10 Essential New Orleans Albums

Treble staff
essential New Orleans albums

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. As fall arrives and the heat starts to recede, we head to the Crescent City: New Orleans. Perhaps no other city in the United States is defined as much by its music as New Orleans. It’s the birthplace of jazz, having been home to legendary pioneers like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Its creole roots gave us zydeco, while the ’50s and ’60s saw a rise of a rhythmically complex style of R&B. The late ’80s and early ’90s, however, saw the rise of a particularly murky sludge metal sound, while later that decade, hip-hop became the dominant contemporary sound. New Orleans music covers the whole spectrum, but the unique character of the city means that any style will inevitably have a distinctive Orleanian spin. So come with us on a trip to the Big Easy with our 10 Essential New Orleans albums.


essential New Orleans albums Dr. JohnDr. JohnGris-Gris
(1968; Atco)

In the summer of ‘97, at 20 years old, my worship of indie music was at its most devout, and my friends had to listen to plenty of ex cathedra speeches about the power and glory of Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Oh, I could drone on about drone. Dan, the owner of Mystic Disc, my (still open and thriving) hometown record store in Connecticut was also an involuntary congregant. I mentioned that Dr John plays on the awesome “Cop Shoot Cop,” and isn’t that cool. The Disc being a big-boy record store, the matter of whether I owned Gris Gris came up. “Um, no.” Dan got off the stool behind the counter and walked over to the Dr John bin, handed me a vinyl copy of Gris Gris. “Here, listen to this,” he said. “If you like it, just pay me later.” I paid him later. I still have it. It’s over there on the shelf. I can tell you all sorts of facts about the album, like how Mac Reddenback recorded it in L.A. with some NOLA studio musicians and how its a melange of psychedelic choogle with swamp gas vocals. It is one of the truly original listens in pop history. It’s singualar in the way Astral Weeks doesn’t really have a parallel, or the first Suicide album is true standalone. I don’t wish I owned a record store, but I do wish I had a Dr John bin, ‘cause I let you take from it, and if you like it you can pay me later. – SC


essential New Orleans albums Lee DorseyLee DorseyYes We Can
(1970; Polydor)

Set your compass to different points throughout the United States and you’ll get entirely different defiitions of what funk is, whether it’s the psychedelic Detroit sound played by Funkadelic or the synth-heavy grooves of Prince’s Minneapolis. New Orleans’ is a deep, swampy pocket that’s a little raw, a little dirty, and always celebratory. Lee Dorsey started off in the 1960s singing R&B, but as the ’70s rolled around, he got himself into the kind of groove you’d never want to get out of. His 1970 album Yes We Can finds him teaming up with The Meters, who more or less defined the sound of New Orleans funk. The collaboration is beyond inspired—it’s a match made in funky heaven, with Dorsey guiding one of the funkiest ceremonies to ever erupt from the American south. There’s a deep and nasty bassline beneath the outstanding “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” and an upbeat mix of organ and horns on the title track. For as much fun as this album is, however, there’s a social conscience beneath the funk that finds Dorsey speaking truth to power and speaking for a long-opressed community, all under the guise of an unstoppable groove. If you want to make this land a better land, it doesn’t hurt to start with Yes We Can. – JT


essential New Orleans albums The MetersThe MetersRejuvenation
(1974; Reprise)

Spend some time clicking around the funk section on your preferred streaming service and you’ll notice how some some songs affect you in different parts of your person. Of course, the primary targets are your hips and ass, but there’s also some surgical strikes. Something like Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” will take your mind on a journey, whereas say, Rufus’ cover of Stevie’s “Maybe Your Baby” goes straight to your loins. Drop the needle on “People Say,” the opening cut on Rejuvenation and it’s a punch in the face. On their fourth LP the Meters’ are still there to have a good time, but it’s the band’s most elemental album. It’s a lean, direct funk evident from the first thawck of Ziggy Modeliste’s snare. It’s the Meters’ most thrilling listen. – SC


essential New Orleans albums ToussaintAllen ToussaintSouthern Nights
(1975; Reprise)

Most people, revising that to mean people older than 40 or people who have parents older than 40, know the title track to Allen Toussaint’s terrific 1975 album, via Glen Campbell’s blue-eyed disco cover version which hit No. 1 on the charts in 1976 and then got played in snippets on every late night “sounds of the 70s” infomercial since then. All fine. But in order to further enrich your record collection, we’ll send you Toussaint’s album for free if you call in the next 10 minutes. (Actually, we’re not going to do that. It’s not Chupaska’s money to spend and we honestly don’t know where he gets off.-Ed.) The title track along with the R&B piano strut, “Country John,” are the catchiest tunes on the album, Toussaint also invites us to linger in the romantic languor of the overlooked for too long “Back In Baby’s Arms.” – SC


essential New Orleans albums Wild TchoupitoulasThe Wild TchoupitoulasThe Wild Tchoupitoulas
(1976; Antilles)

Wild Tchoupitoulas are a Mardi Gras Indian tribe led by Big Chief George Landry, who went in the studio with his nephews, Cyril and Aaron Neville, along with members of the Meters and the legendary Allen Toussaint. Although around the time of its release, the album was little known outside of Louisiana, for many (me included), it’s among the most accessible ports of entry into both Mardi Gras Indian culture and mid-70s New Orleans funk. But make no mistake: Wild Tchouplitoulas is a dance party, not your cultural studies homework. Here the traditional Mardi Gras staple “Indian Red” truly is a wild, wild creation—an unfastened funk call and response update on Danny Baker’s 1946 recording. Landry and the tribe also acknowledge NOLA’s Caribbean rhythms with the calypso drum banging, “Meet de Boys on the Battlefront.” It’s all pretty, real pretty. – SC


Eyehategod take as needed for painEyehategodTake as Needed For Pain
(1993; Century Media)

New Orleans didn’t exactly invent sludge metal. It grew out of hardcore punk in California with bands such as Black Flag and The Melvins, but it transformed into something else entirely once it began to rumble deep in the bayou, building on the volume with a uniquely bluesy swing. Eyehategod were one of the first bands in New Orleans to pioneer a particularly slow and murky style of metal, beginning with their demo tape Garden Dwarf Woman Driver and achieving a sort of hideous perfection with 1993’s Take As Needed For Pain. It’s a masterpiece of anguish and venom, guided by Jimmy Bower’s toxic riffs and Mike Williams’ twisted, if poetic lyrics—and the occasional blend of feedback and medical how-to sample. It’s the intoxicated, angry flipside of New Orleans’ musical tradition, but at the heart of it is the same musical root: the blues. – JT


essential New Orleans albums DownDownNOLA
(1995; Elektra)

When the idea came up to highlight 10 albums that best represent the music of New Orleans, Down’s NOLA was one of the first to spring to mind. The metal supergroup—comprising members of Pantera, Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar and Eyehategod—is essentially a who’s who in heavy music from the Crescent City. In fact, their debut album is actually titled NOLA, just in case there was any confusion about that. But what’s remarkable about the band’s 1995 debut is not necessarily its personnel, but in how the roots of the city’s long musical history can be heard through the heavy, resin-caked riffs. In Noisey’s video series NOLA, Phil Anselmo and Pepper Keenan each talk about how the city’s R&B and funk, particularly The Meters, fed into the groove that so prominently defines their sound. It’s unmistakable. The album doesn’t simply rock, it swings, with a surprising level of soul and swagger. – JT


essential new orleans albums Louis ArmstrongLouis ArmstrongThe Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings
(2000; Legacy)

When you listen to Louis Armstrong, you’re listening to New Orleans. Born into poverty in one of the roughest parts of the city, Armstrong learned to play trumpet by ear at the age of 11, eventually moving to Chicago in the early 1920s to join Joe “King” Oliver’s jazz band, eventually striking out on his own and bringing stories of his home city with him. Early on in his career, he performed with two notable groups: The Hot Five and the Hot Seven, both of which are compiled on the 2000 box set The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings. And though the recordings weren’t made in New Orleans, the Dixieland style performed across the expansive set speaks to his Louisiana roots, and to the New Orleans jazz tradition on the whole. Considering how many tracks are included (93!) there’s a lot to dive into, but the scat-singing on “Heebie Jeebies,” the hushed strut of “Basin Street Blues” and the mournful march of “St. James Infirmary” all give a brief window into an early and crucial period in jazz music. – JT


essential New Orleans Albums Lil WayneLil WayneTha Carter III
(2008; Cash Money)

Before Lil Wayne became a laughable caricature of himself, the New Orleans-bred rapper was probably the best rapper alive for a brief period, where his maddeningly efficient and often nihilistic bars dominated the wild west of the mixtape circuit. While mixtapes like Da Drought and Dedication established Wayne’s dominance, the long-awaited Carter III was the punctuating artifact to Wayne’s reign. Tracks like “Got Money” and “Let the Beat Build” hear Wayne’s vintage obsession with opulence. Perhaps more significantly however, are Wayne’s more soulful and sometimes melancholy efforts. “Lollipop,” which hears Wayne ditch rapping for singing, alienated purists but yanked Wayne into the mainstream and “Shoot Me Down” began to hear Wayne, for better or worse, implement more pathos-based rock influences.- PG


essential New Orleans albums Curren$yCurren$yPilot Talk
(2010; Roc-a-fella)

There are bigger hip-hop scenes than New Orleans, but NOLA has its fair share of chart-topping rappers: Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Master P, Birdman and Mystikal, to name a few. And with the precise and oh-so-sweet Pilot Talk, Louisiana’s resident kush-blower, Curren$y, staked his claim as the next big thing. Nicknamed Spitta Andretti—his delivery is fast and clever—Curren$y had an impressive guest list for an official debut: Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Big K.R.I.T., Smoke DZA and Jay Electronica, a fellow New Orleans resident. Pilot Talk doesn’t necessarily need all of these features (eight out of 13 tracks feature guest rappers), but it makes the album more of a celebration. Here, lesser known rappers get their moment in the spotlight, the Jet Life community is being created. But what really makes Pilot Talk sound great is the level of diversity it contains. Ski Beatz, who produced Jay-Z before Pilot Talk and went on to produce Talib Kweli after, has inventive and contagious compositions. Brady Watt, who did bass on Joey Bada$$’s newest album, and just did a European Tour with DJ Premier, handles most of Pilot Talk’s bass lines. There’s live guitar from John Cave, whose playing during opening track “Example” is reminiscent of Ariel Pink’s Before Today. And “Seat Change,” featuring classic rhymes from Snoop, has Sean O’Connell doing his best Eddie Van Halen impression. The steal drum crawl of “Audio Dope II” has Curren$y’s ill drawl (“kick the shit out of a beat till it die”) and he quotes the great Muhammad Ali in “King Kong.” Pilot Talk II came later in 2010, and Pilot Talk III dropped last April, retaining Ski Beatz as his preferred producer, but it’s hard to beat the original. – JJM       

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