All this bullshit going down: The best of the Isley Brothers

Their output matches the staggering statistics — six decades of Billboard Hot 100 chart action, every entry deserved. Nervous systems less receptive to funk may balk at the consistency of their albums and singles, but few acts made more of the fast side/slow side ethos. “At their peak, they delivered hot funk and smooth soul every year without fail—sometimes splitting an album in two so there was a fast side and a slow side—and there is something to be said for that regularity: when you laid down your money, you knew the Isleys would deliver the goods,” Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in a review of the The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters box set. “They represented a combination of entrepreneurship, musicality, race pride, and the confident sexuality embedded in the grooves of the ‘Ebony Lifestyle,'” Eric Weisbard remarked about the Isleys, the O’Jays, Labelle, and their contemporaries in his chapter “In Whose Thing?” found in Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, his study of the evolution of American radio formats.

A string of gold and platinum albums in the seventies confirmed their ubiquity, which for a time included programming on non-R&B radio. But their black base adored them. The Isley Brothers meant good times — the Isleys covered “Summer Breeze” for a reason. “There was nothing like the Isley Brothers pouring from speakers on a hot August day at the block club party on Komensky,” writes New York Times reporter John Fountain in his memoir True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity, quoted in Weisbard’s book. “As the Isleys played, time stood still, the melody and the smell of barbeque smoke drifting on a summer breeze.”

Every album from 1969’s Givin’ It Back through 1980’s Go All the Way is worth a listen; The Heat is On is the masterpiece by acclamation even if I prefer 1977’s Go for Your Guns because “The Pride” and “Livin’ in the Life” could stretch for seventy or eighty minutes without cease, like all great funk, and “Footsteps in the Dark” ranks among the best of Ronald Isley’s pained ballads (even Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe gave it a curt nod). Then Ronald married Angela Winbush and, a few years later, hooked up with R. Kelly, inaugurating yet another phase, which I hope to discuss at MoPOP Pop Conference in April.

1. The Pride
2. It’s Your Thing
3. Shout
4. Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)
5. Footsteps in the Dark
6. Between the Sheets
7. That Lady
8. Livin’ in the Life
9. I Turned You On
10. Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)
11. Summer Breeze (Part 1)
12. Live It Up (Part 1 & 2)
13. Down Low
13. Work to Do
14. I Wanna Be With You
15. Spill the Wine
16. Harvest for the World
17. Choosey Lover
18. (At Your Best) You Are Love
19. Take Me to the Next Phase (Part 1 & 2)
20. Smooth Sailin’
21. This Old Heart of Mine
22. Caravan of Love (Isley Jasper Isley)
23. Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love) (Parts 1 & 2)
24. Twist and Shout
25. Contagious (featuring R. Kelly and Chanté Moore)

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