Top 40 Music Albums by Chicago Artists

As the magazine’s 40th anniversary approaches, we rank the 40 best albums ever by Chicago artists

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Best Chicago albums / records

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To celebrate our magazine’s 40th anniversary this December, we name the 40 best records, restaurants, movies, and more

This list of the 40 greatest Chicago records of all time raises a million questions, including: What counts as a “Chicago record”? What does “greatest” mean? And just who do we think we are? We classify a Chicago record as a nonclassical recording by an artist who is local by birthright or who adopted Chicago as home—or at least lived in town at the time the recording was made. As for picking the greatest, we sifted through thousands of full-length albums to choose 40 that were influential, successful, or musically accomplished, or that effectively captured a time and place (and, in some rare cases, all of the above). If you don’t like our choices, tell us why in the comments below. And if you’re Liz Phair, call us. We miss you.

40. Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965) From the gritty opening track, “Born in Chicago,” this brash white-boy blues album pays respect to—and broadens—one of the city’s finest exports.

39. The Buckinghams: Kind of a Drag (1967) In Chicago, the summer of love belonged to The Buckinghams, whose sunshiny, horn-driven pop ruled the airwaves all year.

38. Local H: Pack Up the Cats (1998) The Underrated Chicago Band That Should Have Been Huge hit its stride with this funny, relentlessly rocking song cycle.

37. The Impressions: The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story (1969) This criminally forgotten record’s soulful love songs and forceful black empowerment messages are horn-dominated mini pop concertos.

36. The Karol Stoch Band: Fire in the Mountains: Polish Mountain Fiddle Music, Volume 1 (1997) It would be a stretch to call it influential, but Stoch’s raw recordings from the late 1920s captured the spirit of Chicago’s burgeoning Polish community.

35. The Staple Singers: Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (1972) The spiritual-based band that grew up with Chicago reached a pinnacle (critically and commercially) with this cheery slice of gospel-influenced soul.

34. Screeching Weasel: My Brain Hurts (1991) On the strength of this comical toe-tapper, Prospect Heights’ nineties answer to the Ramones assumed their throne in the kingdom of pop/punk.

33. The Ramsey Lewis Trio: The In Crowd (1965) Recorded live at an intimate lounge in Washington, D.C., Lewis’s exuberant piano-driven jazz thrills the crowd and all but leaps off the record.

32. Eleventh Dream Day: Prairie School Freakout (1988) A blistering declaration of college-radio rock, recorded in one day, EDD’s dual guitar attack and heartfelt vocals never sounded better.

31. Koko Taylor: Koko Taylor (1969) All the early hits from the quintessential South Side female blues belter, during an era when her sturdy voice could power a freight train.

30. The Jesus Lizard: Goat (1991) The definitive album on Chicago’s legendary Touch and Go Records, this noisy assault sounds just as twisted and ferocious today as it did 19 years ago.

29. Muddy Waters: Folk Singer (1964) Waters shocked the blues world by unplugging his guitar and going back to his Delta roots with this exceptional acoustic album.

28. Grupo Montéz de Durango: De Durango a Chicago (2003) This rollicking release by Stone Park’s granddaddies of the Duranguense movement—a Chicago-based interpretation of Mexican mountain music—
is impossible not to dance to.

27. Styx: Paradise Theater (1981) The Roseland group’s peculiar marriage of hard rock and over-the-top theatricality finally jelled on this loosely defined—but immensely successful—concept album.

26. The DJ Fast Eddie: Jack to the Sound (1988) A fixture on the house music scene, Fast Eddie’s best songs (all recorded here) merged acid house and hip-hop with a pop sensibility.

25. Material Issue: International Pop Overthrow (1991) One of the great power pop bands of the nineties, MI’s first full-length album is full of taut, melodic three-minute songs about girls.

24. Howlin’ Wolf: Howlin’ Wolf (1962) “The Rockin’ Chair Album,” as it’s also known, is filled with raunchy, roaring, electric Chicago blues belted by the genre’s most fearsome presence.

23. The Chi-Lites: (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People (1971) This smooth, socially conscious soul record is packed with lilting harmonies, lush ballads, and optimistic entreaties for world peace.

22. Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) Case’s dazzling voice rages and aches and soars all over this twangy, bittersweet triumph.

21. Mahalia Jackson: Newport 1958 (1959) If you’re not moved by this passionate concert, which captures Chatham’s Queen of Gospel nearing 50 and still remarkable, there’s no hope for you.

 

Photography: (louis armstrong) pictorial press ltd./alamy, (folk singer) chess records,  (kanye west) devin simmons/admedia, (neko case) jason creps, (superfly) rhino records. 

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4 years ago
Posted by nighthawk

I though your list was quite good and I didn't have arguments with what you included. Hoever, maybe you could compile an extra five or ten albums to add to the list. I read your list through several times and did not see any albums by Sam Cooke. I think that he was unquestionably one of the premier artists to emerge from Chicago in the past 50 years. There are many greatest hits albums by him, as well as live recordings that could have been included on the list. Also, several bands other bands from the first wave of garage/punk/psychedelica from the mid-60's would have been worthy additions, including "Gloria" or "Back Door Men" by the Shadows of Knight and "A Scratch IN the Sky" by the Cryan' Shames. And, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and Little Walter are conspicuous in their absence.

4 years ago
Posted by swinglane

What a whitebread, last-two-decades-oriented list. Nothing but performers sanctioned by the MSM. Among the many, many Chicago originals left out: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM - Lester Bowie etc.), Gene Ammons, Jimmy and Mama Yancey, Thomas A. Dorsey, Magic Sam (West Side Soul = one knock-out Chicago album), the Barrett Sisters, Otis Rush, Art Hodes, Von Freeman, Dinah Washington, Robert Nighthawk. Just off the top of my head, you understand.

4 years ago
Posted by gymgam

Sorry that you are too young to realize how great Ahmad Jamal's " At the Pershing" album was. One of the great live Jazz albums of all time, but I guess you may have had to have left off Screeching Weasel and/or Naked Ray Gun if you included it.

4 years ago
Posted by willyh1

Good call including "All Rise". Naked Raygun is one of those bands that should have been huge and was very influential on local musicians. Fortunately you are old enough to realize that.

4 years ago
Posted by willyh1

Good call including "All Rise". Naked Raygun is one of those bands that should have been huge and were very influential for a lot of musicians. Fortunately you are old enough to realize that.

4 years ago
Posted by wheelingmike

"Rotary Connection," the first album by Rotary Connection was an amazing collection of other group's songs rendered in RC's sometimes frantic and psychedelic, other times slow and sultry style with Minnie Riperton's voice soaring to the heights. If only they had accepted the invitation to play Woodstock, they would have been giants.

4 years ago
Posted by BruceG

Where's "Gibson & Camp at the Gate of Horn"? Gibson's 12-string inspired Roger McGuinn (native Chicagoan) and his 12-string.. which became the signature sound of The Byrds.. and was carried forward by ealy-Byrd David Crosby ( who got his first guitar in Old Town) to the mega-folk-rock hits of Crosby/Stills/Nash/& Young. And where's Josh White, also a Chicago blues landmark from the Gate of Horn's basement days?

4 years ago
Posted by Cubs Fan #2

No Steve Goodman? Really??

4 years ago
Posted by beau

Tough subject to write about. But I find it extremely interesting you left out two of the greatest Chicago musicians ever. Steve Goodman, maybe one of the greatest lyricists that has ever lived. And if you have ever heard him play a musical instrument, you realized the greatness, of his superlative talents. Buddy Guy, maybe the greatest guitarist ever not only in Chicago but the world, enough said? Three other bands that will bring smiles to peoples faces if they were ever fortunate to see them play, Cryan Shames, Heartsfield, and Wilderness Road. These are strictly my opinions, wonderful music, performed by the individuals, and bands. All credits to Chicago's great music history.

4 years ago
Posted by Veich_Vasch

I think somewhere in the top 40 would have to be the debut self titled album by "Heartsfield." They were huge on Lincoln Avenue in the early 70s' Their debut lived up to the hype.

4 years ago
Posted by jazzpapa

Your list was painful to read. Not only do I agree with the comments about the absence of Steve Goodman, Buddy Guy, Dinah Washington,AACM, et.al. - but where is the man whose band dominated the swing/jazz scene for a decade - Benny Goodman -learned in the Hull House in Chicago. Not to mention Mel Torme, who wrote the most popular Christmas song of all time, and Nat Cole, who spent many years in the area.

4 years ago
Posted by Tom

While 50 albums is a rather limited number from an area with a long musical history, I have one that should have made your list:

Poi Dog Pondering--Promegranate

4 years ago
Posted by m3koul

I guess I can see how many of the albums found there way on the top forty of Chicago's greatest, and it's completely crazy to attempt to order them. I mean Wilco better than Curtis Mayfield...I don't even think they'd agree, and I bet they might even choose another one of theirs.
But I do I find it difficult to believe Red Red Meat's Jimmywine Majestic, Jim O'Rourke's Eureka, and Califone's Roomsound didn't make the list...What is wrong with your hearing!

4 years ago
Posted by billbenj

As a native Chicagoan, I was pleased to read Chicago’s Playlist (April 2010) and see the name of Herbie Hancock listed among the 40 best albums ever by Chicago artists.

You also had the good sense to avoid Herbie’s jazz/rock/fusion projects and instead, chose his seminal acoustic masterpiece, “Maiden Voyage”. That recording sounds as fresh today as when recorded and released on the Blue Note label 45 years ago.

4 years ago
Posted by Lundah

Calling Neko Case a Chicago artist is a bit of a stretch, she lived here for a few years but is more identified with the Vancouver/PNW scene than Chicago. Besides, Fox Confessor was cut & released long after she left town.

4 years ago
Posted by Dizzy

You picked the wrong Curtis Mayfield album to rate so highly. The full-length "Curtis" is much more of a complete album. "Superfly" is one of the best blaxploitation soundtrack albums, but "Curtis" has a timeless awareness in the vein of "What's Going On" that makes it far superior.

4 years ago
Posted by tomdarch

It's a good effort, but doomed to failure from the start like all "Top X Lists." Perhaps breaking it up by genre would help. One major problem is that while Chicago House has been globally, fundamentally influential, it's a single-track genre by its nature. As a result, "Top Albums" can't reflect how a set of individual tracks (not to mention Chicago-style DJing - eg Derrick Carter) has shaped the music you hear on TV, from car stereos and in clubs from London to Cape Town to Mumbai to Tokyo and everywhere in between. You've totally missed Classical - odd, given the CSO's global reputation - along with many individual Chicago virtuosos. Someone pointed out AACM - I don't "get" them, but that work has also been globally influential. Also, there's no old-school Country - odd, given Chicago's central role in the birth and popularization of the genre thanks to our high-power radio stations.

4 years ago
Posted by tomdarch

I forgot to mention Ella Jenkins! Back in the 50's she set a high bar for the idea that music for children could be something that adults could also enjoy. You could argue that the general wasteland of kid's music today means that she wasn't that influential, but I'm still glad that her work is available as a way to displace a few minutes of soul-crushing "purple dinosaur" junk.

4 years ago
Posted by editor@cpsalumni.org

The Chicago Public Schools Alumni Website has an iTunes mix comprised of CPS alumni musicians and songwriters. http://www.cpsalumni.org/music

4 years ago
Posted by azfeed

The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart
Word Jazz by Ken Nordine
Jazz in Sihouette by Sun Ra
and The Superbowl Shuffle

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