Mardi Gras in New Orleans is pure indulgent sensory overload. Smells of boudin balls and gumbo waft in the wind, strings of beads fly through the air and plenty of booze-fueled dancing set the holiday apart from any other in the country. With the start of Carnival season comes fanciful parades, colorful king cakes, and pretty Big Chiefs strutting with their krewes. It’s no surprise that musicians in the birthplace of Jazz have paid tribute to their home city with iconic Mardi Gras music.
Carnival season is best spent immersing yourself in the music of New Orleans. With its quick rhythm, swampy cadence and brassy melodies, the style perfectly encapsulates the feeling of Mardi Gras. Like those first warm breezes rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico, the warm sound of vinyl is the perfect fit for these classic New Orleans’ albums. Get your feet dancing and funk up your Fat Tuesday with these picks.
Professor Longhair was a New Orleans’ icon, with an eclectic calypso-rumba style and personality to match. This album contains some of his best known works at a time when he was in his prime. Two songs stand out from the rest for their deep connections to Mardi Gras – “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Tipitina”. The whistle in “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is positively Pavlovian to those that love the holiday. It’s tradition to play these Mardi Gras morning and are the perfect rhythm to get your feet dancing on Fat Tuesday! For a more Mardi Gras-centric compilation of his work, give “Mardi Gras in New Orleans 1949-1957” a listen. With his full band, The Shuffling Hungarians, the album is an absolute blast!
Heavily inspired by Professor Longhair and considered by many to be the founding fathers of Funk, The Meters is one of the most famous New Orleans’ bands. This album is one of their best, released while they were opening for the Rolling Stones on tour, and has a healthy dose of Mardi Gras songs scattered throughout. They say every child in New Orleans learns “They All Ask’d For You” while growing up and this original cut is steeped in the soul of many in the Crescent City. The album closes out with the famed “Mardi Gras Mambo” – the unofficial anthem of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Originally started in Joseph S. Clark High School in the Treme neighborhood by famed trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and his fellow classmates, the Rebirth Brass Band is a standard bearer of sassy, brassy NOLA sound. With the shameless “Do Watcha Wanna”, a speedy rendition of “Big Chief”, and the classic “I Feel Like Funkin’ It Up” all on the first side of this brilliant LP, it’s a must listen during Mardi Gras season.
Dr. John is the heart and soul of a city that eats, sleeps, and breathes unique music. Churning out music under his own moniker since the bayou-funk gem “Gris Gris” in 1968 and as a session-musician long before that, Dr. John has left an enduring impact on the culture and style of New Orleans music. Though all of his albums have that creole cadence and New Orleans rhythm, perhaps no other album speaks to the true soul of Mardi Gras better than “Dr. John’s Gumbo”. A collection of covers of songs from his native Louisiana, Dr. John amplifies many of these greats with his signature style. From the loving rendition of “Iko Iko”, to the rolling keys of “Big Chief”, to the strong chants of “Little Liza Jane”, this album is Mardi Gras gold.
Big, brassy sounds are quintessential New Orleans and Dirty Dozen Brass Band is perhaps the most well-known purveyors of this segment of Mardi Gras music. Representing a departure from the traditional brass style of earlier Jazz predecessors, their brazen style and electric live performances have left a lasting impact on the city’s music. “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now” is the perfect anthem for your long Mardi Gras days.
On the outskirts of town in the rural plains of Southern Louisiana, Mardi Gras is celebrated in an entirely different way. With beer and liquor free flowing, an obligatory run through mud, communal gumbo, and whimsical costumes, Courir de Mardi Gras is nearly unrecognizable from it’s city dwelling sibling. Trade a brass section for a fiddle and English lyrics for French and you’ve got yourself a Cajun Mardi Gras. This album touches on some of the staples heard in yonder parish fields on Fat Tuesday.
We all know that New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz, but did it kick off Rock and Roll? Ask any Fats Domino fan and you might be surprised by the answer you get. His cover of the soulful “When the Saints Go Marching In” is still used when the New Orleans Saints put points on the board and can be heard echoing through the balcony-lined streets of the Crescent City throughout Carnival season.
A personal favorite of this author is the late, great Allen Toussaint. No list of iconic New Orleans music is complete without giving credit to this legend. You can’t go wrong with any Allen Toussaint album, but perhaps no other carries the sound and style of the city more than “Southern Nights”. A prolific songwriter and producer, Toussaint shines in this album and in doing so provides the perfect soundtrack to keep you grooving on those shimmering Mardi Gras nights.
Am I missing many others? Absolutely. From the Storyville Stompers that follow the Society of St. Ann to the river to remember those that have passed to the many marching bands that parade the streets, the history of Mardi Gras music is rich and seemingly never-ending. Help build on our list by sharing your favorite New Orleans’ albums to listen to during Carnival season in the comment. Don’t forget to check out one of your local record shops, or Discogs, to add these to your collection!