Photo credit: Jim Newberry
The governing principle of my list is expertise. All of these artists have worked long and hard to produce their music at the highest level of accomplishment. They have all studied both academically and in the real world. No one starts out this good. Their knowledge had to be won through sustained effort.
Some faced and overcame terrible disadvantages and persevered in a world that asked them, Just who do you think you are?
Each of these artists has found an original voice. They all tell their stories in unique and unpredictable ways with humor and compassion for the human condition; these are skills perfected over a lifetime. It’s a fitting metaphor for anything of value we may acquire in our lives.
I’ve tried to create a musical collage of the scene today, as I see it. I will go into the past, then forward into today, and of course into what I see as the future. This is the filter known as Wayne Kramer and this is some of what matters to me now.
"Boxes and Squares” by Tank and The Bangas
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Tank and The Bangas represent some of the best musicians America has produced, and naturally they come from New Orleans. New Orleans has consistently produced the best players in the country, and this band is leading the way. They've got big ears. It sounds like they've been listening to Sun Ra and the entire jazz canon, and beatnik poetry, and hip-hop, and rap, and funk, and classical music — and combined them all in a dynamic performance that out-classes everybody else out there. This is the future of popular music.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man" by Chuck Berry
This is a spontaneous masterpiece, with Chuck Berry playing a solo of great economy, beautiful rhythm, and melody, and then allowing pianist Johnny Johnson to take a chorus as well. But the real gem here is the lyric. It covers racism in America, describing it brilliantly as being "arrested on charges of unemployment," and covering international politics, history, family relations, marriage, and the integration of baseball, all surrounding a brown-eyed, handsome man. Genius.
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
Little Richard, on his original sessions with the great Earl Palmer providing the driving drums, opens the door to the black experience for white kids — with sweat and sex and dance and whooping and hollering at the top of your lungs. "Tutti Frutti" is one of many nonsensical expressions which, as you already know, are the backbone of all great rock and roll lyrics. The description of his girlfriend, who is the hottest thing going, was certainly an education for this boy from Detroit.
“Seventeen" by Lake Street Dive
This band is also made up of world-class musicians. I think playing well is important. I think the best music comes from the hardest work. Educated and hardworking, Lake Street Dive is the hippest band on the touring circuit. I saw them recently here in Los Angeles at the Ford Amphitheatre and they killed that sold-out house. They sing great, they play great, they write great songs. This is what I want in my music — and they look great! Actually, they look like arena rock and funky soul had sex with the 1970s and a baby came out, and the baby has the deepest soul, the hardest grooves, the smartest lyrics, the greatest harmonies, and it's fucking gorgeous! The best of all worlds.
“Ramrod” by Duane Eddy
Here is one of the best early guitar rock instrumentals, with blistering tempo and furious guitar playing pointed in the direction of the future. It’s pre-metal pre-punk, yet with the roots of both in there. Hugely influential for me.
“Perfidia” by The Ventures
This is the other side of the coin to Duane Eddy. With sophisticated chord changes and the melody of a American classic song, it illustrates that you can be smart and literate and understand the canon of song and still R-O-C-K. And do it without saying a word and not singing a note.
“Break-Thru" by Dirty Projectors
David Longstreth and his collaborators in New York are killing it by bringing South African township music into the modern age with electronic instruments, Brooklyn sensibility, and great skill. When I hear him it reminds me of the work of Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, my favorite band from South Africa. All of this music needs to be heard — because it's good music. It's danceable, it feels good, it's inspiring, and it is creatively head and shoulders above so much else out there.
“Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light" by Sun Ra (From the album The Cymbals/Symbols Sessions: New York City 1973)
Strange as it may sound, this is a new Sun Ra record — at least new to the listening public. It was gifted to me by my friend Kim Thayil and the players in MC50 who share my penchant for all things Herman Poole Blount, as Sun Ra was known before the Arkestra. This track in particular finds Ra and his merry men and women taking a delightful romp through the blues, but this is a blues unlike any other you ever heard. It's all the elements of the blues put into a Veg-O-Matic and performed from another galaxy.
“Outta Yer Hands” by Alex Sniderman (From the album We're Not Happy 'Til You're Not Happy)
Alex Sniderman has been hammering away at the craft of songwriting for 20 years and he is a true undiscovered genius. These are really smart songs, played well, recorded well, and marketed really shittily. As in not marketed at all — so you heard it here first folks! Alex’s catalog is deep and needs to be mined.
Editor's note: This song is not featured on the Spotify playlist.
“Gazette” by Malathini and the Mahotella Queens
I have been a huge fan of this band for decades. This is actual township music from South Africa, at its best, with incredible beats. Because the singing is in a South African language, I have no idea what they're talking about, but they do what they do really well. You can tell just by the way it feels and the way it makes you feel.
"Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
P.E. had the balls to sum it all up. To go out there and say it, and tell the truth, and inspire people — and not buy the hype. Right on brothers, right on.
“We Can Work It Out” by Stevie Wonder
This is really a tour de force for Motown bassist James Jamerson. Jamerson's bass playing on this Beatles cover pushes the envelope so far forward that it falls off the table. Seriously, his bass playing was revolutionary on every level and he is still light years ahead of every other bass player out there.
“Bells” by Albert Ayler
One of the pioneers of free jazz, Albert took music into the future, but he brought the past with him. Albert played melodies. Albert played rhythms. But Albert reconstructed them and whole new passages, using whole new techniques, and opened the door for the possibilities of what music might become. Recorded in 1965, and 50 years later, he is still right on time. Actually way ahead of time.
“Pony” by Ginuwine
Ginuwine and this tune’s great producer, Timbaland, say what nobody wants to say straight up — it's all about sex. I think this tune is as salacious and greasy and funky and sexy as it's possible to be in the aural realm.
“There Was a Time” by James Brown
No list from Wayne Kramer would be complete without a nod to Soul Brother #1, James Brown, the hardest working man in show business. Here, James and his musicians — and I credit them equally — create a singular, epic demonstration of rhythm and poetry in action. The dynamics of the tune, where James sings the verse and the band is quiet and breaks it down, and then he screams at the end of the line and the band bashes into full steam and then breaks it down again, and again, and again is thrilling. It's a roller coaster ride! It's been a personal inspiration to me all these years and no doubt will continue to inspire me for the rest of my days.
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, as the leader of Detroit’s incendiary rock band The MC5, helped form the White Panther Party in solidarity with other organizations working for racial and economic equality during the Vietnam War, making him a target of the FBI’s counterintelligence program. After serving a federal prison term, he released 10 solo albums. He is considered a pioneer of both punk rock and heavy metal, with Rolling Stone
naming him one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Alongside songwriter Billy Bragg, Kramer founded Jail Guitar Doors USA, a nonprofit with a mission to help rehabilitate prison inmates by teaching them to express themselves positively through music. The Hard Stuff
is his first book.