Over the past couple of years we’ve undertaken the painstaking process of producing a number of extensive “Top 10” lists here at So Much Great Music, exploring the Best American Bands, documenting popular music’s Most Perfect Albums, taking a deep dive into Rock’s Greatest Frontmen, and even scrutinizing the Best Male/Female Duets. Those were all great fun to develop, and are among the most highly read posts in SMGM’s short history (as well as generating by far the most responses and often highly aggrieved opinions).
This time around we’re going to tackle a topic that’s certainly of comparable importance but also extremely personal to me: assessing the music of my favorite city, my favorite place, New Orleans. New Orleans is known to many as “The City That Care Forgot” (most often credited to that wording’s appearance in a 1938 New Orleans City Guide), a phrase that in addition to conveying its fame for bacchanalian pleasure-seeking carries the intriguing double meaning of New Orleans being a town both carefree and neglected. In my experience, care hasn’t merely forgotten New Orleans, it has expressly evacuated.
If looked at soberly – a state one would not typically associate with the location – New Orleans has a complicated history, in some ways particularly so in its post-Katrina evolution. But in the end, what is the New Orleans “brand”? What is its truest identity? It’s surely exotic, filled with mythology and mysticism, even the occasional advent of voodoo; the preeminent culture and traditions are indisputably unlike that of any other place in America; it is a city of celebration (in times both good and bad), though such revelry can, at times, feel like scarcely controlled chaos; there’s the butter-soaked French/Spanish/Southern cuisine, alternately finding labels of Creole and Cajun or sometimes just New American; there are the profligate parades, insufferable humidity, Bayou-Bronx accents, patois expressions, perennial hurricanes (one type perhaps consumed while seeking shelter from the other), and manifold architectural beauty – from Garden District estates to decorous shotgun houses and wrought iron French Quarter balconies.
Still, even more than all that – New Orleans is, after all, quite a gumbo – there’s another aspect I’d consider the defining characteristic of the city, the through-line (to both locals and visitors alike) that connects eras and people throughout a convoluted narrative as meandering as the banks of the Mississippi river that wrap the city’s southern border. Yeah, you guessed it: music. New Orleans is not simply the birthplace of jazz, that lone truly American art form, but has also cultivated within its care-forgotten environs the origins of R&B and Funk, and from those the blossoming of Rock and Roll. It is, more than any other single place, the genesis of most all of American popular music. New Orleans is indeed a city of many names: in addition to “The City That Care Forgot” there’s “The Crescent City,” “The Paris of America,” “The Vieux Carre” (at least in part), and simply “NOLA.” Yet, what it could and should be called – no offense to Country music and Nashville – is “Music City.”
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So with that New Orleans essence having been duly distilled, let’s establish exactly what it is we’re doing here. The assignment, in short: Survey the grandeur of New Orleans’ musical annals to name the Top 10 Greatest-Ever New Orleans Music Artists. That’s a tall order, no doubt. Like a Magnum at Pat O’Brien’s (if you don’t know what that is, gather some friends and order one next time you’re in town and tell ‘em SMGM recommended it). But in order to properly address that daunting topic, as always, we’ll have to first establish a few definitions, guidelines and ground rules.
First, and most importantly, what qualities should determine one being thought of as more great than others, and ultimately the greatest, among the countless greats of America’s great music city? Well, I suppose there are a great many ways to look at that. To wit…Is it the most influential? Most historically significant? Most iconic? Simply the most popular? Or gee, what about just the best collection of music? Certainly it’s got to be some combination or permutation of all those variables, at least. But, like all such lists, this is entirely subjective, and based merely on opinion – in this case, mine. Of course. And I considered this quandary from many angles, believe me. So what if we just think of it like this: You have a chance to see one exalted New Orleans artist, living or dead, in their prime, for one show at Tipitina’s. Or substitute The Maple Leaf, Saenger Theater, Tulane’s U.C. quad, a Frenchmen Street alley, a Jazzfest stage, wherever. Who’s that pick? There’s the qualifier.
Next, how to simultaneously consider amazing artists from across the eclectic variety of genres that encompass New Orleans acts? Sure, “New Orleans music” is an identifiable thing, but that also casts an almost ridiculously wide net. Say, from Dixieland to Zydeco. In no other place would those two categorizations, for instance, ever be thought of as occurring together. It’s like dancing at a funeral. Oh that’s right, that happens in New Orleans, too. As best we can our accounting will blithely combine everyone and throw them all in the same big gumbo pot. And revert back to the prior attribute. Paint that “one artist/one show” image in your mind’s eye. And ears.
However, even having stated the foregoing, there must still be some limitations. And those will be for two groupings – one fair (at least to me) and the second maybe not. First, Hip-hop artists (and the like) are right out. Yup, I understand Lil Wayne is from New Orleans (as are Mystikal, Master P, Frank Ocean, and DJ Khaled), but they’re just not going to be included under our New Orleans music umbrella. Sorry, can’t do it. Not on my watch. And I’m simply not prepared to take on Big Freedia. The other? Let’s call them the “originators.” I certainly know enough to be aware of the authenticity and gravitas of some of the following birthers of jazz and gospel: Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, Mahalia Jackson, Tuts Washington, Dave Bartholemew, King Oliver, Kid Ory, and Sidney Bechet. But I just wasn’t around in those times. Their epoch seems too far removed, and really, I don’t feel qualified to qualify them. It’s like trying to compare Ty Cobb to Aaron Judge. It seems like apples and kumquats, and rather than ignorantly miscasting these legendary luminaries we’re just going to sit them out.
Which brings us to one last introductory item: what makes a New Orleans artist, well, a New Orleans artist? Can you be, say, from Scandinavia or The United Kingdom and still be considered a New Orleans musician? As the natives say: Yeah, you right. Anders Osborne and Jon Cleary, whose playing styles and presences both long ago established themselves as New Orleans locals, ensure that a Swede (Osborne) or a Brit (Cleary) are certainly legitimate Crescent City émigrés. The New Mastersounds, a funk-syncopation band from Leeds, England, never deemed to execute a full relocation yet for two decades have put forward an unmistakably funky NOLA strut. Moreover, don’t take our geographical categorization too literally, as if it limits strictly to within the city lines. Think more like the expansive stretch of I-10, as New Orleans musicianship reasonably incorporates the great state of Louisiana, from one side of the boot to the other. If you can play on the Jazz & Heritage stage at Jazzfest, or get played on WWOZ, you can play in this game. On the other hand, can one be from New Orleans and not be a New Orleans artist? Um, yes. Take Phil Anselmo, lead singer of thrash metal band Pantera. Or, let’s not.
Alright then, that completes our preamble. Time to get the second line started. Our countdown of the Top 10 greatest New Orleans music artists will encompass three groups of ten – c’mon, you had to know we were never going to be able to limit it to only 10 – with each dectet to be appended by one additional selection which shall be designated as a “lagniappe,” possibly my favorite of New Orleans-only terms, which basically translates to “a little something extra.” And, away we go.
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Okay, I lied. Truthfully there are just too many greats from the New Orleans music world to limit to even 33. A chronicle of New Orleans music acts without mention of these other artists of renown would be like Popeyes chicken without a side of dirty rice or Café Du Monde beignets without powdered sugar. Thus, the following are our honorable mentions, 33 more (plus a couple additional lagniappes), presented in alphabetized order because I just can’t go through the additional strain of ranking them:
⚜ Off The Float but in The Parade ⚜
Johnny Adams, Tab Benoit, Better Than Ezra, Eddie Bo, John Boutté, Henry Butler, The Cold, Deacon John, The Deslondes, Lee Dorsey, The Dixie Cups, Snooks Eaglin, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Iguanas, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Joe Krown, Sonny Landreth, Smiley Lewis, Eric Lindell, Stanton Moore, Kenny Neal, Cyril Neville, The New Mastersounds, George Porter, Jr. & Runnin’ Pardners, Lloyd Price, Lil’ Queenie & The Percolators, James Rivers, Coco Robicheaux, Johnny Sketch & The Dirty Notes, Huey “Piano” Smith, The Subdudes, Supagroup, Walter “Wolfman” Washington
Now, at last, here’s the list, for real this time, The Greatest-Ever New Orleans Music Artists, starting with…
⚜ Krewe of the Third Ten ⚜
(Lagniappe) Wild Tchoupitoulas
30. Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen
29. Big Sam’s Funky Nation
28. Rockin’ Dopsie & The Zydeco Twisters
25. Anders Osborne
24. Papa Grows Funk
23. Aaron Neville
21. James Booker
A quick but pertinent aside. Something I came to realize trying to pull this list together was the almost endless amount of incredible bands of Zydeco – in my estimation, the single most underrated genre of music ever – and, let’s say, generalized Cajun distinctions. Some did make the official list, of course, but there are altogether too many to skip over. Left separate, then, from the prior honorable mentions, here are 15 that deserve citation, as well as an accordion solo:
Chris Ardoin, Chubby Carrier, Boozoo Chavis, C.J. Chenier, Geno Delafose, Queen Ida, Beau Jocque & The Zydeco Hi-Rollers, Rosie Ledet, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas, Pine Leaf Boys, Zachary Richard, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, Amanda Shaw & The Cute Guys, Terrence Simien
We’re now ready to continue the countdown following that accordion and rubboard breakdown (Et toi!). Here’s the middle of our list of The Greatest-Ever New Orleans Music Artists.
⚜ Krewe of the Second Ten ⚜
(Lagniappe) Preservation Hall Jazz Band
20. Marcia Ball
19. Rebirth Brass Band
17. Dirty Dozen Brass Band
16. The Radiators
15. Clifton Chenier & his Red Hot Louisiana Band
14. Irma Thomas
13. Al Hirt
12. Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers
11. Allen Toussaint
Those are some serious NOLA heavies. And maybe to soak them in I think it calls for one more break. And that’s to tell you this: I really like jazz. But declaring that you like “jazz” seems to me a bit like saying you’re a fan of eating meat. There’s so many kinds. If I like steak and chicken does it necessarily follow for venison and squab? Well, probably yes, but stick with me here. When it comes to the term “jazz” that alone is a lot. And while our list already contains some definite jazz artists – and, spoiler alert, we’re going to include some more – there are certain players and styles for which I have great respect but, well, maybe I just don’t understand sufficiently enough. So, I took some of them out, and provided them their own hip mini-section here, too. Plus…brass bands. It’s true, Rebirth and Dirty Dozen already found deserved spots, but man, that’s another type of ensemble to which New Orleanians may bop to an almost ridiculous quantity of funky sousaphones. We’ll call out a few of the modern-day bests as well.
Jazz: James Andrews, Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick, Jr. (yeah, I really couldn’t settle on where he fits in), Donald Harrison, multi-Marsalis (Branford, Delfeayo, Jason, Wynton, and patriarch Ellis), Irvin Mayfield, Nicholas Payton, and Christian Scott.
Brass: Hot 8 Brass Band, Soul Rebels, and Stooges Brass Band.
And now, drum roll, please – well, let’s make that a beat, a New Orleans beat, a second-line groove, a syncopated Zigaboo Modeliste special. Yup, we’re at the top. You’ve found the baby in the King Cake. And we’re ready to unveil the 10 greatest-ever artists for America’s greatest Music City, New Orleans.
⚜ Krewe of the First Ten ⚜
(Lagniappe) Bo Dollis/Monk Boudreux & The Wild Magnolias
10. Louis Prima
9. Buckwheat Zydeco
8. Pete Fountain
7. The Neville Brothers
6. Fats Domino
5. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
4. Dr. John
3. The Meters
2. Professor Longhair
1. Louis Armstrong
Satchmo. Pops. The veritable King of New Orleans. He’s gotta be the man, right? Sure, he was from an earlier era, but it doesn’t feel like it. His velvety trumpet, gravelly voice, and thousand-watt smile are all timeless. For our fictional concert, how about we stage it at New Orleans’ own Armstrong Park, conceived and created in his honor, and hold it on his and America’s birthday, July 4th (even though that was a myth, and Satch’s date of birth was actually August 4th). It’s pretty difficult to conceive of who should come out on top of a list containing the likes of this one. But when the saints come marching in, who else would you rather have in that number?
Finally, what better way to coronate our list than with a playlist. All 33 qualifiers are represented (and with just one song per artist we tended mostly toward their more well-known and often New Orleans-centric recordings with our selections). Enjoy “The Greatest-Ever New Orleans Music Artists” playlist, and Laissez les bons temps rouler!