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.
Unless you actually lived through them, the 1950s often seem to be referenced and resold to us today via nostalgia culture. Perhaps you've seen the good-times advertisements on cable TV for the compilations of "rockin' '50s" hits. They're not wrong, necessarily: Yes, Elvis was important. But in selling comfortable memories, something of the radical edge of all the hot new music of the era seems to be short-changed.
It's an error we've attempted to correct with our playlist for 1956: the year of not only "Be-Bop-a-Lula," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Heartbreak Hotel," but also equally electric new kinds of recordings by Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and composer Kurt Weill. Everything was up for grabs in the late '50s, because the record industry was still nascent. The LP was still in its infancy. You could put a lot more music on an album than before.
That meant Leonard Bernstein's Candide could be a hit, and that Wanda Jackson could be sitting at the crossroads of country and rock 'n' roll without anyone policing the genre boundaries too severely. Our playlist suggests how much was going on in 1956 -- too much, really, to be contained in the jukebox next to the local soda fountain. We've got Mahalia Jackson's doo-wop-informed gospel, Little Richard's radical squeals of delight, and the first single of note from a certain James Brown, as well as some unjustly forgotten maniacs from the rockabilly fringe. Plus Sun Records had Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line," while Chess put out choice sides from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. And yes, the soda fountain ballads and Dirty Dancing source-material stuff is here too. Get rebellious by rocking with our full playlist.