KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Compilation Or Catalog? – THE COMMODORES

[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”?

[The Commodores – “Too Hot Ta Trot”]

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.

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17 comments on “Compilation Or Catalog? – THE COMMODORES

  1. Heavy Metal Overload
    November 3, 2012

    Sorry Rich, I can’t help you with this but I am rocking out to “Machine Gun” as we speak. I knew that song but had no idea it was The Commodores! I really like the idea of “Compilation or Catalog”, it’s a great idea for a series.

    Like

    • Thanks. In some ways your blog was an inspiration, since you have a couple of different concepts (In My Eyes, Noise-some Notes), so I thought I would branch out a little bit. Glad you’re enjoying “Machine Gun.” It’s definitely one of those songs that everyone knows but isn’t sure who recorded it.

      Like

      • Heavy Metal Overload
        November 3, 2012

        Thanks Rich, that’s a great compliment! I rarely buy compilations but I’ve been doing it a lot more lately just to get the odd tracks that I like… like getting a Don Henley one for Boys of Summer etc. so it’ll be great to see what other compilations are out there!

        Like

      • Compilations can definitely come in handy for certain artists. I actually have a few Don Henley albums, since I was a big fan of his solo work in the ’80s, but I also have his Best Of and that’s probably as much as most fans (including myself) would ever need. For other artists, especially my favorites like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Stones, Rush, etc., it’s hard for me to fathom anyone just listening to a compilation, since I consider so many of their albums essential listening from start to finish. As I mentioned at the top of this post, some compilations are great as a starting point. Like most people, my first Bob Marley purchase was Legend, but after playing it non-stop throughout college I eventually got all of his albums and I rarely listen to that compilation anymore.

        Like

  2. Lewis Johnston
    November 4, 2012

    While I do not have any of the Commodores records in my collection. However, this article has reminded me of how many good records they actually made. Therefore in answer to your question it would be a compilation in this instance for me as far as the Commodores goes. I do like the Faith No More version of ”Easy” though. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform it live when they were the support act for Guns And Roses 1992 European tour. So after reading this I think I will check out the aforementioned compilation. I hope you do more of these types of articles as I found this very interesting and most rewarding.

    Like

    • Hi Lewis. There’s no doubt that The Commodores made some amazing music during their dozen hit-making years. The compilation I own is excellent, and there are songs I would definitely miss if I only owned a single-disc collection. It peters out a bit at the end, but that’s usually the case with career-spanning anthologies. I was never a huge Faith No More fan, but I liked a handful of their songs and loved their version of “Easy.” Normally I don’t like cover versions that are so faithful to the original, but when the source material is so perfect why mess with it? How was the Guns N Roses show in ’92? I know they were hit and miss at that point, depending on Axl’s mood.

      I may do one more “Compilation Or Catalog?” post before delving into the Foo Fighters catalog later this week. Stay tuned.

      Like

  3. mikeladano
    November 5, 2012

    Thanks for posting this. I’m enjoying the rhythm. I have some Earth Wind & Fire at home but this is cool too.

    Like

    • Mike, I’m glad you enjoyed this. I’m a big Earth, Wind & Fire fan…I own their entire catalog (which started with a compilation, naturally)…and although I don’t think The Commodores are on the same level of greatness as EW&F, they had an amazing run of music in the ’70s & early ’80s that can’t be denied. I also recently got a 2-CD Kool & The Gang collection which is outstanding (especially their early funk material). I will probably write about that in this series in the not too distant future.

      Like

  4. Pingback: “Compilation Or Catalog?” Updates | KamerTunesBlog

  5. primalscreaming
    February 26, 2014

    I don’t believe that “Gimme My Mule” is on the comp you have. Give it a listen somewhere for some thumpin’ funk! Enjoyed this post!

    Like

    • I found it…and it’s super funky. The compilers of this compilation included plenty of music on the two CDs, but this would have been a nice addition. Are any of their individual albums worth seeking out, or are there just some stray tracks like this which didn’t appear on the compilation I own? Thanks so much for your feedback.

      Like

  6. CD
    July 7, 2014

    You must purchase the first 5 albums by The Commodores. Fantastic range in their music. The albums are as follows 1.) Machine Gun, 2.) Caught In The Act, 3.) Movin on, 4.) Hot On The Tracks, 5.) Commodores. Movin On can be ordered on Amazon. The rest can be purchased on iTunes. Enjoy!!!!!!

    Like

    • Thanks for the feedback, CD. Can you pick one or two out of these five as the key albums to start with? I don’t buy digital downloads so I would only be interested in CDs or LPs.

      Rich

      Like

  7. CD
    July 13, 2014

    Start with Caught In The Act and Commodores. If you can squeeze in one more Hot On The Tracks would be the one. Enjoy!!

    Like

  8. Kevin Goins
    September 8, 2014

    Hey Rich:

    Sorry I missed this one from last year as well as your request of suggested albums. As a longtime Commodores fan, there are three that stand out, IMHO….

    COMMODORES (1977) – Their self-titled long-player gave birth to the classics “Easy” and “Brick House” as well as the Quiet Storm radio favorite, “Zoom”. Probably their next-to-last album that had a nice balance between the balladry of Lionel Richie and the funk of drummer/leader Walter “Clyde” Orange.

    COMMODORES “LIVE” (1978) – Recorded during their 1977 tour, this captured the group at the peak of their powers in a concert setting. Much support from their backing musicians, the Mean Machine, this double-album featured their best songs from almost a half-dozen albums as well as the track “Too Hot To Trot” from the film, “Thank God It’s Friday”.

    MIDNIGHT MAGIC (1979) – By now, Motown wanted more of Lionel’s work featured on their albums and that’s what you get on this album. “Sail On” and “Still” are the hits. While the title track is a nice uptempo piece, it lacked the fire of prior funk tunes such as “Slippery When Wet” and “Brick House”.

    Like

    • Thanks for the feedback, Kevin. If I’m going to trust anyone’s opinion on The Commodores (and soul/R&B in general) it’s you, so I really appreciate it. Fortunately, I own that live album on vinyl, so I’ve already got one of your recommendation. Your write-up on “Midnight Magic” sounds like less of an endorsement than a heads-up that it’s not as funky as the older material. Since I already have the hits and key album tracks on the 2-CD compilation, I need to know if any of the individual albums has additional songs that are essential. It seems like the self-titled album might fit the bill. Let me know if you think any of the others would as well. Thank you.

      Rich

      Like

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