One of my favorite things about listening to new music, specifically a new album, is hearing how an artist decides to kick it off. Not expecting any particular sound out of Uptown Special, thinking I’d never heard a Mark Ronson song before – it’s possible there could have been no better way for him to start than easing in with a muddled storm of electronic drums that give way to Stevie Wonder doing Stevie Wonder things on harmonica in a way that sounds like a sample, but becomes clear that this is both authentic and new, fresh and soulful sound coming through the speaker.
Mark Ronson’s name shouldn’t sound new to me since he previously won a Grammy for his production on Amy Winehouse’s classic Back to Black (among other cultural footnotes). That said, the sound on his latest project Uptown Special is immediately familiar on a number of levels.
How an album starts is important but so are the first three or four tracks. The 3rd or 4th track is usually the lead single and it wasn’t until about midway through the 4th track, the (recently) hit song “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, that I realized I had actually heard this before. Well, I’d seen the video, which is neat and very Bruno Mars but that’s not why we’re here.
“Uptown Funk” is the sort of track that my Dad would love. Growing up the only radio station we were listening to in my Dad’s El Camino (and wouldn’t even dream about changing) was Oldies, and “Uptown Funk” could easily slide onto today’s Oldies stations and no one would complain. Maybe that’s why I forgot I had even heard it, there’s so much effort into making it sound 80s, but it’s undeniably funky (got funk? Not sure how they phrased that back then).
“I Can’t Lose”, featuring Keyone Starr, a singer Ronson discovered during his time down South, was an early favorite of mine. It also solidified in my mind the sense that the album is very clearly attempting to bring all of the best 80s vibes into 2015. Her sound and that hook reminded me of “I’ll Be Good” by Rene & Angela, which lead to a new YouTube music video playlist I named: Way Back Machine
Though a day later I think my favorite track is “Daffodils”, featuring Kevin Parker of psychedelic rock outfit Tame Impala, who provides guest vocals on two other great tracks.
There’s even a ballad, “Crack in the Pearl”, that would fit on anyone’s slow jams playlist (everyone has one, right?) and is a variation on – or continuation of – the intro. When you arrive at the outro, “Crack in the Pearl, Pt. II”, which combines elements from the first part and the album’s intro, Stevie returns to put a nice melodic bow on a modern electronic yet varied funk album and send you back to the beginning again.