Friday, October 25, 2013

My Favorite Albums of 1951-1960: A (Perhaps Overly Long) Personal Journey

Roger recently did a post about his favorite albums of the 50s, in which he name-checked me, and I figured that I'd try and come up with a list for myself. Roger really only found 5 albums of that decade that he well and truly loved. I have a little bit of an advantage over him in making this list, which is my ongoing music project. I think I've mentioned it once or twice here, but thanks to things like YouTube and Spotify and Wikipedia, I've been going through every year of music since 1951 and listening to all the albums I've ever wanted to hear. I've lost track of how many years I've been doing this, actually. I do this whenever I have a day with nothing else I really want to get into, and it helps me with being mindful and present-oriented, so it's actually good therapy as well as just incredibly fun.

So, I've heard a great deal of the albums of the 1950s within the last few years, and I could probably make a decent-sized list. But that sounds kind of academic to me and, honestly, aren't you a little tired of me just listing things all the time? Plus, as Roger alludes to in his post, a lot of the great music of the period is available on strong compilations. For example, I love Elvis Presley's 1950s output, but most of the best of it came out as singles, and as I said when making my 1960s list, I think it's cheating to put a hits compilation on a list of best albums.

But what about the albums that, like Roger says, are just imprinted in my DNA? Albums that I really, truly love and maybe have most of my life? I want to mention those albums. As usual with me, not the best albums, but my favorites.

So, before I get to that, I'm just going to casually mention some of the ones that I think are really great, and which would be on that longer list that I don't want to get all boring and predictable with, divided into a couple of categories.

I didn't actually realize that I liked jazz until I was an adult. The reason? Didn't hear much of it growing up. My Mom hates it, and my Dad is strictly a rock/pop/country guy. The way I envisioned jazz was like something on one of the Smooth Jazz radio stations in the Chicagoland area, and I just didn't fancy that stuff at all.

(The only time I ever enjoyed smooth jazz was one Friday night in Chicago, when my friends Carl and Jenny and I were downtown, I think around the Grant Park area. Jenny and I were helping Carl with a dramatic presentation at his Columbia College theater class--we were performing a scene from Athol Fugard, but I can't actually remember which play--and we went out for a drink afterward. We went into a place and it was actually a packed little jazz club with dancing. We sat and I drank vodka and cranberry and watched people dance and flirted with the waitress a bit; we were the only white people there and I was really digging the energy of the place. I felt out of place because everyone was dressed so nicely, and here was I in blue jeans and a solid tee shirt with my corduroy jacket on--side note on that, it looked a bit like the jacket Han Solo wore in The Empire Strikes Back and always made me feel cool; I kind of ganked it from my Dad, but he never gave me any shit about it. I loved that thing. So, anyway, we sat in there for about an hour and I was having such a good time just mingling a bit; there were a couple of guys that were amused by the three white people who had just sort of wandered in, and they teased us a bit. I was watching people dance and I am not a drinks-and-dancing kind of guy, but I just remember feeling like I was in a place where adults were enjoying their adult lives and it made me feel more grown-up. I was, I think, 22 or 23. That was a great night, especially after being terrified for days about performing Fugard in front of a class. Sorry, that's just a memory I like.)

So, anyway--I didn't hear a lot of jazz growing up. But when I was in high school, the Downers Grove Public Library really expanded its selection of music, and I used to just go and grab CDs to listen to that I'd never heard before. Realizing I hadn't heard much jazz when I was about 20, I decided to go for it, and I loved a lot of it! The thing is, I like soft music, I like dissonant music, and I like soulful, contemplative music, and there's a lot of that in jazz, especially from the 1950s. It's exciting, because sometimes it's any one of those things, and sometimes it's all of them at once.

So, just to mention a couple of albums I like: Straight, No Chaser by Thelonius Monk (1951); Nina Simone's Little Girl Blue (1957) and The Amazing Nina Simone (1959); and three Miles Davis albums: Blue Moods (1951), Birth of the Cool (1957), and Kind of Blue (1959). And there's also Duke Ellington's majestic The Nutcracker Suite, which Roger has a great post about here. I didn't hear it for the first time until about five or six years ago, but it's a Christmas mainstay now. So many of my favorite interpretations of Christmas music come from this decade.

On his post, Roger mentions the classic Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959), then rightfully points out that ANY of the Fitzgerald songbook albums are great. They're all worth hearing and worth having. I don't actually own any of them, though, because I listened to them online. But they're just perfect. I also really enjoy Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert (1958).

I like a few more jazz albums, but I'm putting those on my list of favorites.

The blues I don't have as much to say about; I love The Blues Brothers, and because I do, I went to the sources and heard a lot of great damn blues music when I was in high school. Some favorites: Howlin' Wolf's Moanin' in the Moonlight (1959) and Muddy Waters' At Newport 1960 (1960).

I have always loved Frank. Since we were part of that generation, Becca and I used to make mixtapes for each other all the time. I remember, early on, being caught in that guy thing (is it just a guy thing?) of wanting to seem, all at the same time, cool, eclectic, honest, and genuine. So I wasn't going right to some of my more esoteric, unhip choices in music. You know how you're just waiting for the other person to reveal that they actually like something that other young people love so you can just finally say "I really love this one Roger Whittaker album"? Well, maybe not that specifically, but that was my whole dilemma.

Anyway, she pulled the trigger first and put Frank Sinatra on a mixtape she made me, which was kind of weird on a tape filled with Siouxsie and the Banshees and goth music, but that's the kind of weird, sudden tone shift that I actually really love while listening to music. And that's one of the many ways I knew she was perfect for me.

What I love about Frank Sinatra, I'll say again, is his sincerity. He sounds like he genuinely feels whatever he's singing. I have a couple in my list of favorites, but I have to also mention Songs for Young Lovers (1954), Songs for Swingin' Lovers! (1956), the travel-oriented Come Fly with Me (1958), Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958), Come Dance with Me (1960) and Nice 'n' Easy (1960) as being among the albums I really enjoy the hell out of.

I like a lot of early rock music, when it sounded more like a mash-up of country and R&B (or rockabilly, as I probably just could have said). But, like I said, a lot of the really great musicians I like in this blend of genres--Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner--released a lot of great singles and usually so-so albums. (Really, it's like that with a lot of singers at the time that I love: Dean Martin, the Platters, Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Mathis, Bobby Darin, etc.)

Some of these albums that would have made a longer list, though: the first two Buddy Holly albums, The "Chirping" Crickets (1957) and Buddy Holly (1958); Little Richard's debut album Here's Little Richard (1957); Chuck Berry Is on Top (1958); and the first album by The Isley Brothers, Shout! (1959).

Wikipedia also insists that Ray Charles is R&B (and sometimes jazz and sometimes blues), so I also need to mention Ray Charles (1957), Ray Charles at Newport (1958), The Genius of Ray Charles (1959), and The Genius Hits the Road (1960) as fantastic albums. In doing my music project, I was always thrilled when an album by Charles would come up to listen to, because I knew it was going to most likely be great.

I have always loved scores and soundtracks, so a few mentions here: the cast album of West Side Story (1957); Alex North's score for Spartacus (1960), which is a great example of that kind of dissonant art music that I really love, particularly the main title music; and Russell Garcia's score from The Time Machine (1960), which I was excited and thrilled to find on CD back in 1994 or 1995, and which I've listened to countless times. (Another of my favorite score tracks is this one... boy, maybe I'll do that list some day.) And one more: Miklos Rosza's Ben-Hur score, which is one of my favorite scores of all time. I love that movie, and the music actually does make me emotional.

I like calypso music a lot, actually, but I wanted to mention here Harry Belafonte's albums Calypso (1956), An Evening with Belafonte (1957), and the spectacular live album Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959). The reason I mention them here instead of on my main "imprinted on my DNA" list is that when I was a teenager, my main go-to was actually a compilation from 1978 called All Time Greatest Hits Vol. 1. I got it out from the library dozens and dozens of times, first on cassette and then on CD. It had almost all of my favorite Belafonte songs, including his soulful cover of "Abraham, Martin & John," and ended on that perfect note with "Jamaica Farewell." It didn't have my favorite of his songs, "Turn the World Around," but he didn't release that until 1977. (To this day, that song is my single favorite segment of The Muppet Show, and Belafonte even performed it at Jim Henson's funeral.) Now I have almost everything I love on The Essential Harry Belafonte.

I actually feel a little weird that my main list is going to include a calypso album not by Harry.

So, with those mentions out of the way, let's get on with this pointless, long-running list. My 10 favorite albums of 1951-1960.

But first, this honorable mention.

Sorry sorry sorry sorry.

Alright, well, this is the start of the real list, but it begins with an honorable mention and then just sprawls out from there in an esoteric and badly-organized fashion.

So here are my 10 entries for my 14 favorite albums of 1951-1960.

10. Honorable Mention: Elvis' Golden Records, Elvis Presley (1958)
I had to mention this because of a couple of things I said earlier about the best music being released as singles. Yeah, I did say that I think it's cheating to include a hits compilation on a list of favorite albums. But I grew up with this cassette. Like any kid, I really got interested in classic rock (which is what we called it in the 80s, before classic rock became oldies and stuff from the 70s became classic rock) in junior high. I was taking a music appreciation class, and I knew a lot of the early rock music because my Dad was always so into it. I've been listening to Elvis since before I can even remember.

This album has so many of his greatest hits and songs, and when they remastered this and put it on CD, I made sure to get it--and the CD has nearly double the amount of songs on it. So, if this is Elvis' best period of music--and it mainly is--this is the one CD to have. All killer, no filler. Always makes me think of my Dad and his mother, who only permitted him, when he was a kid, to see Disney movies, John Wayne movies, or Elvis movies. (He was born in 1955). This music makes me feel good from head to toe, as much because it's great music as it reminds me of a simpler time when I was a simpler me, and all those great Saturday mornings listening to 8-tracks while "helping" (kid code for "watching") my Dad make pancakes.

9. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, Bob Newhart (1960)
When I was a kid, I knew the man from The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, and didn't know he was ever a stand-up comic. I first encountered this album in high school, in driver's ed, when the teacher played us the "Driving Instructor" track. I thought it was hilarious, but I noticed a lot of the class wasn't laughing, which always makes me feel weird. (This actually happens a lot now when I listen to comedy albums with Becca; I always end up feeling like I'm the only one who thinks they're funny.) It inspired me to go to the library and pick up the album itself, so I could listen to it alone and enjoy it to my heart's content.

(Here's a therapy aside: I was telling Becca the other night that I had recently realized the reason I like sad movies more than I like funny movies is that, deep down, I feel somehow feel wrong laughing out loud. Not always, but often. And not guilty, exactly, but like my laughing out loud is annoying to people or socially unacceptable somehow. I know a lot of this comes from my Mom and other people in my life telling me I'm loud or I'm obnoxious or to be quiet. My Mom had always been quick to bang on my door and tell me to shut up--among other things--for laughing too loud at the television. I think that's a big part of what turned me off to sitcoms and comedy for long periods of time; I internalized the idea that my laughter and amusement were bothersome and downright irritating for other people. Crying is a big emotional release for me--heck, my favorite movie is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the movie that makes me cry the most--and I know that often makes people uncomfortable, but for me it seems more socially acceptable an emotional release than laughing. I can be really guarded about that sometimes.

So, anyway, when something like a comedy album genuinely does make me laugh out loud when I'm alone, those things become extra special to me.)

8. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, Marty Robbins (1959)
I'm not a huge fan of a lot of the country music from this time period, but this album I've loved for a long time. Honestly, I'm not even sure how or when I first heard it, but it's a classic, featuring Robbins' best song, "El Paso." The CD version is re-ordered and expanded, and includes "The Hanging Tree," a haunting song I first heard on Chicago's AM 850, which played a lot of older music (and, when I was driving professionally, a welcome relief from the onslaught of nine stations all playing the same terrible late-nineties excuse for pop music... fuck you, Rednex, right in your Cotton Eye Joe).

Incidentally, that station is where I came to absolutely love Ed Ames. Just to give you an idea of what went on there.

7. An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, Tom Lehrer (1959)
Tom Lehrer's albums are great, but I like this one the best for a couple of reasons. First, because Lehrer's smart and sharply funny songs somehow sound snappier performed live. Second, because I really love Lehrer's comfortable interplay with an audience of people who get his humor. I think a song like "The Elements" sounds better live when he's able to make asides to an audience who laughs at it. I'm not sure if that's more of my comedy hang-up, but I think he sounds better live. I wonder if Daniel Radflicce, Tom Lehrer superfan, agrees with me...

(Wow, that sounded obnoxious.)

6. Calypso--Is Like So, Robert Mitchum (1957)
People are usually skeptical on this one. They think it's a weird item in my music collection. But this is not a novelty record like so many awful records with TV show characters capitalizing on their popularity. (Have you ever heard Tony Randall and Jack Klugman sing "You're So Vain"? If you have, my sympathies.) This is a genuine, authentic calypso album that Mitchum recorded after meeting guys like Lord Invader while filming in Tobago. And it's a hell of an album. Just take a listen to "Jean and Dinah." It's not quite Harry Belafonte, but it's damn fun.

(Just listening to it right now, with my eyes closed, while drinking coffee... that's the kind of thing that pulls me out of my baseline anxiety.)

5. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, The Everly Brothers (1958)
Way back when I was traveling musically through the year 1958, I actually remember just throwing up a post about how much I loved this album, having heard it for the first time. So, in that way, it's not really an "imprinted on my DNA" album, but it is something I've come to adore and hold close these last few years. It's an album of traditional music, and produced in that way I especially respond to but which I find hard to describe. It's the kind of thing that sounds great at 2am when you're all alone and the world seems still. It's quiet, soft, with just enough reverb echo to sound wonderfully haunting. "Down in the Willow Garden," for example, is the kind of song that is always as unsettling as it is delicately beautiful.

4. In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra (1955)
This is another album full of soft, delicate, sincere, "2am songs" that just come out of the darkness and touch you. This is really my mode, musically. The whole album--one of the first concept albums--is meant to sound that way, dealing purposely with themes like lost love, loneliness, and depression. So I guess I can say I relate. And "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" is in my top 10 of Sinatra songs. The Nelson Riddle arrangements are so perfect, cradling Sinatra's vocals without overpowering them.

I also like that Sinatra conveys the emotions without sounding, you know, whiny about loss or sadness. It legitimizes the emotions themselves without marring them with outbursts or self-pity. That's kind of a big deal for me.

3. TIE: Ella and Louis (1956), Ella and Louis Again (1957), and Porgy and Bess (1957), Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
I concede Roger's point that the first two albums do sort of run together, so I'm including them on the same entry. I could listen to all three of these albums together all day long. This is musical perfection to me; two great, distinctive vocalists, in such rapport with one another, and Armstrong's trumpet with Norman Granz' production (and, at least on the third album, Russell Garcia's lush orchestral arrangements)... I could just float away on these albums. A lot of the great standards they perform here are my favorite versions of these songs. They're special. I kind of wish they'd recorded nine more of these, but what they did do together is so special and wonderful, why wish for anything more?

2. TIE: Elvis' Christmas Album, Elvis Presley (1957), A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra (1957), and The Magic of Christmas, Nat King Cole (1960)
Obviously, my favorite music from this time period has a certain kind of softness, a certain kind of lushness, and a certain kind of emotional sincerity. If you've been paying even a little bit of attention to this blog over the years, you know that Christmas music is a big deal to me, so applying those characteristics to Christmas music is just heaven for me. I'm not a religious guy, but I sure do love the music sometimes. I would say that about 95% of my favorite Christmas music comes from the period between 1942 and 1967. And these three albums are albums I listen to every year and never get bored of.

The Elvis album has, of course, "Blue Christmas" and "Santa Bring My Baby (Back to Me)," but it also has probably my second favorite version of "Here Comes Santa Claus" and a beautiful rendition of "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The Sinatra album is wonderful from start to finish, with great arrangements from Gordon Jenkins that create a through-line that takes you on a sort of journey through an Americana Christmas. It also contains hands-down my favorite version of "The Christmas Waltz." And the Nat King Cole album, which is devastatingly gorgeous, has his recording of "O Holy Night," which is my single favorite Christmas song. Specifically this version. Despite the lack of his definitive version of "The Christmas Song" (from 1946), it's perfect.

1. Dave Digs Disney, The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1957)
My favorite album of this decade is jazz renditions of some great songs from Disney movies, because of course it is. That soft "2am" sound, that lovely alto sax, that beautiful piano, and Disney. You may remember how Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas was really high on my Favorite Albums of the 1960s list (number 6). I said that it was sincere without being cloying and bold without being pretentious. That applies here, too. It's sincere, it's bold, and it's pretty and fun. Time Out is a classic album, but this is the one I'll always reach for first. From the first few notes of the opening track, "Alice in Wonderland," I'm just in a good mood.

Well, there it is. Sorry that took so long for so little payoff. But I had nothing to do today and, apparently, a lot to say. Thanks for hanging in there!


Roger Owen Green said...

You are an old soul.
And this is a great list, mostly unfamiliar to me. So I'm glad I inspired you.
Unfortunately, I own NO Sinatra, save for the Capitol singles collection, and that's similarly true of a lot of folks. Everly Brothers I still remember SINGLES in our house - specifically Bird Dog.
Thanks for this.

SamuraiFrog said...

Thanks for the kind words! Is that the 2-disc Capitol singles collection that was, I think, an 80th anniversary set? That's the one my wife has. I only own two Sinatra albums that aren't Christmas albums; one is the live Sinatra at the Sands that was on my sixties list. But they're all over YouTube.

I may have a few 45s... we inherited a bunch from one of my wife's relatives, who had owned an Italian cafe in the 50s. These were the 45s in his jukebox!

Roger Owen Green said...

Actually, it's 4 CDs, the Capitol Years. I also have Reprise box for the 1960s, and even a couple Columbia albums recorded during WW II

DrGoat said...

Great stuff on your list, especially Tom Leherer and Mart Robbins. Two of my favorites growing up too. My parents loved Tom Lehrer and instilled a healthy cynicism in my sister and me.

SamuraiFrog said...

Ah, you're lucky. My parents don't dig that kind of thing; most of the comedy I like is stuff I've stumbled into or looked at because other comics I admired talked about being influenced by it.