A Beginners Guide to the Isley Brothers


To understand the limitations of the canons, check out The Isley Brothers. The Cincinnati, Ohio band, founded by the O’Kelly brothers, Rudolph and Ronald Isley, is one of the most prolific funk-soul bands of all time, releasing more than 30 studio albums, nine of which went platinum. four other golds, and perhaps most incredible of all, their best-selling albums mostly coincide with what is actually their better scrapbooks. And given how wide the gap between critical acclaim and commercial success is, sometimes that’s a rare thing.

But for a band as enduring and successful as the Isleys, they’re often left out of the conversation when it comes to the greatest albums of all time, or even just the decade in which they were released. Acclaimed Music, for example, only lists one of their albums, the one from 1973 3+3-which has appeared on the publications’ top albums lists (which includes the rolling stone 500, as our writer Virginia Croft recently skimmed through, but largely includes UK publications). It’s a bit difficult to reconcile The Isley Brothers’ evolution and artistic reinvention over several decades, while maintaining an increasingly massive following for much of that time, with what seems like widespread critical amnesia.

It may be generational, although the group enjoyed a revival in the 90s due to widespread sampling of hip-hop artists, a commercial rebound with the 1996s. mission to please, and, unfortunately, several collaborations with R. Kelly. But this took place four decades (!) After the start of the band’s career. Much like Parliament-Funkadelic, The Isley Brothers’ roots are in doo wop and gospel, and from there they soared outward, embracing funk, rock and psychedelia, and eventually found their way to the boudoirs of the 80s enhanced by synth and drum machine. .

There’s a lot to hear in the Isleys catalog, much of it familiar, some vastly underrated, but all worth rediscovering. It may not rewrite the canon, but hopefully this Isley Brothers guide, featuring five albums to start with, at least puts them in the regular rotation of a few new fans.

T-neck; 1969

It’s our thing

The real starting point with The Isley Brothers is where they started, essentially – 1959’s “Shout”. Their seventh and first chart-topping single achieved ubiquity long after its release. You know “Shout”, you’ve danced to “Shout” at weddings. You might not even know it was The Isley Brothers, but you definitely experienced it. So I don’t feel the need to pay too much attention to this song, instead offering 1969’s It’s Our Thing as the perfect entry point to the band of brothers’ versatile and ever-evolving funk-soul sound. This one isn’t quite as ubiquitous as this crowd-pleasing party anthem, but it does feature ‘It’s Your Thing’, a strut of a late ’60s funk track that’s probably one of five. the band’s best-known tracks (their top Spotify songs support my guess; TIDAL’s top tracks lean more towards psych-soul and slow jams). But the Isleys’ sixth album, released more than a decade into their career, is the start of what has become an unstoppable era of great records for the band. And it starts with plenty of sweaty James Brown groove, deep soul angst a la Otis Redding, and heavy worries about who’s doing it to whom. Snippets like “Somebody Been Messin” and “It’s Your Thing” are satisfying on impact, grooves that hit efficiently and without delay. But it’s in the slower, more psychedelic numbers like “Feel Like the World” where the Isleys showcase more depth and subtlety, balancing hazy melancholy with gospel backing that more or less shows where Spiritualized got its best tricks. (which they do justice to, but certainly not invented). The Isleys gospel and doo wop roots were the base, but what they started to build here is spectacular.

Flow: Tide

beginners guide isley brothers 3+3
T-neck; 1973


The Isley Brothers’ first 15 years are an increasingly steep upward curve, their early singles great 50s R&B tracks big on hooks and soul, and everything that follows just adds another element to make it even better. When they came out 3+3, they had deepened their groove, embraced psychedelia, and had also grown tremendously as songwriters. But adding younger brother Ernie Isley as guitarist on 1973 3+3 provided the x-factor that made the album a showstopper. On “That Lady,” another Isleys hit that has stood the test of time (and appeared in more than a few TV commercials), Ernie’s guitars are the focal point, grinding and psychedelic, melodic yet defying gravity. Although the band had dabbled in psychedelia before, this was their definitive psych-soul moment, an absolute dropper of a first cut. Not everything is so wildly flashy, which is a good thing; soulful tracks like “If You Were There” and “You Walk Your Way” are a warm descent from that early high, while their covers of “Listen to the Music” and “Summer Breeze” show what kind of magic they can draw from other people’s songs. And pretty much the entire B-side maintains a lingering Sly Stone-esque funk momentum that makes it an absolute joy to play back and forth. But more than anything, it’s about this guitar – play it, Ernie.

Flow: Tide

Isley Brothers Beginner's Guide Get Your Guns
T-neck; 1977

Go for your guns

Twenty years after releasing their first single, The Isley Brothers have achieved their greatest album yet. To hear both sides of Go for your guns is to hear a band on fire, every groove much deeper, every riff much hotter, and every beat played with maximum impact. It says a lot that in an age of amazing funk bands, there are still few who can touch the Isleys on a purely musical level – there’s a reason this was our pick of the Isleys for the best albums of the 70s (although in hindsight picking just one feels wrong, in a way). From the fluid clavinet and bass funk of “The Pride (Part 1 & 2)” which opens the album, Go for your guns finds the Isleys off to the races and showing no interest in slowing their pace. Four tracks here are titled in two parts, because essentially the band had the foresight to write songs that were easy enough to fit into radio edits while still giving themselves the track space to just kick out some funk. The most recognizable track here is “Footsteps in the Dark”, sampled by both Ice Cube (“It Was a Good Day”) and Thundercat (“Them Changes”), although in its original form it is the one of the band’s strongest songs. , psychedelic, melancholy and oddly dark without coming out of the pocket. Although “Climbin’ Up the Ladder” is something more to prove Funkadelic’s rhetorical maxim from 1978: a funk band most definitely. can playing rock, and outperforming most of them in the process.

Flow: Tide

T-neck; 1975

The heat is on

It’s all there in the title – the Isley Brothers just to cook throughout the 37 minutes of The heat is on, delivering their rubberiest, hook-heavy, deeply rhythmic funk. It may be less of an artistic breakthrough than 3+3 might have felt at the time, but it makes up for it by simply being an amazing set of songs back and forth. It’s one of the best examples of the band’s penchant for splitting an album in two, the first half of all their funk rave ups, the second half of all their slow jams. There are times in their catalog where they deliver almost nothing but funk, and who am I to argue with that? (I can’t, I won’t.) There’s an interesting balance between the two here, though it’s still the A-side where the brightest gems are, especially “Fight the Power” and “Hope You Feel Better Love”.

Flow: Tide

Between the sheets
T-neck; 1983

Between the sheets

The Isley Brothers’ 22nd album, Between the sheetsstarts out much the same way as It’s our thing fact: With Ronald Isley growing increasingly suspicious about infidelities. But that’s pretty much where the similarities between the two end, aside from, of course, the band’s outstanding musicality and vocal performances. Between the sheets is, true to its title, one of the greatest soundtracks for adult-only situations of our time. The Isley Brothers may not have invented slow jamming, but they essentially perfected it, and this album sets the blueprint for R&B crooners to follow even decades later, with tracks like “Choosey Lover” and “I Need Your Body” awash in shimmering keyboard textures and rattled by austere drum machine beats. When Ronald sings, “Let’s make love between the sheets” in the title track, he tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this record, though before that you’ll probably be surprised by how recognizable his hook is – sampled by Notorious BIG in “Big Poppa” ( and its gloriously hypnotic coda, one of the greatest moments of their oeuvre as a whole, sampled by Jay-Z in “Ignorant Shit”) There are a few twists on this approach, such as the sociopolitical funk of “Ballad of the Fallen Soldier”, the fatback bass groove of “Slow Down Children” and the synth-funk banger “Gettin’ Over”. Kind of like The heat is on, the album is split into two distinct sides; Side B rather than side A is where the boogie begins, making it an outlier in a sense. I should also note that it’s not necessarily one of the top five Isley Brothers albums (but probably top 10, there’s arguing). It is, however, an essential part of the story, and still as sexy as hell.

Flow: Tide

Next steps: To get an idea of ​​just how lively and electric the band is, take a look back at their 1973 live album The Isleys liveincluding songs from before their 3+3 album, including many covers. It kicks off with a spectacular rendition of “Work to Do” before moving on to what is mostly a set of tracks originally captured in the studio on let’s give it back, though those takes are far more heart-pounding, like their glorious and epic Young/Hendrix mash-up “Ohio/Machine Gun,” or the soulful, sultry reimagining of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” Then dive into the warm and rich Brother, brother, brotheran album that’s a bit more organic and relaxed than their feisty mid-to-late ’70s material, but one that best showcases the Isleys’ versatility and fluidity as a band.

Advanced Listening: There’s so much to hear in the Isley Brothers catalog that you can keep going as long as the groove keeps you going, although the mid-70s was a particularly fertile time for them, so be sure to check it out. make the most, Harvest for the world and Strong testthen go back to the 60s and forward to the 80s. From 1985 onwards it becomes a little more inconsistent in part due to the breakup of the group, but even so a three-decade streak of near-unbroken greatness is quite difficult to overcome.

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