Three staffers, three unabashed recommendations.
I discovered the music of the New Orleans pianist James Booker when I was 17, through The Resurrection Of The Bayou Maharajah, a compilation of live recordings made during his time as the house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar in the late 1970s and early ’80s. I lost the CD years ago, but the album slipped back into my life a few months back. Booker’s life is one of those great, untold American stories. An erratic, one-eyed, classically trained musical genius who worked in part to support his heroin habit, Booker was an astonishing live performer; just check out this performance from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1978 or this set recorded in the Maple Leaf just 11 days before Booker was found dead in a hospital waiting room, aged 43. He was a great studio session player (and even scored a minor R&B hit of his own with the instrumental “Gonzo”), but benefited from an audience, whether he was improvising off Fats Domino or Frédéric Chopin. There are dozens of legends about him—probably the most famous is the one about how Harry Connick, the music-loving Orleans Parish district attorney, agreed to keep Booker out of prison in exchange for piano lessons for his son. (That would be the singer and actor Harry Connick Jr.) But however colorful, they’re still a distant second to the music. Booker’s hands were big and fast, like two tarantulas on speed, and his voice was a searchingly soulful yelp. He could play anything, but never sounded like anyone except himself. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
There are a lot of “absolutely essential” vinyl reissues these days, from remastered versions of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours to tributes to the late Dimebag Darrell. They’re all only as essential as you make them, and I can pretty much bypass most of them. That being said, I got pretty stoked when I heard Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde was being reissued as a fancy deluxe LP package, because, for me, that record is essential. A hip-hop banger that was way, way ahead of its time when it was released in 1992, Bizarre Ride is The Pharcyde’s best LP, full of incredible samples, stupid jokes, and incredibly catchy beats. It’s a crossover classic, with tracks like “Passin’ Me By” landing at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and cuts like “Oh Shit” lighting up dance floors even now. The reissue includes 12-inch singles of “Ya Mama,” “Passin’ Me By,” and “Otha Fish,” which are packed with remixes and a capella versions, all of which help round each song out into a more thoughtful, versatile package. It’s a good reminder that groups like Pharcyde were out there making weird, off-the-wall rap albums long before a lot of us even knew they existed. [Marah Eakin]
I became a dad recently, so all I can think to recommend is various items that help feed, contain, and clean a small human. In lieu of recommending the dope formula-mixing pitcher I picked up last week, I will instead recommend Madlib’s Piñata Beats, an instrumental hip-hop album of uncommon richness and warmth. I was a huge fan of the album when it originally came out in 2014 with verses by Freddie Gibbs, but I like it even more in its purely instrumental format, which finds the prolific Madlib at his most formally conventional and sonically dense. The result is 51 minutes of soulful, dusty hip-hop, just miasmic enough to play while a tiny human sleeps nearby. He seems to like it well enough when he’s awake, too. [Clayton Purdom]