The 50 Best Songs of 1951
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.
As you'd probably expect, the dawn of the '50s looked, felt and sounded a lot like the late '40s. Rock 'n' roll and poodle skirts hadn't yet taken over. Rebel Without a Cause still was only the name of a book by American psychologist Robert M. Lindner. Elvis Presley was a mere high school kid learning how to strum a guitar. And car designer Harley Earl's iconic tailfin had yet to make the evolutionary leap from decorative nub to ostentatious expression of the Jet Age.
As for mainstream American pop, outside a handful of wonderful novelties (among them Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon"), the charts largely were dominated by the kind of lush orchestral ballads that had been kicking around for several years. The great Nat King" Cole scored what arguably was the biggest hit of the year in the melodramatic "Too Young." A young Tony Bennett was right behind him with the Arthur Hammerstein and Dudley Wilkinson tune "Because of You." It also was a big year for Italian American powerhouse (and inveterate rabble-rouser) Mario Lanza, whose "Be My Love" raced up the charts and stayed up there for weeks on end. Originally featured in the 1950 musical The Toast of New Orleans (costarring Lanza and soaring soprano Kathryn Grayson), the singer's solo version spotlighted his audacious tenor front and center.
Despite the syrupy status quo holding strong on the national charts, radical new sounds could be found on the charts for rhythm and blues as well as country music. From Moon Mullican's country boogie to Peppermint Harris' jump blues to the muscular electric blues of Chicago badasses Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, these charts, smaller and more regionally oriented, were home to the raucous party music that America's working class heartily embraced (though they loved sappy ballads as well). What is considered the first recorded example of rock 'n' roll (though no one called it that at the time) was released in 1951: under the guise of Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm unleashed the rollicking "Rocket 88," a salute to the most powerful car then on the road. Oldsmobile's robust V8 engine ensured the Rocket's domination of NASCAR's first several seasons. It also made it the perfect car for running moonshine from outlaw distilleries to backwoods juke joints. No copper was catching a tripper behind the wheel of a Rocket.
In Nashville, meanwhile, honky-tonk drove fans wild in ways that rock 'n' roll would in another half-dozen years. The one and only Hank Williams had a monster year in 1951, releasing two of his all-time classics: "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Cold, Cold Heart." Something similar can be said of Red Foley's "Hot Rod Race." Though considered a part of the Western swing tradition, its stripped-down twang and bluesy swagger gave it a novel, proto-rock 'n' roll feel. To fully immerse yourself in the sounds of 1951, simply press play!