The 7 Best Albums of the 1940s
This is the first in a series of pieces ranking the best albums of every year. This installment starts with the entire 1940s, the decade that began yielding the format we now expect music to be released in.
As opposed to film, which is my foremost discipline of study and medium of consumption, the history of music goes back…well, to near the beginning of human history. But of course, the history of recorded music begins around the same time as moving pictures’, which still gives about a century and a half of developments to reflect on. But the “album” as the unit of measurement for big-scale music releases didn’t really gain ground until the 1950s.
The thread of recording history goes from wax cylinders to early phonograph records to the “long-playing” LPs that begat the “album era,” as it were. Shellac and vinyl records came in different sizes and playing speeds, but the LP standard came to be a 12-inch disc playing at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (rpm). This LP format came into being by 1948, but the album concept preceded it. 10-inch “78s” (referring to the rpm) were the preferred format leading up to the 22-minute-per-side allowances of the LP. These discs, usually containing just one “single” per side, would be bundled together to compile previously released hits or even, in relatively rare circumstances before the middle of the 1950s, to represent a wholly original and new collective work. These 78s were put into a cover with manifold sleeves, hence, “the album.”
“45s” came into being at about the same time as LPs, disrupting the 78s as the unit of vinyl measurement for singles, but after a few years on the market, the increased length capacity of the one-disc LP cemented it as the ruler of the music market. Even into the era of CDs and digital distribution platforms, the general shape of the album persists. In returning through the mists of time to early recorded music, it’s difficult to evaluate on an album-like level the, it should be noted, very important musicians who worked in the earlier part of the 20th century. That’s because, as mentioned, the album concept mostly didn’t exist, and when it did, it was a collection of previously released songs. There were exceptions, especially into the late 1930s and through the 1940s, even ahead of the LP revolution, when some artists were putting together longer works that were meant to stand as more cohesive projects.
Still, the original album wasn’t the norm, so the whole of the decade of the ’40s is worth looking at in a holistic way, and in this new project where I’m ranking the best albums of every year, it’s the place to start…albeit in that decade-wide approach. This brief survey certainly leaves out a lot of worthwhile listening experiences, including those singles or individual songs that didn’t really make it onto contemporary album-length formats (and even those that did in compilation form). But it should give a picture of the emergence of the album format as we know it and open your eyes (or rather, ears) to some of the best music the 1940s had to offer.
#7 — BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE (1946)
Favorite track: “Come Sunday”
“Black, Brown and Beige” is one of Duke Ellington’s most famous, or perhaps infamous, works. The 1943 composition written for Ellington’s Carnegie Hall performance, the first of its kind for an African American, was meant to capture the jazz legend’s feelings on race in America. Many saw it as a botched attempt, both in terms of sentiment and execution of a jazz/classical/art music fusion. The 1943 live recording was brought to record in 1946 with the telling subtitle “A Duke Ellington Tone Parallel to the American Negro,” and the suite was reworked for a more famous 1958 studio recording. But this capture of the original “Black, Brown and Beige” performance is indeed incredible. Whatever the music says to you about the Black experience in America, I think it’s remarkable that Ellington’s approach to a cohesive jazz suite was ever met with anything but acclaim. BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE showcases the great’s compositional skill and indeed the skill of his big band, carrying the emotion of an art form that does in fact feel distinctly American. In citing a “favorite track,” I refer to the beautifully subtle “Come Sunday,” although of course it’s just one movement of the larger composition. In spite of its truncated form due to the limitations of recording technology of the time, the 1946 BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE release is a true work of passion and, if not genius, then “simply” jazz greatness.
#6 — TALKING UNION (1941)
Favorite track: “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister (All I Want)”
When it comes to the release of cohesive album experiences in the 1940s decade, folk music led the way. Artists in the genre and tradition would create original recordings, often set to a theme, to sell some part of Americana. In the first few years of the decade, the Almanac Singers made a mark in that regard. The leftist and communist-leaning group, made up variably of Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Pete Seeger, and more, put out six albums in just the three years of 1940 through 1942. Of those, TALKING UNION is the best, although its trio is the one mentioned above minus Guthrie. Seeger’s lead is soulful and beautiful, and the mostly simple backing banjo embodies the spirit of the folk movement. The lyrics and theme of the album, as well, begins (or continues, depending on how you look at it) the thread of progressive action in the genre, as the Almanac Singers address issues of labor and the benefits of unions in the wake of the Great Depression. TALKING UNION was expanded in 1955 with seven more songs recorded by Seeger and “the Song Swappers,” but the record’s original 1941 release of six tracks is a defining folk album of the time and beyond.
#5 — WORK SONGS OF THE U.S.A. (1942)
Favorite track: “Corn Bread Rough”
Another key aspect of the folk movement in the 1930s and ’40s was the trend of these white dudes seeking out the African American pioneers of blues, country, and folk music and getting them on record. John Lomax, in this example, got to Lead Belly, one of the most important musicians of all time. Lead Belly’s voice is strong and powerful, his guitar playing virtuosic, and his general musical presence so compelling. He released a number of original albums throughout the last decade of his life, but WORK SONGS OF THE U.S.A. is one of the best. As the title implies, Lead Belly takes to songs meant to be sung through labor, but they’re enjoyable to listen to even if you’re not toiling away in the sun. By this time, Lead Belly was recording for that other guy doing his all to record the hidden masters, Moe Asch, and these recordings have an air of punk rock to them. There are simple guitar riffs and the record quality, even for the time, isn’t of the highest fidelity because it’s not like Lead Belly was singing and playing in a high-end studio built for a Bing Crosby or something. And the lyrics are simple and speak to an everyman experience. WORK SONGS OF THE U.S.A. is haunting in that it carries with it the feeling of America; maybe that’s a vague statement, but it’s one I’ll make again in regards to the best folk music of the 1940s.
#4 — SONGS BY SINATRA (1947)
Favorite track: “How Deep Is the Ocean?”
SONGS BY SINATRA was only Ol’ Blue Eyes’ second album, but he already showed the promise of delivering an atmospheric sonic experience in the vein of an IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (1955). Frank Sinatra sings the ballads on the album with a power that complements the delicate and beautifully arranged instrumentals that surround him. His take on a number of standards are not rote and are indeed emotionally compelling. It’s almost a toss up to pick a favorite track of the eight songs on the record, but “How Deep Is the Ocean?” feels closest to those peak performances about a decade later. SONGS BY SINATRA falls under the radar in the vast discography of the legend that is Frank Sinatra, but it’s his best album of the 1940s, a beautiful look into his early career, and a key work of pop music for the era.
#3 — SONG HITS FROM HOLIDAY INN (1942)
Favorite track: “White Christmas”
Besides the folk arena, film soundtracks made up the biggest chunk of cohesive album-like experiences in the 1940s. But in many cases, they weren’t actually true “soundtracks.” That was often the case with Bing Crosby’s movie records, which were usually made up of the songs from his motion pictures, but re-recorded for commercial release, sometimes with different guests and backers. In the case of SONG HITS FROM HOLIDAY INN, released from the film of the (mostly) same name, Crosby and Co. recorded longer studio versions; for the actual recordings as they were heard in the film, a HOLIDAY INN (1942) soundtrack LP was released much later (1979). But enough about that. Yes, HOLIDAY INN is where we get one of the biggest songs of all time (not just Christmas songs): “White Christmas.” I actually don’t hate or love Christmas music, but I usually steer away from it when evaluating artists’ discographies. It just doesn’t feel…substantive. But in the case of “White Christmas,” it’s obviously a nostalgic and soothing bonafide classic, and in fact, HOLIDAY INN isn’t a Christmas movie. Its songs dealing with many holidays of the year can feel hokey and at least one number is quite problematic in its filmed version due to the blackface performance. But on the whole, Crosby’s renditions of Irving Berlin’s songwriting (this is considered one of the finest works from either of them) are top-tier pop and musical tunes, making SONG HITS FROM HOLIDAY INN an essential record of the 1940s.
#2 — THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL AND OTHER SOUTHERN PRISON SONGS (1940)
Favorite track: “Midnight Special”
THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL AND OTHER SOUTHERN PRISON SONGS was Lomax’s big Lead Belly project, recorded after bailing the artist out of jail for stabbing a man in a fight. Apparently this inspired a tackling of “classic” prison songs, and while Lomax’s initial aim to record the album in a prison didn’t come together, Lead Belly’s performance on THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is anything but inauthentic. There may something to be said about the backing crooning of the Golden Gate Quartet smoothing out Lead Belly’s raw soulfulness, but I think their presence actually enriches Lead Belly’s distinct voice and makes the whole of the album an almost symphonic movement rather than “just” a collection of simple folk songs. And yet, THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is both: a collective work of an American experience that you can pick brief, satisfying moments from. In my case, the highlight is a title track, an almost haunting ode to the passenger train of the same name. It’s one of Lead Belly’s most iconic songs (although he didn’t write it, coming as it did from a true folk outgrowth in prisons), and the version to be found on this 1940 album is his best rendition. THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is indeed special, as a rich work of folk simplicity, supported by an atmosphere provided by the Golden Gate Quartet and anchored by Lead Belly’s empowering voice and guitar-playing.
#1 — DUST BOWL BALLADS (1940)
Favorite track: “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore”
But the best album of the whole 1940s came out right in its first year, and in fact, DUST BOWL BALLADS is one of the greatest albums of all time. Woody Guthrie’s first commercial recording is also retroactively considered one of the first “concept albums,” but on an even simpler level, Guthrie and the greater folk movement he was a part of pioneered the use of an album format to present an original and new work rather than a collection of previously released singles. In doing so with DUST BOWL BALLADS, Guthrie was ahead of his time structurally, but his incisive songs about Great Depression life stand the test of time on their own. Guthrie is not the greatest singer of all time, but then you don’t necessarily need that in folk (just look at Bob Dylan), and the words he utters are so powerful, wise, plain, funny, and sad all at once. His guitar and harmonica playing, paired with his voice, make for the sound of an era and mindset, a template that many have followed. But then Guthrie was himself just channeling a tradition that he knew, that he drew out from his own experiences and brought to a wider audience. With DUST BOWL BALLADS, Guthrie represented a piece of America that wasn’t often recognized in music (that is, poor people), and in doing so, he also crafted some tight, catchy tunes. I’ve written about Woody Guthrie’s entire discography already, and I’m struggling to summarize the importance of the album beyond what I’ve already said, so how about this: I’ll quote myself. “DUST BOWL BALLADS was his greatest achievement, a humane manifesto and historical document that also happens to impart its intellectual and emotional impact through the power of simple, satisfying music.” Good job, me. Oh, and good job Woody, I guess.