Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Luther Vandross Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Power of Love (1991, Epic)

A –

The world of R&B changed quite a bit in the years since Luther’s last studio album and New Jack Swing had taken hold, so Luther consequently updates his sound here, a risky move on paper that Luther manages to pull off without embarrassing himself. Mind you, the up-tempo songs aren’t quite as charming or as pleasing to the ear as they were when Luther’s grooves were more organic a la “Never Too Much,” but the songwriting itself is still tasteful and Luther also remains unimpeachable in the ballads department. The album spawned two major Top 40 pop hits (both Top Ten hits), the gently-swinging medley “Power of Love/Love Power,” which couples a fine Vandross original with a cover of the Sandpebbles’ 1968 hit “Love Power” to remarkably good effect, and even better, the lovely “Don’t Want to Be a Fool,” which boasts one of the most unforgettable choruses to be found in any Vandross ballad (“This time around / I tell myself / it’s the game of love …”) The R&B Top Ten hit “Sometimes It’s Only Love,” which sadly missed the Hot 100, is one of the most underrated ballads Vandross has ever made, while the disc fittingly closes with yet another installation in Vandross’ series of show-stopping, album-closing epic cover songs, this time a seven-minute rendition of Ben E. King’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” done as a duet with Martha Wash [formerly of the Weather Girls and perhaps best known for serving as the primary singer on C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”]    

Never Let Me Go (1993, Epic)

C  

Both a commercial and a critical flop, Never Let Me Go isn’t a bad album per se – merely an easily forgettable one. Vandross is still at the top of his game as a vocalist, but the set of material just isn’t up to his usual standards, and listeners apparently noticed: this was his first album since The Night I Fell in Love to fail to yield a Number One hit on the R&B singles charts (actually, the highest-charting song here, the gospel-flavored “Little Miracles (Happen Every Day),” only climbed as high as #10 on the R&B singles charts and #63 on the Hot 100) and his first since Forever, For Always, For Love to fail to yield a Top 40 pop hit. The album’s second single, “Heaven Knows” is quite delightful, but it’s far and away the catchiest song here, and the disc sorely lacks the strong hooks that popped up with such frequency on the prior seven albums. Vandross attempts to recapture the magic of old by closing the disc with another covers medley (this time, a reading of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” that segues – after a brief instrumental snippet of the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody” – into a cover of Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go”), but it lacks both the coherence and the passion of Busy Body’s “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” medley.

Songs (1994, Epic)

B –

A more engaging album than Never Let Me Go but one that doesn’t come close to being as great as it theoretically should have been, Songs is a full-blown covers album. For most artists, a covers disc is little more than a stopgap album to give the label additional product until new original material can be written, but in the case of Vandross, a covers disc makes perfect sense. After all, Vandross – going all the way back to his debut album – had a reputation for reworking songs and making them all his own, such as the goose-bump-provoking rendition of “A House Is Not a Home” that closed Never Too Much or his slowed-down take on the Temptations’ “Since I Lost My Baby.” But Vandross makes two crucial mistakes here: he picks way too many much-too-familiar songs (Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” and Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” to name just a few) rather than choosing relative obscurities along the lines of “A House Is Not a Home” or the Sandpebbles’ “Love Power,” and he also fails to do anything terribly different with most of these songs, a real disappointment considering Vandross’ gift for re-arranging the songs he’s covered in the past. Consequently, “Endless Love” – performed here as a duet with Mariah Carey – doesn’t have nearly the impact that Vandross wants it to have; the song is simply much too famous and too permanently linked to Lionel Richie and Diana Ross for people to listen to the song without hearing Lionel’s lower register in their head singing that iconic opening line. [It may have reached #2 and nearly given Luther his first chart-topper on the pop charts, but it hasn’t been nearly as enduring a radio standard for Vandross as most of his lower-charting singles.] But the album isn’t entirely without its magical moments: his reading of the Friends of Distinction’s “Going in Circles” is an inspired choice that would sound just as at home on any of Luther’s ‘80s albums, and his cover of Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” is even more silky-smooth than the original and deserved to be a much, much bigger pop hit for Vandross than it was.

Your Secret Love (1996, Epic)

B

Not exactly a return to form but his best album of mostly original material since Power of Love, Your Secret Love doesn’t depart much from his Vandross’ usual winning formula, but that’s a good thing. It’s only when the album veers into overly experimental territory – such as ill-advisedly incorporating a rap break from DJ Spinderella from Salt ‘n’ Pepa on “I Can’t Wait No Longer (Let’s Do This)” – that it temporarily derails. The album-opening title cut is both Vandross’ best and his catchiest original song since “Don’t Wanna Be a Fool” and deservedly got a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Song (while Luther himself would secure a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for the song.)  The lazy shuffle of “I Can Make It Better” is nearly just as appealing. As if hearkening back to his ‘80s heyday, Vandross also wisely ends the disc with a pair of terrific covers, Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” – a song so suitable for Luther, it’s fairly shocking it took him this long to cover it, actually; Songs really could have benefitted from the inclusion of the song – and Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “Going Out of My Head.”

I Know (1998, Virgin)

C

The consensus of most professional music reviewers is that I Know is a better album than Your Secret Love, and they’re not entirely off in their assessment – as an album piece, I Know (Luther’s first album to not be released on Epic and, as it would turn out, the only album he’d ever record for Virgin) arguably holds together as a whole better than any album Luther’s made since Power of Love – but what they usually fail to consider is that there is no instant classic like “Your Secret Love” here. In fact, the only song you’re likely to recognize here at all is “When I Need You,” and that’s only by virtue of it being a cover of the Number One hit by Leo Sayer. I Know, in fact, has the dubious distinction of being the only studio album from Luther to fail to produce either a Hot 100 hit or a Top Twenty R&B hit, for that matter. Much like Never Let Me Go, the material here isn’t necessarily bad – although incorporating guest appearances from rappers Guru and Precise is certainly utterly jarring and seems like a nakedly desperate ploy for a hit – but nothing here seems like an especially obvious single or lingers in the head for all that very long afterwards. The title cut, featuring a guest appearance on harmonica from Stevie Wonder, is quite charming (even if it’s not as catchy as your average Vandross single), but that’s the closest this album gets to a standout moment. It’s more solidly structured overall than Never Let Me Go, but it really could have used a “Heaven Knows” or two to make it worth recommending over the former.  

Luther Vandross (2001, J)

A –

Easily his finest album since Power of Love, this disc – Luther’s first album for his new label, the Clive Davis-owned J Records – may not be quite as warm as the more organic albums of his ‘80s heyday, but it doesn’t miss by much, either, and Luther seems more comfortable in his own skin here than he has in years, even going so far as to pull a trick out of his ‘80s playbook and cover – and quite fabulously, I might add – not just one but two Burt Bacharach tunes here, “Any Day Now” and “Are You There (with Another Guy),” an even bolder move than it appears on the surface since this is a disc with a lead-off single, “Take You Out,” that’s more urban-sounding than just about any other Vandross single to date. (Heck, even Jay-Z would later borrow part of the song for his “Excuse Me Miss.”) The single actually works surprisingly well, though, and Luther doesn’t embarrass himself at all on the cut, and Vandross would deservedly be rewarded with his first Top 40 hit since “Endless Love” seven years earlier. There is no shortage of highlights here; in addition to “Take You Out” and the two Bacharach covers, “I’d Rather,” “Love Forgot,” “Hearts Get Broken All the Time (But the Problem Is, This Time It’s Mine),” and “Say It Now” are just a small handful of tunes that all warrant repeated listens. This is truly a return to near-peak form and a must-own for Vandross fans.

Dance with My Father (2003, J)

B

Not nearly as good as its self-titled predecessor, Dance with My Father – co-produced with old bandmates Marcus Miller and Nat Adderley, Jr. and, as it turns out, the last album Luther would release before his untimely passing – pales simply out of trying too hard to be all things to all listeners, resulting in a considerably schizophrenic listen that finds Luther trying to cater to adult-contemporary-pop radio at the same time he’s trying to gain new favor on more contemporary R&B/hip-hop stations, to the extent that he’s incorporated cameos by everyone from Beyoncé and R&B vocal group Next (of “Too Close” fame) to rappers Queen Latifah, Busta Rhymes, and Foxy Brown. As his past albums have proven, though, Vandross is always best left on his own (only when he’s been paired with someone possessing a voice as warm as his own – Dionne Warwick, for example – has Vandross truly fared well in a duet setting), so nearly all the best moments here (save for the Beyoncé duet “The Closer I Get to You,” which doesn’t quite equal the greatness of the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway original but is still very good indeed) are guest-free, namely the instant-standard title cut (written with Richard Marx and the song that finally earned Vandross a Grammy for Song of the Year), “Buy Me a Rose,” and “If I Didn’t Know Better.” Dance with My Father may not be nearly as good as any of his classic albums from the ‘80s, but considering how spotty the ‘90s were for Vandross, it’s heartwarming that his final two albums saw Vandross recovering quite a great deal both commercially and artistically.   

Compilations:

Considering that Vandross scored an even dozen Top 40 pop crossover hits during his career, you wouldn’t think it would be so hard to round up all those songs in a single place. But due to a combination of licensing issues and simple oversight, there’s never been a compilation released in the U.S. that includes all twelve. The wonderfully-crafted four-CD boxed set Love, Luther comes closest to rounding up all the essentials from “Never Too Much” all the way through “Dance with My Father,” leaving off only the Mo’ Money soundtrack contribution “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” a Top Ten duet with Janet Jackson and Bell Biv DeVoe, and, much more inexplicably, “She Won’t Talk to Me,” which was originally released on Epic and consequently could have been included sans any licensing issues. But if you don’t want to plunk down the money for a boxed set, you’ll have to settle for a much more incomplete best-of, as the few compilations that cover both his tenure with Epic and his later years with J tend to omit too many hits, the misleadingly-named 2006 package The Ultimate Luther Vandross somehow managing to leave out a full six of his twelve Top 40 hits, even “Stop to Love” and “Don’t Want to Be a Fool”! The most satisfying non-boxed-set compilation of Luther’s remains his 1989 double-disc package The Best of Luther Vandross … The Best of Love, which yielded a massive hit of its own with the brand-new recording “Here and Now,” a Top Five hit (co-written by Dionne Warwick’s son, David Elliot) that would become an instant wedding standard. Though The Best of Love does unfortunately exclude “She Won’t Talk to Me” and the Warwick duet “How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye,” it’s an otherwise satisfying summary of Vandross’ remarkable body of work from the ‘80s, both hitting essentials like “Never Too Much,” “’Til My Baby Comes Home” and “Stop to Love” and criminally-underrated lesser hits like “A House Is Not a Home,” “So Amazing,” “If Only for One Night,” and “Any Love” and even going out of its way to include such rarities as the Cheryl Lynn duet “If This World Were Mine” (previously unavailable on a Vandross album) and the songs “Searchin’” and “The Glow of Love” by the disco band Change and guest-starring Luther on lead vocals. (The latter song would later be prominently sampled in Janet Jackson’s “All for You.”) If you opt to go that route, you’ll also want to pick up One Night with You: The Best of Love, Volume 2 (1996), which covers the bulk of his ‘90s output, rounding up such hits as “Don’t Wanna Be a Fool,” “Power of Love/Love Power,” “Endless Love,” and even “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (one of the very few Vandross albums where you can find the song) and also including such underrated lesser hits as “Your Secret Love,” “Always and Forever,” and “I Can Make It Better.”

Live Albums:

The 2003 package Live Radio City Music Hall is shockingly the only full-length live album from Vandross that’s ever surfaced, but it’s a great one, and one that suffers only from its brevity – it contains just eleven tracks and really would have benefitted from the presence of a second disc. But the music it does contain is stirring indeed, and Vandross especially shines on such dramatic moments as stretched-out versions of “A House Is Not a Home” and “Superstar” that last ten-and-a-half and thirteen minutes, respectively. The disc also unexpectedly closes with a more left-field inclusion, a rendition of Change’s “The Glow of Love,” a song quite familiar to Luther (he sang lead vocals on the original studio recording) but one that dates back to his pre-Never Too Much days as a session vocalist.