Well, it's the 4th of July today, so I suppose now is as good of a time as any to try & do something that I've been meaning to do fer years: See if I can boil down the essence of American music into a Top 10 list. Is it crass & stupid to do so? Yeah, it probably is. But has that ever stopped Americans before? No, it probably hasn't.
& in my definition of "American Album," it needs to be made by an artist or group who is from America. Thus, The Band's self-titled "Brown Album" does not qualify, nor do the US-obsessed recordings of Bono & Co. When it got down to the last few, I decided to go with albums that had vocals over ones that didn't & favored musical artists over comedians & show tunes.
Otherwise, I just went fer breadth, scope — & Americanism.
1. The Complete Hot Fives & Sevens by Louis Armstrong. (1925-1930/2002)
This is where music in America became American music. The sound achieved by Louis Armstrong's original Hot Five may not have invented jazz, but it perfected the sound. Specifically, the triple lead parts of Armstrong's trumpet, Kid Ory's trombone, & Johnny Dodds's clarinet kept the sound cooking with an orderly chaos, instruments weaving in & out of each other, in a way that somehow seemed both orderly & improvised. Throw in Armstrong's charismatic vocals (& groundbreaking scatting) & you have a music that bears the fruit of extensive expertise, but casually knocked off in late-night sessions where almost anything could happen — & did. If America is truly the cradle of freedom, this is the first music to rock the cradle.
2. The Sun Sessions by Elvis Presley. (1954-1955/1976)
At less than 3 dozen songs in its original issue (15, plus & one alternate take), this is one of the cornerstones of American music. Like Armstrong, Elvis didn't invent the music so much as he mastered it & perfected it as an art form for others to follow. If Elvis is the biggest figure in America's biggest music, it's striking how small these founding documents are. At the center of the Sun recordings are 10 perfect sides — 5 R&B songs backed by 5 country sides — that combined are less than 25 minutes. But with tunes like "That's All Right," "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Mystery Train," & the rest, this is about as rich as music gets, as you hear so many influences — blues & country, electric & acoustic, rural & urban, black & white — while also hearing ELVIS. & what a rush it is.
3. Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday. (1958)
The most controversial album by America's greatest singer, Lady in Satin has long divided its audiences & critics, & for obvious reasons. Holiday was far past her prime by the time she made these records & it shows in every gravely twist of every nuanced word. But Holiday's chief innovation to popular music was to bring the emotion of the song to the forefront, not simply singing the song but performing it, akin to how an actor may read their lines. Everyone from Frank Sinatra & Elvis on down has been influenced by her one way or another, & this, her final masterwork, plays just like it sounds: A world-weary master standing at the end of a long road. It is also, not coincidentally, the work that she felt was the finest of her career.
4. Songs for Swinging Lovers! by Frank Sinatra. (1956)
There are two sides of America, & Sinatra caught them both — & in a row at that. There is the late-night, failed & lonely, what-coulda-been lament that he captured in his first full-length album, In the Wee Small Hours, & there is the bright-&-shiny exuberance of his follow-up, Songs for Swinging Lovers! From the opening "You Make Me Feel So Young" onward, the music is as joyful as In the Wee Small Hours was stark, with Sinatra's vocals — bold, blunt, offhanded, cocky, & charming — at the height of its power. It's his voice that drives the album, a seemingly effortless extension of his personality & style. I mean, no matter who they are, everybody likes at least one Sinatra song. It would be almost un-American not to.
5. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan. (1963)
If Bob Dylan did nothing more than release this, his 2nd album (but his 1st to be made up almost entirely original material), his place in the American musical canon would be secured. The songs play like a greatest hits not just of Dylan's folk period, but of folk, period — as "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," & "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" changed not just the way people listened to or wrote music, but how they thought about it. A master of a thousand voices, a mimic, a poet, a comedian, & a philosopher all in one, Dylan proves for the first time (& 3 days after his 22nd birthday, at that!) that his greatest voice is his own.
6. Thriller, Michael Jackson (1982)
It used to be that rock was rock & pop was pop. Not so after Michael Jackson came along. Arriving just as rock & roll's central narrative was splintering at the seams, spinning into R&B, funk, rap, heavy metal, & a thousand more subcategories of subcategories, Jackson did something unimaginable: He brought them all together in one place, Thriller, which still stands as the greatest-selling album of all-time. The songs of Thriller have become so ubiquitous that it's hard to hear how great (& innovative) they truly are — the cool funk of "Billie Jean," the street-smarts of "Beat It," the B-movie extravaganza of the title track. There is not a dull moment in the pack, & to be sure, it became the template for countless other performers, with varying levels of success. But Thriller stands above them all.
7. The Cole Porter Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald. (1956)
In terms of range, training, pitch, & elocution, Ella Fitzgerald was probably the finest singer America has ever produced. & she seemed to capitalize on her role with this, the 1st in what would become a legendary (some might say definitive) series of Fitzgerald covering America's songwriters. The Cole Porter album is significant not only because it is 1st, but because Cole Porter holds such a big space in the popular imagination of popular song. Unlike many of his contemporaries who wrote in music/lyricist pairs, Porter did everything himself — & with results like "Night & Day," "I Get a Kick Out of You," & "I've Got You Under My Skin," who could blame him? Give them to the First Lady of Song to sing & you have the American song in its Platonic form.
8. At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash. (1968)
If America could talk, it might have a voice like Johnny Cash's. Loud, forceful, & fearless, yet also able to spin a joke & tall-tale or two. When Cash recorded this, he met his match in the inmates of Folsom Prison, California; indeed, the wild screams that respond to his deadpan claim "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," are among the most thrilling moments in recorded sound. But the whole thing would fall short as a gimmick if he only played jailhouse songs, & he doesn't, shrewdly filling out the set with folk ballads, parlor tunes, blues-based hits, new songs, & rarities that give an indicator of the range that he was capable of. & like the best American music, it also barely scratched the surface.
9. The King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson. (1936-1937/1961)
Did Robert Johnson actually sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for his amazing blues musicianship? We'll probably never know, but that doesn't matter — American myth has always proven greater than American truth, probably because it's always bigger. For, when you listen to songs "Cross Road Blues," "Ramblin' on My Mind," "Stones in My Passway," & "Hell Hound on My Trail," it sure as hell sounds like a deal has been made with Satan (& bragged about in "Me & the Devil Blues"). This was music on a dark road that never ended, where any hope was sacrificed by pain, terror, & regret. Is it any wonder that everyone ever since (including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, & Eric Clapton, among scores more) couldn't get enough of it?
10. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen. (1975)
After the hard times of Vietnam & Watergate, America was having trouble gaining its footing — & its music was too. Enter an eager scruffy kid from Jersey hailed as rock & roll's Next Big Thing, taking his place in line after Elvis & Dylan. The thing is, as much as he tried to sound quintessentially American, he did sound quintessentially American, in a way that further expanded the sound as it celebrated it. Songs like the title track & "Thunder Road" had dense instrumentation, winding lyrics, & a point of view fixed solely on the highway's horizon. Although he famously sung of "a runaway American Dream," on Born to Run Springsteen caught the dream, & got out of it a majestic, restless, & loving album.