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by Dan Weiss

June 29, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1961

by Dan Weiss  |  June 29, 2014

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.

A year before Bob Dylan's debut, a couple before The Beatles, and with Motown only two years old, 1961 was incredibly transitional even for the early rock 'n' roll era. Jazz luminaries like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman released very different definitive statements, with the former's surprise radio hit "My Favorite Things" and the latter's 37-minute odyssey into "Free Jazz" that invented a whole pre-hippie way of musical thinking. Stockhausen's "Zyklus" and Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music" were improvisational landmarks as well — of the more DIY variety, that is.

Meanwhile, rhythm and blues was morphing into all kinds of things, with one of the year's biggest hits, a damning rocker from Ray Charles ("Hit the Road Jack"), and Bobby Blue Bland's Two Steps from the Blues launching classics like "I Pity the Fool." Etta James' signature "At Last" was shrouded in smoke, and New Orleans soul was at a nonsense-party peak with Lee Dorsey's "Louie Louie"-like "Ya Ya." And from Jimmy Dean's talkie novelty "Big Bad John" to Ernie K-Doe's hilarious, amazing "Mother-in-Law" ("sent from down below"), this was a rich era for novelty hits, typified by Dion's "The Wanderer" — a no-good man's anthem following up his hit lament of a no-good woman — and Chubby Checker's somehow improved follow-up "Let's Twist Again." You might even recognize Jorgen Ingmann's instrumental "Apache" from its deathless influence on hip-hop two decades later. But 1961's biggest musical moment is those four doleful bass notes that unveil Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," which is probably the fourth-most-performed song of all time -- or at least close to it.

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