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.
20. Lupe Fiasco: Food & Liquor (2006) Fiasco’s hyperliterate rush of words touches on everything from Islam to skateboards and demonstrates hip-hop’s infinite potential.
19. Ministry: The Land of Rape and Honey (1988) Creepy vocals, grinding guitars, jackhammer beats: This is the one that paved the way for a zillion industrial metal bands, for better or worse.
18. R. Kelly: 12 Play (1993) This smash made Kelly a legend in the R & B world with soulful songs that detailed the Roseland native’s sexual prowess—and became vaguely creepy in retrospect.
17. Chicago Transit Authority: Chicago Transit Authority (1969) Spanning progressive rock and jazz fusion before either sank into self-indulgence, this ambitious double album stayed on the charts for three years.
16. Big Black: Atomizer (1986) Steve Albini’s masterpiece is snide, brutal, and intelligent—i.e. everything to which eighties post-hardcore aspired.
15. Earth, Wind & Fire: That’s the Way of the World (1975) A danceable hybrid of soul, funk, Latin, and disco that went triple platinum and produced what Rolling Stone called “makeout music of the gods.”
14. Cheap Trick: Cheap Trick (1977) Too polished for the punks and too raw for the radio, this goofy, hooky debut documents a band untethered, before they knew how good they were.
13. Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (1965) Essential to any jazz collection, this was the modal jazz groundbreaker that showed Hancock—an alum of Hyde Park High—wasn’t just Miles Davis’s pianist.
12. Tortoise: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996) Smarter than a Mensa meeting and odder than a Lynch film, this unlikely brew of jazz, dub, krautrock, and chamber music generates a wistfully weird mood.
11. John Prine: John Prine (1971) Critics crowned the 24-year-old former Maywood mailman “the next Bob Dylan” for this brilliantly written country/folk debut. He almost was.
10. Kanye West: The College Dropout (2004) Wherein the Oak Lawn kid fulfilled his tremendous promise with intelligent, tongue-twisting rhymes and versatile MC skills.
9. Andrew Bird: The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) Bird’s mellow, atmospheric tour de force gleefully thumbs its nose at any genre labels—and mesmerizes for 53 minutes.
8. Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (2000) If you want to know where jazz came from, this treasure-trove of recordings from 1925 to 1929 (when Chicago was the jazz epicenter) is a good place to start.
7. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (1993) Equal parts cryptic and desperately blunt, this New Trier grad’s lo-fi indie classic pulses with a deadpan humor and anger that few have ever matched on record.
6. Curtis Mayfield: Superfly (1972) Mayfield’s funky grooves and gritty stories—reflecting his upbringing in the Cabrini-Green projects—captured the sound of inner-city streets without moralizing or glorifying.
5. Muddy Waters: The Chess Box (1989) This 72-song boxed set spanning 25 years is the only way to do justice to the man who, in all his swampy slide-guitar glory, basically invented Chicago blues.
4. Naked Raygun: All Rise (1986) Spawning imitators around town, this artsy, hardcore album throbs with old-school, muscular punk rock—and brains to boot.
3. Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream (1993) Billy Corgan’s attempt to one-up Nirvana resulted in one of the decade’s definitive discs: heavy, dreamy, and layered in sonic noise, it nearly succeeded.
2. Willie Dixon: The Chess Box (1988) The definitive Chicago blues compilation: 36 Dixon-penned classics played by Chess Records’ legendary performers, including Dixon—the best blues songwriter ever.
1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) Wilco overcame drug problems, infighting, and record-label drama to create an unforgettable album that will define Chicago for generations of music fans. A lush, chaotic record that only gets better with time (and repeated spins), YHF’s weary forays into psychedelia and noise inadvertently caught the post-9/11 anguish better than any other album.
Photography: (exile in guyville) matador records, (wilco) chris strong, (naked raygun) quarterstick records, (millions now living will never die) thrill jockey records