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.
To date, The 50 has unearthed an embarrassment of riches in soul, rock, country and jazz from any given year -- just about every genre has been covered in some form, small or large. In 1952, there was no rap, but there was plenty of rich, ribald R&B. And alternative and electronic may not have been around, but this was the year John Cage released his legendary "4' 33"" -- a song literally about nothing. Take that, Jerry Seinfeld! It was truly an odd year: The Korean War was in its third year, Ernest Hemingway's gritty The Old Man and the Sea was published, Sun Records released its first singles (take a listen to Johnny London's jazzy R&B number "Drivin' Slow"), and the precursor to American Bandstand, simply titled Bandstand, made its debut on Philadelphia's WFIL.
What is most striking about this playlist of songs, despite the seeming lack of variety in the genres themselves, is the pronounced contrast between styles that pops up anyway. To really bring this home, I purposefully put a few of the same songs by different artists back-to-back: Take a listen to Hank Williams' version of "Jambalaya,", his high-lonesome twang and earthy fiddle conjuring up muggy summers on the bayou. In contrast, Jo Stafford's version, with its jazzy pop vocals and huge chorus refrain, sounds like something out of a Broadway musical.
Elsewhere, we've got Doris Day's deliciously vanilla "A Guy Is a Guy," a light but highly orchestrated number in which she gets followed by a guy, kissed by a guy, and then promptly marched down the aisle by her parents to get married to the guy. Throughout the song, she sings about doing what "a good girl should." In contrast is The Clovers' R&B gem "One Mint Julep"; here, the couple end up marching down the aisle as well, but only after they drink, enjoy a heavy makeout session (where more than kissing just may be going on), and get caught by the girl's father.
A couple of odd ducks on the list come from a British wartime sweetheart and a group of folk singers with possible communist ties. The former is Vera Lynn, a singer and actor who became known as the Forces Sweetheart for her work entertaining the troops in WWII, and who hit the top of the American charts in 1952 with "Auf Wiederseh'n (Sweetheart)," which reigned there for nine weeks. As for the latter, The Weavers' hit "Midnight Special" was an equally strange chart-topper: Two years into Hollywood's Red Scare, they were playing down their folk-y politics and softening their sound with strings; three years after this, though, they would be called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
So what were the year's most prominent hits? Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" sounds just as rich today as it did when it was released in 1952, Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" still breaks hearts, Tito Puente's "Vibe Mambo" sounds as cool as ever, and Bull Moose Jackson still raises eyebrows and a sly wink with his "Big 10 Inch Record (Of the Blues)." We've got it all -- enjoy.