The Music Issue
Detroit's greatest hits that should have been
Published: November 10, 2010
Timing is everything in this life, and if you're off you just might flounder for the rest of your days. It's a dictum that rings particularly true if you're a musician who has made great records that were, for whatever sad or freakish reason, ignored, either by the public or critics or both — or had success with some audiences but should have been known to the world.
Here we've compiled our very own Top 40 list of Detroit songs or albums that were overlooked or undervalued — which naturally includes, to a lesser extent, the overlooked or undervalued artists who created them. These are songs that not only give up the goose bumps, or teach us something that we didn't already know, but records that hook us and make us want to share them.
This wasn't the easiest thing to compile, to be sure. There are certain artists whose albums got little love and were ignored upon release, such as anything by the Gories, or Rodriquez's brilliant Cold Fact, or the Stooges and the MC5 Elektra albums, but earned wide appeal later. We pretty much disregarded those. We included J Dilla's Donuts because, though the album was popular, it didn't make him a huge star, as it should've. Yusef Lateef's Detroit did well in jazz circles, but didn't become the crossover success it should've been, and so on. And there are so many overlooked artists in hip hop, from Esham and Champtown to A.W.O.L. and Doc Chill, that we considered doing a second list. Instead, we chose those singular moments that might've defined the scene for many, in all genres.
We also hit up area music stars, crate-diggers and song heads for input. We'd be remiss not to. We included some of their individual lists, but it should be noted that their choices weighed in on the overall tally. —Brian Smith
Other than Metro Times staffers W. Kim Heron, Brian Smith and Travis R. Wright, and freelancers Brett Callwood, Jonathan Cunningham, Laura Witkowski, Ricky Phillips, Jim Gallert, Kent Alexander, Carleton Gholz and Doug Coombe, we'd like to toast Ben Blackwell from the Dirtbombs and Third Man Records, blogger Marsha Cusic, Matthew Smith of Outrageous Cherry and the Volebeats, Brad Hales at People's Records, DJ Houseshoes, DJ and producer Todd Osborne, rock star Tino Gross, DJ Brian Gillespie and drummer and DJ Dave Shettler.
40. Merciless Amir
"Day Without a Rhyme"
Possibly the breakout joint for Detroit. One of the first local hip-hop songs to be heavily played on the airwaves, it showed local artists that if you created quality material, you could be heard, not just in the streets, but on the radio as well.—DJHS
(Wallshaker Music) 2005
Detroiter Aaron-Carl's mid-1990s 12-inch record "Down" is one of the most astute executions of bootyness that ever dripped lovingly into shellac and spun in clubs around the world. However, for this fan, it is his full-length album Detrevolution — an album filled with bass but also poetry, simultaneously demanding from its auditor club-like intensity and home-headphone attention — that America should have been banging during the ascendance of Norah Jones. But since when has Detroit's working class, black, queer family ever been embraced by America in toto? Luxuriously funky and deeply personal, Carl's lyrics ping-pong from pain and anger ("If I can't find love/ I guess I'll hate"), to humor and civic double-entendre ("Pull out your bus card/ take a transfer/ get on the bus"). Living check-to-check and highway-to-highway, Carl's sonic personality will live on — he died this September fighting cancer — through his music. Bump his songs and join the legacy.—CG
38. Trash Brats
Out of the Closet
(Circumstantial Records) 1996
Out of the Closet is one of those classic wrong-place, wrong-time albums. Hell, there was no place for the band except in the hands of hundreds of Trash Brats fans around the country and world. In Detroit, you either loved the Brats or you hated them entirely, a fate that, you'll note, befell many rock 'n' roll greats, including the New York Dolls.
Some got the Brats, and their irony; they began in the '80s as a kind of send-up of glam (a reaction to the goofy Republican rock of the Sunset Strip, bands such as Poison, Warrant, etc.). Kid Rock understood 'em, tapped them once to open a show in which the Brats played in a hail of spit, beer spray and insults. It was brave, for both rock and the Brats.
This album collected everything great about the band, the wit and hummable hooks, the walls of guitars and sugary swagger, the self-mockery and, still, the certain innocence of kids born and raised in Detroit who saw rock 'n' roll as the only way out. The album should've been huge like Sponge's Rotting Pinata, which, by the way, featured ex- Brats drummer Jimmy Paluzzi.
This band actually meant it — though that part was hard to see beneath the kohl and colorful fringe, which made them all the more charming. Why else would anyone crisscross America so many times in busted-down vans with no money, get their lives threatened at every damn stop along the way, only to return and live hand-to-mouth in Detroit? Because they wanted to look like a star (on the dole)? Hardly. —BS
37. Thornetta Davis
Sunday Morning Music
(Sub Pop) 1996
These days she's a great blues belter working the tradition — for instance, the representative and worthy ... Covered Live at the Music Menu from 2001 mines such classics as "C.C. Rider" and "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On" — but her debut disc deserved to be more than a blues hit and deserves to be remembered as such. Davis had sung backup with the late, lamented Big Chief, and with former Cheiftans and others (from the Black Crowes' Eddie Harsch to Kid Rock), Sunday Morning Music suggested an entirely new beyond-grunge aesthetic for Seattle's Sub Pop records. To note a couple of high points, the cover of Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Seen Nothing" got a thumbs-up from Entertainment Weekly; and "The Deal" put a pile-driver beat behind great lines ("I showed you how to fly/ you showed me how to feel"). When "Cry" was revived in The Sopranos, it was a moment of belated vindication. —WKH