Best Spoken Word Albums of All Time
The Grammy category for Best Spoken Word Album (until 2022, known as Best Audio Book, Narration & Storytelling Recording) recognizes poetry readings, speeches, and non-musical drama recordings with or without musical collaboration or accompaniment. Here are some of the most noteworthy spoken word albums ever released.
Following the dissolution of Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra went on a speaking tour that produced some powerful speeches – having this double LP featuring mostly scripted lessons on hemp, right-wing bigshots, and censorship that became tedious over time.
1. J. IVY
J. Ivy has long championed spoken word art. In 2023, he won a GRAMMY for The Poet Who Sat By the Door as part of its inaugural “Best Spoken Word Poetry Album” category – becoming the first ever Grammy award recipient for a spoken word album ever produced!
This album spans many genres, including Hip-Hop, R&B, and Soul, with collaboration from artists like multi-award winner musician John Legend, Slick Rick The Ruler of RAP/rap group Slick Rick & the Ruler (aka Rapper Slick Rick The Ruler), PJ Morton Sir the Baptist Ledisi BJ Chicago Kid Yaw Musiq Soulchild Yaw and more. This project examines love healing endurance through a Black lens with messages emphasizing passion, faith, and hope as its central themes of inspiration, devotion, dedication, and recurring messages.
Ivy is a highly sought-after live performer and the first spoken word artist ever to hold the position of Chapter President at Recording Academy Chicago and lead their Craft Sessions: Spoken Word series. Additionally, he mentors and educates young people through the Write to Live Academy and Dear Father Initiative programs.
The Chicagoan is an innovator and trendsetter in Hip-Hop Poetry. He has broken through barriers and brought this art form directly into the music and television arenas. An accomplished multi-platinum recording artist, Peabody and Clio award-winning poet, actor, and speaker, he has collaborated with artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z, The Last Poets, Mos Def Common & RZA, among many more.
After being honored as the winner of the inaugural Best Spoken Word Poetry Album category at City Winery in March of 2022, Ivy embarked on his latest project: his groundbreaking Best Spoken Word Poetry Album Tour, named for his critically acclaimed album. This tour pays homage to its power and legacy of spoken word poetry while simultaneously exploring new avenues for expression – it serves as a blueprint of possibility! This month alone, he plans to travel to Boston and Atlanta before continuing his journey across America. Vocalo caught up with him recently to discuss these shows and the future directions of spoken word poetry!
2. Jello Binarkers
Jello Biafra used to be in the Dead Kennedys but has recently joined an unlikely band called “Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.” Their music resembles that of Jello Biafra & DOA or less mechanical Lard – with guitars tuned for heavy metal but playing punk rock chords; there’s plenty of headbang-y punk, midtempo rock, psychedelic surf-rock (East Bay Ray-style), as well as spoken-word rantings about corporate America ruining everything or why people shouldn’t drink milk or see dentists!
The album begins with an atmospheric, haunting Deviant cover performed by Jello Warble through a distortion pedal, followed by various speeches on topics as diverse as hemp, California’s fake energy crisis, and Ralph Nader. Some interesting political opinions and facts (such as how police officers and district attorneys targeted Newt Gingrich for his comments about the war on terror) and tedious anti-censorship speeches are presented on this album.
There’s been much talk about how horrible politicians can be, which is certainly accurate; however, their constant complaints don’t make for engaging listening experiences after a while. Furthermore, most songs are over four minutes long, which can be fine when their clever lyrics hold your interest, but when they deviate into less intriguing passages halfway through, then it quickly loses steam and becomes tiresome. This album offers great artwork and inserts; it is worth listening to once released!
3. Alan Moore
Alan Moore was an accomplished comic book writer, author, musician, magician, and occultist. He started off writing underground comics before transitioning into mainstream publications such as 2000 AD and Marvel UK comics, where his comics Swamp Thing, The Watchmen, and V for Vendetta made headlines.
Moore’s later works shifted away from science fiction and superheroic themes and towards realism and political activism. Unearthing is a collection of his stories not written as comics but read aloud with music by Crook & Fail (Fog guitarist Andrew Broder and Themselves/Subtle avant-rapper Doseone). Moore reads his work while their unsettling score provides the perfect accompaniment.
Spoken word stands out from other literary forms because of its ability to reach beyond the page and resonate in our bodies and souls. Nigerian poets like RezThaPoet master this art form by drawing upon culture from within their country while offering astute commentary to penetrate its core. Their works feature various styles ranging from soulful and heartwarming to bitingly satirical; one thing unifies all their results through an exquisite sense of rhythm!
Contrasting traditional rap, these recordings often rely on minimal production and the power of words alone to communicate meaning. Some use this form to explore spiritual themes, while others employ it for raising social awareness or empowerment purposes.
Spoken word often mirrors new-age philosophy, making it a topic well-served by podcasts and audiobooks. Titilope Sonuga explores this area with this collection that examines personal mythology as we incorporate our historical experiences into everyday lives on tracks such as Girlhood and Conversations with Your Mother.
One of the central characteristics of spoken word poetry is its capacity to convey a sense of space and time through rhetorical techniques, enabling authors to provide depth to their characters by weaving past events into present ones, similar to Alan Moore’s use in Watchmen of debunking superhero myths by showing how humans like superheroes have just as many flaws as anyone else.
4. Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales
Audrey Hepburn made an indelible mark as one of Hollywood’s great screen legends in this recording, reading with grace and charm while narrating these tales of unselfish devotion, courage, and true love set to music by Maurice Ravel in Mother Goose Suite. One of her final spoken word recordings before her passing won her a posthumous Grammy award; Hepburn’s voice, although aged, remains clear with precise diction and fitting inflections that shine through.
Hepburn’s captivating narration brings Mary Sheldon’s enchanting adaptations of Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Laidronette, Empress of the Pagodes, and Beauty and the Beast by way of Mary’s Mother Goose Suite and other musical selections to life on this album, recorded in 1992 yet timeless recording. This timeless recording makes for an engaging listen!