The best of 1954-56 mix tapes
I thought from the beginning that the 1950s would be the most difficult decade in the entire Best of… project, and I was not wrong about that. It took me as long to put together these three lists as it has entire past decades. There’s lots of reasons for this, but the biggest is that albums weren’t very popular yet, so most artists released multiple singles in a year, and for that reason it’s a lot more difficult to track down definitive lists of music released in each of these years.
I picked 1954 as a starting point since it is widely considered the start of the rock ‘n roll era, and it’s the first year that Elvis started releasing music, so it seems a natural starting point for the 50s. The rules for the mix tapes are basically the same, except I added one period-specific rule this go around.
- The “mix tape” has to fit on an old school Maxell 60-minute cassette. The time limit makes me appreciate simple beauty of the 3-minute pop/rock song. Some decisions will inevitably be made based on run time, so if I’m deciding between two songs, a shorter one might get the nod just because it is better fit
- Only one song from one artist per year (also known as the Michael Jackson Thriller rule). This is especially tough with somebody like Elvis in 1954, who released 3 stone classic singles that year, with B-sides that were arguably better
- Songs chosen have to be on Spotify, so that limits things a bit.
- There are certain genres of music that just aren’t my jam. In the 80s it was hair metal. In the 70s you will be find little to no “prog rock.” The 1950s were littered with “novelty songs” that I tried to avoid. I’m looking at you “Davey Crockett”
- No live albums. I added this for the 70s, since bands got into the habit of cranking out live albums (or, more horribly, double live albums). There’s only a handful of decent ones ever, so it’s just easier to eliminate them outright
- No “white wash” versions of classic R&B songs. Artists like Pat Boone made a pretty nice living releasing cover versions of recently released songs from black artists, and very often they were more popular than the originals because they were considered more appropriate for white audiences. We’ll have none of that racist nonsense here, thanks
One other difference you’ll notice is that I’m covering multiple years at once and I’m not doing individual write-ups for each year. I know a lot about music, but there’s some stuff in here that I just can’t talk too intelligently about, so I’m not going to try. I’ll do a summary for each year that covers what I consider the highlights from each.
With that settled, here’s 1954. Like I said, I could have populated about 1/3 of this list with Elvis Presley singles, but I had to pick one, and That’s All Right is a personal favorite. Quite frankly it feels weird thought not to put songs like Blue Moon of Kentucky or Good Rockin’ Tonight on a best of list though. Big Joe Turner was a victim of one of the most egregious “white washings” of all time, with Bill Haley and the Comets rising to fame on a song that Turner originally recorded, Shake, Rattle and Roll. Turner’s superior version is here, and quite frankly there’s no contest between the two. Here’s the Spotify playlist for your listening/subscribing pleasure. (Hey, this is one that my mom might even like! Bonus?).
1955 sees R&B artists like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley all started to come to prominence, which inspired guys like Keith Richards and John Lennon to take an interest in American blues and rock, with obviously seismic results later on. Another one of my very favorite artists from this era, The Platters, put out multiple great songs this year, but The Great Pretender is a great one to settle on in the end.
For me the highlights of 1956 have really nothing to do with rock, as classic jazz albums from Jimmy Smith, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis all hit that year. 1956 was, however, the year Elvis completely blew up and some guy named Johnny Cash released I Walk the Line, so rock and country were doing ok as well.
Ok, so that’s it for the first three years of the rock and roll era. Hopefully the next post won’t take quite so long to put together, but no promises. I’m eager though to get into the 60s and wrap this project up for good though.
Any favorites of yours that I missed?