The music business has changed drastically in the last decade. The rise of internet music downloads has forced artists to tour more and market single songs rather than whole albums, and that’s a shame. Songs used to be carefully chosen, each picked from dozens of possibilities, then put in just the right order to convey a greater message than a few scattered songs ever could. I myself have discovered fantastic tracks by listening to whole albums from start to finish that I never could have heard on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. So here they are: the top 5 albums everyone should own to get the most out of music. To be clear, this is not a list of personal favorites, but of objectively essential classics. We’ll take one from each major American genre.
Rhythm and blues music comes first in our list because every other genre in popular music owes its creation to the blues. Blues music is right up there with baseball, property rights, and morbid obesity in the pantheon of American values. First invented by African slaves before the Civil War, the blues’ stark sounds, simple structures, and emotive vocals just captures pain and sadness like no other genre can. It follows a simple, predictable musical pattern, meaning that nearly anyone can pick up a guitar and play a simple blues number with about 15 minutes of training.
Nobody plays the blues like Texans, though. Case-in-point, Dallas-native, Stevie Ray Vaughan. His debut album, Texas Flood (Epic Records, 1983), shows the range of songs possible within a basic musical format. Containing rockers like Lovestruck Baby, wailing classics like Texas Flood, and even a sweet rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Nobody played the blues like Stevie Ray and his 2-piece band, Double Trouble.
Jazz may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s energy got millions of kids dancing back when folks would have assumed “rock’n’roll” was a medical condition. Setting aside the big band instrumentals of the 40’s, nobody out of anybody could beat Frank Sinatra for sheer timeless cool. He had a voice that could melt butter. He rocked the suit and tie better than Don Draper, Barney Stinson, and Drake put together. Any hipster in his right mind (I know, it’s an oxymoron) would drool over his fedora collection. It’s hard to narrow down Ol’ Blue Eyes’ vast catalogue from five decades at the top, but The Very Best of Frank Sinatra (Reprise Records, 1997) comes close. Keep an ear out for My Way on Disc 2 — the official national anthem of Cool.
Red dirt. Beer cans. Petty crimes. Hound dogs. Pickup trucks. Twangy guitars. Patriotic fervor bordering on jingoism. No, I’m not talking about my plans for Saturday night. I’m talking about every country song since Billy Ray Cyrus committed Achy Breaky Heart (and I continue to protest the injustice that nobody went to jail over that offense). Country used to be something great, however. Son of bluegrass, grandson of Irish folk, and nephew of Spanish Western music, country used to be the voice of the South before the slick music machine of Nashville co-opted it for profit (I’m talking about you, Kenny Chesney. Your tractor is not sexy).
One man defined this authentic country music more than any other, seeming at once soulful and badass — Johnny Cash. His songs had the forceful rhythm and chugging beat of a speeding locomotive, and dealt with fighting, drinking, cocaine, and doing hard time on the chain gang. In fact, the Man in Black’s greatest moment came when he played two shows for the convicted felons populating California’s Folsom Prison. The concert was recorded and released as At Folsom Prison (Columbia Records, 1968). Containing greats like Folsom Prison Blues, I Got Stripes, and Jackson (a duet with his wife, June), this concert was the high point of country music.
Elvis may have been the King, but Bruce Springsteen is the Boss, and for good reason. Beginning as a rather forgettable folk singer in the early 70’s, Bruce rose to stardom with Born to Run in 1975. He continued his path to greatness with three more albums with the E Street Band, culminating in Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia Records, 1984) — the greatest rock record of all time. This album has something for everyone: its title track sounds like a patriotic anthem but is actually a keen critique of America’s poor treatment of Vietnam veterans. Cover Me makes cynicism sound fun, Working on the Highway is a snappy rockabilly number that would put Elvis to shame, independent folk singers have adopted I’m on Fire as a staple of hipster-ism, and, for a forgotten gem, check out I’m Going Down. There’s a reason why this album topped every chart in the civilized world.
I know what you’re thinking — where’s all the Kanye West? Where’s Taylor Swift? Where’s Miley Cyrus? Where’s Beyonce? Where’s the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Nowhere, because everything on the charts owes its entire existence to one album. Nearly every rapper, hip-hopster, and pop star would sound completely different (read that how you will) were it not for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Epic Records, 1982). From its title track to Billie Jean to Beat It, this album contains every key ingredient of a classic pop record: smooth vocals, slick dance moves, funky beats, and awesome cameos (Vincent Price on Thriller, Eddie Van Halen on Beat It, Paul McCartney on The Girl is Mine. Beat that, Bieber). Like him or hate him, there’s no denying that M.J. belongs with U2, Elvis, and the Beatles in the pantheon of the gods of American music.
But that’s just my word. What’s yours? Send us your Top 5 at email@example.com. Tune in next issue (same Bat-time, same Bat-channel) for the Top 5 Movies of All Time.