On the off chance I’m ever not at UIC, out taking photos, or making music at home, it’s very likely I’m working at Levi’s in Wicker Park. I’ve been employed at Levi’s stores for about a year now, transferring to my current Chicago location after working at Woodfield mall in Schaumburg. After working for Levi’s for so long, my favorite product that we receive from headquarters is still the collection of CD’s we play in store. Working a 6-hour shift nearly flies by when fantastic hand-curated jams are pumping on the sales floor. The genres and songs picked have always been varied; I’ve heard music from rock to folk and hip-hop to punk play. However, my favorite tunes have always been the ones I can groove to. Namely, the soul, funk, R&B, and jazz. I have been so impressed with Levi’s selection of high quality funk music that I even make sure to bring some home with me to jam to later. This list contains the best. The music that stays stuck in my head on breaks, the music I sing along to while helping customers, and the music I can’t help but nod my head to.
Right On For The Darkness – Curtis Mayfield
To start, I chose Curtis Mayfield’s seven-and-a-half-minute funk epic Right On For The Darkness. The song starts with a simple chunky rhythm guitar beat, which Mayfield riffs over until the string arrangement, drums, and bass join along for the second verse. The song chugs along with smooth, yearning vocals from Curtis Mayfield, hard horn hits, and a drum groove that just doesn’t stop.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever – The Peddlers
This next song I chose just because of how much fun it is. Roy Phillips’ deep, crooning voice dips in and out of jazzy depths. When the carefully placed vocals are done cradling the rest of the polite arrangement through verse and chorus, the organ starts to shine. The solo at around the 2-minute-mark answers the question posed by the name of the album: How Cool is Cool. This cool. The organ solo is just so so cool.
I Was Made to Love Her – Theron & Darrell
The vocals on this song are ridiculous. After a short horn-driven introduction begins the first chorus in I Was Made to Love Her. Listen, and you’ll know what I mean. The sky-high riff is belted with almost too much soul for its own good. I can’t help but believe the duo when they scream that they were meant to love me. I don’t think that the male voice is meant to portray as much passion so high up in the register as Theron & Darrell make it.
Feelin’ Lovely – Connan Mockasin & Devonté Hynes
The unlikely pairing of Connan Mockasin and Devonté Hynes was the mad genius of record label Mexican Summer as a part of their series Myths: Collaborative Recordings. On his own, Connan Mockasin creates hazy psychedelic pop and is known for his wispy falsetto. Not exactly a funk act. However, when paired with Dev Hynes, better known for his own solo project Blood Orange and more deserving of the funk title, the two produced one of the funkiest jams on this list. The bouncy guitar groove, the lead electric piano doubling the vocals, the two voices clashing and harmonizing, and the whisper at the end of the song “she’s learning” are all reasons why Feelin’ Lovely made this list.
Honeybee – New Birth
I know next to nothing about this song, besides the fact that it packs a huge punch. The whole song features a buzzing to signify the presence of the honeybee, which the singers seem to have taken as a challenge. They squeeze and belt out high notes, commanding the whole arrangement, and warning “Honeybee, don’t you sting me, sting me, sting me.”
Suzanne – Nina Simone
On the jazzier side of the genre sits this yearning standard, Suzanne. I often acknowledge the more upbeat jams while working the sales floor at Levi’s, and it took my General Manager’s mention of Nina Simone’s superb version of Suzanne before it grabbed my attention. The song, my manager’s personal favorite on the Levi’s CD’s, is an excellent example of real jazz storytelling. There’s something magical in how Nina Simone transitions from her chest voice to falsetto during the line “he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.” My manager even mentioned that the lyrics to Suzanne aren’t as upbeat or happy as the mood of the arrangement sounds, which makes the song an odd but appreciated selection to play for Levi’s customers.
Town & Country – Bibio
Bibio’s Town & Country more than deserves a spot on this list despite its recent release date. The electric piano groove has deep roots in funk classics and ties the song right in with the rest I’ve chosen. The fun rhythm guitar at the beginning is already head-nod worthy, but the addition of drums, keys, and bass take the arrangement to a brand new place
You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You) – The Temptations
Any collection of amazing funk songs is not complete without a mention of the Temptations. That’s why I’m so glad that this high energy Temptations hit made it onto the CD’s. I got my early funk and soul education listening to the Temptations’ greatest hits and singing along as best I could, so the group definitely has a special place in my heart.
Everybody Loves The Sunshine – Roy Ayers Ubiquity
The very first time I heard this song play over the Levi’s speakers, I knew it was my favorite. The opening synth line, the slow, groovy bongos, rimshot snare, and the defiant, strong, commanding vocals of Roy Ayers and his backup singers. Of course, a funk slow-jam is not complete without the tonic played a few octaves up during the chorus. Everything in this song screams expert arrangement, melody, and songwriting.