30. “Everybody Loves My Baby” by The Boswell Sisters
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald pioneered the practice of scat singing in jazz music, but The Boswell Sisters took the tradition to another level. The “Boswellese” breakdown in the middle of “Everybody Loves My Baby” is intricate, unexpected and, above all, extremely fun. The gibberish vocals fit right in with the Dixieland pop arrangement, as each Sister sings in close harmony and trades syllables like the Beastie Boys at their best. It’s no surprise that the short-lived group had a tremendous impact on modern music.
29. “Sophisticated Lady” by Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington’s songs of the 1920s were “hot” and fast-paced, and featured the growling trumpet of Bubber Miley. But after the erratic Miley left the orchestra in 1929 (he later died of tuberculosis in 1932), Ellington refined his sound to one of extreme elegance and sophistication. Living up to the title, “Sophisticated Lady” is the standard bearer of his ballroom swing era. The song is relaxing in all the right ways yet the music is never lazy, effortlessly progressing from one dreamy solo to the next.
28. “They Say” by Artie Shaw
Helen Forrest provides an excellent vocal on Artie Shaw’s 1939 rendition of “They Say,” yet the eccentric bandleader always made sure that his music came first and foremost. As a result, the tempo is quick and the verses are truncated — Shaw turns what was originally intended to be a torch song into a reed workout with great solos. Typical of him to be difficult, but typical of him to consistently deliver great music.
27. “Honeysuckle Rose” by Fats Waller
Nobody could combine dazzling musical virtuosity with easy listening instincts quite like Fats Waller. On his 1934 recording of “Honeysuckle Rose,” Waller effortlessly turns his dazzling piano solos into catchy hooks, all while delivering a tender vocal performance. It’s this do-it-all ability that makes Waller’s music so absorbing, yet it’s his pop charms that make every song so addictive.
26. “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington
“Mood Indigo” was the first song that Ellington wrote specifically for radio transmission. The blending of muted trombone, trumpet and clarinet with Yvonne Luanauze’s mellow vocals created a vibrating resonance — the ghostly “voice of the microphone.” As a result, the song carries a mournful tone without necessarily sounding sorrowful. Only the Duke could write a happy tune about being sad.
25. “Tea for Two” by Art Tatum
Art Tatum’s piano playing must be heard to be believed. And even then, you still might not believe it. Unquestionably the most talented jazz pianist of all time, Tatum’s somewhat imposing style (Oscar Peterson said that “Tatum scared me to death” when he first heard his recordings in the 1930s) is basically a combination of all styles: classical, blues, ragtime, you name it. His incredible abilities allow him to create sounds that are completely unique in the world of Western music. For example, “Tea for Two” is a pop song from 1924 that is completely remade in Tatum’s image: a tune that pays homage to the past while pointing the way toward the future.
24. “Southern Can Is Mine” by Blind Willie McTell
Released in 1931 under the moniker Blind Sammie, “Southern Can Is Mine” is another one of Blind Willie McTell’s trademark stream-of-consciousness masterpieces. McTell’s acoustic guitar mimics a ragtime piano in the style of Jelly Roll Morton, which generates an impressive full-bodied sound. Meanwhile, he packs the rest of the song to the brim with lyrics that may or may not mean anything at all. It’s far from your typical “blues” song, but then again, McTell always had a knack for delivering the unexpected.
23. “Night and Day” by Fred Astaire
Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” was the prolific writer’s most popular contribution to the Great American Songbook. Fred Astaire vividly brought the tune to life in the 1932 musical Gay Divorce (and the 1934 film of the same name). Yet even without Astaire’s impeccable dancing, “Night and Day” stands by itself as a perfect construction of popular music. The romantic lyrics are filled with wit and fervor, but the innocence is countered by the somewhat sinister, bass-heavy rhythm section.
22. “Nightmare” by Artie Shaw
The repetitive rhythm of Artie Shaw’s hypnotic “Nightmare” trudges like a funeral procession, while the menacing brass blasts are stunning in their suddenness and grand scale. Meanwhile, Shaw delivers one of his finest clarinet solos amidst all the paranoia. Very rarely is big band music so badass. Or so foreboding.
21. “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble & Al Bowlly
In the 1930s, hotel ballrooms throughout Great Britain were graced by the elegant waltzes of bandleader Ray Noble and singer Al Bowlly. “The Very Thought of You” was their signature song: a perfect blend of jazzy sophistication and suave structure. Although somewhat underrated by today’s standards, Noble vastly outperformed his American peers (including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller) when it came to crafting popular music.
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