The Isley Brothers ‘At Their Very Best’ 2LP (United Souls) 4/5 / The O’Jays ‘Best Of The O’Jays: Philly Chartbusters’ 2LP (United Souls) 3/5

United Souls have released a batch of 70s soul compilations including these two of The Isley Brothers and The O’Jays. There’s some parallels between the two acts. Both have their beginnings in the 1950s and while there’s good recordings at various other points in their careers, they reached their peak both artistically and commercially in the early and mid-1970s. Also, both are still around (in some form) today! These releases cover their golden periods extensively and in detail so there’s plenty of their juicy hits on show. Both albums pretty much span from the turn of the 1970s to trail off sometime in the ‘80s and are track-listed in vague chronological order.

“At Their Very Best” picks up just after The Isley Brothers’ decent tenure at Motown comes to an end and they head into a new musical direction: a groovy mix of righteous funk, soul balladry and idealistic, smooth, sometimes folky, rock; beginning with ‘It’s Your Thing’ from 1969. The album primarily mines singles and tracks from the string of classic records in the four year period from ‘3+3’ in 1973 to ‘Go For Your Guns’. So, the big ones are all here: ‘Summer Breeze’, ‘That Lady’, ‘Harvest For The World’, etc. However, it would be impossible to maintain this gold standard forever and towards the end of this release, as we edge towards the 80s, we get the so-so ‘It’s a Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop)’ for example, which is perhaps a little lightweight and bland when compared to contemporaries like Funkadelic’s Uncle Jam or Rick James’s punk-funk.

The O’Jays career really took off when they signed to Philadelphia International by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in 1972 and became one of the prime movers of the emerging Philly Soul sound. The first albums from the deal, ‘Back Stabbers’ and ‘Ship Ahoy’ (their masterpiece, in my opinion) are their finest moments, delivering singles such as ‘For The Love Of Money’, ’Love Train’ and ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’. Unsurprisingly, they are heavily featured on “The Best Of The O’Jays” and are the focus for much of the first disc. I would have preferred to have even more album tracks from those two records included, particularly the epic title track from ‘Ship Ahoy’. Although there’s some great tracks and albums afterwards, the second disc, which covers the mid-70s through to 1984, doesn’t really get close to the heights of the first.

Whilst there’s plenty of tunes to keep me entertained, I have to admit, as someone who owns a few of the original records these tracks are culled from, that I’m not that excited either. Maybe some rarer or out-take recordings would have made it more appealing. However, I do accept that these records are not exactly intended for a soul connoisseur or completist (or me!).

The titles do say it all, though. For the most part, they are the ‘best’. If you just want to hear all the hits together in one collection then this is for you! Or, if you’ve never heard them (or heard of either group), both albums serve as an excellent introduction with detailed liner notes and expert curation.

Kevin Ward