I probably should have made this list back around Christmas, since it was the anniversary of James Brown’s death. But for the Wednesday Lists, I thought I’d start things off with a bang.
1.) “I Got You (I Feel Good)” – 1965
Probably the quintessential James Brown song. His wordless wails here (including one that opens the song) are legendary as the musical breakdown, which could be considered a forerunner to funk. The best part of the song is when Brown declares: “when I hold you in my arms, I know I can do no wrong” with the band behind him not believing one word of it.
2.) Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (1965)
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is probably best remembered for its ringing guitar followed by a blast of horns. For what its worth, the song would easily justify its status for that part alone. But the rest of the song is proto-funk with Brown listing off a bunch of dances (The Monkey, The Mashed Potato, etc) as if to suggest they’re all passé when the Godfather of Soul is around.
3.) “Please Please Please” – 1956
The centerpiece of Brown’s show during the late 50s and early 60s. The recorded version is pretty great and soulful, but the version on Live at the Apollo is even better. It’s given a funky treatment, and Brown’s vocals are more tortured. Brown and his band sing several different songs before finally coming back to “Please Please Please”.
4.) “Cold Sweat” – 1967
Brown takes the pro to-funk of “Papa’s Got a New Bag” and twists it around on “Cold Sweat”. If garage-rockers were making funky dance music, it would probably sound something like “Cold Sweat”. The song is also noteworthy of its lack of melody and odd structure, and Brown yelling for a drum-solo.
5.) “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)” – 1970
Where are the horns? That was my question when I first heard this song. They’re still there, but the song is defined by the never-ending guitar riff courtesy of Catfish Collins (Bootsy plays the bass). The vocal interplay between Brown and Bobby Bryd, while borderline ridiculous,is quite intricate and engaging.
6.) “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” – 1968
Surprisingly, up until 1968 Brown never commented on the Civil Rights Movement. ”Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was his attempt to rectify this. Brown’s vocals are at his most defiant at he observes: “We’re tired of beating our head against the wall/and workin’ for someone else”.
7.) “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” – 1966
It’s hard to talk about this song without calling out its misogynistic lyrics. Some have argued that it is saved by the chorus: “but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl” but I’m not buying it. Still, as a piece of music it’s pretty great – including the funky false start and spiraling strings. The rest of the song is a slow burn, and Brown’s sympathetic vocals almost make up for the lyrics.
8.) “Super Bad”- 1970
“I got soul and I’m Super Baaaaad!” might as well be Brown’s personal motto. Upon first listen, “Super Bad” seems like a less impressive younger brother to “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine”), but the guitar work is pretty fantastic, and Brown seems positively giddy during the last minute of the song.
9.) “Get Up Offa That Thing” -1976
There’s no many lyrics in this song, but thats precisely the point. It’s designed to make you get up and dance. Released in 1976 as Disco was about to peak in popularity, “Get Up Offa That Thing” proved that even twenty some years into his career, nobody could get you on your feet like Soul Brother Number One. This song also gets bonus points for a crack at Barry White.
10.) “Try Me” – 1958
Most of Brown’s best known songs are known for their energy and frenetic vocals, but “Try Me” finds Brown laying back for a bit, and settling into a slow soulful groove, and even doing vocal harmonies with the rest of the band.