10 Essential Brooklyn Albums

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Welcome back to the Treble World Tour, a series of Top 10s covering albums that best represent certain locations—cities, states, territories, even entire nations. We consider representative releases on three levels: They were made by artists from a place, they contain music about or inspired by the place, and/or they were made in that place. This month, we began the heavy lifting of surveying the music that represents New York City, borough by borough, starting with Manhattan and then last week, The Bronx. Today, we head across the East River to Brooklyn, hipster haven and melting pot for a variety of different styles and sounds. Today we know Brooklyn as the home of countless indie rock bands, Michelin star restaurants and gentrification. But that’s not necessarily the Brooklyn that Sonny Rollins knew, or that Biggie and Jay-Z knew. In fact, it’s hard to summarize the most populous borough in New York City, with a population larger than all but about four cities in the U.S., but that vast community and its diversity is what makes Brooklyn such an artistic hub, from jazz to folk and rock to hip-hop and even experimental electronic music. These 10 albums are all from artists who have known Brooklyn as home, but they’re also made by artists whose view from across the river has shaped their music in sometimes unusual ways. Our list of essential Brooklyn albums comprises half a century of artistic innovation and neighborhood pride.

essential Brooklyn albums Sonny RollinsSonny Rollins – The Bridge

(1962; RCA Victor)

For more than a decade right out of high school, this Harlem tenor saxophonist helped to define hard-bop jazz across America. Justifiably exhausted by the late 1950s, Rollins holed up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side near the Williamsburg Bridge between it and Brooklyn. For the better part of two years he then traversed the bridge, spending most of each day playing among the pedestrians. The comeback album based on that practice was slight—just six tracks, and not the same ball of fire critics of the day had come to expect—but with time it has grown to be a treasure of the genre. It opens with his definitive rendition of pop standard “Without a Song,” finds him exploring classics by Cole Porter and Billie Holiday, and includes two new originals brimming with the energy of walkways and highways. The Williamsburg Bridge now symbolizes the cultural center of 21st century New York City, connecting corners of boroughs each trying to balance shining rehabilitation with hardscrabble backstories. In a way, then, Sonny Rollins was an O.G. hipster on levels we can only begin to appreciate—finding or reinventing himself as a millennial might, well before the turn of the millennium. – AB

essential Brooklyn albums Garland JeffreysGarland Jeffreys – Ghost Writer

(1977; Columbia)

Born of parents with white, black and Puerto Rican heritage, Garland Jeffreys regularly takes on the restless diaspora of Brooklyn. Like Lou Reed—his close friend from their time at Syracuse University—Jeffreys writes point-blank about the New York experience, with more verbal economy and faith in what’s left unsaid. Ghost Writer tricks the listener with its surface modesty. Devoid of any pretension, Jeffreys’ songs tell of new arrivals carrying undefined hopes only the city can fulfill (“Rough & Ready,” “New York Skyline”) and the self-knowledge it demands (“Ghost Writer,” “35 Millimeter Dreams”). But Jeffreys exercises the same restraint when he encounters the impediments of the streets—almost all of them due to the fact of his difference from the others (“I May Not Be Your Kind,” “Cool Down Boy,” “Why-O”). The awareness comes to a head in the crushing closer, “Spanish Dreams,” where everyone appropriates each other: “Don Juan” is actually a gringo and the immigrants commemorate their adaptation by “suckin’ on chili dogs.” Helping the theme along is the fact that Jeffreys is a musician’s musician. His voice manages a streetwise twang with a beautiful vibrato, and his comfort with straight-up reggae is the strongest of any mainstream rock artist ever. With painterly understatement, Jeffreys examines America’s tense balance between its cherished innocence and its starched racism, neither of which the nation seems especially keen to part with. Ghost Writer cuts and dreams more deeply the more you listen.- PP

essential Brooklyn albums LincolnThey Might Be Giants – Lincoln

(1988; Bar/None)

John Linnell and John Flansburgh have managed a long career of 35-plus years because, novelty origins and orgies of puns be damned, their material has almost always been about something. It’s almost as if They Might Be Giants used their convulsive mangling of pan-American kitsch and studied pop songwriting to weed out those who’d already made up their minds to pass them by, just so those who’d give them an inch could mine their casual profundities in peace. Lincoln, their second album, pared some of the wild edges of their debut. They still took a poniard to the industrially optimistic music of the 20th century with guitar, accordion, synth-bass and the leaden, godforsaken Alesis HR-16 drum machine on “Cowtown,” “Purple Toupee,” “Cage & Aquarium” and “Shoehorn with Teeth.” But there’s no disavowing the propulsive sadness of “Ana Ng,” the drunken hallucination of “Lie Still, Little Bottle,” the disoriented metrosexuals of “They’ll Need a Crane” or the juking paranoia of “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go.” Breezing through 20 songs in less than 40 minutes, TMBG fully earn the right to be the tyrannical cult leaders depicted in the final song, “Kiss Me, Son of God.” It’s Brooklyn. You do what you have to do.- PP

Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique reviewBeastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

(1989; Capitol)

Some might argue that the Beasties’ debut Licensed to Ill should occupy this countdown slot. It has the legendary rock crossover “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” but it suggests leaving the borough behind for adventures elsewhere. “Brass Monkey” lets us know “I got a castle in Brooklyn, that’s where I dwell,” but we don’t hear many more specifics about this crash pad. And while that album was recorded entirely in New York, the trio’s self-imposed exile in Los Angeles gave them a comfortable buffer to make the sequel a rap confessional: a tell-all movie for the ears describing eight million stories in their naked city in exquisite detail. Landmarks and lives in all five boroughs get shown lyrical love, but that shown for the BKLYN seems to run the deepest, from the clothing shop giving Paul’s Boutique its name to the Son of Sam to, of course, “Hello Brooklyn.” In a world of Manhattan clam chowder, consume more B-boy bouillabaisse. – AB

Biggie - Ready to DieNotorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die

(1994; Bad Boy)

There are landmark debuts, and then there are debuts that shake the very foundations of the genres they inhabit. Ready to Die is certainly the latter. Released in 1994 and catapulting to double platinum status, Ready to Die displayed the vigor, lyrical conceit and flow of Biggie, a native son of Brooklyn, who single-handedly changed the world of rap. Biggie’s impression of a hard, darkly autobiographical narrative emerges throughout in excerpts that both boom in manic jubilance and whimper in depressive admittance. A complex album that is as vulnerable as it is representative of the struggles of millions. It’s true that not all tracks on the album are created equal, “Friend of Mine” stutters and chugs instead of flowing effortlessly. The same cannot be said for the monumental “Gimme the Loot” with its presence felt to this day in the work of Travis Scott, the grinding jam “Warning,” the nuanced and oddly delicate “Suicidal Thoughts” and the god emperor track of East Coast rap, the immortal “Juicy.” This is an album that demands to be heard and respected. – BR

essential Brooklyn albums Digable PlanetsDigable Planets – Blowout Comb

(1994; Pendulum/EMI)

“Hey yo, let’s do that Brooklyn shit.” Digable Planets are a hip-hop group with roots far and wide; Ishmael Butler hails from Seattle, Mariana Vieira from Maryland and Craig Irving from Philadelphia. Yet they truly came into their own after adopting a new home in Brooklyn. Blowout Comb, as much as any album here or even more so, is a warm tribute and ode to Brooklyn, from the sense of community harbored on tracks like “Borough Check” to samples of songs like Roy Ayers’ “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby.” Digable Planets quite literally take walks through their neighborhood on “The Art of Easing,” but the Brooklyn they survey is also a historic one, with Black empowerment and radical politics playing a major part of their approach (including pictures and profiles of historical Black Panthers on the liner notes), a turn of sorts away from the jazz rap of their 1993 debut. This in part might have contributed to lackluster sales at the time, though the flipside is that it resulted in a more cohesive and compelling set of music. The Brooklyn of 1994 is here, as is the Brooklyn of the ’60s and ’70s, but it feels timeless. – JT

Jay Z Reasonable DoubtJay-Z – Reasonable Doubt

(1996; Roc-a-Fella)

An artist like Jay-Z is almost too big for any specific place. Obviously he has to live somewhere, but with his resources, that somewhere could be anywhere. In the ’90s, and well before that, it was Brooklyn. Reasonable Doubt is the album of Jay-Z’s that most strongly has a sense of place, and one that saw his humble roots at that. This Jigga is scrappier, hungrier. He has something to prove, as he lays out in “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” the opening track and mission statement for a young Shawn Carter. The album was released through Roc-a-Fella at a time when no other labels were interested in Jay or capable of moving at his pace, so he started his own imprint in a small office in Brooklyn, in what he called one of the “dreariest parts of the busiest city in the world.” His version of Brooklyn was a more cutthroat, gritty and dangerous place (although in 1996 it had a historic drop in crime), and the narratives on Reasonable Doubt are an inward look on what being a part of that can do to a person—protagonist or unlucky bystander alike. That it’s one of the best albums of Jay’s career as well as one that’s real, warts and all, says a lot to how place can define an artist. – JT

essential Brooklyn albumsEl-P – Fantastic Damage

(2002; Definitive Jux)

El-P is a native “New Yorkian” as he once said in a Run the Jewels track, and the landscape of New York, Brooklyn in particular, is the backdrop of pretty much the entirety of Jamie Meline’s career. But where other rappers on this list, like Biggie, Jay and the Beastie Boys all paid tribute to their home Borough with varying degrees of grit and warmth, El-P looked outside his window and saw a pretty grim reality, which he depicts in surrealist verse over dark, synth-heavy industrial-rap beats. He nods to the “Koch era” in his origin story, the grimy “Squeegee Man Shooting,” discusses how “city life is practice, casket truancy” in “Accidents Don’t Happen,” and creates nightmare gun violence and futuristic broken home scenarios in “Deep Space 9mm” and “Stepfather Factory,” respectively. Because of how intense and bleak so much of the album is (and wickedly satirical), Fantastic Damage earned El-P a lifelong “dystopian” description, if one that’s well earned. To a degree, El-P is writing the reality he’s observed, both at home and on a larger scale, so it says a lot that it feels like the most ominous of sci-fi narratives. – JT

essential Brooklyn albums William BasinskiWilliam Basinski – The Disintegration Loops

(2002/2012; 2062/Temporary Residence)

Scant few works of art have widely and appropriately acknowledged the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that leveled the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Music has largely avoided this challenge, and almost always not met it. This expansive ambient cult classic is arguably the best document of, for, or to 9/11 in song, even if it is an accidental one. Avant garde composer William Basinski was planning to preserve some old recordings, but found the tapes had turned brittle. He was nevertheless pleased with the results he heard and manipulated, growing less and less stable with every loop past his tape heads. He finished early on 9/11, and shared it with friends as they saw the Twin Towers fall from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment. Basinski filmed the day’s last hour of sunlight obscured by smoke and debris, making the opening suite “dlp 1.1” its soundtrack and eventually using still images from it as album artwork. The endlessly repeating, slowly decaying drones (totaling 292 minutes across four volumes) are haunting aural suggestions of existential loss and technological rebirth. You can envision them played in or arranged for scenes of mourning, regret, and a little bit of hope—the massive cathedral, the old factory, the city as smoldering battlefield. It’s hard to celebrate work informed by such a wound on global history and on the psyche of New York, especially given the city’s role as a worldwide arbiter of taste. Basinski’s timing was freakish, his decisions measured, and his results on The Disintegration Loops majestic and elegiac, a hymn delivered from one borough to another. – AB

essential Brooklyn albums Tv on the RadioTV on the Radio – Young Liars

(2003; Touch and Go)

The easy thing to do would have been to pick 10 of the buzziest indie rock bands of the past decade and call it a day. But one, that’s lazy, and two, a lot of them are actually terrible. TV on the Radio, however, sounded like the promise of something different and exciting back in 2003. Born as the collaboration between vocalist Tunde Adebimpe and producer David Sitek, each of whom lived for a time in the same warehouse in Brooklyn, TV on the Radio continually expanded, first adding Kyp Malone before later adding Gerard Smith (who sadly passed in 2011) and Jaleel Bunton. With their debut EP, however, they proved a scrappy couple of artists with immense vocal abilities and visionary sonics could craft the sound of an ominous future. That ominous future, however, looked a lot like the present, as heard in the buzzing panic of September 11th-inspired leadoff track “Satellite” (“I’m waiting for a signal or a sound/Where can you be found now…“). Their takes on sex were melancholy and referenced Persian poet Rumi (“Staring at the Sun”), and when they pulled off an a cappella cover of a Pixies song, it worked, damn it. In hindsight, Young Liars seems like the gateway to so much of the music to come later, which means we either have TV on the Radio to thank or blame. But as for their own sound, it’s one that . – JT

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