Tom’s Picks: 10 Albums by Black Artists

Thomas Walker

Contributing Writer

Kind of Blue – Miles Davis 1959

Kind of Blue isn’t just a jazz album. It’s THE jazz album. Every song on the album is a jazz standard (songs jazz musicians are expected to know). But, this shouldn’t be surprising when looking at the musical titans like John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and, of course, Miles Davis that appear on the tracklist. For a tracklist of only five songs, the album lasts an entire 45 minutes; giving enough time to allow each musician to solo over each song. The songs are light on the melody, but focus intensely on the feel and composition of every moment in each piece. Listening to this album makes you feel like you’re sitting right in the jazz club, smoking a cigarette and sitting on a velvet couch taking in every sound. While words can’t entirely capture the way Kind Of Blue makes the listener feel, it’s enough to say it’s a fundamental part of any jazz enthusiast’s vocabulary.

A Love Supreme – John Coltrane 1965

John Coltrane has always pushed jazz music in new directions. With songs like Giant Steps, he popularized bebop and its fast, dynamic and angular melodies, but on this album he moves away from pushing the envelope and looks inward. A Love Supreme, as the name might suggest, is Coltrane’s thank you to God for his life and spiritual awakening. The album’s four songs act as a sort of journey that culminates in “Pt. IV. Psalm,” a song where the saxophone melody mimics the recitation of a gospel. By drawing on blues and black Christian music, any listener is able to hear the prayer Coltrane recites and understand the meaning even though there are no words spoken. A Love Supreme is one of the earliest narrative concept albums and it exists as one of the most influential works of one the most influential jazz artists of all time. 

Are You Experienced – Jimi Hendrix 1967

Jimi Hendrix pioneered the electric guitar as an instrument and showed its many possibilities by adding effects like fuzz and distortion. Considering electronic music as a continuation of the guitar effects Hendrix pioneered, makes him responsible for about every modern sound that exists. Hendrix didn’t just lead the way in music though, he inspired political movements that would grow to overturn real legislation and make a difference. His psychedelic rock was matched with a pro-drug stance that would help to grow the movement that would eventually legalize marijuana. Jimi Hendrix also gave a voice to those opposed to the Vietnam War, famously performing a guitar solo that emulated the sounds of bombs in the war. The album defined Hendrix’s rebrand to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which would continue for his entire career. Songs like “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries,” “Mary and Foxey Lady” would become synonymous with the artist himself.

Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder 1976

Stevie Wonder is always on the cutting edge of what popular funk music can be. But, with this album he proved that not only could he lead the genre but also redefine it. Songs in the Key of Life is a subtle take on a concept album (an album revolving around a central theme or idea) by focusing on, as the title suggests, The Key of Life. The title of the album is a double entendre, mixing The Key of Life with musical keys (scales that form the basis of music), but also focuses on what Wonder believes The Key of Life is; love. Wonder uses the idea of love and mixes it with gospel to create a sort of prayer that we will all love each other more. As a double LP (an album at twice the usual length), this project would already be ambitious. However, Wonder takes it a step further by adding in complex angular melodies that often make songs less catchy and popular, but making those melodies memorable. Songs like “I Wish”, “As”, and “Sir Duke” (Wonder’s Tribute to the late Duke Ellington) showcase how even complex technical lines can feel fresh and catchy when arranged in the right context. But, even after doing that, Wonder still manages to put one of the best songs of all time, “Isn’t She Lovely,” on the album.Isn’t She Lovely,” following the theme of love, focuses on the pure love Wonder feels for his daughter. The song is stripped down and laid back; focusing on honing every single element to absolute perfection. It isn’t a stretch to say this album changed everything in the genre. Simply, Stevie Wonder showed that funk music, and by extension all technical music, had a future in the emerging world of pop and rock.

Self-Titled – The Commodores 1977

Every once in a while, you come across someone who’s style perfectly matches their voice, lyrics and instrumentals. When songs like this come together, they become something more than the sum of their parts; they become something indescribable. Well, that something is The Commodores, or more specifically their lead singer, Lionel Richie. Lionel Richie pioneered not one but two genres, taking over funk with his band The Commodores and mastering soul in his solo career. The Commodores’ album, Self-Titled, showcases both of these sides of Richie with the songs “Brick House” and “Easy.” “Brick House” features one of the most catchy bass lines ever written and builds on that foundation with instrumentation and lyrics that just make you want to groove. If you need a song to make you feel good before a night out, there’s no substitute for “Brick House.” In contrast,Easy,” is a soul power ballad (a ballad that modulates keys near the end to uplift the song) that feels just like it sounds. The song focuses on the ending of a relationship where Richie has given all he has to give. In the end, Richie finds that the outcome of the relationship was never in his control in the first place. Since he knows there was nothing he could have done he feels “easy like a sunday morning” (in other words, he’s accepted the outcome and is moving on). The song captures a feeling so well that it’s indescribable. Most artists never write a true “classic” in their entire career. In this one album, Richie wrote two classic songs in two entirely different genres all on the same album.

Purple Rain – Prince 1984

Purple Rain exists as the point on which hundreds of influential musical ideas converge. The album wasn’t a cultural reset, rather it was the culmination of early 80’s music into a perfectly honed masterpiece. On the album, Prince draws on the sounds of Van Halen’s rock solos, as well as the operatic rock sound created by Queen. These sounds fed into Prince’s larger than life stage persona that would go on to inspire artists like Michael Jackson. The album has no bad songs. However, the standout hits are “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Darling Nikki,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Purple Rain”. Each of these five songs would go on to inspire the sounds of generations to come; which is even more impressive considering the album has only nine songs. Even casual listeners may recognize sounds like Prince’s semi-yelled sung lyrics on “Darling Nikki” and recognize their influence on Childish Gambino’s “Me and Your Mama.” Prince’s legacy extends beyond just musical influence. The graphic sexual lyrics of “Darling Nikki” were an early driving force of pro-sex feminism; causing such a stir that it resulted in the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center. As the soundtrack to Prince’s semi-autobiographical film of the same name, Purple Rain launched Prince into superstardom. 

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill and the Fugees 1998

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a narrative concept album that takes place in a class learning about what it means to be in love; a class where Hill is notably absent. By using this premise, Hill is able to ponder what it means to truly be in love or be loved while also considering how pop culture advertises a misleading idea of love. On the track “Lost Ones,” the class considers whether they can truly recognize love, citing movies like Titanic, but ultimately coming to the conclusion that they knew it was about love because the TV told them it was. Hill deconstructs the popular idea of dying for someone you love on “Ex-Factor,” where she asks, “You said you’d die for me, why won’t you live for me.” Concluding the beginning of the album, Hill tells the story of her son Zion and her decision to have him despite risking her career to do so. The song uses the introspective guitar sounds of latin legend Carlos Santana to create a backdrop on which the story becomes even more impactful. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a timeless album with messages that feel more important every day.

Madvilliany – MF Doom and Madlib 2004

MF Doom is without a doubt the most talented rapper when it comes to pure lyrical ability. It’s not uncommon to find rhyme schemes by Doom that are extremely complex and sophisticated – sometimes rivaling Shakespeare. On Madvilliany, Doom’s witty wordplay and lyrical power meets the eccentric beats of Madlib to create a listening experience like no other. Doom’s bars are relentless as each rhyme plays into the next and informs the meanings of lines around it, creating this fabric of meaning and sound that feels unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. But while his wordplay and rhyme schemes are at the level to be studied academically, Doom is anything but. His lyrics often cover the experiences of the common man in the same way that your friend would tell you a story, but combining the long stories with a mix of small humorous releases. Madvillainy can be described, but to truly understand its appeal it has to be experienced.

Thriller – Michael Jackson 1982

Thriller isn’t the album that made Michael Jackson famous, as he had been on TV since the age of 11, but it was the album that made him a legend. Of the album’s 9 songs, 7 reached the top ten of the Billboard Top 100. Subsequently the album stayed as number one on the Billboard top LPs and Tapes chart for 37 consecutive weeks, went diamond 33 times and won eight Grammys. Unsurprisingly, Thriller is the best selling album of all time, selling over 70 million copies. Jackson also became the first black artist to regularly appear on MTV with the music video for the track Thriller. By appearing on MTV, Jackson created a precedent that paved the way for future generations of black artists to be able to appear on TV. Thriller’s music video also redefined the medium, popularizing more artistic, avante-garde, music videos. Michael Jackson is the king of pop but Thriller was the last step to his throne. The album’s standout tracks, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,” “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “P.Y.T” became the sound that defined Jackson’s career. Thriller didn’t just define a genre, it defined a generation.

To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar 2015

To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that defies what it means to be a “rap album.” While other artists argued that rap could be a legitimate form of expression, Kendrick Lamar proved it. Over the course of the album, Lamar unveils an original poem that sums up the overall message of the album but also influences the overall meanings of specific songs that reveal new lines. On a smaller scale, Lamar accomplishes the same feat with the track “These Walls” in which he calls back to a song on a previous album, Sing about Me, to tell the story of how he uses his status as a famous rapper to sleep with the mother of the man who shot his best friend. The song is able to use the unveiling story of multiple verses, and albums, to show how he hurts those who don’t deserve it, like the woman he talks about, but also to help the listener understand his mindset. In one song, Lamar is able to create complex stories that rival the best of television all while adding to the overall messages of an album that unveil as tracks pass. At the end, Lamar has a post-mortem interview with Tupac Shakur finalizing the messages of the album and completing the album spanning poem. This album isn’t just art, it’s an unrivaled masterpiece built upon the foundations laid by generations of black artists.