These are not selected as the best records of each year but as a record that represented the year in New Orleans music and which was written about in OffBeat. Some of the selections were difficult simply because local releases were largely ignored in the early years of the magazine. What I like about this list is that the recordings are not always the most obvious selections but they certainly do suggest the scope and idiosyncrasy of Louisiana music.
1988: Earl King: Glazed (Black Top)
The essential New Orleans guitarist hadn’t recorded in a decade when the Scott brothers brought him back into the studio with Roomful of Blues to make this Grammy-nominated recording. “His ‘office’ is Tastee Donuts Shop Number 58 on Prytania Street, from whence came the title.”
Arguably the Nevilles’ greatest record, Yellow Moon was certainly the soundtrack for that year in New Orleans. “My Blood,” a passionate plea to end apartheid in South Africa, was an instant anthem picked up by numerous other bands and frequently heard during Jazz Fest. “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to American Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks, struck a similar chord, and the title track has gone on to become a New Orleans classic.
Strange new tales from a musician/producer who would help define what New Orleans music was becoming. “New Orleans was a place where I could play music and enjoy doing it and musicians had friends other than musicians and artists, people who actually worked for a living as plumbers and carpenters. It was real.”
“The best, of course. When I think of ‘female’ songs when I’m sittin’ down writing, my first source of inspiration is Irma.”
Mac’s Grammy Award-winning record encompasses the history of New Orleans music from Gottschalk to the brass band revival. “This is a majestic trip through over 100 years of New Orleans rhythmania, bringing to the fore the almost spiritual roots of the city in every aspect of the music. With the likes of the Neville Brothers, Pete Fountain, Danny Barker and Al Hirt, the Good Doctor has produced a second line album second to none.”
— Rick Coleman
“The triumph of ‘My Toot Toot’ seemed to be that Rockin’ Sidney was able to turn a Louisiana colloquialism into a catchy, slightly suggestive song hook. With Mais Yeah Chere! Sidney remains a songwriter with an ear for loopy lyrics. […] Rockin’ Sidney is a kind of zydeco Prince, producing and recording his own albums, as well as playing all his own instruments. […] The quirky, try-it-out attitude of Mais Yeah Chere! shows that Rockin’ Sidney is still full of musical ideas.”
“A fine collection of original compositions from Mr. Coco, backed up by a stellar supporting cast [...] well worth hearing, especially ‘Pit Bull,’ ‘Walk With the Spirit,’ the fantastic ‘We Will Fly Away,’ a reggae-tinged ‘Working Man’ and the eerie ‘St. John’s Eve.’ An auspicious debut album.”
“Calling this the ‘comeback album of the year’ doesn’t do Tommy Ridgley justice, since the impeccable R&B vocalist has been a New Orleans mainstay for half a century. […] Snooks Eaglin guests on guitar and groovin’ all-star New Orleans rhythm and horn sections excavate pockets for Ridgley’s unwavering vocal phrasing.”
“If only James Booker could hear this record: New Orleans piano virtuoso McDermott summons up his inspiration Booker’s spirit, pulling off the daunting challenge of composing a series of solo mini-suites in every piano key, touching on classical, barrelhouse, jazz and even klezmer.”
In which Alex McMurray defines himself as a definitive New Orleans songwriter. “Many of Royal Fingerbowl’s songs are set in New Orleans, with lyrics that include references to being ‘stuck behind a semi on Soniat Street,’ or a description of the Popeye’s Chicken stand on St. Bernard Avenue.”
Unfortunately this is about as close as we can get to hearing what Adams really sounded like in his magnificent performances. “If Johnny Adams had recorded his new album in 1967, he’d probably be mentioned today in the same breath as soul giants such as Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and James Carr.”
Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Allen Toussaint, Marva Wright and Wardell Quezergue join the Magnolias on a memorable release. “The album’s highlights […] owe most of their power not to the stellar guest stars, but to the rhythm section and, of course, the call and response singing of the Wild Magnolias, led by the raspy, African warrior voice of Big Chief Bo Dollis.”
2000: New Orleans Nightcrawlers: Live at the Old Point (Viper Records).
“The high point occurs when, after Tom McDermott sits in on piano for his own ‘Martin’s Mambo,’ the band chants its way into a slamming version of Stanton Moore’s ‘Tchefuncta.’ Trombonist Craig Klein delivers a superb spoken-word sermon about the legacy of brass and funk in New Orleans, citing the Reliance, Onward, Tuxedo, Olympia, Fairview, Dozen, Rebirth, New Birth and, of course, the Nightcrawlers.
“In Handel-like oratorio fashion, Quezergue incorporated the standard soprano-alto-tenor-bass/baritone parts of key verses of this work but he went further and gave the basses and baritones a different sequence of notes to sing. […] This work is a masterpiece and possibly the crowning achievement of Quezergue’s already stellar career.”
—Dean M. Shapiro
One of the most inspired collaborations in New Orleans history. “Bury the Hatchet combines Monk’s traditionalist Indian aesthetic complete with chants and tambourine-fueled percussion with Anders’ gift for melody and strong hooks.”
“Bring It On Down marks the maturation of a band that seems destined to take the torch from BeauSoleil as the premier band representing the culture of Southwest Louisiana.”
Forest is the complete package, a blues giant who is also one of the city’s best writers. “Andy J. Forest gets all the details right on this CD—the corner bar barbecue, the street jamming, the odd cultural mix, the background noise of barges and trains, the random bursts of gunfire. […] Forest is not only an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, he’s a novelist as well, which means he has a knack for capturing the spirit of a thing in a few quick strokes.”
One of the most important albums ever made in New Orleans for many reasons. “In January 2005, Benoit assembled a stellar cast of Louisiana’s finest, Dr. John, Anders Osborne, Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Vidacovich and Waylon Thibodeaux, to record these tracks not only as a fundraiser but more importantly as an awareness plea. When Katrina struck, VOW immediately became a relief agency with these egoless, jam-intensive tracks bearing added significance than they did when they were originally recorded.”
Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999. “The party band of party bands from the Ninth has a label deal, and a release that celebrates the fine art of drinking in public.”
Sousaphonist/bassist/arranger was inspired by the rash of sunflowers that invaded the empty spaces left in the city after Katrina. “This could be the best new release by a New Orleans artist this year and it sets the bar high for everyone else.”
Clarinetist White is one of the key links to the old and the new in traditional New Orleans jazz. “His latest album, the outstanding Blue Crescent, is a dramatic example of the way traditional New Orleans jazz can stay true to its century-old roots while remaining a resonant, contemporary musical statement.”
Another facet of Toussaint’s genius. “The Bright Mississippi presents Toussaint not as a nostalgic lion in winter but as an artist as engaged in making modern music now as he was when he recorded ‘Ride Your Pony’ with Lee Dorsey in 1966.”
Shorty may be the true heir to Louis Armstrong’s legacy. “The year belonged to Trombone Shorty, who’s becoming a national star. Backatown is an exuberant, immediate translation of New Orleans’ brass culture to a country that doesn’t have time for all that mucking around.”
“Shorty has peppered For True with showcases in exactly the manner major hip-hop artists do it, being generous with the limelight but in charge and aware of the flow.”
This ambitious project […] is a prime example of the way New Orleans artists and friends responded to the historic cataclysm of Katrina and the ensuing federal flood. Art, and folklore in particular, is uniquely suited to express the unfathomable emotional terror unleashed on a population by the destruction of generations-old cultures. Art can express such inarticulate grief in mythic, dreamscape fashion and Nine Lives does this masterfully.”