The 25 Best Albums of the 1950s
Rock n' roll, jazz, exotica, classical, flamenco, blues, salsa, who knows what else!
The album format existed earlier, but the 50s was when it became widely used enough to justify a real best of list. Not coincidentally, the 50s was also the decade of many of the first seminal recordings in a range of genres—electric blues, folk revival, world music, girl group, exotica. Often in best of lists the decades musical breadth gets flattened out as enthusiasts focus on early rock and rockabilly or jazz, but there was a lot more happening in the 50s than that.
This list isn’t comprehensive by any means, but hopefully there will be some artists for you to check out among the old favorites.
Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956)
Ballads and Blues includes the kind of material you’d expect in a 50s folk revival album. But while the selection isn’t revelatory, Odetta’s delivery is; her rhythmic guitar playing is inimitable, as is her enormous, ringing, classically trained voice. When Odetta is gentle, as on “If I Had a Ribbon Bow,” she has the authoritative power of a giant careful not to crush you. When she unleashes, as on “Muleskinner Blues,” or “Joshua,” it’s like mountains falling—if the mountains had soul, and the occasional rumbling flash of humor.
The Bewitched (1955)
Classical experimental hippie weirdo Harry Partch was influenced by ancient Greek theater and Japanese noh; “The Bewitched” is one of his earliest experiments creating events in which performers play, dance, and sing around traditional and uniquely Partch-built instruments. The result is a rhythmic antitonal Sabbath somewhere between Berlioz, Stravinsky, and 50s exotica. It’s extravagant, goofy, and spasmodically evocative. The absurdist satirical titles (“Visions Fill The Eyes Of A Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room”) serve as anti-programmatic ballast, as Partch cheerfully tries to beat the staid 50s cultural milieu into submission with mimes and clanking.