Best-of lists -- which have filled the pages of newspapers and magazines ever since the calendar read January 2, 1999 -- probably shouldn't exist at all. They are, more than anything else, the stuff of fiction. Surely, there is one album out there, or 100, we've not heard -- that Great Album that somehow slipped through the cracks and that only you know about. Surely, there's one artist out there long since banished to history's trash heap, someone who created a masterpiece that went unacknowledged and remains forever ignored. Happens every day, even in a city such as Dallas, where music has become such Big Business that musicians now take jobs selling other people's work on the Internet.
But somehow, a list such as this one -- which we shall heretofore refer to as The 50 Best Albums Made In Dallas, or By Dallas Natives, or Something -- seems as good a compendium as any to offer up as we crawl toward the end of this century. After all, it's likely that very soon there will be no one left who remembers the Dallas String Band or who played with Blind Lemon Jefferson or who attended one of James Clay's final gigs. Millennium hysteria proffers that the turn of the calendar will erase the past from our minds. More likely, we would have forgotten anyway -- especially here, in a town where history is replaced by a parking lot or an expanded highway every single day.
We've compiled this list, with some assistance from a handful of choice outsiders who stopped listening to music and began living it a long time ago, merely to offer yet another glimpse of this town's oft-ignored musical heritage -- ya know, to remind people that rock and roll in Dallas didn't start the day Brady Wood bought Trees, or that country in this town wasn't born the moment the Dixie Chicks won their first Grammy or the day LeAnn Rimes turned 12. Just a quick glimpse at this list reveals how deep and diverse the back catalog really is: from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Lefty Frizzell to Meat Loaf to The D.O.C. to Bedhead.
The criteria for making this list wasn't easy. After all, how does one include the platinum-selling Boz Scaggs on a list with Funland, whose lone full-length album went copper before it even shipped? Or how does one include the likes of Sid King and the Five Strings or Ella Mae Morse, artists whose best works were initially available on singles, before they appeared on compilations? Or how about the Toadies, who were considered a Fort Worth act before all of its members moved to Dallas?
Actually, that was the easy part: Every single artist on this list came of musical age in this city, from the late Ella Mae Morse (born in Mansfield, discovered at the Adolphus Hotel by Jimmy Dorsey) to Corsicana's Lefty Frizzell (cut his first, and most important, sides at Jim Beck's studio on Ross Avenue) to Wortham's Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was more constant on Deep Ellum streets in the 1920s than cement. It's not such a stretch to include the likes of the Toadies, Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks, or Brave Combo. Still, we almost ventured too far west, including the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Delbert McClinton, Ornette Coleman, T-Bone Burnett, and other Fort Worth-borns. They did not make it, quite simply because they did not make their marks in Dallas before spreading the good word elsewhere.
We figured it this way: If the artist was born here, lived here, played here for a substantial amount of time, and/or recorded here, then they deserved to be on the list. Take Willie Hutch, who was born in Los Angeles, moved to Carrollton when he was a child, moved back to the West Coast and wrote "I'll Be There" and recorded The Mack, only to return to Dallas, where he still actively records and works with younger artists. Hutch, as much as anyone, deserves mention on this list.
There is not much to link the artists on this list. For every T-Bone Walker-to-Steve Miller-to-the Nightcaps-to-Stevie Ray Vaughan connect-the-dots example, there are dozens more here who seem to exist in their own vacuum. Take Bedhead, who managed to turn down the Velvet Underground and create rock-and-roll whispers heretofore unheard. Or Café Noir, Gypsy-jazzers who hired on a yodeling cowboy and managed to make it seem so very right. Or Erykah Badu, soul mother and earth mother and bad mother all at once.
There were some tough choices to be made; surely, this list will offend far more than it delights, which is the way it ought to be. ESPN had it easy when assembling its list of sports' 50 finest; too bad there are no stat sheets when it comes to tallying the best and worst in music, no scorecards to keep track of who's winning.
We tried to place these albums on this list according to importance -- whatever that means (not always album sales, though there's got to be a reason Bat Out of Hell's on here). But in the end, more likely personal preferences won out -- which probably makes it surprising that there's only one Bedhead record on here, or only one Funland-related disc. We tried to play fair. (Seriously, we were considering a worst-of list, which would have been a whole lot easier to put together.)
If nothing else, a list like this one should serve as a primer and nothing more. In the words of one local musician who perused this list, "I've got some listening to do." Not a bad idea.
1) Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Lemon Jefferson (Milestone, 1961; reissued 1974 and 1992). Just try arguing.
2) Look What Thoughts Will Do: The Essential, 1950-1963, Lefty Frizzell (Sony/Legacy, 1997). "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)" was co-written by Frizzell and studio owner Jim Beck, who suffocated on cleaning fluid not long after Frizzell made it big.
3 and 4) The Complete Imperial Recordings, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker (EMI America, 1991); and Complete Capitol/Black & White Recordings (Capitol Records, 1995). The Imperial recordings capture the man at his very best, but the Capitol collection is necessary because it includes "Stormy Monday Blues," which is No. 23 on the all-time best-song list.
5) It's Just a Matter of Time, Bobby Patterson (Paula Records, 1972). How do you spell essential? B-O-B-B-Y.
6) Monkey Beat, Ronnie Dawson (Crystal Clear, 1994). Tempting to include his older stuff ("Action Packed," "Rockin' Bones"), but none of it will ever top "Up Jumped the Devil." Dawson was 55 when he recorded this, 16 when it was released.
7) The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat, Reverend Horton Heat (Sub Pop Records, 1993). When Jim Heath wonders why people knock the new stuff, this is why. It's called tough love, man.
8) WhatFunLifeWas, Bedhead (Trance Syndicate, 1993). If you don't get it, stop breathing.
9) Hide Away: The Best of Freddy King, Freddie King (Rhino Records, 1993). Second-best guitarist ever from here. And probably the first too.
10) Texas Music Vol. 3: Garage Bands & Psychedelia, various artists (Rhino Records, 1994). Contains singles by Scott McKay ("Train Kept A-Rollin'," which does not feature Jimmy Page), The Chessmen ("I Need You There"), Mouse and the Traps ("A Public Execution"), The Nightcaps ("Thunderbird"), Kenny and the Kasuals ("Journey to Tyme"), and Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs ("Ju Ju Hand"). Still, the whole thing's useless without the Floyd Dakil Combo's "Dance, Franny, Dance." There's a good-lookin' girl down Dallas way...
11) The Light Crust Doughboys 1936-39, The Lightcrust Doughboys (Texas Rose, 1982). You wouldn't be asking why if you'd just listen to "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy."
12) Capitol Collectors Series, Ella Mae Morse (Capitol Records, 1992). Moved up several notches on the list for dying last week. Now, the "Cow Cow Boogie" girl is immortal.
13) A Garland of Red, Red Garland (Prestige, 1956). Good enough for Miles Davis and John Coltrane, good enough for us.
14) Silk Degrees, Boz Scaggs (Columbia Records, 1976). "Lido Shuffle" and "Lowdown." That's why.
15) No One Can Do It Better, The D.O.C. (Ruthless Records, 1989). Turns out, he was right.
16) Legendary Buster Smith, Buster Smith (Atlantic, 1959). The man taught Charlie Parker how to play. He wasn't bad either.
17) The Sky Is Crying, Stevie Ray Vaughan (Epic Records, 1991). Ironic how the best record was the posthumous one. Ironic how the posthumous ones just keep on coming.
18) The Mack, Willie Hutch (Motown, 1973). Sad to say, but it took the Chemical Brothers to remind us how brilliant this record was. We mean is.
19) Musical Varieties, Brave Combo (Rounder Records, 1987). That's why they call it a best-of.
20) Bloodrock 2, Bloodrock (Capitol Records, 1970). Everyone wants to know: "Is that the one with 'D.O.A.'?" Of course it is.
21) Wine, Wine, Wine, The Nightcaps (Vandan, 1960). Without these Jesuit grads, there's no Fabulous Thunderbirds, no SRV (well...), and no federal lawsuit against ZZ Top.
22) A Double Dose of Soul, James Clay (Riverside Records, 1960). Underrated in life, forgotten in death. Not this time.
23) We Want Everything, Nervebreakers (Existential Vacuum Records, 1994). What they got was a record released 14 years after it was made. Better late than never.
24) Baduizm, Erykah Badu (Universal Records, 1997). For the first time in a long time, a hit single we could get behind.
25) Howling Wolf Blues: The Story of Talent & Star Talent Records, various artists (Collectables Records, 1993). Run out of a little Ross Avenue record store long since vanished, this label debuted the likes of Professor Longhair, Rufus Thomas, and Frankie Lee Simms.
26) Wooly Bully, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs (MGM, 1965). Filler without the title song, but what a title song.
27) Magnetic South, Mike Nesmith and the First National Band (RCA, 1970). Could have been Gram Parsons. Instead, he was a Monkee. No wonder he's bitter.
28) Mr. Action Packed, Johnny Dollar (Dragon Street Records, 1998). Could have been Ronnie Dawson. Instead, he was Johnny Dollar.
29) Sailor, Steve Miller Band (Capitol Records, 1968). "Livin' in the U.S.A." That's why. That, and T-Bone Walker taught him how to play, and he never forgot it -- well, until "Abracadabra."
30) The Sounds of Deep Ellum, various artists (Island Records, 1987). Seemed important at the time.
31) Rubberneck, Toadies (Interscope Records, 1994). Again -- five years ago?
32) Equal Scary People, Sara Hickman (Four Dots, 1988). She never forgave us for saying this was her best record. Maybe she never understood what we meant to say: This would be any singer-songwriter's best record.
33) Trini Lopez at PJ's, Trini Lopez (Reprise Records, 1963). One guy, one acoustic guitar -- and a train somewhere behind him, barreling down fast.
34) Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight, Sid King & The Five Strings (Bear Family, 1991). The man cuts hair in Richardson now. Forty years ago, he might have cut your neck.
35) Greatest Flops & Golden Filler, Homer Henderson (Honey Records, 1998). Repeat after me: "Lee Harvey was a friend of mine..."
36) Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians (Geffen Records, 1989). They were a pretty good band, if memory serves. What? When's the last time you listened to it?
37) Deep Ellum Blues, various artists (Documentary Arts, 1987). Alan Govenar got the old band back together again. They were on a mission from God.
38) Vibration Change, The Telefones (VVV Records, 1980; rereleased 1999). She's in love with the Rolling Stones, but we still have a thing for the Telefones.
39) UFOFU, UFOFU (The Medicine Label, 1997). Broke up about eight minutes after releasing this gem. Just as well, since they weren't gonna top it.
40) Texas Bluesman, ZuZu Bolin (Antone's, 1989). Texas Bluesman -- that was Bolin's superhero name too.
41) Too Far to Care, Old 97's (Elektra Records, 1996). Third time was a charm. Too bad the fourth had all the, uh, hit singles.
42) Short Sharp Shocked, Michelle Shocked (Mercury Records, 1988). Short sharp career.
43) The Funland Band, Funland (steve records, 1995). Three guys, an "Angry Girl," and a record label that couldn't move product.
44) Shouldn't a Told You That, The Dixie Chicks (self-released, 1993). Because we're too stubborn to admit that Fly is probably a better record. And because we know it'll piss them off.
45) Tales From the Edge, Vol. 6, various artists (Reel George, 1992). The sounds of Deep Ellum, before The Sounds of Deep Ellum.
46) The Waltz King, Café Noir (Carpe Diem Records, 1995). Where it all came together, only to fall apart. Um, there will be another record, right?
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47) World of Fireworks, Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks (Carpe Diem Records, 1994). Weill you're at it, how about more songs from West Side Story?
48) Rockabilly Uprising: The Best of Mac Curtis, Mac Curtis (HMG, 1997). Once again, if you're a rockabilly in this town and your name ain't Ronnie Dawson, you gotta wait in line.
49) Blue, LeAnn Rimes (Curb, 1996). Yeah, yeah -- but what a great song.
50) Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf (CBS Records, 1978). Fifteen million people can't be wrong. Can they?