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by Philip Sherburne

June 26, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1954

by Philip Sherburne  |  June 26, 2014

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

Rock 'n' roll wasn't technically born in 1954; as Rhapsody's Chuck Eddy pointed out in his overview of 1953, the nascent genre had already been shuddering to life for a year or two by the time Bill Haley and His Comets scored a hit with 1953's "Crazy Man, Crazy." But 1954 was nonetheless a watershed year as far as rock 'n' roll was concerned: Bill Haley and His Comets recorded both "Rock Around the Clock" (which would reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts the following year) and "Shake, Rattle and Roll," a No. 7 hit; Big Joe Turner's original version of the latter, meanwhile, was a No. 1 hit on the Billboard R&B chart. And, following a demo he had cut the year before, an unknown singer named Elvis Presley would become an overnight sensation with his first record on Memphis' Sun label: a recording of Arthur Crudup's 1946 song "That's All Right" backed with a spooky, echo-soaked rendition of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

While there was indeed a whole lotta shakin' goin' on, rock 'n' roll was hardly the only game in town. America's (and Europe's) fascination with Cuban mambo was in full swing, leading to hits from not only Latin musicians like Tito Puente but also Rosemary Clooney (singing the Bob Merrill-penned "Mambo Italiano"). For an indicator of how deeply mambo fever penetrated pop culture, just check Machito and His Afro-Cubans' "Dragnet Mambo," which repurposed the popular cop-show theme, much the way the Star Wars theme would later be remixed for the disco craze.

In jazz, Dizzy Gillespie recorded a new arrangement of "Manteca," a crucial record in the Latin jazz canon, while out on the West Coast, Chet Baker was helping to kick off the "cool jazz" movement with the 10-inch release of Chet Baker Sings. At the other end of the spectrum, the hard bop pianist Horace Silver released Horace Silver & the Jazz Messengers, his first album as a bandleader; you'll also find him on Art Blakey's A Night at Birdland and in the band that Quincy Jones put together for Helen Merrill's intimate vocal album for Verve.

Of course, this was the 1950s, so not everything was as cool as all this; the charts were dominated by polite, string-led (and sometimes saccharine) songs like Kitty Kallen's "Little Things Mean a Lot" and Perry Como's "Wanted." But from a contemporary vantage point, even those moldy oldies sound kinda golden.

For fans of vocal harmonies, the year couldn't have been any more golden, between honeyed harmonies of doo-wop groups like the Drifters and the Penguins and the bobbing-and-weaving counterpoints of Sheboygan's Chordettes, of "Mr. Sandman" fame. And special mention goes to Sam Cooke, who, at just 23 years old, was forging the future of soul music out of devout gospel with his Soul Stirrers. Just listen to "Jesus, I'll Never Forget" and try to remain unmoved.

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