Ten For the Ages

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Sandra Earl
Mr. Cruel
(Uptown -- 1972)

The press releases for Sandra Earl trumpeted her as "the next Aretha." She wasn't. In fact the Nashville-reared Earl wasn't even the next Gladys Knight. But in 1972, as Aretha's atomic Atlantic period drew to a close, the soul world was looking for another female savior, and Earl was certainly in the running. As the leader of the Sparrowettes, she notched a few regional girl-group hits ("Stop and Say You Love Me," "The Night Is Just Beginning") that showcased her piercing vocals. When it came time to go solo, Earl made it clear that she wasn't interested in saccharine teen-love material. In fact she wanted to write all her own songs. At the time this was nothing short of revolutionary, and Earl put her anthem where her mouth was, delivering a highly political first single ("The Clock Is Running") that ranks with the best of Curtis Mayfield. Record buyers and critics alike were ready to crown Earl the empress of political soul. But Mr. Cruel, the album that followed that single, remains one of the most mystifying examples of self-immolation in the history of popular music. Gone are the political aspirations; in their place are eleven slinky, slippery, and downright sleazy love-to-love-you-baby ballads. "Put It In" and "Push For More" were two of the more tasteful cuts; "Inch by Inch" was significantly less so. In the midst of this libidinal sea, "The Clock Is Running" bobs like a helpless shipwreck victim. Unlistenable at first, Mr. Cruel develops a crude but undeniable power with repeated plays. More than a quarter-century after its release, Earl's album stands as a kind of distaff equivalent to Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, a sublimely sexual manifesto.

Tom Pettite
Bombshell Game
(Pacific -- 1976)

Coincidence can be a good thing, like when you happen to be sitting in the same bar as the girl you're destined to marry. But it can also be a bad thing. Consider the case of Tom Pettite, a talented Birmingham-based singer and songwriter who kicked around the Southeast before landing a record deal in 1975. Mining the seam between power-pop and rootsy rock 'n' roll, Pettite had a crackerjack band in the tight, taut Skin Divers and crackerjack songs, including the ready-for-radio "Emotional Girl." Too bad, then, that a certain singer-songwriter named Tom Petty hit the charts with his "American Girl," a song that went on to become one of the classic American rock songs of the late '70s. Bombshell Game, which limped into record stores in the closing months of 1976, had its share of gems, including the Segeresque ballad "Landing Gear" and the punky title track. But no one was interested; in fact, when radio stations did play Pettite's songs, they sometimes miscredited them to Petty. Entirely eclipsed by his near namesake and then stung by poor treatment at the hands of his label, Pettite dropped out of sight. Four years later he returned to the scene as the leader of a band called the Pretenders, at which point lightning promptly struck him a second time.

The Social Climbers
The Social Climbers Present the Story of Peter Whippleby, Esquire
(Smile Records -- 1968)

The Who's Tommy gets all the ink, but the fact of the matter is that there were plenty of rock bands experimenting with the rock-opera form before Townshend and company parlayed autism and pinball into rock immortality. The Pretty Things, for example, metamorphosed from one of the hardest-hitting R&B shout-outfits into an expansive, psychedelic band. Their 1968 album SF Sorrow, sprawling and pretentious, was a close cousin of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, not to mention a major influence on Townshend. And then there were the Social Climbers, Boston-based Anglophiles who aspired to concept-album greatness. Over the course of ten relatively concise songs, including the driving "Parlor Spectre" and the psychedelic relic "Little Seeds," songwriter and lead guitarist Andrew Tanner managed to tell the story of one Peter Whippleby, a dandy and aspiring rock star whose dalliances with controlled substances and uncontrollable urges made him a dead ringer for original Rolling Stone Brian Jones. Whether because of the flagrant Anglophilia, the similarities between Whippleby and Jones, or Tanner's own problems with the law -- he was a known drug addict who also was arrested on forgery charges -- the Social Climbers made more noise than money and failed to climb into even the lowest reaches of the pop charts.

Aquaforest
Dance Trance and Dalliance
(21st Century -- 1978)

Once a promising soul-funk guitarist in the Jimi Hendrix vein (pun intended), Houston guitar prodigy Howard Merritt cleaned up and found religion in 1975, a move that seemed to douse all remaining flames in his once-blazing recording career. The Merritt who recorded such seminal late-'60s singles as "To One Side" and "Scratched Out" vanished, only to be replaced by a soft-focus, somewhat woozy, gospel-tinged soul man who liked to sing songs with ham-fisted titles like "My Lord He Comes Walking on Very Short Notice." Then, in 1977, Merritt changed again, apparently as a result of hearing Kraftwerk's seminal electronic-music album Trans-Europe Express. Taking his cue from the space-age theatrics of Sun Ra and George Clinton, Merritt refashioned himself as a "bio-illogical deity" named Aquaforest. The one and only Aquaforest album, Dance Trance and Dalliance, consisted of only two songs, each of which took up one entire side of the album. The title track was an airy 20-minute synthesizer composition over which Merritt repeated the three nouns of the title. The second, entitled "Pants, Pants, and Pants," was a searing return to six-string showmanship over which Merritt testified, somewhat crazily, about all the different types of pants available for purchase at your average department store. (Sample lyric: "You got that corduroy/You got that gabardine/Khaki/ Looks real tacky/In a pale green."). A sign of impending mental illness, perhaps -- family members agreed in 1979 and helped Merritt quietly into an institution -- but no other album simultaneously anticipates Brian Eno and Limp Bizkit.

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