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Sly and the Family Stone: 20 Essential Songs

The best from the generation-defining funk-soul-rock legends

In a famed 1971 Rolling Stone profile by Ben Fong-Torres, Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) explained the concept behind he and the Family Stone: “If there was anything to be happy about, then everybody’d be happy about it. If there were a lot of songs to sing, then everybody got to sing. If we have something to suffer or a cross to bear – we bear it together.” Those words – a rare, lucid moment for Stone in that era – encapsulated the group’s arc up until that point: from the rosy optimism of their Summer of Love debut through their hit song era and into the cynicism of that early Seventies moment. The band would bear it together, until they couldn’t anymore.

Sly and the Family Stone became the poster children for a particularly San Francisco sensibility of the late Sixties: integrated, progressive, indomitably idealistic. Their music, a combustible mix of psychedelic rock, funky soul and sunshine pop, placed them at a nexus of convergent cultural movements, and in turn, they collected a string of chart-topping hits. Just as they seemed on the cusp of even greater success, Stone made a social and psychological retreat, only to reemerge in 1971 with the sonic equivalent of a repudiation: dark, brilliant and bracing. The band wouldn’t survive intact much longer, but in that short span, they redefined the possibilities of pop music. Was Sly and the Family Stone one of the great American funk bands? Rock bands? Pop bands? All of the above.

Sly and the Family Stone; 20; Sly; the Family Stone

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Can’t Strain My Brain” (1974)

The most damning-with-faint-praise for Small Talk, Sly and the Family Stone's final group album of the 1970s, may have come in Billboard's July 1974 review where an uncredited critic offers "not really much new in the way of presentation… but… there really is no need for a successful star to have to come up with something new on each LP." They weren't wrong: Small Talk mostly retread the same stylings, but the formula still had legs, especially on the tightly wound "Can't Strain My Brain," one of many Sly songs of the era where he hinted at his gradually loosening grip on reality.

Sly and the Family Stone; 20; Sly; the Family Stone

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Sly & Family Stone Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Remember Who You Are” (1979)

Arguably the last great Sly Stone song, "Remember Who You Are" wasn't a full-fledged return to the original Family Stone. Sly had jettisoned the band several years earlier, recording under his own name, including on 1976's Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back, perhaps one of the worst on-the-nose album titles in history. Back on the Right Track, in 1979, sounds like a concession to the mistakes of the past and, at least for "Remember Who You Are," he reunited siblings Freddie and Rose Stone to share vocals, recapturing some of that old Family Stone magic.

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