Sunshine Sound Track: Florida’s Top Albums Rooted in the State
Take a musical road trip across the peninsula, from Jacksonville’s Southern rock to the sunburnt conch acoustic of Key West, with the 40 most influential albums in Florida music history.
It’s very likely not the official state song. Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” widely known as “Swanee River,” has nothing to do with Florida, besides its deliberately misspelled reference to the Suwanee. The “father of American music” never visited the state and picked the Suwanee in 1851 almost at random, after his brother pointed it out on a map.
History can make a stronger case for the Bahamian, Haitian and African American ballads and chanteys first collected in 1935 by Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in Eatonville and Belle Glade, among other places, for the Archive of American Folk Song. History also has an argument for the Conch songs of Key West collected in ’37 by Stetson Kennedy for the Federal Writers’ Project. As befits a state surrounded by water to the east, west and south, a portal into the New World and a pivot between the Americas, Florida nurtured multicultural rhymes and rhythms before anyone had a label for them.
The cultural trove known as Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, archived by the Library of Congress, boasts 376 recordings made on fragile acetate between 1937 and 1942, and “features sound recordings in many languages, including blues and work songs from menhaden fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps; children’s songs, dance music, and religious music of many cultures.”
In later decades, one might claim the robust, gospel-fired R&B of Georgia-born but Florida-raised Ray Charles. Or the keening Southern rock of the Allman Brothers Band—whose sound was incubated in Jacksonville over the course of a fateful few months in 1969. Or the bubbling, seductive and soulful grooves of early ’70s Miami disco artists like George McCrae and Betty Wright, avatars of the TK Records sound.
For any style or era you want to punch up, Florida makes an irresistible jukebox.
The state that birthed Fats Navarro, Mel Tillis, Gram Parsons, Tom Petty, Ariana Grande, Jim Morrison, N’SYNC, The Royal Guardsmen, Bobby Goldsboro, Elizabeth Cook, Pitbull, Against Me!, Debbie Harry, Panama Francis, Gwen McCrae, Dashboard Confessional, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, T-Pain, L ’Trimm and the Florida half of Florida Georgia Line can boast a pantheon of music legends—and fleeting pop meteors (Vanilla Ice, anyone?)—in every genre from jazz to bluegrass and punk rock to Soundcloud rap, with definitive artists in every field. Impossible to narrow to one city or style, Florida’s sonic signature is a lot like the Vulcan philosophy espoused by Mr. Spock on Star Trek: infinite variety in infinite combinations. A road trip across the peninsula doubles as an all-American (and Caribbean) jukebox. Jacksonville? Southern rock. Miami? Hip-hop, Cuban dance music, rhythm and blues, disco, jazz and EDM. Gainesville? Indie rock. Orlando? Teen pop. Tampa? Death metal. Key West? Well, inevitably, Jimmy Buffett, and a thousand sunburnt singer-songwriters. Tallahassee? A little bit of everything.
Our Sunshine State Top 40 isn’t meant as the definitive list of the best albums made by Florida artists, reflective of Florida scenes or, occasionally, just too synonymous with mythical Florida to be ignored. But it should reveal why these sounds matter so much and how fantastically expansive they are.
The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers (1969)
Although it became synonymous with Capricorn Records out of Macon, Georgia, the seminal Southern rock act nurtured its sound during a pivotal Jacksonville residency, where Duane and Gregg and the rest coalesced during a series of jam sessions. On this debut, you can hear the some of the first results of those jam sessions—many of which became staples of the band’s marathon live shows, like “Whipping Post,” Gregg’s epic lament, which here clocks in at a modest five minutes.
Southern Country Waltzes, Vassar Clements (1970)
Florida’s most fabled fiddler shows off his dexterous fingers and command of tradition in this collection, which includes tracks like “Florida Waltz” and “Tampa Waltz.” The Kinard native, known as the “father of hillbilly jazz,” got his break at 14 when he first played with Bill Monroe’s band. Before he died in 2005, he had played with Paul McCartney, the Grateful Dead and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, with whom he fiddled on the classic album Will the Circle be Unbroken.
Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)
The triple-guitar powerhouse fronted by charismatic singer and lyricist Ronnie Van Zant rocketed out of Jacksonville with a classic debut album that winks at the band’s unusual name (a riff on Leonard Skinner, the band members’ gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School). “Free Bird,” the anthem written to honor Duane Allman, became a Bic-flicking concert favorite, but Van Zant’s soulful lyricism made “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man” indispensable.
Seminole Wind, John Anderson (1992)
The Palatka native penned an all-time Florida classic with the title track, which could replace the antique “Old Folks at Home” as the state song. The singer name-checks Okeechobee and Micanopy, watches “the eagles fly and the otters play,” laments that “the Glades are going dry” and hears “the ghost of Osceola cry.” It’s maximum Florida.
Get On Up and Dance, Quad City DJ’s (1996)
In Jacksonville’s gift to ’90s Southern hip-hop, Jay Ski, C.C. Lemonhead and JeLana LaFleur burned up the disco floor with their hit “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train),” a funky successor to Ski and Lemonhead’s previous smash “Whoot, There It Is.”
The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted “Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” Jim White (1997)
The Panhandle singer-songwriter found his unique, and uniquely twisted, voice after an adolescence shaped by drugs and Pentecostal holy-rolling. Escaping the Gulf Coast for film school and cab driving in New York City, he brought it all back to Pensacola in this debut album, full of off-kilter story-songs (“A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes”) and gothic reveries.
Lochloosa, JJ Grey and Mofro (2004)
Few acts evoke that swampy Floridian wilderness like these Jacksonville groove specialists. “I swear it’s 10,000 degrees in the shade/ Lord have mercy knows, how much I love it/ Every mosquito every rattlesnake …” frontman Grey sings on an album that’s a passionate cry on behalf of a troubled landscape.
The Complete Early Recordings, 1949–1952, Ray Charles (2011)
Brother Ray, whose loss of eyesight as a child consigned him to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, bounced around Florida before his career took off in the early 1950s. Hear his earliest sides, the first few recorded in Tampa, on this swinging compilation, as he built up to the atomic breakthrough of “I Got a Woman” in 1954.
Trouble with a Capital T: 1980s Punk and Underground Music from Florida’s Capital City, various artists (2018)
The 15 bands on this rowdy compilation— including the Slut Boys, Hated Youth and Paisley Death Camp—run the gamut from boozy garage rock to snarling hardcore punk to spiky new wave, often shaped by a distinct Panhandle perspective. It’s a monument to the Southern punk rock movement no one expected.
Signs, Tedeschi Trucks Band (2019)
Guitar phenomenon Derek Trucks and blues-belting guitarist Susan Tedeschi carry the promise and the torch, ignited by the Allman Brothers Band, of Southern rock. This latest album from Jacksonville’s husband-and-wife duo reflects on painful mortal loss with an inclusive touch that pulls together jazz, blues and rock sources with brassy arrangements, soulful grit and stinging guitar.
Out of Hand, Gary Stewart (1975)
The performer of the immortal country hit “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” got his break when Nashville legend Mel Tillis caught his show at an Okeechobee roadhouse. This album is Stewart at his peak, a honky-tonk milestone that lives anywhere a shot of whiskey, the sorrow of infidelity and a good jukebox can be found.
Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band with the Rootettes, Root Boy Slim (1978)
The greasy-grooving Orlando satirist was the auteur behind keg party classics like “Boogie ’til You Puke” and “Mood Ring.” But it’s the cautionary saga “In Jail in Jacksonville” that deserves to be a Sunshine State standard.
You and Your Sister, The Vulgar Boatmen (1989; reissued 2015)
This Gainesville-spawned cult favorite has its strength in University of Florida media studies professor Robert Ray and founding member Walter Salas-Humara, who went on to lead The Silos. The band’s best-known album is full of the scruffy poetry and guitar jangles that made rock stars of fellow travelers like R.E.M. and the Replacements.
Altars of Madness, Morbid Angel (1989)
Tampa can take pride in some notable accomplishments: its cigars, the pirate-themed cosplay of its annual Gasparilla celebration and death metal. That last item likely won’t show up in any tourism brochures, but it brands the city as a unique site in music history. Tampa is home to Temple Terrace’s Morrisound Recording—at once the mecca and ground zero for the gnarliest of dark metal bands. Cannibal Corpse, Deicide and Obituary are among the best-known, but Morbid Angel is perhaps the most seminal.
Smells Like Children, Marilyn Manson (1995)
Everyone in Florida knows someone who went to Broward Community College with the shock-rocker, known as Brian Warner, who produced his first albums in South Florida.
Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida, various artists (1997)
Smoking-hot gospel played with finger slides on steel guitars has been a musical tradition in black churches since the 1930s. This archival compilation celebrates the robust Floridian branch of the genre, whose most popular present-day exponents include Miami’s The Lee Boys.
Millennium, Backstreet Boys (1999)
Orlando’s ambassadors to the teen-pop masses owned the known universe with their third album and the single “I Want It That Way.” It’s a different world now, where megahits arise out of viral media like genies from a bottle. But once upon a time in Central Florida, this was the pinnacle of a pop revolution.
Aurora, Sam Rivers and the RivBea Orchestra (2005)
Visionary saxophonist and composer Sam Rivers spent his twilight years in Orlando, where a stirring late-career phase saw the jazz firebrand coaleasce this large ensemble, the RivBea Orchestra.
Drop on Down in Florida: Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music 1977–1980, various artists (2012)
This essential two-CD and book set doubles the amount of music from the historic 1981 recordings put out by the Florida Folklife Program in collaboration with the State Archives of Florida. The music touches on everything from the holy—seven-shape-note Sacred Harp singing, echoing at a Panhandle church convention—to the low-down, like Pahokee bluesman Emmett Murray’s lament, “Drinkin’ Bad Bad Whiskey.”
The Moon Rang Like a Bell, Hundred Waters (2014)
Born in Gainesville eight years ago, the electronic group created its own brand of trippy, intimate and strangely captivating pop that some critics called “digital folk.” The band’s sophomore release is a triumph of interior moods and dreamy splashes of melody and texture that suggests an entirely new Florida sound.
Mr. Cha Cha Cha, René Touzet and His Orchestra (1959)
The obscure Cuban dance band leader earned his place in music history with his ground-breaking track “El Loco Cha Cha.” In 1956, R&B singer Richard Berry lifted its beat and wrote a little song called “Louie Louie”—with a riff that then became pretty much the greatest in rock ’n’ roll. Also: Desi Arnaz, Cuban ex-pat and television pioneer, played with Touzet.
Fred Neil, Fred Neil (1966)
The songwriter is best known for “Everybody’s Talkin,’” a hit for Harry Nilsson and the theme song of Midnight Cowboy. His second solo album also features “The Dolphins,”
a widely recorded ballad with a longing refrain: “I’ve been searchin’/ For the dolphins in the sea/ And sometimes I wonder/ Do you ever think of me?” After reluctant stardom on the ’60s folk scene, Neil dropped out and circled home to his native South Florida—and those dolphins, to whose cause he was devoted for the rest of his days.
The Weird World of Blowfly, Blowfly (1971)
The alter ego of Miami record producer and R&B artist Clarence Reid, Blowfly was an outrageous, cape-wearing parodist whose obscene and hilarious versions of pop and R&B hits by James Brown, Otis Redding and endless others set new standards for bad taste while setting the table for generations of rap performers.
A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, Jimmy Buffett (1973)
The first album in the Gulf Coast native’s Key West phase now plays something like the origin story of Parrothead Nation. The massive mainstream success of “Margaritaville”—and decades of lifestyle branding—was four years away when Buffett made this rum-soaked ode to poor decision-making (“Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” “The Great Filling Station Holdup”) and colorful character studies (“He Went to Paris”).
461 Ocean Boulevard, Eric Clapton (1974)
The English blues-rock guitarist was known as “God” during a heyday in the supergroups Cream, the Bluesbreakers and Derek and the Dominos (which also featured Duane Allman). But he fell to earth, shook a three-year heroin addiction and sought refuge in Golden Beach, recording this classic album at Miami’s Criteria Studios (where he and Allman recorded “Layla”). The collection’s simmering, laid-back vibe reflects the coastal influence, while hits like “I Shot the Sheriff” (a remake of reggae prophet Bob Marley’s original) and “Mainline Florida” speak for themselves. Criteria was at its peak during the era, serving as a sonic getaway for Southern California bands like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, who recorded two of the decade’s biggest albums there: Hotel California and Rumours.
Danger High Voltage, Betty Wright (1974)
A stone classic from Miami’s queen of soul, its songs slip easily between seductive invitations (“Tonight Is the Night”) and undeniable party anthems (“Everybody Was Rockin’”), with a healthy dose of New Orleans syncopated strut (“Shoorah! Shoorah!”) mixed in—all sung by the 21-year-old artist, aka Bessie Regina Norris. Some 45 years on, the album spins as a pinnacle of the fabled sound fostered by Henry Stone and Steve Alaimo’s Hialeah-based TK Records, a seminal disco powerhouse whose roster included George McCrae, KC & the Sunshine Band, Gwen McCrae, Jimmy “Bo” Horne and Anita Ward.
KC and the Sunshine Band, KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND (1975)
Do a little dance. Make a little love. Get down tonight. The album taps into the essence of the 1970s disco era, as voiced by Miami’s chart-busting boogie crew.
Live at the Button, Charlie Pickett and the Eggs (1982)
Recorded over two nights in Fort Lauderdale, the album is a bar-band blowout from South Florida’s garage-rock heroes, whose furious performances mixed rockabilly, blues and punk into a dangerous and desperate call to misadventure.
Miami Vice (Music from the Television Series), various artists (1985)
Not exactly the greatest piece of Florida music, Jan Hammer’s theme for the ’80s television phenomenon is at least iconic, its volleys of synthetic percussion and cascading keyboards conjuring visions of pink flamingos, speeding cigarette boats and bouncing bikini bottoms. The show also reframed the reverberant drums of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” now and forever, as an expression of dock-dwelling cop Sonny Crockett’s existential angst (as portrayed by actor Don Johnson).
Primitive Love, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine (1985)
“If you want to do the conga, you’ve got to listen to the beat,” might be the best party advice ever dispensed, and Florida’s reigning Latina pop diva made it a universal mantra on her band’s English-language breakthrough. The group was no overnight success: The singer first met and performed with the band (then known as Miami Latin Boys), and her future husband Emilio Estefan Jr., a decade before at a wedding.
As Nasty As They Wanna Be, 2 Live Crew (1989)
It’s 2 Live Crew and leader Luther Campbell’s ribald opus, which put the “dirty” in Dirty South hip-hop. The parental advisory classic was the first album to be declared legally obscene, by a federal judge not amused by thumping Miami bass bangers like “Me So Horny.” The verdict was overturned in a historic First Amendment case. But Campbell didn’t win every day in court: Star Wars creator George Lucas successfully sued to make Campbell change the name of his company, Skyywalker Records.
Flight to Freedom, Arturo Sandoval (1991)
Sandoval was a force behind the great contemporary Cuban jazz ensemble Irakere and then left for the United States in 1990, aided by his idol and friend, Dizzy Gillespie. The trumpeter’s distinguished American career began with this album of Latin-seasoned ballads and bop.
What’s My Name, DJ Uncle Al (1993)
Miami DJ and producer Albert Moss (1969–2001), better known as DJ Uncle Al, was the godfather of Miami hip-hop and an activist for nonviolence. He died in a tragic shooting the day before 9/11. These rapidfire club tracks mix booty anthems with calls for “Peace-N-Da-Hood.”
Harry Pussy, Harry Pussy (1993)
The original Florida noise duo, composed of guitarist Bill Orcutt and drummer Adris Hoya, put Miami on the map as a city of more than Cuban dance bands, smooth jazz and rump-shaking bass. During the 1990s, they melted faces at grungy venues like Churchill’s Pub in Liberty City. Their debut album bears wrecking-ball witness with 20 minutes of unrestricted caterwaul.
Master Sessions, Volume 1, Cachao (1994)
Masterful Cuban jazz bassist Israel Cachao López was no mere mambo king. He helped invent the form. After decades as an exile and a slide into the shadows, the Miami-based legend came back to prominence with this album, compiled by actor Andy García and laden with a Grammy.
The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine (2002)
Miami International University of Art & Design film professor Sam Beam, better known by the stage name Iron & Wine, became an indie sensation with this contemplative debut of rustic, postmillennial American folk music. Beam didn’t linger in academe, or Florida, once his career took off, but these songs still possess a quiet allure.
Port of Miami, Rick Ross (2006)
Chronicling South Florida drug culture in a thick baritone over dramatic syntheiszed orchestration and insistent beats that never let go, the Liberty City rap kingpin redefined Florida hip-hop with his debut album, Scarface-style.
Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label, various artists (2006)
An unexpected legacy of Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 band abides in this compilation of 1960s Miami soul hits and near-misses, which honors the pioneering African American record label founded by an inventive team of band alumni.
Meanderthal, Torche (2008)
Don’t misunderstand this outfit, hailed by Spin magazine as “the heaviest non-metal band in Miami.” Fifteen years after its formation, the group continues to subvert expectations, crafting big melodies with a fireball crunch not easily contained by metal’s colorful categories. This early album blends metal, punk, blues and psychedelia into a heady melodic brew that hammers, broods and exalts.
Astro Coast, Surfer Blood (2010)
After a decade of making music, the West Palm Beach group remains one of Florida’s most enduring indie rock acts. The band’s debut is packed with beachy vibes, melodic guitar hooks and plaintive, ruminating lyrics (“The tide will break in on itself./ There are no ghosts to exhume or unearth”).
Moonlight (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), Nicholas Britell (2016)
As gorgeous, hypnotic and heartbreaking as the Miami movie it accompanies, this chamber music score of mostly strings and keyboards is inseparable from director Barry Jenkins’ landscape of struggle and desire.