The nice thing about vinyl is you can choose to play one side and go on to the next record, or you can turn it over for the other side if your guests want more.
With any of my 10 Great Albums lists, one of the determining factors is that they’re in my collection. With this specific list, I’ve chosen only one album with vocals throughout—the rest are instrumental.
I also strove for balance, though all but one are from the 60’s and 70’s.
I hope you find this list helpful. Please let me know your thoughts on these. Also, which albums not mentioned are your go-to, must-have albums to play when hosting?
1. The Prophet — Cal Tjader (1968)
At one time if you asked me who my favorite jazz musician was, it would have first been Miles Davis, then Gabor Szabo, then Grant Green and Jimmy Smith.
For the past four or five years, my favorite is unquestionably Cal Tjader, a vibraphonist from California who entrenched himself into South American and Latin culture.
Several of you may be familiar with this 1968 Verve release because A Tribe Called Quest sampled it 25 years later on their classic album Midnight Marauders.
If you play this all the way through there are a couple very slow songs that are more suited for a candlelit dinner than hosting a party. For that reason I considered leaving this off in favor of Surfers’ Pajama Party by The Centurians. It is classic surf music released in 1963 and recorded live at UCLA.
The strength of Side A, however, is too great to ignore.
Souled Out, the opening track, is uptempo and has a rich soulful vibe. Warm Song follows, and is slow and lush at first, then the tempo picks up halfway through.
The title track The Prophet is third. I find myself going to this any time I’m playing background music at events or while I’m at home.
The finale of Side A is Aquarius. There were probably a few reasons A Tribe Called Quest chose this track to be the prominent sample on Midnight Marauders.
One of them is that it’s so damn mesmerizing, playful, and deft. It is midtempo and will get people’s attention because they recognize it or because it’s trippy.
The album is quintessential mod, but its greatness transcends the era by the way the musicians groove together and because of the choice of instruments themselves.
A few in the crowd might mock it for being elevator music, but that’s just not a good enough reason not to play this. You can’t please everyone, but the majority, depending on the event, will enjoy the chill vibe this creates.
2. From Rio with Love — Walter Wanderley (1966)
If you need to pull from any album for a Mad Men type of get-together, this would be great.
Aside from that, the truth is that Walter Wanderley is a great jazz organist from Brazil and was instrumental in bringing Astrud Gilberto to a broader audience.
Each track has an upbeat, exotic, 60’s game-show interlude quality to it, which I think is a good quality to have.
The opening song You and I (Voce E Eu) exemplifies that. The overall feel of the album is light-hearted and childlike, yet also refined and sensual.
Maybe that typifies Brazilian jazz as a whole. Either way, if you want something that is outside the box (though it’s no stretch) and more global, this is a must-have.
My favorite from this album is one of the most uptempo tracks on the album—I’ll Be Right Back (Volta Ja).
3. Afro-Harping — Dorothy Ashby (1968)
The original release from Cadet Records in 1968 is rare, so if you’re able to score this digging through crates it’s a Holy Grail type of find. The front cover is of a harp, but it’s not of a harp you might first imagine. It has an African feel to it, which of course should make sense given the title of the album. The idea of a harp being a boring, coma-inducing instrument is completely destroyed with Soul Vibrations, the opening song. It has a dark and wild pulsing sound that might make you think you were listening to Ice Cube circa 1994.
After the first couple of minutes readjusting your soul, you’ll find the next nine songs featuring Ashby’s harp have a beautiful, chill vibe that is perfect for so many different gatherings.
Almost half are original, and the rest include covers of Burt Bacharach, Freddie Hubbard, and the funky cool Richard Evans, who was Cadet Records’ producer and arranger in the 60’s and 70’s. There he worked most notably with Ramsey Lewis.
Games, Little Sunflower, Theme from Valley of the Dolls, and Come Live With Me are my favorites off the top of my head, but, as with the other nine albums on this list, one of the strengths is that you can play this whole album and be delighted, or pull from it regularly for any number of songs, at weddings or any other cool event. You can even stretch to it.
It is chill, refined, trance-like and all very interesting with funky beats and rhythms from the harp, guitar, other strings, keyboard, various percussion, bass (some of the funkiest out there), and even some flute (it doesn’t get too carried away, like maybe Yusef Lateef or Rahsaan Roland Kirk).
4. Rides On — Jackie Mittoo (70’s)
Mittoo is one of the pioneers of reggae, leading session musicians and writing scores of scores at Coxsone Dodd Studio throughout the sixties for The Skatalites, The Heptones, The Wailers, Alton Ellis, John Holt, and Ken Boothe, to name a few.
This compilation was released in 2008 and features Mittoo’s crunchy-groovin’ organ from the 70’s. Mittoo is surrounded by heavyweight musicians Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Sly & Robbie, Tommy McCook, Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, and Bobby Ellis.
If you want chill, laid-back funky grooves, this is a great album. Another great quality is that this can be had at a relatively inexpensive price compared to other reggae albums, especially any of his original ones from the late 60’s through the 70’s.
I like every song on here, though my favorites are Freedom Smile and Look At Life.
5. This is Augustus Pablo — Augustus Pablo (1974)
Pablo is one of the greats of reggae music and specifically the dub genre. Known for his distinct sound with the relatively unknown melodica—a combination of flute and mini keyboard—Pablo also contributed greatly on his first album from 1974 by writing and playing the piano, clarinet, and organ. Most reggae fans will be familiar with the name Aston ‘Family Man’ Barret, who plays bass and guitar on here. The great percussionist Errol Thompson joins them with rhythms and as the studio engineer.
The reissue I have from 2011 on the 17 North Parade label includes three bonus tracks—Marabi, Java, and Guiding Red, which is perhaps my favorite on here. It follows Lover’s Mood, which is right up there as well.
Some people might think the melodica is too sharp or high-pitched, but if you want something original with street cred at your next gathering, this is definitely one worth checking into.
It has a great mellow groove and the bass and other instrumentation collaborate nicely with Pablo’s soulful and childlike melodica melodies. It also has an ancient, hypnotic feel to it. Which leads us to the most modern album on the list.
6. The Heritage EP — Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (2010)
This album is already approaching cult status, and the few copies for sale should only get more scarce in the future. This 5-track EP from 2010 was only released on vinyl. You can’t even find digital copies of it, which adds to its mystique.
Spottie, which is a cover of Outkast’s SpottieOttieDopaliscious, is reason enough to have this. The rest of the tracks are also covers, from Jay-Z, Art of Noise, Madvillain, and Fela Kuti, in that order.
7. The Popcorn — James Brown (1969)
You really can’t go wrong with the Godfather of Soul. I’ve got this on two other lists (10 Great Groove and 10 Great Funk Albums), so it just reaffirms my affection for this album released in 1969.
This makes the list for several reasons:
1.It’s James Brown, and is familiar because of his distinct sound, yet it’s not the same old James Brown that gets played too much.
2. It’s all instrumental—a great blend of jazz and funk.
3. It’s upbeat with lots of groove.
4. The first two tracks (The Popcorn and Why Am I Treated So Bad) alone are worth playing this.
All around this a great album to have in your collection. It’s versatile and enjoyable for a party of one or a hundred.
8. Moondance — Van Morrison (1970)
Released in 1970, it is the lone vocal album on this list. It is quintessential Van, which is to say it’s jazzy, soulful, and in the rock genre, so it’s something a variety of crowds should like. It’s not my favorite Van album, but it’s my second-favorite of his, and his best to play when hosting. (My favorite is Veedon Fleece, which is better when you’re drinking alone and are feeling melancholy, though I think you could also play it when hosting. It just likely has a narrower audience.)
There are so many good tracks on here, so you can confidently play this start to finish. If you’re going to play just one side I’d strongly recommend side B (though you couldn’t go wrong starting with side A). Every track is solid, including Everyone for Wes Anderson/Royal Tenenbaums fans. Glad Tidings follows it, which ends the album about as perfectly as you could hope for.
9. Picks on the Beatles — Chet Atkins (1966)
Chet is regarded by many as one of the greatest guitarists ever, so combined with The Beatles, how can you go wrong? This 1966 release includes several hits from 1964-66. These are pretty much all hits, so this crosses over many music genres to reach a wide audience. Some of my favorites on here are I Feel Fine, Can’t Buy Me Love, I’ll Follow The Sun, and And I Love Her.
10. 1969 — Gabor Szabo (1969)
This 1969 Skye release is reserved for when you’re hosting a party of two. It’s mellow and beautiful, and I really like all the songs on here.
It was one of the first jazz albums added to my collection, and the first from guitarist Gabor Szabo. This Hungarian guitarist covers pop songs from the 60’s, including four by The Beatles’ Paul and John, and two by Joni Mitchell. The last track of the album was the lone one written by him.
Along with Szabo’s distinct underwater guitar sound, you’ll hear bass, percussion, organ, and cello.