The 7 Best Albums of 1951 Ranked
The development of rock and roll as the defining genre of the 1950s was still in its infancy in 1951. The term for the style emerging from rhythm and blues paradigms was, if not coined by, at least popularized by radio DJ Alan Freed that year in an attempt to mainstream the sound, primarily associated with Black audiences, to white ones. But you wouldn’t necessarily know of these overtures from the list of 1951’s biggest hits, including Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love,” or Perry Como’s “If.” Nor would you necessarily get the impression from the following list of the best, or my favorite, albums released in 1951.
I’ll sound like a broken record for some time yet in these evaluative pieces, but the album was not yet the accepted unit of measurement for musical artistry achievement. Singles still reigned. Even still, the longer-playing vinyl 10-inch discs were gaining steam, especially for jazz acts, movie soundtracks, and popular musicians moving past hit compilations and into conceptual and lengthier original releases.
#7 — CITY OF GLASS — Stan Kenton
Favorite track: “Entrance into the City”
As much as I try, I can’t really profess to be an aficionado of avant-garde music. And yet every once in a while, it crosses over into my fascination. That is the case with “City of Glass”, a suite of music composed by Bob Graettinger interpreted by leader Stan Kenton and his band. Although albums under the name have been released with various other Graettinger-Kenton tracks in the years since 1951, CITY OF GLASS was originally issued as a 10-inch that comprised the three movements of the titular suite. Considered now in many circles as a landmark release in American jazz music, the album isn’t exactly easy to listen to at first. Hell, even with quite a few listens under my belt, I don’t always know what to make of the the thing. But CITY OF GLASS is undeniably unique, and that’s not lip service. The composition goes beyond difference for difference’s sake and comes out through its reality-distorting experimentation with palpable emotion. It may be hard to engage with exactly what CITY OF GLASS is trying to communicate, but its chaos and uncertainty make it a must-listen album from 1951.
#6 — THE NEW SOUNDS — Miles Davis
Favorite track: “Dig?”
As CITY OF GLASS was exploring out-of-time concepts that never really formed into their own paradigm, Miles Davis’ first album as bandleader heralded his approach to jazz as the next big thing. It would take a bit more time, but THE NEW SOUNDS indeed stands as an electrifying debut. Using the space afforded by the microgrooves of the 10-inch, bringing only four compositions ranging from four to seven minutes each to bear for the whole album, Davis and his compatriots channeled the bebop of the previous years as a step on the way to the trumpeter’s hard bop innovations. THE NEW SOUNDS doesn’t compare to later, larger successes, but it is a refreshing bit of jazz that transcends the typical playing of the genre at the time.
#5 — GENIUS OF MODERN MUSIC — Thelonious Monk
Favorite track: “‘Round Midnight”
As you can maybe intuit, there was a marketing style happening in 1950s jazz that really centered on the “advancements” being made by a number of composers and bandleaders. This approach was also brought to or made by pianist Thelonious Monk. Later reissued with a “Volume 1” suffix and with an expanded track list, the original GENIUS OF MODERN MUSIC 10-inch stood as Monk’s first album as bandleader. Although its sides were recorded as early as 1947, the record indeed feels fresh among other developments in jazz and popular music in 1951. Smoother and moodier than something like THE NEW SOUNDS, in spite of Monk’s bebop background and reputation for abrupt tonal shifts, GENIUS OF MODERN MUSIC showcases the composer’s ability to draw out rich, layered sonics.
#4 — MASTERPIECES BY ELLINGTON — Duke Ellington
Favorite track: “Mood Indigo”
Speaking of composers’ abilities, Duke Ellington was really able to showcase what he could do with MASTERPIECES BY ELLINGTON, an early 12-inch LP that captured, in full, tunes like the 15-minute-long “Mood Indigo,” an old standard given new life. The album represents an important cross-section of art enabled by the extension of cutting-edge LP technology. While limitations allowed for innovations in the past, the sudden lifting of restraints for one of the greatest jazz composers and bandleaders to ever live allowed Ellington to really flourish “on the record.” He and his band revivified ’30s successes in addition to showcasing a newer song (1948’s “The Tattooed Bride”) with MASTERPIECES BY ELLINGTON, and in the process, edged out a lot of the up-and-coming new jazz class of 1951.
#3 — RITUAL OF THE SAVAGE — Les Baxter
Favorite track: “Love Dance”
Make no bones about it, Les Baxter’s legacy is a complicated one and the title of perhaps his best known album embodies that. The composer and bandleader, who established himself in swing and easy listening music, ultimately ushered in the approximation of world music that is exotica and scored dozens and dozens of movies. Baxter capitalized on sounds initially foreign to American audiences, either by championing talent like Peruvian Yma Sumac (who I wrote about for 1950 albums) or branding his name on albums like RITUAL OF THE SAVAGE. Although exploitative in its semantic approach and allegations of authenticity to the music of faraway lands and peoples, the album’s success actually “simply” lies in the cultivation of a cinematic mood. Every track on the album tells a story and paints a picture, ones that are heavily romanticized and, especially given a bit more specificity, perhaps truly problematic. RITUAL OF THE SAVAGE’s seductive elements, such as its compositional competence, high production quality, and skilled instrumentalism, offer the value and significance of Baxter’s work, flawed in its assumptions though it may be.
#2 — MARLENE DIETRICH OVERSEAS — Marlene Dietrich
Favorite track: “Lili Marlene”
In 1951, it had been 21 years since actress Marlene Dietrich’s roles in THE BLUE ANGEL (1930) and MOROCCO (1930) made her an international superstar. Starting around this time, in spite of significant roles to come in movies like WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), Dietrich came to accentuate the musical talents she had first partly displayed to the global public decades before. Touring the world as a live performer and cutting records more and more frequently, the German icon was putting another stamp on her inimitable legacy. MARLENE DIETRICH OVERSEAS, her first album, showcased the sultry vocalist’s abilities with pop songs translated into German (with the exception of standout track “Lili Marlene,” originally written in German). Dietrich sounds a little older, even as she resisted aging on screen, but the deepening of her register makes the record even more compelling. MARLENE DIETRICH OVERSEAS is a mostly downtempo affair, existing in a sort of angsty space, and its at times chintzy instrumentation can’t diminish its namesake’s old-fashioned yet resonant voice.
#1 — HANK WILLIAMS SINGS — Hank Williams
Favorite track: “I Saw the Light”
Although HANK WILLIAMS SINGS was the legendary country musician’s debut album, Williams had already experienced great popularity with singles leading up to its release. Ironically, however, the release of this collection of eight tracks carried some of his least-known songs. HANK WILLIAMS SINGS is essentially a compilation album, something I usually stay away from for these pieces, but its elevation of minor B-sides from just a few years prior is a significant part in Williams’ legacy. Although the singles didn’t sell well at the time, the record contains some of the man’s best songs. “I Saw the Light” is its standout track, with Williams hitting plaintive notes that seem to scratch a particularly pleasing part of my brain. But HANK WILLIAMS SINGS is all killer no filler, moving from tune to tune with a vibrancy, even for the downtempo ballads, that illustrates the power of the country icon’s voice and his backing steel guitar. Williams’ ability to sing-talk and tell a compelling tale is another element of the record’s power, bringing a specificity to each song that nevertheless imparts universal emotional truths. I could spin this album over and over again (and I have) without much thought. Indeed, HANK WILLIAMS SINGS is not only a testament to its artist’s appeal, even in his so-called “minor” works, but it also stands as the best album of 1951.