Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Masters- James Brown - Best Studio Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.
For May The Masters focuses on James Brown.

The Godfather himself, James Brown joins The Masters series here on RtBE. He is the visionary artist who helped invent funk and hip-hop as he moved through the amazing funky waters of time and his mind. Mr. Please Please Me is iconic and moved from The Famous Flames to Soul Brother #1 to the Godfather with ease as he aged.
He however joins the likes of Miles when RtBE is conflicted about the art and the artist. Longform collected just a few pieces on him, but it is safe to say that Brown's actions makes it tough with our love for the mans music. That said, we wrote about our feelings on Brown when he passed away for Glide as he had a huge influence on our musical ears and he won't be the first or last artist we are conflicted about loving.   

Today we are going to dive into his studio output and rank our favorite studio albums by Brown. Perhaps not shockingly, but like Elvis Presley, Brown is a mega artist who does not have definitive studio albums. His early albums were almost random collections of singles, his later albums were scattered, many didn't even have the title songs on them or were mixes of live/studio/overdub Frankenstein's (looking at you Sex Machine).

Some of these actual records are out of print and honestly people aren't losing much because of that. Live albums, box sets, greatest hits, he checks all those boxes, but a definitive studio effort is hard to find...let's give it a go anyways...  
#5 Cold Sweat (1967)

To prove the point we will start with Cold Sweat. The full length album is a mishmash of various covers, standards and odd recordings, all to somehow support one of the baddest ass pieces of funk ever recorded. His cover choices here like "I Love You Porgy" and "Stagger Lee" are grooving, slinky and fit Brown better to these ears then other Flames albums, and we will get to the title track.

The recording was split between 1967 and 1964 and some of the quality fluctuates but when he grunts on "Fever" or "Kansas City's" kitchen scratch groove the mix matching isn't that jarring, and most of these songs are fantastic, if a bit too clean, for the godfather of soul. Each standard gets played, and then seems to pick up steam at the end as the band gets the smallest of spaces to truly get down.

All that said, I saved the best for last with this record, it's the opening pairing of parts one and two of the title track. The killer groove, the bright horns, the gravely crooner, the layers of funk percolating in every direction, "Cold Sweat Part 1" and "Cold Sweat Part 2" are seven and a half minutes of dirty bliss and elevate this studio recording into our top five.

One of Brown's first truly funky efforts "Cold Sweat" (the single) turned the corner for Brown into funk away from soul, it still sounds hot over fifty years later; Brown ends that he can't stop singing and it truly feels like he and the band could go on for ever. 

#4  Say it Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud (1969)

Just like Cold Sweat this is an album which shows Brown recording a mega funk jam then sprinkling the rest of the LP with random recordings from different sessions/years for a hodgepodge full length.

Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud, an album that has an anthem opening title track, a song which spoke to multiple generations, soothed hatred at the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King in the moment and still sounds proud and vital 50 years later. Building on that we have...''I Guess I'll Have To Cry, Cry, Cry''?!?! Wait, what? This is a weepy ballad (perhaps his last) recorded with the Flames to be released and sounds like it was recorded a decade earlier with strings, pomp and circumstance. 

Brown, because of recording contracts, studio issues, band members or his own bizarre sense of style and marketing thoughts lead to very unorganized and quit frankly lacking complete studio releases. Brown was a singles/live performing machine. 

What pushes this record onto our list is his melodramatic soulful cover of Sonny Thompson's "Let Them Talk" with powerful vocals and warm organs and Brown's funky as all hell original "Licking Stick, Part 1" again though even these two recordings sound like from completely different artists...granted two amazing artists though... 

#3 Get Up Offa That Thing (1976)

This one is a personal favorite and since Brown has very few must hear studio works, it ranks high on our list. James was in deep with the IRS so the composers of all of these songs magically became his wife Deanna and his daughters Deidre and Yamma. Brown was also feeling disrespected by the industry, he gives dismissive shout-outs to Barry White, Elvis and others and in turn put in his best work of the mid/late 70's.

The title track is a true banger cut into two parts it runs over nine minutes and those long vamps are what keeps this album flowing. The only two slow numbers are the ballad "You Took My Heart" and the blues of "Home Again" which fades out because it is time to dance again. "I Refuse To Lose" is Brown's mission statement as the dance floor becomes funky and done to death while "Can't Take It With You" extends the titles track theme of living in the moment. Unfortunately finding out exactly which musicians are playing on any of Brown's albums can be impossible, but the drummer on the album closing "This Feeling" is putting in work.

Another comment about the title track, he re-recorded his work often (Even for Dr. Detroit) and I am not 100% sure this is is the same version that appears on his famous 20 All-Time Greatest Hits! The man had ants in his pants and he needed to dance (and re-recorded all of his hits for more money).

Where numbers 4 & 5 on our lists may have stunning singles, the complete flow of Get Up Offa That Thing makes for a more enjoyable full spin around the turntable

#2 The Payback (1973)
In the midst of the blaxploitation craze of the early 70's James and company were putting their funk stamp on movies, soundtracks and clubs. The Payback album was passed on by the producers of Hell Up In Harlem who rejected it as "the same old James Brown stuff". While perhaps not suitable for the film, it is certainly suitable to the dance floor as these songs run looooong and RtBE is not complaining about that. The writing itself fits the theme of a movie as things get started with right away in the form of "karaza'"...whatever that is....

Opening with the title track the stage is immediately set, no song is under five minutes with most pushing over ten and rolling on into the funky hot night. "Stone to The Bone" finds Brown playing some electric keys and the song seems to be fading out before he just says "Organ" and the crew dive right back in. There are a few departures from the ever constant groove with the soul of "Doing the Best I Can" and "Forever Suffering" but this record is here because of the funk.

The band Brown is working with were some of the best players ever in the business. The JB's including Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, St. Clair Pinckney, Jimmy Nolen, and Jabo Starks are all present to drive the deep funk. Fred Thomas is the lesser known but still killer bass player dominates and should always get more love than he does.   

The Payback is not completely world changing but it remains a dynamite collection of long playing funk and a successful complete album idea, which didn't happen often for Brown.

#1 Star Time (1990)

This is cheating, but unlike say our Blues list where a best of and a box set slipped in, this ranking and rule breaking was completely planned. Star Time is a box set, and any fan of Brown should start here (or the scaled down 20 All-Time Greatest Hits!) because the man needed a collection to truly capture his genius and impact on popular music.

4 CD's worth of goodness and pretty much all tunes are essential; it opens with "Please Please Please" and never lets up. The first album is a focus on his "Mr. Dynamite" era and consists of the slow soul ballads which made Brown a vocal legend (Highlights: "I'll Go Crazy" "I Lost Someone") and while his later years found his true calling, his formative crooning era is just as powerful in a different way.

The second disk is where Brown begins to combine his soul shouting with a funky backing beat. It is titled "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business" and delivers on that promise. The whole thing spins with gusto from the lesser known "Bring It Up (Hipsters Avenue)" to mega hits "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and "I Got A Feelin'".

Disk three is where "Soul Brother #1" steps to the forefront and from "Mother Popcorn" to "King Heroin" it never fails to deliver. Disk four solidifies the elder statesmen as "The Godfather of Soul" with some of his longer cuts and the only thing truly missing is his fantastic "Living In America" which should be added to any collection of the Master.

Mr. Dynamite indeed, Star Time proves Brown is one of the handful of transcendent artists of modern times and while not a proper studio album it dwarfs any others in his catalog.

How did we do? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let us know your favorites in the comments. 

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