This Pick of the Week celebrates three women whose work is among the 25 titles added to the 2020 National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress: Labelle, Jessey Norman, and Janet Jackson. Since 2002, the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) and members of the public have nominated recordings to the National Recording Registry. The depth and breadth of nominations received highlights the richness of the nations'' audio legacy and underscores the importance of assuring the long-term preservation of that legacy for future generations.
The elemental trio of Labelle - Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash - initially formed in 1962 as Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles. By the early 1970s, they were simply Labelle, releasing six albums under that name. Their biggest hit was the French-infused dance track "Lady Marmalade," written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan and produced by Allen Toussaint and Vicki Wickham. Released in 1974, the song about a sex worker in the red-light district of New Orleans has been covered many times, charting as a number-one single in three decades. The famously catchy, yet risqué, French refrain has often unwittingly caused listeners to sing, "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, (ce soir)?" unaware of its true meaning.
This superb recording by African-American opera singer Jessye Norman is beloved by critics and audiences alike. After her death in 2019, fans often mentioned this recording as Norman's best, while Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker: "In her prime, she let loose sounds of shimmering magnificence. Her timbre carried with it a sonic chiaroscuro: pure tones gleamed out of depth and shadow. I remember the dazed bliss I felt on first hearing her recording of 'Im Abendrot' ('At Sunset'), from Strauss's 'Four Last Songs.'"
Despite her record label's wishes, Janet Jackson resisted the urge to release another album like her previous Control (1986) in favor of an album with more socially conscious lyrics. On the album, Jackson explores race, homelessness, poverty, and school violence, among other topics. Musically, the album continued the productive relationship Jackson enjoyed on Control with producers James "Jimmy Jam" Harris and Terry Lewis. The duo relied on drum machines and samples of street sounds, breaking glass, and trash-can lids to create interludes between the songs giving the album a unified feel. Jackson's impeccable vocal timing also helped the producers build up dense multi-layered vocal mixes on the funky "Alright" and other songs. Jackson, Harris, and Lewis' diverse songwriting on tracks such as "Escapade," "Someday is Tonight," and "Black Cat" complements the album's cutting-edge production. The album's themes of racial healing and political unity are encapsulated in the multiple-award-winning single "Rhythm Nation," proving that dance music and a socially-conscious message are not mutually exclusive.