A primer for millennials on the 75 must-have albums they need to own, because whether they want to believe it or not, THERE ACTUALLY WAS MUSIC BEFORE BEYONCÉ.
Some albums EVERYBODY needs to have. Albums like The Beatles Abby Road or Carol King’s Tapestry or, I don’t know, Duran Duran’s Rio. (I’m from the ’80s). Those albums aren’t included here. That’s not what we’re doing. These are the GAY ESSENTIALS. It’s the music that captivated, inspired, and defined generations of gay men… before Gaga. It’s a syllabus of required listening that every gay man absolutely NEEDS to hear before he dies. It’s Homo 101 on the WOW Report.
Like my previous list of the 50 Movies Every Gay Man Needs to Watch, the music here is aimed at millennials and includes mostly pre-90s music that I think they really ought to be acquainted with.
So here we go. The 75 Albums every gay man NEEDS to own (in no particular order, get your panties out of a bunch):
1. Judy Garland, Judy at Carnegie Hall: Universally acknowledged as “The Greatest Night in Show Business History,” Judy’s Carnegie Hall performance is absolutely mandatory, there’s no two ways about it. Judy was pretty much a slurry old has-been by 1961 – a drug addict who couldn’t be counted on to even show up half the time, much less make it through a show. But this time was different. When she took to the stage at Carnegie Hall, she opened her mouth and she sang and she sang until she BROUGHT THE MOTHERFUCKING HOUSE DOWN. She sang like she was drowning and the notes were oxygen. Nobody has ever lived each phrase, each line, each word like Judy. Not Beyonce. Not Adele. Not Amy Winehouse. This is the real deal. You aren’t really gay until you’ve done Judy at Carnegie Hall.
2. Barbra Streisand, The Second Barbra Streisand Album: Any of those first albums will do, actually. Any of the music she made before the ego and the brittle perfectionism got in the way of THAT VOICE. Barbra, unhinged, is a force of nature. Listening to her as she careens wildly from note to note is absolutely intoxicating, and when you hear, say, “Like a Straw in the Wind” or “I Don’t Care Much,” suddenly you’ll understand the Church of Barbra.
3. Billie Holiday, any Billy Holiday collection. Billie doesn’t sing so much as open a vein onstage and bleed for you. Poor thing. She was so beat down – by poverty, by drugs, by racism, by the men in her life – it’s a wonder she could sing at all. But, by god, she dragged herself onto that stage every night and infused every note of every song with that heartache and despair. Her unique voice and phrasing isn’t always pretty, but you need to experience it. It will actually hurt your heart to hear it.
4. David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust: Glam-Rock at its best. Loosely based on a story of a fictional alien rock superstar named Ziggy Stardust, this album did more for generations of sexually ambiguous freaks and outsiders than a million gay pride parades.
5. The Velvet Underground and Nico: Recorded in 1966 during Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event tour, The Velvet Underground & Nico – with its songs about drug abuse, hustlers, S&M and all sorts of fabulous sexual deviancy – shows the kids that their generation didn’t invent sleaze and decadence.
6. Lou Reed, Transformer: Dismissed by Rolling Stone when it came out as “artsy-fartsy, sort of homo stuff,” that’s exactly reason you’re going to love it. Songs like “Perfect Day,” “Satellite of Love,” “Andy’s Chest,” and of course “Walk on the Wild Side” still speak to us today and remain important hallmarks of gay culture.
7. T-Rex, The Slider: The mascara’d beauty of Marc Bolan coupled with over-the-top glam-rock power chords make this a must-have album for every gay cock-rocker. Bulges and glitter, baby.
8. Blondie, Parallel Lines: See why gay men of a certain age still SWOON when they see a pic of legendary frontwoman Debbie Harry. With her combination of underground grit and old-school glamour, she made the testosterone-heavy punk scene accessible to gay men. Every single song on this album is sheer perfection.
9. Siouxsie & the Banshees, Hyaena: There is a whole generation of gay men (myself included) who openly weep at the those first chords of “Dear Prudence.” Wither our lost youth?
10. The Smiths, Meat Is Murder: Ditto “How Soon is Now”
11. Cher What can we say about Cher that hasn’t been said a gazillion times? She’s timeless. She’s camp. She’s the ultimate gay goddess. Cher’s ’70s disco albums are probably her most fun, although there was usually only one KILLER single on it and A LOT of filler. So go for a “Best of” collection. Just make sure that it has “Bang Bang,” “Half-Breed,” “Take Me Home,” “Dark Lady,” and “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” of course.
12. Diana Ross, Diana: Diana reinvents herself again – post-Supremes, post-disco era – with a fresh new sound and a youthful new image. And even though “I’m Coming Out” was a huge gay anthem, at the time straight people had NOT A CLUE that’s what it was actually about. Which made watching them sing along to it on the radio ABSOLUTELY HYSTERICAL.
13. Madonna, The Immaculate Collection: Although nowadays she is mostly known for challenging our notions of how a female pop star should age, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, Madonna really did change the world. See what the fuss was about with this “Best of” collection.
14. Kylie Minogue one of the Best of or Greatest Remixes albums because she’s Kylie and nobody loves you more than Kylie does.
15. ABBA, Gold: The perfect party album. Livens up any gathering.
16. Grace Jones, Nightclubbing: The most glamorous most provacative genderfuck (YEAH, I SAID IT!) ever, Grace has been the object of fetishistic worship by gay men since the early ’70s. When you saw this album in someone’s dorm room, YOU KNEW they were gay
17. Sylvester, Step II: Our Sister of the Heavenly Voice made everybody feel mighty real on the dance floor. Listening to these songs was the VERY ESSENCE of the ’70s gay experience.
18. Deelite, World Clique: Only THE GREATEST ALBUM OF THE ’90s, of course. Local scenesters made good. When Deelite broke out, it was a victory for every clubkid, every drag queen, and every dancefloor superstar. Lady Miss Kier was one of us, and the love and pride we felt for her was overwhelming. I’m tearing up just writing this. World Clique wasn’t just a great album, it was the validation of an entire LIFESTYLE.
19. RuPaul, Supermodel: And then there’s Ru. And the album that started the drag revolution. Fabulous beyond fabulous, of course, and one for the ages.
20. Rocky Horror Picture Show: Lipsyncing along to “Sweet Transvestite” and “Time Warp” alone in your room is something all little gay boys should experience, don’t you think?
21. Dream Girls: Not the movie version. The original cast album featuring Jennifer Holliday, pleeeeeeeease. If you’ve never heard her versions of “And I Am Telling You” and “I Am Changing” WHAT ARE YOU DOING READING THIS LIST? Hurry. Go to Youtube IMMEDIATELY. Then get the whole album.
22. Cabaret: Liza, Joel Grey, music by Kander & Ebb, what’s not to love? Not one throw-away track on the whole album. “Maybe This Time,” “Money,” Mein Herr”… They’re classics for a reason.
23. Hedwig and the Angry Inch It doesn’t always get better, does it? Sometimes life gets worse. John Cameron Mitchell knows what it’s like to be too sensitive for this world, to be ahead of your time, to be misunderstood. Howl along with Hedwig, honey. Get it all out.
24. Little Shop of Horrors: Marvelous camp-fest featuring a Motown-singing, man-eating plant. But it’s the ballads – “Suddenly Seymour” and the heartbreaking “Somewhere That’s Green” – that make this a must-have for every gay man longing for Mr Right.
25. Rent: I don’t know. I’ve never seen it. But there seems to be an absolute religion that’s sprouted up around it, so I’m including it.
26. Queen, Day at the Races: Frontman Freddie Mercury’s bombastic, stadium-filling gayness was one of those weird, unexplainable ’70s thing. I guess it was the power of the music and the purity of Freddie’s voice that transcended sexual identity and brought gays and straights together.
27. Culture Club, Color by Numbers: It’s Culture Club at the very height of their popularity, with perfect MTV-ready songs sung by the quintessential ’80s pop confection, Boy George. Doesn’t get better than this.
28. Malcom McLaren, Fans: The mastermind behind punk rock attempted to fuse opera with hip-hop in this 1984 album. The result was something of a flop, but a glorious flop, and, oh, how the glitterati loved it. “Madame Butterfly” was absolutely the height of chic that year, and to this day nothing says FAAAAAAABULOUS like those opening chords.
29. The Cocteau Twins, The Pink Opaque: The title here just sums up the sound in a nutshell. It’s the aural equivialent of an out-of-body experience. Perfect k-hole music.
30. Bronski Beat, Age of Consent: Angsty gay boys to the dance floor please! Haircuts + politically-charged gay anthems = Dance pop perfection. Every song on this album speaks to the solitary, disenfranchised homo sobbing alone in the corner.
31. Erasure, Wonderland: Same message as Bronski Beat but with a slightly lighter tone. This is the mainstreaming of the gay agenda aimed squarely at the MTV audience.
32. Marc Almond, Mother Fist and her Five Daughters: Marc is the ‘80s equivilant of Kurt Weill and his music speaks to the eternal, dark underbelly of gay culture. He takes that Wildean adage of looking at the stars from the muck of the gutter to new extremes. It’s art. But it’s raunchy art. And you can dance to it. So… you’re going to love it.
33. Jobriath, Lonely Planet Boy: A super-gay glam-rock god who was unfairly relegated to the dustbin of pop culture history, his music has been described as a cross between early 1970s albums, with some decidedly Jaggeresque vocals. His lyrics combine science fiction imagery with S&M themes and tributes to female movie icons. It’s all wildly flamboyant and perversely over-the-top, trust me, you’ll love it.
34. Dead or Alive, Youthquake: Dead or Alive may have arrived in Culture Club’s wake, but they were freakier, more fetishistic, and kind of more fun. George wasn’t wearing ass-less chaps and a jockstrap like his evil twin, Pete Burns. And whereas George coyly sang about karma chameleons and churches with poisoned minds, Pete just put it out there: He wanted to fuck. Hard. Now.
35. Missing Persons, Session M: Frontwoman Dale Bozio was Gaga before Gaga. The plexiglass bra, the kooky colored hair, that NOSE – watch the videos for “Words” and “Destination Unknown” and tell me she isn’t sitting at home every night, sobbing and cutting herself watching Gaga videos.
36. Berlin, Pleasure Victim: The song “Sex” hit like a bombshell in 1983. It’s message that literally anything goes in the bedroom was both titillating and dangerous in a decade that was just waking up to the danger AIDS.
37. Nina Hagen, Any of the following albums – Nina Hagen Band, NunSexMonkRock, Fearless, or Ekstasy – will do. Nina, of course, is blessed with a vivid and commanding voice that can literally do anything, from gutteral growls to bird-like chirps. Her music is so fun, you don’t need to speak German to enjoy it.
38. Bjork, Debut: The ultimate ’90s alt-girl with a hyper-specific voice that can go from 0 to 60 in one note.
39. Yma Sumac, Legend of the Sun Virgin: The Peruvian soprano with the four-octave voice was always a bit of a mystery: Was she an Incan princess, as she claimed? Or a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus (Yma Sumac spelt backwards)? Who cares. The voice. The music. The overall nuttiness. It’s euphoric.
40. Klaus Nomi, Klaus Nomi: File under: Know Your Gay Icons. The highly theatrical art-world star looked like a New Wave pierrot and sang with an other-worldly operatic falsetto. Visionary New York underground chic at its finest.
41. Divine, The Story So Far: Not much of a singer, granted, but a helluva performer, and if the music on these tracks is a little generic, the sheer force of her personality will win you over.
42. Eartha Kitt, Purr-fect:Greatest Hits: Eartha was sexy, she was smart, she sang about gold diggers, cha cha heels, and lusting after muscle men. She was more of a drag queen than most drag queens. Discover her provocative pre-Catwoman career.
43. Donna Summer, Bad Girls: The quintessential disco album, a must-have for ’70s-themed parties.
44. Millie Jackson, Live and Outrageous: A primer for every bad-ass, loud-mouthed, shit-talking drag queen out there. With extended monologues about cheating men and kicking the ass, you’ll see this is still one thoroughly modern Millie.
45. Patti Labelle, Spirits in It: Her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is probably the gayest song of all time. Listening it automatically turns straight men into foot-stomping, finger-snapping drag queens. By the time she has belted out that last note, you are literally tucked and wearing a wig.
46. Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M: It’s hard to imagine the seismic effect this album had gay culture in the ’70s, but oh lordy, it did. There wasn’t a gay man from WeHo to P-Town that didn’t have this on their turntable every waking moment of their day. It was EVERYTHING. It was LIFE. If Beyonce and Gaga and Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry and Rihanna all sang “I Am What I Am” to a throbbing disco beat, it wouldn’t be HALF as gay – or as popular – as this album was.
47. Liza Minnelli, Liza with a Z: Based on the groundbreaking 1972 television concert (produced by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, with costumes by Halston) Liza with a Z was a fizzy combination of popular songs and standards, music from Cabaret, and songs specifically written for her by Kander and Ebb that helped cement her ’70s it-girl status. You can’t listen to it without gasping at the powerhouse she once was. Truly, her mother’s daughter.
48. Nancy Sinatra, Boots: Pop nepotism at its finest. Nancy had perfect look for the time, and the perfect pop sound for the time. And to this DAY, drag queens can still lipsync to “Boots” and it feels just as fresh as the first time you saw it.
49. Sade, Diamond Life: And here’s your music to fuck to. Diamond Life set the mood. When somebody put that album on, you knew your were about to get plowed. But GOOD.
50. George Michael, Faith: The ultimate ’80s A-gay made his solo debut with this album, and the QUEENS WENT BANANAS FOR IT. Every single song was better than the one before it. “Faith,” “I want Your Sex,” “Father Figure,” “Kissing a Fool” – Why, he was the new Elton John! Such a magical time in pop.
51. Kate Bush, The Kick Inside: That shocking pixie voice singing those highbrow ballads, Kate Bush is so odd, but so compelling. She is a complete original.
52. Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes: The alt-rock salve for your sexually-damaged soul.
53. Yaz, Upstairs at Erics and You & Me Both: The criminally underrated dance goddess Alison Moyet still sounds incredibly fresh today. This is electronic music with soul. There is no excuse for you not to have these two albums. Period.
54. The Carpenters, Singles: The syrupy-sweet brother/sister duo consistently churned out hit after hit for 70’s AM Radio. Often critically panned as fluff, but universally idolized by generations of tomboys and delicate ladyboys. (And Karen Carpenter’s shocking death from anorexia in 1983 made her a weird camp icon.)
55. The Partridge Family, Greatest Hits: The “band” was a studio manufactured result of the hit television show of the same name. Their success can be attributed as the blueprint of modern-day cross-merchandising. David Cassidy was a hot teenage dream that little girls, and many little boys, understood very well… Without Cassidy there would be no Bieber, no 1 Direction… but beware, his rise was as swift as his fall. A cautionary tale for the would-be pop star.
56. Dionne Warwick, Best of: Her partnership with prolific songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David made her one of the biggest hit maker of the rock era. With 56 singles making the hot 100 between 1962 and 1988 her honey/whiskey voice inspired generations of love-hungry boys and female impersonators. She was also an early champion of AIDs awareness with financial proceeds from her superstar collaboration with Elton John, Stevie wonder and Gladys knight with “That’s What Friends Are For” going to AIDS research.
57. Patsy Cline, Best Of: Patsy was a timeless, unparalleled pioneer for female performers. Her brash, feisty rope-’em-and-tie-’em-up sensibilities have struck a chord with legions of gay fans who idolize her strong, no-nonsense – yet incredibly heartbreaking – song stylings. Also: It doesn’t hurt to have Jessica Lange star in your posthumous life story either.
58. Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter: Loretta was country when country wasn’t cool. Ultimately, she’s an American success story, rising from a dirt poor, child bride in the seeded hills of Kentucky to become a bonafide, Wesson Oil-fried superstar. She sang about subjects considered risque and taboo – birth control, adultery, alcoholism – during a time when women and minorities had few rights and fewer national platforms for vocalizing their opinions. A classic champion for the underdog in us all.
59. Dolly Parton any Best of collection (as long as it has “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors” on it): Dolly loves and understands her LGBT fan base just as much as we love and understand her. As Dolly often states: “I’ve always said it’s a good thing I was born a woman or I would have been a drag queen.” As gay men, we relate to her flamboyance. We also love her outgoing personality, and her unwavering mantra of acceptance. She inspires us all to be who we are.
60. Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis: With Dusty, it’s all about her zeitgeist-y look – with those the big, false eyelashes and that peroxide bouffant – and those theatrical hand gestures that every drag queen emulates, knowingly or unknowingly (I’m looking at you, Lady Bunny.) Blue-eyed soul at it’s absolute best.
61. Janis Ian, Between the Lines: Janis was an ugly girl who sang songs for ugly girls, and what lonely teenage gay boy can’t relate to lyrics like:
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say “come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen…
62. Janis Joplin, Greatest Hits: Proof that you didn’t have to be pretty to make it in rock. You could be ugly and messy and have demons and not fit in – and still be an icon. Janis was blatently bisexual in a time when that was still SHOCKING. She screamed for peace, she screamed for equality, and lived life on her own terms. She might have been a mess, but she was a mega-talented mess – a force of nature, really – and even though she paid for it with her untimely death, Janis still speaks to us today.
63. Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna: What is it about Stevie? Obviously, she touches something primal in gay men. All that twirling and lace and chiffon and witchy wackiness speaks to us on a deep level. She does her own thing. She goes her own way. She’s deep. She’s profound. She still plays dress up. She believes in magic. She’s the best of us and everything we want to be.
64. The Bodyguard Soundtrack: Whitney yeah yeah yeah, but get it for Drag Race legend Michelle Visage and her big Soul System hit “Lovely Day.”
65. Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual: She was just SO UNUSUAL. Unlike anything we’d seen before. Not quite punk. Not quite new wave. She ushered in a new kind of infectious anything-goes ’80s style that CHANGED THE WORLD. And the songs! Every one of them a perfect pop cupcake with sprinkles. Cyndi is another FOREVER ICON whose message of celebrating freaks and outsiders has always endeared her to gay audiences.
66. Janet Jackson, Control: The year was 1986. Suddenly, just like THAT, Janet Jackson was grown up, and suddenly, just like THAT, she was a FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH. It was the year her brother began showing signs of eccentricity that made him harder and harder to relate to. Janet had the same towering talent, but was one of us. Janet was our SISTER, too. Every queen understood her need to TAKE CONTROL, to assert herself. The album was a giant metaphor for “coming out” to your family, and Lord, how we loved her for it.
67. Tina Turner, Private Dancer: It’s a jaw-dropping story of redemption and one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Tina’s iconic backstory of triumphing over adversity, of overcoming her brutal marriage to Ike Turner, and returning to the spotlight again – on her own terms – made her an unlikely MTV superstar at age 45. Oh yeah, AND it’s a great album, too.
68. B-52s, The B-52s or Wild Planet either one. The ultimate after-hour party albums.
69. Gershwin, The Essential George Gershwin: Because you gotta class it up sometimes.
70. Cole Porter, The Very Best of Cole Porter: Witty, urbane, and chic-as-fuck, these ditties are really what we ought to aspire to as gay men. Just saying’.
71. Olivia Newton John, ONJ (Greatest Hits): You can have your ’80s “Physical” Olivia. You can even have Grease Olivia. For my money, it’s early ’80s soft-rock songbird Olivia that’s the go-to when I’m sad or lonely. Her “Best of” early hits on the ONJ album include classic sobbing-alone-in-your-kitchen-cupboard songs like “If Not For You,” “Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me Let Me Know,” “Please Mister Please,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Sam,” and “I Honestly Love You.” Trust me, you NEED this album.
72. Vince Giraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas: How gays do Christmas music.
73. Whitney Houston: Whitney Houston: It was the album that introduced us to the powerhouse voice, the silky stylings, and the show-stopping glamour that was Whitney. She was gorgeous, classy, talented… she was our ultimate pop princess . We projected all our fantasies onto her. Of course, it was all smoke and mirrors, as we would later learn. In reality, she was a nutty old crack whore – “BOOOOOBBBY!” – but for just a little while she was pure perfection.
74. En Vogue, Funky Divas: It was that magical ’60s girl-group aesthetic with a ’90s twist. With their silky-smooth harmonies, En Vogue effortless crossed over from R&B to pop, and without them, there would be no Destiny’s Child, and no Beyonce. Give them all your thanks.
75. Whatever Album I’ve Forgotten. Whatever you’re INCENSED that I left off, plug it in here.
Agree? Disagree? Tweet me @JSJdarling with your thoughts.
(A big thank you to my friend Brett from Texas who sat on the phone with me for HOURS arguing endlessly over who should stay, who should go, and which album defined who and why.)
UPDATE: Cannot BELIEVE I neglected to list Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spice Girls, Joni Mitchell and everyone else you’ve been tweeting me. Mea culpa. I could have easily made this list 100 or even 200.