by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Louder Than Words (1996, Mercury)
Richie’s solo career sadly went from red-hot to strangely quiet almost overnight, as his career would get sidelined for the next six years due to a combination of personal issues (including the death of his father and a highly-publicized and nasty divorce battle), writer’s block and health problems that prevented him from performing (namely, the development of polyps on his vocal cords). A hits package containing three new cuts would emerge in 1992, but another four years would elapse before Richie – newly signed to Mercury – finally put out his first full-length package of new material since Dancing on the Ceiling. It’s clear that Richie’s still suffering to some degree from writer’s block – three cuts are written entirely by outside parties while another three are co-writes – and Richie never feels completely at ease with the modern-day-R&B touches that grace some of the cuts, so the disc doesn’t seem quite as inspired as any of his three discs for Motown. Still, there are a handful of minor gems to be found here. “Ordinary Girl” and the sultry “Piece of Love” are both fine cuts, but even better are the lovely country-tinged ballad “Still in Love” and the soulful ballad “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” produced by and co-written with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, which managed to dent the Top 40, though it sadly remains his most recent Top 40 hit to date.
Time (1998, Mercury)
Richie’s second release on Mercury would be a huge commercial disappointment, not merely failing to produce any Top 40 hits (or Hot 100 entries, for that matter, either) but becoming the worst-selling of his albums to date by far. Artistically, it’s his most dubious disc yet as well, and the attempts to update his sound seem ill-fitting for Richie. [The programmed rhythms of “Zoomin’,” “Someday” and “Stay” are completely jarring, and the Cameo-like vocals on the chorus of “Touch” and the rapping on “To the Rhythm” are even more so.] Richie sounds best here when he doesn’t sound as if he’s trying nearly so hard to land a radio hit and is sticking to the more organic and old-fashioned R&B of his Motown albums, and ballads like “I Hear Your Voice” (penned with David Foster and Diane Warren), “(That’s) The Way I Feel,” and “Everytime” are much more appealing. The title cut works in some contemporary touches, but they’re a bit more subtle and don’t detract too much from the otherwise fine tune. “Forever” is an unusually bossa-nova-flavored song for Richie, but it proves to be a real highlight. The inclusion of a studio recording of “Lady,” the massive Number One hit Richie wrote and produced for Kenny Rogers but had never previously attempted himself, is a wonderful bonus, but it unfortunately also has the side effect of highlighting just how much weaker Richie’s more recent material is.
Renaissance (2000, Island)
Richie’s post-Motown string of spotty albums unfortunately continues on this, his first outing on Island Records. This time, Richie brings a catchier set of material to the table than that on Time, but unfortunately, he also sounds even more desperate this time to score a radio hit [“Wasted Time” even has a rhythm cut that’s reminiscent of TLC’s “No Scrubs”] and has employed a hodgepodge of different producers ranging from Rodney Jerkins and Daryl Simmons to Walter Afanasieff, resulting in a very confused and disjointed album overall. “Angel” is Richie’s catchiest new song in at least four years, but it’s unfortunately arranged as a club tune akin to Cher’s “Believe,” while the similarly catchy “Cinderella” just goes too overboard in trying to capitalize on the Latin boom, and the programmed drums on “It May Be the Water” detract greatly from what might otherwise might have been a great cut. The album tends to be substantially more listenable when Richie simply doesn’t try to be anyone but himself, such as on the ballads “Tender Heart” and “How Long.” “Angel” would return Richie to the Hot 100, but the real hidden gem here is the fun and catchy disco-flavored closer “Don’t Stop the Music.”
Just for You (2004, Island)
You could argue that Richie’s years of inactivity following Dancing on the Ceiling would have spelled the end of his commercial success, regardless of the albums that followed it, but it’s equally valid to question whether Richie’s later albums would have at least been artistic successes had he simply not bothered to worry about chart hits and just stayed within his comfort zone of old: that is, to say, old-fashioned, highly melodic, thoroughly-organic R&B-pop, like the kind that graced his self-titled solo debut. His desire to become commercially relevant again, however, has resulted in some awfully spotty discs since then, and once more, Richie just flirts here with too many experiments and collaborations that don’t quite work. The title cut, for instance, is just too overly synth-driven, “Heaven” seems too club-oriented a cut to sound as if it fits Richie, “Just to Be with You Again” flirts with the sounds of Irish music, and “Time of Our Life” is a collaboration with, incongruously enough, Lenny Kravitz. There are some decent songs to be found here, namely the hypnotic “In My Dreams,” “Ball & Chain,” and the rock/R&B hybrid “Outrageous,” but you can’t also help notice in these songs how much weaker the hooks are than those in Richie’s older material, and it takes a bit longer than usual for even the best songs here to sink in.
Coming Home (2006, Island)
Once again employing a hodgepodge of different producers (including Jerkins, Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, and StarGate), Richie’s third album of the decade doesn’t deviate from the tired formula of the last three albums, Richie still failing to play to his strengths and instead trying to stay commercially relevant. The lead-off single, “I Call It Love,” could just as well be by Ne-Yo, actually – why Richie thinks that what his old fans want from him is a Ne-Yo sound-alike is a bit of a mystery, but the cut is at least wildly catchy and surprisingly ends up being Richie’s strongest single in at least six years and would return him once more to the Hot 100. The album’s not exactly a return to form, mind you, but it’s a nice bounce-back after Just for You.
Just Go (2009, Island)
His best overall album since Louder Than Words, Richie’s still a bit too concerned with chasing that ever-elusive radio comeback hit, but to his credit, Richie wisely takes advantage of the artistic and commercial success of “I Call It Love” from the previous album and employs perhaps the best songwriting team in modern-day R&B, StarGate, to co-write and co-produce five cuts this time around. Richie’s not exactly an obvious fit for them, but when Richie’s still in fine form vocally and the songs are this good, you can forgive the bizarre juxtaposition of talent, and “I’m in Love” (featuring Ne-Yo) is easily one of Richie’s best post-‘90s singles. Of the other cuts here, the Christopher “Tricky” Stewart-produced numbers work better than you might expect them to, and “Good Morning” is quite the graceful late-career Richie single and equals “I’m in Love” in its greatness. Akon, on the other hand, makes a poor fit for Richie, and their two collaborations are pretty jarring, and neither the Trijntje Oosterhuis duet “Face in the Crowd” or the David Foster co-write (“Eternity”) fit in all that well, either, on what is otherwise a slightly-hip-hop-minded affair, but those cuts aside, Just Go feels just a bit stronger and more unified a set of songs than anything Richie has made since at least Renaissance. It’s still hard to avoid wishing Richie would just sit back down at his piano again and cut something as old-school and organic-sounding as your average John Legend album, but for what it is, this is still one of his better post-Motown discs.
Tuskegee (2012, Mercury)
In a way, it makes total sense for Richie to cut a full-blown country album – he’s produced several hits for Kenny Rogers, after all (including Kenny’s biggest hit of all, “Lady”) and quite a few of his own Commodores and solo hits have a distinct hint of country to them (including “Sail On,” “Easy,” and “Penny Lover”). So, in theory, this album could have been really, really good. The problem is: there isn’t any new material here. Much like the Doobie Brothers’ Southbound, it’s all just re-recordings of past Commodores and Richie solo hits that have been newly re-arranged as duets with today’s country superstars, like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Little Big Town, and Darius Rucker. The new versions aren’t technically bad, but the original versions were already perfect as is, and this disc just consequently seems completely unnecessary and feels like it was crafted solely as a cash grab. It worked, mind you – the album became his first album to reach Number One and go platinum since Dancing on the Ceiling – but it’s still pretty shameless.
There are an awful lot of single-disc Commodores and Richie best-ofs to choose from, but because both the Commodores and Richie himself had so many hits, the single-disc compilations all feel extremely incomplete, and your best bet is to go with a double-disc package. Universal/Motown’s 2006 package Gold actually combines Richie’s solo material with most of his hits with the Commodores for a fantastic compilation that’s not technically complete (strangely, it lacks the band’s Top 40 hits “Slippery When Wet,” “Flying High,” “Wonderland,” “Old Fashion Love,” and Richie’s “Se La” but includes the band non-hits “Zoom” and “Jesus Is Love”; go figure) but is so hit-packed that you nearly don’t notice that “Slippery When Wet” and “Old Fashion Love” aren’t here, even if they both really should be. Avoid the 1992 single-disc Richie compilation Back to Front, which simply lacks way too many hits while including three new cuts, two of them great but both also included on Gold (“Do It to Me” and “My Destiny”) and one of them awful (“Love, Oh Love.”)
To experience either Richie or the Commodores live on disc, the most fun way to do so is to pick up the 1977 Commodores package Live! Aside from containing a great new studio cut in the sweaty funk of “Too Hot ta Trot,” it’s a rare opportunity to hear Richie and his bandmates actually stretch out and jam, which they do on extended versions of “Sweet Love,” “Zoom,” and “Brick House,” the last of which finds Richie and Orange playfully competing with each other to see who can get the audience more involved.