Classic Jazz: Louis Armstrong – “West End Blues”
This is one of Armstrong’s most relevant recordings, featuring one of the most impassioned trumpet solos of a long and influential career. Armstrong is a major locus for where Dixieland jazz, ragtime, blues and a broad range of pop influences all meet and form what we think of as jazz, and he synthesizes all that while remaining wholly accessible.
BeBop: Charlie Parker – “Koko”
Charlie Parker was one of the most mercurial figures in popular music, a brilliant musician who galvanized jazz with his powerful, energetic soloing. This track is one of his best and a great introduction into the more free-form, abstract music that characterized bebop, a sound that broke jazz from the stale swing era. It includes a lot of what made this music powerful, with complex melodic lines and virtuoso solos.
Cool Jazz/Modal Jazz: Miles Davis – “So What”
Davis was a figure who seemed able to completely reinvent jazz every decade or so, causing revolutions with bebop, modal jazz, fusion and big band style jazz. This track is the opening from Kind of Blue, an album that is a guidebook to modal jazz and the cool jazz style, and is widely considered a quintessential work of popular music.
Fusion: Mahavishnu Orchestra – “Vital Transformation”
Fusion Jazz combined rock beats and instrumentation with jazz improvisation and technical virtuosity. The genre had been brewing for awhile before guitarist John McLaughlin formed this group, but Mahavishnu’s first album Inner Mounting Flame (which this track is off of) is a big part of why we consider it a distinct form of music. Marked by frenetic solos and rapid-fire beats, it hits a sweet spot between rock aggression and jazz precision.
Outlaw Country: Waylon Jennings – “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”
During a time in the late ’60s and early ’70s when country radio was dominated by a slick, Nashville-produced sound that turned country into string-laden pop ballads, a group of traditionalist such as Jennings, Merle Haggard, David Allen Coe and Willie Nelson worked to keep country closer to its working-class roots, while also incorporating rock band inspired instrumentation. Jennings is a great intro, a brilliant interpreter of songs. This track pure country craftsmanship, standing out even outside the context of its era.
Bluegrass: Flatt & Scruggs – “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
If it helps, think of bluegrass as the heavy metal of early country music, often (though certainly not always) waylaying song craft for speed, noise and technical virtuosity. Flatt & Scruggs helped popularize the style as much as anyone, with a popular television show in the early 50s and a number of country hits. This track was their theme, and helped with a bluegrass revival in the late ‘60’s when it was used in the chase scenes in Bonnie & Clyde (and subsequently every parody of that done since).
Delta Blues: Robert Johnson – “Hellhound on My Trail”
Another lightening rod figure in popular music, Johnson recorded only a handful of tracks in his short life, but those (especially those featured on the classic King of the Delta Blues Singers compilation) have become woven into the DNA of blues and all the popular music that sprung from that. Delta blues is as much a regional definition as a defined musical style, but it’s hard to argue Johnson as its seminal figure, a masterful guitarist who created often haunting music from a variety of sources, both contemporary and traditional. This track is a spooky masterpiece of tone, and a great into to both Johnson and Delta blues.
Chicago Blues: Magic Sam – “Sweet Home, Chicago”
Incorporating electric guitars, danceable rhythms, horns and extended solos, Chicago-style blues was an urbanized, night-club ready version of the blues that expanded the genre’s boundaries from its country roots. Magic Sam was a perfect definition of the style, particularly of his classic West Side Soul album. This track was penned by Robert Johnson, but Sam did the definitive version.
Cosmopolitan Country: Charlie Rich – “Behind Closed Doors”
Remember that slick, string-laden country sound I mentioned the outlaw country crowd rebelled against? It also produced some great songs on its own. Often disparaged as inauthentic and more pop than country, cosmopolitan country still produced tracks that seemed to transcend genre, and could be performed as easily by an R&B artist as someone with a Southern twang. Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” is about as perfect as the genre got.
California Singer/Songwriter (’70s): Joni Mitchell – “Free Man in Paris”
Inspired by rock, pop and folk, the California singer/songwriter scene was often disparaged but was broadly influential. Jackson Brown and Warren Zevon both fit into the style, but Mitchell was the most musically ambitious. This track was a modest radio hit, a big accomplishment for a song about homosexual exploration in Europe. It’s sunny and catchy, but also a complex and deeply felt piece of songwriting.
Psychedelic (’60s): The Byrds – “I See You”
Psychedelic was rock music inspired by hallucinogenics, but also by free jazz, musique concrète and other avant-gard influences. The Byrds were as much a folk-rock group as a psychedelic act, but they weaved these styles together with ease and created often brilliant, harmonious pop music. This track is hardly the most psychedelic of their works (I’d also recommend Jefferson Airplane’s first album as an introduction to the genre), but it hits the looseness off the style just right without wandering off into stranger territory.
Country Rock (’70s): New Riders of the Purple Sage – “Henry”
While outlaw country was country artist inspired by rock attitudes and music, country rock was usually rock artist who grew up on country. The New Riders were one of the most steadfast in the genre, sharing a close relationship with the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia performed on their first album and the bands often toured together), and sharing a strong musicianship (though NRPS focused on machine-tight songwriting). This track sums up the humor, drug obsessions and radio-friendly hooks of the genre.
Alternative Country: Uncle Tupelo – “Graveyard Shift”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a number of punk and indie rock acts started experimenting with traditional country sounds, building out what would soon be called alternative country. Uncle Tupelo opened the gates for the genre with their first album, which this rip-roarer was the opening track, full of a kind of aggression totally missing from popular country music at the time. It splits the difference between punk assault and country heartbreak.
R&B (’60s): Otis Redding – “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”
One of the most vital and diverse styles of popular music, rhythm and blues has been through so many permutations it’s hard to define it as a single genre. Inspired by blues but incorporating pop melodies and classic ballads, the genre has mutated and reinvented itself consistently for 70 years now. This track was Redding’s masterpiece, a deceptively simple track that has never been outdone and defines the genre at one of its creative heights.
R&B (modern): D’Angelo – “Brown Sugar”
R&B lapsed into a creative stagnation after a massive rise in popularity in the 1990s, but restless artists still found ways to update the genre, often by reaching back into its deep history for inspiration. Inspired by classic soul and the musical landscapes of Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo revitalized the genre with his first two albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo. The title track off the first album, this track exemplifies the smooth, seductive sounds of ’90s R&B removed of the flamboyant excesses that plagued R&B in this era.
Soul (’60s): Sam & Dave – “Hold On, I’m Comin’”
Soul took the rhythms of R&B, the passion of gospel and the energy of jazz and mixed it into a powerful dance hall music that became so entwined with R&B that the two virtually became the same genre. While the genre lines get a little blurry around the edges, there are some artists who are definitively soul. Sam & Dave recorded a number of great hits for Stax, many of them (such as this number) produced by a young Isaac Hayes. Many know the track for its appearance in the film The Blues Brothers and the funk beat and super-catchy horn lines make for a great intro.
Neo-Soul: Kem – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
Neo-Soul is kind of the alt-country of modern R&B, rarely producing hits but pulling from the best traditions for some of the most creative work in the genre. Drawing as much from modern hip-hop production as classic soul and R&B, it’s produced a few great artists and balladeers. This smooth-as-silk track from Kem borders on cheesy but is so heartfelt the straightforward it makes a good entryway.
Garage Rock (’60s): The Barracudas – “Baby Get Lost”
Everyone loved the Beatles, but every boy who could afford an electric guitar in the early ’60s wanted to be the Kinks. Garage was the punk rock of the era, so much so that the more you get into the history of it you stop seeing punk as something that just exploded and more of a natural progression of a long running rock tradition. Plenty of great bands here that have gone on to become cult acts, such as the Sonics, the Creation, the Monks and so forth. I chose this track for it’s (relative to the genre) complex guitar lick and catchy simplicity.
Garage Rock (modern): Bass Drum of Death – “Dregs”
The attraction of bashing out straightforward rock numbers in dingy basements and rehearsal spaces with your drunk friends never grows old. With a minor revival kicked off by the White Stripes and the Hives now pretty much forgotten, garage is still kicking around and always seems on the verge of bursting forward again. This track shows the genre a little more sophisticated than it was 50 years ago, but still keeping it basic.
Proto-Punk: Richard Hell & The Voidoids – “Blank Generation”
Proto-punk is one of those labels that gets applied in hindsight to tie together a scene that was moving toward a certain goal that wasn’t quite clear at the time. When this came out, it was just called punk (so were the Talking Heads, by the way), but that label just doesn’t seem to fit anymore. Basically, it’s an artier, more sophisticated garage rock that created the groundwork for the punk scene, if not always punk music itself. Richard Hell created remarkably little music for having such a broad influence. This track became his, and for awhile the early punk scene’s, anthem.
Punk: The Clash – “Janie Jones”
The stereotypical story is that as rock music became bloated, so focused on extended compositions and endless guitar solo noodling, a backlash brewed in lower-class neighborhoods both in the US and England, bringing rock back to its three chord roots. It’s a little more complicated than that and prog rock got a bad rep out of the whole thing, but however it came about we ended up with punk. The Ramones were one of the first to really define the style, but London’s The Clash were the soul of what the genre became, complete with its political radicalism, straight forward sound and early rock ‘n’ roll inspired melodies (the reggae and roots influences also spread sporadically through punk’s DNA). This track, the album opener on the UK version, became one of the touchstones of early British punk.
Hardcore Punk: Black Flag – “Nervous Breakdown”
Even a stripped down music can get more stripped down. The gangsta rap to early punk’s hip hop, hardcore punk began in disaffected urban areas in the US, major scenes really building up in Los Angeles and Washington DC. The music favored aggression over melody, a shorter-faster-louder aesthetic that burned up quick but left a pretty cool looking corpse. Black Flag became one of punk rock’s standard-bearers, blazing a trail that would have a major influence in both the genre itself as well as independent music in general, especially after Henry Rollins was hired on as lead singer. This track, with vocals by Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks, has all the bearings of hardcore while still being frenzied little earworm.
Progressive Rock: Yes – Siberian Khatru
Prog suffered under a bad rap for a long time, labeled as pretentious musical self-indulgence more focused on extended solos and blathering concept albums falling into the deep end of meaningless abstraction than on creating anything that resembled real human music. That’s all vaguely true, to a point, but it also ignores the vast merits of the genre, stacked full with some of the best musicians rock ever produced. Yes is an easy entry point, with their soaring vocals, rushing baselines and Rick Wakeman’s dazzling keyboard work. This track, off of 1972’s Close to the Edge shows both the ambition of the music, but also tightly focused compositional skills.
New Wave: Blondie – “Heart of Glass”
It can be said that “new wave” was created as a marketing term to take the more accessible bands out of New York’s punk scene and actually get them to sell records. The label has grown to incorporate a subset of bands with ties to punk, but who incorporated elements of pop, dance and electronic music into their sound. Blondie hit all the touch points of new wave, casting a wide net through recent popular music history. This track is partly their take on disco and shows an accessible genre at its most accessible.
Post-Punk: Gang of Four – “Damaged Goods”
Post-punk existed almost as soon as the first punk singles came out (Wire’s Pink Flag came out the same year as the Ramones Leave Home and Rocket to Russia albums), basically becoming a college-educated version of punk, more experimental and artsy but sticking to the aggressive, stripped down, cut-to-the-bone aesthetic that was punk’s primary contribution to popular music. It also didn’t skimp of the politics, as the British group Gang of Four shows. Incorporating dance beats and funk into a punk frame, the band had a major influence in that is still being felt in indie rock today. This track is their debut single and a caustic little kiss-off.
Surf Rock (’60s): The Centurians – “Bullwinkle Pt. 2”
Surf rock is a (very) rare example of a music developing around a sporting trend that didn’t end up as a total historical dead end. That you can pretty much trace the entire style to Dick Dale is also interesting. Defined by fast, reverb-heavy guitars (if you’ve ever seen Dale play, he used heavy gauge strings and grinds his picks to dust) Eastern-inspired musical scales and a frantic sound meant to invoke the feel of a surfer riding a wave, surf had a brief popularity in the late ’50s and early ’60s but was soon eclipsed by the British Invasion bands. Dale’s signature track, “Misirlou” came back into the public consciousness thanks to its inclusion on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. I chose this, that compilation’s other surf rock number, to show off the more dreamy, watching-the-ocean-at-sunset tones the style was capable of.
Surf Rock (modern): Man or Astro-Man? – “The Heavies”
Surf rock got a second life in the 1990s during the alternative music boom, drawn back in and mashed up with a wide variety of trash culture it was connected to by association, often played with a punk attitude. Man or Astro-Man? where one of the best to come out of the brief revival, wrapping surf up in a ‘50’s science fiction aesthetic, mashing in UFO’s, monster movies and a Devo-inspired personal mythology along with their guitar thrash.
Synthpunk: Suicide – “Ghost Rider”
Combining the forward rush of punk with electronic and experimental music, synthpunk is one of those genres that started early in the punk scene and always seemed to pop in and out of view as bands picked it up and made some noise. Suicide were the first to wear the label and remain a touchstone of the genre. This track, best known now as the source of the main riff in M.I.A.’s “Born Free” is one of their more accessible.
Art Rock: Brian Eno – “Baby’s on Fire”
“Art rock” is one of those labels that works well for describing the idiosyncratic works of artists that only barely fit into the rock genre, if they fit into anything at all. Distinguished from prog by its lack of classically inspired compositions and a stronger experimental edge, art rock covers everything from early Genesis to Pink Floyd’s middle period to my chosen track here by Brian Eno. After leaving Roxy Music, Eno released a series of astounding solo records, starting with Here Come the Warm Jets and ending with Before and After Science. The free associative lyrics flow over layered, mangled rock numbers that Eno twisted around in the production studio. This track includes a powerful solo from King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and shows off Eno’s dark lyrical humor.
Ambient: Brian Eno – “Music for Airports”
Not a lot of people can claim to have created a genre, and while ambient-style music had been floating around for years in the avant-gard scene, Eno solidified it with a strong theoretical backing. This album was created to help calm nervous travelers at airports, and is the earliest example of a style that would influence a broad range of electronic music.
Disco: Chic – “Everybody Dance”
Probably one of the most unfairly (and sometimes fairly) maligned styles of popular music in the last century, disco was a style of dance music pulling from jazz, funk and pop to create propulsive beats, cheerful melodies and extended dancehall breakdowns. Chic was distinguished from a lot of other disco acts by being a real band rather than a production studio creation, and included two of the best pop songwriters/producers of its era in guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards. The bassline for their hit “Good Times” was sampled by Grandmaster Flash, the Sugerhill Gang and Daft Punk, and inspired Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” This track shows off everything the band, and disco, did well, with it’s modal guitar lines, upbeat harmonies and relatively complex jazz chords.
Rockabilly (’50s): The Johnny Burnette Trio – “Train Kept A-Rollin’”
Country music when it first met electric guitars and pure aggression is how we got rockabilly. Fast paced, with a deep reverb sound, it was rock ‘n’ roll just as rock ‘n’ roll was becoming a thing. This track, covered by both the Yardbirds and Aerosmith, is a distorted barn burner that shows off the genre at its most unhinged.
Rock ‘n’ Roll (’50s): Buddy Holly and the Crickets – “That’ll Be the Day”
The foundations of rock started when people started pulling in R&B, country & western, tossing in electric guitars and saxophones and pushing the tempo up to a little faster than the old people were comfortable with. The first rock ‘n’ roll track is arguable Ike Turner’s “Rocket ‘88’”, but it’s hard to deny the influence of Buddy Holly, who recorded some of rock’s earliest classics in his too-short life. Bringing a Texas country twang (the Crickets started out as a country act) to the R&B he loved, Holly wrote relatively complex music for a teenage audience (check the rolling snare drums on “Peggy Sue” or the rain drop strings on his solo pop numbers). This is, in hindsight, his anthem.
College Rock (’80s): R.E.M. – “These Days”
Slightly country-ish, slightly folk-ish and certainly out of place in the hair metal 1980’s, college rock is another of those labels used kind of after the fact due to its popularity on college radio and for its brainier, more introspective style when compared to the popular music of the day. A lot of this has aged horribly, but early R.E.M. still stands up as some of the best the genre has to offer. This track showcases the band at their most propulsive, years before they exploded their sound in the face of popular success.
Grunge: Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick”
So great and so quickly exploited. Grunge is what happens when you leave a beer-drinking blue collar region that had a decent punk scene alone for too long without anyone looking, and when you collect a bunch of rock musicians who all thing My War is the best Black Flag album. While it’s most popular acts are the least indicative of the style, Mudhoney is still the one you can always point to and say that’s what grunge is. Deeply distorted rock ‘n’ roll that combined layers of sonic sludge over punk aggression. This, their first single, is still one of their best.
Heavy Metal (’70s): Black Sabbath – “Supernaut”
Defined by a pounding sonic dominance, huge riffs and wailing vocals, metal was rock as total warfare. It’s since moved into more sub-genres than I can even begin to do justice to, but it starts here with Black Sabbath. The darkness, the heaviness, the powerful drums and rumbling bass, the lyrics obsessed with grand themes given religious importance. It’s the source code that would spawn legions throwing the horns.
Thrash Metal (’80s): Megadeth – “Killing is My Business…And Business is Good”
Metal in a way subsumed prog rock (devoured it whole in some cases) as the rock genre most obsessed with technical virtuosity, which is how you end up with heavily tattooed people swinging their head around at high velocity, screaming about the Devil while playing chord changes that would make a jazz freak nod in approval. Thrash took the gutter crunch of Motorhead and pushed it even further, upping the tempo while remaining compellingly complex.
No Wave: Sonic Youth – “Death Valley ‘69”
As the punk rock scene started to become creatively stagnant (though nowhere near death), a number of artists and musicians in New York took up punk’s call but applied the aesthetics of experimental music and performance art, creating a harsh, almost caustic sound that relied heavily on noise and, often, pure sonic brutality. Most of these bands burned out as quickly as they started, and the genre collapsed shortly after it had been documented in Brian Eno’s No Wave New York comp, but a few held on. Sonic Youth became the most culturally significant and longest lasting group to spring from this stew. While this track is a lot more accessible than most no wave, it still has the harsh, experimental tones that defined the genre. Bonus points for having Lydia Lunch, from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, on vocals.
New Traditionalist Country: George Strait – “Amarillo By Morning”
Country entered another creatively stagnant period in the late 1970s and early ’80s, remaining popular music but with both the outlaw country stars and the old mainstays struggling to create relevant music. The New Traditionalists worked to bring things back to the roots again, but this time incorporating more modern pop melodies. When you think of modern country in the 1980s and 90s, this is mostly what you’re thinking of, the “country” when people say they “like everything but rap and country.” But that doesn’t mean it didn’t produce some great songwriting. George Strait, the most popular recording artist in America that only like three people on this website have ever listened to, is the godhead of the style, writing songs that could have been recorded just as easily 30 years earlier, but giving them a modern pop sheen.
Swing (’40s): Benny Goodman – “Sing, Sing, Sing”
Jazz started as dance music, and swing is that stand of the genre in its purest form. Defined by big orchestras (to make sure the band was heard over the audience in crowded clubs in pre-PA days) and dance floor rhythms underlying jazz solos, swing became some of the most popular music of its day, lasting right up to the early 1950s. This track, Goodman’s most memorable performance and his band’s masterpiece, shows off everything the genre did right without any of the deficits that would soon render it creatively stale.
Britpop: Blur – “Country House”
Influenced by the more ambitious pop work of the Kinks and looking the shed the dourness of shoegaze, Britpop was British rock’s counterpart to American indie rock and alt-rock through the mid 1990s. And like its counterpart, it basically was done for by the end of the decade, creatively exhausted and with its biggest bands either falling apart or floundering through genres until they finally broke free entirely. Oasis was the biggest band to come out of it, but I prefer this Blur track as a good introduction. It shows off the humor, the Kinks-inspired idiosyncratic nature of the genre.
Shoegaze: My Bloody Valentine – “I Only Said”
Short lived but fairly influential (with a revival happening as we speak in modern indie rock), shoegaze (a disparaging name mocking the stereotype of its self-serious performers staring at their shoes on stage) began in the late 1980s and ran through the early ’90s in Britain. Defined by effects and distortion laden guitars, hushed vocals that are often incomprehensible and a Phil Spector-style wall of sound created by a humming guitar drone, the style can be as soothing as it is punishingly loud. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was a touchstone of the genre and one of the best albums of its era. Though few other bands hit this kind of sonic richness, it still makes a solid introduction to the genre.
Ska (Jamaican): Toots & the Maytals “Pressure Drop”
Drawing on American R&B but mixing it with local sounds (such as calypso), ska was Jamacia’s most popular form of music through much of the 1960s. Light, upbeat dance music, it laid the foundation for reggae and rocksteady and had a major influence abroad, inspiring revivals in Britain and America in the 1970s and 1990s. This track was one of the first to bring the music to the US, thanks to it’s inclusion on the The Harder They Come soundtrack.
Ska (2 Tone): The Specials – “A Message to You, Rudy”
The first major revival of ska in Britain, 2 Tone (named for the record label that popularized it) or “second wave” ska sat kind of adjacent to the British punk scene and incorporated that sound as an influence. The Specials created some of this revival’s most indicative sounds, taking the upbeat rhythms of ska and giving it some punk energy. This track is low key but shows off the sharp songwriting chops the genre often inspired.
Roots Reggae: Burning Spear – “Marcus Garvey”
For a lot of people, roots reggae is just what they think of when they think of reggae, and the genre begins and ends with the Bob Marley Legends comp (which is why I didn’t use him here). But the genre is more diverse than that. Drawing from ska and rocksteady, but slowing the tempos and focusing on more spiritual or political matters, reggae was in some ways the country music of Jamaica. Burning Spear was one of the most soulful groups (it’s both a group and a solo performer; this track is by the original group) and this track shows that.
Tropicalia: Caetano Veloso – “Tropicalia”
Tropicalia was a Brazilian artistic movement that was a lot more than just music. But the music was it’s primary legacy and was marked by a blending of a broad range of influences into the traditions of Brazilian music, included but not limited to American rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. While it sounds pretty innocuous now, this was deeply political music, eventually leading to Veloso’s imprisonment and exile. This is the track that eventually gave the movement its name, showing off the beautiful cultural cannibalism that defined the movement.