Miles Davis, Kind of Blue: Released in 1959 at the height of the LP era, this is perhaps the most acclaimed and certainly one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all-time. After all these years, the set’s haunting, transcendent beauty reveals something new with each listen.
James Brown, Live at the Apollo: This 1963 LP, recorded live at the fabled Harlem theater, captures the Godfather of Soul at his electrifying best, early in the pre-funk phase of his career. The excited audience is just as much a part of the recording as the ultra tight band.
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: A classic jazz album whose influence reaches well beyond the genre. Recorded toward the end of 1964, the LP is an adventurous and at times atonal musical exploration of Coltrane’s deepening spirituality.
Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You: Aretha’s landmark 1967 debut for Atlantic Records and the album that rocketed her to superstardom seemingly overnight, after a hitless seven-year tenure at Columbia Records. The set features the classic, blues-suffused title track and her legendary reworking of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul: A seminal 1969 album where Isaac stretched the artistic limitations of the pop song. The Memphis legend also opened up a new door in soul, using the LP as a means to convey a cohesive artistic statement.
Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On: The oft-cited hallmark of great socio-political soul music and one of the most realized concept albums in pop music. Gaye’s lyrics are as relevant today as they were nearly 40 years ago when this album first hit the streets.
Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On: A dark, moody masterpiece that, in a way, chronicles Sly Stone’s disillusionment with a harmonious society. His happy-go-lucky lyrical outlook of the past is supplanted by a bleak cynicism, best exemplified by the hit “Family Affair.”
Bill Withers, Still Bill: A smart but often overlooked album in the ’70s singer-songwriter canon. Withers weaves together traditional elements of Southern gospel, blues and soul and overlays it with a gorgeous pop finish.
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace: The Queen of Soul returned to her gospel roots on this 1972 double-LP masterstroke, recorded live in Los Angeles. It’s the biggest-selling traditional gospel album of all-time, and Aretha sounds simply otherworldly.
Stevie Wonder, Talking Book: This is the second release in a brilliant series of five albums the Motown genius recorded in the mid-‘70s. Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder’s 1976 grand double-LP, is often cited as his masterpiece. However, Talking Book is a more concise artistic statement but still compositionally expansive. An early showcase of Stevie’s musical wonder.
Curtis Mayfield, Superfly: Lyrically, the classic soundtrack spoke against the drug culture glorified in the movie. Also, the sweeping horns and strings, underpinned by Mayfield’s sweet and savory funk, got plenty of Soul Train lines started. Nearly 40 years later, the effect is still strong.
Al Green, I’m Still In Love With You: With the late great producer Willie Mitchell at the helm, Green’s silky blend of the sacred and the secular reached great artistic heights in the 1970s. This 1972 release is the most refined example of Green’s style, which married the funkiness of Southern blues with the sophistication of uptown soul.
Rufus & Chaka Khan, Rufusized: Although the album was a smash upon its release in 1974, spurred by the party jam “Once You Get Started,” the LP is a much richer listen as it braids elements of rock, jazz and pop. Plus, Chaka, who was just 21 at the time, never sounded so raw and hungry. A funk masterpiece.
Minnie Riperton, Perfect Angel: The late songbird’s 1974 sophomore album was produced by Stevie Wonder. It featured her biggest single, the immortal “Lovin’ You,” but the album reveals much more. Riperton’s romantic, introspective lyrics and genre-melding arrangements later influenced a slew of neo-soul artists, including Erykah Badu, India.Arie and Jill Scott.
Earth, Wind & Fire, That’s the Way of the World: This 1975 album catapulted the band into the pop stratosphere. Led by the gifted Maurice White, the band puts an attractive gloss on Afro-Cuban rhythms and gospel-fired soul.
Bob Marley, Exodus: Recorded in London after an attempt on his life, this 1977 release finds Marley more reflective and mellower than on previous albums. But his fiery political attacks and messages of spiritual uplift are no less potent. A soulful reggae gem.
Michael Jackson, Off the Wall: This 1979 album set the stage for Michael Jackson’s global domination of pop. Although 1982’s Thriller was the biggest blockbuster album of all-time, Off the Wall is a more alluring and less calculating amalgamation of rock, soul, pop and funk.
Luther Vandross, Never Too Much: This 1981 album made Luther an R&B superstar after years of lucrative behind-the-scenes work in New York recording studios. Beyond the sublime title track, there’s his unmatched remake of Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not a Home.” The Luther masterpiece.
Rick James, Street Songs: Perhaps the most exciting album released in the early ’80s, Rick cemented his punk funk style on this release. His snappy, in-your-face arrangements coupled with his soaring vocals made for one of the gutsiest albums ever released by Motown.
Prince, Sign O’ the Times: This insular 1987 double album echoes the socio-political chaos and paranoid sense of moral decay felt in the late ’80s. But amid the chilling cuts, you find songs glinting with hope and redemptive love. Plus, Prince funks hard throughout.
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back: The most revolutionary album in the hip-hop canon, period. The music, courtesy of the great Bomb Squad, was as ferocious as any great heavy rock arrangement. Then you overlay that with Chuck D’s Mach truck-like voice and incisive lyrics and you have a sterling hip-hop masterpiece.
Mary J. Blige, My Life: With her 1993 sophomore album, the hip-hop soul queen started the musical journal of her tumultuous personal life. As Blige wailed over ’70s samples, she connected her fresh pain with the richness of black music’s glorious past. A modern soul gem.
Dr. Dre: The Chronic: This album completely transformed the rap game on the West Coast and introduced the charm of Snoop Dogg. Although the album was (and still is) controversial for its upfront misogyny, violence and homophobia, its detailed production set a new precedent in hip-hop.
Notorious B.I.G, Ready to Die: This album single-handedly re-invented East Coast rap in the mid ‘90s. One of the greatest hardcore rap albums ever, it’s bolstered by Biggie Small’s vivid storytelling skills. And the production overseen by Sean Diddy Combs (he was Puffy then) provided just right amount of commercial appeal.
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: Mary J. Blige may be credited for marrying hard-edged hip-hop and open-wound soul, but Lauryn Hill perfected on this brilliant, if flawed, album. She also managed to mix in disparate styles, from reggae to doo-wop. A towering ’90s masterstroke that she has yet to match.
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Selecting 25 of the most influential albums by African-Americans is no easy task, especially given the richness, depth and breadth of black music. Although several of the albums that ultimately made the list were commercial smashes, they were picked more for their artistic influence. These albums introduced new textures and ideas into pop culture. Some straight-up kicked down doors and ushered in new eras, transforming genres along the way. Also, these albums have held up well over the years, as they set and transcended countless trends.