He’s So Funky: Top Ten James Brown Songs

Although he has been in the earth for a little while now, I’m pretty sure that James Brown is one of the first artists I became thoroughly obsessed with as a music fan. While I just reveled in the screaming and insanity that was James Brown then, I fully get him now. James Brown attacks only three places on your body: your head, your heart, and your hips. If you don’t think about or feel things or like dancing, then maybe you don’t like James Brown. But, if you don’t like those things, why listen to music at all, right?

For those that like music, I feel safe in saying that James Brown has one of the most powerful, distinct voices in history as well as the leader of one of the straight funkiest bands of all time in the JB’s. You can see lines to Fela Kuti, Boogie Down Productions, and myriad other artists all coming directly from James Brown. For all of this influence and style, James Brown easily has one of the most uneven catalogues, only rivaling Kool Keith for seemingly random album ideas. For every one completely awesome track that he put out, he made an utter abomination. Examples include “Living in America” and “Unity” amongst others.

We aren’t going to talk about those crap tracks, but the dope ones because there are plenty of those. I’m going to list my top ten. I actively encourage everyone who reads this to disagree with me and put their own fave JB tracks in the comments. I want to start a dialogue about a dude who seems to be forgotten even though you probably hear “The Funky Drummer” break twice a week without even knowing.

There are some honorable mentions that did not make my final 10. Notable mentions go to “Ain’t It Funky Now?,” “Blind Man Can See It,” “Sex Machine,” “Get On The Good Foot,” “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Talkin’ Loud and Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’,” and “Let A Man Come In and Do The Popcorn.” I should also note at this moment that when I mention a song, I’m talking about all parts unless otherwise noted. Alright, that done, let’s get into this list because there are some straight jams waiting for us all ahead.

10. Mother Popcorn

James Brown developed his own dance called the Popcorn, which he did at concerts and other locales. He wrote a series of songs about it like “Let a Man Come In and Do The Popcorn,” “It’s A New Day (So Let A Man Come In and Do The Popcorn),” and “Mother Popcorn,” the tenth song on my list. Aside from featuring a super nice bass and drum groove accented with those patented JB horns, this song has some of the more patently absurd lyrics of a James Brown song. It’s a song about dating but the girls are too young. He needs her mother because that young girl just cannot handle the awesomeness that is the gyrating of James Brown’s hips. Maceo Parker has an awesome horn solo and this song is a fundamental example of how James Brown worked in the studio. He would get a basic idea, the band would put down a groove and then he’d just start riffing with them, which is always fun to listen to.

9. Bring It Up (Hipster’s Avenue)

A short blast of a song, “Bring It Up” is one of his soul songs, but it stands out because it is so damn danceable. If you don’t move to this song, you might want to check your pulse. I’m not lying. I’m listening to it as I type this right now, and I’m tempted to get away from my computer and do the popcorn to this song. One of the more underappreciated songs in his oeuvre, I think “Bring It Up” would be a good song to convert kids who listen to soul music yet have no conception of James Brown. It’s not one of his radical songs and it’s also not one of his amazingly long funk workouts, which appeal to black people and stoners respectively. If your friends aren’t either of those, this song will appeal to them as well if they have a pulse.

8. Goodnight, My Love

This 1969 song is James Brown in full lover mode. For the record, James Brown was something of a misogynist, which means that he was actively pissing women off. This also means that James Brown can write excellent break-up/give-me-another-chance songs. There are a lot of them to choose from. “Goodnight, My Love,” which is frequently mislabeled as “Goodbye, My Love,” is one of the rarer and better ones. With the organ simmering in the background, James Brown is in full crooner mode as he is accompanied by swaying basslines and brushed drums. This song is this high due to the quality of Brown’s singing as well as the totally sick guitar line that just clips at his heels and brings the extra melancholy the song needs.

7. Hot Pants

Beginning with a countdown, “Hot Pants” is a real simple song. It’s about girls grooving in hot pants. Nothing too difficult about that. This song works because of the shuffling guitar work, funk bassline, and the prevalent horns. It’s another one in the James Brown oeuvre that encourages active, hard dancing to it. More importantly, while you listen to it, you can yell “Hot Pants! Smoking!” with James Brown during the song. Also, who doesn’t like girls in hot pants? I think that’s a universally accepted awesome thing, isn’t it? I think it is at least.

6. I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)

While it has a ridiculously long title, “I Don’t Want Nobody” features what made James Brown popular in the Black community. Talking Black Liberation, this song is a hypnotic song about the needs of Black people in America. Although it can be forgotten from time to time, Brown was the voice of Black America for a very long time. The reason race riots didn’t break out in Boston was because of a James Brown concert. He was respected by many and listened to by many more. He was one of the few people who actually sang about the concerns that faced Black America and actually gave the community some pride in being Black in a society where Blackness was actively frowned upon. This song is a beautiful reminder of the position that Brown held and the fact that he took it very seriously.

5. Make It Funky, Pt. 1

Moving into the top five, “Make It Funky” deserves it place here. Starting with a brief dialogue between Bobby Byrd and Brown, the song then launches into the archetypal James Brown groove with organ, horns, guitar, bass, and drums all rocking together in harmony. The reason this song gets so high up my list is for the last part of the song where Brown gets completely free associative and just starts listing off different foods like neckbones and smothered steak. This song is on his “20 All-Time Greatest Hits” compilation, which means that this was a popular song. James Brown made the charts with a song where he starts rambling off foods at the end and there are no real lyrics in the meantime; it’s just a solid groove. He’s too damn funky and too good.

4. Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud

Going back to the Black Power themes, “Say It Loud” is what it is: a song about being proud to be black. Driven by a heavy bass line that interplays well with a upstroked guitar riff, James Brown picks up his post as the voice of Black America once again and gets accompaniment from some young women this time. I love this song because it gives me pride to be Black. I’m proud to be Black, but I don’t remember what that means sometimes. This song helps me remember. Also, this song got sampled by Salt-N-Pepa, and I straight love those ladies. They are so dope.

3. Night Train

A cover from the hardest working man in show business, “Night Train” is just a solid track from beginning to end. It’s built for doing the mashed potato. It’s catchy as all hell. While it is someone else’s song, you could have fooled me. James Brown and his band just own the track. If you put this on at a soul night, I guarantee the house is going to fall apart because everyone’s going for it so hard. This song is just good listening.

2. The Boss

The last two songs on my lists are actually from soundtracks James Brown did to movies in the 1970s. This track, “The Boss,” is from one of the great Blaxploitation movies: Black Caesar. Documenting the rise and fall of a drug dealer, Brown is able to capture the spirit of the streets in his music for this film. Using a dual guitar attack, this song fits its moment in the movie when Tommy gets shot. The bass line creeps ominously while the guitars speak to the despair of Tommy and the streets as a larger entity. Brown’s voice is full of reverb, as if it is inside of our heads. There are also some rather lovely flute fills. I can listen to this song again and again and never get sick of it because Brown and the Band are just so focused and sharp on this track.

1. The Payback

While originally written as a soundtrack, The Payback became a seminal funk album of the 70s. “The Payback” is easily one of the best revenge tracks ever written. More importantly, it has the best James Brown lyrics of all-time in it: “I don’t know karate/ but I know ka-ra-zy (Yes, we do!)” Seriously, how do I argue with that? Added to the wah-wah guitar and solid grooves provided by the band, this is my all-time #1 favorite James Brown song without question.

So, that ends my list. Agree? Disagree? Bummed you wasted your time reading this? Put it in the comments.

About the Author

I run a radio show called the chrysanthemum sound system. It airs @ 10p-12a on Thursdays on KRUI and features anything and everything. I write On The Beat in Little Village Magazine. I won on The Smartest Iowan. You can find me either in your basement, on the street, @acethoughts (Twitter) or gplus.to/achawleyisdead (Google+)
  • Tim G

    Great list, man. I’ve been trying to get a local band (the Uniphonics) to play “Hot Pants” for a while now. Still needs work.

    Don’t forget how much he influenced funk music, starting with Maceo Parker. JB could be considered the Godfather of Funk as well as soul.

    And thanks for including videos. JB’s legacy needs to include his amazing dance moves! Those of us who grew up watching Michael Jackson moon walk on MTV would do well to see where he got a lot of his moves from.

  • A.C.

    Someone in this town should really be playing hot pants. No question. I might start a band with the sole point of playing hot pants.

  • (Adam) (Ring)

    Hey man!
    Thanks for compiling all these videos!

    I’ll take you up on the challenge. Of course, it’s a lot easier to come up with other tracks that should be singled out as top-notch work than it is to figure out which of these nominees should get crossed off. Can you add to a Top 10 without subtracting?

    The one track that I think NEEDS to be on your Top 10 — which you don’t even give an honorable mention in your intro — is “Doin’ It To Death.” JB gets into the groove on this jam like on no other. He’s in control but loose as hell. It’s really plumbing the deepest depths of funk music (who would’ve guessed that getting down into D could sound that good?) and playing it so hard that you might even get convinced that the flute is a bad-ass instrument. In Chicago I got really caught up in it and played it over and over for weeks at a time; finally my upstairs neighbor, whose floor was shaking, just had to comment: not to complain, but to say thanks for the solid funk. You’ve got a thing for The Payback? That’s cool. But my top James Brown song is right here.