30 Essential LGBT Albums

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A couple of weeks back, we celebrated Pride Month with a pretty epic selection of essential LGBT films. The post was so popular with our readers that we thought we’d follow up with a similar selection of LGBT albums. As with our film selection, this encompasses records featuring LGBT artists and/or characters and themes — it’s just a starting point, of course, so let us know if you have any to add. (And no, of course it doesn’t include Michelle Shocked.)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood — Welcome to the Pleasuredome

Looking back, it’s pretty impressive that Frankie Goes to Hollywood set a record by having their first three singles go straight to #1 in their native UK. They were as camp as a tent city, after all, and this was an era when the world was a lot more conservative than it is now. “Relax,” in particular, was a gloriously unlikely chart-topper — it was all too much for the BBC, but the fact that it was banned by the Beeb didn’t hurt its popularity, and as far as smuggling a song about gay culture (in this case sex) into the mainstream goes, it was right up there with Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Speaking of which…

Lou Reed — Transformer

The title of Reed’s most successful album is a subtle allusion to transvestism, and its songs are full of vivid characters whose sexuality and gender identities span the entire rainbow spectrum. And, of course, there’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which remains Reed’s biggest hit and best-known song, a track that still gets played on AOR radio to this day despite being about the sort of characters who’d probably terrify your average AOR demographic.

Wendy Carlos — Switched-On Bach

Notable for being both a genuine pioneer of electronic music and one of the first openly trans musicians, Carlos is an enduringly fascinating figure. She was a relatively early recipient of sex reassignment surgery, beginning hormone treatment in 1968 and undergoing surgery in 1972. It was this record that provided the funds for her to do so, which makes it historically significant for a number of reasons — it’s also one of the first records made on the then-novel Moog synthesizer, and was instrumental in introducing to many people the idea that music made by electronic means should be taken just as seriously as its more traditional counterpart.

The Knife — Shaking the Habitual

Few artists have tackled issues of gender and sexuality quite like The Knife did on Shaking the Habitual — when they’re namechecking Judith Butler and talking earnestly about intersectionality in interviews, you know they’re serious about this stuff. “Let’s talk about gender, baby/ Let’s talk about you and me,” sang Karin Dreijer Andersson during the outro to “Full of Fire,” and they spent a decent proportion of this record doing just that (in between lambasting conservative politicians and talking about fracking, anyway).

Peaches — Fatherfucker

“I don’t have to make a choice/ I like girls and I like boys.” Word.

Le1f — Dark York mixtape

Le1f himself seems as tired of the “gay rap” label as anyone else. He’s tweeted fairly frequently of late that he wishes people would stop asking him about his sexuality and start asking him about his music. You can see his point — his music is ace, and certainly warrants recognition regardless of his sexuality — but sadly, the fact that openly gay rappers are still very thin on the ground these days means that anyone bucking the trend is likely to continue to attract both interest and admiration.

Yo Majesty — Futuristically Speaking

Beyond the open secret that was Queen Latifah’s sexuality, gay female rappers have also been relatively hard to find. Thank god, then, for the short-lived but awesome Florida crew who surely remain the world’s only Christian lesbian hip-hop duo. That alone would probably have been enough to qualify them for inclusion on this list, but Futuristically Speaking was also pretty great in an all-action, shouty kinda way.

Le Tigre — Le Tigre

Even before butch lesbian icon JD Samson joined the band, Le Tigre were always closely identified with the LGBT community, and their songs have dealt with queer activism as much as they have feminism and left-leaning politics in general. Their debut album features “Hot Topic,” which serves as a convenient reading list of feminist writers and artists — and, of course, it’s home to the majestic “Deceptacon,” one of the very best songs of the ’00s.

Terre Thaemlitz — Tranquilizer

Music is only one part of Tokyo-based multimedia artist Terre Thaemlitz’s oeuvre, which also extends to essays, film, graphic design, and a radio drama. Thaemlitz him/herself identifies as pansexual and transgender, and has a great deal of fascinating stuff to say about identity politics, gender, and sexuality.

Antony and the Johnsons — I Am a Bird Now

Antony’s background lies in radical gay performance art and theatre, all of which plays into his strikingly sad and beautiful debut album. It’s a record that addresses subjects as diverse as body dysmorphia, gender fluidity, hermaphroditism, abusive relationships, and the toll of the AIDS virus — all rendered in one of the most plaintively beautiful vibratos you’ll ever hear.

Jayne County — Rock ‘N’ Roll Resurrection

“If you don’t wanna fuck me, baby, fuck off.” Words to live by, eh?

Scissor Sisters — Scissor Sisters

The quintessential ’00s party album and a window straight into NYC’s gay nightlife of the era. Jake Shears, et al, are fantastic pop songwriters, but crucially, they’re not just that — there’s real emotional resonance to this album, especially in “Mary” (Shears’ eulogy to his dead best friend) and in closing track “Return to Oz,” a striking portrait of how New York’s gay community has been affected by crystal meth abuse.

Matmos — The Marriage of True Minds

An album title that also provides a neat and rather touching summation of the relationship between its creators, who are a couple and have been making fascinating, cerebral electronic music together for more than a decade. MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel discussed their relationship in this fascinating interview with Butt magazine a decade ago — apparently they devote everything about their lives (“our apartment… our private life… our sexual life”) to their art.

Hüsker Dü — Zen Arcade

It seems strange to include Hüsker Dü here because their music was so gender-neutral — the band steadfastly made no acknowledgement at all of the fact that Bob Mould was gay and Grant Hart was bisexual, perhaps because the two were too busy hating one another to worry about anything else. (It took Spin threatening to out Mould in the early 1990s for him to publicly acknowledge his sexuality.) But still, the fact remains that Hüsker Dü were that rarest of things in the 1980s: a hardcore punk band that revolved around a creative axis of two non-heterosexual men. And also, of course, this album is awesome.

Justin Vivian Bond — Dendrophile

Downtown cabaret icon Justin Vivian Bond has been a mainstay of NYC’s avant-garde for the last 25 years, both as part of cabaret duo Kiki and Herb and as a solo artist. As well as a heap of music and information, Bond’s website contains a detailed discussion of the nature of gender: “My gender is neither male nor female but Trans.” (Oh, and if you’re wondering, a dendrophile is someone who’s turned on by, um, trees.)

Ani DiFranco — Imperfectly

DiFranco has always been pretty open about her sexuality — she’s had relationships with women and men, a subject that she’s addressed on and off over the years in her largely autobiographical songs. “In or Out” (above), from her third studio album Imperfectly, is perhaps her most succinct description of what it means to fall somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey scale: “Some days the line I walk/ Turns out to be straight/ Other days the line tends to deviate/ I’ve got no criteria for sex or race/ I just want to hear your voice/ I just want to see your face.”

Klaus Nomi — Klaus Nomi

His unique countertenor and flamboyant appearance made Klaus Nomi one of the most distinctive and recognizable figures in music. To the general public he probably came across as being from another planet altogether, but really he was a symbol of self-expression and being proud of yourself, whoever you are. Sadly, he died in 1983 at only 39, one of the first victims of the AIDS epidemic.

Suede — Suede

For “The Drowners,” really, although ambiguous sexuality is writ large all over Suede’s debut album, from the obvious references — “Pantomime Horse” and its closing question, “Have you ever tried it that way?” — to the more subtle, like the pierced right ear referenced in “Animal Lover.” It was the soundtrack to many a ’90s teen’s self-questioning, something not exactly discouraged by Brett Anderson and his “I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience” image.

Pansy Division — That’s So Gay

For all its mythology of unconstrained self-expression, the ultra-macho world of punk hasn’t always been super gay-friendly, which perhaps explains the emergence of queercore as its own genre. You could choose many examples from its luminaries and/or lesser lights for this list (I’m particularly partial to largely unheralded Australian band Anal Traffic, who are ungoogleable for obvious reasons), and the original hardcore-centric scene has created all manner of offshoots, including…

Hunx and His Punx — Gay Singles

Sexuality be damned, the important question is: do you like rock ‘n’ roll?!

Melissa Etheridge — Yes I Am

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the words “lesbian singer-songwriter” were pretty much synonymous with Melissa Etheridge — at least as far as the general public went, anyway. Etheridge came out in 1993, and the title of this album seems to be an allusion to her sexuality.

Frank Ocean — Channel Orange

It might seem an obvious choice, but “Thinking About You” — along with Ocean’s public discussion of his bisexuality — still felt dramatic and newsworthy, a fact that perhaps says more about our society than about the singer himself.

Gossip — Standing in the Way of Control

The title track is one of the great gay rights anthems of our time, written in response to the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment to the US Constitution, which would have outlawed gay marriage throughout the USA — but the rest of the album’s pretty good, too.

Mirah — You Think It’s Like This, But Really It’s Like This

Mirah’s later albums have explored progressively darker territory, but this 2000 debut is full of songs both unadorned and quietly beautiful, songs that explore the joys and pitfalls of love with a striking frankness and a perceptive lyrical voice.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Original Cast Recording)

A musical about a transgender East Berliner who flees the GDR after a botched sex change operation and goes on to become a flamboyant, if under-appreciated, rock star? Sure!

Lady Gaga — Born This Way

Say what you like about La Gaga’s music — and trust me, I’ve said plenty — the fact that she’s been an outspoken activist for LGBT rights, both on record and in the media, is worthy of plentiful respect. The title track for Born This Way, in particular, is an anthem for 2000s youth questioning sexuality and gender, and it’s great to see such a prominent pop star being so vocal about LGBT issues. (See also: Madonna.)

Culture Club — Colour by Numbers

Just like pretty much anyone who grew up in the 1980s, I can remember watching the video for “Karma Chameleon” and being awfully confused as to whether the remarkable figure singing the words was a boy or a girl (and also what the hell a “karma chameleon” was, for that matter). It was certainly my first introduction to the idea that gender was a spectrum rather than a simple male/female binary, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Divine — The Story So Far

See also: Divine, who was even more flamboyant than Boy George and whose musical career remains an overlooked pleasure.

Lil B — I’m Gay (I’m Happy)

He’s not, of course. But that’s kinda the point.

Against Me! — Transgender Dysphoria Blues

And finally, a mention for a record that hasn’t been released yet. Tom Gabel’s transition into Laura Jean Grace has been one of the most prominent LGBT-related stories in the music world over the last couple of years, and her courage in undergoing that transition in the public eye. This album promises to address both Grace’s own experience and that of many others — sadly, its arrival has been delayed by the departure of the band’s founding guitarist and drummer, but it’s apparently due later this year.