This is the third year in a row that I have looked at my favorite albums from 50 years ago. Since I was not buying albums at the time, my appreciation of the music is after the fact. I have also found that my musical tastes of pre-Beatles era material tends to be more eclectic now than it ever used to be. So, here are my top 10 albums from 1961.
10) New Juke Box Hits by Chuck Berry.
Average Chuck Berry was still better than most of what was being released during the early 1960s. There are none of his definitive hits here but what was included was a solid example of Berry type of rock ‘n’ roll. The best known song was “I’m Talking About You,” which was covered by a host of bands including The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Yardbirds, the early Beatles, and The Animals. Add in such straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll such as “Runaround,” “Rip It Up,” “Stop and Listen,” “Little Star,” “Diploma For Two,” and “Sweet Sixteen” and you have a very solid, if not classic album.
9) Lonely And Blue by Roy Orbison.
Roy Orbison will always be remembered for his series of single releases for the Monument label during the first half of the 1960s. His perfect tenor voice that could soar almost beyond belief was the perfect vehicle for the catchy rock and pop he produced during his classic period. Any of his Greatest Hits albums from the era are music bliss. Lonely And Blue was his first album for the Monument label and while there are a number of what can be called filler songs, he still manages to make them interesting and listenable. The highlights were his big hit “Only The Lonely)” and his interpretations of two Don Gibson tunes, “I’d Be A Legend In My Time” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Any Roy Orbison album on the Monument album would make most top 10 lists for any given year.
8) Volume 2 by Joan Baez.
Joan Baez was a pivotal figure in the folk revival movement of the 1960s. Her perfect pitch voice, her commitment to social causes, and her choice of material made her an important figure during the decade. Her debut album made my top 10 list last year and her sophomore effort was more of the same. It was mainly traditional material such as “Lily Of The West,” “Old Blue,” “Banks Of The Ohio,” and “Lonesome Road,” which not only entertained but told timeless stories.
7) Now Here’s Johnny Cash by Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash had left the Sun label and signed with Columbia but left behind a number of tracks in the Sun vault. By the early 1960s he was on his way to becoming a country superstar. Sun kept releasing his early material to capitalize on his growing popularity. Now Here’s Johnny Cash was his only 1961 release. These older tracks caught Cash on the cusp of transitioning from a rockabilly artist to one who would help establish what would become traditional country music of the era. It was a more simple sound with only minimal backing but the album is a nice ride through his early career and helps to understand the foundation and early evolution of his music.
6) The Genius Sings The Blues by Ray Charles.
Ray Charles was about to sign with the ABC-Paramount label for whom he would sell tens of millions of albums and in his own way would change the fabric of American music. It turned out that he had one last good album in him for the Atlantic label. He fused a strong blues element with his brand of soul that emerged as one of the more creative and influential albums of the year. What he did with such songs as “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” “The Midnight Hour,” “I Believe To My Soul,” and “Nobody Cares” hinted at his infusion of country elements to his music in the years ahead.
5) A Man Of Constant Sorrow by Judy Collins.
Today it is easy to forget what an important part of the early folk movement Judy Collins was during the 1960s. 1961 saw the release of her debut album that contained mostly traditional folk songs from around he world, plus a reworking of Bob Dylan’s “A Man Of Constant Sorrow.” The album is somewhat dated today but remains a nice glimpse into a very different world of 50 years ago.
4) Roy Orbison At The Rock House by Roy Orbison.
This is a repeat of the Johnny Cash release. The Sun label released this album to capitalize on Orbison’s growing popularity with the Monument label. This was the pre-pop Orbison who was a rocking rockabilly singer. “Devil Doll,” “Ooby Dooby,” “Rock House,” “Mean Little Mama,” and “Sweet And Easy To Love” showed a very different artist than he would become later. It remains a unique album in his catalogue of releases, one of the better releases of 1961, and is still worth seeking out for a listen or two.
3) Blue Hawaii by Elvis Presley.
Elvis issued a number of forgettable soundtrack albums during his career but this one was a winner. Blue Hawaii spent 20 weeks in the number one position on the Billboard Magazine Pop Album Chart and was one of the 10 most commercially successful albums of the decade. It deserved every accolade it received, as the music was equal to many of his studio albums of the time. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and “Rock-A-Hula-Baby” are almost worth the price of admission alone. An essential Elvis Presley release, which is very high praise indeed.
2) Patsy Cline Showcase by Patsy Cline.
This was Patsy Cline’s second studio album and it would make her a star. Her hits “I Fall To Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” are all memorable and definitive country songs. Her covers of “The Wayward Wind,” “San Antonio Rose,” and “True Love” all showed an artist of depth and talent. While country music has never dominated my turntable time, this was an album that has received extensive play during the last several decades.
1) Rick Is 21 by Ricky Nelson.
Ricky Nelson released dozens of albums during his career, but no studio album as good as this one. It was the perfect cross between the rock of his early career and the increasingly pop sound that he would develop during the 1960s. Big hits such as “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou” would serve as counterpoints to the rocking “Break My Chain” and the ballad “Stars Fell On Alabama.” It was the first Ricky Nelson album I purchased and it remains my favorite release of 1961.