Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[KamerTunesBlog presents Compilation Or Catalog?. Sometimes the only album I own by an artist is a compilation, which can be a stepping-stone to exploring more of their work, but occasionally a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” is all I’ve heard. With this series I’ll be asking my readers to let me know if the compilation I have is sufficient or if there are specific albums I should check out. Normally I revisit the entire recorded output of a particular artist over numerous posts, which is the main purpose of this blog, but this will give me an opportunity to learn more about some lesser-known artists in my collection. I look forward to your input]
I grew up hearing the music of The Commodores on AM radio, but it wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that I finally owned some of their music with the purchase of The Best Of The Commodores: Anthology Series (1995), a 2-CD collection featuring 39 songs. It runs essentially in chronological order, going back to a previously unreleased recording from 1973, although it starts off with the appropriately titled “Let’s Get Started” from 1976. It’s a jazzy and funky dance tune, with blasting horns and lead vocals traded off between Lionel Richie (who would become a ubiquitous presence in music throughout the late-‘70s and ‘80s) and Walter Orange. “Machine Gun” is an awesome instrumental from 1974, with funky percussion and synthesizers, which I believe was their first big R&B hit. “Don’t You Be Worried” is the aforementioned unreleased song from ’73. It has a Motown flavor, which makes sense considering Motown was their label through most of their career, and to my ears sounds like a cross between Stevie Wonder’s “Do Yourself A Favor” and Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate.” I think Wild Cherry’s singer was paying attention to Lionel Richie’s funky vocal performance on “Slippery When Wet” when they recorded “Play That Funky Music” a year later.
[The Commodores – “Machine Gun”]
I enjoyed two more songs from their debut album, Machine Gun: “I Feel Sanctified” is upbeat & funky and reminded me of the band War, while “Young Girls Are My Weakness” is upscale funk with great horns and electric piano/clavinet. “The Bump” continues the sound of the previous song. Unfortunately it’s a shorter version than the one that appears on the original album. Richie’s first solely written song here, the midtempo “This Is Your Life,” has cool swirling synths & horn blasts and impassioned vocals. “Sweet Love” is another Richie tune, a pretty pop song that might be the first to feature the classic Lionel Richie sound that he would become known for. The soaring backing vocals are a great hook, and the song made the Top 5 on the R&B and Pop charts. “Just To Be Close To You” went even higher, reaching #1 R&B. I love the subtle arrangement, and Richie’s voice is pure perfection.
“Easy” is a timeless soul/pop classic that should appeal to all music fans and span generations. There’s a reason that a faithful cover version by funk-metal band Faith No More was a huge hit for them in the ‘90s. The searing guitar solo and soaring bridge make the original one of the best records of the ‘70s. “High On Sunshine” is smooth and upbeat, with Richie at the top of his songwriting and singing game. It features a great uplifting hook in the chorus: “High on sunshine, take all my blues away”?It’s hard to believe that the same album with the previous two songs also included the stomping funk of “Brick House,” a monster hit that I remember singing along with in my parents’ car when I was 11. This would be a classic even as an instrumental, but Walter Orange’s soulful & suggestive vocals take it to another level. Another super-funky song from the same era, “Too Hot Ta Trot,” was #1 R&B (and another sing-along for me back in ‘77), but I don’t think it gets the same recognition as “Brick House” even though it’s just as good. How can you not smile when Orange sings, “Too hot ta stop now, whooo…baby”?
A year later they shifted gears with the #1 Pop and R&B smash, “Three Times A Lady,” probably Richie’s defining ballad and the blueprint for his solo career. I’m sure many people in my age group will never forget Eddie Murphy’s appearance on Saturday Night Live as Buckwheat, singing his memorable version, “Fee Tines A Mady.” Also in ’78, they released “I Like What You Do,” a slick, slinky, slightly funky midtempo disco song that I’m surprised was not released as a single.
The second disc begins with the happy & uplifting “Flying High,” which combines elements of Barry White, Philly Soul and even the acoustic rock of bands like America. Since Richie would begin his solo career just a few years later, many people may not realize that “Still” was a Commodores song, and a huge one (#1 Pop and R&B). “Sail On” was only slightly less successful on the charts, but still reached the Top 10. It made the soft pop style of Richie’s songs The Commodores’ definitive sound at the dawn of the ‘80s, and most likely led to his split from the group. It’s similar to what happened between Chicago and Peter Cetera just a few years later. These last two songs are the only ones I really enjoyed from their Midnight Magic and Heroes LPs (1979 and 1980, respectively), at least based on the songs included here. 1981’s “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” is a return to form, with an obvious influence from the previous year’s Kool & The Gang smash, “Celebration.” It’s simply a great early-‘80s funky pop song. “Oh No” is a gorgeous yet heartbreaking ballad that I will always associate with the second best teen sex comedy of the ‘80s, The Last American Virgin. The longing and pain in the lyrics, as well as in Richie’s vocals, was a perfect match for the story of a teenager in love with a girl who loves his best friend.
The last track to feature Richie here is “Why You Wanna Try Me” from 1982, which has a more modern, slick funk sound, a great sparse bass line and a cool synth lead. It’s not usually the kind of song I love, but I’ll never deny a good record with great production. There are eight songs here from the post-Richie era, and most of them did nothing for me. There are, however, three exceptions. “Reach High” is a horn-infused song with a great groove and Earth,Wind & Fire-inspired vocals (“Reach…high…all hands to the sky”). “Turn Off The Lights” features Harold Hudson on vocals, and sounds like a key inspiration for late-‘80s British blue-eyed soul/pop singer Rick Astley. Once again, this isn’t a sound I usually care for, but it’s a pretty good song that was stuck in my head after a few listens. The one song from this later period that I’ve loved since it was released in 1985 is “Nightshift.” With vocals alternating between Walter Orange and new member J.D. Nicholas, it’s moody and modern with the passion of great gospel and soul music. It’s also a tribute to two departed soul singers, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, and I have to credit this song with introducing me to the latter. I was 19 years old when this record came out, and although I was familiar with a lot of R&B and soul singers, Jackie Wilson was not one of them. Thanks to The Commodores for exposing this great talent to a wider audience.
The last three songs on this collection were nothing special, and they signaled the end of their hit-making years. Still, the hit-to-miss ratio of these 39 songs is incredibly high, and I’m glad I didn’t opt for a less extensive single-disc compilation. I’ve read some negative reviews from fans who were unhappy that a lot of the versions included here are the shorter single edits, so perhaps I would enjoy the extended album versions even more. Hopefully my comments above will give you an idea of which songs made the most impact on me. I’m asking Commodores fans, or any music fan who loves one or more of their records, if there are specific albums I should listen to. Or perhaps you’ve heard their albums and you want to confirm that this compilation is all the Commodores I’ll ever need. Either way, it’s been fun revisiting this collection, getting reacquainted with their hits and finally becoming familiar with some of the lesser-known songs.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 14, 2013: Since I posted this initial “Compilation Or Catalog?” entry in November 2012, I received feedback from several people who also enjoy The Commodores’ music, but nobody recommended any of their individual albums for further exploration. In addition to the compilation discussed above I also own the Commodores Live 2-LP set from 1978, which I will revisit soon, but it looks like the answer to this one is: Compilation. I’m happy to say that The Best Of The Commodores: Anthology Series is an excellent overview of this super-funky & melodically soulful group. I hope others enjoy it as much as I do, and thanks to everyone for their feedback.