For better or for worse, the last few years have seen the music business move back into being a very singles driven medium. With the dominance of streaming services making physical musical media a shadow of what it used to be, more and more artists are seeing that the big money is in singles that go viral, rather than carefully crafted long form recordings. This hasn’t always been the case, but the origins of the music business are very similar.
The music business had been a force to be reckoned with for decades before the introduction of the LP in 1948. From the original shellac 78s to vinyl 45s, singles were the only game in town until a musician’s strike forced record labels to think outside the box. 33 RPM LPs were made so they could re-release old recordings in a new format to keep the business afloat while musicians refused to record anything new. The strike was successful, as many regulations and protections for artists came from that collective withholding of their labor. For the music industry as a whole, it meant a new and exciting medium and that would eventually become the centerpiece of the music business.
Singles remained the dominant form of physical media in music for decades after. LPs were mostly collections of previous singles, with few artists recording original material solely for albums for quite a while. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that the so-called “album era” began, but there were still some seriously incredible albums released in the meantime by a variety of artists. Here are ten essential albums from the singles era.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Because of the opportunity for longer recordings, jazz musicians caught on to the new possibilities of albums long before popular and rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries. Miles Davis is a legend for good reason, credited with creating two separate sub genres of jazz: cool jazz and fusion. Kind of Blue is not only Miles Davis’ masterpiece, but may be the best jazz album ever recorded. It is the pinnacle of cool jazz, at the very least, and for millions of listeners, has been their introduction to the genre. Quite frankly, if you can listen to Kind of Blue and not get into it, chances are that the jazz genre as a whole just isn’t for you. Everything about Kind of Blue exudes “cool,” from the opening bass groove and gentle piano of “So What” to the smooth solo that closes “Flamenco Sketches.” It is a fine example of a perfect instrumental jazz album.
Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours
Frank Sinatra is an artist who understood the different opportunities presented by LPs in a way that few artists did in the mid 1950s. Sinatra was something else when it came to his albums, as opposed to the singles that modern listeners more often know him for. In the Wee Small Hours is a brilliant album, using a wide variety of songs, mostly jazz standards, to tell a story from start to finish about a lovelorn narrator. Often credited as the first “concept” album, In the Wee Small Hours is one of the pinnacles of vocal jazz, to put it lightly. Fly Me to the Left mostly focuses on the contributions of Black artists, and will continue to do so, but Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is too good to leave out of a list like this.
Fats Domino – Fats Domino Swings
In the same way that Elvis Presley overshadows Jackie Wilson in discussions of the originators of rock ‘n’ roll, Jerry Lee Lewis seems to dominate conversations about rock ‘n’ roll pianists. Fats Domino preceded Lewis by almost a decade, and was quite frankly significantly better, but the simple fact that he was a Black man and Lewis is white explains all that needs explaining about that. Fats Domino Swings is a compilation LP of the first decade or so of Domino’s work, and it encapsulates how immensely talented he was. As advertised on the cover, he had sold 12 million records by this point, and this compilation is an absolutely essential part of any collection for anyone with an interest in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” and “My Blue Heaven” are just a handful of the legendary songs on this just about perfect compilation.
Jackie Wilson – Higher and Higher
Speaking of Jackie Wilson, one of the greatest figures in rock ‘n’ roll history was mostly a singles guy. Like so many other artists at the time, his albums were mostly compilations of previous 45s, but he recorded an amazing original album with the title track Higher and Higher in 1967. Just as albums were starting to show signs of taking over as the dominant medium in music, Wilson proved his versatility with an album that shows Jackie at his absolute best. He had already been recording and performing for just short of fifteen years by this point, but managed one of the biggest hits of his career with the title track, “Higher and Higher.”
Little Richard – Here’s Little Richard
Little Richard‘s first album is also his best, the legendary LP Here’s Little Richard. Little Richard was already at the height of his popularity, having had six songs hit the Top 40 the year before his first album was released. Huge hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” are just a couple of the wildly successfully songs on an album that all told had 9 tracks reach the Billboard 100 in the period of 1955-1958. Few albums perfectly encapsulate the early days of rock ‘n’ roll quite like Here’s Little Richard.
The Temptations – Meet The Temptations
The Temptations are most often associated with their “Classic Five” period, the four years when the group included tenor David Ruffin. Meet The Temptations is proof that the group were excellent before Ruffin joined the group and took the spotlight. Featuring the lead vocals of baritone Paul Williams and tenor/falsetto Eddie Kendricks throughout, Meet The Temptations is a compilation of the singles and b-sides the group had recorded up to that point, but flows wonderfully and shows the versatility of the group’s talent in a way that future records simply did not. The Temptations were still trying to find their sound, and they dabble in doo-wop, soul, balladry, and a barbershop quartet style. The later expanded release that adds the wonderful “Oh Mother of Mine” and “Romance Without Finance” is even better. David who?
Nat King Cole – Wild is Love
Under-appreciated even by fans of Nat King Cole, Wild Is Love is Nat trying his hand at a concept album. Working with conductor Nelson Riddle and songwriters Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne, Wild Is Love is the story of a frustrated man looking for real love, convinced he can’t find it. It may be a simple story, but it has a charm that is amplified by Cole’s own narration in between songs. None of the songs are recognizable on their own, but the album itself is a personal favorite that I wish more Nat King Cole fans appreciated.
Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin
Lady in Satin, the final album by the legendary Billie Holiday to be released in her lifetime, is an emotional experience. Her voice isn’t what it used to be, years of addiction and a tough life show their damage in her pitch control, but the same hardships that make it more difficult to hit the notes add an emotional weight to the songs that makes the album so good. It may not be a technical masterpiece, but if music’s greatness at all hinges on whether or not it makes you feel something, you’d have a hard time listening to Lady in Satin and not feeling something profound. It’s a beautiful record.
Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book
Ella Fitzgerald was already a legend by the 1950s, having been in the business for twenty years and already scored so many hits that her success was basically a given with anything she did. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book was the first in a series of LPs she did for Verve that featured the legendary singer performing her takes on the work of particular songwriters. Cole Porter is one of the legends of musical theater for good reason: his songs are incredible. Luckily, mixing the incredible singing of Fitzgerald with the incredible songwriting of Cole Porter gave us an album that is… well… incredible.
Harry Belafonte – Calypso
Harry Belafonte is a man of many talents. Singer, songwriter, actor, political activist — the “King of Calypso” was at his at his absolute best with his third album, entitled simply Calypso. Not only his first million selling album, Calypso was the first LP record to ever sell a million copies. It perfectly encapsulates everything that the titular genre is about, and is one of the most pleasant albums ever for mentally trying to get away to a beach somewhere. Even better if you can actually manage to listen to it on a beach.
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