20 Albums That Matter

I still buy new music, mostly in the rootsy/Americana genre these days, but I rarely find the albums really transformative and I have a tendency to move on to the next selection fairly quickly. It’s also fair to say that my tastes before I was 25 ran straight to Top 40 artists. But I started getting flavors of other things once I moved out of smaller towns, and those completely changed my musical interests.

Here are 20 albums and compilations that have really affected my tastes over the past 35 years. There’s a surprising amount of blues in here, and surprisingly little of the Americana I listen to now, but there are a lot of albums that kind of mix up various genres a little bit. Three chords and the truth, baby: That’s where the soul of man can be found.

These are in no particular order.

Sonnyboy Williamson — More Real Folk Blues: I first heard a Sonnyboy recording in the mid-1980s in Little Rock (a fact that is true about a lot of these picks). I was a casual harp player and could not believe the tone he was getting out of that thing, which wasn’t being distorted by a cheap mic or run through a guitar amp. It was just beautiful. And his songs were word paintings. This album is packed with some of his greatest performances.

Beat Farmers — Van Go: The whole Southern California rock-country-punk edge thing in the back half of the 1980s was vastly appealing to me, and this was one of the best bands of the era. I always thought they could have fit on the Top 40 but they never really got there, and I sang (badly) a version of ‘Riverside’ for years in the band I played in at the time.

BoDeans – Love&Hope&Sex&Dreams: I still play this album fairly regularly. “Runaway” always seems like a perfect single to me, as does “Still the Night.”

The Cobra Records Story: This is one of the few compilations on this list. I knew nothing about Cobra when I bought it, but the CD selection looked good in the record store. Soon I was listening to such hip songs as “Shake It” by Duke Jenkins and His Orchestra, along with early stuff by Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. Willie Dixon recorded here, too, after he’d had it with getting his royalties ripped off by Chess Records. It’s just a great set of discs that stand in alternative with a similar set from Chess.

James Harman — 2 Sides to Every Story: I like harp players who do more than just play endless “Look at me!” riffs, and I specially like guys who can front a band with their voice and personality. Harman scores on those fronts, and he’s also an excellent songwriter. I covered “If the Shoe Fits, Wear It” from this album for decades.

Drive-By Truckers — Southern Rock Opera: My introduction to the DBTs, as well as an intro to one of my favorite phrases: ‘The duality of the Southern thing.’ On the surface, this seems like a rockin’ album from a bunch of rough-edged Southerners; below the surface, it is something very, very different.

Jason Isbell — Southeastern: This album was my introduction to Isbell, who had just gotten sober and married after some rough times, and he’s subsequently risen to the front of the alt-country/Americana movement. You are dead inside if you can get through this album without being broken open a little; “Cover Me Up” will probably still be his signature song 30 years from now.

Junior Wells — Hoodoo Man Blues: A classic blues album from the guy who taught John Lennon how to play harp. It has great originals and covers, and is funky in a James-Brown-meets-the-blues kind of way. “Messin’ With the Kid,” in particular, is an absolute blues standard.

Little Charlie & the Nightcats — All the Way Crazy: This was my introduction to a jump blues band that toured nationally for decades, fronted by the incomparable Rick Estrin on harp and Charlie Baty on guitar. Estrin still tours under ‘Rick Estrin & the Nightcats’ and Baty passed recently; they both remain enormous influences.

Lone Justice: Maria McKee twirling around in a gingham dress and singing the raveup “He’s Workin’ Late” is one of my favorite memories of the 1980s. I loved every cut on this album and the band was even better live. Decades later, I learned that Tom Petty actually wrote “Ways to Be Wicked,” and I began performing the song on stage myself.

Los Lobos — How Will the Wolf Survive?: This album, more than any other, shifted my musical tastes. I first heard it at a memorable party in (I think) 1986, loved it from the opening riff of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and got pulled into a rabbit hole of L.A.-based roots music that dominated my tastes for the rest of the decade.

Lucinda Williams — Car Wheels on a Gravel Road: I’d heard of Lucinda a little before ‘Car Wheels’ came out, but specifically remember reading a Rolling Stone critical rave about this album and thinking, “This sounds perfect.” It was. In addition to the powerful songwriting and some of Lucinda’s best singing, the album was just a testament to the power of tone. Some of my favorite guitar tones of all time are on this album.

Magic Sam — West Side Soul: It should be on every blues lover’s Top 10 album list, I believe. There’s his iconic cover of “Sweet Home Chicago,” his blues moaner “I Feel So Good,” and his hair-raising take of Willie Dixon’s “My Love Will Never Die.” Want to know what blues music feels like? Here you go.

New Orleans Party Classics: This Rhino compilation from the early 1990s is just an excellent introduction into the sounds of that city. Opening up with Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras,” and hitting on such chestnuts as “Iko Iko,” “Big Chief Part 1” and “Lil’ Liza Jane,” I have played this particular album hundreds of times. It cemented my love of New Orleans and its music.

R.E.M. — Reckoning: I wrote an entire post about this very album last year, which was the 35th anniversary of its release.

Rod Piazza — Live at B.B. King’s: I am much more influenced by 1990s blues harp players than by the blues masters, and Piazza is the master of the West Coast/jump blues sound that I love the most. He has plenty of technique but even better tone, and it’s shown off here better than any other album of his I’ve heard.

Southern Culture on the Skids — Dirt Track Date: How many times have I seen S.C.O.T.S over the last 25 years or so? I bet it’s been at least a dozen. But this is the album that still sticks with me, with its salutes to fried chicken, demolition derbies, cheap wine, Little Debbies and general southern celebrating. “White trash? Don’t call me that,” the band sings. They’re still singing that.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds — Girls Go Wild: That’s actually not the name of the band’s eponymous first album, but everyone calls it that, and it’s influenced whole generations of rootsy guitarists and harp players. This was my introduction to Kim Wilson, and through this album and this band, I eventually got to know the music of people like Lazy Lester, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, Slim Harpo and other artists I had never heard of. I’ve never met a blue musician of my generation who dislikes this album.

The Fire-Fury Records Story: This was a retrospective I stumbled across in a record store in the early 1990s. I bought it on a whim and played it again and again and again. It is loaded with great music, much of it from artists I didn’t know — Fire and Fury were labels run out of a Harlem record store — but I subsequently played several of these songs in bands. I fell into a serious Lightnin’ Hopkins obsession thanks to this package, learned more about King Curtis and Louis Jordan (the latter through covers on this album) and went a little nuts over Titus Turner’s “People Sure Act Funny (When They Get a Little Money). So. Good.

Kim Wilson — Tigerman: This was Wilson’s first solo album, and it was bluesier than the slightly broader offerings of the T-Birds. It’s another offering to the altar of great harmonica tone, and the covers are sooooo tasty.


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