Compiling a single decade of music down to one comprehensive list is a tough task, and whittling that list down to a Top 10 — let alone a Top 100 — is even harder. Nevertheless, I’m confident in the following Top 10 Greatest Albums of the 1950s, right down to the exact order in which they rank.
When I first started the list, one thing was certain: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue would claim the top spot. That’s a no-brainer that nearly every music fan in the world can agree with. However, the next nine selections could realistically be put in any order without causing too much controversy.
That’s not to say that careful consideration didn’t go into ranking numbers two thru nine. Each album is deserving of the spot that it appears. For example, Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is a haunting pop masterpiece that grows stronger and more mysterious with ever listen, fully justifying its runner-up finish. Meanwhile, Buddy Holly is an underrated rock-and-roll classic that doesn’t get nearly enough credit that it deserves, which is why it easily clears the top five.
Within the top ten, two artists show up twice (Davis and Mingus, naturally) and only one woman makes the cut (Billie Holiday), though I’d attribute the latter anomaly to a male-dominated recording industry and a conservative era of general apprehensiveness toward “serious female artists.” Unfortunately, this trend continues until the mid-2010s. Music in itself develops quickly, yet the means in which it is created, produced, distributed and monetized often trudges backwards, which makes Lady in Satin an even more important landmark today than when it was first released.
As with every “Best of” list, there needs to be a comfortable balance of subjectivity and objectivity on behalf of the critic. For instance, is Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut an album that I find myself listening to over and over again? Quite frankly, no. But to omit it entirely would be like leaving off Nirvana’s Nevermind from the Top 10 Albums of the 1990s. I definitely admire its greatness, but I certainly can’t deny its importance.
Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come is another historically important record that simply has to be included in any Best of 1950s compilation. At one point I had it ranked as high as #2, though subsequent listens have proven that I respect it more than I love it, even though I truly love it a great deal. When it comes to revolutionary avant-garde masterpieces such as this, I tend to play them more sparingly in order to preserve their significance.
All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that very careful consideration went into creating this page, and I’m proud of where each selection stands. And so without further ado, here are the 10 greatest albums of the 1950s.
10. Brilliant Corners
Artist: Thelonious Monk
Genre: Hard Bop
The allure of Brilliant Corners grows with each listen, yet forever remains elusive. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s both Thelonious Monk’s most accessible album and his most ambiguous. Perhaps Misterioso is a more fitting title.
Then again, “brilliant corners” is a perfect descriptor. The music is full of jaded edges and sharp, pointy exteriors. Yet like the five smiling Monk’s on the cover, the space between is filled with jovial excitement. It’s one of jazz music’s most profound statements. Continue reading…
9. Elvis Presley
Artist: Elvis Presley
Genre: Rock and Roll
On the heels of this landmark LP, Elvis Presley shot to international superstardom the likes of which had never been seen, before or since. And while some may dispute Presley’s innovation and originality, one only need listen to this 1956 debut to alleviate all doubt. Continue reading…
8. Birth of the Cool
Artist: Miles Davis
Genre: Cool Jazz
Recorded in three separate sessions from 1949 to 1950 (and released as a 10” LP in 1954), Birth of the Cool laid the foundations for all major jazz developments in the decade that followed. From the proto-Mingus post-bop of “Israel” to the modal “Moon Dreams” at the album’s center, Davis rewrote the rulebook of what is and isn’t possible. Continue reading…
7. The Shape of Jazz to Come
Artist: Ornette Coleman
Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz
Has there ever been an album title as prophetic as The Shape of Jazz to Come? Although Ornette Coleman had already broken with harmonic conventions on his first two albums, nothing could prepare the jazz world for what came next.
Even today, The Shape of Jazz to Come still sounds ahead of its time. The instrumentation is spare and minimal, yet the overall rhythm is upbeat and frenetic. It provides a perfect contrast to Coleman’s dissonant soloing, which towers over the rest of the music in a permanent state of controlled chaos.
For someone who is looking to get into free jazz, there’s no better place to start than here, where it all began. It’s one of the most impactful albums in modern music history. Continue reading…
6. Lady in Satin
Artist: Billie Holiday
Genre: Vocal Jazz
Lady in Satin is one of the most genuinely heartbreaking albums ever released. It’s beautiful, tragic, unrestrained and emotionally mesmerizing. On her final masterpiece, Billie Holiday plumbs the depths of human emotion to reveal an authentic depiction of female struggle. Something that must be heard to be believed. Continue reading…
5. Pithecanthropus Erectus
Artist: Charles Mingus
Emerging out of jazz’s primordial ooze like the Earth’s first bipedal amphibious fish-monkey, Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus represented a drastic shift in the way we listen to music. Never before had improvisation been so tightly arranged, and never before had tight arrangements felt so improvised. Featuring a 10-minute tone poem depicting the the early evolution of man, a noisy George Gershwin cover, a soft-spoken lo-fi ballad and a grand finale that joins the pantheon of great jazz epics, Pithecanthropus Erectus is one of the most important LPs in modern musical history. Without it, we wouldn’t be what we are today. Continue reading…
4. Buddy Holly
Artist: Buddy Holly
Genre: Rock and Roll
Quite frankly, I’m still amazed that Buddy Holly’s self-titled 1958 LP isn’t more widely recognized for what it truly is: the best album of the early rock and roll era.
Holly’s career has been shrouded in myth ever since the day the music died — Holly the persona is legendary, but for some reason Buddy Holly the album isn’t. Nevertheless, the LP contains more charisma than Elvis Presley, more songcraft than Chuck Berry, more rhythm than Bo Diddley, and more emotional nuance than all three combined.
Throughout 12 songs and 24 minutes, Holly shows remarkable growth from his 1957 Crickets debut. The songwriting and the vocals and, most notably, the musicianship have matured by leaps and bounds. This is most obvious in the celesta-tinged “Everyday,” which is nothing short of the best song of the decade. Nostalgic, hopeful, tender, melancholy, subdued, lovelorn — Holly encapsulates the dreams and desires of an entire American epoch in only two-minutes and nine seconds. Continue reading…
3. Mingus Ah Um
Artist: Charles Mingus
Few LPs in jazz history contain the energy of Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um. A seamless amalgamation of blues, folk and Gospel heard through the prism of modern bebop, it remains some of the most innovative music of all time.
Throughout the album, Mingus pays tribute to his heroes: Lester Young, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton. Yet in terms of musical legacies, Mingus Ah Um is the album in which he surpasses them all. Continue reading…
2. In the Wee Small Hours
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Genre: Vocal Jazz
In the Wee Small Hours floats by in a graceful manner, an album full of extreme depth and emotion. Frank Sinatra’s singing was never better — so much control and expression in his voice. Yet the element that truly makes the record special is the musical accompaniment, which is a perfect match to the melancholy subject matter. Nelson Riddle’s lush, dreamlike arrangements recall Bernard Herrmann at his best. Continue reading…
1. Kind of Blue
Artist: Miles Davis
Genre: Modal Jazz
With Kind of Blue, Miles Davis reached musical nirvana. Not only is it head and shoulders the finest achievement of his legendary career; it is easily the best album of 1959, the 1950s decade and the entirety of jazz music itself. You could even make a case for it being the greatest album of all time.
In fact, Kind of Blue was so monumental that no one has ever attempted to replicate it. Even Davis himself abandoned his modal jazz experiments as quickly as he’d adopted them, opting for a more conventional post-bop sound for the majority of the next decade.
However, any attempt to replicate the achievements of Kind of Blue would be impossible anyways. This is music at the top of a mountain — you can’t climb any higher when you’ve already reached the summit. And for that reason, Kind of Blue will forever remain one of the greatest works of art in modern history. Continue reading…