Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Commodores and Lionel Richie Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

            Perhaps the worst mistake that music critics make is to place as much of an emphasis as they do on breaking new ground; innovation is always certainly welcomed where it exists, of course, but too many music critics end up placing such an emphasis on it that they tend to severely underestimate the talents of those musicians who aren’t necessarily doing anything new but do it better than anyone else. There may be no more perfect example of this than Lionel Richie. A mega-star of the highest caliber in the ‘80s (only Michael Jackson, Madonna, Hall & Oates, Prince, & George Michael would have more success during the decade on the Billboard Top 40), Richie – both on his own and as a former member of the Commodores – is responsible for turning out an incredible number of songs that have joined the canon of all-time party classics (“Brick House,” “All Night Long (All Night)”) and wedding standards (“Endless Love,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Truly.”) But it’s a mistake to think of Richie and his former band as simply being great singles acts, and it’s a bit head-scratching that Thriller, Like a Virgin, and Purple Rain are still – though deservedly, of course – remembered and admired so fondly by critics, while you seldom hear any critics bring up Can’t Slow Down these days.  While it may be true that Richie’s albums were never as boundary-pushing or groundbreaking as, say, Prince’s, the quality of the craftsmanship is nearly every bit as evident, and if you listen to the album cuts that surround the big hits on his best albums, it becomes clear that the man should have even more hits to his credit. [How Motown managed to overlook the Can’t Slow Down ballad “The Only One” as a potential single, for instance, I will never understand.] Simply, Richie is easily one of the finest songwriters of his generation (and certainly the best at penning great wedding songs) but doesn’t get nearly enough credit for it these days, and it’s a bit of a mystery why that is – sure, his work since the ‘80s has been spotty, but so has the work of everybody else mentioned above, too. Nor do Richie’s albums with the Commodores ever get much attention from critics, either, even though they were one of Motown’s most consistent albums acts during those years, and Richie’s flair for strong melodies and tender ballads has tended to obscure the fact that, in their infancy, the Commodores were a fiery funk outfit, and a very, very good one, at that. Funk enthusiasts are truly missing out if they’ve never heard the earliest Commodores LPs, so let’s just jump right into their catalog … 

Machine Gun (1974, Motown)

B  

Easily the most funk-oriented album the band ever made (there are no ballads here), Richie and his bandmates have yet to reach their full potential here as songwriters, but these grooves are so irresistible and tight and the chemistry of the band so obvious that it really helps to mask the deficiencies in the writing. Interestingly, the lone Top 40 hit here – the title cut – is actually an instrumental, but it’s a great one, Milan Williams’s rapid-fire staccato clavinet playing and synth effects evoking the song’s title quite nicely. (The song would later show up as a prominent sample in Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies” and as one of the songs picked to evoke the ‘70s for the soundtrack of Boogie Nights.) The similarly-flavored instrumental “Rapid Fire” makes a great companion piece to the track and is just as danceable. There are even funkier cuts here, though, and cuts like “Gonna Blow Your Mind,” “The Bump,” “The Assembly Line,” and, best of all, “I Feel Sanctified” (which would be covered in 1976 by Wild Cherry of “Play That Funky Music” fame on their self-titled debut) are fun listens indeed.

Caught in the Act (1975, Motown)

A  

Though the band has begun to experiment on this disc with writing ballads, highlighted by the great Richie-penned “This Is Your Life,” a spacey Earth, Wind & Fire-like cut, this is still very much a funk-oriented album (and a true ‘70s R&B classic), and people who only know the Commodores from later-era singles like “Three Times a Lady” and “Still” and “Easy” may be downright shocked at just how funky and downright gritty and sweaty the band gets on cuts like the mildly raunchy Top Twenty hit single “Slippery When Wet,” perhaps the most underrated Commodores single of all and one that finds the group busting out a delicious slice of danceable and almost futuristic slice of funk. (Check out the clever sound effect that first punctuates the mix at the ten-second mark and is repeated in each instrumental break; it is a fun, fun piece of studio wizardry to listen to through a good pair of headphones.) Strangely, an edited version of “The Bump” from the previous album is included, but it actually works better here than it did on the debut. The ballad “You Don’t Know That I Know” is quite good, but the two greatest hidden gems of all here among the non-singles are the playful opener “Wide Open” and the slithering slow funk of “Look What You’ve Done to Me.” 

Movin’ On (1975, Motown)

A  

The band finally scored its first Top Ten hit single on the pop charts with this album and the mellow grooves of Lionel Richie’s “Sweet Love,” the first in a long series of timeless hit ballads Richie would write for the group. “Sweet Love” is the only song most casual fans are likely to recognize here, since there were no other singles released from the album (although the album-closing, Thomas McClary-penned funky instrumental “Cebu” would receive a notable amount of airplay on “quiet storm”-styled stations), but this is a fine full-length, and the William King/McClary collaboration “Time” is surprisingly pretty for an up-tempo cut, while the band’s more funk-minded fans will delight in jams like “Free,” “(Can I) Get a Witness” (a band original, not the Marvin Gaye song), “Mary, Mary,” and best of all, “Gimme My Mule,” one of the band’s all-time most underrated funk excursions.

Hot on the Tracks (1976, Motown)

A

The band would drift slightly further into pop – and occasionally even country – territory on subsequent albums, and they would be criticized in some quarters for what was perceived as watering down their music, so, while they would still make good records for years to come, this is the last of their discs where you can still genuinely call the Commodores a hardcore funk/soul outfit, even if the most notable hit here is the pop balladry of the Top Ten hit “Just to Be Close to You.” This is no standard pop ballad, though, and in its full-length form, Richie even speaks his way through much of the lyric, and the song actually unconventionally opens with its chorus. “High on Sunshine” is another winning, if faster, Richie ballad, but that’s about it as far as slow material goes, and the band ventures into funkier territory elsewhere on the disc, especially on cuts like the minor Top 40 hit “Fancy Dancer,” “Come Inside,” “Girl, I Think the World About You,” and “Thumpin’ Music.” “Captain Quickdraw” has all the markings of a filler cut, but this is otherwise a very solid effort.

Commodores (1977, Motown)

A –

This self-titled outing (which was given the title of Zoom for its U.K. release) became their first album to break the Top Five on the pop album charts, and it also stayed at the top of the R&B album charts for two months. There’s a good reason for both those feats: this is a fantastic set of songs, highlighted by a pair of monster-sized hits: the deep funk of the timeless party jam “Brick House” (one of the rare Commodores hit singles to feature drummer Walter Orange, rather than Richie, on lead vocals) and the equally fantastic slightly-country-tinged soul of the ballad “Easy” (“I’m easy like Sunday morning”), recently resurrected (with Richie himself making a cameo) in a series of Peyton Manning-starring commercials for DirecTV. But it’s not just the singles here that are worth owning, and tracks like “Won’t You Come Dance with Me,” the soulful “Funny Feelings,” the slow-burning funk of “Funky Situation,” and especially “Zoom” (the most famous of all Commodores non-singles) are great listens as well.

Natural High (1978, Motown)

B –

A less magical outing than their last effort, Natural High does boast the group’s first-ever Number One pop hit, the timeless Lionel Richie ballad “Three Times a Lady,” destined to become a staple at weddings and anniversary parties for years to come. The only other song on here that more casual fans may recognize, however, is the largely forgotten “Flying High,” which just barely made the Top 40, stopping at #38, but it’s a fine lost single and deserves more attention than it gets. There are two things that work against the album – the funk is noticeably a bit watered-down from previous album, which makes a cut like “X-Rated Movie” not nearly as musically gritty as you would expect it to be, and the second side is also noticeably inferior to the first. Still, this is a better album than it gets credit for, and there are some lesser-known songs here that deserve to be listened to, particularly “Flying High,” “Fire Girl” and the Richie ballad “Say Yeah.”

Midnight Magic (1979, Motown)

A –  

The final Commodores outing of the ‘70s is a nice return to form, even if it’s not quite as funk-heavy or as rock-solid from start to finish as Caught in the Act or Movin’ On. As usual, Richie’s ballads steal the show, and he’s penned two absolute masterpieces here. The ballad (and Number One hit) “Still” is a lovely, if sad, contemplation on divorce that has a sweeping orchestral arrangement (complete with harp) that surprisingly doesn’t detract from the song’s beauty and instead adds to its emotional heft, while the country-flavored Top Ten hit “Sail On” is similarly an astoundingly honest and emotionally powerful look at the pain of divorce (“I know it’s a shame / But I’m giving you back your name”) that cleverly shifts almost effortlessly from its country-styled verses to very soulful R&B-tinged choruses and instrumental breaks. But the other Commodores are no slouches here, either, and Milan Williams contributes a great – and very underrated – Top 40 hit in the mystical slow grooves of “Wonderland,” while the band gets downright funky on cuts like “Sexy Lady,” “Gettin’ It,” and the title cut.

Heroes (1980, Motown)

C  

Easily both their most spirituality-influenced effort and the most uneven of their albums with Richie in the fold, Heroes is one of their more ambitious outings to date, but the quality of the material pales wildly in comparison to that on the last album, Midnight Magic. Not surprisingly, the singles really under-performed on the charts. The best cut here and the album’s wisely-chosen first single, the underrated, delightful mid-tempo grooves of the Milan Williams-penned “Old Fashion Love,” deservedly reached the Top Forty, though it would stop at #20. The title cut would stop at #54, while the gospel-tinged Richie ballad “Jesus Is Love” would miss the Hot 100 entirely (though it would become a huge fan favorite and perform well on the R&B charts.) “Got to Be Together” and the Richie balladry of the title cut are mildly memorable, but none of the funkier cuts here is on par with past glories like “Brick House” or “Slippery When Wet,” while even the Richie ballads pale wildly in comparison with “Still” and “Sail On” from the previous album. The album isn’t actually bad, but the songs just don’t sink in nearly as quickly as they usually do, and the album just feels as if it were rushed.

In the Pocket (1981, Motown)

B +

Richie’s final album with the band is a nice bounce-back from the uneven Heroes, containing a much better set of songs. Naturally, Richie offers up a typically first-rate ballad in the beautiful Top Ten hit “Oh No,” while the disc also contains the band’s most danceable single in years in the playful grooves of “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” another Top Ten hit. There are also several other good cuts here as well, namely “Why You Wanna Try Me” and “Lucy.” There’s just a bit too much filler here for a disc with just eight songs, though, and the album consequently never feels quite as essential as any of their ‘70s albums (though this is arguably a stronger album overall than Natural High), but it’s a finer note for Richie to have left the band on than the strangely largely hook-less Heroes.