If one were to name James Brown as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and beyond, there are few reasonable people who would argue. Born in 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina, and raised in Augusta, Georgia, Brown grew up singing in gospel quartets and performing throughout the South. When he joined The Famous Flames, a powerful rhythm and blues ensemble fronted by his friend Bobby Byrd, Brown’s journey to stardom would begin.
An electric performer and tireless innovator, Brown’s catalog is one of the most diverse in the history of recorded music. From his emotive ballads in the 1950s, the fiery R&B sides of the 60s, the deeply funky and socially conscious workouts of the 70s, or his pop-soul hits of the 1980s, James Brown didn’t just weather the stylistic changes that shaped popular music. Most of the time, he was a major initiator of those changes.
When the cultural revolution of hip-hop exploded onto mainstream consciousness in the 80s, sampling arose as a new and radical musical innovation. Hungry for hypnotic grooves, pounding drum breaks, dynamic vocals, and horn riffs, hip-hop producers and DJs naturally gravitated to the Godfather of Soul. Since then, countless DJs and producers have taken bits of James Brown’s best songs to use in their own new creations, thus allowing Brown’s musical DNA to continue to spread far and wide.
With dozens of studio albums, live albums, and compilations as well as the numerous hits that Brown produced for associated acts like Lyn Collins, The J.B.s, Vicki Anderson, Bobby Byrd, and others, there is no list that could fully encompass James Brown’s prodigious musical output. That being said, these 20 best songs are a great introduction to his incredible career.
(Try Me; Please, Please, Please; Bewildered; I Love You, Yes I Do)
Rooted in the traditions of gospel and blues, one of the greatest weapons James Brown’s arsenal is his ability to pour deep emotion into a soulful ballad. While some of his best songs like “Try Me” and “Please, Please, Please” were hits and undeniable classics, Brown brought that same ecstatic energy to ballads like “Bewildered” and “I Love You, Yes I Do.” With his strained, gravely voice, Brown was able to add a rough edge and sense of pleading urgency to these songs, a balladeer who could blur the lines between pain and pleasure, love and loss.
The origins of funk
(I Got You (I Feel Good); Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag; I Got The Feelin’; Cold Sweat; Superbad Pt. 1&2; Ain’t It Funky Now; Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine; Get Up Offa That Thang)
For James Brown, the mid-to-late 60s were an incredibly prolific and innovative period. Not only did Brown produce several of his best songs in this period with cuts like “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “I Got The Feelin’,” he would ultimately change the course of music history by introducing a new rhythmic concept and compositional matrix into the fold. With 1967’s “Cold Sweat,” Brown placed heavy emphasis on the first beat of a song’s measure and repurposed melodic instruments into agents of rhythm. With this set of daring innovations, what we know today as funk was born. Whether it as the driving, hypnotic grooves of “Superbad Pt. 1&2” and “Ain’t It Funky Now” or flamboyant anthems like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Get Up Offa That Thang,” Brown would consistently prove that he was not only the inventor of the funk, but its chief innovator.
James Brown songs with a message
(Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud; It’s a Man’s Man’s World; The Payback)
As fate would have it, the peak of James Brown’s popularity, as well as his creative prime, would coincide with (and in many ways inspire) both the Civil Rights era and the Black Power Movement. As with many of the United States’ great musicians, Brown also sought to express the frustrations and hopes of the people by injecting socially conscious messages into his music. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” emphasized Black pride in a white-dominated world, while “It’s a Man’s Man’s World” celebrated the contributions of women. Oftentimes, Brown would just rap to the brothers and sisters on the street with cuts like “The Payback,” lending his voice to articulate the Black, working-class experience.
(Funky Drummer; Give It Up or Turn It Loose; Blues And Pants; Mind Power; Papa Don’t Take No Mess)
When hip-hop first emerged in the early 70s, DJs utilized the funky grooves and pounding drum breaks of James Brown and the legions of bands that his best songs inspired. As sampling technology evolved, producers would once again turn to Brown, extracting snippets of horn riffs, basslines, screams, guitar licks, and drums to build entirely new collages of sound. The hypnotic, extended grooves of “Give It Up or Turn it Loose,” “Blues And Pants,” “Mind Power,” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” have all been sampled famously. “Funky Drummer,” however, is perhaps Brown’s greatest contribution to sampling culture. Showing up in hundreds if not thousands of songs, “Funky Drummer” has helped to shape the future of music to this day.
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