We start our journey through the wacky world of American pop music in a pretty bleak place. The era between Elvis Presley’s enlistment in the U.S. military in 1958 and the British invasion of 1964 is generally recognized as a low point in the history of the Billboard charts, and even setting aside the relative dearth of standout songs, getting through the 1959 Hot 100 definitely required me to recalibrate my normal listening sensibilities a bit- after all, these songs are now over 60 years old, and there’s just no avoiding the fact that the world they were written and recorded in is very, very different from the world of today. That said, the cream of the crop here has overall aged pretty gracefully. Much of it has a sort of classy, polished timelessness, and ultimately feels a lot less ephemeral and fleeting than most of today’s pop music. Put simply, these are oldies, but goodies. On with the show!
#10: The Coasters- Poison Ivy
I have my doubts about whether this song really deserves a spot here- Mostly because, even sixty years ago, the whole “watch out man, this chick is crAYzy!” routine was already a bit played-out and tired. The Coasters don’t exactly do much interesting with the concept either, apart from accidentally(?) implying that this woman has an STI. Still, the chorus is strong enough to mostly redeem it, and I would have to be an awfully joyless prick to not get a good chuckle out of “you’re gonna need an ocean/of calamine lotion” which by itself makes this song a million times funnier than any of the godawful novelty songs this year, whose whole purpose is supposedly to make me laugh. It’s no “Maneater”, but in a year where unfunny joke songs and forgettable, flimsy choruses were two of the biggest trends in pop, The Coasters had it where it counted.
#9: Andy Williams- Lonely Street
Maybe this is an obvious point to make, but one of the most common things that relegates a song or artist to mediocrity is an inability to convincingly sell the sentiment they’re trying to convey. Whether it’s supposed to be sad, happy, in love, whatever- a lot of the time, I just don’t feel it. On “Lonely Street”, I feel it. The lyrics are a notch above most of the other “sad songs” of the year, with lines like “Perhaps upon that lonely street/There’s someone such as I/Who came to bury broken dreams/And watch an old love die” guaranteed to jerk tears directly out of your eyeballs. Williams himself isn’t quiiite expressive enough as a singer to make it something truly special, but he still does a solid enough job, especially with the way he hangs on the last syllable of the chorus to let the morosity really sink in. I feel ya, man.
#8: Santo & Johnny- Sleepwalk
On the most popular YouTube upload of this song, a comment with over 1,200 likes reads “[This is] the ultimate suicide or wedding song”. I think that’s a more-or-less fair assessment. “Sleepwalk” is an extremely emotional song, but what exactly those emotions are is strangely chameleonic. Listening to it is like staring at a prism- at first it seems relaxed and content, but a small shift in perspective and it becomes mournful and depressive. Yet another small shift and it seems love-struck and romantic- and another, now it’s wistful and nostalgic. No matter what you’re feeling, it seems reflected in Santo Farina’s keening, plaintive lap steel. That sort of tabula rasa quality can make “Sleepwalk” feel just a bit too open-ended or lacking in intentionality, but its emotional impact is still undeniable.
#7: Brook Benton- It’s Just a Matter of Time
When I said in my introduction that the good stuff this year had a lot more class and polish than the pop music of today, this is exactly what I meant. Brook Benton is pretty much my platonic ideal of a 50s pop star, with his velvety, smooth voice, tasteful backing arrangements, and relaxed, effortlessly cool delivery. The song itself isn’t actually anything terribly special- very listenable but not particularly gripping, with effective if standard breakup-angst lyrics- but what it is is a certain type of music that kind of doesn’t exist anymore. While old-school vocal jazz is far from my favorite genre, it’s one that I can’t help but wish was still around more than it is, and hearing it executed this well is a listening experience you really do have to go back to 1959 for. If Martin Scorcese hasn’t already used this tune in one of his films, well… it’s just a matter of time until he does.
#6: Della Reese- Don’t You Know
The instrumental for Della Reese’s “Don’t You Know” was adapted from “Quando Me’n vo’”, an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme, and the composition’s roots in musical theatre shine through in this gorgeous little waltz with some excellent, dramatic string arrangements. Back in the 50s, a lot of pop music was very basic, and composer Bobby Worth’s decision to crib notes from late 19th-century Italian classical music helps “Don’t You Know” really stand apart from the pack. It’s Reese herself who really steals the show here though, her rich, powerful contralto giving the song the sweeping grandeur to really back up its operatic origins. I could totally imagine her actually performing this song in a production of La Boheme (Which, for the record, I have never seen and have only passing familiarity with), and that sense of drama and scope is one of the track’s biggest strengths. In the final analysis, it’s perhaps a bit overwrought, and not quite as substantive as its high-art parentage suggests, but it was still a total breath of fresh air, and ultimately able to back up that novelty with genuine quality as well.
#5: Ray Charles- What’d I Say
Let’s get one thing straight right now- Ray Charles carried the pop world in the years leading up to the British Invasion. He had so much raw talent as a vocalist and performer that even putting him in the same category as featureless mannequins like Paul Anka or Ricky Nelson feels like an insult to his artistry and impact. Charles had been tirelessly honing his craft since the late 40s, and by the mid-50s he was reliably getting hits on the R&B charts and even nudging into the pop charts every now and then. Still, it wasn’t until the end of the decade that he finally got his first bona-fide crossover smash, and “What’d I Say” is, while perhaps not his greatest achievement, still a fantastic introduction to The Genius. It’s arguably as loose as Charles ever got on record, and a harsher critic than me might dare to describe it as “aimless” or “overlong”. While I do have my minor nitpicks with the track (namely a mix that could use a meatier low-end to fill things out), I’m still firmly of the mind that this thing totally justifies its somewhat hefty 6.5-minute runtime, and not a second ends up wasted. That skittering hi-hat and playful piano just sucks me right in every time, and by the time Charles starts singing I’m totally along for the ride. It’s not exactly the most complex or deep song out there, but it nonetheless makes it immediately apparent what a one-in-a-million artist the man behind the piano really was.
#4: Preston Epps- Bongo Rock
If you name a song “Bongo Rock”, I am going to listen to it with just two expectations: That there will be bongos, and that said bongos will fuckin’ rock. One-hit wonder Preston Epps delivered in both capacities here. The whole thing is basically just an excuse for Epps to go absolutely berserk on those bongos, with some light, simple instrumental surf rock filling out the mix. I can’t say I’m too disappointed he never really got a second hit (It’s hard to envision such a follow-up as anything but a lesser retread of this), but this one glorious slice of bongo-slapping madness is something I didn’t even know my life was missing until I heard it.
#3: The Platters- Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Much the same way “Bongo Rock” succeeds entirely due to Preston Epps’ manic bongo playing, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” succeeds entirely because of Samuel “Tony” Williams’ incredible vocals. It comes in a notch higher because it’s ultimately more of an actual song, a lovely bit of orchestral R&B draped in sugar-sweet violins. However, it’s still Williams’ soaring voice that really propels this song to greatness, and allows its emotional complexities to really shine. The notes he belts out at the top of his lungs during the chorus are the most obvious things to point to, but he also shows that he’s capable of surprising subtlety too, dipping into his higher register and giving some parts a more delicate, restrained approach to convey just the right amount of vulnerability. The result is arguably the best love song of the year, a sad yet romantic meditation on the ways love can make us blinkered and easy to hurt. Oh, and that last note is just flat-out epic.
#2: Lloyd Price- Stagger Lee
More than any other song on this list, “Stagger Lee” sounds like it was just a total blast to record. Lloyd Price is far from the most dextrous singer out there, but he more than makes up for it with sheer, infectious enthusiasm. Amazingly, while so many pop tunes this year struggled to prove their worth six decades after the fact, this cover of a ‘20s folk standard outstripped almost all of them in terms of sheer vitality. The bouncy rhythm, remarkably solid production, and kickass saxophone soloing all make “Stagger Lee” the most flat-out fun song of the year. I also love the lyrics- apparently based on a real-life incident in 1895, wherein a St. Louis pimp named Lee Shelton shot and killed his drinking buddy Billy Lyons after Lyons took Shelton’s favorite hat. It’s a bit grim, but the song itself is so upbeat you might not even notice. Often that sort of disconnect between subject matter and musical tone detracts from a song in my eyes, but here it absolutely works, with the swaggering horn section and urgent backing vocals conjuring the feel of a chaotic night in turn-of-the-century Missouri. Just a great time all-around, exactly the kind of song I hoped this project would expose me to.
#1: Bobby Darin- Mack the Knife
I’ll be honest, this and “Stagger Lee” were neck-in-neck right down to the wire. I flip-flopped a lot on which one to honor with my first-ever number-one spot, but at the end of the day I just kept coming back to this one. Bobby Darin set the gold standard for the year right at the top of the year-end hot 100 with “Mack the Knife”, which came in at #2, making it the highest-charting song on this list. Like “Stagger Lee”, “Mack the Knife” had already been a pop standard for decades by the time Darin took a swing at it, taking sonic cues from an artist that was already old news by ‘59- Frank Sinatra (It’s easy to forget in a post-Michael Buble, post-Logic world, but as far as artists to model yourself after, you could do a whole lot worse than Old Blue-Eyes). Darin has enough energy and charisma as a vocalist to make the old jazz standard feel fresh and vibrant, the steadily building instrumentation culminates in an absolutely fantastic crescendo at the end, and the rather macabre lyrics are a blast too. (I’m not sure what it says about me that my top 2 picks for this year are both about grisly killings, but what can I say- It’s hard to make a boring song about murder!). Holding up six full decades after the fact is no easy feat, but if there was any one song this year that managed to rise above the ravages of time, this was it.