Introduction: Strange Weather
I’ve been making end-of-the-year-favorites lists since 2000 but long resisted the temptation to make a list of my all-time favorites, aside from a kind of stock-answer top ten list that I would provide to readers when asked for it. Last summer, on a whim, I began putting together a list of my favorite 100 recordings of all time, and confess that I found the process to be at times excruciating but mostly exhilarating: Any excuse to dig deep into my record collection, spend quality time with beloved LPs, and reflect on the music that has meant the most to me in my life is, of course, entirely welcome, welcome enough that I intend to make it an annual tradition, unveiling new editions of the list every summer.
I have referred to my list as the “core curriculum,” and what I mean by that is that it is by no means an exhaustive list of all the music that I like, but it does cover the records that are most foundational to my tastes (and in many ways, to myself). If you want to build a record collection and for some reason aspire to model it after my own preferences and values, well, here you go: Me, roughly, in 100-ish compact discs.
In short: These are the albums I return to again and again for revelation and re-alignment. They happen to be wildly entertaining, to boot.
As for differences between the 2015 and 2014 editions of the list: There are somewhere between 12 and 15 albums that have been removed and replaced with new ones (sorry, didn’t really keep exact count), and many old albums that have been ranked either a little higher or a little lower than before. This all underscores my idea that a list is meant to be a snapshot, fluid and subject to change, but it also points to how solid this list actually is and how deeply I love all of these albums: Though there’s plenty of great music that it pains me not to see listed here, most of the albums that are listed I couldn’t dream of removing.
To summarize my approach to this list, and to explain my tastes as best I can: Every great album brings its own weather into the room, and for me each of these 100 albums comes with its own peculiar climate. I don’t play Charles Mingus because I want jazz, but because I want the particular thunder that only Charles Mingus can conjure; likewise, Muddy Waters is never played because I feel like the blues but rather because there are storm clouds that need to be parted and I know of no one but Muddy Waters who has that authority.
These 100 albums all have their own humidity, their own precipitation; put one of them on and it will change everything—or at least they do for me.
100. Willie Nelson, Stardust (1978)
99. Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, Season of Changes (2008)
98. The Sir Douglas Quintet, The Return of Doug Saldana (1971)
97. Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come (1972)
96. Bobby Charles, Bobby Charles (1972)
95. Led Zeppelin, III (1970)
94. New York Dolls, Too Much Too Soon (1974)
93. Elizabeth Cook, Welder (2010)
92. Miranda Lambert, Platinum (2014)
91. Little Feat, Dixie Chicken (1973)
90. Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool (1978)
89. Elvis Costello, All This Useless Beauty (1996)
88. Pulp, Different Class (1995)
87. Magic Sam, West Side Soul (1967)
86. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Moanin’ (1958)
85. Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One (1964)
84. Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio (2012)
83. The Roots, Things Fall Apart (1999)
82. Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)
81. Van Morrison, Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)
80. Joe Henry, Reverie (2011)
79. Lester Young, Lester Young Trio (1951)
78. Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners (1957)
77. D’Angelo, Voodoo (2000)
76. The Roots, undun (2011)
75. Doug Sahm, Doug Sahm and Band (1973)
74. Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding (1967)
73. Dave Edmunds, Get It (1977)
72. Gil Evans, Out of the Cool (1961)
71. Van Morrison, Veedon Fleece (1974)
70. The Staples Singers, Freedom Highway (1965)
69. Duke Ellington, Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (compilation 2003; original recordings 1940-1942)
68. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (1997)
67. Randy Newman, 12 Songs (1970)
66. Nick Lowe, At My Age (2007)
65. David Bowie, Scary Monsters (1980)
64. Little Feat, Sailin’ Shoes (1972)
63. Elvis Costello, Get Happy!! (1980)
62. Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (1969)
61. Barry Adamson, Back to the Cat (2008)
60. Tom Waits, Small Change (1976)
59. Nina Simone, Anthology (compilation 2003; original recordings 1957-1993)
58. Howlin’ Wolf, Howlin’ Wolf/Moain’ in the Moonlight (1962)
57. Bill Evans, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (1961)
56. Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime (2007)
55. D’Angelo, Black Messiah (2014)
54. Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers (1971)
53. Joe Henry, Invisible Hour (2014)
52. Outkast, Aquemini (1998)
51. The Clash, London Calling (1979)
50. The Band, The Band (1969)
49. Nick Lowe, Labour of Lust (1979)
48. Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings: Centennial Edition (compilation 2011; original recordings 1936-1937)
47. Elton John, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
46. Muddy Waters, The Chess Box (compilation 1990; original recordings 1947-1972)
45. Miles Davis, On the Corner (1972)
44. Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle, One from the Heart (1982)
43. Merle Haggard, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills) (1970)
42. Solomon Burke, Don’t Give Up on Me (2002)
41. Bill Evans, Portrait in Jazz (1959)
40. Prince, Parade (1986)
39. Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun (2000)
38. Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges, Play the Blues Back to Back (1959)
37. Waylon Jennings, Honky Tonk Heroes (1973)
36. Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (1985)
35. Elvis Costello, Trust (1981)
34. Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
33. Duke Ellington, Ellington Uptown (1953)
32. Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980)
31. Bob Dylan, Bringing it All Back Home (1965)
30. Louis Armstrong, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (compilation 2000; original recordings 1925-1930)
29. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender (2011)
28. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
27. Allen Toussaint, The Allen Toussaint Collection (compilation 1991; original recordings 1970-1978)
26. Paul Simon, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1971)
25. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)
24. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (1965)
23. Faces, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… (compilation 2004; original recordings 1969-1975)
22. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966)
21. Frank Sinatra, Watertown (1969)
20. Paul McCartney, Ram (1971)
19. Prince, Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987)
18. Charles Mingus, Blues & Roots (1959)
17. Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington, The Great Summit (1961)
16. Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique (1989)
15. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
14. Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (1972)
13. Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (2009)
12. Joe Henry, Civilians (2007)
11. Bob Dylan, Love & Theft (2001)
AND, MY TEN FAVORITE RECORDS OF ALL TIME:
10. Nina Simone, Sings the Blues (1967)
09. Duke Ellington, Money Jungle (1962)
08. Charles Mingus, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963)
07. Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (1968)
06. Prince, Purple Rain (1984)
05. Ray Charles, The Birth of Soul (compilation 1991; original recordings 1951-1959)
04. Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story (1971)
03. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1959)
02. Bob Dylan & The Band, The Basement Tapes (1975)
01. Joe Henry, Tiny Voices (2003)
- Though there is always going to be ebb and flow on this list from one year to the next, or even from one day to the next—and truly, that’s something I like about lists like this: they are living and they change like the weather—I likewise delight in the fact that my Top 10 holds steady. They are, for me, elemental.
- The highest debuting addition to the list is The Great Summit (#17), though really it was just a dumb oversight that I forgot it last year.
- The oldest music on the list is The Hot Fives and Sevens (#30), recorded between 1925 and 1930.
- The newest music: Three albums from 2014, including Invisible Hour (#53), Black Messiah (#55), and Platinum (#92).
- The artist with the most albums on the list is, of course, Bob Dylan with eight. Duke Ellington has five, and Joe Henry and Miles Davis have four apiece. You can count Nick Lowe for four, as well, if you want to include Seconds of Pleasure (#32). And why wouldn’t you?
- Because the list is for albums and a lot of my favorite artists either pre-dated the proper LP or else their work is not especially well anthologized (or, in some cases, maybe I just haven’t quite found the one perfect collection), there are some significant names sadly absent, including Chuck Berry (though The Great Twenty-Eight was a strong contender), Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday (whose Complete Commodore & Decca box was here last year; I love it as much as ever but infrequently listen to more than a disc at a time, so I decided to leave it off the albums list).
- Speaking of the above, I have, generally, preferred proper albums over compilations, and for compilations I have only picked things that I might actually listen to all the way through, save for Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… (#22), which I probably could listen to all the way through but which is really designed as four perfect single-disc setlists, and Hot Fives and Sevens (#30), which I have listened to front-to-back before but not often, and no matter: That music has been too transformative for me not to include it here.
- Genre wasn’t on my mind when making my list, though I think it is telling and accurate that the list is heavy on jazz, soul, funk, R&B, rock and roll, singer/songwriter, country, and blues—all of which I classify as folk music—and doesn’t have any electronic music or metal, which I generally dislike, nor any classical music, which I know next to nothing about. All of that said, I do worry that this list underrepresents how much hip-hop I listen to, and I am especially sorry to Public Enemy and the Wu Tang Clan, both of whom very nearly made the cut.
- A few comments about specific selections: The Basement Tapes (#2) is represented here in its double-disc 1975 incarnation—because I think The Band’s songs provide vital context and because the set is curated so perfectly—but of course I recommend the Complete box, too. If your copy of Money Jungle (#9) doesn’t begin with the title track or if it has alternate versions sequenced alongside the masters, you got the wrong version. I like The Great Summit (#17) in its “complete” CD version, which is technically two albums combined. And for Robert Johnson (#48) I will argue that King of the Delta Blues Singers is insufficient, and that The Centennial edition beats the rest by putting the alternate takes at the end, not scattered throughout; it’s made for listening, not academia.
Finally: A few favorite box sets, ineligible from the Top 100 but plenty heavy and well worth your time:
What it Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves 1967-1977
Def Jam Records 10th Anniversary
Little Feat, Hotcakes & Outtakes
Lead Belly, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-1965
Skydog: A Duane Allman Retrospective
Billie Holiday, The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters
… and surely that’s enough. Now: You know what to do.
Rock Hill, South Carolina
June 8, 2015