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 fifty-eight was once considered the last year of authentic rock 'n' roll. It was the year Elvis Presley shipped off to the Army as his hopped-up Memphis blues went Squaresville with Dean Martin imitations and lachrymose pop. Only a few months before, at the end of 1957, Little Richard announced the first of many retirements as he underwent a religious conversion, ensuring that "Good Golly Miss Molly" would be his final major hit. On the horizon was February 3, 1959, immortalized as The Day the Music Died thanks to a plane crash that robbed us of the brilliant songwriter Buddy Holly, the promising young singer Ritchie Valens and the chummy radio jock the Big Bopper (author of the novelty smash "Chantilly Lace").
As the legend goes, we then suffered through silly dance fads -- here's looking at you, "Monster Mash" -- and moony teenage make-out ballads before the British Invasion and Motown finally saved us. Of course, we now know that's just a myth, and that the twin towers of the Brill Building and Phil Spector (who made his debut with the Teddy Bears' "To Know Him Is to Love Him") created sounds just as creative as those of the Fab Four.
Overlooked in our search for the Golden Age of Rock 'n' Roll is the fact that 1958 produced wonderfully diverse and popular music. The record-buying public found space for mambo king Perez Prado, gospel queen Mahalia Jackson and television and film composer Henry Mancini. Even jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal scored a best-seller with But Not for Me: Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing. The biggest song of the year was Domenico Modungo's "Nel blu dipinto di blu," the Italian-language chanson better known as "Volare." Compared to those exotic flavors, our post-millennial subsistence on minor variations of hard and jangly rock, corporate rap, Nashville country and electronic pop seems lacking.
When Vegas hepsters and ballroom jivers got sick of mambo, they soon learned to lounge to the swaying melodic breeze of bossa nova, a Brazilian sound pioneered by composer João Gilberto through his "Bim Bom" and Elizete Cardoso's "Chega De Saudade." The distorted guitars and pummeled drums of Link Wray's "Rumble" inspired the rise of heavy metal and many David Lynch soundtracks. Cliff Richard's modest "Move It" became a clarion call to a nascent British scene. Nina Simone released her brilliant debut, Little Girl Blue, though its main single, "I Loves You Porgy," wouldn't become a hit until 1959, when it benefited from publicity surrounding Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge's movie Porgy & Bess. Meanwhile, Wanda Jackson's raging rocker "Let's Have a Party" didn't make the charts until 1960.
At the top of the heap was the Chairman of the Board. Frank Sinatra may not have scored any Billboard or Cash Box chart toppers, but he was the standard by which all entertainers judged themselves. He was arguably the first to master the "concept LP," and his two albums of 1958 were among his best: Come Fly with Me was a jaunty and swinging affair, while Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely reflected his impressive command of torch balladry. He also wasted press interviews claiming that rock 'n' roll was played "by cretinous goons." And when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences held its first edition of the Grammy Awards in the early months of 1959, it didn't give prizes to any of those teenage hoodlums and hillbillies. It favored Perry Como, a milquetoast cat whose popularity trumped the hip-swiveling Presley.
Yes, it was still the '50s. The era's complexity may reveal itself on closer view, but from a distance, it's still a time of Ozzie and Harriet rigidity and Father Knows Best conformity. The No. 1 album was the movie soundtrack to South Pacific, a critically lambasted whitewash of the racially provocative Broadway musical that nevertheless stole nuclear families' hearts. Second place went to Columbia Records executive Mitch Miller for Sing Along with Mitch. He's not included here, but we couldn't help but feature "The Chipmunk Song," the first helium-voiced entry in the Bagdasarian family's inexplicably durable kiddie empire. It may not truly be one of the best songs of 1958, but it's crucial to understanding a strange year.