Last week, the National Recording Registry — the audio equivalent of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry — announced its 25 new inductees. (The full Registry list — 300 items — is here.) The Registry’s stated mission is to “maintain and preserve sound recordings and collections of sound recordings that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” That explains the presence of stuff like field recordings of the Marines fighting in Guam during World War II alongside more obvious fare, such as Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” Bill Cosby’s debut, the second album by the Band, Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, Patti Smith’s Horses, R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe,” and 2Pac’s “Dear Mama.”
Clearly we love lists at Flavorwire, so we’ve decided to offer our own selection of culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant recordings that should be in the Registry, stat. (Anybody who wishes can nominate up to 50 items; instructions are here.) Most of these are pretty obvious, but we’ve added notes for further explanation. And of course, we’re eager to hear your own choices in the comments. Which recordings helped shape American culture as we know it today — or knew it yesterday? Here are 25 that have impacted us all, whether we know it or not.
1. Pauline Kael, KPFA reviews (late 1950s)
America’s greatest film critic (and one of the last century’s great writing stylists of any sort) reigned at The New Yorker for a quarter-century, starting in 1967, but she first earned notice as the sharp-tongued (and pleasantly-voiced) commentator on Berkeley’s Pacifica Radio station. Many of these commentaries were collected in Kael’s first book, I Lost It at the Movies (1965).
2. Bo Diddley, “Who Do You Love?” (1956)
Probably the greatest rock and roll record of the 1950s — and if you said “of all time,” we couldn’t disagree.
3. The Everly Brothers, “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (1958)
Probably the greatest rock and roll ballad of the 1950s — and if you said “of all time,” we couldn’t disagree.
4. Henry Mancini, “Theme From Peter Gunn” (1959)
The greatest TV theme of all time, and the musical definition of noir.
5. Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)” (1959)
The first indisputable Motown classic, co-written by Berry Gordy, this uber-American anthem has been covered by everyone from the Beatles to the Flying Lizards, but the original remains singularly ferocious.
6. The Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go?” (1964)
The biggest girl group of the 1960s, and Motown’s signature act, began their mammoth hit streak with this number. Good luck finding someone who doesn’t know all the words.
7. P-Funk, oeuvre (1967-85)
How do you decide between Parliament and Funkadelic — not to mention endless spin-offs from Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein, and solo George Clinton, among too many others to count? P-Funk was a gestalt as much as it was a musical collective, a combination of Beatles ingenuity and James Brown-Sly Stone rhythmic daring; the band(s) summed up the messy ’70s better than anyone, and its effect on later music, from hip-hop to house, is incalculable. We say induct ’em all.
8. Neil Young, After the Gold Rush (1970)
By now Young is as much an ur-model for the confessional singer-songwriter as Bob Dylan ever was, in part because he’s also the ur-model for just about every shaggy, guitar-playing loner who’s come down the path since. This early classic remains definitive, capturing its time (the hairy aftermath of the 1960s) and place (L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, which Young helped turn into a folk-rock artists’ colony) like nothing else.
9. Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)
An equally strong case could be made for Sly’s 1969 album Stand!, or the singles collected on 1970’s Greatest Hits, which reshaped black (and white) pop in their image. But this album’s upending of R&B’s good-times sensibility, not to mention its fulsome grooves, reverberate to this day in artists ranging from Erykah Badu to Burial.
10. Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly (1972)
The ultimate soundtrack album, with Mayfield’s unsparing lyrics about ghetto life and the drug trade deepening not only his powerful funk rhythms (and Johnny Pate’s sharp orchestration), but the film itself.
11. Al Green, Call Me (1973)
Feather-light but tough as camel hide, Green and producer Willie Mitchell’s uncanny, ornate, intimate soul formula reaches its peak here.
12. Dolly Parton, “Jolene” (1973)
Parton was (and is) of the great country songwriters, and this heartbreaking plea to another woman (perhaps the other woman) not to take her man devastates on every listen.
13. Incredible Bongo Band, “Apache” (1973)
This is hip-hop’s national anthem for a reason: It’s the first record DJ Kool Herc juggled twin copies of on a pair of turntables to invent the musical form, an inexhaustable source of samples by everyone from Nas to Moby, and one of the wildest funk jams ever waxed. If you can’t start the party with this one, you’re probably at a wake.
14. Ramones (1976)
There are other claims to “first punk rock record,” but after this half-hour sonic flare, there was no question that the music had arrived.
15. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
Two Northern California singer-songwriters joined three British blues players to create some of the sturdiest pop-rock of its time or any other, and sold gazillions in the process. Sometimes 25 million fans really can’t be wrong.
16. Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (1977)
Created entirely with synthesizers and sequencers, this still-breathtaking single is the beginning of machine music as dance-floor driver.
17. Cybotron, “Clear” (1981)
Widely accepted as the first techno single, and the beginning of the often brilliant career of Detroit legend Juan Atkins.
18. Taana Gardner, “Heartbeat” (1981)
One of the iconic bass lines — it’s formed the backbone of tracks by De La Soul and Ini Kamoze, among others — the extended version of this sumptuous post-disco gem is also the greatest work of legendary New York remixer Larry Levan, generally considered the greatest club DJ of all time.
19. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force, “Planet Rock” (1982)
The beginning of electro, and still a total dance-floor slayer.
20. Madonna (1983)
She made bigger records than her debut, but none as winning or as ultimately impactful. This is where disco stopped being dead. Watch the video for “Borderline” here.
21. Prince & the Revolution, Purple Rain (1984)
From the high era of R&B-pop crossover, Prince and his band (black and white, male and female) went all-out rock, selling 15 million albums and topping the box office in the process. Among the period’s albums, only Thriller has had a deeper impact on the psyche of its generation.
22. N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton (1989)
Gangsta rap had been around before, but these L.A. snots (to put it mildly) made it into a pop juggernaut–and earned the FBI’s enmity in the process.
23. Horace Tapscott, The Dark Tree (1990)
Tapscott’s L.A. couldn’t have been more different than N.W.A’s — for decades he led the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a collective as key to its place as the AACM was to Chicago, or the loft-jazz scene was to ’70s New York. Beyond Tapscott’s historical significance, though, his music speaks for itself — most eloquently on this Hat Art double-CD of extended pieces, in particular two fiery versions of the volcanic title track.
24. Beltram, “Energy Flash” (1990)
A Brooklyn teenager enraptured by rave’s harder European strain, Joey Beltram created what still sounds like the ultimate techno track: seething with menace but light of touch, and a model for dance producers ever since.
25. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
One of the great ’90s indie-rock albums, this 18-song set’s sequence mirrored the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, only from a decidedly feminine (and feminist) point of view all too often missing from American bohemia.