by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Lionel Richie (1982, Motown)
It may lack the fiery funk excursions of the Commodores’ best albums, but Richie’s first solo album is still a must-own for R&B fans and one of the more impressive solo debuts ever made by a former frontman. It’s also unusually back-loaded, with the album’s two most notable hits not arriving until the second half. The tender piano ballad – and Number One hit – “Truly” (recorded on the same piano Carole King used to record Tapestry, interestingly enough) is perhaps the loveliest ballad Richie has ever put on disc, with or without the Commodores; its arrangement is truly flawless, even right down to where the acoustic guitars arrive in the mix. “You Are” is a perfect demonstration of Richie’s ability to write an R&B song that’s nothing but hooks from start to finish, and his playful performance on the cut oozes charm throughout as well. [Fun trivia: if you listen to the background vocals closely, you can hear a very young, pre-fame Richard Marx.] “My Love,” a vaguely-country-tinged ballad with assistance on background vocals from Kenny Rogers, serves as the perfect musical complement to Richie’s classic Commodores-era hit “Easy.” But it isn’t until you start delving into the non-hits that you really start to see just how fun-packed this album is: opening track “Serves You Right” and the equally danceable “Tell Me” (interestingly enough, featuring background vocals from former tennis star Jimmy Connors) both are built around tight grooves and fantastic choruses. But best of all the album tracks is the soulful second-side opener “Round and Round,” which rivals “You Are” in its generous helping of hooks; the song is so wildly catchy, it’s frankly a bit weird that Motown didn’t see fit to release it as a single, and the song remains the best non-single to be found on any of Richie’s solo albums. Even the eighty-second album closer, “Just Put Some Love in Your Heart,” is so lovely and poignant and says so much in its brief lyric that you almost wouldn’t even notice without looking at the liner notes that the song actually clocks in at less than a minute-and-a-half.
Commodores 13 (1983, Motown)
You have to feel pretty bad for the Commodores: in a twelve-month span, they not only lost Lionel Richie to a solo career, but longtime producer James Anthony Carmichael also jumped ship to continue working with Richie, and, even worse, their longtime manager Benny Ashburn died of a heart attack at the age of 54. The band hasn’t fully replaced Richie just yet: instead, the lead vocals here are shared between Walter Orange (who had sung lead on “Brick House”) and longtime Commodores sideman/co-writer Harold Hudson, who’s not credited here as an official member in spite of his greater profile on this disc. This self-produced album sadly bombed commercially, but this is a surprisingly fairly good album. Naturally, it lacks the magic of the band’s ‘70s discs – that’s just to be expected, of course, for an effort lacking Richie’s vocal and songwriting chops and Carmichael’s production skills – but the band makes a valiant effort all the same to weather the storm, and there are some enjoyable tunes here: “Turn Off the Lights” is a fine return to the late-disco stylings of “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” while the playful and clever vocoder-laced funk of “Touchdown” has some real fun with its football-themed metaphors and the catchy “Ooo, Woman You” (probably the most rock-oriented cut the band has made to date) is an unlikely co-write between McClary and singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester (“Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “You Should Hear How She Talks About You”), who also sings backup on the cut. The band – at the risk of inviting comparisons to Richie – daringly also mixes in a few tender ballads to great results, the gorgeous “Only You” and “Welcome Home” both proving to be highlights. Casual fans may not be likely to recognize any of the songs on first listen – the biggest hit here was “Only You,” which stopped shy of reaching the Top 40, peaking at #54 – and it may have some filler (though it gets better as it progresses, the second side definitely outshining the first), but give credit to the band: this is a considerably better disc than it had any right to be when you consider all the blows they’d been dealt, and it deserved a better fate.
Can’t Slow Down (1983, Motown)
One of the biggest-selling albums of the ‘80s, Richie’s second solo outing was a monster: of its eight tracks, five became Top Ten hits, and the remaining three cuts are all strong enough that they could have been singles in their own right. The bilingual, Caribbean-tinged party jam “All Night Long (All Night),” which topped the Hot 100 for four weeks, is here, as is the iconic chart-topping ballad “Hello,” still fondly remembered for its dramatic music video in which Lionel plays the drama teacher of a blind student who sculpts a bust of what she imagines him to look like. The mellow, soulful ballad “Penny Lover” is less remembered these days but remains one of Richie’s most underrated singles, while the country-flavored “Stuck on You” boasts one of Richie’s loveliest melodies and a great guitar solo from Louie Shelton (formerly with Seals and Crofts). The chilling epic “Running with the Night” (penned by Richie with the legendary Cynthia Weil, who’s written countless other classics ranging from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” to Quincy Jones’ R&B standard “Just Once”) is here as well. It’s somewhat surprising that Motown didn’t try to get a sixth or seventh hit off this album as well, because the three remaining cuts are all strong enough to have been singles in their own right, especially the sultry “Love Will Find a Way” and the deliriously catchy ballad “The Only One” (penned by Richie with David Foster). This album strangely has been somewhat forgotten about in later decades compared to the albums that it sat on the charts alongside, like Purple Rain and Like a Virgin, but it’s arguably the most consistent album of Lionel Richie’s entire career and is truly one of the most masterfully-crafted pop albums of the ‘80s. This album truly is a must-own for any fan of ‘80s pop.
Nightshift (1985, Motown)
Produced by Dennis Lambert (best known for his work with the Four Tops, Glen Campbell, Player, and Starship) and easily the finest of the band’s post-Richie albums, the band (though suffering another loss, longtime guitarist/songwriter Thomas McClary having departed by this point for a solo career) has added a new vocalist to the fold here in J.D. Nicholas, formerly of ‘70s R&B/disco band Heatwave (“Boogie Nights,” “Always and Forever,” “The Groove Line”). More crucially, though, the band has got an even better set of songs this time than they did on Reach Out. “Animal Instinct” (penned by Martin Page) and the groovy “Janet” (co-written by Bobby Caldwell of “What You Won’t Do for Love” fame) are both highlights, and “Slip of the Tongue” (co-written by Player’s Peter Beckett) is fun as well, but the most essential track here by far is the fantastic and very catchy title cut, a moving tribute to R&B legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, both of whom had recently passed away. Deservedly, the song helped the band to finally escape Richie’s shadow and give them not only their first (and, sadly, only) Top 40 hit without Richie in the lineup, but a Top Ten hit, at that, and the band would just as unexpectedly make their first and only appearance – with or without Richie in the group, surprisingly enough – on Saturday Night Live to play the hit, a real coup for the band after so many critics had written them off after Lionel’s departure. It’s true that the band’s brand of R&B has largely been modernized here and isn’t nearly as organic-sounding as it is on any of its earlier discs, but the band still sounds enthusiastic here and the songwriting is still strong.
Dancing on the Ceiling (1986, Motown)
This album was seen as something of a commercial and critical disappointment at the time in comparison to the flawless craft and massive sales of Can’t Slow Down, but while this album certainly doesn’t reach the brilliance of its predecessor, it’s also better than anyone gave it credit for at the time, and it’s easy to forget that, while this album may not have moved in the same numbers as Can’t Slow Down did, it still spawned four Top Ten hits (and a fifth Top Twenty hit). The most well-remembered song here is the jubilant dance-pop of the fun and vibrant title cut (which, like “All Night Long” and “Hello” before it, was assisted by a creative and memorable music video, this one defying the rules of gravity), but the other singles here tend to be very underrated, including the silky-smooth grooves of “Love Will Conquer All,” the brilliant music-box-like melodies of “Ballerina Girl,” and the tempo-changing experiments of the anthemic Number One ballad “Say You, Say Me.” The Bob Marley-like “Se La” became Richie’s first solo single to miss the Top Ten, but again, it’s better than everyone remembers it being and deserves a re-evaluation. The country-flavored “Deep River Woman,” featuring no less than the greatest vocal group in all of ‘80s country, Alabama, on background vocals, deserved to be a much bigger hit as well. The album’s only real failing is that the non-singles “Don’t Stop” and “Tonight Will Be Alright” aren’t quite as catchy as the non-singles from the last disc like “The Only One” and “Love Will Find a Way.”
United (1986, Polydor)
The band has lost yet another original member – this time, bassist/songwriter Ronald LaPread – as well as its contract with Motown (it’s strange to think that the label would drop the band after the comeback success of Nightshift, but maybe they just assumed it to be the fluke success it turned out to be by the end of the decade) and finds itself being reduced a quartet of Nicholas, Orange, William King, and Milan Williams. Lambert is back as producer (and Carmichael even returns as producer for two tracks), but there are a few problems here that prevent this album from equaling its predecessor. For starters, the material isn’t nearly as strong; there is no surefire hit like “Nightshift” and all three of the singles released from the disc [“Goin’ to the Bank” (the band’s final Hot 100 hit), “Take It from Me” and “United in Love”] are placed at the very beginning of the album, which makes the remainder of the album feel like mere padding. Secondly, much like Earth, Wind & Fire around this same time period, the Commodores have not only simply stopped sounding like their old selves but they’ve become little more than a vocal group, having ceded far too many of the songwriting and instrumental duties to outside parties who go too overboard on drum programs and synthesized sounds to make this identifiable as anything other than a late ‘80s album, and a lot of these cuts could just as easily be mistaken for, say, the Whispers or late-‘80s Four Tops.
Rock Solid (1988, Polydor)
Undeterred by the poor sales of United and “Goin’ to the Bank,” the Richie-less band soldiers on, with an even less distinguished set of material and an even greater number of producers than United (eleven in all), resulting in a fairly disjointed effort. There are a few mildly interesting cuts here – namely “Solitaire” – but the magic is clearly gone at this point and, like United, there’s little here to easily identify this as a Commodores disc.
No Tricks (1993, SBR)
There’s something to be said about going out on top – it’s a lesson too few R&B giants of the ‘80s heeded, bands like Kool & the Gang sadly steadily drifting into obscurity as they got drowned out by the dawn of hip-hop and New Jack Swing – and in hindsight, the Commodores might have done their legacy a lot of favors had they simply split up after the unexpected success of Nightshift, before Motown unexpectedly dropped the band from its roster (while retaining Richie, who’d only release a solitary disc – a best-of compilation, at that – in the next six years before defecting for Mercury) and LaPread jumped ship as well. Neither of the two albums the band cut for Polydor yielded any Top 40 hits, the band’s profile dimming quite considerably as a result, but they hadn’t quite hit rock bottom yet – they’d make even more questionable career moves, electing to carry on after losing still another original member (this time, keyboardist/songwriter Milan Williams, the man who had penned their first hit, “Machine Gun”), starting their own label (Commodores Records) and releasing – of all things – both a package of re-recordings of their biggest hits (almost never a good career move) and – I swear I’m not making this up – a Christmas album. Not until 1993 would the band finally release their next studio album of new original material, and it’s embarrassing: not only has the band – formerly one of the crown jewels of Motown and now reduced to a trio of Orange, King, and Nicholas – been reduced to recording for an indie label, but it’s also been reduced – and, ironically, on an album entitled No Tricks – to releasing a shamelessly gimmicky cut like “Brick House ’93.” In fairness, the album is not so much bad ("Everything Reminds Me of You" is fairly good, actually) as it’s simply just sad – a true sign of just how far the band had fallen – but there’s still no need for anyone other than hardcore fans looking to complete their collections to pick this one up.