The Unprecedented Cool of the Library of Congress’s Class of 2021

Classic Albums by Nas, Pat Metheny, Jackson Browne, Labelle, Jimmy Cliff and more inducted into the National Recording Registry

The Library of Congress National Recording Registry Class of 2021 (Art: Ron Hart)

Some of the greatest albums in blues, jazz, reggae, R&B, disco and hip-hop join other groundbreaking sounds of history and culture among the latest titles inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

Librarian of Congress curator Carla Hayden named the albums among the 25 recordings preserved for all time based on their cultural, historical or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage, including an episode of the long-running soap opera Guiding Light from the Thanksgiving weekend after World War II and New York Yankees legend Roger Maris’s record-breaking 61st home run on October 1, 1961.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

Below please find a sample of some of the must-hear music recordings in the Library of Congress’s Class of 2021.


Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues by Odetta (1957) 



This is the debut album from an important voice in the folk revival; a mix of blues, spirituals and ballads from the Birmingham, Alabama-born Odetta, who waa a major influence to a generation of folk singers. Namely Bob Dylan, who has cited this album as what convinced him to trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic when he heard it as a 15-year-old teenager in Minnesota. This 16-song LP showcases Odetta’s extraordinary vocal power, which she always manages to temper with great emotion. Among the selections: “Muleskinner Blues,” “Jack o’ Diamonds,” “Easy Rider,” “Glory, Glory” and her concluding spiritual trilogy:  “Oh, Freedom,” “Come and Go With Me” and “I’m on My Way.”


Born Under a Bad Sign by Albert King (1967)




As Jimi himself would clearly tell you, Albert King was the original left-handed guitar hero.  Armed with his signature Flying V Gibson guitar, Born Under A Bad Sign  played in his distinctive left-handed manner, was one of the blues’ greatest guitarists, and this album is considered to be his very best.  Other great songs on this album include “Crosscut Saw” and “The Hunter.”  Recorded in Memphis with backing from Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and the Memphis Horns, King was one of the very first to successfully fuse raw blues and funky soul in such a natural way.


The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff (1972) 



In 1972, reggae singer Jimmy Cliff starred in the first Jamaican-produced feature film, “The Harder They Come.” Around the time of the film’s release, the soundtrack to this film made its way to American audiences and has been credited by Rolling Stone magazine as “the album that took reggae worldwide.” Cliff has six songs on the album, including the title track and the seminal “Many Rivers to Cross,” which has since been covered by myriad artists, including Cher, John Lennon, UB40, Annie Lennox and Percy Sledge. While only the title track was recorded specifically for the soundtrack, the album collected numerous reggae stars and presented essential works in the genre to a new global audience. Others reggae pioneers and luminaries appearing on the album include Toots and the Maytals (“Pressure Drop” and “Sweet and Dandy”), Desmond Dekker (“Shanty Town”) and The Melodians (“Rivers of Babylon”). This exemplar of the diverse sounds of reggae in the 1960s and ‘70s has enjoyed enormous critical praise and continued popularity in the U.S. The album has appeared on every version of “Rolling Stone’s” Top 500 albums of all time.


“Lady Marmalade” by Labelle (1974) 


VIDEO: Labelle performs “Lady Marmalade” on the Midnight Special hosted by Wolfman Jack (1975)

The elemental trio of Labelle — Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash — first formed in 1962 as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. By the early 1970s, they were simply Labelle, and released six albums under that name. Their biggest hit was this French-infused dance track written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan and produced by Allen Toussaint and Vicki Wickham.  Inspired by a few choice streets in New Orleans, the song has been covered several times since its release, still unwittingly prompting listeners to sing its famous refrain phonetically: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?,” often unaware of its true meaning.


Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne (1974) 


Although Jackson Browne had some success with his first two albums (in ’72 and ’73), in 1974, he was still primarily known as a songwriter, his works having been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Tom Rush and the Eagles, among others. “Late for the Sky” changed all that. It was recorded more quickly and for less money than his previous album, and neither of the album’s released singles charted. But none of that mattered. The maturity and depth of Browne’s writing did. Brilliantly supported by his touring band, especially David Lindley on guitar and fiddle, the lyrics deal with apocalypse, uncertainty, death, and especially, love and the loss of it experienced by someone transitioning to manhood. In “Fountain of Sorrow,” Browne wrote, “I’m just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you/In my lessons at love’s pain and heartache school ….” Bruce Springsteen called Late for The Sky Browne’s “masterpiece.”


Bright Size Life by Pat Metheny (1976)



Pat Metheny’s debut album Bright Size Life signaled a new direction for jazz in the mid-1970s — not only for leader Pat Metheny, but also bassist Jaco Pastorius, drummer Bob Moses and Gary Burton, who went uncredited as a producer at the time, though he wrote the album’s liner notes. In their only album together, all participants built on the musical traditions that preceded them to create a new expression of jazz distinguished by their own styles and personalities, before blazing their own distinctive trails in the music. The album saw modest initial sales, but the passage of time has made its significance clear.


“The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog (1979) 


VIDEO: Kermit The Frog performs “The Rainbow Connection”

Written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, “The Rainbow Connection” opened the Muppets’ first foray into film in The Muppet Movie. The song is performed by Kermit the Frog (voiced by Jim Henson), and was produced by Williams and Jim Henson. Williams and Ascher received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song at the 52nd Academy Awards for its composition. Since then, the song has been covered dozens of times, from Judy Collins in 1980 to Kacey Musgraves in 2019, but the Kermit/Henson recording remains the iconic version of the work. It has been used as a theme song by many charitable organizations, and its plaintive message about dreams and their fulfillment remains enduring.


“Celebration” by Kool & the Gang (1980) 


VIDEO: Kool & The Gang “Celebration”

Founded in 1964 by brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell, Kool and the Gang (formerly the Jazziacs or the Soul Town Band early on) had already had hits with their songs “Ladies Night” and “Jungle Boogie,” when they released their 1980 album “Celebrate!” containing the group’s most famous and enduring song, “Celebration.”  Led by J.T. Taylor’s spirited lead vocal, it would be their biggest hit and quickly became a feature of national celebrations like the 1980 World Series, the 1981 Super Bowl and the 1981 NBA Finals. While others have released covers to great success, such as Kylie Minogue in 1992, the original remains a staple of every party DJ’s set list — be it at a high school dance or a 50th anniversary party.


Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 by Janet Jackson (1989) 


AUDIO: Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation 1819 (full album)

Despite her record label’s wishes, Janet Jackson resisted the urge to release another album like her previous Control in favor of an album with more socially-conscious lyrics. On Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson explores issues of race, homelessness and school violence among other topics. Musically, the album continued the productive relationship Jackson had enjoyed on Control with producers James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis. The duo relied on drum machines and samples of street sounds, breaking glass and trash can lids to create several brief interludes between the songs that lent the album a unified feel. Jackson’s impeccable vocal timing also helped the producers build up dense multi-layered vocal mixes of the funky “Alright” and other songs on the LP. Despite such cutting edge touches, Jackson did deliver dance songs like the lively “Escapade,” but also on display were ballads like “Someday is Tonight” and even the guitar-driven rocker “Black Cat.” Even the tunes with a serious call for racial healing and political unity like “Rhythm Nation” featured catchy beats, proving that dance music and a social message are not mutually exclusive.


Partners by Flaco Jiménez (1992)



When asked about the significance of American roots music, Flaco Jiménez once replied that it was in “the sharing and blending of different kinds of musics, like a brotherhood thing. It makes the world rounder when there’s coordination.” Jiménez, the son of conjunto pioneer Santiago Jiménez, has combined tradition and innovation throughout his career, working with artists as varied as the Rolling Stones, Dwight Yoakam, Carlos Santana and Willie Nelson. On this bilingual album, Jiménez shows this philosophy in action in collaborations with Stephen Stills, Linda Ronstadt, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, in a variety of traditional and contemporary musical settings.


“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993)


VIDEO: Iz “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, or “Bruddah Iz” or “Iz” as he was also known to his fans in Hawaii, created this medley of two classic pop standards. But, in it, he stayed true to his vision of creating contemporary Hawaiian music that fused reggae, jazz and traditional Hawaiian sounds.  Driven primarily by Iz’s angelic voice and ukulele playing, the song is melancholic and joyous at once. Taken from Iz’s album Facing Future — the first Hawaiian album ever certified platinum — this single was an international hit, and it has had a sustained life through its use in several television programs and motion pictures, including Meet Joe Black, Finding Forrester, Charmed and 50 First Dates.


Illmatic by Nas (1994) 



Most of us first heard Nas on the 1991 Main Source posse classic “Live at the BBQ” or at least those of us who know our hip-hop, know what I mean? But with his 1994 debut LP, the man born Nasir Jones created a page-turning rap masterpiece that essentially serves as a portrait of the artist as a young man living in the same Queensbridge housing project as Roxanne Shante with his dad, New York City loft jazz luminary Olu Dara. It seemed like every other car from Mastic Beach to SUNY Plattsburgh was bumping Illmatic and its eternal anthems in “New York State of Mind,” “Halftime”, “The World Is Yours” or any of the tracks featured therein, blessed by the production of such giants as Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S. and DJ Premier.


VIDEO: Nas “The World Is Yours”


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Ron Hart

Ron Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Roll Globe. Reach him on Twitter @MisterTribune.

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