60 Great Albums You Probably Haven’t Heard
By Jody Rosen
Who needs new music? In this week’s issue of the magazine, our critics show us what’s in their personal collections of old culture, much of it you might’ve missed. All of it is available online, somewhere. Herewith, Jody Rosen’s list of sixty great albums you probably haven’t heard.
1. Joni James, 100 Strings and Joni (1959)
There are symphonic pop albums—and then there’s 100 Strings and Joni, on which fifties songbird Joni James tackled a dozen show tunes and standards, backed by a mammoth orchestra. The music is grandiose, of course, but James has a voice equal to the task, delivering stirring—and, lo and behold, subtle—readings of songs like “I Can Dream, Can’t I?”
2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gospel Train (1956)
Rosetta Tharpe is one of gospel’s greatest singers and one of the slyest musicians ever to strap on an electric guitar. Both qualities are on display in droves on this classic album.
3. Sanford Clark, The Fool (1956)
Sanford Clark is a forgotten great of early rock and roll whose finest recordings merit a place in the pantheon beside those of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. This compilation of his fifties singles is a fine introduction to his dusky, spooky sound: It’s rockabilly, not as sock-hop party music but as late-night listening for the lonely and lovelorn.
4. Lou Donaldson, Blues Walk (1958)
Alto-sax great Lou Donaldson’s album is the essence of the jazz-blues. It’s also blues antidote.
5. Moondog, More Moondog (1956)
Freaky category-buster Moondog has long been a hero of the rock-snob set. His woolly album—a mix of spoken snippets and weird percussion tapping out tricky time signatures—shows why. “Ostrich Feathers Played on Drum,” anyone?
6. Elizabeth Cotten, Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1958)
Elizabeth Cotten played guitar so very right by playing it “wrong”: She developed her signature style by turning a right-handed guitar upside down and picking with her left hand. This great Smithsonian Folkways album, a collection of blues rags and folk tunes, earned Cotten many admirers and quite a few foolhardy imitators.
7. Machito, Kenya (1957)
An Afro-Cuban jazz masterpiece. Perfect music for a Sunday brunch. Or for reanimating a corpse.
8. Les Baxter featuring Bas Sheva, The Passions (1954)
This wild concept album by exotica composer Les Baxter placed wordless vocals over extravagant symphonic backing to conjure intense emotional states: despair, ecstasy, hate, lust, terror, jealousy, joy, passion. The real star is vocalist Bas Sheva, who bellows, sobs, and whoops, and, on the groovy “Lust,” unleashes cries of ecstasy—possibly the earliest instance of simulated orgasm on a commercially released recording.
9. The Browns, Sweet Sounds by the Browns (1959)
The records of Arkansas siblings Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie Brown floated amiably between country, folk, and pop, but their sound was grounded in a musical verity: There’s nothing quite like three-part-harmony singing. For proof, check out this album’s opener, the Browns’ biggest hit, “The Three Bells.”
10. Mel Tormé, Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire (1956)
Nobody was smoother. Mel Tormé swung effortlessly and sang beautifully, but it’s the soothing, enfolding warmth of his vocal tone—the sound
that earned him the nickname “the Velvet Fog”—that set him apart from other pop vocalists. On this album Tormé takes on songs made famous by another world-historical smoothie. Delight.
11. Joe Tex, Buying a Book (1969)
Joe Tex sang better than all but a few soul men and was funnier than the lot of ’em. This gutbucket-funky album may be his finest.
12. Brigitte Fontaine, Comme à la Radio (1969)
If you think Gallic pop is one giant kitsch-a-thon, you’ve never heard musical Dadaist Brigitte Fontaine. On this delectably weird 1969 album, Fontaine combines chanson, spoken word, and avant-jazz, with guest work from the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
13. Lefty Frizzell, Mom and Dad’s Waltz and Other Great Country Hits (1966)
George Jones was the only man capable of outsinging Lefty Frizzell, whose clear, pure tenor lifted dozens of songs up the country charts in the fifties and sixties. Frizzell could also do some things Jones couldn’t, namely write songs like the title track of this LP: a beautifully plainspoken ballad of filial devotion, guaranteed to put teardrops in the beer mug of any parent or child.
14. Tex Williams and His String Band, Smoke Smoke Smoke (1960)
Nobody cracked an easygoing joke like Western Swing novelty-song king Tex Williams—his signature hit was the nicotine-addiction plaint “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).” But Williams was a great singer, period, whether crooning “The Leaf of Love” or gliding through the badass-bootlegger tale “The Ballad of Thunder Road.”
15. Joe Bataan, Riot! (1968)
This propulsive, convulsive record isn’t just the definitive Latin Boogaloo album. It’s history: a vivid document of late-sixties New York City, when social unrest and the counterculture took root in the barrio. Nearly half a century later, it’s still capable of starting a riot—on the dance floor.
16. Connie Smith, I Love Charley Brown (1968)
Stiff-upper-lip heartbreak ballads, from one of country’s supreme female singers.
17. Bettye Swann, Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me? (1969)
Who hasn’t asked that question? But no one asked it better than the underrated soul balladeer Bettye Swann. Also not to be missed: the tender “Little Things Mean A Lot.”
18. La Lupe, Es La Reina (1969)
The torchiest album by one of the great torch singers of her day, with elaborate string-swathed orchestra arrangements bolstering the telenovela melodrama.
19. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Volunteered Slavery (1969)
The jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was famous for his brain-bifurcating (and trifurcating!) feat of playing two or more horns at a time. Volunteered Slavery showcases his staggering technique and his range: There are protest songs, whooping gospel testimonials, a Stevie Wonder hit, a blistering John Coltrane tribute, and, always, jokes—laughing-to-keep-from-crying gallows humor and the laughing-till-you’re-crying shtick of a natural cutup.
20. The Velvet Illusions, Acid Head (1967)
The title tells the story: This is psychedelic garage rock, recorded during the Summer of Love, when drugs were really starting to kick in. Sample lyric: “In hippie town / Some wear no shoes / They have no blues / No love to lose.”
21. Cymande, Cymande (1972)
You may not have heard of Cymande, but you’ve heard them: MCs have been rapping over their funky drums since the dawn of hip-hop. But the British band’s debut offers pleasures behind break-beats. Try “Rickshaw,” a flute-heavy Latin-jazz jam, or the bustling New Orleans funk of “Friends.”
22. Shirley Brown, Woman to Woman (1975)
Shirley Brown had a bit of Aretha in her: The woman knew her way around a heart-shredding soul ballad. The title track hit No. 1 on the Billboard
R&B charts, but the nine other songs are just as tasty.
23. Jorge Ben, África Brasil (1976)
The great Brazilian musical iconoclast delivers one of the funkiest albums of the funkiest decade in human history, with songs about everything from Santeria to sex, and—what else?—dancing. Rod Stewart lifted the tune for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” from Ben’s “Taj Mahal”; Ben sued Stewart for plagiarism.
24. Keith Cross & Peter Ross, Bored Civilians (1972)
Folk, prog rock, and jazz drift through nine beautifully melancholy songs by a pair of virtuoso songwriter-guitarists. It’s a high-seventies record that’s both definitively English and ersatz-California: a couple of Brits doing their quirky version of Laurel Canyon rock.
25. Jane Birkin, Di Doo Dah (1973)
Serge Gainsbourg wrote this album for his muse Jane Birkin, and it is unmistakably Gainsbourgian. Here are a dozen exquisitely orchestrated pop songs that are as witty as they are pervy, delivered by Birkin in her patented vocal style: a whisper that made every lyric sound like a salacious secret.
26. The Congos, Heart of the Congos (1977)
The greatest roots reggae album of all time? Or the greatest album of all time, period?
27. Melanie, Stoneground Words (1972)
A warbler from Queens whose quavering folkie corniness was redeemed by her genuine eccentricity and gift for a tune. If you doubt that a song titled “Maybe I Was (A Golf Ball)” can be a harrowing existential lament, you’ve never heard this album.
28. The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band (1972)
Three great Texas singer-songwriters—Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock—deliver the alt-country Ur-album.
29. Novos Baianos, Acabou Chorare (1972)
The eleven members of Novos Baianos, from the musical mecca of Salvador in northeastern Brazil, lived together on a commune for several years. They sounded the part. The band’s extraordinary second album blends folk, acid rock, samba, and bossa nova in songs that hold an enchanting aura of hippie utopianism. Exhibit A: the majestic, slow-cresting anthem “Preta Pretinha.”
30. Jobriath, Jobriath (1973)
What if the most shameless David Bowie impersonator you’ve ever heard made a high-camp sci-fi glam-rock concept album as good—or better—than Bowie’s own records?
31. The Nails, Mood Swing (1984)
As career plans go, it’s not terribly promising: Rockers from the patchouli-and-Birkenstocks mecca of Boulder, Colorado, relocate to New York City and reinvent themselves as jaded, jittery chroniclers of the downtown demimonde. But it worked for the Nails, at least on their debut album, a minor New Wave classic highlighted by the majestically seedy “88 Lines About 44 Women.”
32. Marshall Crenshaw, Downtown (1985)
Ten tidy, perfect songs from one of the great pop-rock classicists, deftly produced by the redoubtable T-Bone Burnett.
33. Ten City, Foundation (1989)
Ten City, from Chicago, were a future-shock and a nostalgia trip: popularizers of cutting-edge deep house who gloried in a lush Philly soul sound that was at least a decade out of date. They hit it out of the park with their biggest single, the album opener “That’s the Way Love Is.”
34. Baltimora, Living in the Background (1985)
Transcendently tacky New Wave dance music from Italy.
35. Fishbone, Truth and Soul (1988)
The best album by the greatest black rock band since Funkadelic highlights Fishbone’s secret weapon: the pop songwriting touch that brought focus to their cross-pollinating funk-punk-ska-metal-jazz-soul-gospel-etc. Truth and Soul is as catchy as it is funky and stands with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as one of the great protest albums of the eighties.
36. Ta Mara and the Seen, Blueberry Gossip (1988)
The phrase “blueberry gossip” sounds like the kind of delightful nonsense you’d find on one of Prince’s lyric sheets, and no wonder: Ta Mara and the Seen were Twin Cities–based exponents of the “Minneapolis sound.” They were Prince wannabes, in other words—or, to be precise, Sheila E. wannabes. There are worse things to be, especially when your album is produced by Jesse Johnson, of the Time, and when “Blueberry Gossip” turns out to be this funky.
37. Keith Whitley, I Wonder Do You Think of Me (1989)
This one was released three months after country star Keith Whitley’s death from alcohol poisoning. It was an accidental valediction but a worthy one, especially the sad, lovely title track.
38. King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, Juju Music (1982)
The album that introduced Western audiences to the Yoruba Nigerian juju, and to King Sunny Adé, the genre’s top star. It’s irresistible dance music, at once tough and breezy, with gentle melodies and chiming guitar lofting above thick, bustling polyrhythms.
39. Chill Rob G, Ride the Rhythm (1989)
Hip-hop connoisseurs long ago canonized the slick, festive debut album by Jersey City rapper Chill Rob G. Classic cut: “Let the Words Flow.” Buried treasure: the gory “Bad Dreams.”
40. Holly & the Italians, The Right to Be Italian (1981)
No one was going to deny Chicagoan turned Londoner Holly Beth Vincent the right to be Italian—or the right to snarl bratty New Wave anthems like “Rock Against Romance” and “Tell That Girl to Shut Up.”
41. Ivy, Apartment Life (1997)
Lounge, bossa nova, Brill Building pop, and other urbane sounds move through the music on Apartment Life, a dozen tight, melancholy songs about youngish New Yorkers falling in and out of love.
42. O.C., Word … Life (1994)
“By the way, do me a favor / Give it a chance if a nigga has flavor,” rapped Brooklyn’s O.C. on his debut. Few did give Word … Life a chance in 1994, when the popularity of gangsta rap made O.C.’s boasts-and-rhymes traditionalism seem dowdy. But the album has endured as a cult favorite, not least for “Time’s Up,” a classic diss track aimed at, yep, phony gangstas.
43. Ninjaman, Bounty Hunter (1991)
There’s lots of sex and, especially, violence on Ninjaman’s Bounty Hunter, an album sometimes credited with bringing gangsta-rap gunplay to the Jamaican dance hall. But there’s wit, too, and the pure musicianship of Ninjaman, whose singsong style is one the genre’s most compelling.
44. Cornelius, Fantasma (1997)
Noise-pop and drum and bass, the Beach Boys and the Beastie Boys, lounge and grunge: There’s all that and more on the 1997 album by Japanese musical polymath Cornelius.
45. Youssou N’Dour, Set (1990)
An album that forced Western listeners to confront two facts: Not only was Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour a singer of godly gifts, he might just sing the best pop songs, too.
46. Latin Playboys, Latin Playboys (1994)
A side project by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez that was better than any Los Lobos album in the prior decade, and that’s saying something. Imagine Latin dance music remixed by Tom Waits on a steam-operated studio console.
47. Freedy Johnston, Can You Fly (1992)
Masterful songwriting in a vaguely midwestern-gothic mode, by a Kansan who relocated to Hoboken. The title track is a ballad about a farmer who discovers an angel in a field—and it doesn’t have one bit of spiritual mumbo-jumbo about it. “The Lucky One” is the best song ever written about Las Vegas. The other eleven songs are just as good.
48. Iris DeMent, My Life (1993)
The country troubadour dedicated My Life to her father, who died in 1992, a year before the album’s release. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more moving elegy: ten beautiful folk-country songs about love and family and faith, written and performed with the easy-flowing artlessness that comes naturally to an artist.
49. DJ Quik, Quik Is the Name (1991)
Nearly two full years before Dr. Dre released The Chronic, the template for g-funk was in place on this Compton rapper’s smutty, swaggering debut.
50. Andy Bey, Shades of Bey (1998)
Dreamy, beautiful album by a master jazz vocalist who finds new depths in everything he sings. Bey wraps his dark baritone around an eclectic group of songs: an Ellington chestnut, an Afro-Cuban lullaby, Nick Drake’s “River Man.” His tender take on “Some Other Time” is one of the best you’ll hear of that oft-sung ballad.
51. Benji Hughes, A Love Extreme (2008)
Benji Hughes looks like a biker-bar scuzzball, but he writes songs like Cole Porter, if Cole Porter had a Casio keyboard, an 808 drum machine, and songs with titles like “I Went With Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips.” Hughes’s debut album, a 25-song opus, is wildly ambitious and an egregiously overlooked classic of American popular song.
52. Akufen, My Way (2002)
Talk about a cut-and-paste job. Akufen, a.k.a. Montreal electronic musician Marc Leclair, made this album by collaging together more than 2,000 samples, all taped by Leclair off the radio. He builds those snippets—of music and voices and static and everything in between—into miniature symphonies, some ambient, some propulsively danceable, all of them bewitching and ingenious.
53. Julie Roberts, Men & Mascara (2006)
Julie Roberts has one of the most soulful voices in country music, and on this album she found a dozen songs worthy of it. The title track is a weeper for the ages: “Last night, he said she was the one / But men and mascara always run.”
54. Bobby Creekwater, Anthem to the Streets (2005)
Atlanta rapper Bobby Creekwater was briefly signed to Eminem’s Shady Records label, but his 2011 major-label debut flopped. Too bad, because his 2005 mixtape Anthem to the Streets was a blast, full of sprightly beats and low-key wit. Standout: the theme song “Bobby Creek.”
55. Various Artists, Hyphy Hitz (2007)
Bay Area hyphy is the dumbest regional rap style in the country—and as this stupendous compilation proves ad infinitum, “dumb,” in hyphy-speak, is a compliment in the highest.
56. The Pierces, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge (2007)
An inexplicably slept-on album by sisters Catherine and Allison Pierce. It’s catchy and clever and sexy; the music takes in everything from Prince to down-home country to Kurt Weill. And it includes “Boring,” a spoof of blasé jet-setters: “Saturday night / We look all right / We’re going out / Boring / Paris, France / London town / NYC /Boring.”
57. Fanfare Ciocarlia, Iag Bari (2001)
If it sounds like a mêlée has broken out at a wedding—well, it has. The Balkan brass orchestra Fanfare Ciocarlia, from Romania, touts itself as the world’s fastest band. It’s difficult to verify that claim, but on this album it’s clear they’re one of the tightest and rowdiest.
58. Calle 13, Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo (2008)
If you’re a Latin-music fan, you know the third album by Puerto Rican hip-hop heroes Calle 13, and you know it well. If you’re not, you may not know it, but you really should. The Spanish-language raps mix partying, protest, jokes, smut, and pathos. But you don’t need a word of Spanish to feel the music in rapper Residente’s manic flow, or to grok the beats, in which reggaeton, samba, Balkan brass, Argentine cumbia villera, and a dozen other styles collide and cross-pollinate.
59. Eric Church, Carolina (2009)
Church’s 2006 debut Sinners Like Me put him on the map; Chief (2011) made him a superstar and critic’s darling. In between, he released what may be his best album, and certainly his most overlooked. Carolina stretched out sonically, from the title track, a southern home-and-heart ballad with cavernous U2-style production, to “Hell on the Heart,” a cherry-bomb pop tune that Church called his attempt to write a Maroon 5 song.
60. Prinzhorn Dance School, Prinzhorn Dance School (2007)
The debut album by this English art-punk trio makes other minimalists sound maximalist. This is pop stripped to its barest bones, and then stripped further: Guitars and basses act as drums, drums as punctuation marks, vocal rasps and yelps serve more as percussion than points of focus. Somehow, songs assemble themselves, and they sound great.
*This article originally appeared in the November 18, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.