Various Artists

Funk: The Essential Album

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It's natural to look at a collection calling itself "the essential" anything and want to stump the compiler. So a perusal of Funk: The Essential Album is warranted to see if any major funkateers were skipped over. James Brown? Got him. Got Maceo Parker and the J.B.'s, too -- even Bobby Byrd. Funkadelic? Check. (No Parliament, but they were the same band.) Ohio Players, Curtis Mayfield, Kool & the Gang, Sly & the Family Stone? All accounted for. Yup, the Meters, too. You can take a few points off for the omission of Rick James, the Gap Band, Tower of Power, and a handful of others, but for a two-disc overview of a genre as monumental as funk -- which dominated commercial black dance music from the late '60s to the rise of disco in the mid-'70s -- Funk: The Essential Album lives up to its promise. Intentionally or not, the first disc is top-loaded with a heavier concentration of hits. For a quick primer course on the roots of funk one need go no further than Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie," Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead," Brown's "Cold Sweat," and Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's "Express Yourself," all of which are packed into the first half of disc one. For the second disc, the compilers took more leeway, thinking less about chart impact and more about musical heaviosity. Lee Dorsey's "Night People" is a blip in his discography compared to the classics "Ya Ya" and "Working in the Coal Mine," but it's a heck of a tough funk track. And even if names like Sylvia Striplin, Myra Barnes, Backyard Heavies, and Continental Showstoppers don't strike the same chords of recognition as Joe Tex, the Dramatics, or Ike Turner (whose obscure 1969 instrumental "Thinking Black" is a surprise highlight) -- and therefore don't quite earn the "essential" designation -- their contributions to this slab o' funk are well worth hearing.

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