Just because you’re at home acclimating to this new life of social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t go on a journey. These 13 albums will take you on a trip through the very best of the last 120 years of New Orleans music.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (aka “Jelly Roll Morton”) claims to have invented jazz. While not everyone agrees with that claim, there’s no doubt Morton was a pivotal role in the new genre’s development. He’s credited as being jazz’ first arranger, showing the typically improvised genre could be as lively when notated.
Morton wrote dozens of compositions, and — in my opinion — some of the best can be found in this album recorded in 1923-24. His use of rhythm was groundbreaking for the time and his skill at emulating a full jazz band sound on a piano is fun and impressive. There’s no better place to start our journey.
Considered one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, Louis Armstrong was an extraordinary representative of New Orleans during his five-decade career. This album was recorded between 1925 and 1928 with his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” jazz bands.
These recordings shifted jazz’s focus from collective playing to Armstrong’s spectacular instrumental and vocal improvisations. His scat singing in “Heebie Jeebies” helped popularize the technique, and his solo in “Potato Head Blues” established the stop-time technique.
This album’s first track, “The Fat Man,” was recorded in December 1949 and is considered to have a claim as one of the first — or the first — rock and roll songs in history. Fats is thought of as a pioneer of the genre by later, important rock and roll artists. The Beatles cited him as an inspiration for several of their tracks and Elvis Presley insisted Fats was the genre’s real “King.”
Rock and Rollin’ with Fats Domino was recorded in 1956 and is the artist’s debut album. It compiled a number of his hits (and soon-to-be-hits) from earlier in his career.
This debut album by Dr. John was released in 1968. It’s a hybrid of psychedelic rock and New Orleans rhythm and blues, and there’s really nothing else like it. The album didn’t receive much fanfare initially, and Atlantic Records president asked, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?”
Gris-Gris is viewed quite differently these days. In 2003, Rolling Stone placed it at #143 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Today, when we listen to a young Mac Rebennack growl the album’s first lyrics — “They call me Dr. John.” — we recognize we’re listening to the birth of a legend.
One of the greatest soul albums of all-time? I think it’s possible!
First off, you know Lee Dorsey. He sang the super-hit, “Working in the Coal Mine,” which you’ve absolutely heard. That song — as well as this album — was a collaboration between Dorsey and legendary New Orleans musician and record producer, Allen Toussaint. Throw in The Meters as instrumental backing and it’s no wonder this album is so strong.
To me, it’s Yes We Can’s message that sets it over the top. “We got to help each man be a better man with the kindness that we give. I know we can make it.” Who doesn’t need that kind of optimism these days?
But The Meters weren’t only back-up instrumentalists. They’re also considered originators of funk as well as influences to many modern musicians.
I dare you to listen to this album without moving. It’s impossible. My fingers are snapping, my feet are tapping and my knees are shaking as I write these very words. I love just about everything from New Orleans’ greatest quartet, but this — their fifth studio album — feels a cut above the rest. Rolling Stone agrees, placing it #138 on its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all-time.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Allen Toussaint was one of the most influential songwriters and producers of the 20th century. He collaborated with names already on this list like Fats Domino, Dr. John and The Meters, as well as greats like the Pointer Sisters, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello.
He wrote iconic funk and soul music that continues to be sampled in hip hop and R&B to this day. But I’m not sure anything shows off his talents more than Southern Nights. (Toussaint, himself, calls it his best.) The title track and “Country John” are especially catchy.
The music of the locally beloved Mardi Gras Indian culture is unique for its featuring of call-and-response style chants. This album puts that on display in the funkiest way possible.
The Wild Tchoupitoulas formed as a group of Mardi Gras Indians in the 1970s by George “big Chief Jolly” Landry. He brought his music to the studio with his nephews — Cyril and Aaron Neville — along with members of The Meters and Allen Toussaint. What came out was a cultural treasure, and some really, really fun music. (It’s also said the Neville Brothers band was a direct result of this project.)
Irma Thomas is a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James but never experienced the same kind of commercial success. That doesn’t stop her from being locally loved (and anyone who’s seen her step onto the stage at Jazz Fest knows how loved she is).
She finally won a Grammy in 2007 for her album, After the Rain, but my favorite album of hers is Soul Queen of New Orleans, a nod to her nickname. Spend a night listening to this album, and…well…you’ll probably play it again the next morning.
Brass bands in New Orleans evolved over the century from military bands in the 1800s to musical groups featured in second lines. Danny Barker famously started the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band in the 1970s to help revive the flagging brass band tradition, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band formed out of this effort.
They pushed the genre by incorporating funk and bepop into their repertoire and helped to revive a tradition. Many of the brass bands we love today were influenced by their work. Listen to this 1987 album and you’ll understand why.
New Orleans music went in many different directions, though. Sludge metal is a genre of heavy metal music that originated in the late-1980s and early-1990s by combining elements of doom metal and hardcore punk. It’s harsh, abrasive and often features shouted vocals, heavily distorted instruments and a mish-mash of tempos.
Two Louisiana bands — Eyehategod and Crowbar — are credited with helping sludge metal emerge as its own, distinct genre. This second album by Eyehategod was recorded in an abandoned department store on Canal Street in 1993, and is a huge step up from their first album. It features southern rock, blues and doom influences, giving Take as Needed for Pain a truly unique feel.
In June 2008, this album was one of the most anticipated releases of the year and Lil Wayne was considered one of — if not the — best rappers on the planet. Tha Carter III debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 and sold more than 1 million copies in its first week, making it one of the fastest-selling albums in the country.
And the hype was justified. Wayne has a lot to say in this album, and he does it in several different ways. He shows audiences a different side by singing in “Lollipop,” which became an international hit. This album — packed with big-name guest appearances — has lots of hits.
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews used this album to express his desire to chart his own path. And there’s no doubt he’s got a sound different from any of his predecessors. The album, however, also shows a pride in — and respect for — the culture that raised him. Influenced by jazz, rock, funk, pop and hip hop, you can see the work of nearly all the other names on this list in Andrews’ impressive 2013 album.
Think I missed one? Find me on social media and let me know!
WRITER MATT HAINES LIVES IN NEW ORLEANS. FOLLOW HIM FOR TONS OF IDEAS ON HOW TO STAY BUSY DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC AS WELL AS ALL THINGS MUSIC-RELATED (AND MORE!) AT MATTHAINESWRITES.COM, AND ON FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER.