The 50’s Albums: A Brief Recap and Reevaluation

Now that we’re through with the 50’s section of the book, which contains a total of twenty-three albums, I’d like to just take a quick moment to look back and reevaluate each and every one of them, with the benefit of hindsight. I believe many of my reviews and rankings placements were originally unfair, and many albums I’ve written about deserve a second chance. So without further ado, let us begin!

In the Wee Small Hours Sinatra Cover

In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (1955)

The book definitely starts off on a high note with this one. Through all of my first twenty-three reviews, this one has remained at the top of the rankings, and while it has now moved down to the second or third spot, I still believe it to be one of the greatest albums of the entire decade. Each track is just permeating with lonliness, and even though he didn’t write most of the songs (except for one, “This Love of Mine, which even then is only a co-writer credit), he still performs each piece with emotion and makes the song his own. What truly makes the album however, in my opinion, are the arrangements of Nelson Riddle. With the help of his strings and jazz orchestra, each track is an absolute treat for the ears. His instrumentation is moving, soothing and captivating. This is made immediately evident from just the first few seconds of the album, and continues to live up to that standard for the remainder of the album’s fifty-minute running time. In the world of 50’s pop, these sixteen tracks have no equal.

Elvis Self titled 1956

Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley (1956)

I’m going to be completely honest. This is a highly flawed album. It’s uneven, lopsided, even a little bit unfinished-sounding at parts. In fact, I believe it’s the weakest of the book’s 50’s rock and roll albums. But despite all that, it’s still a highly enjoyable listen, not to mention a major landmark in music history. Being one of the first rock albums to achieve commercial success, this is certainly a great place to start if you wish to witness rock and roll in its early, primordial state. It’s basic, unadorned and straightforward, both lyrically and musically (and that’s definitely not a bad thing). It alternates between energetic rock songs and quiet, soulful love ballads, and Elvis is equally skilled at both. In fact, one of the album’s ballads, “Blue Moon,” is not only my favorite song off the album, but one of my favorite songs of the decade. Overall, despite the album’s flaws, this album is still absolutely worth your time. For all its negatives, it still deserves its place in the book.

Tragic Songs of Life by Louvin Brothers

Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers (1956)

really didn’t like this one when I first reviewed it. But in the time since, it’s started to grow on me. Granted, it’s still on the lower half of the rankings, but I’ve started to appreciate this album much more with time. Ira and Charlie are excellent at harmonizing with each other, the guitar playing is excellent and the set of songs is supremely dark and gloomy, however cheery the melodies may make it sound. “Knoxville Girl” still manages to unsettle, with its casual recounting of a brutal and heartless murder of an innocent girl, with the narrator showing neither a shred of remorse nor any semblance of a motive. Other tracks are painfully emotional expressions of grief, heartbreak, longing, and just all-around human misery in its most basic form. The stand-out track in my opinion has to be “What is Home Without Love,” which is a strong contender for the album’s biggest downer, topped only by “Mary of the Moor,” an almost absurdly dark and depressing ballad about a mother who dies in the freezing cold with her newborn child in her arms. Christ. That’s so depressing it borders on parody. In conclusion, as the book’s first country album, it’s a great way to introduce the genre. Great harmony, expert guitar playing, and morbid-as-hell lyrics. What more could a good country album want?

The Wildest! by Louis Prima 1956

The Wildest! by Louis Prima (1956)

Now, in contrast with the previous album, we have one that I loved at first, but then sort of grew indifferent towards over time. It’s not a bad album, (far from it, in fact) but surrounded by so many other incredible albums, it kind of falls flat. It was pretty great the first time through, but I think the true sign of a great album is how it holds up on repeat listens. This particular album just seems to lose its spark the third or fourth time through. It’s certainly enjoyable, but I just found myself enjoying it less and less with each re-listen. I would still recommend you give it a listen yourself, but it really isn’t my personal favorite.

This is Fats Domino cover

This is Fats Domino! by Fats Domino (1956)

I honestly have no idea what I was thinking when I first reviewed this one. Of all my reviews so far, this is by far the one I regret the most. I freakin’ love this album, and it frankly boggles my mind that I could’ve been “indifferent” to this album at some point. The songs here are short and to the point. They’ve got great melodies, sung with amazing vocals, backed by an outstanding band. I don’t think there’s a single track on this album that I don’t love the crap out of, but “So Long,” “Honey Chile” and “Blue Monday” are definite highlights. This is Fats Domino! is a stong contender for my favorite of the book’s 50’s rock and roll albums (just outranked by The “Chirping” Crickets) and is a must-listen for anyone interested in the music of the decade.

Ellington at Newport

Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington (1956)

Duke Ellington’s performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival is truly legendary. Jazz fans still talk about it to this day. It was monumental to the point that it’s considered a historical album for music history, not to mention the high point of Duke Ellington’s entire decades-long career. I agree wholeheartedly with all of those sentiments, and while I would still place it around the middle on the rankings, I completely respect this record and all of the countless accolades it has received. “Diminuendo in Blue” is one of the greatest jazz tracks of all time, the trilogy of “Festival Junction,” “Blues to Be There” and “Newport Up” are excellent, and the concert’s closer “Skin Deep” is one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard. These tracks alone make the album more than worthwhile, but sadly the remaining tracks I found to be simply forgettable. The aforementioned tracks more than make up for this, but there are simply too many “average” tracks for the album to be higher than the middle of the rankings. Other than that, this is an outstanding album, and is an indispensable part of jazz history.

Songs For Swingin' Lovers! cover

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)

His previous album in the book, In the Wee Small Hours, is an absolute masterpiece. This album, while high in quality, doesn’t quite meet the same heights as its predecessor. Not at all, of course, because of its much more cheerful and happy tone. Far from it, in fact; joy can often be the most potent emotion art can conjure. I enjoy this album very much, but the collections of songs here don’t work as well as a cohesive whole. What made Wee Small Hours so great was that it felt much more like an album, with Swingin’ Lovers feeling more like a collection of singles. Amazing singles, but singles nonetheless. The former album was focused on mood, raw emotion, and atmosphere, while this one is more concerned with crafting quality, catchy pop tunes. Both of those are great in my opinion, but in terms of what makes a more memorable album, I believe the former works much more well. So, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! is a top-quality record, but is sadly just not as strong as his previous album.

The Chirping Crickets cover

The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)

Here it is, folks. I truly believe this to be the greatest rock and roll album of the 50’s. It is truly a testament to the strength of the songs on this album that, despite it being a miniscule twenty-five minutes in length, it would go on to massively influence the style and songwriting of decades of music to come. These tracks are concise and to the point. They’re all very short, with most being two-and-a-half minutes or less, and utilize very traditional pop song structure, but it works excellently here. The instruments are minimal: just guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. And what vocals! Holly’s voice is incredibly animated and expressive, performing each song with cheerfulness and vigor. The backing vocals are great too, complimenting the song with country-like singing and harmony. There isn’t a single weak track here, and before you know it, they’re over. You’re left wanting more, which truly is a shame, considering Buddy Holly only got one more album out before his untimely death in 1959, at the age of twenty-two. His contributions to the world of music were both small and massive, and he was (and still is) mourned by music experts and casual fans alike. The tragedy of his death, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, still feels fresh even today, almost sixty years later, but his contributions to music will always be remembered.


The Atomic Mr. Basie by Count Basie (1957)

This is a quality jazz album, and while it’s not my favorite out of all of them, I can still appreciate its value. The songs are catchy, the playing is great, and the energy is tangible. The fast songs are so pumped full of excitement and energy that it feels like the band is on the verge of exploding. The slow tracks are even better, with a cool, smooth and relaxing mood complimented perfectly by the improvisation and jazz melodies featured. The tracks are short (for jazz, that is) and yet feel so much longer than they are (in a good way). They just manage to say so much in a short amount of time that you forget that most of the tracks are only about three minutes in length. I would say that this is definitely a highly enjoyable album, and although it isn’t my favorite of the book’s 50’s jazz albums, it’s still worth your time.


Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk (1957)

Just listen to this album, and tell me this man isn’t a genius. This record features some of the tightest, most complex jazz tracks I’ve ever heard, and it’s just an all-around joy to experience. The opening title track just blows me away every time I hear it. Featuring such complex melodies and fast time-signature changes that the band thought it impossible to play upon first viewing, it’s almost difficult to take it all in on first listen. It’s an exhilarating ride from start to finish, and does a great job of showing what he and his band is capable of. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” follows the opening track up with thirteen minutes of near-perfect improvised jazz bliss. “Pannonica” is a definite highlight: listen to it and try not to just melt into your seat. It is the sound of pure, undiluted tranquility. I could easily fall asleep to it, and I mean that in the best possible way. “Bemsha Swing” closes out the album on a high note, with more of the usual masterful performances and improv. Overall, this might just be my favorite jazz album of the decade, along with the obvious choice, Kind of Blue. This is a criminally underrated gem of an album that every music lover should hear.


Palo Congo by Sabu (1957)

This one’s still one of my favorites. Featuring some of the best percussion work I’ve ever heard, Palo Congo is by far my favorite out of the three albums of Latin music featured in the book’s 50’s section. This album is simply unforgettable. Rhythm is what this album is all about. The drum section, featuring an array of types including conga and bongo drums, is unlike any I’ve ever heard. The rhythm flows effortlessly through these drums, creating a mesmerizing soup of sound that puts the listener into a trance with ease. The album’s opener, “El Cumbanchero,” is a brilliant frenzy of guitar, drums and vocals that hypnotizes the listener as much as it wills them to get up and move. The rest of the album continues the frenzy, with “Billumba-Palo Congo’s” call-and-response chanting and “Simba’s” primal, animalistic squawks and growls being particular highlights. This is an album unlike almost any other I’ve ever heard. It deserves much more attention than it gets, so I would highly reccomend you check it out.


Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis (1957)

I think I was way too harsh on this one at first. This is a much better jazz album than I gave it credit for. I still think it’s the weakest of Davis’ four albums in this book, but that’s not saying much considering it’s up against some of the greatest jazz albums of all time, namely, Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It’s still quite good as a standalone album, featuring great improv and melody/harmony. It’s incredibly understated and subtle, and yet at the same time many of its tempos are upbeat and rather fast. These two seemingly contrasting elements actually work together very nicely, creating a unique atmosphere fitting the album’s title very well. It’s not the kind of album that you could really pick favorite tracks off of. It all seems to kind of blend together into one long experience. Oftentimes albums like this where no track seems to stick out just wind up being forgettable because of it, but with this one it suits it quite well. It’s nice to just sit back and relax to this album, but it’s just a little too fast and complex to fall asleep to. It’s got a truly unique sound and mood, and all sorts of subtleties that I completely missed out on the first time around.


Kenya by Machito (1957)

This album will leave you breathless. It’s explosive, chaotic, and loud, and god, do I love every last second of it. The opening track, “Wild Jungle,” has to be heard to be believed. It’s one of the most memorable album openings I’ve heard in a long time, and perfectly encapsulates what makes Machito so awesome in a single track. The title track, “Kenya,” is another highlight, not to mention the following song, “Oyeme,” which uses buildup brilliantly to create a song that doesn’t get agressive, but still sounds like it could explode at any second. “Conversation”and “Minor Rama” are also favorites, but picking favorites with this album is ultimately just futile, as pretty much every track can be argued to be the album’s best. If you want a little, or rather, a lot of excitement in your jazz, this is the album for you.


Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard (1957)

 Although only my third favorite out of the 50’s rock and roll albums, this one’s still one of the most noteworthy albums of the decade. Certainly one of the most recognizable; finding someone who hasn’t heard “Tutti Frutti” would be a monumental undertaking. It’s an absolute cultural juggernaut of a song, and is quite possibly the most iconic rock and roll song of the 50’s, if not all time. While I don’t deny the importance it holds, it isn’t even my favorite track of the album: of the upbeat, energetic tracks, I much prefer “Ready Teddy” and “Long Tall Sally.” “Oh Why?” is a great change of pace from the rest of the album, being a slower, sadder track about Little Richard being “put on trial” for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s not a perfect album, with some of the songs sounding suspiciously similar, but they’re just so well-performed that that’s easy to forget. This album is without a doubt a high point in 50’s music that any music fan worth their salt should hear.


Dance Mania by Tito Puente and His Orchestra (1958)

Dance Mania is the sole proof needed to justify Tito’s title as the King of Latin Music. Rhythm, melody, vocals, instrumentals: this album nails them all. It takes the album’s opener, “El Cayuco,” all of three seconds to make you want, nay, need to get up and move, and every single track to follow maintains that energy completely. This is just one of those albums that fill you with joy without fail, no matter the circumstances. Feeling down? Puente and his Orchestra ain’t having any of that. Some highlights include the instrumentals “3-D Mambo” and “Hong Kong Mambo,” the aforementioned “El Cayuco,” and “Cuanto te Vea (Guáguanco).” This one is just great. Not many other ways to put it: it’s just great.


Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)

Alright, alright, I’m just going to say it. This is the greatest album of the decade. I would try and explain why or how, but I honestly don’t have words to describe this album. Nothing I can write can explain how truly, deeply haunting and emotional this record is. It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. And masterpiece isn’t a word I like to just throw around: it’s a word that needs to be reserved and used with caution, lest it lose its potency. Lady in Satin, however, is in fact deserving of the title, and yet even then it seems to fail to pinpoint this record’s magic. There are some feelings, some emotions, that can’t be expressed through language. So I’m just going to stop trying and move on to the next one. Listen to it.


Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)

My feelings on this album haven’t really altered: this is a fine folk record with great guitar playing and a Woody Guthrie feature. Need I really say more?


At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)

It honestly makes me sad when albums turn out underwhelming. But, it pains me to say this, At Mister Kelly’s is just that. It’s not because the instrumentation is sparse (a lot of my favorite albums feature even less accompaniment, for instance Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert). I just couldn’t enjoy this album no matter how hard I tried to. Hey, they can’t all be winners.


Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

My feelings on this album are a tad mixed. On the one hand, it’s incredibly long, and of course with such a long track listing not all of the songs are going to be that great. But on the other, none of them are quite bad, and I understand why it’s as long as it is. This album isn’t quite intended to be listened to in one full sitting. It’s more of a huge collection of songs that you can listen to in any order you please. It’s not my favorite, but I still enjoy it.


The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

It sure ain’t no lie: the man’s a musical genius. This one’s got it all. Don’t like string ballads? Side One’s got all the catchy-as-hell upbeat big band tunes you could ask for. Lots of brass isn’t your cup of tea? Flip it on over to Side Two for half an album of soothing and passionate string sections. This album truly has something for everybody. If you come out of this record having not enjoyed yourself at least a little, you’re pretty much clinically dead inside. Ray Charles knows how to make music, and nowhere is it more evident than this aptly-titled masterwork.


Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

Again, my opinions on this one haven’t really shifted much. It’s an absolute classic, and one of the most essential albums of the 20th century. If you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor. Best experienced with headphones, in a silent room with the lights off. There’s not much better.


Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)

This is a great country album, each track having a compelling story, great lyrics, and excellent guitar with Marty’s signature deep-voiced country croon. I believe this album is by far the better of the two country albums on the list so far, which is saying a lot, seeing as Tragic Songs of Life is already a pretty high standard to beat. If you’re a country fan, this album is pretty much required listening.


Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

And finally, closing out the 50’s, is the incredible jazz album that brought us the staple “Take Five.” Seeing as this is my most recent review, I don’t have much more I can really say about it, so check out the review for more info! All I can say is that this is a very good jazz album, and that the book closes out the decade with a bang.

So those are all the albums I’ve reviewed so far. I’ll be updating the rankings soon, and you can look forward to my first review of the 60’s very soon! See you then.

Next Up: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

Album Review #23: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)


The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five is the final album of the book’s 50’s section, being released in December of 1959, and oh boy, does it end the decade on a high note. This is an excellent jazz album, rivaling the likes of Brilliant Corners and even Kind of Blue. Featuring only four musicians and yet at times sounding like a full orchestra, this album is extravagant, and at the same time subtle, with expert musicianship shining through each and every second. I think it’s needless to say that I enjoyed this one greatly.

The track that pretty much everyone knows this album for (and by extent, Brubeck’s entire oeuvre,) has to be “Take Five.” If you’ve never even heard of Dave Brubeck, you’ve probably heard this song at some point, possibly without even knowing it. It’s a great melody, but what I like the song even more for is the rhythmic, persistent piano that serves as a sort of grounding point for the rest of the band to do its thing. Funnily enough, the iconic saxophone melody that the song is famous for only appears at the beginning and very end of the piece, with the bulk of the song being an extended drum solo, accompanied by piano and bass. With such sparse instrumentation and such a (relatively) long running time, you’d think the song would tire itself out before it ends, but it doesn’t. Joe Morello, the percussionist, is so talented that he easily carries the majority of the song on his own. Although I love the song, I have to admit that it’s a wonder the song became a major hit, being over five minutes long and about %70 drum solo. Good on the public for digging this song so much.


The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Image Source:

But of course, “Take Five” isn’t the whole album. There are six other tracks that make up the record, and all of them are worth mentioning. My favorite of these is track number two, “Strange Meadow Lark.” It has an incredible introduction, with a little over two minutes worth of solo piano that I can only describe as “Gershwin meets Debussy.” Brubeck is truly talented with the piano, and it shines here more so than anywhere else on the album. The rest of the band is great as well, with the four instruments working together excellently to create a soothing, cool and highly relaxing mood for the remainder of the track’s seven minutes. More so than any other track (which is saying quite a lot), this one is simply a goldmine of pure, undiluted ear candy.

Time Out is truly a top-tier jazz album. The playing is masterful, the melodies are memorable and the freestyles are flowing and effortless. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the 50’s greatest jazz combos, and this album is their crowning achievement. Give this one a listen, it deserves it.

Favorite Tracks: “Take Five,” “Strange Meadow Lark”

Next Up: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

Album Review #22: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)


I feel bad for people who don’t listen to country. The genre has such a stigma surrounding it for some reason, which confounds me, with the wealth of great country music that there is. Writing off an entire genre of anything is a terrible thing to do. My personal belief is that there’s great music to be found in every genre, so for all the country haters out there, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins is proof of that theorem.

The title is accurate; every track is either a story-song about outlaws and shootouts, or a campfire folk song about the daily struggle. Marty Robbins has a good singing voice, and his band is a good accompaniment to his lyrics. He’s got a classic country croon, clean and almost never faltering on a tone. It’s simple, but it works. In fact, I’d say that that can describe the album as a whole: simple but good. The melodies are uncomplicated and difficult not to sing along to, and the instrumentation is minimal, with the only instrument other than guitar, bass and drums appearing on the album being a brief fiddle intro to “Cool Water.” He does more than well with what little he has to work with, making each and every track an engaging listen.


Image source: Los Angeles Times

While the music itself is great, the album’s true strongpoint is the lyrics. Marty Robbins himself only has a writing credit on four of the album’s twelve tracks, with the others being either covers of fellow country artists or traditional folk songs, but he still infuses both his own songs and his covers with equal love and attention. My favorite tracks still tend toward Robbins originals, however. “Big Iron” starts the album off on a high note, and “In the Valley” is soulful and moving, with the only negative I can come up with being that it’s too short, at only 1:48. “The Master’s Call” is the only one of the four I don’t like; the lyrics are good, but musically it’s almost identical to “Big Iron,” just in a different key. The best track of the album has to be “El Paso.” With great lyrics, excellent guitar playing, and the catchiest melody of the record, it was his biggest hit for good reason. It’s a truly classic song, and one every country fan should hear.

If you don’t like country, that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. Heck, I wrote possibly my most scathing review yet on Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers, the first country album on this list. But that isn’t to say you should dismiss the entire genre. As I said before, there’s great music everywhere. If you dislike a certain genre, you just have to dig a little more for it. I’m almost certain you’ll find it somewhere. And if you dislike country, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs just might be the one to change your mind.

Favorite Tracks: “El Paso,” “In the Valley,” “Big Iron,” “Cool Water”

Least Favorite: “The Master’s Call”

Next Up: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

Album Review #21: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)


This right here is a turning point, folks. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is not only the highest selling jazz album of all time (currently at 4x Platinum according to the RIAA), it also had an incalculable influence on almost every other genre of music for decades to come. I’ve been a pretty big fan of this album for quite a while now, and while I still prefer his 1970 release Bitches Brew, it still stands as a hugely important masterpiece in its own right.

With the help of a ridiculously star-studded cast of session musicians, including piano virtuoso Bill Evans and jazz legend John Coltrane, this set of five mostly-improvised jazz compositions becomes absolutely incomparable in performance, melody and sound. The record opens up with “So What,” containing one of the greatest introductions in music history.  The piano and bass play off each other excellently, and the moment where the cymbal crashes and the song goes into full swing is just pure perfection. The following track, “Freddie Freeloader,” continues the great improvised playing and harmonies, but track three, “Blue in Green,” is just indescribable. Evans’ piano playing is at its peak in this track, and gives off a mournful, even otherworldly vibe. My only complaint is that it is the album’s shortest track, at only five minutes. Its a song I definitely wouldn’t mind listening to for longer.


Photo from the Kind of Blue sessions. Source:

After “Blue in Green” comes the album’s lengthiest track, “All Blues.” This one’s probably my favorite out of the five. It may be long, but the great (as usual) performances, with repeating drum/high hat and bass that persists throughout, providing a sort of base for the trumpet, sax and piano to do their thing. It just keeps going for 11 straight minutes, and doesn’t wear out for even a second. It’s followed by the album’s closing track, “Flamenco Sketches.” An excellent send-off for one of music’s great masterpieces, it’s slow, morose and calming, and takes its time serenading the listener with latin-inspired melodies in some of the most smooth nine minutes of jazz ever put to record.

If you haven’t listened to Kind of Blue yet, do it. Now. I mean it. Simply one of the finest jazz albums ever, it’s something everyone should experience at some point in their lives. Never once feeling flashy or over the top, it remains cool and subtle throughout, making a lasting impression without ever raising its voice. Do yourself a favor and listen to this one.

Favorite Tracks: Uhh… Can I just say all of them?

Next Up: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)

Album Review #20: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)


The Genius of Ray Charles is an interesting record. Split in half stylistically, with Side 1 containing six Big Band Jazz/R&B tunes and Side 2 six soulful string ballads, it tries (and succeeds) to accomplish a lot of different things. It takes a lot of musical skill to pull off something like this,  but luckily for us Ray Charles possesses such a talent, tenfold.

In my opinion, the highlight of the album has to be its opening track, “Let the Good Times Roll.” It’s almost stupidly catchy, and Ray’s vocals are excellent. In all honesty, it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard on the list so far. Also from Side 1, we have “Two Years of Torture” and “When Your Lover Has Gone.” While he saves all the outright ballads for Side 2, these two songs are still pumped full of the blues. His singing throughout the album is filled with emotion and passion, giving weight and meaning to each lyric he sings.


Image Source:

Side 2 displays a much different style of music from the first. Eschewing the sometimes-harsh, always-loud brass band in favor of a softer string section (plus oboe and backing vocals), for the album’s second half Ray offers the listener an excellent selection of heart-felt ballads. “Am I Blue?” is the best out of all of these, with “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” being a very close second. As with Side 1, his vocals are excellent, with great amounts of expression in each line.

It may seem a bit egotistical for him to name his album The Genius of Ray Charles. Not so. This album more than justifies its grandiose title. With a perfect 50/50 balance of genres, with each half good enough to be an excellent EP on its own, this record is a true classic that any music lover should hear.

Favorite Tracks: “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Two Years of Torture,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Am I Blue?,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”

Next Up: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

Album Review #19: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)


Whew. I’ve gone through the book a few times, and I am almost certain that this album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook, is the single longest album in the entire book. At just over three hours in length, it’s an absolute monster of a record (or rather, five records). It’s packed to the absolute bursting point with catchy pop tunes and Gershwin’s legendary instrumentation (arranged by Nelson Riddle), and it is simply an all-you-can-eat buffet for the ears.

It starts off with about 13 minutes of instrumentals, entitled “Ambulatory Suite” and “The Preludes.” Gershwin’s composing and Riddle’s conducting really get a chance to shine here, with almost every second just emanating Americana. Ella’s singing comes in with “Sam and Delilah,” and her delivery is just great. She sings each line with personality and attitude, and just seems to perfectly encapsulate the era with style and swing.


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Normally I like to make a short list of my favorite tracks from each album. Well, that won’t be easy this time: there are 57 tracks here, and they’re all great. So a few songs that I enjoyed, pretty much arbitrarily chosen, are “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” and “Slap That Bass.” I honestly don’t think there’s a single track in this massive album that I didn’t enjoy to some extent. I’ve listened to the whole thing start to finish a couple times now, and each time is just as enjoyable as the first listen. I guess if there’s one negative criticism I have regarding this one, it’s that it is just too overstuffed. I’m not complaining, but I can definitely imagine it being tough to get through for other listeners.

I don’t expect any of you to listen to all three hours of this thing. Even I find it to be best enjoyed when split up into smaller parts. But for those with the time and patience, Gershwin Songbook is a worthwhile listen, and a highly enjoyable one at that. Ella Fitzgerald is ridiculously talented, and this album showcases possibly the highlight of her catalog. So, give it a listen! You might just enjoy it.

Favorite Tracks: “The Real American Folk Song,” “Just Another Rhumba,” “By Strauss,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” “Slap That Bass.”

Next Up: The Genius of Ray Charles by Ray Charles (1959)

Book Review #4: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)


It’s been far, far too long since my last book review. I’ll definitely try to upload book-related posts with more frequency going forward.

Anyway, The Adventures of Augie March was quite the ride. It covers a pretty large time-span, mapping out our hero Augie’s life all the way from his childhood into adulthood. Augie March truly is the modern-day Dickens novel, taking the reader through a huge string of events throughout the protagonist’s life, as they look for direction and attempt to make a living for themselves in a failing economy. Augie is an incredible character: he’s got so many layers and so much depth that I can barely even scratch the surface of his personality in this review, but I guess I’ll try.

As the brilliant opening line puts it, Augie goes at life as he’s been taught: freestyle. He never sticks in one place for long, and always either loses his job or plain rejects it in favor of some other opportunity, which he will soon do the same with. He finds it almost physically impossible to settle down for more than a couple months at most; he’s always on the move and never looks back. Along the way he tries his best to find some sort of meaning to it all, meeting new people along the way that always manage to challenge his preconceptions and outlook. Saul Bellow has written one of the greatest character arcs I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and with two more books on the two lists I’m reading through, I can’t wait to read more by him.

saul-bellow-new-yorkerImage Source: The New Yorker

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book is just rather disorganized. I can’t really complain though, as that’s pretty much by design. With a concept and plot like this one, it wouldn’t be the same were it well-organized. There are a large amount of characters to keep track of, with Augie’s entire family, his circle of friends, his many, many employers, romantic interests, and the list just goes on. It’s pretty easy to lose track with so many characters and such a loose, intentionally aimless narrative structure. Stick to it, however, and the experience is hugely rewarding.

So, The Adventures of Augie March was an excellent novel. It took me an abnormally long time to get through it, but the time put in was absolutely worth it. Saul Bellow is a brilliant writer, and I greatly look forward to reading more by him in the future. If you’re interested in a long, enthralling journey with great characterization and poetic writing, I’ve got the book for you.

Next Up: Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (1913)

Album Review #18: Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)


The live album Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s sadly just left me underwhelmed. I find that the hardest album to write about isn’t the one that you hate, but the one that you simply don’t have strong opinions on. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either. It had a couple songs that I enjoyed, but for the most part it just didn’t seem to speak to me.

Sarah Vaughan has a great voice. If there’s one thing in particular that I enjoyed, it’s her singing. Her voice just doesn’t seem to have any flaws. She’s mastered the art of singing a completely unwavering, flawless tone. Her backing band is pretty good too; even though they’re only three people, they still manage to create a great mood with just a piano, bass and drums. My favorite track out of the 20 (I’m reviewing the re-release version, which includes the full, unabridged performance) is probably “Willow Weep for Me,” with a good melody, lyrics and piano throughout. In a particularly memorable moment, partway through the song, Vaughan makes a brief mistake and plays it off brilliantly, making the audience laugh a good amount. Some other good tracks include “Alone” and “Poor Butterfly.”


Image source: Wikimedia Commons

So, this album just didn’t work for me. It’s not bad, I just personally didn’t like it very much. Maybe it’s the minimalist backing band that doesn’t really hold up after 70 minutes, or maybe it just has the misfortune of having to follow up Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Either way, it really pains me to say that this album just didn’t do it for me. What did you think? Leave your opinions in the comments, I’d love to hear them!

Favorite Tracks: “Willow Weep for Me,” “Alone,” “Poor Butterfly”

Next Up: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook by Ella Fitzgerald (1959)

Album Review #17: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)


While Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is sadly pretty obscure among the general public, his influence among fellow musicians is massive. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Mick Jagger to Paul Mc-Freaking-Cartney has cited this guy as a major influence on their music (listen to “Rocky Raccoon” off The White Album and the influence of his “talking-blues” style is blatant). It’s not hard to see why. His guitar playing is excellent, his songs are catchy, and his stories are entertaining. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott truly is a folk musician only paralleled by Woody Guthrie himself.


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Jack Takes the Floor is, to say it simply, one of the finest folk albums of all time. It feels like a relaxing afternoon on the back porch with grandpa and his guitar. Jack Elliott’s guitar playing is almost flawless, and his lyrics are engaging and sometimes even funny. Each of its 11 tracks (later 13, when it was reissued as Muleskinner with a couple bonus tracks) are memorable, but “Mule Skinner Blues,” “New York Town,” “Cocaine” and “Dink’s Song” are stand-outs. “New York Town” even has Woody Guthrie himself as a guest performer! “Cocaine’s” guitar is strangely sweet considering the song’s subject matter. “Dink’s Song” is just plain heartbreaking, sung from the point of view of a prisoner singing about his love outside of prison. “Mule Skinner Blues” is the longest song of the album, at over 5 minutes in length, and boasts some great guitar work and singing. Overall, the whole album is great, with wonderful playing and lyricism throughout.

Jack Takes the Floor is one solid folk album. If you’ve got even a passing interest in the genre, or are looking for a good place to start, this is your record. With a set of songs like this, its no wonder an entire generation of musicians to follow were impacted by it. Give it a listen, will ya?

Favorite Tracks: “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Cocaine,” “Dink’s Song,” “New York Town”

Next Up: Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)

Album Review #16: Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)


Lady in Satin is truly a haunting record. One of the most raw, emotional and deeply personal musical recordings of all time, it still manages to leave listeners speechless over a half-century later. It was sadly the final album Billie Holiday would release during her lifetime, as she would die of liver cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism, just a year and a half later at the age of 44. Her voice is damaged and weak in this album,  and while you would think that such a thing would detract from the music, in reality it’s exactly the opposite. She gives one of the most profound and emotional vocal performances I have ever heard in this record, singing every line with the entirety of her heart and soul. This album is truly unforgettable.

I can’t help but make comparisons to a previous album on this list, In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra, released 1955. They are incredibly similar in instrumentation, mood and lyrical content, and while I prefer Sinatra’s album (it’s still #1 on my album rankings after 16 albums!), this album is still a masterpiece in its own right. They share three of the same songs, (namely, covers of “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and “I’ll Be Around”) but despite the many similarities, they remain wildly different albums. Sinatra’s voice is unwavering and flawless, and Holiday’s voice is tattered and broken. Both singing styles compliment the music greatly, but in much different ways. Personally, I prefer Holiday’s delivery, as I find it conveys a whole world of emotion that Sinatra’s only hints at in comparison. Ray Ellis, the mastermind behind Lady in Satin’s brilliant instrumentation, was originally unhappy with her damaged-sounding vocals, but listening to the master tapes later in production, he heard it in a whole new light. He noted that her delivery and performance didn’t shine in opposition to her voice, but rather the two enhanced each other. I completely agree; she really knew how to sing a lyric, and her decades of musical experience shined through and brought this album from average to unforgettable.


Photo of Billie Holiday, source:

My personal favorite of the album’s eleven tracks is “For Heaven’s Sake.” It’s got the usual great vocal delivery, but there’s just so much nuance and subtlety in the instrumentation, such as the brilliantly understated piano in the opening. I almost can’t even put my finger on just what makes this track so good. One of my favorite parts is this high-register background voice that shows up throughout the record (courtesy of Elise Bretton and Miriam Workman). It sounds almost theremin-like, and grants each track an otherworldly, ethereal vibe that just seems to speak to me on a deep, indescribable level. Holiday’s vocals and Ellis’ orchestra work together absolutely flawlessly, and together they create a borderline perfect atmosphere of both gloom and hope. This is a theme carried throughout the album; almost every track deals in doomed love and broken relationships, ruminating on the nature of love in the face of uncertainty and opposition. Some other highlights include her take on the staple “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” as well as the ultra-downer “You’ve Changed.” The album sure gives you a lot to think about, and is a highly emotional listening experience from start to finish.

So in conclusion, Lady in Satin is a masterpiece, plain-and-simple. Billie Holiday delivers one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard on this album, and Ray Ellis’ instrumentation is worth the listen on its own. It’s an album I would recommend to any music lover, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about this one any time soon.

Favorite Tracks: “For Heaven’s Sake,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “You’ve Changed”

Next Up: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)