One thing I really liked about this was that it isn't any kind of "best" anything list. There's not even a prescribed number of albums to be included. It's just some stuff you want to share, so I thought I'd share it here too.
Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (1955)
Thelonious Monk was more popular among critics than record buyers in the mid 1950s. His releases on Prestige had gained some attention but were not big sellers. Nevertheless, Riverside saw something in him and bought his contract for $100. Monk would make his best records on Riverside, but the label began the relationship cautiously. Rather than letting him make another record of his own “difficult” compositions, they forced him into two records of other composers’ material: Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and the unintentionally ironically titled The Unique Thelonious Monk. They weren’t big sellers either, but did establish him as a great pianist, something that was somehow in doubt. They weren’t his best records either, but hearing Monk interpret Ellington is still a wonderful meeting of minds. It’s worth noting that Ellington wasn’t on top of the world at that time either. Big Band music had fallen out of favor, but the following year he would return to the top of the heap when his 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival (and the stellar subsequent live record) landed him on the cover of Time magazine.
FILE UNDER: Geniuses of Modern Jazz
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 3, 4, 5, 7, 8
Rev. Gary Davis – The Sun of Our Life (1955-57)
Rev. Gary Davis was one of the greats of the Southeastern Piedmont Blues style of fingerpicking. (His “Lord, I Wish I Could See” is paralyzing.) But these home recordings, unissued until 30 years after his death, show him in a fantastic improvisatory mode that doesn't seem to come up anywhere else in his discography. Reminiscent of the open-form folk playing John Fahey was developing around the same time and not too far away, although I'm all but sure Fahey wouldn't have heard anything like this coming from a bluesman (read “black musician”) at the time.
FILE UNDER: Freeform blues
Recommended Tracks: 1, 4, 6, 15-18, 19
FILE UNDER: Freeform blues
Recommended Tracks: 1, 4, 6, 15-18, 19
Cecil Taylor – Love for Sale (1959)
Cecil Taylor had already released 3½ records (including a split with the Gigi Gryce / Donald Byrd Jazz Laboratory and a joint session co-led with John Coltrane) when Love for Sale came out. It’s one of the most surprising titles in Taylor’s huge discography because it’s probably the straightest record he made. But it’s no less great for it. This early in his career, Taylor was including compositions by his band members and had included the occasional title by Monk or Ellington. But here he did a full side of Cole Porter tunes and even had a pulp paperback album cover! The three Porter tunes are fantastic, deep and exploratory but still in the pocket. On the flipside he adds two horns (including the recently departed Ted Curson) to the piano trio lineup and you can start to hear the compositing strategies that would become fixed around Unit Structures. An unusual and largely overlooked album by Taylor and one of only a handful he did for Blue Note.
FILE UNDER: Avant Jazz Revisionaries
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 3, 4, 5
John Coltrane – Expression (1967)
In February of 1967, five months before his death, John Coltrane recorded three albums. The landmark Interstellar Space (a session with Rashied Ali that set the standard for sax/drum duets), Stellar Regions (a quartet set not released until 1995) and Expression, recorded during the same sessions as Stellar Regions except for the title track which was Coltrane’s last time in the studio. The record is often overlooked, almost as if recognizing it would disprove something to the generations of free jazz blowers who followed. It’s a beautiful, serene record, very different from the fiery improvisations he’d been doing for the few years prior and including “To Be,” his only track recorded on flute exclusively. One can imagine the more subdued nature of the record as being a sort of facing death. Few people knew of Coltrane’s liver cancer at the time, and there’s some dispute about what sort of treatment he was receiving or even what the actual diagnosis was, but it might be heard as a reaction to physical weakness or as a meditation on mortality. Regardless, it’s a wonderful record that suggests Coltrane might have continued to explore other areas in free jazz had he lived, rather than holding fast to the full-on attack.
FILE UNDER: Avant Jazz Visionaries
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 2, 3, 4
Art Ensemble of Chicago with Muhal Richard Abrams – Fanfare for the Warriors (1973)
The Art Ensemble of Chicago has rarely worked with a pianist – perhaps only Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor and on this album Muhal Richard Abrams, the leader of the Experimental Band where most of the members of the Art Ensemble first came together. Fanfare for the Warriors isn’t the only record the Art Ensemble made with Abrams but it’s the most diverse. As opposed to the album-length improvisation of the following year’s Kabalaba, here they are in a studio session playing distinct tracks, including the Mingus-swing of “Barnyard Scuffle Shuffle” and a great take on the labyrinthine “Noonah,” a composition Art Ensemble founder Roscoe Mitchell has recorded many times, plus a rare composition by bassist Malachi Favors.
FILE UNDER: Great Black Music
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 2, 3, 4
Sleepy John Estes with Hammie Nixon – On Highway 80 (1974)
While Sleepy John Estes comes from just up the road from my Tennessee kin, the selling point of this record is Hammie Nixon’s kazoo. They’re Mississippi River people, born and raised 75 miles or so from Memphis, but there’s a jazzy Piedmont blues feel to the best cuts here, like their version of “You Rascal You” (called “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead”). When Hammie switches to harp, they hit a Sonny & Terry vibe. It’s a nicely laid-back session with some good gospel tunes and a couple brief conversations between them.
FILE UNDER: Tennessee Flat-Top Blues
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 17
John Lee Hooker – Hooker Alone (1976)
This record is almost completely overlooked in Hooker biographies and discographies, maybe because he sabotaged his own set. What few mentions of it I've found say that either he was pissed off at the promoter or that he was sick and guzzling cough syrup. I'd like to think he'd just decided to experiment with some minimalist blues, but the fact that he doesn't seem to have ever played like this again means there was probably something else going on. Nevertheless, it's a remarkably slow and deep show. Tomato eventually issued two more volumes (the second set of that night and then a recording at a reception after the show) all of which show him in this weird, almost catatonic state.
FILE UNDER: One Bar Blues
RECOMMENDED Tracks: 2, 3, 4, 7
FILE UNDER: One Bar Blues
RECOMMENDED Tracks: 2, 3, 4, 7
Anthony Braxton – Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (1976)
Anthony Braxton rushed through his contract with Arista as if he knew someone would pull the plug if they found out how he was spending the label’s money. He worked furiously to release nine albums on the label in six years (while releasing a number of titles on other labels), using major label resources to record a piece for four orchestras as well as booking a 22-piece big band (with Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Frederic Rzewski, Leo Smith, Richard Teitelbaum and Kenny Wheeler) to play his wonderfully unusual marching band music. This is already a WFMU favorite, but it’s worth giving it another bump.
FILE UNDER: Creative Orchestra Jazz
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 2, 3, 4,
Lester Bowie – African Children (1978)
The way the story goes, in 1977, following an Art Ensemble of Chicago European tour, trumpeter Lester Bowie headed for Nigeria with nothing but the name “Fela,” suggested to him by Randy Weston as someone to try to locate. The tour had earned him little money and he had just enough for a cab, a meal and a hotel. The next morning he got in a cab and said “Take me to Fela.” The driver knew where to take him, Bowie played along with a blues record as an audition and Fela had him move into the communal house. Bowie stayed for three months and can be heard on a number of Fela’s records (Black President, Perambulator, No Agreement, Buy America, Sorrow Tears and Blood, Fear Not For Man) and Bowie later recorded Fela’s “Zombie” with the Art Ensemble. After leaving Fela’s compound, Bowie put together a new quintet that recorded The 5th Power for Black Saint and African Children for Horo, the latter of which has never been reissued. Side 4 of the double LP was taken up with the track “For Fela,” a dedication to his Bowie’s Nigerian friend.
FILE UNDER: Great Black Afrobeat Music
Recommended Tracks: 2, 4, 5
The Slits – Bootleg Retrospective (1980)
The Slits recorded this album prior to their official debut, the amazing punky reggae party Cut. An advance from Island Records would allow them to spend time in the studio and to hire producer dub Dennis Bovell), so rather than jeopardize the relationship with Island they handed the masters off to their friends the Pop Group to release on their Y Records on the condition that it be released as a bootleg. It came in a plain white sleeve with the “Y” label visible but no clear title so it has come to be known as Y, Y3LP (the catalog number), Official Bootleg or even Once Upon a Time in a Living Room or A Boring Life (the last title probably dreamed up by Greil Marcus). It’s not like anything else they released – it shows the raw energy of their live shows, but it also has the experimental spirit they would show on their later albums (although without a producer to polish it up pretty). “Face Place” and “Or Was It?” showed up in more finished form on Return of the Giant Slits and a bit of “Bongos on the Lawn” is heard at the beginning of the video for “Instant Hit” from Cut.
FILE UNDER: British Anarcho Estrogen Punk
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 5, 7, 10
The Specials – More Specials (1980)
The Specials self-titled debut remains the greatest thing to come out of any wave of ska after the first. It defined the movement in England so much that people seem to have forgotten that the album was mostly cover versions. When keyboardist and band founder Jerry Dammers decided to define the band and push original compositions, he turned to Muzak and roller rink music for inspiration, or seemed to anyway. The album hit #5 on the UK charts and had three Top Ten singles and the album and the single “Rat Race” even dented the US charts, but it was reviled in some circles and is largely ignored these days. Dammers was drummed out of the band (although less over artistic than financial squabbles), but in hindsight he was the one with the foresight to know that you don’t lead a movement by standing still. He wasn’t invited to be a part of the band’s reunion tour a few years ago, but on an artistic level is continuing to be the inspired one: his Spatial AKA Arkestra is a 40-piece band (as yet unrecorded) doing all Specials and Sun Ra charts.
FILE UNDER: Backbeat Visionaries
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 11
Meat Joy – Meat Joy (1984)
Meat Joy was Gretchen Phillips’ first band with Jamie Lee Hendrix, Melissa Cobb Unit, Tim Pierre Mateer and John Hawkes (under the name John Boy Perkins, and who later appeared in the TV show Deadwood under the name John Marvin Parks).There were rumors that Gibby and Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers were on the album which is probably not true but it explains part of their Texas tripped punk sound. This is some deeply weird and personal stuff. There’s some sweet lesbian heartbroken pop ballads (“Another Pair,” “My Heart Crawls Off”), a dirgey punk song about anorexia (“Slenderella”), a dirgey anti-punk song (“Proud to Be Stupid”) a strangely sympathetic song about misperceptions of Christ (“Matthew 10:36”) some crazy sound collage and even a suicide ending. The album was released with unique handmade covers – the band even used to have fans help them design and make t-shirts after gigs.
FILE UNDER: Texas Anarcho Dyke Punk
RECOMMENDED: 5, 9, 11, 15, 16
NO PLAY: 2, 6, 8, 14
Shelley Hirsch and Jon Rose – A Room With a View (1985)
An early record for two great outsiders who haven’t recorded together since. Jon Rose is a pretty much a mad genius of the violin, inventing not only variations on the instrument but false histories about it, but here he is heard on another of his creations, the 19-string amplified cello. It gives a richer tone to Hirsch’s scatter-consciousness singing but he’s still able to turn corners as fast as she does. Released on the Australian punk-leaning label Hot Records and never reissued.
FILE UNDER: Schlemiel Songspiel
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: A1, A6, A7, B1, B4, B7
Laurie Amat - L'amateur de la vie (1995)
Laurie Amat was the female voice for The Residents in the 1990s, appearing on the albums Freak Show, Wormwood and the brilliant and underrated God in Three Persons. In 1995 she was on tour with the band and played Prague where she crossed paths with bassoonist Lindsay Cooper (Henry Cow, the Art Bears) and a number of Czech musicians including pianist Emil Viklický, who has recorded with fellow Czechs Iva Bittova and George Mraz as well as Bill Frisell. The result was L'amateur de la vie, her first and probably only record under her name. While the identity of the members of the Residents is kept secret, it appears likely that she is the only person to work with them and Consolidated concurrently.
FILE UNDER: Chamber Rock In Opposition
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 2, 8, 10, 12
Derek and the Ruins – Saisoro (1995)
One of the greatest pairings that Tzadik executive producer John Zorn ever conceived was hooking up British free improv grandpappy Derek Bailey with Japanese punkprog duo the Ruins. It brought out the best of both sides of the band. Plugged in and backed by the high-speed propulsion of the rhythm section, Bailey is pushed to the edge. And the drum and bass duo, who hadn’t improvised on record prior to this session, are still tight and loud while being true to the spirit. While it’s technically a power trio, bassist Masuda Ryushi had been a guitarist prior to joining the band and plays in the upper register much of the time, adding to the unusual dynamics of the open-throttle album.
FILE UNDER: Improvised Instrumental Punkprog
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Roof – The Untraceable Cigar (1996)
New York cellist Tom Cora (Skeleton Crew, Third Person) formed the group Roof with Luc Ex (then bassist for The Ex) as a vehicle primarily for Cora’s songwriting. Vocalist Phil Minton and drummer Michael Vachter completed the band, which isn’t quite like any other group ever, avant rock that generally sticks together tightly and doesn’t sound as weird as it is if you don’t listen closely. They only made two records (this and the live follow-up Trace) before Cora’s death in 1998. After some hesitation, the band carried on playing Cora’s compositions with Veryan Weston on piano under the name “4 Walls,” later adding horns and changing their name again to “A Door and Two Windows.” Includes an interpretation of Harry Partch’s “The Letter.”
FILE UNDER: Extra Avant Pop
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 2, 4, 9
Optical*8 – Bug (1997)
Over the top avant rock from Hoppy Kamiyama (who would go on to start The Pugs and was the force-behind-the-scenes for Ex-Girl) which included Otomo Yoshihide, who would form the similarly rock-based Ground Zero before going deeper into experimental realms. Bug is like being fumigated with laughing gas and vaporized adrenaline, a fantastic distillation of the spirit of Japanese experimental rock in the ‘90s that was also being defined by Altered States, the Boredoms, Demi Semi Quaver (who’s singer, Emi Eleonola, is heard on track 6) and the Ruins, and a bit of a precursor to Afri-Rampo and ni-hao!
FILE UNDER: Asian Melodic Frenzy
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 5, 6, 7, 11
Ground Zero – Gig-Last Concert (1999)
In seven quick years, Otomo Yoshihide’s Ground Zero went from being a Boredoms-inspired fast cut punk outfit to playing heavy interpretations of Goebels and Harth, driving Roland Kirk-esque jazz interpretations and prolonged sonic experiments and intense noise, covering much of the ground Yoshihide would continue to explore in subsequent years. All of that feels distilled into the three tracks on their final concert and album. The first part of “Multi-Gravity” is an abstract, cinematic pastiche full of unexpected turns. The second half is a juxtaposition of free-jazz noise and noise-noise. In the final 40-minute track, they touch on Goebles and Harth as well as Antonio Carlos Jobim, traditional East Asian music and sine wave electronics. Stellar.
FILE UNDER: Post-Punk Classical
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1, 3
Rod Poole – December 96 (1998)
Rod Poole was an absolutely phenomenal guitarist who released a few solo albums as well as two records with the Acoustic Guitar Trio (with Nels Cline and Jim McAuley). The one 56-minute track here might not be ideal for airplay (at least not in its entirety), but December 96 is a gorgeous record. It starts with a bit of knocking about the instrument but before long he’s in his unbelievable finger-picking mode. Check the picture on the front: He often played in a flat-hand style with his thumb in front of the neck, anchoring the guitar with his right arm (I saw him do it!). His fantastic voice was silenced in 2007 after he yelled at someone driving recklessly through the parking lot of a Hollywood diner. The driver got out of the car and stabbed him to death with a steak knife. The British-born Poole was 45. His killer was sentenced to 15 years in prison the following year.
FILE UNDER: Out Folk
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: 1
BONUS AUDIO: "Proud to be Stupid" by Meat Joy