Mardi Gras in New Orleans is indulgent sensory overload. Smells of boudin balls and gumbo wafting in the wind, strings of beads flying through the air and endless booze-fueled dancing sets the holiday far 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.
Essential Mardi Gras Music
Professor Longhair was a New Orleans’ icon, with an eclectic calypso–rumba style and vibrant 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 songs on a Mardi Gras morning and they 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 the original cut found on this album 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 New Orleans sound. With the shameless Do Watcha Wanna, a speedy rendition of Big Chief, and the classic I Feel Like Funkin’ It Up all etched 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 swampy songs under his own moniker since the bayou funk masterpiece 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 to New Orleans and Dirty Dozen Brass Band is perhaps the most well-known purveyors of this slice 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 could it have also been the starting point of 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.
Credit where credit is due. When I wrote originally wrote this post, I left out one of the most important Mardi Gras albums, The Wild Tchoupitoulas self-titled album. Discogs user willyrobinson called me out, and rightfully so. It’s not only one of the most beautiful album covers you could have in your collection, it also has deep ties to the cultural heritage of the revered Mardi Gras Indians that march the streets on Fat Tuesday. Arranged by the famed Neville brothers and with vocals from actual New Orleans Chiefs, this album is both a historic relic and a fantastic listen. If you’re looking for a quintessential Mardi Gras song, look no futher then “Meet De Boys On The Battlefront”.
Am I missing many others? Absolutely. From the Storyville Stompers that follow the Society of St. Ann to the river in rememberance of those that have passed to the many marching bands that parade the streets, the history of Mardi Gras music is rich. Help build on our list by sharing your favorite New Orleans’ albums to listen to during Carnival season in the comments. Don’t forget to check out one of your local record shops, or the Discogs Marketplace, to add these to your collection!