Counterbalance No. 51: Sly and the Family Stone’s 'There’s a Riot Goin’ On'

Just any old player, you know he needs a rating, and Sly and the Family Stone's 1971 landmark is rated the 51st Greatest Album of All Time by Acclaimed Music. Counterbalance has a listen.

Sly and the Family Stone

There's a Riot Goin' On

Label: Epic
US Release Date: 1971-11-20
UK Release Date: 1971-11-20

Klinger: Where would pop music be without drugs? Ever since Louis Armstrong and his jazz ilk started "Kickin' the Gong Around" sometime during the Hoover Administration, Schedule 1s have been a part of the culture and mythology of popular music. And so many albums are inextricably tied to the pharmaceuticals that fueled them, including many that we've covered in the past year. Rubber Soul's hazy mellowness and slap-happy humor totally smell like Otto's jacket. The Velvet Underground and Nico of course leaps to mind when you're looking for the noddishness and lugubriosity of Sweet Lady H. And Sticky Fingers is the audio equivalent of ingesting an entire pharmacy, including the baby powder and foot spray.

Now we come to There's a Riot Goin' On, a record so steeped in Bolivian marching powder that I half expected a little spoon to fall out of the sleeve as I was listening. And say what you will about it as a listening experience (critic Greil Marcus famously said that the record was "no fun"), it still manages to sound like a powerful statement. So say what you will, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: It is certainly hard to look past the white powder that fueled the recording of this album. And I think Greil had it right, this album is no fun, but that has more to do with the fact that it was recorded by a bunch of cokeheads and in listening to this record, it feels like you are hanging out with a bunch of cokeheads. And if you've ever hung out with cokeheads, you'd know it’s no fun—all they do is snort coke or talk about snorting coke or try and figure out how to score more coke to snort. But, if you can look beyond all of that, put the white powder out of your mind, dig through the rambling, uneven tracks, you'll find snatches of pure genius. I particularly like the title track. I think they found the winning formula with that track and should have stuck with that.

Klinger: Oh, I agree. In fact, as I go back and listen to that title track, I . . . OK, I see what you did there. And I suppose I can see why you might be inclined to feel that way. I've had the misfortune to find myself in the company of people under the influence of the cocaine, and they are insanely boring to be around, always hovering over their mirror and jabbering on about nothing. And there's quite a bit of that on this album. But for some reason, I can't seem to stop listening. Every time I think Sly has lost it and meandered off into the ozone, there will be a little blast of sound that will snap me back into the (very very) laid back grooves he creates throughout the album. I know I say this a lot, but understanding the context of this disc is really the key to appreciating it.

Mendelsohn: I'm just playin'. I've actually really enjoyed the week I've spent with Sly and the Family Stone. There's a Riot Goin' On is a perfect car album—roll the windows down and just cruise. I'm a little uncertain about this record's placement on the great list, especially when you consider the overall uneven nature of this record. But I'm sure you will use your context magic to explain that away. So, by all means, get your wand out and abracadabra up some context for me.

Klinger: Here I thought you were going to make me try and talk you out of actively disliking this record. What did I tell you about tricking me? OK then, here you go. The reason There's a Riot Goin' On rates so highly on the Great List is due mainly to its transformational quality. Much like Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (or, come to think of it, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust), this album sounds like it was made by a different guy than the guy who made his earlier music. Prior to this album, Sly had blown the hippies away at Woodstock and released about 37 Top 40 hits—all in the space of about a year and a half. Then he moved to Los Angeles and all but disappeared.

In the interim he developed a crippling addiction to the devil's dandruff, and the joy he had brought to his music became as corroded as his septum. He set up a studio that became Party Central for like-minded musicians, hangers-on, and women of easy virtue—all of whom would drift in and out, recording tracks that would likely end up getting wiped later. (Hence the tape hiss. Whoever manufactured the audio tape used to record this could conceivably receive a credit, such is the extent of the tape hiss that permeates the whole album.)

The album that surfaced, then, is light years away from "Everyday People". It was a bafflement to people, as if Creedence Clearwater Revival had suddenly released Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. It was only when the deep funk of the 1970s emerged with such a clear debt to this sound that its true importance could be assessed.

Mendelsohn: I can dig it. We will be talking about this type of musical evolution in our next Counterbalance as well when we try and dissect the non sequitur that is Radiohead's Kid A.

There's no question that Sly and the Family took a leap off the deep end with There's a Riot Goin' On. But sometimes, musicians need to take that leap of faith, even if it seems to the fans that they committing harakiri of sorts. Thankfully, the artists are usually vindicated once the dust clears, and instead of falling on their swords they are using them to cut through the convention or stagnation.

I like this album, but it still feels like it all blends together. As stand-out as this record is, nothing really stands-out to me. There are some great "phrases" in "Just Like a Baby" and I love the chorus, if you can call it that, on "Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle)”—the deep funk there kicks the door down for everyone else to pour through. The only thing on this record that really sticks in my head--aside from ethereal bits that float through my brain during the day that I have a hard time placing--is how weird and horrible "Spaced Cowboy" makes me feel.

Klinger: I can see where There's a Riot Goin' On, and "Spaced Cowboy" in particular, could make you feel that way. That’s really more yodeling than I like to hear on a funk album. But the whole album has a wrong side of the night vibe, as if you've wandered into a place where things could switch from fun to dangerous without warning. In fact, according to a fascinating piece I read in Mojo some years ago, that's exactly what was likely to happen as tensions continued to grow between Sly and other members of the band, bassist Larry Graham in particular. He and the other members of the Family Stone seem to play fairly limited roles on Riot, as Sly spent more and more time holed up with his blow.

So I can't help wondering if There's a Riot Goin' On is less the work of an artist taking a leap of faith than it is a desperate move from a guy who didn't know where to turn. You can hear it in his voice—and the needle-pushing distortion as he sings his disjointed phrases with the mic way too close to his mouth. And you can hear it in the groove. It's there throughout the record, but like "Luv N' Haight" implies, it seldom makes you want to move.

Does all of this add up to an album that earns a place in the canon? As compelling as it is, I find it to be a hard album to listen to. You mentioned earlier that you've enjoyed digging into There's a Riot Goin' On. But I had heard the legend of the album before I actually listened to it, and I'm pretty sure that colored my perception of it. Does knowing that it came from a pretty dark place affect the way you relate to it?

Mendelsohn: No, it doesn't. Drugs and especially darkness can be found all over the Great List. It's a part of rock and roll, and on a much deeper level, it's a part of the human condition—one that we've all experienced to some degree. It may be as benign as the brooding loneliness that pops up in the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or as extreme as the funeral dirge of Joy Division's Closer. There's a Riot Goin' On is just another point on that spectrum. Knowing that Sly had some problems doesn't color the way I listen to this album but it does help explain some of the artistic choices he made. Besides, thinking about that too much will only serve to get in the way of a good groove and ruin a record that helped make funk a powerhouse in the 1970s.

Klinger: Well, I can't really argue with that kind of logic. Groove on, my funky friend. Groove on.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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