Like Sunday morning: the best of Lionel Richie and the Commodores

No late twentieth century popular icon has suffered vacillations in critical ardor as severely as Lionel Richie. As singer and songwriter for the mildly funky Commodores, he showed far more interest in balladry and, interestingly, a polished studio kind of country rock that would lead to an Alabama collaboration, “Stuck on You” doing well on Nashville, and the 2012 sales phenomenon Tuskegee. Like most sales Goliaths, timing was key: Richie’s mildness and impeccable melodic instinct coincided with a renewed interest in MOR mush as disco waned commercially. When MTV’s acceptance of Michael Jackson and Prince and Richie’s surprising visual malleability proved fissile, Can’t Slow Down was the result: a diamond-certified sales monster that made Richie acceptable to grandmas of every ethnicity (i.e. my abuela, who turned sixty in 1984 and liked “Hello”).

As for the Commodores, Robert Christgau nailed it: pros “who understood funk’s entertainment potential the way John Denver understood folk music’s,” which meant their relationship to funk was theoretical rather than instinctual. This doesn’t smother the polite churn of “Brick House” and “Machine Gun”; put them against late seventies Isleys and they stick work, and the Isleys’ ballads could be worse than Richie’s. The shimmering electronic reminiscence called “Nightshift” works if you block out the words; if Talk Talk had released it in 1985 it would’ve resonated as sublime ephemerality, a synth pop act honoring forebears with whom it has nothing in common — like the Commodores did in their original.

1. Easy
2. Brick House
3. Stuck On You
4. Penny Lover
5. Can’t Slow Down
6. Lady (You Bring Me Up)
7. Running with the Night
8. Nightshift
9. Love Will Conquer All
10. My Destiny
11. All Night Long (All Night)
12. Still
13. Deep River Woman
14. Sela
15. Machine Gun

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