Best Albums of 1959

I watched a brilliant live broadcast by the BBC from the Cheltenham Jazz Festival celebrating the now defunct TV show Jazz 625 called Jazz 625 Live: For One Night Only. It was broadcast in black and white and, though the show was originally broadcast in the 1960’s it inspired me to randomly take a look at 1959.

My number 1 album from this year is pretty obvious when you get to it but there are some really interesting albums along the way, and there are literally hundreds more that could have made it in quite easily, but what I found interesting, looking back on this year from 60 years in the future, is the albums that were dominating the charts when held up against what is now considered the best of that year. Below are the top 10 albums from the middle of this year, and it’s reflective of the whole year:

South Pacific dominated the album charts (these are for the UK) for the whole year and there are so many soundtracks, well, without giving anything much away, none of these appear in my top 30. Speaking of which, I have actually done some research and listened to all of these and more to end up with the chart below, I know I’ve missed some great albums out but this is my considered best guess! Oh, and finally, some are marked with an *, which means I have a copy already, more on this at the end.

30 – Marty Robbins – Ballads And Trail Songs by Marty Robbins

To be absolutely honest I find the voice of Marty Robbins a little too polished for these songs, but they are good songs of their type and opening track Big Iron has been covered by Johnny Cash, and it sounds better to me when Cash sings it. Interesting fact is that the song was used in the console game Fallout: New Vegas and is known by a lot of the younger generation as a result.

29 – Shirley Bassey – The Bewitching Miss Bassey

I have an incredible amount of respect for Shirley Bassey having watched a documentary on Tiger Bay, the area of Cardiff where she grew up. To survive that and do everything she went on to do really is quite remarkable. This is an album of standards which includes what, to my ears, is a quite bizarre version of the Banana Boat song!

28 – Peggy Lee with George Shearing – Beauty & the Beat! *

I picked up a copy of this album for £0.50p from a charity shop I think. As far as I can see this is about the correct price, which is extraordinary for such a fine album.

27 – Leonard Bernstein / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / New York Philharmonic – Rhapsody In Blue / An American In Paris

Rightly or wrongly I’m just going to assume that everybody knows this.

26 – Blossom Deary – My Gentleman Friend

Until very recently I had absolutely no idea who this woman was, and I probabaly would never have known if I hadn’t stumbled accross her absolutely stunning version of Someone to Watch Over Me.

25 – Chet Baker – Chet

Baker specialised in ballads, mostly straight-ahead renditions of evergreen tunes by the likes of Tin Pan Alley writers Rodgers/Hart and Cole Porter. His renditions were somewhat linear, without any improvisational flourish but he was, of course a very capable trumpet player, on this set accompanied by Pepper Adams on baritone saxophone, Herbie Mann on flute and Bill Evans on piano.

Baker was a heavy drugs user and by this point his voice couldn’t be trusted to deliver and so the album doesn’t feature his singing at all.

24 – Jimmy Smith – The Sermon *

The Hammond organ, is, in my view a shitty instrument that makes a shitty sound and they should all be collected in a big pile and burned. One notable exception is the one played by Jimmy Smith who somehow makes it sound so damn cool.

23 – Frank Sinatra – Come Dance With Me

Despite the extremely creepy cover the songs within are not.

22 – Gene Vincent – Sounds Like Gene Vincent

The mighty Gene Vincent with an album I never listened to until now, and it is incredibly good. As far as Rock and Roll is concerned it’s grittier, perhaps darker than many of the other albums in the same genre, at least to my ears.

21 – Miles Davis – Porgy and Bess

In case you didn’t know, Porgy and Bess is an opera by the American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name. There are loads of versions of it on record and this one by Miles Davis has no words of course but it is a wonderful album and has been on my wanted list for some time, I’ll get it eventually.

20 – Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book

More Gershwin, they were quite the thing back then, this time with Ella Fitzgerald singing some of their best known numbers. I’m somewhat confused by which album is the right one as there seem to be lots of versions with different covers, so as long as it is with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, then it is the right one.

19 – João Gilberto – Chega de saudade

This really was a groundbreaking 12 track bossa-nova album, half of which was originally released on three 10″ 78rpm shellac discs. It is just a lovely sound, cool, laid back and it makes me want a tall gin and tonic over ice in the sunshine, which is always a good thing.

18 – Billie Holiday – Billie Holiday with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra *

I bought a copy of this at a record fair a few years ago, it was £5, quite possibly the best £5 I’ve spent on a record. The songs are great, the performance is great and the sound quality is wonderful. It is probably my favourite album of hers even though it doesn’t really contain any of the songs she is most well known for. If I remember correctly, these are the last songs she ever recorded.

17 – Odetta – My Eyes Have Seen

I listened to this for the first time this week, although I have heard the odd track here and there over the years. It’s brilliant. I’ve started looking for a copy to buy but it is proving quite difficult as it may well have not been released over here in the UK with most of the available copies being in the US.

16 – Bill Evans Trio – Everybody Digs Bill Evans

There was some old footage of Bill Evans on the BBC from Cheltenham show, man can he play piano. The backing band, well it’s drums and bass, are amazing as well.

15 – Julie London – London By Night

Let’s never forget Julie, she doesn’t seem to get enough mentions in music documentaries and books etc. but Julie London had a beautiful, smokey, voice, and really knew how to present a song. Discount here later TV appearances and concentrate on the 50’s albums and they are full of quality.

14 – Duke Ellington – Anatomy of a Murder *

I bought a re-issue of this several years ago. This was one of the first films to extensively feature jazz in the musical score with the entire musical soundtrack composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and played by Ellington’s orchestra. Ellington and members of the orchestra pop up here and there in the film.

13 – Thelonius Monk Quintet – 5 by Monk 5

This album was recorded over three sessions in June 1959. In addition to Monk on piano, the musicians were Thad Jones (cornet), Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone), Sam Jones (bass), and Art Taylor (drums). The title of the album comes from the quintet playing five of Monk’s compositions. These included the new “Jackie-Ing”, which Monk hummed to the others to help them learn it.

12 – Ray Charles – What’d I Say *

I’ve had this album since I started buying vinyl again a few years ago and I love the title track, which was essentially a studio jam, more and more every time I play it.

11 – Nina Simone – The Amazing Nina Simone

In just a couple of entries I make a startling confession! Until then, it’s Nina Simone, she was utterly brilliant and I still find myself listening to this today.

10 – Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come

Coleman’s 1959 Atlantic recording, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, brought his unique vision into focus for a wide audience. Most of them hated it at first. He ignored so much of what had gone before and forged his own path across different keys and chord progressions, but his vision from childhood, as he expressed it to Jez Nelson on Jazz on 3, was that “music was just something human beings done naturally, like eating”.

His influence is still felt as he was the template for so much of what was to come.

9 – Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue *

Well I can honestly state that I had never heard of Nina Simone until 2003, when she died and My Baby Just Cares for Me was released as a single and made the charts, resulting in hearing it on the radio. Quite how somebody so brilliant had failed to shine their light in my direction is a mystery to me, and entirely my own doing, but I’ve tried to make up for that gap in the intervening years starting with this album, a work of genius for which, if my understanding is correct, she never received a penny for.

8 – John Lee Hooker – House of the Blues

This album sounds as though it really was recorded in the building on the cover, it has atmosphere and authenticity by the lorry load and the vocal has that worn, knowing tone that tells you that this guy has lived. It has, for me, everything many people claim Clapton has, but really doesn’t, there’s no comparison.

7 – Howlin Woolf – Moanin’ in the Moonlight

Moanin’ in the Moonlight was the debut album by Howlin’ Wolf. The album was a compilation of previously issued singles by Chess Records and it is a stone cold classic. Smokestack Lightin’ is just about as close to a perfect blues song that it is possible to get.

6 – Chuck Berry – Chuck Berry is on Top

This is the third studio album from Chuck Berry and the appalling cover is not a fair indication of what’s included inside. There are so many great tracks included that it’s difficult now to understand the impact this would have had upon its release. They are so well known now but back in 1959 they were all new and influenced so many musicians that there are too many to list.

5 – Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles

Ray again, and the album title says it all. Again, it is hard to see now, all these years later, but this was a groundbreaking release at the time and caused a stir, particularly in the English music press with one reviewer writing “the mixture of gospel-style vocal phrasing with banal blues lyrics is most unsatisfactory, if not positively objectionable.” What a fool.

4 – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers *

If you press play on any video here, go for this one every time, not just for the great quote of “We sincerely hope you buy our record. God knows we need the money” but for the performance, the sheer joy of it written all over Art Blakey’s face (he’ the drummer in case you weren’t aware). They made an amazing record, one of the most loved Jazz albums ever pressed to vinyl.

3 – The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out *

I feel like everybody knows this one, I seem to have seen it popping up all over the place for a large part of my life, usually the track ‘Take Five”. The album was an experiment in unusual time signatures, particulalry those not usually heard in western music at the time, such as 9/8, heard by Brubeck on a trip to Turkey. The album received negative reviews upon its release, and the reviewers where all wrong.

2 – Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um

I’ve only ever had this on CD, which is a situation I really must rectify. Mingus’s musical forebears figure largely throughout this album, “Better Git It In Your Soul” is inspired by gospel singing and preaching of his childhood, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a reference (by way of his favoured headgear) to saxophonist Lester Young (who had died shortly before the album was recorded). “Open Letter to Duke” is a tribute to Duke Ellington, and draws on three of Mingus’s earlier pieces (“Nouroog”, “Duke’s Choice”, and “Slippers”). “Jelly Roll” is a reference to jazz pioneer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton and features a quote of Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” during Horace Parlan’s piano solo. “Fables of Faubus” is named after Orval E. Faubus (1910–1994), the Governor of Arkansas infamous for his 1957 stand against integration of Little Rock, Arkansas schools in defiance of U.S. Supreme Court rulings (forcing President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard).

1 – Miles Davis – Kind of Blue *

Kind of Blue has been regarded by many critics as the greatest jazz record, Davis’s masterpiece, and one of the best albums of all time. Its influence on music, including jazz, rock, and classical genres, has led writers to also deem it one of the most influential albums ever recorded. Those writers got it right for once, and it could be nowhere else but number 1.

So you may have noticed that I have 9 of these 30 albums already, which is coincidence, I just happened to have them and didn’t check when they were released when I decided on 1959, however, having listened to all 30 of these and more to compile this list I now feel like I’d like to collect them all, which won’t be easy but I think it’s a nice little project.