You want to talk alternative music? The sounds on these 15 discs—and many more like them flooding the stores—are about as far from modern relevance as anyone would care to venture. It is precisely because this music is so utterly out of context today that it can be an attractive respite from the prevailing mood of dark cynicism.

Call it “cocktail” or “lounge” or “space age pop” or “bachelor pad music,” it is the subdued sound of the Hammond organ. Of xylophones and flutes, marimbas and bongos, syrupy saxophones and silky strings. And things that go plink, boing, zwish, and whaa-oh. It is unexpected combinations of the above, carefully arranged, studiously played, politely presented—with just a hint of a wink. It is wildness defined in the tamest of terms, danger from a comfortable distance. It is hipness as practiced by the unhip. It is music for cutting loose—after safely securing the seat belts.

Irwin Chusid, the Ralph J. Gleason of lounge, who either produced, compiled, or provided explicit and entertaining liner notes on many of these discs, writes that Space Age Pop is “genetically respectable,” its “aesthetic flies in the face of rock ’n’ roll, which values energy and spontaneity over technique.” Still, Chusid insists that many Space Age songs rock (emphasis his).

Yes, they do. But not by rock standards, of course.

Lounge grew out of a jazz background with classical pretenses. It flourished from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s, when real jazz was fast losing its grip. After a musicians’ strike promoted the idea of crooners, the big bands were all but dead. One didn’t exactly relax to bop. There was a new thing called stereo and a newer thing called rock ’n’ roll. But there were plenty of trained jazz and classical musicians who couldn’t, wouldn’t, and shouldn’t embrace that bastard kids’ noise. And arrangers looking for new sonic solutions who had too much dignity to degrade their work with a crude backbeat, but who still wanted to spice up the program.

There was also a booming economy, the height of a period that author William L. O’Neill calls “the American High.” Thomas Hine termed the apex of the American Century the “Populuxe” decade, an explosion of material wealth, when luxury—defined as conspicuous style—was deemed a right of the masses. Lounge music was created for the generation raised on the Depression and war, eager to settle down at the first opportunity. Such populuxe music celebrates Total Electric Living.

This era also marked the last time adults mattered in popular culture. Rock, though becoming pervasive, could still be contained by the stern old men who manned the controls. Ed Sullivan could keep even Elvis’ thrusting torso from his cameras. After the Beatles shook their mop-tops, the market was deemed too important to dismiss, and it was too late for Mom and Dad. The battle was forever lost for everyone over 30, a demarcation constantly being drawn younger and younger.

Before self-contained bands took over, labels operated costly studios, with writers, musicians, arrangers, and engineers on staff. Overhead demanded a certain amount of busywork to justify the payroll and keep the corporate logo in the racks. The advent of stereo provided bright new excuses to push product.

Thus the stereo demonstration disc, the original point of much of this material. The RCA collection (Melodies and Mischief, Mallets in Wonderland, The Stereo Action Dimension) is drawn mainly from the label’s vinyl sound breakthrough it dubbed “Stereo Action.” (With its release on CD, this music almost lives up to the extravagant claims originally made for the records’ high fidelity.)

That Capitol is releasing so much material (Mondo Exotica, Mambo Fever, Space Capades, Bachelor Pad Royale, Wild and Swingin’, and Rhapsodesia) is not surprising, as the label was the home of Les Baxter. It was his “Quiet Village” to which Martin Denny added human-produced animal sounds, thus launching the exotica craze. Baxter’s controlled yet over-the-top orchestrations—“Saturday Night on Saturn,” “Lunar Rhapsody”—set the standard for demented elegance. Baxter passed away recently, and these releases are a fitting tribute.

Lounge falls into more or less three categories: easy listening, exotica, and what th’? The three-volume Rhino collection (Martini Madness, Swingin’ Singles, and Bachelor’s Guide to the Galaxy) offers a surprisingly mainstream definition of lounge.

With a mix of acts like Nancy Wilson (a tired “Call Me”) and Mel Torme (an unhip but not unhip enough “Coming Home Baby”) and genuine jazz, this is not as adventurous as it might be. “Mais Que Nada” by Sergio Mendez and Brazil ’66 is a fine Latin standard. Cal Tjader’s bouncy “Soul Sauce (Guacha Guaro)” can also be found on a Verve compilation of music that has been the basis for house and hiphop mixes. Likewise, Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova” was the sampled inspiration for Dream Warriors’ “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” (done here by Pacho & the Latin Soul Brothers) was reconstructed nicely by Us3 as “Cantaloop.”

There’s a chauvinistic quality to the exotica tracks. To a culture educated to believe that the world was discovered by Europeans, “exotic” is defined here as not American. The lounge era was also the height of the Cold War, and ever self-involved Americans have never been truly interested in other cultures, except in a tourist’s sense. Those outside our borders had to be subdued and made safe from communism. Today, there are no more “exotic” locales on the globe, only trouble spots. Television and technology have seen to it that names that trip tantalizingly off the American tongue, conjuring the promise of adventure—like Azerbaijan—now only recall war and devastation.

But it is the exotic cuts that work best. Though perhaps conceived in ignorance, these soundtracks for imaginary landscapes remain inventive and can still set a mind dreaming. American GIs’ experience in the Pacific during WWII and Hawaii’s entry into the Union brought South Sea sounds to Yankee attention, resulting in such faux-Polynesian escapades as “Rain in Rangoon” by the Markko Polo Adventurers, “Chant of the Jungle” by the Three Suns, “Jungle Fantasy” by Percy Faith, Baxter’s “Simba,” and “Zimbah!” by Frank Hunter and His Orchestra. Elsewhere on the map, percussionist Irv Cottler’s “Arab Dance” and Ethel Azama’s Chinese-ish “Mountain High, Valley Low” are delightfully haunting. “Inca Queen” Yma Sumac exercises her entire five-octave range to lustful effect on “Ataypura (High Andes).”

Exotic also meant Latin, and so we are treated to such oddities as “Peter Gunn Mambo” and “Hooray for Hollywood (Cha-Cha),” along with the more authentic eccentricities of Perez Prado and Esquivel.

Esquivel crosses over into the what th’? department with his inimitable boinks and za-zoo-zaahs. Much of Raymond Scott’s signature strangeness pops up. The song “Diga Diga Doo” appears on two collections. “Holiday for Strings” by the Voices of Walter Schumann is unlistenable. Dean Elliott’s version of “You’re the Top” with sound effects of ringing telephones, pops, etc., grows old fast as well.

Somehow, his using the same approach on “Lonesome Road” manages a Spike Jones charm. And Billy May’s “This Room Is My Castle of Quiet” would be fine listening in Castle Frankenstein.

Among the surprises is Sumac’s 1952 “Wimoweh,” the obvious basis for the Tokens’ 1961 “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And Joe “Fingers” Carr and the Carr-Hops recorded their version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” in 1953. It’s spliced together with 80 Drums Around the World’s 1961 take, so I can’t give any more credit to They Might Be Giants.

If nothing else, these collections do settle one matter: The definitive cocktail song is “Caravan.” It appears on six discs, performed by Sir Julian, the Arthur Lyman Group, the Three Suns, Ray Coniff & His Orchestra and Chorus, the John Buzan Trio, and 80 Drums Around the World. Perhaps because the tune was co-written by no less a figure than Duke Ellington it remains both impervious to, and the epitome of, the art of arrangement.

The very appearance of this massive pile of discs—and so many more—is evidence that lounge’s moment has once again passed. But the rise of the so-called Cocktail Nation always seemed a half-hearted revolution. Though acts like Combustible Edison continue to display a masterful sincerity, one suspects that most of the trendoids donning Dino and Della dress did so as thoughtlessly as if for a Halloween night out—bored scenesters in an anti-grunge mood. There was never really a chance that drinking martinis to Yma Sumac records would replace numbly watching MTV as the national pastime. And for those who truly live their lives by a stopped clock, well, get thee to a Renaissance Fair.CP