I’ve read this before back in 2008 when I thought it was okay but this is a book which cranks up to another level in this music streaming era. An alphabetical listing of key figures in Soul and R&B over a span of approximately 50 years with recommended albums and playlists of their best work. Back when this was written it meant downloading tracks onto I-Pods or splashing out on CDs which would have turned out to be prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, it’s risk-free with streaming services. That is why after reading this a second time I now have placed the massive total of 101 albums into my Spotify playlists to see if I agree with the author’s judgements.
I wasn’t really intending to re-read this. First time round it was a library copy but I spotted it pre-lockdown in a charity shop and thought it would be a useful book to have as research (I do use another of Shapiro’s books“Soul: 100 CDs” quite a lot) . I just pulled it off my shelves this week to browse and found myself reading from cover to cover.
I have read Peter Shapiro before and he does come across as quite grumpy for a music fan. There’s loads of opinions here- very few artists seem to come away with unqualified praise, he is often dismissive of their bigger commercial hits, he’s certainly not a huge fan of much of 90’s R&B especially anything resembling “piercing whining” or excessive melisma or histrionics (Boyz II Men get a rough deal here and actually I have no issue with this). He can be sniffy about the type of soul music favoured in the UK and Disco can be love it or hate it (surprisingly as he wrote one of the seminal works in this genre in his study of the Disco Era “Turn The Beat Around” (2005) I actually felt that his individual style was to the detriment of this book. I said of it “He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters.”. Here, because his brief is wider and he cannot be expected to like everything from Aaliyah to Zapp it didn’t grate as much and I occasionally laughed out loud at his viewpoint. He is good with adjectives, which certainly gives his work his personal slant. Take Diana Ross, after acknowledging her star power and “unquenchable force” we get “wretched”; “surprisingly acceptable”, “mediocre”, “uptight”’ “disastrous”, “ generic, “rather hideous”, pointless” and “shockingly awful” all for an artist he acknowledges as significant and even can form a recommended playlist for. (True, it is only 8 tracks when he normally gives 10). Slightly more disturbing are textual inconsistencies, an example of this is Stevie Wonder and his 1972 album “Music Of My Mind” which was the first time he was given more control and independence by Motown. In the Wonder entry it is described thus ; “It was no masterpiece, it didn’t have the songs to back up his mercurial wanderings across the boundaries of texture, timbre and taste.”. Underneath the entry it is highlighted as one of his greatest recordings saying “he unleashed a set of songs that demanded attention, incorporating soul and gospel, melody and funk, every track is a smash.” Now we can all change our minds, but on the same page?
I do like the format of these musical Rough Guides but I think that this is the only topic that I would be interested about in reading all the way through. Shapiro also authors “Drum N’Bass” although it does seem that the company has abandoned its music titles in favour of the obviously more lucrative travel guides with none of them (on the back cover Jazz and Hip-Hop are advertised) being readily available. I would certainly pick up other copies if I came across them. I’ve enjoyed this more as a re-read than I did first time round and expect it will be staying quite a bit longer in my collection.
The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B was published as a Rough Guides paperback (distributed by Penguin) in 2006.