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 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 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 The Louvin Brothers (1956)
I 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)
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! 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 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! 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 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)