Milestone Recordings in American Music

2/3/09

Forward

I remember distinctly the moment I became hooked. It was the spring of 1975 and I was in the backseat of my parents’ car as it drove east on Interstate 94 into Detroit. It happened as I sat quietly in the backseat, holding a purple toy football in my lap and watching in awe as the urban landscape unfolded, growing larger and more mysterious by the mile. My mom and dad were in the front seat talking about whatever grown-ups talk about when “Rock The Boat” by The Hues Corporation came on the AM radio. One of them turned up the volume and my fate was sealed: American music had became an indelible part of my life.

I don’t remember anything else about that day, but over thirty years later, every details of that one moment is still bound to every note in that song. That is the power that music has. Whatever entertainment value it holds pales in comparison to its ability to connect us to our world: memories, emotions, causes, people.

I hear Linda Ronstadt sing “Blue Bayou” and I am in my grandmother’s kitchen eating biscuits and gravy. “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones finds me riding the roller coasters with my father on the boardwalk in Ocean City. I hear my friends’ voices rapping along to UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” as we played basketball after school. And Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” reminds me that a woman can keep her cool and her sense of humor even nine months pregnant.

And no doubt you have similar stories to tell: songs that make you laugh, songs that make you cry, songs that psyche you up, songs that help you blow off steam. Our brains are wired to appreciate music, and in today’s world that music is inescapable. It infiltrates every level of consciousness and forms the backdrop to everything we do.

Which brings me to an apology. Before we go any further, I should let you know that some of the things I say in this blog – maybe even a lot of the things I say – will be wrong. But I want to make it clear right from the beginning that I understand this. I could claim objectivity, but in the end the experience of music is so personal that an undertaking like this just can’t be written in a vacuum. I assume since you’re reading this that you love music too, so you will already have some pretty strong opinions about some of the songs that appear – or fail to appear – here. In some cases you will conclude that I am wrong, wrong, wrong, and all that I can say is: you’re right.

My own sister made that perfectly clear to me. When I explained to her what I was doing and showed her an early list of songs I wanted to write about, the first thing she did was flip to the 1980s and ask, “What Bon Jovi songs did you put in here?” When I told her none, she handed it back to me unimpressed.

I eventually did decide to include one Bon Jovi song: 1986’s “Living On A Prayer.” But there are lots of other good artists and songs that simply will not make their way into this blog. The history of recorded music is vast, and my goal is to be representative rather than comprehensive. I want to create the kind of road map to American music that I had been looking for when I first starting expanding my listening horizons beyond “Top 40.” So far it has been a labor of love, but also a lot of hard work. I have nearly driven my friends and family crazy playing 1920s blues for hours on end, but along the way I have discovered that there is more good music to be heard than I could ever have imagined.

In selecting which songs make the final cut, there are certain high water marks that immediately spring to mind, from “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. To fill in the gaps, I will stick to the following criteria: (1) recordings that represent a significant innovation or evolution; (2) recordings that represent the work of a significant and influential artist; and/or (3) recordings that are representative of a significant musical style or trend. The decision as to what is “significant” is entirely subjective, of course. I am sure I will miss a few that should be here and maybe include a few that should not. This will be especially true of the most recent recordings, since I don’t have the luxury of knowing what their long-term appeal and influence will be. But I will do my best to select songs that are interesting and representative of their time.

One thing that will not factor into my decision making is whether or not an artist is in fact American. Some of the best music in the “American” tradition has actually come from Great Britain – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, just for starters! Musicians from many other countries have also contributed their fair share of “American” music (especially English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada, Ireland and Jamaica). And many other styles of music around the world continue to influence and be influenced by the American music tradition.

Likewise, popularity is not a determining factor. Many of the artists I will write about have achieved some level of commercial success, but it is their talent, innovation and influence that will lead to their inclusion, not the number of records they sold. Pat Boone may have consistently topped the charts in the 1950s, but today his work has been all but forgotten. On the other hand, an artist like Gram Parsons was ahead of his time. In his too-short career, he straddled the line between country and rock, finding acceptance with neither audience, but influencing people on both sides and establishing a middle-ground where others – from Eagles to Uncle Tupelo – have been able to be very successful.

One final note about the selections: I will try to cast a wide net and include a great deal of variety. Blues, country, jazz and vocal pop will each be given a good amount of attention, and many other styles will be touched upon, including bluegrass, folk, gospel, reggae, tejano and zydeco. That being said, the majority of the songs will likely fall into what can broadly be called the “pop/rock” category: rock and roll, rhythm and blues, hip hop, dance pop and electronica.

Rock and roll began as a high-energy mash-up of the American styles that had come before it – blues, country, gospel, jazz and vocal pop. And while those older styles remained vibrant art forms in their own right, rock and its related styles have increasingly become the dominant forms of American music. Rock music has proven incredibly versatile, absorbing other styles and incorporating many influences along the way. It is diverse, influential and incredibly prolific, and that is why it will have such a prominent role in this blog.

Ultimately this is my list, and the only one who will agree with it 100% is me. (And I reserve the right to change my mind!) But I hope that it can also serve as a jumping-off point for you to create your own list, and maybe to discover a few hidden gems along the way.

6 comments:

  1. Well, allow me to be the first to comment on this amazing compilation of artists and genres. Very nicely done! Did you ever see Ken Burn's Jazz documentary? Your history reminded me of that a little, which I mean as a big compliment!
    We are also followers of early blues music and wrote a bio-graphic novel about Blind Willie Johnson and a fictional character, Roscoe Porter. It's always nice to find someone who appreciates the music and we would like to invite you to read our story. You can find us a www.meleecomics.com. We'd love to hear what you think too. Our artist spend a lot of time researching the little known facts about BWJ to make the story as accurate as possible.
    Again, amazing job compiling all this together.

    Sarah, of Melee Comics

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  2. @Sarah/Melee Comics: Thanks a lot. I really enjoyed the Blind Willie Johnson bio: what an amazing story, and what an amazing musician! Your website was full of very cool stuff - I went back to my original post about BWJ and added a link to your website. -Rico

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