The Best James Brown Songs

No way in hell will I essay my own context-building, not when exemplary profiles by Philip Gourevitch and Jonathan Lethem exist. Besides, my intro to James Brown I credit to an episode of The Cosby Show in which Rudy Huxtable did her best “baby baby baby” lip syncing to “I Got That Feelin’.” What Gourevitch wrote in 2002 about “Please, Please, Please” strikes me as definitive:

The song doesn’t tell a story so much as express a condition. The singer might be speaking from the cradle of his lover’s arms, or chasing her down a street, or watching the lights of her train diminish in the night; he might be crouched alone in an alleyway, or wandering an empty house, or smiling for all the world to see while his words rattle, unspoken, inside his skull. He could be anyone anywhere. His lover might be dying. He might be dying. He might not even be addressing an actual lover. He could be speaking of someone or something he’s never had. He could be talking to God, or to the Devil…Speech is inadequate, so the singer makes music, and music is inadequate, so he makes his music speak. Feeling is stripped to its essence, and the feeling is the whole story. And, if that feeling seems inelegant, the singer’s immaculately disciplined performance makes his representation of turmoil unmistakably styled and stylish—the brink of frenzy as a style unto itself.

Facing such a statue in the park, I saw fit, more than ever, to include songs I wanted to hear again, hence the absence of “I Got You” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” On the other hand, I included a track from 1991’s forgotten post-prison Love Over-due called “(So Tired of Standing Still We Got to) Move On,” boasting some of the most ferocious rhythm lickin’ of his career — and that’s saying a lot. Also a contender is “What Do You Like” from James Brown Plays the Real Thing, designed to showcase his organ playing. He’s also responsible for one of the more galling examples of plagiarism in popular music: forget “rewriting” and use the verb “re-releasing” Bowie’s 1975 “Fame” as “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved)”; it works because “Fame” is a monster and so is Mr. Lickin’ Stick.

Sigh. An evening I anticipated listening to new music I’llnow spend listening to Star Time. Sigh.

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