By Spencer. Seems like a good time to revisit The Vintage Collector: our picks for the essential classic albums you need in your vinyl collection (or just your digital library). Today, we’ve got French jazz guitar, proto-punk, sultry lounge music, rockin’ blues, and one of the strangest jazz/symphony hybrids ever recorded.
As always, each of these albums is available on vinyl or via your preferred digital music store or streaming service. But never forget the first rule of music collecting: if it was originally recorded in the vinyl era, it really does sound better on vinyl.
Django Reinhardt – Djangology: Think of the music that might be playing in an imaginary Parisian street cafe tucked away in some lost corner of Montmartre. You may not know it, but that music you’re hearing in your head is probably Django Reinhardt. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Reinhardt’s gypsy-influenced guitar jazz defined the French bohemian sound. But when you hear his rapid-fire wanderings all over the fretboard, what’s most amazing about his story is that he did it with only eight fingers. Badly burned in a fire in 1928, he lost the use of his left ring finger and pinkie, forcing him to completely reinvent his style. Adopting some of the techniques he learned from banjo-playing in his youth, he began to roam more freely up and down the neck of the guitar, and in doing so, took his instrument from the background of the band to the forefront. Improvising lightning-fast melodies, he became not only the first major jazz guitar artist, but also a monumental influence upon the later development of blues and rock. Without Reinhardt, there may not be a Clapton, a Hendrix, a Page, or a Van Halen out there. (And guitarists like Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, both of whom lost fingers in accidents, credit Reinhardt with inspiring them to carry on). With all the credit that goes to the British for parenting rock music as we know it, who knew that the genre’s grandfather was actually French!
Django Reinhardt – “Minor Swing”
The Stooges – The Stooges: When you hear the first notes of “1969,” the lead track on The Stooges’ self-titled debut of that same year, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to early Seattle grunge. A landmark album in the early development of punk, The Stooges is clearly one of rock’s most historic albums—and yet, with time, it no longer sounds much like the genre it sparked. It was actually way more ahead of its time than that, with guitars that are low and dirty and stinking of fuzz. However you want to categorize it, what’s still clear is how much the cynical attitude in these songs was like a slap in the face to all the flower-power hippie positivity on display elsewhere. Iggy Pop sneers his way through songs like “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “We Will Fall,” and “No Fun” with a nihilism that must’ve been completely shocking in its day—but was completely commonplace a generation later. In its initial review of the album, Rolling Stone wrote that it’s “loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish. I kind of like it.”
The Stooges – “I Wanna Be Your Dog”
Miles Davis – Sketches Of Spain: How do you follow up an album as monumental as Kind Of Blue—now widely considered the greatest album in all of jazz history? Well if you’re as batshit crazy as Miles Davis, you follow it up with the least jazz-like album of your entire career. Collaborating with arranger and composer Gil Evans, Davis tackled a set of Spanish-tinged orchestral pieces with hardly a hint of recognizable jazz rhythm or improvisation to them. Foremost among these was “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a piece by the classical guitar composer Joaquin Rodrigo; Davis strips away the guitar and recasts the arrangement as a symphony of sorts, marrying strains of classical and jazz and folk into a harmonious blend that sounds both stately and mysterious. The rest of the record becomes something of a concept album, as Davis and Evans use the Rodrigo piece as a jumping-off point to explore the vibes of the music they were hearing in tiny Spanish clubs. When confronted with the accusation that none of this was really jazz, Davis simply replied, “It’s music, and I like it.”
Miles Davis – “Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)”
Helen Merrill – Helen Merrill & Clifford Brown: Helen Merrill is one of those jazz vocalists whose name has been somewhat lost to time. First popping up in the 1950s, she was big in her day, but history has a way of allowing the brightest stars to dim our memories of all the rest. Indeed, Merrill would soon be outshined by someone in her own orbit, Etta James—who coincidentally got her start in the same band, but who undoubtedly lingers more in popular memory. Even so, Merrill’s self-titled 1954 debut LP, on which she partners with noted trumpeter Clifford Brown, is an appealing throwback. She’s more of a traditional lounge crooner, the throaty softness of her voice standing in stark contrast to the more aggressive R&B howl that Etta James and others would embrace in the coming years while building the bridge from jazz to Motown. But for what it’s worth, Helen Merrill the album has one pretty intriguing footnote to offer to that particular chapter in musical history: it was one of the first albums produced by a twenty-one-year-old named Quincy Jones.
Helen Merrill – “Don’t Explain”
Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ In The Moonlight: Chicago’s Howlin’ Wolf might just be the inflection point where blues ends and rock begins. Growing up in Mississippi, he cut his teeth on the Depression-era greats like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and The Mississippi Sheiks. But in the late 50s and early 60s, he became an icon of his own, recording slick electric licks over a booming, whiskey-steeped voice that sounded like nobody else. His guitar sound has influenced a “who’s who” of classic and modern rock artists: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Soundgarden, even John Mayer. But his voice—that’s something that’s never been replicated. Bonnie Rait once described him appreciatively as “the scariest … bit of male testosterone I’ve ever experienced.” But the best endorsement of Howlin’ Wolf came from his own mother, who upon hearing his records described it as “the devil’s music.” There’s nothing more rock-and-roll than that.
Howlin’ Wolf – “Smokestack Lightnin'”