2014 was a big year for producers and artists switching roles with a lot of success. Ryan Adams and Beck both produced parts of Jenny Lewis’s wonderful The Voyager. The Black Keys continued to each produce plenty of work, with Auerbach almost single-handedly saving the Lana Del Rey record, and Patrick Carney making the Black Lips latest album bluesy and dirty. On the other hand, Pharrell, one half of legendary hip hop production team the Neptunes, released his second solo album in Girl, with huge summer hits in “Happy” and “Come Get it Bae”. Experimental hip hop and electronic producers Arca and Rustie both released great solo albums. Finally, the winter welcomed in the lead single of Mark Ronson, nostalgic English producer best known for his work with Amy Winehouse and Adele, the wonderful throwback jam of “Uptown Funk”. The bite-sized but largely talented Bruno Mars is used to full capacity, a swaggering tour-de-force vocal performance behind an electric funk band.
The smash release of “Uptown Funk” was followed by an even better SNL performance from Mark Ronson and company, including the revitalizing of character rapper Mystikal with a performance of “Feel Good”. If you haven’t seen it, Ronson’s performance with Bruno Mars on “Uptown Funk” and Mystikal on “Feel Good” looks more out of Soul Train in the mid-70’s than Saturday Night Live in 2014, full-blown funk and non-stop entertainment. So after all this buildup and the knowledge of guests like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Stevie Wonder being part of Uptown Special, we were so excited about Ronson’s fourth album that we even listed it fourth on our most anticipated albums of 2015, coming ahead of heavy hitters like Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, and My Morning Jacket. Unfortunately, Uptown Special plays like a lesser version of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, a nostalgic throwback album to the soft side of 70’s radio that doesn’t live up to the promise of its smash singles.
Ronson bookends and centers Uptown Special with the same melodic theme, setting it up like a concept album. “Uptown’s First Finale” (ironically the first track) features Stevie Wonder’s famously earnest vocals but moreso his more legendarily soulful harmonica, which brightens anyone’s day in an instant. “Crack in the Pearl” lands in the middle of the album with Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt continuing the extremely Stevie Wonder-inspired melody, before Stevie Wonder and Jeff Bhasker bring the album home on the finale “Crack in the Pearl II”, with that just astonishing harmonica bringing the album home. Beyond the warm fuzzies you get from hearing that iconic harmonica, these three tracks which center the album feel more like replicates than inspired originals. Other points imitate the soft jazz rock of Steely Dan like “Summer Breaking” and “In Case of Fire” but leave very little worth coming back to. Other songs on the album like “I Can’t Lose” and “Heavy and Rolling” simply flounder on their lightweight melodies and over-done nostalgic production.
Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is one of the lone standouts on Uptown Special, as he bats 2/3 with his featured songs. The aforementioned “Summer Breaking” is a little too much Steely Dan and not enough Parker and Ronson, but the other two tracks Parker is featured on, “Daffodils” and “Leaving Los Feliz”, master the psychedelic pop Parker is best at singing and playing to. Led by its rubbery funk hook, “Daffodils” is a hypnotic trip through time, almost like dreaming of flying through time and space. It’s hazy but still driving and funky, not leaving you adrift in space. “Leaving Los Feliz”, reminds me of the sort of strutting psych rock romp that “Feel Like We Only Go Backwards”, the Tame Impala classic, masters.
The similarities to Random Access Memories go beyond being a 70’s throwback album. It’s the fourth album for Daft Punk and Mark Ronson, both albums have a central theme, are anchored by undeniably great pop songs in “Get Lucky” and “Uptown Funk” (which are both destined to be all-time great wedding dance songs), both have an arsenal of varied vocalists, and both revitalize artist’s careers in Giorgio Moroder and Mystikal. Both even have Stevie Wonder in common, as Daft Punk performed “Get Lucky” with Stevie Wonder on last year’s Grammys. Random Access Memories left me a little disappointed at first beside the hits, but the rest of the album grew on me throughout the year. I’m hoping Uptown Special does much the same, especially since it’s a perfectly good summer album released in the middle of winter, a bad publishing strategy if there ever was one.
While there is plenty here to criticize (especially if you aren’t fond of A.M. radio), the highs still can’t be denied. So take the hits for now, leave the rest, and revisit the whole thing come summer time.
Can’t Miss: “Uptown Funk”, “Feel Good”, “Leaving Los Feliz”, “Daffodils”
Can’t Hit: “Summer Breaking”, “I Can’t Lose”, “Heavy and Rolling”