If ever there’s been a year to make the case for the transformative power of music, it’s this one. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and calls for social change worldwide, a new list of classic recordings join this year’s National Recording Registry: Janet Jackson’s 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814, which explores issues of race, homelessness and school violence; Kool & the Gang’s buoyant single “Celebration”; Nas’ game-changing debut album Illmatic and timeless children’s titles Free To Be… You And Me and “The Rainbow Connection.”
The new class also includes Jackson Browne’s critically acclaimed 1974 album Late for the Sky. Twenty-time Grammy-winning guitarist Pat Metheny’s 1976 album Bright Size Life, which heralded a new direction for jazz in the mid-’70s, is also joining the ranks, as are LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In” and Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 album The Harder They Come.
Spoken-word segments on the list include the 1941 Christmas Eve Broadcast featuring Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and NPR’s “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” segment from May 2008, the most recent recording to be inducted this year.
The addition of 25 recordings this year brings to 575 the total number of titles in the registry, which selects recordings worthy of preservation based on their cultural, historical and/or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage.
Several artists and songwriters whose works land on this year’s registry roster spoke with Billboard about the legacy of their work.
“A Soundtrack for Life in Queensbridge”
Illmatic, Nas’ debut studio album, swept onto the scene in 1994 with masterful rhymes, sample-soaked production and lyrics that painted an unabashed portrait of life growing up in the Queensbridge housing project in Queens, NY, home to a bevy of rap and hip-hop luminaries. Producers, including Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S. and DJ Premier, contributed to the album’s retro fusion sound, a swirl of drumbeats, hazy vinyl samples, and snippets of jazz and ’70s R&B.
Nas is having a moment this spring. The announcement of his inclusion in the registry comes just a few weeks after he took home his first-ever Grammy, for best rap album, for his 13th studio album King’s Disease.
“I’m very honored for the recognition and thankful for the Grammy award,” Nas tells Billboard. Reflecting on the legacy of Illmatic, he notes, “My first album was meant to be a true soundtrack for life in Queensbridge so the global recognition has always been amazing to see.”
“When There’s a Time To Celebrate, They Call Us”
“We don’t close a show without it,” says Robert “Kool” Bell of Kool & the Gang’s enduring 1980 hit “Celebration.” The concept for the song sparked from the refrain of the band’s previous hit “Ladies Night,” Bell notes.
“My brother [band co-founder Ronald Bell] called and said, ‘I have this track’ and he played it for us,” he says. “It has a down-home feeling to it, that simplicity and groove. But who thought it was going to become the hit it has become?” The inclusion of the song in this year’s registry is particularly poignant after the passing of Ronald Bell last September at age 68.
The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Kylie Minogue in 1992, but it’s the original that has made its way to locales from the space station to housing for U.S. troops overseas to sports championships including the World Series to countless wedding receptions. “Whenever there’s a time to celebrate, they call us,” Bell says.
An “Anti-Sexist, Anti-Racist” Kids Album
“We set out to make an album that would be anti-sexist and anti-racist,” says Marlo Thomas of 1972’s Free To Be… You and Me. “We’d been through the ’60s so we knew a lot about Civil Rights. We knew a lot about fighting for women’s rights. Our consciousness had been raised in the ’60s. I had done That Girl, who was the first single girl on television. We knew what the children needed was what would benefit them as grownups, as people, as citizens.”
Thomas, who hints there are multimedia celebrations in the works for the album’s 50th anniversary next year, says a key to its authenticity was sitting down with the likes of Mel Brooks, Shel Silverstein and Carl Reiner to foster inspiration. Thus was born a world where it’s okay for boys to cry, and for little girls not to grow up and marry a prince—”or be blonde!” Marlo says.
“As much as it was needed after the ’60s, it’s really needed now. Children need to know it’s okay to be who they are an everybody else is not an enemy. It’s not just free to be me, it’s free to be you and me.” The album features appearances by talents as varied as Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, Dick Cavett and pro football player Rosey Grier.
“The Jimmy Stewart of Frogs”
Penned by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher and crooned by beloved amphibian Kermit the Frog for The Muppet Movie, indelible 1979 tune “The Rainbow Connection” is “my favorite thing I’ve ever written,” Williams says. And he’s written a lot.
“That song is so infused with the heart and soul, and the kindness and wisdom, of Jim Henson,” Williams tells Billboard. “Kermit is the Jimmy Stewart of frogs, so to be honored in this fashion, to me it also honors Jim.”
Among numerous iterations through the years — including covers by Judy Collins, The Chicks, Gwen Stefani and Jason Mraz — Williams is most fond of the duet he did with Willie Nelson, and Nelson’s own recording of the song. “Just to hear those words, my words, and Kenny’s music coming from this iconic artist… it’s a high point.”
Nearly 900 titles were submitted for recognition this year. “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,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement.
Here’s the complete list, in chronological order:
1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)
2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917 single)
3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)
4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)
5. Christmas Eve Broadcast – Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)
6. “The Guiding Light” — November 22, 1945
7. Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues — Odetta (1957) (album)
8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)
9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)
10. Aida — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)
11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)
12. Born Under a Bad Sign — Albert King (1967) (album)
13. Free to Be…You & Me — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)
14. The Harder They Come — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)
15. “Lady Marmalade” — LaBelle (1974) (single)
16. Late for the Sky — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)
17. Bright Size Life — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)
18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)
19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)
20. Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)
21. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)
22. Partners — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)
23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel
Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)
24. Illmatic — Nas (1994) (album)
25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)
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