Brian Setzer has spent most of his career moving forward from what he had done with The Stray Cats. Setzer’s music and arrangements have centered on at times utilizing big bands to perform Setzer’s retro blues boogie sounds. We don’t mean to use the word retro in any sort of demeaning way. Brian Setzer songs and albums have always sounded fresh, spirited and just a whole lot of fun. These guys could play. We used the word retro in defining a band of musicians that actually know how to play their instruments. Setzer’s sound is authentic, its real playing, its hot, it rocks and that’s the way it should be. Brian Setzer songs are not recorded with computers and digital software to auto correct notes or add computer written parts. Brian Setzer songs defined the true meaning of old school. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Brian Setzer set out to get the “House Rocking.” It’s what he did and continues to do.
Brian Setzer recorded a series of albums as a solo artist with various musicians forming his backing bands. Setzer also recorded a string of albums with a big band orchestra under the name the Brian Setzer Orchestra. With so much material to choose from, we basically just decided to try and cover an essential list of songs that cover the various time periods and stages of Brian Setzer’s career after he disbanded The Stray Cats. We have also tried stay away from The Stray Cats material he re-recorded with his big bands. This was a tough list to do because Setzer has been such an affluent artist.
# 11 – Boogie Woogie Santa Claus
We thought it would be best to start out our 11 Essential Brian Setzer Songs list with a holiday favorite. Christmas music has always found a tender spot among rock and roll greats. Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick,” Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas,” The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” and so many more. However, the Brian Setzer Orchestra did not just cover Christmas songs, they covered the entire season. The Brian Setzer Orchestra has put on some of the most rocking Christmas shows ever staged by a musical artist over the past few decades. We highly recommend checking out one of their shows for a high-spirited good time. This one, “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” was one of our favorites.
# 10 – This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof
The cool song “This Cat’s On A Hit Tin Roof,” was released on the Dirty Boogie album. The album was issued in 1998. It was the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s third release. The album featured a mixture of covers and original Brian Setzer songs. The album’s opening number “This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof, was an original Brian Setzer song. This raucous track set the tone for an album of big band swing, rock and roll style.
# 9 – Lady Luck
Music and video did not get any more hip than it did in the great Brian Setzer Orchestra video for “Lady Luck.” The video starred Rene Russo, David Caruso and the coolest villain ever to appear in a television series; Anthony Denison (Ray Luca) from Crime Story.
# 8 – Mystery Train
The Brian Setzer Orchestra has covered so many of the great rock classics. The band’s cover of Junior Parker’s 1953 classic “Mystery Train,” was one of their best. Take a listen to the great guitar work of Brian Setzer at the track’s opening. Listen to the great boogie lines Setzer plays after the first vocals. The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s cover version of “Mystery Train,” was a shining example of the brilliance of Brian Setzer’s guitar playing.
The song “Mystery Train,” is one of the most widely covered songs in rock and roll. It has been done by so many artists from all different genres of rock. Artists such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, The Doors, Pat Travers, and Brian Setzer’s band The Stray Cats have all recorded their own versions of Junior Parker’s classic song.
# 7 – The Knife Feels Like Justice
Out of all the tracks on this Brian Setzer Songs list, the beautiful song “The Knife Feels Like Justice,” strayed further from Brian Setzer’s rockabilly sense than anything else he ever did. It’s such a great song, but man, where did this come from? Well, all it takes is one look at some of the album’s credits and one may get a sense of where Setzer thought he was heading. Steven Van Zandt was credited as a co-writer on the track “Maria,” with Setzer. On drums was Kenny Aronoff who had been very influential in John Mellencamp’s sound. On the organ was Benmont Tench of the Tom Petty Band. Chuck Leavell of The Allman Brothers played keyboards. On guitar was Tommy Byrnes who would go on to play lead guitar in the Billy Joel band.
With Van Zandt, Tench, Leavell, Bynres, and Aronoff on board, it seemed Brian Setzer was headed towards that Americana Springsteen, Mellencamp sound that was so popular during the time of the big 80’s. The Knife Feels Like Justice was a spectacular album, but it was a sound that only lasted for one record. Setzer would begin to make his way back to his rockabilly roots with the next record although he still would experiment a bit further before finding the sound that would take him to the next level.
# 6 – Red Lightning Blues
The opening guitar line of “Red Lightning Blues,” sounds almost a bit southern in the Lynyrd Skynyrd / 38 Special sense. The song was released in 1988 on the Live Nude Guitars album. It was Brian Setzer’s second solo album. At the time it seemed Brian Setzer was still experimenting with his sound. Only a year earlier, the Stray Cats had reunited. However, the reunion would only last a few years before they would eventually break up in 1990.
On Live Nude Guitars, one can hear the impact of 1980s metal rock on the album. You can hear it in the vocals in the chorus and the production. It’s an album influenced by the times. Nonetheless, regardless of style or inspiration, the song “Red Lightning Blues,” cooked, and that’s why we included it on our Essential Brian Setzer songs list.
# 5 – Vinyl Records
The most recent Brian Setzer song to appear on this list was released on the Rockabilly Riot LP. The album was released in 2014. The song’s opening lines sound like vintage Stray Cats. Kevin McKendree adds some Johnnie Johnson inspired piano playing on this one. Great lyrics, great riff, why don’t they play stuff like this on the radio anymore?
# 4 – Ignition
One listen to the opening driving guitar riff on this one will take you on the set of a James Dean movie. You can hear the car engines revving, the beautiful girl standing in the middle waving the race flag, the crowd going crazy, yes it’s all there. The Ignition album was released in 2001. The title of course was an ode to the Elvis Presley comeback television special in the 1960’s. However, there were dual meanings based on the title as the album signified a return to the trio format after a series of big band albums.
# 3 – Jump Jive An’ Wail
With the song’s opening dancing horn lines, Brian Setzer’s vocal line lifts you to your feet and onto the dance room floor. Brian Setzer’s version of the old classic Louis Prima tune “Jump Jive an’ Wail,” was a huge success for Setzer. The song was released as a single and reached the number 23 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Just think about that. In a time period in the late 1990s when artists like Alanis Morissette, Garbage, Pearl Jam, U2, and Marilyn Manson were dominating radio, a new version of an old 1962 swing tune was challenging those artists for airplay.
# 2 -Americano
The song’s opening clapping rhythm is a bit misleading as to where this song is heading. Once the guitar drops and the horns settle in, the listener is in for one wild ride. Brian Setzer takes his sound further than ever on this one. The song’s great minor key chorus and lavish horns dripping sweat are almost too much to take. This is dark swing, tequila-soaked rhythms, and margarita guitar licks if you know what I mean.
# 1 – The House Is Rockin
Brian Setzer took on the ultimate guitar blues boogie rock song and hit a home run with this one. From the opening guitar lick to Brian Setzer’s vocals on the first verse, this one begins smoking early. When the big band steps up to the plate, the fireworks ignite like a New York Macy’s Fourth of July celebration. The great Stevie Ray Vaughan tune “The House Is Rockin,” was released on Brian Setzer’s Guitar Slinger album in 1996. The album was produced by Phil Ramone. Picking an essential Brian Setzer songs list was no easy task. However, choosing this great song to appear in the number one spot was what we believe to be, quite justified.
Updated November 1, 2023
11 Essential Brian Setzer Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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