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.
The year 1948 was a time of major change and growth in the United States: a transition from the war years, as the world continued to get back on its feet after WWII, but also a transition to the socially conservative mid-century, with its communist witch hunts and fussy, prickly sense of morality and decorum. The establishment of the state of Israel, Apartheid in South Africa and the Berlin Wall in Germany. The postulation of the Big Bang Theory and the Kinsey study of sexuality. And yes, speaking of, people were still making babies. Lots and lots of babies. Big, exciting and sometimes conflicting things were happening in the world.
And that includes the world of music, which was in its own state of change and growth. The swing era was winding down, its rollicking rhythms and big band sounds replaced by jazz-kissed crooners who warbled sentimental, soft-lit songs about love "Underneath the Arches," "On a Slow Boat to China" and swirling around "A Tree in the Meadow." Things got a bit more risqué in the realm of musical theater, whether of the Broadway ("Too Darn Hot," from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate) or filmic variety (Marilyn Monroe's "Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy" from her first singing role, in the The Ladies of the Chorus).
But a definable body of mainstream pop was clearly forming: cutesy, innocuous, heavily squared and whitewashed songs about middle American life (see Dinah Shore's perky, plucky "Buttons and Bows") that sometimes veered into seriously silly terrain. From Pee Wee Hunt's Jazz Age throwback "12th Street Rag" to Kay Kyser's "Woody Woodpecker Song" to Guy Lombardo's "I'm My Own Grandpa," novelty songs were major hits in '48, kids. (We spared you "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," also a major smash that year.)
At the same time, the seeds of something sexier and dangerous were busily being planted in 1948, a year that some argue may very well be the birth of rock 'n' roll. Blues legends like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were making a name for themselves with their fierce guitar skills and ferociously raw performances. Meanwhile, country music -- the blues' cousin -- was gaining cultural capital. Bob Willis was plying his Western swing, and Hank Williams was "Honky Tonkin'," picking out his own unmistakable sound. And rock's final ingredient was also catching on: Latin music scenes and trends were cropping up around the country, from the mambo craze Perez Prado helped start to zoot-suited "hooligans" like Don Tosti rocking out the pachuco boogie on the West Coast.
(Meanwhile, Mahalia Jackson and other gospel legends were recording music that would inspire generations of soul and rock singers to come.)
But the biggest signs of the musical changes afoot were the appearance of early rhythm-and-blues styles. Doo-wop -- a predecessor of girl groups, Motown and modern R&B -- was happening on street corners and the charts, with groups like The Orioles and The Ravens. And one of the hottest sounds of '48 was jump blues, a jazzy, quick-tempoed, boogie-woogie blues that grew out of swing and laid the foundation for the R&B sound that ultimately overlapped with rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. Jump blues artists like Louis Jordan and Amos Milburn were rock stars in their own right, while jazz and blues vets like Helen Humes started picking up the style. Elsewhere, Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" exemplifies where rock 'n' roll got many of its ideas (not to mention its name).
Finally, although all signs pointed to pop as we know it today beginning its takeover, jazz had its own exciting developments happening. Magnificent experimenters like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker were building cool jazz and bebop out of the remnants of swing, while artists like Machito and Dizzy Gillespie were exploring the intersections of jazz and Latin sounds.
With so many pulse-racing sounds swirling around them, it's no wonder people couldn't keep their hands off each other. (Side note: I am trying very hard not to associate this with the fact that both my parents were born in 1949, which means … ew.) So here's the very best of '48.