The 50 Best Songs of 1946
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.
Nineteen forty-six was both the first full postwar year and also a harbinger of the coming Cold War decade(s). As an afterword to World War II, the League of Nations broke up and the Nuremberg trials concluded; that same year, nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll and the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission signaled a new kind of existential dread. But popular culture was still celebrating the end of wartime hostilities, whether reveling in consumer boomtimes (Bugsy Siegel's flashy Flamingo Hotel opened on Las Vegas' Sunset Strip in December) or attending to homespun Americana (Frank Capra's perennial heartwarmer It's a Wonderful Life).
Looking over the pop charts, there's plenty of evidence that the war had only recently ended. Singer Jo Stafford continued capitalizing on the enormous goodwill engendered during her long time with the USO (she was lovingly dubbed "G.I. Jo"), while The Andrews Sisters of Minnesota transitioned easily from "Sweethearts of the Armed Forces Radio," having the foresight to tap fellow Midwesterner Les Paul as their opening road act before cutting tracks with the guitar pioneer for Decca (the smooth "Rumors Are Flying"). Plenty of established artists continued to rack up sizable hits, including Ohio-based African American vocal group The Mills Brothers (still coming off wartime success "Paper Doll") and Bing Crosby, who was just settling into his mini-career of starring in a series of "Road To" films alongside friends Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Even songwriter and Hollywood success story Johnny Mercer managed another charting single, even though the prolific composer didn't write "Personality" (Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen handled composition duties).
But newcomers and fresh faces were also jostling aside familiar acts. Frank Sinatra had been releasing singles throughout the 1940s, but this year would find the release of his first studio album, Columbia's The Voice of Frank Sinatra, a four-disc set of 78s that to this day gets pegged as the very first "concept album" (although the "concept" was little more than a musical mood). And jazz pianist Nat King Cole was still only a few years into his career, right on the cusp of crossing over into the pop world and about to lay claim to the first sponsored radio program for an African American entertainer, King Cole Trio Time.
And Cole wasn't the only jazz star flirting with the pop charts. Indeed, the mid-1940s remained a boom time for jazz/pop crossover acts, even though the swing era was rapidly coming to a close. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong cut one of their silliest tunes ("Frim Fram Sauce"), while bandleader Stan Kenton added June Christy as his vocalist. Other acts soldiered on despite changing tastes: Two decades into his career, Duke Ellington still helmed a working band, although there's nothing workmanlike about the dirty crawl of "Happy Go Lucky Blues." But the big story in jazz was the erupting bebop revolution. Sorely under-recorded thanks to the 1942-'44 Musicians' Union Ban, bebop's complexities really only started to make their way onto wax in 1945, and the onslaught continued into 1946. Rising pianist Bud Powell recorded "Bebop in Pastel" (soon to gain wider fame as "Bouncing with Bud"), while trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie moved firmly away from small combos into the realm of big bands (check out his sextet version of "Old Man Rebop"). And Charlie Parker followed up his famed 1945 Savoy sessions with a series of classics cut for the Dial label, featuring Max Roach, Curley Russell and a very young Miles Davis.
Blues stars also benefited from pop/jazz crossover. Louis Jordan found himself dubbed "The King of the Jukebox" while helping fashion Jump Blues, which, along with the racy honks of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, would prove a clear precursor to the next decade's rock 'n' roll. R&B vocal group The Ink Spots likewise helped lay down the foundation for doo-wop ("Prisoner of Love" was one of several No. 1 hits for the act that year), while former Benny Goodman vibraphonist Lionel Hampton brandished hardcore jazz bona-fides even while lodging himself atop what was then referred to as the "Race Records" Billboard chart. And although country & western musicians rarely saw that kind of crossover success, there was plenty of genre-jumping going on, from the tumbleweed big-band western swing of Bob Wills to the Texas/Polka mash-up of Al Dexter's enormously successful "Guitar Polka" and the proto-rock 'n' roll of The Delmore Brothers' "Freight Train Boogie." And that's not even mentioning early work from bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe ("Kentucky Waltz") and primal honky-tonk from Ernest Tubb and Tex Ritter ("You Will Have to Pay").
And crossover success didn't end there. Latin rhythms continued to influence the American pop consciousness, as witness hits from Waldorf-Astoria orchestra leader Xavier Cugat (the silly "South America, Take It Away"), Desi Arnaz ("Babalu," already a favorite with the Cuban American's orchestra several years before they both gained wider fame on I Love Lucy), and Andy Russell ("Contigo en la Distancia," an early stateside hit for the former Andrés Rabago Pérez). And it was a very good year for Cuban pioneer Arsenio Rodriguez -- noteworthy bolero son "Tengo Que Olvidarte" was one of many recordings made that year by the son montuno/salsa/mambo innovator. Even classical music got into the act: Check out jazz clarinetist Woody Herman's impressive 8-minute performance of "Ebony Concerto," composed by Igor Stravinsky specifically for Herman and his band First Herd. As for Spike Jones' gonzo take on old favorite "Hawaiian War Chant," well, even that tore up the charts -- the goofy deconstruction made it all the way up to Billboard's No. 8 slot.
Our attached playlist features all of these songs (and quite a few more), so feel free to skip around a bit. Or just allow us to guide you through 50 of the very best recordings of 1946.