R&B: From Doo Wop to Hip Hop

To commemorate the end of the century, Sony Music assembled the gargantuan 26-disc box set Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century. The title was imposing, as was the idea behind it -- to chronicle the life of the oldest record label in the music industry. To be clear, Sony Music has not existed for 100 years, but the heart of its catalog, Columbia Records, was founded early in the 20th century. Sony acquired Columbia and its various subsidiaries in the late '80s, purchasing one of the richest catalogs in pop history, as the box set proves again and again. Sony realized that most consumers wouldn't invest in a 26-disc box, no matter how impressive it was, so they simultaneously released a series of 12 genre-specific double-disc sets that culled highlights from the box. That left two discs exclusive to the box, which was appropriate, since anyone who spends over $300 on an album deserves a little bonus. As it turns out, the double-disc sets are every bit as impressive as the big box, perhaps more so, because they're easily digestible. Even so, the scope of the 39-track R&B: From Doo Wop to Hip Hop is impressive. Columbia and its subsidiaries had some good R&B acts in the late '50s and early '60s, but they didn't really catch fire until the late '60s, when Sly & the Family Stone came aboard; before that, they didn't know quite what to do with gigantic talents like Aretha Franklin. By the '90s, Columbia/Epic/Philadelphia International, etc. had produced no shortage of classics, as this set proves: "It's Your Thing," "Back Stabbers," "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Best of My Love," "Got to Be Real," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Sexual Healing," "I Can't Live Without My Radio," "Bring the Noise," "Jump," "Fantasy," "Fu-Gee-La." There are some major omissions, not only in artists but in styles -- strangely, more so than in any of the other sets in this series -- but it still gives a good idea of the progression of R&B to soul to funk to disco to urban to hip-hop. And it has some great, great music along the way. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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