My memories of childhood summer gatherings are bittersweet. Many of my relatives who were around then are either dead or halfway there: Mama Teacake and Ollie (my grandparents), Kay and Nita (my aunts), Ed-Lee and Miss Tootsie Baby (neighbors who were like family) are all gone. And several of my cousins, whose names I won't mention, are strung out or locked up. But back in the day, when things were cool and we were all together at Lake Catherine State Park near Hot Springs, Ark., or in my grandparents' front yard in Malvern, happy times and great barbecue seemed infinite.
Blaring from the boombox, good music was also plentiful. I can't imagine a down-home summer family affair without music. It's as essential as a cooler of beers and sodas. Here's a mix of new and classic cuts perfect for a family summer throwdown.
Christina Aguilera, "Ain't No Other Man": On this DJ Premier-produced banger, Aguilera unleashes her inner Lyn Collins, wailing away over hard, economically arranged drums and punchy horns. It's from her coming album, Back to Basics. Ever unpredictable, the former teen-pop queen will probably swerve in and out of several styles on the double-disc album. On "Ain't No Other Man," Aguilera proves she can deliver the funk when she wants to.
Lakeside, "Fantastic Voyage": This 1980 funk gem, redone "gangsta-pop" style by rapper Coolio in 1994, could get a mortuary jumping. It sails on the kind of tough, synth-punctuated groove that inspired the West Coast G-funk movement of the '90s. And it was among the first R&B hits to smoothly blend elements of rap. "Fantastic Voyage" sounds as fresh today as it did when the record first flew up the charts 25 years ago.
Juicy, "Sugar Free": If you've seen Erykah Badu live in the past three years (she turned it out at the African American Heritage Festival last month), then you've heard this bumping, mid-tempo cut from 1986. The "neo-soul" queen mixes it into her performance of "Back in the Day.": My sweet honey/Had to go away/For a little while/And when my candy's not here with me/I'm a helpless child. Juicy, which recorded the original, was made up of sibling duo Jerry and Katreese Barnes. The twosome is also known for "Beat Street Strut," the theme from the 1984 hip-hop flick Beat Street. "Sugar Free," Juicy's biggest hit, sounds a bit dated with its popping bass and percolating synthesized drums. But you can still do your "cool dance" to it: an easy two-step from side to side.
Donell Jones, "Spend the Night": From his latest album, the emotional Journey of a Gemini, this cut is one of those fun, sexy jams for grown folks. Sparsely arranged with Jones' layered, yearning vocals mixed up front, the number bounces on a deep, laid-back programmed beat accented with buzzing synths. It's slightly reminiscent of "U Know What's Up," the Chi-Town native's flirty hit from 2000. Though he has always excelled at smooth balladry, Jones' skills at rocking the party shouldn't be overlooked.
Linda Clifford, "Runaway Love": This gutsy vocalist recorded for Curtis Mayfield's Curtom Records in the late '70s. Promoted as the label's answer to Donna Summer, Clifford never came close to matching the chart success of the Queen of Disco. But several of the native New Yorker's songs -- "I Just Wanna Wanna," "Don't Give It Up" and this sassy 1978 swinger -- were big in black and gay clubs. The song didn't get much action on the pop charts, but "Runaway Love" peaked at No. 3 on the soul listings, becoming Clifford's biggest single. It is still heard in hip nightspots, especially in England, where the underrated vocalist often performs these days.
Daniel Powter, "Song 6": You may be burned out on "Bad Day," Powter's current smash ubiquitous on pop radio. (It was played on American Idol during those sappy montages after contestants were booted off.) But on this number, which opens his gold-selling, self-titled debut, the native Canadian gets just a wee bit funky. He seemingly has a knack for writing ingratiating pop melodies. And though his whiny falsetto is a bit of an acquired taste, this loose, fun-in-the-sun ditty is a bright change of pace.
Stevie Wonder, "As": Summer and Stevie Wonder's music go together like ribs and baked beans. Though never released as a single, this exuberant number from 1976's Songs in the Key of Life is widely adored by Wonder heads (me included). With Herbie Hancock working his magic on the electric piano, "As" is perhaps the Motown genius' best fusion of jazz, gospel, pop and soul. This should get everybody at the cookout -- the old and young, the hip and square -- dancing, falling into each other's arms, laughing out loud.
I miss those times with my folks.