In tackling the best albums (as far as we know that unit of music measurement today) of the whole decade of the 1940s, I described the beginning of the 1950s as the time that the record industry turned to cohesive, comprehensive, and wholly original works in extended form. The 10-inch vinyl format, then the long-playing record (LP), existed alongside singles, just as the digital equivalents do now, but they were not always just collections of previously issued hits. Well, often they were, and in 1950, the “album era” was still in its infancy.
Besides the changing format of the releases and the maybe arbitrary distinction of a new decade, popular music operated in much the same genre molds as it did in the late 1940s. Inventive jazz, crooning pop, and twanging blues, folk, and country defined 1950. Top hits like “Mona Lisa” by Nat King Cole (#1 for the year), “The Thing” by Phil Harris (#3), and “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Red Foley (#4) represent this cross-section. We don’t really have reliable, equivalent, or quantitative evaluation of album-length releases since that wasn’t a tracking metric for fledgling charts like Billboard’s yet. But I can tell you that, in my eyes, the following seven albums shine out (or blare out) through the mists of time to provide aural entertainment, relaxation, adventure, and romance.
#7 — NAT KING COLE AT THE PIANO — Nat King Cole
Favorite track: “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)”
Nat King Cole is one of the great classic pop-jazz vocalists. But he was also a tremendous bandleader. The King Cole Trio, where pianist/arranger/composer/singer Cole was joined by guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller (in this incarnation), made smooth (but not, like, smooth smooth) relaxing jazz as often as lively, entertaining fare. NAT KING COLE AT THE PIANO (which is a Trio affair despite the name and byline) is in the former mold. Twinkling keys meander and ring through the moody tone of Moore and Miller’s stringed instruments, communicating a wistful and bittersweet mood. NAT KING COLE AT THE PIANO was not the most electrifying or envelope-pushing jazz being recorded at the time, but it certainly effectively communicates a longing tone without being saccharine.
#6 — SONGS FROM MR. MUSIC — Bing Crosby
Favorite track: “Life Is So Peculiar”
Neither SONGS FROM MR. MUSIC nor the movie (MR. MUSIC ) from which it is sourced are the best of Bing Crosby’s work in music and film. But on the album there is a warmness to the instrumentation, backing vocals provided by constant Crosby collaborators the Andrews Sisters, and the aging crooner’s voice, which hadn’t yet taken on his “old man” register. And the pop hooks of a number of the tunes are catchy, written as they were by the team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. “Life Is So Peculiar” is my favorite track and emblematic of the way film “soundtracks” on record worked at this time. MR. MUSIC does not utilize the movie tracks for its album release; instead, the songs were recorded separately, “commercially” as it was called, due to record company and movie studio contracts. So although Crosby sang with Peggy Lee on “Life Is So Peculiar” in the movie, the Andrews Sisters join him on SONGS FROM MR. MUSIC due to her commitments to Capitol instead of Decca (Crosby’s home). This whole spiel is just to illustrate the nature of “original” album-length releases at this time (many of which were movie soundtracks) but also to illustrate that the tracks on MR. MUSIC are able to incorporate a certain brevity and studio setting so as to make the songs on the album breeze cheerfully by.
#5 — VOICE OF THE XTABAY — Yma Sumac
Favorite track: “Monos”
In the early 1950s, there was an explosion of “world music” in the United States. This often manifested in the co-opting of sounds from across the globe by white Americans; not always to terrible results, to be fair. But a significant part of this trend was the stateside success of some artists from abroad. In fact, Peruvian Yma Sumac’s American career was jumpstarted by Les Baxter, the king of “exotica,” when she was linked by him to Capitol Records. Her first album, VOICE OF THE XTABAY, was indeed produced by Baxter and ended up a tremendous hit as one of the best selling albums of 1950, possibly the best selling. Sumac’s distinctive voice soars alongside the Peruvian-influenced percussion and shaking instrumentation, hitting extremely high notes that may take a minute to get used to for some (as was the case for a friend commenting on my listening habits). But the cohesive experience of VOICE OF THE XTABAY is that of an album reveling in a celebratory confluence of influences, instruments, and (perhaps real, perhaps imagined) images of faraway places.
#4 — DARLING COREY — Pete Seeger
Favorite track: “John Riley”
Pete Seeger is one of the greatest folk artists of all time. His work with The Almanac Singers (who I’ve written about before, both in their own context and that of the best albums of the 1940s) made a tremendous mark on the tradition even before the new decade of the 1950s. But Seeger entered 1950 with a solo career that wholly showcased his beautiful voice and evocative banjo playing. DARLING COREY is a tremendous curation of traditional folk songs given nostalgic life by Seeger. The man’s greatest talent lay not in radically reinterpreting what came before, but channeling it into today, reviving it with his voice and straight-ahead five-string banjo style. DARLING COREY is not a landmark release, neither in the genre or in Seeger’s own discography, but it’s about the best folk album you’ll find released in 1950.
#3 — SING AND DANCE WITH FRANK SINATRA — Frank Sinatra
Favorite track: “My Blue Heaven”
SING AND DANCE WITH FRANK SINATRA (later retitled SWING AND DANCE WITH FRANK SINATRA for an expanded LP) would end up being Frank Sinatra’s last album for nearly four years. But the culmination of the early period of his career, before the infamously sparse time through the rest of the early 1950s, is not some tremendous failure that precipitated the fall. Indeed, SING AND DANCE is as good as anything in the breezy camp that Sinatra had yet made. The song selection is choice, the arrangement by George Siravo is a bit old-fashioned (even at the time of its release) but well-orchestrated, and Sinatra’s voice is light and airy without sacrificing his powerful pipes. His rendition of “My Blue Heaven” is a tremendous blend of wistfulness and up-and-at-’em joy, albeit weighted in favor of the latter. Ultimately, SING AND DANCE is a great portal to experiencing early Sinatra, especially the happier version of Ol’ Blue Eyes; but as has been noted, Frank would variably approach his music in two ways…
#2 — ELLA SINGS GERSHWIN — Ella Fitzgerald
Favorite track: “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
Not to be confused with the George and Ira Gershwin entry in Ella Fitzgerald’s famed “Songbook” series of albums later in the 1950s, the first album from one of the singing greats came about 15 years after her recording start in the mid 1930s. Fitzgerald’s ELLA SINGS GERSHWIN, then, has the air of an established vocalist very sure of her abilities. The whole album has a refined sensibility and a downtempo, somber approach, a restrained experience all told. ELLA SINGS GERSHWIN wraps its namesake’s voice in the gloom of angst while lightening it with the aural shine of Ellis Larkin’s smooth piano playing, making it part of the best vocal jazz of 1950.
#1 — DEDICATED TO YOU — Frank Sinatra
Favorite track: “The Moon Was Yellow”
Sinatra appears twice on this list, and now, in the top spot. DEDICATED TO YOU operates in that other vein of Ol’ Blue Eyes I alluded to earlier. I really feel he vacillated pretty squarely between moroseness and swinging fun. And this album falls into the former camp, usually where I prefer my Sinatra. Indeed, DEDICATED TO YOU swirls with an angst that nevertheless does not follow the vocalist to sink into whimpering platitudes. Instead, Sinatra often soars into incredible heights, the highlight of which can be heard on “The Moon Was Yellow.” On that track, too, you can hear the strongest showcase of Axel Stordahl’s arrangement and orchestra, which provide tremendous enveloping sonic complements to Sinatra’s voice. The whole feeling of the record is strongly somber, wistful, and nostalgic, swirling in a kind of ambling pace and volume before breaking out into elevated emotion. DEDICATED TO YOU is the best album of 1950 and a tremendous showcase for what Sinatra would be able to do later in the decade.