A new series of (more) old music. In an anorak-y moment, I decided to identify my top 10 favourite albums of all time. Variables such as subjective affection and objective quality aside, the challenge with such a venture is to not forget any contenders. So I sorted through my fairly extensive music collection, including stored away vinyl LPs, taking notes for my shortlist. But lots of old favourites have been lost in one way or another: so I trawled lists of album releases for each year on t’Interweb. And thus was born the entirely unoriginal idea of posting my top 10 favourite albums year-by-year on this blog. My monthly 3GB bandwidth limit would not allow me to post full albums, so we’ll have to make do with one or two songs per album.
Before I get bombarded with complaints about notable omissions: I can rank only those albums I actually know. Many artists are represented in my collection by way of compilations. So I can’t list artists of whom I might have a best of double CD sampler and a few individual tracks I have downloaded. My top 10s are also not representative of the “best” albums of the year. Some are, but others will be included simply because I like them, knowing well that they are not as innovative or influential as others I have listed.
I’ll kick off with the 1950s in one post. I have a fair amount of ’50s music, but very few albums. I think my list reflects that. I’ll also deal with the ’60s up to the year of my birth in one post. Thereafter, we’ll go year by year.
1. Frank Sinatra – Songs For Swingin’ Lovers (1956)
This is really Sinatra’s Pet Sounds, the album everybody points to as the definitive Sinatra album (until, in ten years time, the style authorities spot another definitive Sinatra album). I am unsure whether there is such a thing as a “definitive” Sinatra album. If there is, then Songs For Swinging Lovers is as good a pick as any. The concept is obvious, and with the theme being love, Francis is at his most exuberant. Our man did dejected better than most, but Sinatra in love was always great fun. This album also offers much evidence for all that talk about Sinatra’s phrasing. Just listen to You Make Me Feel So Young and imagine how less brilliant singers have interpreted the song.
Frank Sinatra – You Make Me Feel So Young.mp3
Frank Sinatra – Pennies From Heaven.mp3
2. Various – Singin’ In The Rain soundtrack (1952)
If I had to choose one DVD to take with me to exile on a desert island, I might very well pick Singin’ In The Rain. It is the perfect movie (except the ballet sequence is a touch too long. Still, Syd Charisse’s legs….mmmmm). The songs, a hotchpotch of numbers that had long ago appeared elsewhere (and in one case is a shameless rip-off of Cole Porter), range from the sublime — the title track or Good Morning — to standard crooning — You Are My Lucky Star (nonetheless a song I cannot help but croon along to). The orchestral score is very good indeed, but in the company of these exuberant songs, it is somehow intrusive. Stripped down to the show tunes, the album captures the energy of the movie, which is all you can ask from a soundtrack.
Gene Kelly – Singin’ In The Rain.mp3
Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor & Debbie Reynolds – Good Morning.mp3
3. Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (1959)
Ah, I know what you’re thinking: this is Any Major Token Jazz Album. In a way, that would be correct. I used to listen to jazz a lot (mostly fusion of the Grover Washington Jr and Eric Gale variety, though), and now I rarely do. If I feel moved to play some jazz, Kind Of Blue-era Miles Davis is the guy I turn to. The kicker is: when I used to listen to jazz a lot, I rarely listened to Davis (whose Witch’s Brew-era fusion stuff actually turned me off his music), and never to Kind Of Blue, which I didn’t even own. So where to many people Kind Of Blue serves as an introduction to jazz, to me it is a late discovery. And a very happy one. It is the kind of album that you can relax to — a reading album — as well as listen to for those brilliant twists and turns. And don’t let anyone sell that revisionist nonsense about Kind Of Blue lacking innovation, a notion that can be bought only if one thinks that innovation must equal excessive wankery. For that, there are plenty of other Davis albums.
Miles Davis – So What.mp3
4. Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956)
This was part of a series of Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook albums. Previously, she had recorded sets of compositions by George Gershwin, later she gave the songbook treatment to such canons as those of Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Rogers & Hart and the Gershwins again. Her tribute to Cole Porter is the most popular, and rightly so. Much of it has to do with the quality of Cole Porter’s songs: the wonderful lyrical and musical wit of songs such as I Get A Kick Out Of You, the sweet romance of Do I Love You, the articulation of a desperate heart on Night And Day… I could listen to Porter all day, even if his songs are being performed by Alanis Morrissette and Robbie Williams, as on the De-Lovely soundtrack. Happily, that is not necessary — though the soundtrack’s version of Night And Day is quite wonderful — because Ms Fitzgerald has applied her musical stylings to the Porter catalogue. While none of the versions are necessarily the best available interpretations, Fitzgerald sustains a high measure of quality throughout, a consistency which few other singers working with the same material have matched — even Sinatra, at his best a great interpreter of Porter’s music, could get patchy.
Ella Fitzgerald – It’s De-Lovely.mp3
5. Frank Sinatra – In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (1955)
During his Capitol years, Sinatra was apt to produce concept albums. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers was all about being in love, Come Fly With Me (1958) was a collection of travel-related songs, Only The Lonely (1959) was drenched in self-pity. Likewise, In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning paints a mood in line with the album title. Our man is in a reflective mood here, maybe after a solitary night of propping up a bar. Perhaps he is sharing his reflections with the bartender. Life isn’t necessarily bad, but is it really good? This isn’t an outpouring of self-pity, it is introspective. Few of this album’s songs rank among Sinatra’s biggest hits; you’ll find none of them on your average karaoke mix. This is an advantage: as you listen, you don’t wait for the big hits, but buy into the mood of the album, and join Francis in his introspections.
Frank Sinatra – What Is This Thing Called Love.mp3
6. Elvis Presley – Loving You (1957)
By 1957, Elvis was in his pomp. On his third proper album, he was still rockin’ and rollin’, but had also acquired a sense of musical subtlety. His cover of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” might have been a disaster if approached as a rock ‘n roll song. Elvis didn’t, and it isn’t. On “Teddy Bear” (with the excellent backing vocals by the Jordanaires), Elvis’ pleading sounds sincere, the silliness of the lyrics notwithstanding. In this way, the vocals are presaging the rock-pop of the Beatles rather than organic roots of rock, which find expression in songs such as Party and Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do. By now, our boy also had learned how to sing slow songs — not the crooning he’d later subject us to, but the sort of soulful, country-inflected music that let him casually show off his great voice, as on the title track. Elvis would still make a few good albums before going to Germany to do his duty to Uncle Sam, screw underage girls, and return as the Colonel’s cashcow by appearing in a long succession of astonishingly banal movies. Albums like Loving You (itself a soundtrack) remind us of how great Elvis really was before his descend into gimpdom.
Elvis Presley – Loving You.mp3
Elvis Presley – (Let Me Be ) Your Teddy Bear.mp3
7. Miles Davis – Porgy & Bess (1958)
Miles Davis was an objectionable human being. Scarred by his experiences, perhaps, but not admirable in any way but in his artistry. And it was here that Davis (unlike many, I will not refer to the man by his first name as if he was a pseudo-chum; I’d probably not have wanted to be his friend) revealed the beauty inherent in most people, even the obnoxious kind. That beauty rarely shone brighter than on his interpretation of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, a sensitive, almost tender take, aided by Gil Evans’ wonderful orchestration. Take “Prayer”, a song that passed me by entirely on the soundtrack LP my mother used to own. In the hands of Davis and Evans, it gently lures you into its depth, so much so that it comes as a something of a jolt when the thing ends. The standard number of Porgy & Bess, of course, is Summertime. It’s a song that invites, almost demands vocal stylings — it’s hardly possible to screw up singing it. All the more credit to Davis and Evans as they deliver a most evocative interpretation without recourse to the human voice.
Miles Davis – Summertime.mp3
8. Various – High Society soundtrack (1956)
The late ’40s and ’50s were the golden age of MGM musicals. High Society, the musical remake of the great Katherine Hepburn vehicle The Philadelphia Story (1940), did not represent the zenith of the genre. Bing Crosby was nothing on Cary Grant, and Sinatra (an otherwise fine actor) no match for the performance by James Stewart in the original. High Society is to be enjoyed purely for Cole Porter’s incredible songs: Crosby’s languid energy of Now You Has Jazz with Louis Armstrong, Crosby crooning with Grace Kelly about True Love, Sinatra and the wonderful Celeste Holm being sardonically envious about obscene wealth. And then there is the set’s absolute high point: Frank & Bing slaying each other with wit in Well Did You Evah, a duel of two iconic crooners in which neither manages to upstage the other even as they raise the stakes, culminating in that wonderful pay-off line by Sinatra: “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum”. Swellegant indeed.
Bing Crosby & Frank Sinatra – Well, Did You Evah.mp3
9. Various – An American In Paris (1951)
The film was not as good as Singin’ In The Rain, except for a few stunning setpieces (the charming street scene of I Got Rhythm, the big production of Stairway To Paradise, the lovely painting montage), but it was this Gene Kelly musical that won an Oscar. Arguably, the majesty of Gershwin’s eponymous symphony contributed to what the Academy might have mistaken for sophistication. It is the combination of Gershwin and the memorable set-piece songs — I Got Rhythm is so infectious, one needs self-control not to copy Kelly’s “aeroplane!” move — that create a hugely appealing album. The musical light-heartedness of songs like ‘s Wonderful provide the cream on the strawberries of Gershwin’s score. Or something.
Gene Kelly & Georges Guetary – ‘s Wonderful.mp3
10. Various – Gigi soundtrack (1958)
The last great MGM musical in the old tradition, Gigi came at a time when the genre was slowly dying. The film itself is a cutting satire on gender and class relations, cushioned of course by the obligatory Tinseltown glamour and conventional resolution. The music is key to the masking of the brutal commentary. Charming old Maurice Chevalier croons about little girls (as one could in those days without being considered a paedophile), the old Vichy collaborator and Louis Jourdan discuss the latter’s sense of disillusionment in It’s A Bore (Gaston, it would appear, was a depressive. Did Collette intend that?), and then there is the sweeping, montage-like title track. To me, the highlight of the film and soundtrack is the aging Chevalier and Hermione Gingold nostalgically recounting a date they had many, many years before. Chevalier misremembers with grand charm every detail (“You wore a gown of gold”), and Gingold corrects him (“I was all in blue”) before tenderly “acknowledging” that the old coot’s memory is indeed accurate. Gingold then recalls what a stud muffin the old man used to be, Chevalier responds with self-satisfaction: “Ah yes, I remember it well”, because that he actually has not forgotten. It is at once very funny and very touching. As a film and as a collection of music, Gigi eclipses that other Lerner & Loewe work, My Fair Lady.
Maurice Chevalier & Hermione Gingold – I Remember It Well (Gigi).mp3