Are you a fan of funk music that has just got their very own record player? Are you the owner of a record player that is looking to branch out their music tastes and put the warm tonal capabilities of a record player and stereo system to good use by using it as a conduit for the funk?
Then you are in the right place, for today we will be going through some of my personal favorite best funk albums that I think sound even better on vinyl.
I had to limit myself to American funk to make it a little easier, though there is so much funk elsewhere, especially in Western Africa. Monoliths like Fela Kuti do what James Brown did over there in a much more militant fashion, churning out song after song that sounded the same but that you would not change for the world.
- There It Is – James Brown
- Free Your Mind – Amnesty
- There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly and the Family Stone
- On the Corner – Miles Davis
- Head Hunters – Herbie Hancock
1. There It Is – James Brown
No list of this kind would be complete without an entry from the godfather of soul himself, Mr. James Brown. He was more or less the original progenitor of funk music in the late 1960s, and so automatically has dibs on being one of the most influential figures in 20th century music, hailing from a time when the answer to how much does vinyl cost was considerably different.
This particular release comes at a time of relative success for Brown when he was really at the height of his powers, after having taken the like of Bootsy Collins (of Bootsy’s Rubber Band) under his wing.
Brown is infamous for not being as much of an album artist as he is a single song artist or an artist that brings forth an experience.
In a very similar manner to Fela Kuti – who himself was also a multi instrumentalist big band leader who would frequently take turns on the keyboard on stage – Brown brought forth a holistic experience when performing, replete with backing dancers and all sorts of theatrics alongside his own excitable and unpredictable dance moves.
So, in this vein, I can safely say that this is one of James Brown’s best, a funk album that puts many others to shame, that seems to bring you close enough to the performance to feel the sweat palpitating from them all up there.
There is a rawness in the recordings of this period, an analog warmth that later funk classics like Rick James’ Street Songs simply fail to capture, that puts the veritable and palpable experience of funk music at the forefront of its investigations.
To my ears, the contemporaneous act Average White Band has a certain clinical remove in its approach to funk music that James Brown and his now infamous backing band the JB’s lack completely, evinced if nowhere else on the swole title track.
2. Free Your Mind – Amnesty
Around the same time that the infamous Parliament-Funkadelic was putting what we now know as P Funk on the map and James Brown and others were sowing the seeds for what would later bloom as hip hop, the little known Amnesty were recording this set of oddities in Indianapolis.
Though ill seen and ill said in their own time, the results of a few recording sessions of work in 1973 have since been excavated for our own enjoyment. It does not bear thinking about what a band like this could have accomplished or how influential their sound could have been in their contemporaneous moment had they been backed by a record label, just another reason not to trust the music business to tell you what is good and what is not.
This is undoubtedly funk, all the elements here arrayed individually tell us so, but there is something else almost indescribably unique about it. It is almost as though inflected by the grandiose themes and dramatic turns of progressive rock music, ascending these bare elements to another level entirely.
3. There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly and the Family Stone
Another classic from the true golden age of funk, this will undoubtedly be more of an acquired taste than some others from around the same time. At a point when the Isley Brothers were reaching the absolute heights of their success, this album almost seems bizarre in comparison.
In aligning with the band’s previous forays into and founding of psychedelic funk, this album is still an experience through tinted sunglasses, though this album is more like a pair of Ray Bans worn the morning after an angel dust binge than the rose tinted spectacles of their previous album Stand!
And this darkness is a result of the fidelity of the music, which is itself a reflection of the new apathy that lead singer and multi instrumentalist Sly Stone had come to be burdened with after the optimistic epoch of their psychedelic soul had itself been weighed down with the reality of an ever darkening political climate.
While artists like George Clinton could surf this darkness and create humorous parodies of it, and while an artist like Stevie Wonder could flip it around entirely, Sly Stone seemed entirely consumed by it, which ultimately led to fractured relations within the band and ever spiralling use of the drug angel dust among others.
With the benefit of hindsight, the publication The Austin Chronicle believes that his ‘quest for post-stardom identity mirrored black America’s question for post-sixtiex purpose’, and though infested with a cynical tone throughout, the darkness of the mix leaves so much of the lyrical content up to interpretation as though it does not even matter and as though he has just as much of an idea as you or I.
4. On the Corner – Miles Davis
Though this certainly seems to stretch the conception of this list and the idea of funk considerably, I think this masterwork of late career Davis is absolutely worth considering, for its visionary take on funk, jazz, and electronic music, through the respective lenses of James Brown, Ornette Coleman, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
In a certain sense, this album does precisely what it says on the tin. I remember when I first heard it being so struck by how honestly it seems to portray being on the corner of a street, particularly that of New York where it was recorded.
There is the constant patter of hi hats ticking by like the tock of each passer by’s wrist watch on their way to work, and the murky tremolated electric piano chords rising through the murk like smoke from a subway vent, and the modulated guitar stabs that subliminally hit the back of the mind like sirens flaring in the distance, and all are steeped in a stress they thought previously unknowable.
This is a street scene as distilled in concentrate, delivered unto us in a way that completely eschews the need even for sight or words.
Miles himself infamously did not even include the names of any of the contributing artists, stating that he ‘didn’t put those names on On the Corner specially for that reason, so now the critics have to say, ‘What’s this instrument, and what’s this?’ … I’m not even gonna put my picture on albums anymore. Pictures are dead, man. You close your eyes and you’re there.’
5. Head Hunters – Herbie Hancock
I was intending to avoid writing about this album, though it is such a seminal funk album that this list really would be remiss without it.
On the back of his involvement in some of the most important jazz albums of the 60s and 70s – including those that would define for decades to come the sound of fusion music – Herbie Hancock, like Miles, sought to take his music in a funkier direction.
Unlike Miles, however, Hancock (while still playing in his band) was willing to take his sound far closer to the contemporary mainstream, though still with a bite.
You are unlikely to hear a band that is more in sync with one another than on this album. The now ubiquitous big band classic ‘Chameleon’ is a master class in how to make your band sound more like they are communicating through telepathy than through music.
This is seriously one of few bands who, even just from hearing them play, I can safely say they were predestined to play with one another.
So, there you have it! Hopefully your curiosity about the best funk albums has been satiated somewhat. Perhaps sometime soon I will be able to explore in more detail some of what funk music from other continents has to offer. When spliced together with African polyrhythms and the like, funk music is taken to a whole other spectrum. These records will sound good no matter if you are not working with high end turntables.
FAQs Best Funk Albums
Though I do not think there is one wholly ubiquitous album that is wholly funkier than any other, I believe that you are more likely to find the kind of overflow of funk that you are looking for in compilations than on albums. In the age of crate digging, funk compilations have become incredibly popular and so there are plenty to choose from. My own personal recommendations would be The Funky 16 Corners released by Stones Throw Records, and Cold Heat, which to my knowledge is released via one of their subsidiaries.
Though James Brown was undoubtedly one of the central progenitors of the genre in the mid to late 1960s, the music has felt the influence of so many other musicians, artists, and visionaries since its initial and gradual inception that it would be impossible to say who makes or has made the best funk music. James Brown has a very big back catalog, and though he has a number of incredible songs, he is also known for not having the best quality of whole albums by comparison. Funkadelic has a better reputation in this regard, though coming at funk music from a rather different point of view altogether.
The instant reaction is to say that of James Brown. Though there have been countless other funk bands that have done an incredible job of bringing forth the veritable funk over the years, the backing band of James Brown, the JB’s, is now legendary through the world of popular music for always bringing venues alive wherever they went. A similarly vibrant and raucous backing band would be that of Fela Kuti, fulfilling Kuti’s similarly singular vision of funk music that would unite and mobilize the masses when the time came.
The instant answer would be James Brown. There have certainly been countless other bands and faces throughout funk music over the decades since its original inception, but James Brown himself was there and was a founding father during this original creation of the music and for several years afterward was still at the literal forefront of some of the most dynamic, powerful, and funky music that the genre had to offer. True enough, he saw a decline in popularity and, in turn, his quality of music wained as he attempted to bastardize his vision to stay relevant, but his original run of classic recordings and decades of tireless performance cannot be robbed of him.