*-a COMPLETELY subjective list.
The Isley Brothers have prospered. Through the early days of rock & roll. Through Motown. Through funk. Through disco. Through the quiet storm. Through multiple labels, line-up changes, religious conversions, the incarceration of singer Ronald Isley and even through the death of three members of the family (two of whom were in the band.) Even if Ronald never releases another album (and he, essentially, is The Isley Brothers now), their legendary status is secure. They are the longest-running successful act in rock (rock as in “rock and roll era” as opposed to “rock music” history, with a string of legitimate hits that stretches from the mid Fifties into the middle Oughts, and a consistency in album quality that stretched for at least a decade (from 1973’s breakthrough 3 + 3 through the final album with that six-man lineup, 1983’s Between The Sheets)
Through the many stylistic (and lineup) changes, the constant has always been Ron Isley’s supple voice. It doesn’t matter whether he’s backed by The Funk Brothers, his brother Ernie’s blistering Hendrix-inspired guitar, or chords written by Babyface or R. Kelly; Ron Isley’s voice is a force of nature. It’s also turned out to be one of the most well-preserved instruments in music. Ron doesn’t sound a whole lot different now than he did in the Isleys’ mid Seventies heyday.
Some folks prefer the brothers’ guitar/funk workouts. I’ve always been partial to their sensual slow jams. When you need a musical background for your romantic evenings (or romantic daytimes, I’m not judging), The Isley Brothers are more than capable of providing the score. With that in mind, here’s a list of my favorite songs by the band. Most come from the band’s heyday, but there are a handful of songs from side projects, and this in no way suggests that the music made before or after the Isleys’ imperial phase is significantly worse (see: The Isleys’ sterling covers of Carole King, Stephen Stills and Bob Dylan, their late ’80s/early ’90s work with Angela Winbush, or their work with Jam & Lewis, Raphael Saadiq or Babyface).
1. “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” (from Go All The Way, 1980)
2. “Voyage To Atlantis” (from Go For Your Guns, 1977)
3. “For The Love Of You” (from The Heat Is On, 1975)
4. “Groove With You” (from Showdown, 1978)
5. “Footsteps In The Dark” (from Go For Your Guns)
6. “Between The Sheets” (from Between The Sheets, 1983)
If you don’t know these songs; you’ve been nowhere near a radio for the past…oh, forty years. They were hits upon original release (even though several were not released as singles, they became Black radio staples as album cuts.) They lived on in quiet storm radio, played nightly after 9 or 10 PM in major urban centers. After that, they were sampled into oblivion. The Notorious B.I.G., Gwen Stefani, Common, 2Pac, Ice Cube and a host of others lifted these songs, sometimes wholesale, and gave them a second (third in some cases) life. “Don’t Say Goodnight” was inspired by Teddy Pendergrass’s “Turn Off The Lights” and bests it. “Between The Sheets” was inspired by Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, and…well, not many things can best “Sexual Healing”. But “Sheets” comes close, and that’s not a small feat.
7. “Fight The Power” (from The Heat Is On)
The funkiest track in the Isleys catalog by a mile, and Ron Isley could make even righteous indignation sound sweet.
8. “Choosey Lover” (from Between The Sheets)
9. “Here We Go Again” (from Go All The Way)
10. “Contagious” (featuring R. Kelly & Chante Moore) (from Eternal, 2001)
R. Kelly was one of the newer-school artists that helped the Isleys re-establish commercial favor in the ’90s and ’00s, and “Contagious”, when released, was the Isleys’ biggest pop hit in nearly a quarter century. Kelly, Isley, and guest Chante Moore toe the line between melodrama and cheesiness with the grace of a tightrope walker. Also, this song might be the reason there are 166 volumes of “Trapped In The Closet.”
11. “That Lady” (from 3 + 3, 1973)
That guitar! You crazy for this one, Ernie Isley!
12. “Harvest For The World” (from Harvest For The World, 1976)
13. “Work To Do” (from Brother, Brother, Brother; 1972)
14. “Hello It’s Me” (from Live It Up)
...and this is how I discovered the awesomeness that is Todd Rundgren.
15. “(At Your Best) You Are Love” (from Harvest For The World)
I recently scored a copy of the Isleys’ Complete T-Neck Studio Albums box set (a very worthy purchase), and Chris Jasper mentions that the middle section of “At Your Best” is a tribute to the Carpenters. That statement caused me to think and marvel again at the Isleys’ versatility. At any given point, they could’ve come for Parliament/Funkadelic, Al Green, Led Zeppelin, OR The Carpenters.
16. “Heaven’s Girl” (Quincy Jones featuring R. Kelly, Ron Isley, Aaron Hall, Charlie Wilson & Naomi Campbell) (from Q’s Jook Joint, 1995)
The Isleys’ ’90s/’00s renaissance kicked off in earnest with this R. Kelly-helmed track from Quincy Jones’ 1995 album. “Heaven’s Girl” is a master class on sensual soul seduction, with Isley and Kelly joined by the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson and his direct descendant, Aaron Hall. A multi-generational R&B summit.
17. “Look The Other Way” (from Broadway’s Closer To Sunset Blvd., 1984)*
The Isleys scored their greatest success in its 3+3 formation, when the original trio was joined by 2 younger brothers and Chris Jasper, a relation by marriage. After Between The Sheets, the two trios went their separate ways, and the younger generation began recording as Isley-Jasper-Isley. “Look The Other Way” was the second single from I-J-I’s debut effort, and it’s way more pop/rock friendly than anything the Isley Brothers ever did. Should’ve been a much bigger hit, too, even though it borrows heavily from Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. Or maybe because it borrows so heavily from “Little Red Corvette.”
18. “I Once Had Your Love (And I Can’t Let Go)” (from Grand Slam, 1981)
I’m not sure I buy Los Angeles as a romantic destination, but the song’s so good, I can forgive that.
19. “The Highways Of My Life” (from 3 + 3)
20. “It’s Your Thing” (from It’s Our Thing, 1969)
Undeniable group, undeniable hook. The best of the pre-3+3 Isleys, and, shockingly, their only Grammy win.
21. “Tonight Is The Night (If I Had You)” (from Grand Slam, 1981)
22. “Summer Breeze” (from 3 + 3)
There they go, flexing those soft rock chops again. This cover bests Seals and Crofts’ original. Their harmonies are no match for Ron Isley’s luxurious croon.
23. “All In My Lover’s Eyes” (from The Real Deal, 1982)
24. “If You Were There” (from 3 + 3)
I have to admit, I didn’t become familiar with the Isleys’ original until about 10 years after I heard the Wham! cover (it’s on “Make It Big”). Say what you want about George Michael, but that man knew from soul music.
25. “Make Me Say It Again Girl” (from The Heat Is On)