Seven best albums from 1954

Mid-1950s pop music was not well-known for delivering cohesive albums, but these seven classic albums from 1954 deserve your time.
Jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald
Jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald / George Rinhart/GettyImages

In the 1950s, popular music was dominated by singles. The radio was the major method of consumption of music and jukeboxes were also massively profitable for the companies that built them as well as for businesses that had them in their establishments.

As such, full-length albums were not the main focus of the major artists of the day. As long as their hits were being played on the radio, their career was in good shape – though, of course, live performances were still an important part of a musician’s career in the ‘50s.

Despite singles being the dominant way people listened to music, there were a number of notable albums released in the year 1954, and those legendary albums are celebrating their 70th anniversary this year. Let’s delve into the top seven albums from days long past in 1954.

These albums from 1954 have stood the test of time

7. Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy – Louis Armstrong and His All Stars

While Louis Armstrong is likely better known for his major pop hits from the 1960s, “Hello, Dolly!” and “What A Wonderful World,” his career trajectory in the 1950s was more focused on jazzy productions, which are typified by this 1954 release. In it, Armstrong and his All Stars play the music of legendary composer W.C. Handy (aka the Father of the Blues). This album is bouncy, loose, and an incredibly good time, as Armstrong and his band are in fine form and in good spirits throughout – delivering a bevy of terrific performances, especially on “Long Gone” and “Beale Street Blues.”

6. Songs for Young Lovers – Frank Sinatra

One of the few artists delivering the goods consistently within the album format was crooning legend, Frank Sinatra. Though this album is only a 10” record (as opposed to the more standard 12”) and features just over 20 minutes of recorded material, the overall quality level of this album is terrific and each of this album’s eight tracks are stone-cold classics in the pop canon. Perhaps the most well-known track here, “My Funny Valentine” showcases Ol’ Blue Eyes’ impeccable phrasing and charismatic vocal stylings.

5. Swing Easy! – Frank Sinatra

Back-to-back Sinatra albums once again prove that he was at the top of his game from the mid-to-late 1950s, and he was one of the main artists pushing the format of the “album” forward. While his high-water mark would (arguably) occur in 1955 with In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning, this 1954 album, which again, featured only eight tracks and totaled just over 19 minutes of material, was a terrific album that showcased both Sinatra’s ample talents as well as the supreme arranging and conducting skills of Sinatra’s longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle. Sinatra’s gravitas is even able to lend considerable heft to lightweight tracks such as “Jeepers Creepers” on this album. Brilliant stuff.

4. Songs in a Mellow Mood – Ella Fitzgerald

This profoundly enjoyable jaunt through the Great American Songbook is one of Ella’s finest albums from the 1950s, and it delivers inimitable highlight after inimitable highlight. Fitzgerald’s voice throughout is like a big, warm hug – but her immaculate vocal control on songs such as “What Is There To Say” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” shows that this is one of the greatest singers of the 20th century.

Featuring an extremely intimate production featuring just Ella’s vocals single-tracked against a quiet piano accompaniment, this is an eminently rewarding listen for anyone in the mood for jazzy takes on the ‘50s pop standard.

3. Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio – Lester Young

Jazz was certainly the most important musical genre in the U.S. during the 1950s, as blues hadn’t quite made it onto the radio quite yet for most people. This landmark jazz release from saxophonist Lester Young sees him paired with the incredible Oscar Peterson Trio, which featured Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on double bass, and J.C. Heard on drums.

The album is particularly notable for Kessel’s fluid guitar lines as well as his nearly overdriven guitar tone, which must’ve sounded particularly saucy in the mid-‘50s. All members of the quintet are given moments to shine, though the supreme talents of Young, Peterson, and Kessel often dominate proceedings. Notably, the CD reissue of this album contains the track “Two to Tango,” which features the only recorded vocal performance of Young’s career.

2. Clifford Roach & Max Brown – Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet

An intoxicating listen from start to finish, highlights of this legendary jazz album include back-to-back classics in the form of “Delilah” and “Parisian Thoroughfare,” which is one of the greatest jazz numbers ever conceived and recorded. Clifford Roach & Max Brown is a rare album that is both rhythmically satisfying and harmonically complex.

Brown tragically died in a car crash in 1956, so who knows what musical directions the quintet would have taken had its drumming engine lived. Zippy and punchy with myriad highlight tracks, this 70-year-old jazz album sounds as fresh and new today as it likely did in 1954.

1. Chet Baker Sings – Chet Baker

This might be an unorthodox choice for the best album of 1954, but it’s the one that has aged the best out of any of these releases. Baker was better known for his subtly brilliant trumpeting as a jazz musician before this album, but that brass instrument was hiding an even greater instrument – his voice.

The delicate dynamics of Chet Baker Sings sound as if Baker took you aside in a crowded room and is gently whispering the melody to you – it barely registers above the din, but each hushed syllable he sings is full of so much meaning and panache.

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In the wrong hands, these songs could've either been clinically antiseptic and devoid of all emotion or cloyingly saccharine and sickly sweet in arrangement and delivery. Instead, these tracks might be among the most relaxing and rewarding jazz recordings ever put to vinyl, all tied together by Baker's flawless vocals, which seemingly float untethered by anything around them, as they shimmer softly above gossamer-soft arrangements.

Overall, this album is as inviting as a cup of hot cocoa on a chilly winter's night. Essential.

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