This is possibly my most stupidly broad Top 10 list undertaking to date. As I started to see folks’ Top-10-(whatever)-of-the-Decade lists, I thought “gee, what are MY 10 favorite albums of the decade?” That was harmless enough, except then I thought “gee, I never compiled my top 10 albums of the 2000s either.” And so on, until I realized that I needed to break it on down by decade going ALL the way back to the 1950s, the first decade when LPs were a thing.
A few broad guidelines:
* These are favorites, calculated through a totally unscientific algorithm factoring in my fondness both current and historical (i.e. how much do I dig listening to it now and how significant was it in my development) and not in any way attempting to be objectively the “best” of anything.
* Each of the albums on the by-decade lists was conceived as a unified album with a unified lead artist. This excludes “best of” compilations, multi-artist soundtracks, and so on, which will get their own lists at the end of this process.
* A lead artist can only appear on ONE of these lists (even as an honorable mention).
* For my own self-protection, the blurbs on the albums will be shorter than is typical for me.
I’ll post one decade’s worth at a time, hopefully wrapping up before the calendar flips to 2020. So without any further ado:
Top 10 Favorite Albums of the 1950s
This list will be predominantly jazz, to a greater degree than most/all of the others. This is partly because so much important jazz was created then and partly because so many of my other favorite artists of that decade (Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf) were cutting singles.
1 ) Miles Davis: Milestones
With all due respect to Kind of Blue (and any number of other Miles recordings) this is just one of the hardest-swinging albums I’ve ever heard, and features debatably my favorite playing by Cannonball Adderley (though the whole band crushes it throughout, and the trio performance of “Billy Boy” is easily a desert-island track).
2 ) Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come
The name is a bold thing to live up to. And this introduction of the iconic Ornette Coleman Quartet does so. And yet, as cutting edge as it is, seldom had jazz been so melodic.
3 ) Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
My favorite Pops singing (which says a lot) and my favorite Oscar Peterson comping (which says a lot), offering definitive versions of many standards.
4 ) Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues
Intimate, powerful music – I hear Odetta’s voice in my head first and foremost when I think of many of these songs.
5 ) Clifford Brown and Max Roach
One of the truly great partnerships in jazz history, and this is where it began. “Daahoud” and “Joy Spring” were my own point of entry into Clifford Brown and
6 ) Ray Charles: The Genius of Ray Charles
This would be even further up the list if it were all like Side A (a perfect marriage of swinging Quincy Jones-arranged big band, Freddie Green and all, and Ray’s inimitable style), but even Ralph Burns’ string-laden Side B sounds great once Ray gets his hands/pipes on this material.
7 ) Sarah Vaughan: Swingin’ Easy
Everything I love about Sassy, probably my favorite jazz singer, is on ample display here: clever song interpretations, ridiculous scatting, heartbreaking ballads, and so on. And Roy. Haynes.
8 ) Bill Evans: Portrait in Jazz
This was not only my first exposure to Bill Evans, but probably the first piano trio record to make it into heavy rotation, and I still find this one particularly compelling for how it swings and drives harder than much of his subsequent work while still displaying some of the rhythmic and interactive innovation that made this trio so important.
9 ) Nina Simone: Little Girl Blue
There has never been anyone quite like Nina Simone, and that was true as early as this, her debut record featuring some of her most iconic performances (“I Loves You Porgy,” “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me”) as well as the piano tour de force ”Central Park Blues.”
10 ) Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt: Sonny Side Up
Dizzy hadn’t lost anything off his fastball at this point, the Sonnys are both in top form (particularly though not exclusively on their tenor duel on “Eternal Triangle,” and Ray Bryant’s way with a slow blues gets “After Hours” off to an irresistible start. When I first saw this album in my youth I thought four tracks was kind of skimpy, but these four take you on the perfect journey.
Honorable Mention: Mahalia Jackson: Bless This House; Billie Holiday: Lady In Satin; Bud Powell: Blues in the Closet; Lightnin’ Hopkins: Lightnin’ Hopkins
Top 10 Favorite Albums of Each Decade Vol. 2: the 1960s
The variety amps up here. Several of the jazz albums that have most directly impacted my development are in here, plus as you may have read somewhere, there was a some other interesting stuff happening in music around that time . . .
1 ) John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
Sorry if you’re heard this one before. When I was 18 my friend Amanda gave me a tape of this album. I listened once and was horrified by the sounds and emotions bursting from the speakers, so I stuck the tape in a box and closed it for two years. At that point my friend Ben loaned me the album on CD and pushed me to give another listen. It wasn’t quite love at second sight, but my ears and heart had opened significantly in the interim, and thus I began my relationship with the album in earnest. At this point, there is no question that it is the sonic work of art that moves me more than any other I have ever encountered – I’m grateful for the music and also for the lesson in detaching from first impressions.
2 ) Aretha Franklin: Aretha Now
I discovered this in the Rutgers music library in 1992 and spun the vinyl there a couple times a week for months. Both the iconic hits (“Think,” “I Say A Little Prayer”) and the deep cuts (“Hello Sunshine,” covers of “You Send Me” and “Night Time is the Right Time”) are ridiculous here, the epitome of what soul music is and aspires to be.
3 ) Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil
Coin toss between this and Juju with Adam’s Apple oh-so-close as well. But this was my first (thanks to my high school mentor George Raccio) and the tunes, the lyricism, and the interactive propulsion of Herbie, Ron, and Elvin together left an indelible mark and the record still delights me.
4 ) Phineas Newborn, Jr.: A World of Piano
This was not technically my first Phineas, that was Side B of Great Jazz Piano during a half hour’s unexpected downtime in the Oberlin College library in 1992 on a college visit/audition. This was, though, the first one I really spent time with and it came to define much of my own conception as a pianist moving forward.
5 ) The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
I have a particular soft spot for early, acoustic Dylan – I dig the electrical stuff too and am no purist, but there’s something about the intimacy of hearing him alone that moves me, and the amount of potent original material on here (including some of my favorites: “Masters of War,” “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and of course “Blowin’ In the Wind”) is basically unprecedented for this point in the trajectory of popular music.
6 ) Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Three Blind Mice
I’m fond of basically all eras of the Messengers, and it was hard not to represent Bobby Timmons or Lee Morgan here. That said, the Hubbard/Fuller/Shorter/Walton incarnation (here with Jymie Merritt rounding out the sextet) is the one that has influenced me most deeply, and the writing and playing on this album (including features for Freddie, Cedar, and Curtis that to my ears all represent highlights of their respective discographies) make it very difficult to wipe the smiles away.
7 ) The Beatles: Revolver
2 spots above this I mentioned the unprecedented nature of having so much high-quality original material on an album in 1963. Well by a couple years later the Fab Four were changing the game in that regard, and this sonically varied album with no filler is a beautiful turning point.
8 ) Thelonious Monk: Monk’s Dream
It’s hard to make a BAD choice for a Monk album, and that’s doubly true from the era featuring Charlie Rouse. As fond as I ultimately became of the Ben Riley/Larry Gales incarnation of his quartet, this album (with Frankie Dunlop and John Ore) is the one that made me really understand just how hard Monk and Charlie grooved together.
9 ) Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced
Every cut on this album (not to mention the released-later tracks) is sonic brilliance and unmistakably demonstrative of Jimi’s unique musicianship. As much as I love it, for me it takes some consciousness to remember that if anything is NOT striking here, that is because so many have taken inspiration from him that it’s just part of the collective vocabulary now; still, there is only one Jimi.
10 ) Jimmy Smith: Organ Grinder Swing
While the organ is a versatile instrument with a rich history of varied, important artists, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the majority of what you need to know about jazz organ can be gleaned from repeated listening to Jimmy, Kenny Burrell, and Grady Tate on this profoundly soulful album.
Honorable Mention: Eddie Harris: The “In” Sound; The Blue Yusef Lateef; Hampton Hawes: Spanish Steps (aka Blues for Bud); Ella Fitzgerald: Ella In Berlin; Jethro Tull: Stand Up; Stan Getz: Sweet Rain; Booker Little: Out Front; Bobby Timmons: In Person; Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed
Top 10 Favorite Albums of Each Decade Vol. 3: the 1970s
This was surprising to me, but this list was THE hardest to narrow down to 10, with most of the honorable mentions being albums I can hardly imagine not being part of my consciousness.
1 ) Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness’ First Finale
This is a virtual coin toss with the previous two albums, Talking Book and Innervisions, the former of which was (along with the then-new Hotter Than July) my point of entry into Stevie and thus, to an extent, to loving music. This album is the one for which I reach most often – a few years ago I arranged the entire record for jazz piano trio (maybe I’ll record that someday?) and unlike most popular music of that era, it really didn’t take much finagling to make these songs into super-stimulating pieces to play – and learning to evoke his vocal phrasing on the piano was another sort of revelation. The textures here are at once otherworldly and deeply earthy. Pure genius.
2 ) Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark
Because of Joni’s versatility, it’s hard to pick a single album (what? No Blue?), but this is the album that most impacted my own direction. Along with this era’s Stevie Wonder (like the one above) and to an extent Steely Dan, this is the music that demonstrated the potential for deep connections between jazz and popular music. By “deep” I mean not just “ooh, here’s a saxophone” and such, but a real embrace of certain harmonies, rhythms, and other nuances with a certain type of emotion . . . obviously I can’t describe it that well, so just listen to this record. Once you add her straight-to-the-heart singing and poetic, evocative (but not yet totally abstract) lyrics, this is some heavy stuff.
3 ) Ahmad Jamal: The Awakening
Ahmad Jamal is hard enough to classify, given his truly distinctive sound and ensemble approach that is within the jazz tradition, yet unique. But then, nearly 20 years into his career as a recording artist, he came up with this album with Jamil Nasser and Frank Gant by his side. The textures, rhythms, and song-developments are at once in keeping with his development and totally new, as if he had discovered a new color or something. I could listen to this album weekly for the rest of my life and never get bored, and it is the quickest rebuttal to those who (already unjustly) dismiss him as a cocktail pianist.
4 ) Donny Hathaway: Live
I remember my eyes nearly bugging out of my head the first time I heard this (having somehow barely even heard Donny Hathaway until I was 22 and this album was recommended to me – that’s what happens when you grow up listening to rock radio, I guess). The playing (by Donny and also his band) and singing are so soulful and joyous throughout, and for me “The Ghetto” provided a seldom-matched object lesson in how to control the dramatic trajectory of an extended soul music performance (maybe Maceo Parker’s “Shake Everything You Got” can compete, but I’m hard pressed to think of others).
5 ) The Who: Quadrophenia
Of all the British Invasion bands, the Who have always been my personal favorite. For many of the same reasons I adore Elvin Jones, Keith’s unpredictable and propulsive yet always-in-service-of-the-song playing (especially in tandem with John) is more my speed than the admirable-but-tamer work of Ringo Starr or Charlie Watts. Roger’s voice was one of the first I really connected to. But, of course, without Pete’s writing it would all be a novelty. With all due respect to Tommy, this to me is the pinnacle of his work – great songs with a wonderfully meticulous unity in how the musical materials coalesce over the four album sides. And with all due respect to Beethoven or Mingus, this double-album was my point of entry to how a compelling musical narrative could unfold on this lengthy scale.
6 ) Charles Mingus: Changes One
There are plenty of 1950s or 1960s candidates among the Mingus discography. If I had to pick (which, in this setting, I did), I’d say that there’s something particularly special about this band. Mingus had not yet demonstrated any diminished physical abilities from the ALS that took his life a few years later, Dannie Richmond was strong as ever, and Don Pullen and George Adams were both in a sense the perfect Mingus sidemen with their capacity to play fluid bop, gutbucket blues, and raucous avant-garde, sometimes (as in the truly epic “Sue’s Changes”) on the same tune.
7 ) Mary Lou Williams: Free Spirits
This is not unlike the Ahmad Jamal album above in the sense that there’s a mood created by Mary Lou’s touch, her rhythm, and her choice of harmonies that makes this music both part of and unique within the jazz tradition. Of course, she by this point had already spent decades as a major architect of that tradition. I’m not sure if that makes it more or less surprising that she still had new sounds up her sleeve, but I do know that hearing her, Buster Williams, and Mickey Roker play these tunes together is wonderful.
8 ) Shakti: A Handful of Beauty
The three 1970s albums that John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, and L Shankar produced together are all beautiful, deep, and exciting. Maybe it’s heresy to prefer acoustic McLaughlin, but the sheer power he demonstrates here in tandem with those two and Vikku Vinayakram on additional percussion is intense on this, their first studio session. To my ears Zakir steals the show, but there’s plenty of spotlight to go around.
9 ) Grateful Dead: Europe ‘72
Is it true that to understand the Grateful Dead “you had to be there?” Heck, I don’t know. But I WAS there (I mean, not in 1972, when I wasn’t quite born, but at maybe a dozen shows between 1986-1994) and their best moments were unlike anything I’ve experienced. I’ll admit that I was never a huge fan of their super-far-out jams, but I was clearly impacted (long before I knew that it wasn’t generally a thing) by the way they used their improvisational mindset/general restlessness to bend and stretch what were ultimately well-played and well-harmonized versions of wonderful tunes. The Garcia/Hunter tandem in particular produced a volume of high-quality original songs rivaled (in my mind) by few rock artists and that is well-represented here, along with the characteristic smattering of folk/blues material.
10 ) Chick Corea/Return to Forever: Light As A Feather
When I was 15, my high school jazz ensemble played an arrangement of “Spain,” which I thought was kind of cool. So when I saw this album for a couple bucks at the used record store near where my mom liked to have breakfast, I thought it was worth a portion of my allowance since I already had all the Foghat and Bachman-Turner Overdrive albums on their shelves. And then I gave it a spin. This was before I had any real sense of what jazz was and certainly before I had any affection for it, and the vibe and energy here sucked me in, providing something of a gateway both into Chick’s music and into jazz more generally. And this music still holds up, obviously.
Honorable Mention: Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; Earl Hines: Live at the New School; Ron Carter/Jim Hall: Alone Together; Steely Dan: Aja; Van Morrison: Moondance; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome; Dexter Gordon: Homecoming; Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die; Jaki Byard: Family Man
Top 10 Favorite Albums of Each Decade Vol. 4: the 1980s
This one is funny in that there’s music created between 1980-1989 and there’s “Eighties Music.” All the albums on this list are the former, and none are the latter, which actually feels a little weird because it suggests that I’m somehow denouncing “eighties music” which is not true at all. I literally used to watch MTV so much that I’d bargain with my mother (who hated the music) to let me keep watching with the sound turned off. I learned to do the “Billy Squier tight jeans dance” and played air guitar along with A Flock of Seagulls and so on. But MAN was there some amazing music produced that decade that was unrelated to that realm, and here’s some of the stuff that has been most foundational to my own musical development.
1 ) Tuck & Patti: Tears of Joy
If you aren’t hip to Tuck and Patti then stop reading right now and check this album out. They are who I want to be when I grow up. The musicianship (Tuck’s playing made me quit the guitar when I was 17, though eventually I picked it back up with greatly reduced expectations), the rapport with each other and the audience, the sensitivity, the capacity to interpret songs (when they’re not writing them themselves), and the depth of warmth and humanity – all of this is in abundance on their debut album.
2 ) Sweet Honey in the Rock: We All… Everyone Of Us
I’d heard just a little bit about this group, enough to be intrigued, but it was all an abstraction until I found this one at the Princeton Record Exchange in college and was stopped in my tracks as soon as I spun it. One listen was enough to make me jubilant, angry, and determined to be a better human being, not to mention determined to figure out just how human voices alone can be this potent. I’m still working on all of it and still love this album and Sweet Honey in general.
3) James Williams: Magical Trio 2
Like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when it goes from black and white to color, hearing this album (featuring Ray Brown and Elvin Jones) was hands-down the singular moment when I realized that jazz music was capable of encompassing most of what I loved about music (plus some other things that were brand new to my ears) all at once. All these years later, it still sounds like home, in the best way possible.
4 ) Fishbone: Truth and Soul
When I was first exposed to this album, I didn’t really understand the ways that genre and race and musical marketing categories made Fishbone unusual and difficult to “sell” to the degree that their music seemed to suggest. I just knew these songs were catchy, funky, wonderfully played and sung, and alternately hilarious and heartbreaking and that all of this made perfect sense.
5 ) Neil Young: Freedom
Maybe it’s heresy, but this to me is the definitive Neil Young album. It mirrors Rust Never Sleeps with an anthemic bookend (and as much as I dig “Hey Hey, My My,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” is just as worthy) and has acoustic Neil, grunge Neil, and country Neil side by side, with some of his most emotionally arresting songwriting.
6 ) Bobby McFerrin: Spontaneous Inventions
“Don’t Worry Be Happy” was ubiquitous when I was in 9th grade, but I could take it or leave it. But then some of the solo performances on this album (plus the duet with some guy named Wayne Shorter) were aired on TV and I had the foresight to have a blank VHS tape going. I wore that tape out trying to make sense of this compelling music, which redefined for me what one person could accomplish with a single, monophonic instrument (voice or otherwise).
7 ) Tom Harrell: Moon Alley
What a vibe this record has. Some utterly classic early Kenny Garrett, the only recorded meeting (how is this possible?) of Kenny Barron and Ralph Peterson, Jr. (alongside the fat bottom end of Ray Drummond) all in service of some of the most compelling writing and playing of Tom Harrell.
8 ) Clark Terry/Red Mitchell: To Duke and Basie
This trumpet/bass (mostly) duo record is the epitome of swing – no piano or drums needed, because every note that Red or CT plays is imbued with such joy and such rhythmic intention that the whole universe of rhythm is implicit right there.
9 ) Robert Cray: Strong Persuader
Subversive blues exposure. That is, I don’t know that I even knew what the blues WAS when “Smoking Gun” went into heavy rotation on the radio/MTV when I was in junior high school (followed, to a lesser degree, by “Right Next Door” and “I Guess I Showed Her”). So I just listened and thought holy COW can this guy sing, and he plays the guitar like nothing I’ve ever heard (since, of course, as a white suburban 13 year old I wasn’t exactly immersed in Albert Collins records). I still love his work and these songs still go right for my jugular.
10 ) De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising
I’m not going to claim to be a great connoisseur of hip-hop, but in the 1980s I was particularly disengaged, prone to dismissal of rap as a whole and mostly just exposed to what was on the radio/MTV, which aside from some early classic work by Run-DMC was mostly stuff that has, shall we say, aged less well. None of it really “stuck” until the end of the decade when this clever, soulful album hit the streets and my ears.
Honorable Mention: Rachel Green: Wandering Hearts; Joe Henderson: State of the Tenor Vol. 1-2; John Hiatt: Slow Turning; “Weird” Al Yankovic: In 3-D; Joao Gilberto: Live in Montreux; Joe Jackson: Night and Day; Sting: Dream of the Blue Turtles; Was (Not Was): What Up Dog; Ralph Peterson, Jr. (featuring Geri Allen): Triangular
Top 10 Favorite Albums of Each Decade Vol. 5: the 1990s
This list represents two shifts. One is that all of these albums are things I was checking out while they were contemporary (where, by contrast, much of the music on my ‘80s list is stuff I discovered in the ‘90s. The other is that this (ages 15-25) is when my more formal estrangement from popular music went to another level. I fell in love with jazz and even most of my favorite nonjazz music increasingly diverged from what others my age were into. Then my jazz fondness transitioned to immersion in college (beginning in ’92) so MTV and pop radio were things I encountered only occasionally via friends or when I walked into a department store or gym where Hootie or Alanis was playing. Some things I dug (Sarah McLachlan was in heavy rotation for a while), most things felt very foreign, and that was okay. But there was plenty of music I dug and still love (and the last 3 on this list were even hit records).
1 ) Neville Brothers: Brother’s Keeper
This album made me realize what a weirdo I was, which had to happen eventually. When it came out (the second of the group’s two masterpieces produced by Daniel Lanois), I just figured it would be a hit. Because why WOULDN’T everybody who likes popular music be chomping at the bit to consume an album of incredibly moving songs with deep New Orleans-infused funk grooves and lyrics about spirituality, ancestry, social justice, and the adult complexities of love (including the definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire” – there, I said it) produced by a band led by four black siblings between the ages of 42-53? In all seriousness, it was sobering and perversely liberating to realize once and for all that I was not looking for the same things as others my age. But boy is this a masterpiece and a great document of the four brothers’ musical personalities and the ways they stood out and the ways they came together.
2 ) Mickey Tucker: Blues in Five Dimensions
When Ted Dunbar first played me “A Nice, Clean Machine For Pedro,” it a) blew my mind, and b) introduced me to the artistry of Mickey Tucker, which subsequently c) blew my mind some more. I’ve obsessively collected most records that feature Ted, and he himself cited this as his favorite, which pretty much says it all.
3 ) Los Lobos: Kiko
For the 1990s I could’ve picked any number of Los Lobos albums from their partnership with producer Mitchell Froom (The Neighborhood really knocked me out and still does, and Colossal Head is something else) but this is the one to which I listened most obsessively when it came out and its songs and performances and sonic textures haven’t aged at all.
4 ) Jackie McLean: Rhythm of the Earth
I don’t know how to best contextualize this except that my first and probably most potent experience being in a community that a) was deeply devoted to jazz and b) had a distinct/specific conception of it was in early 1992 when my friend Jimmy Greene persuaded me to start attending the Artists Collective in Hartford, CT. Jackie McLean was the towering figure and architect and several of his band members (including Steve Davis, Alan Jay Palmer, and Nat Reeves) also were among my teachers there. They recorded this album that winter (also featuring one of my then-new favorite “young lions,” Roy Hargrove) and it is quite literally the sound of that scene and the trickle-down of J-Mac’s vision.
5 ) Vinx: Rooms In My Fatha’s House
I heard Vinx opening up for Sting in big hall in the early 1990s, doing a three song solo set, just his voice and percussion. I had never heard anything like it, and I basically still haven’t. This album should still be in print, but it’s worth finding regardless, with deep songwriting, compelling singing, a huge stylistic variety, and grooves for miles, not to mention a smattering of cameos from already-celebrity (e.g. Herbie Hancock) to semi-anonymous up-and-coming session musician (e.g. “Cheryl” Crow).
6 ) Fontella Bass: No Ways Tired
I remember Rachel Green giving me this CD as an Xmas gift when it was new; I had barely even heard “Rescue Me” at this point, so it was natural for me to accept Fontella Bass (whose R&B work and collaborations with Art Ensemble of Chicago and Amina Claudine Myers and others I subsequently dug into) as simply one of the most emotionally arresting and nuanced gospel singers I’d ever heard.
7 ) Sweet Basil Trio: St. Thomas
There are a half-dozen trio albums recorded in the 1990s alone (never mind larger groups and earlier decades) that represent the uniquely magical partnership of pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Billy Higgins. With all due respect to Buster Williams, Sam Jones, David Williams, and Tony Dumas, the Ron Carter edition of that trio is the one that moves me the most, and while I’m hesitant to add another (unfortunately) out-of-print disc to the mix, this offers a superlative clinic in how grooving and tight-yet-flexible a piano trio can be.
8 ) Erykah Badu: Baduizm
This was my introduction to neo-soul, and not a bad place to start. When I was in grad school, I went to the library and saw this in the CD rack and thought “hmm, I heard this name, let me check it out,” reinforced by realizing Ron Carter was on one track. On my first listen the whole record blew me away, with sounds that were at once very contemporary and very relevant to my favorite 1970s soul, in support of vocals and songwriting that resonated instantly.
9 ) Paul Simon: Rhythm of the Saints
I tend to avoid regret, but when this album came out and I had enough money to either hear this band (with Michael Brecker and Steve Gadd and Cyro Baptista and Richard Tee and so on) or another rock star of the time who I won’t name, I chose the latter, and I am still grumpy about that. Still, the grooves and moods and poetry on this album have remained at the forefront of my playlists since, unsullied by that resentment.
10 ) Living Colour: Time’s Up
Having already devoured their debut album Vivid, I eagerly awaited my chance to go to a local record store (the Music Box in this case, if I recall correctly) and pick up this tape when it dropped. All the stuff I already loved about Living Colour was there, as well as some genre-bending and sonic textures that were totally new to my ears, with a depth of songwriting that still wows me.
Honorable Mention: Lyle Lovett: Joshua Judges Ruth; Tribe Called Quest: Low End Theory; Maceo Parker: Life on Planet Groove; Jay Hoggard: The Little Tiger; Eric B & Rakim: Don’t Sweat the Technique; James Cotton: Deep in the Blues; D’Gary: Malagasy Guitar; Roy Hargrove: Habana; Peter Gabriel: Secret World Live; Frank Zappa: The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life; Ben Folds Five: Forever and Ever Amen
Top 10 Favorite Albums of Each Decade Vol. 6: the 20-aughts (2000-2009)
Two trends in this list are my increasing estrangement from contemporary “popular” music (rock, R&B, etc.) and an increasing overlap in which I find my friends/peers making some of the music that moves me the most. Without any further ado:
1 ) Kenny Garrett: Beyond the Wall
When I was in high school and knew fairly little about jazz, I read somewhere about Kenny Garrett that he was a cross between Charlie Parker and Maceo Parker, and I thought that sounded pretty cool. Now I much more often hear Kenny himself as the point of reference in describing other musicians. Featuring powerful contributions from two of my recently departed heroes, Mulgrew Miller and Bobby Hutcherson, this is a particularly transcendent work of art.
2 ) Jimmy Greene: Mission Statement
One of my biggest influences since we met as teenagers, I’ve enjoyed Jimmy’s entire discography (and am ambivalent about not choosing to represent it via the “Beautiful Life” series). Still, this album represents a particular milestone in the development of his conception, and it hasn’t lost any of its potency.
3 ) Persuasions: Might As Well (The Persuasions Sing the Grateful Dead)
The Persuasions in a sense represent the opposite of what a cappella has become. Rather than focusing on bombast, virtuosity, and imitation of instruments (all of which is fine too), their sound was one of deep bass, spine tingling harmonizing, and the exceptionally soulful lead vocals of Jerry Lawson. This album displays their mostly unadorned brilliance as well as the quality of these songs even when presented in such a straightforward manner.
4 ) Brian Blade Fellowship: Season of Changes
Two other comparatively young artists who have also become points of reference themselves are Brian Blade (also represented on album #1 above) and Kurt Rosenwinkel. The Fellowship band is a force of nature regardless, and Kurt’s contributions fit in so naturally.
5 ) Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around
From “I Walk The Line” through the end, I’m into all periods of Johnny Cash, but the latter-day, Rick Rubin-produced era is my favorite. From the first “The American” album, I could have picked any of these stark, emotionally arresting records; this is the one I probably listen to most.
6 ) Sunny Jain Collective: As Is
One of my favorite developments of this millennium has been watching Sunny Jain find his sound. His work as leader of Red Baraat has gotten the most attention (and deserves every bit) but his three jazz albums that preceded that band’s emergence are all lovely as well. This quartet with Steve Welsh, Rez Abbasi, and Gary Wang introduced his compelling and unique vision to the broader world and the music is irresistible.
7 ) Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group: Live in Seattle
My introductions to Joe Locke and Geoffrey Keezer came in very straight-ahead settings, via Joe’s work with Kenny Barron and Ron Carter and Keez’s with Art Blakey and the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, and they both thrive in swinging, acoustic settings. But there’s also a lot more in there, and this stunning record with Mike Pope and Terreon Gully displays some of that and does so brilliantly.
8 ) Eric Bibb: An Evening with Eric Bibb
Along with Keb’ Mo’, Eric Bibb valiantly represents the next generation of folks following in Taj Mahal’s footsteps, telling compelling stories and exploring an eclectic range of music centered around authentic folk blues. As it typically does, Bibb’s soulful presence oozes from each track on this recording.
9 ) Gerald Cleaver: Detroit
Hearing this band at Firehouse 12 in New Haven in the mid-2000s was a highlight of this millennium for me in terms of musical inspiration. About the farthest thing from a musical purist, Cleaver nonetheless gives us one of the most endearing and flat-out swinginest straight-ahead jazz records of the modern era.
10 ) Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project: Simpatico
I could have included an Eddie Palmieri record from the 1960s or any decade since up until the current one. This one, which makes his jazz bona fides a bit more explicit than most, is gorgeous and includes not-gratuitous re-recordings of a couple of his most classic back catalogue numbers, including the groundbreaking “Azucar” (originally recorded in 1965) and “Paginas De Mujer,” whose original 1981 recording with Cheo Feliciano is my personal model of perfection.
Honorable Mention: Joanne Brackeen: Popsicle Illusion; Kurt Rosenwinkel: The Next Step; Keb’ Mo’: Live and Mo’; Outkast: Speakerboxx/The Love Below; Cyro Baptista: Love the Donkey; Robert Glasper: Double-Booked
Top 10 Favorite Albums of Each Decade Vol. 7: the 2010s
This list and my corresponding reflections on newer music makes me nostalgic for older music, but maybe not in the way you’d think. I don’t perceive that the quality of the best music being made is diminished (there’s a lot of crap too, but that’s always been true). What’s changed is simply my age – from ages 36-45 I simply wasn’t in a place to be as profoundly influenced by even really great music as I was by even pretty good music when I was 16. And that’s fine and natural – I surely don’t wish I was 16 again!
With the exception of #1, this list continues two trends that emerged in the previous couple lists: elder statespeople I’ve loved for decades who kept kicking butt, and friends/colleagues who made beautiful music this decade. I thought a lot about whether I should leave the albums in that latter category off due to concerns of nepotism/conflict of interest, and if so where I should draw the line. I ultimately decided that if these are the albums I reach for most often and enthusiastically, why should I penalize folks for also being my friends (particularly given the incredible prestige and major financial benefits of inclusion on one of these lists)? I’m instead choosing to take the viewpoint that I’m a very lucky man to know folks who are producing works of art that make the world a more beautiful place, far more of them than I can even start to pay lip service to on this short list.
Once again, the caveat is needed that for objectivity’s sake I did not consider any of the 4 albums I released between 2010-2018 as a bandleader, either of the two I put out in the last 13 months as a co-leader, or (somewhat painfully) Dave Kopperman’s potent Island Off the Coast of America, on which I’m part of the band. So here we go (and don’t worry, there’s one more installment after this).
1 ) Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell): Songs of Our Native Daughters
Once in a while I hear records whose content and delivery make me want to practice music harder AND inspire me to be a better, more tuned-in human. This brilliant album joins some of my favorite Sweet Honey, ‘Trane, Nina, Max, and Stevie on that rarefied shelf.
2 ) Kenny Barron Trio: Book of Intuition
Taking the Kenny out of my own music would be kind of like taking the water out of a soup, and I could have easily found a Kenny Barron album to place on the lists for ANY decade from the 1970s forward, which is remarkable (and could be said of Bonnie or Joan below). Given what a classy human being he is, I’d still enjoy listening to him even if he couldn’t “bring it” anymore, but this one (alongside his “new” but now longtime trio with Kiyoshi Kitagawa and Johnathan Blake) shows his influential and impeccable pianism completely undiminished.
3 ) Bonnie Raitt: Slipstream
I’ve resigned myself to the unlikelihood that I’ll achieve my dream of having some kind of musical interaction with Bonnie (though I’ll admit I still fantasize about a jam or her playing one of my songs) but her status as one of my favorite artists ever remains as strong as when I saw her in a small theater on the first (pre-Grammy) phase of the Nick of Time tour. This album is as potent as her groundbreaking work from over 40 years prior.
4 ) Amanda Monaco: Pirkei Avot, Vol. II
There is little I enjoy more than hearing a new sound that is rooted in other things yet unique. So it has gone with Amanda Monaco’s Pirkei Avot project a supreme vehicle for her creativity and vision.
5 ) Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem: Violets Are Blue
Rani Arbo is a remarkable musician and when she makes sound it feels like truth, whether she’s playing or singing and regardless of the lyrical subject matter. Folk music (which she and her band both exemplify and transcend) exposes a lot of vulnerability; that can be problematic, but when the musicianship and presence are this strong, it’s a powerful thing.
6 ) Wayne Escoffery: The Only Son of One
Wayne has lots of records that deserve attention, and this may be foremost among them. For me, certainly, the creative textures (blending his saxophone with synthesizer and Orrin Evans’ acoustic piano) influenced my future work and I am still moved by his deeply personal compositions. And of course he blows the roof off with his playing.
7 ) Joan Armatrading: Starlight
In the time it took you to read this far, Joan Armatrading has probably written two songs. Being prolific (as she has for well over 40 years now) is impressive enough, but these songs are as compelling as any I’ve heard, and that says a lot. Oh yeah, and she plays all the instruments too.
8 ) Chris Dingman: Waking Dreams
I’ll spare you the “I knew him when” stuff, but I remember embryonic moments in the development of this body of work, when I realized Chris had something to say and a developing sound-vision that collectively would nourish my soul at some point. This album made that into a tangible reality and boy is it a gorgeous reality.
9 ) Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here
This record kind of sounds like death. That’s maybe not a great sales pitch, but the decades put some gravel on his voice, and the insightful, edgy realness that characterized Gil’s unique and important music going back to the 1970s is as abundant on the last album released in his lifetime as ever.
10 ) Kris Allen: Beloved
I met Kris when he was a sophomore in high school (and I a geezerly senior) and his saxophone playing has knocked me out ever since. In recent years his maturity as a composer and conceptualist has grown in tandem. His writing for this two-saxophone quartet (with Frank Kozyra on tenor) is a lovely vehicle for demonstrating that evolution.
Honorable Mention: Jen Allen: Pieces of Myself; Tyshawn Sorey: Oblique-I; Ike Sturm: Shelter of Trees; Mel Hsu; i was a phoenix; Dakhabrakha: Light; Jacob Garchik: The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album; Todd Marcus: On These Streets
Top 10 Favorite Albums of Each Decade Vol. 8: Compilations
These collections are important to me and having this last pile also sort of liberated me from trying to stick some of the artists represented here into boxes in the previous lists where they didn’t really belong (I can’t, for example, imagine my musical life without Muddy Waters or Duke Ellington or Sly and the Family Stone, but no single non-compilation album properly represents any of them in that way).
There are actually two lists here, one covering multi-artist collections (mostly portraying broader movements in music), and the other covering specific artists who are, for my listening habits, better represented that way than with a single album, either because their heydays predated the LP era or because their outputs were too stylistically and/or chronologically dispersed for me to be willing to pick a single album. When I was younger, compilations were a particularly vital part of my learning, and in a sense all the time I put into making mixtapes and then mix CDs and then playlists was an inadvertent attempt to carry on that legacy.
Top 10 Favorite Multi-Artist Compilations
1 ) Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966
This is so deep, musically, historically, and socio-politically. Introducing teenagers to this important and gorgeous music is one of the most important things I do as an educator.
2 ) Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971
Lots of Marvin, Diana, Smokey, Martha, Temptations, Four Tops, and so on, plus some less-known stuff that rounds out the picture. This is an impeccable and crucially important collection.
3 ) Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music
If this were limited to single-album compilations, then the soundtrack to The Harder They Come would be #1 on this list – I listened to that SO much when I was a teenager. Later on I discovered this box, which includes much of the same material and a lot more – much of my education around the various orbits and threads surrounding reggae music came from this music and the extensive notes therein.
4 ) Willie Dixon: The Chess Box
On the surface this one looks out of place as it’s ostensibly focused on one man, the great blues bassist/composer. But quite the contrary, his ubiquity within the Chess Records ecosystem means that what we get here is some of the most important songs in Chicago blues and artists, including several performances each by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, and Little Walter.
5 ) Various Artists: That’s the Way I Feel Now
In the 1980s, Hal Wilner put together this 2-LP tribute to Thelonious Monk that epitomized for me the kind of cross-genre eclecticism to which I didn’t yet dare to aspire. The jazz performances are lovely (Barry Harris, Randy Weston, Charlie Rouse and Steve Lacy, etc.) and the “non-jazz” ones are illuminating (Peter Frampton as featured soloist on “Work,” NRBQ, etc.) and there’s plenty of in-between.
6 ) O Brother Where Art Thou (Soundtrack)
This is such a gorgeous collection of bluegrass, lovingly shepherded into life by producer T-Bone Burnett with a truly stunning cast of musicians (Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Norman Blake, etc.). It feels at once very modern and in other ways very old-timey, with all the best traits of each.
7 ) Atlantic Rhythm And Blues 1947-1974
This exhaustive and illuminating compilation covers Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Aretha, the Spinners, Donny Hathaway, and so much more.
8 ) The Beat Generation
In the mid-90s I got REALLY into creating jazz/spoken word pieces, and when I found this 3-CD box (which has other interesting stuff too) at a record store in St. Louis while visiting a friend, it was exactly the treasure trove I needed.
9 ) Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian)
My father, whose main point of reference was European classical music, was also really into American folk music (indeed, my parents met at a Pete Seeger concert in the 1950s). I co-opted my father’s LP copy of this important collection when I was a teenager, and not only was the music important to me but it was my first experience with this kind of historical compilation.
10 ) From the Copperbelt — Zambian Miner’s Songs
My older brother, who was into “world music” before that was a hip thing, gave me this disc not long after I got my first CD player in 1993, and I’m glad for the timing in that not owning many other CDs encouraged me to give this one a lot of deserved attention.
Honorable Mention: Say Anything (Soundtrack); A World Out of Time (David Lindley/Henry Kaiser visit Madagascar); Ladykillers (Soundtrack); Indestructible Beat of Soweto; Modern Acapella
Top 10 Favorite Single-Artist Compilations
1 ) James Brown: 20 All-Time Greatest Hits!
The rhythmic scope covered by these tracks is basically a 70 minute lesson in the history of funk grooves. The more expansive Star Time box set is great too, but there is something kind of stunning about the sheer density of important tracks on this compilation.
2 ) Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Classic Tracks
If all I’d ever heard of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was their two contributions to Paul Simon’s Graceland album, they still would have left a serious mark. But fortunately for me a friend gave me this cassette for my 18th birthday and I wore it out alternately trying to soothe my soul with their incredible sound and trying to figure out how the heck this depth of sound was even possible.
3 ) Sly and the Family Stone: Anthology
Sly’s Greatest Hits album is itself historically as well as musically significant, but it also stops prior to There’s A Riot Goin’ On and that and the next couple records provide even more substance to flesh out this document of the band’s short but mind-blowing career.
4 ) Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes
Speaking of short but mind-blowing careers, saying that Bird’s early recordings illuminate the development of modern jazz in the bebop era is kind of like saying that . . . (spends half an hour trying in vain to think of an analogous situation in which one person exerted such a global, profound, and lasting impact on an art form’s development in such a concentrated period of time, save maybe for Louis Armstrong) . . . okay, never mind, it’s just true, okay?
5 ) Leadbelly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
The voice and guitar of Leadbelly to me epitomize everything that American folk music can be. I love all of it (hence this exhaustive collection), though it’s worth noting that there are a number of quite serviceable single-disc Leadbelly compilations, and any Huddie Ledbetter is better than none.
6 ) Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: the Blanton-Webster Band
I’m on one level hesitant to add fuel to the trope that Duke Ellington was at the top of his game in 1940 for fear of cheapening the value of his other work. But holy cow is this some of the most texturally brilliant music ever.
7 ) Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 1-2
When I was maybe 15 and reading about Eric Clapton’s fondness for Robert Johnson, I had NO idea what I was in for upon picking up Vol. 1 (and soon thereafter Vol. 2) of the 29 songs that comprise his recorded legacy.
8 ) Prince: The Hits/The B-Sides
Prince’s brilliant work is so diverse that, at the risk of heresy, I prefer getting a closer approximation of its full scope if it’s a matter of choosing between that and any of the individual albums along the way.
9 ) Tom Zé: Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé
I love Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Djavan, and Gilberto Gil, but for whatever reason the energized quirkiness of Tom Zé is my go-to for Brazilian singer-songwriters, and this compilation offers a delightful overview.
10 ) Santana: Viva Santana!
In a virtual coin-toss with the Bob Marley compilation below, I bought this 3-LP set as a teenager in the ‘80s thinking it’d be a pretty standard multi-disc “best of,” but in fact it is predominantly improvisation-laden live versions of both hits and obscurities. Carlos Santana was always my favorite rock (or “rock”) guitarist growing up, and this collection shows many of the contexts that made this so.
Honorable Mention: Bob Marley: Legend; Paul Pena and Kongar-ol: Genghis Blues (Soundtrack); Professor Longhair: Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology; Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend: 1951–1964; Count Basie: Complete Decca Recordings; Al Green: Al Green’s Greatest Hits; Muddy Waters: The Best of Muddy Waters (Chess); Bobby Bland: The Best of Bobby Bland; Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight; Pete Seeger: The Essential Pete Seeger; Isley Brothers: It’s Your Thing: The Isley Brothers Story; U2: U218 Singles