10 Essential Washington D.C. albums

Treble staff

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. The next stop on our musical journey is our nation’s capital: Washington, D.C. As you’re probably aware, if you’re an active participant in representative democracy, Tuesday was the midterm election. And as you’re probably well aware, the musical landscape of Washington is frequently as influenced by politics, or political action. Most notably, it’s the home of Dischord Records, run by Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye — himself a songwriter known to put a spotlight on notable issues. But D.C.’s identity goes well beyond punk. It’s been home to legends of jazz and funk, not to mention the dreamy indie counterpart to Dischord: TeenBeat Records. With our “I voted” stickers still affixed to our hoodies, and reissues of music by heavyweights like Fugazi and The Dismemberment Plan hitting shelves this month, there was really only one choice for the next stop on our travelogue. So call or write to your congressman to let them know what you think of our 10 Essential Washington D.C. albums. Actually, you probably shouldn’t do that — unless you really want to, of course.


washington dc albums money jungleDuke EllingtonMoney Jungle
(1963; United Artists)

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is almost too large a legend to connect to one single locale. And through most of his career, he wasn’t — he recorded in Chicago, New York and Paris, and wrote elaborate song cycles about east Asia, Latin America, New Orleans and Africa. His hometown, however, was Washington, where he began playing music in 1917. His earliest material was Dixieland and Big Band style jazz, later evolving into his own unique style of swing, and eventually his own uniquely conceptual style of jazz. But to hear Ellington’s talent at its purest and rarest form, there’s no better place to go than Money Jungle, a lightning-in-a-bottle session featuring Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Apparently, the disagreements between Roach and Mingus led to the session being cut short after four days, but in that brief period, Ellington guided the trio through a breathtaking series of post-bop gems, from the avant garde title track to a particularly powerful rendition of “Caravan.” – JT


washington dc albums parliamentParliamentChocolate City
(1975; Casablanca)

“Uh, what’s happening, CC? They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too. Can you dig it, CC?”

Funk supergroup Parliament — originally formed in Plainfield, New Jersey — had, by the middle of the 1970s, amassed a particularly fervent following in Washington, D.C. And as a way of tipping their caps to the District of Columbia, George Clinton & Co. paid tribute with an album that addresses the town directly. Chocolate City is rife with references to the capital city, from its chocolate medallion cover art (depicting the White House, and Washington and Lincoln Monuments), “Washington, D.C.” stamp in the corner, and of course the dedication in the title song. As an album, it hangs together just as strongly as any of Parliament’s other collections of vibrant funk, but there’s a more personal touch about it. And the city responded in kind — Chocolate City sold more than 150,000 copies in the District of Columbia alone. – JT


Seldom Scene Cellar DoorThe Seldom SceneLive at the Cellar Door
(1975; Rebel)

Almost everyone who talks about the music of Washington, D.C. immediately makes associations with hardcore punk, but the district also has strong connections to kinder, gentler “American” genres like jazz, blues, and especially bluegrass. This group sprung from clubs on D.C.’s perimeter in Bethesda, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia, and developed a “newgrass” style by using modern instruments and up-and-coming rock songwriting. They played their home-field advantage to the hilt on this performance at the landmark Georgetown venue that helped launch careers like Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and John Denver. The Seldom Scene lilt their way through “Muddy Waters” and Dylan’s “Baby Blue,” go full hootenanny on “Hit Parade of Love,” and caress traditional favorites like “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Georgia Rose.” This was the apex of a five-year period where the band brought the genre to a level of critical prominence it wouldn’t see again until the days of Alison Krauss and O Brother, Where Art Thou. – AB


Chuck Brown Bustin LooseChuck Brown and the Soul Searchers – Bustin’ Loose
(1979; Source)

Speaking to D.C.’s musical significance and failing to mention an artist that represents and is arguably responsible for the go-go movement would be a disservice to Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers. In 1979, Brown set the stage for the genre’s peak with Bustin’ Loose. What started as a communal experience in D.C. clubs in the mid-sixties with a signature constant syncopated percussion and call-and-response lyrics grew into a musical movement with assistance from acts like Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, and E.U. But the man known as “The Godfather of go-go” was the leader of the pack and earned his nickname with songs like “If It Ain’t Funky” and “Berro E Sombero.” The album’s opening title track is classic go-go and it’s an essential starting point for those unaware to the groovy appeal of combining early hip-hop influences, horn arrangements, and funky basslines. – DP


washington dc albums bad brainsBad BrainsBad Brains
(1982; ROIR)

As Miles Davis hated when people called his music jazz, this former fusion quartet were the Groucho Marxes of D.C.’s hardcore community, not comfortable being members of that particular club when it first started. But that tag was their destiny, as the band changed their name and their sonic focus after falling in love with both Bob Marley and The Ramones through the latter half of the 1970s. Their skin color wasn’t their only attention-getting anomaly; they may have had the most musical chops of anyone in the movement. This self-titled debut was filled with buzzsaw bastardizations of Rastafarian philosophy (“Sailin’ On,” “Fearless Vampire Killers”), straight-up punk despair and anger (“Big Takeover,” “Pay to Cum”), and the occasional reggae respite. Unfairly blacklisted by Washington stages, Bad Brains moved to New York City with the kiss-offs of “Banned in D.C.” and “Leaving Babylon” (and that iconic album art) in their wake. Their legacy was confirmed by the likes of Ian MacKaye and Adam Yauch; their DNA is found in Living Colour and 311. Our capital’s loss was our nation’s gain, and the world’s. – AB


washington dc albums copaceticVelocity GirlCopacetic
(1993; Sub Pop)

Soon after My Bloody Valentine broke shoegaze ground with Loveless in 1991, Sub Pop realized that the sun doesn’t rise and set on the Seattle grunge scene. One of their left-of-center signings was the D.C. (by way of College Park, Maryland) five piece, Velocity Girl. Their 1993 full-length debut, Copacetic, remains one of Sub Pop’s best-selling releases, and for good reason. It cashes in on the lo-fi noise-pop movement led by MBV, but with more of a focus on “pop” than on “noise.” Sarah Shannon cannot help but have a honey-coated voice, and in later releases (and her even later solo efforts), this is brought to the forefront. But on Copacetic, she is hidden in the background, like a dirty little secret. She warns, “I know a place that I’m going to burn down” before being engulfed in the double-fuzz attack of Archie Moore and Kelly Riles on the opening track, “Pretty Sister.” Songs like “Crazy Town” and “Pop Loser” not only contain clever and fun lyrics (“I’ll play my la la shit for you any time“), but reveal that VG had more up their sleeves than carrying on in someone’s shadow. “Here Comes” and “Candy Apples” show their softer side. Not wanting to go quietly, Copacetic ends with “Catching Squirrels,” one of the loudest, most raucous tracks on the album. Their energetic live performances were anything but shoegazing, and Shannon is still jumping around today, fronting the Seattle kindie-rock band. The Not-Its. – CG


washington dc albums jawboxJawboxFor Your Own Special Sweetheart
(1994; Atlantic)

Alumni of the early ’90s Dischord class, Jawbox were one of the first to make the leap to major label — Shudder to Think followed shortly thereafter — and made the most of their recording advance. Following the raw, abrasive Novelty, Jawbox made the leap to high fidelity with ease, brightening their sound while putting even more emphasis on the dissonance they wrought from their six-string implements. For Your Own Special Sweetheart probably wasn’t the MTV-ready next-Nevermind that Atlantic was hoping for. In fact, we know it wasn’t because it didn’t sell anywhere near the amount of copies. But I dare say it’s a much more interesting record, certainly melodic and beautiful in its own way while offering a challenging array of rhythms and arrangements. “Savory” is the hit that wasn’t — one of the group’s best songs and the moment when they actually did crack the 120 Minutes playlist. “Cruel Swing” more than lives up to its name with a violent rhythmic bounce, and “Reel” turns what initially seems like an exercise in harshness into one of the album’s most transcendent choruses. Jawbox might be the best band from Washington, D.C. that you haven’t listened to enough. – JT


washington dc albums red medicineFugaziRed Medicine
(1995; Dischord)

I’m willing to bet that Red Medicine would appear on many a Treble writer’s list of Top 100 albums of all-time; it was a definite no-brainer for this list. While the post-hardcore pioneers have arguably released a handful of masterpieces, their fourth LP is by far their most praised work, combining the energy of the band’s first releases with the more experimental tenacity the quartet developed over time. From the explosive, distorted sing-along “Do You Like Me” to the moody and comparatively ambient “Long Distance Runner,” every track on this record was a home-run for the band, elevating their already impressive discography to astounding heights. Hell, I’ll even go as far as saying that these are some of the best songs Ian MacKaye or Guy Picciotto ever wrote. And with the band’s crucial involvement with D.C.’s long running label Dischord Records, you couldn’t pick an album more deeply rooted in D.C. punk culture than Red Medicine. – ATB


washington dc albums emergency and iThe Dismemberment PlanEmergency & I
(1999; deSoto)

The Dismemberment Plan probably aren’t the weirdest band ever to come out of the D.C. suburbs, but they’re the band that made weird into an accessible and fruitful aesthetic. After a handful of records that used the spastic freakouts of bands like Brainiac and Circus Lupus in the service of hook-laden punk, Emergency & I found the band truly coming into their own and delivering a masterpiece of a pop record. Of course, their pop is still skewed and abrasive. “I Love a Magician” is a tornado of rubbery basslines and robotic vocals; “Memory Machine” jerks and shrieks and throbs; and “Girl O’ Clock” just might be the catchiest nervous breakdown captured on tape. Not that the group didn’t have their share of euphonious moments, like opening anthem “A Life of Possibilities” or heartbreak-disco “The City.” It helps that The Dismemberment Plan combines their great songwriting with unstoppable musicianship. If the District has produced a rock band with a better rhythm section than Joe Easley and Eric Axelson, I haven’t heard it. – JT


washington dc albums mirror conspiracyThievery CorporationThe Mirror Conspiracy
(2000; ESL Music)

For such a small tract of land, Washington, D.C. has at least three renowned music venues to its name: the dearly departed Cellar Door, the monolithic 9:30 Club, and Eighteenth Street Lounge. That last spot has birthed a cottage industry of midtempo electronica through the efforts of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. But the duo aren’t just the guiding hands of the ESL Music label, they comprise its flagship act. Thievery Corporation have been riding the groove for almost two decades now, with a usually soothing but constantly mutating blend of breakbeats, smooth jazz, and aboriginal sounds. This wasn’t their first album, nor was its centerpiece “Lebanese Blonde” their first big single. Yet buoyed by the music’s appearance in films like Garden State and Vanilla Sky, Thievery Corporation would eventually get the access to large audiences and peers they so richly deserved. Incorporating music from India to Jamaica to Brazil, and assembled with very British club sensibilities, The Mirror Conspiracy is the central pole holding up Thievery Corporation’s big tent. – AB

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