Sounds Like New York: The Best of the Empire State

This week, we’re heading east. Check out our reviews of three of the best albums by New York artists!

Paul Simon GracelandPaul Simon
Graceland

Simply put: this album is one of my absolute favorites of all time, and it should be on your list as well. As a solo artist, Simon is like a musical archaeologist, digging up influences from styles of music ranging from blues to salsa to reggae. Graceland represents his move even further away from the pop-rock mainstream charts he topped as part of Simon & Garfunkel. It’s heavily influenced by both South African music and culture, exploring both new sounds and new political statements.

Rather that simply merging African influence with traditional Western sounds, this album commits: Nine of its eleven songs contain elements of mbaqanga, or South African pop music. Much of the recording was done in Johannesberg, and the songs truly soak up the local sound. They also absorb the local politics; Simon’s collaborations with local musicians inherently address controversial issues like apartheid. On the standout track “Homeless”, harmonies by vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo suggest the possibility of peaceful resolution.

The title track, one of Simon’s greatest songs, best represents the album’s attitude. Although the song’s narrator is running from a broken relationship, he runs towards what he believes to be a place of happiness and redemption. Simon is unafraid to examine the dark sides of people and societies, but remains hopeful that there is always light to be found.

Don’t Miss Tracks: “Graceland”, “Homeless”

Jay-Z Reasonable DoubtJay-Z
Reasonable Doubt

Although this album was rap legend’s Jay-Z’s first and lowest selling, he himself calls it his best album to date. I’d have to agree: This album is a classic that belongs on the top shelf of any rap lover’s collection. It’s a mastery of execution-—smoothly delivered, easy to listen to, and filled with top-notch collaborations and quick, clever wordplay. In a genre that’s all about delivery, few have mastered the craft as well as Jay-Z does here.

What separates this album from the hundreds of other rap albums released in the ’90s? Jay-Z’s steady flow, witty lyrics, and confident delivery that put him on the map. Although it certainly contains tried-and-true themes of crime tales and street stories, his charisma is all his own. His humor and presence on each track make him a relatable figure who can sell to Middle America as well as he can to his native Brooklyn neighborhoods. This album establishes Jay not only as a rapper, but as a storyteller.

Another highlight on this album is the fantastic array of collaborations that blends in seamlessly. On highlight “Brooklyn’s Finest”, Jay-Z raps along with New York legend Notorious B.I.G. in a track that allows them to work together as equals, but also suggests subtle competition between the two for the song’s title. It seems only fitting that one of rap’s all-time greats would lend a hand on the debut of one of modern music’s most recognizable figures.

Don’t Miss Tracks: “Brooklyn’s Finest”, “Politics as Usual”

MI0000832128The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground & Nico

Velvet Underground vocalist and guitarist Lou Reed‘s death last fall brought this album back into heavy rotation in my collection. It was a reminder of how influential this band has really been: Despite the fact that this album only sold 30,000 copies when it was released, British musician Brian Eno famously said that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”. Despite its initial commercial flop, this album has gone on to become one of the most influential of its generation.

This record is, in a word, fearless: In an era most noted for the Summer of Love, it combined lyrics about drug addiction and despair with pounding force and throbbing basslines. Despite its bold statement, it still contains surprising diversity. It moves from the smooth and stripped-down R&B sounds of “There She Goes Again” to the tough punk rock of “Waiting for the Man” without skipping a beat. Although the album’s controversial lyrics have ultimately gained it the most attention (and notoriety), they’re matched by a solid music backing that is equally unique and compelling.

What’s most fascinating is listening to this album after hearing decades of rock and roll develop from the late 1960s onward. After just a few songs in, it’s easy to see that nearly every brand of rock owes credit to this album.  From punk to new wave and everything in between, nearly everything in the rock genre has been influenced by the Velvet Underground’s sound.

Don’t Miss Tracks: “There She Goes Again”, “Sunday Morning”


Ally Boutelle
@arboutelle

Ally is a communications intern at Murfie, blogging about all things music. When she’s not typing away, she cooks spicy food, does hot yoga, and reads weird history books. She’s also a college student double majoring in history and journalism.


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