Nancy Wilson is one of the finest female rock musicians to have ever graced the planet. Raised in Bellevue, Seattle, she was something of a teenage prodigy when it came to all things musical, and it was during her college years when she joined her sister, the equally talented Ann, in the band Heart. Together, they would change the face of music forever.
Heart became the first hard rock band fronted by women, a feat that cannot be overlooked. Starting during the 1970s, they released a string of classic albums such as their debut, 1975’s Dreamboat Annie, which was quickly followed by Little Queen two years later. This period saw the band release a host of iconic rock tracks such as ‘Crazy on You’, ‘Magic Man’ and the timeless anti-misogyny anthem, ‘Barracuda‘. Moving into the ’80s, Heart went stratospheric, releasing hit albums such as Heart, Bad Animals, and Brigade, which spawned power ballads such as ‘What About Love’ and ‘Alone’.
By the time the band released Heart in 1985, Nancy Wilson had already established herself as one of the most essential guitarists around. Her ingenious playing style, as well as her refreshing approach to songwriting, became a vital part of Heart’s immensely popular sound, and without her, they wouldn’t have enjoyed the same level of success, a fact that cannot be denied. Wilson even moonlighted as the group’s lead singer from time to time, most notably on 1985’s ‘These Dreams’.
During a period when female guitarists were rare, Wilson confirmed that women were more than capable of competing with the posturing of stadium rockers like Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, and David Gilmour.
Given that she is so significant, Nancy Wilson has been asked many times over her career about which albums changed her life as people seek to understand her artistry further. Duly, in a 2018 interview with Goldmine, she listed the ten titles that inspired her and explained why they’ve been so important to her career in what is the most exhaustive account of her work.
Nancy Wilson’s favourite albums:
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The eighth record by Liverpool heroes The Beatles, you’d be hard-pressed to find any iconic rocker from Wilson’s generation that doesn’t cite Sgt. Pepper’s as a major influence. The band’s most psychedelic album features a host of their best-loved tracks such as ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘A Day in the Life’.
The first of a handful of Beatles albums selected by Nancy Wilson, of Sgt. Pepper’s, she commented: “Sgt. Pepper descended like a Technicolor epic on an otherwise black and white world. Impossibly beautiful and maybe the pure distilled essence of the magic spell The Beatles cast over the whole world.”
Adding: “In every nook and cranny of this masterpiece the songs are stories we all know. Songs speaking the language that our mind-expanding brains were ready to receive.”
The Beatles – Revolver (1966)
The other of The Beatles’ most experimental albums, when Revolver dropped in August 1966, culture changed forever. Featuring pioneering recording and songwriting techniques, as well as some of the band’s finest moments in general, the album remains refreshing today, a testament to their foresight. Featuring cuts such as ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, this was The Beatles getting truly groovy.
“The first time I dropped the needle on Revolver it was like being let in through a secret backstage door where the recording session was going on,” Wilson said. “The sound of this record was smashed into the grooves so deep it felt physically mind-altering. You could feel the air move. You could feel their collective consciousness, leaning toward new heights of greatness.”
Steely Dan – Gaucho (1980)
Steely Dan are another band that is rightly hailed as heroes by Wilson’s generation. Formed by the legendary misanthropes Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the duo gave us countless captivating moments over the years, and one of the most eminent is 1980s Gaucho. A yacht rock masterpiece, there’s no surprise Wilson loves it as the complex rhythms and heady instrumentation really are something to behold.
“There are rock bands and then there’s Steely Dan,” Wilson commented. “With a heavy Jersey accent and the highly skilled jazz-rock inventions of their songs, they created a new genre all their own.”
She continued: “Gaucho is the album that depicts the blending of their East Coast studio cat swagger with West Coast scene and hubris. Needing no video footage, these songs are elaborately visual.”
The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)
In another entry from Liverpool’s favourite sons, when recounting this 1969 classic, Nancy Wilson revealed that The Beatles’ penultimate record soothed the relationship between her and her parents, and even acted as a gateway for them to try marijuana, something that was not customary for people of their age. Comprised of hits such as ‘Come Together’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’, it’s understandable that Wilson’s parents loved this title, as it’s hard not to.
“This album’s a blessing and a saving grace that bridged the generation gap in my family. There actually was a joint passed around my family dinner table as we all listened to Abbey Road together”, Wilson explained. “It was certainly an odd feeling to be high with your mom and dad though. I would have normally been feeling rather guilty. But The Beatles had created an open, loving atmosphere.”
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)
When it came to Pink Floyd needing a follow-up to their magnum opus, 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the band knew they had to pull it out of the bag, and that they did. Containing best-loved cuts such as the title track and ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, Roger Waters and Co. managed to create something that was equally as cerebral as their last album, and one that was equally as affecting, a reflection of just how good Pink Floyd were when they were at their peak.
“I remember hearing Pink Floyd’s follow-up to The Dark Side of the Moon for the first time in a hotel room in Montreal,” Wilson said. “They’d announced on the TV \ radio that the album would be unveiled in its entirety that night, at that time, and we were in position to absorb it thoroughly.”
She concluded: “This was the church of Floyd and the calling for our lives to come out into the light from that point forward.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Déjà Vu (1970)
The ultimate countercultural album, I don’t think anybody was surprised to hear that the convergence of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, four of the era’s most essential musical icons, was a resounding success. Wilson is accurate in asserting that Déjà Vu is the definitive sound of the singer-songwriter trend of the counterculture, and for that reason, it is magical.
“This album contains the Holy Grail sound of the singer-songwriter hippy counterculture in late ‘60s California”, the Heart guitarist said. “Steeped in the folky harmonies from the previous era, this blend of rock jams with hard-hitting acoustics and poetry made a new cultural imprint full of depth and meaning. As a guitar player and songwriter, CSNY was a huge part of my growth.”
Joni Mitchell – Hejira (1976)
A fan favourite of Joni Mitchell’s, her eighth album Hejira is a vital point in her career, as, on it, she moved away from the folky-pop of her early days to the more experimental sounds she’d employ over the rest of the decade and into the ’80s. Still Mitchell in the sense that it reflects on several romantic relationships she’s had, the record features master bass player Jaco Pastorious who takes her sound to the next level.
Wilson said: “Among Joni Mitchell’s masterful albums this one is my all-time favourite. This is such a peak moment in Joni’s many poetic confessional works. She paints rich interior landscapes blended with the sweeping travel log of her wanderlust. These songs are wonderful paintings much like her own paintings.”
Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973)
The follow-up to the band’s saving grace, Led Zeppelin IV, it’s not outrageous to posit that Houses of the Holy can be digested as something of a sister record to its forebear. It sees the band expand on their sonic palette, both in terms of instrumentation and dynamics, and across Houses of the Holy we get stellar moments ranging from ‘The Crunge’ to ‘Rain Song’. Holding a nostalgic place in Wilson’s heart, she’s acutely aware of Zeppelin’s power.
“The summer I graduated from high school was the summer of Houses of the Holy. This album conjures up the exotic, misty magic of Old English lore blended with the riffs and beats of deep south American blues”, Wilson recalled. “Led Zeppelin is a big weather system moving over hill and dale. They shift and turn together like a school of fish through some deep, magical current.”
Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
The roots rock and Americana employed in Elton John’s third album, Tumbleweed Connection has culminated in it holding a cultish status within his expansive discography. A concept album based on country and western themes, it was far ahead of its time and remains one of the most complete works the English songwriter ever released. It’s a must-listen for anyone who hasn’t already been dazzled by John’s surprisingly authentic take on the American West.
“The songwriting of Elton John and Bernie Taupin have given us so many incredible anthems and this album was a watershed moment in the musical world they created together”, she said. “In my junior year of high school, under the covers with the Seattle rain falling outside, the headphones were my ride through this cinematic wonderland. The American West translated back through a poetic English lens.”
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand (2007)
A more contemporary entry, for anyone unaware, the convergence of former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and American country star Alison Krauss has long been hailed as one of the best partnerships in music. The first of their pair of albums, the evocative folk and Americana of this T Bone Burnett-produced title leaves an indelible mark on you.
Given that Nancy Wilson has shown herself to be a fan of all things country, there’s no surprise she holds Plant and Krauss’s 2007 album dear, she said: “When Raising Sand was released it was like a call to join forces with a new breed of beautiful. Located at the corner of ‘high lonesome’ roots and American/English rock.”
“These haunting classics in the hands of Robert Plant and Allison Kraus’ voices create an intimate personal portrait of America. Such a brave unexpected concept to pair these songs with those two incredible singers,” Wilson said.