Ranking Sly and the Family Stone albums

What happened to Sylvester Stone remains a case study in recreational excess taking its cues from a sybarite’s rhetoric. He faded away after Small Talk. Perhaps I need spend more time with High on You and Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back, not terrible so much as determinedly average. I do enjoy Ain’t But the One Way‘s “One Way,” a burbling collaboration with George Clinton taking off from Stone’s work on The Electric Spanking of War Babies‘ “Funk Gets Stronger.” Jesse Johnson extended a hand for 1986’s R&B hit “Crazay,” in whose video Sly looked like an AARP spokesman.

1. Fresh (1973)

While I’m tempted to construct a murk vs ebullience binary, an album like Fresh careens past it. Before drugs crushed the filament of his flashing bulb, Sylvester Stewart could record worried, ruminative things like “Babies Makin’ Babies” and “Skin I’m In” and still sing as if the human language were newly born in his throat box. Organs loom perilously large. Bass assumes the guitar role. No question Miles Davis and D’Angelo listened. Neither came up with “If You Want Me to Stay,” as ebullient as ever, a billboard-sized grin of a single.

2. Stand! (1969)

The chord change in Pretenders’ “Phone Call” is second only to the break in Stand!‘s title track for favorite pop breaking-of-the-vessel moment. Back to what I wrote about ebullience: “I Want to Take You Higher” is hippie euphoria without guile, without universalist twaddle. “Unlike most of the other tracks on the Stand! album, ‘I Want to Take You Higher’ is not a message song,” the Wikipedia literalists write, on the one for once; “instead, it is simply dedicated to music and the feeling one gets from music.” So confident is “Somebody’s Watching You” that Sly can on its second half distort his, Larry Graham, and brother Freddie’s backing vocals before bringing them back, joined by Rose Stone’s clarion peals. Without “Everyday People” there would be no “I’m Every Woman,” “We Are Family,” “Express Yourself.” Because Sly wasn’t David Crosby, much less Stephen Stills, though, “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” is the thunderhead, complicating different-strokes-for-different-folks.

3. There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)

If the protracted recording sessions had resulted in “Luv N’Haight” and a collection of nattering songs, it would’ve been worth it. Greg Errico’s hi-hats and Larry Graham’s slap bass make for one of the lithest of rhythm tracks. “Luv N’Haight’ doesn’t stop; “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” revels in loping. “Family Affair” is the Family Stone’s Pledge of Allegiance, honoring the first fully integrated rock-funk combo. A masterpiece, yes, an aural masterpiece, bewitching in the depths of its burrows; its purported darkness is a result of mixing board tomfoolery, a development that didn’t stop critics for decades praising it for its Vietnam-era bad vibes. As shown above, he did better.

4. Greatest Hits (1970)

An essential catalog item; anyone with parents who came of age between 1965 and 1975 owned this record. I rank it thanks to to its sequencing and its three unimpeachable new songs: the best in pop music until Stevie Wonder’s 1982 double album comp. A song with the unbelievable title “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” hit #1 as a double A-side with “Everybody Is a Star.” And “Hot Fun in the Summertime” takes a melody out of a spiritual into the Aquarius age.

5. Life (1967)

Paul McCartney appreciated “Plastic People,” I trust, with its grafting of the “Eleanor Rigby” hook onto a typically febrile Family Stone arrangement, albeit an early one (Larry Graham’s bass will induce seasickness). “Into My Own Thing,” barrelhouse piano and all, anticipates the next decade’s solipsism. They would do better later than quasi-anthems like “Fun,” which shouldn’t be in quotation marks because it is fun. Worth noting: the unabashed guitar heroics over the intro of “Pressure.”

6. Small Talk (1974)

Baby chatter on the first track aside, nothing on Small Talk conjures the domestic intimacy, real or assumed, of the sleeve (assumed, I guess —  he and Kathleen Silva lasted months). But the Beastie Boys did wonders with “Loose Booty” and the rest is courteous background music, nothing to sneeze at.

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