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1,001 songs to listen to before you die...


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There are many a collection of books that talk about the myriad different things you should or could do before you die. Now, most of them involve an element of time that is beyond me (I like a book, but 1,001 Books... would take about a bajillion years), or money that I just don't have (Golf courses, I'm looking at you). However, I thought the best way for me to engage with one of the books was to try and complete one. With 366 days in 2020 and 1,001 things to do, that works out at just over 2.7 things per day. What can I do around three times a day (no rude answers)? Why, listen to music, of course...the clue was in the title of the topic you clicked on to be fair.

Working chronologically, my plan is to post my thoughts about the 1,001 songs that you should listen to before you die, according to Cassell Illustrated, the company who created a lot of this style of book. It starts in 1916 and goes all the way up to 2010. Now, I'm not a musician or a music critic, so I'm not professing to this being deep and meaningful insight on each song, but some comment that sums up my thoughts in around 100 words. I'll include Youtube links to all the songs I can find (I'm assuming all of them?) and you can play along at home if you want. Enjoy.


‘O Sole Mio’, Enrico Caruso (1916)

This could be the best song in the world to have ever existed, but it won’t ever get past the fact that it was famously adapted for a Cornetto advert when I was younger. This does the song a disservice as Caruso’s voice is very dynamic, especially during the move from verse to chorus. A pleasant way to begin my musical odyssey; one that touches upon something I already was vaguely aware of whilst grounding me in the actuality of the piece of music.


‘St Louis Blues’, Bessie Smith (1925)

The first song that I have honestly no foreknowledge of. Smith has a wonderfully soulful voice for singing the blues, though the coronet (played by Louis Armstrong) isn’t always the most welcome addition personally. I appreciate that it is an element of the sound of the genre, but Smith’s mournful lament could have worked without its discordant overlapping of the lyrics. It works best when used as an interlude to bridge into the next section for me. Personal preferences aside, you can see why this might have been a song that earned the songwriter the type of money that effectively would have made him a millionaire during this time period.


‘Allons à Lafayette’, Joe e Cléoma Falcon(1928)

In the initial stages of this process, I feel there will be a number of songs that depend entirely on whether I enjoy the genre of the song and all of the conventions that come along with it. This is the first ever recording of Cajun music and whilst I enjoy the jaunty accordion work, I’m less enamoured about the singing. It feels very much of a specific style and place and audience; none of which are me. As a representation of a culture and its music, I can see why it is included, it is just the least of the music I have heard so far.

NOTE: I began this on January 1st at another forum - thought people might like it here so am just going to start moving the posts bit by bit into this topic.


Edited by Liam
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‘Lagrimas Negras’, Trio Matamoros (1928)

A key group in the development of Cuban music, Trio Matamoros are more my jam. Not that I’ve listened to a lot of Cuban-style music in my life, but the simple acoustic guitar sounds has always been one that I have personally enjoyed. For a song that is about a break up (‘Lagrimas Negras’ meaning ‘black tears’), the music is somewhat at odds with the subject matter and the delivery of the lyrics. Still, as a combination it works wonderfully, with a catchy melody that eventually builds to a suitably downbeat ending.


         ‘Pokarekere’, Ana Hato (with Deane Waretini) (1929)

The book talks about this song being an unofficial anthem for New Zealand as well as being exploited for political and commercial reasons. Unfortunately for me, it is a mixture of a singing style I don’t particularly enjoy mixed with lyrics that I can’t engage with due to them being sung in Maori. I believe that either one can overcome the other, but with both lacking for me, it makes the song significantly less enjoyable. Both Ana Hato and Deana Waretini (her cousin) are undoubtedly talented, just not in a way that works for me.


 ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (1929)

Having already popped up playing on ‘St. Louis Blues’, we get a second taste of Louis Armstrong though this time he is front and centre, backed by his Hot Five. I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that Armstrong has one of the most distinctive voices in musical history, whilst the instrumental backing introduces and fades us out, yet never seeks to overpower the lyrical delivery. Not that it would be able to – Armstrong’s soulful rumble would be the most important feature of this song no matter what. Simple, yet very enjoyable

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I'll move over three a day until I catch up, so here is the last one for today:



‘El Manisero’, Don Azpiazú & Orquestra do Cassino Havana (1929)

This a perfect example of context being everything, as well as my general lack of musical historical knowledge. What I hear is a pleasant, up-tempo song that doesn’t inspire much more out of me then a little bit of a shimmy and a shake here and there. However, this song was seemingly a significant Latin influence on American Jazz alongside its promotion of the rhumba as a style of dance. Good for it – I’ve listened to many a poorer song in my time on this earth.


‘Minnie the Moocher’, Cab Calloway and His Orchestra (1931)

The very definition of a crowd pleaser, incorporating a direct address by Calloway from the opening seconds, a tale of a ‘hoochie’ who had a big heart, and a call and response to his backing vocalists that was always liable to get people singing along. It is funny to think that it was his inability to remember lyrics and his subsequent skill in improvising that sparked his career with this song. Still a fun enough listen to this day.


‘Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl’, Bessie Smith (1931)

A return to Bessie Smith, though this time the only blues she has is over a lack of sex it would seem. What starts of as a lament to lost love, things take a turn for the sexy when Smith complains about her desire for a hot dog between her rolls. This was apparently an example of the ‘dirty blues’ and it was interesting to hear of a black woman in this time period talking quite openly – though metaphorically – about a desire for sex. A simple music arrangement, a simple sentiment, a simple pleasure to listen to.


Edited by Liam
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‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’, Bing Crosby (1932)

A song that very much caught the tone of the time period, ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ came during the time of the Great Depression and told a story of a man who suffered through this moment in history. Written for a musical (Americana), the lyrics cleverly use ideas around railroads and towers, these bastions of industrialisation and perceived development, to add to the sense of melancholy as the narrator speaks of his involvement in the building of these, only to now be begging for a dime. Crosby’s voice is melodious, yet urgent as things progress, finely building a sense of what the character was and what he had become.


‘Mal Hombre’, Lydia Mendoza (1934)

Just looking at the thumbnail for the music video, you can tell that Lydia Mendoza was going to be good to listen to. She emanates a sense of cool in an image that translates to her music, especially her singing voice. In a story that translates to ‘Bad Man’ in English, you can imagine her being knowing enough of the type of ‘hombre’ that existed as she busked and toured to speak somewhat from the heart. Like many of the other ones so far, reasonably simplistic in nature but it allows her vocals to shine through in particular.


‘Hula girl’, Sol Hoopii (1934)

A song that almost sounds somewhat like a novelty to modern ears, Sol Hoopii was apparently a pioneer in slack-key guitar. This is most prevalent – as far as I understand it – in the solos that fall between the verses. These are actually the finest bits of the song for me, an interesting new wrinkle to the music that I’ve heard thus far and playful in their nature. Outside of the slack-key work, most of the song sounds somewhat dated whilst also oxymoronically having a timeless element to it; the tropes of what we might expect to hear when hearing ‘Hawaiian music’ are all present and correct. A fun addition to the list.

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          ‘Can the circle be unbroken?’, The Carter Family (1935)

Another song directly influenced by the Great Depression which impacted upon the Carter Family to the point of Alvin and Sara, the husband and wife duo who worked alongside their cousin Maybelle, getting a divorce. They were apparently a significant influence on American bluegrass, but whilst the lyrics of this song are touching – adapted from a hymn, they tell a story of a son at his mother’s funeral – it doesn’t particularly stand out in any capacity compared to what has come before it. Guess it is a simple case of wrong place, wrong time, to enjoy it to the level that is suggested by its placement in the book. Pleasant, yet unspectacular.


 'Cross Road Blues’, Robert Johnson (1936)

This is a song that is as much about the mythology surrounding it as anything: to what extent was what appeared to be a simple story about a man struggling to catch a lift actually about Johnson selling his soul to the devil for the mastery of the blues? It was a good story to sell a song, though the song itself does a fine job of that itself with its driving, choppy guitar notes and Johnson’s soulful, yet somewhat tortured vocal. It is over before it really gets going in some ways, but arguably more impactful for its relatively short running time.


‘Hellhound On My Trail’, Robert Johnson (1937)

If there is a song that is more likely to be an autobiographical take on Johnson’s life, it is this one. Reading around, Johnson’s short life is shrouded in a lot of mystery, but he did travel around a lot and cultivated himself relationships in many different places with different women. The song’s narrative of a man who had to keep moving before the devil got to him was a portent to what killed him if the legend is to be believed. Word told that he was poisoned by a jealous husband having flirted with a woman, though like all of his life, this is just as much up for conjecture. Though not massively different from the first song of his on the list, he definitely does sound more high-pitched in his delivery, selling the idea of the fear that he may soon end up going down below. An interesting cross section of a short-lived career.

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‘Strange Fruit’, Billie Holiday (1939)

This is a profoundly moving song. I’ve used the poem that formed the lyrics in a lesson on ‘Of Mice and Men’ to talk about prejudice and it is unsurprising that Holliday had some initial issues getting it released. The starkness of the arrangement, the cadence of Holliday and the wailing interludes between verses just add to an incredibly uncomfortable listen, considering the subject matter of white people lynching black people. Holliday’s vocals here still retain their power and even removed from the time of this horrific act, this still is an incredibly affecting few minutes.


‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, Judy Garland (1939)

In terms of focus, you couldn’t get much further removed from the systemic racism of society than musicals, but here we are with this list. This is also removed from the songs that punctuated the Great Depression era; a song of hope that is perhaps childish and naïve, but it is there and all the more beautiful for it. The vocals and melody work in tandem to create a song that rightly deserves a spot on the list. The number of covers that a song generates isn’t necessarily an indicator of merit, but the timeless nature of the song and its message cannot be underestimated.


‘The Gallis Pole’, Lead Belly (1939)

The tone is set early on in this song with the driving guitar (more frenetic and quicker on later recordings if my rudimentary research is anything to go by) leading us into a plea from a man due to hang for his family to provide money or jewels to save him. This is apparently modified from an old English folk song and it mixes some of the finest elements of folk music in my opinion: a tune to clap along to/tap your feet and a story about a man who done wrong. Lead Belly was clearly very talented, with rumours abound that he managed to sing his way out of prison earlier in his life. Doesn’t seem like the most far-fetched story to me.

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 ‘Mbube’, Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds (1939)

Another song on the list that has its history firmly rooted in the exploitation of the tune for financial gain, this was the song that eventually became reworked into ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ (royalties of $15 million for its use in The Lion King gives a sense of the money earned) whilst Solomon Linda died a pauper. What makes its later iterations good songs is already present in the ‘original’ so to speak, with a simple and catchy melody as a base for Linda’s swooping vocals to play around on top. An interesting opportunity to hear the genesis of a song that is pretty universally known as of this day, even with the somewhat tragic nature of the financial exploitation surrounding it.


‘Java Jive’, The Ink Spots (1940)

Perhaps a window into a more sheltered world that was to be swept away by the tragedies of war and the eventual drug/sex excess of the 60s, this is an interesting addition to the list – a celebration of coffee by The Ink Spots. Outside of the band’s popularity during this time period, including tours of the United Kingdom, I don’t quite get why this is on the list…but I really like it. Fuck it. Works for me. The harmonising in particular is great to listen to and as a man who likes a cup of coffee, I salute them.


‘Gloomy Sunday’, Billie Holiday (1941)

Within the opening lines of ‘Gloomy Sunday’, the range of Holiday is instantly apparent as she moves effortlessly from the low to the high in her – at times almost seductive – lament for the dead. What’s interesting here is that this song was written by a Hungarian composer called Rezső Seress in the 30s and covered by other artists, yet this is considered the defining version. It even garnered some backlash for added lyrics that implied the song’s protagonist to be contemplating suicide (Seress himself would complete suicide around thirty years later). Never had death sounded so sexy or enticing until Holiday worked her charm on this song, you could argue. Holiday’s vocals are almost alcoholic in their headiness (helped along by the simple, yet effective, arrangement); the woozy smoothness of her lilting delivery is hard not to fall in love with. Probably my favourite song to date.

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 ‘Guantanamera’, Joseito Fernandez (1941)

Though it is primarily known outside of Cuba for the Pete Seeger recording, this is a song akin to ‘Mbube’ that I feel most people would have heard to some extent and in some form. Possibly only the chorus itself, if you are me, but that I’m aware of this song implies some wider cultural significance for sure. It was considered one of the biggest tunes in Cuban history and was utilised by Joseito as a tune that introduced segments on radio stations across the 40s and 50s. Simplistic, yet oh so catchy.


 ‘God Bless The Child’, Billie Holiday (1942)

Some more Billie, but you don’t hear me complaining. A rarity in her collection as it was one of the only songs that she wrote the lyrics for; the idea was sparked from an argument she had with her Mum and an old proverb that forming the central lyrical hook. There isn’t a lot more I can add about Holiday that I haven’t already said, though a quote in the book from Joni Mitchell talks about how Holiday made sure you heard and felt every word of the songs she sang. Even within this one, she feels both empowered yet somewhat vulnerable; happy to celebrate being able to stand on her own two feet, yet her melody of her vocals often containing the slightest hint of unease.


 ‘Stormy Weather’, Lena Horne (1943)

As we approach the mid-40s and head into the 50s, part of me is waiting for the moment when musicals somewhat take over the list. This was a song from a musical of the same name that was notable for showcasing many African-American musicians from the time period. Horne herself has an effortlessly beautiful voice, whilst the extended metaphor of the weather as an analogy for her relationship with her man ensures that the song (as the book mentions) unsurprisingly is still covered a lot to this day, particularly by drag queens – the whole tale is a lament to complicated love, with just enough feistiness to make it a real crowd pleaser I can imagine.

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‘Rum and Coca Cola’, Lord Invader (1943)

A social commentary on the sexual proclivities of the American soldiers stationed in Trinidad during the Second World War, this lively song was meant to convey Invader’s less than impressed feelings about the mixing of both cultures in such a fashion. A similar song became popular in the US two years later, though the law eventually found in favour of Invader in terms of copyright infringement. Hidden behind the seemingly cheery melody, the lyrics are biting in their nature and all the more effective for the playful nature in which they are delivered.


‘This Land Is Your Land’, Woody Guthrie (1944)

I thought I’d never heard any Woody Guthrie before I started the song – it took me all of about five seconds to realise that this was not the case. Interestingly, Guthrie took parts of the melody from ‘Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine’ by The Carter Family to increase its popularity, whilst it getting sold alongside other songs for minimal money during a time of hardship also meant it ended up in more homes than it might have done otherwise. The simple message, the simple melody and the earnest vocal is what makes it work, as well as the ease with which it can be applied to multiple places, times and generations.


 ‘Lili Marleen’ (the spelling seems to vary, so going with the book's version), Marlene Dietrich (1945)

A song that is all about the context of when it was produced as it was broadcast to Africa Korps troops in 1941, though heard by both German and Allied soldiers who fell in love with the tale of longing (the lyrics taken from a poem written by a German soldier for his girlfriend during the time of the First World War). The popularity of the song carries it onto this list, and this version in particular encapsulates this cross border excitement about the song. Dietrich was German (though anti-Nazi), though ended up singing this song on tours of the Allied forces for several years. The narrative was sweet and Dietrich has enough playfulness in her voice to make it a pleasant listen.


Edited by Liam
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 ‘(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, The Nat King Cole Trio

A celebration of a road that apparently linked the south to the more industrialised north, Route 66 is another song that falls into the ‘simple, but effective’ category for me. Not to say that the playing or singing is anything but pure talent, but the conceit of the song itself. A driving itinerary that in listing cities celebrates the different cities along the route doesn’t sound much like the recipe for a good song, yet this was exactly what was created. The bouncy piano melody makes this swing in a way that it becomes hard to avoid tapping a foot or nodding a head. Good stuff.


 ‘Al gurugu', La Nina de los Peines (1946)

Unlike the previous entry, this is a song that I have no prior knowledge of, but ‘The Lady with the Combs’ (Pastora Maria Pavón Cruz) engages immediately with the rawness and power of her voice played out across a flamenco background. Apparently widely regarded as the greatest female flamenco performer of all time, this is a dark and passionate lament for a husband gone to war, one that maintains its tone throughout. This probably would mean more to someone who was a fan of, or knowledgeable of, flamenco, but it is clear to hear how the passion oozes from every second dof the song.


‘La Vie en Rose’, Edith Piaf (1946)

Proving that not everyone in music knows what they are talking about, there were some at the time who questioned Piaf’s decision to record and release this song. Full of (perhaps misplaced) optimism and romanticism, that which was looked down upon by the knowledgeable was lapped up by the commoner and it became an incredibly popular song. Piaf’s vocals, coupled with an orchestral score, gives this the feeling of the best of musical soundtrack songs. It isn’t surprising that this song went on to finds its way onto many a film’s soundtrack, as well as generally inspiring media above and beyond that of the music world.

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 ‘La Mer’, Charles Trenet (1946)

A song that I took a moment or two to recognise (it was eventually reworked into ‘Beyond The Sea’ for Bobby Darin), it is easy to see what the allure of this song is. It is another one that sounds almost Hollywood in nature, with rousing symphonies and a catchy melody providing the background to Trenet’s ode to the sea. It swirls, eddies and builds to a beautiful crescendo. It’s a brilliant little song and it was no wonder that the tune was repurposed successfully in later years.



If the book is to be believed, this version is the one that we still listen to today, although it was first in the musical ‘Holiday Inn’ in 1942. With the plates the original was sung on degrading, Bing Crosby re-recorded it in 1942. The sentimentality both during and after the war helped to make this a significant hit, yet I struggle to enjoy it nowadays. There is no doubting the quality of Crosby’s voice – it just is so far down on my list of Christmas songs that it tends to fall by the wayside when it comes to my own yuletide choices.


‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, Roy Brown (1947)

A celebration of the new musical genres hitting the airwaves in the years post-war, ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ is another song that whilst feeling very much of its time, still feels very enjoyable today. When famous boogiewoogie pianist Cecil Gant heard the song, he was so taken by it that he got Brown to perform it down the phone to Jules Braun of DeLuxe Records. You can see why. Not aiming to knock what came before, but there is more of a vitality about ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, something that had been missing from some of the songs that have gone before.


Edited by Liam
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‘Nature Boy’, The Nat King Cole Trio (1948)

Another song that I assumed I’d never heard of before, yet was instantly reminded of my fore knowledge of it within the opening lyrics. This was Nat King Cole moving from a singing pianist to more of a front and centre vocalist (someone else played the piano on the recording). The selling point of Cole at the time was the quality of his vocals and the clearness of his diction, making him a black artist who was enjoyed by white folk – a difficult thing during this time period. The addition of flutes and strings gives it an otherworldly tone that beautifully fits the lyrics. One of the best songs thus far; it sounds so little like anything that has come before it.


‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five (1949)

A narrative about a police raid on a New Orleans house party was a perfect slice of Louis Jordan’s take on R&B (or so the book says). Boogiewoogie, a rhythm section, a horn riff and a comic narrative all comes together to create a swinging song. This is also perhaps the first time that we hear an electric guitar within the songs thus far, a herald of the soon-to-arrive rock and roll. Apparently and somewhat ironically, it was rock and roll that caused Jordan to struggle to return to the top of the charts after what had been a decade churning out hit after hit. Its playfulness and bouncing melody make it an easy listen today.


‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, Hank Williams

This was a song that I assumed I’d know the moment I heard it, just due to how I’d heard of the song and the singer before, but seemingly not. The narrative behind Williams’ life (and death) seemed to give this more resonance as he wryly explored the end of his marriage that was in part caused by alcohol and drug abuse. Such heart on sleeve lyrics are engaging even now, whilst it perhaps isn’t surprising to hear that the song was originally intended as poem. The simple, stark arrangement just does enough to make it musical, though the lyrics are the star here.

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 ‘Autumn Leaves’, Jo Stafford (1950)

Another favourite of the troops apparently, Stafford offers a melancholy, yet always sultry take on the end of a relationship. This was originally a French song, though found greater success when repurposed and with English lyrics attached to it. A jazz standard that I don’t quite get the overall value of in terms of this list, but Stafford definitely has a cracking voice.


  'Summertime’, Sarah Vaughan (1950)

From a controversial musical Porgy and Bess (judged by some to sustain negative stereotypes about African American people), ‘Summertime’ was designed to sound somewhat like the black spirituals and folk songs. The reverberating tone of Vaughan’s vocals coupled with the plucked guitar strings offers a somewhat sinister undertone to the whole song, contrasting with what sound like ultimately positive lyrics. Vaughan’s range is very impressive and is the real star of the song.


 'Goodnight, Irene’, The Weavers (1950)

A song that the Weavers learned direct from Lead Belly (with it also being the song that saw Lead Belly sing his way out of prison if legend is to be believed), ‘Goodnight, Irene’ is a polished up version of an older song that omits some of its original darker lyrical moments. The singing in chorus gives the … ahem, chorus a sense of power that would have made this a song I can imagine people singing along to with gusto. It explains its popularity for me, alongside the omission of lyrics pertaining to suicide. It became fun for all the family and the success of it primarily seems to land it its spot on this list.

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 ‘Mambo No. 5’, Pérez Prado (1950)

A move from Cuba to Mexico did Prado’s career the world of good as appearances in Mexican films largely contributed to his popularity and the wider popularity of ‘mambo’. A funky little tune that many will know better as the backdrop for Lou Bega’s “cover”, it mixes blaring trumpets and saxophones with intense percussion, all supported by the occasional ‘dilo’ shout by Prado (meaning ‘give out’ or say it’). It is another song that feels somewhat at odds with the music that has come so far; an aural assault, but a not entirely unpleasant one.


‘Rocket 88’, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (1951)

With the eventual Ike Turner on piano, this is largely considered to be the first rock and roll song. The distorted fuzzy noise that came from the guitar was apparently paper stuffed into the speaker cone to offset a rip caused during the journey to the studio. Whatever it was, it all adds up to a really good song that does feel like a step forward along the road towards the rock and roll that would be coming out in the 50s and 60s. Brenston has an engaging melody to his voice and the Delta Cats offer a bouncing backdrop to go alongside it.


‘Cry’, Johnnie Ray and the Four Lads (1951)

Johnnie Ray can’t sing, but he could definitely emote. According to the book, his frail appearance alongside the presence of a hearing aid gave him a weakness that was endearing to his fanatic fans, fans who loved emotional songs such as ‘Cry’. What interests me more is the production of the song – it feels like one of the first to attempt to use various effects to offset the less than stellar performance of the vocalist, at least in the conventional terms.

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 ‘How High The Moon’, Les Paul and Mary Ford (1951)

Another song that does interesting things with regards to the vocals that make it stand out in a way beyond the singer just having a good voice as had often been the case up until now. It is also worth mentioning that this recording involved Paul layering tracks one on top of the other, made easier due to funding by Bing Crosby and experimentation by Paul. This technique is what gives the vocals the otherworldly feel at times, as well as the busy-ness of the guitar work in the background. It is interesting to see more experimental work beginning to find its way into the public conscious – this was a Billboard No. 1 for nine weeks.


‘London Is The Place For Me’, Lord Kitchener (1951)

Arriving in the UK on the Empire Windrush in 1948, Lord Kitchener helped to popularise calypso across the globe. Though London was already beginning to become a place where people of many cultures and races lived within close proximity of each other, there is an irony in terms of such a positive and lively song considering the occasional bleakness of the capital city. This is a time and place song (though a fun one) I am sure – it was a cultural touchstone for many immigrants into the country - but it has been revitalised in recent years due to its inclusion in the Paddington film.


‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, Fred Astaire (1952)

A song that was actually first performed in 1937 (then in 1949) finally pops up in 1952 as part of ‘The Astaire Story’, a four volume retrospective of Astaire’s career. This is one of the first songs that pretty much leave me with a big ‘meh’. It has apparently gone on to be considered a fixture of the Great American Songbook, but it does very little for me and doesn’t offer much in the way of something interesting or novel like a lot of the more recent additions have. He has a decent enough voice I guess – there, that’ll do.

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'Dust My Broom', Elmore James (1952)

The perceived story of this song is that a variation of it was taught to James by our good old friend Robert Johnson. The moment this version of the song kicks in, the electric slide guitar work just kicks this into a gear that I really enjoy and puts it above and beyond the original version that is also out there. James himself sings in a fashion that is perfectly pleasant, but it is the guitar work that gives this song a swagger that puts it high up on the list thus far for me.


 ‘Foi Deus’, Amália Rodrigues (1952)

A fine example of a song in which I can appreciate the work being done, but it is just not really for me. ‘Fado’ is a style of Portugeuse music that Rodrigues helped to popularise, though it is impressive to consider that this was recorded when she was just twenty two. Her vocals are very impressive, rising and falling to give the lyrics emotional weight that carries even though the lyrics are not in English. It doesn’t surprise me that Rodrigues would go on to have forty more years of involvement in the music industry as her voice is very beautiful and effortless in its transitions.


‘La gorille’, George Brassens (1952)

A very odd song as Brassens used the gorilla as a means to take a satirical swipe at anyone in positions of authority. The song had come from time he’d spent in a World War 2 camp, though it had been finetuned by the time it was released in 1952. ‘La gorille’ was initially a reference to camp guards; in time, people in authority. The playful tune allows Brassens to go off on a pretty surreal narrative that ends with the gorilla sodomising a judge after mistaking him for an old woman. Interesting, that is for sure.

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‘Singin’ In The Rain’, Gene Kelly (1952)

Alright, so I cheated a bit here and included the version as sung in the movie. It is easily one of my favourite movies and the scene itself, dancing and all, just adds to the whole package. It is little wonder that this is the version of the song that took off considering it had been floating around and used in other musicals from the 20s onwards. There are few more iconic moments from musical cinema and its longevity is testament to the quality of not only the music, but everything that came along to finally make the song stick in the conscious of the many.


 ‘Just Walkin’ In The Rain’, The Prisonaires (1952)

From singin’ to walkin’, this song by the Prisonaires is a beautiful song with Johnny Bragg’s vocals in particular highlight. The simplicity of the arrangement and the melancholy delivery work wonderfully together, whilst the story behind the song is an interesting one in itself due to this being recorded by five prisoners from the Tennessee State Penitentiary. These men were serving time for murder, rape, assault (charges denied by some), yet gained some element of celebrity as the song went into the Top 10. An excellent ballad with an eye-opening backstory.


‘Please Love Me’, B.B. King (1953)

It is the opening bars of this style of R&B song that get me as they always kick immediately into action, guitars wailing away and setting the tone for a raucously good tune. King’s singing about an unnamed woman and his yearning for her; his vocals hit the right tone of almost frustrated desire the whole way through. Transitioning into the 50s and moving into this era of R&B and the start of rock and roll, the noise has begun to get cranked much higher up. The wailing, the screeching, the relative aggression – I love it.

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‘Crying In The Chapel’, The Orioles (1953)

One of the last hits for the Orioles, the strength in this track is how well the voices mesh. The baritone and bass vocals (or so the book tells me – I’m not big on music terminology) build the foundation through which the other vocalists can add their soaring delivery. It all adds to a very beautiful song that is all about the sum of the parts. The book mentions that it was able to skirt the line between R&B, country and pop fans, ensuring it a wide audience to enjoy it.


‘Riot in Cell Block 9’, The Robins (1954)

Richard Berry, the composer of ‘Louie Louie’ is the star in this song as his lazy drawl recounts the riot mentioned in the title of the song. Accompanied by an intro that throws in sirens and tommy guns, a tune built off of simple riffs and a wailing saxophone (at least I believe it is that) and a gang vocal chorus, this goes some way to trying to recreate the aggression, confusion and swagger that one might expect within a prison riot. The lyrics even leave things with a hint at a future attempt to attack once more, further adding to the slightly darker tone of the overall song.


‘Love For Sale’, Billie Holiday (1954)

Recorded in 1952 but only released in 1954, Holiday once again offers up a tantalising and beautiful vocal delivery that puts her in the position of a young prostitute peddling her wares. This possibly spoke to Holiday’s past as she had worked in a brothel in her younger years, whilst the lyrical nature of the song saw it banned for a period of time. Holiday’s arrangements always work well to promote her voice; the simplicity of the piano, nothing else, allows her vocals to shine.

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‘The Wind’, Nolan Strong and the Diablos (1954)

Another earnest love ballad, yet Nolan Strong has a voice that perhaps helps this to transcend the ones that have come before this. The vocalising in the background give this a somewhat eerie tone at points, a subtle clash with Strong’s melodious delivery that helps to tell the narrative of lost love. It isn’t hard to see why they were in such high demand following this, their second single, though it is sad to hear that they were locked up for minimal money in a exploitative contract rather than able to fully enjoy the fruits of their labour.


 ‘My Funny Valentine’, Chet Baker (1954)

With this song, Chet Baker manages to make being vulnerable seem cool in a way that hadn’t necessarily come before it on this list. A trumpet player by trade, some thought Baker was wasting his time with singing, yet this was – according to Baker’s biography – a song that fascinated Baker (it was originally written for ‘Babes in Arms’, a Broadway musical). The sadness of Baker’s life and demise adds a sad tinge to an already melancholy song.


‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, Big Joe Turner and his Blue Kings (1954)

In the third decade of his career, Big Joe Turner had one of his biggest hits that would go on to be covered to great success by Bill Haley and Elvis Presley amongst others. The rhythm is simple yet insistent, doing enough to make the tune catchy, but also allowing Turner’s lyrics about his joyous lust for his lover to stand out. This is good ol’ fashioned R&B and rock and roll mixed into one enjoyable tune.

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‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock’, Bill Haley and His Comets (1954)

One of the better known (I feel) songs from this list thus far, it is implied within the book that it was Haley and this song in particular that brought rock and roll to white teenagers. Once again, there is a vibrancy to the song that makes it stand apart from some of the earlier music that we’ve heard. The tune is bouncing, the lyrics are easy and memorable, whilst the guitar breaks in-between verses are probably the stand out feature of the song as a whole. Interestingly, this song initially flopped until it was put into Blackboard Jungle, a film that caused outrage in America. Probably got quite a few more ears on this tune in the process.


‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’, Chet Baker (1954)

I have to take the book’s word for it that this is a technically impressive piece of singing; Baker makes it sound so effortless on a performance that can only really be described as poignant. As aforementioned, Baker was a trumpeter, but the musical arrangement of just piano, bass and drums is a fragile tune that perfectly accentuates the fragile-seeming nature of the vocal delivery, all the way to a muted crescendo to signal the end. Baker stands out from the rest of the singers thus far inasmuch as he isn’t just a good singer, but one that feels characterful and layered beyond just singing “well”. His music thus far has been a joy to listen to.


‘In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning’, Frank Sinatra (1955)

The opening song of a concept album that was designed to explore the nocturnal feelings of loneliness and remorse that accompanied the loss of love, Sinatra is hard to beat when it comes to pure listening quality. Whilst I’m not anywhere near the biggest Sinatra fan, it is the ease with which he delivered his songs that still impresses me after many years having access to his music. Without hearing the rest of the album, this song does at least set the tone for what is to come, effectively presenting a feeling of loss that is effectively amplified by the arrangement. A good first entry for Sinatra of what I can only assume will be several more.

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‘Tutti Frutti’, Little Richard (1955)

That this song starts with Richard’s noises before either lyrics or music sets the tone for the raucous tune that followed. He was a larger than life performer and it is a larger than life performance from him across the two minute running time. It struggled to get airtime due to its lyrical content, yet when it did, it inspired a whole raft of different people, including the Beatles. Richard, at least in terms of what we’ve seen so far, feels like the first to really marry the music with the visual – an especially eye opening feat considering this was mid-50s America.


‘Only You (And Only You), The Platters (1955)

Another song that has transcended beyond its origins as the tune can be found in film, TV and advertising. The Platters were the first doo wop act to find its way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, speaking to the influence of this song. According to the book, it was a rare case (at the time) of a ‘black’ song transitioning and gaining traction amongst white listeners. The lead vocals are strong, yet vulnerable enough to make the love song work, whilst it is another song that feels of an era but somehow timeless in equal measure. Good ‘pop’-ular music often retains that air of quality, it would seem.


‘Cry Me A River’, Julie London (1955)

There have been other examples thus far of the ‘torch song’, songs about lost love and presenting the woman singing them as vulnerable and sad. Part of what makes ‘Cry Me A River’ an interesting song is that it fit the general expectations of a torch song, yet London was unrepentant and strong in terms of the narrative that the song tells. The sparseness of the arrangement works twofold: it emphasises the melancholy that is inherent within the piece, yet it also allows London’s lyrics to stand out. It is unsurprising that this has become a jazz standard over the years.

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