“Uptown Funk” was such a huge hit, was so ubiquitous, has become so familiar, that it seems much more than two years since Mark Ronson‘s Uptown Special was released on January 13, 2015. This is an album that was unfairly overshadowed by the popularity of its lead single. Yes, “Uptown Funk” is an irresistible slab of get down, the best Morris Day & the Time song that Prince never wrote. But anyone going into the album thinking it was going to be a Bruno Mars extravaganza probably wound up disappointed. I went into it hoping it was going to be a Mark Ronson extravaganza and it feels good to have been right.
This is a soul album, an R&B album, a funk album. This is the best cassette you and your friends ever put together to drive around with in the summertime. This is a party on a five inch aluminum disc. The album is book-ended by Stevie Wonder guesting on harmonica and vocals. In between are 35 minutes of fun.
The first proper track on the album, “Summer Breaking,” sets the tone with a light mid-tempo number sung by Tame Impala‘s Kevin Parker, sounding here like a young Roland Orzabel but without the chronic depression. The whole song sounds like a sunset on a beach.
So, now the sun is down, and it’s time for the party to start in earnest, which it does with “Feel Right,” a proper hip-hop number featuring Mystikal on the mic. This is a jump up and down, shout along, throw your hands in the air rap anthem. As it fades out, an announcer states, “We’re gonna go ahead and head over to the after party,” as the album segues into one of the biggest and most inescapable hits of the decade.
The two best tracks on the album are “Daffodils,” again featuring Kevin Parker in a disco/funk hybrid highlighted by psychedelic Summer Of Love lyrics, and “In Case Of Fire” which starts out with what could be a Steve Miller Band guitar riff for the first four measures before giving way to a super funky synth line and co-producer Jeff Bhasker channeling his inner Stevie-Wonder-by-way-of-Jamiroquai. Either one of these songs on its own is worth the price of the admission.
Before revisiting the Stevie Wonder harmonica solo that opened the record, the party closes with “Heavy And Rolling” with Andrew Wyatt on vocals. This song is an exceptional soft-light slow-groove that smells as sweet as a sunrise after a night out with friends.
I got hooked on Mark Ronson’s album-length projects with Version wherein he got Tiggers and Ol’ Dirty Bastard to collaborate on a cover of Britney Spears‘s “Toxic” and produced Amy Winehouse‘s stunning cover of “Valerie.” I wasn’t sure what to expect from Uptown Special when it released, but I did expect excellence and I’ll listen to most anything with Ronson’s name on it.
If you were disappointed that this wasn’t 45 minutes of Bruno Mars singing “Uptown Funk” clones, do yourself a favor and go back and listen to it again without expectations. If you avoided it because you were afraid of 45 minutes of “Uptown Funk” clones, do yourself a favor and go be pleasantly surprised.