Here it is, for the entirety of the popular recording era. Educate 'yo self.
Duke Ellington: “Mood Indigo”, “Sophisticated Lady”, and “Caravan”
American music starts with jazz and the foremost jazz composer of any decade is Duke Ellington – one of the geniuses of American art. His career had begun in the 1920s, but in the 30s he hit his stride. He recorded and rerecorded his own compositions dozens of times, giving each a unique sound and flair. The New York of the Harlem Renaissance was Ellington’s playground, and into the 1940s, in the Blanton-Webster Band incarnation of his group, his fame only grew. But Ellington wouldn’t want to be confined to ‘jazz’ – he said he made ‘American music’, no more or less.
George Gershwin: “Porgy and Bess”
Americans don’t tend to think of opera as one of their main areas of musical contribution. But George Gershwin’s folk-opera about a man with no legs and his love on Catfish Row, South Carolina, was a masterpiece of the American spirit rendered in music. Listening to it no one could mistake the regional sound for somewhere else. ‘Summertime’ has become the best-known classic, but ‘I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’’ is equally good, and some lesser known tunes, like ‘There’s a Boat dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York’ are also magnificent. The original cast is closest to Gershwin’s vision.
Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke: “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936”
Ira Gershwin was a supreme lyricist, as talented in his field as his brother George was in composing. Vernon Duke wrote a number of standards, including “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York”. As for the Follies, they were a spectacle unrivaled on Broadway – a show of incredible proportions that ran from the 1910s-into the 1940s. Part vaudeville, part revue, and part burlesque, many stars of the era got their start working with ‘The Great Ziegfeld’. Since no originals survive these recordings are note-for-note replicas based on the fortuitous discovery of an original score.
Robert Johnson: “King of the Delta Blues Singers”
While there are earlier blues recordings and artists than Robert Johnson, he was to my mind the first undisputed master of the blues. These songs, released on a compilation decades after Johnson’s death in 1938, became the backbone for a blues-rock revival in the 60s. Listening to them it is easy to tell why artists like Jerry Garcia and Eric Clapton revered his work. On these few tracks Johnson makes one guitar sound like two, and sings in an eerie, otherworldly voice of selling his soul to the devil to be the best blues player there ever was.
Benny Goodman: “The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert”
Jazz had been around since Scott Joplin’s ragtime, but by the 1930s swing was the predominate genre. Benny Goodman, a white clarinetist, had an integrated band with musicians like Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa playing side by side. Jazz was revolutionary and so this 1938 concert was notable – no one had played jazz at a venue as prestigious as Carnegie Hall before. It is also the first double album ever released, heralding a new era in long-playing records. Goodman’s big band plays a host of favorites from the time, written by the best of the decade.
Woody Guthrie: “Dust Bowl Ballads”
Known for the American classic ‘This Land Is Your Land’ Woody Guthrie sang songs of the people. In a new generation of folk musicians which included the likes of Pete Seeger, Guthrie sang of the plight of the commoner. On this collection, released in 1940 as a series of 45s, the theme is those who’d suffered during the dust bowl years. Throughout the decade Guthrie would continue to sing of different parts of America and its people, from the Columbia River to the union songs and early protest music of the Almanac Singers.
Aaron Copland: “Fanfare for the Common Man”, “Rodeo”, and “Appalachian Spring”
Along with Gershwin, Copland is the definitive American classical composer. His beautiful, inspiring, works are very much of his time – a decade that tested the country’s resilience, and strengthened our purpose. A decade that saw us renewing the pledge to our values, and began reinforcing our cultural identity as Americans. Celebratory and patriotic, without braggadocio, but with plenty of swagger these pieces define an American spirit as thunderous as the timpani’s roll or as gentle as the melodic ‘Simple Gifts’.
Various: “Stormy Weather Soundtrack”
The 1943 movie was a showcase for the great African-American recording artists of the era. Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – and many more produce an incredible album. Until this point the only notable musicals of black America had been “Showboat” and “Cabin in the Sky” – both of which told the story of the South. For the first time with “Storm Weather” was being celebrated a more contemporary view. During the 1940s as opportunities arose from the northern migration and World War II, it was time for a jazz-based sophisticated sound to emerge.
Hank Williams: “Move It on Over”, “Honky Tonkin”, and “Lovesick Blues”
In the late 1940s and into the early 1950s Hank Williams set the mold for what country music would sound like. He learned from the decade’s best, and for a while was part of the Grand Ol’ Opry – representing the voice of the Appalachian musicians. The crooning tone, the fiddle and guitar sound, and the themes he sang about have been copied and adapted right down to the present. The songs he wrote have become standards of the country genre. At the age of 29 he died from pills and alcohol – one of the first of too many musicians to die right as their star was rising.
Charlie Parker: “Charlie Parker with Strings”
The counter-culture icon that Jack Kerouac rhapsodizes about in On the Road may seem an unusual choice for lush string accompaniment. But in the 1940s getting an orchestra to back you meant you’d made it big – and Parker, the maestro of bebop, had at that. Bebop was a fundamentally important stage in jazz development, when during the war years the big bands all broke up due to venues closing and conscription. These sessions were first released in 1949, and the orchestra serves as a backdrop for Parker’s dizzying virtuosic heights.
Ray Charles: “The Birth of Soul”
Between 1952 and 1959 Ray Charles recorded for Atlantic’s Rhythm and Blues label, and defined what would become soul music. The sound develops gradually across this three-disc anthology of some 50+ songs. Charles takes an orchestra-heavy R&B and begins infusing gospel sounds, moans like a chastened bluesman and on some tracks, really moves. This collection showcases both the vocal talent – immediately identifiable to any listener – and his piano-playing prowess. The sheer diversity of sound is fascinating to listen to as Charles charts the territory of his newly invented genre.
Elvis Presley: “The Sun Sessions”
Rock and roll had predecessors to Elvis. I would argue that Louis Jordan’s ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ is the start – and Chuck Berry would back me up on that one. Elvis took Berry’s guitar-backed sound, infused some country music a la Bill Monroe and stole some rockabilly from Carl Perkins, and the phenomenon was born. These recordings, his first, were made in 1954 and into 1955, before he released his classic LP “Elvis Presley” – but many of the songs on the “Sun Sessions” were distinct from the breakout album that hit number one on all the charts.
Frank Sinatra: “In the Wee Small Hours”
It would be bizarre to cover the 40s and 50s without Sinatra, and crooners generally. Acts like Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and the rest were all some of the most popular acts of the era. This album, undoubtedly his finest, also marks an important transition in records. The theme of male loneliness is felt on each track, in its way becoming the first concept album, or at least song cycle, in popular music. Frank Sinatra went on to be one of the best-selling artists of all time, and won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1960, 1966, and 1967 – all long after this career high note.
Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim: “West Side Story”
The gang war retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Leonard Bernstein made his initial mark on classical music and American theater, and a young Sondheim began an incredible career that would define him as second only to Rodgers and Hammerstein in the pantheon of Broadway musicals. Sondheim’s later creations will often be based on non-American themes and stories, such as the English tale of Sweeney Todd. But West Side Story is totally American – with Bernstein’s marvelous jazz-infused and Latin-inspired ballets.
Miles Davis: “Kind of Blue”
Jazz entered a new era with this recording. Say goodbye to swing and bebop. Modal jazz was something unheard of, essentially, before this LP, except in a few of Davis’ initial experiments the year before. John Coltrane, arguably, would reach modal near-perfection on “A Love Supreme” in the 60s. But this album is, I think, rightly heralded as the finest jazz recording ever made. It also pointed the way Miles was heading to next with ‘Flamenco Sketches’, on a career that eventually turned to the other American musical form, rock and roll, blending it with jazz to create Fusion.
James Brown: “Live at the Apollo”
This album set the bar for all live albums to follow, and yet none have cleared it yet. The most infectious, raucous, and energetic performance of Brown’s to be captured on vinyl this recording is the beginning of a new era for R&B. Live albums go back to Benny Goodman, but now an artist would practically be expected to put out a live release just to prove they had the charisma and star-power of an artist like Brown. From the horn section to the vocals, to screams that rival Beatlemania two years later, this session at the Apollo was a challenge for all R&B acts to live up to, or step aside.
Bob Dylan: “Highway 61 Revisited”
Dylan began the 60s as the voice of a new folk revival, with classics such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Time They Are A-Changin’’. By 1965 he was using electric instruments instead of just acoustic guitar, and his sound had developed into a full-blown poetic and sonic tour de force. Scattered with allusions and Americana, this album, named for the road connecting the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, blew it all wide open – rock, folk, pop, everything. Dylan’s tunes became the anthem for the decade – the counterculture, the protests, and the introspection.
The Beach Boys: “Pet Sounds”
It’s difficult to recall that The Beatles saw The Beach Boys as an artistic threat. After hearing “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” Brian Wilson decided he could one up them, and released “Pet Sounds” in 1966. This, in turn, prompted the Beatles to try and one-up The Beach Boys, and so they released “Sgt. Peppers”. It was a creative rivalry that gave us some of the best music of the decade, and all time. On this groundbreaking album we have come a long way from surf rock and teen love songs – a new emotional maturity, and sonic wizardry, lifted rock into a post-adolescent art form.
Aretha Franklin: “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”
As the decade progressed soul music, R&B, folk, rock, and even jazz all started to have their own responses to the Civil Rights movement. Aretha Franklin became its musical icon, following in the footsteps of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, to mention just two. Covering Sam Cooke’s immortal ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ certainly helped – which on this recording is given new virtuosity from Franklin’s remarkable vocal range. She had recorded ten albums prior to this, but finally with ‘Respect’ got the fame and praise she’d long deserved.
Captain Beefheart: “Trout Mask Replica”
To close out the decade, here’s the weirdest of the weird. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (comprised of Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, and others) recorded the album in a legendary six hours for twenty-eight tracks, with the help of Frank Zappa as producer. Of equal note is the amount of preparation for those six hours: spending eight months in a commune together working on the songs in cult-like conditions. The result, the high water mark of experimental rock, blends Delta blues, sea shanties and folk songs, free jazz, and rock into an incredible suite.
Janis Joplin: “Pearl”
Joplin’s posthumous album and hit was the last hurrah of the late 60s counterculture. It also represents the start of a female singer-songwriter movement that included such luminaries in the 70s as Carole King, Laura Nyro, and Joni Mitchell. With “Pearl” the 60s sound fades out – and an aspect of the innocent idealism and optimism with it. Joplin’s strained vocals became the stuff of emulation, and her songs about the American experience entered into the popular canon. She died in 1970 at the age of only 27 – a disturbingly short career cut off in its prime – the last of the classic hippies.
Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going On”
America’s Motown music scene reached its zenith with Marvin Gaye’s 1971 recording. Dealing with topical issues like Vietnam and the burgeoning environmental movement the songs are still timeless. The central theme of the recording is love – love for the earth, for each other, love to end racial prejudice and discrimination. As a sublimely beautiful suite the songs flow into one another and end on an uplifting note of hope. In 2016 these messages, and the visions of the artist whose life was cut short from gun violence, still hold deep and valuable meaning.
Willie Nelson: “Red Headed Stranger”
Country’s first concept album. Nelson was the brightest light in the ‘outlaw country’ music scene that stripped away the glitz of artists such as Gram Parsons and the be-sequined ‘Nashville sound’. Country music went in a lot of directions since Hank Williams, many of them quite interesting, but for the purest American sound nothing compared to the likes of Willie’s stripped-down outlaw tunes. The outlaws continued into the 80s with the likes of Townes van Zandt, a revival of roots prior to the pop-country that began to dominate the scene since the 1990s.
The Modern Lovers: “The Modern Lovers”
“The Modern Lovers” had been recorded 1971 and 1972, a solid four years prior to the Ramones’ breakthrough in 1976. With the Ramones punk being a recognized ‘sound’ the Boston-based Modern Lovers’ album, amidst the flood of other punk recordings the same year, was finally released. This album, then, is the birth of punk – the movement that would later hop the pond and go global ushering in a new, raw, edginess in rock and roll. Don’t be surprised if the sound on these takes is muted in comparison to later developments – they also helped influence new wave.
Weather Report: “Heavy Weather”
Jazz got…weird…in the 1970s. Embracing psychedelic rock at the start of the decade, it then tried to embrace the new synthetic rock sound at the end of the decade. This attempt at reconciliation is what led to “Heavy Weather” featuring Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. It’s an odd sound – but you immediately recognize the scads of imitators that followed for the next ten-plus years. It marks the last breath of creativity in jazz before a long dry spell into the nineties, and arguably all the way into the aughts. But the influence of the new synthetic, electronic sound didn’t go away.
Michael Jackson: “Thriller”
Arguably, Jackson’s “Thriller” is so universal to call it ‘American’ is perhaps limiting. But Jackson’s music is firmly rooted in the sounds of the time, while simultaneously managing to create the blueprint for American pop music that continues to this day. Besides, as the greatest selling album of all time, it would be just plain weird to not include it. Released in 1982 “Thriller” totally reshaped basically all of the main pop genres of the decade. The disco of “Off the Wall” was gone – and dance music would never be the same, especially thanks to those zombies…
Bruce Springsteen: “Born in the USA”
Rock got an infusion of Americana in 1984 with Springsteen’s unapologetically ‘Murican album. Sure, it now had synthesizers, but the rock chops were still there from “Born to Run”. On a closer listen songs like ‘Glory Days’ are more ironic and embittered than given credit on a first pass. Working class songs by the 80s were songs of loss, of disappointment. The New Jersey-based rock god was actually telling a story of patriotism in the face of hardship, even decline. The year the United States reelected the smiling, confident Ronald Reagan, this music was telling a more critical, nuanced story.
Paul Simon: “Graceland”
One may question, in an album heralded for its crossover with South African artists, the ‘Americanness’ of a work such as Simon’s “Graceland”. But the root of it is in the title. Worldbeat is all about taking local musical traditions and, you know, making rock songs out of them. By far Simon’s best work since splitting from Garfunkel in 1970, this recording blends a whole slew of American genres together, from rock and roll to zydeco. The Apartheid controversies will likely never be wholly forgotten, but at this point we should just let the music speak for itself.
Public Enemy: “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”
Hip-hop was one of the big musical developments of the decade. With origins in groups like Sugar Hill Gang and Run DMC, by the end of the decade a new consciousness had emerged – hip-hop was smart, edgy, provocative, and thoroughly American. Public Enemy epitomized this revolution in the music of the black community, no more so than on their 1988 release “Nation of Millions”. Prisons, gangs, and Louis Farrakhan are all discussed – what does it mean to be militant, who are the role models, and what role do black Americans have in our society – this album confronted listeners with serious questions.
Madonna: “Like a Prayer”
Where would the 80s be without Madonna? At the end of the era Madonna took some vocal lessons and put out an album that went beyond poking a stick at the serious set. Her sexuality, themes, music videos – everything she did during the decade defined the American pop lifestyle. But “Like a Prayer” has a lyricism absent from most of the pop in a pop-saturated decade. Madonna would go on in the 90s to even greater maturity, with “Ray of Light”, but here she’s classic.
Alison Krauss: “I’ve Got That Old Feeling”
Bluegrass’ origins go back to the Appalachian traditions of the 1800s. But there never was a bluegrass masterpiece until Alison Krauss’ 1990 release. Playing violin and singing classic songs the record would help see Krauss rise in American music consciousness, one of many female singers from the country/bluegrass/roots field who became popular in a way not witnessed since Patsy Cline. Alison, it should be mentioned, bring a certain vocal sweetness to the album – perhaps since she was only 19 years old when it hit the Billboard charts.
A Tribe Called Quest: “The Low End Theory”
The improvisational style of jazz and freestyling rap seemed like an obvious pairing from the get-go, but it wasn’t until this 1991 release that the two American genres blended into a masterpiece. Quest’s abstract lyricism was matched by samples from Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy and other jazz legends, as well as a notable appearance by bassist Ron Carter. It was a standard of the 90s alternative hip hop scene, when most of the sound had been influenced by the late-80s NWA and was predominately focused on gangsta themes and escalating violence.
Ted Hawkins: “The Next Hundred Years”
One of the most remarkable blues albums of all time, Hawkins’ story lends a depth of feeling to his plaintive, strained voice. Ted Hawkins spent years of his life as one of America’s countless street performers, singing for change on the sidewalk in California. Time spent in jail, a heroin addiction – his life plays out as a litany of a man who’d lived the blues – there’s no production value in creating the sound of hardship and regret in his songs. He got his break and proceeded to record an incredible album of blues music unlike any other.
Jonathan Larson: “Rent”
After a peak in popularity during the 1960s Broadway took a cultural left turn in the 70s that alienated it from most American households. Then came the dark Andrew Lloyd Weber years, which continued into the 1980s. Thanks to Disney literally cleaning up Broadway by the 1990s the American musical tradition was ripe for revival, and no show better captured the new direction and reemergence of popularity than Jonathan Larson’s New York City-based adaptation of the 90s bohemian life, “Rent”. Dealing with drugs and AIDS set a template for Broadway fandom that continues to this day.
The electronica scene had been simmering since the late 70s and techno, a subgenre of electronica, was essentially an American invention out of Detroit in the 80s. But as the last decade of the millennium came to a close electronica burst forth in the States to claim a previously unimagined prominence in our auditory soundscape, which it has never quite relinquished. Moby’s “Play” was undoubtedly the tipping point for this sonic revolution, with its weird post-modern sound alternating with catchy loops and hooks. Selling an incredible 12 million copies it ushered in the new century.
Jill Scott: “Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1”
An R&B-soul sound for the new millennium, and one of the decade’s first offerings. The 90s brought forth a revival in female musicians of all genres, thankfully, which have carried on undaunted into the Beyoncé age. Scott’s first release exemplifies neo soul on some tracks, but can be more fearless, less easy-listening, and downright experimental. Between track 17 and the final track are some 30+ 4-second breaths, in and out, each a track unto itself. That final track also exemplifies the penchant for remixes, this one by Mos Def, that are still dominant.
Jay Z: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, “99 Problems” (Danger Mouse remix), “Empire State of Mind”
Personally, my favorite Jay Z album is 2001’s “The Blueprint”: the name says it all. After a decade of West Coast - East Coast feuds that killed Tupac and Biggie, a blueprint was needed for where hip hop was headed in the 21st century. But the decade was, in large part, Jay Z’s to own. In 2003 Rolling Stone left Jay Z off their Best Artists list. By 2012 he was on it, after years of changing his sound, experimenting, giving up, and trying again. Each of these tracks represents a different phase in his legacy. He kept the “gangster” moniker but by then we all knew what he really was – an artist.
The White Stripes: “Elephant”
The title for most influential rock album of the aughts is tricky. The garage rock revival of The Strokes on “Is This It” set a tone for the alternative scene of the decade, but that album is almost too universal. The White Stripes’ 2003 release, however, I can’t imagine being made anywhere else. There’s a blues-influenced spookiness to the whole endeavor, beyond the pair’s well-known fondness for playing up their mysterious background and relationship. There were more ‘indie’ records out there, and the folk-influence of that genre is important – but “Elephant” became immediately timeless.
Jason Moran: “The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard”
Jazz began to make some truly interesting developments in the 00s after a long absence from popular music. To be fair, though, the artists pushing boundaries, like Moran, are not exactly household names, even though Moran is a star in the contemporary jazz scene. In 2002 Moran’s Bandwagon trio gave a performance at the legendary Village Vanguard – disquieting, uncomfortable, and edgy. It’s hard to classify his sound as anything that had come in jazz before. In the next decade as jazz becomes more popular, with artists like Esperanza Spalding, Moran paved the way.
Neko Case: “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”
‘Alternative’ was the key for critical success of the past decade. Country music once again underwent a shift, both in terms of the popification of country rock, and new alternative country rock. On the one hand you have the Dixie Chicks, the other, Neko Case and the like. There’s a deep Americana to both sounds, but Case’s is inarguably the more beautiful. The album is so broad it has also been classified as Rock and Folk – both of which work just as well. The sound is purely American, no matter the labels. In 35 minutes you discover a whole world – familiar and yet new.
2010s (so far)
Kanye West: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
Hip hop finally got its “Sgt. Peppers” with West’s incredibly lush 2010 production. Previously West had already stunned the hip hop world in his transition from producer to artist with “The College Dropout”. But on this album he digs deep into music’s past and dredges up the best, mixing it with a stunning host of contemporary collaborations from Rhianna to Bon Iver (and even Chris Rock): a veritable who’s who of the current music culture. Themes run deep as well, ruminating on fame to what it means to be black in America, and far more.
Anais Mitchell: “Hadestown”
A folk opera? Isn’t this where we started out? The second definitive American album of this decade so far is Anais Mitchell’s indie-folk rock tour de force. Telling the story of Orpheus in a Cajun-infused and Appalachian bent, with help from the likes of Ani DiFranco and, once again, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the Vermonter’s first offering is a complex, layered, nuanced piece of Americana. It’s pleasing to come full circle with this allegorical tale of loss, love and foiled redemption – the same themes of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” – as American music evolves it still manages to stay the same.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Hamilton”
It doesn’t get more patriotic than this – including “1776”. A hip hop minority-cast retelling of Hamilton’s life with plenty of Broadway panache. What could be more American? After a decade of strong performances from “Avenue Q” to “The Book of Mormon” nothing has quite had the huge success – the necessity – of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s one-man magnum opus. And the timing was providential, as the nation had discussions on race the likes of which hadn’t been heard for decades. Cast in the light of the founding fathers, and contemporary language, it will reign for decades to come.