[Editor’s Note: “Crate Classics” is a new recurring soulhead column that pays homage to the essential albums of artist discographies. While the LPs featured here are chosen thoughtfully and passionately upon exploring the respective artists’ recorded repertoire, the selections also inevitably reflect our subjective preferences. So of course, we encourage all soulhead readers worldwide to weigh in with your personal favorites in the comments section below or via our Facebook and Twitter feeds.]
Nearly 56 years ago to the day, the Cincinnati-bred vocal trio originally comprised of brothers O’Kelly, Ronald and Rudolph Isley released their breakout single “Shout,” which remains one of the most enduring soul classics ever committed to wax. With thirty studio albums and more than one hundred official singles added to their repertoire since their first major hit—not to mention lead vocalist Ron Isley’s success as a solo artist in recent years—The Isley Brothers are unquestionably one of the most prolific bands of all-time, soul, rock, pop or otherwise. A fact that was not lost on the international Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voting body of music industry luminaries, who collectively inducted the group in 1992.
In 1973, the Isley trio expanded to a sextet with the addition of younger brothers Ernie and Marvin, as well as Chris Jasper, who had previously performed together as The Jazzman Trio. Sparked by a newfound commitment to musical adventurism, the band’s sound evolved and matured throughout the 1970s, as they incorporated deeper elements of soul, rock and funk, while penning original compositions to balance the stellar cover songs they were famously known for.
Largely fueled by the powerful triple-punch of Ron’s sublime falsetto, Ernie’s masterful Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar chops, and Jasper’s top-notch songwriting, The Isley Brothers cultivated an impressive catalog of uptempo dance numbers and emotionally evocative ballads of love and heartbreak that have proven timeless in their appeal. No wonder then that sampling of the Isleys’ melodies has been ubiquitous throughout hip-hop for years, with revered artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Ice Cube and the late Notorious B.I.G. crafting Isley-indebted tunes that have become modern-day classics in their own right.
Now while the Isleys’ various greatest hits and “best of” compilations make for superior listening, it’s always worth revisiting and celebrating the group’s original long players. In fact, it just so happens that an impressive 23-disc box set of newly remastered Isley Brothers albums was released just a few weeks ago. And today, soulhead and I are thrilled to pay respect to the awesome threesome of mid-70s albums that firmly established the Isleys as unrivaled purveyors of the most irresistible soul-funk around.
Read on for our special tribute and be sure to tell us what your favorite Isley Brothers albums are!
Three Essential Isley Brothers Albums:
3 + 3
3 + 3 marked the first album the Isley Brothers recorded after expanding from a trio to a sextet, hence the title’s appropriate nod to simple arithmetic. While half of the album consists of the group’s solid interpolations of 1972 rock classics (James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music”), the Isley originals are the real highlights here. On the dazzling album opener “That Lady,” Ernie Isley’s guitar work infuses new life into the update of the group’s 1964 single “Who’s That Lady.” Recently lifted for Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy Award-winning single “i,” the infectious track inspired rock critic Dave Marsh to once rightfully declare that “sweeter funk hath no men wrought.” The introspective “Highways of My Life” also stands out as stellar fare.
Top Tracks: “That Lady (Pts. 1 & 2)” | “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” | “Summer Breeze” | “The Highways of My Life”
The Heat is On
Though a handful of Isley Brothers albums reached #1 on the R&B charts, the 6-track The Heat Is On was the first of two Isleys albums to hit #1 on the pop charts (2003’s Body Kiss is the other). Reinforcing the band’s duality, the album is evenly divided by three blazing funk-rock tracks on Side A and three gorgeous ballads on Side B. The righteous “Fight the Power” offers a glimpse into the Isleys’ anti-establishment political disposition, voicing sentiments that Public Enemy would embrace as ideological fodder for their incendiary single of the same name fifteen years later. On “Hope You Feel Better Love,” Ernie’s guitar shreds through the hopeful track that wishes a wayward lover well. “Make Me Say It Again Girl”—famously sampled by Naughty by Nature for their 1993 anthem “Hip-Hop Hooray” and two years later by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony for their massive hit “Tha Crossroads”—serves as a convincing reminder of the band’s penchant for creating mood music of the highest order. Arguably the album highlight is the breezy, daydream-inducing “For the Love of You,” which still stands as one of the sweetest slow jams ever made. No great surprise that the song’s wistful melody has been sampled often, most notably by Masta Ace (“I.N.C. Ride”), 2Pac’s Thug Life crew (“Bury Me a G”) and College Boyz (“Hollywood Paradox”).
Top Tracks: “Fight the Power (Pts. 1 & 2)” | “For the Love of You (Pts.1 & 2)” | “Hope You Feel Better Love (Pts. 1 & 2)” | “Make Me Say It Again Girl (Pts. 1 & 2)”
Go for Your Guns
1977’s Go for Your Guns leveraged the same sonic template as its critically and commercially acclaimed precursors, so the Isley Brothers were not necessarily pushing the creative envelope as the decade neared its climax. But no matter, as the premium that the Isleys placed on consistency and delighting their loyal fanbase produced yet another filler-free suite of stirring compositions that rank among their strongest career output. Highlights include the torch-song groove of “Footsteps in the Dark” (later sampled on Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”), the mystical guitar-drenched ode to the escapism of love “Voyage to Atlantis,” and the funktastic banger “The Pride.”
Top Tracks: “Footsteps in the Dark (Pts. 1 & 2)” | “The Pride (Pts. 1 & 2)” | “Voyage to Atlantis”
Best of the Rest:
It’s Our Thing (1969)
Givin’ It Back (1971)
Brother, Brother, Brother (1972)
Live It Up (1974)
Harvest For the World (1976)
Between the Sheets (1983)
BUY The Isley Brothers’ RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983) via Amazon