The Fifties In Music

I was having lunch with my friend Brian a couple of months ago when he asked me for some recommendations of what to listen to. He'd - finally - given up on Q magazine and the relentless attempt to keep up with whatever hip 'n' happenin' new music being dictated by increasingly desperate major music companies, and wondered what classics he might have been missing from the past.

I had plenty to say, of course, and I recommended a number of albums. But the main thing I suggested was that he get hold of one or two of these "list" books. Whatever your views on such things, the one thing they do is serve as an excellent starting point for discovering music. Personally, I rather like these books, and I think the reason why was summarised very well in an amusing online review of The Mojo Collection:
Books like the Mojo Collection have a curious effect; one is simultaneously consoled and rebuked by the lists themselves. As surely as one pats oneself on the back with one's left hand for possessing the most excellent bodaciousness of mind to be the owner of an original, pre-'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' copy of New Boots & Panties (and Out of the Blue) one's right hand wields the whip in readiness for the flagellation necessitated by one's failure to have got round to picking up that beautifully re-mastered version of Pacific Ocean Blue.
The conversation remained with me and I dug out my own copy of The Mojo Collection (ed. Jim Irvin, 1998) and also happened to find 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (ed. Robert Dimery, 2005) in the library. Looking through them, I realised that my own knowledge was fairly spotty, particularly pre-1970. Maybe my own musical knowledge needed a little updating.

I'm not the first to think so, either. The 1001 Albums book has inspired a number of blogs from people attempting to obey the title and listen to everything - in order. Some of these are still going (the second one has finished and moved onto The Mojo Collection) and some gave up. But the attempt is worthwhile if you end up listening to new music.
So - pausing only to order 1001 Albums from Amazon - I decided to start myself. I'm not *quite* so anal that I insist on listening to one album per day in strict order (neither am I self-disciplined enough to only listen to one album a day). Neither am I married to the idea of doing only one book. Nevertheless, one has to start somewhere and limit scope somehow. I decided to stick with the two books I had and start with the fifties - an under-represented decade in my collection.

Here is the combined list of albums from the fifties from the two books, in chronological order (and alphabetically by artist within the year).

  1. Frank Sinatra: The Voice Of Frank Sinatra (1946) M
  2. Peggy Lee: Black Coffee (1953) M
  3. Julie London: Julie Is Her Name (1955) M
  4. Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours (1955) A
  5. Johnny Burnette & The Rock 'n' Roll Trio: Johnny Burnette & The Rock 'n Roll Trio (1956) M
  6. Fats Domino: This is Fats (1956) A
  7. Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington At Newport 1956 (1956) A
  8. Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956) M
  9. The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs of Life (1956) A
  10. The Four Freshmen: Four Freshmen And Five Trombones (1956) M
  11. Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley (1956) A
  12. Louis Prima: The Wildest! (1956) A
  13. Frank Sinatra: Songs For Swinging Lovers (1956) A
  14. Mose Allison: Back Country Suite (1957) M
  15. Count Basie Orchestra: The Atomic Mr Basie (1957) A
  16. Nat King Cole: Love Is The Thing (1957) M
  17. The Crickets: The "Chirping" Crickets (1957) A
  18. Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard (1957) A
  19. Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool (1957) A
  20. Machito: Kenya (1957) A
  21. Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners (1957) A
  22. SabĂș: Palo Congo (1957) A
  23. Jack Elliott: Jack Takes the Floor (1958) A
  24. Billie Holiday: Lady In Satin (1958) A
  25. Mahalia Jackson: Newport 1958 (1958) M
  26. Tito Puente & His Orchestra: Dance Mania Vol. 1 (1958) A
  27. Nina Simone: Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club (1958) M
  28. Frank Sinatra: Come Fly With Me (1958) M
  29. Frank Sinatra: Sings For Only The Lonely (1958) M
  30. Sarah Vaughan: At Mister Kelly’s (1958) A
  31. Dave Brubeck: Time Out (1959) A
  32. Ray Charles: The Genius Of Ray Charles (1959) A
  33. Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue (1959) A
  34. Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Song Book (1959) A
  35. Charles Mingus: Ah Um (1959) M
  36. Marty Robbins: Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs (1959) A
(Key: M = Mojo CollectionA = 1001 Albums)

I've got all of these now (oh yes, no mere listening for me, only owning will do). I already owned a few before starting this venture (the Miles Davis albums); doubtless I could have found all online somewhere (and in a couple of cases of severe unavailability, I had to resort to this) but I wanted to own them. And, to be honest, it's £170 well spent. Nothing cost more than a tenner and average cost was about £6. And much of the music is wonderful.

What have I learned? The music that has aged most is the rock 'n' roll, which now sounds primitive, dated and thin (although this wasn't helped by the fact that the version of This Is Fats that I got was mastered at the wrong speed! How is this possible?). The "standards" stand up very well. The Sinatra albums on this list are the bedrock of his reputation and, having only been familiar with the bloated old codger singing "My Way", I was very pleasantly surprised. And my favourite album is from a genre I would have bet actual real money on not liking - country (or, more probably, western, given the subject matter). It's the Marty Robbins album and it's very catchy and sounds excellent.

More investigation into related music can be found at this wonderfully statistical site that aggregates all the list books into a set of "best" albums per year, genre etc.

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