Mightier Than the Sword
(Spectrum X) 1985
Robert Penn — out of Inkster and Detroit — released this record with a hard-pounding, growling delivery, bee-sting (or more like B.B.-sting) guitar lines and (on some of the best cuts) a sledge-hammer horn section (including Marcus Belgrave and Ernie Rodgers). That record did not make him a star, but he did top the MT Music Poll a few years later for Best Blues Vocalist. And a few years back, when some tracks were reissued on a new Penn disc, the English Juke Blues magazine hailed the impossible-to-find original as "a stunning contemporary blues album." —WKH
(Metal Blade) 1992
"Smashing Bottles over my head/ It hurts/Trying to break my will/ I swear that we've been cursed." That opening line from "I Got Fear" kicked off the Junk Monkeys' second major-label release. The lyric pretty much states it all, because, while this album should've been the one that took them out of the dive bars for good, it was instead the Junk Monkeys' last call. —RP
The inherent flaw in punk rock from Detroit in the late '70s/early '80s is the looming specter of the Stooges. When a band like that exists in your hometown a decade earlier, the shock factor of dog collars, blood and the middle-finger attitude (as employed by the Germs, the Sex Pistols) is already passé. It seems that local punk acts were overly aware of this, and while a fair number of the prominent players imploded before committing anything to wax (Ramrods, the Denizens), the best-known act from the "scene" will always be the Romantics.
But R.U.R. and their stinging "Go Baby" are prime examples of what potential things had. Not overtly punk and with more reverence paid towards Townsend-like guitar riff godliness, "Go Baby" crests with accusatory lyrics and understated drumming. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more memorable rock record from this town at that time — and it's proof positive that punk is equal parts execution and attitude. —BB
Willie Anderson Trio
"The Man I Love/Just Squeeze Me"
Pianist Willie Anderson (Willie A to all and sundry) had the finesse of Art Tatum and the originality of Errol Garner, but when he finally landed on wax in 1947 with this 10-inch 78, his beautiful sounds were eclipsed by Bird and Diz: Bebop had arrived and the sounds of swing (of which Anderson was a prime exponent) took a back seat. This was a classic case of the artist asleep at the switch. Willie A had chances to migrate to Manhattan — first, and ironically, with Dizzy Gillespie, later with offers from tenor giant Coleman Hawkins and bandleader Billy Eckstine. Had Anderson eyes for the Big Apple, he could have made a significant mark in the jazz world. As it was, he flashed across the Detroit sky and vanished from sight. —JG
Power of Zeus
The Gospel According to Zeus
(Rare Earth) 1970
These guys were originally called Gangrene: four menacing-looking 1969 acid-rock freaks playing 40-minute Sabbath- and Zep-influenced heavy jams in Detroit
bars. After signing with Motown's Rare Earth imprint, they were apparently told to change their name and shorten their songs. The resulting fusion of heavy rock and Motown production values was deemed too slick by the band, so they broke up. The fact that "The Sorcerer of Isis (Ritual of the Mole)" would eventually become a familiar hip-hop sample suggests that this LP was 30 years ahead of its time. The album's more commercial moments sound a bit like Grand Funk Railroad. At other times, they explore bizarre narratives of bad acid trips and occult rituals. Some have argued that the guys in Power of Zeus were pagans, still others maintain they were a post-LSD born-again Christian rock group. Either way, they were great — and pretty weird. —MS
"Just Like an Aborigine"
The Up had great songs, this one's classic. They never did the album though. They seemed to get fed up of John Sinclair imposing his politics on them. A real waste of a great band. —BC
An irresistable slab of guitar funk from Sussex, the label that put out most of Dennis Coffey's greats. —DC
Old Bags and Party Rags
(Akashic Records) 1985
Viv Akauldren was a psychedelic space rock trio, capable of switching from trance-inducing drones to screaming guitar and synth solos to strange acid folk interludes. They looked and sounded like futuristic hippie mutants, and built up a small but devoted following during the '80s. Viv toured a lot, was managed by the Flaming Lips' manager, and seemed poised to change the world with its strange songs and outlook, but broke up too soon. Their debut LP was very different from anything else happening at the time, fusing elements of Hawkwind, Gong, Patti Smith, Popol Vuh and John Lennon. It has never been reissued and original copies are hard to find. —MS
Michael Orr Presents Spread Love
Ridiculous hand-drawn cover art (shirtless dude emerging from a rainbow with a pot of gold?), a killer synth-line on the title single and some sexy Lou Rawls-styled vocals. Spread love! —DC
An undeniably catchy sing-along from the trio that basically brought garage rock to Detroit. —DC
Mack Avenue Skull Game
(album, SRC/Capitol) 1993
Signed to Sub Pop in the middle of grunge, but were probably too "experimental" for Alice in Chains folk. Dig deep, the songs are amazing and the album wholly overlooked. Phil Durr: amazing guitarist. —BC
We're Gonna Rock
The Look had one clip that earned huge MTV play, but then they disappeared from their run at the mainstream. Coulda, shoulda. —BC
Dave Gilbert is still one of the most underrated vocalists to have come out of the Motor City. The Rockets combined his voice, Jim McCarty's killer riffs and some radio-worthy songwriting to produce a string of great records. They had some minor hits, but they should've nailed the top 10 before Gilbert died. —BC
Born to be rock stars, they played the part beautifully, with a wonderfully seedy sexuality — and had the songs to back it up. —BC
Low to the Ground
A perfect pop masterpiece. —DC
See Dick Run
(Elementary Records) 1990
Carrying on the tradition set by the Romantics and Toby Redd, See Dick Run was Detroit power pop at its absolute sugary best. Released on the band's own Elementary label, pretty much every song on Whack Ding is a hit. Well, a hit in a world not designed for someone else. If this had been released in a different era, we would've seen the boys' smiling faces all over MTV and beyond. Singer Jim Edwards, who's now fronting the rejuvenated Rockets, has one of the finest voices in Detroit, and most "pop" bands would kill to write hooks as superior as those in "5 O'Clock Bus Stop," "Could it Be You" and "Roller Coasters." Whack Ding is a poptopian dream. —RP
A. Spencer Barefield
Barefield's records in recent years have taken cues more from Horace Silver than any avant-garde, and his instrument of choice has been the hollow-body electric guitar. The finest disc of his acoustic "chamber jazz" aesthetic featured bassist Richard Davis and near-future stars Regina Carter on violin (as part of a deft string quartet) and James Carter on sax. —WKH
Bootsey X & the Lovemasters
"Pusherman of Love"
(Sir Aquarius) 1997
Had they not existed in possibly the most sterile and least funky decade ever, Bootsey X & the Lovemasters could have been the '80s new wave answer to the J. Geils Band — a supreme Detroit party band for all shapes. Anyone who saw the band at the height of their X-mania, with the sexy backings of the Sugar-Babes of Soul, guitar-slinger Gerald Shohan and mad sax-man Robert Steele, can testify that they indeed had their soul hijacked and taken aboard the soul-mobile. "Pusherman of Love" is the bastard song of an MC5-George Clinton bastard, one you'd swear you heard in some blaxplotation flick. —RP
(Le Grand Magistery) 2002
Why these Belle and Sebastian-inspired pop darlings never became Pitchfork's next big thing will always be a mystery. Case in point: "The Bronze Beached Boys (Come on Let's Go)." —DC
(Touch & Go) 1983
John Brannon is Detroit's best rock vocalist. Terrifying and thrilling. The Laughing Hyenas were every bit as brilliant as they were different. —DC
(Get Hip 2002)
"Just You Wait"? Has there been a better pop rock song from anywhere in the past decade? A great album. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs did and the Paybacks didn't? Wait, what? —BC
Brother Will Hairston
Back in the '60s, my father [Joe Von Battle] played the record "Alabama Bus," by Brother Will Hairston, in his 12th Street record shop, and I remember its "rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat" staccato (that was Washboard Willie in the backround). "Stop that Alabama Bus/ I don't wanna to ride/ the Alabama boycott/ I don't wanna ride." My father played it because the record was a chronicle of the bus boycott in the South that he had fled, and because he had recorded it on one of his record labels, years before. "The Alabama Bus" is such a clear, anthemic narrative of the boycott that I always wondered, after I grew up, why it was so little-known. Brother Hairston was a Detroit preacher whose songs were startlingly socially conscious for the times. This record can only be found on an obscure compilation of Joe Von Battle's recordings, or occasionally turns up on Ebay. To me, it is a masterpiece of the civil rights movement and a memento of my father's bittersweet ties to the South. —Marsha Cusic
"No. 1 Fan"
(Full Effect) 1992
My butterflies won't go away/ When they call your name, I go insane ...
The very first time I heard the song "No. 1 Fan" by Majesty Crush, I was lying in my bed, listening to 89X on my Walkman late in the evening on a school night. It was 1992. I was barely a year into my musical awakening — a period vividly marked in my mind as the moment in 1991 when I heard "On a Plain" by Nirvana on a static-filled late-night Canadian radio broadcast and realized, "Oh my god — there is amazing music out there and I need to hear it all." From the very first few lines of "No. 1 Fan," I knew I was destined to be in love with this band forever. That dreamily catchy, mid-tempo bassline, those breathy, desperate vocals, the shimmering and beautiful wash of guitars and calls for presidential assassination as the ultimate show of devotion? What's not to love?
To this very day, "No. 1 Fan" is one of my all-time favorite songs, and Majesty Crush is a band I still adore. Back then, I had been looking to the U.S. coasts (Seattle, Chapel Hill) and across the pond to the UK for new musical discoveries. Falling in love with a band in my own back yard? Somehow it never occurred to me to look here. The very notion of a shoegaze band coming out of Detroit made little sense — any other artist of shoegazing merit was on the other side of the ocean: My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Ride. But the short-lived Majesty Crush truly holds its own with that lot and deserves inclusion. The recorded output for the band is pretty minimal — one full-length album (Love 15), a couple EPs and a 7-inch. A compilation appropriately titled I Love You in Other Cities was released last year, a perfect introduction to a Detroit band for which I have "the kind of love that never strays." —Laura Witkowski
They are neither unknown nor obscure, but the Dramatics have never been critically regarded or highly acclaimed enough for my liking. Always overshadowed by the deservedly iconic status of the Temptations, I have always thought that these balladeers represented an even sweeter, darker, post-rural urbanized soul music; an homage to Detroit proletarian love. I've written about them for years and lobbied for their inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; maybe one day they'll get there. —Marsha Cusic