What better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a music magazine than by making a top-50 list? Given how much time we’re spending at home right now, a list of albums seemed the most sensible, and fun, option. Under normal circumstances, we might not all have the chance to delve into so many recorded statements of such length; we may as well take advantage of the opportunity while we’ve got it.
A few basic ground rules were necessary, though. The most important:
1) Ten albums for each decade that JazzTimes has been around.
2) No more than one album per decade by any single “headline” artist. (Of course, many of these artists have a way of reappearing on other people’s albums, but we didn’t penalize them for that. Similarly, we didn’t consider cutting out any album just because players on it also show up on multiple others within the same decade.)
3) No ranking; that’s too much pressure, and besides it seemed offputtingly weird to call an album made in 2016 “better” or “worse” than one made in 1971. Chronology, based on release date, would be the only determinant for the final order.
With these rules in mind, we flipped through old JT reviews and critics’ polls, as well as consulting various other sources (for albums of the past 20 years, Nate Chinen’s book Playing Changes proved especially helpful in sparking ideas). Then we solicited nominations from a small group of key contributors to the magazine. Once all the votes were in, we tabulated them to produce the list you see here.
Like most such lists, it reflects the kind of compromise that necessarily goes along with consensus. It certainly doesn’t reflect my personal tastes. My own top 10 for the ’70s, to pick just one decade, would feature a different Miles Davis disc (either Jack Johnson or On the Corner), along with Air’s Air Lore and Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. Indeed, the lack of a single Ornette album is one of the greatest disappointments to be found here. It’s not because nobody voted for him; it’s because not enough people voted for the same record, which meant that none of them made it out of a given decade’s top 25. I resisted the strong temptation to play God in this case and let the results stand.
As we were compiling our list during the spring, more questions arose. For example, why let the critics have all the fun? Shouldn’t we get our readers involved too? And so we did, launching a series of five readers’ polls—one per decade—that ran for approximately a month each on jazztimes.com. Nearly 50,000 votes later, the results of all those polls are in too (ranked by number of votes cast per album), and it’s fascinating to compare your list with ours. Perhaps not surprisingly, the farther back we go, the closer we get to unity; for the ’70s, seven out of 10 picks are identical in both lists, and the other three titles in the readers’ list are all in our top 20. But as we enter the ’80s, opinions start to diverge, though there are still some common points of agreement going forward, the excellence of Wayne Shorter being the biggest.
You can (and almost certainly will) argue about what’s here and what’s not; that’s what articles like this are all about. But one thing’s for sure: You can’t go wrong listening to any of these 50 albums. And listening to all of them, or even a small sampling of each … well, there could be few better ways to commemorate JazzTimes’ golden anniversary. Apart from throwing the kind of big party we’re all hoping to have again, one of these years.
Guitarist John McLaughlin’s fusion crew redefined jazz as full frontal assault on their debut album. The music was almost unremittingly frenetic, but it also had humor, as the lope into odd-meter boogie on “The Dance of Maya” and the zany glisses on “You Know, You Know” proved. With only (?) acoustic piano, organ, and Rhodes (plus a sick ring modulator) in his arsenal, keyboardist Jan Hammer couldn’t quite match McLaughlin’s ecstatic bends and fusillades as he later did with analog synth on 1973’s Birds of Fire; this shifted the group’s balance more toward Billy Cobham’s drumming—and what breathtakingly athletic drumming it is. MAC RANDALLLearn more about The Inner Mounting Flame on Amazon.