Whether you’re a die-hard James Brown fan, or you’ve only heard a couple of his hits on the “Oldies” station, there’s no denying that The Godfather of Soul is one of the biggest and most influential artists in music history. And in this article, I’m going to present to you my 10 James Browns albums that are must own vinyl records.
The 3-time Grammy winning icon not only invented the genre of Funk as we know it today, but also impacted and reformed the music industry in relation to all genres as well. In terms of rating the extensive and flawless catalogue that is James Brown’s discography, I considered an album’s inherent “funkiness” and groove, versatility, and historical impact, and overall classic “James Brown-ness.”
“James Brown-ness” being tracks that have James at his most authentic and unapologetic self, which can come in the form of a song breakdown or an intro Brown gives—or even an elongated, patented grunt.
This factor is especially important because as James Brown blew up and Funk became mainstream, hundreds of thousands of artists came out and in one form or another
borrowed (dare I say copied?) from Brown. Overall, it’s one of those things that is a bit difficult to describe, but when you’re listening to his music, you just feel it and almost want to immediately begin a search for James Brown albums for sale.
Best James Brown Albums to Own
So without further ado, let’s begin with my #10 James Brown album.
10. 20 All-Time Greatest Hits
(1991 – Polydor Records)
This record is undeniably one of the best all-around James Brown vinyl albums one can get, especially for a newer James Brown fan. Before the die-hard James Brown fans and general music snobs get offended by the placement of a greatest hits album at the beginning of the list, please hear me out.
As a vinyl owner, they’re fewer fantastic feelings that parallel that of putting on a record that fits the mood and even adds to the atmosphere of the occasion, especially if that record was an easy find. A record that has such consistency in good songs that you don’t have to worry in the slightest about some future playlist because when this one stops you simply have to flip the record for more great jams.
This record will serve that purpose in any party with a dance floor as well as introduce any potential novice of Mr. Dynamite to a wide enough array of his music that they’ll be sure to dig for more.
To put it simply, this record has too many immaculately funky songs on 2 discs of wax that it can’t be overlooked. It has to be considered from the practical standpoint of the moments when one simply wants to put on a good James Brown record without having to think about it. However, those hits themselves can only truly be enjoyed when heard in the context in which they were released.
9. Love, Power, Peace: Live at the Olympia, Paris
(1971 – Polydor)
Speaking of the context in which they were released, this vinyl album is the only live album with the original J.B lineup. Part of James Brown’s seemingly endless talents was his ability to find incredible musicians to carry out his groundbreaking compositions, especially considering his volatile attitude and tendency to fire musicians at a moment’s notice.
This was especially impressive in his recruitment of the musicians that came to be known as “The J.B.’s” which consisted of: Bootsy & Catfish Collins, Bobby Byrd, John Starks, Clayton “Chicken” Gunnells, Darryl “Hasaan” Jamison, and Robert McCollough.
Together, they released some of James’ most notorious tracks, such as “Sex Machine” and “Superbad.” Both those tracks and a slew of other classics can be found on this extremely rare collector’s item. Though the album artwork isn’t really present aside from bold type, the name of the collection speaks to the values that James wanted to espouse in his music, which in my opinion was part of the definitive “James Brown-ness” that differentiated him from other artists.
This album has a similarly impressive track listing as the greatest hits album that was #10 on this list, but is significantly less practical in regards to actually attaining it. Also, it includes not one, not two, but three record discs.
(1974 – Polydor)
Aside from the fact that its track list is bumping, this album’s front, back and inside cover illustration are as mesmerizing as they are amusing.
The front displays a host of characters of all ethnicities (yes this is important) experiencing some degree of strife—from a man wrapped up in bandages to another with a gun to his head. One woman is attempting to get gas but the pump is dry while another looks sadly onto an individual injecting themselves with some presumable narcotic.
All of these scenarios are wrapped and framed within flowing flames. However, the back cover offers hope, showing James Brown with a clenched fist and closed eyes singing. The frame of flames is now transformed into one of rainbows with a clear blue-sky backdrop. Within that frame is James and a ghoulish cast of demons with claws and horns attempting to stop him. Above the demons are two word-bubbles:
“He’s too strong we can’t stop him”
“That’s because he’s the Godfather.”
The inside cover is the true unsung hero though, open the vinyl to reveal a 2ft tall photo of James Brown in stylish black attire against a bright orange background. Next to James are phrases describing various “Hells,” such as “Drugs is hell,” “In the Ghetto it’s hell,” and “In The White House it’s hell”.
The very bottom of the portrait reads “JAMES BROWN – MINISTER OF THE NEW SUPER HEAVY FUNK”. To summarize life can be hell, but James is here to make it better with slamming tracks such as “Cold Blooded,” “My Thang” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” all of which are hot as hell.
7. Gettin’ Down To It
(1969 – KING Records)
The needle drops, the records spins, a piano crescendos in and Brown mutters “This is the way I feel.” From there, the rest is pure smooth bliss reminiscent of Sinatra.
However, this is better than Sinatra because its layered with that undefinable James Brown soul.
The cover features a concert still of James Brown in a red jacket in midair against a dark and blurry stage. This album is the type of record that will surprise any unsuspecting listener of James Brown’s musical range. It’s even been compared to the music of Ray Charles.
After skimming through the credits, one will quickly see that the usual musicians James performs with are nowhere to be seen and instead is the Dee Felice jazz trio. This is the only record collaboration of James and the trio.
All but two of the songs are covers, but they undoubtedly rival the originals. “Getting Down To It” is a perfect transitional project for any fan of jazz. One of my favorite tracks, which has been sampled by many including Kendrick Lamar, is “Sunny,” which is also the first track, making it easy for any listener to fall in love with this record.
6. Soul On Top
(1970 – KING)
To continue the trend of James’ impressive versatility comes “Soul On Top.” Similar to “Getting Down to It,” yet there’s so much more in its in-depth instrumentation and arrangements.
On this record is not only some classic JB musicians such as Maceo Parker, but on top of that is an 18-piece orchestra led by two bass drum jazz pioneer Louie Bellson. The track list showcases jazz classics such as “Everyday I Have the Blues,” as well as more mainstream hits like “For Once in My Life.”
On top of that, they’re also big band interpretations of James Brown classics, such as ‘Papas Got a Brand New Bag”—all of which will make you question your loyalty to the original versions.
There are also unedited versions of “It’s a Mans, Mans, Mans World” worth checking out.
The cover features a candid, smiling James leaning on one elbow, stretched in a field.
5. Live At The Apollo
(1963 – KING)
One for the history books, folks.
There is no top James Brown album list you can find that doesn’t include this record . And for good reason—its freakin’ legendary.
First and foremost, the artwork is rather untraditional, considering the James Brown style. Unlike the majority of his others, it doesn’t include a picture or illustration of him and looks like it was hand painted with water colors.
It simply shows the outside of the famed Harlem Apollo theatre with the title of the record on the awning above shadowy, blurry figures and lights near the entrance. It’s by far his most abstract cover.
“Live at the Apollo” is not only inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, but also the Library of Congresses National registry. Funded entirely by James, this album came out when Brown still performed with his original backup band “The Famous Flames.”
The release was originally blocked by multiple record companies who believed a live record with no new songs wouldn’t make any money. They were wrong, as it spent 66 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #2.
More importantly, it showed the music industry that an artist of color who not many took seriously could make serious profit. Fair warning, in terms of listenability I’d put this record more in the collector’s item category because of the nonstop screaming, screeching and cheering from the audience, which any Brown fan will understand.
4. There It Is
(1972 – Polydor)
This is where we start getting into some serious funk heavy hitters.
If you ever asked yourself “where is the funk?” Or “where has funk gone?” Brown has provided us a prompt reply: “There It Is.”
The title is written in a bold yellow blaxploitation-esque typeface above 3 oil painted caricatures of James Brown; two opposing closeups of his face and one of him standing on a hill in a fresh purple suit with a glowing crown behind him, likely symbolizing his stature of funk royalty.
The back, however, has much more going on—it illustrates a horde of people in an inner city setting framed by the outline of the US.
Above these people are two figures, the larger one is James Brown seemingly trying to uplift the downtrodden people and the other is white man riding a horse with his arms extended holding a musket. One hand looks as if it’s possessing one of the souls of the inner-city horde.
Aside from the art is a flaming hot track list. The title track, which also introduces the album, starts with a woman shrieking “Ah there it is” and then a deep groove follows.
Side B features a personal favorite of mine, which I’ve managed to blend into conversation, and that is “Talkin Loud and Saying Nothin,” which features a fantastic breakdown and head nodding bass line.
After that song is the track that inspired the 90’s socially conscious rap group “Public Enemy.” However, the standout track on this record is “King Heroin.” Though I wouldn’t describe it as funky necessarily, it is a smooth soulful ballad where James preaches on the serious issue of drug abuse and the epidemic of the time.
3. In The Jungle Groove
(1986 – Polydor)
SAMPLE ALERT—this record has the most sampled drum break of ALL TIME.
This drum break is so prevalent in almost every genre of music that you may have heard it today and you don’t know. The drum break can be found on the classic track “The Funky Drummer.” The song itself is 9 minutes long and it’s not until the end that James “gives the drummer some,” however in the song he specifically tells the drummer not to “turn it loose cuz it’s a motha,” thus resulting in the drummer (Clyde Stubbefield) laying out the one the most quintessentially funky beats of all time.
The phenomenon of the reoccurring break has been documented time and time again in various videos and documentaries such as “Copyright Criminals” by PBS. Similarly, to the first album on this list, it’s worth noting that “In The Jungle Groove” is a compilation album.
Nonetheless, the tracks from “Funky Drummer” to “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” to “Get Up Get Into It and Get Involved” will leave you sweating on the nearest dance floor (living room).
As far as the album artwork is concenred, the cover shows a cool James in a concrete, prison-esque room lounging in a dark denim suit.
2. Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud
(1969 – KING)
This one is for Bob Marley, who was a huge fan of the record, saying it inspired some of his own compositions such as “Soul Shakedown Party” and “Soul Rebel.”
On top of that, Bob Marley and The Wailers covered “I Guess I’ll Have to Cry Cry Cry,” so if that isn’t upper echelon affirmation of an incredible album, I don’t know what is.
For those who don’t know the title track (where have you been?), “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” had a profound impact on society upon its release, which can still be felt to this day.
It became the unofficial anthem of the Black Power movement, and was seen as a rallying cry for Black Consciousness. It features themes of Black self-reliance and introduced one of my favorite Brown nicknames, “His Bad Self,” which made being “bad” cool before Michael Jackson did.
Both Rolling Stone and The Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame have noted the record for shaping rock and American music as a whole.
1. The Payback
(1973 – Polydor Records)
It doesn’t get any better than this. This album is as complete as it is timeless.
It is versatile as it is soulful, it is funky as it is inspiring.
This album features of course “The Big Payback,” which has been sampled endlessly and has some of the greatest “Hit Me” breaks in James Brown discography. This album is also considered by some to be “the last great James Brown album.”
Though Brown continued to make great music throughout the 80s, such as “Living in America,” the transition from live instruments to synths and drum machines took with it some of that “James Brown-ness” that we all adore.
The musicianship just wasn’t the same, and unfortunately the soulfulness would never return like it used to.
Thankfully, we have “The Payback” that not only has incredible album artwork, which I described relatively in depth on the “Top 10 Funk Albums to Own on Vinyl” list, but also flawless instrumentation and funk that will heat your whole neighborhood.
“The Payback” features not only classic musicians, such as Fred Wesley, but also a full string section. The tracks range from too funky with the 12 minute long “Mind Power” to smooth soul ballads like “Forever Suffering.”
To put it bluntly, Brown put it all on this album and it payed off.
Rest In Peace to the Funkiest artist to ever do it.
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