*It’s that time again. The Library of Congress has selected a new crop of important audio recordings to preserve in its National Recording Registry, chosen for their cultural, historical and aesthetic importance to America’s sound heritage.
This latest class found works from Janet Jackson, Nas, Jimmy Cliff, LaBelle, Albertina Walker and the Caravans, Odetta, Leontyne Price, Jesse Normyn, Albert King, Louis Armstrong and Kool and the Gang worthy of induction.
Let’s revisit these highlights from the list, in chronological order of their release dates, along with descriptions from the Library of Congress:
“When the Saints Go Marching In,” Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (1938)
In this first jazz version of the famous hymn, Armstrong, in the guise of “Rev. Satchelmouth,” introduces this unusually atmospheric recording. From J.C. Higginbotham’s preaching trombone to Satchelmouth’s respectful vocal (accompanied by some members of the “congregation”) to the soaring and majestic trumpet solo, the performance commands attention. Armstrong fondly remembered “The Saints” from his childhood in New Orleans. His democratic attitude toward music saw little difference between the church and the dance hall, and as a result, he received backlash from clergy and fans for daring to mix the sacred with jazz. While that juxtaposition may seem mild today, the music certainly is not; it stands as a timeless testament to Armstrong’s many gifts. Branford Marsalis noted that “The Saints” was the first song he and his brother, Wynton Marsalis, played together. “I can’t imagine New Orleans’ culture without this,” he said. “It is an indelible part of our history.”
Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Odetta (1957)
This is the debut album from an important voice in the folk revival — featuring a mix of blues, spirituals and ballads. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta was a major influence to a generation of folk singers, including a young Bob Dylan, who has cited this album as what convinced him to trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic when he heard it as a 15-year-old in Minnesota. This 16-song LP showcases Odetta’s extraordinary vocal power, which she always manages to temper with great emotion. Among the selections: “Muleskinner Blues,” “Jack o’ Diamonds,” “Easy Rider,” “Glory, Glory” and her concluding spiritual trilogy: “Oh, Freedom,” “Come and Go With Me” and “I’m on My Way.”
“Lord, Keep Me Day by Day,” Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959)
Influenced by and spurred on by her mentor, Mahalia Jackson, Walker formed her own — and now legendary — gospel group, Albertina Walker and the Caravans, in 1947. Soon, Walker would be nicknamed “Star Maker” for the incredible talent she fostered through her group. Shirley Caesar, Bessie Griffin, the Rev. James Cleveland and Inez Andrews, among others, all began with the Caravan. Meanwhile, Walker herself would inherit the title “Queen of Gospel Music” after the passing of Jackson in 1972. This recording was one of Walker’s signature songs and performances — a heartfelt, soulful and sometimes bluesy testament to her faith.
Aida, Leontyne Price, et al. (1962)
This superb recording includes Price as Aida, a role she performed more than 40 times. Harold C. Schonberg, critic of The New York Times, wrote “no soprano makes a career of acting. Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has.” PBS viewers voted her singing (in a MET production) of the Act III aria “O patria mia” as the No. 1 “Greatest Moment” in 30 years of Live From the Met telecasts. That performance, which marked her retirement, ended with 25 minutes of sustained applause. The star-studded cast of this recording also includes Rita Gorr (a splendid Amneris), Robert Merrill (Amonasro) and Jon Vickers (Radames).
Born Under a Bad Sign, Albert King (1967)
King, with his signature Flying V Gibson guitar played in his distinctive left-handed manner, was one of the blues’ greatest guitarists, and this album is considered his best. Its title song became a blues standard and was soon recorded by Eric Clapton and Cream. Other great songs include “Crosscut Saw” and “The Hunter.” After this LP, recorded in Memphis with backing from Booker T and the MG’s and the Memphis Horns, King was performing at the Fillmore East and West and gaining a large, enduring following.
The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff (1972)
In 1972, reggae singer Cliff starred in the first Jamaican-produced feature, The Harder They Come. Around the time of the film’s release, the soundtrack made its way to American audiences and has been credited by Rolling Stone magazine as “the album that took reggae worldwide.” Cliff has six songs on the album, including the title track and the seminal “Many Rivers to Cross,” which has since been covered by myriad artists including Cher, John Lennon, UB40, Annie Lennox and Percy Sledge. While only the title track was recorded specifically for the soundtrack, the album collected numerous reggae stars and presented essential works in the genre to a new global audience. Others reggae pioneers and luminaries appearing on the album include Toots and the Maytals (“Pressure Drop,” “Sweet and Dandy”), Desmond Dekker (“Shanty Town”) and The Melodians (“Rivers of Babylon”). The album has appeared on every version of Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums of all time.
“Lady Marmalade,” Labelle (1974)
The elemental trio of Labelle — Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash — first formed in 1962 as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. By the early ’70s, they were simply Labelle and would release six albums under that name. Their biggest hit was this French-infused dance track written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan and produced by Allen Toussaint and Vicki Wickham. Inspired by a few choice streets in New Orleans, the song has been covered several times since its release, still unwittingly prompting listeners to sing its famous refrain phonetically: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?,” often unaware of its true meaning.
“Celebration,” Kool & the Gang (1980)
Founded in 1964 by brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell, Kool and the Gang (formerly the Jazziacs or the Soul Town Band ) had already had hits with “Ladies Night” and “Jungle Boogie” when they released their 1980 album Celebrate! containing the group’s most famous and enduring song. Led by J.T. Taylor’s spirited lead vocal, “Celebration” would be their biggest hit and quickly became a feature of national celebrations at the 1980 World Series, the 1981 Super Bowl and the 1981 NBA Finals. While others, including Kylie Minogue in 1992, have released covers to great success, the original remains a staple of every party DJ’s set list — be it at a high school dance or a 50th anniversary party.
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs, Jessye Norman (1983)
This superb album by Black opera singer Norman is beloved by critics and audience alike. In homage to her after her death in 2019, fans mentioned this recording most often as her best, while Alex Ross in The New Yorker wrote of it: “In her prime, she let loose sounds of shimmering magnificence. Her timbre carried with it a sonic chiaroscuro: pure tones gleamed out of depth and shadow. I remember the dazed bliss I felt on first hearing her recording of ‘Im Abendrot’ (‘At Sunset’) from Four Last Songs.”
Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson (1989)
Despite her record label’s wishes, Jackson resisted the urge to release another album like 1986’s Control in favor of an LP with more socially conscious lyrics. On Rhythm Nation, she explores issues of race, homelessness and school violence among other topics. Musically, the album continued the productive relationship Jackson had enjoyed on Control with producers James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis. The duo relied on drum machines and samples of street sounds, breaking glass and trash can lids to create several brief interludes between the songs that lent the album a unified feel. Jackson’s impeccable vocal timing also helped the producers build dense multilayered vocal mixes of the funky “Alright” and other songs on the LP. Despite such cutting-edge touches, Jackson did deliver dance songs like the lively “Escapade,” but also on display were such ballads as “Someday Is Tonight” and even the guitar-driven rocker “Black Cat.” Even the tunes with a serious call for racial healing and political unity like “Rhythm Nation” featured catchy beats, proving that dance music and a social message are not mutually exclusive. “We wanted Rhythm Nation to really communicate empowerment,” Harris said. “It was making an observation, but it was also a call to action. Janet’s purpose was to lead people and do it through music, which I think is the ultimate uniter of people.”
Illmatic, Nas (1994)
Upon the album’s release, critics quickly extoled Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones’ groundbreaking studio debut for its rhythmic originality and its realistic yet fresh take on life in the Queensbridge projects. Characterized by the masterful use of multi-syllabic and internal rhyme, surprising line breaks and rhythmic complexity, its technique has been widely copied and proved broadly influential. The album featured (along with Nas’ father, Olu Dara) the sample-soaked production of a set of deeply talented and experienced producers including Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock, LES and DJ Premier. The sound they forged features gritty drums, hazy vinyl samples and snatches of jazz and ’70s R&B. It has been described as the sound of a kid in Queensbridge ransacking his parents’ record collection. While the album pulls no punches about the danger, struggle and grit of Queensbridge, Nas recalls it as a musically rich environment that produced many significant rappers and that he “felt proud being from Queensbridge … [W]e were dressed fly in Ballys and the whole building was like a family.”
Rounding out the 2021 selections to the National Recording Registry are
• Thomas Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)
• “Nikolina,” Hjalmar Peterson (1917)
• “Smyrneikos Balos,” Marika Papagika (1928)
• Christmas Eve Broadcast — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (Dec. 24, 1941)
• The Guiding Light (Nov. 22, 1945)
• Roger Maris hits his 61st home run (Oct. 1, 1961)
• “Once a Day,” Connie Smith (1964)
• Free to Be … You & Me, Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972)
• Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne (1974)
• Bright Size Life, Pat Metheny (1976)
• “The Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog (1979)
• Partners, Flaco Jiménez (1992)
• “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What a Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993)
• This American Life: “The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)