The James Brown Albums Ranked

Preparing to write about the albums of James Brown was incredibly difficult. It was incredibly difficult because the man released a million records. Well, by my estimation, he released 58 “canonical” albums, a different calculation than the official 59 studio albums. What’s omitted from my estimation are four Christmas albums (JAMES BROWN SINGS CHRISTMAS SONGS [1966], A SOULFUL CHRISTMAS [1968], HEY AMERICA [1970], and THE MERRY CHRISTMAS ALBUM [1999]), because I just never include Christmas albums in lists such as these. What’s added back in, however, are three seminal live albums that are crucial to understanding the James Brown discography: LIVE AT THE APOLLO, LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME II, and SEX MACHINE. But even with this monumental collection of 58 albums, released over the 44 years from 1958 to 2002, there’s something more to understanding James Brown. He was a singles artist, with many versions of his biggest hits appearing in different forms or not at all on his studio albums. Some of his live albums are considered by many to be his only “essential” records, besides a few key compilation albums (which I also don’t include on these lists).

So I open with these weird mental gymnastics because, as I mentioned, it’s difficult to consider the massive body of work from James Brown in totality. His legacy is also complicated by the fact that he was apparently just a totally terrible person, from many accounts, including legal ones. Brown lived from 1933 to 2006, a life that saw him bestowed the titles of “Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite,” and more. His influence on modern music is incredible, as his funk era was translated into the popular music of its day and beyond, such as in samples of hip hop from the genre’s earliest years. James Brown is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most important musicians of all time, and the context of why is hopefully imparted in this mega-ranking.

In listening to all of these albums a number of times, I found an interesting pattern emerged: I liked the ’70s work, which I always associated James Brown with, less than I expected to. This may be attributed to the complacency that set in not only with the musician himself, but with me too, since the constant stream of albums Brown released meant that there was a lot of overlap in style, to say nothing about the repeat renditions of many of his biggest hits. This resulted in an overall problem with distinguishing standout records and with the minutiae of deciding what album is a #32 versus a #31, for example. Hopefully, I make my preferences clear. To bring my writing down to “only” the “top” 50 albums, I’ll just briefly rank #58 through #51 without an accompanying writeup.

Favorite track: “Good and Natural”

[James Brown’s last album]

Favorite track: “Can’t Get Enuf”

Favorite track: “Living in America”

Favorite track: “Soul with Different Notes”

Favorite track: “New Breed”

Favorite track: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Favorite track: “Bernadette”

Favorite track: “Standing on Higher Ground”

Favorite track: “Georgia-Lina”

As one of James Brown’s last albums, you wouldn’t be mistaken for expecting UNIVERSAL JAMES to also be one of the then-sexagenarian’s worst. The thing about the Godfather’s worst records, however, is that they kind of just drone on rather than outright offend (some exceptions are included on the pop-influenced THE NEXT STEP, I’M REAL, and GRAVITY), which can be said for this comeback attempt as well as the rush of instrumental albums that Brown released in the mid-to-late ’60s. I say UNIVERSAL JAMES is a comeback attempt because it seemed to throw off some of the ’80s synth and drum machine sounds that had defined its immediate predecessors. “Georgia-Lina,” for example, is a genuinely soulful and pleasant bit of funk and jazz, with great backing vocals, grooving bassline, and rambling guitar supported by great horns. It’s a great little song, and a standout among the tracks on UNIVERSAL JAMES that weren’t quite able to throw off the yoke of the ’80s sound.

Favorite track: “Today”

BRING IT ON! was released in 1983, which followed the first calendar year (1982) that Brown had not released at least one studio album since 1958. That’s a significant metric because, beginning with BRING IT ON!, he entered a new, let’s be honest, less-than-great era to close out the rest of his career. The albums directly preceding BRING IT ON! weren’t exactly masterpieces either, but the aforementioned ’80s influence, which brought low many a great artist who had succeeded so greatly in the ’60s and ’70s, would come to the fore. It wasn’t yet extreme on BRING IT ON!, however, and the record benefitted from a jam-y instinct on a song like “Today.”

Favorite track: “Sticky”

Brown released just a ton of instrumental albums in the mid-to-late ’60s, and as I mentioned in my intro, it was already difficult to distinguish a great glut of his albums without having to also contend with deviations on songs that appeared on earlier records, in his pre-funk soul and R&B style. But that doesn’t make the albums bad, just not terribly engaging listens, and that’s certainly the case with MIGHTY INSTRUMENTALS. Its tracks are pretty brief, however, in keeping with the shorter LP style of the era, soon to give way to Brown’s propensity to populate his records with fewer but longer tracks.

Favorite track: “In the Middle”

THE POPCORN represented the beginning of the era when Brown would populate his records with fewer but longer tracks. But it also represented an ever-growing approximation of the “funk” sound we now attribute to Brown and the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s. THE POPCORN is also an instrumental album, and as is the case with most any Brown record, instrumental or not, it’s pretty groovy. It just doesn’t stick around for very long.

Favorite track: “Willow Weep for Me”

GETTIN’ DOWN TO IT was a kind of ode to the jazz singing style of Frank Sinatra, a hero of Brown. What that translates to is something that isn’t immediately identifiable as a “Frank Sinatra homage,” but rather a more straightforward jazz album than Brown maybe ever produced, and a bit tame compared to the raucousness of most of his discography. GETTIN’ DOWN TO IT, although it’s based in ballads, also doesn’t offer the best selection of slow, sad songs that Brown could pull off.

Favorite track: “The Spank”

Brown was apparently looking forward to the new decade a bit early, if the title of 1978’s JAM 1980’S is any indication. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like the work that would come in the mid-to-late ’80s. The album is still funky and pleasant, but it’s nothing groundbreaking.

Favorite track: “Ain’t It Funky Now”

Besides coming out at the literal start of a new decade (it was released in January 1970), AIN’T IT FUNKY was also the end of an era for Brown. It was the last album released just before the formation of The J.B.’s, the backing band that would come to be associated with one of Brown’s most acclaimed periods, or perhaps his most acclaimed. The front-and-center use of the word “funky” and jam-y style of the nearly title track also marked a looser era for Brown, although most of the tracks on AIN’T IT FUNKY were recorded as early as 1966. But the over-nine-minute openers “Ain’t It Funky Now” and “Fat Wood” weren’t, and they define the record as a marked shift, as far as you can find one in the constant gradient of change in Brown’s constant releases.

Favorite track: “Every Beat of My Heart”

The naming convention of JAMES BROWN PLAYS JAMES BROWN TODAY & YESTERDAY could clue you into the fact that the man just returned to well-known or already recorded songs, as well as new-ish hits. But Brown returned to them in instrumental form, with the organ serving as his mouthpiece. TODAY & YESTERDAY’s version of “Every Beat of My Heart” isn’t my favorite, but the song itself is one of Brown’s best, and it’s not alone among other decent interpretations of tracks that were already well-trod even by 1965.

Favorite track: “Hold On, I’m Comin’”

HANDFUL OF SOUL is another mid ’60s James Brown instrumental album, but it’s distinguished a bit by the addition of female backing vocals, especially on a song like “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” If it sounds like I’m dismissive of instrumental work, it’s not because I don’t enjoy it, but because it’s difficult to identify distinct differences among Brown’s albums in that style, and because part of Brown’s appeal is that crazy voice. But HANDFUL OF SOUL is enriched by those backing vocals.

Favorite track: “Smokin’ & Drinkin’”

SOUL SYNDROME is in keeping with the “lost plot” that Brown had on his hands by the end of the ’70s, but it’s definitely preferable to what would come in the rest of the ’80s. Indeed, “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” is a genuinely great funk song, and a clear standout on what is otherwise, yeah, a James Brown album, a not-so-special one.

Favorite track: “Caldonia”

On many of his mid ’60s vocal studio albums, Brown included dubbed audience noise, presumably to capitalize on the major success of LIVE AT THE APOLLO. In fact, some of his purported “live albums” that followed it were also mostly made up of studio tracks “augmented” by such dubbings. In any case, SHOWTIME is part of that tradition, and to its credit, it has a nice full sound like a live album may be able to achieve, regardless of the added effects.

Favorite track: “Choo-Choo Locomotion”

At one time The Famous Flames were not James Brown’s. Founded by Bobby Byrd in 1953, the vocal group brought Brown into the fold and he quickly became its lead singer. For the earliest parts of his career, “his” albums were co-billed to The Famous Flames, barring those instrumental records that had no vocals, and leading up until their exit from association with Brown in 1968. He kind of had a habit of alienating people, especially the bands that he callously expected perfection from. In any event, JAMES BROWN AND HIS FAMOUS FLAMES TOUR THE U.S.A. is a pretty underwhelming album from this era, supported by the fact that its best track isn’t even vocal (in spite of the prominent support of Brown’s vocal group). “Choo-Choo Locomotion” is just a great song in its own right, however, with a really great swing that gets stuck in my head without words.

Favorite track: “Woman”

By the mid-to-late ’70s, the conception of funk music that Brown had pioneered for the earlier part of the decade was losing steam, at least as far as his own work was concerned. It didn’t always feel as alive as it once had, and that’s the case with BODYHEAT. That being said, it’s a record that came before the real “fall” in the next decade, and it’s still a nice, sultry listen.

Favorite track: “Hustle!!! (Dead on It)”

Unlike BODYHEAT, EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ THE HUSTLE & DEAD ON THE DOUBLE BUMP feels raw. “Hustle!!! (Dead on It)” proceeds with a groove and moody vocal delivery from Brown that really marks it as part of the real deep funk he was doing just for the couple years leading up to this album. The problem with EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ THE HUSTLE, however, is that the other tracks don’t live up to the opener, and raw doesn’t always mean immediately enjoyable. By this time, Brown’s rambling was kind of tiring. Perhaps it was the waning influence of The J.B.’s; the name continued for Brown’s band into the 1980s, but the version of the original-ish configuration was essentially done by ‘75.

Favorite track: “You Took My Heart”

Although disco hadn’t quite emerged in its final form by 1976, GET UP OFFA THAT THING reflected the influence funk was having on popular music. It’s a bit more symphonic, less sinister, as I described with EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ THE HUSTLE, and kind of…dreamier. “You Took My Heart” is the best example of this, and in fact, GET UP OFFA THAT THING does have a bit of a different feel than the albums that surrounded it.

Favorite track: “Spring”

TAKE A LOOK AT THOSE CAKES has some really funny and just weird lyrics on its opening track, “For Goodness Sakes, Look at Those Cakes,” in which Brown describes getting his (let’s not forget, blind) friend Stevie Wonder to look at some apparently great butts. Otherwise, it’s kind of an eclectic funk record, with that opening track grooving a bit more aggressively, but the ethereal “Spring” serving as a great counterpoint with its constant drumbeat and plaintive horns. Brown just weaves in and out with his raspy voice, and it all marks “Spring” as one of my favorite songs from Mr. Dynamite.

Favorite track: “You’re My Only Love”

Even though I’ve been disparaging the ’80s, Brown really didn’t do too terrible at the beginning of the decade. Of course, the sounds we have come to associate with the ’80s hadn’t quite taken root, making those first couple years an extension of the work he had already been doing at the end of the ’70s. Case in point: NONSTOP! echoes a record like TAKE A LOOK AT THOSE CAKES, especially with the low-key sound of “You’re My Only Love,” supported with great backing vocals in the chorus. NONSTOP! isn’t a great album, but it’s consistent funk.

Favorite track: “Check Your Body”

There was an era there for James Brown, ending around REALITY or EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ THE THE HUSTLE, where he was practicing this kind of “sinister” funk I’ve described. What I mean is…there was a quality to his ostensible dance music that echoed something darker, and it wasn’t just in the lyrics, more socially conscious as they were. I mean, one of the tracks on REALITY is called “Funky President (People It’s Bad),” so obviously Brown had some issues with America, although not quite in the way you might expect: Brown was a Nixon supporter and was referring to Ford with that song. Regardless of his political alignment (he voted for Republicans and Democrats throughout his life), there is definitely a pessimism present on REALITY. It makes it one of the less fun James Brown albums, but the warped sensibility also makes it one of the most interesting.

Favorite track: “Hell”

REALITY was the successor to HELL, and HELL mostly fits in the same mold. Interpretations of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and Brown’s own “Please, Please, Please” kind of diffuse the psychic darkness infusing the funk sound established by The Godfather, but the title track of HELL jams on to great effect.

Favorite track: “Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Wants)”

I don’t know that I can pinpoint exactly which album The J.B.’s first played on or when exactly most of the original contingent, made up of the likes of Bootsy and Catfish Collins, left in 1971 to play with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Regardless, by the time of HOT PANTS, the short-lived era of the original J.B.’s was just about drawing to a close, which would not preclude mostly greater success for James Brown later in the ’70s. But the record can at times feel a bit rote, a regrettable quality since this style wasn’t yet old. But that’s a bit of quibble, since HOT PANTS’ place here indicates an appreciation for it that at least marks it as a “middling” James Brown album. It’s not remarkable, but it’s still a good funky listen.

Favorite track: “Sho Is Funky Down Here”

Speaking of P-Funk: SHO IS FUNKY DOWN HERE was a cool little sidestep in the style Brown was propagating in the early ’70s with feedback-laden, guitar-oriented instrumental tracks that call to mind the work of his peer George Clinton. It’s not like the record is immediately a psychedelic experiment, but SHO IS FUNKY DOWN HERE enters a bit of another funk dimension, especially with its title track.

Favorite track: “The Original Disco Man”

By 1979, disco was on the precipice of collapse, as everyone and their mother got in on the craze. James Brown was included in that group, as he fully embraced the style of the genre his early ’70s funk infused. THE ORIGINAL DISCO MAN immediately acknowledges, or egotistically claims, Brown’s influence on the craze sweeping the nation (and beyond). I’m sure some of his fans would see this record as some kind of bastardization of Brown’s down-and-dirty funk, but I’m also a sucker for pop music, disco included. The title track has a great chorus with support from female vocal artists, and it’s not like the record is devoid of real funk. “The Original Disco Man” itself segues into something that sounds more at home on earlier records, while the album as a whole isn’t a wholehearted slide into shallow trend-chasing. THE ORIGINAL DISCO MAN is a surprising bit of music.

Favorite track: “Georgia on My Mind”

IT’S A NEW DAY — LET A MAN COME IN is a mellower rendition of James Brown’s funk, which was to soon be elevated. There are softer jazz sounds present on the record, especially in Brown’s interpretation of “Georgia on My Mind,” and while there are dance tunes aplenty on IT’S A NEW DAY, the cross-section of listening experiences on it flesh it out into a more memorable album in the middle of an ever-improving era for Brown.

Favorite track: “Talk to Me, Talk to Me”

1968 was Brown’s busiest year, with five albums on this list releasing within that calendar year, plus the omitted A SOULFUL CHRISTMAS. The rush of records was slightly uneven, but ultimately, it represented an incredible close to the ’60s and a period of time where Brown was looking backwards as well as forwards. THINKING ABOUT LITTLE WILLIE JOHN AND A FEW NICE THINGS was one part tribute to his dearly departed peer and one part instrumental James Brown originals. Side one, as the cover record for Little Willie John, is superior, and Brown does the songs with a beautiful tenderness, especially “Talk to Me, Talk to Me.”

Favorite track: “Get Up Off of Me”

SEX MACHINE TODAY’s title would imply it had been some crazy amount of time since “Sex Machine,” one of James Brown’s biggest songs. Instead, it had been just five years. Granted, it was a busy five years, and Brown’s funk style had shifted to something less vital and exciting. That being said, SEX MACHINE TODAY is still alive and movement-inducing, as part of Brown’s second heyday from the early to mid ’70s. Its rendition of “Sex Machine” is in fact good, as is this version of “I Feel Good.” But “Get Up Off of Me,” if not a better display of songwriting than those two tracks, serves as the best original listening experience to be found on SEX MACHINE TODAY.

Favorite track: “You’ve Got the Power”

At about this point in the list I start to feel more passionately about the James Brown albums I’m writing about. While Brown made very few out-and-out bad albums, he also just made a lot of immediately forgettable or artistically stagnant, if technically proficient, records. There’s so many of them that, at least for this person who casually listened to all of the musician’s albums over more than a year’s time and has been deeply immersed in his discography for the past few weeks, it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. I GOT THE FEELIN’ is one of those trees that showcases the power of Brown’s enveloping voice and music. Although the negative flipside of such a talent was brought out in how he treated his bands, part of Brown’s genius wasn’t a singlehanded devotion and contribution to greatness; his bands were just also really, really good. So you can hear that on I GOT THE FEELIN’, and it’s one of those funk-advancing albums that Brown was just churning out in the late ‘60s.

Favorite track: “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”

SOUL ON TOP interpreted a number of Brown’s and others’ songs in a big band style, including the major hit from years before, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” This is the not the superior version of the track, but it does carry a really good, full sound that makes it a worthwhile supplement. The same could be said for Brown’s other songs on the record, and in fact, the fusion of big band arrangements with Brown’s songs and, it should be noted, a lighter funk touch, make SOUL ON TOP a unique listen within the progression of his work at the time.

Favorite track: “Stagger Lee”

As far as I can tell, COLD SWEAT was the last of Brown’s albums also credited to The Famous Flames, although members would appear on an album or two after its release. It wasn’t a terrible one to go out on, though, as it hit a great short run time, as Brown was able to do in the earlier years, with 12 tracks that mostly don’t let up with soul and funk satisfaction.

Favorite track: “Till Then”

JAMES BROWN SINGS RAW SOUL was an apt title for the record because it wonderfully showcased the singer’s voice. Not too much attention has been paid to it so far in this piece, but of course, there’s no other voice like James Brown’s. It sounded much the same in 1958 as it did in 2002; maybe it got raspier, a little more tired here and there, but the screams never stopped, and the excitement always present. Through James Brown’s voice, you can almost hear the sweat dripping off his brow. But Brown was also a great crooner, as can be heard on RAW SOUL and “Till Then” especially. The supporting strings and vocal backing make the track soulful bliss, and the rest of the record doesn’t disappoint.

Favorite track: “Get on the Good Foot”

As far as I can tell, GET ON THE GOOD FOOT was not a beloved record in those great early ’70s years. But even though it’s clearly not in the true upper echelon of Brown records, I think the double LP showcases Brown’s ability to keep the funk going. The longer runtime doesn’t drag the thing down, and instead was a kind of exciting expansion of studio album limitations. The jamming wasn’t yet tiring on GET ON THE GOOD FOOT.

Favorite track: “People Wake Up and Live”

Although James Brown was starting to get written off by the late ’70s, and in direct contrast from some of the things I’ve said about the era myself, I think The Godfather was doing some interesting, new things at the time. It’s not like he never did slow music or emotionally pained songs before, but there was a certain calmer yet still melancholy trait that he applied to select parts of records at the time. That’s especially the case with “People Wake Up and Live” on MUTHA’S NATURE, which begins with some of the most beautiful sounds Brown ever put to wax (or cassette or CD or whatever) and continues into a genuinely moving and pleasant song. There are livelier moments on the record for sure, but some of the nuance Brown brought to his formula on MUTHA’S NATURE is appreciated.

Favorite track: “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud”

You know, I was thinking about the progression of Brown’s image and not just his music when I came to SAY IT LOUD — I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD. Never known as an explicitly political performer, Brown nevertheless devised a number of preachy-ish songs about the benefits of school and the dangers of drugs and drink (ironic considering his own vices). He also dabbled in the mid ’70s, as written before, in other kinds of social and political commentary that didn’t necessarily land very powerfully. But having started his career in the 1950s South, there was a certain conservatism that was placed onto Brown as a black performer, which contributed somewhat to his strident professional personality behind the scenes. He wanted to be the best, encompassing the “black excellence” concept. But anyways, you start to see white women cavorting with Brown on his cover albums at some point in the ’60s, and his songs more directly acknowledging his blackness, and then you get to SAY IT LOUD, released the same year as Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” By the end of the ’60s, black identity was something to be celebrated instead of marginalized (at least by black performers themselves), and that was represented by or resulted in the explosion of funk, soul, and R&B music that black artists perpetrated in the era. So in this way, and with its relentless drive of the funk groove, SAY IT LOUD is a milestone James Brown album.

Favorite track: “Goodnight My Love”

A good chunk of HOT is made up songs that Brown either wrote or covered in years past. But these interpretations err on the softer side of the funk sound, as is best exemplified by “Goodnight My Love,” which is also enriched by great backing vocals. HOT simply has a pleasant groove.

Favorite track: “Funk on Ah Roll (Original J.B. Mix)”

I’M BACK came after the biggest gap between albums in James Brown’s career, a “whopping” five years after 1993’s UNIVERSAL JAMES. In that context, I’M BACK was in fact a monumental comeback success. Although he would subsequently remove that artistic success with the cheap-sounding THE NEXT STEP, ultimately James Brown’s worst album in my book, I’M BACK was not a wholehearted repudiation of the pop and hip hop influence that defined the last decade-and-a-half of his career. But the latter, those hip hop sounds, were much better integrated when it came to I’M BACK, most notably in “Funk on Ah Roll,” which inexplicably gets three plays in different mixes on the album. Regardless, the record ranges from the more “modern” “Funk on Ah Roll” to pleasant ballads like “Lucky Old Sun,” and the whole experience of I’M BACK feels like the true goodbye from James Brown.

Favorite track: “Regrets”

PEOPLE is nearly inexplicably one of my favorite James Brown albums. It is not in keeping with the other eras I love (the early ’60s and ‘70s), and while it came right on the heels of the late ’70s work that had some interesting ideas, it also doesn’t quite capture the symphonic sounds that came through now and then. No, PEOPLE is pretty poppy and a little cheesy, but all seven of its tracks are moving and groovy, “Regrets” definitely leaning into the former. The way Brown belts “regrets” is just kind of chill-inducing, and beyond this ballad tune, the rest of PEOPLE is variably lively and thoughtful. It’s a surprising record.

Favorite track: “Need Your Love So Bad”

In spite of a name that could at first be interpreted as a disgusted statement, I CAN’T STAND MYSELF WHEN YOU TOUCH ME has a great collection of love songs. “Need Your Love So Bad” is a prime example, and the whole record carries an energy just on the precipice of “old” James Brown flowing into the funk-tastic years to come.

Favorite track: “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul”

SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF was the second of James Brown’s two blaxploitation film soundtrack albums, named after the movie of the same name. For some reason, Brown’s soundtrack work is kind of dismissed, but in my opinion, those two records are among his best. I think this is when he started to capture the slinky kind of funk that represented some danger or something beyond love ballads or out-and-out dancing hedonism. Even in “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul,” which reads like a typical dance tune, Brown’s vocal delivery and the horn progression on the track could make a listener feel like they’re taking a stroll through crime-ridden streets. I mean, it’s perfect musical accompaniment for a blaxploitation film, and on its own, the SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF record is great funk.

Favorite track: “Any Day Now”

You know, there’s not much to be written about IT’S A MOTHER in general terms besides what I’ve already written about the other albums of Brown’s late ’60s work. What I can specify for IT’S A MOTHER is that the songwriting on display for the record’s songs, as opposed to trying to distinguish it stylistically from the other very similar albums that surround it, is stronger. It simply has a greater number of great tracks.

Favorite track: “Never Can Say Goodbye”

The same could be said for THERE IT IS, except in reference to the kind of work he was doing in the early ’70s. However, I can note that, before the soundtrack work and even before the change in tone that the following GET ON THE GOOD FOOT represented, THERE IT IS carries the moody danger I’ve described a couple of times. Or, at least, there is a through line of downbeat melancholy, from “Never Can Say Goodbye” to “King Heroin.”

Favorite track: “The Payback”

THE PAYBACK was to be Brown’s third soundtrack album, for the film HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), the sequel to BLACK CAESAR (1972), which Brown did the soundtrack for as well. But in dealing with the film’s producers, Brown experienced some frustration, and he took his much more expansive (read: longer) album outside of the context of the movie. Perhaps that’s for the best because, today, THE PAYBACK is probably one of the most widely praised studio albums James Brown ever made. It may even be the accepted favorite. It’s all deserved, because the cyclical funk that can be heard on THE PAYBACK is one of the most quintessential experiences to be found in Brown’s discography and the sound of the genre at the time. The eight tracks get longer and longer, but the music just keeps flowing and grooving.

Favorite track: “I Want You So Bad”

But from much discussion about the funk era I have to retreat to the earliest years of James Brown’s career. My favoritism for the early rock, jazz, R&B, and soul sound (of which funk is of course a distinct fusion) was surprising to me, since I associate Brown so clearly with the ’70s and the style he made popular then. Indeed, the rest of this list is not devoid of that era, but by recognizing TRY ME!, only Brown’s second album, I want to make clear that The Godfather offered a different yet also intensely rewarding musical experience when he first started. When I said that it was hard to distinguish James Brown albums, I mostly meant when it came to a number of albums within a few years of each other. In fact, it would probably be more charitable to James Brown to evaluate him by “periods.” In any event, this “period” saw him practicing such good and moving (both emotionally and physically) old-school rhythm and blues. TRY ME! shares its name with the hit single that preceded it, and already, Brown was reusing tracks; “Try Me” had also appeared on his debut record, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. In the interest of spicing things up, I noted as my favorite the also great “I Want You So Bad,” although both tracks are very close in quality. Ultimately, TRY ME! is a swift, diverse listen, with 16 soulful tracks playing through just 40 minutes.

Favorite track: “Good Good Lovin’”

Maybe it’s because I’m just associating it with its title hit, but TRY ME! felt a little bit calmer than its follow up, THINK! A lot of THINK!, in fact, sounds like the rock and roll stuff that could be found on PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, and that’s a welcome influence. But that late ’50s, early ’60s swing is rendered so beautifully, partly because of Brown’s great voice, on THINK! I had to ask myself if this tight R&B music from an era that feels so “old-fashioned” compared to the exciting funk years is really, in many instances, better. Obviously, I found that it was, because these albums that are kind of in the shadow of Brown’s later work are just a lot of fun.

Favorite track: “Lost Someone”

James Brown quickly evolved that “fun” work, which could sound a little tinny or simple (you have to give some consideration of the recording capabilities of the time), into a fuller sound, as early as THE AMAZING JAMES BROWN. “Lost Someone,” for example, is in a similar ballad vein as “Try Me.” While it’s not the better song, “Lost Someone” does carry a different feel, whether it comes from the production, arrangement, or just the interplay of Brown’s voice with the guitar. My ability to speak technically to these changes are inhibited by my lack of talent in the musical realm, but if there’s something I can point to about THE AMAZING JAMES BROWN as a collective experience, it’s this: Brown was bringing the fun or ballad sound of classic ’50s rhythm and blues into a more pervasive or complex arrangement that heralded the development of “soul music.” He wasn’t the only one to do it, but he was doing it really well on THE AMAZING JAMES BROWN.

Favorite track: “I Got You (I Feel Good)”

OUT OF SIGHT carries one of James Brown’s best songs, “I Got You (I Feel Good).” So it gets a lot of points on the strength of that song alone. But to continue the “conversation” in regards to THE AMAZING JAMES BROWN: by the time of OUT OF SIGHT, the fullness of Brown’s band could be better appreciated. The songwriting hooks, improved as they were, were also coaxed out into arrangements that impart the movement inherent to soul music, the emotional and physical connection to music that just feels so, well, good. Some of OUT OF SIGHT’s tracks don’t live up to this ideal, but much of it does.

Favorite track: “So Long”

I feel compelled to explain how I build these lists. I basically approach a discography as if I were offered a quandary by some omnipotent deity (or just some friend trying to help me figure out what to listen to): if I could listen to one James Brown album, which would it be? The answer to that question is my #1 choice. “OK,” says the deity (or friend). “You can’t listen to that one.” Then I think to myself, then I would listen to so-and-so. Deity crosses that off the list. And so on. So when I get to #7 on this list, PRISONER OF LOVE, which exists with the other early ’60s albums I’ve placed so highly on this list, that is to say outside of the popular conception of James Brown, I have to consider what makes it so good. Why did I put this album, which feels more old-fashioned or maybe too much of a kind with any other records of its era, ahead of some of those seminal funk releases? Then I just listen to a song like “So Long,” or “Signed, Sealed and Delivered,” or “The Thing in ‘G’.” Collectively, PRISONER OF LOVE is one of the peaks of early ’60s soul music, ultimately a collection of tight tracks that always put me in a good mood.

Favorite track: “Try Me”

Firing up PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE for the first time, after an exposure to James Brown just as the funk guy of the ’70s, can be a pretty surprising experience. This thing, James Brown’s first album, sounds kind of different from that stuff! It’s more like jazz, or old-school rock and roll, or the kind of thing you would hear your grandparents listening to. And it’s great. James Brown, and of course The Famous Flames, just turn over great track after great track, from the emotional core of “Try Me” and “Please, Please, Please” to the liveliness of “Chonnie-On-Chon,” which could rival Little Richard’s energy. That’s no easy feat.

Favorite track: “Down and Out in New York City”

BLACK CAESAR was my first James Brown album. Years and years ago, I picked it up at a library. I didn’t realize the scope of James Brown’s career, nor the album’s place in it. But it did confirm to me that this was funk music, plain and simple, exciting and moving. In negative reference to BLACK CAESAR, music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “You listen to Brown for music, not songs.” Besides the fact that the statement makes no sense, even though it kind of does make sense, it ignores the fact that there great songs aplenty on BLACK CAESAR. Opener “Down and Out in New York City” is an all-time great funk song, and the rest of the album never lets down much from there. BLACK CAESAR is made up of tight songs, made in a structure that Brown had not practiced in for years, but rendered in his new funk style. It’s a phenomenal album, and the best of his studio offerings.

Favorite track: “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine”

At the beginning of this piece, I explained that I had to include three seminal live albums from James Brown. This is in spite of the fact that I don’t usually include live releases, good or great as they might be, because they aren’t always distinct enough to be included in a “canon.” That is not the case with three of Brown’s many live records, of which SEX MACHINE is the worst but still better than anything else Brown offered from within the studio. I also wrote at some point that I can’t necessarily pinpoint what albums the short-lived original J.B.’s played on, but I know for sure they played on SEX MACHINE. If that’s all they did, they would deserve to live on in fame. SEX MACHINE is the real flashpoint of funk style as we now define it, 64 minutes of jamming, constant beats, blaring horns, and Brown’s raspy, screaming voice. My bias against long, jam-style tracks on albums can really be traced to prog rock or other genres, but even within Brown’s brand of funk, the seemingly never-ending repetition of a few hooks or groove can get tiresome. That is not the case with SEX MACHINE, which is one of those rare live albums that truly channels the energy of a big room in which a bunch of really talented musicians are playing.

Favorite track: “Try Me”

LIVE AT THE APOLLO is the favorite for the best James Brown album, regardless of classification by studio, compilation, or live. It does reside, however, in the latter category, and its success as such led Brown to include crowd sounds on quite a few studio records that followed it. But LIVE AT THE APOLLO itself is incredible because, unlike live albums from numerous artists which followed it, it captures the live energy while not rambling out into overstaying its welcome. The versions of the songs found on LIVE AT THE APOLLO are almost always the best ones to be found anywhere by James Brown, including “Try Me,” and the extended “Lost Someone” and medley of various Brown hits are also standouts. Although it would be a short show at only 30 minutes long, LIVE AT THE APOLLO accomplishes the feat of feeling like a concert, with songs that perfectly flow into each other and demonstrate the pinnacle of soulful R&B quality.

Favorite track: “Cold Sweat”

But surprising even me, I think LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME II is better than its predecessor. LIVE AT THE APOLLO is the tighter record, but in debuting the live energy that would define SEX MACHINE with the songs that proved themselves on many, many records before (including the first LIVE AT THE APOLLO), VOLUME II just wows. I’ve used the word “groove” a bunch so far, probably too many times, but LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME II proceeds with such power that I did feel like I fell into a groove listening to it. It was like the album was carrying me through this brilliant sonic-scape with all the skill that James Brown’s prodigious talent would allow. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME II not only offers tremendous renditions of James Brown’s best songs, it also provides exposure to the character of the musician. You hear the reason why he was called The Godfather of Soul, or Mr. Dynamite, or whatever other epithets he egotistically encouraged (or outright created). But listen to LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME II, and if you’re like me, you may come out thinking he deserved them.

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.