Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die

Categories: Jazz
By Joseph Lapin

Because there are multiple decades of jazz, it's almost impossible to pick the top 10 albums of all time; the hip cats with their canes and cool shades will throw their used saxophone reeds in my direction and call me a young whippersnapper.

But so many people out there, young or even a bit older, are curious about jazz, and they're not exactly sure where to start. Think of this as a jazz bucket list, filled with masterpieces of a true American music. Let's go!

See Also:
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10. Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come
The title of this album, when it came out in 1959, was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the fences or Muhammad Ali proclaiming he was the greatest.  It was an album that said, you hear this sound, you hear what I'm laying down, everything is about to change. Ornette Coleman went from playing the sax to the trumpet, and he received scorn from Miles Davis who publicly questioned Coleman's sanity and technical ability.  And because the album is often credited as being the anchor to avant-garde jazz albums, it might just sound a bit strange to the newbie's ear.  But Coleman was trying to move away from tradition, shattering conventional ideas of harmony and axing the piano, to create a new dimension of sound.  Give it a shot -- free of expectations.

9. Sonny Rollins
The Bridge
When you put on The Bridge, take a tumbler of whiskey and imagine you're staring out at New York City.  After a sabbatical from music, Sonny Rollins returned triumphantly in 1962 with this work, whose title track was named after the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan to Brooklyn. It's where Rollins used to head to practice.  He's a sax player who wanted to be his own man, an individual.  This album is accessible to the novice.

8. Herbie Hancock
Head Hunters
Herbie Hancock helped bring the synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano to mass appeal. This 1973 album was influenced by Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone.  Even if you don't like jazz but you love funk and soul, you'll likely enjoy this one. At one point, Head Hunters was the best selling jazz album of all time.  Be warned though, there is experimentation happening here. Still, the funky drums should keep you driving forward.

My Voice Nation Help

Ugh... every time someone has a list like this, most everyone bitches about its content. Make your own damn list (as some have done. Thank you.)  I just came across this list which is perfect for me, a non-jazz follower who would like to at least listen to some of the more well known great albums of all time. So, a list of "standards" is what I'm after - this is what I want to hear before I die. Other albums (below in comments) also welcome. Call it Jazz for Dummies, I don't care. Maybe they can do a list called "Great Jazz albums you may not have heard of" or something.


Head Hunters is good, but it's far from a jazz album and listing it as a top Jazz album is an insult to great artists that this list omitted


Sigh... I expected more from the Village Voice. This is a very unimaginative list. It has more or less the same "top 10 greatest jazz albums of all time" vibe that we've all seen a millions times. This list could have been published in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, and as such suffers from the same tunnel vision as seen from other sources like the Ken Burns documentary, ie. jazz died in the 1960s (or early 70s).

Not only have a TON of cool, fun, and interesting albums come out since the 1970s, but I feel that some journalists could step out of their comfort-zone a bit and recommend OTHER ALBUMS in the 50-60s.

Taken together, I feel like this article is uninspired and simply recycles the same list we seen before, and does not help new listeners explore contemporary artists. This is the kind of piece I would expect to read in MAXIM Magazine, not The Village Voice.


I came up with a dozen, but I find these lists very unfair because you could easily have dozens of these lists and would still leave out great recordings.

Sketches of Spain – Miles Davis
Giant Steps- John Coltrane
A Love Supreme- John Coltrane
My Favorite Things – John Coltrane
ESP – Miles Davis
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman – same
Mysterious Traveler – Weather Report
Getz Gilberto – same
Elis & Tom – same
Verve Jazz Masters 17 – Nina Simone
Live at Mister Kelly’s – Sarah Vaughn
At the Sands – Nat King Cole

For Jazz, there are many categories. The best advice I would give a casual listener is to find a “great” that you like and study their musical career. Any great Jazz artist worth anything has studied under someone and with others before they became the artist you know. There is also The Blues, which is critical for any serious understanding of this music. NYU offers an excellent introductory course on The Blues taught by Howard Mandel.


It's impossible to argue that people should not hear this music before they die --  but indeed, this is all canonical work. Anyone who presumes to be a literate, acculturated person should have heard most of this, and a whole lot more. I think it would be a benefit to provide a list of the 10 lesser-known jazz albums one should hear during one's life (hopefully, LONG before death, so the listener can take full advantage of being exposed to wisdom and beauty). Toss off your first 50 or even 100 albums, and then give us a list of 10 we might not have though of, that are really vital, too. And oh yeah, it would be ok to come up with some recordings that are younger than 40 years old, or older than 65.


Wow, thank you for the great introduction to this music called "Jazz."  Miles Davis, huh, I will have to check that guy out. Glad the Voice is still around to shine a light on the hidden corners of the music world.


No Bird! That seems inconceivable to me. For someone that isn't deeply into jazz, or even for someone that is, I would recommend "Charlie Parker with Strings". Lushly arranged, and Bird's sound was never cleaner and more together.  And it is definitely a baby making album if there ever was one. And if you are trying to sell Miles to non-jazz listeners (And why wouldn't you?) you need to throw "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" in there. I agree with LetItBeBop that this list is sorely lacking in variety and might as well have been posted on a site for jazz aficionados. 


Why on EARTH is this divided into four pages that I have to click through?


Wow... where to begin.


No Latin / Brazilian? No big band? No solo piano / guitar?


No Frank, Chet, Wes, Clifford, Joe, Jaco, Duke, Count, Cannonball... ?


No offense, dude, but this is like a five-minute "best-seller-on-Amazon" list at best.


The world does not need one single additional copy of Kind Of Blue pressed into existence.


Even Miles would agree.





couldn't agree more! I'm glad I posted before I read your comments. 

This is akin to Sarah Palin attempting to learn about foreign policy a few weeks before the GOP national convention, starting with world geography. We know how that worked out.

 I’m sure she hasn't looked at a world map since.


@JPMcMahon I absolutely agree — I expected to come up with Charlie Parker as no. 1, although it's also certain that Kind of Blue & Bitches Brew would be on list. I remember hearing Bitches Brew for first time...doesn't fit into any category, but yeah, it's definitely one to remember. But ALL roads lead to and from Bird...


@LetItBeBop Sometimes my friend, the best sellers are the best sellers for a reason. Not knocking your suggestions. They deserve credit, but Kind of Blue is iconic and there simply isn't anything from Brazil, or Latin america, or anywhere else for that matter, that can come close to what this album has accomplished in the Jazz canon.  These albums deserve to be mentioned at the top because they are the most influential jazz albums in history. Jazz aficionados like us take them for granted, but for someone who hasn't been exposed to Jazz, this is where to start. Are some of these debatable? Sure, but to insinuate that Kind of Blue doesn't need more fans, is just silly.

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