by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
They’re not terribly prolific (having just released three albums in the last twenty-six years), but Sade – pronounced “shar-day” and technically a quartet consisting of lead vocalist Sade Adu, guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, keyboardist Andrew Hale, and bassist Paul Denman, but confusingly named after their frontwoman – has been one of the more intriguing R&B outfits of the last four decades and were more groundbreaking than they tend to get credit for, their heavily atmospheric, hypnotic, and smoky blend of pop, R&B/soul, and jazz textures (with just a hint of Latin funk added in) sounding like hardly anyone that came before them. While their brand of music made them perfect fodder for smooth-jazz and “quiet storm” R&B radio formats, pop audiences were just as intrigued, and the band became a regular presence in the Top Twenty for the remainder of the decade, thanks to unique and alluring singles such as “Smooth Operator” and “The Sweetest Taboo.” While the band would disappear from most Top 40 stations by the mid-‘90s, the band remained a well-respected consistent albums act (their carefully-crafted and immaculately-engineered full-lengths always making particularly engaging and relaxing late-night listens from start to finish), and even one of the greatest and most important R&B talents to come out of the ‘90s, Maxwell, so admired the band that he would recruit Stuart Matthewman to help produce his first two albums. To date, the band has sold over 75 million albums worldwide and over 23 million in the U.S. alone! So which albums are the best? Let us help you navigate their full catalog – studio albums, compilations, and all!
Diamond Life (1984, Portrait)
This isn’t to say that this is necessarily one of the greatest debut albums of all-time (although it’s certainly at least one of the most underrated debut albums of all-time), but very rarely do you ever hear debut albums as fully-polished as Diamond Life. The band’s trademark sultry-smooth-jazz sound is already in place, they’ve already figured out how to write well-crafted songs, and they play with a level of precision and confidence you seldom ever run into on debut albums, which tend more often than not to be a tad on the raw side, usually because the artists in question can’t quite figure out how to translate the magic of the shows that got them signed and capture that on record. The band’s already-honed chops and their level of comfort in the studio might mean little, naturally, if the songs weren’t good, but this is a solid, solid set of songs, highlighted by the Top Ten single “Smooth Operator” and criminally overlooked sides like the seductive “Hang on to Your Love” and the smoky “Your Love Is King.” “Cherry Pie” and “When Am I Going to Make a Living” are also standouts. This is a must-own for fans of smooth-jazz and ‘80s R&B slow jams.
Promise (1985, Portrait)
Even better and more confident-sounding than the debut, this album remains Sade’s finest hour. The songs are simply incredible, be it the alluring, percussive R&B groove of “The Sweetest Taboo” (easily one of the most effortlessly sexy singles to be found on pop radio in the ‘80s), the passionate epic “Is It a Crime,” the incredibly hypnotic “Never As Good As the First Time,” or the haunting “Jezebel.” The album also serves as great proof that Sade, as good as of a singles act as they were in their prime, were truly a first-rate albums act as well, this disc working very well as an album piece when listened to all in one sitting, and it’s obvious that a lot of love and craft went into perfecting these songs and their production. It might be a little too meticulously-crafted for some tastes – in a lot of ways, Diamond Life and Promise are a lot like the Aja and Gaucho of mid-‘80s R&B, and you do have to wonder just how many hours were spent and how much money was sunk in the studio laboring over these recordings – but few other R&B and smooth-jazz acts of the ‘80s and ‘90s started their careers out on such a perfect pair of albums as these two, so it was certainly time well spent.
Stronger Than Pride (1988, Portrait)
It’s thankfully not all that different from Diamond Life or Promise and the first three albums actually make a nice trilogy of sorts when played in succession, but there is an ever-so-slight drop-off in the quality of the songwriting this time out (a bit surprising considering the extended break since the last album). It’s hard to call the album a disappointment, though, when it’s still got songs as good as the tropical-flavored hypnotic grooves of “Paradise” and “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” and the gentle funk of “Nothing Can Come Between Us” and such well-crafted arrangements. (Even the conga parts on songs like “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” seem very carefully thought out.) Like all Sade albums, the production and engineering both are simply astounding as well (it’s quite fitting, actually, that Sade would make its debut just in time for the dawn of the CD age), and it’s hard not to marvel at the sonics throughout the disc.
Love Deluxe (1992, Epic)
It’s not exactly quite as warm and inviting as any of their three immaculate ‘80s outings, but the band’s first outing of the ‘90s still finds them in fairly good form as songwriters. The lead-off single (and Top 40 hit), the sultry “No Ordinary Love” (also featured in the movie Indecent Proposal) is unusually cold-sounding for the band and also builds slowly, which makes you feel as if the hook will never arrive and that the song is simply just a studio jam (albeit a slow jam) in search of a chorus, but once it hits, it’s pretty addictive. The band fares better, though, when it sticks to warmer material, and the follow-up single, the charming smooth-jazz of “Kiss of Life,” is easily one of the band’s most underrated songs and should have been a Top 40 hit in its own right. The funky “Feel No Pain” finds the band in unusually downbeat lyrical territory (“Mama been laid off / Papa been laid off / My brother’s been laid off / for more than two years now”), but the groove and the melody are both so strong that it doesn’t feel all that out of place, and the song is surprisingly a highlight of the disc. “Cherish the Day” and “Bulletproof Soul” are both a little less organic than normal for the band, yet they’re just as alluring and beautiful, which just goes to show you how easily the band can adapt to new sounds while still retaining their identity.
Lovers Rock (2000, Epic)
After an interminably long eight-year layoff, the band finally reconvenes for its first album of the new millennium. Like all Sade albums, it still sounds great, but there are two things working against it: they’ve moved just a little too far away at this point from their crystalline smooth-jazz sides of the ‘80s (there’s nothing here that can really be compared to, say, “The Sweetest Taboo” or “Paradise” or “Smooth Operator”) and it occasionally even sounds more like a Massive Attack album than a Sade disc. Secondly, the melodies are noticeably not anywhere near as strong or immediately memorable as usual (or as upbeat, the album being a little too ballad-heavy to be all that fun a listen), so the album isn’t nearly as commercial as the previous four. It’s still well-crafted enough that it makes an impressive album piece when digested all at once, but you’re not likely to remember any individual songs afterwards except for maybe the gently-pulsing “By Your Side,” which vaguely recalls Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Soldier of Love (2010, Epic)
It took a mind-boggling ten years for it to happen, but the band finally returns with its sixth full-length studio album, and it’s a fine return to form after the disappointing Lovers Rock. Soldier of Love still finds the band intentionally avoiding the smooth-jazz of its ‘80s and early ‘90s work (the only time Stuart Matthewman’s sax shows up with any prominence is on “In Another Time”), instead trying to build songs around elaborately-crafted art-pop soundscapes like that of the militaristic but hypnotic title cut, so fans of albums like Promise may need a second or third listen to warm up to this one. The melodies are stronger here this time out than they were on Lovers Rock, however, and the album also doesn’t feel nearly as overly slow and ponderous as Lovers Rock, either, thanks in large part to the breezy “Babyfather,” easily the best – and the catchiest – song the band has penned since “Kiss of Life.” Other standouts include the acoustic-guitar-driven “The Moon and the Sky.” While the album is a far cry from the band’s ‘80s work and can’t really be called mood music, the album is still as well-crafted as their albums from that decade, sounding every bit as much of an album piece as Promise does, and this is arguably the band’s most cohesive disc overall since the ‘80s, even if it could have benefitted from the presence of an additional song as catchy and uptempo as “Babyfather” is.
There are two very good hits packages available for Sade fans; the single-disc The Best of Sade stops at Love Deluxe and focuses on their early, more smooth-jazz-oriented material, while the pricier double-disc package The Ultimate Collection contains nearly all the same songs but also adds highlights from Lovers Rock and Soldier of Love like “By Your Side” and “Babyfather.” (Unfortunately, it also adds a remix of “The Moon and the Sky” that somehow shoehorns Jay-Z into the song, which was a really bad idea.)
There is a Sade live album available – in the form of 2000’s Lovers Live – and it’s not bad, but Sade is such a quintessential studio band that listening to a live album by Sade almost defeats the purpose of listening to a Sade record, so you can safely pass over it.