Serious artists don’t work in a vacuum. Inspiration for musical creativity can be found in movies, poetry, painting, a conversation, a great dinner, and, of course, especially in recorded masterpieces from the past. Here’s a list of 10 great albums that can fan the flames of your own creativity, each chosen for a specific approach that takes it outside the box and into the stratosphere.
Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love (1967): The art of mixing is dead in the world of modern recordings, where flat spectrum discs mastered with high compression dominate, snuffing out opportunities for sonic nuance. Hendrix understood that the sound of an album can be a living, breathing and, perhaps most of all, moving thing. Axis, like St. Pepper’s, is a primer for creative mixing. Especially for guitarists. Voices and instruments constantly move in the stereo spectrum, forcing changes of perspective and refocusing the listener. Then there’s Hendrix’s deft guitar texturing. If you want to learn how to imagine and place guitar overdubs within the art of creative mixing, Axis is ground zero.
Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (1985): There is a lot to be gleaned from this pivotal album in Waits’ career, from how to deliver a vocal performance with intimacy (“Downtown Train”) to drawing on a myriad of forms — jazz, country, rock, blues — simultaneously in an arrangement. But one of this disc’s big lessons is how effectively angular rhythms and unconventional percussion can color the sound and shift the aesthetics of an entire album. “Singapore,” “Clap Hands” and “Cemetery Polka” are all jitters and atmosphere thanks to their smart, asymmetrical drumming and the use of unconventional percussion sounds including a 2x4 plank slamming a chest of drawers. When it comes to rhythm and songcraft, Waits and Rain Dogs open frontiers.
Black Keys’ El Camino (2011): Dan Auerbach brilliantly combines retro guitar sounds with modernist songwriting on the Black Keys’ latest album. Of course there are elements of ’60s garage rock and psychedelia, as well as ’70s African pop, in the disc’s bones, but tunes like “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Lonely Boy” balance rhythmic flourishes and vocal arrangements that are entirely modernist. No matter that Auerbach’s recording gear is old and funky. His tightrope walk between sophisticated production and composition and lo-fi sound exudes contemporary hipster chic. And his guitar is always big, fat and filthy — a timeless cross between Blue Cheer and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Sonny Sharrock’s Seize the Rainbow (1987): Mention improvisation and most guitar players think in terms of jazz harmonies and melody, or Allman Brothers style jamming. Sonny Sharrock, the late father of free jazz guitar, went well beyond the usual paradigms to forge his own voice in pure, textured sound. And when it comes to slide, nobody else has ever played with the bold, screaming directness of Sharrock’s expressionism. Plus, he always played his Gibson L-5 and Les Paul Customs with balls and mile-wide tone. Listen to his solo on “Dick Dogs.” It seems impossible that he’ll ever find his way back from his Pultonian wailing to the song’s core melody, and yet with a few well-chosen notes he dives back into the song’s groove and tune. Guitarists who don’t listen to Sharrock are cheating themselves out of fully embracing the capacity of their instrument.
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1965): Looking for inspiration in musical instruments besides the guitar is essential for six-stringers. That’s how Charlie Christian and the rest of jazz guitar’s foundational players found their voices. But as much as Coltrane’s sax is an amazing gate-opener to the heights of harmonic invention and raw, soulful wailing, his band on A Love Supreme — especially core players McCoy Tyner (piano), Elvin Jones (drums) and Jimmy Garrison (bass) — move as a single, living organism. Their interplay is flawless and thrilling, and the sense that they are spontaneously discovering new elements of the compositions that they are performing is captured in the grooves. So consider this a textbook for ensemble playing — which is exactly what Duane Allman and Dickey Betts did.
Junior Kimbrough’s All Night Long (1992): The late Mississippi bluesman’s debut for Fat Possum Records helped spark the ’90s juke joint blues revolution. This disc is proof that even deeply traditional blues doesn’t have to sound pat or be based in the Chicago, Texas or West Coast approaches to inspire and communicate. It just takes a little looking for blues guitar players to find fresh inspiration within their favored genre. And Kimbrough’s snaky, swirling sound crosses the lines between blues, psychedelic rock and world music effortlessly
Richard Hell & the Voidoid’s Blank Generation (1977): This punk rock pillar is an essay in how guitar tone and approach can shape the character of an album and its songs. Hell may be the lyricist and bandleader, but guitarist Robert Quine is his equal. Quine’s abrupt, reverb-less sound, jagged bends and calculatedly raggedy runs bring the punk aesthetic to life. They are also a great example of how playing outside the box can lead a listener deeper into the music.
Hank Williams’ The Best of Hank Williams (1990 compilation): Listen to the solos on tunes like “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Half As Much” — literally all of his smashes — and you’ll grasp that melody and simplicity can equal or surpass Joe Satriani level chops when it comes to making a performance memorable. Hank said he liked his music in one flavor, plain vanilla, but the bottom line of his logic is that guitar solos that echo a song’s vocal melody embed the tune’s hooks deeper and preserve its beauty without distraction.
Brian’s Eno’s Music for Films (1978): This cornerstone of ambient music is ground zero for creating modern textural soundscapes and redefines musical form and movement. Eno also brings a heightened perspective to the concept of music’s function and purpose. You’ve heard Eno’s productions on classic albums by Roxy Music, David Bowie and U2, but patiently listening to Eno’s own recordings — both his ambient and pop records — will increase the size of your musical brain. Guaranteed.
Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma (1969): Half live album and half studio experiment, Ummagumma show has deeply an ensemble group can also explore the potential of the studio through blending independent ideas. In particular the track "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" displays the ability to create elaborate textures and wild sonics with just a few studio tricks — tape speed manipulation, deep reverb — and clever recording. This album, a wild beast of the psychedelic era, was made before the age of ProTools, when these accomplishments required elaborate editing and recording trickery. Today all this and more can be done quickly with plug-ins and other software, so there are no longer any artistic or logistical excuse for not exercising imagination in the studio.