20. Miles Ahead (Miles Davis / 1957)
Genre: Third Stream
Were the LPs recorded by Miles Davis and Gil Evans the result of the greatest collaboration in musical history? I might be inclined to say yes. Together, they invented two new genres—cool jazz and third stream—and, aside from the 1963 bossa nova LP, Quiet Nights, Davis and Evans have a perfect four for four track record. And these aren’t just four great albums, these are four freakin’ masterpieces! Birth of the Cool, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and this here Miles Ahead. The third-stream style pioneered here isn’t yet fully-formed, but Miles Ahead is no slouch, obviously—it takes a certain caliber of album to be name-dropped by Zack De La Rocha in a Run the Jewels song. Yet, Zack De La Rocha and Run the Jewels, could only dream of having the same musical impact as Miles Davis. Few have ever come close.
Highlights: “My Ship”, “Miles Ahead”, “Blues for Pablo”
19. After School Session (Chuck Berry / 1957)
Genre: Rock and Roll
Little Richard brought R&B, Bo Diddley brought hillbilly pop and Chuck Berry brought the blues. Three pioneering African Americans who arguably shaped rock and roll more than Elvis. Of the three, Chuck Berry was the best and rocked the hardest. He is one of my favorite guitarists to ever walk this Earth—those pounding get-up-and-go solos get me every time. One song, aside from the obvious smash hits, that has always captured my attention is the instrumental, “Deep Feeling.” That’s the kind of simmering musicianship that separated Berry from the rest of them.
Highlights: “School Days”, “Deep Feeling”, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”
18. Masterpieces by Ellington (Duke Ellington / 1951)
Duke Ellington, fully utilizing the expanded runtime of the 12” LP, allows the eternal classic “Mood Indigo” to bumble along for 15 minutes, every second worth it. “Sophisticated Lady”, too, swings along freely at a leisurely pace. The only negative to this album are the vocals of Yvonne Lanauze. Yet the music is good enough to cover any vocal flaws, anyways. The aptly-named Masterpieces by Ellington is the rare Instant Cheer-Up record, able to put a smile on your face at any time. It’s also a highly nostalgic record, too, perfectly exemplifying the best of 1940s jazz.
Highlights: “Mood Indigo”, “Sophisticated Lady”
17. Elvis (Elvis Presley / 1956)
Genre: Rock & Roll
Elvis’ second album cemented his King of Rock & Roll status forever. While not as immediate as its groundbreaking predecessor, Elvis finds the young King touching upon all aspects of his musical persona that made him such a phenomenon. From swaggering rockabilly rave-ups that showcase guitarist Scotty Moore’s talents (“Rip it Up”, “Long Tall Sally”) to tender ballads that flex Presley’s golden pipes (“Love Me”, “First in Line”), Elvis has everything that made the King, er, the King. The tender ballads may be the winners this time out.
Highlights: “First in Line”, “Love Me”, “Rip it Up”
16. Super-Sonic Jazz (Sun Ra / 1956)
Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz
The trippiest jazz out there, man. We start off in “India”, thick jungles of electric piano, wailing brass and choppy percussion, before finishing in “Springtime in Chicago”, a beautiful lullaby lost through the looking-glass. Sun Ra’s space-jazz tendencies are already in place, even if this is only the first album with his famous Solar Arkestra. The combo of electric, acoustic and Wurlitzer pianos, the primitive percussion and the natural atonality all make for masterful tunes that prophesy the shape of jazz to come. The experimental numbers go hand-in-hand with the more traditional bebop jams, making Super-Sonic Jazz one of the most outright astonishing albums of the decade.
Highlights: “India”, “Sunology, Pt. 1”, “Advice to Medics”, “El is a Sound of Joy”, “Springtime in Chicago”, “Medicine for a Nightmare”
15. Porgy and Bess (Miles Davis / 1958)
Genre: Third Stream
Porgy and Bess is perhaps the finest collaboration between GOAT trumpeter Miles Davis and keen-eared arranger/conductor Gil Evans. This adaptation of George Gershwin’s opera is where the pair fully realize the potential of their third-stream experiments. Jazz as classical, classical as jazz, until the two are indistinguishable and inseparable. Fitting that they should adapt Gershwin, whose own “Rhapsody in Blue” was the masterpiece that began the crossover in the first place. Porgy is one of Miles’ greatest albums, and certainly one of his most beautiful. True to its source material, it works best when considered as one piece. In fact, when taken as a whole, it is far better than Gershwin’s original.
Highlights: “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, “Summertime”, “I Want to Stays Here (a.k.a. I Loves You, Porgy)”
14. Chuck Berry Is on Top (Chuck Berry / 1959)
Genre: Rock and Roll
The 1950s were an underrated decade when it came to guitar solos, but I absolutely love the style: quick bursts of pure, fundamental rock and roll. Chuck Berry was the finest practitioner of this kind of soloing, and his career came to a peak with Berry Is on Top. Just listen to him rip his way through “Carol.” While his voice may not have been as charismatic as, say, Little Richard’s, Berry can just let his guitar do the talking and instantly settle any argument. Just listen to that solo on “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller.” On Top almost plays like a greatest hits collection, featuring such groundbreaking standards as “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over, Beethoven.” That isn’t to say that the lesser-known tracks—like “Jo Jo Gunne” and “Around and Around”—aren’t without their charms. Elvis may have popularized rock & roll, but Chuck Berry was responsible for establishing its roots.
Highlights: “Johnny B. Goode”, “Carol”, “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”, “Roll Over, Beethoven”, “Maybellene”
13. The Genius of Ray Charles (Ray Charles / 1959)
On side one, Ray Charles lets the good times roll backed by a swinging big band. On side two, he croons heartfelt ballads—come rain or come shine—over lush string arrangements. If Miles Davis and Gil Evans discovered a third stream, then Ray Charles and Quincy Jones (arrangements on side one) and Ralph Burns (side two) came close to finding a fourth—this album is a seamless mixture of jazz, classical and R&B. In a couple of years, he’ll throw country and soul into the mix too. The two distinct sides of Genius make for an album that is basically impossible to get tired of.
Highlights: “Let the Good Times Roll”, “It Had to Be You”, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”
12. Moanin’ in the Moonlight (Howlin’ Wolf / 1959)
Genre: Chicago Blues
Its classic era having occurred in the ‘20s through early ‘50s, the blues is a genre that never considered the album a necessary form of artistic expression. That being said, Moanin’ in the Moonlight is probably the greatest blues album ever. Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett plays an electric blues so down ‘n’ dirty that I feel it necessary to take a shower after listening. His voice is one of such torn-throat brilliance that it comes close to putting Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits to shame. But Moanin’ in the Moonlight isn’t just a landmark blues album; this is where the very soul of rock and roll can be found. No amount of awkward Viagra commercials can take away the raw power of “Smokestack Lightnin’.”
Highlights: “Moanin’ at Midnight”, “How Many More Years”, “Smokestack Lightnin’”
11. Jazz Advance (Cecil Taylor / 1956)
Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz
Cecil Taylor’s piano runs are a thing of wonder, astonishing in how he conjures up a world of sound—so much sound—in such a short space. One moment its bebop, the next it’s pure atonal expressionism, then back to bebop, before throwing in some tone clusters for good measure. Jazz Advance is one of, if not the greatest jazz debut of all time. Taylor was already molding the shape of jazz to come before the words “free jazz” even entered Ornette Coleman’s lexicon. This 1956 LP is a wonder of invention—adventurous songs that rewrite the rules while kicking convention in the balls.
Highlights: “Bemsha Swing”, “Song”, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to”, “Rick Kick Shaw”