Take a trip down memory lane or uncover something totally new to you with our collection of must-listen albums for uke lovers. First, we explore ukulele history with classic records from the 1920s to the present day, then we share some more recent favorites.
10 Classic Recordings
This is not quite a chronological history of the ukulele in ten albums, but it does show the broad scope of how the instrument’s role changed over time from the 1920s to the present day.
1. Kalama’s Quartet: Early Hawaiian Classics, 1927–1932 (Arhoolie/Folkways)
Not only was this the greatest Hawaiian vocal group of the early recording era, their songs also featured steel guitar, guitar, and William Kalama’s solid, strummed ukulele parts, all emblematic of that time’s Hawaiian folk music.
2. Lemon Nash: New Orleans Ukulele Maestro & Tent Show Troubadour (Arhoolie)
Nash was just one of many forgotten African American musicians who played the ukulele in tent shows, clubs, and at parties in the segregated south during the 1920s and ’30s. This album consists of solo recordings made from 1959 to ’61, in which he revisits his bluesy early repertoire and tells colorful stories about his career.
3. Cliff Edwards: Singing in the Rain (Audiophile)
Unlike Ukulele Ike’s heavily orchestrated and virtually uke-free recordings from the ’20s and ’30s, this generous 34-track compilation from 1943 features intimate stripped-down uke-and-vocal studio performances of his best-known songs.
4. Lyle Ritz: How About Uke! (Verve)
This is the album that, way back in 1958, showed that the ukulele could be played as a lead instrument in a contemporary jazz quartet. It’s mostly mellow, but it does swing occasionally and Ritz’s solos and comping behind flutist Don Shelton are spot-on.
5. Sons of Hawaii: The Folk Music of Hawaii (Panini Productions)
Eddie Kamae revolutionized ukulele playing in the ’60s and early ’70s with his varied and innovative right-hand plucking and strumming techniques. This 1971 record is the most memorable of several classic Sons albums.
6. Ka’au Crater Boys: The Best of… (Roy Sakuma Productions)
The duo of guitarist Ernie Cruz Jr. and ukulele ace Troy Fernandez was perhaps the most influential Hawaiian group of the 1990s, with Fernandez widely cited by many uke players who followed him as a key influence. This was good-time party music, with reggae and pop and Hawaiian influences, and Fernandez had soloing skills worthy of a rock lead guitarist.
7. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole: Facing Future (Bigboy)
This gentle and sweet-voiced mountain of a man had international success with this 1993 album because of the medley “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” which has appeared in many films and TV shows and is now a staple of countless groups and singers. The album also contained a Hawaiian reggae-fied version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and plenty of old- and modern-sounding Hawaiian material.
8. Jake Shimabukuro: Live (Hitchhike)
With its mix of spectacularly performed cover songs/pieces by Bach, Chick Corea, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), and his own stylistically diverse originals, this 2009 solo uke instrumental album showcases mind-blowing skills and amazing range.
9. Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs (Monkeywrench)
This 2011 album makes the list because the success of the Pearl Jam frontman’s out-of-nowhere ukulele project brought cred to the instrument with a previously untapped audience and encouraged new folks to play the uke. And it happens to be a beautiful, if characteristically angsty, album with some of Vedder’s best singing ever.
10. Various Artists: Legends of Ukulele (Rhino)
Compiled by Jim Beloff, this non-linear 18-song historical compilation from 1998 includes songs by many of the artists mentioned in our lists (Formby, Ohta-San, Ritz, Ka’au Crater Boys, Ukulele Ike, Eddie Kamae, Arthur Godfrey), plus cool tunes and oddities by Roy Smeck, the Kalima Brothers, and yes, Tiny Tim.
10 Great Albums of the Last Decade
Here are ten great albums from the past ten years—presented here in chronological order, with one album for each year.
1. Grand Ukulele (Jake Shimabukuro, 2012)
This ambitious outing of mostly Jake-penned tunes was produced by British rock giant Alan Parsons and mixes brilliant solo uke pieces with dramatic, highly orchestrated numbers—all of which show off different facets of Jake’s playing.
2. Pure Ukulele (Herb Ohta, Jr., 2013)
“Pure” is the right word for this Hoku-winning album of Island instrumentals by this master of melody whose solo, double- and triple-layered ukulele parts sing exquisitely throughout the 11-song set.
3. Island Style Ukulele 2 (Various Artists, 2014)
Another Hoku-winning, well-curated compilation of 14 uke-forward tracks, with notable appearances by Kimo Hussey, Kalei Gamiao, Rio Sato, Brittni Paiva, and the ubiquitous Bryan Tolentino and Herb Ohta.
4. Jus Cuz, Ukulele Duets (Da Ukulele Boyz, 2015)
Garrett Probst and Peter deAquino team up for a stylistically varied collection of beautifully performed uke duets that runs the gamut from “Happy Together” to “Wipeout” to “Dueling Ukuleles” (rather than banjos) and Ohta & Tolentino’s thrilling “G Minor Fleas.”
5. Kamaka Ukulele Presents: Keep Strumming! (Various Artists, 2016)
For its 100th anniversary, the Hawaiian uke-makers released this 24-track double-CD (it’s on YouTube now) featuring, among others, Jake, Taimane, Brittni Paiva, Kris Fuchigami, Kalei Gamiao, Bryan Tolentino, and Genoa Keawe & Pomaika’i Lyman.
6. Ukulele Friends: The Sequel (Bryan Tolentino & Herb Ohta, Jr., 2017)
This and its 2015 predecessor each won Na Hoku Hanohano awards for Best Ukulele Album and both are gems, with the chemistry of these two superb players always evident as they roll through a primo selection of Hawaiian repertoire.
7. Honeysuckle Rose (Craig Chee & Sarah Maisel, 2018)
A collection of mostly mellow and sometimes swingin’ 20th-century American standards get a lovely workout by the uke duo and a small combo, with Sarah’s assured vocals at the forefront.
8. WAHOO! (Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, 2019)
The Grammy-winning players/educators turn in a remarkable set of tracks that includes an old-time Appalachian romp, some swing, a cowboy tune, and several clever originals.
9. Blue on Blue (Sylvie Simmons, 2020)
Though best known for her long career writing about music, Simmons has developed into a fine singer-songwriter, too, as she shows on this excellent album of 11 evocative ukulele-driven songs.
10. Jake & Friends (Jake Shimabukuro, 2021)
Jake shows the incredible versatility of the uke on this diverse collection of collaborations with the likes of Willie Nelson, Ziggy Marley, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Loggins, Warren Haynes, Billy Strings, and a whole bunch more.
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