Soul music has probably effected Britain more than any other country outside of the US or the Caribbean, which probably has a lot to do with our close ties with both these places. The BBC series Soul Britannia, and the set of concerts at The Barbican that went with the series, traced the influence of soul on British culture, and the growth of a very British type of soul music.
As I am myself British, and would say that most of the music I love could be defined as soul, I thought that I would pick out the 10 songs that best meet both criteria – the 10 best British soul songs ever.
- Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy: A truly ground-breaking record, and one of the 1st that could be considered entirely British in its sound, mixing soul, hip-hop, reggae and just about everything in between. Spawned a genre, a boundary defying career and at least one copycat video. Still sounds fresh today, and more vital than just about anything that’s been released since. The album it came off, Blue Lines, would get my vote for best British soul album of all time.
- Cymande – Bra: If not British by birth, they were definitely adopted. Made up of members who had moved from the West Indies, Cymande mixed soul, funk & reggae to make truly beautiful positive music. One of the most sampled bands ever, this track was used heavily by De La Soul and sounds like the best song that Curtis Mayfield never made.
- Goldie – Inner City Life: Jungle, or drum & bass as it would become, was the 1st truly British music genre. This epic 12″, mixing sped up break beats, heavy bass and soaring vocals stretched to 7 minutes and, renamed Timeless, a mind blowing 21 minutes on the album version. It’s like a mini-symphony. Never had British dance music had this much ambition – or so much reason to be ambitious.
- Atmosfear – Dancing In Outer Space: A tune that proved that the best disco wasn’t necessarily American, Dancing In Outer Space mixes funk, ska and a beat that wouldn’t be out of place on most house records. Probably because it influenced so many of them!
- Soul II Soul – Back To Life: Jazzie B’s crew showed the world that the UK could do hip hop influenced music as well as the Americans, if not better. Starting life (like Massive Attack) as a sound system, Soul II Soul produced songs that mixed great beats, sweet strings and amazing (mostly female) vocals. Back To Life was their anthem – and in true disagreeable Brit-style it didn’t even feature properly on their debut album: an accapella mix was included instead – a nod to their sound system days when accapellas came in handy for mixing maybe. And it has been suggested the cover of the album Club Classics Vol. 1 inspired the ads for a certain portable music player.
- The Specials – Ghost Town: The Specials took the ska music that their parents had loved in the 60s and mixed it with the attitude of punk. The result? Classics like Ghost Town. A love/hate song to their hometown of Coventry, Ghost Town became the unofficial national anthem as riots tore through Thatcher’s Britain. The band were also a shining example of the easy mix of black & white that was taking place across the country to the disgust of the far right (and in doing so became a template for many of those to come, including Massive Attack & Soul II Soul).
- Average White Band – Pick Up The Pieces: Dismissed by many as being little more than pale imitations (literally) the very Scottish Average White Band made a very un-Scottish sound. If James Brown’s backing band The JB’s had come from this side of the Atlantic, this is what they would have sounded like. Pick Up The Pieces is 4 minutes of pure funk, proving that soul is definitely colour blind.
- Freeez – Southern Freeez: This was an absolute classic of the 80s soul weekender scene (see the soundtrack to that time here). Mixing a slightly off-beat, an infectiously funky bass and a fantastic keyboard solo, this song still sounds like an entire carnival every time it plays. Jazz-funk has had a bad reputation since the 80s as it was supposedly the music of Thatcher’s south (whilst the North had The Smiths). But this was the sound of black & white Britain coming together, which is more than you could ever say about Morrissey.
- The Style Council – Shout To The Top: There is no better example of the unpredictability of British music than Paul Weller’s move from The Jam to The Style Council. Having showed off his love of Britain’s rock history with his 1st band, The Style Council owed more to Motown than The Beatles. Shout To The Top is an amazing blast of strings, soul & style and is another reason why Paul Weller is Britain’s most underrated musician.
- Omar – There’s Nothing Like This: It may be dismissed as wine-bar soul, but Omar’s classic again showed that anything America could do, the British could do just as well – but with a twist (and in some ways paved the way for Acid Jazz). Whilst the Americans were in thrall to tinny 80 production, Omar harked back to a golden age- great vocals, beautiful tune and a whole lot of soul. Why he was never able to follow up this hit is a mystery – his recent new album sounds as fresh as those of musicians half his age.
- Roots Manuva – Witness (1 Hope): Part of a strong UK hip-hop scene, Roots Manuva’s lyrics, accent, style and sense of humour mark him out as definitely British. With a backing track that owes more to dub than anything else, this cult classic features lines such as the brilliant: Cause right now, I see clearer than most, I sit here contending with this cheese on toast. Not much bling there – or in the brilliant pastiche by Pitman.
Before anyone starts posting disgusted of Tunbridge Wells type comments, I know that I chose 11 not 10 songs (I struggled to keep it under 20!)
I also have to say that I have excluded all those bands who might be considered part of the British R&B/Blues scene of the 60s, and have only picked 1 song from any particular band, even when you might argue that some should have had 2 in this list.
Why not check out the video for the 5th best British soul song ever and let me know what you think I missed, or songs that shouldn’t be in the top 10 (OK, 11).