the U.K. charts.

Faust IV -Faust

This fourth studio album — and the final release in this incarnation by this experimental avant-garde German ambient band — remains a cult classic. Recorded at the Manor House in Oxfordshire, England (Richard Branson’s new Virgin Records studio and the locale where Mike Oldfield crafted his famous debut Tubular Bells, also released in 1973), Faust IV opens with the epic 11-minute instrumental "Krautrock" — a song that features drones, clusters of tones and sustained notes to create a trance-like vibe. Drums do not appear in the song until after the seven minute mark.

The song is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the genre British journalists coined to describe bands like Faust, which musicians largely did not embrace. The rest of Faust IV is a sonic exploration worthy of repeated listens and a great place to start if you’ve ever wondered what the heck Krautrock is.

Brothers & Sisters - the Allman Brothers Band

Great art is often born from grief, and Brothers & Sisters is exemplary in this way. Founding member Duanne Allman died in 1971 and bassist Berry Oakley followed his bandmate to the grave a year later; he was killed in a motorcycle accident in November 1972. Following this pair of tragedies, the band carried on the only way they knew how: by making music.

With new members hired, Brothers & Sisters was recorded with guitarist Dicky Betts as the new de facto band leader. The Allman Brothers Band’s most commercially successful record leans into country territory from the southern rock of previous releases and features two of the band’s most popular songs: "Ramblin’ Man" and "Jessica." The album went gold within 48 hours of shipping and since has sold more than seven million copies worldwide.  

Call Me -  Al Green

Call Me is considered one of the greatest soul records of the 20th century and Green’s pièce de résistance. The fact this Al Green album features three Top 10 Billboard singles "You Ought to Be With Me," "Here I Am" and the title track helps explain why it remains a masterpiece. Beyond the trio of hits, the soul king shows his versatility by reworking a pair of country songs: Hank Williams’ "I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry," and Willie Nelson’s "Funny How Time Slips Away."

Killing Me Softly - Roberta Flack

This Roberta Flack album was nominated for three GRAMMY Awards and won two: Record Of The Year and Best Female Vocal Pop Performance at the 1974 GRAMMYs (it lost in the Album of the Year category to Innervisions). With equal parts soul and passion, Flack interprets beloved ballads that showcase her talent of taking others’ songs and reinventing them. Producer Joel Dorn assembled the right mix of players to back up Flack adding to the album’s polished sound. Killing Me Softly has sold more than two million copies and, in 2020, Roberta Flack received the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award.

The album's title cut became a No.1 hit in three countries and, in 1996, the Fugees prominently featured Lauryn Hill on a version that surpassed the original: landing the No.1 spot in 21 countries. The album also includes a pair of well-loved covers: Leonard Cohen’s "Suzanne" and Janis Ian’s wistful "Jesse," which reached No. 30.

Bette Midler - Bette Middler

Co-produced by Arif Mardin and Barry Manilow, the self-titled second studio album by Bette Midler was an easy- listening experience featuring interpretations of both standards and popular songs. Whispers of gospel are mixed with R&B and some boogie-woogie piano, though Midler’s voice is always the star. The record opens with a nod to the Great American Songbook with a reworking of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s "Skylark." The 10-song collection also features a take on Glenn Miller’s "In the Mood," and a divine cover of Bob Dylan’s "I Shall be Released." The record peaked at No. 6 on the U.S. charts.

Imagination - Gladys Knight & the Pips

Released in October, Imagination was Gladys Knight & the Pips' first album with Buddha Records after leaving Motown, and features the group’s only No. 1 Billboard hit:  "Midnight Train to Georgia." The oft-covered tune, which won a GRAMMY the following year, and became the band’s signature, helped the record eclipse a million in sales, but it was not the only single to resonate. Other timeless, chart-topping songs from Imagination include "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," and "I’ve Got to Use My Imagination."

The Pointer Sisters - The Pointer Sisters

The three-time GRAMMY-winning Pointer Sisters arrived on the scene in 1973 with this critically-acclaimed self-titled debut. Then a quartet, the group of sisters from Oakland, California made listeners want to shake a tail feather with 10 songs that ranged from boogie-woogie to bebop. Their sisterly harmonies are backed up by the San Francisco blues-funk band the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. The record opens with "Yes We Can," a hypnotic groove of a song written by Allen Toussaint which was a Top 15 hit alongside another cover, Willie Dixon’s "Wang Dang Doodle."

Behind Closed Doors - Charlie Rich

This pop-leaning country record of orchestral ballads, produced by Billy Sherrill, made Rich rich. The album has surpassed four million in sales and remains one of the genre’s best-loved classics. The album won Charlie Rich a GRAMMY the following year for Best Country Vocal Performance Male and added four Country Music Awards. Behind Closed Doors had several hits, but the title track made the most impact. The song written by Kenny O’Dell, and whose title was inspired by the Watergate scandal, was the first No.1 hit for Rich. It topped the country charts where it spent 20 weeks in 1973. It was also a Billboard crossover hit — reaching No. 15 on the Top 100 and No. 8 on the Adult Contemporary charts.

1972 Was The Most Badass Year In Latin Music: 11 Essential Albums From Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, Juan Gabriel & Others

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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