Was 1951 a golden year for country music? As an esteemed tastemaker, I can assure you that there never has and never will be another year in which three country LPs make my Top 10. This anomaly might be attributable to the fact that “long playing” records (10″ or bigger) were not yet fashionable — only in 1951 would Lefty Frizzell make the final cut.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m shitting on the entire genre of country. It’s quite obvious that I hold the Les Paul and Hank Williams albums listed below in high regard. The only thing is…well…these might be two of the greatest country albums ever made. They proudly stand right alongside the obscure debut of 20-year-old pianist Wynton Kelly.
Jazz is once again the dominant genre, producing a total of six or seven albums inside the Top 10. It also gives us our first A-plus grade of the 1950s, along with memorable work from legendary artists like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. With all due respect, country music doesn’t really compare.
10. Songs of Jimmie Rogers
Artist: Lefty Frizzell
This is easy-going country — folk mixed with cracker blues combined with pop, and the emphasis is on the pop. Continue reading…
9. The New Sounds
Artist: Miles Davis
The debut of 25-year-old, heroin-addled trumpeter Miles Davis feels watered down and, for lack of a better word, “safe.” No daring in the arrangements or the soloing — just pure, unabated jazz. Nevertheless, the talent (Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Jackie McClean and Davis himself) trumps the tripe: a historically important record.
8. Ritual of the Savage
Artist: Les Baxter
Building on his success with Yma Sumac, Les Baxter returned to the faux-jungle to conduct more exotic-sounding jazz standards. Though the music is exotic in name only — South American sounds which are safe for white suburban consumption — its catchy appeal cannot be denied.
“Sophisticated Savage” is one of the prettiest songs of the decade, and the entire LP is akin to watching a Cecil B. DeMille historical epic — fake as fuck, yet hard to turn away from.
7. The Lester Young Trio
Artist: Lester Young
Buddy Rich on drums, Nat King Cole on piano and the legendary Lester Young on tenor sax. Quite a trio, and quite an album too. The music is relaxing and nostalgic and never overstays its welcome. Rich’s drumming is magnificently understated, but the real treat here is the interplay between Young and Cole. Their harmonies are divine.
One of the few jazz albums I wouldn’t mind vocal accompaniment. Cole should’ve sang on this one.
6. City of Glass
Artist: Stan Kenton
Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz
The ideas behind the music are far more rewarding than the sounds produced, which is never a good sign — academia gone wrong. Nevertheless, the “City of Glass” suite is one of the most overt avant-garde recordings in jazz history. Continue reading…
5. Masterpieces by Ellington
Artist: Duke Ellington
Genre: Big Band
Masterpieces by Ellington is one of my favorite albums of the ‘50s. It is something that can be listened to at any time — the rare Instant Cheer-Up record. Continue reading…
4. Hank Williams Sings
Artist: Hank Williams
Hank Williams’ debut contains the purest distillation of country music ever produced—Robert Johnson blues for white folks. Continue reading…
3. Piano Interpretations
Artist: Wynton Kelly
This is cool jazz at its coolest — you almost expect Miles Davis to swoon in with a lonely trumpet. But the emphasis is solely on Kelly himself, who carries the way with minimal backing accompaniment. A timeless record. Continue reading…
2. Les Paul’s New Sound, Vol. 2
Artist: Les Paul & Mary Ford
Country in name only, this vastly underrated LP is a sublime combination of rock ‘n’ roll, dream pop and jazzy improvisation. Les Paul’s place in music history hasn’t been forgotten, but his innovative sounds unfortunately have.
Paul’s guitar playing is cerebral, but the vocal melodies of spouse Mary Ford are what truly make this record timeless. Whether rave-up (“In the Good Old Summer Time”) or slow-moving ballad (“The Lonesome Road”), Ford’s voice has a stunning sense of control only equalled by her husband’s pioneering fretwork. This album could rewrite music history if only it were more widely exposed
1. Genius of Modern Music (Volume 1)
Artist: Thelonious Monk
Simply put, one of the greatest artistic achievements of the decade. Even simpler: “Epistrophy” is the most important jazz song of all time.