1961’s Best Rock Albums

1961's Best Rock Albums

Photo: Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

1961’s Best Rock albums set up a decade of music ready to turn the world upside down. The water is starting to boil, but we are not there yet. The decade is setting up for a battle between genres, artists, and record labels as a series of events that unfolded in 1961 will have a dramatic effect on music and pop culture for the entire decade and even longer. First and foremost, The Beatles begin their legendary Cavern Club gigs.

The Beatles would play the Cavern Club close to three hundred times. At the Cavern Club, Ringo Star made his first appearance with the group. It’s also where The Beatles met Brian Epstein for the first time, an encounter that culminated in Epstein becoming the band’s manager. From 1961 to 1963, The Beatles performances at the Cavern Club would transform the group’s sound and persona from a 50s covers group into a mature band of artists learning to write their material that would soon become legendary.

Throughout the 1960s, rock and roll would battle R&B music for radio dominance. That battle would be fueled by the formation of Motown Records in 1959. During its first two years of existence, Motown Records released only singles. However, in 1961, Motown Records released its first full-length album by a band called The Miracles entitled Hi… We’re The Miracles. It was released under the Motown Tamla Label. Motown and all its subsidiaries would become one of the most successful record labels ever. It would dominate the 1960s and 70s signings of artists such as The Chi-Lites, The Contours, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, The Marvelettes, Teena Marie, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations and thousands more.

Motown’s most significant rival as far as R&B went was the Stax label. Founded initially as Satellite Records in 1957, the label changed its name to Stax Records in 1961. Stax and Volt Records would release records that bordered the genres of R&B, pop, rock, and soul. Their biggest names included Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, The Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding. The sounds of Motown and Stax Records would play a significant role in the music of the 1960s, and it all began to ignite in 1961.

In the 1960s, Frank Sinatra was probably the biggest name in show business, a popularity he also enjoyed in the 1950s and even 40s. His role in classic rock history is significant because of the formation of his record label entitled Reprise Records in 1961. Reprise Records would sign a new act called The Beach Boys. The label would also sign The Kinks and Jimi Hendrix. Not many people ever consider the notion that Jimi Hendrix recorded for Frank Sinatra’s record label.

As much as 1961 served as a year in which the formation of the decades’ great artists were still in their initial stages, the year still celebrated the release of some classic songs and albums. Some of the 1950s greats were still generating outstanding rock and roll records, such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Elvis Presley. Our favorite son and Bronx neighbor Dion released the album of his career with Runaround Sue. The legend of Roy Orbison began with the release of his first two albums. And speaking of legends, 1961 showcased the debut of Aretha Franklin’s first album.

1961 also celebrated career-breaking hits by Del Shannon, Ben E King, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” was so big we had no choice but to include her album on this list as it crossed over into every musical genre in 1961. The year 1961 also saw the debut album by Ike and Tina Turner. A band called The Tokens also released a song called “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which continues to find new life in movie soundtracks or TV commercials every decade.

1961’s Best Rock Albums list presents artists that crossed many musical genres. There are still not plenty of albums being released. But that will quickly change over the next two years.

# 25 – Please Mr. PostmanThe Marvelettes

Please Mr. Postman - The Marvelettes

Please Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes marked a significant moment in Motown’s history as the label’s first number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Recorded at Hitsville U.S.A., the album features the distinctive lead vocals of Gladys Horton and the harmonious backing of the group, with production overseen by Brian Holland and Robert Bateman. The title track, “Please Mr. Postman,” with its infectious chorus and memorable melody, stands out as a quintessential example of the Motown sound, combining elements of pop with rhythm and blues.

# 24 – The Lion Sleeps Tonight – The Tokens

The Lion Sleeps Tonight - The Tokens

The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens is an album that captured the zeitgeist of the early 1960s with its title track, a reworking of a South African Zulu song that became a global hit. Produced by Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, the album features tight harmonies and polished production, with the falsetto lead of Jay Siegel on the title track becoming one of the most recognizable hooks of the era. The album showcases the group’s vocal range and ability to blend traditional folk melodies with contemporary pop sensibilities.

# 23 – Roy Orbison at the Rock House  – Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison at the Rock House  - Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison at the Rock House is Roy Orbison’s debut album, recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis and produced by Sam Phillips. The album showcases Orbison’s unique voice and style, blending rockabilly, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. Tracks like “Ooby Dooby” highlight Orbison’s distinctive vocal range and his ability to imbue songs with emotional depth, setting the stage for his later, more orchestral work.

# 22 – The Genius Sings the BluesRay Charles

The Genius Sings the Blues - Ray Charles

The Genius Sings the Blues by Ray Charles is a compilation of tracks recorded between 1952 and 1960, highlighting Charles’s profound impact on the blues genre. Produced by a team including Ray Charles himself, the album features a mix of down-home blues numbers and more sophisticated arrangements, showcasing his skillful piano playing and soulful voice. Tracks like “Night Time Is the Right Time” and “I Believe to My Soul” offer a window into Charles’s emotional depth and musical versatility.

# 21 – Gee Whiz – Carla Thomas

Gee Whiz - Carla Thomas

Gee Whiz by Carla Thomas represents a seminal moment in the Memphis soul scene, recorded at the famed Stax Studios. Produced by Chips Moman and featuring the house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the album highlights Thomas’s expressive voice and the lush, soulful arrangements that would become synonymous with the Stax sound. The title track, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” is a standout, showcasing Thomas’s ability to convey the innocence and yearning of young love.

# 20 – Hi… We’re the Miracles  – The Miracles

Hi... We're the Miracles  - The Miracles

Hi… We’re the Miracles, the debut album by The Miracles, was recorded over two years at Detroit’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio, under the supervision of Motown founder Berry Gordy. This seminal work showcases the group’s harmonious blend, featuring Smokey Robinson’s distinct lead vocals, with Ronnie White, Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers, and Claudette Robinson providing harmonies, and Marv Tarplin on guitar. The album is a cornerstone of Motown’s early sound, with standout tracks like “Who’s Lovin’ You” and “You Can Depend on Me,” demonstrating the group’s range from soulful ballads to upbeat numbers.

# 19 – Showcase – Patsy Cline

Showcase - Patsy Cline

Patsy Cline’s Showcase is a pivotal album in her career, recorded in the heart of Nashville with legendary producer Owen Bradley. This album highlights Cline’s emotive and powerful voice with lush, orchestral arrangements that blend classic country with pop sensibilities. The Jordanaires provide background vocals, enhancing the depth of tracks such as “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy,” which would become two of her most enduring hits, showcasing her ability to convey deep emotional truths.

# 18 – Rick Is 21 – Rick Nelson

Rick Is 21 - Rick Nelson

Rick Is 21 features Rick Nelson at the peak of his early career, with the album capturing the clean-cut, all-American image that made him a household name. Produced by Jimmie Haskell and recorded in Los Angeles, the album includes contributions from renowned guitarist James Burton and the vocal harmonies of The Jordanaires. “Travelin’ Man” stands out as a highlight, showcasing Nelson’s smooth vocals and Burton’s distinctive guitar work, making it a defining track of the era.

# 17 – The Soul of Ike & Tina Turner  – Ike & Tina Turner

The Soul of Ike & Tina Turner  - Ike & Tina Turner

The debut album by Ike & Tina Turner, The Soul of Ike & Tina Turner, showcases the dynamic duo’s raw energy and powerful performance style. Recorded with a host of session musicians, including Ike Turner’s commanding piano playing, the album features a collection of rhythm and blues tracks with a strong gospel influence, highlighted by Tina Turner’s intense and soulful vocals. “A Fool in Love” is a key track, exemplifying the duo’s chemistry and Tina’s vocal prowess.

# 16 – The Second Time Around – Etta James

The Second Time Around - Etta James

Etta James’s The Second Time Around offers a showcase of her versatile talents, from powerful blues belters to tender ballads. Produced by the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, the album features lush arrangements that complement James’s voice, with “Don’t Cry Baby” standing out as a testament to her ability to convey deep emotion, backed by rich orchestral arrangements.

# 15 – Neil Sedaka Sings Little Devil and His Other Hits  – Neil Sedaka

Neil Sedaka Sings Little Devil and His Other Hits

Neil Sedaka Sings Little Devil and His Other Hits captures Sedaka’s knack for crafting catchy pop tunes with memorable melodies and clever lyrics. Produced by Al Nevins and Don Kirshner, the album features Sedaka’s piano-driven pop sound, with “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” and “Little Devil” highlighting his skill as both a songwriter and performer, making the album a key piece of early ’60s pop music.

# 14 – Blue Moon – The Marcels

Blue Moon - The Marcels

Blue Moon by The Marcels stands as a significant contribution to the doo-wop genre, with the title track’s bass intro and falsetto lead creating a distinctive sound that would become iconic. Produced by Stu Phillips, the album features a blend of doo-wop harmonies and rock ‘n’ roll energy, making it a standout release of the era.

# 13 – Both Sides Of An Evening  – The Everly Brothers

Both Sides Of An Evening  - Everly Brothers

The Everly Brothers’ Both Sides Of An Evening showcases Don and Phil’s impeccable harmonies across a diverse set of standards and contemporary songs. Produced by Wesley Rose, the album demonstrates the duo’s ability to adapt their signature sound to a wide range of material, from tender ballads to upbeat rockers, highlighting their versatility and harmonious blend.

# 12 – Something for Everybody – Elvis Presley

Something for Everybody - Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley’s Something for Everybody is a testament to Presley’s ability to bridge the gap between rock ‘n’ roll and mainstream pop. Recorded in Nashville with a team of seasoned session musicians, including Scotty Moore on guitar, the album features a mix of uptempo tracks and ballads, showcasing Presley’s dynamic range and charismatic presence. “It’s a Sin” and “There’s Always Me” highlight his versatility as a vocalist, capable of delivering both rockers and tender love songs with equal conviction.

# 11 – Bristol Stomp – The Dovells

Bristol Stomp - The Dovells

The Dovells’ Bristol Stomp captures the energy and excitement of the early ’60s dance craze it’s named after. With Len Barry’s lead vocals, the album is a vibrant collection of dance-oriented tracks that embody the spirit of the era, blending doo-wop harmonies with the infectious rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll, making it a hallmark of early ’60s pop culture.

# 10 – Spanish Harlem – Ben E King

Spanish Harlem - Ben E King

Released in 1961, Spanish Harlem marks Ben E. King’s debut album following his departure from The Drifters. The title track, “Spanish Harlem,” co-written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, became one of King’s signature songs. The album was produced by the legendary team of Leiber and Stoller and recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York City. Alongside King’s soulful vocals, the album features a host of session musicians from the Atlantic Records stable.

#  9 – Dance ’til Quarter to Three – Gary US Bonds

Dance 'til Quarter to Three - Gary U.S. Bonds

This 1961 release encapsulates the vibrant energy of the early ’60s dance craze. Produced by Frank Guida and recorded at Legrand Records, the album features the hit “Quarter to Three,” which became a defining track of the era. Bonds’ raucous vocal style is backed by the Church Street Five, adding a raw, party-like atmosphere to the recording.

#  8 – Aretha: With The Ray Bryant ComboAretha Franklin

Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo - Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin’s debut album, released in 1961, showcases her early transition from gospel to secular music. Recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York, the album features jazz pianist Ray Bryant and his combo. Produced by John Hammond, the album includes tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and “Operation Heartbreak,” displaying Franklin’s powerful vocals and piano skills.

#  7 – Bo Diddley Is a Lover – Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley Is a Lover - Bo Diddley

Released in 1961, this album features the rhythm and blues pioneer exploring more romantic themes. Recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, Bo Diddley not only showcases his signature guitar work but also steps into the producer role. The album includes tracks such as “Bo Diddley Is a Lover” and “Congo,” highlighting Diddley’s innovative approach to rhythm and guitar effects.

#  6 – Let’s Twist Again – Chubby Checker

Let's Twist Again - Chubby Checker

Capturing the twist dance craze, Chubby Checker’s 1961 album propelled the genre to new heights. The title track, “Let’s Twist Again,” became an anthem for dance enthusiasts worldwide. Recorded at Cameo Parkway Studios and produced by Kal Mann and Dave Appell, the album solidified Checker’s position as a dance craze icon.

#  5 – Runaway with Del Shannon – Del Shannon

Runaway with Del Shannon - Del Shannon

This 1961 album features the hit “Runaway,” known for its distinctive musitron solo by Max Crook. Recorded at Bell Sound Studios and produced by Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik, the album showcases Shannon’s falsetto and songwriting prowess, blending rockabilly with pop sensibilities.

#  4 – The Shadows – The Shadows

The Shadows - The Shadows

The Shadows’ self-titled 1961 album set the standard for British instrumental rock groups. Featuring the classic “Apache,” the album was recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios with producer Norrie Paramor. Hank Marvin’s clean, reverb-laden guitar sound became a defining characteristic of the band’s music.

#  3 – New Juke Box Hits – Chuck Berry

New Juke Box Hits - Chuck Berry

Released in 1961, this album features Berry’s sharp songwriting and guitar riffs. Recorded at Chess Studios with producers Leonard and Phil Chess, the album includes tracks like “I’m Talking About You” and “Little Star,” highlighting Berry’s influence on the rock and roll genre.

#  2 – Lonely and Blue – Roy Orbison

Lonely and Blue - Roy Orbison

Orbison’s 1961 album is a masterpiece of heartache and longing, featuring his soaring vocals and emotional depth. Recorded at RCA Victor Studios in Nashville and produced by Fred Foster, the album includes hits like “Only the Lonely” and “Blue Angel,” showcasing Orbison’s unique blend of rock, country, and pop.

#  1 – Runaround Sue – Dion

Runaround Sue - Dion

Dion’s 1961 album, Runaround Sue, captures the essence of Bronx street-corner harmonies. The title track became a defining song of the era. Recorded at Bell Sound Studios and produced by Gene Schwartz, the album features Dion’s distinctive vocal style, backed by the Del-Satins, and includes tracks like “The Wanderer,” further cementing Dion’s place in rock and roll history.

Best Albums of The Year Series

1970’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1971’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1972’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1973’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1974’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1975’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1976’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1977’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1978’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1979’s Best Classic Rock Albums List

1980’s Best Rock Albums List

1981’s Best Rock Albums List

1982’s Best Rock Albums List

1983’s Best Rock Albums List

1984’s Best Rock Albums List

1985’s Best Rock Albums List

1986’s Best Rock Albums List

Updated February 23, 2023

1961’s Best Rock Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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